Foodie Tuesday: Monster Salads

Photo: Awesome Autumn Salad

I call it Awesome Autumn Salad, not only because it’s impressively tasty but also given the stupendous quantity of it I’m capable of consuming when in the mood.

Fear not! I neither dine with nor on monsters if I can help it. But I will happily prepare and feast on a salad that’s big enough for any monster since I am willfully delusional about salads being lower-calorie options than most other sorts of meals. You will see from my photos and comments that this is clearly a lie: I love to add cheese, nuts, eggs, bacon, leftover casserole hunks, and endless other ingredients that give salads just as much artery-busting potential as any other dish. And don’t get me started ranting about how if a salad dressing’s supposed to be worthy of my salad, it might as well be worth eating (or drinking) on its own, since I will likely use enough of it to make it an actual menu item too.

Given all the disclaimers, you might think I mistook the very concept of Salad for another thing entirely, and perhaps you are right, if we’re going to be all strict about it. But that’s just the point, for me. I like to think of salad as the perfect opportunity for improvisation and combining as many of my favorite edibles in one dish as I like. And if you think I also mistook pulling up a chair to write a post on the blog for walking into a confessional, then you clearly haven’t read around here much before, because that’s no mistake, it’s just the way I always operate.

Enough asides. To food! Salad, or an approximation thereof, to be specific.

The Awesome Autumn Salad above is, like most around our house, Romaine-based. Typically, I like to add an assortment from the following: chopped celery and cucumbers, shredded carrots, sliced yellow or red capsicums, sliced black olives, raw or lightly cooked sweet corn kernels, chopped sugar snap peas, salted sunflower seeds, sprouted pumpkin seeds, and sometimes a bit of chopped boiled egg or grated cheddar cheese. The dressing is really what makes this one for me. It’s a combination of thick, sweet balsamic vinegar and Styrian toasted pumpkinseed oil. Sheer heaven! I usually blend mine with thyme, dill, mustard seeds, and coarsely ground black pepper. I’ll throw a big pinch of Maldon sea salt over the salad and toss it all lightly before eating, and I can put away an astonishing amount of this crunchy madness when I’m good and hungry for it.

Photo: Bit-Part Salad

This one gets the moniker Bit-Part Salad; greens play only a supporting role in it, and there are bits and pieces of innumerable other goodies piled on it.

While I am worlds away from believing that to be a salad, a dish must have fresh greens in it, I do like the leafy sort. Especially when it’s piled to the skies with all manner of crunchy and flavorful goodness in the range of added ingredients. And particularly-specifically-especially when it contains a refreshing element of contrast.

The Bit-Part Salad here was a room-temperature conglomeration of grainy goodness with veg, fruit, cheeses, nuts, and more. I broth-cooked wild rice in some of my slow cooker broth, the latter made with both marrow bones and chicken wings as a winning combo that came together incredibly richly. And made a monstrous mess of the cooker, the counter, the floor, and my nerves in the process, all during only the second time I used that brand new cooker. Perhaps there was a monster in the kitchen after all. No matter. I made the wild rice, then steamed a batch of quinoa with lemon and orange zests, cinnamon and cardamom and roasted coriander, and then I combined the two with beurre noisette, in case they weren’t already ridiculously tasty. Instead of mashing every other ingredient to an unrecognizable pulp or plating everything together tediously for every eater, I opted for my preferred mise-en-place mode of putting out a counter-full of ingredients and letting each person customize his or her salad.

My Bit-Part Salad was thus: a bed of lettuce and wild rice-quinoa mix. Heaps on top of it. Chopped Bosc pear marinated in elderflower syrup and cardamom; suprêmes of blood orange; pomegranate arils. Toasted walnuts and piñons. Celery, snap peas, cucumber, and a squeeze of lime juice. Minced fresh mint and basil. Grated Reggiano and myzithra cheeses. Coarsely ground black pepper and salt. Triple orange dressing. Enough bits of surprise and pleasure to keep even me guessing, each bite having a different little confluence of flavors and textures and perfumes.

