Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cedar Planking

The aroma of cedar is well known and loved, and its uses are many. One of the most famous and delicious dishes of the Pacific Northwest is cedar planked salmon. Fillets of salmon are laid on soaked planks of wood and grilled over an open fire. The wood not only imparts a rich smokiness, but also protects the delicate fish from direct heat.

In Japan, they have their own traditions of using cedar to impart flavor into food and drink. Their natural resources are less abundant, so their traditions are more frugal. Thin slats of cedar are wrapped around marinated seafood, sometimes accompanied by mushrooms or vegetables, and baked or roasted to impart the flavor of the cedar into the individual parcels. This technique, being smaller, also imparts much less smoke, and more of the wood.

Although the tradition of the indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest is a delicious and effective way of feeding a large group of people, if you're having a smaller gathering, the Japanese technique is an effective way of serving individual portions without using a lot of wood or charcoal.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Croute au Fromage

In the spring, I started a composed cheese plate at Park Kitchen. For whatever reason, we had never really sold much of the traditional cheese plate you see on menus all over town, a few wedges of cheese served with fresh or dried fruit, compotes, nuts, crackers, et cetera. It also never really seemed appropriate to the menu at Park Kitchen. I blogged about that first cheese plate, the Tete de Moine, in the spring. Since then, I have been featuring domestic cheeses, but I am once again returning to the cheeses of Switzerland for the first warm composed cheese plate of the year.

The melting qualities of Gruyere are well known and deserved. It is made from unskimmed and unpasteurized cow's milk, with a fat content of 45%. Aged from eight to ten months in 75 pound wheels, the dense texture and cream content make it one of the perfect melting cheeses, with its fruity aroma and nutty characteristics opening up as it melts. Shaving the cheese on a wooden Swiss mandolin is certainly fun, but you can use whatever you have. The dish is reminiscent of the classic Swiss croute au fromage, which is a sort of open faced croque monsieur. I have added a few elements to the traditional bread, ham and cheese. At the base of the dish are caramelized onions braised in beer. On top of that is a piece of grilled bread covered with melted Gruyere slices. Then we saute some chanterelle mushrooms and toss them with fresh sliced ham, pickled pears and pickled mustard seeds. As with the original croute au fromage, this is a hearty cold weather dish.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mount Hood Matsutake

Although we have tremendous bounty of wild mushrooms in the Pacific Northwest, the matsutake is not well known outside the gourmand community. We have a good harvest of tricholoma magnivelare, the white matsutake, around Ponderosa and Lodgepole Pines along the coastline and approaching the higher altitudes of Mount Hood and Mount Adams. I have also found them among Douglas Fir, Rhododendron and Salal. It is a beautiful mushroom to see in the wild, peeking up among the rocks of shallow mountain streams, in mossy groves, and beneath the mosaic of autumn leaves.

The Japanese have a great reverence for this mushroom, which has strong symbolic value in their kaiseki cuisine. For this reason, they will often pay twenty times our local price, and matsutake from around the world are shipped to Japan in October and November. At Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, I have seen matsutake imported from Oregon, Washington and Canada, as well as Turkey and China. The Japanese variety, tricholoma matsutake, has more of the brown markings on the cap that are seen on the stem in the photo. However, the texture and flavor are almost indistinguishable.

The smallest mushrooms are the most highly prized because they are relatively tender, and the veil is closed, making them easier to clean. Larger mushrooms become rather fibrous, sometimes to the point of being impossible to chew. It's firm texture and spicy cinnamon aroma make it ideal for charcoal grilling or poaching and serving in broth. In kaiseki cuisine, it is most often served with fish or vegetables, but I have also liked serving it with meats like duck, beef and chicken. Bourbon has also been a favorite accompaniment in recent years. If you have never tried matsutake, perhaps a restaurant is the first place to taste them. If you feel adventurous, I have seen them at several farmer's markets and at Uwajimaya in the fall.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Mysteries of Kombucha

The history of kombucha is hazy and speculative. This intriguing fermented tea is believed to have come from China and migrated to eastern Russia. From there it migrated back to the far east and across the Pacific to the United States. My initial interest in kombucha came from it's mysterious appearance, a large brown vat of bubbling elixir with a large whitish gelatinous cap floating on top. The name kombucha is actually Japanese for "seaweed tea," because the fermenting "mother" floating on top resembles seaweed or a sort of jellyfish. The Japanese do make a tea (actually a tisane) of kombu seaweed which has the same name, but the fermented tea beverage is called kocha kinoko. In Russia it is called grib, and in China it is called hongcha jun.

Folklore surrounding the drink claim it is a health tonic with many healing properties, though this has not been extensively demonstrated by testing. The main claim for this seems to be the presence of glucuronic acid, which is a compound used in the liver for detoxification. This drink received widespread notoriety last year when a national recall pulled the emerging product ($300 million in retail sales) from retail store shelves. It had been discovered that the unpasteurized product contained more than the legal limit of 0.5% alcohol. For more on the story, read this. However, many people who are drawn to the notion of its healing properties claim that the "living" beverage loses many of its magical properties if it is pasteurized.

Returning to my original interest in the wonder drink, I was fascinated by the thick layer of SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) floating on top. This is the same thing you see in raw apple cider vinegar, but it is far thicker, and while living, it always floats. This is the perfect environment for the aerobic bacteria developing on the top of the SCOBY, and the anaerobic bacteria bubbling away from the bottom. Maintaining the pH of the fermentation is critical. Below 2.5 it is too acidic to drink, and above 4.6, it is at risk of contamination by unwanted bacteria and mold. If your grandmother ever made you drink a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar before dinner, you might be interested in trying a more flavorful alternative to healthy digestion. Others just like the taste of a slightly effervescent tea.