There is one thing I know I can rely on each year that will assuredly manage to lift my spirits in wet weather: mushroom hunting season! In France, where I live, cool rains bring out masses of unlikely amateurs, young and old alike, who trudge deep into the forest in search of not-always-so-buried treasures. Even the grumpy old police captain who hangs around my favourite local brasserie turned up the other week sporting an ear-to-ear grin as he presented multiple wicker baskets filled to the brim with cèpes he had snagged earlier that morning. My polite inquiry as to where he had been out picking, quickly saw the wide smile vanish from his lips as he craftily went about changing the subject.
Here, this popular autumn pastime isn't limited only to professionals: Village pharmacists are required by law to be capable of identifying mushroom varieties, which sure makes it a heck of a lot easier to feel confident cooking up what you forage. Still, it is incredibly important that you learn how to properly identify mushrooms before you head out in search of dinner. If you're a first-timer, make sure to go with someone who is experienced and only eat fungi you are able to identify 100 per cent positively. An even easier option, for those not up to the task, is to head to your local market to buy them directly from an experienced forager who has done all the learning (and work) for you.
My version of the traditional French recipe for oeufs cocotte is the perfect vehicle for any wild mushrooms you are able to get your hands on. Not to be mistaken for shirred eggs, these babies are individually cooked in a bain marie while swimming in rich and delicious nutmeg scented cream baths. Make sure to serve alongside copious amounts of freshly toast crusty bread for dipping. This recipe can easily be evolved to suit just about anything savoury you happen to have on hand, but of course, I prefer wild mushrooms. After all, it is the season!
1 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
2 cups loosely packed fresh italian parsley leaves
1 tbsp coarse grey sea salt
2 cloves garlic
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon, zested
3 cups cleaned and loosely packed chanterelles (roughly 25-30 whole mushrooms of varying sizes). A mix of cepes, oyster mushrooms, or other wild mushrooms of choice can substituted
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp butter
Freshly cracked black pepper
1 cup whipping cream
½ nutmeg, freshly grated
2 bay leaves
4 medium-sized eggs
4 heaping Tbsp Comté cheese, grated
1 cup cooked wheat berries, wild rice, quinoa or other grain of choice
4 ceramic ramekins, or heatproof glass cups
To make the pistou, bring a small pot of water to a boil. Drop in the mint, basil and parsley leaves and give a good stir. Immediately strain and transfer the blanched leaves to a small bowl of ice water. Allow to cool.
In a food processor, process the salt, garlic and olive oil.
Strain the herbs from the ice bath and gently squeeze to remove any excess water. Add the herbs to the food processor and process until combined and relatively smooth, although careful not to over blend. Taste and adjust salt or olive oil as necessary.
Next, start to clean the mushrooms by using a paring knife to trim away any ugly bits around the edges (optional: gently run the blade edge along the stem trimming the outermost layer as you work around it, barely scratching off each stem’s surface). Trim each of the stems by a few millimeters. Tear each chanterelle in half (or in threes depending on the size). Check the stems for bugs and clean by trimming if necessary.
Heat a nonstick skillet over high heat. Working in batches, add half the olive oil and cook half the mushrooms until they start to brown (about five minutes). Add 1 tbsp of butter and allow to melt and brown around the mushrooms. Remove cooked mushrooms from the pan and season with black pepper. Proceed by cooking the second batch of mushrooms using the same pan. Set aside.
Heat cream to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat, remove bay leaves and set aside until ready to assemble.
Bring a large shallow pot of water to a simmer. The amount of water used will depend on the size of the ramekins you are using. For a bain marie, the water should rise up just under the edge each ramekin. I tend to err towards not overfilling the pot because if necessary, you can always add more hot water to make up the difference.
Prepare the oeufs cocotte by dividing the wheat berries evenly between each ramekin. Layer with grated Comté, followed by the mushrooms, again, dividing each evenly amongst the dishes. Add a generous spoonful of pistou to each ramekin and then spoon the cream evenly across each dish. Gently crack an egg into each ramekin.
Carefully lower the ramekins into the bain marie. Adjust hot water as necessary. Cook at a slow simmer for 10-15 minutes. Egg whites should be set, while the yolks should still be runny. Carefully remove each ramekin from the bain marie and serve immediately – the eggs will become overcooked if left to sit for too long.
Serve with toasted bread for dipping, as well as extra pesto for those who simply just can’t get enough herby, garlicky goodness.