The Lotus Eaters
I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of nine days upon the
sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eater, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eater without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.
-- The Odyssey, Book IX
I leave for others discussions about the deeper meanings (and most especially the tedious comparisons to drug abusers) of the lotus eaters. To my mind, the only question is whether there could really be a food so good that the joy of continuing to eat it would be worth the lost opportunity of never again wanting to eat any of the many other delicious foods that the world offers. It is, of course, entirely possible that Odysseus' men, especially while at sea, had a fairly limited menu available to them, and even if that had not been the case, one presumes so far as to suggest that resting dreamily and contentedly among the lotus eaters had much to recommend it when the alternative was to face the cyclops or one or more of the other horrors to be found on the journey to Ithaca. If memory serves, not so many of Odysseus' men ever made it home, so perhaps leaving the perils of the sea for a diet rich in leafy greens would not have been such a bad choice.
Thoughts of the lotus have been with me since I heard, a week or so back, that the lotuses were in bloom at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a little known but entirely wonderful National Park Service site located in an otherwise unappealing section of the District of Columbia. I have made several trips to Kenilworth over the past fifteen or so years, and I have always been pleased with my visit, but I had not, until this past weekend, seen the lotuses in bloom. In fact, when V. and I visited, the lotuses were probably slightly past their peak, but they were stunning nonetheless. I snapped the picture above, which is now the background picture on my work computer, this past Saturday, a day that was far cooler, clearer, and less humid than one has any right to expect on any August day in D.C. Do click on it to see the larger version, and if you live in the D.C. area, do make the trip to the Aquatic Gardens. Even when the lotuses are not blooming, the water lilies, the marsh, and the lack of crowds make for a great time.
I have no valid transition between lotuses and today's recipe. There are, indeed, recipes that make use of the lotus root, which is, apparently, sometimes deep fried and used to garnish various Asian dishes, but I have no real desire to go there. I did, however, have a real desire for a good soup, and as the weather has not been overly hot and the air conditioning is working well, I went ahead and made one. I have also gone ahead and given it an entirely inappropriate name, but I will say that when you've had some, you'll probably want some more.
If you make this, keep in mind that everything except the portabello mushrooms will be subjected to the immersion blender, so there is no need to be overly precise in how you cut things up. If you feel compelled to dice your onion meticulously, however, I am prepared to acknowledge that you are a better person for it, so be as meticulous as you like, if it makes you happy.
2 ounces dried shiitake mushrooms
8 ounces butter
1 medium onion
40 ounces white mushrooms
1 t. celery seed
20 ounces portabello mushroom caps
One cup dry red wine
2 quarts chicken broth
1/4 cup sherry
Put the dried shiitake mushrooms in a bowl, add one quart of hot water, and let soften.
Put a stockpot on a low flame and add two tablespoons of butter. While the butter is melting, dice the onion. Add the onion to the butter, stir and cover.
While the onions sweat, cut up the white mushrooms. If they are small, cut them in half. If they are large, cut them in quarters. If they are big stuffing mushrooms, cut them into eight pieces. When the onions have softened, add the mushrooms, the celery seed,and two additional tablespoons of butter. Stir well, put the cover back on, and turn the heat to medium low. When the mushrooms have begun to release their liquid, turn the heat to medium, leaving the cover on. When the mushrooms have given up almost all of their liquid, remove the lid from the pot and let the mixture boil until most of the water has evaporated. Add the wine, and return to the simmer.
Meanwhile, prepare the portabello mushrooms. Cut the caps into half-inch strips, then rotate ninety degrees and cut again so that you have half-inch squares. The thickness of the portabello will not be uniform, so the pieces will have different thicknesses. This is not important. Reserve the semi-diced portabellos.
Slice the shiitakes. Add them and their soaking liquid to the stockpot along with the chicken broth. Return to the simmer. Stir in the sherry.
Heat a nonstick skillet or saute pan until it is very hot. Add a tablespoon of butter, and as soon as it has completely melted and is foaming, add about a quarter of the semi-diced portabellos. Season with salt and pepper and saute for several minutes, until the mushroom pieces are smaller and much darker and taste very good. Move the sauteed mushrooms to a bowl, add another tablespoon of butter to the pan, and saute another batch. Repeat until all of the mushrooms have been sauteed.
Turn off the heat under the saucepan. Puree the soup, preferably with an immersion blender. Because of the shiitakes, it will not look entirely smooth, but it will taste smooth. Carefully correct the seasoning.
Add the sauteed portabellos to the soup, stirring well. You may, at this point, refrigerate or freeze some or all of the soup.
If the soup has been frozen, defrost it. Carefully bring the soup back to the simmer. Add cream to taste.
You can, of course, add the cream (I used heavy cream, but use half and half if you prefer) directly to your pot of soup, but I like to pour a small amount of cream into the bottom of the cup or bowl that I'm going to serve the soup in and then ladle soup on top of the cream. It makes for a slightly prettier presentation, and as this soup is on the gray side, some prettiness is a good thing. There are, of course, a number of other ways to make the soup look more attractive, but I am not especially interested in making it look less like mushrooms, and, certainly, if there's anything that's down to earth, it's a mushroom.
As should be obvious, you can go in a lot of different directions with this soup. If you are looking for something low in calories, you can leave out the portabellos -- and the sauteeing in butter -- entirely, and just use the two tablespoons of butter that you cook onions in. You can also omit the cream. Similarly, the chicken broth is probably not essential here if you prefer a vegetarian soup. You may wish to add in some additional vegetable matter (and perhaps a bit more wine) to compensate, but I presume that if you are in the habit of making vegetarian soups, you know how to do that already. If you can easily lay your hands on some more exotic species of mushrooms, then by all means, do so. I would suggest that if you are adding more kinds of mushrooms, then you should cut each type of mushroom that you intend to saute into a different shape to provide visual interest.
Regular readers of this blog will already know how very fond I am of Costco, and nowhere am I fonder than with this recipe. The 40-ounce package of large white mushrooms, the 20-ounce package of portabello mushroom caps, and a one-pound package (of which I used an eighth) of dried, sliced shiitakes all came from Costco, as did my heavy cream.
And, most surprisingly to me, I was able to go to the Costco website, upload the file containing my lotus picture, order an 11-by-14 enlargement of it, and pick it up from my local Costco store later the same day. The enlargement looks fantastic, it came in a big envelope protected by cardboard, and it cost me $2.99. Well, okay, $3.14 after sales tax, but still. You do have to be a Costco member to use that service, but if picking the picture up at the store isn't convenient, they'll mail it to you.