Saturday, January 31, 2009

Mycology 101

(Note: This is part 1 of a series of posts, length yet to be determined.)

"Nothing more than mushroom
identification develops the powers of observation." - John Cage

Mycology - the study of mushrooms and other fungi - has always fascinated me. While I may often attribute my interest to my intense enjoyment of their earthy, springy flesh - sauteed in butter, folded into risotto, or simply popped in the mouth with a sprinkle of sea salt - I think I'm truly drawn to the world of fungi by one key aspect - one tiny mistake and they can kill me.

Morbidity notwithstanding, one must admit the allure of such a flagrant disregard for self preservation. I liken the appeal of wild mushroom hunting, and consumption, to the desire for exotic dishes like fugu. Both require an inordinate amount of skill to prepare (or in the case fungi, identify) and an equally extraordinary amount of sagacity (or lack thereof) to consume the finished product.

And so it was with this sense of adventure I placed myself in the knowing hands of Phil Carpenter and the staff of Garland Ranch Regional Park for my first foray into the labyrinthine world of wild mushroom hunting. Carpenter is a longtime officer of the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz and has been featured regularly as a mycological expert in numerous publications throughout the Central Coast region of California. In Good Times Weekly, a Santa Cruz newsletter, Carpenter warns of the toxic Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) mushroom. In the San Francisco Chronicle Carpenter helped identify a rather extra-terrestrial looking fungi that was plaguing a local nursery owner. And in Monterey County Weekly Carpenter lent his expertise in the Big Sur Chantarelle Cook Off. Lead by such a master of his field it was hard to feel even a little anxious as Carpenter easily rattled off both the scientific and lay terms for each specimen of fungi our class found.

Before we bravely tromped through along the trails, and frequently off (much to the chagrin of Educational Director Joe Narvaez - the anxiety at the possible damage done to his park was visible - sorry Joe!), Carpenter sat us all down in the Garland Ranch Regional Park Museum for a lecture on the benefits, and possible perils, of wild mushroom foraging.

Before ever attempting mushroom foraging learn this:

First on the docket was the Death Cap mushroom. Carpenter explained that before you learn anything else about mushroom foraging, before you even contemplate identifying edible mushrooms, learn to identify the Death Cap.

The Death Cap is a rather benign looking piece of fungi that is the "most common cause of deadly mushroom poisoning in the United States." The Death Cap is prevalent in many locations throughout the world including Europe, Russia, Poland, Ireland, and even Morocco. It is also commonly found throughout the United States. Typically poisonings result from misidentification because the Death Cap so closely resembles its edible genus members.

As Carpenter warns, learn to identify it above all other types of fungi, and then steer clear.

What is a mushroom?

A mushroom is technically the fruiting body of a mycelium organism. The mycelium is a web or net-like mass of thread-like hyphae. A single spore is capable of germinating into a mycelium, but until it comes into contact with an identical spore it is incapable of reproducing. When the spores meet, and "mate," they are then capable of producing the fruiting body, or the tasty (or poisonous) bits we find poking through the leaf litter or popping up on a dead log.

While the idea of finding an identical spore may seem rather simple, one must only realize that there is speculated to be about 3.5 million types of fungi alive in the world today - makes Sex and the City seem kind of trite, eh? Of the millions of fungi only a few hundred thousand have been categorized and named. Mycology is quite the exciting scientific frontier, ripe with possibility of discovering a new specimen at any time.

Up Next: Mushroom Identification

It is here that I feel obliged to add a disclaimer for all very stupid people who might get the wild idea of mushroom foraging on their own after this post, or any one hereafter. Do NOT do this. It is the very definition of stupidity to attempt to forage fungi on your own, without the help of a knowledgeable mycological expert.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Coconut Toile

As the month January winds down it is once again time for the Daring Baker's challenge.

This month's challenge is brought to us by Karen of Bake My Day and Zorra of 1x umruehren bitte aka Kochtopf. They have chosen Tuiles from The Chocolate Book by Angélique Schmeink and Nougatine and Chocolate Tuiles from Michel Roux.

Karen's creation this month is particularly eye-catching, so be sure to visit Bake My Day. It appears Zorra's site is having a little bit of difficulty, but I'm sure it will be remedied soon.

A tuile (French for 'tile') is a small, thin, crisp cookie that is molded over a cylindrical object while still hot from the oven. When the cookie cools it holds its shape, and when done in the traditional method resembles the curved roofing tile from which it draws its name.

