Foodie Tuesday: It Shouldn’t be Too Difficult

People can get so overwrought over the holidays. Whatever those holidays may be, they have a way of bringing out the worst in the expectations we have of ourselves, never mind what we think we have to live up to for others’ sakes. So I tend to opt for the less fussy and somewhat unconventional, and I definitely prefer what’s simple. Leave the designer food extravaganzas to those with more patience and money and fewer friends and loved ones waiting to be visited or holiday lights to be savored where they twinkle and glitter on treetops and roofs, fences and storefronts. But I digress.photoHoliday brunches (it it my firm belief, as a person who does not believe in getting up a second earlier than necessary, that holidays of all times require sleeping in too late for holiday breakfasts) are an opportunity to have some favorite simple treats that can be easily thrown together for a snack-tastic sort of meal. Steamed ‘hard boiled’ eggs, bacon candied with a mixture of brown sugar and dark maple syrup, a little cinnamon and a dash of cayenne, a homemade chocolate malt, grilled cheddar cheese sandwiches, or some plain, juicy-sweet clementines–or all of the above. In that instance, there’ll be plenty to keep you well fueled until holiday dinner. Whenever and whatever that ends up being.photoMy love of savory + sweet foods, too, is not new, not unique to me, and not limited to any particular group of foods. There’s the wonderful long-standing tradition of such delicious delights as ham with sweet glazes, rich curries with sweet chutneys, sundaes with salted nuts, and cheese boards with fruits, just to drool over thoughts of a small few. And it’s interesting that time and tradition contend to restrict our thinking of certain foods or ingredients as belonging automatically to desserts or not, to a sweet category or a savory one, and further, if sweet then to desserts; if savory, non-dessert.

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Cloudy, with a high chance of deliciousness: spiced cider.

These days, then, when I’m cooking I tend to think of what ingredients I’m hungry for among those on hand, how they might go together, and what kind of dish will result. Even when the dish is finished, I’m not always certain it would easily classify as sweet or savory, entrée or side dish, main item or dessert. After all, there are plenty of old recipes leading to such seeming incongruities as smoked salmon cheesecake or candied pork. Herbs and spices, those basically non-caloric, strongly flavored elements that color and distinguish other ingredients, are a logical tool for transformation. A simple cup or glass, hot or cold, of spice infused cider becomes so much more than simply apple juice, and cocktails can turn from frilly to fiery or from crazy to cozy, depending on their infusions.

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Squash and apples make fine companions.

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Then there’s praline happiness, which I’m not averse to eating by the forkful.

If both apples and squashes can make delicious pies or side dishes equally well, why not meld all of those characteristics and veer off onto a slightly divergent path? One day I saw the inviting fall bin of pumpkins and squashes beckoning me from right next to the apple display in the produce section of the grocery store and voila! A sweet-savory side dish was born. I chopped the peeled, cored apples and blended them with lemon juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice, a dash of vanilla, a pinch of salt, a splash of maple syrup and a tablespoon of instant tapioca, and I spooned it all into the two seeded, salted halves of the pretty squash, topped with a big pat of butter to melt over it all. Into the oven it went at medium-high heat until the squash was tender enough to yield to a spoon, and I served the squash and the apple filling together with a praline crumble topping I’d made by baking a mix of chopped salted nuts, butter and brown sugar.

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Many things, sweet or savory, are happily enhanced with a touch of praline.

This little oddity easily occupied the same space on my menu normally reserved for the famous-or-infamous dish with which so many American holiday tables have either a sacred or scared relationship: marshmallow topped sweet potatoes. Sweet and savory, not to mention fatty and ridiculous, either dish is quite okay with me, and it wouldn’t surprise me any more than it would you to hear me described that way as a result. As a bit of an oddity, too, for that matter.

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Steamed carrot pudding. Not bad all on its own whether for any meal or afters.

