Chicken of the Woods

Laetiporus, or, Chicken of the Woods

Of certain luxuries I am beyond temptation.  The creative departments of many a food corporation continue to go through all kinds of contortions in an attempt to lure the consumer, criss-crossing tastes and textures ….Buffalo Wing Potato Chips, Steak and Kidney Pie Doritos, Triple Chocolate Fudge Cookie Cheesecake, Bacon-Lime Light Up Spray Candy…. desperate antics.   These seem more like stage props, not actually meant to be ingested.

What gets my antenna going is the prospect of food that is either fresh off the farm or foraged.   At the market recently I was salivating at the sight of a mushroom with a brilliant orange frill that goes by the name of  “Chicken of the Woods”.

The world of fungi has its own hybridized nomenclature.  Other enticing examples:  Lobster Mushroom, Beefsteak Fungus, Fried Chicken Mushroom, Saffron Milk Cap, Apricot Jelly Mushroom.  I want some!  Down, girl.  They’re only offering Chicken of the Woods.  Does it really taste like chicken?  Only one way to find out.

Going for just the half pound (this was gonna be expensive chicken!), I tucked the precious quarry into my bag, feeling some weird kind of elation in my brain as though I were transporting valuable gems, cautious and yet nervy.  (Which unearthed a distant memory of wearing high heels.)  I hightailed it home without further drama and set to searching recipes.  The majority of them called for sautéing with olive oil and butter.   Sounded like a good accompaniment to the Golden Nugget squash, leeks, and chard I’d been intending to make a dinner of.

Dinner, Inception

It was a decent meal.  The squash was stuffed with brown and wild rice, leeks, and raisins.  Almonds topped the garlicky chard.  As for the mushrooms….they were definitely not brought into this world to substitute for chicken, regardless of what the mycology sites might have led me to believe.  I think I prefer a less dense texture as well as more moisture in my fungi.  Yet there was something fabulous, haunting, about this wild organism that endures, and I am still savoring the enchantment of looking upon it, touching it, partaking of it.

Dinner, Ephemeral?

Laetiporus, or, Chicken of the Woods

LATE BLOOMING JAPANESE ANEMONES…….

John’s Anemones

Posted in LEEKS, Mushrooms, SQUASH, swiss chard, Uncategorized, vegan, vegetarian, Wild Food | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

La Grande Ratatouille

At the Farmers’ Market

It’s that time of year when the farmers’ markets are running at peak rpm and I’m cheek to jowl in the swarm of lovers of good food.  And of its purveyors:  I can only marvel at the human effort involved in getting past the hurdles provided by the whims of the elements, beyond the commitments to the land and the lifestyle, the soil preparation and seeding and planting, the nurturing and protection (with no assist from the Monsantos and their ilk), the harvesting…..beyond all of that to packing it into crates and into the truck or van (that has been known to break down on its way into the city), and setting up the tables at 7 a.m.  And to do it with such grace and artistry.  And a smile.  Surely this is a labor of love.

Potatoes! (The Apple of My Eye)

And it’s that time of year when Ratatouille happens (almost spontaneously) because all of its ingredients are in the prime of their allure, and beckoning, and available.  (They may be easy, but they’re not cheap!)

It isn’t so difficult to make what Waverley Root describes as “a characterless, uninspiring mess of pottage” if one follows the simple plan of throwing everything together and stewing for an hour or more.  With a bit more effort the reward will be greater, the whole surpassing the sum of its parts.  The alternative requires that each vegetable be initially cooked separately and then combined to consummate the alchemy.

Here are my guidelines…..
There will be oil.  And it won’t be sparing.  Ditto for the garlic.  I neither bother to salt/sweat the eggplant, nor to peel the tomatoes.  I find these practices hardly worth the effort.  The reason I use grapeseed oil is that it can tolerate better the high temperature that I prefer to use for eggplant and zucchini in the interests of searing and caramelizing the exterior.  I know this goes against the tradition, but I do add olive oil later in the game.  If it better suits you, use olive oil throughout, but use it only on med-high and not full-out high heat.

