Ever Heard of Foodie Thursday?

Well, now you have.

It’s been a busy autumn chez Sparks. No excuses: in the flurry, I flat-out forgot to put up my food post on Tuesday. Sigh. I didn’t stop being food-obsessed, just being on schedule. So here we go, better late than never. I would give you a big silly grin, but yeah, my mouth is full again. Photo: Blue Bouquet

What I meant to say on that long-ago-seeming-day-which-was-Tuesday, was that I do like this time of year in particular for its masses of officially sanctioned excuses for partying. There are of course the big national and international celebrations of things spanning from Halloween/All Saints/Dia de los Muertos to Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, and the various New Years; in my family, five out of the six of us have winter birthdays as well. It’s not that my family and I are in any way averse to celebrating with a good meal, a party, or any other excuse for eating and drinking good stuff at the drop of a hat, but it’s extra nice when nobody else questions the need for such an occasion either.

My parents upped the ante this winter by both entering the glorious ranks of octogenarian excellence, so since my three sisters and I don’t all live close to them anymore, we’d long since all agreed it made sense to look toward next summer (2015) for a family get-together to mark their ascensions to this great new height. All the same, nobody in our clan has any respect for leaving an excuse for a party just lying there unused. So Sisters 1 and 3, who do live near Mom and Dad in Seattle, helped them plan a big party on Mom’s birthday weekend so that our parents could have their local siblings, nieces and nephews, and a few special friends together. I made up the digital invitations, since I could do that from my remote location, and because I’ve long done such design tidbits for family events as a way to be involved when I couldn’t otherwise be on hand to participate. But our Seattle sisters did the yeoman’s work on the whole thing.

We kids did up the ante a little, though. Sister 4 and her husband sent an email to the other three of us a couple of months ago, announcing that they had bought plane tickets to fly over from Norway for the November party and surprise Mom and Dad. We sisters were surprised, too! My husband, with three concerts and more rehearsals to conduct on either immediate side of the party date, couldn’t get away, but with a batch of saved air miles, I could, so I planned to fly up from Texas and join in the fun. Once all of our tickets were bought and the wheels set in motion, the real challenge was not only to see if there were any small things 4 and I could do from our bases of operation but to see if we and our partners could keep a secret for seven or eight weeks, a dubious probability at the best of times with our talkative bunch.Photo: Pink and Green Bouquet

We did. We let one of Mom’s sisters in on the secret so that she could help get our parents in the right place at the right time when the day arrived, and my spouse’s parents knew, because they were invited too, but despite a couple of close calls, nobody slipped up irrevocably. Part of the larger plan, once we’d decided to add in this surprise element, was that there would be an immediate-family-only lunch on Mom’s actual birthday at Sister 3’s house. Dad, Mom, Auntie and Uncle, and sisters 1 and 3 were to have a nice, low-key luncheon date to mark the day and wrap up any last-minute details for the bigger open house party the next day.

Sister 4 and her husband and I flew into Seattle on Thursday the 6th. It was wonderful to have a reunion of the four sisters, our first in at least a couple of years, and to convene a few other members of the immediate family—3’s husband and one son, with the other son flying in from college on Friday—that night and to laugh up our collective sleeves over our plot. In keeping with the family tradition of combining food with fun, this first evening was spent at 3’s house, slurping bowls of a beautiful, creamy winter sweet potato, kale, pasta, and sausage soup (based on Martha Stewart’s recipe) while taste-testing a couple of good single-malts the Norwegian contingent had picked up on a duty-free spree en route.

