Tuesday, May 3, 2011

For the love of Morels

It all started last spring when I went on my very first foray with the Mycological Association of Greater Washington.  It was April, and a bit like this April- damp and dreary.  I headed out into the woods near my house with several wild mushroom experts in search for the great morel.  If you are not familiar with this amazing fungus then check out what wiki has to say: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morchella, or just google "Morel" and thousands of websites will appear.  In general, they are cone shaped with a spongy look.  (Like in the picture above).  They come in black, brown-yellow, yellow and probably other colors I don't know about.  The taste is delicate, earthy and delicious - you just have to experience it to know.

So what is all the fuss about?  Well for one- they are only found for approximately 4-6 weeks per year.
Where to find: woody areas - dead elm, tulip poplar trees, conifers, and I even found 2 next to a cherry tree in my backyard!  So the other big fuss is that it is a totally obsessive hobby.  I have spent nearly 12 hours in the last two weeks searching for these precious gems; on my hands and knees crawling through the brush and fallen trees, passing snakes (and even a bat today) which I am NOT a fan of, hulling through trenches of mud, climbing tree limbs to catch a better glance.  All this to find just 4 or 5 morels- YES.  You have to try it to see what I mean.  I am completely consumed with the hunt. It's on my mind morning, noon, and night. 
I finished work early today and went back out into the woods to I spot where I found a few morels last week.  It was a success for me- about a dozen found in a little less than an hour.  The first one you find is miraculous, and then you sit on your knees scoping the forest floor for more.  Today was especially wicked on the knees, as the area I was in had a lot of foliage and tree limbs to tangle with.  I spent the better part of the hour walking at half height. 
The season is coming to a close now, but there are still mushrooms to be found.  And with all the cool weather, the season may extend a few weeks.  Best times to hunt are following a good rain.  Search the woods - especially heavily foliage areas with lots of dead wood.  Look at the trees and see if you can figure out what is what; I am very bad at this which probably is why I have only found 30 or so morels this season. 

What to do when you find some?  Take a brown paper bag or a mesh bad is even better.  Something with small holes that allow the mushrooms to drop their spores on the ground as you walk- this will ensure continuing growth for seasons to follow.  Keep the morels in the refrigerator and use within a few days.  Or you can dry them for long term storage (I've never found that many to make it worth my wild).  Morels must be cooked- DO NOT EAT RAW!   Clean off all the dirt , cut off just a bit at the stem, and leave whole or cut in half.  I like to saute them in butter with salt and pepper.  That's it - make it simple as you don't want to overpower their earthy flavor. 
Good luck and Bon App!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


For the last 2 months I have been working once a week for a Jewish family, helping them create weekly Shabbos/Shabbat (Sabbath) dinners.  It has been an awesome learning experience as the family keeps kosher so therefore, I must abide by the kosher cooking laws.  And let me tell you, there are a lot.  Dairy and meat are never mixed.  There are separate counter spaces for the two as well as separate ovens and stove top burners, different sets of plates, utensils, bowls, etc.  Certain proteins (mainly pork and shellfish) are off limits, as well as certain vegetables.  Kosher law prohibits eating bugs, so leafy greens, spongy veggies (broccoli or cauliflower to name a few) and some other odds and ends must be eliminated from the menu or carefully cleaned.  All meats, dairy, and processed foods must have the kosher symbol on them.  There are a few different symbols of which I am still learning as I do the weekly shopping.   I am also not allowed to turn on the oven/burners, so someone must be present to do this for me.  The purpose, to my knowledge, is that a Jewish person must be part of the cooking process in some way, shape, or form.

Passover is a 7 or 8 day festival celebrating the Jews' freedom from slavery and the fight from Egypt.  There are many traditions and observances that go along with this celebration.  The main observance is the removal of wheat products or leavened bread (Chametz).  The purpose stemming from the fact that the Jews' did not have time to let their bread rise when leaving Egypt.
Chametz includes anything made from the wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt, as well as the avoidance of rice, corn, and legumes - all items commonly used to make bread.  One interesting part of Passover (for those that keep kosher) is that the entire house must be cleaned (hence spring cleaning) to make sure there are no "Chametz" particles in the house.  The kitchen was cleaned thoroughly, and all the drawers were sealed shut. All surfaces (including the stove, fridge and freezer) that come in contact with food had to be covered with foil or contact paper.   
Last week I spent several days helping to prepare meals for Passover this week. When I arrived for cooking, the cleaning was just finishing.  I learned that all the food products from the pantry, freezer, and fridge, were moved out of the house and into the garage, where the family had to eat their meals for the last week.  A whole new set of kitchen equipment (mixing bowls, food processor, pots and pans, utensils, etc.) are brought out each year for this week long holiday. 
Foods (with the exception of fresh vegetables) must be Kosher for Passover (which can be hard to find- the family had to travel 3 hours to Chicago to buy the items).  The family is planning to have ~150 guests for dinner during the week = LOTS of food.  Twenty chickens, 15 pounds of carrots, 20 onions, 5 pounds of celery, and 48 squash were peeled, diced, and prepped in one day for this passover event.  We made 14 pans of brownies, 2 soups (sweet and sour cabbage and sweet and sour meatball), 100 cups of fruit salad, and many other traditional (and non-traditional) foods. 
Some Traditional foods:  Potato kugel,  roasted chicken, gefilte fish (some sort of poached fish dumpling- ours were pre-made), and charoset (a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine).  The food preparation was a lot of work, but more of an incredible learning experience for me.  I hope they enjoyed their Seder meal.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Ricotta - cheese making 101

