Coleslaw, it ain’t 1996!

The best thing about this blog is it’s utter lack of direction and focus. I just get on the computer and write about whatever has seized me with such force that I feel compelled to electronically log it for posterity, as if the electronic written word will still exist in posterity. Today, it’s the secrets of coleslaw. I’ve had your coleslaw, and it sucks.

Don’t feel bad—mine did too. I’d made mushy slaw, too-chunky slaw, too-sour slaw, too-creamy slaw, too-rich slaw. I tried salting and draining like Tom Douglas suggests. That slaw is way too rich. I went through the chunky, hand-cut phase back before it was cool, and decided that what I do not enjoy wrestling with my tongue is big chunks of raw cabbage. I went through a box grated cabbage phase, because I’ve decided that I’m really old-fashioned, but you still have the problem of mushiness and wateriness. I wanted a slaw that was crisp and refreshing, but with that traditional sweet/sour/creamy balance.

Fancy vinegars I’ve tried. I probably got more fancy vinegars that you do, and none are right. Heinz white distilled has got the straightforward acetic acid kick I want. It lets the cabbage and carrot sweetness shine through without ostentatiously announcing itself, trying to make everything into something it’s not. Same goes for the sweetener: granulated white sugar doesn’t put on airs. Honey is way too aromatic. We’re trying to make a cohesive whole, not slam a bunch of stuff together in a bowl like fancy chefs. We’re not trying to be clever. We’re trying to be happy and satisfied.

The fat is more complicated. Mayonnaise is essential for that palate-coating creaminess, but it’s a little one-dimensional. Buttermilk is pretty good, but it’s kind of assertive with funk, and it gets a little thin with the vinegar. I like the dressing to really cling to the cabbage, even when it starts to give up it’s water. Sour cream is cloying. Although laughably nontraditional, plain, full-fat yogurt is perfect. I usually go maybe a little heavier mayo than an even split.

The biggest challenge is still the cabbage itself. It does have too much water, but salting it and wringing it dry makes an overwhelmingly rich slaw, and it still gets mushy. Coleslaw is practically synonymous with crispness in my imagination, so I took a lesson from the quick picklers of yore. I have a bunch of pickling lime from my homemade mineral water projects, and that’s what lime—Ca(OH)2, not the fruit—is for, making vegetables crunchy. The USDA recommends against using lime in pickling since it lowers the pH, and makes the process more risky, but coleslaw don’t need to keep for but a few days at most.

Those plates, those are  lime crystals.

Those plates, those are lime crystals.

So here’s what I do now: I slice the cabbage and carrots thin and long, by hand, since I’ve had some decent hand-cut slaws more recently. I salt the cabbage well (maybe two tablespoons salt per head) and let it sit for a half hour before squeezing gently to get some of the excess water out. I don’t want to bruise the fuck out of it and make it impossible to crisp up. Then I put the cabbage into a bowl with a few cups of cold water and a tablespoon of pickling lime, and let it sit in there for fifteen minutes or so. Then I drain it and spin it. The cabbage is now crisp as glass. Careful.

Toss that with the dressing. I do mine with maybe a tablespoon+ of mayo, one of yogurt, two teaspoons of vinegar and a tablespoon of sugar. I’m really not sure—I’m just eyeballing and tasting. I feel it doesn’t really matter anyway because if I did measure carefully and post recipes, people would just complain that it was “too sweet!” or “too fatty!” or “too sour!” Make it the way you like it. I’m pretty sure that’s some 1996 way that involves citrus and honey and olive oil, and no mayo, just don’t bring that mess to my barbecue. I’m totally over 1996.

Look at that cabbage, still got integrity after a whole day.

Look at that cabbage, still got integrity after a whole day.

 

Squirrel Benediction

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I finally took the leap and fried up a batch of squirrel—gray city squirrel harvested from my backyard. I’ve been halfheartedly killing them for a while now because I hate them and everything they stand for, except free lunch. It’s clear from the little bites taken from each and every piece of unripe fruit on the trees that the squirrels expect a free lunch.

I’d been watching them from the kitchen, climbing up into the trees, eating all the figs and persimmons, digging their little walnut stashes all throughout my raised beds, where they might return sometime in the spring to dig their booty, carelessly tossing my seedlings aside. I was helpless as a baby in the sewer, since my .20 caliber Sheridan Blue Streak blew a gasket a few months ago. It sat impotent in the garage, as I stood at the window.

Sheridan Blue streak in its natural environment.

Sheridan Blue Streak in its natural environment.

But thanks to the good people at Ollie Damon’s (not the counter dude, he’s a dick), I got my long arm back, working better than new. It was time to rain hellfire on these vicious little rodentia. And I did. But after a few carcasses tossed carelessly into the city compost, guilt began to gnaw at the frugal, white trash conscience that steers me fecklessly through this life. It was time to do as I like to imagine my hillbilly forebears did, and take advantage of the bounty of wild game right in my backyard. I’ve got hunting grounds—I’m like a fucking redneck baron over here!

