food: Magical mushrooms

Simon Hopkinson celebrates a cookery marriage made in heaven For a while, it was always with mushrooms, shallots, white wine - and cream. Lots of it. Yellow, spooned out of waxed cardboard tubs, unpaseurised, thick as ointment
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One of the finest combinations in the world of good cooking is the one involving mushrooms and cream. It is a marriage of such perfection, that it is smashing when simply spooned on to a slice of thick, buttered toast or, even better, over fried bread. This used to be Dad's speciality, and we all found it just the ticket for a snack of a Sunday evening while watching Beat the Clock.

The canning giant, Campbell's, suggests a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup can transform a couple of chicken breasts into a tasty dinner for two. Now, this might seem a wizard wheeze only to those with no sense of shame in their kitchen, but the idea is based on sound thinking. Poultry and mushrooms are one of the great duets. And the addition of cream and some sort of alcohol - usually white wine, vermouth, sherry or Madeira - so immaculately harmonises a sauce to go with fowl that it results in something astonishingly delicious.

When I first learnt to cook properly, in a classically bound professional kitchen, I was so taken over by the magic of sauces that, whenever I went home to see my parents, all they seemed to be eating were sauces made by me. And, for a while, it was always with mushrooms, shallots, white wine - and cream. Lots of it. Yellow it was then, spooned out of waxed cardboard tubs, unpasteurised, thick as ointment.

The most important point to remember when making a cream-and-mushroom sauce is to impart flavour and consistency through initial careful frying and then gentle reduction. I use whipping cream for these sort of dishes, as it is not quite so rich.

Guinea fowl with morels (pintade aux morilles a la creme) was one of the first dishes of that classically bound kitchen that I was eventually allowed to make all alone. It was as rich as can be, and dead exotic in those days. The birds in question used to be bred, near Lancaster, by an energetic and dapper fellow called Peter Dodd. He had the most fruity voice on the telephone, reminding me of Leslie Phillips in Carry On Nurse. But he was a real pioneer in those days (the early Seventies), and supplied many restaurants in the north-west of England and, later, farther afield, too.

Initially, he was best known for breeding quail, and perhaps this really was his big break - although I believe it nearly broke him. The intensity of farming those dear (in both senses of the word) little birds became, apparently, a mammoth undertaking.

I think I am also right in saying that Peter Dodd was also the first to cross-breed the wild and domestic duck, resulting in the highly respected Gressingham bird - meaty and of fine flavour, with just the right amount of fat and skin to produce a crisp roast. I had my first delivery of these ducks from Peter when I had my diminutive restaurant in Pembrokeshire 22 years ago. They had to be sent from Lancaster to Paddington, and from there on the boat train to Fishguard Harbour, where I would pick them up from the porter's office around about midnight. I digress, but I have very fond memories of Peter Dodd's enterprise - as much as I do of my late-night glass of Scotch on the way home, the birds locked in my boot, and me locked inside the Globe inn.

Here is the guinea fowl recipe, followed by another one we used to do with Peter's quails, also with mushrooms, but not with cream. This one uses pate de foie gras and a lot of butter. Best not to eat them in the same week, perhaps. The carcass from the guinea fowl, by the way, can be used to make a fine broth (see recipe, right) for the base of a rich cream of mushroom soup. Well, come on, it's getting cold out there.

Guinea fowl with morels, white wine and cream, serves 4

25g/1oz dried morels

250ml/9fl oz hot (not boiling) water

1 guinea fowl (approx. 1.4kg/3lb)

salt and pepper

25g/1oz butter

1 tbsp olive oil

75g/3oz shallots, finely chopped

1 tbsp brandy

1 tbsp Madeira or medium sherry (optional)

150ml/14 pint dry white wine

400ml/34 pint whipping cream

squeeze of lemon juice

chopped parsley (optional)

Soak the morels in the water for 20 minutes. Portion the guinea fowl by first removing the wing tip and secondary joint. Cut off the drumstick- thigh joint through the ball and socket by the backbone, then remove the breasts cutting up close to the rib cage. Roughly chop up the carcass and the removed wing parts and either make the broth straight away or store in a plastic bag in the freezer until the day you really feel like making broth - it's no trouble, anyway.

You can skin the guinea fowl or not, as you wish. I always skin a chicken for coq au vin, for instance, but I leave it on here; it's up to you. Whatever you decide, salt and pepper the joints well and fry gently in a heavy-bottomed pan (preferably one with a lid) in the oil and butter until nicely gilded all over. Transfer to a plate. Tip off almost all of the fat and add the shallots. Cook until softened and then tip in the morels - which have been drained (keep the soaking water) and squeezed dry. Continue to cook the shallots with the morels until the smell of the mushrooms becomes fragrant and bosky.

