The Shroom

December 2, 2011

Or, “You’re Tearing Me Apart, Lisa!” Butter.

(What?  Oh.  You’re making a reference to a dumb movie?  Okay, cool.)

Oh-my-god that movie’s so magnificently stupid.

ANYWAY.  Those of you whom I have not yet alienated: hello!  By some stroke of fortune for me, and a stroke of misfortune for him, my roommate David’s brother was delayed in coming home from college for Thanksgiving – his parents had planned for the whole family to go out to dinner.  His dad elected to go collect the waylaid son, and his mother suggested to David that the two of them (she and the roomie) take me and Carolyn out to dinner instead.  To a fancy, excellent restaurant called The Girl and the Goat.  On the day after Carolyn’s birthday.  How could we possibly say ‘no’?

(Spoiler alert: we did not say “no”.  Thank you, Alice and Paul!  Y’all are great!)

I took assiduous notes during the meal, with an eye toward replicating some of the more accessible dishes in my home kitchen – requested especially was the Sautéed Green Beans In Fish Sauce Vinaigrette, With Cashews.  Those were a fantastic revelation – not so salty (and not so fishy!) as to be inedible, but salty enough to trick the palate into eating them ceaselessly.

Let’s review what the four of us ate:

  • “Not Campbell’s” Bread – Broccoli-and-cheese bread served with mushroom soup butter and tomato soup oil.  [Hint hint; this is the one this entry’s about.]
  • Apple Smacks Bread – Apple and pistachio bread with an apple puree and ginger butter
  • Those marvelous green beans
  • Empanadas with a goat-meat rillettes filling
  • Beet salad with beans, white anchovy, and avocado crème fraîche
  • Grilled baby octopus with guanciale, beans, radish, and a pistachio-lemon vinaigrette
  • Escargot ravioli in a tamarind-miso sauce
  • Crispy pig face served with a sunny-side-up egg (no, I won’t recreate this in a home kitchen; what do you think I am, a pork magician?)
  • Sugo – a rosemary-tarragon pulled-pork stew over papardelle, with tart gooseberries
  • Chocolate Thai chile gelato with chocolate cake, peanut fluff, pomegranate arils, and a stout-and-cream reduction poured over everything
  • A deep-fried wonton filled with poached, cubed pears in syrup, served atop a knob of tamarind gelato sitting on a puddle of parsnip puree, the whole business sprinkled with candied ginger
  • A cheese plate with Mont St. Francis goat cheese, from Greenville,IN, among others
  • and a Monastrell (red wine) from Jumilla, Spain

Gracious, I’m glad I wrote that all down – I’ve got loads of notes pertaining to those green beans and a few others, and I’ll endeavor to recreate them, but I very much doubt I’ll try to make the desserts.  Or the pig face (although, believe me – it was delicious!).

The most accessible item off the menu, I’m pretty sure, was that mushroom soup butter, so I decided to throw some together for a dinner party the next evening.  It’s easy, but it’d be a pain in the butt, I think, to make it in a small batch.  Thus, I recommend that you use at least two sticks of butter for this recipe, and freeze the rest of it (or, like me, bring a third of it to a dinner party, and throw the rest in your parents’ freezer for Thanksgiving, yelling “Eat it! It’s festive!”).  It’ll keep for up to a year, although, given its versatility, I don’t think you’ll need to test that out.

Mushroom Soup Butter
Inspired by the meal that transpired at The Girl and The Goat

The Setup

You will need:

  • olive oil
  • salt
  • One 8-ounce package of white button mushrooms
  • 3/4 cup (by volume) dried wild mushrooms, of any variety (but ideally possessing porcini and/or shiitake)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 sticks of butter
  • a large skillet
  • a food processor
  • plastic wrap

The Heist

1.  Begin by soaking your dried mushrooms in hot water in a fairly deep bowl, and let them hydrate for about half an hour.  Let this work while you start your fresh mushroom prep.

