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

Foodie Tuesday: After-Math

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Just for starters…don’t forget that previous meals’ leftovers can be reconstructed into the appetizers for the next meal, like what happened with the remaining bone broth ingredients that lived on after soup-making and made such a nice beef pate for Thanksgiving.

A signature of holiday cooking and eating is, logically, a host of holiday leftovers. After all, we tend to cook and eat more of everything in the first place, when holidays happen, so there’s bound to be more food around, and since most of us do fix more of our favorites on and for celebratory occasions, we’re a bit more likely to want to be careful not to waste them. Holiday leftovers are tastier than everyday ones, aren’t they.

So it is that remnants of glorious sweets will continue to lure us into the ever-so-aptly named larder and the refrigerator will, after Thanksgiving, still have some turkey lurking in it too. While a great turkey sandwich is far from restricted seasonally, the grand whole bird in its pure roasted form is less commonly perched on dinner tables outside of the Big Day, making it anything but boring to have the leftover turkey and its trimmings served without tremendous alteration at least once or twice after the party has passed.

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Red relishes are such a nice touch on holidays that when a friend said she was bringing whole cranberry sauce, I decided to add the jellied kind *and* some home-pickled beets for the trifecta.

This year, Thanksgiving at our house was both traditional and extended. Ten of us sat around the table: our musical friends from Germany (why did I write Austria, then?), Hungary, Canada, Puerto Rico, Estonia and the Netherlands as well as the US gathered with our plates of roasted turkey and a fair assortment of other treats and sweets, and though we had our feast the day before most others’, the ingredients of food, drink, and conviviality were the same, and the leftovers equally profuse. My prepped appetizers, turkey, mashed potatoes, wine/stock gravy, creamed sausage, and buttermilk cornbread (the latter two, parts of the planned southern cornbread dressing, remained separate at my husband’s request) were joined by dishes the others brought–Greek salad, squash puree, homemade whole cranberry sauce, and carrot cake and handmade Hungarian biscuits for dessert. My own dessert offerings were the apple pie and Tarte au Sucre.

The Tarte was not only a good excuse for ingesting vast quantities of fabulous dark maple syrup but, as I discovered, when it’s accompanied by salty roasted pecans it becomes a perfect inversion or deconstruction of pecan pie, another very traditional Thanksgiving treat in many homes. I made my Tarte with a crumb crust of mixed pecans and walnuts, so it was perhaps already a variation on a nut pie before the garnishing pecans even arrived on the scene. In any event, it pleased my maple-fiendish heart.

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Lightly spicy sausage in cream makes a good alternative to gravy for the turkey and potatoes, if you don’t end up putting the sausage into the cornbread dressing as you’d thought you were going to do…

The idea of creating a meal of any sort, let alone a holiday meal, for a group of ten people and coming out with everyone perfectly sated but without a jot of leftovers is, of course, more mythical than mathematical. It’s in fact ludicrously unlikely to happen, even if the ten are all people one knows intimately and whose preferences and appetites never vary–also, to be fair, a virtual impossibility–so the question of how to manage the leftovers with the best grace remains. In our house, that problem is never terribly difficult. First visitation of this year’s re-Thanksgiving was a smaller and simpler version of the original, turkey and mashed potatoes, cornbread and cranberry sauce, with a side of buttered green beans and bacon. Meanwhile, I’d already started a slow cooker full of vegetables and giblets while the turkey was roasting, and added the bones and bits afterward, so there will surely be turkey-noodle soup soon to follow.

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Thanksgiving, Round 2–and only the second of many, perhaps.

What comes after? Probably a little turkey curry or a sandwich or two, but not much more, because having grad students and young, single faculty members at table on the holiday also meant that it was rather important to see that they left with some leftovers of their own to carry them forward. Leftovers, truth be told, are really just a new beginning in their own way. Hospitality, you know, isn’t a solo; it requires participation. One person doing it all, no matter how perfectly, is not a party but a lonely and self-centered business and misses the point of the whole thing.

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Ah, do not let the focus on the main meal eclipse all of the good that can follow: a mere creamy turkey soup is a heartwarming way to honor the memory of the great meal that started it all.

Let others partake, help, contribute. And yes, do give to them: share the feast, both in the party’s environs and in the sharing of all that surpasses what was needed for the moment. And share, first and foremost, your time and attention, your companionship and humor and warmth and love. Then there should be plenty of those for leftovers, too, or all the turkey and potatoes in the world will not be enough. Much better, more filling and fulfilling, to be so hospitable that it spills over everywhere.

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The only thing better than a delicious dessert is just a little too much of it.

What’s-in-My-Kitchen Week, Day 4: Luxurious Tools

photoSome people love cars. Some are attracted to bling (you would think I’d be quite the blingy specimen, given my magpie eye, but I don’t at all like to wear it, generally) and others are collectors of shoes, antiques, sports memorabilia, whatever inspires them and warms the cockles of their hearts. Me, I’m a fool for tools. I try to restrain myself reasonably when it comes to actually buying them, since I haven’t the budget, storage space or skills to use many of them in reality, but there are some that do have a place in my pantheon of tool treasures. Some, also, in my pantry.

