Authors Posts by Ari LeVaux

Ari LeVaux


Finding and cooking morels

Morels can be found deep in the forest, and proliferate after a burn. Photo by Ari LeVaux.

By Ari LeVaux

The morel mushrooms of summer are here. These charming growths upon the forest floor look like gnomes from a magical land, creatures that would have fabulous stories to tell if only they could talk. But cooking is the only way to hear them. This shouldn’t be a problem, because morels are extraordinarily delicious. But too many people are intimidated by them, and don’t even give it a shot. And then there are the fearless chefs who add morels to already busy dishes, like a spicy coconut curry or lentil soup, where nobody will taste it.

That kind of attitude will get you in trouble if you’re out actually trying to find a morel, a practice that consists of wandering through a burned forest (most commercially harvested morels are from burns), up and over blackened ridges, trying to avoid getting bopped on the head by a standing burned tree, called a widow maker, that may decide to fall. I’ve been chased by moose, lost, dehydrated and run out of food, all while hunting mushrooms. Picking them is no picnic.

A measure of caution is surely warranted with morels, both in the field and in the kitchen. The flavor must be coaxed out gently, with butter, onions and wine, and little else.

At first bite the earthly origins are clear. A morel tastes of all things forest, with hints of decaying wood, deer poop, minerals and moss. The story they would tell would be a complex tale, of morel spores everywhere, deep in forest floors, waiting for a fire to sweep through the trees above so they can fruit prolifically on the forest floor. The first wave of morels to grow in a burn are called black morels, which are actually brown. The same burn will usually have another flush later in the summer, filled with the so-called gray morels, which are darker than the blacks, and the stems are double-walled. And then sometimes there will be a third wave of so-called green morels, aka “pickles,” which look almost the same as the grays but have three walls. But that is more than anyone but the morel nerds need to know.

Cooked properly, morels are the great outdoors incarnate, wild and bold, like the crew of mushroom pickers I joined in Alaska in 2006. It was the summer after six million acres burned, along the Taylor Highway between Tok and Chicken. Many of the things that went down at Camp Happy Mosquito, and in the blackened forests, brown rivers and smoky saloons in the vicinity, will have to remain where they occurred in order to protect the guilty.

But I’ll give you this instead: Go buy some morels that somebody else picked, ideally straight from the picker, for a taste of wild forest distillate. Pump some money into an industry that runs on hard work, sweat and risk, and depends on healthy forests—as buying wild salmon supports conservation in coastal watersheds. This time of year, wild morels are available at farmers’ markets throughout the West, and grocery stores everywhere. When you have your morels in hand, try this recipe and enjoy.



1 cup morels, either whole or sliced. Note: You can stretch out your morel supply by adding regular, button mushrooms to the morels.

¼ cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon butter

Zest and squeeze of ¼ lemon

½ medium yellow onion, minced

Pinch of nutmeg

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup dry sherry or white wine

Melt the butter in a heavy bottom pan. Add onion and fungus. Cook together until onions are translucent and the morels start to give up their moisture—about 10 minutes. At the slightest hint of a dry pan, add sherry, and more butter if it needs it. Add nutmeg, zest and a squeeze of lemon. Cook a moment and add the cream. Cook five more minutes, season with salt and pepper and serve.

What you serve it with doesn’t really matter. You could toss them with noodles or heap them alongside meat or vegetables, or atop a hunk of good bread, which should be involved so that every last drop of sauce can be enjoyed to the max. After all, a lot of ecological processing and human effort went into it.

And when the season ends and we’re left with dried morels, they can be easily rehydrated and cooked the same way. Heat up some water or stock, about a quarter cup at a time, and when it starts to simmer, pour it on the morels. Toss and cover. If they absorb all of the liquid, repeat, tossing them gently whenever liquid begins to pool. Wait an hour, adding as much liquid as they will take, but not too much.

’Tis the season for pickling

It’s time to hit your favorite farmers’ market, grab some veggies and get pickling. Photo by Robert Judge.

By Ari LeVaux

Pickling can happen any time there are ripe veggies for the picking. Now it’s cucumber season, which lasts basically all summer long. Beans are upon us, too. Soon come the pickled peppers, large batches in large jars, sometimes with carrots. Then maybe some beets.  