Upon discovering this month's challenge I was a little ho-hum about it. To be honest I wasn't able to muster a whole lot of enthusiasm about it until I was popping them into my mouth this evening, then I was mightily pleased. I've just been so busy this month it's been unrealistic to pop in the kitchen to whip up something new.

Thankfully this challenge was a breeze, and with the latitude given by the hosts it ended up being quite enjoyable. We were given three separate recipes to experiment with: sweet, nougatine, and savory. The rules instructed us to attempt at least one recipe of pastry, mold them however we saw fit, and fill them with something light. I had originally planned on trying a savory version, but couldn't decide on a suitable filling. When I realized on the 27th that I still hadn't made the tuile yet, I quickly decided upon a sweet tuile with coconut sorbet, chopped mango, and toasted coconut. I also decided against shaping them in the traditional method and instead made tiny cups by forming them in a muffin pan.

The recipe came together perfectly on the first try. My only real problem came when the bag I was using to pipe onto the parchment lined baking sheet split its seam and exploded pastry batter all over my counter. Beyond that mishap everything was smooth sailing - save for burning the ever loving hell out of my fingers while trying to mold them. The coconut sorbet and mango paired beautifully, as the two flavors usually do. Mr. TA loved this challenge in particular, wolfing down the entire batch whilst standing in the kitchen - pint of sorbet wide open, mango mashed on the cutting board, and toasted coconut finding refuge all over the counter and floor - an assembly line of tuile-y goodness.

Although I might have been apathetic about this challenge at the beginning of the month, I'm actually quite excited to see where I can apply this in the future. The cups are really quite sturdy, can be made days ahead with ease, and look quite stunning. The possibilities truly are endless with these recipes. I encourage you to try them yourself and see where it takes you.

I'm thinking savory cornets with crab salad, vanilla bean cups with rosewater-tapioca pudding, chocolate-mint tuiles with milk chocolate mousse...

Thank you very much to Karen and Zorra for picking such a wonderful challenge. I think this is one of the first recipes we've had that I can see myself making again and again. Be sure to check out the the Daring Bakers Blogroll to see some amazing creations this month from the other Daring Bakers.

Recipes available at Bake My Day...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Steak-Stuffed Manicotti

It seems that typically manicotti is filled with a near flavorless, texturally-nightmare inducing amalgamation of ricotta, Parmesan, and if you're lucky some herbs and salt. I'm not a big fan. While I love ricotta as much as the next bird, I prefer it to be mixed in with something of substance to provide a break in the rather gag-inducing texture - or baked in a cheesecake, you'll get no complaints from me on that one.

And so I embarked on a journey to fill a pasta shell with a stuffing of substance, one that would peel through the doldrums of stuffed pastas with it's ring of tummy-filling awesomeness. My manicotti manifestation would transform the world with it's revolutionary play of textures and flavors!

Or I saw an advert in Gourmet for stuffed shells and they sounded yummy.

One or the other. You decide.

I decided to go a very non-traditional route with these babies for really no other reason than that I wanted to use up some of the food I already had in the house. I much prefer that than running out to the grocery store to buy all new ingredients.


Be resourceful people, we're in a recession here.

Steak Stuffed Manicotti

Serves 2

6 1/2 oz steak
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
1 cup frozen chopped collard greens, thawed and drained
1 clove garlic
1 1/2 oz extra sharp cheddar cheese, in small dice
2 oz mozzarella cheese, in small dice
1/2 avocado, mashed
6 manicotti shells, boiled and drained
1 cup marinara sauce, preferably homemade
1 oz Idiazábal cheese, finely grated

Preheat oven to 375 F

Chop steak into 1/4 in dice, it's easier if it's partially frozen. In a skillet over medium heat melt the butter. Cook the shallots until softened, add steak. Season to taste with salt and pepper. When steak is cooked about half-way through add the collards. Allow to cook, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and pour into a medium mixing bowl. Add minced garlic, cheddar, mozzarella, and avocado. Combine thoroughly. Using a teaspoon, or your fingers (which I prefer), fill each manicotti shell, taking care to fill completely but without tearing the delicate pasta. Lay side by side in rectangular casserole dish. Cover with marinara sauce and grated Idiazábal. Bake for 15 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbly. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Beef and Barley Soup



Yes, you - in front of the computer in your bathrobe nomming on those Cheetos!