On the 7th, Mom’s birthday, we got lunch ready and in the oven and fridge and then spent a little while nervously skulking past curtained windows to escape any unexpectedly early arrivals’ discovery, and as the parental entourage at last approached, three of us ducked into the back bedroom, where we giggled like little kids and perched on the bed to avoid making the creaky hardwood floor give away our presence. Auntie got Mom settled into her favorite armchair so we wouldn’t have to explain her absence at the next day’s party as the result of an aneurism, and we finally strolled out to say Hello to our startled parents. Their faces remained in virtually the same blankly surprised expressions for a fairly lengthy, attenuated moment.Photo: Mom's 80th Birthday Lunch

Lunch broke that spell. We feasted on marvelously simple steak, lemon-dill oven-roasted salmon, salt-baked potatoes, green salad with a fresh blend of herbs and creamy lemony dressing, green beans, and buttered peasant bread. Classic, delicious, and with a handful of their kids on hand to help, an easy way to feed our parents well on a meaningful day. We worked a bit more on the details of Saturday’s open house event, but 1 and 3 had covered all bases so thoroughly that we were all able to make an early evening of it and rest up for the main event.

Sister 3 had found a wonderful venue, a community center run by the parks service in a beautifully renovated vintage power station right next door to the church where our dad had grown up. All five of Mom’s siblings and Dad’s only sib, his brother, and all of their partners, were on tap to come. So did some of the sibs’ kids, and even a handful of grandkids joined the gang; with the friends who came, we totaled just over fifty in attendance. We saw many relatives we’d not seen in years, many of them as surprised as our parents at seeing us there like long-distance apparitions. I think I can safely say that the party was everything Mom had wanted, that Dad was also happy, and that we all felt pretty chuffed at pulling off a great success, especially at not blowing the surprise.Photo: Birthday Buffet

But again, food was central to the grandness of the day, and once more, that was thanks to the wise planning and [literally] tasteful choices made by our Seattle sisters. The buffet spread’s main dish stars were ginger beef and sweet walnut prawns from our favorite local  Chinese restaurant, accompanied by a wide range of finger foods and sweets, many of them bought ready-made from various shops and stores. We had just about enough food on hand to feed 250 guests. So we kept up that family tradition, too. And we all left the tables full and fulfilled.

Who knows what we’ll get up to next summer. Only sure that it will include much eating and drinking. And probably lots of childish giggling and telling secrets, which I think are a mighty nice lagniappe for the whole meal, whatever it is.

Foodie Tuesday: Advantageous [Gifted] Food

Starting the preparation of a meal with fabulous leftovers given to me by friends after I’ve dined at their place is truly one of the most cheering and hunger-encouraging ways to go to the task. Food that was delicious in itself, made more so by having been prepared for me by good friends, and now the excess of which has been gifted for yet another meal’s foundation, becomes an almost perfect centerpiece for another delicious and happy meal.

The gift that shaped such a duo of meals recently was grilled pork tenderloin. Our friends served it hot from their patio grill along with an assortment of glorious side dishes and the grand finale of homemade pie, all of this well-seasoned with beautiful, comforting, joyful good company. Fresh garden salad, baked potatoes, vegetable crisps, and that succulent, clean-flavored pork tenderloin. I didn’t even pretend to resist when I was offered some of the remaining roast to take home at the end of the day.Photo: Grilled Pork Tenderloin

My version of the meal went in a little different direction, any attempt to copy that event exactly being doomed from the start, but I knew I wanted to keep the simple excellence of that roast’s flavor as the centerpiece. It was made for such things. I already had a variant sort of loaded-baked-potato in my refrigerator, so I used the cheese, cream, and bacon filled mashed potatoes, deepened with smoked paprika, there as the stand-ins for the day. Not having had any success with growing greens, I thought store-bought ones might seem like a little bit of a come-down after the previous dinner’s, so I skipped salad. Peas, instead; peas barely cooked in a batch of brown mushrooms that had been marinated and cooked in Tamari, dry sherry, and butter and then cooked until hot enough to warm the peas without further time on the cooktop.Photo: Mushrooms and Peas

I made a compote of fresh pears with lime juice, maple syrup, and butter and seasoned them with a splash of homemade vanilla, a pinch of salt, and a healthy pinch of ground cardamom. I guess I must’ve been in mashing mode after the potatoes, so I just cooked the pears down until they, too, could be mashed, and I finished the pork the same way I’d finished the peas: got the pear sauce good and hot, laid the slices of pork loin on top of it, put the lid on the pan, and took it off the burner, letting the sauce steam the meat through to warm it once more. Dinner was delicious. Again. Now, isn’t that twice as nice?Photo: Pork Tenderloin Dinner

Foodie Tuesday: Thrilled Cheese

Photo: SwirlyMy name is Kathryn and I’m a dairy fiend.

