Foodie Tuesday: Mashed for a Mashup

Beans can be fun. Yes, they can be slightly dangerous in their propensity for aftershocks, if you will, but with reasonably careful preparation they offer a great deal of variety in flavors and textures, a filling and hearty sense of substance, and a decent nutritional punch, all in a bunch of mighty little packages. Fond as I am of rather wide-ranging cuisines, I am also bound, then, to enjoy good leguminous dishes. But I’m not endlessly open-minded about them. I don’t get much pleasure from things that are mealy, mushy, and morose, and when beans are handled too cavalierly by cooks, they can be reduced to such states rather easily. Why eat anything too bland, too woody from undercooking, too dull and lifeless from overdoing, or otherwise characterless, when in fact beans are such a fine medium for carrying a host of vivid flavors and come in such a rainbow of colors, shapes, and sizes?

All of this being said, I’m also a fan of one of the less stylish preparations known to bean-eating humankind, the ubiquitous mash of frijoles refritos or refried beans. This may be, as you’d guess if you’d read no other posts of mine than a single recent Tuesday one, due to the oft-practiced method of making refritos taste best by jamming as much lard into the pot of them as is physically possible, along with the musky goodness of cumin and other Mexican or Tex-Mex seasonings. But it’s also a pleasing kind of mash, having both the thick porridge character of many so-called comfort foods (nursery food texture is clearly a consistent preference among these) and the occasional happy surprise of the un-mashed, unabashed little pearls of un-crushed beans here and there.

Another pleasurable bean dish that’s full of rustic old-school goodness is the American classic of Boston baked beans, the virtual equivalent of candied beans, which also hold an unsurprising attraction for a devoted sweet tooth like mine. Traditionally, the well-loved Boston version of them contains salt pork and molasses, and I happily went with a similar theme when preparing yesterday’s side dish, but then I got to ruminating upon the aforementioned treat and wondered if the two recipes mightn’t make a nice partnership, as well. Turns out that there’s a Boston in Texas, too, in case that excuses me. So off I went, concocting my bean dish of the day…and enough extra for another two meals or so.

I’d par-cooked a batch of mixed beans recently, for starters. I combined equal parts dried kidney, pinto, and black beans, soaking them in several batches of water (each one successively cold, brought to a boil, cooled, rinsed, and replaced) over a stretch of hours before the final simmer to near-doneness. One portion of the beans went directly into a big batch of beef chili my spouse and I had prepared together that day; a large portion of the legumes went into the freezer for future uses; the last quantity was saved in the refrigerator in its own unseasoned juices for today’s preparation. And the latter was pretty easy to fix, with those beans already lying in half-cooked wait for the occasion.Photo: Boston, Texas Beans

Boston, Texas, Beans

Before the beans came into the picture, there was the salty-sweet sauciness to get under construction. I chopped about a generous half-pound of bacon into pieces and cooked them over medium-low heat with a big handful of brown sugar (my molasses source), a small sprinkle of smoked salt, and a couple Tablespoons of butter. Yes, extra salt and extra fat. Beans to come, cooked without any seasoning or fat, you know. Me: fat, salt, sugar. Yes. Deglazing, as the bacon began to crisp, with about 1/2 cup of good Texas bourbon. Once that all got good and syrupy and semi-crisped, I added the beans and their liquor, (about three cups) stirred everything to mix, and got in there with the potato masher, leaving some beans more or less intact. Let the whole pan sit, covered, at a low simmer until dinnertime about a half hour later. Served hot, it satisfied nicely after a busy afternoon for both of us diners.

In the event, it was a bit on the dry side for my ideal, but not too dry to be enjoyed with some plain smoked sausages cooked in white wine, dipped in a touch of mustard, and served with a side of juicy sweet Clementines. Given the slight dryness, however, I added a big dose-si-do of sweet BBQ sauce and a splash of water before sealing the remaining two meals’ worth in a zipper bag for refrigeration, and I’m sure I’ll get this little handshake-across-state-lines dish on speaking terms with further entrees in the days to come. Cooperation is a good thing, and the ever-flexible ingredient beans are nothing if not good citizens in the kitchen.

