Foodie Tuesday: For Which I’m Very Thankful

Photo: Thanksgiving in New BraunfelsI enjoy cooking. Not as much as I enjoy eating, or I’d probably bother to get chef training and go to work as a cook somehow, but I do enjoy time well spent in the kitchen. Still, I am ever so glad to let other, and very often better, cooks feed me. I was delighted, for example, to let the hotel staff in New Braunfels (Texas hill country) put together the meal my darling spouse and I shared with a ballroom-full of senior citizens and a small handful of their child and grandchild youngsters on Thanksgiving day. The food wasn’t especially gourmet, being an all-day buffet of extremely familiar and generally uncomplicated dishes long associated here with the holiday, but it was satisfying and traditional, and I didn’t lift a finger to help in its preparation, unless you count buttering my own bread. And I loved that—especially at the end of a long no-breaks haul for my hardworking husband, and in the throes of freshly hatched holiday colds for both of us—we could pay someone else to feed us. I’m grateful every day that I can afford to eat, and nearly always whatever I want to eat, and that sometimes others will do the fixing for me.

I’m also pleased to have access to foods that are, when I do want to cook, easy to make into something nice to eat. Vegetables almost never miss the mark in that realm for me, even though the aforementioned darling isn’t quite so hot on so many of them as I might be. It still fascinates me that he has, thanks to being a supertaster, an arguably restricted palate, but likes some foods that one might never expect a picky eater to like. He is an avowed avoider of things garlicky and onion-heavy, yet numbers among his joys when choosing a meal such famously garlic and onion friendly cuisines as Italian, Thai, Mexican, Indian, and of course, Tex-Mex. It’s all about how the ingredients are prepared, integrated, and combined, isn’t it. This guy who despises Weird Foods (and to him, they are myriad) will happily eat raw fish—not so familiar at all in America until recent decades—if it’s in the form of well-made sushi. As we draw near to the two-decade mark of marriage ourselves, I still do not presume to read his mind, culinarily speaking, accurately at all times. Not that this assures I can’t or won’t eat what I please, when it pleases me, but it’s easier to accomplish when dining out than when I’d have to prepare separate dishes for us, a thing I’m willing to do only occasionally. Another reason to appreciate visits to restaurants and friends’ tables.Photo: Fresh Onions

While I’m on the subject of vegetal delights, let us then ponder some specifics. And why not start with garlic and onions? The flagrantly fragrant lily relatives are amazingly versatile, able to range from hot and spicy to mellow, even to sweet; in texture, they can be soft, chewy or crispy, depending on their preparation. They can add color and pattern to a dish with their concentric layers, their bulbs and leaves, or they can melt right in and disappear, leaving only their flavor to remind of their presence. Thanks to my partner’s tastes, it’s rare that I’ll indulge in any of the more potent forms myself unless he’s out of town for a length of time, but I still remember how to use them in gentler ways when I’m in the mood. For example, two very different kinds of soup starring alliums: French-style Soupe a l’Oignon, and a Creamy Leek & Potato Soup.

The Creamy Leek & Potato Soup is simple enough to make, but should be done rather slowly to get the best out of the ingredients gently. Leeks must be cleaned very thoroughly to get the sandy dirt and grit out of their layers, and an aggressive approach to the cleaning is fine when they’ll be pureed anyway. So start by trimming the leeks’ green ends well and removing their root ends, then split them in half lengthwise and soak them in a basin or sink filled with cool water before hand-checking them for any remaining dirt. Meanwhile, clean, chop and boil an equal amount of potatoes (skin on or off, depending on the variety and your wish) in water with a couple of bay leaves and a dash of salt. Drain the rinsed leeks, reserve a small handful, then chop the rest into pieces about an inch/2 cm long, and soften them until they’re melting with a slow sauté in lots of good butter. Slice the reserved leek pieces as thinly as possible and fry them until crisp for use as garnish when the soup’s ready. When the potatoes are fully cooked, remove the bay leaves from the water, pour in the buttery leeks, and puree the water, leeks, butter, and potatoes into a thick soup, thinning it to your preference with cream or half-and-half. Season to taste with salt and pepper, top with a spoonful of sour cream or creme fraiche, and sprinkle some of the frizzled leeks over that before serving.

