Foodie Tuesday: Artful Eating

Another pleasure of travel—of getting out of my familiar paths and habits—is discovering not only new things to eat but new ways of preparing and presenting foods I might have known all along. Whether there’s some entirely unforeseen ingredient or the known ones are combined in a completely unfamiliar way or plated more exotically or beautifully than I’ve seen before, it’s all, well, food for thought. And a danged fine way to assuage the hunger pangs brought on by wandering and exploring in new territory.

The time we spent in Europe in July was yet another happy example of this truism. So much so that I’ll just give you a few tantalizing shots for your contemplation and not go further. You’ll be wanting to dash off for lunch before I have any time to go on further anyhow, don’t you know.Photos: Artful Eating (Series) 2014-08-05.2.artful-eating 2014-08-05.3.artful-eating 2014-08-05.4.artful-eating 2014-08-05.5.artful-eating 2014-08-05.6.artful-eating 2014-08-05.7.artful-eating 2014-08-05.8.artful-eating

Foodie Tuesday: A Toast to Skagen

I have not yet been to Skagen, that Danish destiny so alluring to international tourists, fishermen and art lovers, but I have long since had an imaginary affair of the heart with it, thanks to the popular Swedish concoction known as Toast Skagen. It’s quite a simple thing, really, just toast points with a light shrimp salad on them, but when the shrimp are just-jumped-out-of-the-sea fresh and sweet and the preparation of them done with a delicate hand, it’s just about as good as seafood can get. So between visits to Sweden, I pine for the treat. It’s not that I couldn’t make my own facsimile of that assemblage, for even in the heart of north Texas there are places where one can lay hands on pretty good shrimp (at a price), but since the presence of briny air and piercingly radiant northern light and the lilt of Swedish conversation all around are also key ingredients regardless of their absence from the written instructions one might find for the preparation of it, Toast Skagen is still best savored in Scandinavia, and worth the protracted longings between visits.

That is why, if it appears on an even moderately trustworthy menu in Stockholm and its environs, I am likely to order Toast Skagen without even giving much of the rest of the menu a fair study. On the visit that just ended a few days ago, I did just that. Several times. And I was not disappointed—unless you count each time I ate the last bite.

The simplicity of the combination is key, because it must showcase the freshness of the shrimp, but there is room for subtle difference just as there is in any classic food recipe or combination that has survived the twin tests of time and chefs’ egos. The best preparation of Toast Skagen begins with fresh, perfectly cooked cold shrimp, is seasoned with nothing more noticeable than fresh lemon juice and fresh dill, lest the delicate salty sweetness of the shrimp be overpowered, and is bound with mayonnaise and served with or on bread. That’s about it. The subtleties come in with the proportions in the combination, the type of bread or toast, the presentation, and a few possible additional flavors and garnishes that won’t attempt to compete with the simple perfection of the concept.Photo: Toast Skagen 1

On this visit, I managed to taste three slightly different, all delicious, versions within the bounds of our ten days. I’m sure I’d have done more, but I did have to leave room for other favorites, and despite having eaten extensively and often, I did have to accept the finitude of hours in the day. Even though with midsummer daylight, those were admittedly impressive. The version of my shrimp-laden toasty dream that I’d been contemplating for the longest before our recent trip was had on our last day in Stockholm, for we had plenty of other places to go and people to see before then, but we did finally go to Sturehof, a venerable restaurant in a swanky but not stuffy neighborhood only a hop, skip and short T-bana (subway) ride from where we stayed. At Sturehof, I was greeted by lightly toasted points of white bread and a copious hillock of shrimp shaped with the help of a very light coating of mayonnaise. A toss of snipped dill, a mild dash of perhaps Dijon mustard to undergird the squeeze of lemon I’d give it, and a spoonful of Kalix Löjrom (caviar) to give a little snappy texture and sea flavor boosting, and it was a filling but refreshing luncheon to give our last day of play in Sweden a far less melancholy tinge.Photo: Toast Skagen 2

The second version of Toast Skagen was almost an afterthought in the middle of our visit, but far from negligible in the eating. My husband and I went with a dear friend to visit the fantastic Artipelag, part seaside park, part eco-tourist experiment, part art museum and all Swedish brainchild of the inventor of the BabyBjörn line of child care products. Unlike many museum cafes, this place’s eateries are worthy of a visit entirely unrelated to the call to check out all of the other wonders of Artipelag. We didn’t even bother to go up and dine in the restaurant upstairs after having a quick look at the buffet in the less fussy main level. It was an extravaganza of delicious and beautifully prepared traditional Swedish foods and their contemporary companions, and reasonably priced for such a grand meal at that. Among the attractions for me was an early spotting of other visitors parading their plates to the table with enticing spoonfuls of Toast Skagen in their midst, but when I arrived to select my foods at the board, the Skagen bowls were empty. Empty! Thank goodness I noticed that the staff continued to keep most of the dishes there overflowing with fresh batches of food, so I pulled up my fainting spirit and managed to down great quantities of other delectables before going back to find the missing delight replenished.