Vinegar pickles are a versatile way to go that can accommodate anything you could want to eat pickled, from cauliflower to kohlrabi, not to mention the asparagus that’s already come and gone. I do all of my pickling in basically the same go-to brine recipe. With small adjustments here or there, it works for pretty much anything.

Ari’s Pickle Principles

Use Kirby-style, aka pickling cucumbers—the kind with the little bumps/spikes on them. These can withstand higher temperatures, without getting soggy, than slicing cukes. They should be small, no more than five inches long and an inch or so wide, and fresh.

Pack the washed cucumbers into clean, sterile quart jars, leaving an inch of headspace at the top. The brine is half water and half vinegar, with the vinegar part being half cider vinegar and half white wine vinegar. I like the cider vinegar for the flavor, but if you want the visual of a pristine white brine, use only white wine vinegar.

Heat the brine on medium, adding sugar a little at a time until it doesn’t quite taste sweet but takes the edge off the vinegar—about a tablespoon per quart. While the brine heats, add a tablespoon of mustard seeds to each jar, and a tablespoon of salt. When the brine reaches a boil, pour it into the jars so it covers the veggies and still leaves a half-inch of headspace; screw on the lids. Process in a water bath for 15 minutes (for cukes).

Living life on a pickle’s edge isn’t for everyone, and for liability reasons I need to stress that if you even consider not cooking your pickles you will immediately contract botulism and your house will burst into flames. If you cook your cukes, they can still come out crispy enough if you use Kirbys that are young and fresh, and add a grape or horseradish leaf, for example. And if those aren’t crispy enough, keep a batch of fridge pickles going. Or maybe it’s time to venture into sour pickles, which aren’t cooked either. The lazy crispy pickle.

Cooking spinach by the handful

This time of year, spinach is in abundance. Photo by Ari LeVaux.

By Ari LeVaux

Spinach, the meatiest of vegetables, is finally in season. The fleshy leaves of spring spinach are juicy with a potent green serum that’s high in iron and exceptionally rich in chlorophyll, which is a close chemical relative to hemoglobin, the red stuff in blood.

This time of year, spinach is so abundant that one can cook with it by the handful. Spring spinach comes in waves, the first of which was planted last summer as a fall crop, and coaxed through the winter under a blanket of snow. In spring, the overwintered spinach rages to life, with juicy leaves that are as sweet as they are lusty.

These leaves grew from roots that were well-established last fall, as opposed to the second wave of spinach, planted months ago in greenhouses. It’s about the same size as the overwintered spinach, but lacks the experience and terroir of the elder plants, which have had more time to accumulate nutrients.

Young spinach, including the so-called baby spinach that’s all the rage, is very convenient. It barely needs washing or any form of prep, and is as tender as veal. It may not have the sweetness of an overwintered spinach, but neither does it have the bitterness.

In terms of nutrition, baby greens are “basically water,” explained a farmer friend of mine, who prefers to be nameless due to the fact that his farm supplies about half of the salad mix in town.

“They aren’t as good for you as a plant that’s lived through the winter.”

He let me raid his field of overwintered spinach. The leaves were like plump, strong teenagers, in the prime of youth and vitality. Many of the stems were a vibrant shade of pinkish red, betraying their relatedness to chard, not to mention sugar beets. This is the stuff. Green gold.

The final wave of springtime spinach hits right before the solstice, when the field spinach gets big and leafy. It won’t be as sweet as overwintered spinach, but it will be just as meaty. In August it will be time again to plant for fall and, hopefully, a spring crop. My friend’s spinach, which overwintered so beautifully, was the Tyee variety.

Assuming you have the good stuff, then, what to do?

If you can get the good stuff, the overwintered green crème, then I’d recommend a very simple pesto with nothing more than spinach, olive oil and salt. This is a spectacular way to enjoy the subtle complexity of an overwintered spinach, like a vegetal blood transfusion in your mouth.

The leaves of springtime spinach clean easily. A blemish or two on a leaf can be tolerated in pesto, the sausage of plant foods.

