Sunday, May 30, 2010

Wild Morel Mushrooms

The annual mushroom season in Wyoming is finally in full swing after some heavy rains followed by very warm temperatures.  The morel mushroom grows in abundance around the foothills here in almost every wooded watershed that has sandy soil and plentiful downed timber.  As a cook, all wild mushrooms are appealing, but the risk of picking the wrong kind is too great to take.  Morels are unique in that they do not look like any extremely toxic species.  The false morel is toxic, yet quite different than the edible species in its visible anatomic structure. It is not hollow and the stem attaches to the cap inside the top where as the true morel is a tube with the stem attaching at the base of the cap.  Morel mushrooms are the only wild mushroom that I feel safe identifying myself.  This year, I found almost three pounds of beautifully large, yellow and gray morels within a 100 foot radius of the house.  Definitely, my best forage ever!
  When harvesting morels, one must be careful not to take too much.  Groups of these mushroom stands are actually interconnected by filaments below the ground.  If the root is removed from the ground the fungus will not survive.  Cut the stem approximately 1/2 inch above the turf.  Also, leave at least 30 - 50% of the mushrooms where they are growing to ensure their repopulation in larger numbers the following spring.
  Morels have a wonderful flavor that compliments many vegetables and meats.  A personal favorite is sauteed morels with asparagus, garlic and shallots.  Serve them alongside a duck breast or quail, or even on top of a juicy steak.  The savory depth of these wild gems can be compared to nothing else.  Some people consider their flavor to be buttery, rich like clams or crab, or even like soy and noodles.  Fresh morels are great to cook with, but dried morels can last all year long in the pantry and will rehydrate back to their original splendor quickly and easily.  It is dry enough here to leave on the counter to dehydrate, but I sometimes like to string the mushrooms and let them hang to dry.  It is best to store them in a closed container after drying to prevent them from getting stale.
  Morels clearly have many nooks and crannies for dirt to hide within, therefore it is best to soak them in cool water for at least five minutes to loosen the sand and sediment. Next, rinse them off and dry them well before cooking.  To reconstitute dried morels, simply pour warm-hot water on the mushrooms and let them soak until they return to a normal texture and size (usually ten minutes).

  When cooking morels, it is best to brown them in a smoking hot pan with a generous amount of oil with a high smoking point such as rice bran, safflower, macadamia, grapeseed, or canola blends.  Wait to season the mushrooms with salt until after they are browned as the salt will extract moisture from the cells and end up steaming and simmering instead of caramelizing the proteins.  Once brown, season with salt and pepper, deglaze with white wine, add sliced asparagus, onion and garlic, let simmer a bit, then fold in butter to make a saucy bond within the pan.  Serve immediately.  

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


     Posole is a classic Mexican stew made with a chile based broth containing large chunks of braised meat (chicken or pork), onions and hominy.  The stew is normally served with warm tortillas, fresh avocado, shredded fresh cabbage, diced onion, fresh cilantro, sliced radish, jalapeño, and a wedge of lime.  The interactive dining experience of the many interchangeable toppings is enjoyable for a party atmosphere.  Additionally, the warming spices and savory depth provides valued enrichment on a gloomy day.
     Epazote is often used in posole as an earthy aromatic. It has a very weedy smell which reminds me of summertime nettle and sage patches along the river.  I dried several bunches of epazote last fall and am surprised how fresh it still smells! 
     This stew has a two-part process consisting of braising the meat and cooking the soup base.  Since there are many fresh ingredients which are best prepared fresh, it is often helpful to braise the pork the day before (especially for a big batch) allowing plenty of time to chop.  
 Bone-in pork shoulder is ideal for a more tender, flavorful meat.  Roasted chicken makes for a fine substitution, however.  This dinner could be prepared with substitutions for ingredients but then it would be different, not quite as delicious.  As for the canned ingredients, I certainly don't like using them, but I don't like making lye either.  10 or 12 medium-sized fresh tomatoes could suitably replace the canned tomato puree, if added in with the steeped chiles and blended smooth.  Also, if you cannot find epazote at the farmers market, a small amount of fresh oregano, sage and cilantro will suffice.
     This recipe calls for two types of canned hominy or Nixtamal which is sold in most grocery stores.  Hominy is traditionally made by soaking dried corn kernels in a mildly alkaline solution such as lye or lime and water for several days until the skin bursts from the swelling and the hull can be removed. The corn must then be rinsed multiple times to remove any residual alkalinity.  Go here to learn how to make lye.  This is certainly one of those tasks that I leave to the industrial experts because I do not enjoy handling caustic materials very often.
     The listed recipe makes a lot of soup, which is perfect to freeze and enjoy later.  Or, have a group of friends over to make quick work of the delicious goodness.  You may wish to reduce the spiciness by removing the seeds or increase the spiciness by adding more chile.

