Sunday, December 13, 2009

Spicy Cream-of-Shitake Mushroom Soup

I needed to use-up some shitake mushrooms in my fridge. Thanks to the intertubes, I found an interesting recipe for an Asian-inspired cream-of-mushroom soup that turned-out surprisingly good. The spicy sesame oil and sliced green onions add a nice counterpoint to the deep, rich mushroomy goodness, bringing balance and interest to what can otherwise be a cloying, monotonous soup.

(Adapted from Garlic Mushroom Soup on

Spicy Sesame Oil
5 tbsp. toasted sesame oil
3-5 dried chili peppers (I used chili d'arbol)

6 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds fresh shitake mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, sliced
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 C. sherry or white wine
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
2 cans chicken stock (about 4 cups)
1 C. half-and-half
black pepper
2 green onions, thinly sliced on the diagonal

Do this:
1. Make the hot chili oil. Toast the chili peppers in a dry skillet over medium heat for a few minutes, until fragrant. Crush into flakes in an old coffee grinder, 3 or 4 short pulses. Alternately, crush by hand while wearing gloves and taking care not the touch your face or other places that wouldn't appreciate a strong burning sensation. Heat sesame oil in a small pan over medium heat. Add chili flakes and simmer for a few minutes. Remove from heat and allow to steep until cool. Strain oil into a small bowl and reserve chili flakes in another.

2. Heat 2 T. of chili oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add half of garlic and cook for a minute or so. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, until juices have mostly evaporated and begun to darken in pan, about 10 minutes. Deglaze pan with half of the sherry and move mushrooms to a bowl.

3. Heat 2 T. of chili oil in now-empty pan over high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, until limp and somewhat caramelized, about 10 minutes. Deglaze pan with remainder of sherry, scraping pan to loosen any browned bits. Add remainder of garlic and thyme. Add flour and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Slowly whisk-in 2 C. stock. Add half-and-half. Simmer for a few minutes and remove from heat.

4. Puree the soup using an immersion blender or food processor, making it as chunky or smooth as you like. Return to simmer and add remaining stock as needed to reach desired consistency. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add salt, pepper and/or reserved chili flakes to taste. Serve, garnished with green onion slices and remaining chili oil.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Wild Cider

I used to homebrew quite a bit ... in college, of course, when many a lad finds extra meaning in the alchemy that turns water, barley, hops and yeast into something you can't buy without getting carded. At one point (well after my 21st birthday, in case you are my Mom), I noticed that I had around 35 gallons of beer in various stages of production or enjoyment. The apex of my craft was a Belgian ale I made using yeast that I cultured back to life from the residue in the bottom of a bottle of Chimay Red.

In the years after graduation, my brewing fell-off to nearly nothing. I managed to produce a gorgeous honey mead several years ago, made a valiant, but doomed, attempt at homemade sake and an equally dreadful batch of wine. Through all my fermenting experiences, the one predominant factor that always seemed to make or break a project was the control of microbes other than the intended variety of yeast I purchased and lovingly introduced into the wort or must.

Lapsed hygiene and imperfect sterility are the bane of brewers, and I'd guess that about one-quarter of my brewing projects went wrong -- usually apparent as a skanky sour flavor -- due to the accidental introduction of ill-mannered yeast and/or bacterial freeloaders. No matter how much bleach, iodine or expensive, proprietary sterilants I used to keep my brewing equipment clean, these nasty guys occasionally managed to slip-in. They are literally everywhere, in every breath we breathe and on every surface around us, so it's a constant battle.

Imagine my relief when I discovered Sandor Ellix Katz's Wild Fermentations, a book devoted to all sorts of fermentations driven by naturally-occurring yeasts. This is the same book that showed me the narrow, seldom-trodden path to chicha that I began to follow in my previous post (ptui!). One of the simplest recipes Katz offers is for 'Spontaneous Cider.'

