Foodie Tuesday: Cogitation on Vegetation

Sometimes I just plain crave vegetable goodness. I am an omnivore, generally, and probably something of an addict when it comes to eggs and dairy, but there is nothing to substitute for vegetal deliciousness, at times. Green, give me green! Or at least, things that were growing on and as plants.

For there are so many wonderful non-green vegetable delights, as well. So when veggies call, I answer. Who am I to refuse the marvelous joys of the garden?

Today’s foray: back in the land of cauliflower. I find it to be a remarkably fine ingredient, highly adaptable and versatile despite being relatively strong flavored, because its strength is balanced by an indefinable character that isn’t quite this or that, inherently, so much as a strong framework for other flavors. A great companion or substrate, if you will, for a great number of other kinds of flavors and textures.

Today, I wanted an umami-filled comfort food, and while cauliflower easily gives the texture I want, it is not itself inherently umami loaded. Mushrooms, ah, even the most humble among those are crammed with umami. The recipe, typical of my cooking, is not a recipe at all, but it takes advantage of the strengths of cauliflower and a few other modest yet potent ingredients to pull in the richness of umami as best I could imagine at the moment.

I suspect that in future iterations of this dish I will likely add a deeply green ingredient (spinach? broccoli? collards?) or two. Those are so fulfilling in a wholly different way, seeming rather cleansing to me, and refreshing and lightening and brightening. But that sort of character is not necessary to the pleasure of vegetable dishes in general, as sometimes (especially in fall and winter) what I want from vegetables is a sense of warmth and earthiness. This time, cruciferous and fungal and spiced earthiness, combined with dairy and egg intensity to create a rich, full, round sensory experience best served warm at a candlelit table, no matter what the hour.

Cauliflower, Cheese & “Squashroom” Casserole

Take one head of cauliflower and a pint of white or brown common mushrooms, raw, and pulse them all in the food processor until coarsely minced. Spoon the mixture into a large cake pan or casserole that’s been thoroughly greased (I used coconut oil), and sprinkle with coarsely ground salt and pepper, smoked paprika, brown mustard seeds, and freshly grated nutmeg. Top with about two or three cups of sliced zucchini (I used yellow) and a cup of shredded Parmesan cheese, drizzle with 1/4 cup melted brown butter, spritz again with oil to even out the coating, and bake at 250°F/121°C for an hour or until softened and melding flavors. While that’s baking, mix one 12-14 oz. tin of chopped or pureed unsalted tomatoes, an equal amount of plain whole-milk Greek yogurt, three large eggs, and 1-1/2 cups of shredded cheese (I used mozzarella, which I had in the freezer, but cheddar or any kind of mild-to-sharp melting cheese should do) together thoroughly. Stir and/or layer this with the softened vegetables and bake at 350°F/177°C for another half hour to 45 minutes or until the cheese is thickening and bubbling nicely. I added a coating of crushed corn flake crumbs with Italian seasoning over the top of this before baking to vary the texture just a little, and while it looked a little odd in the baking, it smelled great.

I can only assume that this concoction will pass muster (never mind mustard) when I serve it for lunch later this week after refrigerating it to set it up a bit and then reheating it for the meal, but given that it’s fairly close to the cauliflower pretend-mac-&-cheese I made before I am trusting in the ingredients to behave well together. If you are a reasonably trusting or adventurous spirit, jump in; if not, wait for the verdict later this week (I’ll update this then). For now, here’s the Phase I picture, and I feel pretty confident.

Or does that just prove that I’m a vegetable, too?Photo: I'm a Vegetable, Too

Foodie Tuesday: Autumnal Comforts

You know that I love the Fall season, even though it’s very late and short here in Texas. Perhaps it benefits from my love of seasonal change in general, but I think the romantic leanings that come in autumn, that sense of impending death softened by the comforts with which we pad ourselves and by the death-defying renewal of the beginning of school and art seasons, have their own peculiar attractions. And of course, there is the bounty of foods that are best appreciated as we slide from the fall equinox to the winter.photoThe World in Autumn

Thin branches caging up the sun

In willow-wavy lacelike hands,

All skeletons and ampersands,

Hold clouds together in the one

Unreadable yet literate

Equation of the interstices

Whose elated season this is,

Crisp and quite deliberate

In tracing every moment in it,

Hour, year, and state of mind

Among the bones of humankind,

As though these things were infinite.

