Archive for the ‘cooking’ Category

The Greens of Early Summer

I love leafy greens and consider them one of the healthiest foods in the world, as long as they were raised in a clean fashion.  If you are lucky enough to have a garden and an active permaculture property, you can nearly always eat some greens but the source of your greens changes throughout the growing season.  Right now, we are in the glory season for lambsquarters, and they are everywhere and are at their tender best right now. I eat huge quantities of them, but I have written so much about them elsewhere that in this post I will say very little except: for the sake of your health and your palate, learn to identify them, harvest them, prepare them, and eat them.

Today I decided to write about some uncommon greens which are unique to the season.  Americans don’t think very much about eating the leaves of trees, but some of them are very appealing, and my favorite “tree green“ is the young sprouts of mulberry trees.  It is almost never possible to gather good edible leaves from mature trees. The best mulberry greens are the tips of actively growing shoots from trees that have been cut back, and I am lucky because on the walking trail near the river in my area, several mulberry trees have been cut back to keep them from impinging on the trail. They produce a forest of new growth, and it is the tips of that new growth that are good to eat.   Harvest only as far down as the stem can easily be snapped with your fingernail. If it bends or creases instead of snapping, go further up toward the tip.

Incidentally, there is some pretty ridiculous stuff on the Internet to the effect that mulberry leaves will get you high or the water from cooking them will. Utter rot.  This is one of those unfortunate cases of one writer printing a piece of misinformation and dozens of others picking it up as gospel.  I have been eating young mulberry tips for decades, and nothing remotely interesting has ever happened as a result. Euell Gibbons ate them, Samuel Thayer eats them,they are used as a tea throughout Southeast Asia,  and there is no reliable report anywhere of them causing hallucinations. You must always do your own due diligence and make your own decisions, but I simply don’t worry about it.

For a quick lunch for two, I gathered a double handful of mulberry tips. I washed them and cut them in fine cross sections of less than a quarter inch, chopping a large bunch at a time.     Then I considered what else to add.

I could’ve used sorrel for a tart element, but since the leaves on my petit syrah grapevine are young and tender, I decided on several of them.  Wash them, stack them, roll them up like a cigar, and sliver them very thin with a sharp knife.

For flavoring, garlic is always a favorite of mine, and right now the garlic is forming bulbs but they are small and the skin is still young and tender. I pulled an entire head since they are mild this early, peeled off just the toughest outer layers, and sliced the rest finely in cross section and chopped it. The material that would later become the skins is full of allicin, and is very desirable.  But I also wanted some herbal flavor, so I grabbed the top of one of my bronze fennel plants. At this time of year, when it is getting full and bushy, bronze fennel is so ornamental that I can hardly stand to use it, but it tastes good so I try to overcome my scruples.

I decided that I wanted a texture element, and this time of year my favorite crisp texture is the scapes of last year‘s leek plants.

Cut them before the bulb on top begins to open, peel off the very tough outer skin, and then use a vegetable peeler to get all stringy bits off.

As I got ready to cook,  I decided to cut the stalks in quarter inch  cross sections because it would go better with the other textures. The taste of leek stalks is soft, oniony, and sweet.

First heat a skillet over medium heat.  Then add your oil of choice. I used a mixture of olive and avocado oil.  When the oil is hot, put in the chopped garlic, leek stalk pieces, and fennel.  Sauté until the garlic looks cooked. Add the chopped mulberry leaves and grape leaves, and because the texture of mulberry leaves tends to be dry, I added a quarter cup of water at this time.  Add salt to taste, and sauté until the greens are cooked to your liking and any added water is cooked away but the greens aren’t too dry. Personally, I like tree greens a bit on the done side, since they tend to be a bit chewy when cooked al dente.   Taste for seasoning, and then set your greens mixture aside in a bowl, reheat the skillet, put in a knob of butter, and scramble whatever you think is the right number of eggs for two people.  When cooking for my husband and myself, I always use a mixture of three eggs and three additional egg yolks, beaten together with about a tablespoon of cream.  When the eggs are scrambled and have less than a minute left to cook, return the greens to the pan and stir the mixture up together, but you want discrete lumps of egg to remain among the greens.   Serve onto plates, grind over fresh pepper to taste, and salt as needed.

