Foodie Tuesday: Chia Pets, Kitty Dishes, and Sunshine in a Bowl

Though the novelty wore off at some point, the silly popular terracotta animal figurines Chia Pets have continued to live on in myriad beastly iterations, including of the human animal, whenever anyone wanted a bit of lighthearted fun wasting edible chia seed sprouts for sculptural entertainment by growing them as hair or fur on the pottery. That, of course, was before the rediscovery of chia seeds as actual food. In recent times, not only has their tiny tastiness as green sprouts been restored to its rightful place among the many yummy sprouts now being revered as micro-mini greens, their magical gelling abilities have been discovered to make a miraculously delicious thickener for tapioca-like (but chia is more nutritious than tapioca) sauces and puddings. Merely soaking the seeds in liquid does the job, the kitchen equivalent of snapping one’s fingers and making genie surprises appear out of thin air, so I can’t think of many ingredients more all-purpose admirable.
Photo: Chia's Charms

Meanwhile, back in my dad’s childhood (even earlier than the inception of the Chia Pet, as difficult as that might be for you to believe), there was another kind of treat that made desserts desirable to him: the Kitty Dish. The ingredients of the meal were irrelevant, as long as the proper bowl contained the food meant to tempt the tot. The enticement lay not so much in the comestibles as in eating his way to the bottom of the dish to uncover the picture of the kitty in the middle of the bowl. It’s a boon to parenthood to find a container so special that it will inspire a recalcitrant child to work his way to the bottom of the serving, and when the little fellow in question was old enough to have little kids of his own, he made certain that we, too, knew of the beauties of his fabled kitty dish. So when I found a charming little dish with a kitty on it (albeit decorating the outside), I knew that I must have one of my own.
Photo: Kitty Dish #3

As it’s a very kawaii little item of Asian porcelain, in addition to being a lucky cat, I thought it a highly suitable vehicle for something delicate and cute in the way of a dessert or snack. Or (you know me), breakfast. In this case, it was just the right size for a scoop full of citrus pudding dotted and thickened with chia seeds, a bright, light, fanciful, froth of a dish. It was fun and yummy in equal parts. Kind of the way I imagine a little boy might have once felt about his eating when spooning up the last bites of dinner to get to the kitty picture at the bottom of the bowl.
Photo: Citrus Chia Joy

Citrus Chia Cream

This was an oddly conglomerate dish that turned out to be less crazy and more just plain crazy-good than I expected. It happened in four phases. The first was to take 1 cup heavy cream and whip it until very thick, then fold it together with 1/2 cup lime curd (I used a good quality ready-made kind—the dish was already fussier to make than its simple taste and appearance would admit). Next, make a saucy custard of 1 cup pureed (fruit juice-) canned mandarin orange segments, a good shot of elderflower cordial or liqueur, and three eggs, blended, cooked to thicken, and cooled. The third step: combine the lime-cream, the mandarin custard, and 1 cup plain whole milk yogurt with a small pinch of salt. Lastly, stir all three creamy components together with quite a lot of chia seeds; they don’t swell hugely, so adding nearly as much as is desired in the finished pudding is fine. Chill the treat thoroughly before serving it.

I can’t guarantee you’ll like it, but I thought it was the cat’s meow.

Foodie Tuesday: Are You Growing a Mustache, or Is That Chocolate on Your Lip Again?

Photo: Spiced Chocolate Power Pudding

With sprinkles. Because, Sprinkles. You have to ask?

If you’d told me years ago that I would become such a chocolate addict, I’d probably have snorted and chortled my way right onto the floor. I always found it okay, but if given a choice would undoubtedly have chosen any number of other flavors as my preference over chocolate. So I’m still occasionally a little bit surprised at myself and my evolution into a veritable chocolate fiend.

Be that as it may, practically every time I put up a dessert or sweet-related post on this blog, it seems to include chocolate in some form or other. Why resist, eh! There are worse compulsions to have.

