A Review of Mexican Gherkins (Vegan)

What are they?! Aren’t they weird?! Whatever will I do with them?! These are just a few of the questions that flooded my brain the first time I saw them. Followed by, “GHERKINS?! I need to know everything about a vegetable with a name like GHERKIN.”That ain't no Jelly Belly

So I bought some. And I researched them. And I washed them. And I tasted them.

Hold on to your socks, folks, because I don’t have much to report. They taste like slightly lemony cucumbers. That’s all I got.

But still. If you like cucumbers, you’ll probably love gherkins. Tiny, crunchy, fresh-tasting and tart, they look like jelly bean-sized watermelons. Munch them down like Fritos, toss them in oil with grape tomatoes for a minimalist salad, add them to a glass of water, or use them in some kind of cucumberish martini concoction, if you’re feeling adventurous. They’re tasty, refreshing, bite-sized – a handy snack and easy garnish. That’s about it.

Many people will tell you to pickle them, as with other kinds of gherkins. I can’t speak to this, but it seems perfectly reasonable, and I could imagine a number of other uses for a pickled version. For instance, you could chop them up and add them to your favorite potato salad (or egg salad, if you’re an egg eater). Or you could tuck them into a falafel pita, drizzled with tahini sauce and za’atar. In fact, you could do either of those things with unpickled gherkins. Mind you, I haven’t tried any of these yet – just some ideas I’ve been tossing around while trying to decide whether to buy some again. Meanwhile I figured I’d share what I’ve learned and let you make your own decision.

So, that’s my 75 cents on the new and trendy Mexican gherkin.

Make your own soup stock (Vegan)

So many recipes call for soup stock and the store-bought kind is boring and sodium-tastic. Make your own! It’s easy and it will make all of your recipes vastly more delicious. The trick is just to try new things, remember what works, write it down, and pair it wisely with the other ingredients in the dish you are cooking. More on that in a moment. First, how to make a stock:

  • Put a lot of water in a large pot
  • Bring the water to a boil
  • Throw in a lot of vegetables, scraps of vegetables, and/or their parts. For instance, corn cobs & onion skins are great in stocks, in case you didn’t know. So you don’t need to do a lot of cutting or peeling or prepping. Just chop things roughly, enough so that they fit in the pot and have exposed parts through which to leak their juices
  • Simmer everything for about an hour or so
  • Add salt and pepper while simmering, to taste

When the stock is done, allow to cool and then pour through a strainer to separate the vegetable parts from the stock. This will probably require doing it in batches. Discard the vegetables and refrigerate or freeze the stock until it’s ready for use.

What kind of vegetables can go in a stock? Pretty much anything you want, though some veggies are more reliable than others. Some general guidelines:

#1 – Follow the rules of compost: No citrus. No fats. Nothing diseased or spoiled.

Whenever possible, use onion, celery, carrots, thyme and garlic. As much or as little of any of these, but some combination thereof. For the garlic, just smash the clove, no need to peel or press it. I take a blunt object and crack it a couple of times. I usually throw in 4 large cloves per 5 qt stockpot.

Other strong contributors to stock excellence include: potatoes (any variety), brussel sprouts, spinach, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, beets, parsley, corn, parsnips, mushrooms, zucchini, and … ??? Totally up to you and what you’re willing to experiment with.

Now. As for the pairing of stock with recipe. Basically I just taste it and imagine what it would complement. It’s not hard. It may seem weird, and some of you who are sensory-challenged may be fearful, but trust me. You really can tell by the taste of a stock what its purpose in life is. And most of the time, stock is so mild, all it can do is enhance, not detract. Just be mindful of the ingredients you’re dealing with, and I am confident you’ll be happy with your results.

Morels Reloaded: This Time It’s Personal (Vegan)

Damnit morels, you shall bend to my will! This was my thought when I rounded the corner at the grocery store the other day and spied my old nemeses lying nonchalantly among the shitakes and bellas. In spite of my terrible first experience with morels, or maybe because of it, I was suddenly possessed with an overwhelming desire to conquer them for once and for all. Or at least prove to myself that they suck no matter what I do to them. So I picked out a very small number of the good’uns (after all, I was only cooking for myself, plus this was an experiment, plus they’re super freaking expensive) and made up my mind that in spite of the advice of all the morel connoisseurs, I was going to soak the hell out of these puppies and then torture them to death in the frying pan, because the intolerable grittiness and chewy consistency are what did me in so thoroughly the  last time. Although morel lovers might tell you it’s unnecessary to soak them or that it will compromise their flavor, I’m here to tell you this: The morels I made after soaking them for several hours in salt water vs. the morels I made last month following the advice of the experts to “preserve the flavor” were like night and day. The morel* of the story is, don’t underestimate how much gritty, tripe-like mushrooms can ruin a dish.