Want to hear the easiest recipe ever for a great tasting meal...that's actually good for you?

Of course you do!

No, there's no need to lick off all that cheesy powder of doom - you're fingers are stained bright orange with the proof of your winter-time indiscretions. There's no hiding it now.

But seriously, this may not be the most glamorous soup in the world, but for the amount of effort required it should be carried through the streets, hoisted over heads, and loudly applauded by crowds great and small. Barley is low in fat and high in awesomeness.

Or you can just make some really friggin' easy great tasting beef and barley soup and save all this horse-crap for something else.

Meh...hyperbole is fun.

Beef and Barley Soup

10 oz. steak, cubed (you choose, I use eye of round)
2 carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds
3 ribs celery, washed, trimmed, and chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 (28 oz.) can diced tomatoes
3/4 cup pearl barley
8 cups beef stock (or 8 cups water and 2 1/2 tablespoons boullion)
salt and pepper to taste

Get a pot. Put it on the stove over medium heat. Add everything all at once. Put the lid on. Simmer for 1/2 hour. Remove cover. Simmer for 15 minutes further. Eat with tasty warm bread and butter.

Don't burn your mouth on the awesomeness.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Cowgirl Chocolates

One of the lovely things about being a Foodbuzz Featured Publisher is all the fun perks. When I first signed on to team up with Foodbuzz I thought it would do little more than create a little bit of exposure for my tiny blog. I have been very happily surprised to discover that it is much more than that. Not only is Foodbuzz a really fun and useful way to connect with friends and fellow foodies, but they sent me to an awesome place like Slow Food Nation '08. On top of general bad-assery, and cool little gifts, Foodbuzz also sends out little treats to sample on occasion.

On this occasion it was a very generous selection of chocolate truffles from Cowgirl Chocolates.

First, I would like to point out that those are the coolest stickers ever. Packaging is a really big deal to me. I don't care how magnificent the product is if it has crappy packaging. No gift should require the preface of, "I know it looks really lame, but it's actually really great!" When I receive something I want to look at it and say, "Wow, that looks really cool." If I don't, I probably won't buy it.

So you won't be surprised to learn that I was very pleased upon removing the already super cool tissue paper and stickers to find this little beauty.

I mean, how freakin' adorable is that, right? I am already totally in love with this company.

A little backstory on Cowgirl Chocolates. They are located in Moscow, ID. Founder Marilyn Lysohir branched out from her career of ceramic sculpture into chocolate in 1997. Cowgirl Chocolates features an interesting niche within the confectionery world, spicy chocolates. They have been featured on several Food Network shows, including "Unwrapped" with the ultra-creepy Marc Summers as host.

Now, when I found out that Cowgirl Chocolates specialized in "hot" chocolates I was intrigued. I'm not a huge chocolate fan, but I enjoy new and different things - and these were definitely new and different. I took them with me to the MiL's house in D.C. because she really enjoys chocolate. Unfortunately, with as many photos of the packaging that I have I only ended up with one serviceable picture of the truffles themselves.

We received a lovely collection of both spicy and mild truffles, plus one caramel. As I was removing all of the truffles from the box Mr. TA stole the flavor guide and refused to return it, instead forcing us to try the chocolates and then guess what they were. It was quite fun until we reached some of the spicier guys, but I'll get to that later...

Starting clockwise from the white chocolate truffle:

Ivory Orange: A white chocolate shell with a center of milk chocolate infused with orange. Very creamy, the orange makes a very strong presence.

Milk Chocolate: This one tasted of creamy milk chocolate with hints of caramel, toffee, and coffee.

Raspberry-Lemon: A dark chocolate truffle with a strong berry presence that infiltrates the back of your palate, right near your nasal cavity. This one was a little too sweet for me.

Double-Dark Chocolate - Spicy: The first spicy one sent us for a loop! The website describes it as a "hint of spice" - it's a lot more than a hint to me! The heat doesn't hit you until after it breaks up in the mouth, really gaining its power once it touches the back of the throat.

Hazelnut Milk Chocolate - Spicy: A very nice blend of hazelnut and spice in milk chocolate. The hazelnut balanced the spice well, it was not nearly as powerful as the Double-Dark. The center had a bit of a crunch to it, almost toffee-like, with an instant taste of hazelnut followed by a prominent heat.

