Despite the late Julia Child’s best efforts, French cuisine is something that continues to confound the casual cook. It’s hard to say why the cooking style is so shrouded in mystery. Maybe the terminology is confusing (do you know your brunoise from your brunir?) or the techniques are too intimidating. Or perhaps the animated film Ratatouille has us convinced that French cooks are ruthless jerks to whom we can’t relate.
Michel Richard of Central at Caesars Palace is out to quell all three fears. The renowned James Beard award-winning chef believes that cooks of every skill level can tackle une recette Française. His recipe for mushroom stock is proof positive.
“It’s something that’s easy for the home cook,” he says. “I always try to imagine myself in my kitchen at home and what would be easy for me to do there.”
Forget complicated, anxiety-inducing directives. This is a non-recipe. In keeping with his free-spirited nature, Richard cooks by instinct and encourages others to operate in the same fashion. Those who prefer step-by-step instructions are out of luck.
Another twist is the noticeably sparse ingredient list. All you need for maximum flavor are two items: mushrooms and water. Richard says that animal bones, chopped vegetables, or even a dainty bouquet garni (otherwise known as “a bunch of herbs”) are unnecessary additions to the pot.
“Mostly, I’ve made stock with proteins, but now I’m trying to make fresher, lighter stocks—the kind that don’t feel sticky on your lips,” Richard explains.
Mushroom stock can be used as a building block for many simple sauces and soups, but don’t discard the leftover cooked mushrooms—Richard parlays them into chicken meatballs, which he then naps with the sauce or adds back to the soup pot. Nothing is wasted, and the finished dish captures the essence of the mushrooms in a way that an ordinary grilled portobello could never do.
Has French cookery always been this easy? Not necessarily. But Richard hopes to lead the revolution in simplifying the once-complex art form. “I want to be very modern in my food,” Richard says. “Food changes, just like everything else in the world.”
Michel Richard’s Mushroom Stock
To paraphrase Chef Richard, go to the market, and buy the oldest, ugliest mushrooms you can find. Take a few pounds of them and put them in the food processor. Add the chopped mushrooms to a stockpot filled with water and bring to a boil. When it’s finished, strain the mushroom solids through cheesecloth. Reduce the liquid by a third for a beautiful mushroom stock. But what to do with it? Here are a few ideas.
1. Freeze the reduced stock in ice-cube trays for future use in small batches.
2. Combine it with the beef juices from a sautéed steak (skim off the fat first), butter and peppercorns to make a steak sauce.
3. Add cream, garlic, salt and pepper to taste for a simple cream-of-mushroom soup.
4. For Michel Richard’s Mushroom ‘Meatballs,’ combine 1 pound of mushrooms leftover from making mushroom stock,
4 ounces ground raw chicken breast, a dash of milk or cream, and chopped Italian parsley with salt and pepper. Form into 1½-inch balls and bake in a preheated, 325-degree oven for 20 minutes. As an alternative you can add more flavorings, such as curry for a hazelnut flavor, tarragon for a hint of anise, cumin and chili for a Mexican flavor, ginger and garlic for a Chinese flavor, or tomato paste and Parmesan cheese for a hint of Italian (pictured, served over fresh pasta).