Thursday, November 8th, 2012
New on the menu – Quesadilla with hen of the woods mushrooms, epazote and habanero salsa
Each year, as the days grow shorter and the first fall rains arrive, one can find me in my free time hiking through the wooded hills of Marin county, eyes darting across the forest floor in search of flashes of gold, telltale signs of a fruiting of Cantherellus Californicus, our local strain of the golden chanterelle mushroom. Or searching for the prized Boletus Regius, porcini, under raised tufts of fallen Monterey pine needles.
Almost 20 years ago, I was introduced to a book entitled “Mushrooms Demystified”. This field guide was written by David Arora, who is a professor of Mycology, or the study of fungus, at UC Santa Cruz. This was around the same time that I was beginning my career in culinaria, and I became fascinated by the possibility of “finding food”. I essentially educated myself by walking through the woods with field guide in hand. I find it to be a true exercise of the senses. I learned early that many wild mushrooms have a “mycorrhizal” relationship with a particular type of tree. Mycorrhiza are the living body of ther fungus that remains underground, the mushrooms themselves are the fruiting bodies of said fungus that emerge from the soil in order to spread their spores to the wind and procreate.
I now know that in the Bay Area, chanterelles will be growing under live oak trees that skirt the edges of meadows. Often these woods are mixed with California Bay Laurel, so I often associate their fragrance with chanterelles, in fact, the mushrooms often carry the scent of fresh bay from the soil in which they are growing.
Not surprisingly, I am always excited to see which wild mushrooms are at market when I am travelling through Mexico. Due to the warmer climate, most of the varieties eaten in Mexico are Agaricus mushrooms or “field mushrooms”. This family includes the common cultivated button mushrooms and portobella, which is essentially an overgrown brown button mushroom. But I have also seen other more exotic varieties in Oaxaca, including yellow foot chanterelles and blewits, which also grow locally in mixed woods.
This just in: the Gods were generous – first porcinis of the season emerge in Matt’s secret stash
As we transition into fall and winter, mushrooms will take center stage at Comal. Even when the wild varieties aren’t available, some of the exotic cultivated ones will make an appearance. This week, roasted hen of the woods mushrooms will replace pumpkin blossoms in a quesadilla. This is one of my favorite mushrooms, it has a deep, chocolaty flavor, which really shines when accompanied by epazote, an herb that pairs wonderfully with mushrooms.
Mushrooms can be so elusive. Some years, everything lines up, but last year was particularly fruitless. Hopefully, my secret spot for porcini mushrooms will begin producing next week. It usually does about 2 weeks after the first significant rainfall. May the mushroom Gods be generous.
Tuesday, October 30th, 2012
With tomato season on the wane, we’ve retired the heirloom tomato salad. Filling its slot on the menu is Matt’s riff on the classic chopped salad. There are countless versions of chopped salads. The common denominator is that all the elements are chopped into relatively small pieces. Ours features little gems, beets, radishes, avocado, carrots and goat feta – all topped with a tangy cilantro-yogurt vinaigrette.
Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012
Our servers have certainly heard that question a few times since we opened. Pronounced tla-u-da, with an emphasis on the “u”, tlayudas are an iconic Oaxacan street snack. Sometimes referred to as “Mexican pizza” but really more of a flatbread, a tlayuda starts with a very large, thin, crispy corn tortilla that is baked on a comal or wood grill. The tortilla is covered with refried or pureed beans and other toppings. The most common version in Oaxaca sports asiento (unrefined pork lard), shredded lettuce or cabbage, avocado, strips of meat (tasajo or cecina are most common), quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese) and salsa. They are generally served open-faced but at times are served folded in half as well. When I was in Oaxaca, I found the best tlayudas at La Fonda Florecita in the Mercato de Merced. They offer a traditional tlayuda cooked on a striking, wood-fired cement comal with a clever grill above the coals and below the comal.
Here are a few photos from a visit to La Fonda Florecita:
Refried black beans spread on the tortilla
followed by a generous amount of quesillo
then avocado, tomato and tasajo
then it’s placed briefly on the grill to warm it and melt the cheese a bit
finally it’s cut into pieces with scissors and plated
a little salsa completes the picture
After my first bite, I knew it was something we would feature at Comal. Little did I know how difficult it is to make the thin, crispy, plate-sized tortillas. Matt spent a fair amount of time trying to perfect it and was never happy with the results. He suspects that it’s about the type of corn used for the masa, and also the composition of the masa. Whatever the case, we’re still searching for a solution. By chance one day we were speaking with our janitor Jorge who hails from Oaxaca. We mentioned how hard it was to make the tortillas for tlayudas and he told us that his mother was skilled at making them. So until we figure out how to make them better stateside, we get a large shipment of them from Jorge’s mother on a regular basis. If tlayudas are off the menu, it probably means we are awaiting another shipment.
We’ve taken some liberties with the toppings – our most recent tlayuda features smashed garbanzo beans, roasted gypsy peppers, zucchini and quesillo, along with chipotle salsa and a sprinkling of wild arugula on top . The smashed garbanzos are cooked the way our sous chef Martin observed his grandmother cooking them as a child – a whole head of garlic, Serrano chiles, onions and cilantro are all stewed with the beans until cooked, then everything is smashed with a bean masher. Here’s a photo of our current tlayuda:
And finally, some useful links about tlayudas:
(a thoughtful, in-depth look at how the tortillas are made, with some beautiful photos)
A charming, homespun video shot in Oaxaca shows that it’s not as easy it as looks!
Saturday, October 13th, 2012
More fall menu changes in the mix. The “Diosa Verde” salad takes a seat on the bench to make way for our fall salad of bitter greens – radicchio, escarole and watercress. Pomegranate and Fuyu persimmons, both recently in season, add some sweetness and bright color – shaved Manchego and spiced pepitas provide addition accents. My friend David likes to warn me not to fall victim to what he calls “self-referenced criteria”, but in this case I can’t help myself. Every ingredient in this salad is in the upper tier of my favorite foods. I could eat this salad nightly and probably will almost do so. And I can’t help but believe I won’t be alone in the pleasure I derive from this salad…
Friday, October 12th, 2012
This cool fall day seems like the right time to introduce our new side dish, which is as autumnal as it gets (I’ve been looking for an opportunity to say “autumnal” for a while now!). Butternut squash and Brussels sprouts spiked with pequiin chiles and pepitas – muy sabrosa…