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Mushroom Ragout Toasts

This spring will go down as my busiest on record. It all began with a few 80 degree days in February. I took a chance, betting against a late snow or hard frost, and planted some things. As the days warmed and lengthened, I planted more. Then, we launched the website, John and I started planning our wedding, and we decided to go on a road trip this June. After all that, I decided I had too much free time and wasn't nearly tired enough, and so started a micro baking business.

Between the craziness of running a very small business with one employee (me) and working for the Joy of Cooking (it takes a village...), I have successfully done away with all free time. The hardest part is the Saturday slog, which amounts to waking up at 4:30 to sell baked goods at the farmer's market until 2, unpacking, and planning to do it all over again the next week.

Farmer's markets have always had a distinct pull for me. From the first market I worked at (selling goat cheese under a broken tent and being called the "cheese wench" by a complete stranger) to last weekend (selling baked goods and getting paid in $2 bills by a repeat customer), I am perpetually smitten. I could go on about supporting local farmers and artisans, keeping your dollar in your community, and fresh produce, but really there's a je ne sais quoi that keeps me coming back.

One of my predominant reasons for not only going to the market but participating in it is the people. And I'm not necessarily talking about the customers, although many of them are just as delightful as the vendors.

But the vendors...they're an odd bunch. I mean that in the best way. Take, for instance, the man who sells nothing but home made fermented hot sauce, garlic and garlic scapes, and hot peppers. A man after my own heart. He seems completely unremarkable until you start talking to him, and then he blooms into something unexpected. A hot pepper guru.

Then, there's the family farm with nine polite children and the most beautiful produce you've ever seen. The punk farmers who trade you a dozen eggs for a big slice of upside-down cherry cake. The former personal chef for Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith who wears spotted-cow-print chef pants.

An interesting bunch.

Then last week one of my customers summed it up better than I had been able to. I go to farmer's markets because I like to be surrounded by motivated, energetic, enterprising people. Artists, craftspeople, farmers, artisan producers. They have ideas and stories and immense talent, and they share all that with whoever will listen or ask. I guess I'm hoping some of that will rub off on me.

The bounty of the market is a bonus. We usually end up with the typical things in our basket--strawberries, greens, scallions. But sometimes there are really special finds: fresh plums, garlic scapes, teeny tiny fingerling potatoes, freshly ground cornmeal. This past weekend our find was a bag of chanterelles.

We bought them from the mushroom man. He always wears a shirt with a different type of mushroom on it, and judging from his selection of mushrooms, he clearly knows where the good spots are. These chanterelles were not fresh--he had very lightly and quickly sautéed and frozen them, and when we bought them at market they were in a small, unassuming bag, frozen together. I have to admit that I was a little skeptical. I wasn't convinced that the texture would be good, and I wondered if the flavor had suffered.

As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about.

Mushroom ragout is the sort of dish you want to use special mushrooms for. Of course, you can make the ragout with plain button mushrooms, but you get from this dish what you put into it. Using flavorful mushrooms such as chanterelles, shiitakes, morels, and oysters will repay you with a rich and toothsome dish. In this case, we used our market chanterelles, some oyster mushrooms we found at an Asian grocery store, and some button mushrooms to round out the dish.

Of course, the usual accompaniment to ragout is pasta, but to me, nothing is better with a thick "sauce" than a crusty piece of bread and a fried egg on top. Noodles, no matter how delicious, cannot compare.

This recipe, with a few minor changes, is from the Joy of Cooking, and it is one of the many reasons I love JOY. I made a double batch because this is so positively delicious.

Mushroom Ragout Toasts


4 servings
Serve over pasta, polenta, rice, garlic-rubbed croutons, or in popovers. For more intense flavor, soak 1/2 ounce dried mushrooms, then chop and add with the fresh mushrooms; use the strained soaking water for part of the liquid.

Heat in a large saucepan over medium heat:
     1 tablespoons olive oil
Add and cook, stirring, until golden, about 6 minutes:
     1 onion, finely chopped
Add and cook until they begin to release their liquid:
     1 pound any fresh mushrooms, coarsely chopped
Add and cook until the mushrooms begin to brown, about 4 minutes:
     3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
     1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
     1 teaspoon fresh thyme
     Salt and pepper to taste

Stir in:
     1 tablespoon tomato paste
Increase the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring, 1 to 2 minutes more. Add:
     1 1/2 cups chicken stock or broth
Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in:
     2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into pieces
Stir in:
     1 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar or sherry
To serve as pictured, toast:
     Thick slices of rustic sourdough bread or hearty country-style bread
Rub the toasted bread with:
     One clove garlic
Spoon the ragout over the bread and top with:
     Fried eggs
     Black pepper

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