Foodie Tuesday: When Cultures Collide

So many beautiful nationalities and ethnicities with so many fabulous cuisines! How on earth can I possibly choose when I’m about to fix a meal?

Then again, why choose? After all, the best of cuisines have borrowed (or stolen) from each other, been influenced by each other, and often gotten so intertwined that it’s hard to know for certain what the absolute baseline, source, or original version of any popular food or dish really was. Sometimes I think that half the fun of creating the menu for an occasion is figuring out how to play with commonalities and contrasts in the most delicious and interesting ways.

Multiply the possibilities of that original menu with my affinity for revising every ingredient or dish in its following appearances as a leftover, and you have one impressively complicated matrix of possible and tangential menus. Exponential recipe improvisation: that’s a kind of math that appeals even to a mathematical dullard like me.

There was that recent episode when I found an interesting-sounding ready-to-cook packet of mushroom risotto that had—unlike most prefab dishes of the sort—only about five or six ingredients, all of them actual foods, and thought it’d be an interesting basis for my dinner preparations. Even with pre-packaged items, it’s a virtual certainty that I will fail to prepare them exactly as proposed. I’m not talking about that silly thing where you buy a boxed frozen dinner and because it’s pictured on the box as set on a plate, the seller assumes you’re too stupid to know that you might need to remove it from the box and heat it in order to consume it, so it says in tidy type, “Serving Suggestion.” I’m talking about actual changes in the way the contents of the box are prepared or served.

So, first of all, being the perpetually lazy person I am, I thought the prospect of standing around stirring a risotto for eons was less appealing than seeing what would happen if I put the ingredients into my rice cooker with extra liquids and let it do the work. Ours is a low-tech oldie but goodie among rice cookers, with a chintzy looking removable aluminum pot insert, so I did toast the rice, with its spice and earthy little pieces of dried mushrooms and shallots in a generous pool of butter, setting that little aluminum canister right on the burner, before popping it into the rice cooker shell and pouring in a half and half mixture of homemade broth and water, slightly more than my usual doubling of quantity over dry (rice and other) ingredients, and a good dash of dry sherry. It may not have been a true risotto by a long stretch, but by golly, it was pretty darn tasty all the same. I served it topped with bacon pieces and alongside that, with some patties of slightly spicy chorizo, sauced thickly with lemony avocado cream and topped in turn with sweet grape tomatoes, all with a little green salad on the side.Photo: Risotto & Chorizo

It was a filling and nicely congenial combination, this meeting of Italian influenced risotto rice, Mexican style chorizo, and a very slightly French treatment of the avocado sauce.

Later in the week, this pseudo-risotto segued on down to Puerto Rico when I incorporated a big scoop of chipotle salsa, the rest of those thick-cut cooked bacon pieces from the previous garnish, and crumbled leftover chorizo into it, heated it through, and then let it crisp on the outside during a low and slow rest on the cooker to become a fair facsimile of the Mamposteao we fell in love with on our May visit to San Juan. With some of my sushi-ginger dressed coleslaw on the side, I think I managed to get the meal to span even further global miles than the first time, perhaps. In any case, it spanned from pots and pans to stomachs pretty neatly both times.

Foodie Tuesday: Quick Fixes & Peach Treats

I enjoy a good paella, when I can get my hands (and teeth) on it. But it’s not one of those things that in its truer forms can exactly be thrown together in a trice just because I happen to get an urge for it. But, being a fan of fried rice as well, I have been known to think to myself that there might be a hybrid incorporating a bit of both processes that gives me a plate full of paella-like food in a hurry and at least tide me over until the occasion for the real deal arises again. Having so often kept a batch of cooked rice at the ready in our refrigerator, not to mention the gifts of freezer, dried goods and canned foods, I had at least a reasonable chance of putting a faint facsimile of paella on the table at speed.photoPretend Paella