Heat some grapeseed oil (about 1/4 to 1/3 cup) in a large heavy skillet on high heat.  (Turn on the overhead fan.)  Take a medium to large sized eggplant and cube it.  Put it in the hot oil and flip with a spatula to try to coat the sides.  This should be done quickly as the eggplant is a thirsty guzzler and doesn’t like to share.  Put a lid on it.  Turn the heat down a bit.  Check it.  Stir and flip.  Cover.  Nurse it thusly for perhaps another 10 minutes, and if by then (or sooner) you think it’s fork-tender, replace lid, and turn off heat.  Allow to sit covered for another 5 min.  This ensures that it won’t be al dente, which is a curse for eggplant.  You may have to do this in two batches, depending on the size of eggplant and of the skillet.

Meanwhile, cut up some zucchini or summer squash (about 3 of them) to a similar size as the eggplant.  Remove the eggplant to a large bowl.  Add some more oil to the skillet, only a couple tablespoons here, as the squash takes up very little of it.  Turn up to high and after a minute or so, add the squash.  Flip and stir, coating with the oil.  Put the lid on.  Check after a few minutes, turning pieces as they brown.  Do not overcook.  Aim for golden on the outside without cooking all the way through.  Turn off heat.  Remove to the large bowl.

Now take some peppers (3, a red, a yellow, and a green) and chop.  Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in the skillet (and there’s probably some residual left in addition from the squash) on med-high heat.  After a minute or so, throw in the peppers and stir.  And throw in a large chopped onion or some shallots.  Cover and stir again and cook just to al dente.  Maybe five minutes. 

Add to this some chopped tomatoes, at least 2 or 3 good sized ones.  Stir, and after a minute, turn off heat.  Remove to a large pot and add to this the other vegetables as well as about a cup of tomato sauce, a bay leaf, a fistful of fresh basil, chopped, and 2 or 3 large cloves of garlic, chopped.

 

Another fork in the road:  you may now cook this on top of the stove, covered, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 30 minutes, perhaps adding a bit more tomato sauce if it seems to be losing too much moisture.  Or you may, as I like to do, put it in a 350 degree oven for 45 min. to an hour (about), stirring occasionally.  I cover it only for the first 20 minutes.  When it is done to your liking, add more chopped fresh basil and minced garlic.  And some more olive oil if you think it still needs it.  Stir.  Let sit a bit.  Serve.

I’ll Have the Ratatouille!

The great thing about ratatouille is that it goes nicely with so many things.  Like chicken or fish.  Eggs.  Grains.  Potatoes.  Spaghetti squash dressed with garlic and cheese.  In a sandwich.  Let me know what you come up with.  And enjoy your own labors of love!

Posted in eggplant, garlic, PePPeRs, Tomatoes, Uncategorized, vegan, vegetarian, Zucchini | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Salad Secrets Revealed

If you follow many food blogs, by now you’re probably referenced out on Julia Child, who, if she were still here, would have celebrated her 100th this past week…..so forgive me for adding another thin mint to the buffet.  Who can resist such a dame who provides us with quips like “every woman needs a blowtorch”?!  Beyond her brilliant cooking and teaching, her humor is what I miss the most.  A few more of my favorites..….

“Being tall is an advantage, especially in business. People will always remember you. And if you’re in a crowd, you’ll always have some clean air to breathe.”

“Why languish as a giantess when it is so much fun to be a myth?”

“How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”

No disrespect, but, when it comes to salad, I wonder if  Julia suffered a bias against it.  Leafing through the index of her “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, I see that salad gets four pages of attention, as compared with fifty for sauces and eighty-five for desserts.  True, not a lot of instruction is needed for salad, and it is, after all, a book about cooking.  Her recipe for a basic vinaigrette looks perfectly reliable.  As is usually done, dressing is poured onto greens and the whole of it is tossed together.  This can provide an adequate result, given good proportions.  But I think there’s potential that’s not being realized, and although ingredients are important, method can make all the difference.  I would like to propose an alternative that, if I may say so, surpasses in the end.  I’ve been using it for so long that I don’t remember how I came upon it.  I like to think I invented it.

