Friday, December 28, 2012

Storm Clouds and Rainbows


Matsutake Mushrooms are some of the most expensive mushrooms in the world, with prices upward of two hundred dollars per pound for perfect specimens.  The Japanese are connoisseurs of these mushrooms and consume far more than the limited local harvest.  While the matsutakes that are harvested in Kyoto below the Japanese red pines are the most prized, the nation relies largely on mushrooms imported from Korea, Canada and the Pacific Northwest.   Here in California the price of Matsutake start at fifty dollars per pound and then drop drastically in December when the Japanese market starts to slow.  In October and November it is almost impossible to get #1 grade Matsutake because they are almost exclusively exported.  Were were fortunate to get a small basket of perfect #1 Matsutake in this week.  A true #1 grade has a cap that is still fully closed with the thin membrane over the gills still intact.  These mushrooms have a mild flavor with a refined pine aroma.   They can be shaved raw, as we will do for tonight's scallop dish, or be quickly grilled or steamed. 

Sea Urchin

  Sea Urchin could quite possibly be one of the most fragile ingredients I have ever worked with.   From the time the roe (or technically gonads) are removed from the urchin, they begin to break down, sometimes becoming mush in a matter of hours.  This is why whenever I order sea urchin at a sushi bar without looking at the little wooden tray of urchin in the the display, if they appear soft, or are surrounded by orange liquid, I won't order them.   You should only order, and serve, urchin that has a defined shape and firm texture.  
    Most urchin is shucked at the source and carefully lined up on small wooden trays with plastic lids before being shipped around the world.   Unfortunately this never improves the quality of the urchin and even the most elaborate packaging can do little to protect the delicate roe.  Some rare urchin from Japan is packed in sea water, which seems to be the best method for transporting the fragile product.                                                      
You rarely see fresh urchins available for sale.  This is due largely to the difficulty required in cleaning them.   I prefer getting in the live urchin and cleaning them because there is simply no comparison in quality.  There are several methods for cleaning urchins and even a couple of special tools designed for the job, but all you really need is a small serrated knife and spoon. 
1. Pick heavy urchins with the spines still firmly attached.  (these spines can be painful, but are not poisonous)
2. Wearing gloves, hold the urchin in a towel with the domed side of the shell facing outward.
3. Using the serrated knife cut away the curved portion of the shell, avoid cutting into the roe just below the shell.
4.  Chip away the shell to expose the five orange gonads.
5. Use a small spoon to gently loosen the gonads from their membrane.
6. Shake the roe into a container filled with salted water.  (water and sea salt)
7. Transfer the roe into another container with salted water and repeat until water is clear and no fragments of spine are left.

Tonight we are pairing hand harvested sea urchin with Nantucket Bay scallops.   I used a classic Japanese custard, Chawanmushi, for inspiration.   My preparation does not have the traditional ingredients, Lily root and ginkgo nut, but is simply an egg custard made with fresh dashi and sea urchin.  I finish the custard with togarashi and young red shiso leaves.  The bay scallops are served lightly seared and raw with shaved matsutake mushroom and candied yuzu rind.  

Friday, December 21, 2012

Scallop Lunch Special

Today's lunch special- Nantucket Bay Scallops with Cauliflower, Leeks and Caviar Mousseline


Mayan Apocolypse Devastates Post Ranch Garden!

  This morning the entire garden was covered in a layer of thick frost.  By nine am the temperature was still in the mid thirties, and given the darkness that accompanies winter solstice, not likely to warm much.  Red mustard plants drooped against the frozen ground, the borage plant was devoid of flowers and turning black and the tiny red oxalis leaves had all been burnt by the freezing temperatures. Luckily we are on the cusp of longer days and the garden will once again be filled with tender leaves and flowers.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

