Foodie Tuesday: Something Completely Different

It’s not just a trademark Monty Python phrase; sometimes in cookery it’s worthwhile and enjoyable to veer off and say it’s time for Something Completely Different. I’m not talking about molecular gastronomy, because I have neither the knowledge nor the patience to imagine and execute anything quite so transformative, but it can certainly be useful and even tasty to rethink the what-I’ve-always-done approach from time to time.photoMaking broth as often as I do, I’m regularly faced with the aftermath of it in the form of tiny meat scraps, softened bones and mush-cooked vegetables and think it a pity to waste anything that might be salvageable. So a little while ago I got intrigued by seeing what I might do better with this stuff than merely throwing it out.

First thought was that bones are bulky yet biodegradable objects that, in a landfill, will take up a hunk of space there a lot longer than, say, those of a decaying creature left to the elements would do. And that, coincidentally, a soil amendment and critter-control element often required for good gardens is bone meal. So I dried out the bones thoroughly and set them out in a safely remote corner of the yard where the compost heap lives. Waste not, and all that.

More to the culinary point, I thought it silly to toss out all of the vegetable leftovers of the process when, though they will certainly have given up some of their nutrients to the broth, will probably also have gained some back from their fellow ingredients along the way, so they oughtn’t to have lost all of their nutritional worth in the cooking. The carrots are the only members of the party that haven’t mostly melted to nothingness in my usual broth process and can be individually retrieved, so I picked them out of the strained ingredients, along with a few small pieces of celery and onion, and pureed them with just a touch of added broth and a pinch of salt, and had a nice, faintly savory pudding.photoAdding some juice-packed mandarin orange segments (reserving the juice for later use elsewhere) made it into a really tasty little side dish of comfort food with very little effort. Warming some black raspberry jam and drizzling it on top of the pudding or swirling it in made it into an even jazzier little light dessert. The contrast of the punchy colors was matched by the contrasts in savory and sweet, in the soft pudding and bursting orange sections and the tiny crunches from the berry seeds.photo montageAll that was left for reinvention from the broth straining was the marrow and meat that, while not enough to make a meal alone, still filled a bowl with beefy goodness. It was clearly too soft to be especially attractive as a pot roast sort of thing, let alone a plated slice of anything recognizable as meat. Paté came to mind. Heck, I’d already had the stick blender busy to make my carrot pudding, so why not put it to further use on the day? The beef bits, along with a couple of hefty tablespoonfuls of butter, a half teaspoon or so of salt, and a little broth to make it workable, got pureed into a smooth, buttery spread that waits in the freezer for the time when it will be thawed, chilled in a ramekin, and served with crackers or toast, cornichons and cocktails, just as though I were an ideal 1960s magazine housewife. Well, I grew up in the ’60s and I’m a homemaker; close enough.

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It may not look like much, but as a poor-man’s fois gras it’s dreamier than you might think. I like to think of myself in a similar fashion, ’60s housewife or not. Wink-wink.

Foodie Tuesday: The Drinks are On Me

photoCold Water

There was a lovely icy drink

Of water, saved my life I think,

One dusty day of heat and dirt

And sweat that soaked right through my shirt,

And if that day should come again

I’ll pray for more ice water then!digital illustration from a photoMeanwhile, there’s so much more to be imbibed as well!

photoIt need not be a special occasion for [metaphorical] immersion in a magnificent drink to slake the spirit as well as the thirst. A pretty glass is reason enough. A dry palate, of course, demands it. Good company makes it lubricate the conversation, whether by dint of mere moisture or by the companionable pleasure of the drink itself.

And Now, to Retire to the Dining Chamber

Let us retire, old friend of mine, and hie to find us there a

Couple sublime cold cocktails on the gold-baked Riviera,

A sunset stroll off-season on the warm Amalfi coast

Accompanied by pork pâté on points of brioche toast;

Perhaps in Brighton lolling near the breezy, rocky beach

With fish-and-chip perfection and a Guinness within reach,

Some spa-time simmering upon the languid Baltic shore

With sparkling water and a plate of pastries, six or more;

