I have been craving oxtails recently. You may wonder what does “oxtail” have to do with “mushroom” soup. It all comes down to my wife’s, Jan’s, gallbladder—or rather the lack of the same.
My wife is an anthropologist and when we were living in Chengdu (1988-90) she developed gallstones. This resulted in a first-hand, participant observation of Western medicine as practiced in Sichuan at that time. Most people can get along fine without a gallbladder, but 10% have difficulty digesting fats without the extra squirt of gall that having one provides when eating fatty foods.
Oxtails are simply too fatty for Jan to eat—she can have a taste, but a full serving would leave her feeling ill all night. Jan decided that if I was going to make oxtails for me, she wanted mushroom soup. I thought that if I was going to make her main dish a soup it should probably be a really good one.
Looking on-line, I failed to find any mushroom soups that really seemed inspired. Most used one or at most two kinds of mushrooms. I sorted through the other ingredients people added to their soups for ideas. What kinds of vegetables, herbs, thickeners, and dairy products were added to a “mushroom soup?” In the end, I finally decided that I would go to my kitchen and come up with something completely new.
I first addressed the mushroom issue. Oyster mushrooms have a very delicate flavor, but it would be lost if I added too many other ingredients—so they were out. Button and crimini mushrooms are short on “mushroom” flavor, but after they have been sautéed they have the distinctive texture this dish requires. I would use these to “bulk up” the dish.
Shiitake mushrooms have both a good texture and flavor, but they would get a bit pricey to use all by themselves—morels were out on the same count ($25/dried half ounce!) I finally settled on dried porcini and chanterelles. These would add the powerful boost of umami flavor that I wanted in my soup.
Using dried mushrooms comes with a cost. If you simply re-hydrate and chop them up you get tough, chewy pieces of mushroom—not the tender chew of a fresh mushroom. A trick I picked up—from an episode of America’s Test Kitchen—is to powder the dried mushrooms. This actually boosts the mushroom flavor as the bits are evenly dispersed throughout the dish.
Many of the recipes I looked at bulk up the recipe with lots of onions or shallots and frequently a fair amount of garlic. I did not want this soup to be an onion or garlic soup with mushrooms, but mushroom soup with a hint of onion and garlic flavor. One leek and two cloves of garlic would suffice.
Thyme is a common herb for mushroom soups, but I am trying to move away from over using it. I sometimes feel like Marge Simpson: “…four spices? There has to be some repeats in there! O-Rē-Gan-Ō, what is that?” Looking at my spice rack, I decided on summer savory and chervil (French parsley). I would add the heartier savory early on in the cooking and use the chervil as a finishing herb and as a garnish.
Many soups use flour, potatoes, rice, or corn starch to thicken the broth. These are all simple, high glycemic starches—things that as a diabetic I should stay away from. Good choices for me would be either barley or lentils. I choose green lentils, but I did not want to wait for these pulses to cook through and break down to thicken the soup. I put a quarter cup of dry lentils into my spice grinder and voilà—lentil flour to thicken my soup.
As a final addition—and to tie this dish to my Spanish oxtails—I added a splash of Spanish sherry vinegar to add a sharp, high note to the deep melodies of this symphony of flavors. I had originally thought to use only a little butter in my soup. However, as I looked at the dark— not to say “muddy”—appearance of my final product, I could not help but add just a touch of cream. I did not add so much as to make it a cream soup, but it brought all of the flavors into balance.
After Dinner Note: Jan, Miriam, and Chris though this was the best mushroom soup they had ever had. Jan thought it was even better the second day—there was a very small serving left. She also toasted some fresh bread croutons that went very well with this soup.
Karl’s Five Mushroom Soup
8 oz. button mushrooms, sliced
8 oz. crimini mushrooms, sliced
4 oz. shiitake mushrooms, sliced
½ oz. porcini mushrooms, powdered
½ oz. chanterelle mushrooms, powdered
1 leek, sliced finely
¼ tsp. Kosher salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 Tbs. butter, separate uses (leave out for Vegan)
2-3 Tbs. olive oil, separate uses
32 oz. low sodium chicken broth (vegetable broth for Vegan)
1 tsp. summer savory, dried (but fresh would be better)
¼ tsp. black pepper
¼ cup green lentils, powdered
1 Tbs. Spanish sherry vinegar
1+ tsp. chervil, dried (but fresh would be better) separate uses
¼ cup half and half (leave out for Vegan)
1. Wipe and slice the button, crimini, and shiitake mushrooms—keep each pile of mushroom separate and dry.
Tip: Remove and discard the tough stems of the shiitake mushrooms.