For this highly simplified variant, I made the batch of rice with a blend of broth and dry sherry and a pinch of saffron (should have used a bigger pinch, though). On top of it I put a very simple combination, which while it didn’t replicate paella closely, was reminiscent enough of that grand dish that it served as a reasonable place-holder until I can once more indulge in a beautiful slow-simmered paella. This time, I chose to saute a half cup of diced celeriac (celery root) and a cup of roughly chopped carrots in bacon fat, add a generous cup of sliced chorizo, heat that through, and add about a dozen or more large peeled, cleaned uncooked shrimp, adding water or broth or sherry as needed to keep everything plump and moist while cooking through and caramelizing a little. I didn’t season this further because the bacon fat and well-seasoned chorizo gave everything plenty of flavor. At the last moment, I stirred in a good three cups or so of the cooked rice and a cup of frozen peas, blending it all together just until the peas were heated through. One pot meal, with a touch of nostalgia, and as ever, infinite possible variations depending upon what’s in the kitchen waiting for me.

Having eaten this light and refreshing meal in warm weather, we didn’t need much except some cool drinks (icy water and a bit of cold sangria and chilled Sauvignon Blanc worked well for us three on the particular occasion), but we weren’t so over-filled that we weren’t of a mind to have dessert as well. A one-dish meal, after all, has a reasonable chance of not making diners feel coma-proximal. The afternoon trip to the grocery store, the one wherein I ascertained that there was no giant inspiration that steered me away from my thoughts of insta-paella, did inspire me with the produce section’s wafting scents of fresh fruit, and the image of underripe peaches made me salivate for the late-season ones not yet on hand.digital artworkSo I shamelessly fell back on preserved peaches for dessert shaping. The strawberries in the store had come into seasonal ripeness, but had clearly already been snapped up by earlier shoppers, so although the slightly over-aged ones remaining smelled sweet enough, the flies perched on them were a deterrent as well. Those, then, were substituted for by some freeze-dried strawberries. A ragtag pantry is not a problem in nearly the way that a lack of pantry would be, after all.

Coconut Soft Custard with Peach-Berry Coulis

While we sat eating our Pretend Paella, I had a cup of freeze-dried strawberry slices macerating in the liquid from a pint of canned-in-juice peach slices in the fridge. Also in the refrigerator waiting was a soft custard: one can of coconut milk, three eggs, two teaspoons of vanilla paste, and a half cup each of dark rum and dark maple syrup, and a pinch of salt, then whipped up and heated until slightly thickened, cooling and setting up in the fridge to thicken more fully. After supper, dessert finalizing was simply a matter of pureeing the strawberries in their liquid plus a cup of the peach slices into a smooth coulis, spooning the puree and custard in layers into dessert dishes, and topping them with a sprinkle of toasted sweetened coconut. In theory, this will serve five or six people, but we three are not theoretical exemplars by a long shot, so I’ll just say the dessert was as completely gone after our attacks as the rice dish had been earlier. Proper portions? You be the judge.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

Don’t Worry about Eating Up Your Time If It Means Good Eating After All

photoYesterday was rather long. Heck, it stretched right into today. But that, as you all know, is not inherently a bad thing. I would never begin to compare a day’s labor in the midst of my remarkably comfortable life with one in the farm fields, in the classroom, the clinic, office, or certainly in thoughtfully and lovingly caring for children, parents, friends–one’s own or others’. And when the goal of the work is hospitable and happy, why then so should the work be also. As it was. So, long story short, a long day can end in feeling short enough!

That, after all, is what makes anything resembling hospitality happen. If it’s done wearily or begrudgingly it’s bound to show. Even I, in my natural state of obliviousness, can generally tell from the other side of the table whether the hosts’ smiles are forced or genuine, whether the invitation was obligatory or willingly made. I credit myself with enough savvy to be able to differentiate between a relaxed conversation with a friend on the porch and her frantic attempt to make a life-saving dash for her car. And to my knowledge, I have never failed to find something that everyone in attendance could and would eat or drink on any given occasion. It demands a small amount of forethought, but then the pleasures of good company would be ever so much lessened by, say, a case of anaphylactic shock brought on by a stray peanut or an understandable case of high dudgeon induced by serving a roast of bacon-wrapped pork loin to my orthodox Jewish friends or a traditional but utterly inappropriate Asian feast of glazed short ribs and chicken feet when a vegan comes to call. A simple inquiry beforehand can put off any number of embarrassments.