Besides mulberry and  grape leaves, I’m giving thought to other climbing perennials or trees that might be useful for greens.  I have a linden tree that I planted specifically for greens, however the texture turned out to be somewhat mucilaginous and if there is one thing I dislike, it is what my husband calls the “mucoid food group.“  They are fine in a salad when young, but I don’t care for them cooked at all.  I am beginning to eye the shoot tips on Siberian elm trees that have been cut back. My goat and chickens eat them in huge quantities, and maybe I could too,  so I have been searching for data, especially because this is an enormously prolific trash tree in my area.  According to the website Eat the Weeds, run by the prolific and reliable Green Deane, the very young leaves of both Siberian elms and Chinese elms are edible and can be used interchangeably with each other. So I will be trying that in the future. I’ll report back.

Spring Alliums

Green onions and green garlic are always the first food to show up in my yard. My onions are the Egyptian and produce hugely with no input from me. In fact, they are becoming a weed in places and need to be dug out. But I would hate to be without them.

Green garlic of the ultra-early Chinese Pink variety is ready at about the same time. I plant plenty the previous fall and plan to eat most of it green, on grounds that I can always buy organic garlic bulbs if needed but can’t get good green garlic anywhere but my own yard.  Most of the green garlic that I have seen in stores and farmers market has been overly mature and well past its best. When it is young and tender, you can eat everything up to the leaf tips. Just peel off the lowest leaf and the outside layer of the stalk and you are ready to go.

Green onions and green garlic can be cooked the same way, and I  usually cook them together. Slice the stalks in quarter inch cross section and sauté them with a little salt and butter or olive oil for about five minutes, add the leaves also sliced in quarter inch cross section, and sauté until the leaves are tender and done. Taste for salt, and you can eat your allium mix as is or add it to other dishes. It’s good with scrambled eggs or in an omelet with a little cheese, and makes a good side dish for many, if not most, main dishes. It’s great on pita with  some pan-grilled halloumi. It can be the basis for a horta of mixed greens. It’s full of allicin and other benefits, but I make it because it tastes good.

Fermentation VIII: Kefir Broth

I love to make soups in the winter, and have often written about the wonders of homemade broth.  I’ve never cared much for any vegetable broth that I have tasted, and I like the deep savoriness and the economy and thrift of making meat and chicken broth. But recently, more or less by accident, I did discover an alternative.   I was experimenting with my abundant supply of water kefir, and was cooking it down to make a syrupy glaze of the type that I have enjoyed making out of kombucha.  About the original idea, all I can say is please don’t try this with kefir, because the result is rather dreadful. However, having tasted the product of one pot, I turn the heat off under the other one, which had been reduced to a little more than half its original volume. I tasted, thought, added some salt, and had something that tasted savory and surprisingly like chicken broth.  Cooked with some aromatics and herbs, the resemblance would be even more striking.

I tried the same experiment with some water kefir  made with coconut sugar, thinking that the deeper color and flavor would be attractive in this context.  But to my surprise, the faint bitterness that is detectable as an undertaste in brown sugar or coconut sugar was greatly exaggerated in the finished broth, to the point that I threw it out.  So save yourself some time and trouble and use plain sugar when making kefir that you intend to cook down.

