Thursday, November 28, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Several Unusual Mushrooms

     The mushroom has to be my favorite fungus.  Well, with the possible exception of penicillin, which probably saved my life on more than one occasion.  But as beneficial as penicillin has been to humanity, I think we can all agree that mushrooms almost certainly taste better.
     To fit in with the blog topic, I sought out a few, slightly off the beaten path varieties.  I figure pretty much everybody has tried the regular commercial type (called, among others, the common, the button, or the table mushroom) as well as portabellos and the amusingly named shiitake.  The kinds I’ll discuss here are the chanterelle, morel, straw, and nameko mushrooms.
     Mushrooms as a food are, of course, a double-edged sword.  On the positive side, nutritionally they’re very sound—low in calories, fat, and carbs, yet high in B vitamins, potassium, selenium, and copper.  The downside is that some varieties can kill you.  In very bad ways—painfully, with various organ shutdowns.  Some are even sneaky about it, as it can take up to twenty days after eating before the victim succumbs to their poison.  Other kinds don’t kill you, but can cause significant gastrointestinal distress.  So, as an important safety tip, don’t consume mushrooms you’ve picked yourself unless you really know what you’re doing.  Some poisonous types look very similar to harmless kinds, and most of the folk sayings (that the deadly mushrooms all taste bad, or are brightly colored, or stain silver, etc.) are tragically wrong.  (One risky kind is known as “The fugu of Finnish cuisine,” after the puffer fish that’s delicious, but if prepared even slightly incorrectly can kill you.  While I don’t think I’d take the chance myself, I do find this expression funny.  I almost wish every country had examples of these—“The fugu of Liechtensteiner cuisine,” “The fugu of Djiboutian cuisine,” and so on.)
     As is my usual practice, I’ll review worst to first.  I should state that I’m a big fan of mushrooms overall—either on pizza, mixed in other meals, or by themselves.  So none of these were bad, but some were better than others.
     Chanterelles were once associated with European royalty, as they were often on the menus of noble families.  I found these dried, in my favorite grocery store, Wegman’s.  Their appearance is like yellowish-brown broccoli spears—thin with an atypical head, or cap.  I sautéd them for about twenty minutes, added some salt and pepper, and then ate them plain, then, with condiments (Worchestershire Sauce and ketchup).  They were okay, but a bit bland.  Oddly, some people maintain that chanterelles taste better dried, that it makes their flavor improve.
     The straw mushrooms I had canned, with no preparation.  They were similar to the typical common mushroom in shape, but a little thinner and lighter.  They’re most popular in Asian cuisine.  They were slightly more flavorful than regular mushrooms.
     The nameko mushrooms are, as the names suggests, a favorite in Japan.  Here in the U.S. they’re sometimes called butterscotch mushrooms.  Like the straw kind I had these plain, out of the can.  Their shape was also like regular button mushrooms, only smaller and skinnier.  And they were better than the straws, noticeably tangier.
     Now we get to morels.  If I can mix a metaphor here, these are the White Whale of mushrooms.  They’re found mostly in the Midwest portion of the U.S., and in a tight time frame, in early spring (April and May).  I first heard about them while digging on a project in Iowa in the late 90’s.  Several landowners, when they cleared us to go onto their property, only did so after confirming that we weren’t after their morels.  They weren’t threatening, exactly, but they were firm about this.  (As an aside, we archaeologists do sometimes get threatened.  One old lady threatened to bash my boss’s head in with a baseball bat.  Another guy told some friends/colleagues of mine that he had a backhoe, and lots of land, so that no one would ever find their bodies.  And finally, one woman threatened another boss of mine right in front of the police officer who was mediating their discussion.  The trooper was reportedly amazed and almost amused by her casual stupidity.)  For the morel is said to be the most tasty mushroom, yet apparently it’s rarely if ever commercially cultivated.  Among its other charms, it’s evidently one of the easier mushrooms to gather, as it has a distinctive shape.  It has a slightly amorphous, oval cap, which is very spongy-like, with giant holes in it.  Kind of ugly looking, to be honest.
