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Recompose: A Musical Mushroom Dinner
Photos by Amy Pickup
The first time I heard Annie play the flute, it was a sad and beautiful song about fall on one of the hottest days of the summer, crowded in a sweaty Bushwick loft. I’ve spent most of my life going to concerts with amplified sound and had never heard that kind of flute-playing, with so much emotion and meaning in it. “Swooning” is an old-fashioned word that comes to mind. I was taken out of time, welcomed into an interior part of my friend that had never quite came across through words despite all the conversations we’ve had. The next day I flooded her phone with a waterfall of texts. We could structure a dinner-concert around the themes she’d circled around in that piece, which was about the cycles of loss and growth. We could hold it in the fall. A few weeks later, the perfect culinary symbol made itself obvious: mushrooms.
Meals and concerts have a lot in common, but that’s what can make them difficult to combine. They both have the ability to create space and to stretch and warp time. They can have such strong presence that one can overpower the other, like a cake with too many spices. Anything too on-the-nose, like French music paired with French food, can feel shallow or kitschy. Annie and I had been talking for a long time about creating something together out of music and food, but it only made sense when we decided to let the experience be guided by something more abstract. After that, it all came together fairly quickly. The theme of the meal would be mushrooms, and the theme of the evening would be cycles of decay and regeneration. The event itself would emerge with a few short songs that set a forest-like atmosphere, mushroom out into an expansive dinner party, and then close back in on itself with some quieter more meditative pieces. We talked and planned excessively, while I recipe tested and Annie rehearsed, and eventually, we pulled it off.
Last Saturday, we transformed my friends’ Bushwick studio into our concert-hall-dining-room with long tables set for 30 and candles that glowed with a flush of enoki mushrooms that Annie hand-carved into a stamp. The centerpieces were oyster mushrooms that I’d grown from spent Smallhold bags, which Annie made into sculptures that resembled hedgehogs or funny mushroom-flowers. People arriving were greeted with a chilled, barely-sweet snow fungus & sake cocktail and a scoop of “forest detritus” snack — a mix of cashews, ramen, rice crackers, and crunchy-fried shiitakes all baked together with chili crisp and dried mushroom powder. After a little settling in, Annie’s flute resounded through the room with Sounds of the Forest by Sofia Gubaidulina. “The purpose of this piece…is to create an environment for listening, and to illustrate the idea of space with just sounds. Two instruments can build an entire landscape and place us directly into the forest,” she wrote in our brainstorming doc. She and Markus, a pianist, played three short songs that were playful even when they were a little dark, and welcomed everyone into the space.
After the songs, we introduced ourselves and the project. I described what we would be eating: a deeply savory/earthy/woodsy menu that I intended to be a celebration of mushrooms and a demonstration of their wide culinary range. I know that for some people, it’s the texture of mushrooms that’s off-putting, so throughout the meal I made an effort to pair them with textures they’re not usually associated with. I hurried downstairs, where Jenn (who’d showed up last minute and instantly became the sous chef I hadn’t thought I’d needed) was holding the frying oil at 400°, and started cooking.
The first course was cremini mushroom, black eyed pea, and olive pastelillos (recipe here), which had a nicely salty filling with a fresh kick from parsley and a spicy kick from jalapeño, all wrapped in the crunchy, flaky dough of empanada-like pastries. They were served with a tangy dipping sauce of yogurt and fresh herbs. Next up was a version of this “hippie salad.” The nutritional yeast/mustard/dried mushroom dressing is substantial so I mostly filled it with sturdy cruciferous vegetables – shredded red and napa cabbage, carrot matchsticks — and sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, and furikake croutons for crunch. I topped it with huitlacoche, the inky-black corn fungus popular in Mexico for its earthy flavor.
