Eating Thistles

Photo: The Big ThistleCardoons and artichokes are every bit as admirable as their strictly-for-visual-admiration wild growing thistle cousins. But as any avid eater should know, the aforementioned relatives are terrific dining companions as well as being attractive plants. Sure, I love the silvery magnificence of a shapely cardoon leaf accenting the garden border, but if I can admire its beauty and then eat it as well isn’t that just so much the better?Digital illustration from a photo: Antique Artichoke

And artichokes, well, we all know those are as worthy of battling past their thorny armor as it was ever worth storming a castle’s battlements and portcullises to get to the treasury inside.Digital illustration from a photo: Artichoke Arrangement

The wonderful earthiness of the artichoke is an outstanding companion to the similarly strong-yet-subtle virtues of asparagus, mushrooms or root vegetables. All of these, in turn, play nicely with the denser, meatier varieties of fish—roasted monkfish or grilled salmon, for example—or a roast or stew of wild game, if one has access to, say, boar or venison. Or, if meat or fish is simply not right for the moment, some boiled, steamed or poached eggs.

How about this for a tasty Collage of Earthy Vegetables:

Blanch some cleaned asparagus, small to medium-sized artichokes, halved and trimmed, and russet potatoes, skin on and cut into modest wedges. When they’re all blanched, stem and clean some Portobello mushrooms, toss everything with a little avocado oil, kosher salt & cracked black pepper, and grill or roast until tender.

Serve with any or all of the following as a finger food, small-plate meal or as a side to the main entree (fish or meat or eggs):

Toasted hazelnuts, small wedges of Manchego or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, brown butter Hollandaise, and/or rosemary sherried green olives.

This compilation seems to me almost a vegetable representation of terroir. At the least, it’s very down to earth!

What’s-in-My-Kitchen Week, Day 2: Foodie Tuesday

Having guests for a meal can be a lot of work. Or not. But either way, if it’s mostly ready when they arrive (unless it’s a cook-together occasion), it’s a great time to have fun with friends. Few occasions are as welcome as those that include comestible-related conviviality. Last week’s get-together fun was occasioned by the impending retirement time move to Pennsylvania of our dear next door neighbors, who joined us for dinner just after I’d finished clearing out the dining room and enough of the kitchen from our week’s plethora of minor house maintenance projects to make way for us all to fit comfortably at the dining table.photo

One of the pleasures of having company is the excuse to set a pretty table, even if it’s not at all formal. While we do sit down to a ‘set’ table often enough to pass for civilized, formality of any sort is almost always as far from my modus operandi as one end of the galaxy is from another; still, it’s nice to have a reason to pull out a different tablecloth or put on a seasonal character at the board. For this day I wanted to keep things light, airy and summery, so I started with a small vintage tablecloth of graphic pale yellow butterflies on a crisp dark background and used the plain white crockery. These I enhanced with the  graceful twisted stems of our delicate Hadeland crystal wineglasses in their discontinued ‘Lord‘ pattern–which we were fortunate to have handed down to us by my parents, who in turn were given them by my Norwegian sister and her husband. Every time we use these beauties I am reminded of our family and of our Norwegian roots; at the same time, they are infinitely well-balanced and sweetly appealing to the eye, so they often ‘set’ the table all by themselves, so to speak.photo

Food was kept simple, in my usual adherence to unfussy ways. Having seen a wildly delicious sounding recipe for a California Peach Caprese Salad at the delicious blog A Feast for the Eyes, I was smitten with the idea of feasting, indeed, on peaches and was gifted not only with finding some fine, nearly ripe ones at the same store as a smashingly fat and lovely filet of wild-caught Alaskan salmon, I had the foundation of my meal in mind. The demise of my cooktop and its current unavailability had already inspired me to plan that I would oven-roast some vegetables and fruit to add a sort of barbecue-ish tinge to the meal’s summery theme (we don’t yet have a functional barbecue, latecoming Texans that we are). Thus, a super-plain green salad started things off without interfering with all of the other flavors and colors to be heaped on the table. Romaine, diced glorious avocado and a drizzle of simple Italian-style vinaigrette. I did put out small dishes of pignoli and yes, a chiffonade of fresh basil and mint leaves for those of us who wanted to have a sort of Cal-Italianate hint of the inspirational peach Caprese infused into the meal. Like me, for example.photoThe salmon preparation was something of an experiment: my doctor recommends I limit my soy intake for various reasons, so although I’m often addicted to soy sauce in my fish marinades, I was enamored of a slab of hot-smoked salmon at the grocery and bethought myself to use that as the salinizing element in my salmon prep this time. I laid the filet lovingly in a pan greased with coconut oil and topped it with crumbled smoked salmon, freshly ground black pepper, minced fresh ginger, a splash each of ginger juice and freshly squeezed lemon and orange juices, a faint drizzle of raw honey, and a little more coconut oil on top of it all, and into the oven it went. It was joined there in short order by pans of vegetables and fruits, respectively (hurray for the benison of double ovens!), and there was time during the baking and broiling to hunt up some dessert from the freezer.photo

