Acorn & Potato “Burgers”

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This is an eminently simple preparation, adapted from a traditional German recipe. My eternal thanks to Steffi / Sycamore Spirits for translating this and many other recipes for me from a cookbook brought to the states with her from Germany. Though acorns are considered largely a famine food in most of Europe, they aren’t really thought of as food at all here in the US, even though they formed a substantial part of the diet of many early settlers.

For me, there is likely no more significant wild food in my diet than acorns. Not perhaps, in terms of quantity – but in terms of importance. I look forward with great eagerness to harvesting acorns in the fall, for while time-consuming it is a supremely relaxing activity. Processing acorns, too may be an exhaustive activity but it pleases me to no end, and there are few wild food products I treat with more reverence than a jar of pickled acorns or a tub of acorn flour.

These acorn burgers use the latter, combined with milled or pureed potatoes to make a burger that is soft, somewhat fragile and has an amazing rich umami flavor. Unlike a lot of “veggie” burgers it doesn’t rely on pulses or TVP so it melts in your mouth, the way a properly cooked burger does. You don’t need particularly finely-ground flour for this, but you do need to process the potatoes so that they are fluffy and light, so a food mill, ricer or other form of fine-processing is required.

Combine a mixing bowl :

1 1/2 cups riced or milled cooked potatoes

1/2 cup acorn flour (preferably cold-leeched red oak flour)

1/3 cup grated onion

1 tbs prepared mustard (preferably high quality whole-grain or homemade)

salt to taste

freshly ground black pepper, optional

Mix the ingredients by hand and form into small patties. This recipe usually makes four burgers, about 3.5 oz each before frying. I usually fry the patties in a small amount of oil until brown and crispy on the outside, but you can also bake them at high heat.

The original recipe calls for the burgers to be stuffed with meat or sautéed mushrooms, and this can be done (I would recommend adding a few tablespoons of flour first if you go that route). However, I have found that simply adding sautéed mushrooms to the burger is much tastier. These are incredible simply served on a soft roll, with a dab of chile sauce or mayonnaise, some crispy lettuce and a few sliced onions. Really, any way you would prepare a traditional hamburger, falafel, or kebab meat suits them, from gyros to banh mi to Big Mac style double decker burgers. The flavor is deep but quite simple, so goes with almost any kind of topping, pickle or sauce.

 

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Oyster Mushroom “Meatballs”

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Oyster Mushroom “Meatballs” with Acorn & Potato “Burgers” – two winter favorites

I love the humble Oyster Mushroom (Pleuratus ostreatus and others) : it appears in our area, in one incarnation or another, in almost every season. It’s dependability reduces it to a minor note in the logs of mushroom collectors – it can often assuage the hurt of not finding more esteemed mushrooms, such as morels in spring or maitake in fall, but few people seem to get excited about it. Some mushroom hunters seem to dismiss or even despise it, but I adore it. While it may not have the deep, rich flavor of a porcini it is a reliable workhorse mushroom and can stand in for more exotic or laudable fungi in spare seasons. More importantly for my needs, it serves admirably as the basis for rich stocks and essences, dries well, and appears in such quantity that it can be used to make mushroom ketchup or soy sauce or put up as mushroom pickles.

Beyond all these virtues, it has a quality that isn’t often celebrated even by its’ enthusiasts, at least not in Western food culture : oysters have a firm, dense texture. While they can be reduced down, or even rendered crisp or dry with enough cooking, the better option is to use them in recipes that celebrate this texture. This is just one such recipe, operating on the principle that finely chopped oysters resemble meat when cooked quickly, allowing their natural texture and moisture-retention to become a quality that assists in a dish with an excellent flavor and a remarkable similarity to meat-based polpette.

Conventionally-grown or home-grown oyster mushrooms can of course be substituted in this dish, you may also find it works with the conventional button mushroom of the supermarket. I recommend using the brown variety, often labelled “Cremini” as they have a bit more structure. If collecting wild oyster mushrooms or harvesting home-grown ones, you will want to collect them when they are firm and have attained at least most of their full growth, but before they become very dry, yellow, and fragile. You will also want to avoid collecting water-logged specimens, or if you do being sure to dry them and squeeze them of excess moisture first.

