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: The Great Truffle Kerfuffle

When the Sweet Tooth Siren calls, pay attention. A person could fade away and starve if candy isn’t handy when it’s required. So when I got that urge today, I knew that even though I wouldn’t get home until late-ish from the concert tonight, I had better think of some way to make some sweet happen. Fast.

I was thinking something truffle-like, because: chocolate. Also, because it’d be pretty easy if I didn’t get too complicated with it. So I jumped right on in.

What I did was this: I mixed about equal amounts of powdered cocoa and powdered peanuts and coconut oil (room temperature, solid) together into a thick paste. Then I added in a splash of almond extract, a dash of crunchy Maldon sea salt, and some dark maple syrup to taste, and this made a dense enough ‘dough’ to form into 1/2″ spheres. I rolled these heavily in flaked, toasted coconut. Most of this truffle mix went into the fridge for tomorrow and/or other, future candy emergencies. Some of it went pretty much straight into my mouth, conveniently enough.

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Trifling with truffles…

Because it was easy, and it tasted pretty darned good—not that it wouldn’t be equally tasty if I substituted the coconut with, say, sesame seeds or finely chopped nuts or minced preserved ginger, dried apricots or candied peel, or some additional chocolate, in dainty little chips. But no matter. What is essential is that I got my sugary fix in an appropriate hurry, and it pleased me.

And that, after all, is what was on order for the day.

Foodie Tuesday: Sweets, Treats & Healthy Eats

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What’s good for my heart might be as much a spiritual question as a nutritional one, even at table. Mmm, BBQ!

I am one of those silly people who don’t think the title’s terms are mutually exclusive. Call me a cockeyed optimist (because, well, I am), but it also happens to follow a certain logic if I tell you that not only do scientists and nutritionists and doctors sometimes concede that what was once thought the epitome of healthful behavior and ingestion is now believed to be quite the opposite, or that things we once considered horrendously dangerous and likely to contribute to the destruction-through-dining of the entire human race might not be quite so terrible after all. Not to mention the recognition that each person’s body type, genetic makeup, chemistry, environment and so forth all make him-her-me unique in the ways we suffer or benefit from our diets.

So I will refrain from posting—on Tuesdays or otherwise—ruminations on what is Always or Never good for anybody. Besides which, as you well know on visiting with me even twice on a Tuesday, even my own two-person family household has vastly different ideas and tastes and preferences when it comes to what we simply like or don’t like to eat and drink. Thankfully, we can work out those differences in many ways, so the reality of our widely divergent food loves has relatively little impact on our love of being together.

This is, among other things, a reason that it’s nice to have something to amuse each member of the party at table, and let each choose his or her own combination of dishes, drinks and delectables. I am well aware that having no children in the family may be seen as a dodge of the most difficult issues in this regard, because as a supposedly responsible adult one might be expected to see that every child present is getting reasonable nutrition at all times, and hopefully, also building practices and habits that will lead to her continued healthy living. But of course one can point to numerous folk who have in various ways had the ability to subvert the rules and live and thrive. And of course, I live with an adult who has managed to do so despite having been raised to eat ‘right’ yet arriving at adulthood with a general dislike of much of what is, was and perhaps ever shall be considered ‘right eating’: he doesn’t like very many vegetables at all, and could probably survive on pizza, mac and cheese, hamburgers and fries, and those with little deviation from their simplest forms, especially preferred without annoying vegetable side dishes or icky sauces. While I enjoy nearly all of the foods he does like, I’ll also eat lots of other things gladly, including the veggies and sauces and many more things he would far rather not.

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Cucumber, all by itself, is refreshing; as a simple salad made with rice vinegar, honey, fresh dill and black pepper, it’s also delicious.

Does this in any way make him less intelligent or well-bred or good or admirable? It most certainly does not, any more than it confers sainthood upon me. It may be true that ‘the heart wants what it wants’, but baby, I’d say with ten times the conviction that the gut has powerful reign over our existence—stomach, tastebuds and brain in concert, that is. And I’ll bet you dollars to sugary, fat, wonderful donuts that this alone will not determine who among us lives well, survives long and dies contented. So I eat my vegetables, more often than not, alone even when eating at the same table as my beloved. He will order the same classic meat-and-potatoes food a bit more frequently than I will. We will both worry about our health and weight and shapes from time to time and each of us, occasionally, do some little thing or other to alter them, together or individually.

