BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Running Wild and in the Gnude

Never have I met a group of people more enthusiastic about an ominous forecast calling for relentless days of rain, varying from light mists to pounding torrents. After waiting with baited breath for the El Niño predicted to put all other storms to shame, the entire state of California seems to breathe a sigh of relief with every drop of moisture returning back to the parched earth. Cautious optimism prevents anyone from suggesting that our water woes are a thing of the past, or that reservoirs are even remotely close to normal levels yet, but the subject is no longer so fraught with doom and gloom, despite the lack of sun. We all know just how important these rains are to fortify all the local farms both big and small, responsible for producing no less than 99% of the entire country’s artichokes, walnuts, and kiwis, just for starters. What fewer are aware of is the positive impact the precipitation is having on a much smaller, less cultivated crop; mushrooms.

Mushroom foraging is a hit-or-miss affair, unpredictable in the best situations. Aside from the poisonous potential of picking the wrong fungus, the intrepid adventurer risks disappointment on every outing, no matter their level of expertise. Mushrooms love damp, but not cold, and cool, but not wet weather, which makes this season their time to shine. Springing forth under the cover of fallen leaves and the fallen trunks of trees, finding these edible treasures is like a grownup version of hide-and-go-seek, although the seeker doesn’t know exactly what might be hiding, complicating the game quite a bit. The good news is that as long as it doesn’t kill you, every mushroom has incredible culinary potential, stuffed to the gills with deep, nuanced, and entirely unique umami flavors, simply waiting to be unleashed.

Such a lavish assortment of wild mushrooms should be celebrated in dishes that will feature their savory character and meaty texture to the fullest.

Gnudi, best described as naked ravioli, also share similarities with gnocchi but are made with ricotta instead of potato. Simple in concept yet spectacular in execution, they’re like little cheesy pillows that practically melt in your mouth. Bound together with just enough flour to hold their shapes, these are nothing like the dense balls of dough one might otherwise encounter when attempting to eat traditional dumplings. In this case, tofu ricotta easily replaces the dairy foundation, transforming this savory dish into a light, dreamy, and yet impossibly rich indulgence. It’s all thanks to those humble mushrooms.

If you’re lucky enough to have the right terrain and ideal conditions, get out there while the fungus is good! For everyone else, hit up the nearest grocery store and start foraging through the produce aisle instead. It may not be so wild, but let’s be honest: Any mushroom will still be delicious.

Gnudi with Wild Mushrooms

Tofu Ricotta Gnudi:

1 Pound Extra-Firm Tofu, Thoroughly Drained and Rinsed
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Tahini
1/4 Cup Nutritional Yeast
2 Tablespoon Whole Flaxseeds, Ground
1 Teaspoon Onion Powder
3/4 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
Pinch Ground Nutmeg
1 Tablespoon White Miso Paste
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Water
All-Purpose Flour*, to Coat

Sauteed Wild Mushrooms:

3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
4 Small Shallots, Finely Diced
4 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Pound Fresh Wild (or Cultivated) Mushrooms (Such as Crimini, Oyster, Shiitake), Sliced
1 Teaspoon Dried Thyme
1 Teaspoon Dried Rosemary
3/4 Cup Mushroom or Vegetable Broth
Salt and Pepper, to Taste

Fresh Parsley, Minced

*For a gluten-free version, try using white rice flour or sorghum flour instead.

Crumble the tofu into a large bowl and add all the rest of the ingredients for the gnudi, except for the flour. Don’t be afraid to get dirty, because the best way to mix this is to get in there with your hands! Combine everything thoroughly, further breaking down the tofu so that no large chunks remain, and the overall texture of the mixture is something akin to smooth cottage cheese. Move the bowl into the fridge and chill for 15 – 30 minutes before proceeding.

Bring a large of water up to a gentle simmer. It’s very important that the water is not boiling, because the gnudi are too delicate to withstand that sort of violence. Using a small cookie scoop or two spoons, form the chilled gnudi mixture into about 24 balls, tossing them gently in flour to coat. Carefully slide 5 or 6 balls into the simmering water at a time to prevent the pot from getting too crowded. Simmer for 2 – 3 minutes, or until cooked through. Lift out with a slotted spoon and repeat with the remaining gnudi. The gnudi can be made in advance up to this point and kept for up to 4 hours in the fridge.

When ready to serve, heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic, and sautée until golden brown. Introduce the sliced mushrooms, dried herbs, and broth next, cooking until softened and highly aromatic; about 5 minutes. Add the gnudi, gently tossing to incorporate and cook for another 5 minutes or so, until gnudi are heated through. Season with salt and pepper to taste, sprinkle with fresh parsley, and enjoy immediately.