Combine in a mixing bowl :

5 oz oyster mushrooms, very finely chopped or pulsed in a food processor

3-4 oz onion, grated and squeezed free of liquid or pulsed in a food processor

1/2 cup breadcrumbs, preferably homemade

2 tbs mushroom powder or “bouillon of the woods” (see note)

1-2 eggs or equivalent egg substitute

salt to taste

dashes of mushroom soy, soy, maggi seasoning, or worchestershire sauce

herbs or dried herbs, if desired

freshly ground black pepper or american juniper, if desired

Mix the ingredients with your hands and shape into golf ball-sized “meatballs.” There should be about 12. This recipe can be doubled, tripled, etc. I have deliberately kept the size of the batch in this recipe small, so that you can experiment with the preparation of it and determine how best to process and cook the meatballs. I personally favor chopping the oyster mushrooms by hand, finding that the food processor renders far too uniform a product. If resemblance to meat is your goal with this recipe, however, that may be the route you want to go. I also recommend using both mushroom soy and a dash or two of maggi or worchestershire.

“Bouillon of the woods” is a simple preparation that I make as often as I find chicken of the woods fungi (Laetiporus spp.) that are just a bit too far gone to serve as is. A simple dried mushroom powder can be substituted – for which all you need to do is to grind dried mushrooms in a spice grinder. You may use wild mushrooms you have collected and dehydrated yourself, or dried mushrooms from the fancy or conventional supermarket (it’s actually a fantastic use for the dust or shake found in the bottom of bags of purchased dried mushrooms). For the preparation of my “bouillon of the woods,” I add a pinch or two of salt and a little crumbled wild bergamot, with perhaps another spice or two if desired, to a base of dried and ground chicken of the woods. It is meant to resemble the bouillon cubes found in supermarkets, but in a powder form and with much less salt. Another possible substitute if you don’t have any dried or powdered mushrooms is to use a purchased mushroom bouillon cube, such as the Telma brand from Israel. If a commercial product is used, you will likely want to reduce the amount of salt added.

Once assembled, these can be baked in hot oven, grilled or fried in vegetable oil or other fat. I prefer the latter two options, which tend to keep the insides moist while browning the outside nicely. You can also cook them in a sauce, but I would recommend rolling the shaped meatballs in either a little flour or extra breadcrumbs and then frying first before doing so. If you encounter difficulty in keeping the meatballs together, you may have had too much moisture in your mushrooms. I find that even conventionally-grown mushrooms require a little bit of drying before incorporating into polpette.

While these are quite tasty on their own, especially with a nice sauce for dipping as an appetizer (I love them with blackhaw ketchup), they can also be substituted for pork, beef, or veal meatballs in classic Italian, European, or Asian cuisine dishes. One of my personal favorite ways to serve them is in a dish inspired by Marcella Hazan’s recipe for winter pork meatballs smothered in savoy cabbage.

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the below recipe made with kale and cabbage greens and romaine lettuce

After cooking the meatballs, I cover them to keep them warm and then in a sautée pan heat a little oil or butter. To this I add whatever greens I have available, whether wild or conventionally cultivated, adding the firmer or denser greens first and the more fragile ones later. Cauliflower greens, cabbage, kale, collards and the like are cooked a bit longer, and then blanched wild mustards, wintercress, dandelion greens or even raw watercress or lettuce are added with minced garlic once the firmer greens have softened. A minute or two later, the “meatballs” are then returned to the pan with a little white wine, and perhaps a splash of balsamic or blackhaw vinegar, and the whole is covered until heated all the way through.

This is of course, just one way to do it…

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.

Cream of Roasted Cauliflower Soup

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Cream of roasted cauliflower soup, garnished with roasted cauliflower florets, cilantro and scallion greens.

This is relatively complicated soup to prepare, but well worth the effort. It basically consists of three separate procedures : roasting the cauliflower, toasting and grinding the spices, and composing and pureeing the soup. You could just as well serve this soup rustic-style (without pureeing), but I think its’ worth the extra time and energy to puree for a more elegant soup, one that would happily grace the most sophisticated table. The fact that it is so simple, rich and creamy and also vegan may come as a surprise to some–it’s a great dish to introduce to people who may be skeptical about how deep a flavor one can get from healthy, vegetable-based cuisine.

