Saturday, June 18, 2011

Foraging a Fungus Among Us Which is Now In my Corpus

And what a delicious fungus it was. I don't normally cook dangerously; but having transplanted a patch of lily-of-the-valley at the base of a grand old sugar maple in my backyard the day before, I came out to inspect my flowers the next morning. Right above them was this beautiful shelf of white mushroom that had definitely not been in residence before.

It was a truly lovely 'shroom.

It was a pearly white with a cascading shape and sweet aroma.

And most importantly, it looked delicious.

Now, I'm no foraging expert. I am more in tune with the idea of foraging than successful in its application. I've failed at harvesting stinging nettles (gathered them too late in their development) and at figuring out fiddlehead ferns (gathered them too early in their development). The potential for disaster with harvesting wild mushrooms always steered me clear but this specimen was so tantalizing.  And my husband Dan was so cute when I pointed out this gorgeous fungus and its potential for our dinner. He exclaimed that he had just fallen in love with me all over again.

Out came my field guides, my mushroom books, my Euell Gibbons library, and research on the Internet. After much study, it appears that I had an Oyster Mushroom, a wild edible delight that blooms on decayed and dying maples during the spring and summer in the Northeast. It has no toxic lookalike mushroom cousins on this continent and so it was with only a small amount of trepidation that I cleaned it up, dipped cut up sections in brown rice flour and then dipped them back in some beaten egg. After a final dredging in some gluten-free bread crumbs, I sauteed them briefly in butter and garnished my 'shrooms with some chopped lemon thyme and parsley.

Heeding well-worn foraging advice of the ages to only sample a small amount of this new wild edible, we adults munched on our CRISPY fried oyster mushrooms with moderation on the first night. They were earthy and delicate and had a nice chewy texture. The next day, having noticed that we were still alive and were suffering no ill effects of my foraging adventure, we heated them up and feasted once more on these delicious wild treats.

I noticed one more shelf of oyster mushroom blooming at the base of my tree and decided to come back a few days later to cook it up, but alas, the passage of just a couple of days had made this mushroom dry up quite a bit and turn brown. There were also lots of insects in residence, so it was not the evanescent thing of beauty that its had been.

I am sending this successful mushrooming adventure post over to Healthy Green Kitchen, who is hosting this week's episode of Weekend Herb Blogging. WHB is the popular food blog event centering on edible plants, herbs, flowers and fruits, and is headquartered at Cook Almost Anything. Healthy Green Kitchen will post a roundup of delicious posts from great cooks from all corners of the globe, so tune in after tomorrow's deadline to see what was cooking.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Taste Testing some Big KaHoona Barbecue at Classe Catering

I almost passed on a chance to taste some of the new barbecue menu from Albany's Classe Catering when yesterday's forecast changed to a sweltering fug of haze, heat and humidity, but I really wanted to meet some of my fellow Capital District food bloggers and scope out a local company to see what they do and how hip they were to the gluten-free deal. Of course I got stuck in some urban traffic in my non-air-conditioned jalopy to and from my destination so as to enjoy this steamy weather pattern even further, but the overall foodie trek was well worth it.

Classe Catering
is a local fixture on the wedding, corporate event and upscale party scene, with Executive Chef Jeremy Kane at the helm. Chef Kane has a passion for barbecue - one he shares with a teenaged nephew who sells a tasty Dr. Pepper BBQ sauce at local farmer's markets - and owner Brian Palozzolo is smart to launch a casual and less expensive Big KaHoona Barbeque catering line which he will be offering both on-site and as a take-out option from his 2 Petra Lane production facility (it's off Central Avenue near Exit 2W of the Northway).

Presenting the Big KaHoona Boyz: that's our wonderful server, Sean, on the left, owner Brian P. in the center and the knowledgeable, gracious and quietly confident Chef Kane on the right.

Pierce Communications arranged for this blogger preview of the Big KaHoona Barbecue menu to get our feedback and we weren't shy. The taste testing panel consisted of me, Wendy of Wendalicious, Daniel of FUSSYlittleBLOG (plus his toddler daughter, the impossibly cute Little Miss Fussy) and Jess of 518bite&sights accompanied by her lovely mom.

