Embracing the Mushroom

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There was a time that I wouldn’t touch mushrooms. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even pick them off of a pizza; I would just reject the whole slice. If mushrooms had come in contact with my food, that food was no longer edible for me. A friend in college once served me mushroom flavored Top Ramen and tried to pass it off as a different flavor by dousing it with condiments. I took one bite and called her a dirty liar.

I was not allergic to mushrooms, and to my knowledge, I had no traumatic mushroom-related experience in my childhood. I just did not like them. If you replaced “green eggs and ham” with “mushrooms” in the classic Dr. Seuss tale, you would have an accurate depiction of my relationship with edible fungi for the first twenty-five years of my life.

“I would not like them here or there, I would not like them anywhere!”

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People just could not believe that I did not eat mushrooms once I became a vegetarian. I have to admit it was pretty difficult. It’s hard enough to find a meatless meal in some places, and harder still to find one with no mushrooms. I had an issue with the texture. I know, I know. . . how I ate tofu but not mushrooms is a mystery to me too. I also had an issue with the idea of eating fungi in general. Large mushrooms scared me. Portobellos? Way too big. Scary. Nothing good can come from eating a fungus that large, am I right?

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But then, everything changed during the season that I worked at the GrowRVA South of the James farmers’ market. I volunteered at the Chef Demonstration tent with Chef Samuel Baker* from May through November of 2012. You can see my posts about that gig here on Vegology in the Market Chef section. I discuss a foraged mushroom called Chicken of the Woods in a late September post. This pricey little gem changed my mind about mushrooms. Sauteed in a pan with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, the bright orange and creamy white Chicken of the Woods mushroom tastes just like chicken, no lie. It was incredible, and I was hooked.

“I do so like green eggs and ham. Thank you. Thank you, Sam-I-Am.”

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After consuming the gateway drug that is Chicken of the Woods, I started trying other mushrooms too. My next favorite find was the Maitake mushroom (“hen of the woods,” coincidentally) and that one is still a favorite in my kitchen. I gradually worked my way up to the mighty portobello, and fell in love when I had the perfectly prepared marinated and grilled portobello burger last summer. Now I’m unstoppable and I have made a full recovery from my fear of mushrooms.

One of my favorite recent finds was Tosca Reno’s Pesto-Stuffed Portobello Pizzas, pictured above in this post. This dish is fantastic. I served it on Christmas Eve with a wilted kale salad, and my house guests didn’t even miss the meat from the meal.

Another favorite is Terry Walters’ Grilled Polenta with Mushroom Ragout from the Clean Food cookbook, available for purchase here. Sorry I don’t have an Internet version of the recipe, but maybe Google it?

And, just one more, which is a little out of season but can totally be made on an indoor grill if it’s chilly outside. My favorite recipe for Portobello Mushroom Burgers. It’s all about the marinade!

I guess the moral (morel?) of the story is this: try new things. You might surprise yourself. And if you’re still looking for a New Years Resolution, that might be a good one to try out.

*Chef Samuel Baker is now working at The Betty on Davis in Richmond, VA and you can follow the progress of his food adventures on his Facebook page.

What the Heck is a Chayote Squash, and What to Drink for Cinco de Mayo?

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These weird little squashes have been staring at me from a bin in the produce section of my grocery store for far too long. I have passed by the bright green chayote squash dozens of times, wondering how to cook them and what they taste like. I finally picked up three of these weird little gourds last week, and I stumped the cashier when I went to check out.

“Excuse me, what is this?”

“Chayote. C-H-A-Y-O-T-E.”

“I don’t see the code for that, are they pears?”

“No, they’re labeled ‘chayote squash’ on the bin. Maybe they’re under ‘squash’?”

asks coworker in next lane: “Do you know the code for these?”

coworker: “No, they look like pears. Charge her for pears.”

Pears were $3.99 per pound that week, and I have no idea how much the chayote were priced per pound. I guess chayote is not a fast-mover at the Carytown Kroger. In the cashiers’ defense, the chayote does look a bit like a pear that is trying to eat itself.

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The chayote originates from Mexico, where the fruit, leaves, blossoms, and roots of the plant are eaten. The squash has a very thin green skin attached to the green-to-white flesh. The skins and seeds are edible, although I found that many recipes call for the skins and seeds to be removed. The flesh is very crisp, and the raw squash has the texture of a potato and a very mild flavor like a broccoli stalk. The chayote can be eaten raw, but it is often cooked and seasoned, or eaten in a sauce with other more flavorful ingredients.

