Herbs R Fresh

 

If you like herbs like we like herbs, then you plow through more than the average American. There are also likely fresh favorites you keep around pretty much all the time. For us, that would include cilantro and parsley. Both have subtle, lovely flavor profiles that go great with many dishes.

That said, both can get long in the tooth quite quickly. They're highly perishable, and can be hard to keep fresh after even a couple of days in your fridge. Considering the handling such foods receive as a part of modern distribution and sales, it's no wonder, really. A little handling and preserving work can go a long way toward having these indispensable always at hand.

When you get delicate perishables home, inspect them first and foremost. Get them out of the plastic produce bags, and better yet, don't put them in those things in the first place and reduce your plastic throughput. Remove any off colored or bruised stuff and toss it in your compost.

Give your goods a gentle rinse in cold, running water. Shake them dry, gently but thoroughly; excess water is not a friend to successful storage.

Remove any rubber bands or twist ties; all they do is bruise the goods and promote rot.

Place the washed produce on a clean paper towel and let them air dry a bit. Wrap the goods in the paper towel and store them in your crisper drawer just like that. If you use what you buy steadily, and pay attention to FIFO, (First In, First Out), in your fridge, your cilantro, parsley, green onions, radishes, etc will stay fresher, longer.

Consider drying some of those staple fresh herbs. It's a given that fresh is better than dry, but house dried herbs from a good fresh source are far better than store bought or none. Those faves of ours will dry thoroughly in a dehydrator in less than 30 minutes. I've tested both cilantro and parsley and found that our home dried stuff retains reasonably potent flavor for up to a month when stored in glass, in a cool, dark, dry spice cabinet.

Finally, and especially as the winter months are upon us, plant a fresh herb window box. An 18″ x 6″ x 6″ box will allow you to grow a full raft of your faves, and reasonable tending will sustain them through the season. There's nothing cheerier in the dark months than fresh, bright herbs growing in your kitchen.

 

 

We can pickle that!

If you love pickles like we do, you’ve pretty much always got several jars in your fridge. In addition to cukes, we’ll typically have store bought capers, olives, and pepperoncini. That list is a great source for fridge pickling brine you can now add to carrots, chiles, green onions, green beans, radishes, garlic, and whatever else strikes your fancy. 

Got a favorite brand with a just right pickle flavor? Save that brine and jar, and replace those kosher dills with a mix of jalapeno, garlic, onions and carrots. Top things off with fresh vinegar if needed, and you can add additional pickling spices as well if you like. Allow your new batch to marinate for 2 or 3 days, and you’re back in business. Fridge pickled goodies will last a month or two, although they’re so good, they’re unlikely to survive that long.

Try something a bit outside the box, like pearl onions in leftover caper brine, or cherry tomatoes in pepperoncini brine; experimentation is bound to lead to fresh ideas and new favorites. Let that outside the box thinking color your spice selection as well. Here’s the perfect chance to experiment with a single jar; develop something you love and you can expand to a batch run later. In addition to providing wonderful treats for a Bloody Mary or martini, pickled veggies add great zing to everything from salads or omelettes to soups and stews.

Next time you’re in the produce aisle, see what looks good and grab a little extra to pickle with. As always, carefully inspect and chose top quality for this endeavor. Try something that maybe you think you don’t like or aren’t that familiar with, like Bok Choi, Fennel, or turnips. A quick pickle brings a very tasty note to an otherwise dull character; try pickled celery and you’ll see what I mean.

 

Once you’re home, thoroughly rinse your produce in clean, cold water. For radishes, carrots, chiles, green and sweet onions and cukes, top, skin, seed, core, etc, and then cut them into whatever form you prefer your pickles in.

Fo green beans, corn, or peas, a quick blanch and shock will help preserve texture and color. Bring a large pot of well salted water to a rolling boil, and have an ice bath standing by that, (50%-50% ice and water).

Toss your veggies into the boiling water for about 30 seconds, the transfer them with a slotted spoon and plunge them into the ice bath. Leave them there until they’ve cooled completely. Remove and you’re ready to pickle.

When you’re ready to pickle, pour the remaining brine into a clean bowl or pitcher. Wash your jars thoroughly, and either sterilize them in your blanching bath, or run them through your dishwasher. Do the same with lids and rings.

For whatever you prepare, make sure they’re well packed, with at least an inch of brine above the tops of the contents, and seal the jars well.

Oh, and don’t forget to dust the rim of your Bloody Mary glass with chile salt.

Anthony Bourdain hates your garlic press.

