Tough work?

The other night I watched a bit of one of those cooking game shows. It was one of those shows hosted by a panel of so-called celebrity chefs, in which home cooks subject themselves to a great deal of humiliation in their quest for a piece of the celebrity chef action.

It got me thinking that the restaurant game must be pretty tough work when some of the best in the business jump at the chance to become game show hosts instead of spending their energy doing restaurant work. On this particular show, the host judges seem way out of place trying to cobble together the game show, even with the assistance of aggressive editing, a tight formula an plenty of dramatic music.

I have never worked in the restaurant business. As someone who enjoys cooking I can see why some people would be drawn to doing it at a high level. At the same time I can see that being a line cook must be a very difficult, hot and nasty gig, and being a chef must be a management gig above all else.

This reminds me of a discussion with a working musician a number of years ago. She had played in various orchestras and was respected as a strong player. It turned out she disliked doing the orchestra work and eventually she stopped doing it altogether. Even though she was a top rate player, she found no room for creativity in her job. She had to play out somebody else’s interpretation of the music and she was frustrated doing it the same way every time. She had to sit in the same spot each performance and simply execute time and again.

Perhaps for the celebrity chef it is simply a chance to lever some experience and expertise to get out of the game. I’m sure the television money is great, and for those chefs doing high-level management of a number of restaurants, the publicity might add to the bottom line. Still, when I watched this show, I felt bad for these guys who seemed to be fish out of water.

Pierogi Day

This year we’re having a family dinner Christmas Day at our place, and family from both sides are going to break bread with us. Since I’m off work this week and have a little time, I’m going to make some of the foods my mom used to make when I was growing up. While I’m sure family would be happy with a turkey dinner (a much simpler approach), I like to cook from time to time, and I think it will be fun to make some of the traditional foods.

I’m going to start today by making pierogi. One of the good things about pierogi is that you can make them and freeze them (usually in bags of a dozen or so), and then cook them up whenever you want some.

We make potato and cheese pierogi – there are all kinds of other possibilities with

potato, white cheddar and Polish pressed cottage cheese get mixed together to make the pierogi filling.
potato, white cheddar and Polish pressed cottage cheese get mixed together to make the pierogi filling.

filling from mushrooms to braised cabbage or sourkraut to fruit fillings. We always do it with potato and cheese. I use a mix of pressed Polish cottage cheese and white cheddar.

Once the pierogi are made, there are a couple different ways to prepare them. One is boiled with “burnt” butter. While the pierogi are boiling, we cook a little butter until there are many brown spots in the butter. We call that burnt. When the boiling pierogi float in the water, we strain them, put them on a plate, and drip the burnt butter over them. Add a generous dollop of sour cream and you’re good to go. This is the way my mom and all our family made them.

Perhaps more common today is to boil the pierogi, then fry them up with bacon and onions or mushrooms. Also delicious.

I remember when I was a kid, my mom would get together with my Auntie Stella and the two of them would go into pierogi production. I remember that Stella was the fastest pierogi assembler I had ever seen. Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, but it seems to me she could do two at a time, one with each hand.

My plan is to make pierogi today – an old friend is coming by to help me – we plan to make a lot. Tomorrow, I’m going to make patychky – we called them meat sticks when I was a kid. This is basically pork on a stick. It’s marinated, skewered, dipped in egg, rolled in spiced breadcrumbs, fried and baked. I only make these

Special guest pierogi-maker KR on the assembly line
Special guest pierogi-maker KR on the assembly line

at Christmas time, and I like to think mine are very very good. I taught my sister-in-law Viv how to make them several years ago and hers are also excellent. Finally, Wednesday I’m going to make a roaster of cabbage rolls.

Cabbage rolls made the way mom used to make them had a very distinctive and intoxicating smell. This is because the meat is browned using salt pork. This may not be the healthiest food choice, but it is rare I make them and while you can use a healthier substitute, they just are not the same. I’m sure my brother and my sister will set me straight if I don’t get it just right.

This morning I headed out to Starsky’s to get what I need for this cooking extravaganza. Having had experience at Starsky’s at Christmastime, I left the house early to arrive there just after they opened at 8:00 AM. Good thing I did. By the time I left the store at 8:40, it was already getting busy. By this afternoon it will be silly-busy. The crowds around the sausage counter alone will be over the top.


Cooking lobster mushrooms

I’ve noticed, looking at the stats for this blog, that quite a few people have been searching for ways to prepare lobster mushrooms. Here’s one way – the way I prepared them for dinner tonight in fact.