Spiced Chocolate Power Pudding
Beat 4 eggs thoroughly and set aside. In another bowl, set
1 avocado
1 ripe banana
1 splash lemon juice
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 scoops vanilla whey protein powder
Mash them together thoroughly! In a saucepan, pour
2 cups whole milk
Heat just until steaming.
Melt in 1/4 cup coconut oil and
5 ounces chocolate (I used Ibarra Mexican chocolate).
When it’s all melted together smoothly and
back to steaming (not scorching) temperature,
pour it in a thin stream and stir it carefully into the eggs.
Put this blend back in the saucepan and stir it constantly
over medium-high heat until it thickens.
Let it cool to room temp. Mix the egg blend and the
avocado mixture thoroughly and refrigerate the total until
well chilled and set. Overnight is good.
Deliciousness abounds.

Foodie Tuesday: Figs and Fika

Despite the present day craze for all things piggy when it comes to meats, bacon inserted into every imaginable recipe—and some not even possible to get my brain wrapped around at all—and the undeniable fabulousness of a grand Black Forest classic, a clove-studded Virginia ham, a spiral-cut, home glazed ham, or the umami-loaded and thus much-lauded and wildly expensive jamón ibérico, what I grew up with at home, as I recall, was that differently seasoned and prepared, smooth textured, Danish ham (as my family knew it then, whether that characterization was entirely accurate or not), and I loved it. It’s on the sweet side, generally, and usually subtler than the more intensely flavored aforementioned hams. Truthfully, I love them all, as long as they’re not those tinny, watery, pallid objects of pseudo-meat that have been processed to the point of looking and tasting like cartoon food.

I also, as you well know, am fond to an obsessive degree of salty-and-sweet combination treats, and hams are very compatible with sweet foods, whether in the form of a glorious, uncomplicated afternoon bite of perfect prosciutto wrapped around a melon slice or as a bone-in beauty bathed in fruit compote for the spring table.

Danish ham isn’t my only foodly fanaticism derived from Scandinavian roots. Here’s another thing I’ve learned from that region to love when it comes to food: the Swedish tradition of fika. Not so different in origins, perhaps, from the Italian treat Tiramisu, wherein a tradition of stopping for coffee and a sweet was the perfect pick-me-up in an afternoon or way to meet with a friend for a bit of refreshment, and eventually the practice became the name of the treat itself—the Italian Tiramisu translating roughly as, yes, “pick-me-up” and the Swedish fika deriving, ostensibly, from a syllabic reversal of “kaffe” (coffee). Not that it matters hugely to me, but I do always love an excuse to sit down at the table not only for a full meal but for the more relaxed atmosphere of a break for, say, a bite and a drink, some appetizers and a cocktail, or tea and dessert.

For a recent casual evening with friends, I got the urge for a ham-and-sweetness starter that would be extremely quick and easy to fix but bring out the simple flavors of the ingredients pretty smartly. I think I did well enough with it, because between the five of us we polished off all but a couple of small corner pieces from a whole cookie sheet’s worth, along with the actual roast beef dinner and dessert; but you can be the judge, if you like. It couldn’t be simpler to make, so there’s no excuse not to join in the testing.

Four ingredients: puff pastry dough, ham, fig jam, and Parmesan cheese. One pan. One swift browning in the oven. Slice. Eat.

I wanted to make this with fresh figs, but couldn’t find any at the moment that were in nice enough shape, so I used a small jar of store-bought fig jam that worked quite nicely. Had I used fresh figs, I would have chopped them roughly and mixed them with some honey, maple syrup, or ginger syrup as the delicious glue for the hors-d’oeuvre topping, but jam had that binder handily built right in, so if you’re unable to find fresh fruit, jam is clearly a convenient and equally tasty alternative. I did buy one package of frozen, pre-made puff pastry dough (lazy me) and about a half pound of thinly sliced ham (I chose the deli’s maple glazed version on this occasion). I had shredded Parmesan cheese in the refrigerator. The process was easy-peasy.Photo: Ham & Cheese with Figs

Ham & Cheese Bites with Fig Jam

Set the oven to heat at 400°F. Lay out all of the puff pastry dough needed to cover it (with a single layer) on a large cookie sheet pan with edges. This could get sticky if you don’t contain the food! You should have a little dough left over: I had about an eighth of the dough remaining and set it aside.

