Foodie Tuesday: Don’t Mess with Success

I do enjoy my meals. I like ‘meeting’ new treats to eat. I love the companionship of people, at table and around the virtual kitchen, who bring new savor to any food I get to eat.

And I will likely never tire of those particularly delicious favorites, comfort food and classics that are too good to fail. A cold seafood salad like the Louis (or Louie) need not be fiddled with in any way to thrill the palate. Lettuce, when it’s topped with the traditional olives, tomatoes and hard-boiled egg, is in need of nothing further than sweet shrimp or crab or both, and perhaps a squeeze of lemon juice, to be one of the most refreshing and filling and tasty luncheons imaginable.Photo: Crab & Shrimp Louie

I may tweak the old familiars to extremes from time to time, like a couple of diner cooks did with the nice variant versions of mac and cheese I’ve enjoyed a couple of times lately with Dungeness crab, one of them adorned with bacon, leeks and basil (and served with a nice crispy tuile of parmesan on top), or I may prefer to keep them magnificently purist-friendly and old-fashioned to the nth degree.Photo: Dungeness Mac

The beloved BLT is another of those that can take on any number of changes and added ingredients and offbeat preparations with panache, but is so gloriously perfect in its simple original form that when the tomato is absolute perfection in its ripe fruity brightness, the lettuce as crisp and clean as a green leaf newly sprouted, the bacon crisp, smoky and salty and piled almost too high for a monster’s jaws, and the mayonnaise spread just-so on the delicately crunchy toast, there can be no need for any other version. Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato are friendly with ever so many good add-ons, from avocado to mint or cilantro, cheese, boiled egg slices to grilled peppers (sweet or hot or both), and—avert your eyes, tender purist souls—grilled pineapple. But sometimes, when the stars and the aforementioned traditional ingredients of B, L, and T are in perfect form and proportion, it’s de trop beyond the crassest imaginings to monkey with proven perfection.Photo: BLT Perfection in Ponder

Either way, I’m kind of hungry right now, even though the household cooks served us fantastic grilled cheese followed by a fine berry pie a while ago. Did I mention classics? Delicious magnificence? Guess it’s time to stop dreaming and head for the kitchen again.

Foodie Tuesday: Everybody’s Version is Different

As often as I post about loving comfort food, I seldom say clearly enough that I’m well aware everybody’s version of that idea is unique. Yes, we have familiar favorites that we’ve learned from our national, cultural, regional and communal environments, and those might well be generalized across towns or families. To a point. But the specifics vary with our own body chemistry, when it comes to allergies and the biology of taste buds, never mind the variety that comes from making choices.

That’s when it’s possible to slide from one leaning to another, even in what food sounds most comforting to me at the moment. Did I grow up surrounded by essentially middle class, white, middle-of-the-road, twentieth century American foods and preparations? Yes. Do I still think most of the stuff I grew up eating and drinking is delicious and comforting? Yes, I do. But it’s long since been joined on my hit list by a lot of other edible goodness that derives from cultures and kitchens far from those of my youth.

Learning to eat and prepare some of the deliciousness found in, say, Thai and Russian and Moroccan cuisines not only stretches my repertoire but trains my hungry brain to hanker for new goodness in addition to the comforts of my hungry childhood. Every unfamiliar regional or national cuisine, every dish, that I get to taste offers the possibility of further comfort foods. What’s it all mean? Most importantly, that I will never lack for something delicious that will bring solace and pleasure along with its nutrients, and may well continue to find new and enticing foods to add to my go-to list as life goes forward.

Photo: Tandoori Tastiness

Take a plateful of Tandoori chicken with Basmati rice, raita, coconut, dried fruit and cashews (and avocado, snap peas and carrots on the side), for example. Once you’ve had the marvelous and heartwarming masala that seasons a Tandoori meal, it’s easy to see what’s made that region’s cuisine so popular for so very long, and to think it’s a great idea to join the crowd.

