Friends are coming for drinks tonight. My philologer friend from New Hampshire and her partner, an astrophysicist, born in Florence to a family of gem merchants. At Draeger's I buy a Côtes du Rhone "from the mountains," with the name of a female saint (though tempted by one that is said to taste like plum pudding); a soft French cheese called d'Affinois, so ripe it's bellying gently from the confines of its white rind; a loaf of Grace Bakery's Pugliese bread; and a bit of goat cheese—to eat with the roasted red peppers I walk a couple of blocks down Main Street to buy at A.G. Ferrari's, along with mixed olives flavored with orange rind, and grilled polenta squares with the stripes of the grill across them. And from DeMartini's Orchard, approached by u-turn across busy San Antonio Road, a pound of little white mushrooms, weighed in the scale, the smallest and firmest I can pick out, for Mushrooms à la Grecque.
I make the marinade first: bring what seems like too small an amount of water to a boil in my big kettle, then drop into it fennel seed, coriander seed, a bay leaf—two, dried thyme, and ten peppercorns, to simmer for twenty minutes. After the herbs have been reduced to their quintessence, fragrant and flavorful, I'll add olive oil and lemon juice, squeezed from bright rough yellow lemons. I can't wait to taste the delicate lemony flavor of these mushrooms again. They were so delicious, when I made them in the summer. But they'll have to marinate for hours first.
While the liquid comes to a boil, I wash the little mushrooms in cold water in the collander, rubbing the smooth globed surfaces one by one with my thumb and two fingers, though they always say you're not supposed to wash mushrooms, but are instead to use a brush to coax the dirt off, or wipe them with a cloth, like sterling silver. I figure nobody will ever know. But to make up for my gaucheness I do swaddle them in a clean blue and white dish towel when they're clean, to dry.
The steam is pungent rising from the kettle. I have a hard time maintaining the simmer. My tiny midwestern stove with its unsophisticated—and awfully dirty— burners is getting more and more cantankerous, impatient of my demands. (Clafoutis, with apricot puree; Keshi Yena, a Dutch meat and vegetable concoction from Curaçao, with a gouda crust; oregano-scented posole; lamb fricassee with wild greens and avgolemono; regional stews from Thessaly; oyster soup with vermouth from some monastery kitchen under the Rule of Saint Benedict.) So it rebels. The liquid either sits, not even roiling, or bubbles furiously, away. I adjust the knob several times—from 2 to 5 to high back down to 3. We compromise at 5 finally. It's so annoying. I'm going to have to see if I can find another stove that fits the space, maybe one made for a boat.
But the very idea of these mushrooms makes me happy. The first time I made them was for my birthday, in June, when I threw myself a picnic one lingering evening and we sat out under the trees in the Rodin sculpture garden with the small children and Black Lab playing among the fallen caryatids, and when it got dark we lit candles in oyster shells and (unwisely) opened a bottle of Calvados. It was a going-away picnic too for friends who were leaving in just a week or two—one going to teach in Minneapolis, another living in Mexico City now, working with the famous old writer and watching a camera obscura being built on a plaza near the Zócolo; grinding spices for curries, he writes; sitting in a cantina on the Day of the Dead, watching the American news, untouched and sober in the middle of the foreign celebration.
The twenty minutes is just up, and all the liquid has boiled dry. The herbs are seared dark brown in the bottom of the kettle. I add more water; not sure if the flavor is still there, or ruined. I've caught it just before burning (lately I've fallen asleep in my reading chair and charred black a couple of batches of white beans—giving them an intriguing smoky taste). I don't have time to start over; I'll have to hope this complete distillation has only intensified the elusive flavor of the herbs which are to complicate the lemon juice and olive oil. But it isn't summer. Life has moved on. Whatever I do, I doubt that the mushrooms will be nearly as good this time.