Below is the Wendalicous One on the left and the ProFUSSor on the right. Wendy's blog is full of great information about Capital District events, dining, products and rants about the present ubiquity of the cupcake. Daniel's blog is on a mission to make the Albany food scene as diverse and wonderful as he had enjoyed back in his home town of San Francisco.

And here's the face behind 518bites&sights, Jess (on the left) and her delightful mom.  Jess' blog has tons of timely information about what to eat and where to go in the Capital District region.

From our perceptions of the presentation, taste and quality of ingredients, we let Chef Kane know about our constructive comments, from a definite need for more napkins or wet naps (try writing notes, taking photos and not dribbling BBQ all over your bloggery self while perched up on a high stool), to our personal biases on  the finer points of seared meats and side dishes. There was a lot of blogger love for the smoky Macaroni and Cheese, which Chef Kane noted was inspired by his grandmother's cooking. It had a dry mustard tang and included the CRISPY burnt ends of the meltingly-soft brined and barbecued brisket that was served later on. I'm already thinking of how to reconstruct this into a gluten-free, vegetarian version for Mr. Crispy. Liquid smoke? Frizzled onions?

First up on the tasting menu was some pulled pork served on a biscuit and accompanied by a vinegary but still creamy coleslaw. My Crispy Cook verdict: loved the slaw, loved the tender, spicy pork, but didn't like so much crumbly biscuit, which made eating an already messy item even more challenging. Plus it soaked up all the delicious pulled pork juices away from me.

Our second tasting plate arrived with the aforementioned wonderful slices of brisket and two falling-off-the-bone tender and tasty spareribs. This was my favorite meat selection by far; the meat was perfectly cooked, flavorful and had a mellow heat. Accompanied by some of Kane's chunky slices of ham hock-infused collards and that was all I needed to feel like I was at a down home South Carolina barbecue.

A third tasting of Jamaican Jerk Chicken proved to be a bit of a disappointment, as the chicken was not as CRISPY as I favor and the spice and heat was not assertive enough. The same goes for the baked beans that were served. They were good, but not exceptional, and were another drippy and hot item on the barbecue menu. It occurred to me later that a cold bean salad would be a better side dish to lend some variety in temperature and texture for this Big Kahoona spread.

Gluten Free is not a problem at Classe Catering and both owner Brian Palazzolo and Chef Kane were knowledgeable about gluten free concerns and will make a special phone call to Classe Catering customers or guests about any dietary concerns for any function that they are catering. Kane noted that all the rubs and sauces were gluten-free and that he routinely uses cornstarch rather than wheat flour as a thickener in his cooking.  He also notes that they frequent Sherry Lynn's Cafe and Bakery in Latham when they need gluten-free items in quantity.

You can check out Classe Catering's new Big KaHoona Barbecue Menu yourself next week on Thursday, June 16th from 4 to 7 pm at the historic Pruyn House in Colonie. This charity event will benefit local food pantries and the Friends of Pruyn House and feature BBQ samples, live music and other entertainment (there are rumors of fire-breathing performers). Tickets are $5 a head and you know you can't make a decent barbecue in your own backyard any cheaper than that, so it sounds like a great event.

Despite the oppressive heat, when the ProFUSSor had some questions about smoking techniques, Chef Kane he let us all tromp from our air-chilled tasting room into the cavernous Luciferan heat chamber (aka kitchen) that he had slaved away in since 6 am. That impromptu tour speaks volumes to me. I already thought that Classe was an impressive catering and event planning business, but to be confident enough to let us all barge in unexpectedly into their (very tidy) kitchen, and then pepper the staff with questions and criticisms, is the sign of a very well-run operation.

Disclosure: I was invited to attend this free tasting event and received a plentiful sufficiency of top-grade barbecue, but I was not otherwise compensated for this opportunity and my comments are 100% my own.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jazzing up some Gluten Free Eats with Zatarain's Rice Mixes

Jazz is a cool word, isn't it? It describes a great style of American music, conveys being excited ("I was jazzed up to hear about your new job"), and can be used as a verb to show how to do something creatively ("he jazzed up his vintage automobile with a coat of paint and some spiffy detailing").