For all my big talk about the squirrels I’ve killed, and the feasts I have planned, squirrel eating has been more concept than execution around here. My brother and I shot a couple a few years back and tried to braise them with wild mushrooms. After 18 hours of simmering in their own juice in the dutch oven, they were tough as rats, and inky black for some reason. Later, my brother turned a couple of them into a pot of rillettes, and brought it to thanksgiving dinner. Everybody, even the East Coasters, grubbed on that.

Still, I’m not trying to spend an hour killing and cleaning a tiny little rodent so I can spend another 2 hours cooking up a quarter pound of toast spread—but after the turkey slaughter, I was on a spree.

So, a week ago, I shot two in a day (and I still remember that day with fondness), and said, “well that’s a damn feast!” The first one was hard to clean, and I got so much fur stuck to his flesh membrane after about 10 minutes of incompetent hacking that I gave up and threw him out. I went to throw out the second one, but fortunately remembered that, despite the situation, I was a modern person. And modern people have You Tube. This guy skins a squirrel in a minute. I saw that and ran out of excuses. It took me about 5 minutes.

Then I learned from the comments (I know, right!?) that if you get the squirrel wet before you skin it, the fur doesn’t stick. Then I watched this guy fry a couple of squirrels on a range in the little kitchen he has set up in his workshop. Fucking genius, especially the part at the end where he gets up in the camera so you can see how easily he pulls the meat off the bone with his teeth. You gotta watch that part (25:29).

The wife had some important professional-type stuff to do this evening, leaving me with the child. So I took those squirrels out (they’d been marinating in garlic, oregano, and pepper for a few days), dredged them in 50/50 flour/cornstarch seasoned with Coleman’s and cayenne, and fried them in lard for a half hour. We had butter beans and coleslaw, fried morels (frozen from last season), and fried squirrel with Criolla Sella hot sauce. Squirrel was benediction. Squirrel tasted like a sacrament, but moister than a communion wafer. Next time, I’ll probably brine it in buttermilk for a day. Actually, next time, I’m gonna sous vide it. Not because it needs high technology to be delicious, just because I want to sully that technology with my tree rat.

Looks like I fried all the cutest things at Disneyland!

Looks like I fried all the cutest things at Disneyland!

I did end up tossing the livers and hearts because they sat in the fridge a little too long. Next time, I’m thinking about making a little bourbon squirrel paté. I also did not eat the brains, ’cause I’m slightly afraid of the squirrel Creutzfeld-Jakobs. Although now I’m reading further and the whole thing seems a little like a panic parade designed to steer traditional eaters toward more economic and socially acceptable eating patterns. Like they did with that creole pig in Haiti. Don’t be scared people, don’t let ‘em take away your birthright. Eat some squirrel.

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Narcissism and Human Mortality Conspire to Slaughter

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As Turkey Bloodbath Remembrance Day approaches, reflections on mortality plague the Gangster. My back went bad on me and I’ve been spending a lot of time on the couch, ice pack on my back, washing down Advil with bourbon cut with cherry bounce. My neighbor died a few weeks ago of cancer, and we weren’t close or anything, but I saw him coming and going a few times in the final weeks, and he looked beat, but I just thought, “He’s been dealing with that for a long time. He’ll come back around eventually.” Then he just died. And as I was driving back from Estacada the other day with a live turkey in a box in the back of the pickup truck, my sciatic nerve screaming at me to stand up or lay down, I had a thought: How do we know when we’ve run out of fight? I mean, John was walking. He needed help, but he was moving around, then he just died. He must have felt that coming.

I was pretty tired because that’s what chronic pain does—wears you down to a nub, a reflex, a rundown automaton that just goes, “ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch….” And as ridiculous as it sounds because, really, it’s just a bad back, I started to wonder how much closer this is putting me to the grave. I really thrive on my physicality and laying on the couch, surfing the internet and moaning, isn’t my idea of a life worth living. I like to moan and whine while busting my ass over some poorly-conceived and laborious project for which I’m unprepared and ill-suited. If I’m just limping to the grave, trying to avoid pain, I have to think about what I’m really living for. Let’s add it up: family, …alright I’m about out. Let me just say to my friends who suffer from chronic pain: I now understand why you’re so sad all the time. Sorry I’m so self-involved.

But none of this exactly explains why I decided to slaughter my own turkey this year—maybe that was just a coincidence. I decided a few weeks ago to see if any farmers were selling turkeys direct on Craigslist, and of course they were. At first I considered using deception to get a free bourbon red tom from somebody in White Salmon who stated in their ad that this seven-month-old turkey was not “an eating breed. It is a pet only.” I considered telling them that I was taking the “Joaquin Phoenix Turkey Rescue Challenge” to adopt a turkey this Thanksgiving and let it sit at the table and peck at a Tofurkey while we humans sang a secular humanist devotional dedicated to the emancipation of livestock worldwide, but I decided to take the high road.