In his epic tell all, Kitchen Confidential, my favorite kitchen kermudgeon, Anthony Bourdain, had this to say about garlic.

“Garlic is divine. Few food items can taste so many distinct ways, handled correctly. Misuse of garlic is a crime. Old garlic, burnt garlic, garlic cut too long ago and garlic that has been tragically smashed through one of those abominations, the garlic press, are all disgusting. Please treat your garlic with respect. Sliver it for pasta, like you saw in Goodfellas; don’t burn it. Smash it, with the flat of your knife blade if you like, but don’t put it through a press. I don’t know what that junk is that squeezes out the end of those things, but it ain’t garlic. And try roasting garlic. It gets mellower and sweeter if you roast it whole, still on the clove, to be squeezed out later when it’s soft and brown. Nothing will permeate your food more irrevocably and irreparably than burnt or rancid garlic. Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screw-top jars. Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic.”

Ah Tony Bourdain, never at a loss for words…
Is he over the top?
Absolutely.
Is he correct?
I’d say 90% yes, but let’s just break down his specific contentions to be sure, shall we?

First off, we have the implied divinity of garlic: Is he right?
In a word, yup.


Allium Sativum, of the Family Rosacea, (why it’s sometimes called ‘the stinking rose), is indeed magic, and its broad, utilitarian beauty is admirable. No other veggie has that ethereal combination of bite, heat, and sweet that garlic packs. What the author doesn’t note is that all garlic is not created equal. There are hundreds of cultivated garlic varieties worldwide, which is great if you’re a gardener or know a generous one. If you have a green thumb and your cultivation zone can handle it, by all means grow it. Just Google ‘Heirloom garlic starts’ and you’ll find a veritable cornucopia of options. Otherwise, hit up your local farmers market or CSA and load up when the magic is in season.

Great garlic is usually not available year round to the vast majority of us. As such, some plan for preservation is in order. Drying is your best bet; while there is a certain loss of flavor, it’s a given that great garlic dried will be better than OK garlic fresh, so it’s worth the effort. You should peel the cloves, and at the least, cut ’em in half, though you can chop or mince if you like; process in a dehydrator or warm oven until they’re light and dry to the feel.

Please know that garlic in oil is not a safe methodology; garlic is a low acid food, and you’re begging for botulism here. Making garlic oil in small batches and freezing it is A-OK. Puree your garlic, mix it with good olive oil, strain it through cheese cloth or a fine, double sieve. This is another perfect ice cube tray application – freeze it that way and pop a cube out for use.

You can and should pickle garlic, it’s delightful and has a complexity like no other. Finally, garlic salt or pepper are nice options as well. Kosher or sea salt both work fine, though the uniform grain of kosher probably works best; for garlic pepper, use whole black tellicherry berries. 1/4 cup of garlic for each cup of salt or pepper will do the trick. Preheat your oven to warm, or 180° F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Peel the garlic cloves, then add them straight away with the salt or pepper to a food processor. Process for about 30 seconds, until you’ve got a uniform texture. Spread the results into an even, thin layer on your baking sheet. Bake for about an hour, until the results are crisp and dry. You do not want them to brown, so keep an eye on things. Transfer the salt or pepper back to the processor using the parchment. Pulse a few times to break things up to an even consistency. Stored in airtight glass jars, your housemade lovelies are good to go for 3 or 4 months.

If the grocery is your only option, then what you’re likely to find will break down into three varieties; Softneck, Hardneck, and Elephant. 

Softneck Garlic is the most common variety you’ll find; this is the fat, white head of multiple cloves with several layers of papery, thin skin surrounding that you can score for roughly .50¢ a pop. It’s also the easiest variety to grow in a backyard garden. Softneck garlic has a fairly strong garlic bite and a sweet, pungent odor. Most garlic heads that have been braided together are softneck varieties. Common Softneck varieties include California Early, California Late and Creole.

Hardneck Garlic is a bit less common, but still can be found in grocery stores. Hardneck features lovely shades of purple through brown, with thin skins and larger and fewer cloves than the softneck stuff. These varieties are generally somewhat stronger in flavor and scent than the soft stuff, and they generally don’t store as well, so it’s prudent to use them quickly after you buy. Commonly found Hardneck varieties include German Extra Hearty and Roja.

Elephant Garlic is the third variant you’re likely to find. It features a big ol’ head of very large cloves that can approach shallots in size. Prized for its subtle, mild flavor and scent, elephant garlic is great for folks who don’t like their garlic too assertive.