     Anyway, I’d heard so much about it, but never had the chance to really try it.  Until a few months ago, when I found it, in dried form, along with the chanterelles in the Wegman’s.  I cooked both together, so the morels also were sauted, seasoned, and eaten first plain and then with condiments.  Their texture was markedly different—chewy, and almost meaty.  Certainly very good, and the best of the four types I’m rating today.  But here’s the thing—I wasn’t dazzled.  With all the hype, and the difficulty in getting them, and the absurdly high price ($9 for half an ounce!), I expected to be blown away, and wasn’t.  To be fair, they were dried, and as I’ve noted, my cooking skills are primitive at best.  So I would eagerly eat them again, but if/when I do they’ll be fresh, and obviously picked by someone who mycology skills I respect.  Oh, and be forewarned, morels should always be cooked, as raw they tend to cause digestive issues (non-fatal ones, but still).  Finally, the morel goes by many names, some of them weird and entertaining.  Dryland fish, Molly moochers, and hickory chickens, to list three.
     I guess to be technical, truffles are a type of fungus, so they’re also on my “to try” list.  Alas, their price makes morels look cheap in comparison.  A hamburger topped with them will set you back $150 in a posh New York City restaurant, and a pound is going for up to $3600 (depending on the subtype).  A two pound specimen was auctioned off for $330,000 a few years ago.  I think that’s more expensive than cocaine, or heroin!  (Not surprisingly, organized crime has begun to get involved in the truffle trade.)  So unless I win the lottery, or my books start selling like crazy I doubt I can justify purchasing them.
     Oh, and to those that celebrate, have a great Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Sea Urchins

     Okay, that was clearly over dramatic, a response to a challenge that no one’s making, but still, it’s true.
     Sea urchins are fairly bizarre creatures.  For one, they look like the result of a torrid romance between a racquetball and a porcupine.  (I’m making a jokey comparison here, but bear in mind Rule 34 of the Internet, and google the end of the last sentence at your own risk.)  The spines of some species are soft and rather ineffectual, but those of others are akin to a porcupine’s—capable of inflicting nasty puncture wounds.  Additionally, some sea urchins’ spines are venomous, in extreme examples potentially fatally so.  Furthermore, the tiny growths between the spines, the pedicellariae, are sometimes venomous even when the spines aren’t.  So, it’s probably a good idea to avoid contact with sea urchins if possible.
     Also, sea urchins, like starfish, have pentamerium symmetry, rather than the common animal bilateral symmetry.  Meaning instead of being divided in two equal sides, with two arms, two legs, two eyes and ears, etc., sea urchins have five equal body segments which radiate out from their center.  This occurs in some of their body organs, too—they have five sets of gills, five sets of gonads, etc.  Therefore, I’m assuming organ donations aren’t as big a deal with sea urchins, which may be why less of them check the box on the backs of their driver’s licenses.
     Sea urchins aren’t that common a food item, though.  They’re eaten in the West Indies, New Zealand, Alaska (mostly by Native American groups), and Japan.  Also, in Mediterranean countries and Chile they’re consumed raw, with lemon, which kind of reminds me of ceviche (see August 4th, 2013 blog post for more information).
     I’ve had sea urchins exclusively as sushi at Japanese restaurants.  There’s no getting around the fact that their meat looks revolting—it resembles phlegm, actually, with its yellowish, clotty flesh pieces.  The texture may be off-putting for some, too, as it’s soft, and slippery, again uncomfortably reminiscent of phlegm once more.  But, and I can’t stress this enough, the taste is phenomenally delicious.  I’m a major sushi fan, and this is definitely among the best kinds (along with mackerel, squid, and freshwater eel, in my opinion).  As so often happens, writing and thinking about it has given me an intense craving.  Alas, sea urchins are somewhat tough to get.  Some sushi places don’t offer it, and even the ones that do are out of it maybe two-thirds of the time.  This may be seasonal in nature, but I haven’t kept records and checked on this.  In my research, I discovered that the reason for this is probably because sea urchins have been overfished.  So I feel a little guilty, since I just hyped this meal up so much, but to be (more) responsible, as an occasional treat, I couldn’t recommend it more.  Also, if you choose to partake, be forewarned, it’s pricey—usually around $5+ per order (even a single piece, sometimes) which I guess is a factor of its relative scarcity.
