Monday, November 3, 2014

Mixed Plate: A Mushroom, a Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus Walk Into the Kitchen...

Tis the season for cookbooks in bloom! I know most people fall into one of a few categories when it comes to cookbooks: A) The Casual Collector, usually gifted most of their books by friends/family who know them best, and the books' subjects tend to lean towards specialty desserts or general party-planning ideas; B) The Hoarder, a ravenous collector with a discerning eye for quality-written recipes and techniques, happily giving up valuable living space in lieu of several overstuffed bookshelves bowing from the weight of those damn heavy Modernist Cuisine tomes; C) The Recovering Cookbook-aholic, one who has purged their library of books they realistically know they won't cook from, they're worried about the Hoarders TV crew showing up at their house (again), so their collection is meticulously curated with only books they know they'll use regularly. While I've never let my books edge me out of house and home, I do have a Fear of Stuff, so I tend to fall within the C-category. Which is why when I do add to my cookbook collection, I'm extra-picky, and extra-excited when I find not only one, but TWO new books that I think deserve a spot on the shelf.

Shiitake dan dan noodles, care of Becky Selengut's "Shroom" - Photo by Wasabi Prime

The two cookbooks I can recommend for both yourself and as a nifty gift idea are Becky Selengut's Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms, and Renee Erickson's A Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus: Menus and Stories. I'm a sucker for local chef/authors, and these two are some of Seattle's Top Chefs That Don't Even Need a TV  Show, But I'd Watch 'Em if They Had One. These books are both beautifully put together and very friendly reads; they incorporate personal touches and the recipes are organized in a way that just makes sense when you're cooking. Erickson's recipes are arranged by season, as well as special occasions for favorite recipes; the sections are punctuated with quick recipes for things like her famous Boat Street Pickled Shallots, and big presentation entrees are showcased with beautiful photographs -- the Designer Nerd in me especially likes that it's a cloth-bound hardcover book, with uncoated pages, so the photos are as warm and inviting as the stories and anecdotes that accompany the dishes. Selengut's Shroom proves that you can make a truly engaging book focused around a single ingredient. Part cookbook, part resource guide, I was already using it as a reference book after picking up some unusual cultivated mushrooms from the farmers markets. The chapters are divided by mushroom type; along with recipes, the fungi is broken down into flavor profile, what ingredients it works well with, and if it's advisable to use it fresh or dried. There's tips about foraging, too, but make sure you have a trained mycologist with you when you're digging around the forest. Safety first, lest ye totally trip balls or worse, drop dead. Selengut's recipes are in order of difficulty, from easiest to more complex, and it's an omnivorous cookbook -- while there are vegetarian recipes, there are also dishes that incorporate seafood and meat.

Cook the book - how does Shroom fare with a recipe test drive...? - Photo by Wasabi Prime
To really test the practical usage of a cookbook, one must Cook the Book. There were several dishes that caught my eye in Shroom, but the shiitake dan dan mein screamed: THIS IS DINNER, like, TONIGHT. Like, RIGHT FREAKIN' NOW. Not a typical stir fry, it's a take on the classic Szechuan spicy noodle dish that's savory-sweet, rich with the flavor of peanuts and sesame. The recipe calls for ground pork, but I made my version meatless, and it didn't suffer one bit. The trickiest thing about making authentic Asian dishes is having all the ingredients; sometimes you just don't have access to more obscure spices or vinegars, but Selengut's recipe takes that into account and makes it weeknight meal-friendly. The dan dan sauce requires basic ingredients with notes on subbing-out things.  I respect books whose recipes don't waver from their set ingredient list and method of preparation, but I equally respect books that offer themselves as a learning tool. They provide recipes that factor in ingredient accessibility and time; they don't make the knowledge prohibitive and it's a book that makes being in the kitchen enjoyable and not a chore.

Weeknight special - shiitake dan dan noodles, easy-peasy! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I certainly haven't gotten through all of Shroom's recipes, but I've definitely used it as a guide for preparing other dishes -- I had some fresh oyster mushrooms and read up on her chapter about them to see what pairing suggestions she had. The descriptive information alone makes me feel more confident about impulse-buying some exotic-looking shrooms at the farmers markets.

Sous vide salmon with a modified kale gratin - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I was on a cooking roll with both these books because my mom was in town visiting. I wanted to choose dishes that really showcased the local ingredients and it was nice to say, look at this cookbook, it's by a local chef, and we're gonna PNW-up our plates All. Week. Long. Accessibility is a key thing for cookbooks, and so is the ability to change things up. I'm a notorious UnRecipe cooker -- ingredients flailing about, a pinch of this, a dash of that, a Royal Hot Mess am I. While I can't speak for all the recipes, since I haven't cooked my way through A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus, there's definitely dishes that allow for ingredient flexibility, which I adore.

The Mister wanted to show off his Sous Vide Monstertruck Machine to Wasabi Mom, and immersion-cooked a ton of salmon, which we ate for almost every meal. It was the beginning of fall when she visited, so there was a cornucopia of great stuff in season. I made a creamy corn and salmon chowder, salmon and scrambled eggs, and for dinner, I used Erickson's kale gratin recipe to go with the simply seasoned salmon filets. The original recipe just needed kale, cream and a nutty, dry-aged cheese -- delicious on its own, yet super easy to customize. I had extra corn, so I layered kale with the kernels and made it according to the recipe, and it became a wonderful, creamy-gooey, kale and sweet corn side dish, with the top layer of kale crisping to perfection, as promised.

Jam tart transformed into I'm Sick of Stone Fruit Tart - and oh hey, granola - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I did a similar ingredient swap with Erickson's jam tart recipe, which has a particularly delicious and easy sweet cornmeal crust. A great idea for making a simple dessert, if you don't have fresh fruit handy -- just use up whatever jam you have. In my case, I was lamenting the several pounds' worth of stone fruit that was piling up from our CSA. Nectarines and plums are nifty and all, but I was like, ENOUGH, ALREADY. The original jam tart recipe asked for strawberry jam and the excess tart dough being placed on top as a decorative crust. My version was smaller individual-sized tarts, filled with peeled/cooked-down plums and nectarines, topped with some leftover granola Brock had from a hiking trip. Clear out the fridge/pantry AND individual-sized desserts? Hells to the Yeah.

Flexible recipes that let you modify based on what you have? YES PLEASE - Photo by Wasabi Prime
The tarts were so delicious and easy to make, I made another batch of the dough, lickety-quick, filling them with more leftover cooked-down fruit, plus some fancy preserves I'd been saving, and that became a handy dessert/breakfast pastry when we spent a weekend in Leavenworth. The crust is not only tasty, it's sturdy, and held up nicely for traveling. With coffee on a chilly fall morning (with a barely-there Oktoberfest hangover), these tarts are baller.

I gotta say, put BOTH these books on your personal wish list and your holiday gift-buying list. Give to friends who love to cook, and more importantly, friends who want to cook, but feel a little intimidated by complicated recipes. I judge the usefulness of cookbooks by the grubby fingerprints I leave, waterstains, and dog-eared pages -- I anticipate lovingly Fight-Clubbing these books for many future meals.

Quick Note: I think you'll love this post SO MUCH, that you won't mind it's here for an additional week. I'll be traveling on a food-related mission for a few days, but promise to share my findings when I return -- you can hopefully get a sneak peek through my Instagram and Twitter feed (Wifi Gods, shine upon me favorably).

1 comment:

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