I sincerely hope there’s no umpteen-step program out there to cure me of my addiction, because I would be ever so sad to part company with butter (pastured butter, sage butter, beurre noisette…), cream (yogurt, ice cream, whipped cream, a drizzle of heavy cream, sour cream…) and all of their cow- and goat- and sheep-produced milky ilk. Among the most dire of those losses would certainly be cheeses. It’s even a remote possibility that in my childhood I mistook various people’s talk about the power and centrality of a certain deity in their lives as completely understandable allegiance to the prepared and aged dairy product, hearing them intone instead, ‘come into my heart, Lord Cheeses.’

All of that is merely to tell you in what high esteem I hold dairy products. I know I am not alone in this. The worldwide fame of the French cheese board, an Italian feast topped with fine curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a glorious firework of Saganaki, a rich fondue or heart- and hearth-warming rustic iron cooker oozing with Raclette (somehow fitting is that the compute offers as a ‘correction’ of this name the word Paraclete, for it is both a helper and rather holy in its way)–these are all embedded in the souls and arteries of generations around the globe, along with many others. The land of my birth has been, if anything, impregnated with this rich and robust love by every wave of immigrants who have ever set foot on its shores, bringing along all of the aforementioned and so much more, and gradually adding a multitude of delightfully cheesy (in every sense of the word) American twists to them. Along the way, besides gleefully adopting and adapting all of the aforementioned, we dairy devotees stateside have high on the short list of our national favorite foods such delicacies as cheeseburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza and macaroni and cheese. [For the latter, by the way, I’d be hard pressed to find a recipe that rivals Amy Sedaris’s death-defying macaroni and cheese for my love; infinite variations of it have become my personal staple when I choose to make the dish.]

I confess that lowest on my personal list of cheese ratings, possibly even below the most notoriously stinky and bizarre of cheeses (yes, Gammelost, I’m looking at YOU) is the one ‘cheese’ named for our country, American Cheese, which I personally think of as purportedly edible vinyl and often has little or no actual dairy contents, though for good or ill there are otherwise reputable American cheese makers currently promoting a new, truly dairy version of this stuff. Yes, I get the whole melt-ability thing, whether for Tex-Mexqueso‘ (an ironic name, to my way of thinking) or for creamy sauces and the like—but I also know there are plenty of ways to achieve that smoothness with what I think of as real cheeses. But I digress. Yet again.Photo: Aging Cheeses

When hungry for grilled or toasted cheese sandwiches I am not averse to tinkering with the most sacred simple versions, as long as the cheese still gets to star in the meal, because after all, the entrée is named after it. Since there are whole restaurant menus devoted to the single item of this sandwich, I needn’t tell you what a wide and spectacular range of goodies goes ever-so-nicely with cheese and bread. Now that I think of it, the stereotype of the French eating nothing but bread, cheese and wine could be excellent reason to pour up a nice glass of red when one is consuming a grilled cheese sammy, but that’s merely a starting point for the whole world of possibilities of course. A cheese and chutney sandwich comprising a sharp white cheddar, Major Grey’s chutney and a lovely dense bread (how about a nice sweet pumpernickel? she asked) is a thing of beauty. A perfect deli Reuben is a great variant of the cheese sandwich. Tuna melt? Why, yes, please! And on we go.

Photo: Dungeness Crab Grilled Cheese

A purist’s dream, amped up: the Bee Hive Restaurant in Montesano, Washington makes a buttery grilled Tillamook (Oregon) cheddar cheese sandwich on sourdough bread, adorned with a heap of sweet Dungeness crab meat. If you can’t find happiness in a bite of that, you’re really not trying.

