…music, mortality & mushrooms
Throughout the month of February, mushrooms were the cause célèbre of my kitchen – meaning I overbought at the Farmers Market and it was a race against time. I’ve always considered mushrooms woefully underrated and worthy of more attention, for despite their rustic, earthy pedigree, they are delicacies in countless cultures around the world. I’m especially amused when they bring a little ironic decay and decomposition to otherwise prissy dinner tables.
Mushrooms are fungi, not plants, and without chlorophyll they must absorb nutrients from the dead organisms they decompose with enzymes. Decay and decompose – it’s what they do, so naturally words like rot, moldy, spoil, putrefy pop into my head whenever I cook with fungi. While I love mushrooms unconditionally, facts are facts and they kind of remind me of death. And birthdays.
It should come as no surprise that February was Birthday Month and the weeks leading up to the big day flip-flopped between excitement and dread. That’s where music and mortality came in; the mushrooms followed.
Some birthdays just play better than others. 55 was not one of them. To be fair, I had a lovely celebration including presents, a ski trip with Louise West in CO, and tix to Bruce Springsteen. However, it was the emotional lead-in to the big day that got me. I do love weaving unlikely connections and embracing patterns in my life, but this was absurd even by my standards.
2023 started off beautifully, but right on schedule my naïve optimism began to unravel. January 8th would have been David Bowie’s 76th birthday. I was all about Bowie in high school; his music was like a ticket to Mars for a teenage girl from Savannah, GA. He died in 2016 two days after his 69th birthday, and although it had been years since I’d even considered the man, on that day I was caught unprepared. Now every January 8th I am reminded that Sweet 16 was many, many decades ago.
It just so happens that Bowie shares a birthday with Elvis Presley, whom I also adore and whose death was pretty impactful even though I was only 9 years old. My Elvis was the portly, muttonchopped, jumpsuited icon whose last words were allegedly, “I’m going to the bathroom to read.”
Here’s a super-fun fact: I uttered those very words back in 2016 on the morning David Bowie died. Looking back, there really could not have been a less dignified way to receive the news that my beloved teenage idol was dead along with any lingering fantasy of eternal youth. Alone and locationally compromised I sobbed with such conviction that I banged my forehead on bathroom hardware. Then I sneezed and tweaked my back on the rebound. What a pretty sight: an aging, puffy-eyed, splotchy-faced, goose-egged, tear-streaked fan-girl immobilized by stabbing back pain. And a headache.
Back to this January, Bowie and Elvis were still dead when I took another hit on 12th: Lisa Marie Presley died from cardiac arrest. Why is this a big deal? The King’s only child would have been 55 on February 1. Now I’m not saying we shared the exact same birthday, but Mother always gave terribly clever nicknames and some days I literally answered to Lisa Marie. Although she and I were only anecdotally connected, her untimely death threatened to cast a pall on my upcoming celebration. It’s fair to say that I have a complicated relationship with birthdays. And the Presleys.
For me the “0” birthdays are upbeat and hopeful, as in “yay, look at me go – I made it!” But those “5” birthdays come with the temptation to relive each & every blunder and count all the unfulfilled promises from the last five years. Not this year. Not after I rallied from those 2 weeks of bummers. This year I made fun of the cult of aging and decay. This year I got older and younger at the same time because both things can be true. And this year I made mushroom recipes for a month in defiance of maturity in all its carnal forms. I’ve always said I should have named the blog “Cooking for Fun and Revenge,” and this was one of those moments. Short of actual poison, how much symbolic death and decay could I fit into a single meal? #birthdaygoals
Miso Mushroom Linguini
Savory white miso replaces Parmesan cheese and pumps up the umami in an Italian classic. I used portobellos and Chinese shiitakes, but any combination of mushrooms works. And yes, many people still add Parm at the end; I just found it redundant. This can be easily stand as a vegetarian meal, but I happened to have some leftover grilled chicken to round it out for the carnivores. Serves 4.
- 1/2 lb dried Italian linguini
- 8 oz. mixed fresh mushrooms, sliced
- 2-3 Tbs olive oil, divided
- 1 tsp white wine vinegar
- 2 Tbs white miso paste
- 1/2 tsp soy sauce, or more to taste
- 4 Tbs butter, softened
- 4-5 cloves garlic, minced
- 10 oz fresh baby spinach, roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- kosher salt & black pepper
- 2-3 Tbs minced green onions
Bring a large, salted pot of water to boil and add dry pasta. Cook until al dente, typically about a minute shy of package directions. Drain and set aside, reserving 1 cup of pasta water.
Clean mushrooms and slice into large equal size pieces. Saute half of the mushrooms in 1 Tbs olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet for about 3-4 minutes. Space is important when cooking mushrooms so they brown instead of steam. Repeat with remaining half. Sprinkle browned mushrooms with a little vinegar, toss and set aside to cool.
In a small bowl blend miso paste, soy sauce, and butter until fully combined.
Back to the original skillet, add 1 Tbs olive oil and sauté minced garlic for about 30 seconds and then add back all of the mushrooms. Add the chopped spinach, stir, and cook just long enough to see a little wilting.
Fold in the miso butter, followed by the heavy cream and finally the cooked linguini. Toss to coat and add a pinch of salt to taste and a splash of reserved pasta water, if needed, to make sure every noodle is well-appointed.
Serve immediately with a garnish of green onions and a few turns of black pepper. Fine…add a sprinkle of Parm if you just can’t help yourself.
After every birthday the remainder of February’s cold, drab Atlanta drizzle tries to work its dark magic on my solar-powered psyche. This year I fought back. I’m not sure anyone else noticed the endless parade of mushrooms night after night, but it doesn’t matter – I knew they were there and I relished every bite of my quiet, savory rebellion with my signature impish smirk.
As for music and mortality, Bowie and Elvis may be gone, but Bruce is still kicking it. I can’t think of a better way to embrace the third quarter of life than being schooled by a 73 year old rocker. And as always, cooking with irony and defiance cheered me up, as did “Thelma” time in Colorado with Louise West, my partner in crime. If I am going to be bold, cold, and old I’m not doing it alone – I have people on my side. And a cat.