It may take some trial and error regarding the amounts of oil and vinegar, because they won’t be measured and success comes from getting a feel for it.  It works for me and seems like the one, true and only way to proceed.

I always start with a medium sized stainless steel bowl.  This would be for 3 to 4 servings.  Into it goes a small to medium sized clove of garlic and a few dashes of salt.  The two are mashed together with the back of a fork.  I suppose a glass or ceramic bowl would work, but it is necessary to use a lot of force in the mashing, and we don’t want any accidents.  A good substantial fork with a nice curve is necessary, as a cheap dollar-store variety will just provide a miserable exercise.  If you are in the kind of mood where you want to beat the hell out of something, so much the better.  What you want to end up with is a purée.  If the garlic you are using is not fresh and wet, it will be harder to achieve.  Nevertheless, soldier on.  Next thing is to wash and dry the greens.  Really really dry, as much as you have patience for.  Personally, I don’t have the patience to get them really dry.  I spin them and then they still need blotting with a towel but I just let go of it.
Now we arrive at the crux of the process.  Using either tongs or a bare hand, work the greens around the sides of the bowl so that they mingle with the garlic and before long they are no longer two separate entities but married together in a harmonious union.  When you are satisfied as to the equilibrium, you may add other vegetables, such as, fennel, carrot, celery, peppers, mushrooms, etc.  Except: add neither tomatoes nor cucumbers at this point.  Pour some olive oil over everything and ‘toss’ with tongs to coat evenly.  Then splash some vinegar or lemon juice onto it.  Toss again.  Now you may top it off with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, oranges, or anything that would be so wet as to water down the dressing.  Do not toss.

Ingredients for a Salad

First You Take Some Garlic and Salt

Begin the mashing with the tines of the fork.

Keep workin’ it, tipping the bowl helps, and using the sides for better traction.

By now you’re using the solid back more than the tines.

Sufficiently Smashed, Close-up

Spun Greenery

All Torn Up

Taking Up the Garlic

Added Vegetables

Adding Olive Oil

Tossed with Olive Oil, Looks Like the Right Amount

Easy on the Vinegar, and Toss

 

Sometimes I like to transfer it to a glass bowl for appearance-sake.

Crowned with Tomatoes

BON APPETIT!

To make a good salad is to be a brilliant diplomatist – the problem is entirely the same in both cases. To know how much oil one must mix with one’s vinegar.”
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

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A Good Day for a Hot Bath

What dreadful hot weather we have!  It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance.
~Jane Austen

Of all the fish that I don’t go out of my way for, anchovies tend to reside in the outermost reaches of edibility.  In normal circumstances.  But there was the time in a little corner of Provence, in the department of Var, in the commune of Bargemon, of an afternoon spent on a tree-canopied patio with cherished friends……a platter of Crudités with an anchovy dip was presented.   Historically, I had given the anchovy its fair share of trials and condemned it.  Vile in the caesar.  A vexation on pizza.  Nix the pasta.  As a self-confessed ‘misanchovist’, my expectations were in negative territory.  I could have passed.  But hey.  I got caught up in the ambiance, the fabulous light, the voluptuous air, all this conviving……it was a perfect setup.  Like a timorous non-swimmer, I made my move.  I waded in and what do you know.  Enchanté!  I went back for more, and more again.  Pretty darned good!  For such an agreeable reaction, it might have taken a place on my food preference index, but I hardly thought about it afterwards.  I think I made it once after we got home and it was nice enough.

