Tree Crab Cakes

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About the name :

The Hericium genus of edible fungi grow wild throughout much of the Eastern US. And while they aren’t common, they are unique. When fresh they have a tender, fleshy texture and delicate flavor strongly reminiscent of shellfish, particularly crab. They grow on living trees or dead wood, hence “Tree Crab.”

The recipe itself is one I plundered from my first real (some would say only real) restaurant job. You know, I’m not even sure it was a real job, come to think of it. But the recipe is very very real, at least in the sense that it exists as a handwritten list of ingredients that I ran off with when we closed. In the lovely angular script of my kitchen manager Amy (although it isn’t her recipe either) :

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I like that egg has an egg stain next to it. Anyway, for about fifteen years I’ve carried these old sheets of notebook paper with all the lists of ingredients for the recipes of Chez Nameless around but the one that I have made time and time again is this one, never exactly the same as we made it then but never very different. Having acknowledged my theft, here is the recipe.

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Combine in a mixing bowl :

12 oz. Hericium genus fungus (Lions Mane, Bears Head Tooth, etc), shredded into small pieces by hand, sliced thin if too firm for shredding

4 oz red onion, minced

2 oz shallot, minced

handful of chopped shiso

handful of chopped cilantro

1-2 tbs of tuong ot toi 

2-4 tbs of thai sweet chili sauce

*There is no egg. Don’t add any eggs.

**Adjust the amount of sauces used based on your own taste and the moisture content (see below).

Combine these ingredients and mix them together very well, preferably with your hands.

Add enough breadcrumbs to dry out the mixture slightly. The amount will vary depending on how much liquid is in the fungus. You will have to use your own judgement, but the normal range is between a half cup and full cup.

Shape the mix into patties of whatever size you prefer, firming them with your hands. If the mix is too watery, add more crumbs. If it is too dry add more sauce.

Roll or coat the patties in panko or more breadcrumbs and prepare hot oil for frying. I usually use just a small amount of oil in the pan, rather than deep frying but either will work. Fry until golden brown.

At this point you may freeze the cakes for later serving. You may also finish them by placing them in a very hot oven or under a broiler. Finish them at very high heat and very quickly. In this way the moisture content and crispiness will both be ideal.

Oh and of course, this also works with “real” crab.

Enjoy.

Watermelon & Juniper Sorbetto

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Combine in a blender or food processor :

4 cups fresh melon, chopped into pieces and with as many seeds as possible removed

2-3 tbs of juniper berries

4 tbs sugar

1/2 cup water

Puree until well combined.

Strain through cheesecloth or a wire mesh sieve into an ice cream maker.

Use ice cream maker to freeze sorbet according to manufacturers directions.

Add midway if desired :

1 egg white

This makes a more traditional sorbetto and a creamier texture, but is not necessary.

Tuong ot toi (Vietnamese chile-garlic sauce)

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Combine in a food processor :

24 oz cherry bomb or fresno chile peppers, or other medium-hot to hot red chiles, destemmed but not deseeded and cut into quarters, halves or chunks as appropriate

1 head garlic, crushed and peeled

a pinch or two of salt

Pulse until chopped into smaller fragments, stopping to scrape and redistribute if necessary.

Add :

2, 4 or 6 tbs sugar (see note)

1/4 or 1/2 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar (see note)

Process until chile and garlic and finely enough diced. Place in medium to large saucepan over medium heat.

Bring to a simmer and cook at a low simmer until the liquid has mostly evaporated.

Allow to cool, then refrigerate and serve with EVERYTHING.

Note on proportions :

It’s best to play with the proportions of this recipe to suit you or your fellow diners taste. In particular sugar and vinegar should be tweaked : 6 tbs sugar makes something close to what is purchased in asian markets as shelf-stable tuong ot toi, 2 tbs is more like what would be served on the table at a restaurant. The larger amount of vinegar will make it take longer to cook and reduce but easier to process everything initially. And naturally it will make it more sour. I usually use 2 or 4 tbs of sugar and 1/2 cup of vinegar.

