Jew’s ear is a species of Auriculariales fungus found growing mainly on dead wood worldwide. And really, on a dead stump, far from the dinner table, is where it should’ve been left. It is a popular ingredient in many Chinese dishes and can readily be found on most restaurant menus – usually in the form of a cold salad, dressed with soy and vinegar, or in chunky pieces in soups. The mushroom itself is quite astonishing. The size of a hand and beautifully aubergine hued, they really do resemble ears in an almost disturbing way. But that is where the astonishment ends. To describe this mushroom as gelatinous with a mild flavour is to be unjustifiably kind. You know that little piece of cartilage you find along the breast bone of a chicken? The one that is so soft and thin, you don’t even realise you’ve cut through it until you unpleasantly bite down on a mouthful? Jew’s ears taste like that. Squeaky, softly rubbery, and with no discernible flavour at all. I am yet to try a dish I like them in. But I am nothing if not an adventurous eater, so I tried to incorporate them into a creamy mushroom soup.
To make the mushroom soup:
1) Prepare your favourite mushroom soup recipe.
2) DO NOT use any Jew’s ear mushrooms in your soup WHATSOEVER. They are vile. They will bring nothing to the table in terms of flavour and will merrily add a yucky, rubbery texture that will not zip up with a blender. Attempting to use them in a creamy soup will have disastrous consequences. If you absolutely have to try them, here is a recipe for soup that uses them whole.
In a sheer fit of lunacy, I once decided to attempt one of Heston Blumenthal’s recipes. Chilli Con Carne to be exact. After three days of painstakingly weighing, chopping, roasting, simmering, straining and thrice cooking about a thousand rand’s worth of ingredients I had Chilli Con Carne that tasted like, well, Chilli Con Carne (and a pretty chilliless one at that – I was obviously a bit too timid). But while I no longer see the point of making my own beef stock when Nomu does an excellent job of it, I did learn one thing: How to extract maximum flavour from the humble tomato with minimum effort.
Roast Tomato and Garlic Soup with Bacon and Cheese Toasts
1kg fresh tomatoes, cut into quarters (If you can find on the vine, retain the vine. If you can’t, consider tending a tomato plant in your garden for that purpose. Pretty much every garden has one growing somewhere thanks to birds indiscriminately pooping wherever they please.)
1 garlic bulb, cloves peeled
2 onions, cut into quarters
50ml olive oil
30ml balsamic vinegar
20g tomato paste
500ml vegetable stock
Basil pesto to serve
For the bacon and cheese toasts:
4 to 6 Slices of bread (I used potbrood, but any fairly solid loaf will do)
1 cup grated cheese
250g bacon, fried and chopped
3 heaped tablespoons cream cheese
1 tablespoon fresh, chopped oregano
For the soup:
Preheat the oven to 200˚C once you are ready with your tomatoes. Place the tomatoes in a colander over a baking dish and sprinkle liberally with Maldon salt. At least a tablespoon full. Allow to stand until a fair amount of juice has collected in the dish. Add the tomatoes to the dish with the onion, peeled garlic cloves, oil and vinegar. Roast at 200˚C for twenty minutes then turn the oven down to 160˚C and roast for a further 40 or so minutes. Once everything looks beautiful and sticky, you stop. Stir occasionally and keep an eye on the garlic because it tends to get a bit too toasty if left on the bottom for too long.
At this point you can take everything, chuck the tomato vine in and refrigerate until you’re ready for the soup. Once you are ready, place the whole lot in a blender with the chicken stock and process till smooth. My husband likes things chunky (a lucky coincidence for me considering I’m ten kilo’s heavier than the day he married me), but if you like your soups smooth, you can pass it through a sieve at this point. Remember to scrape the bits that stick to the bottom of the sieve off – it helps to thicken the soup. Add the tomato paste and stir in the sugar if the tomatoes aren’t sweet enough.
Heat through and serve with a basil pesto swirl and a dash of cream if you like.
For the bacon and cheese toasts:
Mix all the ingredients together. Place the bread slices under a grill and toast till toasty. Flip over and spread the cheese mixture on the untoasted side. Place back under the grill and bake until golden and bubbly. Cut into soldiers and serve with the soup.