The high road involved buying a royal palm turkey hen from a lady in Eagle Creek named Patty, who is amazing. The living conditions qualified as better than “free-range” but not quite “pastured” because, Patty explained, there’re a lot of predators up in the woods on Wildcat Mountain.

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I can hardly wait to buy another animal from Patty. She kind of radiates good-natured husbandry.

I explained to Patty that I hadn’t thought this thing through fully, and was really way too busy to be slaughtering my own turkey this year. But here I was with a large plastic storage container with no lid, some sheets, and some rope and a knife in the truck just in case I decided to do it out there in the woods rather than bring the thing home for my 3 year old daughter to fall in love with. Patty chastised me for trying to pet the turkey (I was just trying to calm it down), then she (implicitly) questioned my intelligence for not bringing the lid to the box. I was questioning my own intelligence for thinking maybe the turkey would just lay down on some sheets in a box, and what did it matter if it flapped around in the canopied bed a little on the way home? “Oh, we don’t want any flapping,” Patty warned me

So we put the turkey in the box, and I bungeed a sheet to the top and prayed the bird wouldn’t flap it off of there on the way down the highway. I needn’t have worried, since it never even occurred to the dumb thing that the top could come off.

In fact, it was still just calmly standing in there when I came back from taking my elderly neighbor to the grocery store almost 2 hours later. I felt bad about leaving it there for so long, but I had promised the old lady I would help her out after she fell and dislocated her shoulder and went to the hospital. No matter, the turkey didn’t seem to mind.

It was dumping rain, but the little girl said she wanted to watch daddy kill the turkey. We had a little conversation about that: did she understand that it would be alive, then dead? Did she know we were going to eat it? Did she want to eat it? Yes, yes, and yes, but I was still hesitant. I know a lot of people would be like, “Oh yeah man, that’s a good education for a kid, they gotta learn where food comes from. Good for you man!” But let’s face it, we generally don’t just throw the totality of the truth right in front of children’s faces from the very beginning. I mean, my kid knows that babies come from mommies’ bellies, and that it has something to do with daddies, but I’m not going to give her the low down on penetration just yet. Likewise, when she asked about a picture of a tank in an article that I was reading about some clusterfuck in the Mideast the other day, I explained that tanks are for killing people, and that freaked her out plenty. I didn’t then go and hunt down some pictures of charred human remains to drive the point home. I want to be honest, but I don’t want to be brutal about it.

So I hope it didn’t do any damage when she stood out in the rain in her little frog raincoat and watch me tie this strikingly beautiful white and black bird up by it’s feet, decline her request to pet it, and slit it’s throat with a knife that was way too big for the job. I’ve shot animals before, but this was a lot bloodier, and a lot more intense. Despite wrapping it with a sheet to keep it calm and contained, the thing flapped loose for a minute while it bled out, and got it’s pretty white feathers all bloodstained. After it was dead, it flopped a few more times, and that confused the child.

“Is it still alive?”

“Nope.”

“Why is it still movin’?”

“Because…,” and I started to explain about electrical impulses, and the nervous system, and involuntary movements, and realized that although true, that was a little too much for her to absorb. So I just said, “everything moves for a little while after it dies.”

“Is it going to come back alive?”

“No. Nothing comes back alive after it dies.”

“Why not?”

And that, and all it’s implications for mommy and daddy, grandmas and grandpas, and Lucy the cat, is a conversation that we’re still having today, and we’ll be having for a while still.

I just dragged the butcher block into the garage. Those are my new cabinets to the right!

I just dragged the butcher block into the garage. Those are my new cabinets to the right!

 

Nona wanted to help rinse the bird off—I got splashed with turkey poo off to the right.

Nona wanted to help rinse the bird off—I got splashed with turkey poo off to the right.

 

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That little paring knife in the sink is my new Richmond Artifex. Made short work of the guts.

That little paring knife in the sink is my new Richmond Artifex. Made short work of the guts.

 

You like that white trash tarp in my driveway there? Me too. We're like a little bit of country in Beaumont Wilshire.

You like that white trash tarp in my driveway there? Me too. We’re like a little bit of country in Beaumont Wilshire.

The New Sriracha: Criolla Sella Sauce

Ya’ll don’t need to hear half-witted social critique from an unemployed line cook—”unemployed line cook” being roughly synonymous with exceptionally lazy motherfucker—you want to learn some cooking secrets. Some techniques, ingredients, guidelines. I’ve got those. I’m going to tell you how to save the last of those sad chilies just rotting off the bush out there.

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This here is how you can get the last of the chilies to ripen without rotting.

Criolla Sella chilies are a variety of Capsicum baccatum, which includes all those fragrant, citrusy “aji” type chilies from Peru. The Criolla Sella is about as hot as a serrano, but it smells like psychedelic lemon zest, like lemons might smell in a Dr. Seuss book. So I fermented up a batch of them and made some hot sauce, because fermentation is the way to give your hot sauce that over-dilated, faraway, stoned-out fuzziness that I like to think of as complexity.