I found an intriguing recipe for a pistachio-marzipan ricotta filled cake in the latest issue of Saveur - I so want to try and make it- looks so yummy, that with the fact I've never tried pistachio marzipan.  I've only had the traditional marzipan made with almonds.  So somewhere in reading this recipe I decided I wanted to try and make everything from scratch.  So the first step is to make the ricotta.  Yesterday I twiddled away several hours for shopping, one failed attempt, and one success for ricotta cheese.
It's actually pretty easy; the hard part was finding the citric acid.  You can find it online but then you have to pay the shipping which ends up being more than the product itself.  I checked in numerous grocery stores and vitamin shops but no luck.  I briefly wished I was back at my old job with easy access to all sorts of molecular grade chemicals (probably not the best idea)!  Finally I found everything I needed - cheesecloth, local whole milk, and citric acid - at Strawberry Fields, which is a local gourmet grocery.  It was mixed in with the spiced and baking supplies - Whole Foods may carry it too, but not sure.
At home, I broke out the Garde Manger cookbook from culinary school and found the cheese recipes.  It's been a long time since school so I had to consult my notes which weren't so helpful.   Here's how I did it:

  • Thermometer (meat one will do- need to register 185F)
  • Whole Milk- 1 gallon (good quality milk)
  • 1 tsp. Citric Acid
  • 2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 oz. water
  • Cheesecloth
  • Strainer/Colander
  • Large pot
  • Dissolve the citric acid in the water (NOTE:  make sure it is fully dissolved- I think I missed this step my first try)
  • Heat the milk, citric acid (in water), and salt over medium heat in a large stock pot.  Keep the thermometer in the pot to monitor the temperature.   Stir the milk often to prevent scorching - heat until the temperature reaches 185F (85C). 
  • When it's reached 185F, remove from heat and allow it to rest for 10-20 minutes - this will allow for curdling.
  • Line a colander with the cheesecloth and place over a large bowl.  Drain the curd into the cheesecloth-lined colander, and place the whole contraption in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour - up to 4hours. Voila- your cheese is ready.  You can store it in an air tight container for up to 1 week in the refrigerator.

Problems- well- these happen, especially during your first attempts.  My first run resulted in about 2 curds!  So without straining, I placed the milk back on the heat, dissolved another tsp. of citric acid (making sure it was completely dissolved), added a pinch more salt, and watched the temperature carefully.   When it reached 185F, I had a lot of curd.  It's all about trial and error.  Good luck!

Note- the little brown spot is from scorched milk!  Oops

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Easy weeknight dinner

The other night I wasn't in the mood for serious cooking.  After reviewing the contents of the fridge, and deciding what needed "to go" soon, I decided on a classic- burritos.  I love making burritos because the cooking and prep time are both fairly minimal, it's always soul satisfying, and I always take seconds!

I'm sure you've made burritos before, but do you have a standard recipe, or do you just throw whatever you have available in the pan?   Using some older veggies, 1/2 pack of meat, and a left-over egg white from an earlier batch of brownies, I managed to cook up some delicious burritos.   Of course I jazzed it up a bit with some cilantro spinach flavored wraps (from Trader Joe's- the habanero lime ones are awesome too), and habanero-lime salsa.  Sour cream added nice richness to the egg white and chorizo mixture.  Adding chorizo to my burritos is a new treat after finding a great local producer that sells both ground and sausage link chorizo  (Triple S Farms). 

My ingredients:
1/2 lb. chorizo
1 egg white
1 poblano pepper - chopped
1/2 onion- chopped
3 chipotle peppers in adobe sauce - diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 can black beans
sour cream
lettuce- chopped
Wisconsin cheddar- grated

Pop the wraps in the oven on low temp for just a few minutes so they are nice and warm, and the cheese will melt right away.  Saute the onion, garlic and peppers.  Set aside.  Saute the egg and chorizo - add back in the veggies, chipotle peppers and beans- cook for a few minutes.  Fill your wrap with cheese and sour cream, add the protein/veg mix, top with some lettuce and salsa.  Voila- Bon App!

PS- Please feel free to leave your comments, suggestions, criticisms, etc.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Top Chef Edition

In preparation for tonight's Top Chef finale (part1 I think- unless someone can comment on whether tonight is actually the last episode- I can't find any information!), I wanted to add a few of my favorite cocktail recipes.  Make a drink, settle in, and watch the Caribbean fun!

