Thursday, November 6, 2008

Cauliflower Mushrooms, Etc.

We just received the first shipment of the year of cauliflower mushrooms (Sparassis crispa) from our supplier in Oregon yesterday, a day late because he wrecked his truck on Monday, foraging on Mount Hood. That's one of the things that you learn when dealing with small suppliers: they're absolutely focused on getting you the best quality product, but they're people too and their lives do intrude on their businesses.

We've been unable to get product at times because of illness and surgery, problems with children, and any number of the same problems that you and I face on a daily basis. Working with small suppliers is definitely not like calling an 800 number at 10pm at night and having a truck appear at your door the following morning. But warts and all, I wouldn't have it any other way. I like buying from small business owners who are invested in their businesses.

As you can see in the photo, cauliflower mushrooms come by their name for pretty obvious reasons. You can see that they range in color from almost white to the color of egg noodles, with very curly texture to more egg noodle-like texture. The pastry tube gives you a good idea of the size. Although they grow a lot larger, these small ones are the best tasting and least chewy.

Almost nothing smells fresher and more alive than a box of fresh cauliflower mushrooms. When I opened this box, my entire kitchen smelled of pine forest, primal and alive, and better than any air freshener ever concocted. There might also be a hint of cucumber in the fragrance.

Part of the reason for the fragrance may be because they grow on the roots of trees, mainly pine and spruce. It may also be because they are generally loaded with spruce needles, if collected in a spruce forest, so they need careful cleaning. Separate each of the egg noodle-shaped pieces from the tough stems and wash well. Water won't hurt cauliflower mushrooms.

When first faced with these mushrooms years ago, I let their form dictate their use. They look like egg pasta, so I treated them like egg pasta and I have been very happy ever since. And because they are slightly cartilaginous, they hold their shape just like pasta; that is, they don't wilt like other mushrooms. And like pasta, they have a very mild, non-mushroomy flavor, albeit with a touch of pine.

Cauliflower mushrooms are one of my favorite of the edible mushrooms. As my sous chef said last night when tasting the vegan special described below, "I love these mushrooms!"

Last night, a customer booked a table and failed to mention when booking that he is vegan. Fortunately it was slow enough that I could go to his table to talk with him. He asked me if we had any tempeh, seitan, or tofu. No, we don't stock these items, especially without warning. As a rule, I don't play games with meat substitutes. I create vegetarian dishes that proudly feature vegetables rather than meat wannabe products.

As the conversation unfolded (and it was truly like peeling the layers off an onion), I discovered that he doesn't like tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and spicy food. Poof, there went 98% of my standard vegan repertoire. And of course, our vegetarian special, Sweet Potato Risotto with Braised Arugula, was not vegan, not even close.

After hearing the litany of foods that he couldn't or wouldn't eat, I finally asked him in desperation what he would eat, figuring that to be a much shorter list. He started by saying pasta, beans, rice, and salad. A little more prodding from me got him to exclaim that he loves mushrooms. Armed with that, I went back to the kitchen and started to doodle on the back of a menu with my sous chef.

We started with a pasta with roasted artichokes, roasted cipollini, and braised broccolini. We discussed adding various mushrooms and then I remembered the cauliflower mushrooms. Why not scrap the pasta and use the cauliflowers as egg noodles in the "pasta?"

So, we pan-seared quartered artichokes and whole cipollini and put them in the oven to roast, while we blanched broccolini. Into a sauté pan went extra virgin olive oil and about four ounces of cauliflower mushrooms. Once they had cooked a minute or so, in went the artichokes, cipollini, broccolini, and some garlic. We finished it with a splash of white wine to finish braising the broccolini, salt, pepper, and fresh parsley.

I couldn't help but think how good this would be with some sun-dried tomatoes, crushed red pepper flakes, and a swirl of butter to finish it!

I also couldn't help but think how lucky this guy was not to be eating a salad for dinner. Vegans, vegetarians, and others with restricted diets, please do us the courtesy of calling ahead and letting us know about your diet before you spring it on us in the dining room. You'll be happier and we'll be happier.


  1. The suspense is killing me. What was the customer's reaction to the dish?

    I'd have been in heaven.

  2. Silly me, I forgot that part! The customer loved it, but we knew he would before we sent it to the dining room because we made extra for us! And it was outstanding.

    But, as I said, it would have been better with some sun-dried tomatoes (or pancetta if you're not vegetarian), crushed red pepper flakes, and a swirl of butter.

    The customer was most happy and asked for the name of the dish so that he could request it next time he came in.

    I had to tell him that the chances of me having cauliflower mushrooms in the cooler next time he came in were slim and none. This dish will work with many different kinds of mushrooms, but you won't have the egg noodle pasta effect of the cauliflowers.