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: Keep Us Company

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Rice and wheat crackers with cheddar dip and salsa; carrots, jicama, olives, watermelon and lime wedges, to zip up any of it that’s in need.

Shared companions at their best help to strengthen individual relationships.

This is true of people, any great net of friends and acquaintances woven, knit and spun together making the two people at their center-most intersection better through their support. It’s true, too, of meals, where the cast of side dishes and sauces, condiments and accompaniments all work together to make the main dish better and more interesting than it would be on its own, and make a standard entrée a standout, distinctive and more memorable for the occasion.

Now, when these two instances of the supporting cast making the show coincide, things can be tons of fun. As on our latest anniversary, for example. We enjoy our twosome time immensely, and are glad to celebrate at any excuse, but we’re not sticklers for specific dates or rigorous traditions. So when our anniversary lined up with a rare opportunity to gather with a houseful of students, we merged our various celebratory plots into one plan.

Dinner for any more than four people is inevitably served buffet style when I’m in charge; besides my preference for informality, I like people to be able to sit at tables for ease of dining, and while I can make that happen for up to a couple dozen in our contiguous living, dining and kitchen spaces, it doesn’t leave much spare room for elbows, let alone heaps of serving dishes, on said tables. So it’s easier to concoct big-batch comestibles in big-batch pots and pans and let the guests scoop up platefuls of their own design at will.

This time, the centerpiece of the meal was my lazy version of carnitas, one of my pet make-ahead foods for carnivores, surrounded by a range of things that could keep the vegetarians, the allergic and the whatever-averse all reasonably well filled.

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The center of attention. Get those edges crispy!

Carnitas de Señora Loca

Take one big, fat-marbled haunch of a pork roast, cut it if/as needed to fit in the slow cooker, and tuck it in for a nice long soak, at least overnight and longer if possible. Its bath should be comfortably Tex-Mex in character: cumin, powdered garlic, chipotle powder or a canned chipotle en adobo, and, if you’re in the mood, some stick cinnamon, all to your taste; equal parts of Mexican [cane sugar] Coke–in my slow cooker, the measure is one individual bottle, orange juice, beer [I generally use either a Mexican beer like Modelo or Corona, or a Texan one like Shiner or Lone Star. I probably should give Armadillo Ale a try, since it’s a new brew produced right here in town. If I want to go wheat-free, I’ll use hard apple cider]. And one more ingredient in equal quantity: lard. Don’t be squeamish; if you’re eating pork, bathe it in the fat with which it was originally designed to be flavored and enriched, preferably great quality leaf lard, expertly prepared. There are plenty of good cooks around who are willing to go to the fuss of rendering their own batches of top-quality lard, but since I have access to grass-fed goodness of that sort I can’t imagine why I should.
A while before serving time, strain the falling-apart pork out of the liquid into a large baking dish, shred it, and put it in a hot enough oven to crisp the top layer, removing it for a toss and redistribution a couple of times so that there are plenty of nice crispy bits throughout but keeping watch to keep the meat generally very moist. Skim most of the fat from the reserved liquids and cook them down to reduce for a sauce while the meat is crisping.
Then pile a bunch of carnitas on your plate and surround it with loads of other food. Eat.

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Carnitas and all the fixings.

Don’t forget some coleslaw when there’s shredded meat, whether BBQ style or otherwise; the two are simply good friends for a good reason. The version of the day had sliced almonds, black and white sesame seeds, and a light lemon vinaigrette with a dash of honey. See, addicted as we are, I can sometimes vary slightly from my standard sushi ginger flavored creamy coleslaw. The creamy dressing, whether made with mayonnaise or yogurt or sour cream in its dressing, would’ve added elements not all vegetarians like, so I wanted to keep an option or two open. Cheese dip for the vegetable crudites was not going to allow such a thing, including not only the grated sharp cheddar and Parmesan cheeses but also an equal mix of mayo and sour cream, along with a pinch of cayenne and a dash of bacon-flavored salt), and I had asked ahead and was pretty sure I didn’t have any true vegetarians, let alone vegans, coming that day, only lighter meat eaters.

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Slaw, of course. Always a good choice, but wait–how to choose its style remains…

Since the non-meatatarians in the crowd might otherwise have been stuck with just salad and fruit, vegetable, cracker sorts of foods, I did make up a big batch of rice without my typical inclusion of homemade bone broth, substituting homemade vegetable broth for the occasion. I credit myself with making a pretty dandy broth, no matter what the kind, so no one was shortchanged in the equation, I hope.