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I found a great vegetarian recipe for Chayotes Rellenos from world-renowned chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, of The Border Grill in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Santa Monica. I had never tried one of their recipes before, so it was an evening of firsts.

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The chayote was very easy to work with. I left the skins on, but boiling caused them to peel off. The texture and flavor of the cooked chayote was similar to summer squash. I loved that this recipe incorporated epazote, and the crunch from the almonds added an unexpected and pleasant texture to the filling, which probably would have been pretty mushy otherwise, due to the cooked squash and mushrooms.

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I topped the cooked stuffed squash with some fresh pea shoots, which were an impulse purchase from Relay Foods. I normally would have tossed some cilantro on there, but I was out (rare occurrence!). One thing that recipes for stuffed squash or eggplant NEVER tell you is what to do with the extra filling. Am I the only one who always has extra filling after stuffing my vegetables?

I put the extra filling in a glass baking dish, topped it with cheese, and baked it at the same time and temperature indicated in the recipe. It worked out great.

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If you’re feeling inspired by Cinco de Mayo and you want to try out a Mexican dish besides tacos or nachos, I suggest that you give chayotes a try. Although they do not pack a ton of flavor on their own, they are very versatile and do soak up the flavors around them. Next I would like to try them in a really spicy curry, topped with chopped fresh mango, and I do not intend to wait for another holiday to do it.

What to Eat on Cinco de Mayo

If you are feeling less ingredient-adventurous but you do still want something Mexican-inspired on your table this week, check out my recipe roundup from last week.

What to Drink with Mexican Cuisine

If you want to branch out from the standard Corona, Sol, or Tecate that are very popular this time of year, head to your local craft beer store. Kyle and I collaborated on this list of brews drink with Latin American food.

For an authentic Mexican beer that is a cut above the rest, seek out Negra Modelo or Bohemia.

For a local Virginia alternative to the Mexican light lager, try Blue Mountain Brewery Lager or Legend Brewing Co Pilsner.

If you like hoppy beers, try Cigar City Brewing Jai Alai or Smuttynose Finestkind IPA.

If you intend to sit on a porch and sip beer for a few hours, pick up Sierra Nevada Summerfest or Lagunitas Daytime.

And if you just want a beer that looks great in a Cinco de Mayo party spread and is refreshing on a warm evening out on the back deck, pick up Breckenridge Brewery Agave Wheat. When you choose a beer that is infused with an iconic Mexican ingredient and labeled with a skeleton wearing a sombrero, you get an A+ for sticking to a theme!

 

Mung Bean Pasta

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I have been trying to use my cookbooks more often. My effort has paid off with a lot of new knowledge about ingredients and some great go-to recipes that I never knew I always had, sitting right there on the bookcase in my kitchen. One thing that I was surprised to learn was how healthy mung beans are for you. Featured in my new favorite recipe for Pad Thai from Terry Walters’ Clean Food cookbook, mung bean sprouts are surprisingly nutritious. So when I saw Mung Bean Fettuccine in the grocery store, I had to give it a try.

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The package boasts an extremely high protein and fiber content as well as a high iron content, and states that the pasta is a great gluten-free alternative to wheat pasta. I am not gluten-free. In fact I think gluten is one of my favorite foods, however I am always looking for tasty protein sources so I had to check it out. Mung beans, which are low in cholesterol and high in soluble dietary fibers, can also help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Until recently, mung beans had only entered our household to fill Kyle’s iron palm training bag for Wing Chun (Kung Fu), so it was a pretty big deal to start tossing mung bean sprouts in salads and stir-fry dishes. Experimenting with the fresh, crunchy sprouts was fun, but those beady green beans were a little scary, so it took us awhile to take the next step. Opening this bag of wavy green noodles was intimidating, but we were willing to give it a go in the name of science.

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After cooking and rinsing the noodles, I tasted them plain, and they weren’t too bad. I have to be honest though, they do taste a little… grassy? Because they are naturally chewier than regular pasta, it was pretty easy to get them al dente. However, I thought they really needed some flavor (besides “health food” flavor), so I mixed them with sauteed asparagus and baby bok choy, a soy dressing, and toasted sesame seeds. A drizzle of chili sauce made the meal complete.