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Sriracha, I learned somewhere this past year in following the Irwindale, CA debacle, is fermented. Then I remembered that somewhere on the Tabasco box they mention a three-year, oak barrel aging period. Indeed, the Avery Island chiles are packed in oak barrels in Avery Island salt, before aging in the McIlhenny warehouse on Avery Island, where they fill more than one million bottles per day.

Chile sauce people are idiosyncratic. I’m quirky. That’s kind of the same. So what I did was to seed and slice the tiny little Criolla Sellas, making sure to rub my eyes and my cheek at least once during the ordeal, in order to inoculate the chiles with my own personal starter culture. Then I put them in mason jar and just barely covered them with a five percent brine (about 1.7 ounces salt in a quart of water, or 50 grams per liter, if you’re of the European persuasion). After a week at room temperature they smelled pretty… high (not rank, but more delicious in that strangely alluring, fermented way) and they had a little white scum on the top of the brine. I just skimmed off as much of that as I could (not a ton, since they were in a regular mouth canning jar) and blended them, and their brine, with a little vinegar. I used about two parts white to one part apple cider vinegar. Then I strained it.

That was pretty good, but still a little one dimensional. I was looking for decadimensional. So I added a little sugar and salt. Still lean. Then I peeled a couple of carrots and single clove of garlic, put that in a little sauce pot covered with white distilled and cider vinegar, and a little sugar, and reduced that by 2/3rds or so. That gastrique, blended with the chilies, led to the start of my life as a chile sauce scion. Not quirky but idiosyncratic.

Truly, it still needs work. Better brining for a longer time, perhaps in an anoxic fermenter (with an airlock), would improve it. Also, in retrospect, there really isn’t any need to seed and slice the chiles. Still, in only two weeks, it’s been drawn down to this:

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Your lawn is a poisonous wasteland just waiting to kill your children.

A while back, I was in the hardware store waiting in line to pay. A man came in panicking.

“There’s mushrooms in my lawn! What do you have to kill them?” he wanted to know.

Why in the ever living fuck would you want to kill the mushrooms in your lawn, mr. yuppie? Too much variety in your life? 

The clerk had the same question.

“They, they… they’re ruining the lawn. And…my kids, they might eat them!”

The mushrooms might eat your kids? Doubtful. Oh, the kids might eat the mushrooms. True, they could die. So, I guess you gotta decide where you need to stop childproofing, and start being vigilant. In any case… 

“There’s really not much you can do. I mean we sell fungicide, but it won’t kill the fungus under the soil. You might as well just pick them. They’ll grow back, and then you can pick them again.”

Or, or, or… I have an idea. You could show your kids the mushrooms and say, “See these, kids? They might be poisonous. Daddy doesn’t really know everything, and doesn’t know what you might be getting into at any given point in time, so please don’t eat things that I haven’t given you permission to eat, because you could die. And I really don’t want you to die because I love you kids more than I ever knew I could love anything.” 

“So, you’re saying there’s nothing at all I can do? I mean, these things are ruining my lawn.”

“Well, some people say that lime will get rid of them. But I don’t know if that really works. You could try.”

“Okay, I’ll try that.”

Isn’t it great to be able to purchase something to alleviate every “problem” you imagine you might have, no matter how asinine the concern, and how unenthusiastically it’s recommended?  

Now I have a gastronomically fearless toddler, so I kind of sympathize (that’s actually a pretty strong word) with mr. yuppie. I’ve been taking my kid foraging since she was fresh out the womb, so she went through a phase where every green herb was here for her delectation. We got poisonous plants in the landscape: azaleas, daffodils, iris, arum, euphorbia and on and on. Everybody around here lets pokeweed grow in their yard, dropping big, juicy, purple berries, but this guy is worried about mushrooms.

This othering of fungi (kingdomism?) really makes no sense at all when you consider that we’re more closely related to fungi than plants, but maybe that’s inevitable. We hate those most fiercely in whom we can see ourselves most clearly. Certainly, the “difference” between us and our fungal kin is more a social construction than an empirical truth. While there are certainly a few lawn mushrooms that would wage a holy war on your liver and kidneys, most are (probably) harmless. Mycologists don’t really know if most mushrooms are edible or not, because they’re too small to have ever interested anyone in their value as food.

So I thought I would do an interview with a mycologist or two and get at the truth about the risks of Pacific Northwestern lawn mushrooms, make up a little mini-guide for a sidebar, and turn that into a story. They have a few pieces rife with misinformation and useless blathering on the local daily’s website about lawn mushrooms, so I thought I could write something more accurate, clear, and informative for their venerable pages. The media contact at the Oregon Mycological Society, however, directed my request for interview subjects not to a taxonomist, but to a toxicologist, who immediately shot down my idea as almost criminally reprehensible.