photoOne of the delights I most admire in this season is earthy flavors. An abundance of root vegetables and mushrooms signals time for soups, stews and sauces whose savory riches warm body and soul and recall me to the embrace of home and childhood in many ways. A simple creamy soup loaded with mushrooms is hard to beat for succor on a grey and blustery day. A bouquet of cauliflower roasted with nothing more than a quantity of butter and salt and pepper until just-right is heavenly; adding sage leaves to the butter and a handful of shredded Reggiano to the top of the cauliflower just when they’ll have time to crisp and brown lightly moves the easy dish to a higher floor in the heavenly skyscraper.photoRoasted vegetables of any kind are especially welcome in the cooler seasons, and so easy to toss together with a little olive oil or butter in the oven while everything else is being prepared for the table that it’s almost a crime not to put them in the oven. Throw a chopped lemon in to roast with them and they are sauced in their own juices. Put the remains (if any) the next day into a bowl with a cup of hot homemade broth and a poached or soft-cooked egg or two, add cooked rice or noodles if you like, and, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, (or bi-bim-bap!), you have a bowl full of nutritious, delicious, and not at all ambitious goodness right in your own little corner of this magical autumn season.

Foodie Tuesday: Un-, Ex-, De-, Out-

We are leaving one season and entering another. Time to divest ourselves of pretense and the impulse to be over-elaborate when making a change. I see people all around me worrying that their Thanksgiving menu isn’t finalized, their Fall-themed altar of mantel decor not as impressive as the next neighbor’s, and their Halloween costumes not thrilling and polished enough to accompany their hundred handmade sweets for the twenty-seven tiny Monsters who will come knocking. Better, sometimes, to enjoy simpler approaches and simpler pleasures! Autumn can be:

Uncomplicated.

Extricated from fussiness.

Demystified.

Outrageously edible.

photoAt the change of each season I do have a tendency to shift in my flavor preferences. When it’s been summer-hot out and finally becomes cool, those warming, earthy, old-fashioned and evocative spices and scents of Fall–cinnamon and cardamom, roasted roots and mushrooms, sweetly freckled pears and chalky-skinned, slightly scabby McIntosh apples (not the electronic kind, mind you) begin their annual siren songs of woodsy, sit-by-the-hearth allure. And I can go a little crazy.

[I can see you out there rolling your eyes at my gift for stating the obvious.]photo

It’s easy to go a bit wild, to be the over-swung pendulum flying to opposite extremes, when one has been long immured in the cooling pools of summer’s lovely seasonal foods and beginning to long for something different. But of course delicious flavors needn’t be exaggerated to be glorious. Sometimes the over-the-top approach is indeed precisely what I desire, since I’m a more-is-more kind of person in general, but sometimes a little subtlety is also a welcome thing. A restrained hand in the kitchen can allow a smaller assortment of lovely notes to interplay beautifully, and the pleasure of savoring one gorgeous individual taste at a time, too, can provide moments of sublime happiness that stretch well beyond the culinary.

I know this stuff perfectly well in my head, but my heart frequently scarpers off with my stomach quick as the dish with the proverbial spoon, and once again I have to calm myself and remember that there’s plenty of time in the season for me to slow down and savor the flavors before the next change arrives. It happened again last week, and I had a narrow escape from the annual autumnal overkill. I pressed aside my rabid plans for the sort of dangerously delirious feast that would’ve kept me comatose right up until the next fit of wildness did hit me at Thanksgiving. Fanning myself thoughtfully with a big spatula, I got busy making a much less complicated, sautéed and simmered, soup treat and found it as satisfying as could be.photo

Hearty Cauliflower & Mushroom Soup

Simmer 1 bunch of fresh sage leaves in 1/2 lb of pastured butter (I use salted–I’m very fond of my salt, thankyouverymuch) until the butter’s golden brown and fully infused with the herb and the leaves have given up their moisture. Strain out the leaves onto paper and let them crisp up nicely, giving them an additional sprinkle of salt if desired for crunch. Sauté 2 cups cauliflower florets and 1-1/2 cups sliced brown mushrooms (both can be fresh or frozen) in plenty of the sage butter until they’re soft and caramelized. Add a little liquid–water, dry sherry, broth, buttermilk or cream as you blend it all with a stick blender. No need to get it thin or even quite smooth: this is a rustic Fall soup, after all. Garnish it as you wish: a swirl of buttermilk or Crème fraîche, some crumbled crispy bacon, some deeply caramelized onions, or just a generous toss of those crisped sage leaves.

