Oceanic Oyster mushroom Gnocchi

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“I don’t like hyenas. They’re so ugly! They just look vicious,” the French-Canadian man stated.  That was how the argument started. Bev, the lovely Australian cruiser, chimed in against the hyena. I wasn’t having any of it.  Hyenas fascinate me.  This maligned straw-man of the Serengeti.  Everyone thinks of them as canine, but they are genetically closer to cats.  It always upset me how people just assumed that they were mean and evil because they didn’t fit our paradigm of beauty.

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I had wanted desperately to see them on my safari in Etosha park in Namibia.  We saw everything else– a leopard, lions, rhinos, elephants, and almost every other large animal in the park.  All but hyenas.  The lone hyena we had seen was all-but invisible through the torrential rain.

I was delighted that Havana’s zoo had a pack.  Several leggy hyenas paced in one cage.  A crowd of people gathered around watching the animals.  Adjacent to the popular animals was another cage which held a lone animal.  The petite creature stood gazing wistfully out utterly ignoring the juicy steaks laid on the ground.

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With over-sized saucer-ears and a rounded black nose that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a plush teddy-bear, the hyena had a sweet, almost chow-like face.  Her dark eyes gazed up at me and she shuffled over to the cage’s corner where I was standing.

I put my palm up to the cage and the tan snout delicately sniffed it before making a little “whuff.”  The teddy bear nose pressed closer into the fence’s large openings and a cold, wet nose brushed my hand. Moments later the hyena lay down next to the fence.  I felt badly for the poor thing.  This pack animal was being kept separate from her friends.  Sure she could see other hyenas, but no contact.

Almost without thinking, I reached through the wire and gave her back a tentative scratch, watching carefully to see her reaction.  The spotted girl stretched her paw forward and leaned into my hand.  She couldn’t have shown enjoyment more clearly if she had used words.

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The coarse, shaggy coat was stiff against my fingers as I continued to pet the good girl. In a clear, “no here,” the hyena rolled over on her back for a tummy rub. I, of course, obliged and she stretched her neck out, closing her eyes.

15 minutes I pet the hyena while a brazen stray cat munched her steak lunch.  Suddenly she opened her mouth and I immediately withdrew my hand.  What was she doing?  Still on her back, she bit at the wire fence between the two cages. I watched amazed as the young girl rolled over onto her feet, carefully closed her jaws around a metal bar, lifted it and drew it to one side.  She was trying to open the door!  I wished I had more time to get to know her but the others wanted to see the rest of the zoo as well.

What possessed me to pet a hyena?  Well, I really wasn’t thinking.  It did just happen organically, looking back a number of factors made me do it.

1. Zoo patrons could go directly up to the cage. For the big cats, raptors, monkeys, crocodiles, and other clearly dangerous animals barricades prevented silly patrons from animal/patron contact

2. She clearly had had a good deal of human contact

3. The hyena initiated the contact. That said, I was still wary of any change in her behavior.  Wild animals are wild, even if they are in a zoo.  In other words, don’t try this at home kids.

Havana zoo may not be the best-funded zoo, but it is unquestionably the most interesting zoo I have been to and certainly the most hands-on.  Aside from the hyena, a zoo keeper let me pet a hippo who ambled over to the fence and the deer and antelope were all quite happy with people giving them handfuls of grass.

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Many of the cages did not look particularly nice or natural, though the park was wooded and did have nature surrounding. However the animals did seem sleek and well-cared for and many of them had babies or young ones.  The jaguar had two blue-eyed cubs, there were young lionesses in the lions cage, as well as numerous others.

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By the time we left the zoo my companions were singing a different tune about hyenas.  Intelligent, sweet and altogether misunderstood, we all agreed.

As we were leaving the zoo I spotted oyster mushrooms.  I didn’t feel entirely right taking them, but Bev talked me into it.  No one else was going to eat them.  After all, we had seen older oyster mushrooms in several other places in the zoo. Mycology clearly wasn’t popular in Cuba.  After agonizing over the decision for a few minutes I finally decided that we were going to have an oyster gnocchi pasta for dinner.

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This really is a post of don’t try this at home.  My parents are mycologists so I grew up learning about mushrooms.  I would never have picked wild mushrooms if I hadn’t been certain what they were.  That said oyster mushrooms are delicious.  You can buy them in more and more groceries and farmers markets around the world.  They are white and have a faint odor and delicate flavor of oysters hence their name oyster mushrooms.

Fresh mushrooms do make a delightful change in the everyday fare and I was overjoyed to make a dish around these “choice edibles,” as the mycologists call them.  Altogether it was a fantastic first full day in Havana.  I may not have seen anything of the legendary city or its famed culture, architecture, history, or music, but going off the beaten path and improvising is what life is all about.  Right?

I never travel with fresh mushrooms, but I absolutely love cooking with whatever fresh local delights I find.  If you manage to pick up some oyster mushrooms in your travels, this is a delicious way to cook them.  Even if not, the wine sauce is pretty tasty by itself

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Oceanic Oyster mushroom Gnocchi

1 package gnocchi
1⁄2 onion
1⁄4 c butter
2 cloves garlic
1 lb. oyster mushrooms, cleaned and chopped into bite-sized chunks
2 c white wine
1 t corn starch
1 t thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese

Cook gnocchi in boiling water about 7 minutes
Drain and set aside
Sauté onions and garlic in 1T butter about 3 minutes in large skillet
Stir in salt, pepper, and thyme
Add oyster mushrooms and butter, sauté another 2 minutes
Mix corn starch into wine, stirring well
Pour wine mixture into skillet and cook another 5 minutes over medium-low heat
Divide gnocchi onto plates
Pour sauce over each plate
Sprinkle dried cranberries over dishes

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