Raspberry-Lemon - Spicy: This one was a little deceiving, both the MiL and I tasted orange followed by strong heat. The amount of spice really overpowered the subtle hints of raspberry, leaving only a bland citrus. I didn't enjoy either of the raspberry-lemon flavors.

Cappuccino - Spicy: My second favorite, right behind the plain milk chocolate. Very creamy with a hint of espresso. Similar crunch in the ganache as with the hazelnut truffle. This one didn't seem as spicy as the others, playing up the coffee flavor by complimenting it with spice instead of negating the other flavors in the chocolate. I enjoyed it very much.


Habanero Chocolate: Oh dear sweet baby Jesus in a manger was this baby spicy. In the very beginning when it first hits the tongue the dark chocolate seems a nice complement to the heavy spicy, but once the chocolate is broken up while chewing the only thing noticeable is insane flames jumping out of your mouth. I actually think I could have caught things on fire just by breathing on them after eating this chocolate.

Not Pictured

Habanero Caramel: An innocent looking, chewy soft caramel - that will very happily burn your teeth right out of your friggin' mouth. After trying a mere third of a piece of this caramel both the MiL and I downed no less than sixteen ounces of icy cold water to dampen the hell-fires stoked by this demon candy. This baby should require a waiver. It mustered a " Hmm...pretty hot." out of typically unflappable Mr. TA. I would only wish this bearer of heart-burn on my worst enemy.

In the end, Cowgirl Chocolates are a lovely treat for any pepper-head in your life. I would not recommend them to anyone who does not like spicy foods - except for the Milk Chocolate truffles, those are outstanding. Give them those. Anyone who does love spicy foods - and chocolate - will be in heaven.

Thank you Foodbuzz and thank you Cowgirl Chocolates for letting me try these tasty treats - I can't wait to see what's in store next!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Tidbits from December

I'm a delinquent.

I know.

Because I'm lazy.

As is evident from my complete lack of posting.

Because I'm a delinquent.

I know.

The holidays themselves weren't particularly stressful. Actually getting to our destination, however, really was. Mr. TA and I were going back East to see family, our flight arriving in Baltimore. We were to leave our tiny airport, connect in San Francisco, arrive in Baltimore around midnight and be done. Easy peasy, right? Not so much. We arrive at the airport, bright eyed and bushy tailed (except that I detest flying. I'm claustrophobic. The thought of being crammed in a tube with a bunch of gross, dirty people I don't know makes me a basket case.) with plenty of time to board our plane.

Except the ticket agent can't find our reservation in the computer. At all.

Oh yeah, because that's not a disconcerting way to start off a trip. Not at all.

After about 5 minutes, and some jerk anxiously toe tapping away behind us (no doubt petrified at missing his flight that didn't depart for over two hours - jerk) she finally finds us. After several anxiety-inducing "Well that's odd." and "Hmm, isn't that strange?" comments she does locate our reservations. But only for one portion of the flight. Hmmm. Not great. But, in all fairness, it's something that's happened to me before. Our airport is very small, only offering flights to a very few select locations. I've experienced this before, not receiving seating assignments until arriving at a larger airport, and I was a little anxious, but having oberved this previously and it working out fine, I put it out of my mind.

That is, until we arrived in San Francisco.

We had a two and a half hour layover, but with no seating assignment we were worried about not getting our flight at all, so we immediately rushed to the ticket counter for our departing flight. To be greeted by the rudest ticket agent in the entire universe. I think if this airline had bitch training this guy must have been the star pupil. After witnessing him get into a heated verbal altercation with a very short, bald man demanding his attention, Mr. TA and I overheard that the agent was refusing to help anyone waiting in line. He was servicing the flight to New York that had just left that particular gate, and though he had the ability to help those leaving for Baltimore, he refused. What a nice chap. Christmas season has really got this guy in the spirit, eh? We were to wait until the staff arrived that was assigned to the Baltimore flight. The staff that arrived at boarding time. 40 minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave.

To make an extremely long story short - we didn't get on the flight. The lovely not-to-be-named airline (rhymes with Tunited Tair) had egregiously overbooked the flight by more than a dozen people. Isn't that lovely? Oh no, it's not a technical malfunction. Of course it's not the weather. Nope, it's just an extremely greedy airline that allows seats to continually be sold on flights that no longer have them available. Aren't they nice? It was a lovely conversation.

We ended up staying overnight in San Francisco at a rather nice hotel, had a lovely dinner, a nice breakfast the next morning, and a mediocre lunch at the airport the next day - all on their dollar. Plus a free upgrade to first class for our flight, plus two free roundtrip tickets to use within the next year.