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Corn salad. What, you need more?

The last side dish leaned back toward the savory and did include a little mayonnaise: corn salad made with fresh kernels of sweet corn, diced tomatoes and avocados, and for those who wished, crisp bacon pieces to sprinkle on top. You know me: if a passel of pork is a good thing as the main dish, why not more pork alongside it?

Besides, it seemed in keeping with the whole theme of the event, that of the constellation surrounding the centerpiece enhancing the latter’s goodness, that our friends enhanced our day, and therefore our happiness, by sharing the time and the meal with us.

Most Wonderful Time of the Year *

* You may think I’m warming up for my big Christmas caroling solo, but I’m not planning to torture anyone with that, just rejoicing in the anniversary of my #1 sibling’s birth. Happy Birthday, big sister!

photoYour kid sister is mighty happy to celebrate your birth for more reasons than I can begin to count. Nah, let’s go ahead and enumerate awhile.

For starters, there’s the plain friendship and sisterly guidance that have kept me centered, contented and with my head above water and showed me wonderfully how a life of excellence could be lived. There’s your being a fabulous traveling companion throughout not only life but also the world, from our expedition to Europe during our college days to places in the US as exotic as any overseas, and of course in our own hometown. There’s the delight of daily conversation, movie-watching, book-critiquing, dining out, opera-going, and many other kinds of adventures or occasionally misadventures, not all of the latter strictly of my own making, but some of them weirdly wonderful, hilarious and memorable all the same.

photoNow that I, along with flocks of cormorants this winter, have come to roost in Texas, it’s a long way from where you live and I don’t get to see you and give you squishy, ridiculously big hugs to celebrate the day, so I’ll greet you via phone, email, and blog. I’ll wish you a day of great happiness and many, many more to come. And I’ll thank you for all of the loveliness you’ve brought, and continue to bring, to my life.

This year especially, your birthday is not only a most wonderful time, but truly THE most wonderful time. Your birthday is clearly the first day of the rest of our lives for everybody, since apparently the world did not end. So glad the Mayans‘ message was just misread by all the doomsayers, because I look forward to a marvelous 2013 enjoying the marvelous wonderfulness that is my older sister–and many more such years ahead.

Foodie Tuesday: Guess My Weight!

photoI’ve always thought of those who focus on weight as being a little bit mean and, no pun intended, narrow-minded. There used to be people at the State Fair whose sole skill was apparently to guess the weight of passersby, and I could never imagine what purpose that served, most particularly what positive purpose it could possibly have. There are still plenty of places, notably supplement, nutrition and ‘health’ stores, that keep scales around for customers’ use, and again, that strikes me as unfriendly, since the aim seems to be to make people aware of their ‘improper’ weight so that they will purchase all sorts of cures and rescues from the proprietors. Yet another cruel use of the scale: humiliation and robbery. All perfectly legal and, the perpetrators would likely argue, well-meaning, as of course their goal is to save lives and make people healthy along the way. Sorry about the miserable portion of the transaction, y’all, but it’s necessary.

Well, yes, sometimes intervention’s the only tenable solution. But not nearly so often as one might think, if only when guided by the popular imagery of skinny-as-beautiful, as successful, as admirable, and anything other than skinny as not so. I’m well aware that to help one achieve and maintain good health over a long life, generally speaking it’s advisable to keep one’s weight in a range that is proportionate in a fairly specific way to one’s height, bone structure, and/or other physical criteria. But it’s also true that not only are there plenty of variables besides weight that are significant parts of the health and longevity puzzle but many people outside the ‘norms’ strictly in weight also survive and thrive and even live very long lives doing so. An additional truth: that beauty is widely, wildly variable in its manifestations, and in how we perceive it.

There is still the business about how my weight makes me feel, emotionally yes but more especially so, physically. I’m one of those fairly despicable people who never struggled with trying to weigh anything but what I did by simple default, but like most people (at least most of the privileged people I’ve known), I find that’s changing little by little as I age. So now, what little my weight changes has a more noticeable effect on how I feel. The bad news is that at long last, I do find it takes a little bit of effort to keep my weight in my own comfort zone. The good news is that, so far, it does take relatively little effort, because two small changes are starting to make it easier for me to predict what will or won’t work for me, in dietary terms.

