Foodie Tuesday: Everybody’s Version is Different

As often as I post about loving comfort food, I seldom say clearly enough that I’m well aware everybody’s version of that idea is unique. Yes, we have familiar favorites that we’ve learned from our national, cultural, regional and communal environments, and those might well be generalized across towns or families. To a point. But the specifics vary with our own body chemistry, when it comes to allergies and the biology of taste buds, never mind the variety that comes from making choices.

That’s when it’s possible to slide from one leaning to another, even in what food sounds most comforting to me at the moment. Did I grow up surrounded by essentially middle class, white, middle-of-the-road, twentieth century American foods and preparations? Yes. Do I still think most of the stuff I grew up eating and drinking is delicious and comforting? Yes, I do. But it’s long since been joined on my hit list by a lot of other edible goodness that derives from cultures and kitchens far from those of my youth.

Learning to eat and prepare some of the deliciousness found in, say, Thai and Russian and Moroccan cuisines not only stretches my repertoire but trains my hungry brain to hanker for new goodness in addition to the comforts of my hungry childhood. Every unfamiliar regional or national cuisine, every dish, that I get to taste offers the possibility of further comfort foods. What’s it all mean? Most importantly, that I will never lack for something delicious that will bring solace and pleasure along with its nutrients, and may well continue to find new and enticing foods to add to my go-to list as life goes forward.

Photo: Tandoori Tastiness

Take a plateful of Tandoori chicken with Basmati rice, raita, coconut, dried fruit and cashews (and avocado, snap peas and carrots on the side), for example. Once you’ve had the marvelous and heartwarming masala that seasons a Tandoori meal, it’s easy to see what’s made that region’s cuisine so popular for so very long, and to think it’s a great idea to join the crowd.

Ha-ha-ha! I just realized I hit the Publish button on the wrong post. It’s Tuesday early this week! If it’s any consolation to anyone out there, it is already Tuesday in India, and I promise I’ll put up the other post tomorrow. Ta-ta for now, my friends. I have all night to dream about Tandoori chicken and anything else that makes me hungry for its comforts.

Foodie Tuesday: More Sugary Bits

Sweets needn’t be hard to prepare. They’re so easy to eat, it’s only fair that they should also be easy to fix or you’ll undoubtedly end up feeling a little desperate between times. Why risk it?

Especially nice if the treats can require no baking or be super-simple to mix and prep before popping into the oven–like these two:photoChocolate Handy Candy

Combine an assortment of the following ingredients into a dense dough, roll into golf ball shapes or squeeze into similar sized blobs, and chill. Before serving, coat in powdered sugar or cocoa powder; mix in some ground spice if you like.

Melted chocolate (I like to use dark chocolate that I buy in bars)

Coconut oil and/or butter, melted

Pinch of salt (crunchy is usually my favorite)

Flavorings (try ginger with black pepper, mint and dried apple pieces, toasted coconut and rosewater, or toasted sesame seeds and almond bits and a pinch of cloves)

Chopped candied peel or crushed freeze-dried fruit

Crushed potato chips or pretzels or chopped nuts (toasted and salted or spiced/candied)

Once you’ve formed these, refrigerate them, and serve them cold. Easy to make and just as easy to like.

And not long ago I came across another ridiculously simple sweet fix. Nutella cookies. If you don’t already know what Nutella is, you need more help than just an easy recipe to make with the stuff. Possibly a term of Nutella Therapy hospitalization. Ooh, can I have that? I have, thankfully, found some pretty good no-name generic copycat versions of it, so if the real stuff isn’t available in an emergency I needn’t panic. But really, it’d be hard to go wrong with the classic combination of chocolate and hazelnuts.

The recipe in question is so uncomplicated as to be hard to classify as a recipe at all, but I proved it does require a tad of technical specificity, so it’s not quite the throw-and-go ease of the first item here. Still, easy. And oh so sweet. And once again, tweak-worthy. The general gist of this combination is popular, if not prevalent, online, to the degree that it’d be a serious magic trick to track down the original author. If any of you know who developed this I’d be delighted to know!photoImpossibly Possible Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies

1 cup flour (I used gluten-free flour mix) + 1 cup Nutella (or substitute) + 1 egg = dough. Makes a dense dough that’s not hard to mix quickly with your bare hands. Form the dough into a log (about 2″ or 5 cm in diameter) with flattened ends and slice it into 24 pieces. Arrange on a cookie sheet and bake in a preheated oven at 350°F (177ºC) for approximately 6 minutes. My usual issue of owning an overactive oven made my first attempt bake too quickly, scorching them slightly.