Soupe à l’Oignon is delicious when made with a chicken broth base. I know, I know: many traditionalists insist that beef broth is the proper foundation for French onion soup. But I always found chicken broth (especially my own homemade stuff) the best fit for the soup’s overall flavor profile. I might even go strictly vegetarian rather than use beef broth in it, knowing how I tend, and if so I would definitely opt for adding some powdered Cremini mushrooms and a splash of Tamari to the roasted mirepoix mix in my veg broth simmer to make it a little more robust before straining it. But my basic recipe always started with the onions. I like plain yellow onions, and slice them into about 1/2″ (1 cm) thick slices after cleaning them. If I’m making the broth on the occasion of the soup itself, I’ll throw the onion skins into it for the beautiful amber color they lend. A nice big pot (even a half-full slow cooker) full of sliced onions with a pinch of salt and a lot of sweet butter can cook slowly and beautifully into a smooth, jammy confit, and that can be used in any number of dishes later, if you save some by vacuum-packing or freezing it.

Last-minute prep of this beauty is simple. Heat the number of desired 1-cup (or so) servings in a heavy pan, and when the onions are just about to stick to the pan, deglaze it with a good splash of dry sherry, broth, or water. Spoon each helping into a heavy bowl, mug, or ramekin. Barely submerge the onions with a helping of broth, whichever kind you have in mind. Top each helping with a slice of well grilled dense, chewy peasant bread. Top the bread with a hefty slice of Gruyère cheese, broil until bubbling and golden-brown, and it’s ready to serve. Not quite ready to sip, though. Try to wait until you won’t get broiled by the hot cheese yourself. Worth the wait. It’s kind of like growing the vegetables in the first place. Patience pays in deep flavor.Photo: Fennel & Carrots

In this regard, there’s a whole range of marvels in the vegetable world that are only made more lovely by roasting the veg. Take fennel. The homely bulb is somewhat celery textured and mildly licorice flavored in its garden-fresh state. Generally speaking, I hate licorice. But with a light roasting in a bit of oil (preferably olive or avocado) or butter, fennel becomes an ethereal and delicate variant of its former self that I really do enjoy in small amounts. Swell in a combined vegetable roast; fabulous in a bouillabaisse or cioppino. Throw some herbs, carrots, and onions, along with masses of seafood, in the tomato-based broth, and with that whisper of perfumy fennel as a top-note, you have some magical brew.Photo: Radishes

Beetroot is a master of flexibility, whether as the star of the moment or as a sweet and sultry mystery ingredient in a dish. Even the homely radish raises the possibility of delicious dining, when kindly handled. The old standby of a radish sandwich (just thinly sliced, lightly peppery radishes served open-faced on sturdy but refined white sandwich loaf slices, heavily buttered and lightly salted) is a fine place to start. An icy-spicy salad of sliced radishes, fresh mint chiffonade, and sliced sweet apples (something like Fuji, Jazz, or Pink Lady) in a light dressing of rice vinegar, macadamia oil, sugar, a grind of black pepper, and a pinch of salt. Of course, I can’t give you actual recipes for my foods, being almost constitutionally incapable of replicating the quantities and combinations of any dish I’ve made. I vary what I’m preparing based on what’s on hand, and I’m awful at following existing recipes, so you should take what say with a pinch of salt, too. Something that rarely hurts the preparation of a fine vegetable, by the way, a pinch of salt.

The other instructive clue I’m happy to share with you about vegetable preparation today is, of course, the efficacy and beauty of somebody else doing the work. Works for me!

Foodie Tuesday: Swim for It

If left to my own devices to raise or, more difficult yet, forage and hunt for all of my food, I’d soon enough be a non-meatatarian. I haven’t the patience or the skill for any sort of animal husbandry, nor the remotest chance of outsmarting anything sentient in order to catch it. But despite my pitiful showing as a junior fisherman alongside Gramps in days of yore, I think I could pull myself together enough to learn how to fish and forage the sea enough to keep my love of seafoods at least occasionally treated. Good protein, too.
Photo: Salmon Champagne Evening