All I can say for certain is that I hope neither of us will ever lose interest in food and drink altogether or, especially, lose the ability to eat and sip much that we enjoy, because those tastes and those communal activities and shared experiences give us pleasure that is as beneficial to health and happiness as the nutrients themselves can ever begin to be. That makes Foodie Tuesday here a perfect day to celebrate a very special cook, hostess, family member and dear friend, whose birthday is upon us. Happy birthday, Mom Sparks! Your good cooking and your graciousness, both at table and all around, make you a Sweet Treat yourself—and helped to shape, unquestionably, the marvelous man with whom I am privileged to dine nearly every day, no matter what we choose to eat and drink.

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‘Green Banana’ Pudding: ripe bananas and avocado blended until smooth with fresh lime juice and zest, honey, butter (of *course* I’m not kidding), almond extract, and a pinch of salt. A few toasted coconut chips on top add just a hint of crunch. Banana-lime happiness in a spoon!

Foodie Tuesday: Pork Chops Go with Everything

There might not be any ‘universal donor‘ food anywhere, the sort of food that’s perfect with all other things and at all times, but if you’re a pork eater, it’s mighty close. Seasoned pork becomes, in turn, seasoning when it’s great bacon, pancetta, guanciale, and that sort of thing. Because it has a very mild flavor on its own, pork takes on flavors of all kinds readily. It’s a culinary chameleon, becoming subtle, spicy, bold, sweet or savory; takes readily to being ground, sliced, shredded; blends with other meats or fruits or vegetables, and once prepared, is delicious cold or hot. Large numbers and quantities of flavoring agents make pork delicious, but it’s pretty grand with very little added as well.

photoSo there’s this dinner, then, where thick pork chops, though lean and not heavily flavored, become the centerpiece of the meal. They’re cooked simply, sous vide, with butter and salt and pepper, and seared at the last. When I cut open the sous vide packets to pat dry and sear the chops, I collected the juices in a pitcher, covered it and microwaved it to cook and thicken them, then blended them with a spoonful of [Kewpie brand] wasabi mayonnaise to make a warm sauce for serving with the pork. Some oven roasted wedges of Russet potatoes with a hint of coconut oil and salt sopped up the sauce that spilled over from the chops. Coleslaw being a consistent favorite in our house (as you’ve undoubtedly figured out long since if you visit here at all often), there was some in this dinner, garnished with black sesame seeds for a little visual pizzazz.

photoFor additional sides, there was a fruit compote of sliced and peeled apples, canned-in-juice peach slices, a little butter, honey and cinnamon and a pinch each of ground cardamom and cloves, and a tiny salad for each diner of avocado mash with lemon, cumin, lemon zested salt and a little bit of butter, each hearty-spoonful-sized helping topped with a small tomato and a dainty flower. Between these, there was a bit of piquancy and juice, color and textural variety so that all of them helped to keep the chops from seeming dull or predictable.

photoDessert couldn’t have been much simpler. Cream, whipped until Chantilly-soft with a touch of almond extract and then blended with an equal amount of lemon curd (I had some ready-made curd in the refrigerator) was served as a lemony mousse topped with a couple of small pieces of home-candied peel and a handful of toasted sweetened coconut. Really heady stuff. The end.

Foodie Tuesday: More Sugary Bits

Sweets needn’t be hard to prepare. They’re so easy to eat, it’s only fair that they should also be easy to fix or you’ll undoubtedly end up feeling a little desperate between times. Why risk it?

Especially nice if the treats can require no baking or be super-simple to mix and prep before popping into the oven–like these two:photoChocolate Handy Candy

Combine an assortment of the following ingredients into a dense dough, roll into golf ball shapes or squeeze into similar sized blobs, and chill. Before serving, coat in powdered sugar or cocoa powder; mix in some ground spice if you like.

