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Winter Mushroom Champiñones al Ajillo

Champiñones al ajillo. I first had this dish in high school, made by the hands of my first love, Carla, from Madrid. Nothing fancy… really approachable for any cook, no matter their experience level--mine was certainly negligible at the time, confined mostly to caramelizing onions and crafting oddball omelets. Despite my inexperience in front of the stove, I turned this dish out for many nights afterward, especially after visiting Carla and her family in Madrid and Galicia. No matter the time of day or what else was on a menu, I gravitated to this dish time after time. Of course, in the land of the tapas bar (small-plate bars that specialize in one or two dishes), I was bound to find an establishment that served these delicious morsels and nothing else (aside from the obligatory glass of rioja or sangria).

<cue angels>

Meson del Champiñon—house of the mushroom—was a formative experience for me, as were real honest-to-god tapas bars in general. I’ve had (and made) better mushrooms than those served at Meson, but the simple fact that there is a restaurant devoted to one (very simple) dish and its ubiquitous main ingredient… the whole experience was not dissimilar from going to a shrine. And next to this shrine were countless others, all devoted to traditional Spanish dishes like so many patron saints of late-night revelry.

Of course, we get similarly hung-up on ingredients and dishes. Lobsters, oysters, steaks, burgers, doughnuts, waffles, etc., but most of these gastronomic places of worship seem less sacrosanct. Cobblestones and cave-like entrances help places like Meson feel immutable, an age-old testament to our love of mushrooms… kind of a different vibe than your local Cheesecake Factory, Waffle House, or Ruth’s Chris. Being at a remove from the cultural context always helps… I’m sure many Spaniards are taken aback by some of our more illustrious culinary shrines that haven’t been franchised into every nook and cranny of the country, places like Carnegie Deli, Lombardi's, Frank Pepe'sLou Malnati'sLexington Barbecue, Arthur Bryant's, Moonlite Bar-B-QCafé du Monde, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, etc.

At any rate, whenever I make champiñones al ajillo, I think of Spain, of Meson, and how “ordinary” ingredients, when treated simply and with finesse, can elevate dishes beyond expectation. No matter how few ingredients a dish calls for, the result is often more than the sum of its parts. Whether this is due to the alchemy of cooking or the memories we attach to certain flavors and aromas, I find the process fascinating.

I had to revisit this recipe when Megan and I came upon two types of winter mushrooms at the farmer’s market we had never seen before: hedgehogs and yellow foot chanterelles.

HedgehogsYellow Foot Chanterelles

Both are striking to look at, and since neither of us had tasted them before, a simple treatment seemed best. I think we both like the yellow foots a little better than the hedgehogs, which have a “hairy” pelt underneath the cap instead of gills. Some of our mushroom books were disparaging of the hedgehog for one reason or another… not enough flavor, visually off-putting. We found neither of these complaints to be true.

Wild mushrooms are not always easy to find (in the store or forest), so feel free to use inexpensive button mushrooms or creminis. On the plus side, these will give up more moisture, meaning more garlicky mushroom-sherry juice to sop up with toasted baguette. Twitching the dish with a splash of vinegar or lemon juice is always welcome, as is a sprinkle of minced parsley (or your favorite green herb), and a very light dusting of paprika (preferably the Spanish smoked variety called pimenton de vera).

Traditionally, these are served in a shallow bowl with bread, but they make an amazing addition to polenta, risotto, or anything else that will absorb the juices. Enjoy!

Sautéed Mushrooms with Garlic and Sherry (Champiñones al Ajillo)
Serves 4 as an appetizer

Clean:
      1 pound mushrooms (cremini, button, chanterelles, morels, or a combination)
Leave whole if the mushrooms are small or slice in half if needed (they should be the size of a small, comfortable bite).
Peel and coarsely chop or slice:
     3-6 garlic cloves
Heat over medium-high in a large skillet until shimmering:
     4 tablespoons olive oil
Add the garlic to the pan along with
     (a pinch of red pepper flakes)
and cook until golden, about 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms and quickly toss with the garlic to keep it from burning. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms wilt and exude juice, about 5 minutes. Add:
     ¼ cup dry sherry or dry white wine
Keep the pan on the heat until the sherry is reduced by half. Take off the heat and stir into the mushrooms:
     ½ teaspoon each salt and freshly-ground black pepper
     ¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped (mixed with thyme, basil, or your favorite green herb)
Transfer the mushrooms to shallow bowls, distributing any pan juices equally. You may add a few drops of
     (sherry or white wine vinegar)
to each bowl, or serve with
     (lemon wedges)
Sprinkle each bowl with a little
     Spanish paprika
And serve with
     Fresh crusty bread, warmed or toasted

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If rosewater isn’t your thing, rub the zest of one orange into the sugar instead.

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