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I thought this salad would work well either hot or cold, but I definitely preferred it hot. The noodles were so chewy after being chilled that I had a hard time getting through half of a serving before feeling full. I guess that could be a good thing? It felt weird to me, so I reheated them with a few minutes in the microwave and a generous portion of sambal. Kyle enjoyed the dish both hot and cold, so I guess you will have to decide for yourself!

The flavor combination was very fresh and springy, and versatile enough to work with any type of grain, so I recommend that you try it out even if you substitute a different kind of pasta or rice for the mung bean fettuccine. We are now firmly in the spring season, so break out that bright green asparagus and your favorite set of chopsticks and chow down!

Sesame Mung Bean Fettuccine with Spring Vegetables

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Ingredients:

  • 7 oz. dry mung bean fettuccine
  • 3 Tbsp sesame oil, divided (2+1)
  • 1 bunch asparagus
  • 2 baby bok choy
  • 4 green onions
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup liquid aminos or low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp chili sauce (sriracha or similar)
  • 2 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds

Preparation:

  1. Cook pasta according to package directions, rinse and set aside.
  2. Chop asparagus into 1-inch pieces and roughly chop baby bok choy, discarding the ends. Thinly slice the green onions.
  3. Heat 2 Tbsp sesame oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook for 1 minute. Add bok choy and asparagus and saute until tender and bright green, about 3 minutes.
  4. To the vegetables, add garlic and saute for another minute.
  5. In a small bowl, combine the liquid aminos (or soy sauce), brown sugar, rice wine vinegar, 1 Tbsp sesame oil, and chili sauce.
  6. Add pasta and sauce to the pan with the vegetables and stir to combine. Cook until heated throughout. Add toasted sesame seeds and serve while hot.

Holy Fractal, Batman! Broccoli Romanesco!

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter got a sneak preview this weekend of the latest weird vegetable to cross the threshold of my kitchen. Kyle couldn’t resist picking up this amazing broccoli Romanesco from Walnut Hill Farm Produce at the farmers’ market on Saturday. This fascinating vegetable features a Fibonacci number of spiraled cones on each floret, and its texture approximates a natural fractal. It looks like cauliflower, is technically considered broccoli, and tastes somewhere in between the two. In a good way, promise.

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Since this variety originated in Italy, I knew I wanted to do a pasta dish. When I did a little research online and tasted the vegetable raw, I discovered that it did not need a lot of seasoning in order to shine, so I opted for a very simple dinner.

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How crazy does this thing look?! I broke down this huge head of broccoli into florets, then steamed it for 5-7 minutes. Meanwhile, I cooked some farfalle (bow tie pasta) in boiling water for 10 minutes, then drained it and reserved the cooking water in a separate bowl.

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When the broccoli was steamed, I added a couple of thinly sliced cloves of garlic and olive oil. After cooking over medium heat for a few minutes, I added a big bowl of freshly grated Parmesan cheese to the pot, along with the juice of one lemon, freshly ground black pepper, a few dashes of Italian herb and spice blend, and a cup of reserved pasta water. After a few minutes, I added the farfalle to the pot, gave it a thorough stir, then added a few teaspoons of capers and salt and pepper to taste. If you don’t want to ruin a good thing, then I recommend that you do nothing else at all to this dish. Except for maybe a sprinkle of crushed red pepper.

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Just enjoy heaping bowls of the steaming hot pasta and you’re all set. Bonus points for a roaring fire, a warm fuzzy blanket, or an oversize glass of wine.

Epazote

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Epazote is an herb that I had never heard of until six months ago, when I received a jar of it for Christmas. Kyle expertly chose a wonderful gift for me last year, and he presented me with Penzeys Spices “Taste of Mexico” box on Christmas Eve.

This gift was perfect for a few reasons.

  1. Obviously I enjoy cooking and writing about it.
  2. For a few years I visited Mexico every January, and I miss those trips so much. Kyle brought a little piece of Mexico to me this year.
  3. I love to try new things, and this box was full of them.

We cook our own version of Mexican food a lot in this house, and I have really enjoyed trying out the new spices and herbs in this set. The most intriguing one to me was epazote because I had never heard of it before. Upon researching the herb, I discovered that after at least five annual trips to Mexico, I have probably eaten it dozens of times. It is most commonly cooked in black beans, which I eat a ton of when I am south of the border.