2.  Wash the fresh mushrooms, and slice them or chop them roughly.  Then get your biggest skillet out and start heating it over medium heat.  Then drain the rehydrated mushrooms, being careful to avoid the sand that’s probably collected in the bottom of the hydration bowl, and cut them up.  Feel free to retain the mushroom water, although it’s not strictly necessary for this recipe.

3.  Of the 2 sticks of butter you’ve got, slice off a largish knob – maybe two tablespoons’ worth, and melt it in the pan with a little olive oil, if you like, to prevent it from burning.  Then start cooking the fresh mushrooms, a little at a time – try to keep all the mushrooms in a single layer, if you can – the idea here is to get as much pan-to-shroom contact as possible.  Once all the mushrooms have started to brown, shrink, release their liquid and swallow it back up again (about ten to fifteen leisurely minutes), add in the cut-up rehydrated dried mushrooms. 
Cook the whole mixture for another 5 to 8 minutes, and then add in the milk, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid is either absorbed or evaporated – we want the taste of milk, here, not the added water content.
 
See how they're faintly glossy, but not WET? that's what you want.

4. Continue to cook the mushrooms until you are confident that they are reasonably dry.  Then let them cool, as you bring the two sticks of butter to room temperature in your favorite way, whether that be restin’ on the countertop, gingerly poking in ten-second spates in the microwave, or rubbing them briskly between your hands (I dare you to try this).

5.  Once the mushroom mixture has cooled enough to your liking, dump it into your food processor and mill it into a paste – this isn’t fine enough.

Doesn't that look pretty, and not like mulch?

It should be more like this:

Viz., a fine uniform paste.  You know, I don't use viz. nearly often enough.

6.  High five!  You’re almost there.  Add in the room-temperature butter, and mix until everything’s incorporated.

Buttery goodness.

It’ll end up looking, well – kind of like canned mushroom soup, although thicker and less gelatinous and gloppy.  But roughly similar.  Feel free to season this compound butter, at this point, however you like.  I think it might be fun to add a little hint of fish sauce, honestly, to enhance the meatiness of the mushroom taste.

Piece by piece, puttin' it together.

7. Now, the fun part: line a piece of tupperware with plastic wrap, and plop in the contents of the food processor. 

PREPARE THE MOLD!

Let this set in the fridge overnight, or in the freezer for a few hours, until it’s firmed up and become solid again.

  Oh, that's so attractive!
8.  Take this butter and cut it into roughly stick-like portions, which you can wrap in wax paper (just like real butter!) and freeze, or stick some in a plastic bag with a corner cut off so you can pipe it into a ramekin, run a fork around it, and pretend like you own a fancy restaurant.

Oh man, look at that fancy forkin'

You don’t just have to spread this on warm, fresh bread (although I certainly think that’s a worthwhile thing to do) – it’d go great with any grain or starch – a pat on top of a potato pancake, for example, would be delicious, and I can’t see how it wouldn’t improve a spot of polenta.

It’d also be fun, I think, to put this compound butter under the skin of a bird you’re going to roast.  I just imagined putting this under the skin of a duck, and the fact that it would be completely unnecessary (by dint of duck’s fattiness) is eclipsed entirely by how much I’m salivating right now.  But a chicken, sure – a chicken would be a safe bet.

You might also be interested to know that I recently made bacon.  And it was actually quite easy!

My friend Sharon and I recently shared the cost of a small electric smoker (bought it off of Craigslist for $30.  It was an EXCELLENT decision.), with an eye toward making smoked meats and sausages.  The first thing we decided to make was bacon; I went to the Chicago Meat Market and bought about 7 pounds of pork belly.  If you were unaware, this is the fatty cut of the pig that one makes bacon from.

Rind up, lads and lassies; rind up.

Looks kind of unfamiliar to you?  Try this angle:

I summon a bacon elemental!

That little cross-section should suggest, well, bacon.  Bacon in its most elemental form.  Now, bacon is cured, which means that it has to be packed in salt for a while to draw out moisture and prevent spoilage – that’s the key principle behind preserving any kind of meat.  You have to remove water and make the meat an inhospitable place for bacteria.

