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: Good Gravy, Man!

Things should never be made harder to accomplish than they already are. I am a fond aficionado of sauces and gravies and syrups of all sorts, but many of them are so famously hard-to-assemble in their rare and numerous ingredients and even harder to assemble in their finicky techniques that I am cowed into quitting before I even make the attempt.

Gravy shouldn’t fall into that category, but often, it does. If you’re like me and not superbly skilled at even the most basic tasks of cookery, making a perfect roux or incorporating any of the standard thickening agents into a fine meat sauce without outlandish and unseemly lumps and clumps is about as easy as it would’ve been getting 50-yard-line tickets to the Superbowl. Which, as you know, and as is also the case with the gravy perfection, I had no intention of ever attempting anyway.

But here’s the deal. If you find a technique that does work for you and requires little effort and no exotic ingredients and can be varied in a number of ways once you’ve mastered it, why on earth wouldn’t you go to that as the default recipe? I’ve found the little preheated-pan trick I learned from Cook’s Illustrated for roasting a chicken so nearly foolproof and so delicious that I use it every time, even though my oven is showing such signs of impending demise that the merest whiff of said pan in its vicinity gets the smoke billowing right out the oven door and the alarum bells a-yelling even when the oven is freshly spick-and-spanned. Now, you may say that it is not the recipe or even the oven that’s at fault but rather the idiot who is willing to risk life and limb to roast a chicken in a dying, antiquated oven, and you would be correct, but that’s not the point of this little exercise, now, is it? I’m merely highlighting for you the immense appeal and value of a tried-and-true, easy recipe.photoThe same can be said of using my much-appreciated sous vide cooker for a reliably fabulous roast beef, medium rare from edge to edge and tenderly moist in a bath of its own juices, salt and pepper and a knob of butter, so flavorful that it needs little more than a quick searing caramelization to be more than presentable at table. But while it requires nothing more, it is in no way harmed or insulted by the presence of side dishes, and with them, a fine gravy is a benevolent companion indeed. And as I am not one to be bothered with fussy preparations, the nicest way to make gravy in my kitchen is to pretty much let it make itself.

So when the roast is done hot-tubbing it sous vide, out it comes, gets a quick rest so that some of the juices that have emerged from it during its bath return to their appointed place in the roast before I cut the cooking bag open, and then I get the real sauce-sorcery underway. I pour the buttery juice from the bag into a microwave-proof container and nuke it until it cooks and coagulates, as meat juices will do. Sear the roast in a heavy pan and set it aside to rest again. To continue, deglaze the pan with a good dousing of whatever tasty red wine you happen to have handy, a cup or two if you can part with it from the drinks cupboard, and just let it reduce at a simmer until it thickens slightly all by its little ol’ self. In just a few minutes, it’ll be quite ready for the big, saucy finale: puree the clotted microwaved juices and the wine reduction together (use a stick blender, if you have one, so you can keep the ingredients hot without exploding your blender!) until they’re silky smooth. Adjust the seasoning if you like, but it’s already going to be mighty delicious, don’t you worry. Easy does it.photoIsn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Now, eat up, everybody.

P.S.—don’t think because you’re a vegetarian you’re off the hook with this one. This not-even-a-process works pretty easily with nearly any roasted vegetables too. Deglaze your roasting pan with wine or, of course, some fabulous alcohol free homemade vegetable broth or some apple juice, and reduce it a bit; the final thickening agent is in your pan of roasted vegetables. Just take a nicely roasted portion of the plant-born treats and puree that goodness right into the pan reduction and Bob, as one might say, is your parent’s sibling. Your gravy is done and ready to shine. Be saucy, my friends!

Let Us Drink to the Lady

Tasting Danger

She made us cocktails, bright and cold and brilliantly tasty

And nearly great enough to save all humankind,

Though possibly we could, in slurping them, have been less hasty,

For Thursday, carelessly it seems, she lost her mind.digital artwork

Un-Appetizers

You may not be the least bit surprised to hear that I was recently duped by a fast food commercial (yes, I do eat Junk Foods of many kinds) into thinking that a special treat of theirs was going to be worth trying. Not only was it worlds from what was portrayed (as the old Norwegian-joke goes: ‘What was wrong with it??? The food was terrible! And the portions were so small!’), it was accompanied by a zippy little packet from the counter container marked Honey, which on closer inspection turned out to be not honey but ‘Honey Sauce’–a packet I was too fearful to open after reading the long ingredient list wherein honey fell fourth to three of the other four sweeteners, barely before water and a list of preservatives impossible to spell.

