Foodie Tuesday: Salivating

Photo: Sprightly ApplesAs part of the perpetual human inclination to long for what is impossible, I suppose it’s no surprise that in the midst of one season I am frequently hungry for whatever is furthest out of season. When summer’s blistering and swelter have long since worn out their welcome, I think with great fondness of weather cold enough not only to cool my overheated brain to a slightly more manageable temperature but also to encourage the peak production of root vegetables with which to make those satisfying soups and roasted dishes that give a welcome tot of inner warmth to body and soul. In springtime, the autumn’s pears and quinces seem so remote as to have been but a beautiful fever dream of seasons past.

And though winter is short and blunt in north Texas most of the years I’ve spent living in it, it isn’t long dropped toward freezing before I think what a joy it would be to have weather balmy enough to require something cool and liquid, or just bursting with juicy freshness, to cheer my fainting spirits. Mostly, this is merely a sorry reflection of my lack of maturity and patience with whatever is present on the table or in my life. But perhaps it’s also possible to place a little of the blame on some of the first-world realities of the modern era. Indoor climate controls make winter ever so much drier than it was in my soggy single-pane-windowed youth. The normal chill of wintertime is confused in my body and household by a central heating system, never mind by old lady hot flashes, and the vast improvements in food packaging, shipping, and storage mean that I have access not only to fresh, picture-perfect produce that is nothing like currently in season where I live but just arrived on store shelves there from a country where it is at its peak growth. I can buy freeze-dried or frozen goods that are sometimes fresher and more flavorful on being prepared or reconstituted in my kitchen for having been processed so quickly at the point of harvest than any such things often were right in their natural local peak years ago.Photo + text: Juicy

My tastebuds and dietary inclinations care nothing, still, for seasonal propriety. So if I can get something preserved—old-school, as jams and canned goods and classic charcuterie, or flash-frozen on a factory ship in mid-ocean—that’s able to be prepared in ways making it as tantalizing and palatable as the fresh-harvested stuff, you can bet I’ll be indulging. Today, sitting in a blower-heated space at elevation and looking out at drizzles of snow, what should my wandering mind and salivary mechanism conspire to make me wish for most fondly? Some juicy, dazzlingly bright tasting fruit. Thank goodness for being a spoiled twenty-first century citizen. It doesn’t hurt to make a dish that will assuage both the out-of-sync wish for cool, juicy refreshment and any appropriately wintry hopes for a good tummy warmer.

Baked Apples with Raspberry-Rose Snow

Clean and core fresh, crisp apples. When I don’t have a cylindrical fruit corer on hand, I will opt to use a melon baller and just work my way through each apple sphere by sphere until I’ve tunneled through it and removed stem, blossom and seeds. Lacking a melon baller, I will use a narrow-bladed knife. You can leave the blossom end of the apple intact to keep it from leaking its filling during the baking, or you can make an edible “stopper” out of dried apple pieces, a handy way to give your diners a treat without any inedible parts. Set the prepared apples aside for the moment.

Make a paste, of whatever proportions please you, using marzipan (since there’s such a long tradition of wonderful commercially made marzipan, I feel no obligation to make my own, but if you want homemade, have at it), seedless raspberry jam (ditto), cream cheese (or labneh or goat cheese), a tiny pinch of salt, a dash of cardamom, and some elderflower cordial. Fill the apple tunnels with this goodness.

Put the apples into the buttered ramekins (individual) or casserole and bake them just until softening. About a half hour at medium-high heat (375°F/190°C), give or take a little, will do. While they’re baking, take a small handful of beautiful frozen raspberries per apple, crush them into their individual arils (gently enough to make pretty little dots rather than a messy mash), and stir in a dash of rosewater. Stick them back in the freezer that way until the moment before serving the apples, when you’ll sprinkle them over the top as a cool, burst-of-winter-sun contrast to the heat and creamy juice of the apples. And a tiny reminder of what fresh-from-the-garden goodness is like in other seasons.