This, perhaps, is the defining character I love most in a salad: that it should offer the ideal counterpoint to the other parts of the meal, or—if it is itself the whole meal—that the salad should be filled with delightful contrasts. Opposites in texture, yes…crumbly, soft, crackling and crisp or smooth or juicy. Contrasting flavor types, from at least a couple of the Five Tastes if not more. I will draw the line at combining things that seem to compete with each other. If one element is overpowering all the others then I’d just say Serve it by itself, let it shine, and don’t waste any other good stuff! If the salad has a noticeable leaning in style or ethnicity, save the alien invasions for another dish, another meal.

I’ve posted about salads plenty of times before and listed for you a number of my preferred inclusions, so this is perhaps only an update. If I say I’m boiling it down to a few choice currencies, fear not; I will undoubtedly be happy to throw actual boiled ingredients in with any others, as well as blanched, fried, steamed, toasted, or smoked ones. But it’s hard to beat the beauty of starting with a lovely heap of raw, fresh vegetables and/or fruits and never a bad idea to do that whether there are add-ins, throw-ons, and other edible accessories and decorations or not.

Photo: Flash-fried Salad

Or keep it super-simple…flash-fried fresh spinach and basil leaves, topped with a bit of Shichi-mi tōgarashi or plain toasted sesame seeds—or nothing.

Foodie Tuesday: Smoke & Miracles

Y’all, I know I don’t have to tell you that since moving to Texas I have become nigh unto obsessed with, if not possessed by, a certain kind of Texas BBQ—central TX style beef. Smoked beef of certain cuts, to be more specific, and those cuts, prepared by the Kreuz and Lockhart family of pits, to be precise. Brisket, burnt ends, and beef belly, Oh MY! If you’re not a carnivore, I will simply tell you that the umami jammed into beef by means of the proprietary rub-and-smoke ingredients and processes of these meat-mystics is akin to combining all of the known vegan or vegetarian Fifth Taste elements (not to be confused with The Fifth Element, though that has its admittedly tasty moments as well) and letting a flock of angels swim around in it for a while before serving. All told, it makes good sense to me to post a paean to this fabulous stuff on a day dedicated to love.

Photo: Lockhart's Best

Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em: Texas BBQ has a good foothold in heaven.

Kreuz/Lockhart beef is so good that I can add nothing meaningful by making “recipes” for food with it, and once in my greedy hands it would never last long enough to get from its brown paper wrapper all the way to my kitchen anyhow (see note‡ below)

Here’s my Lockhart take on an Old Fashioned. Hope you like it; Lockhart’s spectacular smoked meats deserve all of the signature taste treats they can get for further exposure and dining/drinking pleasure. Bacon’s dandy, but it’s no substitute for Lockhart goodies. Not that I’m prejudiced or anything.

Miss Kitty’s Smokin’ Lockhart Old-Fashioned (Miss Kitty’s SLO, for short)
2 tsp Miss Kitty’s Smokin’ Lockhart Simple Syrup (recipe below)*
1 tsp liquid from Texas Candy-Krisp Jalapeños
2 or more dashes orange bitters, optional
1 jigger (1.5 fl oz) Herman Marshall Texas Bourbon Whiskey
Stir these ingredients together and add ice.

Twist a good hunk of orange zest over the top of the drink.
Garnish with an orange slice and a Texas Candy-Krisp Jalapeño.
I hope I don’t have to tell y’all it’s time to drink the potion!

Photo: Smokin' Syrup

I don’t think any of us really need Martha Stewart’s help to understand that syrups, simple or not, are a Good Thing.

* Miss Kitty’s Smokin’ Lockhart Simple Syrup
(My invention, and danged tasty if I do say so myself. And, naturally, I do.)

