Wake, Awake!

Today, a nearly perfect day of blue and gold and bracing new-leafed green, demanded that it be enjoyed from outside the house. We, my darling chauffeur-companion-partner and I, obeyed. We went to the park.Photo: Pollinators at Work

Being in a massive park, but one zoned as a number of separate and more intimate places  devoted to strolling, picnics, camping, horseback riding, fishing, and the like, we found no shortage of pleasant places to revel in the marvels of a sweet north Texas spring day. Tiny, starlike rain lilies leaping up from the sleepy clay shine like miniature suns but are even more sweetly pretty, somehow, when they’re nestling little pollinator insects. The swell of tree fungus at the base of a stump is pierced by the skyward plunge of a dainty but strong sprout of new growth from the cut tree.Photo: Sprout & Fungus

And in the short, wooded path at the park’s entrance, where the last years’ drought has compromised the forested patch of this little zone to the point where a careless spark or a small lightning strike blackened the undergrowth and seared the feet of the pines, the leaf-mould blanketing the path is whispering with scurrying insects. Dragonflies zip, crickets hum, and a flurry of minute emerald beetles flashes across the shadows into the warm sunlight on the piney dirt in search of other green things to dedicate to the extension of their fleeting little lives.Photo: Shiny Green

Renewal and refreshment are all around at this time of year, even in those parts of the hemisphere not so visibly on the brink of bloom. The very knowledge that the season of change and growth is near gives us a little nudge, when we let it, to remember that we, too, might be capable of change and growth. We, too, might bloom, with just a touch of faith and effort.

Cowboy Comforts

Time for another dose of Texas-inspired meditation. Because  I live in Texas. And I got to meditatin’. And I have been known to think—as American Thanksgiving Day approached, for example, but pretty much whenever it comes to me too—that one of the things I am perpetually impressed by and immensely grateful for is the soulful dedication of those people who do all of the difficult and endless and mainly unsung tasks, at often invisible jobs, to make life bearable and beautiful for the rest of us.Photo + text: Cowboy Poetry

Photo + text: Enough

It would be an exaggeration to claim that My Heroes have Always been Cowboys, but I do indeed respect the role they play in this pantheon of working-class wonders whose gifts are so much-needed and so often unheralded by the rest of us. I thank you sincerely, all of you independent gas station owners, ditch diggers, restaurant servers, car wash detailers, dry cleaning operators, factory workers, day laborers, and all of your committed fellow-men and women who carry us all on your backs.

Foodie Tuesday: Chili with a Chance of Quesadillas

Photo: Slowpoke ChiliIn the cooler parts of the year, my fancy often turns to chili. It’s hot and hearty, filling and lightly (my versions) spicy, and it can be made in big batches and frozen in smaller ones for later ease of meal preparation. And I am quite open-minded when it comes to chili. I say this with full knowledge that as a Texas immigrant I risk censure, if not being thrown bodily into someone’s smoker. But of course, one has only to do a quick online search for Texas Chili to discover that while there are certain characteristics generally accepted as required for any chili to qualify for the Texas stamp of approval, the variety of actual recipes is just as broad and full of little surprises as the flat and arid plains of West Texas. And trust me, that’s going some.

The central tenet of Texan chili religion, as far as I can tell, is that it is meat-centric and it contains no beans. Northerners and other heathens are quite accustomed to thinking of meat as just another potentially wonderful addendum to a stew-like, tomato-y dish characterized by its spices rather than its more concrete contents, and I confess that I find it a little surprising and somewhat confusing to see “chili con carne” listed on a Texan menu, under the circumstances, but meat does seem to be the universally assumed Truth about good Texas chili. I am happy to make or eat all-meat chili, but I’ve nothing against chili with beans, with or without meat, or even a lot of other sorts of chile spiced vegetarian dishes. The latter are rarely what I would consider chili, myself, but if the texture and flavor profile of the concoction suggests that identity, I’m not going to waste valuable eating time on arguing the point.