There’s only a little bit left to complete this recipe: take your bowl of prepared soup, curl yourself in the arms of a big, well-worn overstuffed chair, bundle up in that wonderful old afghan lap-rug your granny crocheted for you in your youth, crack open a musty classic book, and lap up your thick soup with a big, deep spoon. Sigh, turn page, sip, repeat. Winter’s just a few chapters away.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Greenglorious

photoHow ’bout a vegetarian lunch? Whaaaat, me, sharp-fanged old carnivore that I am? Really? Oh, yes, my friends, sometimes the vegetarian route, even in my greasy old meatatarian hands, leads to a fine meal indeed. As an eater, I can always latch onto that old saying ‘I’m just happy to be here’. Whatever goodness is on offer.

Vegetarian meals, particularly in summertime, can be marvelously easy to prepare and not get me horribly overheated when I am fighting off the internal flames already. Let me be honest, my dearies, I am over fifty, a prodigy of sorts who got the great gift of hot flashes starting at the ripe young age of forty, so cookery that doesn’t require a whole lot of, well, cooking is a generally welcome thing these days. So, darlings, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Salad. That’s always an easy start. So keep it easy. Romaine lettuce, diced ripe pear. Sliced almonds, white and black sesame seeds. A touch of lemon juice. Couple of spoons full of the pickling liquid from sushi ginger, a lick of Persian lime olive oil and a jot of toasted sesame oil. Fresh, fast, cooling, nice.photo

Not that I’m opposed to heated stuff. After all, the physiological truth is that eating and drinking warm treats is pretty good at starting the body’s cooling mechanisms to work. Cool! Really! So this time around, I went with one of those dishes that are basic throw-and-go foods. Oven roasted cauliflower, fine; oven roasted me: too much of a good thing. So in a lightly oiled casserole I put a couple of cups of broken cauliflower florets, straight from the freezer (not previously cooked), tossed on a few teaspoons of cold browned butter, a couple of tablespoons of pine nuts, a handful of brown mustard seeds, and a quarter cup or so of shredded Parmesan cheese. Into the cold oven it all went at 350°F, covered for the first fifteen minutes and then uncovered until browned, and lastly left covered again at table to keep steaming while the rest of the meal got set.photo

The rest included some good gluten-free crackers to spread with almond butter and peach chutney, a few of my homemade sesame crackers and smoked almonds, and some cornichons and pickled lotus for a touch further of pizzazz. My favorite part of the meal–not a huge surprise in this hot summertime, I suppose–happened to be the day’s beverage. I put a cup each of peeled and seeded cucumber pieces, chopped fresh celery, cubed honeydew melon and fresh mint leaves into the blender with about a pint of water and the juice of a whole lime and a tablespoon or two of raw honey, gave it all a thorough smash-up, and then strained it. When I drank the blended juices straight up, that was lovely, so if you want your zing without cane sugar or effervescence, just leave out added pop. I’d chilled it that way a couple of days before, but to serve it, I combined it with equal amounts of cucumber soda (Mr. Q Cumber, yummy stuff), and it made a good, refreshing accompaniment to the rest of the meal.

Best accompaniment, of course, is always the good companionship of a fine fellow eater at the table. Yes, thanks, this was a delicious day.photo

Foodie Tuesday: In Praise of Little Things

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A sea of green goodness growing . . .

It’s so often the littlest details that have the most unexpectedly impressive impact. We just don’t expect too much from small stuff. But where would we be without those tiny crystals of salt and jots of freshly ground spices? Without the tiny seeds that become minute sprouts and in turn, lush plants that give life to our favorite fruits and vegetables, and that feed the animals that grace our tables sacrificially?

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Red cabbage, well watered . . .

My tiny mite of a farm is bursting with promise. It won’t be all that long before I’m harvesting cut-and-come-again salad greens, herbs and baby carrots and beets. My patience is an equally miniscule thing, so I hover over their beds and fuss as though my attention would do anything other than attract more insects to come and flit around my head. Meanwhile, I can always raid the grocer’s stock of edible things to keep the table well decorated, no matter how plain or fancy my edible desires.

