Ever Heard of Foodie Thursday?

Well, now you have.

It’s been a busy autumn chez Sparks. No excuses: in the flurry, I flat-out forgot to put up my food post on Tuesday. Sigh. I didn’t stop being food-obsessed, just being on schedule. So here we go, better late than never. I would give you a big silly grin, but yeah, my mouth is full again. Photo: Blue Bouquet

What I meant to say on that long-ago-seeming-day-which-was-Tuesday, was that I do like this time of year in particular for its masses of officially sanctioned excuses for partying. There are of course the big national and international celebrations of things spanning from Halloween/All Saints/Dia de los Muertos to Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, and the various New Years; in my family, five out of the six of us have winter birthdays as well. It’s not that my family and I are in any way averse to celebrating with a good meal, a party, or any other excuse for eating and drinking good stuff at the drop of a hat, but it’s extra nice when nobody else questions the need for such an occasion either.

My parents upped the ante this winter by both entering the glorious ranks of octogenarian excellence, so since my three sisters and I don’t all live close to them anymore, we’d long since all agreed it made sense to look toward next summer (2015) for a family get-together to mark their ascensions to this great new height. All the same, nobody in our clan has any respect for leaving an excuse for a party just lying there unused. So Sisters 1 and 3, who do live near Mom and Dad in Seattle, helped them plan a big party on Mom’s birthday weekend so that our parents could have their local siblings, nieces and nephews, and a few special friends together. I made up the digital invitations, since I could do that from my remote location, and because I’ve long done such design tidbits for family events as a way to be involved when I couldn’t otherwise be on hand to participate. But our Seattle sisters did the yeoman’s work on the whole thing.

We kids did up the ante a little, though. Sister 4 and her husband sent an email to the other three of us a couple of months ago, announcing that they had bought plane tickets to fly over from Norway for the November party and surprise Mom and Dad. We sisters were surprised, too! My husband, with three concerts and more rehearsals to conduct on either immediate side of the party date, couldn’t get away, but with a batch of saved air miles, I could, so I planned to fly up from Texas and join in the fun. Once all of our tickets were bought and the wheels set in motion, the real challenge was not only to see if there were any small things 4 and I could do from our bases of operation but to see if we and our partners could keep a secret for seven or eight weeks, a dubious probability at the best of times with our talkative bunch.Photo: Pink and Green Bouquet

We did. We let one of Mom’s sisters in on the secret so that she could help get our parents in the right place at the right time when the day arrived, and my spouse’s parents knew, because they were invited too, but despite a couple of close calls, nobody slipped up irrevocably. Part of the larger plan, once we’d decided to add in this surprise element, was that there would be an immediate-family-only lunch on Mom’s actual birthday at Sister 3’s house. Dad, Mom, Auntie and Uncle, and sisters 1 and 3 were to have a nice, low-key luncheon date to mark the day and wrap up any last-minute details for the bigger open house party the next day.

Sister 4 and her husband and I flew into Seattle on Thursday the 6th. It was wonderful to have a reunion of the four sisters, our first in at least a couple of years, and to convene a few other members of the immediate family—3’s husband and one son, with the other son flying in from college on Friday—that night and to laugh up our collective sleeves over our plot. In keeping with the family tradition of combining food with fun, this first evening was spent at 3’s house, slurping bowls of a beautiful, creamy winter sweet potato, kale, pasta, and sausage soup (based on Martha Stewart’s recipe) while taste-testing a couple of good single-malts the Norwegian contingent had picked up on a duty-free spree en route.

On the 7th, Mom’s birthday, we got lunch ready and in the oven and fridge and then spent a little while nervously skulking past curtained windows to escape any unexpectedly early arrivals’ discovery, and as the parental entourage at last approached, three of us ducked into the back bedroom, where we giggled like little kids and perched on the bed to avoid making the creaky hardwood floor give away our presence. Auntie got Mom settled into her favorite armchair so we wouldn’t have to explain her absence at the next day’s party as the result of an aneurism, and we finally strolled out to say Hello to our startled parents. Their faces remained in virtually the same blankly surprised expressions for a fairly lengthy, attenuated moment.Photo: Mom's 80th Birthday Lunch

Lunch broke that spell. We feasted on marvelously simple steak, lemon-dill oven-roasted salmon, salt-baked potatoes, green salad with a fresh blend of herbs and creamy lemony dressing, green beans, and buttered peasant bread. Classic, delicious, and with a handful of their kids on hand to help, an easy way to feed our parents well on a meaningful day. We worked a bit more on the details of Saturday’s open house event, but 1 and 3 had covered all bases so thoroughly that we were all able to make an early evening of it and rest up for the main event.