It was worth the wait, which, given the quantity and quality of everything else I’d been eating quite happily in the meantime, was no small feat. This version of Toast Skagen was either the plainest or the most complex of all, depending upon how one chose to dish it, dress it up, and/or accompany it when choosing from the fabulous array of salmon with baby peas, lovely cool salads, savory sausages, buttery tiny roasted potatoes, and so much more. I opted to keep it somewhat unfussy since it was really the dessert after I’d consumed so much other tasty food. There was splendid chewy, crusty peasant bread to be freshly sliced by my own hand from a warm loaf, so it seemed the obvious thing to merely take a slice or two, give it a slick of good cold butter, because to ignore good cold Swedish butter is very nearly a cardinal sin, and put a fat spoonful of shrimp on top. This variation had the mayonnaise and dill and very little else, but because the shrimp and bread and butter were so fresh and delicious, it was as close to perfect as need be.Photo: Toast Skagen 3

The first, and not least, helping of this craved creation that I had on the journey was on a tour boat that we took with other great local friends, while cruising leisurely through the archipelago‘s canals to have a short walking tour in Sandhamn before boarding for a leisurely dinner cruise back to town. The dinner onboard was a very pleasant, well-prepared selection of Swedish favorites, like the Artipelag buffet, but at this sit-down meal one had the choice of two fixed menus, with or without drinks and dessert, and ours had an option for my object of Swedish shellfish lust on it, so that was a foregone conclusion. This was the prettiest plating of the three, and had a couple of good signature tweaks worth mentioning. Besides the creamy, dill-speckled shrimp salad and a scoop of Löjrom for that snappy seaside pizzazz, there was a small stroke of Balsamic reduction brushed onto the plate and its piquancy gave a sweeter buzz to the usual lemon spritz, the latter still perfect in its way. And the garnishing lettuce and cucumber on the plate were so bracingly fresh that I only barely resisted turning Toast Skagen into Vietnamese-style salad rolls for the occasion. I munched the greens as a mini side salad, instead. Great textural contrast in one uncomplicated gesture.

Now, should you think I was so obsessed with this specific dish and with All Things Swedish All of the Time, I can assure you that my euphoric revisitation of beloved Stockholm and environs was filled with beloved friends, too, and yes, lots and lots of non-shrimp-toast-related food. More on that later. For now, be content that you know a plain yet elegant dish worthy of single-minded pursuit, and go forth in search of it yourself.

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’m a Fool for April Fool’s Fools & Other Foolishness

The first day of April, while some may reserve it for pranks and tricks, is to me the perfect day for celebrating the arrival (best if it’s truly imminent) of springtime, and so rather than be a traditionalist about April Fool’s Day and pull stunts on anybody, I prefer to simply enjoy the Tuesday-ness of it this year and think happy food thoughts. My fetish for custards, mousses and creams of all sorts leads me to think that the ideal food for this occasion, since it is the first of April, would naturally be a Fool. You know, sweet fruity stuff folded into whipped cream. Actually, this is pretty much my idea of the ideal food for practically any occasion, and that’s no joke.

Given my predilection for eating too much of too many things, sweets perhaps foremost among them, this comes as no surprise to anyone living.

I know I am not alone in my obsession with dessert-like objects, either. Even my esteemed spouse is not immune to the charms of a classic like a frosty mug of root beer, with or without ice cream floating dreamily in it. One might, for example, find him taking me out to Mr. Frosty for such a treat on the first sunny day when we get a free half-hour, and our sipping in blissed-out ecstasy under the diner’s front canopy while birds flit overhead.photo

But no amount of root beer is quite enough to negate my need for a good Fool, so for this April Fool’s Day I bethought myself of just such a dish, and off to work I went.

Then, of course, the reality of the day intervened. While I thought I was heading to the kitchen to froth up some sweet heavy cream with vanilla and cardamom to layer with black raspberry jam and pieces of canned pears—a marvelous thought indeed—I opened the refrigerator and saw a container of odd ends of Gouda and Brie cheeses that I knew had been patiently waiting for my attention a little bit longer than they ought to have done, and off I went on a highly tangential path. That, of course, is life’s continuous April Fool’s prank on me: every time I think I am headed in one direction, I get sent off in quite another.

Who am I to resist the guidance of the random refrigerator finding?

