A Wild Winter Christmas Recipe with Kieran Jefferson
Season’s greetings. Christmas is nearly here, the geese are indeed quite portly, and I swear I saw a partridge in that pear tree today. In celebration of these slightly odd events I’ve put together a delicious three course festive lunch (or dinner), which is luxurious enough to serve to even the most judgemental distant relative you might have coming round. Today’s recipe is the starter – wild oyster mushroom and chestnut soup with bacon and mushroom crumb.
Firstly some reassurance – you can find wild oyster mushrooms at this time of year, and wild chestnuts a bit earlier, but I am mindful that not everyone has the time to get out there and thrash around in the undergrowth searching for them. So although I have included some tips on the foraged elements here, the recipe can be made entirely with ingredients you’ll find in most greengrocers or supermarkets.
The oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) can be found almost year-round, save for the deepest depths of winter, and is very common. It grows on deciduous trees, preferring beech, and is so distinctive that there is very little risk in mixing it up with something else (do still be careful and sure, and use a good guide or three, though!). Older specimens tend to be a bit of a playground for maggots, so check before you pick, leaving any that exceed your personal creepy-crawly threshold. These mushrooms do look somewhat like oysters, as the name implies, and have a pleasant, nutty taste and firm, slightly slippery texture. They are ideal for stir-fries, dry well, and work nicely in stews or casseroles, as they hold their shape even with prolonged cooking.
The wild, or sweet, chestnut tree (Castanea sativa) is not a native British tree, but was introduced here by those great importers, the Romans. It is now fairly common in woodland, and can grow to impressive heights. The nuts themselves, however, seldom live up to the promise of the great tree from whence they drop. Usually mid-to-late-October is the best time for wild chestnuts, but regardless of timing they are often tiny, malformed things with little actual flesh. ‘Then why are you telling us all this?’ I hear you cry. Well, sometimes you do come across a good crop, more often later in the season when the seed has had time to fully develop, and they’re really tasty, and also I wanted to tell you. Be careful, they’re very spiny, and I find that the best method is to scrape them into a pile with your foot and then enthusiastically jump up and down on them (ignore the passers-by). Search through the wreckage for your (hopefully now) less spiny quarry.
N.B. To make this recipe from wild chestnuts, you will have had to forage them two months ago. Unless you are Doc Brown, Doctor Who, or Dr. Zhivago (maybe not the last one), or actually did pick some and save some for such an emergency as this, please feel free to buy some chestnuts from the shop. Even the pre-cooked ones (I will not judge you).
Editor’s note – I adore cooking with chestnuts and I always keep a few packets of Merchant Gourmet peeled chestnuts in my store cupboard to make a vibrant, delicious,watercress and chestnut soup in about 20 minutes for lunch. Of course, I would love to pick my own. Something to look forward to next year, for the EH coffee table book).
(Wild) Oyster Mushroom and (Wild) Chestnut Soup with Mushroom and Bacon Crumb
This soup is a really velvety, savoury-sweet starter, with a lovely saltiness from the mushroom and bacon crumb. It takes a little while to prepare, but the extra roasting of some of the ingredients really does add to the depth of flavour.
1 white onion
1 large carrot
½ a leek
1 stick of celery
450g oyster mushrooms (wild or not)
500g maris piper potatoes
280g chestnut flesh (wild or not)
100ml organic double cream
750ml free-range or organic chicken stock
1 sprig of rosemary
2 bay leaves
4 leaves of sage
½ a bunch of curly parsley
8 rashers of free-range or organic smoked streaky bacon
100ml dry white wine (drink the rest of the glass whilst cooking)
Salt and pepper
Truffle oil (optional, but in my estimation, a real boon)
Peel and roughly chop the potatoes, place in a roasting tray with a couple of glugs of olive oil and the rosemary. Sprinkle over a pinch of salt and grind of pepper and place in a preheated oven at 180C for around 25 – 30 minutes, until starting to colour.
At the same time, in the same oven (unless you have multiple ovens, in which case I’m jealous and will be coming for dinner soon), place the bacon and 10 good sized oyster mushrooms on a lined baking tray. Keep an eye on them, you are looking to dry them out and make them crispy, without burning, which will depend on the size and fat/water content. Probably around 15 minutes.
Delicious is the way to go!
When the potatoes, bacon and mushrooms are ready, remove from the oven and transfer to a plate with some kitchen roll, to absorb any excess fat. Do pick at the roast potatoes, it’s obligatory. Meanwhile, peel and roughly chop the onion and carrot, and rinse and roughly
chop the leek and celery. Pre-heat a non-stick pan, add a good knob of butter (you’ll need more than you think) and, when it’s starting to fizz, add the vegetables. The more you allow these to colour, the deeper the flavour will be, but the darker (thus a little greyer) the colour of your soup will be, so weigh up your preferences and find a happy medium (I tend to err on the side of delicious).
Wipe and roughly chop your mushrooms, and add to the pan. Let them soften a little, and then add the wine. Allow to reduce by about a third, then pour in the hot stock, the cream, and add the sage. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for around 20 minutes.
How to prepare chestnuts or cheat!
Now to the chestnuts. If you have wild chestnuts, or have bought whole chestnuts, the easiest way to deal with them (as we don’t need them intact) is to rinse them, make a small slit in the side and roast in a hot oven for 25 – 30 minutes. Remove them from the oven, allow to cool a little, though not too much, as they are easier to deal with when warm, then split in half with a knife and scoop the flesh into a bowl using a teaspoon (being careful to avoid any bits of shell or the brown membrane that surrounds the flesh). If you have bought pre-cooked chestnuts, then well done, you may skip this section. Oh, too late.
Add 200g of the chestnut flesh to the soup, blend until very smooth, and set aside.
Bacon is the tasty piece de resistance
Now take 4 of the crisped rashers of bacon and the 6 of the dried mushrooms (save the rest), and blitz to a breadcrumb consistency in a food processer. You may find it is still a little wet, in which case return the crumb to the oven on a low heat until sufficiently dry and crumbly. Set aside.
To serve, warm the soup and check the seasoning (use a smidge of the bacon crumb when tasting, as this acts like a seasoning). Chop the remaining chestnut flesh and place into warmed soup bowls. Ladle in the soup, sprinkle on the bacon and mushroom crumb (to taste, which for me means all of it), and finish with the parsley, finely chopped, a crisp rasher of bacon and a dried mushroom. As a final flourish, I like to use a drop (and just a drop) of truffle oil on each bowl.
Hey, it’s Christmas, and this is Ethical Hedonist, after all. (We couldn’t agree more – ed – I can’t wait to make this soup for friends and family).
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