Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Wild Mushrooms and more memories...

I took a walk through Balboa Park today, while it was getting grayer but still warm. There are canyons in the park where I have seen coyotes sunning themselves in the past. Today's hike yielded the greening of the grasses and trees. I live in a drought-deciduous climate, meaning that trees and shrubs around here lose their leaves (and grasses get browner) with the warm, dry weather of summer. Once the rains come - which is winter time - everything turns green and lush. Well, we've been having a rainy winter this year, and I, for one, am grateful! Yes, I love the sunny weather, but we needed the rain. The reservoirs needed it. The earth was parched and thirsty. Those of us who live in San Diego often tend to forget that this is a desert. It's easy to forget that when you look at the lush, semi-tropical plants growing in the neighbors yards. Having spent 12 years living in New Mexico, though, water consciousness is part of my fiber. I may not have had to ask what the water source was when I bought my house here, but I tend to distrust the endlessly sunny skies. Where's the water going to come from? After 5 years or so of drought, we were sorely in need of the rain that has fallen this year.

The other thing I take note of when I'm out and about is what's blooming and growing, and what changes might be occurring. For instance, I finally got out to the back yard to dismantle the trellis which had been holding up my Cecil Bruner climbing rose. It had collapsed in the rains - the bottoms of the posts rotted out. After dismantling this thing, I decided to trim back the rose itself, as it was bending quite severely. (It had been....well, let's just say that it had been a while since the trellis had collapsed.) Anyway, in lopping off the old, dead wood and some of the larger branches, I noticed that there were new leaves - young and red - sprouting.

I love when nature captures my eyes. Those young leaves were a reminder of the season here in San Diego. We would not have gotten them for several more months in New Mexico, but here, it's rainy season, and that's when things often get going. The other thing that gets going is wild mushrooms. They are springing up in some of my flower pots and on some people's lawns. I have learned to identify 2 types of wild mushrooms - boletus and inky caps (or shaggy manes). That's it. I wouldn't attempt to pick any other kind, unless I had a mushroom ID book - I've heard the stories... And here in San Diego, I haven't attempted to pick any, not having seen either of the two in my repertoire.

Until today, that is.

I was headed back and striding past a large old tree when I spied them. I veered off the path and walked over to a cluster of mushrooms growing through the leaves. I stuck my finger under the caps and rubbed the gills. When I looked at my finger, it looked like I had just rubbed it across a puddle of that old fashioned black india ink. The shape and color was right, and there was the ink. I looked around and saw several more clusters. I picked the best ones I could find and headed home.

With the help of some beef broth, an onion, some leftover quinoa, the remains of the carrots I had bought at the farmer's market, some baby spinach and one portabello plus a few dried porcinis, soaked first in boiling water, I had a delicious, rich soup. The inky tops turn the broth darker - a perfect compliment to the darkening skies. And a lovely way to extend the odds and ends in the fridge, creating several more meals.

One last note: If you aren't sure whether or not a particular mushroom is poisonous or edible - DO NOT EAT IT! There are good mushroom ID books out there, and there are groups of mushroom freaks who love to gather together to discuss and forage. Most mushrooms won't kill you, but it's not an area to tinker about in. For instance, the kind of inky cap I picked today has a nickname of "alcohol inky cap". Why? Because it has similar properties of Antabuse. In other words, it would make me feel quite sick if I consumed alcohol within 2 days of having consumed it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Couscous, squash and a longing for a simpler time

See that plate? It was one of 4 which was hand painted and given to my parents on their wedding. Painted on the bottom it says: To Marcy and Cy, January 25, 1931. They were soul mates who had a 60 year honeymoon. My dad died in 1991, the day after Mother's Day. He was 9 years older than my mom, who died 9 years later, on Father's Day. They both made it to 90.

They lived in a simpler time, in some respects. Even though they lived through 2 world wars, news traveled slowly back then. The way people heard about the war was through the radio and the way they saw it was through newsreels. World War II was probably the last major war to garner national support. (The Korean War was called a "police action".) You didn't think twice about what your neighbor thought of the war - you knew. We were all in it together as a nation.

They lived through a depression, too. The jobless rate was something closer to 25% back then. People were hungry and out of work. The government stepped in and created programs to help put people back to work. Ultimately it was World War II which brought us out of the depression and put this country back on it's feet. We emerged from that war as international heroes, admired and respected by pretty much everyone in the world.