Mix equal amounts of chopped sliced ham—mine, when the thin slices were cut into about 1/2 inch (1 cm) squares, amounted to around a cupful of loose ham pieces—and shredded cheese with gently heated and liquefied jam (the jam I used took between a quarter and a half cup to blend the ham and cheese. Glued together like this, the ham, cheese, and jam mixture was probably about a scant two cups’ worth of topping and was easily distributed and spread evenly by spoonfuls over the whole pastry base. I cut the remaining pastry dough into 1/2 inch by 1-1/2 inch rectangles and I twisted each once to make a little bow and stuck those around on top of the jammy mixture. The whole sticky delight went into the oven for perhaps 14 minutes or so, and once it was golden, was ready to be cut into small rectangles that could be easily handled for eating.

Then, of course, we ate them. Whenever I make them again, I will try pre-baking the puff pastry and simply adding the jam blend for a final, melting warm-up just before serving. Crispier results, I should think. But even with a slightly chewier texture…we ate them all.

Foodie Tuesday: Let Me Call You Sweetheart

When you’re good enough, you don’t have to be trendy to have staying power. The classics never go away; a fabulous patisserie is forever in fashion, because well-crafted sweets have endless appeal. They may have waves of popularity over time, like the current euphoria over macarons that belies their long history or the delight of the general public on discovering in latter years that chocolate is not entirely a naughty indulgence. But what is truly tasty will never entirely fade from view, especially in the kitchens or patisseries where the expert practitioners of their making reside.
Digitally painted photo: The Cupcake Trend

My sweet tooth knows few bounds. I love fat in most of its terribly delicious forms. When those two attributes of sweetness and fat combine so fortuitously as they can in desserts and baked goods, in little snacks or large displays of ostentatious celebratory food, I am unlikely to resist, unless I’m having an unusual fit of good manners when there’s not quite enough to go around or my calorie-conscience is working overtime to knit me a hair shirt that squeezes my increasingly well-rounded form.
Digitally painted photo: Patisserie

As a visual artist and prettiness-addict, the moment when my resistance is most likely guaranteed to ebb and to fail is when I am standing, rapt, in front of a pastry case at the bakery. If I had any real moral strength in this regard, I would at least be inclined to pardon the beauties beckoning therein from my ravages for the sake of preserving their great visual appeal as long as possible. But I have none, so it’s more than likely I will excuse myself by reminding any fellow admirers that the visual attractions of food are limited by their shelf life, which is briefer indeed than my own. Even if I have eaten more darling pastries than is remotely good for me.

Farewell for now, sweet readers. If you should grow any sweeter, you might be in danger of being bit by me on a dessert rampage. For now, I’ll choose to take the precaution of stuffing my mouth full of marsipan bløtkake [a favorite, Norwegian marzipan-covered cream cake], if only for your safety.

Foodie Tuesday: Breakfast of Champers

There’s an American breakfast cereal whose manufacturer advertises it as the Breakfast of Champions, inspiring many a skinny little kid over the decades to eat monstrous quantities of it in hopes of becoming an impressive physical specimen. The slogan also inspired things as diverse as a Kurt Vonnegut novel by that name and a wide range of decidedly non-healthful sounding food and drink combinations that mock the very idea, not least of all the hilariously infamous day-starter of Little Chocolate Donuts ‘advertised’ by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live many years ago.Photo: Arabic Choco-PuffsGiven how often and how utterly our concept of what constitutes perfect nutrition, health and fitness practices changes over time, it seems incumbent on any of us who care about our own well-being to figure out what suits our own bodies’ needs and wants and not slavishly follow anyone else’s regimen, no matter how magically ideal it purports to be. At the same time, you know me well enough to guess that I think every so-called prescription in the dietary realm—barring allergies or other potentially life-threatening pains—deserves to be broken on occasion. At the start of a day seems to me the perfect occasion for such hijinks, particularly if the breaking of the fast leads to mood-enhancement and a general tendency toward having a sunnier day. There were excellent reasons for the invention of Bloody Marys and Bellinis and Mimosas. Break out the champers for breakfast!

