Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Mushroom Soup to Swoon By, the soup diaries, installment number 2

In the litany of soups that we grew up with in the cupboard few were either loved or hated as much as by kids as that can of condensed mushroom soup. I felt differently....of course! You see think that I had so much minestrone soup and beef barley growing up that if I never taste it again I will be just fine. Not so with mushroom soup.

For me my first recollection of mushroom soup ( and my mother would probably find this funny) is from a nanny ( aka. babysitter)  that I had when I was maybe three years old named Mrs. Wolf.  Now I learned a thing or two from Mrs. Wolf, but, the thing I remember more than anything else was her having introduced me to the joys of the soup of the cream and the mushroom!

 How amazing it was. How noble. I suppose I am kidding a little but I really did love it. It was so different to other far more pedestrian soups in my mind like bean and bacon and barley beef. Now as I got older I had my share of lunches at home with my mom and my grandma where the mushroom soup was served. However, it wasn't until I was in college that I had a revelation as to what that soup could really be like.

You see, I went to college at  James Madison University  back in the 80's. JMU as it is known, is located in the small town of Harrisonburg, in rural Virginia directly in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. Beautiful, picturesque, historic, backwards, redneck! Yes I left my lovely cosmopolitan DC suburban high school home to move to the land of turkey farms and deer hunting. What the heck was I thinking??

In the mid 1980's "the Burg"as we knew it had little or no culture beyond the University. It had a Mall, the Valley Mall. Oh and it had bars which had local color but no culture!  It did have a few restaurants, none of which were really very good. But the area did have a few nice places around it, the Bluestone Inn for example, in the mountains above Harrisonburg boasted a  rather upscale kitchen and  menu and was the place that most people tried to get a reservation at, anytime the school had a big function or occasion.  But if you didn't get in there your choices were a little lacking.

 As a student of course none of this really mattered to me that much. I mean if I wasn't destitute and was eating home, I was either going to eat at JM's the local pub and sandwich shop or Spankey's named after the little rascal, and boasting about the same in food stylings. Of course the other place that I hung out to study late and just to socialize was the Howard Johnson's across the interstate from the campus. Our Ho Jo's was run by a slightly older guy named Phil, who happened to be an art student at JMU as well,  and knew my friends Kathy and Stevie. I guess that Phil was in his late forties or early fifties when I knew him. He looked like a cross between Woody Allen and Jimmy Buffet and had the personality of a New York stand up comedian. He was great. He would  always make sure that we were well taken care of and that the time/money limits on our study booth were never enforced.

During my junior year Phil took a gamble and decided to launch out on his own. He opened a little place in a lovely old Victorian house in the town of Bridgewater one town over from Harrisonburg and the college. It was an upscale place for the valley and he hoped to capture some of the growing business from the parents and the students from well to do families that were attending the University.He named it after himself, Phillip Allen's  So at one point I was looking for a job and he was looking for help, so next thing I knew I was working a Phillip Allen's. Now like any small restaurant many of us did many different things. I had both front and back of house experience so I help in the kitchen prepping things for dinner as well waited on the customers during the dinner service. Now Phil had a wealth of food knowledge having worked for years in restaurants in NYC and Washington DC. when he was younger. So he taught me a lot of interesting recipes, many of which were very popular trends in the 80's. Like he made the world's best poppy seed dressing, ever. And what screams 1980's food trend more than that! By the way if anyone wants that recipe let me know, it's still good today! So on the menu at Phillip Allen's were a number a starters. A baked brie in pastry which was to die for, and Chicken liver mousse with toasted bread. But the stars were the soups. He made an Onion Soup Gratin to die for and the famous Phillip Allen Mushroom Soup. So good, so tasty, so simple. it was at Phillip Allen's that I learned that simply can be extraordinary. So of course I learned how to make this soup and I have made it over and over. It never gets tired because it's so good. of course I have tried to improve on it and I think that if anything I have only managed to ramp up the mushroom power a little. But other than that I give it to you. Phillip Allen's is gone but his dressing, chicken liver mousse, and Mushroom soup live on! Enjoy Ya'll!

Pictures of The HO JO in Harrisonburg that Phil managed for years, the scene of many a late night study session and plates of Nachos and cups of hot HO JO coffee which I remember as being quite good!
The place as I remember it looking when I first saw it when I attended the Mid Atlantic show choir  competition. ( no jokes....we won!!)

And inside!!!

Shadow of times gone, sad!!

Forrest's Mushroom Soup based on  Phillip Allen's Restaurant recipe

Ingredients List:

1 stick of butter
1 large white onion finely chopped
4 cups of chicken stock
1 container dried porcini or chanterelle  mushrooms
1 cup warm whole milk ( can be 1 cup warm water if you want a vegan soup)
16 oz sliced button mushrooms
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley ( reserve 2 tablespoons for garnish)
leaves of 1 twig of fresh thyme finely chopped or 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
2 1/2 oz Dry Sherry
salt and pepper to taste

In a small sauce pot bring milk ( or water)  up to almost a boil.
Place the dried mushrooms in it and remove from heat.
Let sit 20 to 30 mins until mushrooms are softened. Reserve the milk.
In a large stock pot
Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and saute the onions till soft.
Add remaining butter and add mushrooms and saute till they soften and they have released their liquor but  be careful do not get color on them. Add in the dried mushrooms and incorporate.
Add the stock and milk the parsley and the thyme. Bring to boil and reduce heat to simmer.
Let this cook for an hour.
Remove form the heat. Let cool 15 mins

Then working in batches place the mixture into your blender and puree until smooth and creamy. Be careful to hold the lid on tight with a towel or you will get hot soup on you!!

Return to pot and bring up to a simmer again and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Hold warm, when ready to serve pour in the sherry and dish it up!
Phil always served his soup with a dallop of sour sream and a sprinkle of chopped fresh parsley Enjoy!!!!

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