First, prepare Roasted Cauliflower & Cauliflower Greens using a 2 pound head of cauliflower. This can be done ahead of time, as far in advance as a couple of days. You may try that, I usually can’t resist gobbling up the roast cauliflower as is, so I have to move quickly if I’m making the soup!

Second, make the spice mix.

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Spice mix for cream of roasted cauliflower soup : coriander, fennel, cumin, urad dal.

Place in a small skillet over medium-low heat :

1 tsp whole fennel seed

2 tsp whole cumin seed

1 tsp whole coriander seed

1 tsp urad dal (white gram bean) (optional)

Toast the spices until slightly colored and aromatic. Whole spice seeds burn easily, so keep a close eye on them and shake the pan occasionally. Allow to cool and then grind in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.

Thirdly, assemble the soup.

In a large saucepan or deep sautée pan with raised sides, bring to heat over medium heat :

2-3 tbs olive oil

Add :

5 oz celery, chopped fine

6 oz onion, chopped fine

2 oz scallions (white parts only), chopped fine

(You could just as easily use another mix of onions here, providing they come out to about the same weight. A good option would be a mix of shallots and spanish onions, or mix of leeks and onions, or ramps and scallions, etc. Look for a total of 8-10 oz. for best flavor)

Sautée, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or so, then add :

2 oz chiles, chopped fine

Sautée, stirring occasionally, for another ten minutes or so, or until all the vegetables are tender.

Add and quickly stir in :

2 tbs flour

Cook for one or two minutes to remove the raw flour taste.

Add, slowly, one half cup at a time, stirring all the while :

8 cups of vegetable stock (or whatever stock is handy/preferred)

Bring the soup to a simmer.

Add the ground spice mix to the soup. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper (optional) to taste.

Chop the roasted cauliflower and greens into small pieces, reserving any if desired to use as a garnish. Add to the soup.

Simmer at a low to medium simmer for 30 minutes or so, until all the vegetables are nicely tender and the liquid has reduced a bit.

Allow to cool.

Puree the soup in small batches. If a completely emulsified soup is desired, pass the soup through a metal strainer or cheesecloth.

Return the pureed soup to heat before serving. Adjust for seasonings. If the soup is too thin, cook to reduce to the desired consistency.

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Serve this soup as hot as possible. It can be prepared in advance and served days later if desired.

The spices used give this soup a mellow, complex flavor that accentuates the natural taste of the cauliflower. When serving, choose garnishes that add an element of sharpness or freshness to the soup. Of course, if you have reserved any small florets of roasted cauliflower, you can add those. I usually heap them in the center of the bowl and then add greenery around them. Thinly-sliced scallion greens or field garlic, cilantro or another fresh green herb, raw or prepared chiles are all excellent choices. A dusting of paprika or fresh ground chile powder will show up nicely against the creamy beige of the soup, as will black sesame or nigella seeds.

Though it seems deceptively simple (if somewhat elaborate in preparation) in terms of ingredients, this is really a very rich and hearty soup perfect for the end of winter. One can prepare many delicious “cream of” vegetable soups in a similar fashion, choosing spices and seasonings most appropriate to the vegetables involved, without ever desiring to add actual cream to the dish.

Tomato Sauce with Winter Vegetables

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Another extremely simple winter tomato sauce recipe, in which you can use whatever winter vegetables you might have around and canned tomatoes to make a sauce that can be served either thick and chunky or pureed.

The first thing to do is strain the tomatoes, reserving the liquid. You will want to use about 2 cups / 1 L. of tomatoes and juice, or the contents of a 35 oz can. I usually also squeeze or cut open the tomatoes to let the juice inside them out, but this isn’t strictly necessary. Keep the juice and drained tomatoes separate until needed.

