Thursday, April 26, 2012

Strawberry and Labneh-Stuffed Morels

Sometimes you just luck out. Although we had high hopes for finding morels this warm, rainy spring, life conspired to keep us from having much time to go foraging. We made one brave effort just as the spring ephemerals were popping up but despite our dedication that day (including crossing our still chilly creek and discovering the hard way that it is deceptively deep in places, then fighting through multiflora rose on steep slopes), none were to be found. I blame the deer.

Then on Easter when we were walking up to do some work in the orchard, when we weren't even looking, there they were. A patch of morels where we had never before seen any. I walked right past, but fortunately, Jim spotted one and said "hey, isn't that a morel?"  He didn't have to ask twice. Boy, did he score big points that day. I didn't bother to get the camera, I just scooped up all that I could find. Just enough for one meal but more than I'd ever found before.

I have been saving up tons of morel recipes for that day all shroomers dream of: hitting the motherlode and finding hundreds of morels. Not that I'm greedy; it's just that all the recipes seem to call for more morels than I can find. Something about the happy hormones that were triggered by our find that day must have also tripped the creativity switch in my brain. Inspiration struck for the perfect appetizer: labneh-stuffed morels. I know a lot of folks stuff them with cream cheese, but I'm on a labneh kick. It serves the same function texturally but doesn't feel so excessively rich. I still feel like I'm eating something comforting but reasonably healthy. The slight tang makes it seem like a grown-up version of cream cheese. And being yogurt-based, it doesn't trigger those lactose problems that come with middle age. The only drawback: it can be hard to find in a small town (Ashevillains: find it at The Fresh Market).

I sliced the morels in half, then sauteed them briefly in butter (always cook your mushrooms). I then piped the labneh into each half (by the way, if your morel is not hollow inside, it's not a morel). Thanks to the lovely old farmer from South Carolina who sells his fruit directly to diners at local restaurants (talk about farm-to-table), we had a gallon of gorgeous, tasty strawberries left from our Friday night pizza run. On to the labneh they went.

Yum! Decadent and healthy at the same time. Sometimes life is so freaking good!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Cranberry Salsa to Eat and Drink

No, not another Christmas post. Well, we did first start eating cranberry salsa when we were looking for a festive side dish to take to a vegan party around Christmastime. I tried several recipes but the one that has worked the best has been one I found on My only variation from their recipe is that I chop everything by hand rather than using a food processor, so my salsa stays nice and chunky.

Having recently discovered that Greek yogurt makes a great substitute for sour cream, we decided to press our luck and see if it would support our new favorite salsa. Yes! It does a great job. Even turns a subtle shade of pink.

The combination of salsa and Greek yogurt makes for a terrific chip dip or just saves a step when piling toppings on to various Mexican dishes. Here's what it looks like when topping one of our quick and easy standbys: tostadas with refried black beans, spiced sweet potato puree, and sauteed kale with garlic. Although it looked spectacular and tasted pretty good, I think we may have overdone the mix of flavors just a bit. The salsa would probably have done better jazzing up a less complex tostada (maybe just refried beans and cheese).

Still, doesn't that look festive? But wait, there's more. One of the reasons we created a dipping version of the salsa is that on its own, it does tend to be very juicy. Drips are a major hazard when dipping chips in cranberry salsa. Stain city. We started to wise up and strain the salsa. That reduced the drip risk but also inspired yet another recipe. This time: a drink.

Cranberry Salsa Margarita on the Rocks

1 oz. tequila
1 oz. cranberry salsa juice
2 oz. club soda
splash of lime juice
splash of orgeat

Combine the ingredients in a rocks glass and add ice. So easy.

This drink has quickly become one of my favorite warm-weather bevvies. It's not too strong, not too sweet, and best of all, makes me feel virtuous for recycling the salsa juice. Grab a bowl of blue corn tortilla chips and enjoy a cranberry salsa margarita out on the deck as you watch the sun set. Could life be so bad?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Fried Chicken

I'm not a big fan of chicken. No big hatred of it; I just find it boring. Lately, however, I've been having a real craving for fried chicken. Maybe the summer-in-springtime weather is giving me some sort of salt craving or maybe after 16 years in the South, I'm finally starting to eat like a local. Whatever the reason, the fates conspired to turn craving into reality when our local healthy supermarket had half-price peanut oil, the general store had a sale on Lodge cast iron skillets, and Bon Appetit published an article on how to make skillet-fried chicken.

I followed the recipe carefully, this being my first-ever attempt at fried chicken. The day before cooking, I cut up a fryer into 8 pieces, rinsed them, and coated them in a dry rub of kosher salt, pepper, and several other spices . An overnight stay in the fridge coated with the dry rub was supposed to help with keeping the chicken juicy and the skin crisp while frying.  I dipped each piece in a buttermilk  and egg bath before dredging in a flour mix that had yet more salt and pepper. Despite the enormity of the skillet, I had to fry the chicken in two batches.

Using a digital thermometer, I regularly checked the oil temperature to keep it around 325 degrees. I highly recommend wearing oven mitts anytime you have to go near the skillet as getting spit on by hot oil is not fun. The silicone handle cover from Lodge was well worth the 3 or 4 bucks we spent on it.

I couldn't believe how quickly it started to look like real fried chicken. Just as advertised. I used the probe to check the internal temperature of the chicken (165 degrees) before removing my golden brown pieces of eight. Immediately they went on to wire racks to drain and I patted them down with paper towels to soak up any extra oil.

By the end of the process, the kitchen was a mess, I was covered in grease, the house smelled like a fast-food restaurant but by god I had made fried chicken! And it was good. Too good. Finger-licking-good. I think it was a little too salty even for me, so I'd probably cut down on the kosher salt next time. And despite my efforts, the skin still ended up being more greasy than crispy, so I didn't eat much of it after the first piece of chicken. The meat, however, was the most flavorful, juicy chicken I can remember having in a long, long time.

And now that I have broken in my huge cast-iron skillet, maybe I'll tackle making the perfect pecan sticky buns.....