You notice that I do differentiate between chili and chile, but that’s a simple linguistic issue in which the tongue plays only a minor role, not the happier and more significant one of tasting: chili is the dish seasoned with chiles, the spicy peppers or capsicums. Many use the spellings interchangeably, and there is no problem with that in my mind, either; I am always more interested in how these things play out on my palate than on my linguistic palette. In any case, it is the flavor of these deviously delicious capsicums, combined with a few other characteristic tastes, that most readily identifies a dish as chili to me.

I have nothing against making what I call ‘instant chili’* when time is short and the appetite yearns for that warming food. Since it’s the spice blend that carries the main weight of the dish’s identity, as long as I have that handy I can make what I think is a pretty fine facsimile of the long-cooked treat. So what are the flavors that I most want my chili to have?

Chiles. My favorite ways to introduce them to my cooking include, at various times, a number of possible dried, crushed, and/or powdered versions of capsicums, sold by spice companies as Chili Powder or Red Pepper Flakes or, simply, as individually named ground peppers or whole dried pods. While the pods of dried capsicums can certainly be made into a nice dusty powder in a good mortar, or can be rehydrated and pulverized to a paste (with a stick blender or food processor is most efficient), they are easier to keep whole and ground to powder in a dedicated spice grinder, like my tiny and cheap old electric coffee grinder that has never even met a coffee bean. I always have my go-to chipotle-spiked salsa in the kitchen, and that’s an easy ingredient to use as well. My favorite, though, is to mash or blend chipotles canned en adobo. I find San Marcos brand delicious even though they have never deemed it worthwhile to change their misspelled label. See? I’m not that picky about linguistics.

The other spices and flavors that I most care about putting in my chili are cumin, smoked paprika, a bit of black pepper, garlic powder, freeze-dried minced shallots, and usually a bit of oregano (Mexican oregano, if I have it). Cumin is the second-most characteristic spice flavor in this and many other Tex-Mex or Mexican foods, and having a kitchen bereft of that spice would leave me feeling like half a person. So make sure there’s plenty of warming, soul feeding, earthy cumin in my chili. And salt! But I don’t add much of that during the process, because of course one of the other secrets to chili is its long, slow melding of flavors, and if I’m making ‘instant chili’ it’s going straight to the bowls of individuals who will choose how salty they like it.

What is this ‘instant’ chili*, you ask? Just a quick fry-up of ground meat (usually beef, but whatever minced meat I have on hand, mixed or singly) with the aforementioned spices, dosed with enough tomato sauces (salsa, tinned tomato sauce/puree/pieces/paste) to make a nice thick stew, and if I want them, tinned beans—black beans, kidney beans, pintos or black-eyed peas or (a little White Trash favorite of mine) field peas, whatever shelled, cooked beans I’ve got on hand. When one is hankering, one makes do.Photo: Slowpoke Chili

When one has oodles of time, one makes the real, slow-cooked stuff in quantity. You could call it a name I think appropriate enough:

Slowpoke Chili

I start mine with a batch of homemade bone broth. Then, after preparing dried beans (I like to mix black beans, pintos, and small kidney beans for a fun range of colors and textures), I cook them in some of that good broth. Meanwhile, the meat chili is essentially a separate preparation: I like to put a batch of beef in my slow cooker, well covered in more of the same broth and seasoned with the spices and peppers I choose for the occasion. I use a mixture of coarsely ground beef and cubes (about 2 cm or 1 inch) of stew beef, and the amount of fat in even high-percentage ground meat is generally balanced out by the lean toughness of stew cuts, so I don’t need to skim the cooked meat-broth combination at all. If I’m putting any vegetables into my chili, those will almost always be mirepoix and sometimes, sweet capsicums. I’m less of a fan of green capsicums (bell peppers) than of the milder, less burp-inducing red, orange and yellow ones, but if bodily noises were really a serious issue, I’d hardly be making chili at all, would I. Wink-wink. Preparing the beans properly, if they’re included in the mix, does make a difference in that regard, anyway.

