Category Archives: entree

Spicy Ginger Peanut Stew and a Soup Swap: Take That, Michigan Winter!

Actually, that's sunflower butter b/c I ran out of peanut butter. Same idea, though. Incidentally vegan (which is not incidentally my favorite kind of vegan)

Soup Season is ON

I think the worst thing about January in Michigan is knowing even after we survive it, we still have to deal with February. Would you like some soup? I would like some soup.

I first discovered this recipe sometime during the year or two I ate (mostly) vegan. In many ways, it’s just a standard vegetable soup. It starts with garlic & onion, and then you add some vegetables—it doesn’t really matter what kind. Top with canned tomatoes and enough broth to cover, cook until the veggies are done, season with salt & pepper to taste, and that should be pretty tasty, even if you don’t add anything else. But it’s probably nothing to write home the internet about.

You can add more nut butter if you want something really peanutty. I like it better with just a little.It’s the three elements in the name that make this something worth sharing—a hefty scoop of cayenne pepper, a couple of tablespoons of minced fresh ginger, and a few heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter. Together, they transform this from just your average vegetable soup into a spicy, hearty, creamy stew. A hint of coconut, which you can get either by sweating the veggies in coconut oil, adding some coconut milk with the nut butter, or garnishing the soup with a sprinkle of unsweetened dried coconut curls adds another layer of flavor and richness, but it’s also great without the coconut.

To make it more filling, I sometimes add potatoes or rice. In this batch, I used sweet potatoes because I think they’re especially nice with ginger, cayenne, and coconut. Sometimes I throw in a bell pepper or some hearty greens. Carrots would be a welcome addition, too. I actually have a hard time thinking of anything that wouldn’t be good in this—cabbage, peas, corn, winter squash, white potatoes. And although I’ve never tried it, I imagine it would also be good with some beans, shredded cooked chicken, or diced ham if you wanted to add more protein or had leftovers hanging around that you wanted to use up. 

Apparently 2 big onions, a whole head of cauliflower, two heads of broccoli, 4 sweet potatoes, and 5 cans of diced tomatoes is kind of a lot of vegetable matter. Filled 3/4 of my biggest pot, and took over 10 cups of liquid, in addition to the tomato can juice, to cover.This is a 12-qt pot so as written below it makes ~8 quarts of soup?
Easily scaled down—the original recipe makes 4-6 servings.

Swapping Soup

I usually make a giant batch of this once a year and then freeze it in pint jars or 2-cup screw-top tupperware containers, which usually last me through the winter. However, thanks to the Michigan Lady Food Bloggers—especially Shayne of Fruitcake or Nuts who hosted the swap—this batch got magically transformed into six different kinds of soup: 

It's like a Michigan winter survival kit!

Clockwise from the top left, that’s Cheddar and Potato with Canadian Bacon (by Bee of Good Food Michigan), Curried Red Lentil Soup (by Mary of A Million Grandmas), a Potato & Sausage soup with lots of fresh dill (by Shayne of Fruitcake or Nuts), my Spicy Ginger Peanut soup, a Corn Chowder with Red and Green Bell Peppers (by Sarah of Una Buona Forchetta), and a Winter Stew with Pork, Beans, & Greens (by Yvonne of Wool and Water).

We tasted them all, along with drinks & bread provided by Shayne and mint chocolate chip cookies from Bee—all of which were delicious—and then filled the containers we’d brought with the leftovers. Kudos to whoever came up with this idea. It would be a great thing to do on a regular basis with a group of friends with similar food preferences/restrictions.

I’ll link to their recipes when/if they post them. Here’s mine:

Recipe: Ginger Peanut Stew (adapted from VegWeb)
makes enough for a crowd, halve or see VegWeb for a smaller amount

  • 4 T. coconut oil (or any neutral cooking oil)How many great recipes start just like this: mince some garlic and/or ginger, dice an onion...
  • 1 head garlic
  • a 2” piece of ginger (about 2 T. minced or grated)
  • 2 large onions
  • 1 head cauliflower*
  • 2 heads broccoli*
  • 4 sweet potatoes*
  • 5 14-oz cans of diced tomatoes, with liquid
  • 6-10 cups vegetable stock or water
  • 1 t. cayenne (depending on your heat tolerance, you might want to start with 1/2 t. and add more to taste)
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter**
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk or unsweetened shredded coconut to garnish (optional)