Sometimes I am happy enough to have a rather plain fried, roasted, baked, steamed, raw, or poached piece of fish. When it’s pristinely, spankingly fresh and sweet, fish should probably not be made too fancy. Why mask perfection? At most, a dash of fresh herbs or a little zip of some lovely masala ought to be plenty of interest to vary the day’s meals. Even I have been known to identify and safely pick and consume wild sorrel, which is an excellent companion to fish in modest amounts. And of course, there’s nothing friendlier with a piece of salmon than citrus or ginger root or plain black pepper, if the foraging can extend as far as a grocery store. One thing I do think well worth the [negligible] fuss if I’m preparing salmon with its skin is to sear it, lightly salted, in butter or a high smoke-point oil before I cover its pan to finish cooking it through on cooktop or in the oven, because crispy salmon skin is delicious and its crunch a wildly beautiful complement to the velvety tenderness of the flesh. Once my palate was introduced to this marvel, I wondered how I had managed to enjoy salmon so much, so often, without having known what I’d been missing. Salty, slightly fat, salmon-flavored, and crispy? How could I not love it!
Photo: See Food

Of course, there are innumerable other outstanding ways to enjoy and indulge in seafood, if one does happen to have access to plenty of other ingredients. Seafood fried rice is one very flexible, quick to fix, and reliably delectable way to enjoy such things. Salmon in bite sized pieces, for one seafood treat, goes quite well with the contrasting grains of rice, lovely with rich that’s been cooked in either broth or coconut water or milk and filled with a delicate confetti of diced celery, carrots, onions, bell peppers, or peas, whether shelled or in sugar snap or snow pea form. But as you can see in the accompanying photo, I enjoy, along with salmon or other kinds of fish, those admirable insect imitators the crustaceans. Hardly anything, sea-based or otherwise, is more enticing in fried rice than crab (naturally, I vote for Dungeness first, every time), lobster, langoustines, or shrimps of various sizes. I would guess that some tiny, tender clams might be more than acceptable in this sort of dish as well, but truthfully, I doubt I’ll ever get quite that far, as long as any of the usual suspects are available. Never say never.

Meanwhile, back at the fried rice, I am still an old Occidental renegade when I make it, cooking it much too slowly for a wok-master’s taste and throwing in whatever I have on hand and am in the mood to eat, from the aforementioned vegetable ingredients, crisply sautéed, to seasonings like Tamari or soy sauce, citrus juice, fresh or candied or pickled ginger or ginger syrup (or all four, as I am an unregenerate ginger fiend), honey, shallots, and/or chile pepper flakes. All of these cook in gently, over low heat, while I’m stirring in an egg to scramble into shreds, and then letting the rice slowly develop a good crust amid copious lashings of fat—coconut oil, avocado oil, ghee, whatever I have on hand. All of this, until I can’t quite wait any longer. Must keep that seafood delicate and fresh. Until I can devour it, anyway.

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

Foodie Tuesday: I Feel Crabby and that’s Just Fine

I’m having those old crustacean cravings again. It’s a good thing I’ll get a chance to visit some coastal locales this summer to indulge. Will it be time for a cool, refreshing Crab Louis again? Crab mac and cheese? Crab cakes? Crab sushi*? Or the pristine classic of plain, freshly cooked crab with melted butter and a wedge of lemon?

All of the above, if I’m lucky.

Digital painting from a photo: Feeling Crabby

The more, the merrier, when it comes to such things. I love shrimp and lobster too, yes, but crab—particularly Dungeness crab—has my heart. Maybe I feel a little kinship with those crusty crustaceans, if only in name. I certainly have a nostalgic connection, remembering many a delicious crab feast from my younger days as a coastal kid.

Photo: Crab, Chillin'

Perhaps I’ll fix up something that can be eaten hot, cold or room temperature and can be made ahead and chilled and/or reheated, something like:

Crab Noodles

Combine cooked glass noodles or rice noodles, fresh Dungeness crab, chopped fresh sugar snap peas, a handful of finely shredded raw carrots, fine matchsticks of fresh ginger root, and cubes of grilled pineapple. Dress the blend with a mixture of Tamari, lime juice or rice vinegar (the latter unseasoned), honey, and either red pepper flakes or hot chili oil to taste. Sprinkle with some black or toasted white sesame seeds before serving.

PS—Turns out sushi won the race, but I’m not done with the search yet!

Foodie Tuesday: Everybody’s Version is Different

As often as I post about loving comfort food, I seldom say clearly enough that I’m well aware everybody’s version of that idea is unique. Yes, we have familiar favorites that we’ve learned from our national, cultural, regional and communal environments, and those might well be generalized across towns or families. To a point. But the specifics vary with our own body chemistry, when it comes to allergies and the biology of taste buds, never mind the variety that comes from making choices.