I have delayed writing this post for awhile because I wasn’t really sure how to handle this subject delicately. I sometimes fail at subtlety and instead approach sensitive topics like a literary wrecking ball. I have finally determined that the best way to say it is simply and boldly.

The most commonly reported benefit of epazote in the diet is the prevention of flatulence.

There, I said it. But there are other more intriguing properties too. The most interesting tidbit I found on epazote is that, in large quantities, it is poisonous to humans. In small quantities, it relieves abdominal discomfort. What I did not find was a specific quantity at which you go from relief of abdominal pain to calling the poison control hotline. It looks so non-threatening to the naked eye, however we were playing with fire when we pulled out the epazote.

Do not worry; this story does not end at the hospital. Kyle and I have both survived several dinners with epazote-seasoned black beans since cracking open this jar. I think the dried epazote smells like bay leaves, but it tastes totally different. The taste is really difficult to describe, as it is not like any other herb I have tasted. It is kind of sweet and earthy, with this one zesty note that I can’t put my finger on (similar to anise and tarragon). I am sure I did not do epazote any justice in that poor description. All I know is that taco night in our house is even better since epazote came into our lives.

A few more facts for you ingredient geeks like me:

  • epazote is derived from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, like avocado, chocolate, chile, and coyote
  • it contains a carminative agent, meaning it reduces gas
  • it has been added to pet food because it is said to expel intestinal worms in our furry friends
  • some people have found it helpful in the treatment of asthma, malaria, and other diseases (however you should check with your MD first before incorporating this or any diet change into your treatment plan)
  • epazote can be used in beans, soups, chili, tacos, quesadillas and salads (and more!)

We did not conduct an experiment in our house to test the carminative properties of this common Mexican herb. Mainly because I come from a bit of a science background, I felt that I would quickly be in over my head if I tried to design and perform any type of scientific experiment measuring diet and flatulence. I have a feeling we would develop a new hypothesis that epazote either promotes or hinders the optimization of upstairs living space, as one of us would certainly get a lot of use out of the guest bedroom during that study.

So I have to ask: has anyone else tried epazote? What did you think?

Epazote can be purchased from specialty herb and spice shops, and from most Latin markets or grocery stores.

Radish Salsa

I mentioned before that Kyle has been on a radish kick lately. I don’t know what got into him, but he has been all about the radishes for the last few weeks. He never used to touch them, until about a year ago when I threw some diced radishes on top of Cuban black beans and rice. Then he was hooked. Ever since he saw them at the farmers’ market 4 weeks ago, he has asked for them every week. I am running out of ideas for preparation, which can only mean one thing in my house. Desperation breeds creativity in the vegology kitchen. Having tossed them in salads and sandwiches for the last few weeks, I am ready to move on to something more challenging.

Not only do these root vegetables add color to the plate, but they also pack a good dose of nutrition for your body. Radishes are considered by many to be a superfood due to their high concentration of nutrients relative to calories. Radishes contain Vitamin C, zinc, folic acid, B-complex vitamins, and anthocyanins. They contain nutrients that help rebuild tissues and blood vessels, they have cancer-fighting properties and they can help decrease inflammation. Radishes are a natural diuretic, which can aid in fighting certain infections. They also have a good amount of fiber, which can improve digestion. Who could deny a loved one his radishes, after finding out how great they are for his health?

While brainstorming this weekend, I thought about our first positive experience with radishes. Diced and served fresh over spicy black beans and tender rice, radishes were a refreshing component of the meal. When paired with tender, sweet baby greens, radishes offer a pleasantly bitter complement to a salad that would otherwise be lacking a much needed edge. However, when paired with soft and spicy beans, the crisp radish seems milder in flavor, and it adds a refreshing crunch to the dish. Having recently had great success with black bean tacos and mango salsa, I decided to give the spring radish a new stage on which to shine. A corn tortilla, topped with spicy black beans and fresh mango with tiny flecks of minced jalapeño thrown in for good measure.

The mango isn’t local, but who could resist these tender juicy mangoes that are currently in season in Chiapas, Mexico? Perhaps a locavore purist could, but when I saw this new-to-me variety in the grocery store, I had to give it a try. The Champagne mango is very tender, deliciously fleshy, and super sweet. It’s basically my spirit animal, if spirit animals could actually be fruits. I read that these Mexican mangoes are more closely related to Indian mangoes than the more popular Tommy Atkins mango. I bet these would be a good weapon to have in your arsenal if you planned on tackling a mango chutney.