I put into my trusty cheapo food processor a heap of dried potato flakes, “instant mashed potatoes” that, while I think them quite specious as a substitute for the substantive real thing of a good coarse potato mash, do make great toasty buttered crumbs for toppings, a very fine thickener for sauces and soups and gravies, and as here, good flour for cheesy flat- or short-bread. Along with the potato flakes and cheeses, I put a little butter, a good dose of whole yogurt labne, a little salt, and seasonings: smoked paprika, powdered mustard seed, white pepper and just a dash of mace. I processed it all into a shortbread-like dough, pressed it into a large flat ovenproof skillet, and baked it at about 300ºF/150ºC until it was very light golden brown (about 25 minutes), let it cool in place as the oven itself cooled, and finally turned out the ‘pancake’ to cut into manageable wedges. They’re simple and plain on their own, slightly chewy and very cheesy, but spread with a little additional labne and topped with a couple of cucumber slices and a sprinkle of za’atar, or perhaps just dipped into some good guacamole and/or salsa, they’ll be quite delightful.photo

For now, I’m just munching them plain and marveling at the vicissitudes of that perennial prankster, Life. Happy 1st of April, everyone!

Foodie Tuesday: India Calling

Who needs call centers in India, I ask you. India calls me all the time, without any help from batteries of trained phone service representatives, using only its myriad delicious foods. Works all the time!photoFor a recent sit-down, for example, I was lured by the siren song of Tikka Masala. Too short a lead time for cooking on the occasion meant I’d need to doctor up some ready-made sauce, and there are certainly plenty on the supermarket shelves, so I picked out a jar and took it home to sauce some leftover roasted chicken and serve over leftover chicken broth rice. On tasting, the sauce proved to be a bit insipid and not quite what I had in mind, but it served as a fair base for a good dish with just a few little additions.  A bit of tweaking with cloves, cardamom and cayenne got it going slightly more brightly. A toss of coconut is seldom amiss, so yeah, I threw that on top.

Buttery peas, freshly cooked pappadums and a spoonful of raita rounded out the meal. I was delighted to discover that ready-to-fry pappadums from the grocery could be easily prepared in the microwave, of all things, which made my dinner’s trip over from India just that much shorter, a good thing indeed. Raita is such a grand condiment, jazzing up many a different dish or meal with its cool and refreshing blend of plain yogurt with a few flavor enhancers like, in this instance, finely diced cucumber, dill, fresh mint and a touch of salt and pepper.photoThe leftovers, since the raita was eaten and gone after the first day of this batch of Tikka Masala and there wasn’t a lot of chicken left in it either, got further doctoring. I added some plain yogurt directly to the dish, and a good sprinkling of my favorite homemade curry powder along with some brown mustard and black sesame seeds. I didn’t want to fix or add more chicken at the moment but wanted to expand the dish enough to fill me up, so I thought I’d love some palak paneer alongside. I love that spinach puree with farmer’s cheese in it, but, erm, it’s hard to make when there’s no spinach around. And no actual paneer, either, it turns out. So I took the similarly slow-melting cheese I did have on hand and cubed it directly into the sauce along with the chicken and peas. I’m pretty sure that this iteration of mine departed so far from true Tikka Masala dishes that it would be virtually unrecognized by any real Indian cook (no matter how far the true Indian versions vary, from what I’ve heard), so I guess India can’t be blamed for what I have perpetrated. But then again, the inspiration, the motivation–that’s all India’s fault.photoAnd I, at least, thank her.

Foodie Tuesday: I’m Roasting! No, I’m Frying!

 

photoOh, I know, you all thought I was having hot flashes again. [Not that I wasn’t.]

But it’s Food Fun day again, and I’m referring to cooking edibles this time. Old broads still gotta eat.

And since much of the time I am thermostatically challenged myself, I generally try to find ways to make the hot foods I’m preparing require the least possible amount of time putting me in near contact with the oven or cooktop. Why risk further overheating, of either myself or my preparations, should I need to stray far afield from the heated zones of the kitchen.

One fairly easy solution, though it seems somewhat counterintuitive to me, is to roast or fry food. Yes, they’re relatively high heat methods of cookery. But by using them, I can usually evade the stand-and-stir duty: do all of the prep before even turning on the oven, then tuck the food into the would-be fiery furnace, set the temperature and timer, and head off to cooler climes until the alarm sounds for my triumphant return to check and/or finish the dish, and serve and/or eat it. Simple as that.

Roasted beetroot, for example, a nice way to enhance the flavors and textures of a cool late-summer salad, gets cleaned and quartered and then needs nothing more than a small amount of fat and perhaps a tiny bit of seasoning before it pops into the tanning booth. Goat cheese is delicious when lightly coated and shallow-fried, even if like me you’re not quite the culinary artist to present it with perfect Cordon Bleu pizzazz, and it takes no more than a couple of minutes, tops, at the cooker to brown that fine crumb crust.photo

Roasted Beetroot and Goat Cheese Salad

Scrub and quarter a handful of medium-sized beets. (Clean and save the greens and stems.) Toss the beetroot pieces with a little fat (oil or melted butter; I used coconut oil to keep its noticeable flavor to a minimum), salt and pepper and scatter them in or on a baking or roasting pan. Since I was making such a small (2-person) meal, I just made a pseudo-pan out of heavy aluminum foil to keep any juices from dripping around the oven. Roast the roots at 350°F just until tender–10-20 minutes, depending on your oven and the size of the beet pieces.