I was tempted to go directly home and swill real, pure, local, raw Texas honey straight from the bottle, but I resisted. Needless to say, the packet of Mystery ‘sauce’ (I still find it kind of amazing that it’s even legal to call it that, let alone Honey Sauce) went instantly to the circular file, followed in short shrift by the remains of the appalling main dish, and I went off to cleanse my palate at home. You’d think I’d be smarter by now. Sigh.digital artworkFasting Food

Silly me! I thought Fast Food

meant eating something raw and crude,

Something exotic and delicious,

not appallingly pernicious,

But cooked and primped and sauced to serve

as amuse-bouche, starter, hors-d’oeuvre,

Not some spectacular, emetic

parody of dietetic

And comestible delights—

it seems to me, Fast Food, by rights,

Should be what shows up close to hand

in finished form and on demand,

Unsullied by the attitude

of what we often call Fast Food.

Foodie Tuesday: Restaurant Food = Leftover Heaven Too

photoLest you think I’m so thrifty, what with my numerous posts regarding the delights of leftovers, hashed and rehashed, that I’m not equally overindulgent when it comes to food freshly prepared, I could just refer you to all of the other Foodie Tuesday posts regaling you with proof positive of the opposite. Wherever, whenever and however I can get my choppers on it, I love good food. But of course if someone else has done the preparation, it’s often that much more to be–no pun intended–relished. Who doesn’t love having somebody else do all the work, I ask you.

So when I do go out to dine, I’m very pleased if it turns out there’s more to the meal than can be eaten at one sitting. Good once, good twice. In fact, good twice can = good at least three times, as in a recent casserole-like conglomeration of leftovers from eating out more than once upon a weekend. Convenient to the occasion, I had picked up a small carton of ready-made Parmesan tuiles (yes, I do know how to make them by hand, but there they were staring right at me in the store) and had also just taken it into my head to also make a sort of onion jam, so I already had good companions to side the dish. The ‘jam’ was simply two large yellow onions all sliced up thinly, three modest sized navel oranges (cut segments plus the peel of about a quarter orange, chopped), a half cup of butter and a half cup of dry sherry, a big pinch of salt and a couple of tablespoons of honey, all cooked down together for about 24 hours in my slow cooker until fully caramelized. The tuiles were of course prepared by the even more complicated method of Open Packet, Place Contents on Plate variety.photoIn spite of such ridiculous ease, the simplicity of preparing the ‘casserole’ was its rival in that regard. I chopped up and stirred together these leftovers from my weekend restaurant peregrinations: 1 chicken paillard, grilled with Italian seasonings and heaped with diced ripe tomatoes and parsley; 1 handful of hand-cut french fries made in beef tallow; about a cup of deep-fried zucchini, light breading and all. I seasoned them with a little smoked paprika, mixed them with about a half-cup of plain yogurt and a quarter cup of shredded Parmesan cheese, heated the whole thing in a covered casserole until it melted and melded together, and voilà! Instant main dish happiness. That it all came together with so little effort on my part only added to its savor. ‘Cause that sort of lazy success is exactly what appeals to this person who is mighty thrifty with her kitchen time.

Foodie Tuesday: Same Song, 99th Verse

Ingredients are finite. The possible ways to combine them and make them play together, not so much. I’ve found that true as a visual artist and as a cook just about equally, and in both cases it was clear from very early that I could choose between endlessly repeating myself and looking for fresh and interesting ways to play with the possibilities. If, say, I chose to choose. My friends, we have options.photo

Having finite resources of money and groceries complicates the cookery. Having finite tastes and interests as an eater takes the complexity further. I congratulate myself on being nearly omnivorous, but yeah, there are things I don’t want to eat. Blueberries (I can  never explain this idiosyncrasy to the hordes of blueberry aficionados in the world, I guess). Organ meats (whether of organs one can or can’t live without in one’s own inventory, I generally don’t want them between my teeth). Super stinky cheeses (sorry, Francophiles). Snails (slugs are slugs, whether they’re well dressed or nude, my friends). Being married to a fella with even more limited tastes than mine, well, that’s yet another challenge thrown into the mix. So it may take a tiny bit of puzzling to decide what to prepare and how to blend the available goods into a welcome meal that we’ll both like, never mind how tasty others will find it.photo