At any rate, though I am pleased as Punch to go retire,

I wouldn’t want to spend it only lounging by the fire

Unless something’s a-roast on it, and pleasure in a glass,

For that’s what flavors years and hours with beauty as they pass

Refreshment can easily be whipped up in a swift, quenching cocktail, or it can just as easily be a thirst-slaking alcohol-free cooler. Today’s has alcohol in it, but a negligible amount, and it can just as easily be left out or substituted for with another ingredient. Drink blends are just as flexible as food recipes can be, and this one scores high for garden-fresh taste and simplicity.photoGarden & Orchard punch

1 bottle Granny Smith hard apple cider (omit or substitute unfiltered plain apple juice to de-alcoholize the punch) (12 oz)

1 bottle Sidral Mundet Manzana Verde (green apple) soda (12 oz)

1 bottle Mr. Q Cumber soda (7 oz)

Pour these together in a gallon pitcher (they make just under 4 cups together) and add (4 cups) fresh limeade to fill. Put a handful each of fresh basil, cilantro and mint leaves into a blender, pour in a cup or two of the soda-juice mix, and blend thoroughly, then strain the liquid back into the gallon pitcher and stir or shake gently. Pour over ice or just chill it in the fridge before serving, and dream happy dreams of shady woodland gardens, birds singing and gentle spring rain. Wet, tasty rain.photo

photoOh, and I happen to know that this punch goes very nicely with Smoked Tuna Dip, vegetables and chips as a light lunch or supper. All it takes, besides the veg and crisps (or crackers) is to fork-blend a tin of smoked tuna (I like Tuna Guys‘) with a big spoonful of Avocado-Roasted Tomatillo salsa (I used Arriba!), a smaller spoonful of mayonnaise, and a touch of dill. Add salt, to taste, if the chips or crackers aren’t salty enough. You’ll always have that nice, juicy punch to keep you hydrated.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Meatless had Better Not be Tasteless

 

photoJust because I am generally an unregenerate carnivore, that does not make me averse to vegetarian delights. I am not so silly as that, really, my dears! It’s still very much about great flavor and appetite fulfillment, is it not? Oh–and that glorious connectivity that occurs at table between friends and loved ones, of course. Of course. Sitting and watching the dragonflies and wood wasps and butterflies tumble through the air outside the kitchen window, and the occasional marvel of a buzzing hummingbird or flashy scarlet cardinal.photoBut those non-meaty treats for eating, they beckon too. Oh, yes they do. As long as they’re loaded with flavor, texture, deliciousness and appeal of their own kinds. It’s not too much to ask. For a simple example, let’s consider having a few crackers or pieces of flatbread to dip in a bowl of easily made eggplant spread. When my girlfriend joined me for lunch, I made it the easiest way possible: I took a jar of roasted eggplant (nothing but salt and a little citric acid, for preservative, added in processing), tossed it in the blender with a good dose each of cumin and smoked paprika, topped it in the bowl with some Thai fried shallots, and we dug in to our lunch. A sort of Baba Ghannouj 2.0, perhaps.photoThe other dish of the day was supremely easy, too. Warm quinoa salad. Quinoa, to begin, naturally. A nutty, crunchy salad, because I wanted lots of texture. Sliced almonds, black and white sesame seeds. And I wanted something fresh and summery in it, and a little chew to complement the toothiness of the quinoa and contrast with the nuts’ crunch. For the latter, small pieces of queso blanco. Too mild for you? Some snappier feta or goat cheese would do it nicely. But I did brighten it up for that summery aspect. Chopped navel orange, some zest from it; juice, too, along with a little lime juice. A bit of Persian Lime olive oil, a little salt and pepper. I certainly could have added lots of possible further tweaks, as could you, my friends: fresh mint, fresh or pickled ginger, toasted pine nuts, dried apricots or figs; preserved lemon, rice vinegar; toasted coconut; chopped fresh tomatoes or cucumber. No matter how composed, very edible. No fuss, lots of taste. Oh, and no meat. Purely coincidental? Karma? Or just good eating? I know where my own inclinations lead. Oh, yessiree, now hurry up and hand over a fork, please.photo

Foodie Tuesday: All about the Ingredients

photoI’ve said it before, and lots of food experts smarter than I am have said it lots of times before I ever did: good food preparation starts with good ingredients. No amount of genius and skill will make a great meal out of so-so ingredients, let alone out of bad ones. And me, I have a modicum of smarts and very modest, though for a lazy goof-off like me, surprisingly patient skills. So yeah, I can get the job done, as long as I have some excellent ingredients in hand.