Her reply began thus: “I am sorry but I don’t have time either to deal with this kind of question now. I am not in favor of letting mushrooms grow in lawns where children and dogs have access to them.” Whoa lady! So like, if I see a demon mushroom, what should I do about it?” Set the ground aflame? Hire an excavator to remove the topsoil?

So until next year, I thought I’d share with you what I’ve learned. But look!: the (hilariously quirky) mycologist Michael Kuo already wrote the fucking thing for me! So, organize that backyard foray/keying session, bourgeois masses! Mycophilia is as dirty as it sounds.

(Not) the Coolest

 

Am I not that fun? Am I just a debbie :-( because the idea of a cooler with an integrated stereo, charging station, and blender doesn’t sound that cool? Because my idea of a fun cooler is one that keeps food cold, with ice, for a really long time? You know what I think would be super fun? Quality hinges! A stainless compression latch! A lid gasket! Durable construction! Not running to the store 36 hours into the camping trip because the ice all melted! Not hearing a goddamn sorority party at the campground! The sounds of birds and running water, rather than Skrillex shrieking from someone’s shitty itunes lineup! Cold beer and a whiskey on ice, rather than a fake-ass margarita made with sour mix, blue caracao, Coach perfume, and a little acetone.

I can’t even keep my stereotypes straight with this fucking thing. Who does it appeal to? Sorority sisters or tech-brofessionals? Besides gender (and having a job), is there even a difference between those?

Margaritas. I think maybe the way you make (or take) a margarita is the difference. So tech-brofessionals, feel free to repurpose that blender motor as a percussion instrument when you get all buzzed up on Hoptimus Prime double IPAs (and shaken Partida margaritas, por supuesto) and decide to pretend you’re actually up there on stage with Skrillex like a backup DJ. Only you’re actually just having a tailgate party in the Subie in the parking lot, after the soccer game.

Here, play these both at the same time:

 

 

You know, that actually sounds pretty cool. Maybe this won’t be so bad.

Shrimplike

 

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Russula xerampelina, “the shrimp mushroom,” is a plump, brittle fruit with a viscid cap whose color variation is captured by the species’ poetic surname which means, “the color of dried vine leaves.” Rosy, to red-brown, to just plain brown, its gills are white, and its stem often (but not always!) has a telltale “blush” of pink.

Its flavor is indeed, if one is suggestible and strains their imagination, a little shellfishy. But the common epithet is typically thought to refer to the aroma: shrimplike. As it matures and raises its pileus to expose it’s lamellae, that aroma becomes detectable and finally penetrating. But by then it’s too late.

A similar-looking poisonous species, R. emetica, and the mere fact that it is gilled, deters novices. But that aroma, combined with the sweet and mild, rather than painfully radishy and acrid, flavor are the sure and faithful qualities that set them apart. Yes, it really does come down to aroma and flavor.

“Should I really put something in my mouth whose name means ‘the sickener’ in order to discern the edible from the poisonous, gangster?”

It depends on your level of commitment, doesn’t it? Do you want to be a perpetual dilletante, always nibbling around the edges, but in the end just fodder for the hoard of heavily-armed outcasts and survivalists who will surely seize control of the industrial food supply when our foreign policy fiascos and internal political and tribal strife result in an eternal river of poor leadership complemented by general civil unrest? Or do you want to be an intimate of the sauvage banquet?

Michael Kuo, a mycologist who maintains the mushroom identification site mushroomexpert.com, wrote, in 2005, a little diatribe where he insists that the scent of R. xerampelina is not at all crustacean, but vaginal.  Because men have been responsible for so much of the mycological taxonomy that we still use today, Kuo argues, “spermatic” eventually became an acceptable olfactory descriptor, while “vaginal” is still not. Then he goes on to ask: what does sperm smell like anyway?

Do some mushrooms indeed smell like sperm, or is that just wishful thinking? Losing myself in reflection, a memory surfaces: a wastebasket filled with wads of facial, bath, whatever tissue, and a gray scent, the scent of decaying fungus. Adolescence. Before we gained the privacy and good sense to flush those things. So perhaps semen smells vaguely fungal, and not the other way around.

Kuo admits, however, that we not only have the genus Phallus, which is indeed disgustingly phallic, but the species Amanita vaginata which, like most amanitas, does indeed emerge from a protective sheath. Perhaps not coincidentally, Amanita vaginata is commonly known (to get really off-topic) as the “grisette.” In 18th and 19th century France and England, the word referred to a coquettish, working-class woman with intellectual aspirations. Grisettes traded on their charms, physical and intellectual, to gain access to the Bohemian intelligentsia. The fungal fruit that gracefully emerges from a cocoon-like volva is brown to grey, slender for the genus, and strikingly poised. It is the most conspicuous edible of a genus that includes several lethally poisonous (and equally, if more strikingly, beautiful) species.