When I have vegetables to add to my chili, I pre-cook them with a slow sauté in butter, both enjoying the bit of caramelization and the butter itself as added flavor elements, and then they can jump in the pool with the meat. Whether with vegetables or without, the meat is likely to cook at a very low heat for at least 24 hours, if not more. I enjoy the freedom to potter around and do other household tasks while sniffing that great perfume for a long time, as it builds the appetite while infusing the flavor. Somewhere in that day or three, the meat (and veg) will have absorbed most of the broth, and I’ll add my tomato elements. While the spice blend is perhaps the identifying signature of chili, it’s no chili to me without good tomato flavor, so again, I add about enough to make a fairly soupy spaghetti sauce consistency, knowing that eventually the cooked beans will be added, or in the absence of beans, the meat and veg will soak up yet more of that tomato goodness.

This is less of a recipe, as you know is pretty typical of my approach in the kitchen, than a guide to possible combinations that will please me. The proportions are different every time, and whether I add beans, or even vegetables, is a matter of mood and company more than a matter of Texan patriotism; I am, after all, a Northern invader. But I can tell you, it’s generally pretty darn good stuff. Add a few tender corn tortillas that have been layered with salsa or tinned enchilada sauce, plus cheese: cheddar, Monterey Jack, Cotija, Queso Blanco, or any such blend or substitution of similar types of mild and sharp, melting and melt-resistant chewy cheeses that suit your fancy and then heated through. If that meal doesn’t fulfill your chili dreams, there are always a multitude of cooks around here who have what they will assure you is the one, true, Texan article.Photo: Quesadilla or Enchilada?

Foodie Tuesday: By the Beautiful Sea

Certainly one of the particular pleasures of this summer’s travels was for a coastal native like me to get back to the water’s edges and indulge in quantities of fresh seafoods of the kinds I have always loved. Not a bad opportunity, either, to develop some new affections in the vast ocean of seafood options. So yes, of course I ate fish, shellfish, seaweed, and other delectable dainties from the depths as often as I could manage. Spending time in the familiar haunts of Stockholm and the Pacific Northwest, I was swimming in deliciousness.Photo: Chinese Sushi in Stockholm

There were, in both locales, a few much-needed refueling stops for Asian seafood treats, since both places are rich in the resources and have long since embraced the influences of those also-rich cultures to make fine use of the wealth, so sushi and Lee’s sweet walnut prawns were on the agenda from the beginning. I can’t think of any kind of sushi that makes me happier than delicate, pristinely fresh salmon—an ingredient introduced to sushi culture by Norwegians, I gather, so I guess I feel a certain genetic impulse to put this meeting-of-cultures on my plate—nigirizushi. So my partner and I devoured salmon nigiri in quantity on the trip, but I also happily tested a few different sorts of makizushi, like Ichiban’s Salmon Lemon Roll, a refreshingly simple kind of maki.Photo: Dungeness Mac & Cheese

There were those variations on crab mac & cheese I mentioned before, and if anyone puts together two such huge addictions of mine as macaroni and cheese and Dungeness crab had just better get out of my way when I catch sight of the table. The versions I had this summer did nothing to slow me in my pursuit of such treasure, but as the aforementioned components both loom so large in my heart’s and stomach’s affections, neither did they hamper my continued mental tweaking of said dishes, and as I looked upon the photo for this post, I was moved further to contemplate joining my crab M&C lust with that for the classic and justifiably ubiquitous pairing of browned butter and sage, so you can expect to hear some groans of overindulgent happiness coming out of my kitchen sometime in the not too distant future when I get around to embracing that inspiration.Photo: West Seattle Fish & Chips