Now, when most people heard that part of the story, they say, "Oh, well at least that made up for the inconvenience."

I completely disagree.

Sure, the free stuff was great. Sure the free flights are going to let me see my sister twice this year. But you know what would've been really great? Actually getting on the damn plane in the first place.

I think this would be a good time to point out that I am one of those "It's the principle of the matter" type-people. Sure, the airline more than compensated us for our trouble. But there never should've been any damn trouble in the first place. How dare a company knowingly sell a service that they know they can't provide? They knowingly inconvenienced hundreds, possibly thousands of people, just to what? Increase their available capital? Sure, on our flight to Baltimore there were only about a dozen people who got bumped. But the next day, on our flight into Dulles, there were over a hundred people, that's a right 100 people, that were bumped off of that flight. Just a few days before Christmas. There were whole families stranded. Women were in tears. It was truly a disgusting display of greed by this airline. I know for a fact that I will never voluntarily patronize this company again.

But, in the end, we made it to our destination unscathed. Tired, yes. Grumpy, yes. In desperate need of a change of clothes, yes. But unharmed. And the two weeks away were long, but nice. I'm a big homebody, so being away is at once relieving and disconcerting. I relish my privacy. I like my bed. I like doing my own thing whenever I want. I like deciding in the middle of the day that I want to go for a four hour hike or try out some crazy new recipe. I like cursing until the walls practically bleed and yelling at the TV (internet news broadcast, for us) whenever I think someone's a moron. Which is often. And not something appreciated by people whose house you are staying in. So it was nice to be home.

Now that that is over with, here are some photos from the last couple weeks that I don't feel like doing individual posts on.

First up is the most delicious steak I've ever put in my mouth.


MiL and sFiL were kind enough to ask me to cook dinner for their anniversary, brave souls that they are. I've been known to thoroughly muck things up when cooking in other people's kitchens. Thankfully that didn't happen this time. Except for burning the ever loving crap out of my finger whilst mashing a potato.

Don't ask.

But seriously, doesn't this baby just make your mouth water?

These are the filet mignons available at Whole Foods. Yes, the ones that are $27 per pound. It's worth it. Get some. They're prepared using this method. If you are a meat lover, or even someone who only occasionally enjoys red meat like myself, then you are seriously doing yourself a disservice by not trying this out. This steak was a perpetual mouth-gasm. No lie. If you put steak sauce on this I will hunt you down with a meat mallet.

I paired it with some sautéed green beans and some Yukon Gold potatoes, Jacques Pepin style (or at least they are according to that brunette harpy). It was delicious. Except make sure that when you squish the potatoes you don't get burning hot potato flesh all over the knuckle of your middle finger. Because it hurts really bad. And it makes a huge blister. Not that I would know, or anything.

Up next are some tasty Vegetables Provençal prepared by the MiL.

I'm not sure what was in them. I know it was layered zucchini, yellow squash, tomato, and some carrots with cheese and other stuff. I wasn't paying attention. I was on vacation. Being lazy. And someone else was cooking for me. Good food. Yay. (Just so you know, that's a typical thought strain for me. 'Good food. Yay.' I'm a simple creature.)

They were tasty vegetables. Needed some salt, but I think everything needs some salt. So that may have just been me.

Next in line were some fresh shrimp rolls I made for New Years Eve.

We did a sort of Hors D'oeuvres dinner. MiL made some crab stuffed mushrooms and some kind of bacon-roll thingy. I was lazy and just made these. I stole these from Jen on use real butter. Hers looks better than mine. Because she's like the kitchen goddess. Get her recipe here.

I had seen these a while ago on her blog and wanted to make them, except when I was at the store buying ingredients I couldn't remember what all was in them. So the orange-y component I remembered ended up being julienned carrot instead of supremed grapefruit. Go me. But they were still delicious.

I used a vegetable peeler to take nice long, thin slices from an Engish cucumber, marinated them in a little rice vinegar, and then rolled up some shrimp (using Jen's straightening technique), avocado, carrot, and clover sprouts. They were out of this world delicious. Eat them. You'll love them.

And this is the Soy-Dijon marinated salmon referenced in this post.

And so wraps up my leftovers from December. Next up is a review on some tasty chocolates. That I tasted weeks ago.

I'll get to it eventually...