Add the brandy and Madeira or sherry and turn up the heat. Cook until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Tip in the wine and reduce by half. Strain the morel soaking water through a double fold of kitchen paper and add this, too. Bring up to a simmer and return the guinea fowl to the pan. Cover, and cook very gently indeed, for about 30 minutes (you can also do this in a moderate oven if you wish). Lift out the joints and put into a serving dish; keep warm in a low oven, covered with foil.

Bring the mushroom sauce up to the boil and reduce down until syrupy and starting to get a bit sticky. This is the time to add the cream. Pour it in all at once and immediately whisk together. Bring up to a simmer and cook until unctuous and with a good coating consistency. Stir in the lemon juice, spoon generously over the guinea fowl and sprinkle with the parsley if you wish - well, it pretties the dish, doesn't it? Eat with plain boiled potatoes and a simple green vegetable.

Quails cooked with foie gras croutes, mushrooms and Armagnac (Cailles sur canapes), serves 4

The foie gras in the dish can either be pate de foie gras from a tin, the real thing, or even very good home-made chicken liver pate; whatever you use, make sure its source is pukka.

8 quails

110g/4oz softened butter

salt and pepper

450g/1lb of sliced button mushrooms

8 thick-cut slices of white, crustless bread (about 2in/5cm square)

110g/4oz pate de foie gras

3 tbsp Armagnac

Pre-heat the oven to 400F/200C/gas mark 6. Use 25g/1oz of the butter to smear over the breasts and legs of the quails. Season well. Butter an ovenproof dish (one that will also happily sit directly over a naked flame) with a further 25g/1oz of the butter. Tip in the mushrooms and pat down into a single layer. Lightly season them and place the quails on top. Roast in the oven for 30-35 minutes or until the skin of the quails is nicely burnished and the mushrooms are wilted and bubbling.

While the quails are cooking, melt the remaining 50g/2oz of butter in a frying pan and turn the bread through the melted butter without browning; it will soak up the fat quite quickly. Place directly on to a flat tray (the removable base of a cake- or flan-tin is best) for the final 10-15 minutes of the quails' cooking time, and bake until crisp and golden. Remove and place on to kitchen paper. Spread the croutes generously with pate and put on to a large oval serving plate.

As soon as you lift the quails from the oven, spoon over the Armagnac and set alight with a match. Allow the flames to subside and then put the quails on to the croutes, turn the oven temperature down to low and put the laden serving dish into the oven to keep warm.

Place the dish of Armagnac-imbued mushrooms and buttery quail juices on to the heat and bring to a boil. Cook briefly, until they become a coherent sloppy mass, all bubbling and emitting a fine scent. Spoon around the quail in dribs and drabs and decorate with judicious foliage: cool and crisp sprigs of watercress would be ideal, if not mandatory, here.

Cream of mushroom soup, serves 4

50g/2oz butter

2 small onions, peeled and chopped

450g/1lb very white button mushrooms, sliced

2 sprigs fresh tarragon

juice of 1 small lemon

salt and freshly ground white pepper

275ml/12 pint home-made poultry broth

150ml/14 pint full cream milk

150ml/14 pint whipping cream

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pot and stew the onions in it until very soft. Add the mushrooms and put the lid on. Allow to stew ever so gently with tarragon sprigs, the lemon juice and a little salt and pepper. You will notice that quite a lot of liquid will exude from the mushrooms as they cook, but this is nothing to worry about. After about 15 minutes, remove the lid and turn up the heat a little; cook like this for a further 10 minutes, stirring from time to time. Add the stock and milk and bring back to a simmer. Cook for a further 15 minute. Remove from the stove, discard the tarragon sprigs and, while still hot, liquidise in two batches until very, very smooth (this may take 2 minutes or so). Pass through a fine sieve into a clean pan and add the cream. Gently re-heat, correct the seasoning if necessary and serve with croutons. This is the smoothest and most creamy mushroom soup you will ever make.

Poultry broth, for making (approx) 570ml/1 pint of broth

1 guinea fowl carcass and wings

1 stick celery, chopped

1 leek, trimmed, chopped and washed

1 small carrot, peeled and chopped

1 small onion, peeled and chopped

1 clove garlic, bashed

2 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped

half a chicken stock cube

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

4 black peppercorns

a few parsley sprigs

1 glass dry white wine

700ml/114 pints cold water

Put all the ingredients for the broth into a large pan, bring up to a simmer, skim off any resultant froth and cook at the merest "blip" for one-and-a-half hours on a very low light. Alternatively, set the oven temperature to 275F /140C/gas mark 1 and cook the broth in there.

Pour the broth through a colander into a clean pan and leave the raggedy bones to drain and drip for 10-15 minutes or so. Discard the bone. Remove any fat from the surface of the strained broth with several sheets of absorbent kitchen paper. Pour through a fine sieve, cool, and put into the fridge. Once chilled, more fat will have settled on the surface. Remove this with a spoon and then use as required, or decant into pots and freeze

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