Sunday, May 31, 2009

Morel Mushrooms - Now and Then

This is what I wrote for my food writing class. If anybody is reading this, please criticize. The assignment was to write a personal essay about food from ones childhood.
Another Mushroom Good to Eat

Every Moscow family must have a summer house in the country. The dusty, dirty city of eight millions becomes unbearable in the summer heat, and working parents send their kids to the country with a grandmother or a nanny, and come to visit every weekend, just to escape the crowds and the pollution.

Ours was 45 kilometers North-East from Moscow, in a village surrounded by wheat fields and dark, damp woods. Every year, starting in the late April, my family would take a Saturday morning train, get off at a small station, and walk five kilometers to the house for the spring clean-up and to plant the vegetable garden. When the summer came, grandma took me and my brother there for three long months. We would weed the vegetable beds, dig up new potatoes and pick up dill and parsley for dinner, build rafts and tree houses with neighbor kids, play dangerous war games in the sand quarry, hide in the hay barn to play cards and smoke a cigarette stolen by a friend from his older brother’s pack. But the true highlight of the season was wild mushroom hunting.

Mushroom hunting is a way to bring variety to the table, a meditative ritual, and a competitive sport. The mushroom knowledge was passed from the older generation. We recognized at least twenty kinds of mushrooms, both good and poisonous, by look, smell, and texture, had ways to cook each good type, and we knew very well to avoid any unfamiliar ones. Each family had its secret grounds for each kind of mushroom. The idea was to get out undetected early in the morning, then walk proudly back in the afternoon in the view of your neighbors, with your basket uncovered and full, your best finds carefully arranged on top.

The mushroom season started in mid-July with the first wave of honey mushrooms, and after that we knew that each rain would bring something else from the forest floor. There were sunny chanterelles in late July, charcoal burners in the end of July and through August; August and September were for the glorious boletus: brown boletus grew in the damp shady places around the marsh, orange boletus was hiding in the drying yellow leaves under birch trees, and the king of them all, the cepe, would sometimes show its velvety tanned top from the grass in the oak grove on the hill. Then the slippery jacks, and another wave of the honey mushrooms, to pickle by a barrel for the winter, ended the season.

I must have been eight or nine on that cool sunny morning in May. We were walking with my parents from the station by the edge of the forest. I wandered behind a clump of trees, a pile of dirty late-spring snow still on the shady side of it, the first flowers opening on the sunny side, and there I saw a thing that I recognized from a children’s book about nature that I was reading just a few days ago. It was not the mushroom season, not a right place, and I never saw a morel before, but I was sure that these weird shaped pine cones were the edible mushrooms from my book. I picked up as many as I could carry in my hat and brought them to my parents.

They hadn’t seen a morel before either. Or, if they saw it, they didn’t recognize what it was. Mom was terrified: This must be poisonous! Toss this stuff immediately, and don’t touch your face until we get home and wash you! I started to get ready to cry. Then Dad said: Wait, let’s bring them home and see this book. They don’t smell bad at all.

So the morels came home with us, and they looked exactly like the picture in my book, and Dad got on his bike and rode to the next village to borrow a serious mushroom book from a friend, and the friend was puzzled why Dad would want a mushroom book two month before the season starts, and the morels got identified, and we cooked them and ate them with mashed potatoes.

Every Sunday in May when I rush to the farmers market to see if they still have the tiny baskets of morels, way too expensive, but highly praised for their rich earthy flavor and unique texture,
I think about Dad, and about how love makes one trust a little girl with a book.

Morels with Mashed New Potatoes
Serve 4

To clean the morels, cut them in half lengthwise with a sharp knife, exposing the hollow centers, place in a bowl of cold water, and gently stir, allowing the sand that may have accumulated in the center hollow and the wrinkles of the mushrooms to sink to the bottom. Dry on paper towels.

1.5 lb new potatoes in their skins

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp butter
8 oz morel mushrooms, cut in half
1 large shallot, minced
2 Tbsp dry Sherry wine
Salt, pepper

1 Tbsp butter (additional), at room temperature
2 Tbsp heavy cream
2 Tbsp mixed herbs (any combination of parsley, chives, tarragon), finely chopped

Place potatoes in a large pot, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat so that the water boils slowly, cook until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 20 minutes.

Heat the oil and 1 Tbsp butter in a large pan, add the morels, and cook over medium heat, shaking the pan a few times to turn the mushrooms, about 10 minutes, until soft. Add shallot and Sherry, stir, reduce the heat, and simmer another 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Drain the potatoes and mash them coarsely with a fork, skins and all. Add remaining 1 Tbsp butter and the cream, season with salt and pepper, mix well.

Serve the morels over mashed potatoes, sprinkle the herbs on top.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Spot Prawns with Grilled Pineapple and Tropical Salsa

And here is really exciting news for all the West Coast seafood lovers: the Pacific spot prawns are back in season. I wrote about them last summer. They are beautiful to look at, wild, sustainably caught, they fight back very little when you put them on the grill, and they are very much like lobster in taste and texture, even better. The only bad thing about them is, like lobster, you have to cook them live - once dead, their meat starts getting mushy at once.

So this time, after I got a dozen from Ranch 99 and brought them home in a cooler, I warned the boyfriend that I was going to perform an act of ultimate cruelty to seafood, and he kept his eyes closed and ears covered, in order not to hear the screams, until I yelled real loud from the grill: It's OK now, all your food is dead.

The prawns: keep them in a bowl covered with a wet napkin in the refrigerator until ready to cook. Heat up the grill. Take the prawns out of the bowl one by one with kitchen tongs, brush with olive oil, and put on a hot grill. Grill 2 minutes on each side. The pineapple: cut the leafy top and the bottom from the pineapple; stand it on the cutting board; with a sharp heavy knife off cut the skin; lay it on a side, cut into 1/2 inch slices, no need to remove the core; brush lightly with oil. Grill just until marked, about 3 minutes per side. Tropical Salsa
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 Manila mango, diced
1 Japanese cucumber, diced
1 large shallot, minced
6 cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
juice of 1 lime
salt, pepper

Mix all ingredients in a bowl.
Serve with any grilled seafood, or with grilled chicken breasts.

Cooking for looks continued: grilled chicken

I did this rosemary and thyme grilled chicken breast with grilled baby portabello mushrooms, grill-roasted garlic, and mashed new potatoes as a homework for my food styling class. My idea was to use the subtle color variations of off-whites and golds to emphasize the old-world character of the dish. I even got one of my fancy plates, not used for two years, out of the chest.

It's amazing how fast the grilled foods sag if they are allowed to sit for a while at room temperature. One of the requirements for this weeks class was to experiment with keeping food "alive" under the camera. My chicken and potatoes had to be sprayed with olive oil and water several times, while I was setting up the camera and arranging the garnishes. The potatoes were cooked, chilled in an ice water bath, then mushed cold, with olive oil instead of butter, and still I had to spray them more than ones during the shooting, or they would dry. The chicken has grill marks one one side only, and was undercooked, to keep it looking fresh longer. The herbs were not a problem - they come from the garden, just keep cutting new ones and replace them. And rosemary and thyme don't wilt very fast anyway. the baby bella mushrooms and thebgarlic head were the worst: as soon as you take them off the grill, they begin to dry and wrinkle. Water and more water.

And then I messes it all up overdoing the lemon...

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cooking for looks: my first food styling class assignment + onion tart

The online food styling class that I am taking was a lot of fun so far, and this week we don't just do research, but get to actually play with the food - the assignment was to style a salad. Since there was no hard requirement on what kind of salad to make, I just looked at what's good at the farmers market, and it turned out to be baby greens, blood oranges, and spring onions. I gave it a simple dressing of red wine vinegar, olive oil, and sea salt. God, how messy blood oranges are! I am writing this two days after I did the assignment, and my fingernails are still red.

The greatest challenge was to keep the salt cristals from dissolving on the onion and orange slices while taking the photographs.

I just kept adding more salt. And the way my little camera captured it, you can barely see the salt at all! I guess the salad got very salty by the time I was through with shooting. I also had to spray it with water to keep it looking fresh. And then the man got home and ate it! And liked it... Probably because there was this spring onion and prosciutto tart to go with it (not for the class, so it was fresh from the oven). The tart is based on the spring onions I bought for the salad and didn't use - I got three in case the first one doesn't look perfect sliced, but the first one was just what I wanted. So I had two left for another use. And they were big, fresh, and very sweet.

My neighborhood grocery has these 1 lb. food service packages of proscuitto on sale for $8, thanks to the irrational swine flue scare. So everything I cooked recently has proscuitto in it.

The idea of the tart comes from Suzanne Goin's book Sunday Suppers at Lucques book, as well as the idea to cut the spring onions lengthwise, to show their gracefull curves. I have simplified the cheese filling, but added asparagus, and, of course, proscuitto, to the topping.