Photo: Raspberry

Foodie Tuesday: All Good Things Must Come to an End

That, my friends, is how the old saying goes. But it’s not, ahem, the ‘last word’ entirely. Many such good things are followed by other good things, after all!

And there are some, like the end of summer, that not only presage the arrival of such genuinely fine things as, say, autumn, but also can be celebrated at their conclusions with festive eating and drinking and other kinds of pleasurable activities that do much to ameliorate any pain of loss.

Some such celebrations are marvelously simple: when the summer is waning, it’s time to indulge in a last gleeful feast or two focusing clearly on the seasonal joys of fresh produce. It needn’t be any more complicated than a marvelous unfussy riff on classic Caesar salad, a glass of sparkling mineral water, and maybe a slab of rustic peasant bread decked out with cool sweet butter or a nice grassy olive oil.Photo: Great Caesar's Ghost!

One little notch upward might give you a Tex-Mex picnic, also uncomplicated and fresh and easy to eat. My recent one took the Southern familiar pimiento cheese and gave it a slight T-M twist when I blended Tillamook’s four-cheese combination of cheddar, Monterey Jack, Queso Quesadero and Asadero cheeses with chipotle salsa and a little butter to hold it all together smoothly. Then I layered this cheese spread with sliced smoked turkey breast between soft white corn tortillas into a little stacked torta. This little goodie makes a nice treat of a light lunch with some equally Tex-Mex pickled okra and a batch of fresh vegetables and other finger foods like black olives, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, carrot and celery sticks, and so forth. All washed down with some cold iced tea or fresh-squeezed lemonade, it helps take the edge off of losing summer for the year.Photo: Tex-Mex Pimiento Cheese Torta

If that’s not quite enough, there is always the warm glow that comes from indulging in the most perfectly ripe and gorgeous late-season produce in all its naked glory. Really, is there anything more soothing and refreshing and lovely than biting into a peak-ripe pear or apple or peach and letting its juice just slide down your throat like a mystical elixir of life?Photo: Peaches

Well, okay, there is that possibility of punching up the effect just a tiny bit further by letting slices of that sweet, juicy fruit swim lazily in a pool of lemon- or limeade, a light and sparkly soda, or (as pictured) a marvelous chilled—even, if it’s as hot outside as it was on the pictured occasion—gasp, iced! rosé or white wine. Sipping the very slightly infused drink until those lovely, tender bits of fruit are easier to catch and eat; that is a mighty nice way to bid a fond farewell to the tag-end of summertime. And if you’re a mom or host who appreciates kids’ need to fish out the pieces of fruit with their already sticky hands, that’s great, but you can always put the fruit chunks on skewers, freeze them into fruit-sicles, and use them first as drink chilling stirrers, then as dainty fruit pops. All quite in keeping with the background music of the sprinkler running one last time and the neighbors’ lawn mower getting one last bite out of the grass. Photo: Iced Peaches in Rosé

Pretty Thievery

You’ve heard of petty thieves; this summer I saw a pretty thief. My husband and I were visiting in Washington (state), seeing family, attending a fundraising event and spending a couple of days at the end of the trip where my partner was doing some work conducting a choir (comprising as its singers a batch of veteran choral conductors and teachers, a handful of whom are longtime friends of ours) in a workshop. It was all quite delightful, with the exception of the horrid respiratory gunk that my guy received as a gift along the way and that cut short the workshop fun. [He has fully recovered by now, thankfully.]

But another unexpected happy thing about the trip was that the fundraiser was held very near a condominium we own that, while it’s normally rented out as a residence—so we’ve not been inside it since we viewed it for purchase—our property manager informed us that we were getting a new renter and our visit sat right in the between-renters gap. So there was this handy opportunity for us to go in and renew our familiarity with the place where we might conceivably someday live ourselves as retirees, not to mention a chance to measure rooms, note the condition of things now that the home was actually clean and unfurnished, and so forth. All useful, along with the visit to that town itself, in reminding ourselves what had attracted us to the locale and the home in the first place.

