I am…a mushroom on whom the dew of heaven drops now and then.
~John Ford, The Broken Heart (1633)

A subtle tryst…seductively nutty, meaty, sponge-like fungi coupled with naughtily rich, creamy and velvety offal. Not much could be finer on earth. Spring rapture.

When shopping, make sure the sweetbreads are still virginal white, fleshy, plump and firm to the touch. As they are perishable, prep them that day and cook no later than the next. The elusive morel? Well, if you cannot precisely hunt and identify these mysterious foresty morsels–who inhabit logged and decaying elms, poplar, white ash, cherry and maple trees and tend to grow in heavy leaf cover, dried creek bottoms and heavy foliage, even clinging to river banks and mossy areas with rich black, humic soil–then know someone willing to discreetly reveal their caches (you will be sworn to secrecy) or attend the farmer’s market with wallet agape.

SWEETBREADS & MORELS

1 1/2 to 2 lbs sweetbreads, preferably veal
Whole milk

Sea salt
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 bay leaf
1 shallot, peeled and roughly chopped
8 peppercorns
8 pink peppercorns
Cold water

All-purpose flour
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 T unsalted butter
2 garlics, peeled and smashed

3 T unsalted butter
3-4 C morel mushrooms, cleaned and halved lengthwise

2 T unsalted butter
Duck fat
3/4 C yellow Vidalia onion, peeled and finely chopped

3 T calvados or cognac
3/4 C dry red wine, such as a Rhône or Burgundy
1 1/2 C chicken stock
3 thyme sprigs, bound in twine
1 bay leaf

2 T apple cider vinegar
1-2 T Dijon mustard
3/4 C crème fraîche

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fresh tarragon leaves, chopped

The Prep
Briefly rinse sweetbreads under cold water. Place them in a glass bowl, cover with milk, and allow to soak several hours. Remove the sweetbreads, discarding the milk. Using a sharp paring knife and fingers, remove excess membrane or fat. Do not be intimidated by the peeling process, and do not fret if the sweetbreads separate some into sections. Rinse, pat dry and set aside.

Fill a heavy large saucepan or pot about three-quarters full of water, add a generous pinch of salt, lemon juice, bay leaf, shallot and peppercorns. Bring the water to a boil, add the sweetbreads, and poach for about 8-10 minutes. Remove the sweetbreads and briefly plunge them into an ice bath, then drain promptly and dry thoroughly.

Line a medium sheet pan with a kitchen towel and place the poached sweetbreads on the towel in a single layer. Fold the towel over them to cover, then place a same-sized sheet pan on top. Weigh the top pan down with whatever, e.g., a brick, tomato cans, a hand weight. Place in the refrigerator for a few hours or even overnight. Remove from towel, place on a platter or dish, cover with plastic wrap and allow to reach room temperature before cooking.

The Cook
Season sweetbreads first with salt and pepper and then dust with flour in a large glass bowl. Melt butter with garlic in a heavy, large skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat. Discard garlic then lightly brown sweetbreads, about 2-3 minutes per side. Remove sweetbreads to a dish, loosely tent, and set aside for later.

In a medium heavy skillet, heat butter over medium to medium high and add morels. Sauté until they release their liquid and are just slightly softened, then remove to a glass bowl and set aside.

Over medium high heat, add butter and a small spoonful of duck fat in the same heavy large skillet or sauté pan used for the sweetbreads earlier. Add the onions and cook until translucent and then just slightly golden. Deglaze the pan with calvados or brandy and allow to mostly evaporate. Then, add red wine and stock, increase heat to a boil and then reduce to a lively simmer.

Add sweetbreads, thyme sprigs, bay leaf, cover and gently simmer, until cooked yet still quite tender, about 8-10 minutes. Toward the end, add the sautéed morels and the juices from them. Then, carefully remove sweetbreads and morels to a dish, loosely tented. Also remove and discard the thyme sprig bouquet and bay leaf. Add the apple cider vinegar, mustard and crème fraîche and, stirring, reduce the sauce further over a higher heat until it thickens and nicely coats the back of a spoon. If necessary, season with salt and pepper to your liking. Add the sweetbreads and morels back into the pan to heat and briefly bathe in the sauce before plating.

Serve over a mound of lentils (lentilles) du Puy, puréed potatoes or turnips, fresh cappellini, or risotto. Plate sweetbreads and drizzle all with sauce, then garnish with chopped tarragon leaves.

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Of all smells, bread; of all tastes, salt.
~George Herbert, English poet

You might guess that I purr at the layers of egg in this dish. Audibly so. Egg bread, egg custard, and poached eggs mated with a medley of mushrooms and cheese.

Brioche is a soft enriched bread, whose high egg and butter content make it lusciously rich and tender. It shows a dark, golden, and flaky crust from an egg wash applied just after proofing.

First appearing in print in the early 15th century, this bread is believed to have evolved from a traditional Norman recipe, pain brié. Some even posit that brioche has Roman origins, as a similar sweet bread is made in Romania (sărălie).