Spontaneous Cider
adapted from Wild Fermentations

1. Buy a jug of preservative-free apple juice. Unfiltered is probably better.
2. Open the aforementioned jug and leave it out at room temperature. Cover the opening with a layer of cheesecloth or wire mesh to keep bugs out but let yeasts drift in.
3. Wait.
day one

In a nutshell, that's all you have to do. After a few days, the cider will should begin to bubble (my experience differed -- see below). Shortly after that, the fermentation may generate enough foam to overflow the jug, so it's wise to set it in a larger bowl to catch the spillage. When the bubbling settles back down, you could insert a rubber stopper with a fermentation lock (available at a homebrew supply store for a buck or two), as this will keep anything else from falling in. Then, again, what yeasty beasties are going to fall in that didn't already? One could simply set the cap from the jug loosely on top -- the key concept here is loosely -- so that the carbon dioxide can seep out but crayons, Cheerios and cat hair can't sneak in.

I put the theory into practice on Thanksgiving. I opened a half-gallon jug of Martinelli's apple juice, ready to let Nature have her way with it. Because it is a filtered juice, I figured that it wouldn't have much in the way of nutrients that the yeast could live on. To amend it, I added a couple of black tea bags (hey, that's good enough for kombucha!) and a small pinch of sea salt. I also threw-in some slices of apple on the theory that ... well, I don't know. Seemed like a good idea.

Three days later, seeing that nothing was happening, I added a small handful of organic blueberries. The greyish 'bloom' on berries is actually a film of natural yeasts, just waiting for their chance to get at the sweet juice within. Within a day, the juice had changed to a lovely coppery color and began to get cloudy, a sign that the yeasts had taken-hold and were multiplying like crazy. By the fifth day, the cider was bubbling vigorously and overflowing.

just beginning to get cloudy

As of this writing, two weeks from beginning, the bubbling is still evident although somewhat diminished. The cider is still cloudy and sweet but unmistakeably boozy. I could go through the effort of stopping fermentation with Campden tablets (aka, nitrates), bottling and then patiently aging the cider so it can improve over time. On the other hand, my sense is that this batch is closer to prison wine and should be drunk young and well-chilled. That's the plan.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Chicha, post #1: A Slippery Slope

There's a part of each of us that watches what we do from a bit of a distance and, one hopes, keeps us from doing as many stupid things as we otherwise might. [Chew, chew, chew.] As it turns out, I'm highly aware of this part within me, [ptui!] and I enjoy the way it alerts me to the absurd things that occur around me, all day every day. [Chew, chew, chew.]

When my wife suggested I have a food blog, this handy part of my mind piped-up instantly. It said, "Careful, Joelle! You're creating a monnnnnsterrrrrr!" [ptui.] It was right; this food blog thing has put me on a slippery slope. In fact, even as I write these words, [chewchewchew] my wife and kid are convinced that I've gone completely over the edge.

I'm making Chicha, you see. It's other, rather less seductive, name is 'Chewed Corn Beer.' [ptui.]

a jar of unsuspecting soaked corn

Last night, I soaked 2 cups of corn in the fridge. This morning, while [chew chew chew] cooking for our Thanksgiving meal, I drained the corn, put it in a saucepan with 2 quarts of water, and went outside with a sifter and a bowl. I sifted some wood ash from my smoker into the bowl, returned to the kitchen and added 1/2 cup of ash to the pan and set it to boil. This is when my family began to get suspicious. [ptui!] Three hours later, I drained and rinsed the kernels -- now officially posole -- and put 'em in a jar to cool.

mmmmm ... corn-ash stew

finished posole prior to rinsing

Now dinner is over and the dishes are done. I'm happily [chew chew chew] performing the next step toward Chicha: Making the muko. My wife and daughter are officially grossed-out and want me to know it.

Allow me to explain something about turning grain [ptui.] into alcohol. Most people understand that yeast works its magic by eating simple sugars and pooping out delicious boozy goodness. But, yeast can't eat the complex carbohydrates found in grain; as brewers, we have to help them out by converting those starches into simple sugars. This is why we malt (i.e., sprout) barley for beer and inoculate steamed rice with koji fungus spores for sake. (Vintners, mead- and cider-makers don't face this starch conversion problem, by the way, as their raw ingredients are already sugary.)

[chew... chew... chew.]

So, how can a would-be brewer in Central America, say, 1000 years ago, break-down the starches in their locally-available supply of corn? Since it's cooked into posole, it won't sprout, therefore malting is out. What to do... what to do... [ptui!]

