It's a basic fact of cooking: the better your ingredients, the more they will shine when you keep it simple. I remember many years ago a good friend introduced me to the joys of fresh cèpes mushrooms, simply sautéed in sweet butter. I would have been tempted to add garlic, salt, herbs. But he was right: in their beautiful buttery sauce any other flavor was superfluous. It's the height of the cèpes season and I'm in heaven.
I bought a half a kilo of the sweet fungi last Saturday at the market. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with them, but when you see lovely mushrooms in season you don't need to have a plan. The next day, I came up with my first idea: gently sautéed in butter, they would form the heart of a lovely omelette. We had friends over for brunch and so it was a good opportunity to share something elegant with them. (The Critic, with his anti-fungal anti-egg stance was never going to appreciate the omelette with me.)
When the brunch was over, with only the ladies partaking of the cèpes omelette, I still had a good 250 grams left over, some of it cooked and some still unprepared. And so I thought of the bowl of jellied duck consommé in the refrigerator. What? You do not regularly have a bowl of jellied duck consommé in your fridge? Neither do I, really. But a few days before I had seen a tray of duck legs at the unbelievable price of 2.91 euros. And, knowing that the Critic would be away at an official dinner last night, I decided to buy them. I like duck well enought, but what I really like is duck soup. Yes, that's right: I buy duck only in order to get the resulting soup. It's that good.
So I brought home my duck legs and I sprinkled them with thyme and rosemary and Hungarian paprika (the hot kind). And I roasted them in a hot oven for half an hour or so. When they smelled delicious I took them out and sampled them. They were delicious. I highly recommend the paprika touch, which made them just a tiny bit spicy and infinitely more interesting.
And in due course, I stripped the remaining legs of their meat (you didn't think I ate all six in a sitting, did you?) and threw the bones in a pot with water. Now if you want really good stock, the secret is to reduce it and don't over-estimate the amount that your bones can yield. Or at least that's my theory. I ended up with about three cups of gorgeous dark brown stock. After cooling overnight in the fridge, it had jellied to a wonderful jiggling dark brown stock with a think layer of fat on the top.
Mushrooms and duck stock go extraordinarily well together. As I've mentioned before, the best soup my Austrian grandmother made was a cream of mushroom one with duck base. But she didn't have cèpes. Or maybe she did back in Austria and mourned the lack of them in the big bright United States. It's unfortunately too late to ask her. But I think she would have approved of my soup. I heated the broth and added the sautéed mushrooms. I cleaned and shredded the remaining bits of mushroom and added them. I added one tiny clove of garlic. I cooked until the mushrooms were all tender and then whizzed it with a stick blender. I added a couple of large spoonfuls of crème fraîche and a bit of salt and freshly-ground pepper. And that was it. A perfect soup. You could just taste the spices from the roast duck legs coming through the cream. The slight tang of the crème fraîche offset the buttery mushrooms and the deep duck flavour. It was a delight.
Sometimes I am criticized because my recipes seem complicated. And this one is complicated in the telling. But in fact it was very simple. It's not that I am a great one for planning my meals days in advance. It's just that I have an automatic reflex. Roasted bones=soup fodder. Any time they appear in my kitchen they are immediately put in a pot with some water. If I think of a use for the stock in the two to three days that follow, all the better. If not, it goes in the freezer so that the next time I have a hankering for soup the base is ready at hand.
And so if you presuppose the duck consommé in the fridge, you have dinner in 20-25 minutes. The time to sauté the mushrooms (if necessary), heat the broth, add the mushrooms and cook for 10 minutes. Whizz with the stick blender, season and add crème fraîche. And serve.
If you are really lucky your spouse won't like mushrooms and you'll have the whole thing to yourself!
Note: for those unused to my franglais, cèpes are more commonly known in the US and the UK by their Italian name: porcini. They are also called boletus mushrooms.