Put “leftover” ‡Note: (HA!—more likely, better get some ‘specially for this recipe, or you’ll eat it all before you can do anything else with it, like I usually do) Lockhart beef belly, burnt ends, and/or brisket in a pot or—better yet—a slow cooker, and cover with water. Simmer for at least three hours, adding water as needed to keep the meat all covered and get maximum broth from it. When it’s concentrated enough to smell like you crawled into the Lockhart smoker for a nap, strain the meat and fat out of the liquid, put the liquid into a suitable stovetop pot (nonstick is handy for syrups), add an equal amount of granulated sugar, and cook it together over medium to medium-high heat until the sugar’s all melted and it begins to bubble, but don’t scorch it. You’ve got enough built-in smoke from the meat not to want to spoil that smoky goodness.

If it’s too thick when done, blend in a little more water, and if it’s not thick enough, melt in a bit more sugar. When it’s cooled, you’ll probably need to skim off the fat that stayed on the meat-strained liquid. Not an exact science here, but a fine art. This stuff is so freaking delicious, I use it like honey on toast or cornbread, syrup on waffles, and whatever else comes into my tiny head before I just lick the spoon.

Photo: Beef Belly, Baby!

Yeah, you heard me, Beef Belly, Baby!

And just in case you’ve never seen this classic moment of Old Fashioned comedic history:
(Jim Backus & co. in a delightful little scene from It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.)

Cheers from here!

Foodie Tuesday: Two Soups = Twice as Super

Photo: Roasted Veg for DinnerI’m experimenting with various vegetable combinations lately, for whatever reason, and finding more and more of them that please me than ever before. That said, no recipe or variation thereon is guaranteed to be ideal, either in its as-written form or to my personal taste. To wit: a split pea soup recipe I tried out recently.

Unlike my normal practice, I followed the recipe pretty much to the letter, the only change being to substitute russet for fingerling potatoes in lieu of an extra, last-minute run to the grocery store. This alone undoubtedly did skew the recipe, because of course russets or baking potatoes are mealy and liquid-stealing by nature, and I knew that the resulting blend would require a little more of its liquid to arrive intact…so I adjusted that amount very slightly and accounted for the concomitant change in seasoning with a pinch or two extra as needed.

Now, I grew up with split peas as a thick porridge or stew rather than a watery soup, so I had no worry about the stuff turning out thick, which it did. But this was no stick-to-my-ribs hearty porridge, only grainy and mealy slushiness. Worse, it was, as my superhero supertaster of a spouse agreed, the superlative of blandness. Even he couldn’t detect enough flavor in this mixture to warrant eating a whole pot of it, fresh or reheated.Photo: In a Maelstrom of Soup Madness

I will not, however, be defeated by a bunch of boring and dull-textured vegetables. Still, I had other meals to make in the meantime, so the remainder of that dinner went into the fridge to sit in the naughty corner and think about its misdeeds in the dark for a day or two. I had roasted vegetables to make.

This is something I crave in the cooler months, or what passes for such things in Texas. It’s one of my favorite ways to boost the flavor and character of not only the individual veg themselves when straight out of the oven but also the dishes to which I can add some or all of them later as slightly caramelized booster versions of themselves. This time I prepped a two-pan batch for the oven. One was a mix of thickly julienned potatoes and carrots and onion with a touch of garlic plus a paste made by blending turmeric, smoked paprika, a little smoked salt, and yellow mustard (the vinegary American kind) with a spoonful of my homemade veg broth (also turmeric-and-paprika tinged in this batch). I stirred those all together with a few brown mustard seeds, and stuck them in a big baking dish.