Photo: Holy Toast!Or, if you feel it necessary to legitimize your breakfast playtime further than you can by acknowledging the fruit and vegetable content of the aforementioned drinks (not least of all, the venerable fermented grape), I’m sure you’re as able as I am to find the good in any dish that cries out to you at the break of day. Little Chocolate Donuts? Why, not only do they contain the marvelous seed of the Theobroma cacao, and if you can’t argue for the food of the gods for breakfast, then I think you need more help than a mere menu tweak can give you, but they also contain sugar, a sure source of [however short-lived] energy. If you take things a step further, choosing a raised donut, you can argue that the live culture of yeast that begins raising its inflatable goodness to a frying-ready state is also bound to be fine feed for your inner biome and all its happy bacterial citizens.

Photo: Raised & Glazed

Cake? Lest we forget, it very often has the proteins and vitamins of eggs, enriched flours, perhaps some buttermilk for further culture. Why restrict it to after-dinner eating, when we have less of the day in which to burn off its calories and possibly, less appreciation for its magnificence when we’re already full from the main meal? Throw in some nuts or dried fruits, some coconut meat, some cinnamon (who knows how true are the speculations on cinnamon’s superfood status)—and you could practically be breakfasting on medicine and having spa treatment before you even leave the house in the morning. There are plenty of people who have busily experimented their way to cakes and quick breads and donuts and all sorts of treats hiding, in their deceptively yummy midst, many clandestine vegetable and other supplemental ingredients to make them Better for You. That’s swell, really it is. But you know, being contented and happy is good for you, too.Photo: Bear Claws

So I’m going to keep eating chocolate at any and all hours of the day and night, cake with and without secret good-for-me ingredients, raised donuts and cake donuts, sugary cold cereals, popsicles, custards, ice cream, smoothies disguised as Protein Shakes, and any pretend-breakfast cocktails I can get my hands on whenever I feel the need. Whatever gets us through the day, no?Photo: Let Me Eat Cake

Foodie Tuesday: Mixed Grill Girl

I’m married to a person whose fondness for vegetables is, shall we say, somewhat limited. Fruits, yes; starches, yes; seafoods and meats, yes and yes. Veg, not so much. He’ll eat some quite willingly, but he’d make a fairly poor version of a vegetarian. Me, I love many kinds of vegetables, along with all of the other foods, but I am a pescetarian and carnivore as well, so I don’t mind having the occasional festival of meat kind of meal.photo

We had a friend join us for dinner today, a person whose leanings are not far different from my spousal-person’s, so it seemed like a fine time to indulge in a freezer-freeing festival of the mainly meat sort. I had a small but solid hunk of grass-fed beef waiting to be enjoyed, a quartet of all-natural bratwurst all ready for a taste test, and the goofy woven square of bacon lying atop my cheesy potato-mash dish in the freezer drawer in quiescent quiet to prepare for use as well. Now I have a lot of space that I didn’t have in the freezer. Of course, I’ve got quite a bit less space in my innards at the moment than before. Yup.photo

So we had our mixed-grill meal together and had fun. Bratwurst, simmered for a long time in a bottle of Shiner Bock, until the beer was syrupy and the sausages fully cooked. The potato mash was quickly heated through and ready to go to table. The beef got cut up into small steaks and pan-seared in avocado oil, with just a little sea salt. Yes, we did in fact have a vegetable, too: peas. Tiny peas, steamed and served with lemon-mint butter, sweet salted butter mixed with minced fresh mint leaves and grated lemon zest.