photoStarting with salt. One of the most indispensable of delights in the entire pantheon of foods and culinary assets from its first discovery, good salt in just the right quantity is the First Rule of Yumminess in many, many a dish. But, hang on, salt should still often be the last ingredient applied. Tricky, no?

photoThe meal, however, if it’s with fun guests on hand and stretching a little over the course of the day or evening, well that should begin with a little taste of something nice. For the other day’s dinner guests, who were indeed a whole lot of fun, the starters were simple enough, and already on hand: the crackers I made (and posted) last week, the olives I’d previously bathed in sherry and olive oil, and smoked almonds, plus a few chilled prawns with dill-enhanced cocktail sauce. A fresh, cold batch of light Sangría:

Blushing Sangría

Two 750 ml. bottles dry rosé (I used a nice dry Pinot Noir rosé by Toad Hollow), plus 1 bottle of sweet white wine (I used a bottle of Moscato), 1/4 cup of Amaretto, 1/4 cup of Himbeergeist, 1/2 pint of fresh raspberries, 6 small or 3 large fresh peaches, 1 teaspoon rose-water, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/4-1/2 cup of light agave syrup or raw honey. Stir gently and chill thoroughly before serving.

The peaches I bought were an unexpected mix of half overripe and half underripe fruits, so I peeled and sliced the underripe pieces into the Sangría, where I’d already immersed the raspberries, and the too-ripe ones I pitted; I put the mushy peaches and all of the skins from both kinds into the blender with a bunch of the liquid ingredients, blended them all thoroughly and sieved the pulp into the Sangría, so I still got all of the mileage of flavor and color from the peaches, if a little less sliced fruit. In the end, it was plenty drinkable, so all was well in our pre-prandial world.photo

photoThe meal needed vegetable balance, of course, so I kept the ingredients to a fair minimum again and the flavors simple. Why mess with good contents? A mix of heirloom tomatoes and red cherry tomatoes made a simple but flavorful topping for romaine lettuce with a couple of simple salad dressing choices. Sweet corn, freshly pared off of the cob, was gently and quickly warmed in butter. And some delicate asparagus was steamed with a little soy sauce, a little plain rice vinegar, a very small dash of toasted sesame oil and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

photoThe main dish, which I’ve undoubtedly mentioned in previous posts, was our old favorite household standby of Smoked Salmon Pasta. Not even a true recipe, really. Dearest John, I did not hand-craft my pasta. Yes, I bought refrigerated fresh fettuccine. Would that I’d had you supervising the party, not to mention in charge of the pasta-making, this element would indeed have been more, erm, elemental. Not to worry. Some day I shall reform. Meanwhile, a decent store-bought fresh fettuccine is not such a bad thing when dressed up just a leetle bit with smoked salmon cream. Simmer about a pint of heavy cream until it thickens to a nice sauce thickness, add about 1/4 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg and 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, 1 cup of broken up [hot smoked] alder smoked wild salmon, and a good splash of lemon juice. Toss gently with the freshly cooked and drained pasta and serve.photoThere are only two main high-quality ingredients needed to complete a pretty good party with all the rest of this, then. Dessert, naturally, should be offered–a bit of sweetness to follow all the preceding, and stretch as far into the evening as can be managed by all. But most significantly, the last essential ingredient of the gathering is, well, the gathering. The good company. We had that. Good enough company to want to stretch out the evening. So there was just a touch of dessert. Fresh strawberries and, you guessed it, chocolate.

photoI never said I was original in my menu planning. But I am really good at putting myself in excellent company, and that’s always what the party is all about. There you go: my real culinary talent is cooking up a right magical blend of outstanding people and enjoying the delights that result from the combination. Too bad there’s no cookbook out there that teaches that–no, wait–every good cookbook in the world gives guidance for just this art. As these good books teach us, choose your excellent ingredients wisely, food or company, and you will brew up a marvelous party.

