One of my New Year’s resolutions is to accept the incomplete. I’m usually soothed by the neatness of finality, of closure; I like dotted i’s, rounded edges, the calm you get from Inbox Zero. That tidiness inevitably extends to my reading life: I’ve only abandoned three books that I can remember, preferring to soldier on through unmemorable chapters than to let an unfinished plot clutter my thoughts. One of those deserted books was The Hobbit.
My resistance to Tolkien, I always believed, came from a general disdain for fantasy. Tolkien spent years creating his fictional universe: the phonology of Elvish, the cosmology of Middle Earth, foods that can fill you up with just one bite (a recipe that others have now spend their own years trying to recreate). Why take ages creating new worlds, I thought, when we have a perfectly good one to explore right here?
But while much of the food and drink in the Lord of the Rings trilogy has magical properties, the hobbits themselves subsist on a more down-to-earth diet—literally. Frodo is particularly fond of mushrooms, stealing them from his neighbors’ yards (a practice I wouldn’t advise unless you, like Bilbo, have 111 years of mushroom-picking experience to fall back on). “There was beer in plenty, and a mighty dish of mushrooms and bacon, beside much other solid farmhouse fare,” Tolkien writes; you’d probably see a similar menu at your local gastropub.
You might think that someone who dreamed up a “vitality drink” that cures all pain might want to experiment with it himself, or at least go for some fancy tasting menus. Yet, Tolkien’s eating habits were much closer to Frodo’s stolen produce than the magical cuisine of the Elves. “I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size,” he wrote in a letter. “I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; … I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome).” Years later, the Brooklyn Tolkien Society would plan their menus around fresh mushrooms, in solidarity with both hobbits and their creator.
Mushrooms are seemingly the most modest of foods, growing nestled close to the earth, humble hobbit fare. But they’re also inherently magical: shape-shifters that absorb the flavors of whatever is cooked with them—or give you a nightmare or two, depending which ones you grab. Fantasy is similarly ambiguous, intentionally making it difficult for us to tell what is and what is not. So perhaps this is the year to finally sit down, reopen The Hobbit, and embrace its magic, in all its messiness.
Maybe the most magical thing about mushrooms is that I learned to like them at all. They were persona non grata at our dinner table when I was growing up, and it wasn’t until the junk food nights of college that I started to accept them as a pizza topping, then as the main ingredient in a meal, and finally raw, the way hobbits and Tolkien intended.
Raw mushrooms demand a marinade—something that will temper the earth flavor as well as break down some of the tough cell walls. This recipe, adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s excellent vegetable omnibus, Plenty, pairs them with a tahini yogurt sauce for a Middle Eastern take on Middle Earth.
(Adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon maple syrup
Juice of 1 lemon
3 cups portabella mushrooms, gills removed, sliced
2/3 cup Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon tahini
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon zaatar
1 cup butter beans
1/4 cup walnuts
Fresh oregano or dill
1. In a small bowl, combine oil, vinegar, cumin, maple syrup and lemon juice, plus salt and pepper to taste. Add mushrooms to a large bowl, then pour dressing over. Cover and set aside 1 hour.
2. In another small bowl, whisk together yogurt, tahini, garlic and zaatar. Cover and refrigerate until mushrooms are ready.
3. Drain liquid from mushrooms and return to the bowl. Add butter beans (drained and rinsed), walnuts and fresh oregano leaves. Serve in small bowls with a dollop of yogurt sauce.
17 thoughts on “J.R.R. Tolkien: Marinated Mushroom Salad with Spiced Yogurt”
Please correct Tolkien’s name. It’s such a glaring error! He happens to be my favorite author, but I do understand that like mushrooms, Tolkien is not to everyone’s taste. 🙂 Thank you for all of the posts–yours in one of my favorite food blogs.
It’s been corrected. Embarrassing 😉 So glad you’re enjoying the blog, and thanks for your kind words and edits!
This looks INCREDIBLE! I love mushrooms. Love them. I can’t wait to try this, thank you!
This is so timely… I’ve had a package of portobellas staring at me from the fridge for a few days now. And I’ve also been on a major Ottolenghi bender, so I’m shocked I haven’t marked this one out in Plenty yet. Thanks for the inspiration!
One of the many bookmarked recipes in my copy and thanks to you now on the top of the list! Again, an inspirational and informative blogpost which makes me dig out my teenage Tolkien books immediately. BTW, I loved Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking books, thank you! N xx
Made a Mushroom Stew with Ox-Tail last night, and now I have another mushroom recipe for the week. We’re reading The Two Towers to our son, so this will be a perfect pairing.
Reblogged this on Empires, Cannibals, and Magic Fish Bones and commented:
Tolkien, mushrooms, what more do you need? I think I’ll pair this with a Bordeaux. And a log in the fireplace.
I’ve never been a fantasy genre lover, and I’ve always wondered why as I see people devour The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I abandoned the Lord of the Rings halfway through the Two Towers as it just wasn’t compelling to me in any sort of way. I would, though, consider myself a cross between a Hobbit and and Elf 😉
I, like you, have never really enjoyed Tolkien – I think it’s the fantasy as you say. I think I did finally manage to finish The Hobbit but haven’t bothered with any of the others – this recipe does look very good.
There is such warmth in your writing. I enjoyed your prose about JRR more than JRR works,though i love fantasy fiction
Just here to tell you: Those mushrooms were really, really good! I’ve made mine with cremini mushrooms, Ottolenghi’s sauce & herbs but seriously loved your bean swap, the creamyness of the butter beans worked so well in this weather + the za’atar added a nice & neat twist. Nicole
I only just discovered your blog and it’s amazing! This recipe is right up my alley too, it shall be tried. I love mushrooms 🙂
I’ll try the recipe–right after I replace the jar of tahini that I smashed all over the kitchen floor a couple of months ago. Tolkien’s taste in food sounds very British to me. I moved to the UK from the US and have been struck by the number of people who like very plain food. i know, Ottolenghi and others are introducing all sorts of changes, but there’s still this underlying chorus singing, “Give me plain food, plainly cooked. Give me baked beans on toast.”
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Sounds very interesting and “want to try” recipe for me and I liked your new year’s resolution 🙂
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