NO. 4: THE MUSHROOM
Until the early 1970s, Melbourne was dead on Sundays. Everything was shut. TABs, casinos, $2 shops, brothels, liquor outlets, Kidzone, Domino's pizza, Northland, you name it. It must have been awful. How did people get through the day?
My father had a Sunday coping strategy. He took us on what was known as a 'Sunday drive', a quaint mid-twentieth century weekend activity that involved a whole family packing into an FC Holden station wagon and driving into the countryside on mostly deserted roads, although another vehicle might be spotted occasionally, embarked on a similar expedition.
He usually drove north-west. We were practically on the urban fringe anyway. West of Essendon was thistle and Avondale Heights, both of which were wild. Keilor Road took us across the Maribyrnong River bridge into Keilor proper, where the road became the Calder Highway. After that was nothing but farmland all the way to Bendigo. We would take an arbitrary turnoff onto some unmade road, rumble along a few miles and then stop, apparently at random. Somewhere near Greenvale, or was it Oaklands Junction?
We'd climb a barbed wire fence, glance around for bulls (probably the latter before the former), and then look for mushrooms, fanning out like a police line searching for clues. It was good clean fun, picking through cowpats and mud under a slate sky. The mushrooms* usually grew in clusters, and sometimes in an odd circular shape, like Stonehenge.
The following two recipes showcase the earthy flavour and meaty texture of the mushroom. But my most common use of the mushroom is to halve some button mushrooms, sweat them in their own juice and toss them over rare steak with a shower of pepper and a little garlic butter.
#1: Mushroom and cheese melt.
Slice half a kilogram of fresh mushrooms. Finely chop a large onion and fry in two tablespoons of butter until soft. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, a few minutes until soft. Add salt and pepper to taste.
In a separate saucepan, melt two tablespoons of butter, stir in three tablespoons of flour until combined. Then add two cups of milk and whisk until smooth. Stir until it thickens, then remove from heat and fold through the mushroom and onion mixture and a cupful of grated cheddar.
Divide mixture between four soufflé dishes or ramekins, top with a quarter cup of cheese each, and bake until cheese melts to a golden crust.
#2: Asian-style mushrooms.
Soak a dozen dried Chinese mushrooms for 30 minutes. Drain, discard stems and cut caps in two.
Deep fry 250g pressed bean curd cut into triangles.
Add peanut oil to a wok, add two spring onions cut into short batons and the rehydrated mushrooms. Stir 30 seconds, add 150ml of vegetable stock, two tablespoons of dark soy and half a teaspoon of sugar. Simmer 15 minutes, then add the bean curd. Cover wok and simmer another five minutes.
Meanwhile, blend a teaspoon of cornflour with a tablespoon of water and stir through the sauce. It should thicken. Sprinkle over a teaspoon of sesame oil. Serve over fragrant steamed rice.
If using fresh tofu, omit deep-frying process, carefully slice the tofu and slide it into wok to avoid it breaking up.
The mushroom fields are long gone now, buried under double-storey fake Georgian houses with enormous rooms that hold couches the size of racing cars from which you can gaze at reality television on enormous screens. Nothing grows here in the dark any more except, perhaps, teenage terror suspects who sprout overnight and are dragged, when found, blinking into the sunlight, their relatives unaware of their online activities in the dark of night.
*OK, the pedants are on to us again: a mushroom is strictly the fruiting body of a fungus.
(Holden image thanks to holden.org.au. Serving suggestion only.)