That’s when it’s possible to slide from one leaning to another, even in what food sounds most comforting to me at the moment. Did I grow up surrounded by essentially middle class, white, middle-of-the-road, twentieth century American foods and preparations? Yes. Do I still think most of the stuff I grew up eating and drinking is delicious and comforting? Yes, I do. But it’s long since been joined on my hit list by a lot of other edible goodness that derives from cultures and kitchens far from those of my youth.

Learning to eat and prepare some of the deliciousness found in, say, Thai and Russian and Moroccan cuisines not only stretches my repertoire but trains my hungry brain to hanker for new goodness in addition to the comforts of my hungry childhood. Every unfamiliar regional or national cuisine, every dish, that I get to taste offers the possibility of further comfort foods. What’s it all mean? Most importantly, that I will never lack for something delicious that will bring solace and pleasure along with its nutrients, and may well continue to find new and enticing foods to add to my go-to list as life goes forward.

Photo: Tandoori Tastiness

Take a plateful of Tandoori chicken with Basmati rice, raita, coconut, dried fruit and cashews (and avocado, snap peas and carrots on the side), for example. Once you’ve had the marvelous and heartwarming masala that seasons a Tandoori meal, it’s easy to see what’s made that region’s cuisine so popular for so very long, and to think it’s a great idea to join the crowd.

Ha-ha-ha! I just realized I hit the Publish button on the wrong post. It’s Tuesday early this week! If it’s any consolation to anyone out there, it is already Tuesday in India, and I promise I’ll put up the other post tomorrow. Ta-ta for now, my friends. I have all night to dream about Tandoori chicken and anything else that makes me hungry for its comforts.

Foodie Tuesday: Been There, Eaten That

Travel: good. Travel while eating delicious foods along the way: fabulous. Puerto Rico last week: a joy.

We went there for a specific reason, to attend the wedding of loved friends. But if one, well, has to go to an island paradise for any reason, one might as well enjoy as many other  aspects of said island as possible during the visit. So we did that, too. Good excuse to try out a few of the classic traditional foods of the place, enjoy a few modern additions, and relish the marvelous atmosphere that makes it all taste so wonderful.

Photo: Bacalaítos

Bacalaítos (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacala%C3%ADto) are a delicious small bite, fried seasoned salt cod that is often served with a dipping sauce to complement it—for example, here, a buttery garlic sauce; elsewhere, a sweet-bright guava sauce. When beautifully made, as tender and light as the most fabulous fish cakes or fish-and-chips cod anywhere.

Photo: Kitty Cat Fried Eggs

While we did sample our way through the trip, we couldn’t manage to eat *everything* on offer. I was left wondering what precisely this menu item was, if not eggs produced and cooked by felines, but it amused me to ponder on it all the same.

Photo: In Lieu of Ginger Ale

If what’s requested isn’t available, sometimes what you get might be even more fitting for the occasion. No ginger ale? Coconut soda suits a casual meal of Puerto Rican treats just fine!

Photo: Fried Pork Luncheon

A delicious lunch of fried pork, beans and rice, and tostones goes down ever so nicely and makes perfect fuel for a busy afternoon of exploration in San Juan Viejo, especially when eaten with a massive side order of mofongo.

Photo: The Apotheosis of Limeade

The current crisis of the Mexican lime crop notwithstanding, the fabulously refreshing limeade at Cueva del Mar is jammed with both limes and flavor.

Photo: Egg-Battered Shrimp

Seafood reigns supreme in island culture, and with good reason. The egg-battered prawns my spouse ordered were fresh and sweet and tender. Better yet, they were plentiful enough he was willing to share some with me. Hurray for seafood!

Photo: Conch Empanadillas

I, meanwhile, opted to get my first taste of conch. Also tender and flavorful! Diced up and seasoned as they were, they reminded me a little of something about halfway between ham and clams. And all the way delicious.

Photo: Yummy Little Fried Pies

I started with shrimp and mahi-mahi empanadillas, because despite the server’s assurance that my initial choices of conch and crab were her two favorite varieties, the kitchen was entirely out of them at the moment. Turns out they were *all* tasty little fried hand pies.

Photo: Mamposteao

One of the clear favorites in the dish derby of our trip was Mamposteao, the glorious beans-and-rice concoction originating as leftover bean stew mixed with rice and cooked in a hot pan until it develops a crisp crust around its tender and succulent insides. (https://www.google.com/search?q=mamposteao&client=safari&rls=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=z16BU7r7GdWVqAakwYLgBQ&ved=0CEEQsAQ&biw=1328&bih=763). We ordered it more than once, and I think I could eat it more than once a *week* if given the chance.