This batch, however, made me understand why people are so cuckoo for morels. They are just super rich, meaty, earthy, forest-y, and … je ne sais quoi. I did so very little to them aside from the soaking and the stovetop abuse, yet nevertheless they were delish. So, yeah, I stand corrected, they don’t suck. Though I do still think they’re super creepy-looking. Regardless. You should try them. And in case you were concerned, a word about them being expensive: Yes, you might find them as high as $40/lb. But they are super light and you don’t need very much. 1/4 lb is often all you need for 2 – 3 servings. Which isn’t cheap, but it’s doable.

Here’s whatcha do:

Find a place that sells morels. The only places I’ve ever seen them here are Whole Foods and the farmer’s market. Pick morels that are spongy and light to medium brown, not super dry and not super moist. If you rub your finger the length of them, they shouldn’t crumble – that’s a sign they’re old. Once purchased, take them home and if you must store them, put them in a paper bag or a basket covered with a moist paper towel and refrigerate. Don’t keep them too long – their shelf life isn’t more than a week and you don’t know how long it took them to get to you in the first place. I’d say eat them within 3 days or less of buying them.

When you’re ready to prepare them, shake them up in their container to dislodge any loose debris. Rinse them thoroughly. Cut them in half (lengthwise). Fill a bowl with cold water and place them in it to soak. The folds of the mushroom are what you want to cleanse, so be sure they are brainy side down in the water.

I soaked mine for about 6 hours, replacing the water 5 times, stirring salt into the water for 2 of the 5 soaks and agitating them in the water at least once per soak. When I was finally ready to prepare them, I agitated them for a minute or two, then rinsed them thoroughly in running water before moving them to a towel and patting them dry.

Perhaps this is where I should mention that I’m obsessed with mushrooms and don’t mind putting this much work into them at all. Some of you may think this is ridiculous, and who am I to say you’re wrong. But I love mushrooms. So back to the recipe.

Simple Morels

  • 1/4 lb morels, thoroughly soaked (see above), halved, stems removed
  • 2 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 1 small leek, thoroughly cleaned and sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 – 2 tbsp olive oil
  • Sea salt to taste

Heat a small nonstick pan over medium heat. Add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the morels and a bit of salt. Cook them for a couple of minutes, then add the leek & garlic and a bit more salt, if desired. Cook the whole mixture for a total of about 5 – 8 minutes, until the morels have shrunken noticeably and are very soft. Remove from heat and stir in the parsley while still hot.

Serve as a tapa by themselves. Nom nom nom … In the meantime, I will work on coming up with something a bit more substantial to serve as a main course or something.

*Pronounced More- ELL (contrary to what my pun might suggest)

Wild Mushrooms en Papillote (Vegan or Vegetarian)

They're not your father's Freedom Fries

Photo property of Williams-Sonoma

You might have noticed a recurring theme. I’m way batty for mushrooms.

This time I decided to break away from my normal preferred mushroom cooking method and try something different. It’s a slight adaptation of a gem from my home skillet Billy S and certainly an easy way to cook mushrooms if for some reason you find it impractical to saute them on the stove top. The only thing is that I’m not sure if there’s any real advantage to preparing your mushrooms en papillote, other than to sound French, impress Martha Stewart or delight your guests with mushrooms from a paper bag. Some say that this method is healthier because it cuts down on the amount of oil you cook with, but a) you’re replacing it with butter or margarine; and b) cooking mushrooms stove top doesn’t really call for all that much oil. So I don’t know what that’s about. One thing I can say is that cooking your mushrooms this way will result in slightly softer, less browned mushrooms, so if you’re trying to control texture and presentation, that could be a reason to choose the papillote method.

Three important departures from the Billy Sonoma version that I’ve included here: 1) Omitted the parsley because I was serving them in an arugula salad and didn’t need the extra bitterness; 2) After steaming them in the parchment for about 10 minutes, I opened up the bag to dry them out a bit, because they had produced quite a bit of moisture, as we all know our fungus friends are wont to do; 3) Added red pepper flakes, because you know I love the spicy, yo.