Joining this pan in the oven was another, filled with asparagus spears, julienned celery and red capsicum, quartered brown mushrooms, a small handful of broccoli flowerets, and pitted black olives. This got a good spoonful of veg broth in the bottom to keep the onions and garlic from over-roasting. Then, I dressed over the whole admixture with a sprinkling of dill, a slick of light-style Italian vinaigrette, and a sliced whole lemon.Photo: Thick & Hearty Asparagus-Mushroom Soup

Having these two ready at dinnertime, all I wanted to round out the meal was a light, crisp salad of romaine leaves and sweet kernel corn, lightly toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and piñons (pine nuts), a grind of black pepper, and my orange-orange-orange salad dressing (a puree of blood orange olive oil, blood orange vinegar, and canned mandarins in their super-sweet no-sugar-added fruit juice).

The asparagus mix went well together, but as roasted vegetables sometimes do, lost its good looks in the ‘old age’ of just-past-dinnertime, so I chopped it all up (except for the limp lemon rinds), poured some more veg broth in with it, and sealed it up overnight in the fridge to meld together. This, in turn, brings me back to redesigning or rehabilitating a dish from past days in a way that pleases better than mere reheating. For today’s lunch, I took out that batch of Asparagus and Friends, pureed it all together with a little extra water to make it less fork-meal and more spoonable, and it made a fine asparagus-mushroom soup, whose lemony intensity I balanced with a garnish of the aforementioned sweet corn and a flourish of cracked black pepper.Photo: Curried Cream of Split Peas

Meanwhile, back at the Land of the Lonesome Pease-porridge…. I pureed the pea-soup boringness into a nice, smooth actual soup with the help of a little coconut milk plus a goodly seasoning with my latest batch of home-ground curry masala, and by George, that was a major improvement! With a spoonful of plain whole-milk yogurt and a shaving of fresh nutmeg over the top, it was even my favorite of the two, today. (Pardon my steam for that blurry shot.) We shall see what tomorrow brings, whether a new favorite between them, or only more leftovers on which to experiment. Either will suit me fine.Photo: Two Soups, You Choose

Update: I did make a change to the asparagus soup that puts it in direct competition for first place with the split pea curry. I added some whole coconut milk to it. The added creaminess and the mellowing of the flavors was a good balancing element for the intensity of the other flavors. And then I topped the bowl with a dose of additional sliced mushrooms that had been slow-browned in vegetable broth, sautéed without fat but a hearty dash of coconut aminos and regularly-added splashes of the veg broth at intervals to deglaze the pan and keep the mushrooms from sticking. And behold, it was very good!

Foodie Tuesday: Nuts about ‘Em All

I’ve been MIA here for long enough. Long enough to have a really dandy hiatus and enjoy my break from daily blogging. Long enough to think it’s time to get back in regular practice with my readin’ and writin’ skills. And definitely long enough to be going a little nutty with the urge to eat—and blog about it, of course.

Nut-urally, I’m going to start going nuts here if I don’t.

Sorry, couldn’t help it. ‘Cause I really am kind of nuts about nuts. Can’t think of any kind I’m not fond of in one way or another. They’re so versatile. They go with savory foods and sweet ones, they’re tasty on their own or as ingredients in every possible course from soup to…well, you know.Photo: Pine Nuts

I’m happy to munch a handful of toasted nuts for a reasonably healthy snack. Might be almost any kind, depending on what I have around or am just in the mood to eat. Pignoli, or piñones, toasted in salted browned butter are a fine way to start, light and tender and full of really tasty fat that’s only delicate as long as its volatile nature stays fresh, and with just a tiny hint of the piney woods about them. Or maybe I want to get a tiny bit fancier and toast a mix of nuts together, and throw not only a little salt into the butter but also perhaps some cinnamon and sugar and a dash of cayenne. Very lightly candy them, say, a blend of almonds and pecans and pistachios.Photo: I'm Nuts about 'Em All

Sometimes I might even have the patience to use some finely ground nuts to coat a chicken breast or slice of goat’s cheese for frying into a crispy coating. Almonds are of course classic for this, but again, nearly any nut will do, as long as it can take the heat required for the dish: pine nuts would be a poor choice for something that has to cook or bake or fry for too long and/or at too high a temperature, unless you think you can make little teeny charcoal shavings look and taste yummy somehow. The harder, higher-heat-resistant nuts are preferable in those instances. Of course, there’s such a range of nuts and the nut-like seeds that can join them, you might well choose ones that complement every single course of the meal.Photo: Chicken Amandine

Dessert being, often, the most important course. To be honest.