Another attraction we were reminded of appeared serendipitously on this visit. As we were wandering through the neighborhood and trying to remember exactly how to find our only-once-visited place, we passed a house with beautiful dwarf fruit trees planted along its street side, and there stood a deer, placidly unruffled by either our passing car or the midday sun, casually balancing on two legs to reach up and nab some marvelous, rosy ripe apples and munch them one after another. We stopped, rolled down our windows to enjoy the sight, and listened to birds chorusing in the trees, and vowed never to turn in such a charming miscreant even if it one day dined on our own deck plants.Photo: Pretty Thievery

A Whispering Medium

Silverpoint is relatively rarely seen nowadays, but it remains a delicate medium for drawing. Putting a point of real silver onto gessoed paper allows the same kind of fine detail and fragility to be expressed that are characteristic of harder graphite pencils’ work. The effect is of pale and careful imagery, a wisp of smoke, a mist, a whisper.Drawing: Silverpoint Apples

There’s an appealing air of the arcane to a medium that’s old and seldom used nowadays, and silverpoint qualifies on both counts. It’s also effective, as I found in my little experiments, on a black background to create gently ghostly drawings, but as ghosts seem wont to do, has a tendency to disappear at the slightest whiff of air, since oxidation darkens silver and it becomes less and less visible against the dark ground. Of course, that very ephemeral quality might be a further attraction, an encouragement to see the medium as a passing fancy best appreciated ‘fresh’ and gone in the blink of an eye.

Drawing: Silverpoint Blueberries

This is, after all, an age in which change comes at an ever-increasing speed and in growing quantities, and we become accustomed to nearly everything having the shelf life of a mayfly at best. We adapt, we move on. Yet we crave the sense of permanence and connection, so here I am marking in graphite over the top of the silverpoint as it fades, or scanning the images to enhance the contrast while it can still be seen. And while I still love the sense of tactile attachment and involvement that writing longhand, pencil on paper, gives me even when I’m up to my elbows in graphite dust, not to mention hoping that the neural connections such physical action reinforces better than keyboard manipulations will stay with me longer somehow, what do I do with my writings? Transcribe the scribbles to the electronic medium by sitting at my keyboard afterward anyway.

So passes our world; we labor with new tools to speed things up, revisit and relish the old methodology and tools to slow down and remember, and then run back to catch up with the new again. We, too, are ephemeral as faint images, as ghosts, and we feel our mortality even as we strive to make our marks on the world while passing through it. Our tiny voices and messages may be lost in the ether forever, and that, almost at the instant of their making, but the urge to tell our tales remains. Our little silver trails will fade, but we will have moved on elsewhere as well.

We All have Our Preferences

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Red. Delicious?

The apple of my eye is bound to be unlike yours. Even among apples, the almost bewildering array of would-be favorites almost catches up with the endless variations in personal character; together, these have the exponential potential to create such a multiplicity of possible tastes that it’s amazing if any small group of people have predictably identical loves.

On top of that, our own tastes are bound to change over time. I’ve lived long enough to have had several ‘favorite’ apple varieties, never mind had enough life experience to know that what I prefer for one use or recipe is not the universal solution for all of my cooking and eating wishes. Even the longtime favorites can be supplanted, eventually.

So while I currently favor Fuji apples for eating plain, a mixture of bright, crisp Granny Smiths with soft and über-sweet Golden Delicious and an in-between variety like Jazz or Braeburn for pies and sauces, and something with interesting color, shape or texture on its peel like a heritage variety to ‘pose’ for my artworks—any of those could change at any given moment. Why, I’ve even been known to draw Red Delicious (a variety that while I’ll grant its being among the reddest of apples I think hybridized to the point of being utterly insipid and flavorless rather than actually delicious) simply because it’s bright and shiny and stereotypically apple-y.