Recently I revisited this Crudités with anchovy sauce thing.  Perhaps it’s because of the humid soup we find ourselves in this summer which leaves us depleted of our fundamental culinary programming.   This combined with the current profusion of premium vegetables at the farmers’ markets are catalyst enough for another round of Bagna Cauda as it is called in France (and in Italy where it originated).  It means ‘hot bath’ and is traditionally served over heat, fondue style.  Raw vegetables are dipped into a pool of olive oil which has been simmered with smashed garlic and anchovies.  Toasted bread (grilled would be even better) accompanies in order to catch the drippings as it makes the return trip from the center of the table.

A real connoisseur might insist on salted anchovies, but I’m not there yet.  And there is some controversy regarding the addition of butter and/or cream.  Fennel and celery are classic pairings for this.  Radishes, endive, peppers, and cauliflower also combine well.  I love green beans here too, and prefer them blanched (dunked briefly into boiling water).

Recipe: Bagna Cauda

10 to 12 anchovies packed in oil
4 to 5 large cloves of garlic
½ to ¾ c olive oil
a whole lot of fresh vegetables

Smash the anchovies and garlic together in a mortar and pestle, or buzz in a small food processor.  Heat together with the olive oil on medium heat, stirring now and then, for 15 minutes.  I have seen recipes that call for only heating for a few minutes, but I think the longer cooking helps to tame the fish as well as develop the irresistible umami aspect.
It never achieves a homogeneous consistency and that’s okay.  Just be sure to scoop up some of the garlic and anchovy bits lying around at the bottom.
In this weather I think it unnecessary to keep it over heat at the table.  So I would dispense with the fondue flame.
Surround the dip on a platter with an assortment of fresh vegetables and toasted or grilled bread.  This would serve 6 as a first course, or 3 to 4 for lunch.

Crudités with Bagna Cauda

Conviving on the Bagna Cauda

A BUTTERFLY MAINTAINS  ELEGANCE, NO MATTER THE HEAT…..

Variegated Fritillary on Verbena Bonariensis

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Sweet Relief

When the humidity glues your crossed legs together and you painfully peel one bare layer of skin off of the other, when the mercury turns your brain to mush and you start to wonder if someone has slipped something into your drink, you know it’s time to get out of the heat.  Escape (however temporary) is possible even for those without conditioned air.  The usual solutions seem to target the lethargic (and that would be me), promoting malls, museums, and movies.  A less ordinary approach could send us packing for London where the temps this week will be merely in the upper teens and lower twenties.  We could turn to Japan and try burning moxa on our heads.  Or fry up some eel, as is done there on Unagi Day, purportedly to cool the body.

As a sometime member of those great lethargic masses, I’m thinking retrograde, back to the ultra-ordinary:  the homemade popsickle.   A trip to the dollar store might be necessary if you don’t already have a mold collecting dust in the basement.  Beyond that, it doesn’t take much.  Simply, a fruit juice goes into either a mold or some paper cups, followed by some sticks, and a spell in the freezer.  But if you’re like me and keep a jar of herbal iced tea in the fridge, throw some of that in along with a few berries and a dash of ginger beer.  Voila.  Coolsickles.

Fruited Tea Popsickles

While waiting for the dang things to freeze (it helps to use a little forethought, like the night before the heat alert),  you can cool down with some great iceberg photography at:

Camille Seaman

And when you finally get to refresh with the fruits of your labor, enjoy them while checking out these:

Cool bus stops

AND DON’T FORGET TO GET SOME SHADE……..

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The Wrapture

Being as we are now in the thick of it with the temperature and the humidity and no one wants to cook, let alone eat hot or heavy food, the call for light fare is as clear as a dinner bell.  Salads are the standby of course, but maybe we want a change after a week’s worth of Nicoises and Greeks, Cold Sesame Noodles and Herbed Grains.  Or maybe we’d be happy just to be tricked into thinking that it’s not salad.  Enter the wrap.  Not your ordinary doughy wrap, mind you.  These are wrapped with vegetables.  I used chard and spinach, as well as thinly sliced and blanched zucchini, and hollowed out cucumber (okay, that’s technically stuffed).  For fillings I raided the fridge and found black pepper goat cheese, leftover brown rice, some green beans and asparagus, tapenade, dried tomatoes, avocado, and eggs (which I turned into a thin omelet).  There is also a fruited version with mango and feta.

