Archive for December, 2007
Our calendar calls Dec. 21 the first day of winter, but in these latitudes, the ancients had it right: This is the deep, dark heart of the season, and all our celebrations and feasting are, at bottom, gestures of hope for the return of the light.
It’s also a season of rich, hearty food, much of it sweet. I don’t know about you, but I tire of the sweets and start longing for savory even as I’m baking yet another batch of Christmas cookies.
This lovely pie is perfect Yule fare, especially when it’s made with good things harvested and preserved by drying during the growing season.
I have a little tabletop food dehydrator – nothing fancy, just one of those inexpensive models with a blow-dryer type attachment that fits on top of a set of tiered plastic drying trays. This summer, I pitted and dried sour cherries from the farmers’ market; later in the fall, big orange chanterelle mushrooms harvested from the woods in Oregon’s coast range. The mushrooms especially lend themselves to drying – brushed free of forest duff and debris, trimmed to remove small bits of rot and sliced crosswise, pounds of mushrooms can be dried to mere handfuls of leathery fragments. The drying concentrates their rich, wild flavor; reconstituted in a little hot water or stock, they add a deep, hearty element to stews, gravies – and mushroom pie.
I owe this recipe to my Internet friend Whit, an accomplished Colorado cook and caterer who posted it to a LiveJournal food community several years back. I’ve been making it ever since, with slight variations (he adds green pepper, which I don’t much care for, and doesn’t have access to the wonderful wild mushrooms of Oregon). Around my house, it’s become a holiday tradition, a hearty, easier-than-it-looks precursor to the roast bird and trimmings of Christmas day. While the flavors are rich, the ingredients are fairly simple, and entirely good for you.
Leftover mushroom pie, reheated in the oven, will sustain me today as I start the prep work for tomorrow’s feast (roast duck with pomegranate glace, tiny yams and sweet potatoes cooked with persimmons, oven-roasted Brussels sprouts and a tangerine-cranberry sorbet).
Bonus for those who are feeding holiday guests with dietary restrictions: The dish is vegetarian, and if you use a dairy-free pie crust, vegan as well.
Wild Mushroom Pie
Crust for a two-crust pie, homemade or store-bought
3-4 small potatoes sliced very thin
1 medium white onion diced
3-4 cloves garlic chopped
A mixture of mushrooms, fresh and/or dried, wild and domesticated, to make 2-3 cups of coarsely chopped mushrooms. I used:
1 large portabello
A handful of crimini mushrooms
A few shiitake mushrooms
A generous handful of dried chanterelles, reconstituted by steeping for 30 minutes in the cooking stock (see below)
If you like, set aside one or two pretty mushrooms for garnish.
1 cup vegetable stock.*
A cup or so of mixed dried fruits (I used sour cherries, cranberries and chopped apricot, but raisins, currants and even figs are lovely in this pie)
A small handful of whole (unsalted) almonds
Salt (you may not need it)
* Vegetable stock: Throw out the bouillion cubes; they’re full of MSG and mainly taste like salt. Use good canned stock such as Safeway’s O organics line, a high-quality stock base or make your own: Toss vegetable trimmings and onion skins into freezer bags as you cook; when you have a nice big bag or two, dump them into a stock pot full of water with some fresh herbs and simmer until the vegetables are close to disintegrating; strain off the solids, discard and you’ve got flavorful stock. Use it now, or freeze it for later.
Line a deep-dished glass pie pan with crust; set aside the second crust to top the pie.
Heat oven to 375F.
In a large skillet, heat a tablespoon or so of oil to medium hot. in a large skillet or saucepan heat oil to medium hot. Add onions, garlic and potato and sautee until the onions are translucent but not browning. Remove and set aside in a bowl.
Add more oil and all the mushrooms and fresh herbs and pepper. Sautee, stirring occasionally, until the ‘shrooms have softened and given up their liquid.