In his autobiography entitled Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau notes that an unnamed “great princess” is said to have commented about starving peasants: S’ils n’ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche (“If they have no bread, let them eat cake”).

Although there is no record of her having uttered these words, this callous aside is often mistakenly attributed to Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI. No doubt her frivolity and extravagances in a time of dire financial straits and xenophobia played a role. But, the comely teenage Austrian Archduchess (soon to named Madame Déficit) had yet to even arrive in Versailles when Rousseau’s book was published. To cast further doubt, Rousseau had even mentioned the same phrase in a letter in 1737 — a full eighteen years before Marie Antoinette had even been born. Most historians suggest that either Rousseau was actually referring to Marie Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV, or that he altogether invented an anecdote which has little source support.

Sound familiar? Seems strikingly similar to a recently published memoir, Decision Points, which is rife with mistruths and spins. Ironically, GW was just down the street peddling signed copies of his Alice in Wonderland remembrances of things past. While the mollycoddled man — who eerily admitted “I miss being pampered” during his days at the White House — was jovially exalting his exploits in a cozy, warm chapel, others were huddling and shivering in the cold nearby at the somber funeral of another fallen member of the 101st Airborne.

Befitting a bread, the etymology of the word brioche is hotly contested. It is believed to be derived from the Norman verb brier (an old form of broyer, “to grind, pound”) used in the sense of “to knead dough.” The root word, bhreg or brehhan (“to break”), is thought to be of Germanic origin

BREAD PUDDING WITH MUSHROOMS, GRUYERE & POACHED EGGS

1 lb. loaf brioche bread, cut into 1″ cubes
2 C whole milk
2 C heavy whipping cream
6 fresh eggs
Slight drizzle of white truffle oil
4 thyme sprigs, stemmed and leaves chopped

1 shallot, peeled and minced
2 C morel mushrooms, sliced
2 C crimini mushrooms, sliced
2 C shittake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
2 pinches of dried herbes de provence

4 C gruyère or comté cheese, freshly grated, divided
Sea salt and freshly grated black pepper

6 fresh eggs
1 tablespoon white vinegar

Parmigiano-reggianno, freshly grated

Preheat oven to 350 F

Bread Pudding
In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, cream and eggs. Season with salt and pepper and mix in the cubed brioche, truffle oil, and chopped thyme leaves. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium high heat, sauté the shallots for a minute or so. Then add the morels, shittakes, criminis, and herbes de provence. Season with salt and pepper and sauté for another 2-3 minutes. Place in a bowl and allow to cool to room temperature. Add half of the gruyère cheese to the brioche mixture, then stir in the mushrooms and shallots.

Pour the bread pudding mixture into a deep sided baking dish or casserole. Strew with the remaining gruyère cheese. Season with salt and pepper and bake until puffy and golden brown on top, about 45 minutes. Allow to rest, tented with foil, while poaching the eggs.

Poached Eggs
Fill a large, heavy skillet deep enough to cover the eggs with water. Bring to a simmer, and add the white wine vinegar. Crack each egg into a shallow bowl or saucer to assure they are not broken. Then, using a slotted spoon, spin the boiling water into a sort of vortex. Once the water is spinning rapidly, gently drop the egg from the bowl in the center of the whirlpool, where it will spin around and coat the yolk in a ball of egg white. Cook until the eggs are barely set, about 3 minutes. Remove the eggs, draining well with a slotted spoon and dab the bottom with paper towels to dry.

On each plate, top a serving of bread pudding with a poached egg and then a fresh scant grating of parmigiano-reggianno.

Anything that has real and lasting value is always a gift from within.
~Franz Kafka

Often, the divine derives from the decomposed. At least so say most funeral directors.

(You are aware that Dexter was preceded by decades—over a century ago—by Franz Kafka, right?)

Fungi are members of a group of eukaryotic organisms that includes microorganisms such as yeasts, molds and my beloved mushrooms. Eukaryotic, you say? Derived from the Greek for “noble” or “true” combined with “nut” (an intriguing match), eukaryotes are organisms whose cells contain complex structures enclosed within membranes. A single eukaryotic cell contains membranous compartments in which specific metabolic activities take place.

Decomposers that feed on the remains of dead plants and animals, fungi are taxonomically classified as a kingdom separate and apart from plants, animals, protists and bacteria. Not green for lack of chlorophyll, they have cell walls that contain chitin, unlike the cell walls of plants, which are composed of cellulose.

From a genetic view, fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. Animals and fungi share a common evolutionary history, and the limbs of their genealogical tree branched away from plants over one billion years ago. The common ancestor of animals and fungi actually was a protist—a single celled creature that very likely possessed both animal and fungal characteristics. It is surmised that this precursor spent part of its early life cycle in a membranous and mobile form resembling a human sperm, and then morphing into its next stage by growing a stiff chitin cell wall more resembling the mushroom that graces our tables.

