Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Burns Night

Happy Burns Night to one and all! The annual haggis hunt has ended (it starts on St. Andrews Day and finishes on Burns Night) and so it is time to pay tribute to the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns. Admittedly, we had our Burns Night supper a few days early as Jim would be on the road on the traditional day of celebration, January 25th--the poet's birthday. Still, any day is a good day to honor Rabbie Burns.

Our menu for the feast included:

Leek and Potato Soup
Champit tatties
Bashed neeps
Haggis for her (lamb)
Haggis for him (vegetarian)
Single-malt whiskies: Compass Box Peat Monster and Dalwhinnie

I can't say as I made the haggis from scratch nor did I distill the whiskey--some things are best left to the professionals. We did our best to follow tradition by piping in the haggis and reading Burns' Address to the Haggis. Oh, how I longed for my grandfather's dirk to plunge into the heart of the haggis (or would that be stomach?) at the critical point in the poem:

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o' need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An' cut you up wi' ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn, 
they stretch an' strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve,
Are bent lyke drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
"Bethankit!" 'hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi' perfect sconner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him ower his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro' bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll mak it whissle;
An' legs an' arms, an' heads will sned,
Like taps o' thrissle.

Ye Pow'rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu' prayer,
Gie her a haggis!

If you would like to have your own Burns Night supper, here's a link to an excellent reference site complete with recipes for all manner of traditional food of the Scots. As for me, today I'll be munching on haggis-flavored crisps, listening to recordings of the great Glaswegian comedian Billy Connolly, and enjoying a plateful of Burns Night leftovers.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Meyer Lemon Curd

January's saving grace: organic Meyer lemons on sale at Earthfare (Asheville's answer to Whole Foods). I've been waiting since last winter for the glorious, if brief, window of opportunity to make a few of my favorite things: lemon curd, preserved lemons, and candied lemon peel.

All of these things are good with standard (Eureka) lemons, but the Meyers are so much better. This wonderful citrus is the product of a cross somewhere way back in time of a standard lemon and some sort of orange (maybe a tangerine). The result is a lemon that is a little sweeter (great for curd), has a thinner rind (great for preserved lemons), and a less-bitter peel (easier for candying). The only downside apart from limited availability is that the thinner peel is not quite as substantial as regular lemons. The flavor, however, makes up for the thinner strips of peel.

Curd is easy to make but requires a whole lot of things you probably shouldn't think about too much: eggs, sugar, and butter. No, you don't need potatoes, garlic, turnips, or pomegranates--I just couldn't be bothered to clear the counter and this way you get a look at last year's preserved lemons in the background. I should mention that I got the recipe for this particular curd from the White on Rice Couple blog. They were making a Meyer Lemon Curd Pie with Espresso Ganache for Pi Day last year (March 14--think about it). I made the very decadent and very worthy pie with full intention to share with others but it just didn't happen. Somehow I ate the whole thing. Rather than risk that again, I have focused on making just the curd. It's easier and I find that I'm better at doling it out to myself just a spoonful at a time. And, yes, I am better about sharing it, too.

The recipe calls for 10 egg yolks, so if anyone has good suggestions for what to do with 10 egg whites, I'm listening. I have made egg white omelets, meringues, and am thinking seriously about buying a new waffle iron to replace the one that bit the dust a couple of years ago. Side note: it seems to take undue effort now to locate a normal waffle iron. I resent the supersizing of waffles. Much as I love Belgian beer and Belgian chocolate, I do not want Belgian waffles for breakfast.

Making curd this year was so much easier thanks to one of three Microplane graters that appeared in my Christmas stocking. Zesting four lemons took no time at all and I didn't grate any digits in the process. Few gadgets live up to the hype, but I think this one does. Those woodworkers make a fine grater/zester. Thanks to Kristin at the Unfussy Epicure for turning me on to this handsaver.

I thought this year's lemons were a little on the orangier side but after all the cooking and straining was done, ample taste tests lead me to believe that it was just the color of the fruit and not the taste that was more orange.

Oh, the finished product photo definitely doesn't do the creamy goodness justice. Guess I'll just have to make some more and keep working on my photography. But first, there are lemons to preserve and candied lemon peel to make.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Proper Pretzels

Back in December, before the holidays dominated our plans, we hunkered down one weekend because the weather was lousy. Little did we know at the time that our winter weather woes were just beginning. Still, we decided to make the best of it since it had been a very long time since we had a whole weekend day with no projects planned or trips to town for errands or entertainment.

As luck would have it, that Sunday our beloved Chicago Bears were scheduled to play a home game. It looked like it would be a snowy, blowy mess at Soldier Field--all the better to enjoy from the comfort of our living room. While we rarely watch football--usually only if the Bears are in or nearly in the Super Bowl--we love the excuse to make fun game-day food. I'd been needing an excuse to break out a new pretzel technique, so in addition to our traditional nachos with all the fixins, we made soft pretzels.