Little Wraps

Zucchini, Black Pepper Goat Cheese, Asparagus

Chard, Black Pepper Goat Cheese, Brown Rice, La Bomba Hot Condiment, Green Beans

Cucumber, Avocado, Dried Tomato, Black Olive, Tabasco

Chard, Tapenade, Omelet, Black Pepper Goat Cheese, Garlic Scapes

A few notes……For wrapping purposes, it helps to blanch the chard, just in and immediately out of the boiling water.  Ditto the zucchini, but for a bit longer.  The goat cheese helps hold things together and I suppose if you wanted it to be dairy-free, you could use avocado or almond butter.  The wrap with the omelet is tied with some strings that I removed from celery….works pretty well.

Have fun dreaming up other possibilities and try to keep cool.

Mango, Feta, and Spinach Wraps

Mango, Feta, and Spinach Wraps

A HOST OF HOSTAS

Hosta

Hosta

Posted in avocado, goat cheese, Green Beans, La Bomba, swiss chard, Uncategorized, Zucchini | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sea Bounty

Knowing that the season for sea asparagus is a short one and soon to come to a close, I was relieved to have made it to the farmers’ market yesterday just in time to nab the last bag of it at Forbes’ Wild Foods table.  My intent being to continue on the trail started last post with more ideas for using this darling of the seashore.  Turns out, I stumbled into a whole sea garden’s worth of treasures.  I was able to scoop up delicacies I’d never even dreamed about.  Sea Spinach!  Sea Parsley!  Sea Chickweed!  Who knew?  How did this knowledge escape my notice in the many years I lived on the Atlantic coast?  Obliviously surrounded by its wealth back then, I now covet and must seek out what morsels wash up on these urban tidal shores.  Having tasted their splendors, I am only too happy to do so.  May you also have the good fortune to chance upon these in your neighborhood markets.

On the menu today:  an appetizer, a side, and two salads……

The first, “Watermelon and Sea Asparagus Cocktail” takes a little inspiration from the popular combo of watermelon and feta.  Here the salty feta is replaced with salicornia and mint leaves round out the refreshment.

Watermelon and Sea Asparagus Cocktail

A terrific side dish can be made of freshly shelled peas and sea asparagus.  Dunk the peas in boiling water for a minute or two, drain, and sauté briefly with well-rinsed sea asparagus in olive oil.  Throw in some minced garlic scapes if you have, or just garlic.  A little butter finishes it off nicely.

Peas ‘n Seas

Sea Chickweed

Sea Spinach

The sea spinach is the salt and the sea chickweed is the pepper in “Salt and Pepper Salad”.  Pretty much anything goes with it.  Here is a version with apples and grapefruit.  It’s all tossed in olive oil and blueberry vinegar.

Salt and Pepper Salad

And for dessert:  more salad!  No dressing required, the savory sea parsley, aka,
sea celery, combines beautifully with fresh figs and feta for a jolly threesome….

Salad for Dessert

It was a good week for discoveries……not for plant life alone….I also came upon a very striking bee that I had not been familiar with.  It was busy with a coneflower (Echinacea) and sported a shiny green thorax (upper body), black and white striped abdomen, and enormous pollen sacs, looking like a cowboy in chaps.  They are small bees, and solitary, in that they do not have hives.  They tunnel their nests into the ground.  Agapostemon is their Latin name, and they are called ‘sweat bees’ because they like to land on humans and drink in their sweat.  Don’t worry, they aren’t aggressive.   I hope that someday one will land on me.  I’ll chalk it up to good luck.

COOL BEES…..

Agapostemon Virescens

Sweat Bee, Echinacea

Posted in DESSERT, feta, figs, peas, salad, sea asparagus, Sea Chickweed, Sea Parsley, Sea Spinach, Side Dishes, Uncategorized, watermelon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments