Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Oyster Mushrooms: Mountain from Molehill. Though Very Nice Molehill.

Did you ever get really, really stuck for really, really no good reason? I guess I was trying to come up with something to say about oyster mushrooms that was as insightful and/or witty as these photos are gorgeous:

Then more than a week passed, and I felt like I should have something REALLY deep and/or revolutionary to offer after all that time. Now it's been over a month, and I just have to get past myself. So, . . .

Oyster mushrooms? Yummy. Flavor more mushroomy than oystery. Really chewy texture, which brings welcome substance to vegetarian entrees without resorting to highly processed proteins. They come in a variety of colors from bluish gray to nearly orange, all of which tasted the same to me. Not entirely as dainty as they look. The caps are pretty delicate, but you have to put some effort into getting the base into pieces. They don't give off much liquid when they cook. They aren't very good raw. They are very good, as far as I experimented, in all common applications where you would use any other cooked mushroom--omelettes, quiches, various pasta sauces, sauteed alone with shallots and garlic, etc. They're super pretty in a clear soup base--oyster mushrooms, bean curd skin and spinach in chicken stock is particularly attractive and delicious.

Oyster mushrooms, they're nice. Try some.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Salt Cod: When Everything Goes Wrong

The potatoes were the first harbingers of the impending doom.

I had invited adventurously-palated guests for my salt cod feast. I had soaked the cod for three days, changing the water twice a day. I had my ingredients organized, my recipes bookmarked, and my timings plotted out in my head. I was, in a word, ready.

I would open with "Robert Motherwell's Brandade de Morue" from Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook. According the recipe intro, "After a few lessons from the late Cordon Bleu chef Dione Lucas, he (Motherwell), prepared this . . . for the likes of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock in his Greenwich Village apartment."

As it turned out, I should have been less swept up in the romance of my neighborhood's 1950's abstract expressionist heyday, than put on my guard that what on the surface appeared to be an easy enough puree of salt cod and baked potato required more than one Cordon Bleu lesson to accomplish.

My guests were expected at 7:30, so for my timings to work out, the potatoes would have to be baked and ready to go as soon as I got home from work. Corey came to my rescue and put the potatoes in at 4:30. Unfortunately, I failed to make any mention of such a minor detail as cooking time, and of course I got out late, so by the time I got home the spuds had been in for over an hour an a half. Yeah. They weren't actually burned, so I blundered on, but the were decidedly on the gummy end of the starch spectrum.

Needless to say, the puree, intended to be "served warm with toast points as an appetizer or spooned into puff pastry shells for a first course" was barely shy of inedible. Happily, my southern roots came to the rescue: anything can be improved by being formed into patties and fried. Disaster more or less averted.

Not that it's any excuse, but even had the potatoes been fluffy-rific, the recipe still wouldn't have been a keeper. Maybe with a drastic increase in the cod to potato ratio, and the addition of spices. Any spices. Maybe.

Disaster was fully embraced with Mario Batali's "Polenta con Baccala". Now, seriously, who is not going to want to make Mario's "grandma's absolute favorite dish"? Salt cod in a spicy red sauce ladled over creamy polenta--it's got to be amazing, right?

No. Oh dear God no.

I've made my share of grits, but this was the first time I had actually prepared polenta. Boiling a dried, ground corn product in water till smooth seemed like a skill that would translate. Apparently not. The polenta never really gelled. It retained a graininess and never developed the creamy quality it should have had. Not gross, just kind of . . .pointless.

The cod sauce was actually gross. The most assertive problem was the TWO TABLESPOONS of whole fennel seeds the recipe called for. I'm not the world's biggest fennel seed booster, but I trusted Mario. And, perhaps, if the seeds had been ground the dish might still have been palatable. As it was, every bite was hijacked by a woody crunch followed by that overwhelming flavor. Oh Mario, why hast thou forsaken me?

Our guests kindly declined my offer to order pizza, and Corey rather dashingly stopped my flushing the rest of it down the toilet with the claim he would have it for lunch the next day (he didn't), but the purity of the disaster was undeniable.

I will continue to order baccala croquetta's at tapas bars, but at $10 a pound I don't think I'll be bringing it home again.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Farstucking Mario: No, Really. This is Leading Up to the Unusual Ingredient. Soon.

I don't know about you guys, but I had a Very Batali Christmas this year. Between family and friends, I got just about every utensil he puts his name on (the heat resistant spatulas and and the flat edged wooden spoon are particular favorites) to go with my deeply beloved MB enameled cast iron Dutch oven.

The NYPL should be delighted to hear I finally got my own copy of Molto Italiano. Characterizing the contents as "simple Italian recipes" is perhaps a tad optimistic about the skill level possessed by the average home cook, but almost all of the recipes I've thought my way through have been amazing. The Chicken with "Cooked Wine" on page 314 will Blow. Your. Mind.

While I'm farstucking Mario, a side note for my New York based friends. You know how you never participate in Restaurant Week anymore because your frugal-ass self gets fobbed off with inferior ingredients, or sloppy preparation, or portions you need reading glasses to find, or more surly than usual wait staff? Yeah, I was with you. Till this afternoon's Restaurant Week lunch at Del Posto.

For $24.07 per person (two people drinking tap water, adding tax, tip, and coat check, you're getting out of there for around $65) they give you three appealing choices for each of three courses. Spectacular ingredients, spot on preparation (and presentation, incidentally), as large portions as I would want at lunch, and attentive without becoming overbearing service. Plus, it's the most cost effective way to get access to that inexpressibly divine bread basket with the incomparably delicious lardo.

Coming soon: What I meant by "almost all of the recipies . . . have been amazing". AKA "How Mario Let Me Down", or "How I Let Mario Down". I'm honestly still not clear on that point.