Old Tom Collins:

2 oz. Ransom Gin (this is a small batch, barrel aged gin- don't let the whisky color throw you- it's awesome)
2 oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 oz (or a good squeeze) of agave syrup (or sub. 1 tsp. of sugar)
3 oz. club soda
Mix the first 3 ingredients in a shaker preferably over ice.  Pour in glass and add soda. 


2oz of Bacardi Spice Rum
6 oz. Ginger ale (preferably a good, spicy one- Reed's Extra Ginger Brew  is good and pretty easy to find)

Pour rum over ice in a tall glass and fill with ginger ale.  Easy breezy!

Mint Julep

2.5 oz. Bourbon (Maker's Mark is a good choice)
2 tsp. water
1 tsp. powder sugar
4 sprigs of fresh mint

Muddle the mint with the sugar and water.  Add bourbon, shake well and pour over ice.

Long Island Ice Tea

1/2 oz. simple syrup
1/2 oz. triple sec
1/2 oz. vodka
1/2 oz. gin
1/2 oz. tequila
1/2 oz. rum
1 oz. lemon juice
3 oz. coke

Mix and enjoy responsibly - or you may not make it through the show!

So where did all that food come from....

In an effort to try and eat more sustainable and local foods, I have decided to try and document at least one meal per week.  This meaning that I am trying to trace down where my foods really come from, and how they were produced.  I may not find all the answers that I am looking for since the research is really only going to be done via Internet (although I wish I had the time and resources to venture across the land and explore farming like Michael Pollan).  My recent obsession of food findings is in fact due to Pollan; I have finally finished reading Omnivore's Dilemma - a fantastic read on how, why, and where our food really comes from. Pollan travels the country, interviewing many farmers, and documenting the industrial and pastoral food chains.  I definitely recommend this book if you haven't already read it.

While I was cooking my last blog meal- "The Irish Feast", I made note of the producers/manufacturer's of all the ingredients.  I'm listing the store names in case any of you interested readers shop at these same places, or buy the same brands, you will have an idea of where your food is coming from too.

Trader Joe's Note:  Quite a few items are from Trader Joe's - it's hard to get exact information since they have their own private label, however, they say that "Our customers can be assured that all products in Trader Joe's private label are sourced from non-genetically modified ingredients."  They also list that there is NO MSG, added trans fats, nor artificial colors or flavorings in any of their products.

Trader Joe's Butter
Apples - Organic from Washington Domex Superfreshgrowers.com  - tree fruit company that hasn't gotten any bad publicity as far as I can tell - that's good!
Parsnips- from Meijer - no producer name??
Onions- Organic from Peri and Sons Farms in NV  (rec'd score of A from BBB (Better Business Bureau)
Seasonings- sources unknown
Garlic- Christopher Ranch in Gilroy, CA  (garlic capital of the world FYI) - claim to use heirloom seeds; largest producer of garlic in the country...hmmm
Chicken Stock- Organic from Trader Joe's
Sour Cream- Organic - Meijer
Parsley- USA Little Bear Brand - of which I just read that their curly parsley and cilantro were both recalled in Dec. for positive testing of salmonella - great..

Meijer Naturals Old Fashioned Oats - No GMO's is the only thing I can get from this label
All-purpose flour, sugar, and baking soda - Trader Joe's
Rosemary - Infinite Herbs - whose website gives no info on how or where the product is produced
Milk - Kilgus Farms, grass fed cows with feeding pasture rotation; does not sell outside a 100 mile radius :) (and only 50 miles from my home- maybe I should take a drive out!)
Beef - Triple S Farms (local farmer whom I have met and like- still waiting to get out to his farm this spring)
Potatoes- Russets from Idaho ??
Carrots- Local from Blue Moon Farm
Peas - Organic from Meijer

Some good, some bad, some I'm just not too sure where it came from, which can be a large problem with store-brand or private-label items.  These grocers and distributors what to make their own niche in the organic market, but at what cost?  These private labels are anonymous by their own nature.  According to The Cornucopia Institue
"Our research indicates that the vast majority of organic eggs for private label brands are produced on industrial farms that house hundreds of thousands of birds and do not grant the birds meaningful outdoor access. If these grocery chains want to truly express a commitment to organics, and communicate this tangibly to their customer base, we would encourage them to specify on their label which egg producers and cooperatives they are "partnering with" and to fully participate, transparently, in The Cornucopia Institute research study and scorecard."
Now I really can't wait for spring/summer to arrive:  fresh produce from the garden and the farmer's market!
Good luck in you own shopping endeavors.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


For those of you in the Chicago land area- check out the Family Farmed Expo this weekend (Thurs-Sat.) at University of Illinois-Chicago.  http://www.familyfarmedexpo.com/

The event is packed with workshops, chef demos (including Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard), exhibits, meet the farmers, business conferences and more.  Join other fans of locally and responsibly produced food at this even promoting Midwest farmers and producers.