By SHANNON WATKINS
Yet again, the weather keeps playing footsie with us; one minute it’s Clearly Almost Spring, and the next it’s Just Kidding, Still Winter. Even the polar zombies have given up and gone home in disgust.
(Though as a nearby friend of mine pointed out, the spring peepers that the higher temperatures woke up around our homes haven’t quit. They’re still chirruping away through the cold, because once their mating instincts have kicked in, apparently life is one big hot tub party no matter how low the mercury dips. “It’s just like Aspen, dude!” they cry out in their high-pitched little voices. “Who’s got the margarita blender?”)
Meantime, the rest of us have to keep cooking and eating no matter what happens, but it’s difficult to to predict what’ll go down best. A hearty winter roast? A delicate spring vegetable soup? Maybe just say forget it and eat a box of cheese crackers or something?
The best dish would combine a little of both winter and spring, with the added bonus of not taking too long to cook. Something meaty but without meat’s tendency to weigh you down, say. Also something that cooks faster than a stodgy roast.
Fortunately, Deb Perelman of famed food blog (and cookbook) Smitten Kitchen has developed a perfect recipe to cover all these bases. (And really, look her up; she’s amazing.) Her contention, when she was younger and still a vegetarian, was that when people ate meat dishes, what they thought they loved best about the meat was really the sauce it was cooked in. That’s actually not too far off the mark; I’ve made myself a steak dinner for one if Kroger had ribeye or porterhouse on sale, only to realize that I probably really preferred the trimmings (roast potatoes, salad, sauteed onions and mushrooms), which, if nothing else, don’t smell the house up as much or as long after when cooking.
The vegan and vegetarian answers to meat, especially beef, have been tofu (OK but not great), seitan (a wheat-based chewy foodstuff, which is also OK) or, my personal favorite, mushrooms, especially portobello mushrooms, which are divine.
Allow me to rhapsodize for a minute about mushrooms. Is there anything else so utterly perfect in and of itself? Buttons, creminis, shiitakes, portobellos, chanterelles, morels … even their names sound like romantic poetry of a sort, which is not a thing one often says about turnips. And cooked in a little fat with a pinch of salt to add savor and draw out their water, they’re already perfect to eat, or ready to lend themselves to whatever dish you care to add them to, such as this week’s.
Beouf bourguignon (or beef burgundy, in English) is a French dish made with, obviously, beef, slow-braised with red wine and a few other good things. In Perelman’s ingenious version, beef is replaced with mushrooms, but absolutely none of the flavor is sacrificed. As far as the mushrooms go, Perelman uses portobellos in hers, which are the Rolls-Royce of grocery-store mushrooms, but I’m afraid they do tend to be a bit pricey. A cheaper option that still packs a meaty wallop is cremini mushrooms, sometimes sold as baby portobellos. They look like browner mutton mushrooms and are thoroughly delicious.
As for the wine, in France, ideally, this would be an actual bottle from the Burgundy region; in Perelman’s version it’s just “full-bodied red wine” and in mine it’s whatever wine is 1.) red; 2.) dry (not sweet); and 3.) on sale at the grocery store. So clearly I won’t judge you if your choice is California Slob’s Just Bottled Pinot Noir from the bargain shelf instead of a 1948 Chateau Distingué de la Domaine du Colibri Pêter from the north side of the vineyard.
Pearl onions might be a smidge trickier; you can find them in the frozen food section sometimes (thaw first) or bottled in the canned vegetables aisle (rinse thoroughly) or raw and needing to be peeled from the produce section (a total pain to avoid if possible).
2 Tbsps. olive oil
2 Tbsps. butter, softened
2 lbs. portobello or cremini mushrooms, cut into ¼” slices
½ carrot, finely diced
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. dry, full-bodied red wine
2 c. low-sodium beef or vegetable broth (beef works best here)
2 Tbsps. tomato paste
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves or ½ tsp. dried thyme
1½ Tbsps. all-purpose flour
1 cup pearl onions
egg noodles for serving
optional for serving: sour cream, chopped parsley, chopped chives
Heat one tablespoon each of the oil and butter over high heat in a large skillet and tumble the mushrooms in and sear them for 3-4 minutes stirring so they all spend time on the bottom of the pan. They will give off some liquid, but you won’t leave them in long enough to do this very much. Remove from the pan and set them aside.
Lower heat to medium and and add the second tablespoon of olive oil. Add the carrots, onions and thyme, a few pinches of salt and a few generous grinds of black pepper and saute for about 10 minutes, or until the onion browns lightly. Add garlic and saute for a minute more.
Pour in the wine, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan, turn the heat back up to high, and reduce liquid to half its original volume. Stir in the broth and tomato paste. Incorporate this, then add the mushrooms again and bring all to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the pearl onions and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the last tablespoon of butter and the flour; stir well to make sure flour doesn’t lump up and simmer for another 10 minutes. If the sauce is too thin, simmer for a bit longer until it’s down to a thicker consistency. Serve with egg noodles and any optional garnishes you like.
If you’re a cheap-wine Philistine such as myself, you can just recork it and stick it on a high shelf someplace cool until you need it again. Or if you got something more upscale, you could have a glass of it with dinner and then take the rest out to sip while sitting on the porch, wrapped in a blanket against the chill, listening to your own contented sighs mingling with the sound of frogs chirping, “Hey, baby, come here often?”