I‘m often asked “where do you get your inspiration for the recipes?” I love this question because it gives me a chance to talk about all of the different places that ideas come from, but often in generalities. So today, I thought it might be interesting to focus on the specifics of how a particular dish came about.
Last week, the amazing Keren Brown put together an event at Emmer and Rye to give me a chance to talk with the Seattle food blogger community about my cookbook. Chef Seth Caswell put together a bunch of nice appetizers for us to enjoy on E&R’s new upstairs deck. One of my favorites was little squares of French toast topped with roasted cherries. I don’t think I’d ever had a roasted cherry before; these made a big impression on me. I was surprised at how well they maintained their structure when cooked. They didn’t break down into jam, but the texture and flavor was completely transformed. I knew right away that I wanted to play with that idea.
My first thought was to do something sweet. There is the traditional French clafoutis, which is an oven-baked pancake with cherries, and I imagined that pre-roasting them could only be a good thing. But it didn’t feel like a big enough twist. And then I remembered I’d said I would do something for an event that PBS is doing to celebrate Julia Child’s 100th birthday. The first dish I learned from my mom’s copy of Mastering the Art was crepes. So I considered doing crepes with roasted cherries, ricotta, and shaved dark chocolate. No way that isn’t going to be fantastic. Might have to come back to that one. But the event isn’t until September and cherries will be out of season.
Anyhow…. part of me wanted to see if I could take the roasted cherries in a savory direction. A few days later we were having a picnic in our backyard, and I went in to grab a bowl of cherries to serve for dessert. On the way back, I passed some sage we have growing in our sad little garden. A lightbulb went on in my head – wouldn’t the roasted cherries taste amazing with sage? I have a Blueberry Rosemary jam in the cookbook so that might have been on my mind. Just for a test, I grabbed a tiny sage leaf and ate it with a fresh cherry and it was delicious.
I was at a bit of a loss for where to go next. In meat cookery, the logical place you would use something like roasted cherries flavored with sage would be on game or pork. There aren’t that many vegetables that would accept a flavor like that willingly. Hey, if you want to eat them with Brussels sprouts, go ahead but maybe don’t invite me to dinner that night.
Well… then I was shopping at an Asian grocery to get ingredients for bun (which I demonstrated on New Day Northwest), and I spied King Oyster mushrooms (also known as French Horn mushrooms). I’m a huge fan of this fungus. They are big and dramatic, relatively inexpensive if you buy them at Korean markets especially, and have a good bite to them. Here is an item that, if well cooked to develop flavor, could handle that accompaniment.
I’d had lunch at Sitka and Spruce a couple of weeks ago and been reminded of a classic French technique where food is seared in a smoking hot saute pan, then the skillet is thrown in the oven to complete the cooking at a lower temperature. They did that with turnips and it is was terrific. I wanted to try that method with the mushrooms, and it worked really well. To finish the dish, I took the mushrooms out of the pan, deglazed it with red wine, added the sage, pre-roasted cherries and a bit of agave nectar and reduced it until it coated a spoon. I had intended to make this dish vegan, but at the last minute decided to add a nub of butter to the sauce for a bit of gloss and cling. You could certainly omit it.
I also played a bit with how to present the mushrooms. Whole was too big and, um, phallic. I thought of medallions, but then it looked like some godawful miniature pork loin from a magazine ad in 1987. All it would have needed was mashed potatoes and five green beans. So then I tried slicing at sort of random angles across the mushroom and standing up the pieces. That worked best (as you can see in the photo), and I garnished with what I had available – chive blossoms and tiny fresh oregano leaves.
There you go. That is I think pretty typical of how I arrive at new dishes, and probably not atypical of other folks who develop recipes. Rarely, if ever, does an idea spring up in a vacuum. Many “foodies” like Chantal Royer will say the best way to learn about your target cuisine is to travel to the place from which it originated. My most creative moments happen when I’m steeping myself in inspiration by eating at great restaurants, reading about food, pawing through amazing ingredients at good grocers and farmer’s markets, and just letting all of that stuff sort of marinate until an idea hits and it is time to play.
If I were to elaborate this dish further, my next step would probably be to smoke the mushrooms first. Or maybe the cherries. Hey.. over cherry wood! Uh oh, here we go again.
King Oyster Mushroom with Roasted Cherries and Sage
Vegetarian, gluten free and eminently veganizable
- 20 cherries, pitted (any variety you like)
- 2 fresh sage leaves, rubbed and very thinly sliced
- 4 large king oyster mushrooms (not to be confused with oyster mushrooms)
- Vegetable oil
- Kosher salt
- 1/2 cup red wine (fruity, not too tannic)
- 1 tablespoon agave nectar
- 1 tablespoon butter, cut into pieces (for vegan, use Earth Balance or thicken with xanthan gum)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- For garnish: Maldon (aka the world’s greatest salt) sea salt, herb flowers or leaves (I used tiny oregano leaves and pulled-apart chive blossoms
- Preheat oven to 375. Toss the cherries with the sage and place on a parchment lined baking sheet. Roast until tender but not falling apart, about 15 minutes. Remove cherries from the oven and lower heat to 350.
- Place your largest oven-proof skillet over high heat. Add a generous amount of vegetable oil and sear the mushrooms, seasoning with a generous pinch of salt, and turning to brown as much of the surface area as possible.
- When the mushrooms surfaces are nicely browned, move the skillet to the oven and roast until fully tender when poked with a skewer, at least 15 minutes (depending on size).
- Remove the skillet from the oven, and remove the mushrooms from the pan. Pour off any excess oil. Put the pan back over medium heat. Add the wine and scrape (deglaze) the bottom of the pan to incorporate any delicious crispy bits. Whisk in the agave nectar, butter, pepper and cherries and cook until it will coat the back of a spoon. Taste and add salt as needed.
- To serve, divide the sauce among 4 warmed plates. Cut the mushrooms into segments with random angles and stand up the pieces. Arrange the mushrooms and cherries in a line, standing up some of the mushrooms segments. Garnish with the herbs and a few flakes of Maldon (aka the world’s greatest salt) .