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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Recipes for Morel Mushroom Season

Saute these suckers in butter--can't miss!
Okay, so I know the season is almost over(at least in Kansas City), but I just have to make a quick post about these fabulous little gems!

A morel mushroom is a pearl of a fungus. They're so highly valued because the season is so short(a month at most, depending on the areas), and you can only get them in certain places, most times. They grow in specific, cool-ish woodland conditions, favoring dead elm trees and rivers and streams to flourish by. Kansas City has facebook pages and reddit threads dedicated to morel hunting! There are people that have their spots, their treasure troves, their caches--if you will--of places that they know morels grow. Some people make a living out of foraging mushrooms, travelling up the coasts and further north with the seasons, foraging and selling to restaurants, hotels, anyone that'll buy them. I've honestly toyed with the idea, but then I remember that I don't like ticks or bugs or the possibility of getting eaten by mountain lions or attacked by raccoons. Seriously, raccoons are assholes.
Scumbag raccoon

So, just what do Morel mushrooms look like? Well, it's funny you should ask...since we happened to get some in our restaurant recently! So there are pictures to be had...

They basically look like little, cylindrical brains on stems. Keep in mind that they are always brown in color with white stems, and they will always be hollow. There are things called beefsteaks and false morels that can and are poisonous, but these guys are pretty darn distinct, so it's not terribly hard to distinguish. These are the ones my restaurant bought. You can deep fry, tempura fry, roast, or saute these little buggers. If you're feeling especially luxurious, though, I'd add them to your favorite lobster chowder. Here's my favorite recipe, an adaptation of a fabulous James Beard Nominee's that I used to work for(it's only an adaptation because I can't remember the exact recipe):

Lobster-Morel Chowder

  • 2 lg white onions, finely diced
  • 8 lg cloves of garlic(it's about 1/2 a cup), sliced on a mandolin
  • 1 cob of corn, sliced free of kernels, with the cob part reserved
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 oz butter + 1 Tbsp of oil
  • 1 qt heavy cream
  • 1 qt lobster stock(you can usually find this in the grocery store)
  • 1/4 c cognac
  • Lobster meat(one small, chicken lobster per 2 people)(or you can just buy a 6-pack of tails), which has been(ideally) butter-poached and chopped
  • 1/2 lb morel mushrooms, rinsed and halved(chopped if they're huge monsters)
  • Salt n' pepper to taste
  • I didn't have a banana for scale. So there's my hand.
  • A fat sprig of thyme
Sweat onions and garlic in the butter until clear, about 10 minutes. Add the thyme to the pot, tied with butchers twine to the de-kerneled corn cob. This will act as an aromatic. Add the flour and cook on medium-low for about six minutes, to get the raw flour taste out. This will also help infuse the roux itself with the corn-thyme flavor.

Add the lobster stock, the cognac, and the corn. Bring to a boil, and reduce to simmer. I'd let it simmer for about 10 minutes before tasting for seasoning. Add in your morels, which you have THOROUGHLY rinsed at this point, I'm sure, as well as your cream. Remember to only cut them in half if they're large. If they're bite-sized-ish, let them stay bite-sized-ish! Morels are so unbelievably beautiful--why not let them stay this way? Let this cook for another 5 minutes or so, and then turn off the heat before adding your chopped lobster meat. Cover and let sit for another 5-10 minutes, letting the carryover cooking do the work for you. Once you're ready to serve, this would be a good time to go ahead and fish out that corn cob-and-thyme thingy with a pair of tongs. 

Another option is keeping your lobster meat warm in melted butter/beurre monte(this link will help) and adding it to order(as you're serving). 

I realize that your average home cook might not attempt this recipe, since it involves some relatively expensive ingredients and is kinda-sorta labor-intensive-sounding...but I promise you, it is worth it. 

But, seriously, if you just spent all day hunting these little buggers and just want something quick and delicious, try this quick-and-easy Morels with Roasted Asparagus and a Fried Egg recipe instead? It's beautiful, and tasty, and an excellent reward for all of your hard work.

