A Mushroomy Meal

Sometimes it just comes together. The Universe hands you one. I walked into my local wonderful co-op this morning to get a lemon and they had a little basket of exquisite local porcinis, which a gatherer further north found after our recent major rainstorm. They were actually affordable (more or less.) I nabbed the whole pound and went home thinking that it was a shame to cook them on a blistering August day, but I planned to eat them anyway. Then it turned dark and cloudy and cool this evening. Perfect! I pulled some sablefish out of the freezer.
I sliced the porcinis in half lengthwise, then cut a “steak” out of each half that was nearly half an inch thick. I salted the mushroom steaks, and also the ends of caps and stems left over. I sprinkled the thawed fish liberally with salt and added some blackening seasonings to help it stand up to the assertive mushrooms. I chopped a clove of garlic and got some chicken glacé out of the freezer. You can buy glacé de poulet for about $6 for a quarter cup from http://www.olivenation.com, or you can make and freeze your own. Chicken glacé with fish? Hell yes. I learned this when tasting shrimp dishes in Mexico, which often have some chicken bullion concentrate added. It keeps the plate as a whole from getting too fishy, and makes a bridge between fish or seafood and some side dishes that wouldn’t usually go with it.
Everything happens very fast from here on. Preheat the oven to 275 and put your fish in it. The fish can spend anywhere between 15 and 20 minutes in the oven without harm while you sear the mushroom steaks as long as your oven is accurately regulated at 275. Heat your biggest skillet over high heat with the hood fan sucking air furiously. Put a hefty glug of good olive oil in the hot skillet and lay the porcini steaks in one layer. When well seared on one side, turn them and sear the other side. Remove to warmed plates putting the mushroom steaks on one side of each plate, add some more olive oil, and sear the remaining bits of porcini. When seared, add the chopped garlic and toss about furiously for maybe 30 seconds, then add the chicken glacé and a glug of good white wine, maybe a shot glass full. Boil hard until it thickens, salt to taste, and remove to a bowl. Wipe out the skillet very quickly, reheat over high heat, put in more olive oil, and sear the fish pieces quickly on each side. They should have been in the low oven about 15 minutes, and should be done when seared, but check and cook another minute if needed. Plate them across from the mushroom steaks and pour the mushroom sauce down the middle.

Eat with gratitude and a light but flavorful red wine. Give thanks for the rain and the edibles that appear behind it.
If you can’t get porcinis or they are the usual obscene price, you can use fresh shitake caps cut in half (all stem removed. Really.) Or use portobellos but use a spoon to scrape out the gills, which turn a nasty black-muck color in the pan.
So far my efforts to grow edible mushrooms outdoors haven’t come to much, but I’ll keep trying, and I’ll reward our local foragers whenever I can afford to.
Incidentally, if two people eating a pound of porcinis sounds gluttonous to you, well, uh, no kidding. All I can say in our defense is that we eat basically one meal a day, plus snacks. And I think that wretched excess is a wonderful thing when practiced in moderation😉

A Hot Treat

I love hot food, and one of my favorite snacks when other heat-lovers are around is stuffed jalapeños. Couldn’t be easier: slice 2 or 3 jalapeño chiles in half lengthwise, pull out the seeds and veins, salt liberally ( helps keep the heat in check,) put a piece of good cheddar about 1/2 inch square and two inches long in each half, and bake at 425 until done or cook on a part of the grill that you’re not cooking something else on, being careful not to burn the jalapeños. Eat with fingers. This amount of cheese will overflow a bit, causing crisp cheese crust to form on the baking pan. Yum. It’s low-carb and suitable for ketogenic eaters.
One split pepper makes a good cook’s treat when you have things in the oven anyway, and if you have a willing sous-chef don’t forget to roast a second one.
Jalapeños are good for growing in the front yard because they are sturdy and attractive. They may need a little judicious staking to keep them upright. They can get hot as blazes. The longer they’re left on the plant, the hotter they get. 1 or 2 plants per person are plenty.

Pork Belly and Eggplant

Recently I scored a big chunk of local outdoor-raised pork belly and have been gleefully cooking with this delicious cut for about a week. First I seasoned it with salt and pepper, let the seasoning sink in overnight, then sous-vided the piece at 143 degrees for 24 hours, finishing with a rapid sear on both sides over hardwood charcoal. That was delicious, but today’s planned-overs are the best pork belly so far. This dish uses the eggplants that my garden is pumping out right now.