I Love Cities

Those who visit here with some frequency know that I am mighty fond of the rural landscape and its many, many charms, but it might not be quite as obvious that I am equally smitten, often enough, with the joys of urban life. Some of my happiest times and most exciting and meaningful adventures are attached to various wonderful and fabulous cities where I’ve been privileged to live or spend time.photo + text

Whenever anyone asks me to name my favorite cities where I’ve visited or spent any little amount of time, the first places that come to mind are truly lively, astoundingly adventure-filled places. I’m not big on bravery or constant busyness or the unknown, as you may well know by now, but I always manage to find myself energized and passionate about what these fabulous environs have to offer at every turn. It turns out that there is no shortage of urban places that fill me with dazzling delight. In addition to my hometown of Seattle, there are so many other magnificent cities for me to love wildly, places like Stockholm, Boston, Vienna, San Francisco, Munich, Cincinnati, Oslo, San Antonio, Vancouver, New York, Prague, Chicago, and London—for starters.photo + text

I will always crave my quiet time, and often that’s best found in the sweet, laid-back grace of the countryside, removed from cities’ bustling pace. But besides that it is possible to find moments of peace right in the middle of any major metropolis, if one only knows how and where to look, there is the inherent buzz and boisterous beauty of urban life to enjoy as well, and I am not at all immune to that kind of happiness when I can bask in it. I suppose the root of the whole equation is always, quite simply, to seek my well-being wherever I happen to find myself.

I Dance on Their Graves

digital illustration

Epic Epitaph

 

Let’s just keep this

Short and snappy:

Yes, I’m dead;

Some folks is happy.

Yes, I had

The plague. Ahem,

They’re all infected.

Joke’s on them.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Some Things Never Change. And Why Should They, Eh!

It’s unclear where the phrase ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ originated (though it can easily be believed attributable to Texans before its wider popularization), but the precept is in my mind particularly apropos when it comes to foods and eateries that reach a particular stage of development that makes them Classic. Every town seems to have a diner, joint, cafe or pub that has essentially congealed into a certain form and is revered to the point that its regulars and even unattached fans will gladly rally in defense of its remaining unchanged forever. Where else would we go?photoGreatness is not essential, but being the paradigm of whatever it might be that the place or food represents gradually becomes codified as something very nearly sacred. The comfort in being able to revisit one of these places any time and find the familiar favorite food, drink, decor and ohyespeople, people is pretty much a saving grace in the midst of a dull or dark spot in life, whether it’s been a bad day or a bad decade–or just a time when you’re hungering for something more than just calories.photoMe, I’ve got a passel of favorites from all of the phases and places my life has crossed thus far, and doubtless I’ll find new ones as long as I do live. That speaks less to my personal obsession with food, good food, lots of food and equal amounts of fun and atmosphere than it does to the wide availability of tremendous cooks, distinctive and colorful rooms, buildings and locales, and fantastically personalized recipes for nearly everything imaginable. The fundamental dish, drink, dining space or clientele need not be genuinely unique or even world-class (not that that hurts!)–it’s about the combination of them and the way that the parts all strike one on the occasion that lures her back. And then back again.photoAll I should really say on the occasion of such fond reminiscences is that if you don’t already have favorite spots that you’ve visited often enough for the people running them to recognize you, exchange information about life outside the eatery, and then bring your order with all of its weird customized combinations and/or deletions without batting an eye, you had better get moving and find one or ten.photoAnd further, I should say Thank You, Tea Leaf and Harbor Lights [here, if you read the critic’s linked review of the recent renovation and its early results, is living proof of my thesis, should you be interested], Ranchman’s and Miko Sushi, Anglea’s and Mi Ranchito and 42nd Street Cafe & Bistro [an example of a place that has kept a fantastic balance between changing over time and maintaining high quality food and great people]; Thank You, Dave and Hallie, Francisco and Tony, Blaine and Cheri, Teresita and Allessio and Abuelita and all of you other wondrous souls who have been keeping the rest of us contented and coming back over all these years. Yeah, you too, you people over there in England (ohhh, that fabulous Chinese hole-in-the-wall with Sizzling Lamb, and the suave Indian place across from the V&A) and Sweden (I’m looking at you guys making us shrimp pizzas in the wood fired oven in the Stockholm train station and the people creating amazing steak frites with cognac and green peppercorn sauce in Gamlastan) and Panama (Italian salmon pasta in Central America? Oh, yes! Oh, boy!) and so many, many more. Thank You.

