Foodie Tuesday: Pears, Greens & Coolness

When the heat of late summer is dogging my heels and dragging me into doldrums, what I want to eat is something that can relieve that spiritual weight. Even a vegetarian delight can seem overly demanding of my metabolism and moods at such times, but that doesn’t stop me from being hungry. So, what to do that will be more satisfying nutritionally than eating an entire package of Popsicles? Create some inner relief with a light and juicy salad.Photo: Fresh Greens

My standard starting point for salad is generally some fresh green stuff. For a light and summery version, I love the sweet and fragile kinds of greens, perhaps some Bibb or butter or leaf lettuce, and even of those slightly meatier leaves that will give a bit of textural contrast and substance to the salad, I like the mild ones like mâche (lamb’s lettuce), chard (silverbeet), and beet greens. Some nice blend of several of those is refreshing and nutritious enough to make me feel virtuous but not overstuffed.Photo: Pretty Pears

I like to give the meal a little zip with some other green goodness, say some fresh mint and thinly sliced fennel bulb, sweet basil and chopped sugar snap peas. But I wouldn’t want to limit myself to entirely green things. I’d use some diced or sliced ripe, juicy pear as the starring feature of the dish, because that’s a favorite treat almost any time, any way. What goes nicely with a pear-green-refreshing salad? So many possible things. This time, I think, a melange of toasted pistachios, a chiffonade of garden-fresh pink rose petals (or day lilies  or a sprinkling of violets, borage, or lilac blossoms), and some finely shredded mildly nutty Jarlsberg cheese. Keeping in mind that the flowers must be chemical-free, of course. I’d dress this beauty up with a blend of avocado oil, sparkling Elderflower Pressé (I’m fond of Belvoir Fruit Farms‘ excellent elixir), lime juice, vanilla, a pinch of salt, and a dusting of cayenne pepper.

And then I’d stop sitting around, merely talking about it, and eat that salad. Appetite for light things or not, I get hungry.

Foodie Tuesday: Texas Tapas

photoA more accurate name for this food would probably be something about snacking-as-dinner or Gustatorial Grazing, but it doesn’t have quite the same, erm, kick to it. The concept simply goes back to my perpetual preference for offering a wide assortment of things to nibble and letting everyone at table—or wandering around, as is the usual case when we have a houseful—choose his or her own combination of things to eat. Saves any tough decisions on my part and eliminates the complexity of trying to accommodate each person’s allergies and dislikes individually, as long as I don’t have any tiny persons of no discretion on hand and able to lay hands on everything.

I’m particularly fond of the ease of this approach when, as aforementioned, I have a big gathering of friends or family, but it’s also a convenient method for getting up a meal in a heartbeat when last-minute plans evolve. I found out the other day that we had a chance to see an old friend from Washington who was in town for one mere day; thankfully, he was here to consult with a good local friend, so the two of them wrangled their schedules to make it possible to take a dinner break with the two of us. Instant party!

I know that our visitor, while we’d not seen him here, has been to Texas before, but I didn’t know how much he’d had the typical local foods. As the weather was warmer and sunnier than expected, it seemed fortuitously apropos to put together something that had a hint of picnic, a touch of barbecue, a dash of Southern-ism, and a little Tex-Mex character, all in simple forms that could be served at room temperature and combined into whatever ad hoc plates-full we chose, and we could be as casual as we liked with our good friends.

I started with a quick cheat: pre-assembled jalapeño poppers I’d bought at the grocery, seeded jalapeño halves filled with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon. I roasted them in a cast iron skillet in the oven, knowing that this would also preheat the oven for much of the rest of the meal’s roasting.

I bought an array of vegetables, cleaned them and cut them into rough chunks, steamed the hard root vegetables partway ahead of time, assembled all of the prepared parts in a couple of big baking dishes, and loaded them up with butter and a bit of salt before they all went into the oven to roast together. Russet and sweet potatoes, carrots and beets all got the pre-roasting spa treatment of the steaming, and went into the ovens nestled with fat asparagus, whole ears of sweet corn, small bell peppers and chunks of lemon.

While all of those were roasting, I cut some skirt steak into fajita-sized pieces, seasoned them with cumin, smoked paprika, smoked salt and a little granulated garlic, and seared them before a nice braise in a bottle’s bath of Shiner Bock (a good Texas beer), cooking it all in until it candied into glaze at the last. Those went into a bowl to stay warm, and I took the skillet that was still filled with spicy bacon fat from the poppers and lightly cooked up the beet greens in that. When they were not quite cooked, I just took them off the cooker and let them steam in their own heat, covered. Meanwhile, the first dish of the meal was the last to be prepared: pimiento cheese. There would be salsa and crema on the table for dipping or saucing any and everything, but pimiento cheese seemed like a perfectly good addition to this melange of a meal.

