Folklore says that stepping inside a fairy ring, a ring of wild mushrooms, leaves one in thrall to the illusions of the the fairies who built it. Now I might not be superstitious, and I certainly don’t think that the fantastic flavour of this dish is just an illusion, but if garnishing my plate with a ring of wild mushrooms might give me a helping hand from the supernatural, I’m not about to pass up the chance.
This is a dish that, appropriately enough, has mushroomed into my life – coming out of nowhere and rapidly expanding in size and scope until I ended up cooking it for thirty two people on Thursday, in two separate gigs. In this great but slightly busy past week that I’ve had, I’ve cooked and tweaked this fricassee at least eight times, so I reckon I’ve got it down.
“Fricassee” isn’t the most familiar of culinary terms, but it’s an elemental preparation in classic French cuisine. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child describes it as midway between a sauté and a stew. A stew starts with liquid from the beginning, a sauté cooks “dry” – with fat or oil only. A fricassee starts off pan frying in the same way as a sauté, but then adds a liquid to continue cooking as a stew does.
As I mentioned in my previous post, leeks are in season right now, and this is probably my favourite way to prepare them. Leeks can be a stringy mass if underdone, or a sulky mush if they’re overcooked, but fricasseeing allows for a lot of control and a wide margin for error.
Because it’s creamy, delicate and saucy (yet substantial), when I’m not just eating it on its own I like to pair leek fricassee with white meats and white wines. It goes exceptionally well with slow roast pork belly, and at my pop-up we served it with a stuffed chicken ballotine. It also makes an exquisite pasta sauce, especially if you add a fried handful of lardons and use the rendered bacon fat to sauté the mushrooms.
Leek and Wild Mushroom Fricassee
For the mushroom stock
Makes about 120g mushroom stock and 50g rehydrated mushrooms
20g dried mushrooms
150g (150ml) boiling water
Pour boiling water over mushrooms, cover with a lid and leave for 30 minutes.
For the fricassee
500g (approx 2 medium sized) leeks
120g (120ml) Mushroom stock (see above)
50g rehydrated mushrooms (see above)
50g wild or exotic mushrooms
100g (100ml) Crème fraîche
Juice of half a lemon
Parmesan, to taste
Peel or trim off any tough or brown parts of the leeks. Separate white and green parts of the leek and finely slice both in rounds. Clean leeks thoroughly.
In a pan with plenty of butter and oil, sauté the white parts of the leeks over a medium heat until they are just tender. Add mushroom stock, rehydrated dried mushrooms and crème fraîche. Simmer until the sauce thickens a little.
Blanch the green parts of the leeks in a large pan of salted water. Take them out once they are tender and before they start to dull in colour (about 2 minutes) – they should be a vivid green. Plunge into a large bowl of iced water to halt the cooking, and leave until they’re completely cold. Drain well.
Slice the wild mushrooms and sauté briefly over a high heat in sunflower oil and a small knob of butter.
Fold the green parts of the leeks through the fricasseed white parts. Taste, and season with salt and/or lemon juice as required. Garnish with wild mushrooms and a little freshly grated parmesan to serve.
Tips for Geeks
I use wild mushrooms for this recipe because they’re seasonal, they look really pretty, and they sound better on the menu. If you wanted to substitute (or supplement) with chestnut mushrooms, go ahead.
In culinary terms, the term “dry” (when properly used) specifically means without water. Sautéing is described as “dry” because there is no water in the oil. Melted chocolate is “dry” in this sense. Liquid nitrogen would be dry. This can seem counter-intuitive when you’re still dealing with liquids, but thinking this way has its uses. For instance, something containing water cannot* be above 100C in temperature – the water has to boil off before it can rise above that point. So, if you were searing a steak, it’s important that the surface of the meat is dry (free of water or water-based liquids) so that you can heat the steak up enough to brown it. But it doesn’t matter if the steak is marinaded in oil, for instance.