Since I remain obsessed with fermentation months after first reading the Noma Guide to Fermentation, I decided to try combining various fungi both microscopic and macroscopic in a mushroom broth.  I had a quart of broth made from boiling down 2 quarts of water kefir.  I started with butter, which made my soup vegetarian, but if you wish to use olive oil or some other vegetable oil instead it will be vegan.  Heat about 3 tablespoons of your chosen fat in a small heavy sauce pan, and sauté one large or two small cloves of garlic finely chopped and one small onion sliced thin.  Cook them over medium low heat, stirring frequently, until they are thoroughly cooked, soft, and a bit caramelized.  Put in 3 tablespoons of mushroom powder. I used dried and powdered Sullius that I had gathered, but the most commonly available powdered mushroom is porcini.  Sautée the powder for a few minutes, and add a quart of broth to your pan. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down to simmer.  Now stir in 2 tablespoons of white miso paste.   Taste for saltiness. You might want more miso, but taste it first. I am working on making my own miso, but a good grade of white miso from your nearest Asian market is fine.  Simmer  the soup for 15 to 20 minutes over low heat.

The final step is to smooth it out.  You can do this with a stick blender, but in my opinion there is no alternative to a Vitamix blender to turn your soup into pure velvet.  Make sure you know how to handle hot liquids in your blender without creating a sort of fluid explosion.  When the soup is completely smooth, return it to the pan, heat gently, taste for seasoning, grind in a little fresh pepper, and serve.

There is nothing quite like the process of fermentation to produce a rich, meaty savor without the use of meat. In this basic recipe, I was experimenting with fermentation as a way to make a vegan or vegetarian product highly satisfying.  But if you are not a vegan or vegetarian, there is no reason to feel limited.  You can start with bacon fat if you want to, or add chunks of leftover cooked meat, or finish it with a dash of good sherry or a swirl of cream or both. Sautéed mushrooms would be a great addition.

It interested me that despite use of miso, this soup doesn’t taste identifiably Asian. It just tastes good. If you want something that leans more Asian, you could add a piece or two of kombu to the kefir for a few minutes  as it cooks down and finish the bowls with some diagonally slivered scallions.

Wild Mushroom Experiments


No, not that kind of mushroom and not that kind of experiment. I have been reading a wonderful new book, chef Chad Hyatt’s The Mushroom Hunter’s Kitchen, and it has led to compulsive kitchen experimenting. Hyatt writes about porcini, morels, and the other “premium” mushrooms, but also about more common mushrooms that you never encounter in upscale restaurants but might find a bagful of if you’re a mushroom hunter. He suggests substitutes where appropriate and encourages a lot of experimentation. He has me adding cooked ground black trumpet mushrooms to my umami sauce, and I’m especially interested by his mushroom leathers, in one case made from the Sullius mushroom genus that I no longer harvest because I dislike the texture so much. This makes the despised  mushroom sound worthy of a place in the take-home basket.

I happen to have a lot of lobster mushrooms in the freezer, because they are beautiful and plentiful and I can never resist harvesting them when I find them, but the unfortunate truth is that to my palate they have very little flavor at all. I love hummus, and as a low-carb person I can’t eat it often, so I was interested by Hyatt’s recipe for hummus made from salted mushrooms. I don’t have any salted mushrooms at hand currently, but I certainly do have lobsters.  They were sautéed in olive oil before freezing, and I decided to thaw a bag and try a recipe based on Hyatt’s. The lobsters went in the food processor, about 2 cups of them, with 1/4 cup of tahini, the juice of two small lemons, two cloves of raw garlic, and some additional olive oil. After a few minutes of processing and adding salt to taste, the taste was good but the texture and mouth feel were not at all what I wanted.  I moved the somewhat grainy lumpy mixture out of the processor and into my Vitamix blender, added more olive oil so that the mixture would blend, and blended it on the high setting, stirring the contents down a couple of times.   The texture was now exactly what I wanted, not totally smooth like baby food but with a texture much like chickpea hummus.  Dolloped into a bowl, sprinkled with ground chipotle chilies rather than the more traditional sumac, and garnished with chopped cilantro, it made a delicious spread. I should add that Hyatt calls for less olive oil than I ended up using, although I didn’t measure precisely.  I love the taste of top quality olive oil and lobster mushrooms have little natural flavor of their own, so for me this was a natural adjustment to make.