Sometimes it can be both simple and surprising. I’d be hard pressed to love a sandwich better than the peasant bread grilled cheese from Beecher’s in Seattle with their Flagship in the starring role. But I’ve also discovered that a thick slice of Leipäjuusto (a slow-melt cheese like Saganaki), a few slices of crisped bacon and a generous schmier of ginger marmalade make for a dandy combination, and I would certainly not keep such a stellar combination from you, my friends. Kevin, a Canadian small-kitchen wizard, has published a veritable encyclopedia of grilled cheese sandwich variations on his blog Closet Cooking (a site everyone with cheese in his DNA ought to bookmark, stat), and there are all sorts of other blogs and sites, foodie and otherwise, loaded with such cheesy champions as can make your spirits sing and your capillaries tighten simultaneously. So go forth and chase the cheeses! I’ll be here waiting for you, with the ribbons of some good, fat, stretchy melted mozzarella hanging out of the corners of my loopy grin.

Foodie Tuesday: What’s *Not* in My Kitchen

I don’t mind simple foods, simply prepared, and I’ve had plenty of pit-roasted and wood-stove cooking that was far better than merely edible. Sometimes there is nothing more delicious than the freshly caught fish grilled over an open fire or fried at lakeside in a worn and well-seasoned cast iron skillet. The smoky goodness of things cooked with live coals is sometimes so far superior to what I could conjure out of a high-tech kitchen with the pallid assistance of bottled liquid smoke (no matter how genuine and unprocessed that might be) that I would rather wait months for the proper weather and occasion to arise.
Photo: Chuckwagon Cookery

But I ain’t no chuckwagon Cookie, if you know what I mean. I was never fond of ‘roughing it’ in the sense of being outdoorsy and happy to labor over the building of my kitchen kit before I can even bother to lug buckets of water up from the stream to have on hand for stifling the coals at need. I haven’t the skills or the desire to do my own butchering, and I barely know a chanterelle from an Amanita, if left to forage anywhere wilder than my own pantry and the grocery aisles.
Photo: Chuckwagon Cookery 2

So my kitchen doesn’t sport the assortment of enameled camp cookware and the range of well-weathered cast iron pots and dutch ovens required for real down-to-earth preparation of meals. I don’t even have a clue what I’d do, short of going out in the backyard and having a go at such prairie wizardry, if I were faced with any of the old-school stoves and ovens that my ancestors and predecessors considered modern conveniences in their day. To cook with a wood stove, no matter how much I may have admired others’ mastery of it and the fantastic foods they’ve produced from such contraptions, is beyond my ken and requires subtleties of understanding how recipes and food science converge that I never learned. Even the electric ranges of earlier days have mystical mystery about them that would scare me right off to the local fast food joint for succor. And yes, I’d want fries with that.
Digital illustration from a photo: The Old Swedish Stove

In truth, I am a very limited and unskilled preparer of foods. I have a small palette of familiar ingredients upon which I rely, because I don’t have a clue what to do with many others that will make them safe for human consumption, let alone palatable. I have little patience for the suave or the grandiose in recipes, those techniques and tricks that require grace and keen senses and molecular understanding of the ingredients at play. I’m a reasonably willing eater of new foods and preparations, but not much for trying to make them myself, especially if I think anyone smarter and more experienced is available and willing to fix said dishes in my stead. The exception is mainly to be found in instances when real cooks let me play at being their sous chef without requiring better brains, knowledge of ingredients, or knife skills than I can offer.
Photo: Vintage Cooker

What I do have in my kitchen, most of the time, is fun, and enough decent eating to keep me (and anyone else on hand) from going hungry for long. Thankfully, I do live in a place with good grocery stores close at hand, family and friends to share meals and their preparation, and a kitchen full of my idea of modern conveniences. And if the ovens I got with the purchase of the house have outlived their peak performance by a fair distance and the only mixer I’ve owned for the last couple of decades is a wire whisk or fork, it sure isn’t the same as having to shovel up hard Texas clay to make room for my hand-split mesquite hardwood or having to figure out if those fruits gleaming at me from over there are the euphoniously named Farkleberry or are the similar looking but highly toxic Chinese Privet, so I don’t have to dig a privy, too, in a hurry.