You will need:
6 slices across a half pork belly (raw or cooked, but salt if raw) about 1/4-1/3 inch thick. In effect, you have six very thick slices of unsmoked bacon. Cut the slices crosswise into pieces about 2″ long.
4 Japanese long eggplants cut into chunks 2″ long and then quartered, salted liberally and set aside to drain.
3 tablespoons fermented black beans, rinsed, soaked, and drained (you can find salted fermented black beans in bags or bulk at good Asian groceries. DON’T get the unfermented kind.)
Half a cup or so of my Quasi-Korean Sauce I have this in the refrigerator all the time.

Press the salted eggplant pieces hard with your hands in a clean towel to get out as much moisture as possible. Lay the pieces of pork belly flat in a hot skillet and fry them good and brown and crisp on both sides, but don’t burn. Set them aside on paper towels and pour most of the fat out of the pan, leaving a few tablespoons. Put the eggplant pieces in to fry, keeping the heat medium-high and turning with a spatula. They should be browned on the cut sides and pretty soft. Meanwhile, mash the fermented black beans with your mortar and pestle or grind them in a mini-prep. Add them to the Quasi-Korean sauce. When the eggplant is cooked add the sauce to the hot pan, stir and flip to coat the eggplant well and cook it in the sauce a minute, add the pork belly chunks, and stir to coat them thoroughly. Serve forth with suitable green bits on top. I used cilantro, but slivered green onions would have been better. Serves two. If you aren’t a ketogenic eater, you will want some white rice with this, and it will serve three.

Now, my rant about pork. Pigs are intelligent animals and the conditions under which they are kept in factory farms is heartbreaking and disgraceful. They go insane, as would we under similar circumstances. Please seek out a local farmer who raises pigs humanely and buy from him or her. Often local food co-ops are sympathetic to your quest and can either help you get the meat or direct you to farmers. Go to farmers markets or look on Craigslist. If you have no other source, ask meat dept. managers at Whole Foods. They may surprise you.

Tadpole update

The little jellyish tadpoles introduced in a previous post now have well-developed hind legs, growing front legs, and are beginning to look like tiny toads. And there is no such thing as too many toads, in my opinion anyway. If you want to get them in your yard, in most parts of the country all you have to do is build it and they will come. Have a ground-level source of fresh water, plenty of shade, and some insects, and you will have toads pretty soon. Listen for their high-pitched “singing” around your pond some time. They sound more like katydids than like frogs, and it’s music to the gardener’s ears.

Small Miracles

Two of my laying hens, both old heritage breeds, are in my flock because they lay lovely deep-brown eggs but give me very few eggs because they are broody most of the time. “Broody” is the condition that occurs when the hen is determined to hatch out some chicks and spends all day in the nesting box, ruining eggs for eating purposes and pecking your hand painfully when you try to get her out of there. It happens to many hens at some point, but these two are broody more or less continually from May to October. Finally I decided to put them in small separate coops with their eggs (which are fertile because I keep a rooster) and see what happened.
Both hatched out small broods of chicks, and it is a real pleasure to watch them care for their families. They have a wide array of vocalizations, and can tell the chicks “run to me,” ” freeze,” or “this is delicious!” They will not hesitate to attack me if I get too near their babies. They are complete helicopter mothers, always close and always watching, and in a chicken this is endearing rather than annoying.
If you decide to hatch out chicks, be aware that about half will be males and you have to have some plan for what to do with them. Most city ordinances prohibit more than one rooster if they allow any at all, and roosters are unbelievably noisy. So think ahead. But a mother hen caring for her chicks is a heartwarming sight. Urban homesteading isn’t just about food production. It’s about quality of life, and these little families have added greatly to my QOL.

A Hopeful Sign

Early this spring I was mulling over the issue of a long narrow patch of ground that gets water from my garden sprinkler but doesn’t produce anything. I decided to try outdoor mushrooms. It was a fairly foolish idea because the area is fully exposed to our desert sun, but I do not lack for the damnfool quality. So in March I covered the strip 10″ deep with loose straw, wet it down, spread a bag each of oyster and King Winecap spawn, and paid it no further attention. The oyster spawn produced nothing, unsurprisingly. But this morning I found a tiny baby Stropheria putting a head up to have a look around.
I hope it goes without saying that you don’t eat any mushroom without carefully identifying it, even if you planted mushrooms in that very spot. Get at least 2-3 good mushroom field guides and don’t eat unless you are 100% confident of your ID. A mushroom-loving writer once remarked that ” There are old mushroom eaters and there are bold mushroom eaters, but there are no old bold mushroom eaters.” Take it to heart. Anyway, unless I get more mushrooms I will let this one go to spore rather than picking it.
Even if I never harvest any mushrooms the project is worth it, because the presence of a small fruiting body above ground indicates the presence of a large mycelium entity that you don’t see. I can’t encourage people enough to read Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets to understand the importance of this.
My spawn came from Fungi Perfecti. They have a fascinating array of kits if you want to stick your toe into mushroom growing, and they offer a wide variety of spawn and instructional books if you want to produce mushrooms on a bigger scale.