Sister 3 had found a wonderful venue, a community center run by the parks service in a beautifully renovated vintage power station right next door to the church where our dad had grown up. All five of Mom’s siblings and Dad’s only sib, his brother, and all of their partners, were on tap to come. So did some of the sibs’ kids, and even a handful of grandkids joined the gang; with the friends who came, we totaled just over fifty in attendance. We saw many relatives we’d not seen in years, many of them as surprised as our parents at seeing us there like long-distance apparitions. I think I can safely say that the party was everything Mom had wanted, that Dad was also happy, and that we all felt pretty chuffed at pulling off a great success, especially at not blowing the surprise.Photo: Birthday Buffet

But again, food was central to the grandness of the day, and once more, that was thanks to the wise planning and [literally] tasteful choices made by our Seattle sisters. The buffet spread’s main dish stars were ginger beef and sweet walnut prawns from our favorite local  Chinese restaurant, accompanied by a wide range of finger foods and sweets, many of them bought ready-made from various shops and stores. We had just about enough food on hand to feed 250 guests. So we kept up that family tradition, too. And we all left the tables full and fulfilled.

Who knows what we’ll get up to next summer. Only sure that it will include much eating and drinking. And probably lots of childish giggling and telling secrets, which I think are a mighty nice lagniappe for the whole meal, whatever it is.

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: The Journey of a Thousand Meals begins with a Single Spoonful

It is my intention to have a far, far happier thousandth day than that poor Anne Boleyn apparently did, and since my thousandth post occurs on this, a Tuesday, I will enhance my happiness by thinking and writing about food. It’s such a reliable way to fill myself with good cheer, filling myself with good food, that—well, you all know by now that I can’t resist thinking and writing about it here at least once a week as well.

Am I insatiable? Perhaps. I am certainly mad for good food and drink. I’m kind of crazy for messing about with cookery trickery myself, and most certainly that feeds (both literally and metaphorically) my cravings. And you know that I’m happy to indulge at every turn in talking and/or writing about food and drink, making photos and artworks about them, and dreaming up ever more new ways to get ever more treats into my hands, my glass, my spoon and my stomach. That’s how I operate.

Naturally, the right thing to do in celebration of a thousand-day-versary would be to make some party treats. I have company coming over shortly, so I thought I really ought to make those dinner and lunch engagements into occasions for those goodies. Any excuse will do. The excuse of friends’ visits? Irresistible.

Dinner first, with a couple of friends on Monday. Starter: an appetizer of crackers topped with a nice Dutch gouda or brie, or spread with some homemade brandied beef pate and a little bit of fig jam. Roast beef, a nice chuck shoulder roast cooked simply sous vide with butter, salt and pepper, as the centerpiece. Mashed potatoes sauced with a bit of beurre rouge and pan juices. Tiny peas with mint butter. Sweet corn with crispy bacon. Some quick beet pickles. Chocolate mousse with apricot coulis spiked with homemade orange liqueur and topped with chopped dark chocolate bits for dessert.photoLunch on Thursday with another couple. Mint-apple-honeydew cooler to drink. Shrimp toasts as a starter: butter-fried slices of chewy French bread with spicy lime avocado spread and tiny sweet shrimp on top. Pasta with smoked salmon and langoustines in lemon cream for the entrée. Carrots and celery in cooked in white wine with snippets of dill. Ginger coleslaw with Bosc pears and toasted sliced almonds. Fresh strawberries and cardamom shortbread with salted caramel icing for the big finish.

I always hope that everyone lunching or dining with me will enjoy everything I’m feeding them, but I have to admit that it’s kind of a big deal that I like it all, too! How else will I get fat and sassy in my old age? I may be ahead of the curve on the Sassy part, but I’m still hoping to be somewhat moderate or at least slow about the fattening-up part. Not that you could tell by my eating meals like this whenever I can get my gnashers on ’em. But here we are and I haven’t ballooned out of existence quite yet, so no doubt I shall continue my food adoration for at the very least another thousand days. Or whatever…come back and ask me later; I’m heading to the kitchen. Recipes will undoubtedly follow….photo

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.

