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Melissa MacEwen | The Roaming Fork

Nothing but coelomates

Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 01:02

 Everyone likes phalluses, and everyone likes seafood. So what better way to spend Christmas Eve than with some sea cucumbers?
 My family arranged for our family friend Stefano to join our Christmas Eve dinner, as he was temporarily wifeless. He would be in charge of dessert. Maybe it’s because I’m generally too lazy to make actual entrees, but I make a mean appetizer, and I decided that Christmas Eve would therefore be the perfect night to prepare a sea cucumber amuse-bouche. Obviously. With hours until Stefano’s arrival, it was go time.

 To be fair, this decision wasn’t entirely out of line. In addition to its international reputation as a health food — unsurprising considering its low fat content and high levels of vitamin C — the sea cucumber is also reputed to be able to cure everything from joint pain to hypertension to low male libido. Mostly, though, sea cucumbers are eaten as a delicacy and make appearances at formal gatherings and ceremonies. For my recipe, I decided on a rather intricate recipe from “Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking.” “Sea cucumbers braised with steamed black mushrooms” sounded tasty enough, and with a few adaptations, it would be fairly straightforward to find all of the ingredients.

 Though most sea cucumbers in the California Bay Area are dried, I was lucky enough to find a package of frozen cucumbers at my local Ranch 99 Asian grocery store. They were decidedly underwhelming when I opened the package, but I was relieved that they smelled more like clean sea water than dead marine life.

 Rinsing and slicing the cucumbers took a decidedly philosophical turn when it came time to remove the intestines. Unsurprisingly, sea cucumbers are little more than muscular tubes with a few intestines inside. Still, we humans aren’t really any different. Coelomates for life, my friends.

 The cooking mainly centered on boiling and steaming ingredients at slightly different times, so though there was a lot of measuring and running around, things went pretty smoothly. After the last step, in which I combined the sea cucumbers and the mushrooms before adding the corn starch (which honestly seemed completely unnecessary at the end, and resulted in everything looking a little bit dull and gelatinous), it was the moment of truth. I filled ramekins for myself and my family and grabbed a fork. Before I dug in, though, I hesitated. The cucumber quivered slightly on my fork, sandwiched between a shitake mushroom and a piece of canned bamboo. It was too late to back out, I thought, and I shoved the fork into my mouth.

 I needn’t have hesitated. I honestly loved it. Cooking the cucumbers and the mushrooms in very similar sauces made the entire dish cohesive, but nuanced. The bold earthiness of the mushrooms undercut the tang of the bamboo, and the scallions gave everything a bit of a kick. True to expectation, the cucumbers had picked up the flavor of the sauce, but managed not to be too salty or overpowering. I was quite pleased with myself. Most surprising was just how unintimidating the cucumbers managed to be once combined into the dish — they were camouflaged by the mushrooms, and their mild, slightly rubbery texture tasted eerily similar to rice noodles.

 Though I think I enjoyed this dish considerably more than my family or poor Stefano, ―whose dessert was delicious, by the way. ― I would make this again in a heartbeat. I might be too scared to try to prepare cucumber with different accompanying ingredients lest it disrupt the dish’s balance, but I’m sure cucumber would also be delicious with a number of other vegetable pairings.

Join me next time for taro!  

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