Photo: Madame St. Germain

A lovely drink, the Madame St. Germain; simply add a splash of St. Germain (elderflower) liqueur to a flute of Prosecco, and splish-splash, you have a sparkling glass of sunlight at any time of day or evening.

Photo: Chocolate Grilled Cheese

As it happens, the Madame St. Germain goes beautifully with the chocolate grilled cheese sandwiches at the magical Casa Cortés ChocoBar, made of brioche, cheddar and cocoa-blended butter and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar just in case you didn’t feel delightedly decadent enough already.

Photo: Swiss Pastries

Even with my seemingly boundless appetite, sometimes there were actual items I couldn’t quite manage to eat. It didn’t stop my wandering, food-lustful eyes from enjoying every bit, though, as in the Swiss bakery where we went with our friends to pick up a birthday cake. Because having a big wedding celebration for his sister and the opening of his new brewpub wasn’t quite enough celebrating for one fantastic man.

Photo: the Wedding Cake

There *was* a glamorous and deliciously moist wedding cake, should you wonder, and I assume it came from that same phantasmagorical bakery. So beautiful, so happily massacred by the hungry after-wedding crowd.

Photo: Pork, and All the Trimmings

But first there was the buffet of roasted pork with all of the trimmings: an unfussy and freshly crisp salad, more delicious rice and beans, what I believe were pasteles (a sort of tamale cousin—http://www.theawl.com/2012/11/puerto-rican-pasteles) and, oh yes, more pork.

Photo: The Pig in All Its Glory

All of the wedding feast was magnificent, but the star is and was, as it should be, the roasted pig in all its shiny, juicy, crackling-skinned glory.

What, you want more? Of course there was more, and plenty of it, beginning with a scrumptious party at the bride’s brother’s brewery (try saying that trifecta after a couple of glasses of his spectacularly creamy Scotch Porter style beer, infused with just a touch of Puerto Rican rum!) with all kinds of pizza made on the spot, my favorite of which was bacon and sweet plantains. We succeeded in eating more than was necessary, but not more than was enjoyable, on every single day of our visit, not counting having to get up at 4:30 on the last one to get to the airport on time. And I will certainly get right on board, fork in hand, with the opportunity to revisit the island and all of its culinary kindnesses any time I get the chance. You probably should, too.

Foodie Tuesday: So Hungry I Could Eat a Pin

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Cobb- or chopped-style salad with a few tweaks: Romaine lettuce, yellow grape tomatoes, black olives, taco-seasoned ground beef, crumbled Cotija cheese, grated hard-boiled egg, toasted pine nuts and a light Thousand Island-like dressing made of chipotle salsa and Mexican crema.

Slow as I am to tiptoe into the digital realm, I have taken another little baby step: I’m on Pinterest. I resisted entering into yet another entertaining time-suck, but I had heard and read enough about Pinterest to think that a list-making and visual idea collecting addict like me might find it useful as well as fun, and thus far that is indeed the case. I’ve not learned enough yet about its functions to know if it’ll do all of the things I’d find most helpful, but as a starting point it’s quite encouraging. You can pop over and visit me there if you like!

As a land of research, too, Pinterest proves to have some serendipitous intersections of ideas and folk with similar or, hey, different-yet-inspiring interests and knowledge.

So when I got Pinning, I started collecting recipes along with the other stuff that piques my interest. I looked at a picture or two of yummy foods online and thought to myself, “I could eat that!” So yeah, I have a Pinterest board called I Could Eat That! And I saw very quickly that many of my fellow Pinners ‘keep house’ in a similar way; need to find a recipe or idea for lunch? You could hunt through your cookbook shelves once again. Choose one of the many recipes and menus that you’ve made before and enjoy the guaranteed success of offering the tried and true.

But you could, of course, go wandering around through the land of recipes on Pinterest. There are a zillion boards dedicated to pretty much any sort of individual ingredient, taste, technique, style or nationality of cuisine, and/or combination thereof, and if you can’t find something to get you interested in fixing that lunch, you haven’t begun to Pin. If you want to get cooking, get looking.

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Flank steak with buttery mushrooms, steamed green beans and carrots are good at lunch or dinner any day. Whether you consult Pinterest or not!