So, when the folks at the Zatarain's company asked if I'd like to review some samples of their gluten-free rice mixes, I was, in a word, jazzed. I love the spiciness and flavor combinations of New Orleans style cooking and was delighted to receive four boxes of various Zatarain's rice mixes to try out.

With the smoky sounds of some Cassandra Wilson on my kitchen boom box to inspire me, I first tried out this easy supper recipe from the company's website: Seared Shrimp, Peas and Yellow Rice. Perfect! Everyone gobbled that down because we all love those three ingredients and I loved the ease of slapping it together on a softball-school concert week night. Next time I'll try it out with frozen shrimp, because I usually have a bag in the freezer for a quick meal.

I used to buy bags of a different brand of Yellow Rice mix that my kids would love, but it contains wheaty ingredients so I haven't done so since we went gluten-free. But the new Zatarain's Yellow Rice mix is gluten-free, so that restores one more food that we all used to enjoy before the celiac diagnosis. The Jambalaya rice mix and Dirty Rice mixes are a bit spicier than the Yellow Rice, and I doctored them up further with a bit of garden cilantro, whizzed up into a slurry with some olive oil and coarse salt, and swirled throughout the rice. Delicious!

The Zatarain's Yellow Rice is sold for $1.29 for an 8 oz. box at my local supermarket and there's a bigger "family size" box as well, so it's an inexpensive start to a quick meal when you are pressed for time. I even made the Jambalaya Rice and Dirty Rice mixes in my rice cooker (they spluttered a bit, but it came out fine. As Roger Ebert notes, "the pot always knows"). I've since stocked up on Yellow Rice and Dirty Rice for our cupboard so I can whisk together a shortcut dinner during this hectic end-of-the-school-year.

Do avoid the Red Beans and Rice, which contains wheat and barley, but many of the other varieties of the Zatarain's rice mixes - Jambalaya, Yellow Rice, Dirty Rice, Spanish Rice, Long Grain and Wild Rice - are gluten-free and should all be displaying a gluten-free label with a little check mark (see lower left corner on photo above) on your grocer's shelf as the old product sells and the new packages arrive. You can see the full list of the company's gluten-free products and some other jazzy recipes here.

Overall, an enthusiastic thumbs up for these tasty products and a thank you to the Zatarain's company for adding the gluten-free labeling to their GF products. We all still need to double check labels to make sure foods are safe to eat, but it's nice to have another large food company reach out to the gluten-free community and retool its packaging to make it easier to shop for our dinners.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tackling Gluten-Free Cream Puffs

There's a new posse of gluten-free bloggers who are tackling the art and science of GF baking with two central premises: 1) that measuring ingredients by weight rather than volume will produce better results and 2) that each species of baked good is organized around a ratio of liquid, flour, eggs and fat.

This band of baking bloggers was organized by Shauna, the Gluten-Free Girl (and the Chef), several months ago, and has so far tackled Pancakes, Quick Breads/Muffins and Scones.

How exciting and freeing it is to join this creative gang! I feel like this approach will give me much greater confidence as a baker and I'm looking forward to cozying up more with my oven and kitchen scale.

Unlike most of the other GF Rallyers who use lovely new digital kitchen scales, I realize I am probably the only one kicking it old school - like early 20th century old school- with my kitchen scale, but it's very accurate and it fits my cluttered country kitchen. I can't tare it out (start at zero) but it's easy arithmetic to weigh my bowl before filling it with my flour combos and then just subtract it from my final weight.

This month's Gluten Free Ratio Rally challenge was to experiment with Pate a Choux. Our hostess this month is chemist and culinary expert Erin Swing of The Sensitive Epicure, who has the fantasy job of investigating Gluten Free recipe formulation at Ferran Adria's research and development facility in Spain. Okay, that's some street cred!

Erin's choice of Pate a Choux was intriguing. Now there's a versatile dough in the baker's arsenal. Sweeten the dough a bit and then plop down little round blobs (choux means cabbage in French - mon petit choux is a charming endearment for your loved ones- and the baked results do resemble young garden cabbages) and you get lovely puffs that you can fill will cream (whipped or custard cream) and call cream puffs. Ovals of pate a choux, filled with cream and iced with chocolate become eclairs and classic French bakers have lots of other toothsome creations to Fill them with ice cream to make profiteroles or cement a whole pile of cream puffs together for an impressive croquembouche. Fry them and fill them with sweetened ricotta cheese and you have zeppole. Really, that pate a choux is something.

