Friday, January 31, 2020

Mushroom au Gratin: or, Making French recipes look a lot more American

We at A Book of Cookrye, like many people, sometimes are a lot more tired than a recipe will allow. Faced with something that involves three pots over burners of three different temperatures while we slice and mince enough ingredients to feed five, we will sometimes enthusiastically make something else. Sometimes we dearly love making recipes that are an unnecessarily elaborate construction, other times we simply want dinner to be magically ready.
And it turns out that people around the world agree with us! Let's briefly consider France, a country which culinary experts revere so much I'm sure some of them would pay to journey there and eat the trash in the streets. How else could a tourist's driving guide become a Most Sacred Text? Because it's French, of course! Actually, we're not really discussing France, the country in Europe where French people live. We're discussing American food snobs' idea of France- the country where the food is classy, the presentation is flawless, the kitchen may as well be a temple for all the rituals involved, and every recipe is a labor-intensive, pain-in-the-ass tribute to gastronomy. In this weird imaginary France that the snobs rhapsodize about, you're not allowed to cook unless you already have thirty years of experience and can carve a bell pepper into a naked lady with big bazongas while blindfolded.
Anyway, this deeply-cherished idea of France, which may not actually exist on their side of the Atlantic, doesn't actually line up with reality we find in recipes published in France (with the internet, primary sources are a cinch!). As a case in point, let's flip through the France chapter of today's book of choice!
Pan Am Airways' The Complete Around-the-World Cookbook, Myra Waldo, 1957

Mushroom-Beef Gratin
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp basil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
¼c wine vinegar
1½ pounds sliced mushrooms
1½ pounds ground beef
2 tbsp butter
½ c breadcrumbs
1 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese

Select a pan that can go both in the oven and on the stove.
Mix the garlic, onion, seasonings, vinegar, and mushrooms. Set aside.
Brown and drain the beef. Saute the mushrooms in a little of the beef fat until done. Taste and check seasonings.
Sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Top with cheese, and dot with butter. Place until broiler until browned.

Adapted from Pan-American World Airways' The Complete Around-the-World Cookbook, Myra Waldo, 1957

As a reminder, the introduction tells us that recipes in this book "came from all possible sources, including hotels, restaurants, local gourmet groups, and private citizens." So this isn't one of those 1950's "international" cookbooks that tried tell you that adding soy sauce made your fish stick casserole into something authentically Chinese.
We were drawn to this recipe for two reasons. One, ever since we finally had mushrooms that were not boiled until slimy and bitter, we have discovered that they are delicious. Two, it appears to only involve one pan!
You didn't think we'd only use one garlic clove, did you?
The best thing about this recipe is just how fast we had it ready for the stove. It looks like we're going to have a lot of leftovers, but keep in mind how much mushrooms shrink when you cook them.

We're used to French recipes having a list of four ingredients and then nine paragraphs telling you what to do to them, so "mix everything and then get it over a burner" was a refreshing change.

Well, we thought it was ready for the stove, but it turns out we didn't read the recipe very well.

I don't know if the three hour marinating time was supposed to draw out juices or something, but we had planned to have dinner ready in the short time it took to get these things cooked and then browned on top.
However, before you gasp in French at me for failing to marinate the produce, we did let them stew in their own vinegar for at least a little bit. You see, we wanted to make a complete dinner in a single pan. We therefore converted this vegetable side dish into a delightful dinner by bringing a little bit of America over to the recipes of France. Which means the mushrooms got a little bit of marinating time while we dealt with... this!
Pictured: America!

Is there anything more aggressively all-American than dumping a big log of ground beef into something and being like "Yeah, this is a dinner now"?

All right, let's leave our dead cow detour and get back to the original recipe. We probably should have removed the beef and set it aside. It would have allowed for proper sauteeing. However, we didn't want to have to wash yet another bowl. You may notice that we have even made sure to use a pan without plastic handles so that we can do the stovetop stuff and bake it in the same vessel.
We omitted the butter because we figured the residual beef grease was enough. Besides, if we called it graisse de boeuf instead of beef dippings, people would pay extra for the chance to eat greasy un-drained tacos.
Once you decide you like mushrooms, it gets annoying how much they shrink when you cook them. This thing I just learned to like turns into tiny nuggets of nearly nothing! We started out with so much mushroom that we had to very carefully try not to knock them out of the pan every time we stirred. As the mushrooms started to cook, the vinegar made itself known. The steam coming off the pan got sharper and more acidic, eventually scouring my nose. Most people might dislike that, but I appreciate a good nasal scrubbing in the middle of allergy season.
Once we get some breadcrumbs on this, it's dinner.

This was a faster recipe than I expected. Like, even if you decide to add meat to it, you can have it ready to bake in like 30 minutes. This really goes against what every snob in America thinks France should be. Rather than a double-sided page of instructions, all we had was a short paragraph telling us to push things around in a pan over a hot burner and then bake it. Speaking of baking, let's get the topping of this on it!

It's interesting that here in America, when we hear of "[insert food here] Au Gratin," it's usually sliced potatoes under a thick blanket of cheddar cheese. Which is of course delicious (especially if you spread the potatoes out thin so there's a lot of cheese to go with each helping). This looked like a sandbox. The recipe does use some cheese, though not nearly as much as an American might. We're using these vaguely European-looking cheese wedges which we had to cut up for ourselves. It was cheaper than the tubs of shredded Parmesan, and we refused to consider that synthetic stuff that comes in plastic shakers.

Lest you think this is a diet-friendly recipe with only one tablespoon of cheese on it, we're also supposed to put this lump of butter on.

And here it is, ready to bake! I refused to get out and subsequently wash a cheese grater just for one tablespoon of the stuff, so I just had at it with the knife that already needed washing after doing the onions. As a result, our casserole is now topped with an adorable festival of yellow cubes.

I didn't think the broiler was the best way to cook it. It was definitely faster than baking, but I thought it'd have been nicer if the browning had gone a bit deeper. But I can see why twice-cooked mushrooms may not be appealing to many. Maybe if one moved the oven rack a bit farther down and reduces the broiler heat, the results would improve.

But it looked decent, and smelled really good. All was promising until we inserted a serving spoon and lifted out a scoop of dinner.

We wanted to make casserole, not soup! If we do this again, we'll stir extra breadcrumbs into the actual mess in the pan. After absorbing all the pan juices, they'd probably taste divine intermingled with all the beef and mushrooms.

It looks like cafeteria slop, but it's pretty good! I thought all that vinegar would make it taste like we just dumped salad dressing in there, but it complements everything really well. In the unlikely event of leftovers, it reheats very well.