The Eggplant Chronicles IV

Summer vegetables are at their peak now, and in my home most of our meals are based on them. This one makes a great lunch or light dinner. I used to wrap this mixture into a pita as shown above but now that I am low-carb I just pile it on a little plate, drizzle with the sauce, and eat it. I like it warm, but it is also very tasty served at room temperature. It can be made ahead, and keeps a few days in the refrigerator. Oil-cured black olives are used to add a meaty savor to eggplant and zucchini, and capers add an herbal note. This meal is vegetarian, and can be made vegan if you alter the sauce recipe a little. You can use all eggplant or all zucchini if that’s what you have, although I think that the mixture is best.

Eggplant and Zucchini with Olives and Capers

2 small or one large eggplant, fresh and firm
2 small zucchini
12-20 oil-cured black olives depending on your taste for them (no other kind of olive will do here)
3 tablespoons salted capers, rinsed and then soaked in cold water for an hour and squeezed dry
1/4 cup good olive oil
2 large or 3 medium cloves garlic
chopped parsley to taste, probably a couple of tablespoons
Cut the eggplant in cubes 1/2 inch or a little larger on a side. Whether you peel it first is up to you. The finished dish has a more tender texture if the eggplant is peeled, but has less fiber and fewer antioxidants, so take your pick. Personally, I leave the peel on for this dish as long as the eggplants are young and tender. Cut the zucchini in quarters and slice each quarter into segments on the small side of 1/2 inch. Toss the vegetable cubes together in a bowl with 2 teaspoons of salt and let sit at least 1 hour, tossing occasionally. This step is important for this dish and shouldn’t be shortened. Don’t worry about the quantity of salt; if you do the squeezing step well, most of it will be removed with the liquid. You can soak the capers at the same time. Pit the olives and chop them coarsely, and chop the garlic finely. At the end of an hour, drain off exuded liquid and squeeze the veggie chunks in a clean kitchen towel, a few handfuls at a time, until as much liquid as possible has been squeezed out. Squeeze the capers dry and chop them coarsely. In a clay cazuela or 10″ skillet, heat a few tablespoons of the olive oil and add the garlic. Cook until opaque and cooked but do not allow it to start to brown even a little. Now add the olives, capers, and veggie chunks, toss to coat with the oil, and cook over low heat for about an hour, tossing occasionally and making sure it doesn’t burn on the bottom. Add a little water if needed to prevent burning.
Texture is very important. Start tasting a little after 45 minutes or even 30 if it looks like it’s cooking quickly. When the zucchini is just tender but not mushy, and the eggplant is melting in texture, it’s done. Also check for salt, but the seasonings are salty and you are unlikely to need any. Stir in the parsley just before serving. Serve with the sauce below.

Lemon-garlic sauce
This sauce is like an aioli but looser and less rich. The egg yolk just binds it and thickens it a little. If you leave out the egg yolk the whole dish is vegan, and the flavor is less rich but still very good. The texture of the vegan version will be liquid, not thick, and it will need to be stirred up by each diner before taking any.
1 egg yolk
1 large clove garlic
juice of half a lemon
1 Jalapeno pepper, seeds and veins removed unless you are a heat freak
olive oil as needed, usually about 1/4 cup.
salt to taste
1-2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
In a small food processor, chop the garlic clove and the chile pepper. I always mince fresh chiles before putting them in the processor to make sure that big chunks don’t startle diners. Add the egg yolk and lemon juice, process briefly, and slowly drip in the olive oil until it’s as thick as you want. I like it to be liquid and spoonable, but velvety. Taste and salt as needed. Add the thyme leaves and stir in. For the vegan version, proceed the same way except leave out the egg yolk, and be aware that it won’t thicken in the same way but will be more like a vinaigrette.
This dish is suitable for a low carb diet. All veggies have some carbs but not enough to worry about.
As far as portions, I think this quantity only serves two, maybe even just one on a hungry day. Daintier eaters might get three or four portions.


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