Foodie Tuesday: When Munchies Attack

You don’t have to be a weed-head in a full haze of happiness to get the munchies, though I am reliably told that that particular activity can exacerbate any natural leanings you have toward being peckish. Me, I’ve never craved a smoke of anything other than the sweet and occasional lungful from a good barbecue, but I certainly do know how to get hungry often, and at least half of that oft-had status is devoted to being snackish as much as anything: a desire for something, whether sweet or savory, that is merely a between-meals treat, even if it ends up (as can happen, I admit) turning into something closer to a whole meal in and of itself. To suggest that this is not a frequent transmutation of the event would be both disingenuous and ridiculous.

What should I do when I become Snackish, then? Why, ignore my base impulses and go off to do something heroic and selfless, of course.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! Oh, dear, I almost hurt myself there when I fell off my perch in a paroxysm of delirious guffawing. You know perfectly well that what I will do is hunt for the nearest stash of munch-able items that appeal to my moment of salivary salaciousness and eat them, forthwith. The only conceivable defense in this instance is to provide for myself a few less horrifically harmful snacks that can still stave off the munchies and leave me to fight another day. Rather than stock up on additive-crammed delights that I would happily scarf down just as readily if they were within reach, I sometimes am smart enough to make a bit of homemade nice-vice stuff that might have a hope of keeping me from dashing out to the nearest convenience store and succumbing to the succubus of tantalizing trans-fats and copious drafts of processed sweeteners and weirdly Sci-Fi flavor enhancers and their many hideously alluring cousins.

Today, then, as I was already overheating the house a bit with several loads of laundry, I turned on the oven and made some crackers. The first is a work in progress: I decided that the recipe needs much further study and experimentation to suit my tastes, as it came out a little too fragile and thin in the end to ever act as a vehicle for cheese, egg or tuna salad, herbed labneh, or any such thing, which to me is the primary purpose of a cracker unless it happens to be unusually tasty on its own. I might be able to solve the latter issue of blandness in this recipe (a very simple combination of almond flour, seasoning, oil and egg) by merely changing and/or increasing the spice content, but for now it will definitely have to be considered a first run at Garam Masala crisps with orange oil.

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They even *look* a little too insipid, don’t they. Next time, bolder!

The recipe for the other batch of crackers will definitely get made again. It’s a bit too soft and chewy for toppings as I made it today, though the original recipe assures me that additional baking time at a lower temperature will fix that problem. But it’s quite tasty all on its own, so there’s no harm in having incongruously bendy crackers this time around, especially as the flexibility comes mainly from some added cheese right in the cracker itself. The recipe is wonderfully simple, too, so I will make it again–but as I do have this propensity for overdoing on the quantity of the aforementioned snack-ables, I had probably best not make them frequently. [Insert sheepish grin here.]

The original recipe comes from the good William Davis, MD, at wheatbellyblog.com, and I revised it a little to suit the household tastes.

photoChili Sesame Cheese Crackers

This makes a thin enough batter to self-level and fill an 11×17 baking pan, a mighty handy way to create a full sheet of these treats, which are easy to cut as they cool.They’re shown above stacked on their edges, so you can see that they’re only about a pencil’s thickness.

Preheat the oven to 350º F.

1-½ cups raw sesame seeds + reserve a half cup more
1 scant cup shredded Parmesan cheese + a handful of sharp white cheddar bits
1 tablespoon chili powder
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon sea salt

Pop all of this into a food processor and whiz it together until it’s a nice, slightly coarse flour texture. Add the reserved half cup of sesame seeds and mix again. Then stir in the liquids (below) and pour it all into that nonstick baking sheet pan of yours and pop it in the oven.

1 teaspoon Tabasco/hot sauce + 2 tablespoons good olive oil + 1¼ cups water

It will likely take 30 minutes or, as in my oven’s case, less, to lightly brown these beauties. Dr. Davis tells us that 10-15 minutes of additional baking at 250 F will crisp them further, but if you’re like me you won’t be much bothered with a chewy cracker–after all, slower chewing means slightly less shameless high-speed munching.

Maybe. They are tasty.

Foodie Tuesday: Sweets from the Sweet

photoI knew we’d hit the neighbor jackpot yet again. We have a history chock-full of fine neighbors between us, my husband and I, of that sort who are not only great to chat with at the mailbox but offer help and led tools when they see projects underway, share their mystical gardening secrets, and advise on who’s the best resource for automotive care, where there’s still an independent pharmacy in town, or what the local ordinances are on right-of-way maintenance.