OK, you get it. It's called Chewed Corn Beer because we use our own saliva to provide the enzymes necessary to convert the starches to sugars. An elegant solution! Brilliant! (Hey, why is everyone leaving...)

So here I am, typing my blog as I chew, chew, chew spoonfuls of posole just enough to turn it into a firm, chunky glob. Then I spit that glob, ptui, onto a baking sheet and take another spoonful. With each spit, my daughter looks up from her book with an expression of complete disgust and something else -- could it be concern? My wife is reacting to this endeavor as though it represents a troubling family secret, never to be shared. [chew, chew, chew.] They both vigorously decline my repeated offers to share the chewing fun.

chew on this!

mmm, mmm, muko!

As for me, I'm intrigued by the adventure of it all, amused by the strong reaction I'm getting from my loved ones and really, truly tired of chewing corn.

To be continued... [ptui!]

.. but in the meantime, check out Wild Fermentations by Sandor Ellix Katz at the library and look at Katz's website for more info, including how-to directions for making awesome sauerkraut.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


For me, much of the joy of gardening is being able to grow food that isn't available at the grocery store, where the specific varieties of produce offered are more likely to be chosen for appearance, uniformity, shippability and resistance to mechanized handling than for their merits as food. 

I just received my copy of the 2010 Seed Saver's Exchange catalog and have been flipping through it like the proverbial kid in a candy store. Which of the 37 varieties of lettuce will my family enjoy in our salads next summer? Which tomato, out of the 72 on offer, will make the best ketchup? Should I try growing okra (five varieties)? Purple Viking potatoes?

SSE is a fantastic non-profit organization (or social-profit, as my friend Sarah says) dedicated to preserving our collective genetic food heritage by collecting, propagating and selling heirloom seeds. If you garden, consider checking them out: http:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Name a Blog, get a Chocolate Cream Pie

When my wife suggested I start a food blog, I agreed on the one condition that I could come-up with a name that I was happy with.  I leveraged my friends to help me brainstorm, and sweetened the deal  by offering to make a chocolate cream pie for whomever suggested the name that was ultimately selected.

Out of 80 suggestions, some were pretty good; others were like these:
  • Todd's Tasty Tidbits
  • The Floppy Spatula
  • Flaming Flavor Fortress
  • Flavor Pirate

Floppy Spatula … Flavor Pirate? C’mon, people. This is meant to be a serious food blog.

(Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, issue #50)

16 Oreo cookies (with filling), broken
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

2-1/2 cups half-and-half
pinch salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
6 large egg yolks, room temperature (1)
6 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
6 ounces semi- or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (2)
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped (3)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1-1/2 cups cold heavy cream
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Ingredient Notes
(1) Remove the chalazae – that nasty, white stringy bit hanging off the yolk. Yes, you'll have to handle the yolk to do this. Yes, it's important. That thing will toughen when cooked and make the filling lumpy.
(2) Hershey’s Special Dark works great and is easy to find.
(3) Hershey’s unsweetened is fine; Baker’s is horrid.

Do This
1. Make the crust: In a food processor, grind the Oreos into fine crumbs. Alternately, put the cookies in a ziplock bag and crush them with a rolling pin (then remind yourself to go get a food processor for next time). Transfer crumbs into a bowl, drizzle with butter and mix thoroughly. Pour into a 9-inch glass pie plate. Using a sheet of plastic wrap over the crumbs, smooth them into place and up the sides of the pie plate. Pack them into place with your hands, and use the bottom of a spoon to smooth them into the curves and up the sides of the plate. Refrigerate for 20 minutes while pre-heating oven to 350-degrees. Bake for 10 minutes and cool on a wire rack.

2. Make the filling: Bring half-and-half, salt and 3 tablespoons of sugar to simmer in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Combine remaining sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl and mix into egg yolks. (Do this step shortly before half-and-half boils. Given enough time, sugar will react with raw egg yolks and mess-up the texture of the finished cream.) Whisk for a minute or two to combine, dissolve sugar and thicken. When half-and-half reaches a full-simmer, drizzle 1/2 cup of hot half-and-half into egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly, to temper. Then, whisk tempered egg yolk mixture into simmering half-and-half. Whisking constantly, return mixture to simmer as it thickens. When a few bubbles break the surface, remove from heat.