Since I’m such a—you knew this was coming—nut for all-things-dessert-ish, I am quite adept at finding ways, means, and excuses to incorporate nuts of one sort or another into the final (or only: still being honest, here) course, whether as the course, or alongside the cheese or on top of the ice cream or pudding, or perhaps as a nut crust cradling a pie or tart, if I’m patient enough to wait through the prep and baking/chilling time required for such a treat. Oh, who am I kidding. Waiting? Now that’s just. Nuts.Photo: Candied Nuts on Top

Foodie Tuesday: Madame X’s Birthday Cake

Photo: Birthday Cupcakes for Madame XJust a little treat for a friend on the anniversary of her birth. And, since she shares her natal day with my dear brother-in-law, separated at birth by mere decades, I send a virtual cake to him, too, despite the separation of mere thousands of miles. Happy birthday to both!

Malted Buttermilk Cakes with Strawberry-Peach Buttercream
Servings: 24 cupcakes, or [as I made] a dozen + a small sheet cake. Preheat your oven to 350°F/177°C.

The Cakes

Dry goods: Whisk together in a big mixing bowl: 2-3/4 cups all-purpose [optional: GF] flour, 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and baking soda, 1-2 teaspoons cardamom, and 2 cups sugar (I used about 1 1/2 cups cane sugar plus 1/2 cup coconut sugar, to deepen the flavor).

Mix 2-3 Tablespoons of malted milk powder into a cup of buttermilk. And if there’s really such a thing as “low fat” buttermilk, please tell me how it can parade around under the first name of Butter. Just get the real deal and cinch up your waistband a little if you have to, okay?

Now, in a fresh mixing bowl or your trusty 1-gallon plastic measuring pitcher, mix the wet ingredients: a good slug of quality vanilla extract, and a splash of butter emulsion if you like, the cup of malted buttermilk you mixed earlier, and four large eggs. When those have been well whisked together, pour them into the dry ingredients, along with 2 sticks (1/2 pound) of your best butter, softened—don’t forget that I’m a believer in well-salted sweets, so I use salted butter (sorry, baking purists. But not really sorry). Whisk just until it’s smooth. This makes a thick batter, but not so thick that it’s the least bit difficult to whisk entirely by hand.

Bake the batter in muffin tins or cake tins that have been well greased (coconut oil is nice) and, if you like a little crunch for added pizzazz, dusted with either almond meal or cornmeal, for about 20-25 minutes. Cool for another 15 minutes or so, gently remove the cakes from their pans (unless, as I am, you’re going to take the cake tin right along to your friend’s house), and let it finish cooling before getting all frosty on ’em.Photo: Tutti-frutti Icing

The Icing on this here Cake:

Pop a batch of freeze-dried peach (about 2 oz) and strawberry slices (about 1 oz), along with a cup or so of granulated or icing sugar, a tiny pinch of salt, and a teaspoon of cardamom into your food processor. If you don’t have such a beast in your kitchen, you can crush these little fruity beauties with a rolling pin or bottle, a full tin of beans, a rock, or your hands, depending on your mood and tool availability, but boy howdy, the processor makes quick and thorough work of it! I don’t recommend inhaling deeply as you open the processor or bag you pulverize this mixture in, or you’ll be sneezing fruit for a week, and that can put a damper on your next brunch with the queen. No, I didn’t realize I could buy freeze-dried fruit already powdered. Once the dust has settled sufficiently, however, home crushed works fine; blend this gloriousness into another half pound of butter, along with about a quarter cup of whole-milk plain yogurt. The ingredients of the frosting are all very much to-taste and adjustable in quantity in order to reach the creamy texture and proportions of deep sweetness and fruitiness you prefer. This is best spread or piped at room temperature or slightly cooled onto equally cool cake surfaces.