December Bounty

The shorter days have left the garden and hillsides looking pretty bare - fortunately with a little persistence, there are still some edible treasures waiting to be found.  Last week we collected:
- The first chanterelles of the season - Still hidden below a blanket of pine needles and oak Leaves
- Anise Hyssop Shoots
- Sugar Snap Pea Blossoms
- Bronze Fennel Fronds
- Red Oxalis Leaves
- Society Garlic Blossoms
- Rosemary Flowers
- Mint Flowers
- Pineapple Sage Flowers
- Rose Geranium Blossoms
- Nasturtium Pads
- Sweet Alyssum

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles are frequently harvested in the spring when the rains have stopped and days begin to get longer.  Big Sur does not always comply with conventional wisdom and its unique micro climate is constantly throwing us seasonal curve balls.  About two weeks ago we noticed a small patch of nettles sprouting from by the redwood fence in our garden.  As of today the plants are about a foot tall with small tender leaves - perfect for cooking.  Even though their appearance this time of year is unexpected, they have inspired me to cook sformato, a dish that is perfect for this dreary December weather.

As the name implies, stinging nettles can in fact cause quite a bit of discomfort if brushed with bare skin.  Some veteran foragers, with calloused hands and the knowledge of which direction the spines grow, can handle nettles with little concern.  Personally I prefer the added precaution of wearing gloves when harvesting the prickly leaves and stems.  Once the nettles have been cooked, their spines disappear and the plant is rendered harmless.  The flavor is reminiscent of spinach with a more earthly flavor and vibrant green color.  Nettles can be found around the world and are alleged to have numerous medicinal properties, but for me their flavor alone makes them a worthwhile pursuit.

Sformato, a classic Italian dish,  is a cross between a savory custard and soufflĂ©.  There are numerous variations including: potato, dandelion and spinach, but I have found that Stinging Nettles give the dish both an incredible flavor and appealing color.  Once the batter is prepared I add a puree of stinging nettles and some freshly grated, aged goat cheese from Sweetwater Dairy just down the road.  The dish is finished with pickled cauliflower, crispy cauliflower mushroom and a fondue of Sweetwater Dairy cheeses.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Yucca Blossom Update

It’s been a little over a month since I harvested my first Yucca blossoms.  Since then, these cactus blossoms have become a bit of an obsession - I see the dead remnants of flowering stems as I pass by yards and see perfect blossoms just out of reach.  Just the other day I had to resist snatching a cluster of purple-tipped yucca blossoms from a historic public garden in Monterey - and could barely contain myself when I saw a six-foot long horn of tiny green edible flowers protruding from a foxtail agave. 

I don’t know what makes these flowers so intriguing - is it the striking look of the five petal blossoms, their bitter-sweet flavor, their crisp bite or simply the idea that this is the grand finale of a plant that is known to live for decades and then die shortly after blossoming?  No matter what the reason, I guard two of my three bags of pickled yucca blossoms with the same dedication most chefs give their tin of saffron or bag of truffles.  Unlike these other “exotic” ingredients, there is no telling when I might get my hands on more fresh yucca blossoms.  I have reserved the pickled blossoms for the first course of my Taste of Big Sur Menu - paired with a Venison Jerky that has been cured with wild berries and then dried over smoldering oak.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

Ancient Ohlone "Vinaigrette"

Last week we debuted the Taste of Big Sur menu at Sierra Mar.   My goal was to create a menu that was directly inspired by the Post Ranch Inn’s dramatic surroundings, while using as many ingredients sourced from the property as possible.  In preparing for this menu, I did extensive research into the Native Californian culture and unearthed some interesting stories in the process.  One I found most fascinating was practiced by the Ohlone tribe.  They would collect miner’s lettuce and other wild greens and pile them on ant hills while they foraged.  The ants would then season the greens with a faint trail of formic acid.  I have often heard about cultures from Central America to Southeast Asia incorporating ants into their diet, but had never heard of this approach. 