Lobster mushroom and sausage omelet

You need:

  • lobster mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
  • two or three eggs
  • some tasty sausage (I used Goralska Polish sausage)
  • grated awesome cheese

In a cast iron pan, sautee the mushrooms with a little vegetable oil on medium heat. Lobsters are very firm mushrooms that hold their texture. As well, they don’t shed water in the cooking process the way some other mushrooms do. After a few minutes in the pan, add some chopped up sausage and let it cook together. You want the sausage to start to crisp up and the mushrooms to start turning a nice golden colour. When this is ready, transfer to a non-stick pan. I know you’re going to say, aw c’mon, do I have to use two pans? The answer is yes. I like the way the mushrooms and the sausage cook up in a cast iron pan, but in the end you’re making an omelet and non-stick pans are great for omelets. So, you transfer the sausage and mushrooms to a non-stick pan. With the transfer, they’ll bring along enough oil for the omelet. Heat up the pan to the high side of medium. While that’s happening, beat up your eggs with a fork. Some people add a little splash of milk. You can do that if you want. I usually don’t. When the pan is hot, pour the mixture over the mushrooms and sausage and move the pan around to spread around the eggs. When the eggs are just about done, toss some of your awesome grated cheese on top (tonight I used an old gruyere). Let it melt on there for a moment, fold two sides of the omelet to the middle and serve it up, maybe with a spoon of good salsa and some fresh ground pepper and just a wee bit of salt. There are a million variations. If you have some fresh herbs, chop them into the egg mixture before pouring it onto the pan.


If you want something even simpler and still super-delicious, sautee the lobster mushrooms in your cast iron pan until they get nice and golden. Add salt and fresh ground pepper and maybe a wee bit of some ground hot chiles and spoon loads of the mushrooms onto toast. Just that simple.

New Years Eve Dinner

I baked bread today. Actually I started my dough yesterday. Using James Lahey’s slow fermentation approach, I made a simple dough yesterday and let it do its thing overnight. This afternoon, I gave it a second rise for a couple hours and again using Lahey’s method, I preheated a Dutch oven to close to 500F then dropped the dough in, covered it, and let it bake for half an hour before finishing the process with the lid off.

DSC01941DSC01942The bread was seriously fantastic, with a really well-developed crust, and a nice open crumb with plenty of chew and character.

All this was to accompany dinner, which was a fish soup, made with potatoes, carrots, zucchini, celery, haddock, loads of fresh dill and parsley, a splash of Mad Tom’s IPA and fresh lemon juice squeezed in at the end.


Soup Day

Saturday is soup day around here these days. I wasn’t sure what variety of soup I was going to make today until we visited friends this morning who gave us some dried mushrooms. More specifically, these are Boletus Mirabilis, known as the Admirable Bolete.

I’ve never eaten these before, but they are reputed to be tasty mushrooms with a lemony nuance about them. The packaging assures me these were picked in Canada, and since I know these to be western mushrooms, it’s a good guess they come out of BC. These boletes were thinly sliced and dried, but still you can see these were really nice big specimens. I soaked a handful for half an hour while I prepared some other ingredients.

I started off with some Starsky’s BBQ bacon, a couple good slices diced up and added in a handful of chopped onions, some chopped up fresh thyme, and then after about 5 minutes, some celery root, carrots, and zucchini. I chopped up the soaked boletes and added them in along with loads of fresh creminis. I tossed in more fresh thyme and some dry summer savory and a little spash of soy sauce and some vegetable stock.

It’s simmering away on the stove and promises to be a very good soup.

Soup Time

Roasted Squash Soup. Perfect for a cool fall day.

Start by putting on some tunes. I selected an old fave CD called South Texas Polka Party, but you can feel free to select whatever music makes you happy.

Cut up and add to a roasting pan:

  • loads of butternut squash
  • a big red onion
  • several ripe tomatoes

Add several whole cloves of garlic and a sprig of rosemary. Drizzle some olive oil over the whole business

Roast it for an hour in the oven.

Meanwhile…..dig up that two day old bread you’ve been meaning to toss out. Cut it into little squares. Splash some good olive oil into a cast iron pan (you can use any pan but I like making these in a cast iron pan) and heat the pan to medium. Add the bread along with some spices. Don’t tell anybody but I use my standard bbq rub spice mix for this. Be generous with the spices. Cook the croutons for 3 or 4 minutes, then set them aside in a bowl.

Take the roasted squash et al out of the oven and add it to a soup pot. Pull the rosemary leaves off the stem and discard the stem. Add some dried thyme and some stock. I didn’t measure any of this but today I used about 1 and a half good sized squash to about about 2 litres of stock.  Cook it all together for a few minutes and using an immersion blender, blend until you achieve a nice smooth consistency.

When you serve the soup, set out a bowl of your super-tasty home-made croutons, a bowl of coarsely grated Gruyère cheese, and a bowl of Arno’s ground habaneros (or, since I have Arno’s habanero powder and you don’t, any hot chiles will do) so your guests can fire up the soup as much or as little as they like it.