Therefore, I used a recipe which called for about 30% more cure than meat, by weight – and that cure was half-sugar, half-salt, with a little bit of rosemary and other herbs thrown in.

Jingle jingle jingle.

I cut the pork belly in half, and packed each piece in salt, in large plastic containers, and let them sit for a few days, letting the salt do its work: the salt draws liquid out of the meat, and pulls salt in – the salted meat makes bacteria less likely to propagate on its surface.

After a few days, you can see what happened:

Daw, the snow is melting.

A big pool of liquid collected around the pork belly, which I drained off.  Before packing everything in with more dry salt rub, I took photos:

I actually think this looks really pretty.  Like promise.

You can see that the lean tissue is starting to firm up and get darker – it’s constricting into itself.  This is good!

A few more days of the cure and I ended up with something like this.

Doc!  Doc! I'm cured!

If you stop at this point, with cured, unsmoked belly, you have something approximating pancetta, although pancetta generally has a slate of particular tastes associated with it, like fennel and garlic.  Or we could just call it unsmoked bacon.  Whatev.

In fact, this is what I did with half of the belly – I stopped at that point and let it air-dry for a few days before refrigerating some of it and freezing the rest.  At fridge temperature, it still sliced pretty thick – I’d probably want to freeze it for a half hour before attempting anything other than cubes or lardons.  You can see what happened when I cut strips:

Who's ready for THE GREATEST BLT IN AMERICA?

Delicious, but probably a little too thick for most people’s tastes.

I heated up my tiniest black iron skillet (which is why these pieces of bacon are going to seem so immense), and cooked them over gentle heat for about ten minutes, until they crisped up, released a few tablespoons of bacon fat (oh my god so much fat), and cooled off.

I have no idea what I'm going to do with this bacon fat.  Probably make myself inordinately happy.

It looked like this:

 The rind's a little too tough to eat, but it is a LOT of fun to just kinda thoughtfully chew on.

Now, I smoked the other half of the bacon in a little metal box for about 4 hours. It ended up looking like this:

That might look gross to you.  Me, I don't know what's wrong with your vision.

And the smell was incredible – I used hickory chips, and replenished their supply every hour or so.  I may have gone an hour too long for some tastes – my parents, for instance, found it a little too smoky – but it was good enough for a first excursion.

For more information on how to cure and smoke meats, check out the two resources I’ve been using: Preserved and Charcuterie.

My friends and I – namely Sharon and Brian – have already attempted a few other smoked creations, including a fabulous smoked tri-tip steak, a pound of smoked shrimp, some smoked habañero peppers, smoked sea salt, and smoked garlic.  Yeah, all of those were in the smoker at the same time.  We’re awesome.

Happy cooking!

-D

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The Whole Foods by my girlfriend’s apartment used to sell Sukhi’s Naanwiches, or at least, the kind she liked – the kind with spinach and potato and tofu.  She’d keep them in her fridge, and hurl one into the oven for dinner if the mood struck her.  I had one, once, and liked it.  I developed this copycat recipe back in February 2011; we made a bunch of homemade naanwiches and brought them to a Super Bowl party, where, despite the preponderance of popcorn, dips, and peanut M&Ms, they disappeared off the platter at Warp 9.

And then I forgot about it.  Completely.  Until Carolyn’s Whole Foods stopped selling the spinach Naanwiches.  “Remember when you made those?” she said.

“Sort of,” I said.

“I think that would make a great blog post,” she said, coyly.  I know what you were after, Girlfriend.  You mercenary.  She was in it for the naanwiches, America!

So, using the naan recipe I’ve previously detailed on this site, and the following recipe for saag paneer, I recreated the magic.  Except I did it a little differently; instead of just making a folded piece of dough like I had previously, enfolding the filling in a sort of folded pita configuration, this time I crimped the dough into little hand pies, so that they most resembled empanadas, or, more accurately, spanakopita – Greek spinach pies.  (Or Lebanese fatayer.  Or calzones!)

