Soupe de la Semaine: Vegan Hot and Sour Soup

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M-m-m-m-m m-m-m-m-m good.

M-m-m-m-m m-m-m-m-m good.

It all started with a bag marked Dried Black Fungus (Whole).

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Okay, I’m a geek. I admit it. Some people go to the beach, others go to art museums. I go to ethnic and foreign grocery stores. I’m happy to wax poetic about my experience at Carrefour in Galicia, but this one was much closer to home. It’s a market called LAX-C, and while it’s nowhere near LAX (a/k/a Los Angeles International Airport), it (like the airport) encompasses several of Los Angeles’ communities quite vibrantly. While strolling the aisles, I saw this bag of dried black fungus and just had to have it. Somebody out there clearly used this stuff, so it wouldn’t kill me, I figured. Into the shopping cart it went. I could figure out later what it really was and how it might be used.

When I got home, I discovered that it was nothing more exotic than dried wood ear mushrooms. I felt like kind of a naïf, but as luck would have it, I knew exactly how they might be deployed in a recipe.

I’ve been eating hot and sour soup for as long as I’ve been dining at Chinese restaurants, which is more than half a century. And yet, I never tried to make it myself until last night. Idiot me. Wow, this is simple. If you can operate a spoon, a knife, a pot, and a flame, you can do this. And if you have a cold, as I did when I made it, this soup beats the living tar out of chicken soup in terms of restorative powers.

NOTE: It’s easy to convert this soup to the trad non-vegan version, too. First, substitute chicken stock for vegetable stock. Then, add some shredded cooked chicken (or shredded cooked pork) at the same time you add the mushrooms, and right at the very end, beat a couple of eggs in a small bowl, and drizzle them into the soup as you stir it (that keeps them from lumping up).

If you want to keep this gluten-free, use tamari sauce rather than soy, and have a care if you are buying commercial vegetable broth that it doesn’t contain any grains that have gluten. Chances are, if it’s gluten-free, it will say so somewhere on the package.

INGREDIENTS

    2.5 oz. / 70 g package dried Chinese fungi, such as wood ears or cloud ears
    6 oz. / 170 g sliced fresh shiitake mushrooms
    8 oz. / 225 g canned bamboo shoots, sliced
    1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
    1 tablespoon / 20 g red chile paste, such as sambal oelek
    1/4 cup / 60 ml soy sauce (or tamari sauce if you want to keep it gluten free)
    1/4 cup / 60 ml rice vinegar
    1 teaspoon / 6 g salt
    1.5 teaspoons / 3 g ground white pepper
    1/2 teaspoon / 2.5 ml sesame oil
    8 cups / 1.89 liters vegetable stock
    8 oz. / 225 g firm tofu, drained and sliced in 1/2-inch cubes
    2 tablespoons / 16 g potato starch mixed with 1/4 cup / 60 ml water (you may also use cornstarch)
    4-6 green onions, chopped, for garnish
Soaking your fungi.

Soaking your fungi.

DIRECTIONS

Place the dried fungus into a bowl and cover with 4 cups / 1 liter boiling water. They should soften in about 20 minutes to half an hour. Squeeze them out into the bowl and place them on a chopping board. Reserve the liquid (it goes in the pot later).

Toss out the nasty tough bits.

Toss out the nasty tough bits.

Slice up the fungus into spoon-size bits. You will find that the “stem” (pictured above) is particularly tough, so cut it out and discard it. It may be white, or it may not, but you will be able to tell with your fingers that it’s not been rehydrated. (It was only the very center of those two mushrooms that I tossed; there was still a fair amount of useable fungus.)

Strain the remaining juice into a heavy soup pot or dutch oven (don’t want any mushroom grit). I had 3 cups / 700 ml mushroom water, so the remaining 5 cups / 1.1 liters of liquid came from vegetable stock, and I put that on a fairly high heat to bring it to a boil. You can add the mushrooms (both kinds) at this time.

Drain the sliced bamboo shoots and slice to matchstick width (I cut mine in thirds lengthwise), and add to broth. Grate the ginger into the pot (a microplane works well for this if you have one), or grate over cutting board with box grater and add to pot.

Add chili paste, soy/tamari sauce, sesame oil, salt, and rice vinegar to soup. Stir. Add white pepper 1/2 tsp. / 1 g at a time, and taste; I like it hot, but you may want to stop at 1 tsp. 2 g if you are not a heat freak. If soup is boiling, back it off to a simmer. At the 15 minute mark of so, add the drained and cubed tofu.

In a separate bowl, whisk 2 tablespoons / 16 g potato starch with 1/4 cup / 60 ml cold water to make a slurry. Transfer slurry to pot, stirring soup with whisk as you do to prevent clumps from forming. Cook a further 10 minutes and allow to thicken. Add chopped green onions and serve. Serves 4-6.

NOTE: The process can be speeded up dramatically if you do your mise en place ahead of time. Basically, you need to have the mushrooms and the bamboo shoots in the hot broth for about 10 minutes to sofeten them up, and you need a further few minutes to allow the potato starch slurry to thicken the soup. If you use a cornstarch slurry to thicken the broth, it needs a little time to cook off the pasty taste. That’s why I like potato starch.