But really, when we’re hungry, it’s not exactly hard to find something that will please a whole range of palates, even if the something needs to come from that aforementioned short list of potential parts. Sugar snap peas: they’re not so specific in flavor or texture or mode of preparation that they can’t be tweaked to fit a huge number of meals and dishes. Raw and plain, they’re sweet and crisp and refreshing. Steamed, they can take in a wide variety of flavors and complement yet more. They work in salads, in hot dishes, and on their own. Hard to go wrong. Meats: beef as a classic steak or roast is no worse or better, no more or less flexible in company with other ingredients or dishes than if the beef is stewed or ground, served spiced or more simply flavored, hot or cold. Bits of food from one recipe that, left over, become the heart of another: orange peel remaining from the peeled supremes used in a salad gets cooked down with stick cinnamon, crushed pods of cardamom and some whole cloves (all, in turn, saved from a baking project or two) and sugar water to make syrup for spiced wine or to be chilled for sodas. The avocado that didn’t get used alongside yesterday’s meal, that one gets put into a smoothie.photo

Or a tasty banana pudding. Or used as a chopped salad ingredient. Mint frosting base for brownies or a chocolate cake. Who knows. I might even make a dish of avocado with peas, beef, and whatever other readily available ingredients come to mind, because that’s the way I tend to cook. And eat. And it never really gets old.

Foodie Tuesday: Even a Classic can Take Plenty of Twists and Turns

Being a fairly dedicated eater and happy to grab my utensils in the blink of an eye almost without regard to what’s on offer, I still do enjoy the familiar and comfortable on my menu too. There are occasions when I just plain crave the known and cozy to fill my plate and my empty stomach. Sometimes nothing will do but the good old-fashioned classic.photoSo when I’ve made a batch of roasted vegetables that I can pop onto the platter at a number of meals in the next few days, it can be nice to tuck it alongside a variety of things while it lasts, just to keep things interesting. However, having some of those many different entrees be lovely old-school stuff doesn’t in any way diminish the range and color of what I’m going to eat. That just makes it doubly fun to puzzle together the menus that, despite a repeating item and a well-known dish, still easily keep their sense of invention and surprise enough to brighten up both the day and the meal.

One obvious way to accomplish that is to introduce minor tweaks: ingredient combination, presentation, and so forth. The simple roast beef from last week gets thoroughly sliced and diced and then piled into buttery grilled french rolls, and finally, dipped in a dense jus reduction of roast drippings, butter and a big slosh of red wine, and served with a touch of horseradish cream (softened with sour cream) alongside side for enhancing either the beef dip sandwich or the roasted vegetables on the way down the hatch.photoA different day, a different tweaked standard: macaroni salad with bacon and eggs. Not sure I’d recommend one of this latest round of tweaks–I tried it with rice pasta (the gluten-free twist on the occasion), which was just dandy when the salad was first made, but in the refrigerated leftover salad soaked up the dressing so thoroughly that the pasta tasted pretty much just like cold rice later. It wasn’t hopeless: I added more dressing each time I went back to it, and I found that it rehydrated decently. But it wasn’t as stable in that aspect as traditional pasta, which I think I’ll still prefer in the long term. The other slight variations, however, I enjoyed very much, and by the way, so did all the others at dinner.photoMacaroni Salad with Bacon and Eggs

Cooked [elbow macaroni–still my favorite for macaroni salad] pasta gets dressed simply with mayonnaise, a good squirt of cartoon-yellow mustard, and cream. A sturdy grind of black pepper gives it a hint of depth, though it’d be great with a splash of hot sauce or a sprinkling of cayenne as well. A big handful of diced pickles playfully zings things up a little; I used half dill pickles and half sweet gherkins. You know me and my sweet-plus-salty fetish. Traditionalists would of course hard boil egg and mince or sieve it before adding it to a picnic salad. Me, I just semi-scrambled the egg until it was just fully set and minced it up. Pretty much the same result, with less time and effort. Lastly, fried up a whole lot of bacon into crispy, smoky pieces.

The end product? About like what you’d expect if waiters carrying platters of the familiar summer macaroni salad and of pasta Carbonara crashed into each other and fell into a breakfast buffet table. But involving a lot less flying cutlery and cussing. Unless you count people diving after the salad avidly waving their forks and yelling, Damn, that’s good! Not that anyone at my table would ever behave in such a reckless and uncouth manner. Well, me, maybe.