photoSimple is often best, to be sure. I do love my two cast iron skillets. And when it comes to kitchen tools, good knives are just about the pinnacle of both necessity and happiness for most cooks I know. I have a selection of knives (looking exceedingly dusty here after the granite was re-cut to fit our new cooktop properly), and I use all of them on occasion, but I pretty much devote my favored attentions to using one particular knife, a fairly modest Henckels 6″ stainless sweetheart that keeps its edge with very little sharpening and is just the right heft and balance for my ordinary purposes. I’ll bet there are plenty of others among you that are like me in this: no matter how many lovelies you collect of your most-used sort of tools, find you’re using the same one ninety percent of the time. When it’s right, it’s right. And knives, while they can’t make a chef out of anyone, can bring the average home cook closer to mastery than possible otherwise.

photoI’ve mentioned a few times before that I also luxuriate in the privilege of having some more specialized and, indeed, expensive kitchen tools. The sous vide immersion cooker that my husband kindly presented when we moved into this house isn’t used constantly by any means, but when I want fall-apart ribs or a beef roast as near to perfection as I can make, it’s absolutely the go-to favorite tool for those sorts of labors. The internal temperature monitoring version of my heavily used slow cooker, if you will, which gets a fairly constant workout cooking my various broths down to dense savory heaven, with the occasional chili or pot roast thrown in for good measure. The more high-tech tools in my kitchen arsenal include, of course, a good microwave; besides being so convenient for warming lunchtime leftovers, it’s great for steaming vegetables quickly, making a one-person egg souffle, or melting butter or chocolate for the current concoction.photoI like my hand tools, too, both the powered (I use my stick blender not just for pureeing things for soups and sauces but for whipping cream or eggwhites, too) and the old standbys of a small whisk, tongs–updated with nice gripping heat-proof silicone ends–or that lovely construction tool that has moved into the kitchen, the Microplane, which is a snap to use for zesting fruits or rasping nutmeg or finely shaving some nutty Reggiano. And that large strainer to the left is so very well-suited to my broth clarifying. I just wish it could work on my thoughts too. One present thought that is crystal-clear, however, is that the new cooktop–that smooth black glass on which the hand tools are resting–is going to be such a boon to this cook as has seldom been seen. While we’d love to have afforded the line plumbing and cooker for using gas, this functional and even topped electric will be such a stupendous improvement over the literally half-dead and wholly uneven old coil burner stove that I am elated just to have made scrambled eggs for breakfast. Such is the improvement in life of a new and improved tool.photo

The oldies are still goodies, as well. I am so fortunate as to have bought a house with (albeit thirty years old) a double oven. The pair shows its age visually, to be sure, but once I painted the two oven doors with a slightly glittery metallic black finish they don’t stick out of the updated kitchen decor too terribly, and they operate remarkably well in general. I’ve pulled together some meals for largish gatherings without much difficulty in finding enough space to roast, bake, broil and warm whatever was needed for the crowd. That’s when I pull out lots of my more specific and seldom-used other tools from my bag of kitchen tricks, too, to go with the less common ingredients I might use for special occasion eating events. Okay, the ice cream scoops and the wine bottle equipment aren’t all that rarely used around here, nor are a number of the other utensils here in these drawers. More often, it’s the pretty old silver and plated serve-ware–those sugar tongs with claws, and the beveled-bowl spoons and ladle, the pewter handled Norwegian forks and spoons–that makes me smile on mere sight.photo

Some of the tools I treasure most are, of course, sentimental for various reasons. Probably among the best of those in my kitchen are ones I don’t necessarily give constant notice precisely because they are so constantly in use and so well suited to their uses. My everyday stainless flatware is a perfect example. My paternal grandmother was a rather tender and sentimental lady (in her eighties, she still couldn’t hang up photos of her little daughter who had died at age two) but almost never showed it; she wasn’t much good at overt expressions of such emotion so it arose in subtler ways, like her declaring that it wasn’t right for young women of my generation (and my sisters’) to wait until we might-or-might-not get married to have well stocked home lives, so she told each of us when we entered high school to choose a flatware pattern, and she would give us Christmas and birthday gifts each year of a place setting of that pattern. The pattern I chose–Design 2 by Don Wallance–turned out to be singularly interesting in the event: first of all, I immediately found out that the company producing it was being bought by another and as it was produced in Europe and the new company favored an Asian manufacturer the pattern was likely to be discontinued (it wasn’t, as it happened, but the switch to a different mfr. changed some significant details, as well as the heft, of the pattern). Grandma, bless her, went off and bought a complete 12-place set of it and then just doled it out after. I, being forewarned, bought up serving pieces and extra teaspoons. And I have never once regretted my selection. I guess I’m not alone; at some point I discovered that it’s one of the few flatware patterns that was chosen for inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art‘s design collection in New York.photo

All things considered, it’s practicality that does win my heart most readily in my kitchen utensils as with my other tools. The true affection I have for my flatware is that it sits in the hand so very comfortably, the forks have strong, even tines and slight spoon-like bowls, the knives have no joint in them to collect food or get weak but do have a remarkably good edge, and both men and women seem to appreciate their balance and utility. They are in fact very attractive to my eye, yes, but if they didn’t do the job so well they wouldn’t have remained favorites for so very long (high school was an eon ago). It’s the same way I have come to be so pleased with my choice of kitchen sink when we renovated on moving in here a couple of years ago. I do enjoy it for its handsome looks and the way it neatly complements the granite counters, but more than that I love that its black composite surfaces are so incredibly easy to keep clean, are heat resistant when I stick in a hot pot to fill it with soaking water, and those deep and deeply useful double bowls could even, if some accident should demand it, be sanded back down to perfection. Now, if I could easily apply that sort of abuse and restoration to my body, that would be a welcome technique. But at least in this kitchen I have the tools to feed my body pretty well and–I hope–forestall any such extreme necessity.photo