Foodie Tuesday: I’ll Eat Anything (Except That)

Photo: Oddments in Aspic

I’ve many times here admitted to being something of a pig, loving food and eating so much that I might as well be in the barn with the rest of my kind, snuffling around in glee at the trough. But lest you think me an utterly indiscriminate eater, let me say in my defense that (a) I do have a modicum of manners when I absolutely have to and know enough not to put my bare feet up on the table when having tea with the queen, and (b) there are a few actual items I would rather not eat or drink.

I’ve mentioned, indeed, such delicacies as blueberries that I find entirely resistible in any form, despite the practically universal admiration for them among others. And though I’m not opposed to eating things that have been living (vegetable and animal), I have no interest in eating things that are still alive, particularly those that have any capability of trying to escape from me as they enter my mouth. There are plenty of animals whose offal and organs I will also happily avoid, though they are considered magnificent delicacies by many people, and plenty of plants whose seeds, bark and roots have equally little appeal to me other than as decorative items or mulch.

I’ve even met the occasional cook, in my life’s wanderings, whose entire oeuvre of cookery I would be sincerely delighted never to taste, once I knew how skilled he was at removing all appealing and edible qualities and characteristics from any item brought to that singular hall of horrors known as his kitchen.

Still, there are relatively few things in the vast pantheon of foods that I would rather avoid than eat, and even many of those I will ingest if diplomacy requires it. This summer’s travels were, thankfully, 99% delicious. The cooks and their cookery were generally fine, and often outstanding, and I certainly didn’t come home any thinner than I was when I left. Better yet, there was little along the way that didn’t beckon to me as I gripped my fork in anticipation. Travel has such potential for culinary joy! Revisiting favored tastes from previous journeys is always complemented by the pleasures of trying new dishes.

Well, there was that aspic (pictured above), on this trip. It was so curious-looking that I couldn’t resist trying it, even though the oddments scattered through it were rather unrecognizable, for the most part. For something that looked playfully like jelly with tiny, mysterious pieces of toys in it, it turned out to be strangely dull in flavor, leading to a disappointment not entirely unlike that felt by a child on pulling open a party cracker and expecting a nice snapping noise, a fun trinket, and a shower of colorful confetti inside and instead finding a slightly used pair of socks. I ate most of that aspic, dutifully if not quite enthusiastically, but was mighty happy to move on to better things.

Another entertainment frequently offered in the Bad Food Department is, of course, the ever-popular menu-mishap. This is far from limited to foreign travel, given the American propensity (and, I suspect, that in other nations) for menu-writing to be handed off to people who haven’t the same level of linguistic skills as a restaurant’s chefs are supposed to have culinary ones. I found plenty of fodder for my amusement in this department along the summer’s ways, but saved one little sample for you as I’m still slightly uncertain how to decipher it fully. And very unwilling to try to eat it, if there’s any chance it was written out correctly.

Photo: Delicious Lye Sandwich

Since this menu was meant to celebrate the World Cup semifinals then in progress, I suppose it’s possible that the so-called Lye bread was intended to simultaneously hold the sandwich together and wash out the mouth of anyone caught swearing at the referees. I’m still not clear, though, on whether the Pigling Ham was named to prove that the meat on the sandwich came from a very tender, youthful beast or it was, perhaps, *pickled*. If I ended up loosely interpreting this as a sort of Germanic (in one Viennese menu writer’s eyes, anyway) take on a Reuben sandwich, maybe it would all make some kind of sense. Maybe with a touch of Joppiesaus it’d be more palatable. But honestly, I’d prefer, in this instance, to merely enjoy the beer herein recommended, and skip the sandwich.

