In defence of ugly food: hot concrete mushroom soup

brown elephant on green grass field during daytime

I made a new Instagram account this week, for reasons relating to the longevity of a future career in food media. The whole process irritated my cynicism gland enough to produce a few squirts of suspicion before I relaxed into it and made my photos public.

The thing is, I’ve never really liked Instagram. The way the algorithm priorities wholly performative content, especially in regards to food, is one thing. The weird human need to do everything for the ‘gram is another. For example, the phrase ‘insta-worthy’ written on a website or menu forces me to stare into the middle distance and fantasise about a life as a 16th century peasant. My life expectancy would only have been 32 but at least I’d never have to read the word ‘#foodporn’ in my short and smallpox-ridden existence. 

But, railing against my own misanthropy, I am now in a begrudging relationship with the world’s biggest photo sharing platform. My little rebellion, other than boycotting it completely (which would be unwise, given that’s where my younger audience lives) is to post real, unstaged and unstyled photos of how the food I make actually looks. I did this just the other day with a bowl of mushroom soup which had the appearance of concrete made with the blessings of an especially virile elephant. Go and have a look for yourself. I promise it tastes unfathomably better than it looks. 

I’m doing this to make a point: not all food has to be pretty. This same argument is encapsulated far more succinctly by both Nigella Lawson and Jay Rayner, two absolute stalwarts of food writing. In Nigella’s most recent book, Cook, Eat, Repeat there is a chapter titled ‘in Defence Of Brown Food,’ where our brave and glorious queen outlines the fact that some of the most delicious things we eat look like something your cat regurgitated after eating too fast. Not that she uses those exact words. I think she says something along the lines of ‘visceral mauve-grey glory’, ‘bubbling grandiose flobglobules’ and ‘magnificent colonoscopy kaleidoscope’. Perhaps I’m misquoting here, but you should definitely go and read it anyway.

Jay, on the same side of the coin, loves messy food. He maintains that dripping sauce down your shirt is evidence of a meal well enjoyed; that picking up the bones and eating with your hands is to be encouraged; and that some of the best food has been slow cooked for hours and hours, until everything has got to know each other and has melded into one deeply flavorsome splodge. He’s entirely correct, of course, but none of this is especially suited for Instagram and is therefore unfashionable in an engagement-hungry world of gold leaf, smoothie bowls and micro herbs. 

So, to bring back the forgotten joys of ugly food, I am encouraging all 23 readers of this blog to go away and cook that same mirror-shatteringly grotesque mushroom soup as I did the other day. 

It’s earthy, hearty, filling – and it looks so vile that you really do wonder what you’ve done after you’ve seen to it with the stick blender. But you get all sorts of wonderful umami from the mushrooms, alongside forest floor flavours enhanced by the potato (unpeeled, obviously) and a generous grating of fresh nutmeg. Despite appearances, it really is lovely and makes 4 large portions, which you can serve with gold leaf, scattered pomegranate seeds and micro herbs in a desperate bid gather those all important likes on Instagram.

To make 4 large bowls of sloppy elephant gonads, you’ll need:

  • An pack of mushrooms (any type will do, I used Lidl’s cheapest ones. No idea what variety they are)
  • An white onion (one large, or two medium)
  • Around 3 tablespoons of butter, possibly more (olive oil will make the whole shebang vegan. Add some soy sauce too for extra umami).
  • An medium potato
  • Around 1 litre of vegetable or chicken stock
  • Lashings of black pepper
  • Nutmeg for grating

Pop the butter (or olive oil) in a large, deep sided pot and melt it gently until it’s foaming. Chop the onions relatively finely and add them to the pot. Give everything a stir, season with salt and pepper, then stick the lid on the pan so the onions sweat and go translucent. While the onions are cooking, roughly chop your mushrooms and slicely fine the potato. 

When the onions are done, tip in the shrooms, add a lug of extra fat if you want (mushrooms are thirsty), and grate over some nutmeg so the flavour intensifies with the direct heat. Let that all schmooze for a wee bit while you put the potato in a microwavable bowl, add a splash of water and zap it for 5 minutes on high. This saves time later. 

When your mushrooms are looking suitably cooked (taste a few by the way; does it need more seasoning?), add in the part-cooked potato and followed by the stock. It doesn’t really matter what sort of stock you use. I used chicken because I’d run out of vegetable cubes. If you don’t have stock cubes, them use boiling water and salt/soy sauce. Not having stock isn’t the end of the world, but do taste as you go so you’ve got the levels right. 

Bring everything to a boil for 5 minutes or so until the potato slices are properly soft, then take it off the heat and blitz it with a stick blender until you have the texture of hot, wet concrete. You can add more water, stock or a splash of milk if you want; the litre given in the recipe is a fairly conservative estimate given that everyone’s ingredients are different. You’re at liberty to create the texture you prefer. Check for final seasoning, adding more nutmeg if you like and serve with a verbal caution of not to judge a soup by its cover.  

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