Ideally, you should play with all the other proportions as well, and even what kind and color of chiles to use, to suit yourself and your diners, and the dictates of the moment. I often replace 4 oz or so of the red chiles with green chiles, it ruins the impressive red majesty of the original, but it reminds me of when I used to buy it in the Asian market, where there is usually a bit of green since the peppers are pulled in big farms and often still have a hint of green. I used to think it was scallions 😐

This is undoubtedly the world’s finest table sauce. There is simply nothing finer in any cuisine that goes so well with so many cuisines and especially with so many simple foods. Raw and cooked vegetables, eggs, noodles, soups, sandwiches (unbelievable on banh mi), salads, tofu, pork, fish, and really pretty much anything is enlivened with a little dab of this. Butter, noodles and a spoonful of this with maybe a little cilantro would probably be my final meal if I had to have one. But I won’t! I will live forever, making millions and millions of batches of tuong ot toi! At least, that’s the plan.

Milkweed Stew

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This is a very simple vegetable stew, perfect for a summer evening when a hot meal that isn’t too heavy or complicated is needed. The milkweed can be either added to the stew as is (perhaps chopped into pieces if the pods are large) or briefly blanched first. The flavor of the stew will be perhaps a bit better if the pods are added without preparation, but the cooking time will be longer. Foraging books abound with instructions to boil milkweed in multiple changes of water for lengthy periods of time but all of that is really unnecessary, and usually serves only to ruin the taste and nutritional value of this delicious, wholesome vegetable.

When selecting milkweed pods for this dish, avoid any longer than 2 inches or so and any ones that have particularly tough exteriors. The pods should be firm but not rubbery. Avoid pods that are soft or have obvious slits or discolorations, as the material inside will be dark and bitter.

In a wide, deep sauté pan heat :

2 tbs vegetable oil or other neutral oil or fat

Add and cook until tender and slightly browned :

5 oz onions, diced

Add and cook for one minute or so :

2 tbs field garlic or minced garlic

Add and cook until tender :

2 oz celery, sliced thin

Add and cook until tender :

5 oz bell or sweet pepper, diced

1 chile, diced fine

Add and cook until juices are released :

5 oz tomato, chopped

Add :

1 tsp fennel seeds, toasted

1 tsp cumin seeds, toasted

1 tsp wild parsnip seeds, toasted (optional)

5 oz milkweed pods (see introductory note)

Cook for several minutes, then deglaze with :

1-2 tbs sherry, shao xing wine or cooking wine

Add :

1 cup stock or water

3/4 cup sweetcorn, raw or fermented

Lower heat to simmer and cook until done. Add thickeners or more liquid as necessary.

Garnish with a bit of chopped fresh herb such as parsley, cilantro, basil or monarda.

This is an extremely simple recipe, and benefits from the addition of a dash of this or that as befits your taste and pantry. A little bit of nice olive oil added to the finished dish is quite lovely, as is a little soy or other seasoning sauce drizzled in as the stew thickens. The delicate flavor of milkweed pods (think okra combined with green beans) is best enjoyed in such simple preparations, but can be ruined if too many seasonings are added, so taste before tampering!

Elderberry Syrup

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In a medium saucepan, combine :

1/2 lb. elderberries (washed, still attached to stalks)

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup water

Bring to a boil, crushing berries and sugar together. When the berries are smashed and the liquid begins to boil, cut heat, removing from burner if necessary.

Add :

2 1/2 cups sugar

4 cups water

Bring to a boil, then cut to a simmer.

Simmer for a half hour, then remove from heat, cover, and allow to sit for eight hours or overnight.

Crush again and strain all liquids through a cheesecloth into a syrup bottle.

Keep refrigerated.

Use as a base for sodas, dessert sauces, granitas, etc. Excellent combined in preparations with strong spices and herbs such as spicebush, black cardamom, ginger, wild ginger, shiso, monarda, cinnamon, star anise. Extremely refreshing on its own, with an almost perfect balance of sweet and tart.

Pickled Blueberries

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Fill a quart jar nearly to the top with freshly-picked, clean blueberries, wild or grown.

In a small saucepan, combine and heat until sugar and salt are dissolved :

1 cup seasoned rice vinegar

1 tbs. sugar or honey

1 tsp salt

Add one or more of the following :

1 sliced chile

Several crushed whole cloves of garlic or 2 tbs bulbils of field garlic

Lemon or orange peel or chunk of preserved lemon

1 tsp whole peppercorns, white or black or sichuan

1 small cinnamon stick or 1 tsp vietnamese cinnamon

several cloves or blades of mace

you get the idea.