For the most part, life is more interesting to most of us because it offers so much variety and the possibilities inherent in change excite and intrigue our senses. But sometimes it’s perfectly okay to be predictable, too. The comfort of the familiar is also a gift. And once in a while, there’s the amazing possibility that we can surprise and shock others—even our own selves—precisely by choosing the safe and predictable thing when we have all of the options in the world right before us.

Maybe what I relish most of all is simply that I can’t guarantee from one moment to the next, let alone one day to the next, that my own tastes will remain the same, my choices the utterly expected ones. How do you like them apples?

Foodie Tuesday: Drink & Shrink

photoWould that I could tell you that today’s post title implies I’ve discovered a miracle diet that allows me to become slinky and svelte by doing nothing but sipping cocktails, yet alas, this most sadly is not so. In fact, it’s a very safe bet that numerous cocktails are, like certain bras, nothing more than alluring cups full of doom, being bad for both health and sanity if sampled in inappropriate quantities and circumstances. But to steer closer to my actual point, I must confess that despite my many food-and-drink-related loves and obsessions, I do get quite hungry and thirsty for a healthier change on occasion.

Like now. I seem to have been on a bender lately, eating too often, too much, and too badly in general, and my body is complaining. It’s not that I have grown morbidly obese, thanks more to good genes and good luck than good behavior, but I have grown a whole lot closer to outgrowing my attire and decidedly closer, as well, to just not feeling so great. It makes me squirm when I think of how unfit I will be in short shrift if I don’t just stop being such a spoiled child around food. And I have it on good authority that being horribly unfit is not the way to insure a longer, healthier life.

Drat.

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At least I know that I can still have delicious food, but even if it’s better for me, eating too many helpings of ‘Waldorf’ slaw (sweet cabbage-yogurt salad with chopped apples) is just as dangerous to my eating habits as too many helpings of pretty much anything.

I must throw a bracing dash of cold water on my enthusiasm for overindulgence and get myself closer to optimal comfort. I don’t care if that makes me model-thin or gives me fab abs or any of that superficially pleasing stuff or not; what I want is to feel my best and have a good shot at the whole ‘live long and prosper’ proposition. I know from experience that among other benefits of returning to a more thoughtful eating agenda, my appreciation of all that I do eat and drink increases greatly, to the point where a simple slice of citrus and a glass of pure, clean water is a pleasing sensory experience as well as thirst-quenching, and a complete meal becomes a feast. So much more satisfying in the long run.

And I do want a good long run of it, after all.photo

Foodie Tuesday: It Shouldn’t be Too Difficult

People can get so overwrought over the holidays. Whatever those holidays may be, they have a way of bringing out the worst in the expectations we have of ourselves, never mind what we think we have to live up to for others’ sakes. So I tend to opt for the less fussy and somewhat unconventional, and I definitely prefer what’s simple. Leave the designer food extravaganzas to those with more patience and money and fewer friends and loved ones waiting to be visited or holiday lights to be savored where they twinkle and glitter on treetops and roofs, fences and storefronts. But I digress.photoHoliday brunches (it it my firm belief, as a person who does not believe in getting up a second earlier than necessary, that holidays of all times require sleeping in too late for holiday breakfasts) are an opportunity to have some favorite simple treats that can be easily thrown together for a snack-tastic sort of meal. Steamed ‘hard boiled’ eggs, bacon candied with a mixture of brown sugar and dark maple syrup, a little cinnamon and a dash of cayenne, a homemade chocolate malt, grilled cheddar cheese sandwiches, or some plain, juicy-sweet clementines–or all of the above. In that instance, there’ll be plenty to keep you well fueled until holiday dinner. Whenever and whatever that ends up being.photoMy love of savory + sweet foods, too, is not new, not unique to me, and not limited to any particular group of foods. There’s the wonderful long-standing tradition of such delicious delights as ham with sweet glazes, rich curries with sweet chutneys, sundaes with salted nuts, and cheese boards with fruits, just to drool over thoughts of a small few. And it’s interesting that time and tradition contend to restrict our thinking of certain foods or ingredients as belonging automatically to desserts or not, to a sweet category or a savory one, and further, if sweet then to desserts; if savory, non-dessert.