*can substitute any diced vegetable for the cauliflower, broccoli, and sweet potatoes; add slow-cooking things like root vegetables and winter squash first; hold back on anything you want to remain tender-crisp

**I prefer crunchy, but creamy will work too; you can also substitute any other nut or seed butter you like.

1. Heat the oil in a large stock pot over medium-low heat.

2. Peel and mince or grate the garlic and ginger finely and add them to the oil.

3. Dice the onion and add it to the pot. Stir to coat and let cook while you chop the other vegetables (or, if using pre-chopped or bite sized things, just let them cook for 5-10 minutes until they’re soft). The heat was on a little to high when I started so by the time I got done dicing the onions, some of the garlic & ginger had browned. But at least it didn't burn. Starting something over becasue you burned the garlic is so depressing.Potato cubes need not be perfect, just as long as they're all roughly the same size they should all cook through in the same amount of time

4. Peel and dice the potatoes, if using, and any other root vegetables or winter squash into 1/2”  cubes and add to the onions. Repeat with the cauliflower and broccoli, or whatever else you’re putting in the soup.

Everything chopped and in the pot--it takes me about 40 minutes to throw it together and is ready to eat in just over an hour.5. Sprinkle the veggies with cayenne, stir well, and let cook 3-5 minutes. The onions should be turning golden, if not continue cooking, stirring occasionally until they are.

6. Add the canned tomatoes with their liquid and the water or stock, using more water or stock if necessary to cover the vegetables.

7. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the vegetables are all cooked to your liking. 

8. Stir in the peanut butter and the coconut milk (if using), and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Coconut oil, but no coconut milk in this batch.

Morel “Risotto” with Israeli Couscous: On cost, value, and pleasure

my parmeggiano curls are not as pretty as they could be

The entry about identifying morels is here.

The Moody Sclerotium

This “risotto” was the fate of the morels that appeared in our yard late last month, which is unfortunately probably going to be the only harvest this year because the landlord decided that our little patch of moss and dandelions needed to be mowed and in the process, chewed up the ones I had left to see if they’d get bigger. Curse you, lawn maintenance norms.

I find it difficult to separate the gustatory pleasure of morels from their market value, even when I get them for free. Obviously I’m not the only person who thinks they’re great—they’re widely admired for their nutty, richly umami flavor and chewy, meaty texture, which is one of the reasons they’re as expensive as they are. But there are reasons for the price that aren’t related to how they taste, too. Fresh morels are extremely fragile, so they have to be handled carefully and transported and sold quickly. They can be dried, which makes them considerably easier to transport and store, and dried morels are nearly as good as fresh when they’re soaked in some hot water. But they’re expensive too, even when you take into account that about 3 oz of dried morels are equivalent to about 1 lb fresh.

click for source, along with way more info about morel cultivation from Volk's websiteThe main reason that morels aren’t as readily available or as cheap as button/cremini/portabella (which are all the same species: Agaricus bisporus) or even the more exotic and flavorful shiitake or oyster mushrooms is because there’s an intermediary step in their life cycle that makes them exceedingly difficult to cultivate—the lump labeled “Sclerotium” in the diagram. According to Thomas Volk, a biology professor at UW-Lacrosse, the sclerotium is made up of big, thick cells that can survive all kinds of bad weather—including, say, Michigan winters. In the spring, the sclerotium has two choices: form a new mycelium, which is a network of cells arranged in tiny threads underground, or form a fruiting body—i.e. a mushroom.

All kinds of factors have to be exactly right for it to pick the “fruiting body” option—soil nutrients and moisture levels, CO2 levels, humidity, temperature. To complicate matters further, different species probably fruit in response to different factors, and the same species might even respond to two different sets of factors. That would make sense given that the same morel fungi seem to work like symbiotic partners with living trees (the mycelia can extend even farther than the root base, bringing useful nutrients closer to the roots) and saprobes that feed on the tree as it dies, possibly speeding its demise and then thriving on the remains for years.