Two small things: one, that I eat less heavily processed [‘junk’] food and see that more of what I do eat is thoughtfully prepared (i.e., not ‘junked up’ in preparation); the second, that I eat more thoughtfully. I simply don’t need to eat the quantities I eat, nor as often as I do so. Simple. Yet not. Because, of course, I’m your typical habit-ridden, easily tempted, food crazy creature, and I have grown up eating what I wanted, when I wanted, in whatever big batches I wanted, and without many consequences. Now that I’m subject to consequence it’s not quite an instantaneous transition to being smart about my eating, least of all about only eating when I’m genuinely hungry. I’m working on it. I feel better when I stick to it.

And I’m still not going to go hopping on the scale to weigh myself. How many pounds I weigh has nothing to do with whether my clothes fit the way I’d like them to or whether I feel attractive, and less than nothing to do with whether I’ll feel well and be healthy or I’ll survive for many years to come. So many factors play a part in that equation. I just want to help tip the odds a little in my favor if I can by eating a bit less, and a little bit less often, and when I do eat, eating things I really, truly enjoy, with mindful pleasure. More fun, and I hope, for a much longer time.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Pretty as a Picture

photoThere’s an almost unbreakable rule when it comes to sensory perception and food: if it looks bad, it’ll taste bad. People will eat the most strange-smelling stuff–witness durian, any number of aged cheeses, fermented foods, and a large number of culture-specific items from around the world that, to anyone not either genetically inclined to be attracted to it or else remarkably brave and adventuresome, will yell at the lizard brainPOISON! POISON!’ The emetic reflex is, indeed a powerful thing when triggered by smells, but somehow a vast quantity of people have not only overcome that response but embraced the non-toxic results of the experiment. But things that look unpleasant are often a much harder sell. We humans respond intensely to appearances.

That’s not to say that we won’t eat things that look fairly nasty. The first person who looked at a monkfish probably didn’t say to himself, ‘gosh, that looks inviting,’ so much as something like ‘good thing I’m starving here!’ and the famously slimy strands of nattō (compounded, I’m told on good authority, by a perfume that’s fully its equal for off-putting qualities) were unlikely the source of its original appeal. In our household, the favorite rude comment if food has a notably unpalatable appearance is, ‘are ya gonna eat that or did ya?’–to which my response is generally to spoon up a big bite of it, because I’m almost always the one who eats Weird Things and I’m also a petulant show-off.

But for the most part, looks are terribly important, not only because in the rawest sense they can mean the difference between safe and unsafe eating but also because ultimately, we like food to stimulate our pleasure centers. So it’s not the worst rule of thumb to look around, when seeking ingredients and recipes, for things that have the inherent beauty we will respond to most happily, and that can sustain their loveliness throughout the prep and presentation arrangements.

Sometimes, of course, the best rule of thumb in the event is to simply eat the food as we found it, because if it looks pretty to start with it probably doesn’t need any plastic surgery from us ordinary non-chef mortals. See it, eat it. Pretty good recipe, pretty often.

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Sometimes the Glass Half Empty is Better than the Glass Too Full

photoYes indeedy, Thanksgiving time is overeating time here in my personal culinary corner of the ol’ US of A. I’ve been fairly well-behaved in recent times regarding my quantity and quality of food intake, but most of my wisely moderate behavior flew right out the window when a Thanksgiving stretch of family and travel and freedom presented itself to me. I am a weakling when the opportunity to be happily outrageous is staring me right in the kisser.

As it happens, I gave in with no hesitation whatsoever. But oh, my friends, I am for the first time in memory actually looking forward to the return home for its concomitant return to saner eating. My stomach will give its own Thanks, enjoying the chance to return to greater comfort and happiness and appropriate, sensible eating. I might not have believed it possible only a short while ago, but here I am in my semi-old-age looking forward eagerly to being better behaved and healthier. What is the world coming to these days!

Apparently even dedicated self-indulgence rebels can be reformed.

Don’t worry, though–it’s possibly the only way in which I’m ever likely to make any sort of attempt at improving myself, and it certainly won’t Fix me. Good intentions or not, as long as pretty and savory and sweet and fat and appealing foods are within reach, I will always find plenty of times and excuses to over-indulge. I just know I’ll need to have more and deeper recovery times in between. I think I feel a leaning toward fasting asceticism just now that is quite a novel experience for me. But don’t be afraid to keep the cookie jar and a big, splashing, over-full glass of something with which to wash it down close at hand, just in case, for that time will undoubtedly come again, too.photo