Return the potato mixture to the pan and let it cook down for a bit. Stir in the stock and let it simmer until the potatoes are becoming tender.
By now much of the liquid will have evaporated away. If not, strain the vegetables over a bowl to save the stock (It makes great soup!). Stir the dried fruit and almonds into the mushroom mixture, check the flavor and add salt if necessary; I never do.
Fill the piecrust to overbrimming, mounding the filling in the center a bit. Pour a little of the reserved stock over the filling.
Top with the second crust, crimping the edges to seal. Use a sharp knife to slash a few vents in the surface to let the steam escape (feel free to be decorative)
Bake at 375 for 30-45 minutes, until the crust is golden-brown and the pie’s juices have begun to bubble up through the vents. If you like, add one or two pretty mushrooms for garnish about 10 minutes before it’s ready to come out of the oven.
Let the pie sit for a few minutes before slicing and serving. It will probably fall apart a bit anyway. You won’t care. Serve with a green salad and a nice glass of wine. Leftovers, should there be such things, are tasty reheated or cold.
Things have been quiet in this quarter since the farmers’ market closed for the season. Thanksgiving has come and gone, and our household is deep into winter comfort food, which often translates as big pots of “beans and …”, simmered for hours on lazy Sunday afternoons to provide meals for several days (and often, some to freeze).
I’ve been taking the opportunity to study up on the whole concept of eating locally, and how a person with a normal, busy, 21st-century life might move in that direction without either breaking the bank or becoming so food-obsessed that it borders on disorder.
Google to the rescue. Search the phrase “eating locally” and you’ll find a ton of resources, with the list headed by the wonderful Eat Local Challenge blog, whose member writers commit to “challenging themselves to eat mainly local food during a specific period of time during the year.” Presumably, those who meet the challenge will develop permanently changed buying and cooking habits that result in a more food- and environment-friendly diet.
Why eat locally? The challenge blog presents 10 good reasons, ranging from the obvious(Local food just plain tastes better”) to the less obvious (“Local food protects us from bioterrorism”. No, really.)
Where to start? The site offers the Locavore Pledge, developed by a group of local-eating advocates in the San Francisco Bay area, as a good rule of thumb:
If not LOCALLY PRODUCED, then Organic.
If not ORGANIC, then Family farm.
If not FAMILY FARM, then Local business.
If not a LOCAL BUSINESS, then Fair Trade.
With this whimsical addition from one blogger’s spouse:
If all else fails, at least don’t eat at McDonald’s!
When I ponder the challenge, I realize that I’ve already moved in that direction – at least during the growing months of the year. My household does a weekly grocery run on Sundays, starting at the farmers’ market and then filling in at the supermarket. There, we tend to “shop the perimeter,” a practice that puts most of our supermarket dollars into produce, meat and other “ingredient” foods, rather than the packaged-and-processed-and-hauled-from-parts-unknown items that pervade the middle aisles. And even here in small-town Oregon, where we have a decided lack of specialty whole-foods markets, the supermarkets are stocking more and more organic produce and even packaged goods. There’s some controversy in the whole-foods movement about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing – on the one hand, house brands like Safeway’s “O” organics line make organically grown food available to a wider range of shoppers; on the other, those who distrust all things corporate worry that the big players will crowd out mom-and-pop organic producers and dilute the meaning of the already hazy term “organic.”
It’s more difficult in the winter, at least in this part of the world. The market is closed, at least until the indoor winter market in neighboring Corvallis starts up in January. I once again failed to sign up in time for the early winter harvest box from our local CSA. And even with a growing range of organic produce, our local supermarket won’t offer anything like a real tomato this winter.
We do the best we can. The Locavore pledge is a good place to start reorganizing our shopping habits, and although I’m not planning to give up coffee, chocolate, salt or spices any time soon, being mindful of their sources and trying to direct the bulk of my shopping dollar to local producers is, I think, a step toward eating better and reducing my personal impact on the food environment.