This first very successful experiment has me reading the book with renewed interest.  It can be rather painful to read mushroom books out of season, when there is no way to go out and find the mushrooms, but most of us who hunt mushrooms have a lot of frozen or dried  mushrooms from past successful hunts, and this can help us get busy and get them out of the pantry or freezer.  Also, specialty grocery stores have much larger selections than they used to. The last time I was in Whole Foods, I counted seven varieties of fresh mushrooms.  Buying those hideously expensive little packets of dried mushrooms from the grocery store is not really an option if you want mushrooms in bulk, but you can buy bulk dried mushrooms from several sources.  I usually use Oregon Mushrooms or buy from private foragers when I want to augment my pantry supply. By the way, know your forager. Not every forager should be trusted blindly.

In short, if you like to eat mushrooms at all, I highly recommend Hyatt’s book, whether or not you are a mushroom hunter. His creativity is wonderful.   For example, there is an entire chapter of mushroom desserts.  This is not a category of possibilities that I ever gave the faintest thought to, but the recipes look really good and seem designed to get cooks thinking. And this, to me, is the hallmark of a really successful cookbook. A good cookbook may give me a few recipes that I use verbatim, but it’s more important that it gets me excited about the endless vagaries of food and leaves me feeling that there are more possibilities than I’ve considered. Lifting simple nourishment and avoidance of starvation to an art form is what cooks do, and a good cookbook can get us very jazzed about doing it.

Keep in mind that the book has some very useful notes about lesser-known edibles but is a cookbook, not a foraging book. You will still need a field guide (and some good teachers) if you’re new to the sport.

Hyatt is selling his book directly, in both hard copy and ebook format, at the link above. As always, I don’t accept review copies. Books that I review are bought at the price that you will pay. This one is worth every penny.

Fermentation VII: Umami Sauce

At the beginning of the year I like to look back on what worked last year and what is still with me. My major category of experiments this fall and winter was fermentation, and this rich dark meaty sauce paste which incorporates multiple fermented ingredients is one of the clear winners. I try to keep some in the fridge at all times because it’s really useful stuff.

The foundation is black garlic.  I have come to love black garlic with passionate intensity, and have also had to sadly admit that my own homemade version is not nearly as good as what I can get commercially.  I think the difference is the evenness of heat that can be kept in a commercial fermentation chamber, and a rigged rice cooker or slow cooker just doesn’t work as well.  One day, no doubt, I will find a safe way to build a fermentation chamber that holds 140°. In the meantime, I buy it from the sources mentioned in my black garlic post.

To make the sauce paste pound three of the large Korean style single cloves of garlic or the peeled cloves from one head of regular black garlic with a generous pinch of salt in a mortar and pestle. This supposes that you have one of the big Thai ones meant for ingredients, not the tiny things meant for spices. Keep pounding until the paste is smooth. Pound in a tablespoon of butter, avocado oil, or olive oil. When this is smoothly incorporated, pound in a couple of tablespoons of of lacto-fermented cremini mushrooms and their juice (read more here.) When the paste is smooth again, stir in a tease of colatura or Red Boat fish sauce (I use t teaspoons,) a tablespoon of good red wine vinegar and one tablespoon of your own best balsamic-type vinegar (I use my Concord-must vinegar) or high-quality commercial balsamic vinegar (no grocery-store stuff.) Taste for salt and for acid balance, and adjust as needed. You can double or triple the recipe as long as your mortar is big enough.

Now you have a number of possibilities. The paste can be used as is, making sure it’s brought to room temp if you used butter, and can be stirred into soup or eggs or spread on buttered toast or grilled polenta for a tasty side. A spoonful lends distinction to a mug of hot sipping broth. A fewspoonfools are really good tossed into greens at the last minute of cooking. Just don’t be timid with it. The flavors are rich but surprisingly understated. It keeps in the refrigerator for at least a week if tightly covered.

 

It can be thinned to a more sauce-like consistency with a little broth or a little more oil and poured over hot or cold sliced meat.