My cultural depredations lead me from India to the Levant to the Greek Isles* to, as you shall shortly see, Mexico.  I shall never rest.  I shall never stop bastardizing the cuisines of nations – not until I have trod on every page of Larousse Gastronomique.

I’d call this a samosa, except it isn’t, really.  It’s too large, and it’s baked, not fried.  I’m sure there aren’t exactly hard lines on nomenclature, but it feels like I’d be calling a knackwurst a cocktail wiener.  But yet, it’s not a spanakopita, either; it’s not made with phyllo dough, and it’s also a little bit too large.  If anything, it’s like a pasty, but it’s made with the wrong sort of dough.  It’s its own classification.  Naanwich or Naanakopita will do, although I prefer the second, for its quality of sheer phonemic bewilderment.

Now, palak paneer is a classic Indian dish, which I shall further insult by describing as being “essentially creamed spinach with fried cubes of fresh Indian cheese in it.”  It is very easy to make your own paneer.  I was going to advocate that you do it for this recipe.  In fact, I nearly did it myself, figuring there wasn’t any place within walking distance of me that sold paneer cheese.

But guess what?  There is.  Paneer is a fresh farmer’s cheese – it’s firm, kinda squeaky, and somewhat bland.  It doesn’t melt like other cheeses  would– it just gets nice and brown and crisp when you cook it in a non-stick skillet.  It is, in fact, identical to Mexican panela.  Identical.  There is nothing in the production of those two cheeses that would set them apart – you heat some milk; you add some lemon juice, you drain it, you press it, you salt it.  The end.  Cheese.

It looks like this!

Now, if you’re an American, and you live near a large city, there is undoubtedly a sizeable Mexican population in your community, and the grocery stores in your neighborhood undoubtedly stock Mexican goods.  You’re going to want to march right up to the deli counter and order several inches of cheese – don’t get it in slices, get it in a big ol’  chunk.  This stuff is delicious.

So.  If you can get paneer, excellent!  Good for you; it’s not so terribly difficult to come by in the first place.  And you could always make your own.  But I like the firmness of store-bought stuff.  It’s made with more patience, weight, and industry than I could ever muster.

* Which reminds me of a story my classmate Molly told, once.  She had pledged a college sorority, and her father, upon hearing this, exclaimed, “Excellent!  I’m so pleased you are Greek, now; did they bid you drink from the brackish waters of the Aegean Sea?”  Molly’s father is, evidently, awesome.

Naanakopita
A tasty pocket of spinach and cheese!

The Setup

You will need:

  • One full recipe of naan dough
  • a 10-ounce bag of fresh spinach, or, failing that, a thawed and drained package of frozen spinach
  • 1 cup of paneer/panela, cubed
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk (feel free to use 1/4 cup of milk with a teaspoon of vinegar – just let it sit for ten minutes)
  • 1/4 cup yogurt
  • 1 onion
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 2 teaspoons of ginger
  • 2-3 tsp curry powder
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • salt, to taste

The Heist

1.  First, make the dough, following the instructions in my entry.  Set the oven to 400 degrees F.

2.  Fill the sink with water, if you’re using fresh spinach, and soak the spinach in the basin, shaking it around to get rid of any sand or dirt.

3.  Dice the onion, mince the ginger, and mince the garlic, too.  Set it aside.  Cut the paneer or panela into smallish, 1/2-inch cubes.

4.  In a medium-sized nonstick pan, heat a few teaspoons of oil and begin cooking the cheese, not doing much to them.  Make sure they don’t stick (use a rubber or silicone spatula), but other than that, let them cook at medium heat, turning every four minutes or so, until they’re brown on a few sides.  Reserve the cooked pieces of cheese on a plate or in a bowl.  Keep the pan on the stove.

What a fantastic smell this is.

5.  Meanwhile, in a large skillet or pot, heat a little oil, and wilt the spinach in it – use a tongs to squeeze all the water out of it as it cooks down, and plop it into a bowl.  It should take about two to four minutes to wilt all the spinach.  I grow weary of having to blanch spinach in a big pot of water, only to have to squeeze all the water out of it endlessly.  I think this way is a little easier.

