#426 Mushrooms in Snuffboxes


Life is too short to stuff a mushroom

Shirley Conran

Goodness knows what Shirley Conran would have thought of this recipe then! It’s the last one in the Vegetableschapter of the book and I have put it off since the beginning, because life’s definitely too short to build a bread snuffbox and stuff it with mushrooms.
A French gold snuffbox (Christie’s)

Another reason I’ve put this one off is that Jane says it’s a ‘good recipe for stretching a few field mushrooms’, and I have been unlucky when it comes to foraging for this type of fungus. I either find just one or two miniscule specimens, or loads of shaggy inkcaps, which aren’t great and prone to decaying very quickly. Well I ran out of patience and bought some nice organic Portobello mushrooms from the excellent grocery store, Unicorn in Chorlton, Manchester.

This is a very calorific recipe: lots of butter, fried bread, cream and sherry. If you make it and next day wake up with gout, don’t run crying to me: you were warned.

Jane doesn’t say whether this a single course or an accompaniment to something else. I had mine with some bitter, dark kale to offset the richness.

She also doesn’t give us any amounts – ‘a system rather than a proper recipe’, she says. Here’s what I did:

I cut slices of breadfrom a tin loaf two inches thick and removed the crust. I reckoned I had enough mushrooms to fill two ‘snuffboxes’. I melted some butter in a frying pan over a medium heat and got to work frying the bread. It needs frying on all sides, so you may find you have to add more butter.

Take the giant croutons out of the pan, add more butter and fry a finely chopped onion until golden, then add your mushrooms, which can be sliced, halved or left whole, depending upon size. Season with saltand pepper. Some mushrooms let out a lot of juice, so get the heat turned up so it can evaporate, before turning back down to medium heat.

Whilst you wait for the mushrooms to cook, cut lids into your snuffboxes about half an inch deep. I wasn’t sure if she meant to cut a square from the top, or that you should just slice the top off, so I tried both to see which looked best. Remove the bread from the inside so that you have a box of fried bread; this was actually very easy to do, the bread within was hot and fluffy and just lifted out.

Keep them warm in the oven as you finish the mushroom mixture: mix in a teaspoon of flour, and once incorporated, plenty of double cream(I used a 150 ml pot) to form a smooth sauce. Add a dash of sherry if you like and check the seasoning. Spoon the mixture into the snuffboxes, replace the lids and serve.

#426 Mushrooms in Snuffboxes. As is often the case with the book English Food, the recipes one doesn’t want to cook, turn out to be the most delicious; and these snuffboxes were very delicious indeed. What’s more, they weren’t particularly difficult to make. It’s tricky to know what to serve them with. I suggest making them smaller and serving them with a watercress salad for a great first course. Alternatively, make large ones and serve alongside roast game for a family meal. 8/10

#412 Sea Kale

“It’s a shame that seakale, our one English contribution to the basic treasury of the best vegetables, should not be more eaten”, says Jane Grigson in her Vegetable Book, “it is not often in the shops, so you have to grow it yourself.”

Yes, this recipe had been vexing me somewhat and started to make some enquiries about getting hold of some for planting in my allotment. I did a little research into it, and it seems that it is quite a simple cropping plant to grow, though it does have to be forced, i.e. grown in the dark or buried so that as it grows through the soil no light penetrates, making the stems pale and tender. It has been compared to asparagus in its delicacy and mild but delicious flavour. Anyone who grows their own asparagus will know how much of a pain weeds can be, well it seems that in seakale the problem can be averted because you can simply mix sea salt into the soil, killing weeds and adding to the seakale’s vigour. It’s win-win. Indeed, so vigorous, this rare treat results in such ‘bulky crops’ that they are ‘greedily eaten by…livestock’, says The Country Gentleman’s Magazine of 1869.
Wild sea kale in its natural habitat (photo: dorsetlife.co.uk)

If growing is not your thing, then you could try and forage some for yourself. Wild seakale, or Crambe maritima to give its Latin name, is not a common plant; this is because of its rather specific gravel or stony beach habitat. There are not that many of those, except on the south coast of England and parts of Ireland. If you have holidayed in one of these areas, one of the things may have noticed is the total lack of plant life there. Unfortunately, the plants do get somewhat trampled over by people and their beach gear. According to John Wright in his very good book Edible Seashore (part of the River Cottage Handbook series) reckons you are best looking in the fringes of the beaches where the vegetation is less disturbed. If you do find one – remember where it is so the next January or February, you can pile on some gravel and force your own to collect in April.

After all the reading I did, I happened to ask my greengrocer if she ever saw any at market. She said she’d never even heard of it! That’s how much it has fallen out of fashion. Then, quite unexpectedly, she rang me the next day and said she had seen some. Before I knew it, I was clutching six precious packs of beautifully pale yellow fronds. As soon as I got home I cooked them, using Jane as my guide, of course. This is what she says:

Simply tie in bundles and cook it in boiling salted water or steam until just tender. Drain it well, and serve with melted butter, in the same way as asparagus.

I chose to boil tied bundles of it in just a centimetre of salted water for two minutes exactly, drained it, and then served it on thickly-cut hot buttered toast with a poached egg on top plus a twist or two of the salt and pepper grinder.

