New Jersey, it’s like a cross-section of the entire United States stuffed into a very small area — fenced-in by heavy industry, ugly sub-divisions, peaceful tidal bays and relaxing shore towns — but with its own very distinct character. And, if you drive around it long enough, you’re bound to see some pretty interesting stuff. This goes for the social and the edible, as well as the geographic and architectural.
For example, every spring, you’ll find aged Italian-Americans risking the wrath of New Jersey State Troopers as they harvest dandelions from the banks and verges of Jersey’s myriad highways and parkways. The first time I saw this I thought it must be part of a program to get the elderly outside and active by having them weed public areas. Then, when I’d learned what they were really doing, I marveled at the genetic lottery these robust octogenarians were winning in spite of eating greens picked from the sides of some of the most heavily trafficked roads in the country. So, even though I was apprehensive — for that reason, as well as only having ingested dandelions previously in the form of the disgusting traditional British beverage Dandelion & Burdock (something my grandparents used to trick me into drinking by telling me it was Coke. Its taste is somewhere between sarsaparilla and rust.)— I figured I should give it a go myself.
Now, I haven’t yet had the privelige of picking my own weeds for dinner as cars and trucks whizz by on the NJ Turnpike, and when I do, you can sure you’ll hear about it right here, but I have experimented with eating dandelions a couple of times. The first was an unmitigated disaster, as their unbelievable bitterness ruined an entire meal: leaching acrid chemicals into the sauce and turning my mouth so far inside-out from the first bite that I spent the rest of the evening scrubbing the insides of my cheeks almost raw with a toothbrush.
But recently, I decided that they deserved a second chance. So, arming ourselves with a little research, as well as a precautionary array of tongue scrubbing devices, we set about turning a large bunch of sandy weeds into a delicious side dish. Happily, after a sound preliminary blanching, the outcome was an enormous improvement on our first, rash experiment. And, as part of a scrumptious early fall dinner of veal chop, rich buttery rosemary-brandy cream sauce, and a frankly beautiful (if I do say so myself) roast turnip, I was delighted to concede that eating weeds can, in fact, be very enjoyable.
Of course, the world needs another basic veal chop recipe like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, needs more frickin’ hipsters, but we have been on kind of a veal chop kick since we returned from Argentina in the spring. It’s an expensive habit for sure now we’re back, but in Buenos Aires, as with all kinds of cattle products, veal is very reasonably priced and is treated with a similar degree of skill as the more famous beef.
One particular veal dish stands out. At the rather trendy-looking Grappa restaurant in the Palermo “Hollywood’ district of BA, Amy had a spectacular grilled veal chop slathered with one of the most mushroomy sauces imaginable. It was as if entire sacks of porcini mushrooms had been somehow liquefied on her plate. The menu described it simply as a chuleta de ternera con crema de hongos and our pathetic (certainly for food and menus) dictionary couldn’t tell us what hongos are.
Still, we knew that we liked them and they were delicious, not to mention that hongos is just a fun word to say, so a couple of days after eating said dish, perusing the shelves of a local almacen, we were excited to find large bags of dried Chilean hongos at rock-bottom prices. It was only after we returned to Brooklyn that we learned that hongos translates as “fungus”, but even with a couple of bags of hongos in our pantry, we’re still not exactly sure what kind of fungus we are the owners of. They look and taste very similar to porcini, so we’re assuming that they are a related species, but research into the differences between hongos and setas (wild mushrooms in Spanish) returns no categorical answer except that taxonomically, mushrooms are fungi and fungi are mushrooms. However, one almost helpful Argentine website informed us that, fungus usually refers either to inedible mushrooms, or to the large (usually subterranean) organism of which the mushroom is but the visible, and gatherable, part. To turn the example above ground, the fungus is the apple tree, the mushroom is the apple.
Anyway, though we, like the fungus, might still be in the dark about many micological issues, we can assure you that should you find hongos on the menu anywhere in the Spanish speaking world, you should eat them, especially if paired with veal and a delicious buttery sauce.
- 1 large bunch dandelion greens, rinsed of sand, patted dry
- 1/2 head (6 large cloves) garlic, roughly sliced
- 2 generous pinches pepperoncino (crushed red/hot pepper flakes)
- 3 tablespoons good olive oil
- 2 quarts/2 liters boiling water
- 3 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Blanch dandelion greens in salted boiling water for 8 minutes
- Drain and immediately immerse in iced-water
- In a large saucepan, place olive oil, garlic and hot pepper and then heat pan to medium
- When garlic begins to color, approximately 4 minutes, drain greens well and add to pan
- With tongs make sure greens are well coated with oil, garlic and olive oil.
- Season with salt and black pepper to taste
- Give it one final stir, and serve with veal, hongos, turnips or your choice of accompaniments.
- Wash down with the wine your uncle homemade in his basement. You know, the stuff that made cousin Vito go blind.
Crema de Hongos – Cream of Wild Mushroom Sauce
- 2oz hongos or nearest similar dried wild mushroom
- 2 cups hot water
- 1/2cup heavy cream
- 3 cloves garlic, finely diced
- 1/4 cup onion, finely diced
- 1/4 cup white wine
- 2oz olive oil
- salt and black pepper
- 2tablespoons unsalted butter
- Pour hot water onto your hongos and allow to steep and rehydrate
- Over medium heat saute onions in olive oil until translucent
- Add garlic and allow to saute nicely
- Drain your hongos but reserve the liquor
- Add hongos to onions and garlic and sweat for around five minutes
- Deglaze the pan with the white wine and allow to reduce almost completely
- Pour pan contents through a fine-meshed sieve or chinoise
- Carefully remove hongos by hand and reserve on a plate before pushing the onions and garlic through the sieve to retain some of their solids and leaving behind their fiber.
- Scrape underside of sieve and return sauce (& solids) to pan at medium heat
- Pour in about 1/2 of your hongo rehydrating liquor (1 cup), boil, and allow to reduce by 3/4, 5-8 minutes
- Add cream and reserved hongos and cook, stirring regularly, for 2 minutes.
- Add butter to sauce and stir until combined and sauce is shiny
- Serve with your grilled/roasted veal chop or any cut of steak or pork you feel like.
- Wash down with a velvety Argentine Malbec to affray artery-clogging properties of so much animal fat.
El Salvador 5802 – Palermo Hollywood, Buenos Aires
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