Tuesday, February 16, 2010

textures... tree ears & perfect veal


Long, long ago, Leo bartered something he made or designed for a whole busload of veal. Veal? Yes. Did we appreciate it? You bet we did. Except that we were totally unfamiliar with it, all but the pounded and breaded cutlets called Wiener Schnitzel, which we had only eaten in restaurants. It was probably my first experience of pounding any meat, and probably the first hurdle was finding a suitable pounder. Now I have a 9 inch, 3 pound cleaver, found at a yard sale, that only needs to get within sight of a piece of meat to pound it thin as a pancake. You drop it, you don’t swing it!

But there were only so many cutlets in that busload of veal. There was a lot of stew meat, too, and I made up a dish I just called White Stew to showcase it. It’s one of my earliest invented recipes. It should all be pale, I thought, as the young veal that had been sacrificed for it. It involved quickly browning the small veal chunks – not even browning them, just a quick stir fry – and adding other pale ingredients such as mushrooms and cannellini beans, and reconstituted tree ears, which are a form of mushroom that have not much flavor but a wonderful, cartilaginous crunch; then simmering all this for maybe half an hour in chicken broth. At the very end I took it from the heat and swirled in a knob of butter, which thickened it and made it silky. I discovered this on my own, though of course I’ve found out since what the French always knew – that the milk solids and proteins in the butter form an emulsion that creates a thick and shiny sauce. If it was put back on the heat after the butter was added the creaminess would be lost, so immediately I served it in soup bowls over egg noodles. It was delicious.

Then we ran out of that wonderful grass-fed veal, and the stew was so good I continued to make it with pork. Somewhere along the way I forgot the tree ears, and only when I was reading the book I mentioned last time, The Last Chinese Chef, did I remember them. The chef explains, “I think it’s fair to say we control texture more than any other cuisine does. In fact some dishes we cook have nothing at all to do with flavor. Only texture; that is all they attempt. Think of beche-de-mer. Or wood ear.” But where to find tree ears? I asked Becca at the Co-op, and she got some in for me. These are, indeed, called Wood Ears, distributed by FungusAmongUs. I left a few bags, so get them while you can.

As for veal? Many people are not eating veal these days because of the inhumane way it has been raised. But dairy farmers have no use for poor baby boy calves, and some of them are keeping them with their mothers and letting them eat grass until they reach the desired age to be slaughtered for veal. That might seem evil, but it’s better than causing them to be taken away at a very young age to be sent to Campbell’s Soup factories. The pale pink meat of a naturally raised veal is delectable. You might try to find some, and helpful in that search might be issue 11 of Vermont’s Local Banquet, the winter 2010 issue, which is devoted to grass-fed, locally-grown meat issues. It’s free, and can be found at the Co-op or at Book King.

White Veal Stew
serves 3 or 4 and can be doubled or tripled
allow the wide, shallow soup bowls to warm

• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 pound. pork or veal cut in ½ inch cubes
• 3 tablespoons tree ears, reconstituted in hot water for 20 minutes, drained, squeezed, and chopped coarsely
• 6 dried Chinese black mushrooms, treated as above, stemmed, but sliced; or ¼ pounds shiitakes, sliced
• 12 small pearl onions, peeled
• 3 cups chicken broth
• 1 can cannellini beans (or 1 cup dried beans soaked overnight and cooked)
• salt and pepper to taste
• 3 or 4 tablespoons butter
• egg noodles

Get a fairly large sauté or frying pan hot, add the olive oil and when that is hot, scatter in the veal or pork, shake and stir just until the meat whitens, then turn the heat to medium low. Add the tree ears, mushrooms, and onions and stir fry for 5 minutes. Don’t allow them to brown, just cook through. Add the chicken broth and bring to a simmer, cover and let slowly bubble for 20 minutes, until the onions are tender.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to the boil for the noodles.

Add the beans to the simmering soup, add salt and pepper to taste, cover again and let it come to a simmer for another 10 minutes or until the noodles are done.

Cook the noodles, and when they are done, drain, reserving a little of the cooking water in the pan, and return the noodles to the water in the pan and cover it to keep them warm. Turn the heat off under the stew and swirl in the butter. Dish out the noodles and ladle the stew over them, and serve ‘em up!

It’s the best time of the year, actually, about as far as you can get from next February. There’s the texture of spring in the air, thoughts of wild leeks and morel mushrooms in the mind. The light will only stay longer for another several months, and I intend to enjoy it. Here’s hoping you do, too!

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