Foodie Tuesday: The Wages of Thirst is Garnish

Nobody in her right mind wants her wages garnished, but the price of making a good cocktail lies, in part, in creating the perfect trimmings for it. And making a good cocktail can be a great way to pay oneself for a hard day’s work.

photoThe usual bar staples tend to include fresh fruit, pickles and olives, candied fruits, vegetables, herbs, and rims or drink surfaces dusted with sugar, salt and/or spices. Add to that the graces of toasted nuts or seeds or coconut, perhaps a drop of edible essential oil rubbed on the glass rim or dripped on the surface of the drink, and your repertoire will increase further. Edible flowers thrown into the mix will instantly give you exponential increases in your oeuvre. It seems that there are no limits to the recombinant cocktails and mocktails possible with the changing of garnishes alone. Considering that you have all of those fluid ingredients to begin with, are there really any excuses for not drinking well?
photoSometimes, though, nothing beats being straightforward and well suited without getting tricky. Boston‘s Legal Seafoods serves a refreshing drink they call French Lemonade, and the most logical thing to do is to tell the world that this drink that looks like old-fashioned pink lemonade is indeed lemony and bright, and a slice of lemon, however trite it may seem to a cocktail snob, does the job best of all. That the drink consists mostly of actual [American style*] lemonade makes it plenty easy to lay hands on a fresh slice, and that that marvelous flavor is enhanced with a little lovely Saint Germain liqueur, a bit of Chambord, and a jot of Berkshire LSF Ethereal gin just makes it eminently drinkable. At home, of course (not being a big gin fan), I’d substitute Tito’s tasty vodka for the gin, but it’s good just as it is. Not much need for excesses of flourish when it comes to the decor.

* When ‘lemonade’ is offered, many of our overseas friends expect something more like our carbonated lemon or lemon-lime soft drinks. And frankly, this drink combination could be very enjoyable with that substitution too. I’d probably garnish that one with a largish wedge of fresh lemon rather than a mere slice, to keep the taste bright and not too sweet. As opposed to me, perhaps [sweet but not too bright]!photo

Foodie Tuesday: Come Away with Me

Travel eating can be a horror, of course, since the challenges of being in unfamiliar territory, changing time zones (and therefore, often, the times when we’re hungry or not), having to figure out the differences in price based on a travel budget and possibly foreign currencies and the simple odds of finding great food in a new or different place can all conspire to put us at risk of eating badly, if at all. I can think of a few classic examples in my own history, to be sure. A trip to a certain little (long gone, God willing) Inn that wanted ever so dearly to be thought quaint and Elizabethan and folkloric springs instantly to mind: a speedy glimpse into the dining room should have warned of danger ahead, had either my sister or I bothered to note that the decor included a plate rail circling the room and bearing an ominously vast collection of cartoonish miniature boxes of cold cereal. What followed, since we failed to notice this flagrant danger signal before we’d ordered and waited quite awhile, was remarkable in its weirdness and memorably awful tasting, a meal in which every single ingredient smacked noticeably of the tin from whence it sprang and the pièce de résistance was a salad thus composed: one wet leaf of iceberg lettuce cupping a hard, slightly greenish canned peach half that in turn cradled one whole pitted black olive. If ever a thing eyed me ominously, it was that thing.

But more often than not, lest you think me incapable of finding out the true culinary delights peculiar to any place I visit, I love travel in large (no pun intended) part because I do find and relish such specialties of places-not-my-home.