Melted chocolate (I like to use dark chocolate that I buy in bars)

Coconut oil and/or butter, melted

Pinch of salt (crunchy is usually my favorite)

Flavorings (try ginger with black pepper, mint and dried apple pieces, toasted coconut and rosewater, or toasted sesame seeds and almond bits and a pinch of cloves)

Chopped candied peel or crushed freeze-dried fruit

Crushed potato chips or pretzels or chopped nuts (toasted and salted or spiced/candied)

Once you’ve formed these, refrigerate them, and serve them cold. Easy to make and just as easy to like.

And not long ago I came across another ridiculously simple sweet fix. Nutella cookies. If you don’t already know what Nutella is, you need more help than just an easy recipe to make with the stuff. Possibly a term of Nutella Therapy hospitalization. Ooh, can I have that? I have, thankfully, found some pretty good no-name generic copycat versions of it, so if the real stuff isn’t available in an emergency I needn’t panic. But really, it’d be hard to go wrong with the classic combination of chocolate and hazelnuts.

The recipe in question is so uncomplicated as to be hard to classify as a recipe at all, but I proved it does require a tad of technical specificity, so it’s not quite the throw-and-go ease of the first item here. Still, easy. And oh so sweet. And once again, tweak-worthy. The general gist of this combination is popular, if not prevalent, online, to the degree that it’d be a serious magic trick to track down the original author. If any of you know who developed this I’d be delighted to know!photoImpossibly Possible Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies

1 cup flour (I used gluten-free flour mix) + 1 cup Nutella (or substitute) + 1 egg = dough. Makes a dense dough that’s not hard to mix quickly with your bare hands. Form the dough into a log (about 2″ or 5 cm in diameter) with flattened ends and slice it into 24 pieces. Arrange on a cookie sheet and bake in a preheated oven at 350°F (177ºC) for approximately 6 minutes. My usual issue of owning an overactive oven made my first attempt bake too quickly, scorching them slightly.

That, however, gave me the excuse to play with spice and start thinking of a number of other ways I might happily vary the treat. Version 2 was also easy; all I did was make the cookies as prescribed (while lowering the oven temp significantly, thankyouverymuch) and as I placed the slices on the baking sheet, I sprinkled over them a mixture of copper-colored edible glitter for visual interest and sweet-hot curry powder for additional flavor. Went over nicely with guests, and I found it quite enjoyable.photoFor future versions, I’m thinking of a number of possible enhancements to this delightfully easy cookie dream. I know that it’s also possible to substitute peanut butter and sugar for the Nutella and flour, and I assume one could just as easily use other nut butters. But there are a zillion ways I might play with the existing combination too. Roll the log of dough in finely chopped toasted hazelnuts before slicing into cookies. Add a splash of rum or rum flavoring. Add the finely grated zest of a large orange or a couple of small mandarins; add minced candied peel or ginger to the zested dough. Ice the cookies with a glaze made of pure cherry juice and powdered sugar. Skip the flour and egg and stick the big spoon loaded with Nutella directly in your mouth. Okay, that last one’s not exactly a recipe either, unless you want to call it a recipe for disastrous health, but it’s still probably worth a try. Because it’s sweet, and it’s simple. And when I have a crazy hankering for a bit of dessert in a big hurry, that’s a very fine thing.

Foodie Tuesday: Orange Foods for Your RDAF*

[* Recommended Daily Allowance of Fun]