If your spinach is good but not quite top level, a more typical pesto with nuts, cheese, garlic and zest will be a very satisfying way to enjoy the season. I’ve also had great results by simply combining fresh spinach pesto au natural with year-old basil pesto from the freezer.

The next recipe comes by way of friends in Bhutan, a little Buddhist country in the Himalayas where chile is king and cheese is queen, and all other foods are cooked in a combination thereof.

Those big bags of dried Mexican chiles that can be purchased in many box stores have become a lifeline to the Bhutanese diaspora. And to a lesser extent so have the bags of pre-grated “Mexican cheese blend.” I went to my local store and got little ounce-sized bags of dried Anaheim, New Mexico and ancho chiles. The store also had organic Mexican cheese blend.

The iron in spinach, while abundant, isn’t always accessible to the consumer. Cooking spinach with foods that are high in vitamin C helps make that iron more accessible. And chile pepper, it turns out, is high in vitamin C.

Bhutanese-style spinach with chile and cheese

1 to 3 ounces of dried red chile

4 handfuls of spinach

½ to 1 cup Mexican cheese blend (or ¼ – ½ cup feta)

Salt (unless using feta)

Water or stock

Cooking oil

First, get the chile soaking. Rip out the stem ends of the pods, tearing off the good bits of flesh and discarding the stems, inner seed heads and as many seeds as you wish for the desired heat level. Tear up the leathery walls of the chile pods or leave them intact, depending on how avoidable you want the pepper pieces to be. Cover with water and soak.
Meanwhile, mince a medium-sized onion and sauté it in olive oil and maybe a little butter. Add the half-soaked chile and allow to cook, covered, with the onions. After about five minutes on medium heat, add two or three handfuls of spinach—as many as you can fit in the pan—in whole leaf form. If things are on the dry side, add water or stock, a half-cup at a time, until the pan bubbles with deliciousness. Cover.
After about five minutes, the spinach will have cooked down. Add more spinach if you can push it in, ideally another handful or two, and then add the cheese—1/2 to 1 cup of Mexican blend, depending on how big your cheese tooth is. Some Bhutanese expats will occasionally use feta—if so, mind the salt. Cover again for about five minutes, then stir until all of the cheese has melted into the sauce.
Add more water or stock as necessary so it doesn’t dry out. If the cheese burns, it will be a chewy, lumpy mess; but if the pan is properly hydrated, the cheese will dissolve into a luxurious cheesy gravy. Add salt to taste and serve with jasmine or basmati rice—or better yet, Bhutanese red rice.

Nettle soup for the soul

’Tis the season to find, and cook, nettles. Photo by Ari LeVaux.

By Ari LeVaux

The Paleolithic diet, in recent years, has basically clubbed America upside the head and dragged many of us around by our hair. Swept us off of our feet, as it were. The idea of consuming a diet based on what early humans might have eaten has captured the imaginations and bellies of many, including the scavengers.

I guess I’ve taken it as a given that our ancestors were feasting on wild game 24/7. But in many primitive societies, past and present, anthropologists have noted that the village gatherers regularly outperform the hunters. Springtime is an especially good time to forage, because the landscape is rich in edible shoots. Nettles evoke caution, thanks to their being covered with ant bite venom. But cooking them will take care of that problem, and what is left is a nutrient-dense plant full of forest umami, spring tonic and fiber. Enjoy this nettle soup recipe.

Paleo Vegan Nettle Soup

One large onion, sliced

Two large carrots, sliced

Three stalks of celery, sliced

One clove of garlic, grated or pressed

Olive oil and/or butter

Mushroom stock

Freshly gathered nettles

Cumin, garlic powder, salt and pepper

Saute onions in butter or olive oil (or both). When they are translucent, add carrots, celery and a quart or so of stock, and simmer, with about a teaspoon each of cumin and garlic powder. Meanwhile, blanch and shock the nettles. When the carrots are soft, add the fresh garlic, stir it around and kill the heat. When cool enough to blend, puree the whole thing. Puree the nettles separately and stir them in. Adjust seasonings. Serve with a big ol’ dollop of Vegenaise.  



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