In Texas, besides the fine variety of regional treats influenced by the mix of whatever native and immigrant populations rule therein, there is almost always some great Mexican and/or Tex-Mex food to be had, not to mention the whole range of beefy, meaty and BBQ-smoky goodness that reigns in the hearts and stomachs of the locals. So you know full well that when my spousal-person and I get to do any wandering in our current state of dwelling, we tend to hunt for those joints where the area’s avid eaters congregate to eat such good and glorious things.photoA trip to the Boston Early Music Festival is reason to rejoice by virtue all of the fantastic playing and singing we hear there. High art and musical culture are always a thrill. But it’s also an outstanding excuse to indulge in Boston‘s superlative food culture. So, given the chance, you can bet I’ll dash to one of the nearest provisioners of provender to order up a beatific lobster roll as soon as I can manage it. If it is repeated numerous times and also happens to be followed by a number of equally fine regional treats, say, a dainty dish of Boston baked beans swimming in molasses-sticky sauce or some spectacular Italian food at the north end of town, why then, I’m all the happier.photoDriving through Oregon wine country is a sure way to enjoy some spectacular scenery, its vineyards interspersed with small organic farms and fruit and hazelnut orchards, but do you think there’s any chance I would settle for merely viewing such glories and not dining on them too? Think again! Would I go visiting in northern Italy and not fill up on ethereal handmade pasta with wild mushrooms? Never! Cross an inch of Hungarian soil without seeking out a good dose or ten of paprikás or gulyás? Perish the thought! This musing is motivated in part, of course, by the opportunity and intent to spend a bit of this summer engaged in this beloved sport of eating-while-traveling. (Or, admittedly, traveling-while-eating.) But if it also serves to move you to further such adventures, rest assured I will be cheering you on all the way. And if I can find you and join you at the table, I most assuredly will.photo

Wish I were There

memento assemblageMuch as I adore where I am at any given moment, I’m not above reminiscing about and longing for other places I’ve enjoyed, or fantasizing about ones I’ve yet to try even in the midst of the current Happy Place. It’s not a matter of comparison, of course, just that persistent tickle at the back of the mind that everyone suffers who has ever been two places–opposite ends of the couch or of the world–that are both pleasing and desirable for their own reasons.memento assemblage

So I can sit in a ray of gilt sunshine, in a high-backed soft chair, sipping cool water and feeling quite contented–yet my brain keeps flitting around, from Praha to Portland, from Boston to Berlin, from San Juan Viejo to San Antonio. In my heart, I may be tucked up in a mews in Wexford or striding along the West Side to find a small concert venue after dark in New York. Perhaps inhaling the dazzling steam of glorious Indian food in a surprise find restaurant in Oslo, watching the koi slide through their semi-tropical pond under the snow-frosted glass pyramid of the conservatory in Edmonton or testing the tenderness of lovingly handmade pasta in a cozy family ristorante in Bolzano.memento

Wherever I may be, my thoughts will always drift. It’s not the least a sign of dissatisfaction or discontent, but rather that I’ve found delight and happiness in such a wide variety of places that they all compete for attention even (or perhaps especially) when I am full of well-being. There is so much beauty to be enjoyed in the world and there are so many great sensory experiences to be had that the soul grows restless for them.memento assemblage

Much as I like my reminiscences and the memories of all of those fantastic places I’ve journeyed, the astonishing and dear people who have welcomed me there and introduced me to each place’s peculiarities and pleasures, and the thought of all of the songs, foods, walks, sights and adventures that have enriched every one of those times, I am always hungry for more. The sweet sense of something marvelous that’s yet-to-come is as poignant and piquant as the promise of any other sort of romance, and my wishes always lean toward the more-ish, especially when the outing is made hand in hand with my dearest companion. Though the old-fashioned postcard tradition for travelers may have been to write to friends and loved ones saying ‘Wish you were here’, the truth is more often that I wish I were nearer to them, wherever they are.memento assemblage

I Left My Car in San Francisco

photo

Edmonton

Many cities are best appreciated on foot. No matter how plush or sexy a car you have, sitting in it immobile in ugly traffic is just as unattractive as ever–maybe more so, if you’re thinking that somewhere in the next six blocks, if you can ever traverse them, is the bling-swinging pedestrian, high-speed messenger’s bicycle or runaway shopping cart with your pretty car’s number on it, and nowhere in the next eighteen blocks is there such a thing as a parking space for under $40, should you negotiate the next six unscathed. Life in a car is rough enough.

