July 11, 2007

Morels: A Tale of Two Dishes

I adore mushrooms. I even like the little white button ones, although I'll admit that they aren't the most flavourful thing going on their own. That, after all, is what butter and garlic are for, right? Wild mushrooms are always a treat, and I manage to enjoy cultivated specialties such as the oyster mushroom, the portobello, the shiitake on a fairly regular basis. Once in a while, I spring for chantarelles, when I can, or black trumpets. Special occasions, those, decidedly.

Two weeks ago, Saturday's Trout Lake Farmers' Market was, for once, not being rained out during the slow start to summer and, unlike my previous visit, this time I loaded up on enough cash to make sure I could buy all of the things on my list - not the least of which were the big, beautiful baskets of morels that were on offer. It must be the end of the morel season, because I know that they are something of a spring mushroom (and that they require a fire-seared ground to grow upon), and the mushrooms were getting a teensy bit bigger, and a teensy bit more costly than two weeks ago. None the less, I plunged ahead, and lugged home my bounty.

My first dish, since I had more than enough for two meals, was a simple pasta - fettuccine tossed with a little garlic and cream, a little sauteed pancetta, and some butter-sauteed morels. Simplicity itself, really, even with a bit of parsley over top. It so happened that I had the pancetta on hand already, which largely decided the course of the dish. I also had some asparagus, but to my dismay discovered that it had hung about too long in the bottom of the crisper (I have not yet adapted to my new fridge, and its vagaries), and was no longer fit to eat. So, the originally planned dish would have been even more luxurious, if the asparagus had held up, but it was not to be.

I have had morels before, of course - always as an accent to a dish where some other flavour held the supreme place of honour, and usually paired with other mushrooms, wild or domestic, to round things out a little. It is certainly an unaccustomed luxury that allows for making a dish that is devoted entirely to the morel itself. Arguably, the pancetta in my fettuccine was something of a distraction, flavour-wise, but the morel pieces themselves were plentiful enough that one certainly still got the sense that it was, essentially a mushroom dish.

Still, the purist in me, the girl that perked up upon reading Colette's assertion that morels should be eaten like the vegetable they are, simmered in champagne (!) for best effect, wanted to have a dish that not only highlighted the morel, but featured it in such wanton abundance that I could revel in morel flavour; in short, it would have to be a risotto.

I cut the pieces larger than I did for the pasta dish. Some of them were only slit open lengthwise, to ensure that the interior was insect-free. Some were coarsely chopped - there were a few monsters in there, truly, almost suitable for stuffing! All of them were sauteed until just tender in good butter, and then I simply proceeded per my usual Wild Mushroom Risotto recipe, omitting the porcini, or indeed any other mushroom than the morel.

Finally able to wallow unobstructed in morel flavour, I found it to be a curious sort of taste. It was earthy, certainly, but also...almost spicy? It is difficult to describe, but there was a sort of rich intensity to the flavour, while it still managed to remain subtle - almost familiar, but not in the way of other mushrooms. It evoked forest floor (in a good way), and trees, and at the same time was utterly unlike anything I have ever tasted before. The texture was mushroom-spongy, but in a good way. That is, if you like mushrooms, it was lovely, and if you find them an organoleptic nightmare, perhaps you should steer clear. The rough edges to the honeycomb caps made for an almost tripe-like look to the paler of the individual pieces, and sat strangely on the tongue before collapsing in buttery submission.

I'm looking forward to morels again next year - I suspect the season is truly over now, in the throes of July's suddenly summery heat - and perhaps next year, I will feel profligate enough to simmer my mushrooms in champagne, watching the bubbles dance through the honeycombed caps, as Colette assures us we must.

July 02, 2007


I know that I am only the most recent in an awfully long line of people to discover quinoa, but I'm really quite excited about it! It is a grain that I have heard about for years, but never really gotten around to trying. Occasionally I would see it on a menu, but it somehow never managed to be paired with whatever I was in the mood for, or there was an ingredient listed that I didn't care for. In my quest for new side dishes and new salads - always a favourite hunt for the summer picnic table - and with my current trend away from most forms of refined flours and sugars, I decided that I needed to explore some of the alternative grains and seeds whose names were floating around in the back of my head.

I went hunting online for recipes, and there were certainly plenty to choose from! Quinoa as breakfast (in hot-cereal mode), quinoa as pilaf, quinoa as salad, and quinoa as curry, just to name a few. While the curry idea definitely piqued my interest, I thought that perhaps I should start off a little on the safe side, and simply substitute the main component in an already-popular salad (in our house, anyway), with quinoa.

This recipe for Couscous Salad is an outgrowth of Middle-Eastern tabbouleh, a parsley-rich dish usually made with bulgar wheat, and seasoned generously with lemon juice to give it some zing. While I am a big fan of tabblouleh, as well, I developed this recipe initially with couscous to speed up the prep time, provide a softer texture, and incorporate more vegetables. Changing back to a grain (quinoa - technically a seed, in fact) from a pasta (couscous) improves the nutritonal profile pretty tremendously, but mostly because, as it turns out, quinoa is a nutritional powerhouse! Not only is it protein-rich (although I include a little feta in my salad, which adds to the protein, also), but quinoa is also a good source of amino acids, dietary fibre, magnesium, iron, and is gluten-free.

My biggest hesitation, standing in front of the bulk-foods cannister, staring at the organic quinoa in front of me, was that I didn't have a clue how to cook it. A little online research solved that problem, too. It turns out, quinoa cooks a lot like white rice. So, with a shrug and a smile, I popped my well-rinsed purchase into the rice-cooker (a Tiger, if it makes a difference) with the same ratio of water as for basmati rice (my standard, go-to rice), set the program for "quick" white rice - laughably, about 40 minutes instead of the "usual" 48 minutes - to skip the initial soaking period that I wasn't sure was necessary for quinoa, and waited.

The quinoa cooked up just as I had hoped. Fluffy, tender, with its little spiral of bran arching delicately away from each grain. The flavour, since I couldn't resist trying it straight up, was nutty and complex, and unlike anything else I have ever had. It had a familiar-tasting quality that I am still trying to identify, but was wholly new-tasting at the same time. Still, it was very much a base-flavour, and it took in the seasoning that I usually put in the Couscous Salad beautifully.

I'm looking forward to trying other grains and seeds - perhaps amaranth will be next - but I'm also quite excited to try a curried quinoa dish - either as a hot side or a cold salad. And, of course, hot, plain quinoa would be a fabulous base for a wonderful vegetarian curry, all chock full of farmers' market-fresh goodness.