Next, prepare your vegetables. I use between 4 and 5 ounces each of three different vegetables. You should shoot for roughly equal amounts of each vegetable. First I use either celery or onion, chopped into medium size dice. Then I peel and cut into medium dice either carrots or parsnips. Lastly I prepare either kohlrabi, turnip, long radish or celery root in pieces of the same size as the other ingredients. If you like garlic in this, add an ounce or so chopped very fine. Remember to keep all your vegetables separated, as they require different cooking times.

Add two to three tablespoons of olive oil to a wide sautée pan, preferably one with deep sides. Bring the oil to heat over medium heat. Add the vegetables one at a time and cook each until softened. The best order is onions or celery to start, then carrot or parsnip, then the last. Cook each vegetable just until softened, about 5-10 minutes for each. Add the garlic last of all, and cook for only a few minutes before proceeding. You may also wish to add bay or bayberry leaf or whole sprigs of thyme or rosemary at this point, taking care to remove them before pureeing or serving the sauce.

Once the garlic has been cooked, add the whole tomatoes to the pan, breaking them into chunks with a flat-ended wooden or plastic spatula. You may chop them prior to adding to the pan, but I always find that such a mess and prefer to simply break them into pieces while they sautée. Cook the tomatoes for at least five minutes, keeping the heat around medium.

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Add the reserved tomato juices to the sautée pan. At this point, you may wish to add stock or water to thin the sauce out. I would only recommend this if it is your intent to puree the sauce. With about 5 oz of each vegetable, this makes a substantial quantity of sauce, enough for more than one pound of pasta. I will often serve the sauce thick with some pasta, then puree whatever is leftover with added stock to make a sauce that I can put on eggs or a half-pound of spaghetti. One could also add chiles or cream or another ingredient to this newly-pureed sauce for the sake of variety.

Whether you add tomato juice with stock or water or nothing else, the liquids must be cooked down slightly. I usually leave the pan at a slow, steady simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour, stirring occasionally. Less can be fine, but the flavor will not be as rich. In any event, make sure before serving that all the vegetables are cooked through and as tender as you would like them. Finally, add salt, freshly ground black pepper, and dried or fresh herbs to taste. With a winter sauce like this I will often add a quick crumble of marjoram or oregano or sage, depending on what herbs I’ve added during the cooking stage.

Serve as-is or puree and serve over pasta, with or without cheese.

Warm Kale Salad

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Combine and whisk together in a large bowl :

2 tsp toasted sesame oil

2 tsp prepared mustard, preferably of high quality

1/8-1/4 tsp tamari

1/4 tsp vinegar (sherry, rice wine or black vinegar are best)

Dash of Maggi or Golden Mountain Seasoning (optional)

pinch or so of salt

1/8 tsp sichuan peppercorns (or black peppercorns), freshly ground or crushed

Take :

10-12 oz kale leaves, de-stemmed but not chopped

Place in a large pot of boiling, salted water for 2-3 minutes, pushing the kale down and covering the pot with a lid.

Drain kale immediately. Then quickly wrap kale in a thick kitchen towel and squeeze as much liquid from the kale as desired. I usually don’t fuss over this too much, just making sure that the larger portion of the water absorbed by the kale has been squeezed out.

Place the kale on a chopping board and roughly or finely chop it depending on your tastes. Toss immediately with the dressing, turn out into a bowl and serve with fork or chopsticks. Garnish with sesame seeds or–even better, a Japanese seaweed-sesame seasoning combo like Nori Komi Furikake.

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This is one of the simplest ways to serve kale, accompanied only by seasonings selected to bring out its’ naturally complex and hearty flavors. This feeds two people as a starter and one person as a hearty lunch, accompanied perhaps by a piece of fruit or hunk of bread.

Kale salad is as ubiquitous as bad driving in the Northeast, too often it is either matched with incongruous ingredients (radish? blueberry?) or just not properly cooked. I find kale best lightly boiled like this (or even steamed if you can muster the energy) ideal for a salad, served either warm or cool. Now, if I was to serve this particular salad cool I would add perhaps a bit more of the liquid ingredients, but warm these proportions are just perfect.

Key – The key to this recipe is to proceed as quickly as possible once draining the kale, as maximum heat in the greens will cause the flavors of the dressing to blend better and come out more.