It can’t, however, protect me perfectly from serving things that some among a larger group won’t love. That’s yet another reason that it’s helpful to offer a wider assortment of things in smaller quantities, when I can. No one has to feel any obligation to try everything, nor should they be forced to choose between only two or three things that are all less than favorites or just go hungry and thirsty when everyone else in the room is happily munching and sipping away. Thus, knowing we were all going to be either performing or hearing some beautiful Spanish music, I was rescued by the easy outlet of serving a tapas-style array of food and drink. I’ve already admitted that authenticity of product was less a factor in this party than simply being inspired by the notion, so when I tell you what I served I hope you’ll be as cheerfully accommodating as our guests were.photo

Almonds: Marcona almonds (those lovely little fat Spanish almonds), served simply as toasted in olive oil with a little sea salt; sticky, spicy-sweet almonds that I glazed in a pan with honey thinned with extra dry sherry, salt, cracked black pepper and lots of cinnamon; and savory almonds that I toasted in blood orange olive oil with fresh rosemary and alder smoked salt.photo

Celery sticks, plain as plain can be, because someone nearly always longs for the very simple and fresh among the more complex tastings of a snacking party.

Mango-Manchego bites: Tasty as it is, I had no membrillo handy to serve with cheese, so I wrapped cubes of Manchego in narrow strips of mango fruit leather. That turned out to be a fairly popular move, and it was certainly easy enough to assemble each with a toothpick, so I’ll keep it in mind for the future.

Marinated treats: Spanish olives–I just took a batch of the standard grocery store pimiento stuffed green olives, drained them of their brine and replaced it with dry Sherry and extra virgin olive oil; Marinated mushrooms–I bathed some sliced medium-large cremini mushrooms in a simple vinaigrette dressing of balsamic vinegar, red wine, olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme.photo

Chorizo-Date bites: Again, simple as can be–dry-aged chorizo, casings removed and meat cut into small pieces, and each piece speared on a toothpick with a cap made from a quarter of a sweet Medjool date.photo

Papas Bravas: My version of the popular spicy potato bites–dice scrubbed, skin-on russet potatoes into about 1 inch cubes, toss them with olive oil, salt, pepper, smoked paprika and chili powder, spread them out in a greased baking pan, and brown them in a medium oven.photo

Fig Bread: I didn’t have any fig bread handy, but I did have a batch of my nut-and-seed bars in the freezer, and I did after all have some figs in this batch–so I whizzed them up in the food processor (and crumbled the recalcitrant harder-frozen bits by hand), melted a bar and a half of white chocolate I had around with a heaping tablespoon or two of cocoa powder and a spoonful of instant coffee and a pat of butter, stirred that in to the crumbs, and chilled it all, patted flat, in the fridge until it was solid enough to cut into cubes. I rolled the cubes in a mixture of powdered sugar and cinnamon to keep them from stickiness.photo

Drinks: I had other things around, but what ended up getting used was mighty easy, and I got the impression that no singer left un-slaked. Besides store-bought limeade (the plain lime juice and cane sugar and water kind) and water, I had a cooler of beer and a big pot of Sangría. That was it. The Sangría, always an ad-hoc concoction in my house, was a mixture of hearty red and sweet white wines, homemade orange liqueur (made some months ago with vodka from home-candied mandarin peels, fresh mandarin + lemon + lime juices, and dried coconut and brown sugar for the sweetening), a small bottle of Mexican green apple soda, a small bottle of green apple hard cider, a tin of sliced peaches canned in fruit juice, a pint of sliced fresh strawberries and a pint of frozen blackberries. All I can say about my Sangría methodology is it’s very much a matter of combining what I have on hand at the moment with what I’m in the mood for on the occasion, the liquid equivalent, I suppose, of my casseroles.photoThe happy conclusion to the story is of course that, whatever I prepare (or don’t), it’s all about the company we keep, and my partner and I are pretty good at surrounding ourselves with outstanding people. So, was the food good? Good enough! The drinks? Wet enough! The company? Outstanding. The party? Just exactly right.