Ha-ha-ha! I just realized I hit the Publish button on the wrong post. It’s Tuesday early this week! If it’s any consolation to anyone out there, it is already Tuesday in India, and I promise I’ll put up the other post tomorrow. Ta-ta for now, my friends. I have all night to dream about Tandoori chicken and anything else that makes me hungry for its comforts.

Foodie Tuesday: I’ll Have the Usual

photoThere are times when only the familiar favorite will suffice. The lucky socks worn for every winning match must be worn for every match thereafter; once found, the chair in the aural sweet spot of the venue must be sought for every concert to come. And there are a whole lot of us who, once we find a favorite food at a favorite eatery, are hard pressed to keep from going there over and over, ordering the same dish every time we walk into the door. This tried and true preference can be so strong that even if, like me, you’ve eaten other delectable items on a place’s menu before discovering your special favorite, you can’t go back to rambling around the menu any longer but are forevermore committed to that new-found love.

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When you’re not on your home turf, ask the locals for their favorites.

Naturally, there are places we discover that become go-to favorites in general, too. Places where we know we’ll be able to find an assortment of meals and dishes that please us no matter how many times we visit or even how much we vary our choices from the menu. For a lot of people, I suspect that the most likely such places, menus or dishes will always be familiar and comforting ones representing our own backgrounds, our personal histories. That’s how I end up visiting the same joint every chance I get when I revisit a particular town, and sit there feeling as contented and reassured as though I were sitting at the table with my cousins or siblings, or the neighbors or schoolmates of my youth.

photoAnd it’s no disparagement to think of it all this way; this stuff becomes sanctified in our memories and preferences most often because it’s really and truly delicious. It doesn’t have to be one kind of thing or another, neither fussy nor simple, extravagantly doctor-frightening nor miraculously healthful, decorative nor homely, to have this mystical power.

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Whether you call it Prime Rib or Poor Man’s Roast Beef, if it’s well made it’s all good!

The truth, I suspect, is that it doesn’t have to be our own history and comfort that the food and the atmosphere represent, but someone’s honest spaces and spices, and that’s quite compelling enough. There’s room for new favorites all the time when we visit different cities and towns or are introduced to their favorite corner booths and bar stools by our friends. After all, the company and the occasion are probably the most significant ingredients for making any eating experience a favorite. I think I hear a few places and meals calling my name right this minute!

Foodie Tuesday: Nearly Great Eating

Just because I’ll eat practically anything doesn’t mean I don’t care what I eat. I would far rather wait a bit longer between meals than eat something not entirely thrilling just to fill myself. On the other hand, if it’s dinnertime and something I was fixing didn’t come out entirely the way I planned it, I’m loath to let it go to waste. So while the skillet potatoes I put together for a recent meal weren’t quite what I had thought I was going to have, I ate them without much complaint, and so did the others at the table. I made them from thinly sliced raw russet potatoes, the peel still intact, and thought to create something between a country-fried potato dish and Hasselback potatoes and yet different, layering these on top of a handful of sliced almonds, seasoning the potatoes on top with salt and mixed pepper (my home grinder blend of pink, white, green and black peppercorns and whole cloves) and drizzling the whole dish with a small splash of almond extract and a very large splash of melted browned butter. The verdict after baking: good concept, poor execution. I liked the flavors very much but the texture will be far better next time when I add a good dose of broth to the pan to soften the potatoes into submission.photoBetter luck next time, I say to myself, but hedge my bet for the current meal by choosing a trusty standby for another part of the dinner. For vegetables, the range that will please my spouse is very narrow, and though I’m not averse to making separate things that I alone will eat, on a day when I wasn’t fully satisfied that one part of the meal was exactly as I’d planned it so we’d both enjoy it to the highest degree, I opted to keep on the ultra-safe side by using only the most uncomplicated and uncontroversial ingredients. So I just steamed some nice carrots and celery and baby corn (not pickled), buttered them up, and Lo, it was very good.photoWhen it was all plated up it didn’t look like a recipe fail day at all. And it was all perfectly edible, if some in more appealing ways than others.photoThe last part of the meal to get prepared was fairly quick and simple, and despite being an untried variation on my standard approach to a stir-fry of beef it wasn’t so far afield that I didn’t trust its outcome. So while the pan was heating up, I sliced a lovely grass-fed skirt steak and whizzed up the frying sauce of fresh ginger root (about two tablespoons of small-diced root that I preserved in vodka in the fridge, with just a dash of the vodka to help it blend), Tamari, lime juice, a tiny bit of honey, and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Spicy but not fiery, and full of fresh ginger flavor.photoQuickly searing the beef and adding the sauce at the last so as to keep it from scorching while it could still caramelize a bit, I gave a shout to my dinner partner in the other room, and we piled up our plates. The potatoes were fine, if not exactly stellar; the vegetables were predictably comforting in their apologetic simplicity after the potato near-miss, and the beef was tender and zingy with ginger’s welcome tingling heat. I’d say I’m working my way up in the culinary world, gradually at least.