The symbiotic/semi-parasitic relationship with trees adds yet another complicating factor. Morels seem to prefer ash trees, tulip trees, old apple trees, and dead elm trees, although they can grow under any tree and also seem to like areas cleared by wildfire. But you can’t just grow them in a basement or a parking lot somewhere; you kind of need a forest.

There have been scattered reports of effective cultivation strategies—a few patents have been filed and I read somewhere (can’t find the link now) about at least one company that figured out a way to cultivate them, but ultimately failed because it couldn’t come up with a cost-effective way to remove the grit from all the little brainy ridges without damaging the texture or rendering them too unstable for transport. There are also anecdotal reports of huge crops appearing where people have poured the water used to soak or rinse morels over a compost heap or on the roots of a tree. And earlier this month, The Traverse City Record-Eagle quoted a chef from a hospitality company saying they were sourcing them from a “a gentleman, a scientist, who has figured out how to raise them, like farm-raising fish…year-round and at a fraction of the cost of the dried ones.” But whatever the gentleman-scientist’s secret is, he must be guarding it pretty well. I still only see them in markets around Ann Arbor between May and June, and this year they seem to be priced around ~$40/lb.

which makes this about $14 worth; in New York, where I remember seeing them priced at $80/lb this would be nearly $30 of mushrooms

So I almost never buy them (or much of anything else that’s $40/lb+, even taking spices into account, which obviously get used in much smaller quantities; the only exceptions I can think of are saffron, vanilla, and cardamom; even cinnamon and Szechuan peppercorns are only half as much per lb) and I find myself wanting to “stretch” the ones I get. The most common preparation seems to be breading and frying them, usually using flour or cracker crumbs and butter. I’m sure that’s delicious, but with only 5.5 oz, it would yield two or three appetizer/small plate portions at most. Cream sauces are also common, usually paired with pasta or meat, and they show up in recipes for egg dishes, like omelets and quiche, especially with ramps—the wild leeks that appear around the same time in the early Spring. I decided on something risotto-like because the defining characteristic of risotto is that the starch is cooked in the dish rather than separately, so it seemed like a good way to really get the morel flavor infused into multiple dinner-sized portions of food.

Instead of using one of the varieties of starch-exuding short-grained rice that give risotto (“little rice”) its name, I decided to use Israeli couscous (or ptitim). Israeli couscous is basically just a bigger version of normal couscous—the grains are probably closest in size and shape to barley. They have a little more chew to them than normal couscous and they’re often toasted lightly before being boiled in liquid, which gives them a nutty flavor that I thought that would play well with the morels. Some people recommend against soaking fresh morels because they claim it changes the flavor and texture, but I wanted to be sure to get all the dirt and any critters out. If I had known about the home cultivation technique, I might have dumped the water under the tree, but instead I strained it with a paper cloth and used it for part of the cooking liquid. Aside from that, the recipe is classic risotto: some shallots and butter, a little white wine and homemade chicken stock, and lots of parmeggiano regiano grated into a heap of delicate curls with a microplane (that way it melts into the dish easily and doesn’t clump up).

before toastingthere's probably no reason you couldn't do this to normal couscous...and perhaps from now on, I will

It was one of the most delicious things I think I’ve ever made.

When Food is Worth Its Weight in Gold

I’m not even the biggest fan of mushrooms. I hated them as a kid, and probably only acquired a taste for the flavor due to years of vegetarianism, since they’re so often used as a substitute for meat, especially in Euro-American cooking. But the texture, especially of all of the different sizes and colors of agaricus bisporus, still squicks me out. They’re one of the few foods I actively avoid and, occasionally, especially if they’re big, try to surreptitiously remove from my plate. I have less of an aversion to other varieties—I’m actually rather fond of porcini, shiitake, maitake, and enoki mushrooms, but I still tend to prefer them minced, cooked, and combined with other ingredients—part of the flavor profile, but not the dominant note.