My favorite elaboration is, when pounding in the butter, to keep pounding in more, up to four or five tablespoons instead of just one. If you pound enough this creates a smooth mousse, into which the rest of the ingredients can be stirred. It’s superb as steak butter, wonderful on sourdough bread, great spread on a thick slice of Manchego cheese, and I can easily imagine it dolloped  over a plate of hot pan-grilled shrimp. I think it would be great as a topping for broiled salmon, and can imagine it lending a deep meaty flavor to roasted or grilled vegetables.

It has become one of the things that I have to have around, and I’m always thrilled when I find things like that.

Happy 2019!

Fermentation VI: Lacto-fermentation

I can’t say enough about how The Noma Guide to Fermentation is livening up my kitchen experiments, but I was fairly sure that I wouldn’t care much for ordinary lacto-fermentation. All fermented pickles and sauerkraut are made by this method, and with the exception of kimchi I’ve never really taken to any of them. But then I bought a couple of pounds of organic cremini mushrooms because they were on sale cheap and I’m a sucker for a bargain, and had to figure out something to do with them. I tried slicing them, tossing with 4% of their weight in salt, and packing into quart mason jars under pickle weights. I set them aside loosely covered, and when I next paid attention to them a week later the mushrooms had shrunk down by half and the jars were filled with fluid. I sniffed the contents, and was surprised at the strong mushroom aroma. I tasted the fluid and it was salty and had a full mushroom flavor. So I started to experiment.

This soup also contains other recent and past experiments.  If there is one thing that I want readers of my blog to do, it is play with their food. Taste, and if the tastes go well together, it doesn’t matter  whether you ever saw a recipe quite like it before.  The flavor of mushrooms and black garlic seem made for each other, and I wanted to try the combination out. I put about a cup of dried porcini slices in hot water to soak. While they soaked, I started the cooking with two cloves of fresh garlic finely minced and eight peeled cloves of black garlic chopped very coarsely. I melted a couple of tablespoons of butter in a saucepan, and added the two garlic types and three slices of bacon sliced 1/4” wide. I sautéed these ingredients slowly over medium heat until the fresh garlic was cooked but not yet coloring, and added a quart of very good chicken broth, the soaked porcinis and their strained soaking water, half a cup of the fermented creminis and their fluid, and a tablespoon of dry sherry and two teaspoons of Red Boat fish sauce. This mixture was brought to a slow boil, and turned down to a simmer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile I peeled another eight cloves of black garlic and pounded them to a smooth paste with a good pinch of salt. When smooth, I pounded in a tablespoon of fermented mushroom liquid, a tablespoon of boiled-down kombucha,  and a tablespoon of red wine vinegar. When the soup was served, a good dollop of this paste was put in each bowl, to be stirred in by the diner. Of course you could just add it to the soup in the pot, but the pleasure of smelling the rich, complex fragrance as the paste melts into the soup would then be lost to all but the cook.

Be aware that lacto-fermentation only preserves food up to a point. After a week fermenting on the counter, the cremini juice is at peak flavor in my opinion. If left at room temp it may go on to develop musty off-flavors. In my kitchen, at the one-week point it goes in the fridge.

I always use quart wide-mouth mason jars for lacto-fermenting. There are wonderful crocks made especially for the purpose, but I don’t want that much of any one product, so I stick with my jars. Good pickle weights will simplify your lacto-fermenting and help prevent mold. Good weights are glass, solid and heavy, smooth on the bottom, and have a handle on top so that you can get hold of them. Cheaper weights are often hollow on the bottom, creating an airspace that invites mold, and aren’t heavy enough to keep the fermenting veggies submerged. Good ones can be bought here or from other sources. I have one hand-thrown stoneware pickle weight that I love, and have also used smooth rounded rocks of the right size after putting them through the dishwasher. This last is unscientific and probably unsanitary but I bet our ancestors did it too.