All murk aside, this is a silky, luxuriant soup worthy of your spoon. If you opt for a more meaty, handsome texture, simply omit the blending stage and keep the mushrooms sliced.

CREAM OF MUSHROOM SOUP

1 ounce dried mushrooms (porcini, morels, or shitakes)
1 C chicken or vegetable stock, heated

3 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter

1/2 C shallots, peeled and chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 T fresh thyme, finally minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 lb crimini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1/2 lb shitake mushrooms cleaned, stemmed and sliced
1/2 lb oyster mushroomes, cleaned, stemmed and sliced

1/4 C Madeira
1/4 C all purpose flour

5 C chicken or vegetable stock
1-2 C heavy cream

Chives
Truffle oil

Soak the dry mushrooms in 1 cup of warm stock about 30 minutes, until plump. Strain the soaking liquid through cheesecloth to remove grit. Reserve, along with the reconstituted mushrooms, until needed.

Heat the oil and butter in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, and then add the shallots, garlic, salt and pepper and cook for 5 minutes, until the shallots are soft and translucent but not browned.

Turn heat to medium high and add the sliced mushrooms, thyme, bay leaves and sage. Cook mushrooms to exude liquid until they become quite soft, about for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add Madeira and flour and stir constantly for around 5 minutes.

Add the chicken stock and the dried mushrooms along with the soaking water. Simmer for 30 minutes.

Remove the herbs, then add the cream and working in batches, puree the soup in a food processor or an immersion blender until smooth. Return to the pot and keep at a very low simmer until ready to serve.

Garnish with chives and drizzle lightly with truffle oil.

The horror! The horror!
~Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, later adapted to the film Apocalypse Now

Spring has sprung, and those intensely surreptitious, almost clandestine, morel hunts are in full season. The image is reminiscent of the geeky bird watcher played by John McGiver in Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation with Jimmy Stewart (1962). I recommend both the film and the morel hunt.

Here is the kind of retirement pursuit more befitting to the now suddenly ubiquitous Mr. Cheney than was upland bird gaming—furtive, undercover, with dark caches, and yet thankfully no lethal arms or ordnance at his disposal. He simply rounds up these fungal suspects, detains and then stows them in away in a black hiding place. As to his next step, torture…how he could conceivably torture a defenseless mushroom is beyond my bailiwick. No references to such tactics on these highly valued delicacies can be found in the revised U.S. Army Field Manual or the Geneva Convention that he so shamelessy disregarded with humans—with the penned duplicity of the now Hon. Jay Bybee and Prof. John Yoo. Perhaps he simply delegates away the torment in a feeble effort to display clean hands. Queries: What consideration (quid pro quo) is given in a torture contract? Is this a third party “beneficiary” arrangement? What are the specific terms and provisions of a torture agreement? Is it just a proverbial “wink and a hand shake?”

In my narrow culinary sphere, I do know beyond a reasonable doubt that repeatedly inundating fresh morels with water causes core damage and elicits little valuable information. All this technique causes is changeless damage to being.

Morels, the prized honeycombed and ridged fungi worshipped by amateur mycologists and cooks alike, are nothing short of sublime. The most widely recognized species are the yellow morel or common morel (Morchella esculenta), the white morel (M. deliciosa), and the black morel (M. elata).

Also called morchella, they possess a spongy texture and subtle, earthy flavor which is so delicate that you must exercise care not to dominate morels with stout ingredients in the same dish. Do not overly adorn…rather allow the morel to stand in full glory.

Mirepoix is the classic mélange of onions, carrots, and celery often used as a flavor base for a number of dishes, including stocks, soups, and sauces. Although this is not set in stone, the typical ratio is 2:1:1 of onions, celery, and carrots. As befits French tradition, mirepoix derived its name from the duke patron of a renowned chef.

MORELS & FETTUCINE

3/4 to 1 lb fresh morels, cleaned with a brush or cloth, sliced lengthwise
4 shallots, peeled and finely diced
4 T unsalted butter

4 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped and finely chopped
2 sprigs parsley leaves, finely chopped

1 C onions, peeled and minced
1/2 C carrots, peeled and minced
1/2 C celery, minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 1/2 C chicken stock
1 C heavy cream

Fresh parsley sprigs, chopped
Parmigiano reggiano, grated

1 lb fresh fettucine (see Basic Pasta Dough)
Sea salt

In a heavy skillet, sauté the mushrooms and shallots in butter for 2-3 minutes over medium high heat, adding the thyme and parsley for the last minute. Add the mirepoix (onions, celery and carrots) and season with salt and pepper. Sauté another 2 minutes and then add both the stock and cream. Gently simmer and let the mixture reduce by about one-third, but do not allow it to thicken to a heavy sauce consistency. Taste for salt and pepper to your liking.

In a heavy stock pot, cook the pasta in boiling water that has a liberal amount of salt added. The water should almost taste like clean seawater, and the pasta should be cooked until just al dente. Drain and toss with the morels and mirepoix mixture in the skillet. Garnish with parsley and a light grating of parmigiano reggiano.