Back to the subject at hand: If we agree with Kuo about the aroma, what do we do with this vaginal-smelling mushroom? The preeminent expert for West coast mycological taxonomy, David Arora begins thus: “edible and unforgettable–it is one of the least appreciated of our edible fungi…. The young, nutty caps are caps are superb stuffed with grated cheese, chives, walnuts, and parsley and then broiled.” The irrepressible mycophile goes on to exclaim that, unlike their brethren, “they are rarely riddled with maggots!” I would have loved to go all-in with the xerampelina like that, but until now I’d only ever encountered one or two at an outing which hadn’t been host to a writhing mass of diptera grubs (which insect family has the longest phallus, in relation to body size, of any animal). Those I’d always mixed in with the others, the boletus, the cantharellus, sulfureum, pleurotus, armillaria, the mushrooms for commoners—not to be confused with the common mushrooms—in some ramshackle melange: risotto, burritos, spaghetti con funghi. I didn’t yet know about xerampelina‘s singularity, it’s subtle sophistication. It’s popularity with the the diptera flies should have been all the recommendation I needed, but they’re flies.

So basically my wife didn’t trust them (me) enough to allow me to serve them as the main feast, as I (we) now feel they so richly deserve. She didn’t know that I’d been feeding them to her all along in small quantities all along, combined with the more familiar species. But I wonder: how long must one go on not sickening (or killing) someone before they trust you without question, unhesitatingly, absolument? How long before we can eat a grisette, in other words?  I don’t know, but I started with some ham and xerampelina crepes:

I made some chestnut crepes with this recipe that is accredited to Martha Stewart, and we”ll just leave that here:

1 1/2 C sifted chestnut flour
1/8 tsp salt
1 1/4 C milk
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 C (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Mix the first four ingredients in the order listed. Whisk in one tablespoon melted butter. The rest of the butter is to grease the pan a little before each crepe. Or you could just do what I did: put all the butter into the batter, grease the pan before your first crepe, and be done with it. I will say that this recipe is a little unsatisfactory, as it’s really for desert crepes. I’d like a more floury, less eggy crepe next time.

Then I made mornay sauce. Recipes are so fucking boring. Here’s a recipe written by dear old Craig Claiborne, probably taught to him by Pierre Franey. So, like Pierre, we use gruyere instead of cheddar (and this recipe makes about twice as much as I did).

I sliced the mushrooms and sauteed them in butter, with a sprinkle of salt and some thinly julienned red chilies. Chilies with mushrooms is, I think, an Oregon thing. Witness the treatment of mushrooms at so many classic Oregon establishments—Higgins, Joel Palmer House, Columbian Cafe…

Then I put the mushrooms into the mornay:

 

Shrimp Mushroom Mornay

Shrimp mushroom Mornay

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The dabbling of mornay over the top is to keep them moist while they bake, uncovered, at 450F until the ends brown a bit and they are heated through, 15-20 minutes.

 

 

Benzaldehyde’s a Bitch

You ever heard of this benzaldehyde? I’d never heard of it until recently when I decided to discover exactly what it was that I hated about almond extract, cherry Coke, and Oregon myrtle (aka California bay). That’s what it is.

According to this guy, the benzaldehyde is formed as one of the breakdown products of amygdalin and amygdalin’s arch enemy—amygdalin hydrolase. Amygdalin hydrolase catalyzes the reaction that turns amygdalin into sucrose, cyanide, and benzaldehyde. Cyanide.

When an animal like you or me crunches into a bitter almond, or a peach, cherry, or apricot nut, the two chemicals are brought together so that the “bitterness” of benzaldehyde warns us that what we are about to eat, might kill us. If we don’t heed that warning, the cyanide may indeed kill us. This means that if you enjoy bitter almond flavor, I perversely have a greater sense of self-preservation than you. We didn’t see that coming.

My boy over at that other blog says that for this reason artificial almond flavor is superior to natural, since natural almond extract actually contains some cyanide while artificial is pure benzaldehyde. I don’t really care. It all tastes of death to me.

Technology Can Take Care of Itself!

For an assignment in college, I wrote a review of Rowan Jacobsen’s American Terroir, a readable and informative, if stylistically flawed, argument for the application of the eponymous French notion to American soil. Borrowing from the format of Pollan’s Botany of Desire, Jacobsen walks us through a selection of American foods and agricultural products (Avocados from Michoacan, Yakima Valley apples, Puget sound oysters…Puget Sound?! Get the fuck out of here with that polluted backwater; Willapa bay or die!) and explains the geological, meteorological, hydrological, ecological, and whatever other logical contributes to the product’s individual distinction. It really is a good piece of pop-scientific nonfiction, kind of my favorite genre.