Pour mixture over the blueberries, allow to cool, the refrigerate for 24 hours, open and serve either chilled or at room temperature. Great as a snack or garnish.

Chanterelle Sauce No. 1

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This is a simple sauce that tastes creamy and luxurious without using heavy cream – highlighting the natural flavor of some of the seasons’ finest wild mushrooms. You can use any kind of chanterelle or craterellus mushroom for this, but the sauce is at its’ best and most pleasing to the eye when a mix of different, colorful mushrooms is used. In the variation pictured above we used black trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides) and golden chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius).

As always, prepare everything in advance and have handy when making a sauce so you aren’t rushing around chopping shallots or looking for sour cream when the time comes to add it.

Melt / heat in a sautee pan:

2 tbs butter or oil

Add :

1 tbs. whole field garlic bulbils or conventional or field garlic cloves, minced

2-3 oz shallots, finely chopped

A grating of fresh nutmeg

Sautee the onions and garlic until softened, then add:

1/2 lb. of chanterelle or craterellus mushrooms, chopped into similar-sized pieces

NB >>> Different mushrooms will cook at different times, so if using a mix, they should be added one at a time. I usually find that golden chanterelles take the longest and horn of plenty the shortest.

Cook the mushrooms until they are softened but not yet completely tender, and add:

1 tbs. potato starch (corn starch may also be used. Flour can be used but must be well-cooked to avoid leaving an off taste)

Stir and sautee for 1-2 minutes, then add, slowly, mixing to incorporate :

1 1/2 cups hot whole milk, preferably fresh and of very good quality

Cook while slowly adding the milk for fifteen minutes or so. Add seasoning to taste while the sauce reduces a bit. If it becomes to thick and/or is cooking too fast add 1-2 stock cubes or ice cubes and reduce heat if needed. Season with :

Freshly ground black or white pepper to taste (optional)

Salt to taste (not optional)

Fresh or good quality dried thyme to taste

Once the sauce is close to the desired consistency and the mushrooms are mouth-tender, remove the sauce from the heat. If it is very hot, allow to cool a bit before adding :

1/2 cup sour cream, preferably at room temperature

Snipped chives if desired

Taste and adjust for seasoning. Serve immediately.

If not eating immediately, allow the sauce to cool on its’ own without adding the sour cream. When serving, reheat and then stir the sour cream in, with chives if desired.

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Craterellus cornucopioides being prepared

There are of course any number of herbs or other seasonings that could be added to this sauce, but in this its’ simplest form I’ve used only the classic mushroom herb thyme and a bit of nutmeg and optionally pepper. Fresh parsley or celery leaf in small, finely-chopped quantities are a nice addition for a bit more green color. One could add a stronger herb as well such as oregano or tarragon if it seems appropriate for the dish it is to be used with.

The temptation with a sauce this rich is to toss pasta in it, and revel in the sumptuous texture combination of chanterelle and toothsome starch. And I won’t deny that it is a fine sauce to serve with a starch – heavenly with freshly-made egg noodles, homemade biscuits (a nice vegetarian replacement for Southern-style sausage gravy), even simple buttered rice. Some more interesting uses? A cream sauce for greens or a green vegetable, a base sauce for a pizza, on top of heated stuffed vegetables or grape leaves, especially ones filled with rice or grains, on top of a hearty bowl of cooked, mashed lentils or pulses, and a dynamite partner with polenta. I have even eaten this on top of some scrambled eggs with a bit of cheese and green herbs and had no complaints about the experience.

Makes a little over 2 cups of sauce.

Mugwort Soup, Potage or Cream

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This is a charming spring soup that can be prepared and served three different ways. It can be a rough country soup, a robust puree or a subtle and warming cream soup. Either way, it has a very unique flavor.

Blanch in boiling, salted water for one minute :

8 cups loosely packed mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) leaves, collected early to mid-spring

Drain, rinse immediately with cold water, then squeeze free of liquid and allow to dry.