I guess you know by now that I have a Thing about orange. Among the many orange-obsessions in my color-hungry psyche, and far from least, is the love of orange foods, whether naturally that way or made that color by virtue of their preparation or combined ingredients. Oranges, tangerines and kumquats, for example, have the advantage of already being that eye-catching hue, as do carrots and cantaloupes, peaches and apricots and a long list of other vegetable and fruit delights. Then there are the lovely delectables tinted with turmeric, annatto, saffron, onion skins and other strong yellow dyes combined with various companion colorings to create all of those edible paints that make cheeses and egg dishes and breads and cakes and so many other desirable comestibles burst out in alluring orange flame. It’s often a bonus attraction of particularly succulent foods that they call to us first with this beacon of color.photoMirepoix, for example, is not only a magnificent contributor of flavor and texture to a vast palette of palate pleasers but brings the come-hither warmth of the carrots’ orange to add visual appeal to those dishes. It takes very little besides to make, for example, a simple omelet or frittata both delicious and pretty, and they can be further customized with many ingredients that will further both the orange coloration and the flavor with a happy boost, as in the case of the one seen here that added only a pinch of dill and a toss of finely diced summer sausage (a.k.a. beef stick), whose fat when heated usually oozes with orange glory.photoMany orange-colored foods are not only intensified in flavor but also in their punch of sunny hue by the concentration of the drying process. Dried apricots benefit in both ways from gentle dehydration. The brand of boxed chocolates I grew up enjoying (See’s), includes in its roster of stellar treats a juicy little bite called Apricot Delight that is so good it actually deserves a place in a box of chocolates–and you know my religious beliefs about chocolate: that’s a massive concession–so recently I bethought myself to attempt a sort of replication of its goodness. I think I did a pretty fair job, but will leave it to you to decide. I think these could be made by hand mincing, crushing and chopping, but by far are best made in a food processor or powerful blender.photoApricot Slice Candies

Equal parts of plump dried apricots, toasted sweetened, shredded coconut and roasted and salted pistachio nut meats–in this instance, about a cup of each–go into the processor with about 2-3 tablespoons of butter (or, if you prefer, solid coconut oil) and a handful of candied citrus peels. Whirled together until the solids become a coarse sandy mixture, they should have enough butter in them to become a tender but malleable dough (add more butter if needed) that can be formed into a log (about 2 inches in diameter), rolled into parchment and refrigerated until serving time. To serve, simply slice the chilled dough into 1/8 inch thick coin slices. I found these addictive enough as they were, but surely there would be no harm in adding candied ginger to the peel or throwing in a pinch of cayenne, a little splash of rose- or orange-blossom water or almond extract, or some sesame seeds, to name a few possibilities. Why, even some dark chocolate mini-chips thrown in after the blending or melted to coat the coins might not be amiss and could conceivably satisfy the diehards who mightn’t be as forgiving as I’ve been about finding these beauties in the box of chocolates, but I’m content to let them shine in all of their orange cheeriness, after all.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Savory, then Sweet

Dinner and then dessert. That’s the way I was raised, and I think a zillion other people had the same, despite the urge most children I know have always had to eat dessert first–and possibly, to stop there. Now that I’m wonderfully old, I can do that, and don’t hesitate to indulge now and then. But along with my well-known love for combining the sweet and savory together, whether it’s merely by adding a bit more salt to desserts or it’s designing a meal to have a wider range and greater balance between the savory and the sweet, there are plenty of times when a semblance of conformity to the old norm is perfectly satisfying to both my empty stomach and my sweet tooth.photoThere is much that I love about the simplest of meals, not only because it pleases me that they’re easy to prepare but because they also allow–nay, invite–the savoring of their few and uncomplicated parts. A chicken-and-noodles dinner, for example, can be barely more than those two ingredients and fill me comfortably and contentedly. Chunks of roasted or baked or fried chicken tossed in with fresh fettuccine that has been cooked in rich chicken broth (this time until the broth was thickened to sauce, but other times, just as a dandy bowl of chicken & noodle soup) need little but a helping of vegetables or two alongside and they become both welcome nourishment and a little trip down memory lane. My hunger is sated and I am reminded of many a happily simple meal gone by.