Fish and chips are, of necessity, a part of my seafood pilgrimages as well. As with these other treats, fish and chips have so many fantastic varieties possible, even before you get to the chef-specific fiddling of seasonings and sides, that it’s almost a pity there’s no way to eat every kind on offer. Will it be cod today, pollock or plaice, halibut? Salmon? Smoked cod? So many choices, so little time. I like a good light, crispy beer batter, but most end up being too doughy and heavy-handed in reality for my complete approval, so I’m more drawn to crunchier versions, whether they’re crumb- or cornmeal-based or spring from a dreamily delicate application of tempura. One of the standouts on this journey was when my parents took the two of us to a local shop in West Seattle, where we not only shared massive servings of fantastic, moist and tender and crunchy-coated wild cod but were given cabbage slaw (in a vinegar dressing) as a gift side dish by a beautiful and kind-hearted proprietress. Between that atmosphere of generous hospitality and the snappy-crusted fresh fish, the place won my vote as favorite in this summer’s fish-&-chips derby.Photo: Scallop & Mango Ceviche

I managed to go in entirely new directions on occasion, as well. Probably the favorite such dish that comes to mind just now would have to be the scallop-mango ceviche my sister and I shared when we went with my husband to a venerable but still terrific restaurant on Alki, that long and lovely public beach in West Seattle where Elliott Bay provides the blue and sparkling underpinning to a grand view of downtown Seattle’s waterfront. Beloved company and glorious weather were guaranteed to make it a worthy event, but the ceviche did its part very well indeed, too. It was a relatively simple melange of diced bell peppers and red onion and scallops and mango in a very light lime-cilantro dressing. If I had any desire to change the dish in the slightest it might be to eliminate the green pepper from the mix since it was just a tiny bit strong compared to the sweet scallops and bright mango, yet not quite piquant enough (as the onion was) to serve as a complementary spark. But let’s be honest. Did that slow down my eating or diminish my enjoyment of that refreshing little appetizer? No, it most certainly did not. If I replicate the dish someday, there will probably be no green bell pepper, and for that matter, I’d be more likely to pop in a sprinkling of red pepper flakes for the spice than to add raw onion, but that combination of tender scallops and juicy mango was just the sunny splash the day required and also provided useful ideas for my future culinary machinations. Enough said.Photo: Shrimp Pizza al Forno

Last among today’s reminiscence revels is shrimp pizza. Americans might not be quite so familiar with this sea creature as a great pizza topping as other nationals have been, but once tried, it’s kind of irresistible in its own way. My spousal person and I derive much of our fondness for the item in question from multiple happy visits in years past to a kind of down-at-heel looking pizzeria in the central train station in Stockholm, where a couple of swell Italian brothers fired up their (too-) well-kept secret wood oven and made the perfect Neapolitan crusts, lightly scorched and melting underneath a little light San Marzano tomato sauce, a nice gooey coating of fresh mozzarella, and heaps of candy-sweet pink shrimp with (unless my slightly lachanophobic husband remembered to forbid it) a dash of oregano over the top. Alas, the brothers have since packed up their oven and gone off to greener pastures, but in a bit of serendipitous sorrow on the afternoon of our discovery, we wandered down the hill from “our” apartment in the opposite direction to a restaurant we hadn’t revisited in quite some time and discovered that they, too, made a dandy version of this pie. Theirs is embellished with a little prosciutto and some mushrooms, which prove to be perfectly friendly companions to their little coral-colored shellfish pals on pizza.

What does all of this prove? Nothing you didn’t know already. I am an avid pursuer of food. Seafoods of many spanking fresh and tasty sorts rank high on the list of favorites among my food loves. And travel combines the increased access to those things that a coastal kid stranded inland in Texas craves at times with the splendors of the travel itself, that immersion in a different culture that suits me as much as it does my taste buds. Ahhh, so.

