Chinese take-out. It's one of the great pleasures in life, especially if the take-out is good and cheap. I've got a favorite Szechuan joint not too far from home. It sits nearly anonymously on the edge of the International District in an uninspiring little strip mall called "Asian Plaza." The restaurant's name is equally original: Szechuan Cuisine. Before it was remodeled it didn't even have a recognizable name, just a bunch of faded Chinese characters strewn haphazardly above the door.
Those faded characters seemed like a good omen to a bunch of us wandering around looking for lunch one day more than a decade ago. By our third or fourth trip we were calling it The House, as in: "Should we pay a visit to The House today?" There was no denying it was the go-to lunch spot for a bunch of us who worked together, our house lunch establishment. You could order 25 pot-stickers for $3.50. Prices have gone up since then. Now you get 20 pot-stickers for $4.95.
The House is known for its Hot Pot but usually we order more obvious stuff like Ants on a Tree or Twice Cooked Pork. I'm a sucker for the salty-sweet nothings of the General Tso-ish Manadarin Spicy Chicken, and the Garlic Beef makes other versions seem pedestrian at best.
Rather than get bogged down in the kitchen this Halloween Eve, Marty and I wanted to watch some scary movies with the kids and eat popcorn and candy. The House to the rescue! But this time I had a little home-made treat to spruce up our plates of take-out: Szechuan Pickled Fungi & Vegetables.
The fungi were cauliflower mushrooms (Sparassis radicata) picked near the Columbia River Gorge a few weeks ago. While driving from a book reading in Hood River to the Wordstock Lit Fest in Portland I stopped off in the hills above the Gorge to go for a hike. The trail contoured across a steep pitch shaded by old-growth fir and hemlock. Horses had been on it recently. I didn't expect to see much in the way of mushrooms along this rather dry section of trail, but a mile or so in I came across my first cauliflower mushrooms of the year, a pair of recently emerged specimens of average size, each one weighing a few pounds.
Cauliflowers are delicious mushrooms and they can be huge. A few years ago someone brought a 50-pound cauliflower to the Puget Sound Mycological Society's annual exhibit. The mushroom boasts a nutty flavor and firm texture that doesn't soften with cooking like so many other species. Even after braising in a stew for an hour they remain al dente, which is a good way to describe the texture since this mushroom resembles nothing so much as a bowl full of cooked egg noodles. Its wavy protrusions and deep clefts are expert at trapping duff and forest debris, making the cauliflower one of the more difficult mushrooms to clean. Worms like them too. The trick, as with so many tasty mushrooms, is to find them before the worms do—or else cut away the infestations as best as possible.
Szechuan Pickled Fungi & Vegetables
Szechuan peppercorns are the key ingredient. Not really pepper, the spice is actually the husk of a type of berry widespread through Asia. When consumed, it gives the mouth and lips a numb tingling feeling that works well with other hot spices commonly found in Szechuan foods.
1 lb cauliflower mushroom, boiled for a few minutes and cut into pieces
1 lb Napa cabbage, pulled apart and cut into 2-inch squares
1/2 lb diakon radish, sliced into 1/4-inch thick half-moons or matchsticks
2 carrots, sliced on an angle into 1/4-inch thick ovals
6-8 hot peppers cut in half and de-seeded
1/4 cup sliced ginger
2 tbsp Szechuan peppercorns
2 tbsp vodka
6-8 cups water, boiled and cooled
3 tbsp salt
Mix the brine and Szechuan peppercorns in a large tupperware or other non-reactive container. Stir in vodka; this is strictly for sanitary reasons. Add vegetables, fungi, and spices, making sure they are immersed completely in the brine. Cover and store at room temperature for 3-5 days. After the initial pickling, the contents can be refrigerated for 2 weeks.