And from that point on, our trajectory has been like a rocket to the moon. In fact, it was a rocket to the moon, and we all applauded that moment. New technologies have continually emerged, and we have embraced each one of them with enthusiasm. Cell phones, ipods, netbook computers, digital cameras - the world is at our fingertips...at my fingertips...and I've grown used to that.

Until the power went out today. And for some reason my cell phone decided to stop working. Suddenly, it was like being back in time. No computer? No cell phone? Whaaaaat?????

So I took myself out to the beach - with my digital camera, of course. (Thankfully, that still worked!) There have been storms coming through San Diego, and the tides have been high and the waves have been enormous!For these gulls, the world hasn't changed much since my parents time. The ocean still crashes against the rocks, and food is the issue of the day. The air currents still lift outstretched wings. It was the reminder that I needed. It reminded me of one of my favorite poems - "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver, who wrote "Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination."

The world did, indeed, offer itself to my imagination, and when I got home I found that my electricity had returned, my cell phone worked when I used my bluetooth, and I was hungry for a simple meal. One of my go-to dishes for healthy fast food is couscous. It's quick, easy and versatile. Chop up some onions - both red and yellow, slice some squash, chop some parsley and garlic and you've got dinner as quickly as you can saute. The couscous will soak up the boiling water (or chicken stock, if you've got some - which I did after last week's chicken) in a matter of minutes. Any leftovers in the fridge can be used. And when you think about it, every meal is a special occasion, so why not drag out the "good" dishes? Why, you can even light candles and turn off those electric lights if you want to make it a really special occasion.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Another Day, Another Hike

I think I'm addicted. It's about a 20 minute drive from my house to Torrey Pines State Beach. I've been there maybe 4 times in the past week, and I'm finding it difficult to believe that I won't be there tomorrow. Work can get in the way sometimes...
I don't try to keep up with my friends. They are much younger, and they've got jet fuel for blood, I think. Instead, I pause and take photographs. Each time I've been there, it's been a slightly different time of day. Usually morning, but the difference of a half hour completely changes the light. It's interesting how I live by the ocean, and yet I don't take advantage of that often enough. I find myself drawn to walking in places where I don't have to get into the car. Perhaps it's worth the increase in the carbon footprint after all? The smell, the sound, and yes, even the sights are exhilarating.Even though it's whale migration season, I haven't seen any. Perhaps it's time to go out on one of those whale watching boats. I've only done that once, but it was a thrill to cruise slowly next to that gentle giant of the sea. In the meantime, I walk along the shore and content myself with the gulls, and with children signing their works of art in the sand...How do we measure our days? When we have jobs, we know what day of the week it is. We know when it's time to be at work, time for lunch, and time to go home. But what do we know of our days? When we work inside, we don't know much about the changes in the light and temperature that mark the seasons. The earth moves through it's seasons without us. If we shop at farmer's markets, we can get a better sense of the season by what is being offered for sale. It's why I no longer shop in regular supermarkets - except for those occasional things I find so useful, like kosher salt or Dijon mustard. The food which isn't coming from the farmer's market either comes from places like Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, or, on the opposite end of the scale, the Asian supermarkets.

Sometimes the season seems to be dictated by holidays - such as the season for chestnuts. If you want to make something with chestnuts, you'd better get them before Christmas. I hunted for them in 3 different grocery stores this past week and none of them had any. Not even in jars. Which is why I'm glad I had leftovers from the holidays. Because when you're looking to spruce up a chicken with a sauce that's so good it's scary, you just might need chestnuts.

I found a ginormous Rosie chicken at Henry's. It was enough to feed the multitudes. I needed a sauce that was as big as the chicken, and I found one which I doctored. Originally intended as a sauce for a goose, I decided that a bird was a bird, and that this sauce would work well with chicken. It did! The recipe makes more than enough sauce, but it freezes well, so go ahead and make it. You'll be glad you've got it on hand for one of those "ding-dong doorbell, company's here!" kind of days.

Chicken with Chestnuts, Prunes and Cognac

  • 1 16-ounce package pitted prunes
  • 3 cups beef stock or canned beef broth
  • 1 3/4 cups dry red wine
  • 1 1/4 cups prune juice

  • 1 orange, quartered
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon ground pepper
  • 1 large onion, cut into 8 pieces
  • 4 bay leaves
  • One large chicken

  • 6 tablespoons Armagnac, Cognac or other brandy (I used Courvoisier. Why bother having brandy that you don't want to drink?)
  • 1 tablespoon butter, room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
  • 1 7 2/5-ounce jar steamed or roasted chestnuts
  • Chopped fresh parsley

Combine prunes, stock, 1 1/2 cups wine and 1 cup prune juice in heavy medium saucepan. Simmer 10 minutes. Remove mixture from heat. Transfer 12 prunes to small bowl, using slotted spoon.