And speaking of love-it-or-hate-it foods, there’s eggnog. What would you guess about another rich food with outsized calories in a small, sugary package? Yeah, obviously another semi-guilty love of mine. I often make a quickie eggnog for breakfast, blending a raw egg or two plus a pinch each of nutmeg (maybe cinnamon and cardamom, too), salt, vanilla, and raw local honey with cream, whole milk yogurt, or water. [Yes, I eat raw eggs often, and I’ve never in all my years had the remotest problem with it. But I’m generally very healthy. Others do so at their own risk.] When available, a ripe banana makes a delicious thickener/sweetener. Oh, and the same can be said of vanilla ice cream, of course!

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Broth-cooked carrot pudding with eggnog sauce.

However it’s made (or bought from a good organic supplier), eggnog also makes a fantastic sauce for another of those holiday-associated goodies, pumpkin pie. And when I say pumpkin pie, I happily include a host of similar sweet/savory and dense-textured treats like sweet potato pie, steamed puddings, loaf cakes, bread puddings and other such brazenly heavy-duty things–all of which would make equally lush and luscious dessert or breakfast, in my book–are nicely complemented by a sauce of smooth, creamy eggnog. If a little is good, a lot is great, or as Dad has wisely taught us: Anything worth doing is worth overdoing! Well worth a little recovery fasting in any event, eh!

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Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Toast it with a spiced cider, perhaps?

Foodie Tuesday: Ploughman’s Lunch & Cavegirl Quiche

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Ploughman’s-in-a-bowl.

I want to eat joyfully and intently and live a long, healthy life, then die and get recycled.

You know that although I respect veganism and the very solid reasons millions of people have for choosing not to eat animals and animal products, I am, like some other animals, an omnivore myself. Like these brother animals, I am okay with eating my fellow creatures. Hopefully people who respect animals’ right to be carnivores can respect a human’s wish to be a carnivorous animal as well. Yes, I want animals to be treated with great care and respect while they live, and yet I know that they’ll die; I expect no less on either count for myself. I would love to know that when I die it would be permitted, instead of my personal-leftovers having to be buried in a state-sanctioned impermeable box to take up prime real estate in perpetuity, for the aforementioned detritus to be left in the woods for some nice creatures to eat up, and what remains to fade into the grand recycling unit of the forest. Short of that, I have arranged with my loved ones to cremate what-was-me [after any possible organ farming is accomplished] and put my ashes into garden-feeding, where at least I will fertilize feed for ruminants and so serve as a smaller part in earth’s renewal. That’s what I think we’re all designed to do. Carbon to carbon. So whether I get eaten or make a less obvious contribution as a small pH balancing agent in the dirt, I plan to return the gifts that others, animal and plant alike, have given me in my life. This is not particularly meant to be a political or religious statement on my part, as I apply it only to myself, and I don’t begrudge anyone’s disagreement with it, it’s just a worldview that seems pragmatic to me. I am not saying this to court condemnation or controversy (you know I despise them) but simply to be honest with myself as much as with you.

So my protein preferences arrive as fatty and delicious nuts, eggs, seafood and, indeed, meats. I tend to be very old-fashioned in that way, following the path of my workman ancestors, and even their ancestors back in the hunter-gatherer days. I am enormously (no pun intended) grateful for the gifts of the earth that keep me not only alive but healthy and even well fed, and I don’t want to squander or be thoughtless about such magnanimity. Hence my determination to eat more deliberately and moderately as I grow older, and also my penchant for being ever more inventive in refusing to waste the goodness of any part of my personal food cycle. The recent posts about rescuing broth-making remnants are a tiny testament to this commitment. I’m a junk food junkie like everybody else, loving stuff that’s far from good for me, but I’m gradually learning to lean a bit further toward the less trashy ways to enjoy those elements that are the true reasons I like junk, not the addictive formats in which they’re presented to us by commercial producers and retailers so that we’ll just treat them–and our bodies–like garbage by over-consuming them thoughtlessly.

I want to eat joyfully and intently and live a long, healthy life, then die and get recycled.

A couple of the variant meals I based on my recent beef ginger mousse making fed both my frugal and my treat-hungry sides. Having the pre-made avocado mash around amped up both aspects as well, and the addition along the way of some other easy-to-keep ingredients made it all pretty much homemade fast food without the related regret.