Speaking of food: Here’s this week’s “beans and …” meal, improvised from a rough description posted on writer Elizabeth Bear’s blog, where she described it as “like white beans and garlic having sex in a rosemary bush.” Oh, yeah.
I’ve italicized the ingredients that came from local sources – the market, a local sausage-maker, and my own garden. Don’t be put off by the amount of garlic – most of it becomes one with the soup, mellowing and transforming into a rich and hearty flavor that isn’t overpoweringly garlicky.
White beans, soaked overnight or quick-soaked (see notes)
Extra virgin olive oil
One small onion, chopped
2-4 ribs of celery, chopped. Save the leafy tops if you have them.
Two heads (yes, heads – the whole thing) of garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
Two or more large sprigs of fresh rosemary
Fresh Italian parsley – several sprigs
1 smoked pork chop (optional – vegetarians can leave it out)
1 large parsnip, peeled and cut in chunks (or two carrots, ditto)
2 cans of diced tomatoes and their juice
Lots of black pepper
Salt to taste (you may not need it)
Andouille or other spicy, smoked, fully cooked sausage (again: Vegetarians can skip this, and you’ll still have lovely bean soup)
In the bottom of a large, heavy stock pot, heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Add onions, a couple of cloves of the garlic (minced), and celery; simmer, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables turn limp and transluscent.
Add the soaked, rinsed beans, and enough water to cover the beans by several inches. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer.
Dice the pork chop and add it to the pot, along with the bone and any fatty bits.
Make a little bundle of one spring of rosemary, the celery tops and a couple of big sprigs of parsley; tie it up with kitchen twine so you can retrieve it later and toss it in the pot.
Add the parsnip/carrots, and most of the rest of the peeled, whole garlic cloves, reserving 3 or 4 of them. Add a generous amount of pepper, freshly ground if you’ve got it.
Put a lid on the pan and prop it open a bit with a wooden spoon. Let the soup simmer for 2-3 hours, until the beans are completely tender.
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine:
1/4 cup olive oil
A tablespoon or more of rosemary, minced
The remaining cloves of garlic, sliced
Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring now and then, until the garlic just begins to show signs of browning. Remove from heat and set aside.
Go read a book or play on the computer or (what I usually wind up doing) do the laundry until the beans are done. Now and then, stop by the kitchen and give them a stir to make sure they aren’t sticking to the bottom of the pot or scorching.
When the beans are tender, dump in the canned tomatoes (see notes). Slice the sausage, if you’re using it, and add that to the pot. Continue simmering for 30 minutes to an hour to reduce the liquid a bit and let the flavors blend.
Finishing the dish: Use a slotted spoon to fish out the herb bundle, along with any bones and unrendered fatty bits from the pork chop; discard. If you like a thicker soup, ladle 1/3 to 1/2 of the soup into a separate container and use a wand blender or food processor to puree it, then stir the puree back into the soup. Add some minced parsley – I used a good handful. Taste, and correct the seasoning if necessary (I added still more minced rosemary at this stage, because I lovelovelove rosemary; I did not add salt, because the smoked meats provided enough salt to punch the other flavors without making the dish aggressively salty).
Serve with a spoonful of the rosemary-and-garlic infused olive oil swirled into the bowl, and big hunks of good (local!) bread.
Notes: To quick-soak dried beans, put them in a big pot with a couple of quarts of water. Bring to a boil, put a lid on the pot and remove from the heat. After they sit for an hour, they’ll be ready to cook; just drain off the water, replace it with fresh and proceed as for soaked beans.
Why not add the tomatoes at the start? Because they may prevent the beans from ever getting tender. It took me decades of cooking to find out why that is: High acidity reacts with the soluble cellulose that makes up the beans’ cellular walls to prevent them from softening. (Some cooks also insist that salt makes beans tough; food scientists say that’s not so, but salting the dish too early may result in over-salted beans, so save that till the end.)