If you fancy something more savory, you can take out the sugar from your pate a choux, add some shredded cheese and savory mix-ins, and you have gougeres to accompany a stout glass of red wine. Or a red glass of stout, whichever you prefer. Or one could stuff cream puffs with egg salad, chicken salad, herbed cream cheese or other savory filling for a showstopping appetizer.

There was no indecision about what to do with my Pate a Choux: I HAD to make Cream Puffs for my family. Cream Puffs are something that we expect to come from a bakery. They are FANCY and FRENCHY and they are one of the items that my dessert-obsessed, Czech-born father-in-law tempts us non-GF types with when we come for dinner. My gluten-free husband settles for a dish of ice cream or a slice of my mom's GF cheesecake.

The GF Ratio Rally started off with a ratio of 2:1:1:2. (2 parts flour, 1 part egg, 1 part fat, 2 parts liquid). I used a combination of flours and kitchen tips gleaned from my cookbook reference shelf and Internet recipes. It seems that the key with making a successful pate a choux is to make sure that the ball of flour, butter and water that is boiled up on the stove cools enough to allow one to vigorously beat in one's eggs without cooking them. The other technique that is critical is to make sure not to underbake one's pate a choux or it will not puff up and form that pocket to stuff with something luscious later on.

Here's my Recipe for Gluten Free Cream Puffs Filled with Coffee in my Cream
-adapted from recipes by Michael Ruhlman, Carol Fenster and Rebecca Reilly, and to be perfected later with a longer baking time:

4 oz. flour (3/4 cup) - I used mostly brown rice, with a little potato starch and a couple of tablespoons of tapioca starch

1 stick butter (4 oz.)

8 oz. water

1 tsp. sugar

Pinch of Salt

2 eggs, lightly beaten

In medium saucepan, heat butter, water, sugar and salt until butter melts. Bring to a rolling boil. Add flour, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until a ball of dough forms and moves away from the sides of the pan.

Remove from heat and cool for 5-10 minutes, until dough is just warm. Add a bit of the beaten egg and mix vigorously to incorporate. Keep adding bit of the beaten yolk and beating, until it is all incorporated and dough is cohesive.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Plop 12 rounded balls of dough onto cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Round down any points or bumps with a wet finger.

Bake in preheated 425 degree F oven for ten minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake another 20 minutes, or until puffy and golden brown.

Remove cookie sheet to baking rack to cool 5 minutes. Remove cream puffs and transfer to rack. Poke each cream puff with a sharp knife to start a hole for filling later on. Let cool completely.

Fill with plain whipped cream or Coffee Cream as I did:

Coffee in My Cream Sweetened Whipped Cream

1/2 pint heavy cream

1 tsp. instant coffee

2 Tbsp. confectioner's sugar

Chill beaters and metal mixing bowl in freezer beforehand.

Mix all ingredients and then mix with beaters until cream is fluffy and forms soft peaks.

I then split my cream puffs, stuffed then with a generous dollop of this coffee-flavored cream and dusted the tops with some confectioner's sugar.

Makes 12 cream puffs.

It was so satisfying to see Dan come home to dinner, not expecting his mostly non-baking wife pull out a plate of cream puffs, dusted with confectioner's sugar and stuffed with coffee-flavored whipped cream. He was incredulous that they were okay for him to eat and promptly polished off three. Actually, he inhaled the first and second cream puffs and sneezed from inhaling the powdered sugar. After dinner he scarfed down a couple more, though a little more slowly and with sighs and lip smacks.

Now, my batch of cream puffs were actually not spectacular. From what I can determine, they were underbaked, so they did not did not have much in the way of puff. But they were filled with cream and did taste great and after at least six years of not having a cream puff orbit his lips, Dan was pretty happy. And so, despite having made a batch of Cream-Filled Flatties, I think of this experiment as a success and look forward to playing around with it more.

I'm excited to see what the rest of the Gluten Free Ratio Rally bloggers come up with for this round, which will be revealed at The Sensitive Epicure today. There will be lots of great links for other gluten-free pate a choux creations of all kinds, so do stop by.