#303 Puffballs for Breakfast – How to Cook and Identify a Puffball

At around eight thirty after dinner I usually take a walk around the farm Elizabeth and I are currently looking after. Part of the fun is feeding the fallen apples to the cows. Over the past few weeks they seem to have got addicted to them, and pursue us across the fields, their mouths drooling.
It was on this occasion yesterday, as I was attempting to escape the rampant beasts, that I stumbled, quite literally, upon a giant puffball (Calvatia Gigantea) nestled under one of the many apple trees that litter the farmlands.

I had once eaten one at school. Rather bizarrely our physics teacher brought one into class and cooked it on a camping stove during the lesson. Apparently it was part of the laws of thermodynamics module, but I can’t remember the exact context – Everything is created: everything is destroyed (eaten), perhaps…?

Remembering Mr. Mitchell’s culinary introduction to Isaac Newton, I yanked the football-sized mushroom from the ground and carried it home via a trek up High Field, across a small river and down through the apple orchards. When I arrived home, it was still intact.

Despite its resemblance to a brain, it smelt gorgeous. Like a slightly peppered steak.

‘Breakfast tomorrow!’ I exclaimed to Elizabeth enthusiastically.

Her eyes rolled upwards as she recalled the near poisoning incident we had with some misidentified field mushrooms a few years ago. In that instance I picked yellow stainers instead of field mushrooms and needed the bathroom rather quickly after wolfing down a plate of mushroom stroganoff. I was alright in the end, mild gut ache, but I’ve been a little wary of wild mushrooms ever since.

This time though I was sure. Why? Because puffballs are probably the most easily identifiable mushrooms on the planet. They are big and when sliced lengthways they are white and spongy, and have the texture of soft suede leather.

Yes it is true that when they are smaller they can be confused with amanata which are deadly. However when a puffball is sliced open it will be pure white with no internal structures or gills whatsoever – it is literally like slicing through a large ball of mozzarella cheese. Plus when puffballs are this size, it is highly unlikely to be anything else.**

As you can see, it’s lovely white. (If it’s discoloured, don’t eat it as it’s no longer edible.)

Next slice it into cubes like you might do with tofu or pieces of steak or courgette.

Slice 3 cloves of garlic and fry it all up with butter or oil for about 5-10 minutes. Like this:

Et voila, breakfast, with toast of course.

What does it taste like?

It’s clearly a mushroom. But it has a distinct meaty taste, almost like veal. Or even monkfish. It’s hard to describe. It’s certainly not chalky like tofu. Neither is it succulent like fish. It’s a bit slimy – like chicken legs – but it is filling and mildly satisfying.

When I was eating it, I imagined it roasted. Or even made into soup. It’s more of a camping food I guess. Pitching a camp and foraging for a nice puffball, even though it’s availability is limited to late summer/early autumn. Plus they are not that easy to find. While not rare, finding one this big isn’t common.

Best thing is to try it for yourself. It’s out now in a field near you!

Giant Puffball – Calvatia Gigantea

 

(** P.S. I am not an expert. This was my own personal identification using my own knowledge and research. Please do the same if unsure. Thanks.)

#296 – No Need to Knead – A Short Culinary Tale

bread-1643951_640‘Of course you have to knead bread Jeff,’ shouted Sandra. ‘Don’t be stupid all your life.’

I hadn’t been paying much attention to the conversations taking place over the dinner table. Partly because they were all about food and drink, neither of which I wanted to talk about. It was the same every time I came, the same people droning on about en croûte this, au gratin that. Frothing at the mouth as they forced foie gras down their fatty gullets as though it was the only thing worth eating.

Jeff was the only one I liked and I didn’t even know him. But I knew his type. Trying to be invisible in the hope everyone would forget he was there. Forcing a smile now and then to show he was listening, only chipping into the conversation when absolutely necessary.

I knew what he was going through. I felt the same every time my sister Lilly invited me over. In the vain hope that I might hook up with her best friend, Isabel, who by her own admission was on the lookout for a husband.

‘I’m looking for man with money and taste,’ she’d declared halfway through the ensalada de gambas.

I only came along because she was my sister. Loyally supporting her quest for culinary recognition among her foodie friends. Turning up every few months with a crate of champagne and a bag of fresh prawns on the condition I could leave after the dessert.

‘But how about Isabel?’ she would then complain half drunk when I made a dash for the door after the chocolate torte. ‘She likes you so much. Why don’t you stay a bit longer, have a drink, get to know each other?’

