Tibetan sand mandalas are a Buddhist tradition in which coloured sand is formed into geometric patterns. These are symbolic of the universe, created with great intricacy, and then ritually destroyed.
This is supposed to represent life’s evanescence. Heavy stuff. I had never really understood why someone would do this — create something beautiful knowing that it would soon be wiped away. Then I was served a spectacular dish at the Quebec City restaurant Légende.
The restaurant tries to use only local foods in season. With this year’s cold weather, although we were well into spring, I couldn’t order a salad. While everything was delicious and meticulously prepared, it was a dessert capturing a winter foliage scene that made me consider what I was eating.
As Jérôme Cormier, Légende’s maître d’ later explained to me, this had been made from “the candy cap mushroom which grows on maple trees in the Gaspé.”
It was served with a jelly made from fir trees, crystallised lichen and haskapa berry jam. I had to look all these up online, having never knowingly eaten lichen, haskapa berries or these particular wild mushrooms. The candy caps had been used to flavour ice cream and moulded into mushrooms. On either side were slabs of wintery bark meringues. The composition resembled the kind of tableau you might see in a Laurentian diorama at a museum of natural history.
It was served under a bell jar, the base dusted with powdered sugar. The glass was removed and we sat there speechless.
How could we eat such an amazing creation? And yet if we didn’t, it would slowly deliquesce, as many mushrooms do, dissolving into a soupy puddle which might then be called spring thaw. So the only way to respect this creation was to eat it.
And this is when I had the epiphany.
A chef had constructed this wonderful dessert solely to be taken apart — to be eaten; granted we did so slowly, and, as it was so good, to wipe the plate clean.
This particular dish, the one served to us, could never be made exactly the same way again. The arrangement would always be slightly different. In fact, were we to return, it is might not even be available: the menu changes regularly, its creator no longer there, or those ingredients not in season. But really, does that matter?
For the chef, there are always more mandalas to be made, to be cooked and composed, only to be cut into and eaten; and, as with that magnificent mushroom creation, to have the plate wiped clean.
As they say, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs and it has taken me years to learn how to make a good one. The key, much to my surprise, has been to take time.
The edges should be uniformly soft and golden, not leathery and brown. Of course some may like them that way and I suppose there is also a market for burnt toast. It doesn’t require a lot of skill. An 8 or 9 inch omelette pan helps but a hefty skillet of the same size will do as well.
Make omelettes one at a time. They will keep for a little while, on a plate covered with a dish cloth, in a warm oven. Break two eggs into a dish, mix them with a fork, and, if you like, add some chopped fresh or dried herbs.
Beat them again. Melt a teaspoon of butter in the frying pan, even if it is non-stick. Once it melts and sizzles turn the heat to low and pour in the egg mixture. Roll the pan so that the mixture spreads evenly. Have some grated cheese or a couple of slices ready, if you want a cheese omelette, and maybe a spoonful of salsa.
Let the omelette cook undisturbed for a minute or so. Once the edges have set and the center is almost firm, flip over the omelette (those adept at flipping know what to do, for the rest of us a spatula is fine).
Put the cheese, salsa or whatever you like in the middle and fold the omelette upon itself. Cook briefly on one side and then turn it over again. The lower the heat, the longer it may take but your prize is perfection, then serve and destroy. I’ll never replicate the dessert we had, but we do love mushrooms.
Here is an easy appetizer based on a recipe from our friend Gordana.
Mix a half pound of sliced brown or white mushrooms (the kind we always bought before things got fancy) with a quarter cup each of vegetable or olive and fresh lemon juice and a quarter teaspoon each of salt and curry powder. Mix this well and refrigerate overnight.