For relatively ill-defined, but passionately felt notions, I have twice tried to give up the practice of eating meat.
Both attempts were wildly unsuccessful, and I could rationalize my dashes back into carnivorousness with a philosophical-cum-faux-scientific digression on the benefits of eating meat (on the small farms I use as the source for most of my meat, animals ward off predators, pests and act as giant fertilizer machines; even plant-only agricultural systems produce biomass and waste that is best utilized if kept in our food system by using it to feed livestock, except I would babble on for quite a while in a more and more irritating attempt to justify my lack of control), but I won’t.
I’ll just admit the truth, sans the somewhat rational rationalizations: I like it. Deep down, I’m a hedonist. I like to tear into a big, bloody hunk o’ flesh a few times a week and revel in its juicy, lush, strangely life-affirming unctuousness.
I try, instead of giving it up entirely, to limit my consumption to a few big carnivorous feasts a week, balanced out with a lot of veggies and grains. This was more difficult than it should have been for many years. I was afraid of mushrooms — a state of existence which now seems anathema, to me, to existence at all.
Mushrooms, in all of their Alice in Wonderland, psycho-active, poisonous, toad, poop and straight-up fungus associations didn’t entrance me, they freaked me the F out. I claimed it was the texture, but really? They seemed wild to me, too wild to consume. I ended up eating them, and falling in love with them, totally by accident.
Stephen and I were on a date a zillion years ago in the East Village at Frank Restaurant, one of my all-time favorite osterias in Manhattan, and I was too distracted by the chaotic, self-conscious, preening people-watching and strike-posing scene that can only exist in New York City, Paris and London, God bless them, to pay too much attention to the menu. I ordered the porcini ravioli, thinking it was pork. Duh. I saw Stephen smirk when I ordered, but I assumed he was getting his jollies over my long-standing and all-consuming obsession with pork products; the notion that he was hatching a dark and insidious plot to pollute my body with the dread fungi didn’t even enter my mind.
Two bites into dinner later, I looked over at Stephen.
“This isn’t pork, is it?”Horrified gaping.
“No, it’s not.” More smirking.
Blank panic, repugnance, terror. Mouth moving, no sound coming out.
Finally: “Mushrooms!” Choking, sputtering. My version of smelling salts: quick, repeated slugs of wine. Eventual recovery. Tiny nibble.
Now I eat mushrooms, every kind, as often as I can. They’re like nature’s ugly, funky little miracles, quirky little beings that seem scary but are actually quite ordinary in their majesty; the John Cages of the fungi universe. (He also fell under the shroom spell, eventually becoming an internationally recognized mycologist.)
Stephen tries very hard not to lord the Great Mushroom Victory over my head, though he has been known to whip it out if I claim that I hate a food product. Next stop: tripe.
This week, I made two veggie dishes that are often as drab as they sound: Mushroom Pasta and Banana Bread. They’re like old ladies who haven’t hit the town in a while — grim, gray and insipid. But I made like Emeril and Bam! Kicked Them Up a Notch! The best part — they’re both easy and fast, perfect for summer munchies on the run.
Click below for recipes and photos.
Meaty Mushroom Ragu
Makes 6 servings
Ingredients for the Tomato Sauce:
- 2 TBSP olive oil
- 1/2 yellow onion, chopped fine
- 1 small carrot, chopped fine
- 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 TBSP dried thyme
- 1 glug red wine
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes with basil (the cheater’s way to get extra pop of flavor)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Heat olive oil in stockpot until hot. Add onions, salt and cook over medium-high until completely translucent, about 7 minutes.
- Add carrots, garlic and thyme and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.
- Add glug of wine and cook until liquid is evaporated, about 20 seconds. Add crushed tomatoes, bring to boil and reduce to simmer, cook for 30 minutes.
Ingredients for Mushroom Ragu:
- 2 TBSP extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 yellow onion, chopped fine
- 1 pound of portobello, baby bella, shiitake and oyster mushrooms, chopped fine in food processor
- 1/2 cup of red wine
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1-2 cups of tomato sauce (the recipe above yields about 3 cups, I use the extra in soups and on melted cheese and veggie sandwiches)
- 1/3 cup heavy cream
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Parmesan, for grating
- 1 box linguine, boiled and cooked until al dente in salted water
- Heat oil in cast iron skillet or stockpot until smoking. Add onion and sautee over high heat until light brown, stirring frequently. Add mushrooms and cook until liquid has almost evaporated, about 7 minutes. Don’t be alarmed if the dish resembles the contents of a toddler’s nappies. It’s supposed to.
- Add wine and cook until evaporated, about 2 minutes. Add chicken stock and cook until liquid has reduced by two-thirds or so, about 10 minutes. Add tomato sauce, salt and pepper to taste and simmer for a few minutes. Stir in cream and keep warm.
- Meanwhile, cook the pasta. Divide into bowls, top with sauce and garnish with cheese.
Nutritional breakdown for Meaty Mushroom Ragu: About 400 calories a serving and 15 grams of fat, a decent balance of saturated and unsaturated. Cooking in a cast-iron skillet actually infuses final dishes with extra iron, an added bonus. This mushroom ragu is also a great source for selenium, potassium, riboflavin, niacin and vitamin D.
Cost breakdown for Meaty Mushroom Ragu: Mushrooms are expensive, so plan on spending about $3.50 a serving.
Verdict / In the Future: We both love how healthful, hearty and flavorful the final dish is. It comes with the flavorful, hedonistic punch of meat, with all of the virtue of veg. I love how easy it is to prep! Plenty of time leftover for foraging for fruit in the forest, long brunches, leisurely lounges in the sun.
Banana Split Bread
Makes 12 servings
- 1 1/2 cups AP flour
- 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 1/2 TBSP kosher salt (I know it sounds like a lot but one of the reasons baked goods fall flat is that they’re undersalted)
- 1/2-2/3 cups sugar, depending on your sweet tooth
- 6 TBSP butter
- lemon zest from one lemon (be careful not to grate in the white pith)
- 2 large eggs, beaten with a fork
- 3 large bananas, mashed (I stick bananas in my freezer when they’re starting to brown and when I have three, I make bread)
- Optional add ins: about 1/2 cup chopped nuts, about 2/3 cup unsweetened coconut + chocolate chips
- Optional toppings: Whipped cream, fresh fruit
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a loaf pan.
- Whisk flour, baking powder and salt in small bowl.
- Beat butter and sugar in stand mixer until creamy and fluffy, about 10 minutes. Add lemon zest, bananas, eggs and beat until incorporated.
- Add the flour mixture in three additions, pausing between additions to scrap down the side of the bowl. Beat until just incorporated. Fold in the optional additions.
- Pour into loaf pan and bake, switching halfway through, for about 40 minutes, or until golden brown and a toothpick test comes out clean.
- Let cool in pan for five minutes then finish cooling on rack. I usually hold off on cutting into banana bread until it’s completely cool because sometimes it crumbles when you cut it, but this one is hearty enough to eat while warm.
- Garnish with whipped cream and raspberries, if desired. (I found mine on my morning walk with Penny by the Bronx River. They were delicious!)
Nutritional Breakdown for Banana Split Bread: About 200 calories and 12 grams of fat, most of it deliciously saturated. Good source of fiber and manganese; decent source of iron, protein.
Cost Breakdown for Banana Split Bread: About $0.30 a serving.
Verdict / In the Future: The coconut and nuts make this a great, hearty weekend breakfast option and the smattering of chocolate will always be welcome. Stephen loved that it was indulgent, but not sinful. On an unrelated note, he thinks foraged berries are sketchy.