Onward! Bourdain’s next claim is that garlic “can taste so many distinct ways, handled correctly,” and that “misuse of garlic is a crime;” he is spot on here, though there are a couple of critical points left unstated.
First off, what the artist formerly known as Chef doesn’t say is this; more than how you prep it, the most important caveat for “correct” is how much garlic to use. Garlic is by nature potent, and this is why so many cooks over-season with it. Too much can bring out the negative aspects of its character every bit as much as improper cooking can. My simple rule is this: If the dish you’re making has garlic in the title, then you should use enough to bring it to the forefront of the flavor profile. When this is the case, do consider what form you’re going to use the garlic in. Let’s say you’re making garlic lamb or chicken; whole, peeled cloves added to a brine or marinade, or braised or roasted with the protein will deliver a lot of garlic flavor without blowing your socks off. Fewer cloves minced, diced, or crushed can be every bit as potent or more so than whole peeled cloves.
If garlic is not in a lead role, err to the side of caution and use less than you think you should. Let’s take chili for example – Garlic belongs here, but not as a dominant note. You’re after the subtle, sweet mouth feel a little garlic adds to a dish like this, so a moderate sized clove, one clove, will do for a whole pot of chili. That’s what I mean by subtle use; folks won’t even necessarily know garlic is there, but it will add that certain je ne sais quoi nonetheless. Consider adding peeled, whole cloves to soups, stews, and low and slow braised or roasted dishes; that’ll impart a nice, subtle background flavor, and some lucky diner gets to find a treat as well.

Next comes old garlic, and that is indeed a crime of epic proportion. Add to this, sub-par garlic. Since in large part we’re talking about gathering here, (AKA, shopping), then with whichever variety you’re hunting, do your due diligence. Choose firm, uniform heads with no soft spots, off colors, or smells. You should squeeze and scrutinize garlic as you would any other veggie you pay good money for.
Then there’s the storage thing. I’ll just tell ya straight up that garlic does not belong in the fridge, ’cause that will encourage sprouting, which leads pretty quickly to off flavors. Keep your garlic in a well ventilated, dry container, out of strong, direct sunlight. Garlic will last a month or two so stored, but as cheap as it is, you’re best served to buy a small head at a time and use it promptly.
When you’re ready to use the stuff, fresh garlic cloves should be firm and creamy white in color; if they’re yellowish, have brown spots, and/or are starting to sprout, toss it. That stuff will have a hot, bitter taste that is quite off-putting.

Burnt garlic comes next, and should we even have to say no to that? Actually, we do, because it happens far too often. Burnt garlic brings out the worst in this heavenly stuff, turning complex, sweet and pungent to bitter, sour, and overpowering. It will overwhelm everything else in a dish in a New York minute. Understanding how and why garlic burns is the key to avoiding this mess. Throwing garlic into a dish too soon often leads to burning: In a little oil in a saucepan over medium high heat, any form of processed garlic can and will burn within a minute or two at most; that’s why it should always be the last thing you add. Longer cooking under any kind of high heat will make garlic taste bitter, even if you don’t burn it. Smashing, pressing, mincing, dicing, and slicing garlic releases more flavor than cooking with whole cloves, but it also makes for a bunch more surface area that can potentially burn.
This ties into Anthony’s next assertion, castigating “garlic cut too long ago and garlic that has been tragically smashed through one of those abominations, the garlic press.”


For the former, he’s right on the money. The longer garlic sits after being cut, the more the essential oils and compounds that make it great begin to break down into other, much less desirable constituents. Ideally, it should be prepped 5 to 10 minutes prior to cooking with it; this little rest helps stabilizes the garlic, making it more resistant to heat.
As to the latter, I respectfully disagree. Pressed garlic is no more a crime than puréed, smashed, or minced.
Furthermore, there not only is a place for all these variants in cooking, they may actually be good for us.

Garlic contains a sulfoxide derivative of the amino acid cysteine, called Alliin, as well as a catalyzing enzyme, Alliinase. In a whole clove, these constituents remain separated within the cell structure. Slicing, chopping, mincing or pressing garlic ruptures the cells, releasing these elements to combine and form a new compound, Alliicin, the primary biologically active compound within garlic. Alliisin is garlic’s defense mechanism, released to ward of pests in the natural world. It is responsible for the pungent aroma, as well as the bite/heat/power of the stuff. Alliicin has known anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties, and may aid in the reduction of atherosclerosis, decrease blood pressure, and provide anti-inflammatory properties as well.
In short, sorry Tony, but chopping, mashing and yes, even pressing garlic finely, produces more Alliisin, and coincidentally, provides the strongest garlic bang for the buck.
He goes on to vilify any form of processed garlic sold in a jar, and for the most part, he’s right. That stuff is far from fresh, and whatever methods are used to shelf stabilize it aren’t anything you should be hankering for.