Happy hunting, guys!

(And don't forget to bathe in mosquito-tick repellent. Seriously, I was picking those little deer ticks out of my clothes for hours.)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Glimpse of (Pastry) Chef Life

I just got off of work. My hours for this work period were something along the lines of 81.33. So, an hour and a half of overtime. This isn't necessarily normal for me, but it's pretty normal for a lot of us.

Who is "us"?

Why, the cooks. The warriors. Them who feed you when you don't feel like feeding yourself. It's the faceless army that produces magic on a plate, be it that wonderfully grilled terrace major with asparagus and a sauce bordelaise, or that perfect drunk-food of pork belly tacos with an Asian slaw at your local gastropub. Do you ever think of where your food comes from? You might. If you're reading my blog, you probably do. So, good for you.

Why, yes, that is a cluster of caramel corn atop that creme brulee.
A typical day in a restaurant is usually not typical, but on average it will last about 8 to 10 hours. Every day brings a new challenge, and yet you're producing(usually) the same stuff you did yesterday. Still that gallon of pink peppercorn creme anglaise. What's that? Oh yeah. More chocolate mousse. Oh, and you have to portion some more cakes, and did I mention you have another party that needs about 40 cobblers before 5pm? Now, before you do that, translate some cleaning instructions for me to the new dishwasher. And don't forget about those 50-something creme brulees that are in the oven, which will curdle if they're in a second too long--so listen for that timer!

The life of the pastry chef is that of a 'Jacqueline-of-all-trades,' as it were. Not only are you producing your own stuff, you're training the pantry cooks over and over again, cleaning, organizing, keeping your chefs from having mental breakdowns... You're a part of the back of house, but you're not. You're kind of your own entity. You have an entire section of the restaurant to yourself. In a sense, that is. You can be part-time, full-time, mercenary, contracted...it's actually pretty darn rare that a restaurant will have a full-time pastry chef in-house. So if you're in culinary school, trying to decide on pastry versus savory, stick with savory and study pastry on the side. You never know when you'll need to jump on the line and help plate salads or make a few pizzas while your pantry chef is in the can. And if you can be versatile, you're valuable. Remember, anybody can replace you at any time. So be as valuable and irreplaceable as you can be.

Phew. Jogging is hard. 
Your feet will hurt, just like the line cooks and the chefs. Your back will be sore, as will the back of your neck. Learn to stand correctly. And stay hydrated. Do stretches at night. I do yoga before bed, and I jog with Howl in the morning. Staying in shape is really the kind of thing you want to do; not for the sake of vanity, mind you, but for the sake of not completely wrecking your body. If you stay strong, so does your battle.

I try to stay in shape by running where and when I can. I've gained weight since I made the switch from savory to pastry(#shocker), and I definitely don't want to get Diabetes as a result. After a very long day, you'll usually want to crawl into a hot shower and cry. Or perhaps you're the kind of cook that explodes on the line and threatens to kill everyone. You might even be the kind that gets into fights with the front of house, or the other line cooks, or even the Chef. You might be the kind who gets so frustrated you leave the line to go cry. I am not that kind.

I don't mind getting paid to pee. But when I'm on someone else's clock, I don't cry. When I clock-out, and get in the car, the tears will come. But I will always massage my sore neck, and my cracked hands and aching feet, thanking any God that's out there for giving me the opportunity to do something so meaningful with my life. I realize that it's not the most meaningful, if you were to really think about it. But I get to be a part of lives. Not just a life. But lives.

This year at Valentine's Day, a man proposed to his now-fiancee over one of my desserts. She'll always remember that flourless chocolate cake and cheesecake, artfully arranged on a platter, with a pile of rose petals cradling the ring box with her future in it. Today, I made a gender-reveal cake to tell a wonderful family that they'll soon be joined by a grandson. I got to be a part of that moment. I wasn't there, not really, but a tiny piece of me was in that dessert you just ate. I get to touch someone's life, and for a moment, they might just forget about what a crappy day that I had.

And that, to me, is why my job is meaningful.