Anyway, this professor, a published writer of some popular nonfiction in the science vein, took exception to this passage in my piece:

The facts, concepts and philosophies woven throughout the book defend Jacobsen’s baldly staked positions on various contemporary culinary controversies. Jacobsen states his distaste for “molecular gastronomy,” the branch of contemporary culinary culture that employs the methods of the laboratory in the kitchen, early in the book: “I have no interest in this food” (15). It’s a popular position to take, but Jacobsen illuminates his position with a visit to Les Jardins Sauvages outside of Montreal where the focus is on Cuisine Sauvage: cooking with the produce of forest and fallow. The proprietor, Francois Brouillard would, “when he was five dehydrate grasshoppers on the woodstove, steal his mother’s rolling pin, and crush them to make a crust for the fish he’d caught in the river” (119). The techniques are inventive, creative, totally original, but low-tech and therefore, accessible. Jacobsen takes a swipe at Hervé This, the “father of molecular gastronomy” for “taking paint sprayers to innocent pieces of goat cheese” (124). Perhaps Jacobsen would find more to love about This if he’d read chapter 59 of Molecular Gastonomy in which he explains the empirical truths behind le terroir in cheese-making (203).

Regardless, Jacobsen’s culinary worldview is more aligned with that of Nancy Hinton, Brouillard’s wife and chef de cuisine, who has been creating a new type of cuisine completely outside of the conventional paradigm using not high-tech gadgetry or food-as-theatre pyrotechnics, but an artist’s intuition. Specifically, she and Brouillard forage their own ingredients to create such oddities as Cattail stock, desert courses seasoned with dried mushrooms, and pureés enriched with pigweed.

This is not to say that Jacobsen sees no place for manipulation or scientific inquiry in the realm of culinary arts, indeed his introductory explanation of the chemistry of taste makes clear that he appreciates an empirical approach, but that the “molecular gastronomic” approach to cooking follows in a certain tradition. Jacobsen traces that tradition to Antoine Carême “France’s ‘King of Chefs and Chef of Kings’” (14). The problem with this type of cooking, not to suggest that the world would be richer or more equal without it, is that it relies on a heavy battery of specialized equipment to produce highly manipulated and deconstructed food whose object is not necessarily to be satisfying or even delicious, but rarified. It takes power away from the ingredients themselves, and the common people who might be inspired by them, and invests it wholly in the engineer, or chef, or technician.

Now aside from noting how much better of a writer I was in college, you can see where I take Jacobsen’s side in the molecular gastronomy vs. traditional technique “debate,” while still granting that these molecular gastronomists might have something to teach us about the raw ingredient. Actually, I added that little sentence defending Hervé This after I got back the first draft from my professor on which he had scrawled “anti-intellectual” (in the context of a sentence) in regards to this passage. Yes, my professor suggested that criticism of techno-cuisine is tantamount to a thoughtless, knuckle-dragging, celebration of ignorance.

Obviously, this sticks in my craw (and a craw is not a claw, or a paw, or the space between your cat’s paw and claw like it sounds— it’s a bird’s esophageal digestive organ, the crop, the throat) and informs a lot of what I write and think about today. From my piece on letterpress, to my interviews with woodworkers using traditional techniques and materials to build restaurant wood surfaces, to my crazed ranting about Soylent, I’m fascinated with the tension between the traditional and the technological, the hand-crafted vs. the computer engineered, the analog and the binary. This isn’t to suggest that there’s a clear “choice” to be made between these “poles”, or even that there is a polar dichotomy to choose between. But I’m sure you can intuit what I’m getting at here, if you really want to, that is.

My professor, like a lot of modern people, conflates a slew of independent concepts into a monolith called Intellect, or Science, or Progress, or something like that, and it pisses me the fuck off. First, if we can’t decouple science from technology, then to criticize a technology is to criticize the science that makes the technology possible. Case in point: Genetically modified crops. Scientific American and other scientific publications have been on a hot tear in defense of GMO’s. And I understand their concern since a lot of people who are critical of GMO’s see the entire technology as not just fundamentally flawed, but actually evil. These opponents throw the technology and the science together into the same large bag and set it ideologically aflame, while the science and technology establishment stand at the top of the mount and thunder down: “You Fools! I give you fire, and you drown it as thoughtlessly as you would a kitten!” This is unproductive since, in my opinion, the technology has primarily been deployed as a wealth generation machine for agribusiness, but holds promise for medicine and agriculture on a warming planet (disease resistance, drought resistance, etc….) However, we can’t really control what the technology is used for once it’s deployed; the market (and to a lesser extent the unelected bureaucracy) makes those decisions for us. So I say, label it. If the genetics are sufficiently novel to get market protection in the form of a patent, then they are sufficiently novel to handle market scrutiny. These are big kid genetics. Not because I think BT soybeans are poisonous or something, but because that’s the only control any of us can hope to have over the deployment of new technologies which purportedly exist to serve us, but which are actually deployed to make us serve their real masters: the people with the capital to build and own them. (And yes, I realize that these technologies are older than cell phones at this point, but agribusiness has been fighting these efforts tooth and nail for decades now.)