Meanwhile, pat 1/2-cup batches of cold chèvre (goat cheese) into patties and coat them with coarse almond flour, pressing it in on all sides. Quick-fry these in a little butter in a nonstick pan over medium heat. You can see from my photos that I am far from adept at this part, so mine look less like haute cuisine than like something unearthed at Herculaneum, but I assure you, they taste quite fine.

Using in tandem these two homely yet highly edible items plus a small assortment of others, you can quickly assemble a presentable version of some hotshot chef’s beetroot-and-goat-cheese concoction and your stomach will not be critiquing the view anyhow. My version, this time around, consisted of a few of the tenderer, prettier beet greens pared down to the leaf and laid on the plate, a bit of peeled cucumber slices arranged in a green frame around the rest of the plate, and all topped with the chèvre rounds and roasted roots and a sprig or two of fresh dill. I’m sure that roasting any sweet enough veg or tuber–sweet potato, carrot, pumpkin, parsnip for example–would make a similarly fine complement to the bright, fresh taste of the cheese, which in turn could be substituted for with any nice salty/sour cheese, undoubtedly.

Which of course leads me to another hot-weather or hot-mama advantage of this preparation: the leftovers (if any) lend themselves to innumerable variant cold, cool or room temperature dishes that can be popped out of fridge or freezer next time the climate or one’s overheated innards require such things. Behold tomorrow’s dish: minced beet greens and stems, steamed quickly in the microwave while the beetroot was roasting, and now blended with that remaining diced vegetal goodness, some leftover quinoa, some diced dried apricots, a few pine nuts, a little orange dressing . . . and the beet goes on . . .photo

 

Foodie Tuesday: Greenglorious

photoHow ’bout a vegetarian lunch? Whaaaat, me, sharp-fanged old carnivore that I am? Really? Oh, yes, my friends, sometimes the vegetarian route, even in my greasy old meatatarian hands, leads to a fine meal indeed. As an eater, I can always latch onto that old saying ‘I’m just happy to be here’. Whatever goodness is on offer.

Vegetarian meals, particularly in summertime, can be marvelously easy to prepare and not get me horribly overheated when I am fighting off the internal flames already. Let me be honest, my dearies, I am over fifty, a prodigy of sorts who got the great gift of hot flashes starting at the ripe young age of forty, so cookery that doesn’t require a whole lot of, well, cooking is a generally welcome thing these days. So, darlings, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Salad. That’s always an easy start. So keep it easy. Romaine lettuce, diced ripe pear. Sliced almonds, white and black sesame seeds. A touch of lemon juice. Couple of spoons full of the pickling liquid from sushi ginger, a lick of Persian lime olive oil and a jot of toasted sesame oil. Fresh, fast, cooling, nice.photo

Not that I’m opposed to heated stuff. After all, the physiological truth is that eating and drinking warm treats is pretty good at starting the body’s cooling mechanisms to work. Cool! Really! So this time around, I went with one of those dishes that are basic throw-and-go foods. Oven roasted cauliflower, fine; oven roasted me: too much of a good thing. So in a lightly oiled casserole I put a couple of cups of broken cauliflower florets, straight from the freezer (not previously cooked), tossed on a few teaspoons of cold browned butter, a couple of tablespoons of pine nuts, a handful of brown mustard seeds, and a quarter cup or so of shredded Parmesan cheese. Into the cold oven it all went at 350°F, covered for the first fifteen minutes and then uncovered until browned, and lastly left covered again at table to keep steaming while the rest of the meal got set.photo

The rest included some good gluten-free crackers to spread with almond butter and peach chutney, a few of my homemade sesame crackers and smoked almonds, and some cornichons and pickled lotus for a touch further of pizzazz. My favorite part of the meal–not a huge surprise in this hot summertime, I suppose–happened to be the day’s beverage. I put a cup each of peeled and seeded cucumber pieces, chopped fresh celery, cubed honeydew melon and fresh mint leaves into the blender with about a pint of water and the juice of a whole lime and a tablespoon or two of raw honey, gave it all a thorough smash-up, and then strained it. When I drank the blended juices straight up, that was lovely, so if you want your zing without cane sugar or effervescence, just leave out added pop. I’d chilled it that way a couple of days before, but to serve it, I combined it with equal amounts of cucumber soda (Mr. Q Cumber, yummy stuff), and it made a good, refreshing accompaniment to the rest of the meal.

Best accompaniment, of course, is always the good companionship of a fine fellow eater at the table. Yes, thanks, this was a delicious day.photo