But there’s so much you can see and do on foot anyway that is unattainable or at least seldom noticed from inside a car. Window shopping while driving is no safer or more successfully accomplished than texting at the steering wheel. People watching, one of the best entertainments and learning tools known to observant persons, is at best a fleeting glimpse while driving past, not like the pedestrian’s opportunity to slow down and say hello or, more covertly, sit on the nearest bench and watch the whole human show parade along its way. Some cities, like San Francisco and Prague, Seattle and Stockholm, have enough narrow hilly streets that you can’t see halfway along the block, let alone what’s up over the hill’s crest or down around the next curve.

But if you were trying to operate automotively anyway, how would you be close enough to smell the smoke of a wood-fired oven drifting out a cafe window, to peer in and notice a gilt coffered ceiling behind the revolving door of an old bank building, to catch the eye of the shop proprietor who winks at you out of the dim interior so slyly that you can’t resist going in to see the hand-woven silks so ravishingly gleaming under the curved glass of that ancient mahogany display cabinet? What chance would you have of getting ever so slightly jostled off your straight walking path so that you notice that in the almost invisible gap next to you, between the bent copper drainpipe on the left and the broken rusty post-box on the right, a narrow cobbled alley appears, with sunlight spilling into it in ragged patterns created by its tiny balconies swathed in brilliant yellow and red and purple flowers?

photo

Denton

I’ve always preferred in-town meanders of the bipedal variety over wheeled ones, especially those exploratory ones in a new town or just a new part of a familiar town. If there’s not too much ground to cover, I covet the freedom I have to stop and gape, to slow down, take sudden unplanned tours and detours, to take pictures of the quirky oddity that almostescaped my eye. The fitness that comes from walking certainly beats that of planting my posterior in a car seat, no matter how tensely city traffic might make me perch there, and if I do get weary there are not only refurbished old trams, pedicabs, monorails and water taxis to deliver me from my exhausted state to my actual destination if necessary, or better yet, a nice leisurely cafe break at a sidewalk table with a sparkling mineral water in hand and dark sunglasses on so I can see all of the action nearby without appearing to stare too disconcertingly while I catch my breath and give my aging parts a little welcome recovery time. I’m just grateful to have two functional legs, no matter how modest my fitness level happens to be.

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Casco Viejo

Since my dyslexic gifts (yes, I just spelled it dsylexic before editing) include complete lack of an inner compass, one of the particularities of strolling wanders for me is that I must always allow plenty of time, and assume a fair likelihood that I will be well and truly lost at least once per outing. Including in my home town. Possibly in my own yard. But so far I’ve always found my way back again, like the proverbial Bad Penny, and remained alive and unharmed. I’m reasonably canny about not going into dicey areas alone or after dusk, taking off without an emergency cell phone (now that I finally have one, though it really is strictly for emergencies thankfully), or going for a genuine who-knows-where expedition without telling someone. But beyond that, plus some welcome good luck and guardian angel accompaniments, I can say with a certain amount of pleasure, surprise and/or pride that many of my best adventures have happened as a direct result of just staying close to the ground and taking advantage of the fortuitous events that occurred along the way, embracing the goodness of the fun and fascinating people who cross paths with me in those fine and serendipitous ways that happen when you let them. They can’t put that stuff in tourist guidebooks.

So I’m glad that I got out and left behind any car in so many grand places, or I’d never have loved them so well. Munich, New York, Verona, Chicago, London .. . would any of them have been a tenth as lovely from a car as on foot? It’s possible, I suppose, but I wouldn’t take back a single pair of my worn-out soles to find out for certain. I suspect more truly that it’s because I get up and leave my car in all those wonderful, fantastic places that I end up leaving my heart in all of them too.

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Boston