I’d then remind her I was in fact gay. Only for her to insist it was just a phase I was going through, which I’d eventually grow out of. I’d then have to reassure her it wasn’t a phase as I was nearly 46, not 16. Then I’d say my goodbyes and walk home wondering what planet my dear little sister lived on these days.

Jeff was Sandra’s new boyfriend. That was all I knew about him. Two months ago at the last dinner party, she’d been with someone else. John, perhaps? Two months before that, another guy. Sammy, maybe? In fact, now I thought about it, she seemed to have a different man every time I saw her, as though her men were on hire from an agency.

Jeff wasn’t the agency type though. For one he looked human. And secondly he looked bored out his mind. Which was probably why he kept looking at the door, wondering how long this nightmare would go on for.

He’d been talking to Greg Peels, a graphic designer from Brighton, when the bread incident took place. Greg had been explaining to Jeff about his new fandangled bread machine he’d bought from California, which used a series of tongs and paddles to fold and knead the bread, so as to create a perfectly crafted artisan loaf.

It was at this point that Jeff made his faux pas. A misplaced sentence that shattered Greg Peels’ smug gadget-infested world into a million pieces. ‘You don’t need to knead bread at all,’ Jeff had calmly said as though asking for the salt.

It was meant to be a joke. But nobody got it. Certainly not Greg Peels, who looked like he’d been stabbed in the stomach with a fork, he looked so deflated. And certainly not Sandra, who’d attempted to defuse the situation by humiliating her boyfriend.

Jeff pretended to laugh it off and went back to his gambas. But I knew Jeff was absolutely livid. Fuming behind his ensalada like a red hot ember, and I was pretty sure he was about to walk out at any minute. Instead he did something else. Something so unexpected, I still think about it to this day.

He stood up and violently clinked his glass with his knife. Everybody stopped talking immediately. Even Sandra, who’d spent most of the evening chewing the ear off a deep sea diver, who luckily for him, was practically deaf after a diving accident.

The room went silent. Even the supermarket jazz on the stereo had gone miraculously quiet. Everybody was wide eyed in anticipation. He’s going to propose was on everybody’s lips. He’s going to pop the question in front of her friends. What a man!

Not a chance in hell, I thought. If Jeff proposes to Sandra, I’ll step in first and marry her myself. I was that confident. This wasn’t going to be a proposal, this was going to be a demolition. Something I’d been waiting for at events like these for years, and now the show was about to start. And I had a front row seat.

‘I’d just like to thank Lilly for inviting us to dinner tonight,’ Jeff began. Everybody smiled. ‘But that’s as far as the gratitude goes.’

A mild titter went round the room.

‘I can’t remember having such an awful evening. I mean really awful.’

A sharp inhalation.

‘Oh, you think I’m joking,’ he continued.

A slight murmur. Somebody let out a snigger.

‘OK, let’s get down to it,’ he said as though starting some incredibly boring seminar. ‘For starters – no pun intended – the food looked good, but tasted like wrapping paper. I mean, where did you buy it from Lilly, I mean really? Homemade food, my arse. Pre-packed from an upmarket delicatessen is my bet. You can tell by the gelatine they put in it to keep it firm. No freshness about it. It tastes OK, but it’s not real. There’s no labour, no intensity behind it. No thought or guile. Produced for presentation purposes only. Like plastic fruit in a window display.’

I looked round the room. Nobody was sure whether Jeff was being real or sarcastic. Or was just incredibly pissed.

But he continued. ‘It’s like your lives. Like Sandra here. She looks good, great presentation, nice tits, hair, makeup and so forth. But is she nice? You heard her. “Don’t be stupid all your life” she said to me. That’s nice, isn’t it? From your girlfriend as well. And I suppose you all thought I was standing up to ask her to marry me. I mean, come on. Seriously?’

This was brilliant I thought. What a guy!

Sandra’s eyes looked as though they were about to fall out of their sockets and roll under the table. ‘I clocked you all the moment I walked in,’ Jeff continued. ‘You think you’re all in control of your lives. The job, the house, the wife, the boyfriend, the car, the phone, the posh food, the nice clothes. When really, you’re just turds floating in a u-bend. And the thing is, you know it. Just like the food. It’s totally tasteless, but you go on eating it because it looks nice and you don’t want to offend anybody. I’m sorry people. Sorry Lilly. But that’s the truth.’