Cut the green tops off the onions, leaving about 2 inches attached. If the greens look good, wash and trim them, slice thinly on the diagonal, and add to the sautee in the last minute.

Spring Onion and Prosciutto Tart

Serves 6 as appetizer, 3 as a main dish

1 package Dufour frozen all-butter puff pastry, defrosted for about 1 hour at room temperature
flour for dusting
2 whole eggs
1/2 tsp water
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 large spring onions, cut lengthwise, then sliced thinly
6 oz goat cheese
2 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked, steams discarded, + 4 thyme sprigs for decoration
4 asparagus spears, cut into 1 inch slices
1/8 lb prosciutto, thinly sliced
olive oil, sea salt, fresh-ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, dust with flour. Roll the puff pastry out on the baking sheet. Separate 1 egg, mix the yolk with 1/2 tsp of water and whisk until smooth to make the egg wash. Score a 1/2 in border on the pastry, brush the border with the egg wash. Keep the pastry in the freezer until ready to bake.

Add the leftover egg was to the eggs, add the goat cheese and thyme leaves, season with salt and pepper, whisk until smooth, set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the onions, sauté until soft, about 15 minutes. Let cool. Spread the cheese mixture over the dough, inside of the border. Spoon on the onion filling, toss in the asparagus and prosciutto, sprinkle with olive oil.

Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the underside of the tart is cooked (lift a corner with a fork to check) . Do not undercook the puff pastry dough, or it will get soggy. Serve with a green salad and a full-bodied California Meritage.

P.S. I got so carried away with food styling that I forgot to make the usual fancy borders around my photos. I'll do it right the next time.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Grilled Halibut Kabobs with Mushroom Risotto

What do you do if you just found a beautiful fresh Northern halibut steak in an Oriental market?
Buy it, and then sit with a glass of wine in the sunshine, feeling torn between the many possible ways to prepare your fish. The challenge is to avoid the temptations of showy complex recipes and to select one simple enough to highlight the rich texture and delicate flavor or the fish.

Should I cut it up and marinate in lime juice with some chili and onion for a ceviche?
Or broil it with a teaspoon of lemon or herb butter on top?
Briefly braise it with vegetable or fish stock or white wine diluted with water?
Brush it with olive oil and grill it?
Yes, I'll grill it. It's nice and sunny outside, everyone should be grilling now. And the simplest seasoning will be the best.

The steak that I had was huge, almost two pounds, so I had to cut it up into portions. This way I also got bones and trimmings for the fish stock, and adding sturgeon trimmings from the freezer made the stock even more interesting.
I just dropped all the fish trimmings in a three-quart saucepan, added a chopped carrot, a chopped celery stalk, half an onion, and a bouquet garni (parsley, thyme, bay leaf). Covered everything with cold water, brought to boil, reduced the heat, skimmed the foam from the surface, added half a teaspoon of salt and 6-7 black peppercorns, and left the stock to simmer slowly for 30 minutes. I then strained the stock, divided it between covered glass containers (about 1.5 cup each), reserving 2 cups to make risotto, and put the containers in the freezer.

Then I looked at my halibut portions and realized that they will be very pretty cut into 1-1/2 inch cubes and grilled on bamboo skewers. So I cut the fish and put it back in the fridge for 30 minutes while I was making the risotto and soaking the skewers in a bottle of water.

Keeping the risotto warm, I removed the fish from the fridge, threaded it on the skewers, brushed with olive oil seasoned with salt and pepper, and grilled on a hot gas grill for about 2 minutes per side.

Mushroom Risotto
serves 2
1 Tbsp olive oil
6 oz white mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 shallot, minced
1 cup carnaroli rice
1/2 cup white wine
2 cups fish or vegetable stock, or water, plus more as needed
2 Tbsp heavy cream
5 drops truffle oil (optional)

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, cook stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. Add shallot, stir. Add the rice. Cook, stirring, for 1-2 minutes. Pour in the wine, bring to slow simmer, and reduce heat. Continue stirring until all the wine is absorbed. Start stirring in the stock or water in 1/2 cup portions, every time waiting for the rice to absorb all the liquid before stirring in the next portion. After about 20 minutes start testing the rice for doneness - it should be soft but not mushy. When the rice is done, stir it the cream and the optional truffle oil, remove from heat, serve as a side for grilled or broiled fish.
Halibut on Foodista

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

About my Blog

Here are some facts about my blog and myself:

- The purpose of this blog for me is to share some of my food ideas, observations, and simple recipes with you, my reader, while practicing writing, food styling, and photography.