Having attempted pretzels before, I had always been disappointed that the color and texture never quite matched up with the picture I had in my head nor was the flavor exactly what my taste buds remembered. They always came out pale and too dry on the outside. Then the New York Times came to my rescue and I discovered the secret to making good pretzels: lye. Yup, nasty, caustic lye. Turns out, although it's still plenty nasty to work with (don't make this a project for the kids), the lye is rendered harmless in the baking. And food-grade lye is available so you can be sure you're using something that is meant for cooking. Here's the link to the recipe for Bavarian-style Soft Pretzels. To access it, you may have to register (free) for the NY Times website but it's well worth the effort for the access to their treasure trove of recipes.

We were thrilled with the results. Well, with the pretzels anyway. The Bears lost in a big way as they always seem to do when we watch. I apologize to Bears fans everywhere as we plan to watch the team play the Green Bay Packers this Sunday in the playoffs. At least we'll be enjoying some more pretzels. And the Patriots--the team that beat us on that snowy December day--are out of contention, so we'll have that to console us as we ponder whether it would be healthier for us all to forever foreswear watching Da Bears.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Fun with Fungi

With the seemingly endless snow this winter, I am in desperate need of some color. The monochromatic landscape is getting to me. We did get a brief break the first week of January when it warmed up just enough to bring a very unexpected treat:

Having just been lamenting the fact that my friend Martha had a ton of mushrooms in her California yard after some big rains but we would have to wait for spring to see any here, this gorgeous cluster of bright orange 'shrooms appeared on a log right next to the gate leading into our main pasture.

With some much-needed assistance from the head of our local mushroom club, I've tentatively identified them as Velvet Foot mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes). This would probably be a good time to say a brief word about mushroom identification.

I'm very, very new to mycology and can only identify a few varieties with any degree of certainty. There are thousands and thousands of species and many of them are quite nasty if ingested. Not just nasty-tasting but toxic. As in they can kill you. That's not hyperbole--you can die from eating certain common mushrooms. Unfortunately, you often won't know you ate a bad one until it's too late, so don't think the poisonous ones will advertise the fact to you through taste or immediate side effects. By the time you notice something's wrong, it may be too late. Do not, under any circumstances, eat a mushroom that hasn't been positively identified, preferably by an expert. And even if it has been identified as safe, go slowly and eat just a bit at first--some people have allergic reactions to mushrooms that are harmless to others.

That said, there is also an abundance of tasty mushrooms that are quite good to eat. In the middle of the spectrum are others that are safe but not so tasty. I became interested in mushrooms in 2008 when the very soggy weather brought forth a delightful array of fungi on our farm. Given the wide variety, I figured the odds were good that some of them were edible but I couldn't take the risk of eating any without knowing for sure. Since I hate to waste free food, I joined the Asheville Mushroom Club in hopes of learning enough to begin identifying which ones were worth harvesting.

I'm getting better but I have a long, long way to go. I tell you this because I want to share photos that I've been taking over the past two years. I'll give you my best guess as to the species but in most cases, I need you to remember that these are extremely tentative identifications. And one of the first rules we learned in mushroom identification was that photos are one of the worst ways to try to identify mushrooms (it's ok to start there, but don't try to make a positive ID). There are so many factors to consider (texture and smell included) and very minor differences (some not visible without dissecting the specimen) can mean the difference between safe and toxic. Many of us get in trouble by trying to match a specimen to a picture online or in a book. Be safe and consult an expert. OK, enough dire warnings. Here's the fun part:

I found a bunch of these in the pastures this summer. I think they are Meadow Mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) also called Pink Bottom for the lovely pink gills on the underside of the cap. They are edible but unfortunately can easily be confused with the aptly named Destroying Angel or Death Angel (Amanita virosa). Both are commonly occurring mushrooms (I'm pretty sure I found the Destroying Angel, too, but I didn't bring it home to take pix for fear of spreading the spores across the pasture). When I cut the cap of the Meadow Mushroom open to examine the gill structure, I found a really pretty scalloped pattern to the gills:

You may have to click on that photo to enlarge it so you can get the full effect. Now you get the idea: I'm turning into a total mushroom geek. I can't help but be fascinated by the incredible variety--and so many right here where I live. Most of these I find just in the course of walking around doing my chores.