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Cloudy, with a high chance of deliciousness: spiced cider.

These days, then, when I’m cooking I tend to think of what ingredients I’m hungry for among those on hand, how they might go together, and what kind of dish will result. Even when the dish is finished, I’m not always certain it would easily classify as sweet or savory, entrée or side dish, main item or dessert. After all, there are plenty of old recipes leading to such seeming incongruities as smoked salmon cheesecake or candied pork. Herbs and spices, those basically non-caloric, strongly flavored elements that color and distinguish other ingredients, are a logical tool for transformation. A simple cup or glass, hot or cold, of spice infused cider becomes so much more than simply apple juice, and cocktails can turn from frilly to fiery or from crazy to cozy, depending on their infusions.

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Squash and apples make fine companions.

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Then there’s praline happiness, which I’m not averse to eating by the forkful.

If both apples and squashes can make delicious pies or side dishes equally well, why not meld all of those characteristics and veer off onto a slightly divergent path? One day I saw the inviting fall bin of pumpkins and squashes beckoning me from right next to the apple display in the produce section of the grocery store and voila! A sweet-savory side dish was born. I chopped the peeled, cored apples and blended them with lemon juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice, a dash of vanilla, a pinch of salt, a splash of maple syrup and a tablespoon of instant tapioca, and I spooned it all into the two seeded, salted halves of the pretty squash, topped with a big pat of butter to melt over it all. Into the oven it went at medium-high heat until the squash was tender enough to yield to a spoon, and I served the squash and the apple filling together with a praline crumble topping I’d made by baking a mix of chopped salted nuts, butter and brown sugar.

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Many things, sweet or savory, are happily enhanced with a touch of praline.

This little oddity easily occupied the same space on my menu normally reserved for the famous-or-infamous dish with which so many American holiday tables have either a sacred or scared relationship: marshmallow topped sweet potatoes. Sweet and savory, not to mention fatty and ridiculous, either dish is quite okay with me, and it wouldn’t surprise me any more than it would you to hear me described that way as a result. As a bit of an oddity, too, for that matter.

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Steamed carrot pudding. Not bad all on its own whether for any meal or afters.

And speaking of love-it-or-hate-it foods, there’s eggnog. What would you guess about another rich food with outsized calories in a small, sugary package? Yeah, obviously another semi-guilty love of mine. I often make a quickie eggnog for breakfast, blending a raw egg or two plus a pinch each of nutmeg (maybe cinnamon and cardamom, too), salt, vanilla, and raw local honey with cream, whole milk yogurt, or water. [Yes, I eat raw eggs often, and I’ve never in all my years had the remotest problem with it. But I’m generally very healthy. Others do so at their own risk.] When available, a ripe banana makes a delicious thickener/sweetener. Oh, and the same can be said of vanilla ice cream, of course!

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Broth-cooked carrot pudding with eggnog sauce.

However it’s made (or bought from a good organic supplier), eggnog also makes a fantastic sauce for another of those holiday-associated goodies, pumpkin pie. And when I say pumpkin pie, I happily include a host of similar sweet/savory and dense-textured treats like sweet potato pie, steamed puddings, loaf cakes, bread puddings and other such brazenly heavy-duty things–all of which would make equally lush and luscious dessert or breakfast, in my book–are nicely complemented by a sauce of smooth, creamy eggnog. If a little is good, a lot is great, or as Dad has wisely taught us: Anything worth doing is worth overdoing! Well worth a little recovery fasting in any event, eh!

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Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Toast it with a spiced cider, perhaps?