All of this certainly sated the hunger for savories. That can, in turn, trigger the sweet tooth response. So there was dessert. Probably the richest version of a chocolate pudding I’ve concocted to date, dressed with honeyed peach slices.photo

Rich Chocolate Pudding & Peaches

Pudding: blend 3/4 to one cup each of whole milk yogurt and coconut milk, about 1/4 cup of raw honey, a pinch of salt, a splash each of orange liqueur (homemade months ago from mandarins, juice and zest both, with toasted coconut and brown sugar and vodka), vanilla and almond extracts, and three large eggs, and cook them gently until thickened. Add a bunch of yummy dark chocolate pieces and melt them down. I used 14 pieces of Dove dark chocolate, and just let the residual heat of the thickened custard melt them as I stirred. The coconut milk left the mixture just a tad less than perfectly smooth, so I used the stick blender to make it all silky. A stint in the fridge before dessert time finished the thickening and glossing and it was all ready to serve.

With topping. I took 2 cups of sliced frozen peaches and cooked them gently with a pinch of salt, 2 tablespoons each of butter and honey, a teaspoon of almond extract, and spices to taste (I used allspice and cardamom). Spooned at room temperature over the chilled pudding, they gave just enough brightness and freshness to jazz up the rich pudding and fool me into thinking I wasn’t overindulging in dessert after overindulging in dinner. My style entirely, and I think you do know what I mean. Sorry? Not the teeniest whit.

Foodie Tuesday: You Eat What You Like, and I’ll Eat What I Like

Besides being a wise quote from my perennial hero, Yukon Cornelius, the title of today’s post is pretty great advice for eaters at all times, most particularly so during the holidays. If I’m going to go to the expense and effort to do anything special for a Special Occasion, it matters far more to me that I want to eat the results than that they meet anybody else’s standard for tradition, impressiveness, or perfection. You won’t find me dining on dainties of glorious extravagance and beauty on a holiday or birthday or any other notable date if I’m the designated cook, because spending exhausting and exacting hours in the scullery before the blessed event is not my idea of a great way to arrive at it rested and ready to enjoy its importance in my life with good cheer and an even temperament.

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Appetizer parfait: hash browns (I made these with Gouda and smoked paprika), sour cream, hot smoked wild Pacific salmon and capers. Or, in the alternative version I offered on the same day–another easy to prepare ahead topping for the hash browns–smoked sausage pieces simmered in Pinot Noir BBQ sauce. The sauce was a sticky reduction of equal amounts of red wine and homemade bone broth with brown sugar, tomato passata, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves and cayenne to taste. Guests could assemble the tiny dishes with any combination they liked, and I didn’t have to wrestle with the hors-d’oeuvres at all on the day of the party.

So while I adore Dungeness crab, I will not likely be preparing one fresh and mucking about with the tedious chore of meticulously picking the meat out of the shell–if I can find fresh Dungeness already picked and packed in a neat little carton, it’ll be on the menu; otherwise, not. My fondness for elaborate baked goods will likely be fed by an outstanding bakery, not by my slavish efforts right before a party. I’ll happily dine on a perfectly frenched rack of lamb or a miraculously flaky and tender kulebiaka or bistilla, but only if someone else is going to all of the effort it takes to prepare it.

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Homemade macaroni and cheese can be just as easy to fix as pre-packaged. Here, I blended shredded Gouda, cheddar and Parmesan cheeses in about equal amounts and added melted butter, eggs, smoked paprika, powdered mustard, a little grated nutmeg, and a tiny dash of liquid smoke (no additives, please) before stirring the cooked pasta in with a bit of cream and baking it to melt and meld it all together.