Foodie Tuesday: Warm Up the Winter

There are plenty of good reasons to love winter eating. Every season has its particular pleasures and what appeals and tastes best varies with the weather, activities particular to the time of year, and winter–whatever challenges the season may present in terms of work and play–is rich in favorites too. What I tend to love in winter is mostly the kind of food and drink that spells comfort in colder weather: roasted, fried, grilled, hearty, spicy and/or deep flavored comfort is particularly welcome at my table.

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Roasted squash stuffed with artichokes and sage is complemented by roasted beetroot and rosemary. They can all go in the oven at the same time, too, with just a little supervision!

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Shredded slow-cooked or roasted meats like spicy chicken or [pork] carnitas are filling and satisfying. If there were roasted vegetables yesterday, a mash or puree of them can make a lovely accompaniment to today’s entree. Simple, silky carrot puree with lemon juice and butter, for example, works in companionable comfort with the coarser mash of guacamole–the latter, easily made on the fly when I keep some mashed avocado handy.

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A moist and tender pork roast, with a half avocado, some pan-fried green beans and red capiscum slivers, and potatoes roasted in the oven with butter, salt and pepper, smoked paprika, mustard seeds, and crushed cheddar cheese puff crumbs, makes a grand and gratifying meal.

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A good curry (at our house, nearly always nothing more than good coconut milk spiced with homemade sweet curry masala*) is a great way to combine any sort of roasted, grilled or sauteed vegetables, with or without seafood or meat. A couple of pieces of grilled citrus for drizzling into the curry to taste, adds a nice bright note that can bring a dash of sunshine to the winter, too.

KINCURRY
A curry masala recipe, courtesy of the late Quentin Kintner of Port Angeles, WA.
I think Q would approve of my sharing this, since he was generous enough to share it with our family in the first place!

4 T (tablespoons) ground turmeric
3 T ground coriander
2 T ground cumin
2 T ground ginger
1 T ground cardamom
1 T ground mace
1 T whole white peppercorns
1 T whole cloves
1 T whole fenugreek
2 tsp ground cayenne

Grind the spices together and store carefully away from light and heat; I use a dedicated small coffee grinder for my spices. That’s all there is to it! This masala freezes well, if you’re not fast enough to use a whole cup of it up quickly or are planning to give some away. I like to make a double batch (about 2 cups) since it does keep. It’s wonderful toasted in either a dry pan or a little ghee before adding to various dishes, savory or sweet.

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Even the standard steak dinner, sided with rice and vegetables, can be jazzed up a little for winter with some seasonal fruit favorites as garnish. Here, a perfectly ripe pear and a handful of brightly-sweet pomegranate arils please the eye as wonderfully as they do the palate.

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.

The True Breakfast of Champions

digital illustrationIn Praise of English Breakfast

Here’s to the English breakfast, dears,

That’s brought, for lo these many years

Sustenance to both health and heart

To give the day a proper start,

The source of warmth and vital grace

Beginning the day with our needs in place:

A rasher of bacon, an egg or two,

Some toast, some tea, some tomatoes; who

Wouldn’t love some beans, some mushrooms? Nay,

Don’t start without English breakfast, pray!