Next, Bourdain encourages us all to enjoy roast garlic, and upon this there can be nothing negative said.
Roast garlic is indeed food of the gods, and here’s how you do it.

Preheat your oven to 400° F and place a rack dead in the middle.

Prep whole heads of garlic by removing the thicker outer papery layers.
Leave the skins on the individual cloves and carefully remove about the top 1/4″ of each, exposing the cloves.

Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil in each clove, then loosely cover them with aluminum foil.

Roast for about 30 minutes until the tops of each clove is golden brown and they’re soft to the touch.

Allow the cloves to cool until handleable. Use a small fork or knife to extract the soft garlic and spread it onto fresh, crusty bread. Welcome to Heaven.

If roasted garlic is heaven, confit garlic is Valhalla.

Peel a few heads of garlic down to whole cloves.

In a small sauce pan over medium low heat, heat extra virgin olive oil through, then add the garlic, making sure all the cloves are fully submerged. Heat slowly but thoroughly for about an hour, until the cloves are soft. Keep the heat low so that the garlic doesn’t brown. Serve spread onto fresh, crusty bread with a nice glass of red.

Lastly, Le Tony notes, “Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic.”
And on that final note, we disagree completely. 

As I mentioned before, great garlic dried is really good garlic, especially if you made it at home.

 

Maitake Madness

Our dearest friends Christy and Grant, who were largely responsible for this blog coming to be, are inveterate growers of mushrooms. They have fine crops of quite a few fairly exotic and more-often-found as wild varieties growing on their northern Minnesota spread. All that said, they still like to forage, and yesterday, they happened on a real treat and a rarity in their neck of the woods, a 10 pound Maitake mushroom.

Take note – that’s a 16″ ruler!

If the Japanese name for these beauties doesn’t strike a chord, you may know it as Hen of the Woods, Rams Head, Sheeps Head, or the Signorina mushroom. They’re widely prized for eating by numerous cultures. Maitake and its close cousin, Chicken of the Woods, are two of my all time favorite fungi; they have a bright, savory taste profile that even folks who “don’t like mushrooms” will likely dig. Grifola frondosa is the formal name for Maitakes, which are native to the northeastern US and Japan. They grow in clusters at the base of trees, and are particularly fond of oaks. As with all fungi, you should forage only what you can 100% positively identify. Note that Maitakes, like many fungus, becomes just too tough to eat when they get long in the tooth.

Chris asked for some recipe ideas, which we’ll definitely do, but first, a few words on preserving. If you’re lucky enough to come upon a big stash of wild mushrooms like this, you absolutely must preserve some to enjoy in the dark months down the road. Freezing or drying are both viable options.

For either freezing or drying, thoroughly but gently wash each head until the rinse water runs clear.

Separate the heads into smaller, cauliflower-like stalks, and rinse the remaining stalks thoroughly again.

To freeze, allow the stalks to air dry. Arrange stalks on a cookie sheet with room for air flow around each. Place in your freezer overnight.

Frozen stalks can be vacuum sealed, or tossed into ziplock bags that you then suck the air out of. Frozen mushrooms will keep for 4 to 6 months frozen.

To dry Maitakes, place them in a dehydrator, or separated on a cookie sheet in an oven on warm, with the oven door opened slightly. Dry until the stalks are light, shriveled and snap easily without bending, even at their thickest points. Drying has the added advantage of making a big batch of mushrooms much easier to store. Well dried mushrooms will store for up to 12 months.

OK, ’nuff on preserving, let’s cook; here are three recipes that will work wonderfully with Maitake, or dang near any other wild mushrooms you like, solo or blended.

Mushroom Pho

FOR BROTH:
1 Quart cold Water
1 Quart Vegetable Stock
1 Pound Maitake Mushrooms
8-10 Ounce package Rice Noodles
1 Sweet Onion
1-2 Serrano Chiles
3-4 cloves Garlic
2 Tablespoons Mirin, (Rice Vinegar OK for sub)
2 Tablespoons Black Peppercorns
1 Tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
3″ to 4″ fresh Lemongrass (1-2 tablespoons)
2″ piece fresh Ginger root
10-12 sprigs fresh Cilantro
Soy Sauce to taste

For Garnishing,
Radishes
Fresh bean sprouts
Fresh Cilantro
Fresh Mint
Fresh Basil leaves
Fresh Limes

Combine water and stock in a stock pot over medium high heat.