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Cauliflower, admittedly no less delicious if I have to snag it at the market than if it came from my own private patch of dirt . . .

Another highly welcome Little Thing is a raindrop. Lord knows we’ve dreamed of them with something verging on the unseemly in our drought of recent past. But like the seasoning of a dish, what is desirable in a little may be wildly inappropriate if given with too much exuberance. Today it’s looking a little iffy in that regard: we’ve been told in the last couple of weeks that thanks to the new year’s rains, most of Texas has already bypassed the borders of drought and headed right into surfeit territory. Outside is a pounding rain, accompanied by beautiful flashes of brilliance slicing up the sky and shouts of thunder pounding down right along with the cataracts of rain. Not thirty minutes away there are reports of a tornado and baseball-sized hail. There are expectations that this storm system will throw off a few more tornadoes and lots more wind and rain and hail before it’s done. Me, I’m keeping a good thought for all of the people, animals, houses, and cars being blasted by the wind and pelted with rocks of ice, and hoping against hope that none of that nonsense wanders over this way too. We have plenty of friends in the area whose roofs have been demolished or cars totaled by that sort of thing before.

My little item of great happiness at the moment is that not only am I cozily dry under a roof out of the lashings of rain, but our car is in the safest place it could possibly be to hide from the storm: on a mechanic’s lift at the place where we bought it. It was merely due for its periodic checkup (taking inspiration, perhaps, from my own recent annual visits to the doctor and radiologist and such), but couldn’t have been timed better in terms of dodging the fiercest part of the storm. I hope. Not to mention that the mechanic discovered that the two tires not replaced following our recent road-debris encounter are worn down to replacement status as well. If I’m going to drive around in this kind of flash-flood-inducing waterfall, I may as well have good tires. After all, it’s only money. Sigh.

Which brings me back ‘round to my original point (and I did have one). Life is just too short to be spent without savoring all of the minor triumphs, moments of good luck and serendipity, and all of the tiny treats that we can find or are handed to us. And by that, I mean of course that I will continue to eat snacks and desserts with a certain amount of regularity if not abandon, because they are seriously happiness-inducing items in my life. Who am I to refuse to attend when the last fridge stash of guacamole and the tuna salad from yesterday’s sandwich get all friendly and decide to get married and become a cracker spread? I would have missed a great party!

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Cheese and choccies--where could you go wrong?

On the 17th of March we had a friend visit for dinner. Since she’s of partially Irish descent, I thought it incumbent to include an item or two with at least a hint of Irish pedigree in the meal, though I didn’t quite go all-in, so I incorporated a few tasty tributes to the Emerald Isle. It was ‘specially easy to do at the end of the meal. I’d happened on an inspiring sounding cheese, so dessert was a little plate of cheese and chocolate. I served my little homemade chocolate-nut truffles with the loveliest Guinness-infused cheddar cheese that, at room temperature, tasted buttery, the tiniest bit sharp, and had that mellow veining of stout bringing another nice layer of complementary flavor to the collation. Needless to say, this combination goes down quite smoothly with a tot of good Irish whiskey (well, what doesn’t?) or of course would be appropriately paired with a crisp Guinness, if it’s on hand. We had it with a bit of bubbly because I’m certain that St. Patrick would approve of our saying a fond thank you to and well-wishing a certain great—-grandniece of his who has been a fine colleague and a good friend and is soon off on a new adventure in an altogether more Irish-rooted American city.

I leave you without a real new recipe today, I guess, but sometimes the moment presents itself when something that requires no new preparations at all but is just as delicious as can be is just the bite or sip to be enjoyed on the spot. There are times when the company is so grand, the bottle cracked open is so perfectly aged, and the slant of the sun so perfectly angled in the proper window that whatever we take to eat is a tiny taste of heaven. It’s like being visited by a butterfly that comes and takes its rest right at my feet and sits patiently to have its portrait taken before fluttering away, for no apparent reason other than to bring its own miniature glint of perfect beauty to the day.photo

. . . and just so you know, no tornadoes or monstrous hailstorms have ventured into our town today. Another nice little plus for the occasion!