He paused. Everybody was waiting for more I could tell. Perhaps they were enjoying it. Like me. ‘That’s all I’ve got to say,’ Jeff finally said. ‘Now I’ll leave.’ And with that he started heading towards the door.

I felt like applauding, asking for an encore. I’d seen many people lose their temper and say the wrong things. But I’d never seen someone so calmly publicly destroy nine other people in a room before. I couldn’t imagine a dictator or a mafia boss doing something as bold as what Jeff had done. I was immensely proud of him. And I didn’t even know him.

Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. So I quickly followed Jeff out onto the street and left the rest to ponder the wreckage of their lives.

‘Wow,’ I said to him once we were outside the front door. ‘That was some performance. I’m Lilly’s brother by the way, I don’t think we were properly introduced,’ I said shaking his hand.

‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said. ‘I’m Jeff, Sandra’s boyfriend.’

‘I gathered that,’ I replied.

Then he corrected himself. ‘Was.’

‘I suspect so.’

‘I didn’t mean to be rude. You’re Lilly’s brother. I’m sorry. But it just came out. I’m not sure what happened. I just couldn’t stand it any longer.’

I burst out laughing. ‘Don’t worry Jeff. You were brilliant, best thing I’ve seen in years. Should have recorded it, would have been priceless. A modern day antique. Worth millions.’

He smiled, but he didn’t look particularly happy. 

‘Jeff, you said it how it is. She’s my sister I know, and she’s a bit fucked up with all the cooking and foodie thing.  You told the truth and you can’t hate yourself for telling the truth.’

‘I suppose,’ he accepted. ‘Thank your sister for inviting me anyway. For what it’s worth.’

‘She’ll be OK, it might knock a bit of sense into her. You meant it though, didn’t you? What you said.’

He nodded. ‘Yeh, all of it. I fucking hate prawn cocktail.’

I laughed. ‘Me too.’

‘But I mean the bread,’ I continued. ‘That you don’t need to knead it.’

‘Oh yeah. Everybody thinks you have to knead it. But you don’t. Just mix it in a bowl and leave it. For a day, or even two, the longer the better. It’s called patience. People don’t have it these days. Especially when it comes to cooking.’

‘You’re a chef aren’t you?’ I enthused. ‘You must be.’

He looked at me funnily. His head tilted to one side. For a minute I wasn’t sure whether he was looking at me or at something behind me.

‘You OK?’ I asked.

‘Yeh,’ he said. ‘I’m fine.’

‘Sorry to pry, it’s not my business.’

Jeff shrugged. ‘It’s OK. Just one thing though. Do I look like a chef?’

I wasn’t sure what to say. What does a chef look like. Some are fat. Some are thin. Jeff wasn’t really either. He had a slight paunch, but so did I.

‘No. You don’t,’ I replied.

‘Good,’ he said. ‘Fucking hate chefs.’ And with that he walked off up the street and I never saw him again.

 

Copyright Philip Ogley 2019

 

Audio Version:

213 – Fish Pie and the Art of Writing

If I was asked what meal I’d eat before I died, I’d choose fish pie. I’d even offer to cook it, I like it that much.

I see making it as like writing a story or a book. Four or five strong characters – the fish. The peas as the bad guys. The béchamel sauce, the plot. The potato topping, the location. The grated parmesan and gruyere cheese (my personal choice), the twist. Baked in the oven for thirty minutes, it’s got the makings of a classic.

One of the reasons I like cooking this dish is the almost infinite combinations of fish you can use. Anything that lives in the sea is fair game in my book. So many strong contenders and characters.

And when you throw in all the differing variations of sauce, mashed potato and cheese, there’s literally a million ways your fish pie (or book) can end up. In fact, it’s safe to say that no two fish pies are the same. Just like a story.

The one I cooked last night wasn’t my best, I admit. Mainly because I was concentrating on filming it rather than thinking about my culinary journey.

Having all the ingredients on the table (good characters, strong plot, perfect setting, quirky twist) doesn’t necessarily make a great meal or a book. You need the passion. Your full attention. If you’re doing it half arsed then you’re going to bake a watery fishpie full of tasteless peas, tepid mashed potato, a bland filling, and a spongy topping with no twist in it whatsoever.

Writing is like fish pie. You can’t just throw it together and hope for the best. There’s no fluke in writing or cooking. If there was, everybody would be doing it. Not that anybody can’t. Far from it. It’s the easiest thing in the world. Even I can do it…

(The video below features strong fish.)