Foodie Tuesday: A Toast to Skagen

I have not yet been to Skagen, that Danish destiny so alluring to international tourists, fishermen and art lovers, but I have long since had an imaginary affair of the heart with it, thanks to the popular Swedish concoction known as Toast Skagen. It’s quite a simple thing, really, just toast points with a light shrimp salad on them, but when the shrimp are just-jumped-out-of-the-sea fresh and sweet and the preparation of them done with a delicate hand, it’s just about as good as seafood can get. So between visits to Sweden, I pine for the treat. It’s not that I couldn’t make my own facsimile of that assemblage, for even in the heart of north Texas there are places where one can lay hands on pretty good shrimp (at a price), but since the presence of briny air and piercingly radiant northern light and the lilt of Swedish conversation all around are also key ingredients regardless of their absence from the written instructions one might find for the preparation of it, Toast Skagen is still best savored in Scandinavia, and worth the protracted longings between visits.

That is why, if it appears on an even moderately trustworthy menu in Stockholm and its environs, I am likely to order Toast Skagen without even giving much of the rest of the menu a fair study. On the visit that just ended a few days ago, I did just that. Several times. And I was not disappointed—unless you count each time I ate the last bite.

The simplicity of the combination is key, because it must showcase the freshness of the shrimp, but there is room for subtle difference just as there is in any classic food recipe or combination that has survived the twin tests of time and chefs’ egos. The best preparation of Toast Skagen begins with fresh, perfectly cooked cold shrimp, is seasoned with nothing more noticeable than fresh lemon juice and fresh dill, lest the delicate salty sweetness of the shrimp be overpowered, and is bound with mayonnaise and served with or on bread. That’s about it. The subtleties come in with the proportions in the combination, the type of bread or toast, the presentation, and a few possible additional flavors and garnishes that won’t attempt to compete with the simple perfection of the concept.Photo: Toast Skagen 1

On this visit, I managed to taste three slightly different, all delicious, versions within the bounds of our ten days. I’m sure I’d have done more, but I did have to leave room for other favorites, and despite having eaten extensively and often, I did have to accept the finitude of hours in the day. Even though with midsummer daylight, those were admittedly impressive. The version of my shrimp-laden toasty dream that I’d been contemplating for the longest before our recent trip was had on our last day in Stockholm, for we had plenty of other places to go and people to see before then, but we did finally go to Sturehof, a venerable restaurant in a swanky but not stuffy neighborhood only a hop, skip and short T-bana (subway) ride from where we stayed. At Sturehof, I was greeted by lightly toasted points of white bread and a copious hillock of shrimp shaped with the help of a very light coating of mayonnaise. A toss of snipped dill, a mild dash of perhaps Dijon mustard to undergird the squeeze of lemon I’d give it, and a spoonful of Kalix Löjrom (caviar) to give a little snappy texture and sea flavor boosting, and it was a filling but refreshing luncheon to give our last day of play in Sweden a far less melancholy tinge.Photo: Toast Skagen 2

The second version of Toast Skagen was almost an afterthought in the middle of our visit, but far from negligible in the eating. My husband and I went with a dear friend to visit the fantastic Artipelag, part seaside park, part eco-tourist experiment, part art museum and all Swedish brainchild of the inventor of the BabyBjörn line of child care products. Unlike many museum cafes, this place’s eateries are worthy of a visit entirely unrelated to the call to check out all of the other wonders of Artipelag. We didn’t even bother to go up and dine in the restaurant upstairs after having a quick look at the buffet in the less fussy main level. It was an extravaganza of delicious and beautifully prepared traditional Swedish foods and their contemporary companions, and reasonably priced for such a grand meal at that. Among the attractions for me was an early spotting of other visitors parading their plates to the table with enticing spoonfuls of Toast Skagen in their midst, but when I arrived to select my foods at the board, the Skagen bowls were empty. Empty! Thank goodness I noticed that the staff continued to keep most of the dishes there overflowing with fresh batches of food, so I pulled up my fainting spirit and managed to down great quantities of other delectables before going back to find the missing delight replenished.