- I grew up in Moscow, Russia, and learned cooking from my grandparents - Russian and Jewish. Then, after moving to California, I discovered that traditional Russian and Jewish cuisines are not very suitable for Californian climate and local ingredients, so now I experiment with different world cuisines and fusion. In winter, especially on a Tahoe ski trip, I would still sometimes cook borsht, matso ball soup, or pelmeni.

- My cooking is usually based on a technique, not on a recipe. The numerous cookbooks that I own are for bedtime reading. I try to take pictures and to write down the recipes as I cook. Sometimes there is no time for this. In this case there will be no recipe in the blog entry, just a description.

- I love to travel, and get new food ideas and experiences on every trip. Empanadas cooking class in Costa Rica, staying with a French family in Bordeaux and helping them to cook (and eat) their family meals, assisting a Greek tavern owner while she made her famous moussaka and sauteed prawns - all these have been enlightening experiences. The latter two also taught me that the only meal that can possibly be served without wine is breakfast. I try to give some wine suggestions with my recipes.

- Most nights I cook for just myself, myself and my boyfriend, or 2-3 good friends (my dining table sits four), so if you are looking for small scale recipes, they are here. I freeze things that are better made in large quantities, like stocks, homemade pasta, or sausages. The place where I live is blessed with an industrial size freezer.

- I'm obsessed with outdoor cooking, kitchen gadgets, and with food presentation. I will be taking a food styling class at this month, and I hope it will help me to make this blog a welcoming and appetizing place.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Grilled Tri-Tip with Chimichurri

Tri-tip roast is a treasure. Exceptionally flavorful, quite tender when cooked to medium-rare, perfect shape for marinating and grilling, and cheaper than the tomatoes that I bought to make a salad to go with it! The size (1.5-2lb) makes two servings, plus a couple of sandwiches for the man to take to work the next day. And it's very traditionally Californian too: the classical way to cook it is Santa Maria style.

Here I gave the tri-tip roast a South American accent by marinating it in chimichurri sauce, and using more chimichurri to serve it. Most recipes recommend to grill the tri-tip roast over medium indirect heat, then sear it over high direct for a few minutes. The one I had was small, a little over 1.5 lb, and relatively thin, and I used my monster gas grill that gets very hot but has to be covered, so I figured that if I sear it first, it may not require additional roasting - and I was right! The little meat termometer inserted in the thick part of the roast was showing between "rare" and "medium" by the time the grill marks were ready on both sides.

One of the reasons why I try to have fresh herbs growing in the garden or in containers at home all the time is that most herbs don't keep too well. So need a few sprigs for a dish, you buy one of these huge bunches in the supermarket, and you are either stuck with putting dill or cilantro on everything that you cook for a week, or you toss most of it, feeling sorry as you do; or both.
Parsley is a different story. After a friend came back from Argentina and told me how they make chimichurri to go with their famous steaks, I am not afraid to buy all the parsley they want to sell me! Even when there is a lot of it growing outside, I can always use more.

I replace some of the vinegar in the original recipe with lemon juice to make the sauce even more tangy and fresh, and add a lot of garlic, just because I love it, and to make up for the heat of the chillies that I cannot eat. The recipe below makes almost 2 cups. Leftover sauce can be stored in a covered container in the refrigerator for about 10 days and used with any meat or even grilled fish, in sandwiches, or add more olive oil and dress a salad with it.

Grilled Tri-Tip Roast with Chimichurri
3 servings

for chimichurri:
1 large bunch of parsley, chopped
5-6 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 hot chili pepper of your preference, seeded and chopped (optional)
juice and grated rind of 1 lemon
1/2 cup of white wine vinegar
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup of olive oil

1 tri-tip roast, 1.5-2 lb, trimmed of most of the fat

Puree all the chimichurri ingredients except the oil in a blender. Stir in the oil.

Place the beef in a glass or plastic container (or a large plastic bag), spread 3-4 Tbsp of the chimichurri on both sides. Close and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 2 days.

Remove the roast from the container and wipe off most of the marinade (discard the marinade).
Grill over high direct heat about 8 minutes on each side. Check for donness (anywhere from rare to medium is good, overcooked=tough). If not done, roast for additional 10-15 minutes over indirect medium heat.

Remove the roast from the grill to a cutting board, let sit for 10 minutes. Slice thinly against the grain. Serve with additional chimichurri.