On a chilly evening, nothing is better than a dinner of rich and savory stew, slow-cooked in a cocotte or dutch oven, a lamb daube or beef chasseur. It’s still early fall, so I’m not quite ready for full-on meat, but all the rain we’ve had in Taos this fall has me thinking about mushrooms. A mushroom stew is light and hearty at the same time, easy on the stomach but filling and nourishing and satisfying. Mushrooms are meaty little nuggets that impart a deep, soulful umami to a gravy-like broth. And there’s nothing better than having a hunk of crusty bread alongside to sop up every morsel.
This past weekend, with a house full of guests on a rainy afternoon, I started browsing online, looking for a recipe for a mushroom stew that would taste like autumn in the South of France, like a Provençal champignons chasseur sauce or daube aux champignons. I was picturing mushroom hunters coming back wet and hungry from the woods carrying bags of girolles and cèpes and morilles—and the cook tumbling them into a cast-iron stew pot with salty pork and red wine and vegetables.
Julia Child’s cream-based mushroom hunter’s stew with tarragon caught my eye, as did a tomato-based vegetarian mushroom stew with white beans. Yet another recipe I found was essentially a mushroom bourguignon, dense and winy. It looked delicious, but even that wasn’t quite what I craved on my mind’s palate.
After gathering bags of ingredients at the local market, I hauled out my Dutch oven and started cooking. I ended up stealing everything I loved from all three of these recipes and inventing my own delicious, traditional-tasting southern-French mushroom stew: a heap of buttons and baby portobellos (the only mushrooms available in my own neck of the woods) with bacon and red wine, canned cannellini beans and fresh plum tomatoes, herbes de Provence and leeks and carrots.
While the stew simmered, I boiled a pot full of potatoes and made a round crusty loaf of quick peasant bread. Close to dinner time, I threw together a sturdy green salad with a bright, acidic dressing. While one guest set the table, I put out Humboldt Fog goat cheese and butter to go with the bread and asked another guest to open wine and light candles. We feasted happily on this simple but lavish-feeling supper, perfect for a chilly October night. Afterward, we ate a sublime warm apple pie made with the tiny red tart apples that grow on our trees, and lit the first fire of the season in the kiva fireplace.
French Mushroom Stew
recipe by Kate Christensen
3 T olive oil
1 package bacon (or, for the vegetarians, 2 T tamari, 3 extra T olive oil, and 2 tsp. smoked paprika)
1 large onion, chopped
1 leek, scrubbed and sliced
2 lb. mushrooms, cleaned and halved or quartered
8-10 cloves of garlic, chopped
10 plum tomatoes
1 cup red wine
3 15-oz. cans cannellini beans, rinsed
2 teaspoons herbes de provence
Salt and pepper
8-10 Yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed and halved
4 large carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
Chicken bone broth (or vegetable broth) to cover, about 4 cups
Olive oil and salt to taste
In a large cocotte or dutch oven, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove the strips, leaving the fat and drippings. Add 2 T olive oil and sauté the onion and leek, stirring often to coat them with fat. Add the mushrooms, garlic, and herbes de Provence. Continue to sauté uncovered on low heat for 15 minutes, stirring every few minutes.
Simmer the potatoes and carrots in the broth.
Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil and with a slotted spoon, set the tomatoes into it for 5-6 minutes, until their skins start to split. Drain and let them cool slightly. Peel and chop them. Add them to the stew pot along with the cup of red wine, bring to a low boil, then turn down and simmer.
In a blender, put 1 ½ cans of drained cannellini beans with 2 ladlesful of the bone broth from the pot of simmering carrots and potatoes. Blend until creamy. Add to the stew along with the other 1 ½ cans of drained whole beans. Crumble the cooked bacon into the stew and stir well.
Let simmer uncovered for half an hour, stirring occasionally, then taste the broth and add salt and pepper (you’ll probably want plenty of both) to taste. With a slotted spoon, transfer the carrots from the pot of broth into the stew.
Continue to simmer the potatoes until very soft, then drain and keep covered. Reserve the broth.
Cover the stew pot and simmer for 45 minutes longer, stirring every so often so it doesn’t stick on the bottom. Add a ladleful or two of the broth if it seems to be drying out (note: it should be stew consistency, not too thin). Take off the heat, uncover, and let sit for another 10 minutes.
Toss the potatoes with olive oil and salt and serve them like that, or mash them until creamy, adding some reserved broth and plenty of butter, as you prefer.
Serve the stew in bowls over or alongside the potatoes, with a loaf of crusty peasant bread, like this one, and butter, plus a sturdy green salad with a bright, acidic dressing.
Kate Christensen is a novelist, memoirist and food writer based in Taos, New Mexico. This essay is the eighth in a monthly series about French food called Bouffe, created and written exclusively for Frenchly by Kate Christensen. Her books, Blue Plate Special, How to Cook a Moose, The Last Cruise and more can be purchased here, on Amazon. Her next book, a novel, will be published in 2023.
All photos are courtesy of the author.