     One final fun fact about sea urchins (or sea hedgehogs, as they’re also known):  some species can reportedly chew through stone.  Which, I must admit, I’d like to see proven.  Off to YouTube, I guess.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Lychees

     I first had lychees over a decade ago, at a combination Japanese restaurant/grocery in the Ft. Dix, NJ area.  The sushi at the restaurant was very good, and the grocery sold me pickled ginger and shredded squid for later, so it was a very satisfying dining experience.  Anyway, my friend Keith bought something called lychee nuts, and passed some out for us to try.  It was pretty bad.  It tasted similar to a plum which had way too much salt on it.  It might have tasted okay, or even good with like one-tenth the salt, but I never had the opportunity to find out.
     Fast forward many years, and I saw a type of exotic for sale in the fruit and vegetable section at Wegmans, the awesome supermarket I’ve gone on about in many other posts.  They looked bizarre—like sea urchins, and were called just lychees.  I bought them, and then did a little research.  It turns out that lychees are indeed a fruit, and not nuts, although they’re sometimes referred to as such when they’re dried (and apparently over salted).  They’re an Asian fruit, cultivated in China, Sri Lanka, Japan, Bangladesh, Taiwan, Thailand, Pakistan, and Nepal.  They’ve been eaten for at least 4,000 years, and are considered a delicacy.  Nutritionally they’re very high in Vitamin C, copper, potassium, and phosphorus.  Lychees are occasionally also made into a wine.
     Underneath the soft spiny exterior, I found a whitish fruit, which then contained a pit, which was comparatively large.  The fruit itself was reminiscent of a cherry, only blander.  It wasn’t bad (certainly not terrible like the “nut” form) but it wasn’t dazzling, either.  Especially given its relatively high price and tiny amount of fruit per porcupine-like pod, I won’t purchase fresh lychees again.
     However, I also saw them canned, so to be fair I gave them a final chance in this format.  The picture on the label showed the familiar whitish fruits within a reddish “pod” or rind, without the blackish spines.  So either there are several varieties, or else folks shave them for eye appeal.  They tasted all right, but not great.  The sugar seemed to help somewhat.

     So all in all, whether dried, canned, or fresh, I’m not impressed with lychees, since at best they’re mediocre. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Several Potted Meats

     Potted meat has a poor reputation, and it’s pretty easy to see why.  It’s basically highly processed, cheap meat, with tons of preservatives, stuffed into a can.  One common ingredient in potted meat is “mechanically separated chicken.”  In case you were curious, the things being separated here are bone and tissue, and this is done by pushing pulverized bone and tissue through a sieve.  The result resembles a paste.  Potted meat also tends to have an extremely high salt content, the better to help preserve it.  Otherwise, its nutritional value is fairly low.
     On the plus side, all the preservatives mean that potted meat does stay good for a long time.  Its long shelf life and portability make it a good choice for emergency situations, camping, and soldiers’ rations.  Plus, there’s no denying that it’s very affordable for those on a budget.
     A former coworker of mine (Hi Scott) used to love potted meat, specifically Spam.  He would heat it up for lunch by leaving it on the windshield of our work van during sunny days.  He further delighted in grossing folks out by making a point of eating the clear gel that coated the outside of the Spam itself.
     Spam is, of course, the best known of all the potted meats.  It was developed in 1937, and became especially popular as a result of being part of soldiers’ rations, and later post World War 2 food allotments.  There was even a Spam-themed radio program in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.  And famous comedy troupe Monty Python featured this product as the focus of one of their sketches, in a restaurant that included Spam in every meal offering.