*there are some important exceptions to this
Mushroom stock is quite good as a vegetarian alternative to chicken stock. The main disadvantages are that it doesn’t have the gelatinous quality of chicken stock, and it’s colour and flavour can sometimes overwhelm the dish. In this recipe, it’s great, because I already have mushrooms in the dish so I can build up their flavours with the stock. It also gives me a use for the rehydrated mushrooms that are a by-product.
Dried mushrooms are usually available at any medium sized supermarket. I usually use porchini (though I think there are some shiitake in that picture).
Leeks are cultivated using a method called “hilling”. This involves piling earth up around the base of the plant. This makes them grow longer and keeps the pale parts pale. It also means that washing is crucial for leeks. The easiest way for this recipe is: after slicing leeks into rounds, put them in a bowl and fill with cold water (or two bowls for this recipe – one for green parts and one for pale). Toss the leeks thoroughly. Drain them into a colander, and wash again briefly with running water.
For how to clean whole leeks, try this page from Simply Recipes
I keep reading advice on leeks that suggests the green portion is tough and should be discarded. This… is just wrong. Factually and morally. (Even the normally excellent David Lebovitz is at it.)
So lets get things straight: The outer layers, green and pale, of leeks can be tough in the same way as the first layer of the onion below the paper skin. These should be peeled off (and saved for stock, not thrown away). Occasionally, the ends of leeks can be broken, brown or a little leathery, so trim those. But the rest of the green parts are delicious and attractive to look at. Sauté in butter, or blanch as in this recipe.
There are two reasons to separate the green and white parts of the leeks. Firstly, the green and white parts cook differently and have a different flavour from each other. The second reason is presentation. The mushroom stock is quite a dark, and the leeks will lose their green colour in the fricassee and go an unappealing grey-brown. Cooked separately, the green parts can be folded through at the end of the cooking – they look beautiful and bright and they add a fresh flavour to balance the cream and the umami of the mushroom stock.
When I tested this recipe, 500g of leeks separated out to about 300g pale parts and 200g green parts.
You can use any flavourful liquid to make a fricassee. Top picks: chicken stock (I have no greater love), cream, a mix of sherry and white wine, vegetable stock or some combination of the above. If you make a substitution in this recipe, bear in mind that you won’t have the rehydrated mushrooms, so you might want to add an equal weight of sautéed fresh mushrooms to compensate.
Fricasseeing is a great technique for vegetables that release a lot of liquid as they cook (like leeks, celery, courgettes). If you were just to sauté them, you’d want to do them in small batches, so that boiling off the released liquid doesn’t suck all the heat out of the frying pan. With a fricassee this is not nearly as crucial – the liquid they release can form part of the sauce.
Slice the mushrooms with an eye to presentation. Wild mushrooms are expensive and they look sexy, so rather than mixing them with the leeks I arrange them on top at the end. It’s a little more work, but their visual impact is lost if they’re hidden among the leeks and covered in the sauce. It also makes it look like you’ve put loads of something expensive on the plate, and that never hurts.
They don’t need a lot of cooking – a 30 second sauté is plenty.
Blanching is said to “fix” the colour of green vegetables – it leaves them bright and vivid green. There are a few critical points for this technique. Firstly, it’s important to use a large pan of water. About 1 litre per 100g of veg. This is because when you add vegetables to the water, you’re lowering the temperature of the whole pot just like if you poured a cup of cold water in. If you’ve got plenty of water, the temperature won’t drop by as much and the pot will quickly come back to the boil. If you have a lot of vegetables to blanch, work in batches.
The reason it’s so important that the water is boiling and not merely hot is that when water is boiling, it’s turbulent. This makes things cook faster (just like a fan oven). The faster the vegetables cook, the greener they’ll look.
When salting water for blanching, be generous with the salt. It’s not a matter of a pinch – the water should taste like the sea.
The only way to tell if a blanched vegetable is done is to taste it. For the green parts of the leeks, you’re looking for them to still have some bite to them, but to have lost the squeak.
Finally, plunging vegetables into ice water at the end of the blanching process ensures that they do not continue to cook in their own residual heat. As with the boiling water, a larger quantity of ice water is better, and stirring will cool everything down faster.