People are funny old things sometimes. For instance, take mushrooms.
Over my many years of cooking for people, one thing has always been a source of both keen interest and mild annoyance, and that is some peoples’ aversion to mushrooms. I simply can’t understand it.
I presume it’s more of a textural dislike rather than the taste, because mushrooms are delightful things, in all their many shapes, sizes and flavours. They really pack a punch, flavour-wise, especially the wild varieties, and add a wonderful, earthy tone to any dish they grace.
My love of mushrooms started very early with a penchant for tinned mushrooms as a child. I was fascinated by the contents of the tin of Chesswood mushrooms that Dad would open on a Saturday morning to warm up as an accompaniment to a full English.
They were so beautifully tiny, yet crammed with savoury flavour. The creamed variety was also a favourite, spooned into vol-au-vents for various parties and functions throughout my 1970s childhood.
Nowadays, we have a vast choice of fresh mushrooms to play with, from the classic ivory-coloured buttons, to the shaggy brown Portabellas, perfect in omelettes and such.
There are close-textured chestnut mushrooms, umami-rich shiitakes and the delicate oysters, and these are only what we can find in most supermarkets.
If we use specialists, or go out into the woods (being extremely careful with identification, of course) the world of the wild mushroom opens up to us; there’s a breathtaking range of edible fungus down there in the undergrowth, beneath the leaf litter and the ferns.
My particular favourites are the huge, globe-like puffball, the jet-black Trompette De Mort, the delicate, minuscule tan-and-brown mousseron, the bizarre-looking morel and the mushroom regarded as one of the very best cookers, the cep, also known as the porcini or the penny-bun. A ‘proper’ mushroom, shape-wise, the cep can grow to give caps as wide as saucers, and has a deep, rich, perfumed taste that can withstand other flavours incredibly well.
No wonder chefs prize ceps so much, given they sit so well with poultry, meat and fish alike. But the wonder of these amazing ingredients is that even the humble shop-bought button mushroom can do so much, and this recipe demonstrates their colossal culinary power perfectly.
I’ve had this recipe in my ‘to do’ notes for ages, but I’ve no idea why it’s taken so long to get round to. We’re making a version of the classic Spanish tapas staple, Croquetas.
Usually made with the famous Jamón Iberico, these crunchy nibbles can be found almost everywhere in Spain, and occasionally they are made with cultivated or wild mushrooms.
The process is exactly the same, making a very thick white sauce that sets almost solid, ensuring spoonfuls of it can be easily rolled in egg and breadcrumbs before being deep-fried to crisp perfection.
The result is a crunchy exterior that gives way to a soft, unctuous filling, perfect with a glass of fino sherry or a cold beer.
I thought I’d like to elaborate on these snacks, so decided to add the rich flavour and texture of a soft-boiled duck egg, along with the freshness of a few dressed salad leaves, plus a sprinkle of deeply savoury celery salt, to make the whole thing a lovely light lunch or first course.
The choice of mushrooms is up to you – whatever suits your personal taste and pocket. I used a mixture of Portabella, flatcap and dried porcini, but the choice is, as always, up to you.
For the filling:
2 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil
200g mixed mushrooms, finely chopped
70g plain flour, sifted
1 onion, very finely chopped
A little extra-virgin olive oil
For the coating:
A little plain flour
4 free-range eggs, beaten
Plenty of fresh fine white breadcrumbs
Vegetable oil for frying
A few handfuls seasonal leaves
A little vinaigrette
1 fresh duck egg per person
Firstly, heat the olive oil in a pan and add the mushrooms. Sweat over medium heat until cooked though. Season lightly. Remove from the heat and drain in a sieve. Pat the mushrooms dry on kitchen paper and set aside while you make the béchamel sauce.
Gently warm the milk over very gentle heat in a saucepan. As it warms, heat the butter in a saucepan and add the onion.
Cook gently, under a lid or disc of greaseproof paper, until the onion is soft. This should take about half an hour.
Remove from the heat and set in a sieve to drain. Keep the butter that drains away, and return it to the pan. Heat gently, and when just sizzling, add the flour. And whisk until you have a smooth paste.
Add the milk in small amounts, whisking all the time, building the sauce until it’s thick and smooth. Tip in the onions and the mushrooms and beat well, until fully incorporated.
Tip into a suitable high-sided plastic tray or similar container and smooth the surface.
Cover the surface with clingfilm and cool, then refrigerate until cold and set.
When the mixture is fully cold, cut it into bars about 2 inches long by ¾ inch wide.
Heat the vegetable oil to 180°C. Quickly shape the croquettes into rough cylinders, then dip in the flour, then the egg and finally roll in the breadcrumbs, covering completely.
Fry them in batches until they take on a deep golden colour, and keep them warm in a low oven until you’re ready to serve.
To cook the eggs, bring a pan of salted water to the boil. Gently lower in the duck eggs and cook on a gentle bubble for 8 minutes.
Remove and plunge into ice-cold water.
Allow the eggs to cool a little before gently peeling them and serving alongside the croquetas with some dressed leaves and a sprinkle of the celery salt.