Monday, November 2, 2009

Spiced Up Take-Out

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.


Farmer de Ville said...

Great to see you highlighting the Cauliflower mushroom... what great and delicious fungal rarity... I'm always looking... find one or two a year... and it's a cause for celebration...

Christina Choi said...

nice recipe, i want to try this! i have been using szechuan peppercorns alot lately myself. it is a nice change from the norm. and i have always wondered about that restaurant, now i have a reason to try it..

Lo said...

Love the floral aroma of the Szechuan peppercorn... bet they were just stellar paired with mushrooms. Of course, now you have me wishing I could get my hands on a few of those Cauliflower mushrooms!

drfugawe said...

Hey Fin!
I'll bet that restaurant is the one I found many years ago during a conference up there - I don't remember the price, but the only thing they had was pot stickers, and they had an interesting machine in the middle of the floor churning them out like mad. Brought 'em back to the hotel, with a little Chinese BBQ, and watched Sunday football - couldn't stop wondering how in hell anyone could make such good stuff so cheaply!

Meghan Laslocky said...

A long way from the boo boo kitty we ate in DC years ago...
looking forward to seeing you at Omnivore tomorrow night.

Langdon Cook said...

Farmer - Same here. The cauliflower is always a bonus. More mature forests are the best bet. It's one of the best.

Nettletown - You'll dig it. This was my first try with Szechuan peppercorns. Now I have a nearly full bag of 'em so it's time to go deep into the Chengdu catalog... BTW, will be trying that Lobster Shroom Bisque on yr blog.

Lo - I think I could spend some quality time in Szechuan Province. Need to get Fuchsia Dunlop's cookbook.

Doc - Not sure if that's the same place but it's a good deal for sure. I've always had a weakness for potstickers. Lazy Sunday football and bag full is a good combo.

Meghan - Long way fer sure. See ya tonight at Omnivore!

The Buffalo Digest said...

NIce take on takeout...unique juxtaposition and a great way to life a little more interesting.

The Buffalo Digest said...

Just Got My Book! Very Excited.