Rough chop onion and mushrooms. Fine dice chiles and lemongrass. Mince garlic, cilantro, and ginger.

Sauté onions and garlic with a little vegetable oil until they start to caramelize, then toss them into the stock pot.

Deglaze the sauté pan with rice vinegar. Add a tablespoon of soy sauce, allow to heat through. Add chiles, lemongrass, and ginger and sauté until the chiles start to soften. Add another tablespoon of oil and toss in the mushrooms. Sauté for about 5 minutes until heated through, then set mushrooms aside and toss the rest into the stock pot.

Combine peppercorns in a piece of muslin or a reusable tea bag. Toss them into the pot. Add the chopped cilantro and give everything a good stir. Add soy sauce if you need more; if it’s a bit strong for your taste, squeeze in half a lime instead.

Reduce heat to low and let simmer for two to four hours. Remove the peppercorns.

Boil the rice noodles in a separate pot per directions on the bag.

Thinly slice radishes, quarter the limes, rough chop cilantro, mint, and Basil.

Give every bowl a healthy dose of broth, mushrooms, and noodles. Everybody gets to add sprouts, radish, cilantro, mint, and basil as they see fit.

Serve with icy cold Singha Malt Liquor.

 

 

Savory mushrooms are incredibly delicious combined with wild rice and a delicate soufflé; the combination is sublimely flavorful and surprisingly hearty.

4 oz. Wild Rice
1/2 Cup Maitake Mushrooms
1 1/2 Cups Half & Half
1 Cup Extra Sharp White Cheddar Cheese
4 Egg Whites
3 EggYolks
3 Tablespoons unsalted Butter
2 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground Grains of Paradise

Prepare rice according to directions.

In a sauce pan over medium heat, melt butter, then add flour, salt and pepper. Cook the roux for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly, until you get a nice color to it.

Add the half & half, stirring constantly, until sauce starts to bubble. Add the cheese steadily in 1/4 cup batches, allowing each to melt completely before you add more. Once all the cheese is incorporated, remove from east and set aside.

In a chilled glass or stainless steel bowl, whisk egg whites until they hold a stuff peak. Set aside in the fridge.

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks until they’re thick and lemon colored.

Gradually add the yolks to the cheese sauce, stirring constantly so egg yolks don’t curdle.

Add the rice to the blend and incorporate thoroughly. Cool the blend in hand fridge for 15 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375° F.

Lightly butter and dust with flour a 2 quart soufflé dish or individual ramekins.

Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the rice mixture. Gently pour the mix into the soufflé dish.

Bake for 20 minutes or until the soufflé has risen and is golden brown.

Serve piping hot with a fresh green salad and a nice Chardonnay.

 

 

Finally, here’s a fantastic mushroom pâté that’ll blow your socks off, as well as your guests’.

1 Pound Maitake Mushrooms
8 Ounces Chèvre
1/2 Cup fine diced fresh Shallot
1/2 Cup dry White Wine
3 Tablespoons unsalted Butter
2-3 cloves fresh Garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons fresh Parsley leaves, minced
1 teaspoon fresh Lemon Thyme (1 teaspoon dried, any variety, is fine)
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black Pepper

Trim stems, wipe clean, and coarsely chop the Maitakes.

In a large sauté pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the shallots and garlic and sauté, stirring steadily, until they start to go translucent, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the mushrooms and continue to sauté and stir until the Maitakes are wilted and starting to brown. Add the wine, thyme, salt, and pepper, and continue to sauté and stir until the wine is nearly all absorbed, about 5 minutes. Add the parsley and sauté for another minute.

Transfer everything to a food processor. Add the chèvre and process until all ingredients are thoroughly combined. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Transfer to a glass ramekin or bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least 3 to 4 hours to allow pâté to set.

Cut a fresh baguette into round about 1/2″ thick. Rub the rounds lightly with a clove of garlic and toast them on both sides.

Serve pâté with toast rounds and a nice, cold hard cider.

Tomato Time

We’re up in northern Minnesota for a gathering of the Luthier Community, and the heirloom tomatoes at Grant and Christie’s, some 25 varieties, are coming ripe every day. I’ve been in hog heaven cooking for the gang, let me tell you.

Here’s a post over on Big wild Food for you to play with.

E & M