One last thing. If you’re wondering where you can get your hands on some parchment, you can find it in most grocery stores in the aisle with aluminum foil and wax paper.

Wild Mushrooms en Papillote

  • 1 tbsp vegan butter or unsalted butter, plus 1 tbsp vegan butter or unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 lb mushrooms, brushed clean – I used shiitake, trumpet and almond mushroom (random farmer’s market find), but you could use any combination of mushrooms you like
  • 1/2 tsp ground sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
  • Red pepper flakes, to taste
  • 1 tsp fresh lemon juice

Preheat an oven to 375°F.

Cut parchment paper into an 18-by-11-inch rectangle. Fold the rectangle in half crosswise. Open the parchment and coat with the 1 tbsp butter. Place the rectangle, buttered side up, on a baking sheet.

Cut the mushrooms into bite-size pieces and place in a bowl. Add the salt, pepper, butter pieces, lemon juice and toss well. Spread the mushrooms over one half of the prepared parchment paper. Fold the other half of the parchment rectangle over the mushrooms and fold the vertical edges over twice, working your way along the edge of the paper to end with a twist on both ends. Place the package on a rimmed baking sheet.

Bake until the parchment packet is puffed and the mushrooms are cooked through, about 10 – 12 minutes. At that point, do a progress check – have they thoroughly juiced? If so, go ahead and carefully open up the parchment and return them to the oven for another 1 – 3 minutes to dry out any lingering liquids. Transfer the parchment packet to a platter and serve immediately. (Or, if you’re making a salad, add them to the salad and serve immediately. More on the salad coming soon.)

The Morel of the Story …

First, I want to warn you that there is no recipe herein, only a cautionary tale. As I’ve said before, part of my charter is to share the fruits of my experiments, both the successes and failures, so that you don’t have to endure the heartaches I have. That said …

Morelly questionable

Earlier this week I undertook to make something with morel mushrooms for the first time (pronounced “more-ELL,” contrary to what my post title pun would suggest). Actually, my original intent was to capitalize on the short-lived fiddlehead fern season and make something with fiddleheads again, and since I just recently bought this new cooking reference, The Flavor Bible, I looked up fiddleheads to see what accompaniments America’s greatest chefs recommend for them. You guessed it, morel mushrooms. And I thought “Yay, I’ve always wanted to cook insanely expensive mushrooms in an experimental recipe that is bound to epically fail!” Just kidding. Actually what I thought was, “Yay, I’ve always wanted to cook insanely expensive mushrooms that have the consistency of tripe and are notoriously difficult to rid of grit, rendering their resulting dish inedible.” OH, I’m still kidding. What I really thought was “Yay, mushrooms that look like brains are just like what Mom used to make!”

Okay, enough. What I really thought was “I think I’ll go with chanterelles, unless Whole Foods doesn’t have chanterelles, in which case I’ll get the most interesting mushroom they have that seems in good shape.” But I was never expecting Whole Foods to have morels. No one here ever has morels. Nevertheless, there they were. So I decided to go for it. Everyone raves about them and all. And I’m an adventurous cook if anything. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh SO MANY things went wrong. You know, in retrospect, I probably should have taken it as an omen when, earlier that day as we were driving past a golf course near our house which we’ve driven by HUNDREDS of times, a golf ball came flying out of nowhere and bounced off the hood of my car while we were driving about 50 mph. Certainly you could say we were lucky that it didn’t hit and break our windshield and kill one or both of us, so don’t get me wrong – I’m definitely grateful. But I can’t shake the feeling that the statistical unlikelihood of such an event is actually hard proof of my UNluckiness. Certainly it carried the portent of imminent mushroom disaster.

But I digress. Morels.

Braaaaiiiiinnnnnsssss ...

They’ll warn you that morels are gritty and should be carefully cleaned to rid them of grit and creepers. At the same time, they’ll tell you not to have them in water too long because it will rob them of their flavor. I can verify that the former is definitely true. I can’t comment on the latter because I don’t know what my morels tasted like before I rinsed and soaked them, but I do know that the resulting flavor of the still grit-inclusive morels I had was not remarkable in any way, and certainly did not offset the unpleasant tripe-like consistency either.

I won’t bore you by relating my subsequent misadventures with the vegan gnocchi I served them with – that’s another story for another day. I will leave you instead with a solemn word of caution that if you undertake to prepare morel mushrooms, do take the cleaning of them very seriously. For your information, here are the steps I followed, which were clearly insufficient:

  • Shook vigorously in a paper bag to dislodge any easily dislodge-able debris
  • Tapped each mushroom several times on a hard cutting-board surface to shake out any remaining bits
  • Plunged and swirled mushrooms in bowl of cold water, discarded water & repeated 5 times
  • Sliced each mushroom in half and rinsed out insides
  • Inspected for remaining schmutz – didn’t see anything

So anyway. In my research I found a few sources who recommended soaking them for a long period of time in water or even in salt water (in case of unwanted crawlie guests), though I found far more sources claiming that they should only be briefly submerged to avoid the afore-mentioned flavor weakening. I thought my approach was a safe compromise but apparently not. The morel of the story is I’m not sure that morels are worth it.

I’d welcome your thoughts and experiences of morels – anyone?

Cooking Mushrooms

First of all, you should be aware that I am no mushroom expert. Everything I know about cooking mushrooms I have learned in pursuit of trying not to be such a miserable failure at cooking mushrooms. The fact is, for years I was totally incapable of ever doing anything with mushrooms except destroying them. And then one day I thought to myself, “I love mushrooms so much, it’s tragic that I couldn’t cook a single mushroom well, even if my life depended on it. I wonder if I can find any information online on how to cook mushrooms …” And then of course I immediately found tons of information and I realized I had been a fool to spend so much time ruining mushrooms when there was a huge body of wisdom on the subject right at my fingertips the whole time. In sum, I read some articles and now I’m much better at cooking mushrooms. Contrary to what I previously believed, it’s not rocket science. One just needs to be aware of a few key mushroom properties. For instance, cooking delicious mushrooms starts with storing & preparing them properly.

Storage and prep

  • Select mushrooms that are spongy but not soggy, avoiding the ones with damaged gills.
  • Keep them in paper bags, not plastic, so they don’t get slimy. (Mushrooms have a lot of moisture and paper will absorb it and keep them dry longer.)
  • Don’t wait too long to prepare them; old mushrooms start to taste kind of nutty (not in a good way). I find that the mushrooms I buy from the store are usually past their prime after 3 – 4 days.
  • Depending on what you’re doing with them, it’s probably a better idea to brush them clean rather than rinse them. Use a soft, dry cloth, or, better, a mushroom brush (if you can’t find a mushroom brush, use another soft brush; for instance, I use a basting brush). If you rinse them, they can get slimy, though for the most part if you are cooking them immediately after rinsing them it will probably be okay, it just may introduce more moisture into the recipe. I personally prefer to brush them, I think it’s more effective, and also it’s kind of fun and meditative.
  • Don’t slice them too thin; I learned this from my friend Nick who worked as a professional line cook for some years. Apparently if you slice them too thin they soak up too much oil and cook too quickly, resulting in limp and overcooked mushies. No thanks! I try to cut them no thinner than 1/4 inch thick.

Cooking the ‘shroooms

Mushrooms, as we’ve alluded to, are full of moisture, but they can also be very absorbent. So it is important to first allow mushrooms to release their juices before doing much with them, and it is also important to remember that after releasing their juices, they will immediately reabsorb them along with anything else in the pan. So, one ought to be judicious about when to introduce things like garlic or onion or salt during the sauteing of mushrooms. For example, let’s consider my Mushroom Spinach Arrabiata, in which we begin with the mushrooms accordingly:

  • Saute the mushrooms on medium heat for a couple of minutes
  • Cover and continue to cook until they juice, a few minutes
  • Uncover and continue to cook until the juice is gone again, a couple more minutes

Then add the onion and garlic. And later salt.

If we were to add the onion and garlic at any stage prior to the re-absorption of the juices, then the flavor of the mushrooms could be overwhelmed by the flavors of the additional ingredients. I’m not saying there will never be situations where you wouldn’t want that to be the case; for instance, the chanterelles and fresh corn recipe calls for everything to sauté simultaneously, and the chanterelles are strong enough that the sweetness of the corn is simply a compliment. In any case, it’s just something to be conscious about.

There are other schools of thought that suggest that you can just quickly brown mushrooms for a couple of minutes and throw them right into the other ingredients of your recipe when they’re slightly toasted. In theory I suppose this could work, but in practice, I have never found it to produce results that I’m happy with. On the occasions when I’ve browned mushrooms and not let them juice before proceeding, I’ve felt the mushrooms ended up tasting kind of raw and tinny. Maybe some people like that, but I prefer the post-juiced mushrooms because I think they have a more voluptuous flavor that way.

So, yes. That’s my 62 cents on cooking mushrooms.mmmmmm

Go Fresh or Go Buggy (Reader Caution Advised)

This is one of those annoying things your friend who always looks everything up will tell you that you immediately wish you could erase from your mind. So I warn you, if you are the type who would rather not know, please don’t read any further.

So. Now that you’ve been warned: This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot since I became obsessed with wild mushrooms and learned that even the store-bought varieties often have miniscule larvae hiding in their gills. If one finds that disgusting but simultaneously worships chanterelles, what is one to do? Through a powerful combination of reasoning and vigorous exercises in denial, I finally came to accept it. After I accepted it, I did some research and discovered that lots of consumables have bugs in them, either because they contain certain dyes, or because they become contaminated during processing, or other sundry unsavory reasons. Here’s a short list off the top of my head:

  • Chocolate – up to 60 insect parts per 100 gram! That is a troubling bite from one’s Hershey bar.
  • Wine
  • Beer
  • Tomato paste
  • Foods dyed red (and you might be surprised what seemingly naturally red foods are actually dyed that way; I dunno, say, strawberry jam?)
  • Peanut butter
  • Pretty much everything canned
  • That’s not all.

If you, like me, are the kind who really does have to know, then do an internet search on “bugs in your food” and read away. There are way more comprehensive and detailed references than the ones I’ve linked here, but I have deemed them just a bit too icky to post. If you wish to investigate further, you may do so at your own risk.

Meanwhile, what I have to say about the subject is this: Bugs are of the kingdom Animalia. Read: They’re animals. So if eating chicken or fish isn’t universally reviled, then why would eating bugs be so? And by the way, shellfish are arthropods, which is the same phylum as insects and spiders; they’re practically brothers. So why is it normal to eat crab but not wolf spider? Then there’s the fact that many cultures have always eaten bugs. At the risk of sounding un-American, I daresay that finding the eating of bugs to be unseemly is a uniquely Western and modern concept. And just maybe a little bourgeois? I mean, some people eat bugs because they’re starving and bugs provide free protein. So it would be classist of us to judge. Don’t get me wrong; as one who follows a mostly vegan diet, and also as one who is Western and admittedly rather bourgeois, I am totally skeeved out by the idea of eating bugs. But I also don’t relish the idea of eating dirt or chemicals, and those things are pretty much impossible to avoid.

In any case, I do still think it’s reasonable to want to avoid eating bugs as much as possible. And it seems to me from my research that the best approach is eating fresh, unprocessed foods as much as possible and avoiding anything that’s ever been in a factory. For the most part, it’s the processing that lets the bugs in.

As for the controversy over the FDA acknowledging and permitting certain levels of bugs and other gross things in food, look at it this way: Requiring that foods be immaculate just means more pesticides and toxic flotsam being tossed into the system to control the naz. Which we certainly don’t want or need.

Speaking of the environment, the intentional practice of entomophagy has been said to be more ecologically sound and sustainable than meat production. Well OBVI. We don’t even need to feed bugs, they live on dust and dirt and other bugs. And furthermore, what animal resource is more naturally abundant than the 6-legged critters? (In Southern California, maybe chihuahuas. But elsewhere, nothing!)

Nevertheless. I’m not defending the FDA or saying people should start munching on household crickets (they probably have herbicides or other pollutants on them anyway*). And I’m certainly not here to be an “All food is unsafe!” type alarmist. I mean, I suppose maybe that’s true, but then again, life is unsafe. I could be sitting here blogging away and some random highly implausible flaw in my computer could cause it to blow up and result in the first ever blogging fatality known to science. So whatever. I’m just saying, let us not allow squeamishness to prevent us from eating or drinking delicious things. Like wild mushrooms, mimolette cheese, and foods dyed with cochineal bettles.


*I wish I had a handy reference for this, but all I have is a handful of websites about pet reptiles and the references are buried deep within the content. Basically the reason I know this is from researching the effects of feeding wild insects to geckos. Long story. The short story is that generally speaking, experts recommend against it because bugs pick up herbicides and other chemicals from the environment.