It was worth the wait, which, given the quantity and quality of everything else I’d been eating quite happily in the meantime, was no small feat. This version of Toast Skagen was either the plainest or the most complex of all, depending upon how one chose to dish it, dress it up, and/or accompany it when choosing from the fabulous array of salmon with baby peas, lovely cool salads, savory sausages, buttery tiny roasted potatoes, and so much more. I opted to keep it somewhat unfussy since it was really the dessert after I’d consumed so much other tasty food. There was splendid chewy, crusty peasant bread to be freshly sliced by my own hand from a warm loaf, so it seemed the obvious thing to merely take a slice or two, give it a slick of good cold butter, because to ignore good cold Swedish butter is very nearly a cardinal sin, and put a fat spoonful of shrimp on top. This variation had the mayonnaise and dill and very little else, but because the shrimp and bread and butter were so fresh and delicious, it was as close to perfect as need be.Photo: Toast Skagen 3

The first, and not least, helping of this craved creation that I had on the journey was on a tour boat that we took with other great local friends, while cruising leisurely through the archipelago‘s canals to have a short walking tour in Sandhamn before boarding for a leisurely dinner cruise back to town. The dinner onboard was a very pleasant, well-prepared selection of Swedish favorites, like the Artipelag buffet, but at this sit-down meal one had the choice of two fixed menus, with or without drinks and dessert, and ours had an option for my object of Swedish shellfish lust on it, so that was a foregone conclusion. This was the prettiest plating of the three, and had a couple of good signature tweaks worth mentioning. Besides the creamy, dill-speckled shrimp salad and a scoop of Löjrom for that snappy seaside pizzazz, there was a small stroke of Balsamic reduction brushed onto the plate and its piquancy gave a sweeter buzz to the usual lemon spritz, the latter still perfect in its way. And the garnishing lettuce and cucumber on the plate were so bracingly fresh that I only barely resisted turning Toast Skagen into Vietnamese-style salad rolls for the occasion. I munched the greens as a mini side salad, instead. Great textural contrast in one uncomplicated gesture.

Now, should you think I was so obsessed with this specific dish and with All Things Swedish All of the Time, I can assure you that my euphoric revisitation of beloved Stockholm and environs was filled with beloved friends, too, and yes, lots and lots of non-shrimp-toast-related food. More on that later. For now, be content that you know a plain yet elegant dish worthy of single-minded pursuit, and go forth in search of it yourself.

I am a Three-Year-Old

Digital illustration: Coloring Book/Stained GlassHave I matured as much in three years of daily blogging as a toddler does in her first three years of life? Highly unlikely. I was, after all, already a half century old and probably set in many of my ways to a degree that could forestall any large amount of progress toward real change, or at least drag it by the ankles dramatically.

Chances are, I haven’t made a huge number of changes as a person in general during the last three years. But I can lay claim to some growth, after all.

Moving to the wholly new world of life here in Texas in 2009 certainly necessitated some change. My aging corpus may not have made the transition perfectly: being over-endowed with the internal furnace function of middle-aged hormonal fun isn’t entirely compatible with the outdoor temperature norms here, and like many transplanted citizens I’ve done some battle with the local slate of allergens new to my system.

On the positive side, what I’ve found as a blogger echoes the best of what I found in migrating from my longtime home in the Pacific Northwest to the new-to-me frontier of North Texas, an entirely different sort of northern-ness. Entering new territories, both the real and the online ones, presented the possibility of encountering insurmountable tasks and challenges, or worse yet, unfriendly natives. Of course, my being still in Texas after five years and still blogging after three tells you that none of those fears proved true. Quite the reverse, in fact, considering that I’ve had some lovely experiences in both worlds during my brief tenure here, and I’ve garnered a whole cadre of wonderful friends in both, as well.

In short, I would amend my initial statement so far as to say that anything leading to such an exponential increase in the size and variety and quality of my circle of compatriots seems to me the very best kind of growth possible. Happy blogiversary to me this week—and more importantly, from me to all of you, who have made the journey so worthwhile and still so inviting. Who knows where the next three years may take us all!