After a divine curry last night, both invented and cooked by my father, whose approach to all cuisines is always creative and full of glorious flavour, I went for something rather more conventional tonight. Mushrooms and garlic are a classic combination. Some diced courgette, pancetta, finely sliced spring onions, parsley, oregano or tarragon and, if you fancy it, spinach (or wild garlic in spring) are great additions, as is a good dollop of cream or crème fraîche. The poached egg on top is essential, as it rounds things off beautifully.
The mushrooms and pancetta are fried in butter until beginning to brown, at which point the diced courgette is added until it too is golden. The finely chopped garlic is then added, and when cooked through, some flour is sprinkled over the top of the mixture and stirred until it is invisible, helping to thicken the stock, which goes in as soon as the flour has been absorbed, just a little bit at a time, stirring constantly.
When the sauce reaches the consistency that you like, you might consider adding the following: finely sliced spring onions or chives, chopped parsley and oregano and a few turns of the pepper mill. I also like to add a slosh of dry sherry at this stage. Mushrooms and sherry are a frequent combination in Spanish cooking, and work deliciously together. I also like to add a handful of spinach at this point if I have some, which cooks through quickly as the egg is poached. If the sauce is too thick at this stage, again add some more stock or water, a little at a time, and stir well to incorporate anything that might be sticking at the bottom of the pan.
Whilst this is gently heating through, the egg is poached and a slice of rustic bread or sourdough is griddled or toasted. Poaching eggs is easy if a few basic rules are followed. The eggs should be fresh and at room temperature. The water should be boiled, and a glug of white wine vinegar added. The vinegar helps the whites to solidify. Create a swirl in the water, which helps to spin the egg whites around the egg yolk, and take off the heat. It will now poach in the hot water, the whites becoming opaque as the egg begins to cook. It takes about two minutes depending on the size of the egg. Drain the eggs well in a slotted spoon or on kitchen paper to remove the traces of vinegar.
Back to the mushroom mix. At the last minute, a small dollop of whatever cream you have to hand goes in. I like either crème fraîche or sour cream, but ordinary single or double cream works perfectly well too. Heat it through gently. Then place the toasted bread on the plate (buttered if required), spoon the mushroom mix over the top of the toast and then place the the poached egg carefully on top of the mushrooms. Scatter sea salt over the top of it all, and add a few turns of the pepper mill, and dig in! It’s incredibly filling, so I don’t serve it with anything else.
Lots of variations are possible. If you have access to wild mushrooms, that makes it even better, but I had button mushrooms that needed using up. Nearly all herbs will work, including sage, lovage, chervil and marjoram. Diced aubergine goes well instead of or as well as courgette. Bits of bacon or parma ham can substitute for pancetta. Cream sherry can be used instead of dry if you fancy a slight hit of mellow sweetness. Alternatively, instead of sherry, Marsala wine, which is utterly divine in all sorts of sauces, is excellent with this dish. It is not always easy to get hold of, and must be used with care or it takes over entirely.
A vegetarian version can be done by leaving out the pancetta. If often do the vegetarian version, and it is delightful.
If you want to make it into a bigger main course, the mix works wonderfully as an accompaniment for pork or chicken.