Serves 10
(Makes over 2 gallons of soup)

Braised Pork
4-5 lb. bone-in pork shoulder
1 Spanish onion quartered
4 cups white wine
salt and pepper
1 quart water
1 Tbs olive/vegetable oil 

1/2 gallon (64 oz) chicken stock
1/2 gallon water, reserve 6 cups
2 cups (16 oz) tomato purée
(2) 15 oz cans white hominy
(2) 15 oz cans golden hominy
6 cloves garlic, grated fresh
2 Spanish onions, medium diced
8 dried chile de arbol
4 dried Ancho chile
2 Tbs ground cumin
small bunch fresh epazote (2 Tbs dried), leaves removed from the stem
salt to taste

Preheat oven to 400°F

Season pork liberally with salt and pepper.

Place into deep pan with onion, wine and water.

Drizzle with oil and cover tightly with foil.

Cook for 4 hours at 400°F (check liquid levels at 2 and 3 hours.)

Let stand in the liquid to cool, remove from bone and chop wide, cross-grain cuts (short strands of meat fibers.)

Place chiles, stem removed, in small pot with 6 cups water, bring to a boil and let stand 10 minutes.

Blend till smooth, strain into large soup pot.

Combine chicken stock, water and chile, bring to a boil.

Add remaining ingredients and simmer for 15 minutes, till tender.

Season with salt to taste.  Adjust by adding liquid if necessary.

Add pork, simmer another 5 min.  Cover, let stand for at least 30 minutes.

Serve hot with:
Fresh chopped cabbage
" avocado
" cilantro
" minced onion
" sliced jalapeño
" " radish
a wedge of lime
and warm corn tortillas.

Oh, and a cold cerveza!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Red Wine Braised Lamb Shanks

  Since the weather has not gotten any better, I have decided to prepare some braised lamb shanks to warm up the soul a bit.  Deliciously comforting, lamb shanks make a great meal for a cold spring day especially served with some new potatoes and fresh spring vegetables.  A French restaurant I once worked at used to serve shanks just like these on a vanilla potato-leek compote that was strangely wonderful with the lamb.
  Braising is my favorite way to cook.  I love taking inexpensive cuts of meat and turning them into tender, flavorful meals.  The cultural significance of braising is very much rooted within the common-folk and peasant history.  These muscles are used for locomotion, versus steering, and tend to have more cartilage and connective tissues which keep the meat tender and succulent when it melts.  First searing in the flavor and moisture, then slowly breaking down the connective tissues with moist heat is the most common method used.  This combination of wet and dry cooking processes leads to a fully cooked muscle that falls apart, yet is full of moisture.  If one were to braise a very lean, fat-less tenderloin they would have a very disappointing and dry hunk of meat.  On that same note, if you served a chuck roast medium rare you would have a very sore jaw.  It is best to braise low and slow at a constant temperature of 325°F for approximately 5 hours, yet I find 3 hours at 400°F works for convenience.
  The shank is the fore-leg of an animal, usually bone-in containing several small muscles with tendon and ligament attachment.  Most butchers sell them 'cracked' or without the knee joint (usually ideal for serving on the bone). If it is going into a stew or another application I would leave this joint attached to yield more product and increase the flavor.
  Lamb has a unique flavor that is sometimes too gamey for some.  I find that a simple red wine braise is effective in softening these flavors while also enhancing the savory attributes and cutting the fattiness with the residual tannins.  Pinot Noir is a perfect wine to use as it is very delicate, yet full bodied.  A Petite Syrah or Shiraz is suitable as well.

Red Wine Braised Lamb Shanks
Serves Two

2 large lamb shanks
1 750 ml bottle of Pinot Noir, poured into plastic container
1 qt veal stock
1/4 cup vegetable oil (preferably rice bran)
1 large spanish onion chopped (halved, then quartered)
2 celery stalks chopped large
2 carrots chopped large
6 cloves garlic smashed once
6 small mushrooms halved (button, brown, porcini, morel, etc.)
2 bay leaves (1 if fresh)
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Salt and Black Pepper
1 Tbs butter

Preheat the oven to 400° F.

Season liberally with salt and pepper.

Start a heavy pan on high heat with 1/4 cup vegetable oil.

Sear the shanks on high heat until brown on all sides.

Remove shanks from pan, carefully pour out oil and salt left in the pan.

Return pan and shanks to heat, slowly deglaze with red wine being careful not to ignite the pan.

Add all ingredients, except the butter, evenly distributed across pan.

Cover tightly with foil and place in oven.

Cook for 3 hours at 400°F, until fork-tender.*

Let shanks rest in braising liquid, covered, until manageable.  (This allows the meat to absorb moisture lost during heat induced contraction.)

Remove shanks from pan, strain liquid into saucepan and reduce to desired sauce consistency.  Add butter and stir to emulsify.

Serve with seasonal vegetables, baby potatoes, hearty greens, whatever comforts you.

*This recipe is based on simplicity and ease.  Based on your needs, you may wish to reduce oven temperatures and extend cooking times for better results. Remember to check liquid levels periodically as  they may drop unexpectedly; simply add more water and reseal.