Earthy flavors grab my attention and draw me into a dark and delicious place that I find spellbinding. Such is my fascination with mushrooms, and I forage for them in the wild, stalk them in the farmers markets, and am delighted when I see them in the supermarket aisles. I’ve talked before about finding the regal chanterelle mushrooms in the woods just seven miles from my house in Lafayette Parish, but it took a 1700-mile trek to Los Angeles to discover the mother lode of mushrooms at the local green market there.
Wherever I travel, the farmers markets are where I get up close and personal with produce, products, and people who define the region’s food culture. And unlike my local markets, in Los Angeles you don’t have to wait for Saturday morning; there is a farmers market most every day of the week. I covered five of them, and it is amazing the variety of vendors and produce offered at each.
At the Hollywood Farmers Market (the most diverse), they close off several streets near Hollywood Boulevard and attract an enormous Sunday morning crowd. Artisan butter-makers, mushroom cultivators (more on that later), bakers, butchered pork, flower vendors, vegan juice purveyors, oyster shuckers, and a vast array of farm-fresh produce all converge for a 5-hour buying frenzy.
Other markets: Studio City (most convenient), Mar Vista (neighborhood friendly), and the Santa Monica Farmers market (the largest in LA), were packed with shoppers buying a week’s worth of freshness. For Angelenos, the food markets are a way of life both as a source for food and entertainment. The social ritual of market-hopping is a way of life in Southern California, and I’m hoping that here in Acadiana, folks will begin to embrace that farm-to-table mentality and attend our markets with that same dedication to local sourcing.
Hands down, the best-of-the-best farmers market is in Santa Barbara, about 90 minutes from LA. This market is in a pristine, tree-lined park and features dozens of stalls bringing both inland farm-produced goods as well as coastal Pacific seafood to hungry shoppers. There’s a vibe here; it’s a hip market with music, tastings, and an overall friendly neighborhood feel. We loaded up on tote bags full of produce including farm-fresh eggs, and the most colorful sweet bell peppers I’ve ever seen (or tasted).
Dirk Hermann owns a mushroom cultivation farm called LAFungHi, South California’s largest grower of fungi. He not only serves many of the restaurants in the region, but he brings a vast supply of mushrooms to consumers at the numerous produce markets in the area surrounding Los Angeles. It was at the market on a sunny Sunday morning that Dirk and I teamed up, and he gave me a quick education on his products.
Not only do mushrooms contain high levels of sodium, potassium, phosphorus, and antioxidants, they also provide immune system enhancing properties. While most consumers prefer fresh mushrooms, many experienced cooks opt for the dried alternatives because of their concentrated flavor when reconstituted in broth.
Dirk rigged me up with a mixed basket of a half dozen unique varieties with varying tastes. They were stacked high in a small basket: maitake, black trumpet, chanterelle, shiitake, button, crimini, and oyster mushrooms. Some peppery, some woodsy, some mild with a hint of anise, some even fruity, they combine to deliver an umami-rich explosion of flavor. And the thing I love about mushrooms is they are so versatile in so many dishes where they soak in the added ingredients. I love them so.
After tucking my mushrooms in my market bag along with a bonanza of multi-colored bell peppers, my recipe inspiration was easy. My Mushroom and Pepper Bread Pudding is based on a savory bread pudding I recall years ago at Emeril Lagasse’s flagship restaurant in New Orleans. It was a different recipe that should only be better with my variety of mushrooms and sweet peppers. I like the simplicity of this dish and the all-vegetarian delivery of flavor. And with the hearty mushrooms taking center stage you will never miss the meat.
This recipe is versatile. You can serve this Mushroom and Pepper Bread Pudding as a brunch entrée, a light dinner with a salad, or as a side dish. Similar to a quiche or a tart, the soufflé-like, lighter-than-air texture gives lift to the elegance of the dish. It’s a winner on any table, and your guests will be surprised at the depth of meaty flavor from this earthy, all-vegetable dish.
Whichever LA you happen to live, I can assure you that taste discoveries are just around the corner waiting for you. This weekend, attend a farmers market in your area and shake hands with a grower or artisan maker. You’ll feel good about eating well and helping support our food economy.
- Non-stick spray
- 3 large eggs, beaten
- 11/2 cups whole milk
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 cups cubed white bread, crust removed
- 1 pound fresh mushrooms
- 3 large bell peppers, multi-colored
- 1 medium purple onion
- Preheat your oven to 350ºF.
- Coat the inside of a 9-inch baking dish with non-stick spray.
- In a large mixing bowl, add the eggs and milk and whisk to combine. Season the mixture with herbs, a pinch of salt, and a grind of freshly ground pepper. Add the bread cubes and submerge in the mixture; let sit for 10 minutes to soak up the liquid.
- Inspect the mushrooms and clean (do not wash) them with a damp towel to remove any dirt. Slice them into large bite-size chunks
- Remove the stem and seeds from the bell peppers and slice into large bite-size chunks; remove the outer skin and slice the onion into large chunks.
- In a microwaveable dish with lid, place the mushrooms, peppers, and onions. Coat with non-stick spray and lightly sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover loosely with the lid and microwave on high for 5 minutes just until the water releases from the mushrooms and all the vegetables wilt.
- Add the vegetables to the egg mixture and combine. Pour into the baking dish and fill to the edges. Place the baking dish on a metal foil-lined tray and place in the oven. Bake until the egg custard mixture sets firmly and the top browns, about 1 hour. (Test doneness by shaking the dish to see that the custard is set or prod with a toothpick to see that it comes out clean.)
- Remove and let rest before serving.
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