 

Fermentation III: Vinegar

 
I first wrote about red wine vinegar in 2009, and while I have made and consumed it steadily since then, there didn’t seem to be much more to say about it. My husband gifted me with a marvelously cool 2 gallon oak barrel to keep it in, but the vinegar was the same. But then came The Noma Guide to Fermentation, and I’m left wondering why I was so unimaginative. Their chapter on vinegars has lots of interesting ideas but the ones that excite me the most are elderberry “balsamic” and black garlic “balsamic.” I suspect that I will end up combining the two, since I have some elderberry wine fermenting and the port-like notes should be a perfect complement to the deep umami of black garlic, and for even more depth I’ll use red wine vinegar to start the acetic fermentation. Basically, if you have a good strong vinegar mother, you can ferment anything mildly alcoholic into vinegar. The acetobacter bacillus converts ethanol to acetic acid in the presence of oxygen, so if you want to use your own fruit you need to ferment it into wine first, but that’s easy enough. Once you have wine or mead or hard cider to ferment into vinegar, you can do it in quart mason jars, with a dish towel tied tightly over the top to allow oxygen in and prevent winged visitors, and make several kinds of vinegar in a square foot of counter space. Or if you have a lot of ideas and a tolerant spouse, you can occupy all available surfaces. Just make sure you have a plan for what to do with it.  You can cook with it as detailed in my 2009 post, and if you still have too much it makes a fair non-alcoholic drink stirred into sparkling water. Stir a shot into a tall glass of chilled sparkling water, with some natural or artificial sweetener. I like a shake of cinnamon on top. This isn’t a kid’s drink, and only the adults are likely to enjoy it, and not all of them by any means. Some will dislike the sharp edge, and a dash of fruit juice or a little honey may take the curse off for them. But those of us who drank the old cider-vinegar-and-honey drink growing up generally came to enjoy the sweet-sour flavor and like this use of vinegar.

This is already known to everyone, but it bears occasional repeating: you can also infuse vinegar with nearly anything that suits your fancy. Tarragon is a classic, but I prefer thyme infused in red wine vinegar, using about one big bunch of thyme per pint of vinegar. Flavorful fruits are also a possibility. Be aware that Acetobacter does one thing superbly well, and that is converting ethanol to acetic acid. If you add any source of unfermented sugar directly to your ferment, it will remain as sugar. You can use this effect deliberately to make fascinating semi-sweet or agrodolce vinegars. One that I particularly enjoyed was made by dehydrating Concord grapes from my vine until they were somewhat shriveled and approaching the raisin stage, covering them with red wine vinegar, blending with a stick blender until the grapes were roughly chopped, and then infusing the mixture for a couple of weeks. The grape bits were then strained out, and the vinegar was richly flavored, barely sweet, and carried some of the unique tang of the Concord grape. I’m looking forward to making pomegranate vinegar in the near future. Blackberry vinegar would probably be wonderful.

It may be that live vinegar contributes to your biome and general health, and definitely it contains the antioxidants of the original wine with little or none of the alcohol.

If you get interested in culinary uses for your vinegar, you will enjoy Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat. The section on acid in cooking is invaluable and will lead you to analyze food that lies a bit too heavy on the tongue and realize that a bit of acid could have sparked it to deliciousness. Canal House makes and uses a lot of vinegar in their cooking, and you can find some recipes and a good article on making vinegar here.

The vinegar “mother” is a great example of a SCOBY or pellicle, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast that create a matrix and keep reproducing as long as they have a food supply. They busily make vinegar, kombucha,water or milk kefir, or other things depending on the particular microorganisms. You can see the vinegar mother well in this borrowed shot:

Your mother is very versatile and can make vinegar of anything alcoholic as long as the proof isn’t too high. Be aware that a mother formed in red wine will carry red pigment for quite a while, and if you put it in white wine or hard cider you will have rose’ vinegar. The mothers look a bit like placentas:

If you have a healthy one, the question always arises of what to do with the “pups” or new layers of mother that are continually forming. Some people eat them, but then some people eat their own placentas. No judgement implied, but I wouldn’t eat either one. If your friends don’t want one, put it in the compost or bury it in the garden or whatever makes you feel okay about letting go of it.