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Obviously Omaha

October 13, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Most holiday foods fall under the heading of “comfort food.” Turkey, ham, or roast beast. Green bean casserole, stuffing, dressing, mounds of mash pitilessly drowned in a deluge of homemade gravy. But if Americans know how to do anything well, it is coming up with something unique for the holiday table. Some dishes are a rite of passage, if we’re being honest. Who really enjoys cranberry sauce, fruitcake, or gingerbread outside of the holiday season? While candy canes are the candy corn and circus peanuts of Christmas, some foods are stunts: When America gets bored, turkeys get “turducken-ed” or fried; pies and cakes are baked with cakes and/or pies inside; riddles are wrapped in mysteries, stuffed in enigmas, covered in brown sugar, and baked. Here are five beloved, unusual holiday foods available in the Omaha metro.

herringsalatHeringssalat
Heringssalat (herring salad). What could be more Christmassy than a dish from the land of ice, snow, midnight sun, flowing hot springs, and Sinterklaas? From Westphalia to Ragnarok, proud Nordics enjoy this traditional End Times dish at many family occasions, but especially on New Year’s Eve to remind themselves that no matter how bad life gets, one can always stop eating heringssalat. For the basic version, fold together pickled herring chunks, bread and butter pickles, apples, and onion. Mix in mayonnaise at the last minute to “keep it fresh.” Advanced optional mix-ins include cream, sour cream, beets, capers, mustard, potatoes, eggs, or leftover meat. A good pickled herring is worth its weight in gelt; try Absolutely Fresh Seafood (1218 S. 119th St.) or Omaha’s go-to ziel für Deutsch küche, Gerda’s (5180 Leavenworth St.).

frogeyesaladFrog eye salad
Frog eye salad is very popular in Utah, where alcohol is not, and no celebration would be complete without several versions of this classic—including the one like grandma’s and the one your health-conscious cousin makes that no one ever eats, but she keeps making anyway. The base is orzo pasta (or any pasta resembling frog’s eyes), whipped cream, pineapple juice, and mandarin oranges. Maraschino cherries may be added. Ask for Mike in the deli at Wohlner’s (3253 Dodge St.), hand him a recipe for your favorite variant, and he’ll make a salad Joseph Smith would love.

torroneTorrone
After the Feast of Seven Fishes, blood sugar levels can drop. Enter the Sicilian nougat. Torrone is like a Mars Bar without the chocolate or popularity. Orange, honey, vanilla, almonds, and/or pistachios make it distinct. Candy-making is an intense business, and results vary. If you’d like to buy locally try around. Orsi’s Italian Bakery (621 Pacific St.) orders several cases for the holidays.   

turkishdelightTurkish delight
The Ottoman Empire was not famous for producing great Christmas dishes. Rahat loukoum, aka Turkish delight, is the exception. This 250-year-old recipe of gelled starch and sugar is flavored with rosewater, cinnamon, bergamot, or fruit. Dusted with powdered sugar, nobility used to gift rahat loukoum in a handkerchief. Nerds love Turkish delight because the White Witch fed it to Edward in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. On paper, it sounds disgusting. In reality, people either love it or despise it. Especially during the holidays, it’s available in Omaha at the Mediterranean & European Grocery (8601 Blondo St.) and Green Land Market (4087 S. 84th St.). Call ahead to check availability. Enjoy!

menudoMenudo
Menudo is a Mexican tripe soup made with cow’s feet, onions, garlic, guajillo, and cumin. A popular hangover cure year-round, it’s popular when all is quiet—except for your pounding head—on New Year’s Day. Sip the broth or enjoy the chunks of slowly simmered cow stomach and your headache will become an afterthought in a hurry. Delicious! Try it at Victor’s (3223 Q St.) on Saturdays only, and at El Aguila (1837 Vinton St.) every day. Most authentic Mexican restaurants sell their own, so check around and call ahead for large quantities.

Hunting Fall Oyster Mushrooms

October 7, 2016 by
Photography by Doug Meigs

Fall is the season when local woodland wanderers stock cellars with oyster mushrooms. These fungi are no secret to Nebraska mushroom hunters. The white-to-tan fan-shaped, or oyster-shell shaped, mushrooms sprout from the sides of trees and logs. Given the right conditions, they will even pop through snowmelt. A single find is often bountiful; a good haul of oyster mushrooms can exceed 20 pounds. They can be dried, pickled, or canned. They pair well with nearly every dish. Oyster mushrooms make an extra-special stuffing for your Thanksgiving guests.

Chris Wright is a mycologist with special interest in oyster mushrooms. Wright has a Ph.D. in plant, soil, and microbial sciences and is the executive director of Midwest American Mycological Information. He researches how oyster mushrooms break down biopollutants.

Patrick McGee approaches a tree laden with oyster mushrooms.

Patrick McGee approaches a tree laden with oyster mushrooms.

Wright also regularly finds and eats wild oyster mushrooms. He points out three species of these mushrooms in the Midwest region: Pleurotus ostreatus (the predominant species), Pleurotus populinus (characterized by a white to pink fan), and Pleurotus pulmonarius (the so-called lung-shaped oyster). They are not difficult to identify. Wright says decurrent gills (those running down the stalk) are a distinguishing characteristic of oyster mushrooms. The fungi also have a white to lilac spore print on paper. Wright says it is difficult to mistake something poisonous for oyster mushrooms; however, there is one poisonous look-alike that mushroom hunters should be aware of—Pleurocyubella porrigens.

When asked where to find oyster mushrooms, Wright says, “Look in the woods or on your supermarket shelf.” He also says oyster mushrooms are saprotrophic—they recycle nutrients locked up in woody matter, i.e., “They are a wood rot fungus.”

Oyster mushrooms can be found on ash, aspen, cottonwood, and poplar trees. They will push through the bark of trees after a cold rain. They can sometimes be found in public parks and in neighborhoods, especially on freshly cut trees. Sustainable harvesting requires removal of only the fruiting body and allowing some mushrooms to remain for reproduction.

Wild or domestic, they’ve become a popular commodity. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 2015 to 2016, the nation’s oyster mushroom production measured roughly 3,749 tons. In 2016, the total value of oyster mushroom sales surpassed $36 million. Whether you buy them or find them, Wright says they all smell “mushroomy.”

“It is a mild smell. Not a strong odor,” he says. “They will pick up the flavor of what’s cooking—garlic, etc.”

He says they have a relatively soft texture and are a nice complement to stir fry or steak. Wright thinks that wild oyster mushrooms differ from commercial mushrooms.

Wild oyster mushrooms grow in a great variety of hues, like a fall bouquet. They smell like rainfall—a trait that cannot be substituted. They are biochemically unique and may play a role in cleaning our planet. Native to the Great Plains, they are delicious and easy to find during this time of year.

Visit midwestmycology.org/Mushrooms/Species%20listed/Pleurotus%20species.html for more information. 

Disclaimer: Some varieties of wild mushrooms are poisonous, even deadly. If you choose to harvest or eat wild mushrooms, do so at your own risk.

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