The vegetables could hardly have been simpler: whole green beans, asparagus, orange and yellow capsicum–those sweet and fruity bell peppers add elements of both color and flavor brightness to a vegetable dish so neatly–and thickly sliced cremini mushrooms. Crystallized salt, pepper, a squeeze of lime, and a slick of my precious Stonehouse olive oil (using their luscious Persian Lime this time) and the whole pan was ready for its oven close-up too. I left the fruit in all its naked glory, except for a little gloss of the aforementioned coconut oil to help protect them from sunburn while increasing their chance of a good brown skin in their broiler tanning bed. I know some folk say to add sugars to build (or to even out) caramelization but I figured the fruits were sugary and ripe enough to take care of themselves: those treasured peaches, a handful of my very first batch ever of homegrown figs, and that living gold of pineapple.photo

The dessert was well into my lazy comfort zone, being a chocolate combination of my nut truffles (a simple mix of melted dark chocolate with a little good butter, a pinch of salt, and finely chopped and toasted mixed nuts of my choosing, set up in a flat pan and cut into small pieces) and my almond-flour brownies that I keep handy in the freezer between times, and the mellow, dense chocolaty goodness played nicely with all of the fruity sweetness that preceded it.photo

Foodie Tuesday: All about the Ingredients

photoI’ve said it before, and lots of food experts smarter than I am have said it lots of times before I ever did: good food preparation starts with good ingredients. No amount of genius and skill will make a great meal out of so-so ingredients, let alone out of bad ones. And me, I have a modicum of smarts and very modest, though for a lazy goof-off like me, surprisingly patient skills. So yeah, I can get the job done, as long as I have some excellent ingredients in hand.

photoStarting with salt. One of the most indispensable of delights in the entire pantheon of foods and culinary assets from its first discovery, good salt in just the right quantity is the First Rule of Yumminess in many, many a dish. But, hang on, salt should still often be the last ingredient applied. Tricky, no?

photoThe meal, however, if it’s with fun guests on hand and stretching a little over the course of the day or evening, well that should begin with a little taste of something nice. For the other day’s dinner guests, who were indeed a whole lot of fun, the starters were simple enough, and already on hand: the crackers I made (and posted) last week, the olives I’d previously bathed in sherry and olive oil, and smoked almonds, plus a few chilled prawns with dill-enhanced cocktail sauce. A fresh, cold batch of light Sangría:

Blushing Sangría

Two 750 ml. bottles dry rosé (I used a nice dry Pinot Noir rosé by Toad Hollow), plus 1 bottle of sweet white wine (I used a bottle of Moscato), 1/4 cup of Amaretto, 1/4 cup of Himbeergeist, 1/2 pint of fresh raspberries, 6 small or 3 large fresh peaches, 1 teaspoon rose-water, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/4-1/2 cup of light agave syrup or raw honey. Stir gently and chill thoroughly before serving.

The peaches I bought were an unexpected mix of half overripe and half underripe fruits, so I peeled and sliced the underripe pieces into the Sangría, where I’d already immersed the raspberries, and the too-ripe ones I pitted; I put the mushy peaches and all of the skins from both kinds into the blender with a bunch of the liquid ingredients, blended them all thoroughly and sieved the pulp into the Sangría, so I still got all of the mileage of flavor and color from the peaches, if a little less sliced fruit. In the end, it was plenty drinkable, so all was well in our pre-prandial world.photo

photoThe meal needed vegetable balance, of course, so I kept the ingredients to a fair minimum again and the flavors simple. Why mess with good contents? A mix of heirloom tomatoes and red cherry tomatoes made a simple but flavorful topping for romaine lettuce with a couple of simple salad dressing choices. Sweet corn, freshly pared off of the cob, was gently and quickly warmed in butter. And some delicate asparagus was steamed with a little soy sauce, a little plain rice vinegar, a very small dash of toasted sesame oil and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

photoThe main dish, which I’ve undoubtedly mentioned in previous posts, was our old favorite household standby of Smoked Salmon Pasta. Not even a true recipe, really. Dearest John, I did not hand-craft my pasta. Yes, I bought refrigerated fresh fettuccine. Would that I’d had you supervising the party, not to mention in charge of the pasta-making, this element would indeed have been more, erm, elemental. Not to worry. Some day I shall reform. Meanwhile, a decent store-bought fresh fettuccine is not such a bad thing when dressed up just a leetle bit with smoked salmon cream. Simmer about a pint of heavy cream until it thickens to a nice sauce thickness, add about 1/4 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg and 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, 1 cup of broken up [hot smoked] alder smoked wild salmon, and a good splash of lemon juice. Toss gently with the freshly cooked and drained pasta and serve.photoThere are only two main high-quality ingredients needed to complete a pretty good party with all the rest of this, then. Dessert, naturally, should be offered–a bit of sweetness to follow all the preceding, and stretch as far into the evening as can be managed by all. But most significantly, the last essential ingredient of the gathering is, well, the gathering. The good company. We had that. Good enough company to want to stretch out the evening. So there was just a touch of dessert. Fresh strawberries and, you guessed it, chocolate.

photoI never said I was original in my menu planning. But I am really good at putting myself in excellent company, and that’s always what the party is all about. There you go: my real culinary talent is cooking up a right magical blend of outstanding people and enjoying the delights that result from the combination. Too bad there’s no cookbook out there that teaches that–no, wait–every good cookbook in the world gives guidance for just this art. As these good books teach us, choose your excellent ingredients wisely, food or company, and you will brew up a marvelous party.