Also, the “hot” is coming from the white pepper and the “sour” is coming from the vinegar, so those are the two variables you’ll want to control most carefully to achieve the balance you want. You may want to add each of those a bit at a time, tasting as you go.

A Close — And Sweet — Shave

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A sweet ride.

A sweet ride.

[Full disclosure: I have been acquainted with the owner’s family for something approaching a decade, so make of that what you will. As a for-example, I adore my mom, but she made some of the Worst. Tacos. Ever. Taste and truth trump ties. And if I’m willing to dis my own mother (who also, incidentally, was capable of crafting a world-class roast of beef), you can bet I’m not going to be shy about pulling punches here. Apart from mentioning that the CEO is a 17 year old entrepreneur named Jack Kaplan, I’m going to leave the history of the enterprise for him to tell as it unfolds.]

Kakigori, for those of you who might be unfamiliar with it, is the Japanese version of shave ice (in the “shaved” vs. “shave” ice argument, I come down on the latter for no particular reason except that’s how I learned it). But before you turn your thoughts to sno-cones filled with something that looks like anti-freeze and tastes vaguely of an alleged “blueberry” lollipop, please jettison every childhood image of sno-cones, Icees, Slurpees, or other frozen concoctions. Kakigori is to sno-cones as an éclair is to a Twinkie. Conceptually similar, but light years apart in terms of taste.

Its origins date back to Japan’s Heian period (AD 794 to 1185), where it is mentioned in The Pillow Book (枕草子 Makura no Sōshi), a collection of observations and musings written by Sei Shōnagon, a lady in the court of Empress Consort Teishi. [The book was completed in 1002.] At the time, the delicacy was confined strictly to the upper classes, due in part to the scarcity of ice, especially in the summertime. During the Meiji period, in the late 1800s, so-called “Boston ice” arrived by ship from America, and kakigori was made available to the masses. Yay.

Generally speaking, kakigori is not merely a flavouring poured over ice, though it can be. Often times, the ice itself is infused with some sort of flavouring agent (as you will see below). In addition, many recipes may include elements such as sweetened condensed milk, ice cream, fresh fruit, syrups featuring caramel or chocolate, and other sundry goodies, such as sweetened mochi, a confection made from rice paste that takes on a chewy/sticky texture not altogether unlike a soft gummi bear.

It’s not available widely in America at present, but that may be about to change with the debut of Kakigori Kreamery’s mobile unit (seen pictured at top) in Venice, CA, on 25 July 2015. That’s an auspicious launch day, as the Japan Kakigori Association designates that date as the “day of kakigori” because its pronunciation sounds like “summer ice” in Japanese.

Green Kara-Tea

Green Kara-Tea.

At press time, there are nine flavours:
Strawberry Samurai
Green Kara-Tea
Kookie Kabuki
Mt. Fuji
Ginja Ninja
Blueberry Banzai
Mokamania
Konichiwa Kitty
WATA-WATAmelon

Okay, the names are a little goofy, though not to the level of IHOP’s popular “Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity®” pancake entrées, which I would absolutely refuse to order by name just because. But underlying the frivolous nomenclature lies some serious taste delight. If I might direct your attention to the photo above, do note that the ice is shaved, rather than cracked or crushed, which gives it a texture far more delicate than the traditional sno-cone (and even much of the “Hawaiian-style” shave ice, which frequently is no more shaved than Duck Dynasty‘s cast members). This is the Green Kara-Tea kakigori, which is made from green tea ice, rainbow mochi, and matcha-infused condensed milk. [Matcha, of course, is green tea powder, with its stems and veins removed before processing.] It’s sweet enough for kids to enjoy (and they’ll adore the rainbow mochi), but not an adult-repelling sugar bomb.

I should have taken a shot of the Ginja Ninja, because it was may fave of the bunch (I tried five of the nine flavours, and I’m going back next weekend to complete the date card). With its ginger ice, snappy gingersnap crumble, Maldon salt, and caramel sauce, it’s a bracing and energizing blast of spray from a rousing sail on the Ginger Sea.

WATA-WATAmelon!

WATA-WATAmelon!

Tastewise, the WATA-WATAmelon totally nails it; mint, lime, and basil meld with watermelon the way Kardashians meld with camera lenses. They were made for one another. Its one slight drawback is that the delicate watermelon ice shavings, like Blanche DuBois, tend to wilt in the heat. You have to plow through your portion at speed, or risk the possibility of having a cup of refreshing watermelon drink, rather than an icy delight. That said, it’s something of a small quibble, because it’s pretty great in either state (mine wound up half and half).