#412 Seakale. What a delight this rare treat was. It was of a very delicate flavour that was a little like asparagus, it certainly did not taste like kale or any other cabbage as you might expect. Cooking it very briefly, was definitely the way to go, such mild aromas would soon dissipate into the cooking liquid, and some books say to boil it for fifteen minutes! It cost a fair amount though, so I think I will have a go at trying to grow some on the allotment next year. 8/10

#357 Comfrey Leaf Fritters

I have had the foraging bug of late so I thought I would try and make these fritters that appear to been lost to history. According to Jane Grigson, the 18th century writer Hannah Glasse gave a recipe for these fritters that use the plant comfrey. Oddly, I couldn’t find the original recipe anywhere – I found clary fritters and a recipe using comfrey roots – hey ho.

Comfrey is a relatively common plant found in ditches or beside hedgerows and river banks all over Europe. There are several species, but the most common in Britain is common comfrey with the Latin name Symphytum officinale, in case you want to find it in a field guide. They are quite easy to spot though: they have large broad leaves that taper to a point and the plant forms a bushy conical shape as it grows higher with younger, smaller leaves. The flowers are either white or purple, are small and arranged in little lines of about seven spikey blooms (though I didn’t count). The leave themselves are covered in slightly rough hairs that are very slightly irritating if the leaves are large.

One thing to point out, and I only found this out after eating them, is that comfrey leaves are a little poisonous and shouldn’t be eaten in large amounts, nor should they be eaten if you have liver problems. You have been warned.

Collect some large comfrey leaves that still have a fresh green colour; the large warty dark green ones don’t look very wholesome to me. Take them home, wash and drain them then remove their stalks. Depending what you are serving with them, you will need one or two leaves per person, more if you are using the smaller tender leaves.

Meanwhile make the batter by mixing together 5 ounces of flour and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Whisk in a tablespoon of oil or melted butter and up to ½ pint of warm water to form a batter the consistency of double cream. The warm water will help thicken the batter a little. Lastly, whisk an egg whiteuntil stiff and fold into the batter.

Heat up some oil in a pan ready to deep fry the leaves. You know you’re at the correct temperature when a small cube of bread browns in about 45 seconds. Dip the leaves in the batter and fry on both sides until the batter is crisp and golden brown, around 4 minutes in all. Don’t be tempted to overcrowd the pan – the leaves will stick together and the whole thing will take much longer to cook. Drain on kitchen paper and season.
I took a photo but can’t seem to find it now. Whoops!
#357 Comfrey Leaf Fritters. I really liked these, though probably for the wrong reasons; the thin comfrey leaves were beautifully tender but essentially completely tasteless! The batter however was absolutely delicious – brown and crisp and bubbly and quite possibly the best batter recipe I have ever used. I’m going to give it 5.5/10 though because the star of the show should have been the comfrey, but it was just simply a vehicle for the divine batter.

Bonjour!

Well, I am back from the French field trip and full of meat, meat, meat! That is mainly what I’ve been eating for the last two weeks; well, that and bread, bread, bread!! I have been craving vegan food a bit, which does not sit well with English Food.

I’ve just about come round from the trip though and am ready to cook some nice summery dishes. The problem is that this month is very busy indeed and I doubt I’m going to have time to cook much. I seem to remember having a similar problem this time last year. I will simply have to freeze everything and eat my summer pudding in January or something.

One thing I did notice whilst on a wee walk around Chorlton Meadows with Butters was the amount of freebie food – blackberries, raspberries, apples, pears, elderberries and sloes all spotted in a single trip! So later on in the summer we should have lots of nice stuff (whether there are recipes in the book or not, I shall report on them – too good an opportunity to miss).

#164 Sorrel with Eggs

It’s always exciting trying a new food, and this one – sorrel – is completely new to me, even though it is a common part of many a British meadow’s flora. At least that’s what the foragers’ books keep on telling me. I’ve kept my eyes open and only found the quite similar, though inedible, dock leaf when I’ve been on the look-out. So, I was very lucky to happen up some at the Unicorn grocery whilst I wasn’t looking for it. It’s good really, because now I know what it looks like and tastes like I’m much more likely to see it in the grassland in the future.

Sorrel is one of our forgotten vegetables, and was once part of every garden as it grew happily in the early Spring when the store of over-wintered fruit and vegetables had run out, but the new springtime plants were not yet laden with their bounties. Famine time. These days of, course, we have no gap to fill in the food year and so it has gone out of favour. Another reason for its decline in popularity is that, because of its acidic zingy sharpness, it was used a lemon substitute and is therefore required no longer. It’s very easy to grow – I shall be growing some next year, for sure. Here’s a nice article about it from The Telegraph.

This recipe uses pureed sorrel that takes seconds to make, so if you find any, either in the meadow or the greengrocers, try this to get you started. It serves six, but you can decrease the amounts if you don’t have enough sorrel (or people!).

First boil six eggs for 6 minutes exactly (unless they are large, then boil for 7), this will achieve a boiled egg with well-cooked whites but still squidgy yolks. Whilst they are boiling, prepare 8 ounces of sorrel by rinsing, draining and removing the stalks just as for spinach. Add the leaves to a saucepan that’s over a moderate heat, after a few seconds it will reduce to a dark green puree, then add salt and pepper and 3 ounces of butter. Keep warm. Now fry six slices of bread in butter or oil until crisp, and cut into triangles (12 altogether). Now arrange the ingredients in a bowl or serving plate: sorrel first, then the eggs (whole or halved) and then the fried bread. Finally decorate with orange wedges (which I forgot to do!).


#164 Sorrel with Eggs – 7/10. I really enjoyed this usual and forgotten vegetable. The flavour was intense and was tempered well with the oily bread and creamy yolks of the eggs; it could be best described as lemon but with a strange astringency, like that of green rhubarb or raw gooseberries. It would be delicious with fish I expect. This is the only recipe that uses sorrel in English Food, but I am on the look out for other recipes elsewhere.