But we all know that the best neighbors of all have not only generosity in their hearts but also food in their hands when they show up at the door. Rhonda was known to trade her fresh-picked raspberries for our over-abundant plums. David–actually the manager at our then apartments–went door to door delivering home-grown green beans, tomatoes and zucchini that he and his wife grew in the ‘bonus’ plot on the complex’s property. Peter rang the doorbell at our place in Tyee bearing bending boards of fantastic barbecued meats and salmon and vegetables.

Add to this that we had not only other great neighbors but also heroic postal carriers, pest treatment and HVAC specialists, and remodeling contractors who have become admired friends, and you know that our standard for being spoiled is very high.

So when we moved to our current home, perhaps it was only par for the course that our new next door neighbors would arrive with welcoming smiles–and food. But what food! We didn’t have to lift a finger for anything other than unpacking and furniture-dragging for at least three days after arriving in this house because we were handed an enormous platter laden with an assortment of deliciously varied homemade salads, another piled with home-baked breads and rolls and biscuits, a plate of tender, moist cream cake, and a gallon pitcher of sweet tea. If it hadn’t been love at first sight, it would surely have to have been at first bite.

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I'm a lucky chick, having such sweet neighbors!

The flow of gustatory glories has continued unabated (and ably washed down with Mr. Neighbor’s lovely wine-selecting and punch-making skills as well as his fine Scotch collection) from that day forward. You will have no trouble believing and understanding when I say that we are devastated that these neighbors have retired and have the temerity to plan to move back to home territory in another state. Who will phone us in Canada when our sprinkler system fails during a hot spell, to tell us that they’ve already hired the company that installed it to do repairs before we come home? Who will deliver our entire stash of newspapers they collected over our out-of-town trip, updating us on the rest of the neighborhood or sharing delightful stories of their own adventures? And who will show up at random, numerous and very welcome times bearing, say, cake or cookies or pie, or a handmade bread cornucopia with a massive vegetable-and-floral display in it at Thanksgiving, a gorgeously crafted Bûche de Noël at Christmas, a sprightly spring assortment of cookies and cupcakes and jellies at Eastertime?photo

The answer, as you well know, is that it is our turn to become those neighbors, to show up unannounced with that very special something-extra whenever we can, to lend tools and perhaps the hand to use them, and to spread the joy of hospitality whenever and wherever we can. The torch–or the torchon de cuisine–has been passed. I hope I’m up to the task!photoI’ll probably start with something supremely simple like the nut-and-seed crackers that have no real recipe and change every time I make them. They make a handy vehicle for dips, salsas and salads when I want a quick bite of lunch or a not too terribly naughty snack. This time they were thus:

Nut and Seed Crackers (and Tuna Salad)

8 cups of finely chopped mixed nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, pecans, macadamias, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds) tossed together with about a cup of grated extra sharp cheddar cheese plus coarsely ground salt and black pepper and good chile powder to taste, all mixed with just enough water to clump together into ‘dough’ and rolled or patted onto a non-stick cookie sheet (I use a silicone lining sheet in the pan so I can be extra lazy on the cleanup), and then baked at 325-350 degrees F (depending on your oven) until golden brown. I let these ones cool in one big slab and then just broke them into uneven pieces about the size for carrying, say, some bacon and cheddar cheese dip or guacamole or seasoned labne or some tuna salad. Tuna Salad, around here, is nothing more than a good quality tinned tuna (one of the brands that cooks its filet directly in the can and adds nothing other than a little salt; I like High Seas and Tuna Guys and can order it online from both, but there are other excellent sustainable-fisheries purveyors as well) seasoned with ground pepper, dried or fresh dill, smoked paprika, yellow ‘ballpark’ style mustard and sometimes chopped capers, and bound with good mayonnaise until slightly creamier than just glued together (spreads better that way).

This combination may not exactly constitute sweets for neighborly delivery, but then we know that the sweetness derives just as much from not needing to fix any food oneself, if only for a brief moment. Or for days on end, if you happen to get one of our neighbor’s fabled deliveries!