     To round out my potted meat experience, I decided to try four different kinds—Spam Classic, Spam with bacon, Treet Original, and generic potted meat.  As usual, I’ll go from worst to first.
     Generic potted meat’s ingredients include mechanically separated chicken, partially defatted pork fatty tissue, salt, garlic powder, and natural flavors.  Yum!  Its appearance was, well, a pinkish goo.  And it went downhill from there.  The taste was nasty, like eating a mouthful of salt.  What little meat flavor I could detect underneath all the salt was unpleasant.  Even though the tin was tiny, I only could choke down a mouthful or two.
     Treet is the Spam knockoff from Armour.  Aside from mechanically separated chicken and pork, seasoning, and salt, it also has corn syrup, soy, and wheat.  Its texture was firmer than the generic potted meat, and its color was a reddish pink.  Tastewise it was certainly better than the generic potted meat, but it still wasn’t very good.  I found it to be rather slimy.  I didn’t finish the container.
     Unlike the previous two, Spam Classic’s ingredients don’t sound so gross.  Pork shoulder with ham, salt, water, modified potato starch, sugar, sodium nitrate.  As I mentioned, this is considered to be the Dom Perignon of potted meats, if you will.  It’s brought to us by Hormel.  Anyway, it looked like generic potted meat, its texture was like Treet’s, but its taste was like neither.  While it was very salty, it did have a nice flavor—pork/ham-ish, not shockingly.  I discovered that the saltiness was cut nicely when I put it on Wheat Thins.  I finished the tin without problem, and I would consider buying it again, on occasion.  I hear it’s good with scrambled eggs, so the next time I cook (which may be years or even decades from now) maybe I’ll give that a shot.
     It’s a cliché (at least among omnivores) that bacon makes everything taste better.  It’s true with Spam.  While I liked the regular, the variety with bacon was markedly improved—it had a nice smoky flavor.  Again, I finished it with no problem, and will probably purchase it again.
     American-made Spam is consumed around the world, but it’s most popular on Pacific Islands, Asia, and the U.K.  The people of Guam, Saipan, the Marianas, and Hawaii are especially big fans.  In Hawaii it’s sometimes found on McDonald’s menus, even.  In the U.K. it’s often battered and fried.
     (Perhaps a few readers are wondering if I did eat the repulsive-sounding gel that lines the Spam like my friend Scott did.  Well, I didn’t have the chance.  Maybe they changed the formula, or something, but my Spams didn’t have it.  But, for the record, I probably would have sampled it, just to be a completist.)
     So, to sum up, some types of potted meat are indeed revolting (or at least unpalatable) and should only be eaten if they’re the only food available, and you’re huddling in a basement hiding from zombie hordes or Terminators.  But one kind, Spam, is actually okay.  Eating it every day is probably a bad idea, healthwise, but on occasion, to some palates, it makes for a decent, and inexpensive meal.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Coffin Hop Contest Winner Results

         There was a slight change as to how I'm giving out the free copies this year.  Originally I was going to give out prizes to the winner of the two horror trivia quizzes, and then pick one additional winner randomly from all those who commented on any of my Coffin Hop posts.  However, the winner of both quizzes, Jeanette, has graciously indicated that she only wants one prize, so more folks will be able to win something. Therefore,  I chose two winners randomly.  Those people are Christine Verstraete and ringois.  You have the choice of a free copy of either "Dead Reckoning" or "Kaishaku."  I posted blurbs and excerpts for each during the Coffin Hop ("Dead Reckoning" on Sunday, October 27th, and "Kaishaku" yesterday, the 31st), if you'd like to review these before deciding.  I can send you your ebook copies in the following formats:  epub, mobi, prc, pdf, or smashwords.  Please indicate which story you want, and in what format, in an email to:          
       So congratulations to the prize winners and I hope everyone enjoyed Coffin Hop 2013.  Thanks one final time to Axel, Julie, all the other participating authors and artists, and every reader.