Miner’s lettuce is not in season, so I collected a few nasturtium leaves and laid them on top of an ant hill in front of my house on the coastal ridge.  The ants did not seem terribly interested, but a few did find their way across the leaves. After a day had passed I shook off a leaf and took a discreet bite.  The flavor was very mild and the taste of nasturtium almost completely overpowered the faint hint of acidity left behind by the ants.  While the flavor was barely perceptible to me, I suspect that Native Californians had far more acute senses and were unaccustomed to heavily seasoned foods.  

For my next experiment, I dabbed a jar with some local honey and waited to collect a few dozen ants.  I shook the ants into a mortar and ground them with olive oil and sea salt until they become a smooth-emulsified dressing.  The dressing was still mild, but did have a nice level of acidity and completely unfamiliar flavor.  Next, the dressing was drained through a coffee filter and put into an atomizer.  I could then take the atomizer and spray a lite mist over wild herbs and flowers.  

Today when I was walking through the back part of the ranch in search of chanterelles, I happened upon a large rock that had several cylindrical mortars carved into the top.  Aside from a few acorns, the property did not yield much this rainy afternoon and I can only imagine how challenging finding dinner might have been a thousand years ago.

For the Taste of Big Sur Menu I combine a number of herbs from our garden and wild herbs in a small arrangement and then spritz them with the ant “vinaigrette”.  Each herb has a distinct flavor, sweet hysopp, spicy mustard, floral nasturtium, refreshing pea shoot, tart wild strawberry and brassica like Alyssum - each complimented by the mild acidic base of the ant vinaigrette.  The course is served midway through the nine course meal and acts as both a refreshing palate cleanser and a small glimpse into a forgotten chapter of local history.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Persimmon Harvest

We have two persimmon trees that grow in the meadow by our kitchen garden.   Over the last few weeks we have watched the leaves turn warm autumn colors and the fruits begin to ripen.  The storm this week blew most of the leaves to the ground, leaving the bright orange orbs fully exposed, a not so subtle reminder that harvest time is here.   A few weeks ago I made the mistake of pulling one of the seemingly ripe persimmons off the tree and taking a big bite- immediately my mouth was dry and my lips puckered as thought I had just taken a giant mouth full of dry cotton.   Our persimmons look deceivingly round, like a Fuyu, but they must  be the Hachiya variety.  Unlike the sweet- firm fuyu, Hachiya Persimmons are full of tannins, which give them their mouth puckering astringency, similar to the skin of some grapes.

  There are several ways to enjoy Hachiya  Persimmons without getting a mouth full of cotton.  The easiest way is to simply wait until you think they are fully ripe, then wait another week, until the persimmon feels like a bag of gel wrapped in a thin skin, with no discernible firmness.  At this point you can cut the persimmon in half and eat it like  custard with a spoon.  Another method is to keep the persimmon frozen for a few days until the tannins dissipate.   You can also deprive the fruit of air by wrapping it tightly in plastic or cryovacing it for a day.   This makes the fruit produce acetaldehyde which neutralizes the tannins.

  You might wonder why you should bother with Hachiya persimmons when the Fuyu variety is so common and can simply be eaten like an apple.  I love persimmons, and Fuyu are delicious, but the Hachiya have a higher level of sweetness and overall complexity of flavor.  A few years ago I stumbled upon my favorite way of working with the Hachiya Persimmon- called Hoshigaki.   This is the ancient Japanese tradition of air drying the peeled persimmons and then gently massaging them to extract the sugars, creating a powdery white coating that forms on the outside.  During the fall strands of drying persimmons can be seen hanging from the porches of traditional Japanese homes.   This ancient recipe was brought to California by Japanese Farmers generations ago, but the final product is rarely commercially available due to the time consuming process.  When finished, the Hoshigaki aren’t much to look at, shriveled and white, emaciated versions of the fresh fruit.   Inside the flesh is dense and sticky, with a concentrated flavor from weeks of drying.  The sugar bloom on the outside is delicate and sweet, providing the perfect crust for the intense filling.    

  Today we are hanging our first strands of persimmons from the kitchen ceiling.   Hopefully in a month or two I will have some pictures of the final product!