And there's fewer pots and bowls to clean, too.  The more surface area you have, incidentally, the faster this'll go.

6.  Give the person next to you a high five.  You’re making naanwiches!

7.  In the pan you used to cook the cheese, which should still have some oil in it, add the aromatics (the onion, the garlic, and the ginger), and cook them, with a touch of salt, the curry powder, the coriander, and an optional pinch of hot red pepper flakes, until the onion is soft and yellow, about 5 minutes.  I believe it was around this time that I said, “Maybe this is too much onion.”  Carolyn almost slapped me.  She was right.  It cooks down.  And there’s no much thing as too much onion.

Just like there's no such thing as too much garlic.  And just like there's no such thing as Toledo.

8.  When the onions are soft, add the spinach in – stir until the spinach is evenly distributed , then add the yogurt and the buttermilk.  Stir, taste for seasonings, and cook until the mixture is still a little wet, but not drippy.  We don’t want too much buttermilk leakage in the naanakopita.  Stir in the cubes of paneer and kill the heat.

You could totally stop here, too, if you wanted, and just serve the saag paneer as is.  We had a lot of trouble not eating it all out of the pan.  Just sayin’.

 

Still not too many onions!

9.  Line a baking sheet with tin foil, and spray it with cooking spray.  Roll out your dough into six-inch rounds – just like you would for the naan recipe, but thinner – you might be able to get eight to ten of these, depending on how thin you go.  Place these rounds on the greased tin foil on the baking sheet.

All rolled out.  I made mine into half-moons, just 'cause.

 

10.   Plop a 1/4 to a 1/2 cup of saag paneer into the middle of them.

10 deposit

11.  Fold them in half, and crimp up the edges.  There’s no need to seal them super well, because if they leak, they won’t leak so terribly much – the filling shouldn’t be all that wet.

Crimp my ride.  Yo, Carolyn - we heard you liked Indian food, so we put Indian food inside your Indian food so you could, I dunno.  Eat both at once.  Look, don't blame me.  I know I wasn't Xibiting proper judgment at the time.

 

12.  Bake the naanakopita at 400 degrees F for 25 to 30 minutes, depending on how crispy and brown you want them to be.  Let them rest for at least 10 minutes before serving, because they will be insanely hot on the inside.

The one on top is upside-down.  You may want to flip them during cooking, if you want each side to be evenly browned, but I didn't mind.  It's still delicious.

These reheat spendidly. but they also freeze, uncooked, exceptionally well: cook them, straight out of the freezer, for 25 minutes at 425 degrees F – spray them with a little cooking spray first, though.  But pop ‘ em in, hot ’em up, take ’em out.  And that’s sort of the entire point of these – while they certainly make an excellent sit-down meal, I’ve designed these with long-term frozen storage in mind, so you can say, “Oh, dang.  It’s 5:45, and I want to eat something at 7, but I don’t want to make anything.  And I don’t want to get takeout.”  This is me, reaching out across the ether, preventing you from tearing the lid on another loathsome Lean Cuisine.

Why would you want to, honestly?

This is the first entry in The Clone Platter, a new feature in which I will attempt to clone an existing commercial product or piece of restaurant food, or generate a home-cooked equivalent.  If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments!  As a warning, I probably won’t take on anything that requires a deep-fryer – so I probably won’t take on the suggestion of “David, clone McDonald’s french fries!”, because, first of all, fried, and second of all, there’s an immense supply chain with a very specialized cultivar of potato (Oh sure, their website says they use regular old Russet Burbanks, but I’m convinced they’re the ones who buy up all the fancy Kennebec potatoes).  So there.  Lots of caveats, but request away.  If the product in question is available in my area, I’ll buy it, dissect it, and eat it, and then try to recreate it!  Otherwise, you’ll need to describe the hell out of it, and maybe take a photo.

Happy cooking!