See what I did there? I used principals derived from a wide body of human study and interest to make a decision regarding the regulation of a technology, without attacking the science behind the technology. Nifty huh?

But what about that molecular gastronomy? That stuff, by definition, exists to serve people tasty food, right? Sure, it’s just harmless experimentation, “playing with food” as it were. But what much of it really does is to trade skills for equipment. For example: Water circulators (and this is not a knock on you guys who have them. I love you guys! Thanks for reading!) pretty much cook the food for you. Seal the food in an airtight pouch with a vacuum-sealing machine, set the circulator for the temperature of optimal doneness, drop it in, and forgettaboutit. Sure beats spending years sweating over the stove learning to cook the product at the exact right temperature (as determined by how quickly it burns your hand), how long to rest after cooking and in what medium, and how to determine doneness by sight and touch. All that skill, all that accumulated intuition, gets reduced to a button. I feel the same way about Traegers. Still, your Traeger brisket generally looks like a pasty white-boy approximation of what a Kansas City pitmaster moving meat around on pikes in a room-size brick oven turns out. It tastes good, sure. But, (and this is where I digress into all sorts of squishy, subjective feelings and stuff) it lacks soul. And soul, as far as I’m concerned, resides entirely in the burnt ends.  

As for the rest of it, it confounds criticism. It stands so far apart from what we recognize as food that it becomes impossible to place value judgements on it. I cannot say whether this lichen-smoke puff or nitro-frozen olive oil slick is well executed because, what the fuck am I going to judge it against? And that’s fine, because if these foods stick around long enough to become established parts of mainstream cuisine, we’ll eventually establish benchmarks to judge them by. (“Oh, this seaweed and uni foam has way too much…mass. It coats the palate almost like… sustenance.”) And when these foams and nitro-freezes and vapors and ethers become as common as french fries, were all gonna need some new cooking equipment. And bigger kitchens. Because nearly every new technology comes on as a harmless little amusement or a productivity-enhancing tool, quickly progresses to indispensable for the responsible worker-citizen, and eventually slays everyone who doesn’t adopt it. Technology is an insinuating little bully like that, so stop treating it like a sacrosanct institution: Technology will smite all it’s enemies in due time. Technology can take care of itself.

 

Pickle (Oh the Absurdity)

The reign of missiles continues unabated in the “world’s biggest military prison,” the Gaza strip. Meanwhile, over here in “the world’s biggest crybaby nursery,” Portland, Oregon, I have nothing more menacing to cry about than the acetic acid assault being wrought upon my palate by amateur pickle makers.

And what an assault it is. It’s not like I have my back to the sea, restricted access to fresh water, and a years-long trade blockade that prevents me access to all but the most basic of necessities, but would it kill these guys to read a fucking book or two on the subject? Here in Portland, we can get a copy of Katherine Plageman’s Fine Preserving, or Linda Ziedrich’s Joy of Pickling without having it smuggled through an underground tunnel originating in the only contiguous, non-hostile, foreign power (CLOSED). Even in Gaza though, I’m sure someone could round up a tattered old copy of Hertzberg, Vaughan and Greene’s Putting Food By that hasn’t been torn asunder by decades of armed conflict.   

Yes guys, fresh water! You know that dreadfully bland stuff that flows freely from every functioning tap in the city? You use it to flush the toilet? It’s not as if our only source is a rapidly disappearing aquifer that becomes more polluted every passing year by saline and sewage seepage, since that trade blockade prevents us from importing the materials and supplies we’d need to treat our waste water. And you can cook with it! You can use it to cut the acidity of the vinegar so that it’s a little less harsh, a little less abrasive to the palate. We have this ridiculously cheap and abundant luxury, so I’m not sure why you don’t take advantage of it.

You know what else is cheap and abundant here? Sugar. I know it seems sickeningly decadent to sweeten our food when life is already so sweetly devoid of privation. But pickles cry out for sugar. Like Tellason Jeans, or the knock knock bomb drop, sweet pickles are a fucking classic. (Oh wait, neither of those things are as classic as sweet pickles!) So I want you to go consult that Plageman, and learn how things were preserved before the relish tray became a hair shirt for the consciously comfortable.

And lets not forget that, even though we have a reliable supply of electricity, pickles are still a method of preservation, and taste better when given some time to settle into the brine. I never could understand the point of eating pickled versions of products that are fresh in season now. It’s not as if there’s a high likelihood that our cracked skulls will be pouring blood into the streets tomorrow—we can wait a little to crack those jars open.

To review: Water, sugar, recipes, time. But there’s one more thing: taste! Put one of those in your mouth. Drink a spoonful of that brine. Do you actually want to try it again? Or does the thought of it make you cringe a little? Because that’s how I feel with most of these pickle plates. One bite and I got Pickle Traumatic Stress Disorder, such is the sweetness of safety. But we’re building a culture here! Let’s make sure it’s one worth fighting for, should the need arise.