Lily (featuring Filo Parcels stuffed with Mushrooms, Leeks, and Aged Gruyere)
“Mommy always lets me do this!”
Lily wobbled, arms outstretched with fingers fluttering on the foot wide, hip height wall-divider-turned-balance-beam between the kitchen and dining room in her glorious Brentwood, California home. Her mother, who had hired me as a weekly private chef for the family, was somewhere upstairs out of earshot.
Lily was a gorgeous blend of her artistic and focused Japanese mother and jocular Jewish father, a successful manager in Hollywood. She was five years old and testing my boundaries. It was my first day.
“I really don’t think your mom lets you walk up there. I’m scared you’ll fall, sweetie. Please come down. Wanna watch me cook? I’m making chicken with mushrooms! Ooooh and lasagna!” My voice had turned syrupy and deceitful, as though pretending to be a Disney Godmother would distract this child into submission. It didn’t.
“Nope, I always do this!” Lily slowly spun on the divider, nearly knocking over a glass bowl filled with painted wooden fruit. I gasped.
I’ve always done much better with children when I told them the truth, but “GET YOUR FUCKING ASS OFF THAT LEDGE BEFORE YOU CRACK YOUR SKULL INTO A MILLION PIECES!” wasn’t the appropriate tone for day one with a new family.
Sensing my charm might be waning, Lily hopped from the divider onto the counter then to the floor. She started vigorous ballet moves around the kitchen, arms swinging, toes pointed, legs kicking at random. She sang to herself a song I did not recognize. At least she was at ground level.
I returned my attention to the onion on the cutting board.
It must have been around 2003. Cooking was a thing I had done for years to support myself as I auditioned for acting jobs that never panned out. Around 2002 I stopped acting completely and started cooking regularly in catering kitchens and private homes. I was never going to be a restaurant cook, never dreamed of owning my own place. While I might have found the moxie for line cooking, I knew I didn’t have the stamina. I arrived at that door a little past my prime and had never been classically trained. My fear of being revealed as an imposter chef was too great to even consider restaurant work.
Private cheffing had always clicked for me though. I worked with clients to develop menus with food that best fit their needs – their needs being things like eating fresh food around busy schedules, restrictive diets, food intolerances, and herds of screaming, picky children. Lily was actually a delight.
I sliced the end off the yellow onion and peeled the skin away. Lily danced and spun. I diced the onion and then slid it into a bowl. I wiped the cutting board down and grabbed the colander of cremini mushrooms from the sink. Plucking the stem from the cap, I placed the meaty mushroom bulb, gills down on the board and then with quick, repetitive thumpthumpthumpthumps I dissected the mushroom into thin, even slices. Lily stopped suddenly, mid-jeté, to look at me and then the board. She hadn’t caught the movement, but she had heard something that sounded legit and could see the result on the counter.
I grinned and then nabbed another mushroom. Lily’s eyes widened. I nipped the stem off, and then thumpthumpthumpthump, it fell to slivers. The knife held in my right hand was guided into the mushroom by the aligned fingers on my left hand, uniformly moving over the fungus as quickly as the knife plunged into its flesh. Lily was silent. I fished another mushroom out of the colander and held it loosely as my knife did its work. Lily’s mouth fell open a bit.
“Do it again,” she whispered.
And I did.
My carbon steel santoku knife and I worked flawlessly together. Fast, sleek, perfect mushroom slices lined up against each other on the wooden board. I could hear celebrational trumpets playing in my head. I’m a chef! Look out Julia Child! Get out of the way Jacques Pepin! Thumpthumpthumpthump. I would show my father, who has always been the best cook in my family, and dazzle him with how far I had come. Thumpthumpthumpthump. Look, Pop, I’m a chef! I’m a real chef! Lily was squealing!
I didn’t even feel the slice. My knife was so sharp and my hands so quick that I didn’t realize the blade had gone right through my left index fingernail and sliced off a good portion of my finger with it.
Lily’s eyes were so big her other facial features disappeared.
“Did you cut yourself?!?”
“Oh. Yeah. Yeah, but I’m ok,” I pressed my finger against my thumb to stop the bleeding quickly. “Look at all the mushrooms though!”
Lily rolled her eyes.
“Imposter,” she said as she pirouetted away. I swear that’s what I heard, I swear it. But of course, that’s preposterous. She was 5.
Sighing, I pulled a bandaid around my finger and kept working. It’s part of the job.
There is, in fact, a little dent in my finger bed at the exact point where I carved the corner off in that kitchen. Every single time I slice a mushroom I think of Lily. And 15 years later, I still catch the tip of my left index finger once in a while. Maybe the mark of being a real chef isn’t perfection, but the willingness to keep going no matter what.
A few weeks ago, I was playing around with mushroom appetizers for a cocktail party I was catering. That work resulted in these beautiful mushroom parcels – like a cheesy, mushroomy, slightly boozy gift for your guests. They are pretty easy to pull together and a true showstopper!
Filo Parcels stuffed with
Mushrooms, Leeks, and Aged Gruyere
Makes about 32 parcels
- 1 leek, cut in half lengthwise and then into thin half circles
- 2 tablespoons butter, separated
- ½ pound assorted mushrooms, sliced (I used miatake, cremini, and shiitake this time)
- 1 tablespoon brandy
- 2 tablespoons sour cream
- ½ teaspoon white pepper
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 cup grated aged gruyere cheese
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme
- 12 sheets of filo dough
- 6 tablespoons melted butter
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the butter in a saute pan until the bubbles disappear. Stir in the leeks, season with salt, and let them cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Put the cooked leeks in a bowl.
- Heat the remaining tablespoons of butter in the pan (no need to wash after the leeks) and then add the mushrooms. DO NOT SEASON YET. Mushrooms contain a lot of moisture and they taste much better if you do not salt them until they have sautéed for about 10-15 minutes. They will brown, they will become softer, they will release many wonderful smells. Then sprinkle on some salt. Add the cooked leeks to the mushrooms. Stir the brandy in and then the sour cream. Turn the heat off and then add the white pepper and nutmeg. Stir in the cheese and the thyme and let sit for a few minutes while you get the filo ready.
- Working carefully on a wide board or countertop (it’ll get buttery so I always use a large cutting board), lay one filo sheet out. Using a pastry brush, cover the first layer with melted butter. Lay a second filo sheet on top of the first buttery one. Then butter that one. Lay one more layer (that’s three now) over the stack and butter that one.
- Run a sharp knife through the filo stack the long way, creating two long pieces, and then 4 times sideways creating 8 squares (see photo and/ or tv appearance).
- Fill the filo squares with a heaping tablespoon of mushroom/ cheese filling and then fold filo sides up and in to make a small, pretty mushroom package.
- Place packages on sheet pan and bake for 15 minutes or until the edges become a light brown.
*It’s also possible to make these parcels early and freeze them up to a week before you’re serving them. Freeze after stage 6 and then thaw (they won’t take longer than 1/2 hour to thaw) and bake as directed.
Here I am on KATU’s Afternoon Live, showing Tra’Renee how to make these parcels. Just click on the picture below: