Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Of Mushrooms and Minnesota

Or two vaguely related topics joined together in one blog post.

Last week, following a couple of days of spring rain, I began plotting a bean patch in my backyard. Considering possibilities for a border, I remembered my failed shiitake logs and crossed the yard to relocate them. To my amazement, I found all 10 logs in fruit with mushrooms! This is a full two years after they were inoculated. I had given them up for dead, another crop snuffed out in my care.

Some of the logs, in fruit

I consulted a shiitake guide for advice on harvesting. The recommendation was to wait until the caps open and flare out, so I decided to leave them unmolested for a few more days. We were about to leave for St. Paul, Minnesota, to bring our son home for the summer break.

Thus begins the Minnesota part of this post. My son completed his freshman year at Macalester College, providing the occasion for our fourth visit in two years to the Twin Cities. I thank him for choosing a location that's such a delight to visit. Minneapolis and St. Paul offer urban amenities at bargain prices. Some of our favorite "cheap eats" are adjacent to the Macalester campus; we've had excellent Vietnamese lunches at Indochin on three of our four trips. Other neighborhood eateries we've enjoyed are the Khyber Pass, Pad Thai Grand, and Shish.

We made a repeat visit to Fika, which surely must be the best museum snack bar in the world. It is housed in the architecturally-impressive modern wing of the American Swedish Institute and features artfully-prepared contemporary Scandinavian food at museum cafe prices. I've become a bit obsessed with Scandinavian fare since our first visit there in November. I've not been able to successfully replicate the incredible golden beet and apple soup I enjoyed, but I did acquire an excellent healthy cookbook, the Nordic Diet, and I've registered for a Coursera class on the Nordic Diet.

The Twin Cities have a burgeoning reputation as a foodie area and we'll need many more visits to become even partially acquainted with the culinary offerings. Minneapolis is home to my favorite food broadcast, NPR's The Splendid Table.  Anthony Bourdain was appearing at a sold-out event with the Travel Channel's Andrew Zimmern, a Twin Cities resident, while we were in town.

At my son's college, food has an ecological focus (in addition to being tasty). The service is managed by Bon Appetit and strives to incorporate sustainable and humane farming, locally-raised food and health-conscious options. I wish campus food had been this good when I was in college!

At least two culinary luminaries have graduated from Macalester. Dave Miller, a California baker of organic bread, is featured in Michael Pollan's new book, Cooked (which is now my favorite Pollan book, an honor previously held by his Botany of Desire). And Louisa Shafia, author of the excellent Lucid Food, is getting rave reviews for her recent release, The New Persian Kitchen.

Which brings me back to the mushrooms (and soon, a recipe).

When we returned home, I checked the logs and was thrilled to see a shiitake explosion. Several had opened and were ready to harvest and of impressive size.

What to cook with my first batch of beauties? I consulted Lucid Food and found an Asian soup that looked promising. I substituted Japanese sweet potato for the rutabaga and tempeh for tofu and it was delicious.

Asian Shiitake Soup
(adapted from Lucid Food by Louisa Shafia

4 scallions
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
1 large Japanese sweet potato, peeled and diced (about 3-4 cups)
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 star anise
Asian Shiitake Soup
3 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
4 cups chicken stock
8 ounces tempeh
2 cups shiitake or other mushrooms, diced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
Toasted sesame oil (optional)
Chile flakes (optional)
Rice or other vinegar (optional)
Fresh cilantro (optional)

Thinly slice the scallion greens and set aside. Mince the scallion whites.

In a soup pot over medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Saute the scallion whites and garlic for 1 minute. Add the sweet potato, white pepper, star anise and 2 tablespoons of the soy sauce and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat and simmer, covered, until the sweet potato is tender, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt.

Heat a skillet over medium heat and add the remaining olive oil. Fry the tempeh for 2 minutes on one side, then sprinkle a little salt over it, flip and cook for 1 minute more. Add the shiitakes, ginger and the remaining soy sauce and cook for 2 minutes, then remove from the heat.

To serve, ladle into bowls and add 1/2 cup of the tempeh mixture to each bowl. Garnish with any or all of the optional ingredients. I used Fustini's lemongrass-mint vinegar, which was excellent.

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