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Another day, another ploughman’s.

Ploughman’s lunch, that great English enthusiasm for serving and eating what’s essentially deconstructed sandwiches–bread, cheese, chutney, pickled goodies, and so forth–are pretty common around our house. The differences in our tastes, multiplied by the number of friends sharing the meal, makes it easier to stick to assemble-it-yourself service for so many things that the logic of the operation is obvious. Since I’m generally weaning myself from wheat, that makes a hands-on, fork-in version of the Ploughman’s even more useful. Beef mousse and avocado mash make this easy. Hard boiled eggs are a grand addition, but a quick scramble or fry is fine as well. Chutney or jam alongside? Oh, yeah. Pickles of any sort are a plus. Add the crunchy pleasures (and instant utensils) of carrots, snap peas, celery, apples, jicama, radishes or any number of other good crudites and you’ve got all you can handle, short of a cold cider, iced tea, beer or lemonade. Filling, varied and delicious.

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Ploughman’s redux: beef mousse with pureed fresh tomatoes and mint, olives, pickled green beans, roast chicken, snow peas and apple.

For a cave-dweller-pleasing rearrangement of the same essential ingredients, I stacked it all up and sliced it into a semblance of a pie, first as a single layer and then as a double-decker version. Rather than baking it all up as an actual crustless quiche or omelet, which should be simple and tasty with the addition of some beaten eggs (and if I had some on hand, a bit of shredded cheese), I ate it cold and was not sorry to have the quicker version either. This one, given my previous pseudo-recipes on the topic, can be pretty easily illustrated in assembly by pictures only. What you choose to do with it is up to you! As long as you don’t disappoint me by wasting it. [Winking broadly.]

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The Cavegirl Quiche Assembly Line: sliced chicken or smoked turkey; mashed lemony avocado; sliced olives; pate or beef mousse; fried or scrambled eggs; tomato-mint puree; pickled green beans.

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A wedge of cavegirl quiche. Enough to take the edge off a day’s hunting and gathering.

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The double-decker version of cavegirl lunch: how to get ready for yet further mastodon chasing and saber-tooth battling.

What’s-in-My-Kitchen Week, Day 3: Relishes and Remnants

photoBest way to have a head start on preparing a meal: keep lots of shelf-stable or frozen flourishes convenient–they don’t have to be artificial or toxic, you know–and be kind to the best of your leftovers. It’s important to have the usual dry goods in stock; flour or thickeners, if you use them; spices; rice or oats or that kind of thing, but small prepared items are just as crucial for time and taste’s sake. Yesterday it came in handy to have stashed a few servings of easy-to-serve chocolate dessert items like my homemade nut truffles and almond-flour brownies. Today it was an assortment of fresh fruits that rounded out the meal with no cooking and virtually no prep, unless you count washing and cutting just enough for two plates; I certainly don’t find that onerous compared to prepping and cooking actual side dishes. Tomorrow, who knows? If someone pops by unexpectedly and we sit to lunch or dinner, it’s just nice to know that there’s almost always something in the pantry that can be served up in a trice.

Or in a casserole, if one prefers.

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I like to have a variety of types and flavors of oils, vinegars and the like close by me–including a couple of spray-on kinds of oils for pan prep.

You’ve no doubt noticed in any previous food posts, especially if I’ve referenced my pantry shelves, that I’m mighty fond of pickles and toppings and condiments of many kinds. I tend toward the salty, savory and sweet rather than extremely spicy ones, though I’ve been known to crave some good north Indian lime pickle with my Palak Paneer or pickled jalapeños with my Tex-Mex treats. Mostly, I like a fairly wide assortment of olives, vinegar-pickled vegetables like green beans and carrots and asparagus, preserved lemons, mild pickled okra or clove-scented beets; relish, chutney, sweet watermelon rind pickles also tickle my palate, as do pickled ginger and preserved sauces, and so forth ad mortem. Because I do concede that it’s just possible I could eat myself into a happy coma followed by cheery death, given constant proximity to such dainties. Nearly all of these delights, not to mention those aforementioned (okay, I did mention! deal with it) garnishes and toppings, like the ubiquitous southeast Asian fried shallots, salted and unsalted nuts, fried herbs, candied peel and ginger, shaved coconut, and so much more, can be nicely preserved to be either shelf-safe or freezer friendly without too much difficulty.