A dozen or so of these puffballs showed up in a fairy ring (possibly the Purple-Spored Puffball--Calvatia cyathiformis) just outside our fenced-in yard. They are quite edible which I didn't get confirmed until after these had gone away. Fortunately, a couple more popped up late in the season and we cooked them up and enjoyed them. We'll be keeping an eye out for more of these--it's all meat and no stem so you get a lot of mushroom for the money. Here's what it looks like on the inside:

The value of mushrooms is not just measured in edibility, however. Some are too small to bother with but still lend interest to the landscape.

These little puffballs (I haven't examined them closely enough to be sure which of several spiky species they are) were all over the pastures this summer. I'm sure it's no exaggeration to say there were hundreds of them.

And these tiny Pinwheel Marasmius mushrooms (Marasmius rotula)--definitely enlarge the photo to see the detail--appeared on a piece of bark. They are quite delicate and beautiful but will let you know if you need bifocals.

On the other end of the beauty spectrum is this bad boy: Old Man of the Woods (Strobilomyces floccopus). Although it falls into the edible-but-mediocre camp, I still love this one because it is so distinctive (easy idenfitication translates into big points for me at this stage). Plus, I love the shaggy texture. It's a nice contrast to the many smooth mushrooms I find.

Sometimes, I find the fungi too late. One of the reasons that identification is tricky is that appearance changes greatly with age and mushrooms appear and disappear so quickly. I found the remnants of several very large clusters of gilled mushrooms on a large, fallen tree limb. I like to think they may be oyster mushrooms. If they are, they would be an extremely good find for eating, but there are many other possibilities so I'll have to wait to see if they'll reappear next year and get help identifying them. It's so frustrating because they were right next to where I was putting up the electric fence last fall and I just didn't look up. I didn't see them until a few days later and by then the worms had already gotten to them. Even so, they were interesting. On the tree, they looked like papyrus curling under and when I took the cluster down, the gill pattern was intriguing, too.

Anyone who has read this blog since the beginning will probably recall this is not the first time I erred by not looking up soon enough: Chicken of the Woods

And then there are the numerous mushrooms that I haven't even come close to identifying:
I didn't get any farther than deciding that this is some kind of bolete (a group of mushrooms which have a sponge-like series of tightly packed tubes on the underside of the cap instead of gills) and I've been wrong before--even about groups, not just individual species.

We have a lot of boletes here. Some are of a subset that turn color when you touch the underside of the cap. My favorites are the ones that go from yellow to blue:

And some I like because they show up every year in abundance like what may be Slippery Jack (Suillus luteus) or more likely Chicken-fat Suillus (Suillus americanus) below:

Lots of cute little mushrooms can be found if you look closely:

Some like the coral mushrooms look like they belong in the ocean more than on the forest floor:

Then there are the mysteries I really want to solve. There were dozens of these mushrooms in the great rainy season of '08. We had a big fairy ring of them near the garden and some along the fence. They also popped up under the thickets of multiflora rose. I didn't know at the time what identifying characteristics to look for, so I'll have to wait to see them again but I sure hope they're something good since we have a lot of them.

Still, for every dozen I can't identify, I find one that I can. This weirdo mushroom, the slimy, shockingly bright orange, and oddly named Elegant Stinkhorn (Mutinus elegans) appeared next to the pasture gate the day before our first big freeze late last fall.

Speaking of weird, I've hardly touched on the wide array of fungi that appear on  trees. Many of the shelf mushrooms like Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) are so common around here that I rarely bother to take pictures. I'm probably missing out but most of them don't grab my attention. I just call them all Turkey Tails and move on. I'm not sure why I'm so prejudiced against them. The following is almost certainly not a Turkey Tail but I can't tell you what it is. 

Then, I see something strange like this: 

There are many more mushrooms which I've seen but not photographed. Somehow I managed to leave out the Russulas I've found which is a pity because they have interesting colors. And despite searching through all of my photo files, I can't find the pix of the most cartoon-y mushroom that I've found yet: Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria). So, I'll send you to one of the best websites for mushroom information: Mushroom Expert instead.

Whew! I've been meaning to get a fungi post up for a long while but knew it would be a big endeavor. Thanks for reading through. I'll post more pix as I get them. Happy foraging and be safe out there!

Monday, January 3, 2011

First Harvest of 2011

We dug up our first Jerusalem artichokes on Sunday.

Just one go with the garden fork brought up all these lovelies. I was thrilled that our first attempt at growing these tasty treats resulted in such perfect specimens. Despite my neglecting them after the initial planting--they had to endure drought, aphids, and cattle trampling without any human interventions--they did exactly what they were supposed to. We now have knobby, crunchy tubers that are fun to munch.

Since they are quite happy to stay in the ground, we can harvest just what we need throughout the winter. Any that we miss or don't get around to harvesting will just make more for next year. Admittedly, we won't eat a ton of these but I love the idea of winter vegetables that don't require a greenhouse.