Morels are for more than fryin’

It’s that time of year when Appalachian delicacies start popping up on the hillsides around here, after a good rain and the sun comes out. The past couple years, since I’ve been eating more locally, after a long, dark winter of sweet potatoes and winter squash, I really look forward to having something fresh to put on the plate.

I had my one bite of ramps for the season. And it’s just as well. I tasted that one bite for the next three hours.

I was more excited about the annual appearance of morels. I was listening to Martha Stewart Radio a few days ago, and there was a piece on recipes with spring produce, including morels. I hadn’t thought about doing much with them besides frying them, to be honest. They are just so freakin’ good breaded and pan fried.

I am hoping there is a “patch” starting in our back yard. Last year, we had two big ones around the base of the poplar tree, which we didn’t pick. What’s the use of two mushrooms? This year, we found SIX big ones. I’m hoping it triples every year. Eighteen mushrooms that size is a pretty good mess for fryin’.

So, I had six good size mushrooms. Hmmmm. Ravioli, anyone?

I chopped up the mushrooms and mixed them with some ricotta, an egg, garlic and parmesean cheese.

My mom bought me a raviloi cutter for Christmas. It made them look like Chef Boyarde. Kinda. I still haven’t mastered making my ravioli “pretty” after a handful of times making it from scratch. The cutter helps substantially, though.

Even if it wasn’t pretty, it sure was tasty. I had an opened jar of spaghetti sauce my mom and I canned last summer in the fridge. Perfect. The good news is that I made WAY too much filling, so I put the rest in the freezer for lasagna or stuffed shells sometime in the near future.
In the upper right corner, there is some sausage on the plate. I can’t post this pic without giving a shout out to Carmine Pagliaro, who made it. He is the dad of my coworker, Melanie, who keeps us eating all the Italian goodies her family makes. I’m not even kidding by saying that we’ve been spoiled since she started working with us. Fontinella cheese, hot peppers, olives, pizzelles, Italian bread, and my favorite, dried sausage.

"Goodbye joe, me gotta go, me oh-a-my-o…"

“Jambalaya, crawfish pie, file gumbo!”

One of my favorite dishes to make at home. Actually, Jeremy usually makes it better than I do. It’s one of those few dishes that he rocks. No matter who makes it, it’s “guuude”. (Say that with a twang… makes it more authentic for jambalaya.)

I’ve made it a number of ways over the years, but the way I like it best is just the way I make it below. I’ve made quick and “low-fat” versions, which just ain’t right. And I’ve made the pre-boxed mixes that you just add meat to. This version may not be true to traditional recipe, if you’re a jambalaya purist. But this isn’t TOO far off, I think.

Jennelle’s Jambalaya

1 small or 1/2 a large yellow onion, diced
4 ribs of celery (about 1-ish cup), diced
1 medium green bell pepper, diced
2 cloves garlic minced
2 Tbs olive oil
1/2 pound chorizo sausage links, cut into 1/2 inch piecees (andouille sausage is preferred, but chorizo or hot Italian sausage may be substituted)
2 cups diced tomatoes
1 1/3 cup of shrimp stock
3/4 cup of white rice
1/2 pound of U.S. WILD CAUGHT GULF shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 Tbs paprika
hot sauce to taste
file for garnish (more on this below)

Add oil to a large skillet and turn on heat to medium high. When oil is hot (after 30 seconds or so), add onion, celery and pepper. This is called “the Trinity” or miropaux in cajun cookin’. For good reason. EVERY cajun dish starts with the Trinity. Period. Add the garlic after the veg have softened a bit. Stir all well and cook about 2 minutes until all softened and smell amazing. I usually throw black pepper and salt on at this point. But it’s not necessary. Add sausage to skillet and stir until sausage has begun to brown. Add tomatoes, shrimp stock and rice. Season with thyme, cayenne and paprika. Bring mixture to a boil, lower heat and cover, stirring occassionally to prevent rice from sticking. Cook 10 to 15 minutes until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender. Add shrimp. Let simmer about 2 more minutes, stirring constantly, until shrimp is done. You can tell when the deveining cuts down their backs begin to roll back. DO NOT OVERCOOK SHRIMP. It becomes tough and chewy, and should be a cardinal sin. Add hot sauce to taste. Spoon into bowls and top with file. Makes 2 large servings if you’re me, but probably 3 normal person servings.

A few notes…

Now, about the file (Fee-lay… I don’t know how to add that fancy little accent mark over the “e”). File is easy to come by, but you probably wouldn’t realize it. Not at Kroger or Wal-Mart, either. It’s in your back yard, most likely, or along the road. File is dried sassafras leaves. That is it. It is used as a table condiment in canjun and creole cookin’. Mostly, it is a thickening agent, which is why you should NEVER add it to the pot while the dish is cooking. It becomes stringy. Added at the table and stirred in just before eating, and it lends a creaminess to already hearty simple peasant food. Making your own file powder is easy. Pick several sassafras leaves off the trees right before they begin to change colors, in the fall, usually around the last week of September. They say to pick the leaves during a full  moon to make the best file. Bundle them with some string and hang them in a cool dry place to dry out. After about 3 weeks, you can make the file powder. Carefully cut, with a really sharp knife, the stem out of the middle of the leaf, and any large veins out. I’ve heard the stems are toxic, but who really knows… I’m not taking any chances. I put the pieces of dried leaves in a food processor, and ground them up. To get an even finer powder, pound the ground up pieces down further with a mortar and pestle. Here’s a link to a blog about making your own file powder that I found. It really is that easy.

Also, jambalaya almost always contains chicken, too. But I didn’t have any. Like I said, I might stray a little from the traditional dish. One thing I don’t waiver on anymore is using U.S. wild caught Gulf shrimp. It’s a little more expensive, but worth it. Most of the other shrimp sold at the grocery store is from China and East Asia. I’ve written about this before here. Seafood is required to have the country of origin on the label, and according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, Asian shrimp should be avoided because the fishing methods use have such a high percentage of bycatch. Sometimes up to 75%. That means for every 100 pounds of sea life pulled up in these shrimpers’ nets, only 25 pounds can be kept, and the other 75 pounds must be tossed over the edge. Not only is it terribly inefficient, but it is significantly detimental to the ocean environment and the fisheries, because the fish tossed back over the edge is largely already dead or dying. U.S. regulations require U.S. shrimpers to use better and more advanced nets that do not pick up as much bycatch. And, let’s face it. Gulf shrimpers could use a little boost these days as they are still struggling to overcome both the BP oil spill and Hurricane Katrina.

You can play around with the recipe and put your own spin on it. I think Jeremy puts a little bit of beer in his jambalaya, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Anyway, whoever makes it at my house takes me back to the Cresent City.