Preheat oven to 375°F. You'll only need half the orange for one chicken. Rub inside and out with cut side of orange. Combine salt and pepper and rub inside and outside chicken. Place orange, onion, bay leaves and 6 drained prunes in cavity. Tie legs together. Place bird on rack in roasting pan, pierce the skin in a few places and pour about 3 tablespoons of the sauce over it.

Roast for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350°F and roast 30 minutes longer. Continue roasting and basting with wine mixture until done.

Strain prune poaching liquid, reserving prunes. Degrease roasting juices. Add 1/2 cup poaching liquid to roasting pan and bring to boil, scraping up any browned bits. Transfer to heavy medium saucepan. Add Armagnac, remaining poaching liquid and degreased roasting juices. Boil until flavors are intense, about 15 minutes. Knead butter and flour together. Whisk into sauce in small bits and simmer until thick, about 8 minutes. Add poached prunes and chestnuts and heat through. Sprinkle with parsley.I have no idea why the flavors of this sauce penetrated the bird so well. As you can see, I poured the sauce over the bird with the skin on, but the meat was well flavored too. It's possible that this will become my next addiction. I'd better keep those hiking shoes by the door!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Mushroom Barley Soup for a New Year

Sometimes food follows me around. Like a puppy, I find it hanging around waiting for my attention, the way this soup did. I first tasted it at my sister's house during my Thanksgiving stay, and the richness and depth of this version of a simple, old-fashioned soup caught my attention and made me sit up and take notice.

The next time I noticed it was while I was in New Mexico. I THOUGHT I had a huge jar of dried boletus mushrooms, which (I might be wrong about this one) are the same as porcinis. They grow wild in the mountains, and at one time I had an entire jeep load of them. Literally. Anyway, it was the porcinis that made this soup stand out, and that big jar in the cabinet above the stove looked like the porcinis I used to have. Seeing it was like seeing that puppy just wagging it's tail and grinning. "OK! I'll do it!" I said to the dog.

I made a huge pot of it and invited some friends for dinner. I had a great artisan bread and some zinfandel, and while the soup was quite satisfying, it lacked that intensity I was expecting. Seems that the mushrooms were shitakes, and not porcinis. It's like finding out that you've got a Shih Tzu and not a Labradoodle. You were looking for the exotic, but wound up at the wrong breeder. Not bad, just not what you were looking for.

So when I got back to San Diego, we were still having our version of a cold snap, and I felt like I was on a mission. I was going to make this soup and this time I was going to get it right! I did. It turned out to be the perfect meal for a cold night - warm, rich, and inviting. The kind of meal you want to linger over with a friend, pouring another glass of wine and letting the conversation continue.

Mushroom Barley Soup

1/2 C. dried porcini mushrooms
8 oz. butter
1 very large onion or 2 medium onions, peeled and chopped
6 peeled and finely chopped garlic cloves
1 1/2 lbs. fresh mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced
4 stalks of celery with leaves, diced
3 big carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
1/2 C chopped parsley
2 T. flour
2 quarts beef broth
2 1/2 C barley, rinsed. (I think you should use 2 C at the most. I find the recipe heavy on barley)
2T. kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
1. Soak dried mushrooms in 1 qt. hot water for 1 hour. Strain through a filter or cheesecloth. Reserve the water. Coarsely chop the dried mushrooms and set aside.
2. Melt butter in large pot over medium-high heat and saute onions and garlic until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the fresh mushrooms, celery, carrots and 4 T of parsley. Cook until the carrots are tender, about 10 minutes. Add the flour and stir until blended. Stir in the mushroom soaking liquid until blended, then stir in the beef broth and 6 C water. Stir in the barley, soaked mushrooms, 2 T salt and pepper to taste.
3. Heat the soup to boiling, stirring frequently, then lower the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for about 45 minutes or until the barley is tender.
4. Add the remaining parsley, mix thoroughly and add more water if the soup is too thick. Adjust seasonings if necessary.

Yeild: 12-16 servings.