Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Even Food Girls Get the Blues

It's been a little rainy in Barcelona and, from time to time, drizzle makes a girl a little melan-choly, thinking of lost loves and such. The melancholy, very quickly, turns to thoughts of food. Comfort food to be exact. Food from home, the ultimate source of comfort and a cure for most things that ail a melancholy girl, at least for a moment.

While home for me is Canada, Canada is not my food home. My food home is Poland. My Polish grandmother made perogies that would make you think you had died and gone to heaven sealed in the perfect Polish dumpling. My mother, as her mother before her, rolls cabbage in the most supple and succulent ways. And for dessert, and sometimes breakfast, I still dream of nalesniki, crepes stuffed with home-made yogurt cheese flavoured with vanilla and studded with plump raisins.

If I were to create a hierarchy of Polish foods, mushrooms would be right up there--the viceroys of Polish cuisine (serving King Potato and Queen Cabbage, with the greatest dignity): mushroom stuffing, mushroom sauce, mushroom pickle to accompany almost any variety of food, mushrooms.

Mushrooms at their best are self-sourced. That is, to get the best mushrooms, you really have to pick them yourself. Until last month, when I was visiting relatives in Poland, I hadn't been mushroom picking for at least 15 years. My uncle, an expert mushroom gatherer, took me out with him, liability though I was to his efficient progress through the forest.

Chanterelles, or "kurki" (little hens) as they're called in Poland, were most plentiful. In the forest, the chanterelles peek out at you from underneath thick layers of moss or needles, a coy game of hide and seek. Their circular growth patterns make them more predictable and easier to find than other species. As it happened, even though the forest had been picked over by earlier risers, we were awash in chanterelles (our bucket pictured above).

My aunt had washed her hands of the whole business so, when we returned, my uncle did all the dirty work. He cleaned the mushrooms and pickled them himself. I tasted a few before I returned to Barcelona, but luggage weight restrictions prevented me from bringing a jar back.

To my delight, a week or two ago, chanterelles started to appear in my local food market. Nice ones, at that. In my lowest moment, I bought a half pound. I wasn't about to stuff perogies with them or make cabbage rolls. Even a simple sauce was beyond me. None of these would have been suitable for the hot and humid Barcelona days, in any event.

So, I made a salad. I sauteed the chanterelles in olive oil over a high flame; added papery slices of garlic, one clove to be exact; and seasoned with coarsely ground salt and pepper. Then I tossed the mushrooms on top of arugula, seasoned with balsamic and a tiny bit of olive oil, topped with thin broad shavings of manchego and said a little prayer. It was enough to bring comfort back for the night.

Now, who am I to say that more comfort could not have been gained from tossing the chanterelles with some fresh pasta and olive oil or perhaps overtop of some potato pancakes. These are personal choices, eschewed by those who are still contending with bathing suit season.

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