The main course was pozole rojo, which I’d cooked the day before to let the flavors meld together. I made the adobo from ancho chiles, guajillo chiles, and chile de arbol, which were toasted and then soaked in hot water along with dried shiitake, before being blended into a paste. I filled the stew with about 8 pounds of oyster mushrooms, sautéed so that they had a nice chewy bite, plus some cremini and maitake for an effect that was so meaty that I wouldn’t have trusted it if it were served to me at a restaurant. Extra chewiness came from the blue pozole — nixtamalized corn that keeps its shape even after long cooking. It was garnished (beautifully, by Jenn) with a little shredded cabbage, thinly sliced radish, and crispy beech mushrooms encased in a tempura-like batter. On the side were slices of She Wolf’s nutty polenta pullman and a soft porcini compound butter, with just a tiny bit of maple syrup for sweetness.
The dessert was my favorite part of the dinner: four giant mushroom pavlovas, that looked like a forest exploded on a platter. The meringue itself had a slight mushroomy flavor, which came from just a half teaspoon of mushroom garum — shiitakes fermented with koji — made by my friend Arkadiy. The sweet meringue was topped with a thick layer of mushroom-infused whipped cream — no sweetness there — and then covered all over with black sesame, tart blackberries, caramelized shiitake crumbles, and a drizzle of smoky mushroom caramel sauce. I fell in love with this dessert after conceiving it, but in earlier tests, the whole thing was too sweet. I’d been about to shelve it and go with something simpler, but had brought some leftovers with me when I went to cater Anna Hezel’s wedding with Jenn. Anna had specially requested Fox Family potato chips — because they’re the thickest-cut and most potatoey of all potato chips — and as we sat around the night before sampling them, we’d started scooping up the pavlova like it was a dip. Thus, the final and most important element of the pavlova was added: potato chips. Their saltiness cut the sweetness of the dessert perfectly. It was a weird and delightful dessert, and perfect for a party. When I finally emerged from the kitchen at the end of the dinner, people were chatting over sips of wine and scooping up just a little more meringue and cream with the chips, which is exactly how I hoped they’d be eaten.
As people settled into the comfortable after-dinner scene, Annie and Markus took the stage again for the rest of their performance. The beginning of the set was melancholic and slightly haunting — one song was named for the month of May and the budding of new love, but implied an eventual fall and ending. Another was a set of variations by Schubert that recycled the same melody over and over, sad at first but accelerating in energy and exuberance each time. Before the final song, I tried a little experiment. I’d collected some dirt from a camping trip in the Catskills, and “plated” it in little shot glasses for everyone. I passed them out, warning people not to eat it, and then had the lights turned low and asked everyone to take a deep smell. Even after two weeks, the soil retained the smell of rain, and we let it transport us to the forest. We imagined sinking into the ground where the long threads of mycelium’s hyphae could pierce into thoughts and memories and start to decompose what we considered most solid. There was a moment of silence, and when it was broken by Annie’s flute, it was with a song of specific sadness — referencing the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, it describes the moment when Orpheus is taking her away from Hades, just before he turns to look back at her, which will return her there forever. To Annie, the song is about cathartic loss and regeneration, “trying to return to the beginning knowing that you’re changed.” At the end of a night of celebration, we wanted this also to be something for everyone to take away with them into the deepening fall.
My night ended much later, after a lot of cleaning and reorganizing of the space so that it resembled Dave and Gabe’s office once again. As I drove Anthony and our sleeping baby home and saw the car clock, I realized we’d used up the last-ever daylight savings hour on this event, making it yet another stretching of time. Events are so much work for such brief enjoyment. They can stay with you, though, in a way that art that is more durable often doesn’t. Thank you to everyone who shared the evening with us, and to those who didn’t get to: I’m sure there will be something new.
What I’m Cooking
Friday’s recipe is for everyone, not just paid subscribers, because it was too much fun not to share. There are about five recipes here for the many elements that make up the pavlova; if you don’t want to go to the significant trouble of making this extravagant dessert, you could still play with mushroom whipped cream or mushroom caramel!
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