Bring to a simmer :

8 cups chicken or strong (but not roasted) vegetable stock

2 fresh bay leaves (optional)

Add :

1 1/2 tsp ground coriander seed

1 tsp ground ginger or several thin slices of fresh ginger root

freshly ground white or black pepper to taste

4 oz celery, diced

Simmer for 5 minutes, then add :

12 oz potato, peeled (or not) and diced

Simmer for 20 minutes, then add :

The prepared mugwort, finely chopped

1 tsp salt (or to taste)

Simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from heat.

The soup can be served as is. If that is your plan, you may wish to make the chopping of the celery and potato more uniform. If I am serving it like this I will keep it more rustic, like a rough country soup made quickly at the end of the working day. In fact, that is exactly what this is, a soup that takes only an hour or so in total and most of that spent simmering.

Alternatively, you can puree it. Pureeing will give you a complex bright olive green soup that is an intriguing first course for a spring meal. It’s equally great as just plain eating, but it has a mysterious flavor that might have your local foodies scratching their beards to describe. I like to think of it as a mix between parsley and sage, but not quite that… although handling the plant itself also makes me think of those two herbs.

Another option would be to puree, then add :

2 tbs butter

1/2 cup light cream

This makes for an even more elusive tasting soup, which can be garnished very nicely with bright violet flowers and bittercress pods, if you like, or forsythia blossoms and chives. A perfect soup from early to mid-spring.

Garam Masala March 2015 : New Times Masala

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Place in a large, heavy skillet or cast-iron pan over medium-low heat :

1/2 cup coriander seeds (1.75 oz)

1/2 cup cumin seeds (3 oz)

seeds of 3 tbs green cardamom pods (.5 oz) (about 1 1/2 tbs seeds)

1 tbs vietnamese cinnamon (.25 oz)

1 tbs cloves (.25 oz)

4 tbs black peppercorns (1.75 oz)

Toast spices, tossing gently, until aromas have been released but before coriander and cumin seeds begin to darken. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely.

Leave whole and store in glass to be ground fresh and used in recipes, or grind to a fine powder and store in glass jars or shakers. I usually like to leave about half as a solid spice mix and grind the other half. Remember when using the whole spice mix that it should be shaken before measuring, as it will likely settle and separate in the jar.

Ground masala will remain usable for at least a half of a year, the whole spice mix for a year. If spices are burned or darkened they will deteriorate more rapidly.

Masalas are inherently variable things, dependent on the mood of the cook and the spices available. I encourage you to come up with your own spice mixes, reflecting your own tastes and adding a touch of your own personality as a cook. This one is just a snapshot, a new masala for new times.

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Tofu, Bok Choy & Fermented Corn Tacos

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These are exceedingly simple. Perhaps too simple to even need a recipe for. Nonetheless I will present it in the hopes that it will inspire other simple improvised tacos.

Heat over medium in a large skillet :

2 tbs. neutral vegetable or seed oil

Add :

5 oz. onion, diced

Sautée for three to four minutes, until softened, then add :

8 oz bok choy or baby bok choy, leaves chopped and stems diced

Sautée for two to three minutes, until softened, then add :

a few cloves of garlic, minced

one or two small red chiles, chopped into small dice

Sautée for another minute, then add :

1 tbs Shao Xing wine, cooking wine or sherry

a few dashes of Maggi or Golden Mountain seasoning

a few pinches of salt

1 tsp. of cumin powder

freshly ground black pepper, if desired

ground cayenne or hot chili powder, if desired

Stir and add :

1/2 lb firm tofu, cut into about six or eight pieces

Sautée for about two to three minutes, enough to warm the tofu through. Break the tofu into pieces of whatever consistency is preferred with a flat-ended wooden or silicone spatula. I usually like a little variety.

Remove from heat and add 1/2 cup of fermented corn. Regular corn can be substituted.

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Serve on freshly-made or store (or better yet, taqueria) bought corn, flour or whole-wheat tortillas.

Accompany with three or more of the following :

Fresh cilantro leaves

Yogurt or sour cream (or vegan substitute)

Red salsa, fresh or cooked

Green salsa, tomato or tomatillo

Guacamole or chunked avocado

Finely shredded lettuce

Thinly sliced salted cucumber

Finely shredded raw cabbage

Pickled onions, sliced thin

Wedges of limes or lemons

Fermented tomatillo slices

Sweet hot pickled carrots

Finely chopped scallions

Spiced pickled daikon threads

&c.