Note: If you are the economical sort, save the stems to use in a vegetable stock.
2. Put the dry mushrooms in a spice grinder and process them to a powder.
Tip: Once ground, you may mix these mushroom powders together.
Note: I use a dedicated coffee grinder as a spice grinder. Half an ounce of dried mushrooms filled the cup to capacity.
3. Slice the leek into small bits and reserve.
Note: I wanted my leek to be chopped fairly finely. The usual method would be to slice the leek lengthwise and then slices the halves into quarters. This can get a bit tricky, because as soon as the layers are separated they want to go their separate ways, making cross cutting them evenly a challenge. I discovered a solution to this problem.
Tip: Slice down half the length of the leak, but do not cut it in half. Rotate the leek a quarter turn and slice down again. Half of your leek is now cut into quarters. Slice this end finely—the rest of the leek holds the portion being sliced together making cross cutting evenly a snap. When you have sliced down to the end of your cuts, slice the leek lengthwise to about an inch from the end and continue cross cutting. If you do not trim off the root end while you are cleaning the leek, you can simply discard this last bit.
4. Add a pat of butter and a splash of olive oil to a large sauté pan over medium high heat.
Tip: The butter giver up flavor, while the oil allows you to use a higher heat without burning the butter. Clarified butter would be another solution, as it is the milk solids in the butter that burn.
Note: How much butter and oil you use depends on your diet. I actually used about half of what I am recommending , because of her dietary restrictions.
5. Add the button mushrooms and spread them out into a single layer.
Tip: You want to use a pan large enough that 8 eight ounces of sliced mushrooms are—mostly—in a single layer in contact with the heat of the pan.
Note: You may be tempted to start stir frying the mushrooms as soon as they hit the pan. Do not do this! Button and crimini mushrooms actually have a fair amount of moisture in them. Knocking them about releases the moisture, dries them out, and prevents them from browning. Let them lay for 2-3 minutes before flipping them over—if you are feeling brave you may use a pan flip. Let them cooked undisturbed on the second for 2-3 minutes, before stirring.
6. When the mushrooms are well browned, transfer them to a bowl.
7. Add more butter and oil to the pan and, when the butter has stopped foaming, sauté the crimini mushrooms.
Tip: Transfer the crimini to the same bowl as the button mushrooms.
8. Reduce the heat to medium and add more butter and oil.
9. Sauté the shitake and transfer them to the bowl.
Tip: The shitake are much drier than the other mushrooms. Keep a careful eye on them, as they will go from browned to burnt very quickly.
10. Increase the heat, back to medium high, and add the leeks and salt to the pan.
Tip: There should be enough butter and oil in the pan, but you may add more if you think it necessary.
11. Sauté the leeks until they are just starting to pick up some color, about 3-4 minutes.
12. Pull the leeks to the edges of the pan and add the garlic to the hole in the center.
13. Sauté the garlic until fragrant, about one minute, and then mix it into the leeks.
14. Transfer the vegetables to a soup pot and use some of the broth to rinse out the pan.
15. Transfer the mushrooms to the soup pot and use some of the broth to rinse out the bowl.
16. Stir the rest of the broth, the powdered mushrooms, the summer savory, and the pepper into the soup pot.
17. Simmer the soup for 10 minutes and then stir in the powdered lentils.
Tip: One quarter cup of lentils should be enough to thicken the soup, but add more or less to taste.
18. Continue simmering for 5-10 minutes, until the soup has thickened.
19. Stir in the vinegar and one teaspoon of chervil.
20. Let the soup simmer for two more minutes and then stir in the cream.
Tip: If you are using fresh chervil you may immediately add the cream. This last two minute simmer is to re-hydrate the dried chervil that I was using.
21. Transfer the soup to individual bowls and garnish with chervil.