Foodie Tuesday: Rinse and Repeat

You all know what a fan I am of leftovers and ‘repurposed’ ingredients. Most of the foods I’ve been fixing lately have been a continuation of that tradition of mine, especially because it’s been a particularly busy time around our place. We’ve had the usual spate of spring concerts and recitals, more than the usual number of social and business-social events at home and other places, and planning and preparation for a large quantity of upcoming happenings. The garden’s been coming in at top speed. I’ve been trying to clean house more seriously than I had in a long time, because it’s really overdue and I’d love to sell off and give away a lot of underutilized Things. Oh, and I’m trying hard, really I am, not to fall behind with my writing and artwork.

That latter means, naturally, keeping my blogging current, but in addition it means working on two art commissions—one a super-fast turnaround project I just got a few days ago. It also includes attempting to continue with the development of several books to follow up on the one I published in January.

I’m neither complaining nor bragging, just stating a truth that is pretty much like the daily one facing the majority of people I know, each with his or her variations on the details. And it reinforces my attachment to quick, simple, reusable and flexible ingredients and dishes more than ever. Today, for example, I made and froze what will (I’m certain) be a delicious potato side dish for later this week, when friends are coming over for a casual dinner visit. I used a combination of a smashed microwave ‘baked’ potato, a handful of chopped and mashed leftover french fries—good hand cut ones from our favorite old school steakhouse—a handful of crushed leftover potato chips, and enough leftover pimiento cheese from the batch I made for our party the other night to make it all into a cheesy potato casserole. I had some crisped bacon in the fridge, so the casserole is topped with that for the finish. It doesn’t look like so much yet, being in the freezer and all, but I’m expecting to enjoy it quite a bit, along with whatever else I manage to put together for the occasion.photo

Confession: I got an itch to do something trendy, despite being so rarely trendy myself, and I made a lattice out of the bacon. Silly, but kind of fun. And if one is going to wrestle with trying to cook a little in the midst of lots of real life busyness, shouldn’t there be a little bit of silly fun involved? No, wait: a lot?

 

Foodie Tuesday: If the Bunny is Coming, Maybe We Should have Some Eggs

Whether you’re on board with the celebration of Easter or not, you probably know that around this time of year lots of people think thoughts in a bunny-related vein. Rabbits have long been popular as symbols of fertility, spring and renewal in a wide range of human cultures and groups. If a cute little long-eared, hopping critter should happen to appear at your door in the near future, why not assume it’s a friendly visitation from the harbinger of true spring, whatever the form, and welcome the visit with great hospitality.

In addition to the bunny business, there’s the widespread recognition of the symbolism of eggs to express similar ideas. So whether or not you’re planning to celebrate a visit from the Easter Bunny with Easter Eggs, a rabbit’s presence could very happily be marked by a feast of eggs. Brunch, or otherwise.

I love eggs in so many, many preparations, but I am surely not alone in forgetting, that along with all of those familiar favorites, the egg represents not only a great symbolic entity but also an astoundingly versatile ingredient, capable of being prepared and enjoyed in innumerable ways. Go ahead and celebrate your spring rabbit revels with a great Benedict or soufflé or custard or omelette or eggnog, if you like; I will continue to delight in eating and drinking all of those and many more lifelong loves.photo

But I might also fiddle around with those tasty little packages of refreshing nourishment in some less expected ways. Like, perhaps, a simple anytime meal of fried eggs on mashed potatoes, with a drizzle of rich gravy (my little trick for making it with meat juices is yummy for this, but I’d leave out the wine when making it for eggs; cream or yogurt would be nicer here; add sausage or leave it plain, as you wish) and a nice scattering of crispy potato crumbs made by pan-frying instant potato flakes in butter. Or enjoy the eggs as an accent in the meal, making Mexican-inspired deviled eggs—my own version of Huevos Diablos, if you will—a very simple item to prepare by mashing the yolks of hard boiled eggs with spicy salsa and crema to taste. Guacamole, by the way, makes the perfect egg-stabilizing perch on the plate, as well as a fitting accompaniment. Mmm, eggs. Hop on over and eat some.photo