That’s how, when Christmas dining is at home, it may go so far as to be a roast beef that can be cooked sous vide and requires only a quick browning in the oven before carving, but it might also be a made-ahead, very down-to-earth macaroni and cheese. Or even a tuna salad sandwich, a perpetual favorite that, while it’s hardly what anyone I know would consider Fancy, is gladly eaten with a handful of good potato chips and a juicy apple on nearly any occasion chez nous. I want to eat delicious food on Christmas, but it doesn’t have to be unusual or expensive or showy in any way to be delicious, and if its simplicity of preparation means that it’s eaten in a very comfortably relaxed state, that makes it all the more appealing and enhances its flavor remarkably.

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Homemade mac-&-cheese is, in fact, also easy to customize for any number of tastes and occasions, as when I change out the elbow macaroni with some fresh fettuccine and toss in a batch of Langostino tails. Voila! ‘Poor man’s’ lobster fettuccine.

I hope that everyone who is celebrating around now–whether it’s Christmas, the Dongzhi festival, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, the New Year, Kwanzaa, a birthday, or something entirely different–has the wealth and freedom to take the same approach. It’s satisfying to arrive at happy events relaxed and, well, happy. And eating what you love to eat is always better than eating what you think you should eat, only because you think you should. I wish you all great food, simply prepared, great company when you want it and quiet time away when you need it. That’ll make the food taste all the better when it comes. Cheers! Bon appetit! Joy!

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Who says plain salt-and-pepper roasted chicken isn’t fancy enough for a special occasion? If you enjoy it, indulge. Even with the most common of accompaniments, it can be satisfying and tasteful (clockwise from the ruby-colored jellied cranberry sauce at left): pickles (here, okra, green tomatoes and green beans); sweet corn; coleslaw; apple sauce (freshly made brandied maple sauce); mashed baked potatoes with beurre noisette, fried sage leaves and optional red wine/broth reduction sauce; and a spoonful of tiny, tasty green peas. And if you’re a vegetarian, you can always eat the whole rest of the meal and be content. Peas to all the earth, I say!

Even desserts–maybe especially desserts, come to think of it–can get treated like such elaborate Fabergé egg-like constructions that they are too precious for ordinary mortals to eat and far too tiring for me to slave over preparing. I’ve hardly ever seen anyone turn up his nose at store-bought ice cream or refuse if I offered her a nice piece of chocolate straight out of the wrapper. A bowl of perfect fresh strawberries, a moist pound cake made the other day, and a quick batch of whipped cream with vanilla give instant summer cachet to the end of a meal. Banana pudding needn’t even be a fuss, and doesn’t look really like much (hence the lack of a photo), but it’s unpretentious and tasty enough that everyone right down to the toddlers will happily eat that old comfort favorite.

Banana Pudding to Make You Go Ape

Don’t bother with cheap, phony tasting artificially flavored instant banana pudding, either, despite a short timeline for the treat (unless you get all nostalgic over it for some reason). All you actually need is some really ripe bananas and a handful of other ingredients, and away you go…

Blend together until smooth (I use the stick blender for this): 5 overripe bananas (too mushy for eating plain), a pinch of salt, the juice and grated rind of 1 large lemon, a generous teaspoon of vanilla, a couple of tablespoons each of raw honey and butter, and about a cup of heavy cream. Chill until thickened. What do you taste? Bananas. What will you do? Go bananas over it. Why work harder than that for your food and fun? Enjoy your holidays and happy days instead!

Oh, and I must add (since what goes without saying may not entirely go without saying for everybody!) that this kind of banana pudding will, of course, oxidize–unlike the aforementioned imitation stuff–so it’s best eaten right when you’ve made it unless you’re like me and don’t care if it’s a little beige in color. And it’s not super thick, so if you like it thicker, I recommend whipping the cream separately and then folding it into the blended banana mash, to which you’ve already added the other ingredients. No matter how you choose to make it, it’s still pretty tasty. And, as Marie has suggested in the comments and I’ve already tested, it makes a dandy breakfast!

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Happy New Year!