But Kakigori Kreamery’s secret weapon in its quest for world domination may well be their Kookie Kabuki: cookies ‘n’ cream ice, crushed Oreos, and condensed milk. This. Is. Irresistible. While the Ginja Ninja is still my favourite, it (much like me) is a little idiosyncratic. The Kookie Kabuki, on the other hand, has its sights locked on a multi-generational, multi-ethnic, multi-you-name-it target that wants a summertime comfort sweet that hits every familiar note. With a little luck, this might just supplant Häagen-Dazs’ Vanilla Swiss Almond ice cream as the heavyweight champ in the chocolate-meets-vanilla arena. But this is the case only if, of course, you happen to be in southern California. Otherwise… well, Japan is nice this time of year, but a SoCal sojourn might well be both less expensive and less complicated.

You can follow the exploits of Kakigori Kreamery here and here.

If you want to be around for their official debut, come check them out at the grand opening:
7/25 from 8:30am – 2:05pm
Venice Arts & Collectibles Market
13000 Venice Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90066

And should you care to try a home version of kakigori, you can pick up a Japanese-style ice shaver here, and a recipe for Peach Yogurt Kakigori with Mint Syrup here.

Celebrating Celeriac with a Superb Soup [Vegan]

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Celeriac, before and after a trim.

Celeriac, before and after a trim.

If there is an uglier vegetable on the planet Earth than celeriac (Apium graveolens variety rapaceum), I have yet to find it. Fortunately, much as beauty is only skin deep, in the case of this magnificent and underappreciated vegetable, so is ugly.

While celeriac itself doesn’t grow very deep — maybe six inches or so beneath the surface of your average garden plot — its roots in food history are deep indeed. In Book V of Homer’s Odyssey, it’s described as a component of Calypso’s garden, albeit in the Greek it is referred to as selinon. In one passage, Hermes admires the environs of Calypso’s cave, festooned with grapes, violets, and wild celery before stepping inside to beseech her to let Odysseus go and finish his journey back to Ithaca. But that’s another, much longer, story.

In ancient times, and for much of their early history, both celery and celeriac were regarded more as medicines than as foodstuffs. Pliny the Elder claimed that the so-called helioselinon was “possessed of peculiar virtues against the bites of spiders.” He also suggested that it could be used to revive sick fish. But by the 17th century, it was being cultivated in France, and by the 18th, it was being used in England for soups and broths.

Fast forward to today: soups and broths! For your consideration, here’s a soup that contains not just one, but two of the planet’s least photogenic vegetables (the latter being parsnips), along with a little ginger (no beauty contest winner itself), some onion, tarragon, and lemon thyme.

CELERIAC AND PARSNIP VELOUTÉ WITH GINGER AND LEMON THYME

Ingredients
48 oz./1.42 litres vegetable broth
2 large celeriac roots, peeled and roughly cubed
3 large parsnips, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon (or more, to taste) fresh ginger root, finely chopped
2 tsp./1.2g dried tarragon (it’s what I had at the time; fresh is good too, but use less)
4 sprigs fresh lemon thyme
1 carrot, cut into “coins” (optional)

Before you get all huffy, this is not technically a velouté, inasmuch as it is not thickened with a roux and cream, but it resembles one in texture. If you just want to call it soup, you have my blessing.

Cleaning the celeriac is best done with a very sharp knife, and it may be treated the same way you would strip off the rough outer skin of a pineapple; ideally, you’ll get off all the brown bits underneath the skin, but don’t make yourself crazy (or whittle the vegetable down to half its original size) getting there. Chopping the peeled celeriac is a bit of a chore, and may require rocking your knife back and forth a bit to get through the dense root. Alternatively, you can use a cleaver, if you have one. The parsnips should be scraped with a vegetable peeler, much like carrots, then chopped. As for the ginger, I started with a segment that was about the size of my thumb and scraped off the peel with a spoon before mincing it as finely as my admittedly mediocre knife skills would permit.

Once the prep is completed, making the soup is a snap; basically, you just dump all the ingredients into a big pot, bring it to a boil, and back it off to a simmer for about an hour to soften up the veggies and give the flavours a chance to blend. Then remove the thyme sprigs (which will have shed their leaves), and transfer the soup, in batches, to a food processor, blender, or Vita-Mix. [IMPORTANT NOTE: Do NOT clamp down the lid on your food processor/blender in such a way that steam cannot easily escape, or you will run the risk of both scalding yourself and decorating your walls with hot soup. I leave the top plug out of my Vita-Mix’s “Action Dome” and drape a tea towel over the opening to allow steam, but not solids, to egress.] Alternatively, the soup can be processed in situ with an immersion blender. Process until smooth.

Perhaps not the root of all soups, but it is a soup of all -- well, almost all -- roots.

Perhaps not the root of all soups, but it is a soup of all — well, almost all — roots.

You might note that salt is not a component of the ingredients list, and that’s because the vegetable broth I used (I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t have any vegetable stock of my own lying around) contained 570mg of sodium, presumably in the form of sodium chloride, which was plenty salty for my taste. Your taste (and your broth) may vary.

To finish the soup off, I sliced a small carrot on a hand-held mandoline, arranged the carrot “coins” into a small “flower,” and sprinkled a few leftover thyme leaves on top. I might drizzle a few drops of olive oil on it as well next time, but it’s by no means necessary. Serves 6-8 (easily!) as an opening course.