These are the days without light. The sun shines not even nine hours now, and although I am thankful to no longer be in the high latitudes of Minnesota, I am one of those affected by the seasons. I find myself sleeping more and leaping to irritation (which, I believe, is just west of Modesto) far faster than in the springtime.
The plants of my garden, which are a constant reflection of my mental state, are showing their age, and the rows are dotted with the blackened shapes of those plants kissed by the White Queen’s handmaidens. We even had a visit from the Queen herself the other day: Snow – in Sacramento. First time in a generation, I am told.
But Christmas is almost here, and life has been pretty good to me this year, so complaining and dark thoughts seem petty.
Still, today is the winter solstice. Not having a goat to sacrifice (that comes in spring for our Big Fat Greek Party), I thought I’d celebrate the dark with one of the rarest of culinary presentations: A black meal.
I call this dish Winter Solstice. It has been a long time in the making.
I’d been toying with the notion of making a black meal ever since I learned about black garlic, which is fermented. It has the mellowness of roasted garlic but with a tang to it. My friend Garrett gave me some, and it set my mind spinning. How to best present this new thing?
Soon afterward, black garlic became an “it” ingredient. I began seeing it everywhere in haute cooking. This upped the ante in my mind. Once my competitive juices begin flowing, it is not enough to use a new ingredient — I need to somehow use it in a special way, or fail spectacularly in the attempt. What to pair this garlic with?
Squid ink pasta, of course. I’ve already worked with squid ink pasta a number of times, and I have a favorite dish of black pasta, feta cheese, big strips of basil and chunks of fresh tomato; it’s beautiful. (You can buy squid ink pasta online.)
I now had black pasta and black garlic to work with. This got me thinking about other black foods. It is a truism (albeit a false one) that there is no blue food. But there is plenty of black food, or food that is very nearly black. Grilled blood sausage, also known as “black pudding” or “boudin noir.” Squid ink itself. Huitlacoche, that near-mystical sweet fungus that grows on corn that the Mexicans love so much. There are black radishes, although they are only black on the outside. There are even black sesame seeds and black cumin, which is really the seed of the pretty blue flower nigella.
I happened to have both of those seeds, and I recently bought some dried black trumpet mushrooms, which are in season now; they are black relatives of the chanterelle. I had enough ingredients to make a black dish, but I wanted an excuse.
Solstice was it. I decided to make the garlic into a sauce, sauté the black trumpets with some shallot in olive oil and serve it with the squid ink pasta. Version 1.0 needed some improvement: The squid ink pasta was imported from Italy and I thought it was too thick and gummy. I put too much olive oil in the dish, too, making it a bit greasy, and I could have cleaned the black trumpets better – these are notoriously full of dirt and grit. All fixable problems I have dealt with in the full recipe, which you can find here.
Why bother making this? First off, it’s seasonal, as squid are in season in the Pacific Northwest right now, as are black trumpet mushrooms. Being fermented, black garlic is available anytime, as is dried squid ink pasta.
Second, if you make Winter Solstice and it does not spark conversation at your table you are eating with zombies. Not only is the damn dish jet black, but it is made from relatively esoteric ingredients – yet tastes pretty similar to any pasta-garlic-mushroom dish you might eat in other hues. That’s the beauty of Winter Solstice: It may look freaky, but the flavors are familiar.
If you try this dish, I would love to hear how it went over in your house. As for mine, Holly rarely blinks at anything I put in front of her anymore — even a dish of black pasta, with black mushrooms, dressed with a black garlic sauce.
WINTER SOLSTICE, PASTA with GARLIC and MUSHROOMS
This is a deceptively simple pasta dish that relies on some unusual ingredients: Fermented black garlic, black sesame seeds, squid ink pasta and black trumpet mushrooms. Before you even start, no, there is no substitute for them. That said, You can buy dried black trumpet mushrooms and black garlic from Earthy Delights, here’s where you can buy Black Sesame Seed, and here is where you can buy squid ink pasta.
You need to follow the directions to get the full effect of the flavors. Why bother? It is a striking presentation, alarming and attractive at the same time – plus it is delicious. The squid ink pasta is a bit briny, the trumpet mushrooms have their usual umami punch, bolstered by the black garlic, which is a star of this show: mellow, aromatic (like roasted garlic) and pervasive, nothing comes close to it.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes
- 1 pound squid ink pasta
- 1 head black garlic
- ½ pound fresh black trumpet mushrooms, or 1 ounce dried
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large minced shallot
- 1 teaspoon black sesame seeds
- 1 teaspoon black cumin seeds (optional)
- Kosher salt
- Juice of a lemon
- If you are using dried mushrooms, put them in a bowl and cover with 1-2 cups of water hot from the tap. Cover and let soak for 1-4 hours.
- Toast the black sesame and cumin seeds in a dry pan over medium heat until you can smell them and the first few seeds begin to pop. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Get a large pot of salty water hot.
- When the mushrooms are ready, strain them off and reserve the liquid. Pour the liquid through cheesecloth to remove any grit and then pour it into the pan you toasted the sesame and cumin in (without the seeds) and set it to a boil. You want to reduce it by half.
- Pick over the mushrooms and rinse if needed. Black trumpet mushrooms are notoriously gritty, and you want them as clean as possible. Pat dry and set on paper towels.
- When the mushroom water has boiled down by half, take it off the heat.
- Start boiling your pasta.
- In a food processor, put the peeled cloves from the head of black garlic, a pinch of salt, about 1 teaspoon of shallot, half the cumin and sesame seeds, and a splash of the mushroom water. Buzz to combine. Add about a teaspoon of lemon juice. Add more mushroom water as needed to make a sauce with the consistency of cream, only black. Taste for salt and lemon juice and add if needed.
- Get a large sauté pan hot over medium-high heat. Pat the mushrooms dry again and add them to the pan. Shake it and toss constantly as the mushrooms lose their water. They should squeak a little. When they begin to lose their water, add the olive oil and the shallots and sauté until the shallots just begin to brown.
- Add the garlic sauce, bring it to a simmer and turn off the heat.
- When the pasta is cooked, add it to the sauce and turn on the heat to medium. Toss to combine. Taste and add more lemon juice if needed. Serve at once, with the remaining cumin and sesame seeds on top.