But then I succumb, more often than not, to thinking that if this meal is a little like those my mother made, why then it ought to end in dessert as well. And as citrus so complements chicken in nearly any guise, why not make a citrus dessert to follow a chicken dinner? I could certainly opt for the ever-lovely lemon bars that brighten many a table, yet I am not exactly known for coloring inside the lines when it comes to an entire menu, so on the most recent chicken-noodle dinner occasion, I took a slight deviation from that norm. I made what you could callphotoSimply Lime-Coconut Bars

[I took my first cue from a recipe for ‘instant’ lime curd made in a Vitamix so I could skip the slow and attentive cookery most curd recipes require. Our household blender is nothing so sophisticated–or expensive–as a Vitamix and doesn’t reach that machine’s level of heat, but since I was using the curd mostly for these cookie bars where it would subsequently be baked (and because I have no fear of eating raw eggs anyway), I went ahead with the blender I have. Needless to say, besides my alteration of the process I changed the ingredients to the point that you’re now getting my recipe, not that lovely published one I found elsewhere.]

Lime-Coconut Curd (Makes 6 servings.Theoretically.)

In the blender, whiz 3 whole eggs until frothy, adding ½ cup sugar + 1 hefty pinch of salt and ½ teaspoon of vanilla as you go; add ½ cup melted, very hot coconut oil in a thin stream, followed by a stream of ½ cup fresh lime juice, and keep blending it until it’s good and smooth or you think your blender and you will both swoon from overheating.

Set the curd in the refrigerator if you’re taking very long to prepare the rest of the cookie bar recipe, but if you’re like me, it’ll already be in the fridge from a couple of days ago when you made a double batch and spooned out a few helpings of the curd, plain, to snack on between times. As one sometimes must do. And I think you do know what I mean. Meanwhile, let us return to our cookie bar recipe.

Lime-Coconut Bar Cookies

[I am told I will be a complete failure as a human being if I don’t add the curd to a warm, just-baked crust layer, so I conform to the Rules at least that far. And I lined the bottom of the 9″ x 13″ pan with a single piece of baking parchment so that I could easily lift out the bars when ready.]

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Okay, I can’t resist adding a dash of additional crunchy salt on top some of the time. Whether I eat them in any particular order or together, I do love both the savory and the sweet.

To make the crust, blend 1 cup flour (I used gluten-free flour), 3/4 cup coconut flour, 2/3 cup confectioners’ [powdered] sugar, 1/4 cup cornstarch, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom and 1/4-1/2 teaspoon almond extract. Cut 3/4 cup [yes, really! What, you think I’d lie about adding lots of good fat?] of cold salted butter into this dry mix until it becomes a crumbly, sandy blend and then press it evenly into the pan. Refrigerate this for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to your equivalent of 350°F [as you know, my oven has its own ideas about what that means, so I adjust accordingly]. When the crust has chilled, pop it into the oven for about 20 minutes or until it’s beginning to brown lightly. Out of the oven it comes. Reset the oven to 325°F, stir up the curd

, spread the curd over the crust, and pop the pan right back into the oven, for about 20 minutes or until the curd has set when gently touched. Almost done, now. Turn off that oven of yours before you forget, let the pan cool on a rack for about another half hour, and then you can take a quick swipe around the perimeter of the bars with a knife tip to loosen any stuck things before lifting them out in their parchment sling. These, like any citrus curd topped bars, are pretty to serve with a final dusting of powdered sugar on top, but any you’re saving for later should get dusted directly before serving, as it’ll absorb into the bars in the meantime. If, however, you’re going to devour the entire pan in one sitting, who am I to blame you? Powder up, my friends. Life is short and dessert is long-awaited.

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Or there could be pomegranate and pistachio, for a change . . .

The second time around, I decided to try the bars with a little north-African influenced twist: substituted salted, roasted pistachios (ground to flour) for the almond flour in the crust, decreasing the added salt to 1/2 teaspoon; made the curd with pure pomegranate juice and butter instead of the lime juice and coconut oil, and because the curd wasn’t quite as bright in either flavor or color as the original recipe, made a little layer of zing from 1/4 cup each of pomegranate juice and ginger preserves, pureeing them together completely and softening a tablespoon of gelatin in them to thicken slightly, and finally topping the bars with whole pistachios and a dusting of powdered sugar and edible glitter for a dash of, well, dash. Messy, yes. Edible? Oh, yes. You people do know how I like my variations on a theme! And if we’re going to have dinner first, then I’m not opposed to two desserts to make up for the waiting . . .