We added a little cheese to our tacos, but you could leave it out to make them vegan. We enjoyed these on a warm night on our back porch. The sounds of kids playing and dogs barking in the distance mingled with the natural chorus of wildlife in the woods right behind our house. The sun went down as we laughed and talked and wiped mango juice from our chins, as diced radish and cucumbers and tender black beans tumbled out of their soft taco shells and littered our plates. We had the awe-inspiring experience of watching a baby blue jay learn how to fly as we dined. We saw many crash landings and a few promising vertical flutters, before its parents swooped in at dusk and (I assume) vowed to try again tomorrow. We experienced the best of spring in one night during that meal, and I was really thankful that Kyle had convinced me (again) to pick up some radishes at the market. What is this season for, if not for trying new things?

Radish Salsa

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup diced radish
  • 1/2 cup peeled, diced cucumber
  • 2 large scallions (or 3-4 small), thinly sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper (less if you can’t take the heat)
  • Juice of one lime
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Combine all ingredients in a medium sized bowl. Stir to mix thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Store covered in refrigerator and serve cold.
  3. Serve with chips, on black bean tacos, or on a salad or sandwich.

Spicy Cauliflower Tacos with Sunchoke Hash

I recently discovered sunchokes in the produce section of Ellwood Thompson’s on Manager’s Special, which meant they were half off. I have wanted to experiment with sunchokes for awhile, but they are a little expensive to risk screwing up. But at 50% the normal price, you would have bought them too, right?

Their name sounds like artichokes, they look like ginger, but they taste like potatoes. Except they taste better than potatoes, nutty and a little sweet, like Yukon Golds with personality. Not sweet like sweet potatoes, just a little sweet. This may sound a little confusing, but try to stay with me. It gets better but only after it gets a little worse.

Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem Artichokes, are native to North America, not Jerusalem. Also confusing, I know. They are related to the sunflower plant, and the edible part of the sunchoke is the knobby little tuber that grows below the flowering plant. So that clears up the name a little. But why the misleading alias “Jerusalem Artichoke?”. I suppose aliases, by nature, are misleading. . . but that is neither here nor there. There are a few different theories out there, but this one is my favorite. In Spanish, the word for sunflower is girasol. In Italian, girasole. See where this is going yet? Presumably, Italian settlers in North American called the plant “girasole,” a name which, like a lot of words with confusing etymologies, was butchered over time and ended up “Jerusalem.”

Who knows how? Not me. I was more interested in the taste anyhow.

I found a lot of recipes for sunchokes in soups and purees online, and several people recommended that you simply roast the sunchokes. This is one of my favorite ways to prepare any new vegetable, as roasting has never failed me in the past. However I had a new cast iron skillet that I was obsessed with so I wanted desperately to saute them. In others’ recipes they were paired with cauliflower a lot, for some unknown reason, so I decided to go with it. And that is how I came up with spicy cauliflower tacos with sunchoke hash.

Did you hear me?

A new vegan taco “meat”!

And nutty, earthy, spicy-sweet sunchoke hash!

The tacos worked. So much that I will probably pay full price for the sunchokes next time. And so much that I want to share the recipe with you. If you don’t eat meat (or even if you do), I think you should have this cauliflower taco “meat” in your repertoire.

I simply diced the sunchokes and threw them in the skillet with some oil and diced peppers and onions over medium heat. I stirred occasionally and the skillet did the rest. Then into tortillas they go, with cauliflower taco “meat,” shredded cheese, and a dollop of sour cream. For vegan tacos, use vegan cheese and tofutti sour cream, or top with tomato salsa and mashed avocado with lime.

Spicy Vegan Cauliflower Taco “Meat”

Ingredients:

  • 1 head of cauliflower
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 2 pinches ground cayenne pepper
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Break the cauliflower into pieces and either grate into a large bowl or crumble with your fingers for a more rustic feel. Break or grate into small crumbles.
  2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
  3. Add cauliflower crumbles to skillet and, while stirring constantly, saute until golden brown.
  4. Add chili powder to the skillet and stir to combine. Cook for one minute then add remaining spices and tomato paste. Stir to combine, turn heat to low-medium and cover. Cook for a few more minutes, until cauliflower is tender and heated throughout.