3. Immediately whisk in cold butter pieces until incorporated, then add chocolates and whisk until combined. Scrape pan sides and bottom with a spatula to fully incorporate ingredients. Stir in vanilla. Immediately pour filling into cooled crust. Press plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the filling and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

4. Topping: Just before serving, combine cream, sugar and vanilla in a medium bowl and whip to the soft peak stage. Remove plastic wrap from pie and spread whipped cream on top. Devour.

My friend's pie, ready for transport:

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I am a choco-vore and I'm ok.

This post hopes to serve a few functions, as follows:
  1. First and foremost, this will demonstrate that I like chocolate, and that, in fact, I like chocolate more than you do.
  2. It will let me try my hand at my very first gen-u-ine food-bloggy blog post, complete with recipe. And photos!
  3. The photos will illustrate whether or not the crappy built-in iPhone camera has any practical use in a food blog whatsoever. Fingers crossed.
  4. Finally, it will put Santa, the father's day bunny and/or the birthday fairie on-notice that a digital SLR camera always makes the perfect gift.
Please bear in mind that the following extreme chocolate beverage is professional-grade, prescription-strength, need-a-signed-permission-slip-from-your-mommy chocolaty. If you don't enjoy nibbling on 85% cacao dark chocolate (Lindt is my favorite), you will not like this. (In that case, just tone-down the cocoa powder. Way down.)

Let me put it another way: The only way that this hot chocolate could be more manly would be to add bacon to it.  (Note to self: Research homemade bacon marshmallows. Would the puffy sissiness of the marshmallow evaporate in the presence of bacon's manly ... uh ... presence? Or would they annihilate each other and make a black hole in the kitchen, again? Hmmm.)


1 cup of milk, more or less, in a 12 oz. or larger mug
1 small handful of chocolate chips (1)
scant 1/4 cup of Dutch-processed cocoa powder (2)

Ingredient notes:
(1): I've never measured these ingredients before, so for this post, I counted the number of chocolate chips I grabbed ... 42! Any competent geek knows what an auspicious number that is.
(2): Use good cocoa powder, because it can't hide behind any other flavors in this recipe. I'm happy with Hershey's Natural. I've been unhappy with Hershey's Special Dark cocoa the bulk stuff at our local natural foods store.

Grab, you know, enough chocolate chips.

Do this:
Add chocolate chips to the milk, then microwave on high for around 45 seconds. This should get the milk hot enough to melt the chocolate. Add cocoa powder and incorporate with wire whisk. Holding whisk between both palms, rub palms back and forth to spin whisk rapidly and thoroughly blend the mixture. (Or, bust-out your fancy-pants immersion blender and use that.) Microwave for another 45 seconds, keeping constant watch. Stop heating just before the mixture boils over. Optional: Blend with whisk again and microwave for another 15 seconds or so. This seems to help the cocoa thicken the drink in a very lovely way.

Whisk like mad.


Bonus factoid: Did you know that Hershey's Cocoa's plastic tub is top-load dishwasher safe? Nice of them to tell us.

FlavorNerd? FlavorDweeb? FlavorDork!

As the following Venn diagram illustrates, there are distinct differences between geeks, dorks, dweebs and nerds. At first, this blog was very nearly called FlavorNerd. However, a detailed analysis revealed that we don't have quite the requisite amount of social ineptitude to qualify.

So, FlavorGeek it is!

(Many thanks to whoever out there originally came up with this much-copied diagram.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Inaugural Blog Post!

Right off the bat, I may as well state that I'm not sure how I got to the point where I'm sitting at my laptop, faced with writing my first ever blog entry. I'm still partially convinced that I'm not the kind of person who would even have a blog. But here I am.

Actually, I do have some idea how I suddenly became a blogger -- my wife suggested it. And, why not? Even greater than my love of cooking is my strong desire to share my ill-formed, unsolicited opinions. Isn't that what the internet is all about?