Those who know the southern tradition of pimiento cheese know that the classic White Trash version of it is likely to be a combination of shredded Velveeta (something that is called cheese but bears little resemblance to it, in my book) and diced canned red bell peppers in a lot of mayonnaise, possibly with a little bit of cayenne and salt to season it. Like many regional staples, though, every household is likely to have its own variant, and many of the modern ones use cheddar cheese, the most meaningful improvement in the recipe I can imagine. I kept my own version simple but used lots of cheddar, a largish jar of canned pimientos, and a mixture of about half mayonnaise and half whole milk yogurt. I seasoned it all with only a touch of salt, a good dash of cayenne, and a teaspoon or so of dill. Not bad, if you ask me, on crackers or crisps or tortilla chips or, dare I say it, probably even in the great white trash loveliness of making it a sandwich on slices of squishy super-processed white bread. Y’all, let’s eat.photo

Don’t Cry, Honey, the End of One Party is Only the Beginning of the Next

photoWhile I’m on the subject of eating, and when am I not, and delving into the marvelous mysteries of leftovers and rehashed Hash (or, as I often call my versions, casseroles), let us contemplate yet more intimately The Day After. Or, the day after the day after, if you need me to be more precise. For the party two nights ago made happy provision of both work and comestibles to follow.

The broth put on to cook ‘way back when is now strained and the stewing beef I made into pot roast within it put up for later with a soupçon of broth soaking right back into it. The chocolates* I’d set aside to chill while making the tapas for the party are now broken out of the pan into nice variable-sized hunks for dessert treats to come. The cleanup after the party was incredibly simple–a couple of goodly batches of dish-washing, a quick sweep-up and tossing a few tea towels into the wash for today, and snip-snap, that was all it needed. The leftovers of various nosh-ables went into the fridge for later sorting and rearrangement into new meals.

So lunch today capitalized on all of that. Chorizo, Manchego, marinated mushrooms, Papas Bravas; I took the last quarter-cup full each of these various tapas leftover bits and chopped them into a smaller cut, mixing them and tossing them on top of some of my refrigerator stash of cooked broth rice. A sprinkling of smoked paprika, a drizzle each of cream and my freshly brewed beef broth, and into the oven for a thorough heating. Done.

With that, the accompanying salad was made somewhat in the style of Vietnamese (lettuce wrapped) salad rolls, with greenery fresh-plucked from my own garden borders. Next time I make them I’ll eliminate the layer of red cabbage leaves, which despite their glaucous beauty, snappy crunch and fine flavor are just too dense and tough for the otherwise tender rolls, so the rolls had to be sliced up into bites and eaten with a fork rather than the possible eating out-of-hand I could otherwise have managed. So without the cabbage, here’s the rest of the concatenation, and it was a tasty collation at that.photo

Spring Salad Rolls

On a piece of wax paper or parchment, lay out a few whole green leaves in a solid ‘sheet’–a pattern that will allow them to be rolled up as a whole into a green sausage once the other ingredients are layered on top of them–sushi style, if you will. I started with three nice big tender chard (silverbeet) leaves to create an outer layer of roughly 8″x10″. And then I piled on, in fairly even layers one over the other, the remaining greens. I used:

Chard leaves, borage leaves, basil leaves, mint leaves, a little parsley, and tiny baby beet (ordinary red beetroot) greens.

Over the top of this ‘lasagna’ of fresh greens I drizzled a couple of tablespoons full of my lately-signature jam mixture (equal parts strawberry, plum and ginger preserves, to use up the tail-ends of several favorites), warmed to thin it enough for drizzling since the leafy stuff was so loosely stacked. The last layer was a set of red cabbage leaves, which next time I’ll replace with more chard or lettuce substitutes for tenderness, slathered with cream cheese, goat cheese or mascarpone and laid face-down on top of the stack. This ‘glue’ helped hold everything in place as (one could lift an end of the paper underneath if necessary to get started) I rolled the greens up gently into a reasonably tightly packed solid cylinder. Once rolled, it’s best chilled for a bit to help it hold its shape, and can easily be sliced across into a couple of shorter hand rolls or a number of pretty pinwheels. I think this will prove almost infinitely variable with whatever greens I have on hand or am in the mood to include, not to mention any tender and thinly sliced addition that’s neither too brittle nor too juicy to ‘play well’ with the others. Sounds fussy, but it’s really incredibly quick and  simple, and it’s plenty refreshing. To serve it today, I drizzled a tiny bit of crema and honey mixed together on top, but that’s just icing on this particular cake.

With the salad roll and the casserole, nothing else but some of the sherried olives made for the other night’s gathering, and sparkling water. Oh, and some of the chocolate* pieces I’d made back then, too, from nothing more than a mixture of melted Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate, a little melted butter to emulsify, and pure black cherry juice. The finished chilled pieces are solider than fudge but a little softer than the pure chocolate, and also subtly fruity, just a teeny bit mysterious, and pretty swell, as a sweet bite at the end of the meal.photo