So I’m a little surprised how much I liked this “risotto” given how intensely mushroomy it was. I probably never would have ordered anything like it from a restaurant menu because I would have assumed I’d only enjoy it moderation. But there was nothing moderate about how much I liked it. I could have eaten it for multiple consecutive meals. I would prefer it to just about anything else I can imagine eating for dinner tonight. I want it again. I want it now. And I suspect that at least part of that is due to the fact that I know how much morels are valued—both the fact that they’re supposed to be “gourmet” and how much they cost, which probably aren’t unrelated. For instance, it seems more than coincidental that the word we use to describe fatty, savory foods is “rich.”

slicing them into rings is another way to ensure that there aren't any critters hiding anywhere in either the hollow middle or any of the ridgesIt certainly seemed like my faux-sotto was different—and better—than it would have been if I had made it with cremini or portabella mushrooms. I find the thin, chewy pieces of morel way less objectionable than big chunks of anything agaricus bisporus. And the flavor was richer and nuttier and more umami than any cultivated mushrooms I’ve ever had. But, as I’ve mentioned before (both in the discussion about robots and the discussion about umami) the physiological experience of taste can’t be separated from the contextual cues and expectations that shape the perception of taste. Whatever real, scientific differences there are between a morel and any other mushroom, they don’t explain how I evaluate those differences as better or worse.

Does lobster taste objectively better than shrimp, or do I just think it does because I know it’s supposed to be better and it’s more expensive? “Objectively” is the wrong word—there’s probably no such thing as “objectively better” when it comes to taste, but it also isn’t as arbitrary and individual as “subjective” makes it sound. Chemical components and measurable physical attributes like texture and temperature elicit relatively predictable responses, and the combinations that generally register as tastier have greater social, cultural, and economic value.

My suspicion is that morels really do taste “better” (to most people, most of the time) than other mushrooms, and would even if there were no difference in their price or availability. However, I think that gets enhanced by, and is ultimately inseparable from, their crazy, mushroom-optional, sclerotium-based life cycle, not because the cycle actually changes anything about how they taste but because it makes them more expensive and exaggerates their perceived value. Or in other words, they are delicious because they are delicious, but they are even more delicious because they are rare, delicate, and expensive. Which doesn’t make the enhanced deliciousness false or invalid. The added pleasure is a bit like a placebo effect—real, measurable, and usually good, despite the fact that the medicine is fake.   

On the other hand, it also means that this recipe might be just as good—or nearly so—with any other mushroom, especially if you believed it would be. 

Recipe: Israeli Couscous Risotto with Morels

  • 2 large shallots (about 1/2 cup diced)
  • 5 T. butter
  • 5.5 oz fresh morel mushrooms or 1 oz. dried, soaked in hot water for a couple of hours
  • 1 cup Israeli couscous (ptitim)
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 3 cups water or stock (and/or mushroom soaking water if you have it)
  • 2 t. bouillon (if using water)
  • ~2 oz. parmeggiano reggiano, or about 3/4 cup finely grated (microplane highly recommended)
  • salt and pepper to taste

1. Melt 4 T. of the butter in a large pot or saucepan. Dice the shallots and cook in the butter until golden-brown (7-10 min).

my favorite allium...not like there are any i don't like  I assume butter foam is caused by its moisture content? I don't think ghee foams.

2. While the shallots cook, brush or rinse any dirt from the morels and slice them into rings, looking out for critters that may be hiding inside. Add to the shallots and cook until the mushrooms begin to release some of their liquid.

just after the wine is added...after about half the wine has evaporated

3. Add the wine to the mushrooms and cook until about half of the liquid has boiled off—what remains will thicken a bit.

4. Meanwhile, in a separate skillet, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter and toast the couscous until golden (about 5 minutes).

5. Add the couscous and stock (and mushroom soaking water and/or bouillon if using) to the shallots and mushrooms. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is absorbed and the couscous is done, but still has a little chew to it (15-20 minutes). Add more water or stock at any point if it begins to dry out or stick to the bottom.

just after adding the toated couscous just after stirring in the finely grated cheese

6. In the last minute of cooking, stir in the grated cheese and season with salt and ground pepper to taste. Remove from heat.

7. Garnish with curls of hard cheese (I use a vegetable peeler) and, if desired, a few chopped herbs like parsley or chives.

golden, creamy, nutty, chewy, shallot-wine-and-mushroomy. so. freaking. good.