Be It Ever So Humble

I had such a grand week at the conference. The 11th through 15th of March was my spouse’s purported Spring Break from the university, but as so often happens, most of the week was filled up with work. In this instance, the work was exceedingly pleasurable, but as it was the conference of the American Choral Directors Association, it was, as are most tremendously enjoyable activities, exhausting. Two, three or four concerts a day, master classes, seminars and sessions of all sorts, wandering the exhibitors’ booths, networking and lots of socializing and late, late nights are all piled into the ACDA conferences. By the end of the week, going home sounded beautifully and truly welcome.photoIt might surprise some people to hear it, but by nature I’m an introvert, shy, and I used to have a fairly nasty perpetual case of social anxiety. Yeah, all that fun stuff. I spent a lot of years feeling scared and sick over every new meeting, every unfamiliar place or event. Luckily for me, there are such things as therapists, medications, and lots of family support and training. As a result, going to the various conventions, festivals and conferences that bring together the choral world from time to time has gone from what was, the first time I attended one with my then new husband, quite overwhelming and nerve-wracking to this last, which like its latest predecessors was a much-anticipated ‘family reunion’ with a great number of beloved friends and colleagues from all over the world.photoSo I certainly had a grand week. Meeting with longtime friends from various places we’ve lived, choirs my husband’s conducted, and from our school days, and with ever so many outstanding colleagues, we got to celebrate with them all over music, lunches and dinners, receptions, walks-about-town, drinks and quiet conversations. We laughed and hugged and chattered with current and former students, with composers and conductors and publishers and singers and players, so many friends, and it was all tremendous fun. It made for long days and for short sleeps, for incredibly dry eyes from staying up way too late and for teary eyes from amazingly sweet meetings, no matter how fleeting, with our long-absent dear ones. Stellar music performed by both friends and strangers moved me to both sniffling and silly grins (sometimes simultaneously). It made me as happy and full of love for music and friends and life as I can get, and it made me so tired I could hardly move ten of my cells at a time. And it made me look forward with great intensity to the splendors of home. There, I can relish in retrospect all the sweetness of the multitude of marvels granted by a superb week. And I can revel in Just. Plain. Being. Home.

Foodie Tuesday: Lemon Chicken without Cats

A friend of ours once told us about the Chinese restaurant in the small southern town where he grew up that was renowned for its trademark Lemon Chicken–until, that is, the owner was questioned about the disappearance of many of the neighborhood’s pet cats on a timetable that coincided a little too closely for comfort with the preparation and the offering of said dish on the menu.

I prefer to offer a more strictly bird-based version of the dish when I get hungry for lemon chicken. Call me old-fashioned.

I kept it very simple too, though. I’m rarely interested in making things terribly complicated in the kitchen; that’s above my pay grade. My one innovation particular to this occasion was to test a new kind of gluten-free pasta and put together a dish that could sit around in the oven for an indeterminate period without dying, since our dinner guest wasn’t sure how quickly she could get to our house from Dallas that evening. Worked out pretty nicely, as it turned out, and was both lemony and quite acceptably chicken flavored, as planned.photoLemon Chicken Linguine

Layer into a covered four- or five-quart nonstick pan in order: 1 package of RP’s fresh GF linguine (9 oz)–uncooked, straight out of the package; 2 cups of roasted, poached or braised chicken cut into 1 inch pieces (I used chicken left from one I’d oven-braised a day or two before in butter with homemade lemon seasoning (oven-dried lemon peels finely ground with Tellicherry peppercorns and Kosher salt); 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese; the juice and zest of one lemon; about 1/4 cup of heavy cream. Season with ground mace, ground coriander and [the aforementioned] lemon seasoning to taste. Cover the pan snugly with its lid and set it in a low oven (not above 225°F/107°C) until the liquid is absorbed or the guests arrive, or both.

Side dishes for such an uncomplicated meal should also be uncomplicated. Good old, ubiquitous in our household, coleslaw, with apples complementing the ginger. Green beans Amandine, done up Southern style by throwing a handful of crisped bacon on top. Dessert? Why, of course. I (conveniently) had some of my strawberry-mandarin granita right in the freezer and, by golly, found some rather nice fresh strawberries and lovely sweet mandarin oranges at the grocery store as well, so I macerated a dish of those two mixed together in vanilla sugar; spooned over the granita and accompanied by some little nut and cocoa truffles I’d also made and stashed earlier.photoAlong with these foods, of course, there needed to be good drinks aplenty. Nice for wetting the whistle. But remember, one should always show appropriate restraint with the drinking or one might not know the difference if someone tries to serve a less savory sort of ‘lemon chicken’ than mine.photo

A-Hunting We *All* Go

graphite drawingThe Blue Lacy

He’s of a faithful breed, my dog, a hunting hound, a clever beast,

a lean and hungry Cassius, but faithful all the same–

He races me to the rotting log and runs to ground the boar at feast

who’ll soon be ours–Alas for us, the boar knows his Wild Game!

He lunges up in fear and rage: his tusks are aiming for my throat,

and I have tripped into my grave on roots as strong as sin–

But Blue has taken center stage, leaps on the boar’s mad, bristly coat,

gives me the breath my knife to save, hangs on as it plunges in–

The boar falls back with a bloody scream but turns on me his fiery glare,

and then, in an instant, strikes once more, for he means my dog to die–

I yank the roots, trip him into the stream! and Blue and I tear away from there–

and we relish our supper of beans–no boar–my faithful hound and I.digital paingting from a graphite drawing