Whether you choose to refrigerate and serve the finished cakes cold or serve them at room temperature is up to you. Me, I’ll just see if I can wait long enough for either to happen. I went so far as to snip the corner of the plastic zipper bag I’d put the frosting into, making a wildly erratic star tip, but waiting for or fussing over anything fancier is not my strong suit, as you all know.

Photo: The Rest of the Cake

I sprinkled black sesame seeds on the sheet cake before I remembered I had Dutch chocolate sprinkles for my birthday girl’s cupcakes. If my spouse and I want, we can always add sprinkles on top of the sesame seeds, no? The touch of crunch was what mattered, anyhow.

Doesn’t WordPress Love Me Anymore?

My Foodie Tuesday post from the other day is AWOL. WordPress admits to being “embarrassed”—but offers no signs of the missing post. Which I know I published, because I got comments on it…though they seem to have been relocated to another post altogether since their ‘mother ship’ flew the coop. Heaven knows I’ve no clue how the entire post went any more than where it went, so I can re-post the opening salvo here as copied and pasted from where it still resides on Facebook. What a wonderfully weird world is this land o’internets. I’ve archived the photos on my own computer, so I’ll share those with you, too. The rest is up to you who already read the real post to recollect as best you can, or to those who missed it, to guess and invent based on your salivary reactions to the pictures here gathered.

Back to the future, I guess. Here’s how it started:

There’s no question that better behavior needs to be in my near dietary future. But I’m not going to flog myself over having a delicious holiday! Life goes in cycles. I’ve been eating more sensibly and exercising more this Fall than I had in a long time, and it’s felt better in ever so many ways. Having an entire month crammed with invitations from friends and colleagues to dine and lunch together, while dangerous to the waistline and willpower, is also simply an opportunity to spend great time in deeply appreciated conversation and camaraderie over good food and drink. [ 224 more words. Your guess is as good as mine what they were!]

Photo: Seared Salmon Benediction at the Station

The parts of the whole: seared salmon receives a Benedict-style benediction at the Station…

Photo: MMMMMarvelous Mash

MMMMMarvelous mash, full of buttery cheese!

Photo: Benison & Blessing

…and when eaten, it is pure benison and blessing!

Foodie Tuesday: The Grass is Always Greener When Somebody Else Grows It

Photo: Lemon Egg MousseI am happy to let others do all the work. Not only is the proverbial grass greener on the other side of the fence, it’s greenest of all when another party has sown, grown, and mown it. And if it’s metaphorical grass in the form of food (I’m usually not a ruminant), it’s downright perfection if they’ve done all of the prep, cookery, and serving, too. I’ll fix myself those fluffy little items like a protein-added eggnog or lemony egg mousse for a quick meal and I might even go so far as to grow my own veg if I find it a suitable garden beautifier worth the effort, but in my lazy heart of hearts I am best pleased if some dedicated master does all of the heavy lifting.Photo: Sprouts

I experimented recently with growing my own sprouts, something I’d not done since the post-hippie happiness of the ’70s, and was instantly reminded of why I’d not done it since those long-ago days: lots of fiddling for little payoff. I suppose if I ate sprouts with every meal I’d reconsider the attempt, but honestly, eating them with every meal would bore me just as much as fiddling with growing them. I am very happy to support the economy of whichever generous farmer provides me with the occasional sprouts and sends them to the grocery store for my delectation. Thank you, all you dedicated growers, raisers, fixers, cookers, bakers, and servers who make my life so delicious!

Just thinking about the labor of all this makes me want to sit down with a good cold glass of water to rest up from the exertion of cogitating so deeply. Maybe I’d go so far as to whip up a nice eggnog. Better yet, maybe I’ll drift over toward some corner coffee shop and let the barista fix me something nice to soothe my exhausted frame.Photo: Coffee Making