And yes, there are commercial preparations of those and other easy-to-keep foods and edible accoutrements that I willingly stock and use. Perhaps one of the most favored is tinned tuna, but I admit I don’t like many of the commercial brands, preferring those that can only the tuna itself, usually with a little salt, and simply let it be preserved in its pristine glory and its own juices. There are more and more good guys out there who are trying to do right by the tuna and our tastes, so it takes very little effort to find them out, and the boost in flavor and concomitant decrease in artificialities are well worth it. Canning fruits and vegetables does commonly act as a killjoy, destroying much of their texture and flavor and, not surprisingly, nutrients as well. Now, I know that much of the destructive character comes from mass production and that many people are able to home-preserve beautiful specimens of both fruits and veg, but frankly, that’s almost always too labor-intensive and plodding for my energies and attention span.

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Dried fruit: check. Coconut: check. Tinned seafoods: check. *Lots* of good coconut milk: oh, yeah, Baby (throw-it-together curry, here we come)!

So I tend to lean toward decent quality fast frozen green-groceries if I’m keeping some around for quick use. These are often perfectly delish in soups, cooked dishes and quick pickling, where they take up the dressing and seasonings more readily than raw foods because of the slight cellular breakdown inherent in freezing. And there are, for that very reason, also a few commercially canned things besides jam or jelly or pickles that I will concede to stock on my shelves and eat. For example, I wanted a speedy picnic sort of salad the other day, so I took out tins of cut green and wax beans and baby carrots, all of which I admit would be strikingly unappealing to me for straight-from-the-can eating, and bathed them in a light dressing of plain rice vinegar, vegetable oil, orange juice, orange zest, salt, pepper and snipped dill, and had myself a tasty little salad that has fed me all week long, gaining in flavor as it sits but having been quite edible right from the ceremonial Opening of the Tins.

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Not quite the traditional Three Bean Salad, but perfectly edible all the same.

Salmon is something I generally prefer fresh or smoked over tinned as well, but having a couple of cans on hand does have its moments. If, as with the tuna, it’s prepared well enough to not taste of the tin rather than of the sea, why it too makes a very useful salad when mixed with good mayonnaise and seasonings and can sit lightly on crackers, in a sandwich or stuffed into hors-d’oeuvres plenty well. I’ve made mine up with Asian-grocery wasabi mayo (another good condiment to keep in the refrigerator, mind you), minced gari, and a splash each of ginger juice and soy sauce, and enjoyed it even more for those uses. When the salmon is not tinned but instead left over from yesterday’s dinner, it can do similar things. We’re not overly enamored of leftover seafood, my spouse and I, in its previously served form, always feeling a bit like it’s sure to have gone bad. But a little change-up can rescue that leftover fish too: the oven roasted salmon, smoked salmon, and a few cooked prawns from the other night’s dinner got mashed to a pate with the stick blender, using some mayonnaise, and then spread on a small Romaine leaf and topped with slivers of yellow capiscum, a curl of gari and a dab of that nice wasabi mayo–whose squeezable bottle charmingly arrives with its own built-in star tip for decorative application–and voilà! Snacks.

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Salmon salad–straight from the shelves of the pantry, fridge and spice cabinet.

I’ll grant you that any amount of ‘trim’ kept in the kitchen guarantees nothing like conferring gourmet status on what I make of it. And it’s a virtual miracle when I bother to gussy up my food as much as even that last little snackable item, so presentation isn’t instantaneously improved either. But having the stuff right here at my beck and call is the only way either is likely to happen, even by accident. And who says I can’t eat all of this tastiness right out of the box, bottle, jar or tin, anyway?

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