Makes 4 Servings

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Pumpkinundation

Is it safe to come out yet? Have the relentless demands for all things pumpkin-spiced died down, at least to an intermittent, dull roar? I’ve been hanging onto one gem of a pumpkin recipe for months, but selfishly withheld it from the blog-reading public, fearing it would become lost in the sea of squash.

No, wait, don’t click away just yet! Rather than another sweet interpretation of the seasonal gourd, loosely modeled around the flavors of a pie rather than the actual vegetable, I’m much more fond of pumpkin when it actually tastes like, well, pumpkin. Crazy though it may be, I’d much prefer to see pumpkin turn up as a savory offering during the main meal instead of just the grand finale, capped off with an avalanche of sugar and seasonings so strong that they obscure the inherent flavor of the star ingredient. Food producers and well-meaning cooks alike seem to have forgotten the pumpkin’s potential outside of the dessert realm.

Even if you’re feeling burnt out on pumpkin, I would implore you to give it another shot when re-imagined in matzo ball format. Completely nontraditional and aligned with entirely the wrong Jewish holiday, these are definitely not your Bubbie’s matzo balls. Bound together with roasted pumpkin puree, I prefer to think of them more as matzo dumplings, since they bear a denser, more toothsome texture than the fluffy pillows of Passover lore. The goal of this wintery interpretation was not to perfect the vegan matzo ball, but to create something with the same sort of comforting flavors, revamped with a more seasonal spin.

Moreover, purists would be horrified at my cooking methods. A baked matzo ball, for crying out loud? That’s downright heresy in some kosher kitchens, I’m sure. The beauty of this approach is that rather than getting soggy dumplings, halfway dissolved into a puddle of lukewarm soup, they stay perfectly intact until the moment your spoon carves through the tender spheres. Allowing for effortless advanced preparation, just keep the dumplings safely out of the golden, vegetable-rich pool until the moment you’re ready to serve.

On a blustery, cold day when nothing but a heartwarming bowl of soup will do, this is my idea of comfort food. Owing nothing to the overblown pumpkin trend, it’s still worth keeping your pantry stocked with a can of the stuff, just in case a craving strikes.

Pumpkin Matzo Dumpling Soup

Matzo Balls:

1 1/3 Cups Fine Matzo Meal
2 Teaspoons Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/4 Cup Very Finely Minced Yellow Onion
1 1/2 Cups Roasted Pumpkin Puree, or 1 (14-Ounce) Can 100% Solid Packed Pumpkin Puree
1/4 Cup Olive Oil

Vegetable Soup:

6 Cups Vegetable Broth
2 Small Carrots, Thinly Sliced
2 Stalks Celery, Thinly Sliced
1 Medium Yellow Onion, Diced
1/4 Cup Fresh Dill, Minced
1/4 Cup Fresh Parsley, Minced
Salt and Ground Black Pepper, to Taste

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a baking sheet.

In a large bowl, stir together the matzo meal, salt, garlic powder, baking powder, and soda. Yes, it may seem like a lot of salt, but it gets rationed into many little matzo dumplings. Don’t back down on the amount or else you’ll risk making bland balls! Make sure all the dry goods are evenly distributed throughout before adding in the minced onion, tossing to coat. Combine the pumpkin puree and olive oil in a separate container, whisking until smooth, and pour the wet mixture into the bowl. Mix with a wide spatula, stirring thoroughly to combine, until there are no remaining pockets of dry ingredients. Let the matzo batter sit in a cool spot for about 15 minutes to thicken before proceeding.

I like using a small cookie scoop for more consistent dumplings, but a good old fashioned tablespoon will do just fine as well. Scoop out about 2 teaspoons of the matzo mixture for each dumpling, rolling them very gently between lightly moistened hands to round them out. Place each one on your prepared baking sheet about 1/2-inch part. There’s no risk of them spreading, but giving them a bit of breathing room helps to ensure more even cooking. Repeat until all of the batter is used and you have a neat little army of raw matzo balls ready to be baked. Lightly spritz the tops with olive oil spray for better browning, if desired.

Bake for 45 – 50 minutes, rotating the sheet pan halfway through, until golden brown all over.

Meanwhile, prepare the soup itself by combining the broth, carrots, celery, and onion in a medium stock pot. Bring it to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, cooking until the carrots are fork-tender. Right before serving, add in the fresh herbs and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Ladle out some of the soup into each soup bowl and add in the baked matzo dumplings right before serving. Enjoy piping hot!

