I prefer to think that the current upswing in home cooking is due to a longing for more personal experiences, not just to the recession and the high price of eating in restaurants.
Whatever the reason, one thing is certain. As we return to our kitchens, our expectations are much greater than before. Creative restaurant cooking, greater access to travel and hungry news media have raised our food sophistication to unprecedented heights.
Consider the exotic foodstuffs that have become commonplace: Cilantro, all manner of fresh herbs, caviars, smoked salmon, a wide range of cooking oils, fresh fish from throughout the world, wild mushrooms and innumerable imported cheeses, to name just a few. In a sense, it's a whole new culinary world.
Although many of these ingredients are expensive, a small amount used judiciously can make a big difference in a dish. In the recipes that follow, just a little bit of imported prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, walnut oil or shiitake mushroom adds enormous sophistication.
The sauteed peas with prosciutto is an Italian classic. A sprinkling of imported Parmesan cheese caps off the dish. The woodland mushroom sauce is a mix of just the right amount of expensive shiitake mushrooms and the less-expensive cultivated button mushrooms, creating an elegant topping for wild rice, pasta, toast points or even biscuits. A warm salad of tender green beans, fennel and walnuts is enriched by the addition of a very small amount of walnut oil to the vinaigrette.
In each recipe, less is more.
Nothing could be simpler than this mix of wild and cultivated mushrooms, a luxurious and delicious topping for wild or white rice, polenta, pasta, toast points or biscuits. Serve these combinations as first courses, lunches or light suppers. Try it too as a topping on baked potatoes.
Whether shiitake or cultivated, buy firm mushrooms with tight gills, avoiding any with broken edges or shriveled surfaces. Use as quickly as possible after purchase; store them in the refrigerator up to three days, wrapped in a paper bag, not plastic. The trick is to preserve their respective textures in the skillet; cook until very hot but not to the point that they lose their moisture and become limp.
2 tablespoons light-tasting olive oil
2 large shallots, about 1 1/4 ounces, minced
2 large cloves garlic, minced
3 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps cut in half
1/2 pound cultivated mushrooms, trimmed, cut in 1/4-inch slices
1/4 cup dry red wine
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt, rounded
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large green onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Heat olive oil in 10-inch non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add shallots and garlic. Cook until heated through, about 1 minute. Do not allow to burn.
Add mushrooms and cook over high heat until very hot but not losing any of their moisture, about 4 minutes. Add wine, sugar, salt and season to taste with pepper. Bring to boil, about 1 minute. Can be prepared several hours ahead to this point and kept at room temperature. Gently reheat. When hot, add green onions. Stir in butter until melted. Adjust seasonings. Makes 3 servings.
Walnut oil gives this warm salad a deliciously mysterious edge. Although walnut oil is expensive (often less expensive than many extra-virgin olive oils but its use is somewhat more limited), it makes a significant taste difference in many savory salads, cooked vegetables such as beets, mushrooms, potatoes and celery, and in baked goods such as breads, biscuits and savory muffins.
Be sure to buy the full-bodied walnut oil available in many supermarkets and gourmet shops (the walnut oil in health-food stores tends to be mild).
Since the oil is extracted from walnuts, it tends to become rancid quickly. I refrigerate a small amount and freeze the rest up to a year in small, convenient-size jars. Another practical idea is to share the purchase with a friend.
\f7 WARM GREEN BEAN
SALAD WITH WALNUT
1 pound slender green beans, trimmed
1 medium fennel bulb, top trimmed, bulb cut into fine julienne strips
1/2 cup walnut pieces
2 1/2 tablespoons walnut oil
1 1/2 tablespoons safflower oil
1/2 cup minced onion
1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 cups mixed field greens (radicchio, arugula, baby lettuce)
Bring 3 quarts salted water to boil in large pot. Add green beans. Cook, uncovered, until almost tender but with some texture. Add fennel. Immediately drain vegetables in colander. Place under cold running water to preserve color of beans and texture of both. Wrap in paper towels.
Spread single layer of nuts on baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees until fragrant, about 8 minutes. Do not let burn.