A Tale of Two Entrees

This week, it was the best of meals, and the worst of meals…

I had planned to post about my latest pawpaw (Asimina trioloba) success. Someone, somewhere on the internet claimed you could substitute pawpaw anywhere a recipe called for banana. This made sense to me, since either fruit could both provide moisture and flavor to a dish. In fact, pawpaw is even called “Poor Man’s Banana”, presumably because before cheap oil enabled global gas-fueled transportation in chilled containers, bananas were comparatively expensive. Now of course, bananas are the cheapest fruit you can buy in the grocery store. (The local economy and ecology where the bananas are grown are the ones who ultimately pay the price.)

But I digress. Armed with this new knowledge, I chose one of the simplest banana-using recipes I had at hand: paleo pancakes. Just three ingredients: bananas, eggs, and almond flour. (And baking powder. But somehow baking powder never gets counted as an ingredient. Poor baking powder.) Pawpaw paleo pancakes. The recipe title even sounds amazing. I couldn’t wait. I thawed one of my freezer bags of pawpaw pulp, pureed it smooth with a stick blender, and got to work.

You’ve probably guessed the punchline here. The recipe was an outright disaster. The pancakes were gloppy and gross. I, um, never actually made this recipe as written (I almost never do), so I can’t definitively ascribe the failure to the pawpaw substitution. The pancakes fell apart. They had no cohesion making them impossible to flip. The texture was grainy. And after all that, they didn’t even taste good.

(I had added a small amount of lemon juice to the recipe because all the “real” pawpaw recipes feature lemon juice to help brighten the pawpaw’s flavor. Maybe I could blame the lemon juice.)

Don’t get me wrong, pancakes serve as a maple syrup and butter delivery system, so I could choke down a mediocre pancake. But these were just bad. Into the compost they went. Alas.

Thankfully, this week included a roaring success to offset the pawpaw catastrophe. Dare I call it: an almost perfect meal.

For two years now, a dead tree stump has provided us with a harvest of chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) in the late summer / early fall. Periodically I drove by the stump, and found nothing. No signs of fungal activity. I reasoned perhaps the mycelium in the stump had exhausted the nutrients they needed and were no longer able to produce fruiting bodies.

Thankfully I was wrong! My vigilance was finally rewarded with a modest harvest this week.

Chicken of the woods on its decaying stump
Chicken of the woods on its decaying stump

Once home, I left the pieces outside in the sun to encourage any insect inhabitants to depart. I also processed the chicken of the woods outdoors, removing parts that were too tough or too old, and liberating the remaining insects (mostly some type of beetle). In the end, I had just enough for one meal for a family of four.

I am sure “fancy” foragers (no, not naming names) would treat the chicken of the woods with elegant preparations, recipes that take hours to prepare and cook and leave the diners delighted with the delicacy of the flavors and textures. Apparently that’s not me. I soaked the pieces in water for half an hour, then scrubbed them to dislodge any dirt, chopped the pieces and simply sauteed them in a little cooking oil.

Chicken of the woods cooking
Chicken of the woods cooking

Once browned on all sides, I seasoned the chicken of the woods with a little salt and served it alongside roasted acorn squash stuffed with applesauce.

Why do I call this meal (almost) perfect? It is:

  • Vegan: no animal products of any kind
  • Paleo: grain- and legume-free
  • Seasonal: no extra energy invested in forcing something to grow out of season, or losing food quality and nutrition from preserving
  • Local, or localizable: ok, technically I bought the applesauce from the grocery store, but I could have purchased apples from a local farmer
  • Unprocessed: again, let’s pretend I made the applesauce myself
  • Low sugar, high fiber: which matters, if you’ve read anything by Dr. Robert Lustig

The roasted acorn squash did get a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar, but here sugar played its historic role as a seasoning, rather than a main ingredient as you find in so many processed foods.

Oh, and it was mostly free. The acorn squash was a volunteer plant from my mom’s garden, and the chicken of the woods was (obviously) foraged.

What did this (almost) perfect meal lack? It wasn’t very photogenic!

An almost perfect meal!
An almost perfect meal!

(That’s what I get for cooking food to eat, rather than to look good in a photo studio!)

What foraging successes (or failures) are you enjoying (or regretting) in this early part of October?

5 comments

    • In addition to the name chicken of the woods, I’ve also heard these mushrooms called “sulfur shelf”. I prefer the first one though because it really does taste like chicken!

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