Makes 35 – 40 Dumplings; About 8 Servings

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Wonton Extravagance

Soup has a big job to do. Not only has it been tasked with nourishing the soul, but restoring the body and feeding hungry minds on top of that. Soup fills the empty spaces in stomachs and hearts alike, soothing in ways that words fail to match. Thick, spoon-coating, veggie-heavy bowlfuls may be the more popular choice these days, but there’s some serious praise due to the more brothy variety. The clean, clear flavors that can shine in such a medium are unparalleled, and there’s nothing to say that it can’t also be loaded up with hearty additions. Substantial, hearty, and yes, meaty mix-ins are the key to elevating the average cup of vegetable stock to something worthy of a meal. Even for the picky eaters in my fold, spread halfway across the continent, there was a comforting sense of unity when we all sat down to enjoy the same sort of meal.

Cooking with my dad over Skype has been challenging, but never due to his culinary skills. Simply crafting a recipe with ingredients that he could find, create a healthy meal with, and manage within his busy schedule has always been a stumbling block. Now that my sister has joined him in his tiny German abode, it’s increasingly difficult to come up with things that everyone will like. Dumplings are a hit across all branches of this family tree, so no matter the filling, it was a clear winner from the start. Their creative interpretation of my instructions has proven instrumental in understanding how most people craft their meals as well, reinforcing the importance of a flexible, resilient recipe. That also means that I can confidently state that these easy wontons can happily accommodate a swap of seitan to tofu, any sort of mushroom (fresh or frozen), and amounts are largely to be considered guidelines, not rules. Additionally, the finished dumplings stand up beautifully to freezing for extended periods, pan-frying or steaming just as well as they might float in soup.

The soup itself lived up to the high expectations placed upon the humble bowlful. Maybe the company (in person and on the screen) makes a difference, but it was one of the most comforting recent meals I can recall.

Seitan Dumplings

1 Pound Prepared Seitan, Drained if Water-Packed
10 Ounces Frozen Mixed Mushrooms, Thawed and Drained
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
3 – 4 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
2 Teaspoons Fresh Ginger, Finely Minced
2 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
3 Tablespoons Tamari or Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
1 Package 3 1/2 – 4 Inch Round Vegan Wonton Wrappers

For Wonton Soup (Optional):

Vegetable Broth
Thinly Sliced Scallions
Thinly Sliced Chili Peppers, Crushed Red Pepper Flakes, or Sriracha
Greens, Such as Kale, Spinach, or Arugula

Begin by placing the seitan, mushrooms, and scallions your food processor, and pulse until the mixture is coarsely ground, roughly approximating the texture of ground meat. Set aside for the time being.

Heat both oils in a medium saute pan over moderate heat. Once shimmering, toss in the ginger and garlic. Cook for about two minutes or until aromatic and toss in the ground seitan. Stir continuously to prevent it from sticking or burning for 4 – 5 minutes. Any liquid should have evaporated at this stage, so drizzle in the soy sauce and vinegar, scraping the bottom of the pan to dislodge anything that may have adhered. Continue to cook for an additional 4 minutes or so, until that liquid has also been absorbed into the filling. Let cool for at least 15 minutes, or until it reaches a manageable temperature.

Set out a plate to place your finished dumplings and cover the stack of unfilled wonton wrappers with a lightly moistened paper towel. They can dry out very quickly which will make clean folds impossible, so keep a close eye on them throughout the process. If they aren’t all used when the filling is finished, they can be sealed in a plastic baggie and frozen for 3 – 4 months. Place only about 1 – 2 teaspoons of filling in the center of each wrapper, and lightly dampen the edges with water to seal. There are many ways to shape your dumplings, depending on your tastes or how you’d like to use them, so I must defer to the experts here for instruction.

After shaping your dumplings as desired, you can either freeze them in an air-tight container for later use or move on to cook them right away. For the soup, simply heat up as much broth as you’d like and toss in scallions, spicy additions, and greenery to your taste. There’s no one right way to assemble such a soup, so just trust your instincts. Once gently simmering, carefully lower the wontons in and cook for just 2 minutes, until the wrappers look a bit more translucent. Serve immediately- Wonton soup does not keep or reheat well.

If pan-frying, heat up about 1/4 – 1/2 inch layer of neutral-flavored oil on the bottom of your saute pan over medium heat. Once hot, add the dumplings in one even layer and let sizzle until brown and crispy; just 2 – 3 minutes. Flip and brown the opposite side if desired. Serve immediately with additional soy sauce for dipping.

Makes 40 – 50 Seitan Dumplings

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