Make Mushrooms out of Lemonade

If you’ve heard the expression “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” then you will understand that I am of course speaking metaphorically. Nature gave the East Coast a whopping crop of lemons last October, in the form of hurricane Sandy, followed closely by a heavy snowstorm. As I stepped around the piles of wood and tangled branches cluttering up the sidewalks, I realized this could be a wonderful opportunity: I could give these trees another useful life, I could inoculate them with mushroom spawn.

log

As with most projects it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that. Oak is the best kind of wood to use for many of the tree growing mushrooms, but most of the downed trees in my neighborhood were Honey Locust or Bradford Pear. Still, I dragged a few limbs home, only to realize that I needed thicker branches. The thicker, the better, for several reasons: first, growing fungi need moisture, and the thicker logs will not dry out as easily. You can remedy this by watering your logs regularly, but the 3/4″ plugs needs to go into the outer sap wood (the lighter ring right underneath the bark). The fungus won’t grow as well in the inner heart wood.

mushroomplugTo make a long story short, a very kind arborist at the Botanic Garden provided me with a half dozen huge oak logs, and a very kind neighbor and fellow mycological enthusiast helped me lug them home. Then I ordered spawn from Fungi Perfecti and proceeded to drill hundreds of small holes in all my logs, plug them with the little wooden plugs with the delicate fuzzy white growth I’d gotten in the mail, then seal them with a few drops from a beeswax candle.

Some logs I just left outside all winter, but I kept two of them in the shower to escape the cold. I just put them out a few days ago, now that the danger of a hard frost seems past. I’ll have to wait to discover which logs do better — this is a long term project, it will be a year, maybe two, before I see any results.

In the meantime I will do my utmost best to train my kids to eat and enjoy mushrooms — but I’m afraid that may prove much more difficult than growing these finicky fungi.

Nothing Beats a Beet Cake

This is a truly extraordinary cake: not only will it slip beets into veggie-phobic kids, it tastes amazing, contains no fat (besides the minimal amount contained in cocoa powder), no eggs (so it’s vegan too), it has a great texture and baking it is an esthetic joy. Seriously. Beets may stain your hands, but their color is so beautiful it’s impossible to hold a grudge against them.

1 large beet

1/2 to 1 cup apple sauce

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp apple cider vinegar

1 1/2 cup all purpose flour

1/2 cup cocoa

1 cup sugar

1 tbsp cornstarch

2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp cinnamon

Peel and dice beet into 1/2” cubes, and boil until soft. Drain the beets and puree in the food processor with 1/4 cup fresh water.

Preheat oven to 325°F

Put pureed beets into large measuring cup and mix in enough apple sauce to get 2 cups of beet and apple puree. Add vanilla, vinegar, and 2 tbsp water.

Sift all the dry ingredients together then combine with the beet mixture.

Pour in a greased 9” by 13” pan or two 8” round layer pans and bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick pricked into the center of the cake comes out clean.

To decorate the cake as shown in the top picture, make a paper doily then (right before serving) sprinkle some powdered sugar on top. If you sprinkle the sugar ahead of time the cake’s moisture might make it vanish from sight….

The Most Refreshing Summer Drink

This drink cannot be bought, only grown — so if you don’t have a garden (a sunny windowsill will work too) then you’ll just have to buy a pick-up truck. It’s worth the trouble.

All you need is a sprig or two of fresh lemon verbena, a hardy, sun loving little herb with a fresh lemony scent. You will also need a few sprigs of mint. I like to combine spearmint with chocolate mint, but any variety will do. Go to your garden in the morning, harvest the fresh herbs, pour boiling water over them and refrigerate till you’re hot, sweaty and ready for a healthy, invigorating afternoon drink. Don’t add sugar, it will keep you from tasting the beautiful, subtle combination of flavors.

Mint is easy enough to find in stores but I’ve never seen lemon verbena for sale.

Grow a Garden, No Land Required

While taking a stroll in the no-man’s land between Gowanus and Red Hook in Brooklyn I came across this little marvel of a garden: lettuce, basil, chives, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme were all thriving in a well-tended plot. The back of a pick-up truck is the perfect raised bed — you can follow the sun and take your garden with you on vacation! This garden even included plastic yard decorations: a rhinoceros, cow, giraffe and elephant were grazing happily between the rows of lettuce. From now on, I won’t accept any more complaints by fellow city dwellers about their lack of outdoor garden space. Get a pick-up truck!

Vegan Egg

My latest crazy food endeavor was much more successful than the cake with nothing in it. This dish looks exactly like a sunny side up egg but tastes nothing like it. It’s a delicious desert made with fresh mangos and coconut milk. The yolk oozes out exactly like it should, the white is easily sliced with a fork just like its model. Click here to view step by step instructions, but I must warn that there are some hard to find ingredients (like sodium alginate,  a seaweed-based powder). It was a lot of work to get this to come out right, but who am I to resist such a challenge?

Chocolate Head

Ever since I emigrated to the US about 16 years ago I’ve missed this indulgent little delicacy. The bitter chocolate shell is the perfect companion for the sweet, gooey, fluffy white interior, and the cookie it rests on offers a delicious crunchy counterpoint.

I had been experimenting with home-made marshmallow and one batch came out delicious but a bit too sticky — perfect for the “tête choco” or chocolate heads I’d grown up with — so I tried reproducing them. It looked nothing like the smooth, commercially made ones pictured here, but turned out to be even more scrumptious.

Here is the detailed recipe.