Arno’s Habaneros dried and ground

Most of the habaneros were dry after about 30 hours in the dehydrator. At that point there remained a couple handfuls that were still not ready so I removed the dry ones and left the others on overnight, removing them next morning. During the drying period, the house was filled with an omnipresent odour which I would describe as unusual and wonderful if only it were for a few minutes. A day and a half of the smell of drying haberneros is intense.

habanero after drying


These chiles took on a beautiful deep amber colour once dried. In contrast, the last batch I dried were scotch bonnets that looked about the same prior to drying but which dried a brighter orange. I use an inexpensive electric coffee grinder to grind up the dried chiles. After I did this once, I realized that I would never be able to clean all the hotness from the grinder so I have dedicated it for this purpose alone.


I try to grind to a uniform grit but this is very challenging with the technology I’m using. Some of the habaneros turn to a fine powder, which flies everywhere no matter how carefully I open the grinder. As a result, I do quite a bit of sneezing and coughing. I suppose I should really use a fine particle mask for this operation to avoid the effects of the powder. Next time.


Pleurotus populinus

Pleurotus populinus, an oyster mushroom sometimes known as the aspen oyster, is a delicious mushroom that appears in Southern Ontario in late May or early June. All the rain we’ve had in the last couple days was likely a trigger for the appearance of these mushrooms so the dogs and I piled into the station wagon this morning and headed for the Enchanted Mushroom Forest.

These mushrooms are very striking in the forest and are easy to spot growing off the sides of dead poplar trees.

They are creamy-white to yellowish-white and typically the fresher they are the whiter they are. When nice and fresh, these oysters have a lovely delicate odour, not dissimilar to anise.

Sometimes you’ll find them on fallen trees but other times they grow high in the trees, out of reach. I confess I’ve used long dead saplings found on the forest floor to knock choice oysters from high perches.

Oyster mushrooms tend to be quite clean, sitting up in trees and all, but watch for tiny black beetles that sometimes take up residence in their short stems and hide between the gills. I carefully inspect each mushroom when I get home.

Can you spot the oysters in this forest shot? They go quite high up the tree. When I’m looking for them, I typically walk the trails and look for bits of white in the forest.

Oysters are mild mushrooms with a delicate texture. They’re very nice in stir fries, or in omelets, or try them fried up in butter served up on toast. They dry up well too, which is a good thing because oyster mushrooms are a feast or famine kind of mushroom. When you find them, you usually find plenty. I’m drying a batch in an inexpensive hardware store dehyrdator now.

Short Squat Mushrooms

I’m always interested in the variety of search terms people use that land them here on this blog. Today somebody got here after searching Russula brevipes. Now this is an interesting mushroom to me, and it’s interesting because it has a special relationship with another fungus.

Russula brevipes is a short squat white member of the Russula group. It is reputed to be edible but not very palatable. However, the R. brevipes, along with a similar looking mushroom called Lactarius piperatus, is one of two possible hosts to a parasitic ascomysete or cup fungus known as Hypomyces lactifluorum. This cup fungus attacks the R. brevipes and does a few interesting things. It turns them scarlet red, it distorts their shape, it makes them very firm in texture – but most importantly it makes them into a very tasty edible mushroom that we simply call the lobster. In fact, in summer in the forests in which I forage, I likely find and collect more lobsters than any other mushroom. They’re great fresh and they dehydrate well too. When cooked, lobsters retain their firmness, which I would describe as a delicate crunch.

The Comfort Food Diner

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve taken you on a little trip up to the Comfort Food Diner, but I made up a little concoction this week I just have to share. I suggest here that my vegetarian and vegan friends go for a little walk, or perhaps visit some other sites. This post is not for you.

Left-over Pot Roast Pasta

To make this delicacy, you first have to have some left-over pot roast. In this case, along with a generous chunk of roast, I also had the liquid I braised it in, complete with a few chunks of carrots, a few mushrooms and some onions that had pretty much been cooked down into sauce. You need it all.

First, resist the temptation to simply make up a pot roast sandwich. Let’s save that for another day. Instead, prepare the left-over roast by breaking it up into smaller pieces. Next, choose your pasta. I leave this choice entirely to you. Bring a big pot of water up to a boil and toss in your pasta.

While the pasta starts cooking, coarsely chop up lots of garlic. Add some olive oil to a heavy pan, heat it up and gently start cooking the garlic. Add in generous quantities of dried chiles. I dry my own scotch bonnets in my handy mushroom dehydrator because I like them plenty hot but you might find red chile flakes from the market more to your taste. Don’t let the garlic burn. Instead, add two or three cups of pasta water, then when the pasta is a couple minutes away from being ready, add the left-over pot roast to the pan with the garlic and water, along with whatever braising liquid and veggies you have with it.

When the pasta is just this side of being fully cooked, drain it or for long pastas, simply fish it out with tongs, and add it to the sauce and roast bits, tossing it about for a minute or two. Shut the heat off and add in a generous amount of freshly grated Italian cheese (your choice which one) along with a handful of chopped up parsley or basil. Toss it one more time. Finish with some fresh ground pepper, and enjoy with a cold beer.