That, however, gave me the excuse to play with spice and start thinking of a number of other ways I might happily vary the treat. Version 2 was also easy; all I did was make the cookies as prescribed (while lowering the oven temp significantly, thankyouverymuch) and as I placed the slices on the baking sheet, I sprinkled over them a mixture of copper-colored edible glitter for visual interest and sweet-hot curry powder for additional flavor. Went over nicely with guests, and I found it quite enjoyable.photoFor future versions, I’m thinking of a number of possible enhancements to this delightfully easy cookie dream. I know that it’s also possible to substitute peanut butter and sugar for the Nutella and flour, and I assume one could just as easily use other nut butters. But there are a zillion ways I might play with the existing combination too. Roll the log of dough in finely chopped toasted hazelnuts before slicing into cookies. Add a splash of rum or rum flavoring. Add the finely grated zest of a large orange or a couple of small mandarins; add minced candied peel or ginger to the zested dough. Ice the cookies with a glaze made of pure cherry juice and powdered sugar. Skip the flour and egg and stick the big spoon loaded with Nutella directly in your mouth. Okay, that last one’s not exactly a recipe either, unless you want to call it a recipe for disastrous health, but it’s still probably worth a try. Because it’s sweet, and it’s simple. And when I have a crazy hankering for a bit of dessert in a big hurry, that’s a very fine thing.

Foodie Tuesday: Orange Foods for Your RDAF*

[* Recommended Daily Allowance of Fun]

I guess you know by now that I have a Thing about orange. Among the many orange-obsessions in my color-hungry psyche, and far from least, is the love of orange foods, whether naturally that way or made that color by virtue of their preparation or combined ingredients. Oranges, tangerines and kumquats, for example, have the advantage of already being that eye-catching hue, as do carrots and cantaloupes, peaches and apricots and a long list of other vegetable and fruit delights. Then there are the lovely delectables tinted with turmeric, annatto, saffron, onion skins and other strong yellow dyes combined with various companion colorings to create all of those edible paints that make cheeses and egg dishes and breads and cakes and so many other desirable comestibles burst out in alluring orange flame. It’s often a bonus attraction of particularly succulent foods that they call to us first with this beacon of color.photoMirepoix, for example, is not only a magnificent contributor of flavor and texture to a vast palette of palate pleasers but brings the come-hither warmth of the carrots’ orange to add visual appeal to those dishes. It takes very little besides to make, for example, a simple omelet or frittata both delicious and pretty, and they can be further customized with many ingredients that will further both the orange coloration and the flavor with a happy boost, as in the case of the one seen here that added only a pinch of dill and a toss of finely diced summer sausage (a.k.a. beef stick), whose fat when heated usually oozes with orange glory.photoMany orange-colored foods are not only intensified in flavor but also in their punch of sunny hue by the concentration of the drying process. Dried apricots benefit in both ways from gentle dehydration. The brand of boxed chocolates I grew up enjoying (See’s), includes in its roster of stellar treats a juicy little bite called Apricot Delight that is so good it actually deserves a place in a box of chocolates–and you know my religious beliefs about chocolate: that’s a massive concession–so recently I bethought myself to attempt a sort of replication of its goodness. I think I did a pretty fair job, but will leave it to you to decide. I think these could be made by hand mincing, crushing and chopping, but by far are best made in a food processor or powerful blender.photoApricot Slice Candies

Equal parts of plump dried apricots, toasted sweetened, shredded coconut and roasted and salted pistachio nut meats–in this instance, about a cup of each–go into the processor with about 2-3 tablespoons of butter (or, if you prefer, solid coconut oil) and a handful of candied citrus peels. Whirled together until the solids become a coarse sandy mixture, they should have enough butter in them to become a tender but malleable dough (add more butter if needed) that can be formed into a log (about 2 inches in diameter), rolled into parchment and refrigerated until serving time. To serve, simply slice the chilled dough into 1/8 inch thick coin slices. I found these addictive enough as they were, but surely there would be no harm in adding candied ginger to the peel or throwing in a pinch of cayenne, a little splash of rose- or orange-blossom water or almond extract, or some sesame seeds, to name a few possibilities. Why, even some dark chocolate mini-chips thrown in after the blending or melted to coat the coins might not be amiss and could conceivably satisfy the diehards who mightn’t be as forgiving as I’ve been about finding these beauties in the box of chocolates, but I’m content to let them shine in all of their orange cheeriness, after all.photo

Don’t Worry about Eating Up Your Time If It Means Good Eating After All

photoYesterday was rather long. Heck, it stretched right into today. But that, as you all know, is not inherently a bad thing. I would never begin to compare a day’s labor in the midst of my remarkably comfortable life with one in the farm fields, in the classroom, the clinic, office, or certainly in thoughtfully and lovingly caring for children, parents, friends–one’s own or others’. And when the goal of the work is hospitable and happy, why then so should the work be also. As it was. So, long story short, a long day can end in feeling short enough!

That, after all, is what makes anything resembling hospitality happen. If it’s done wearily or begrudgingly it’s bound to show. Even I, in my natural state of obliviousness, can generally tell from the other side of the table whether the hosts’ smiles are forced or genuine, whether the invitation was obligatory or willingly made. I credit myself with enough savvy to be able to differentiate between a relaxed conversation with a friend on the porch and her frantic attempt to make a life-saving dash for her car. And to my knowledge, I have never failed to find something that everyone in attendance could and would eat or drink on any given occasion. It demands a small amount of forethought, but then the pleasures of good company would be ever so much lessened by, say, a case of anaphylactic shock brought on by a stray peanut or an understandable case of high dudgeon induced by serving a roast of bacon-wrapped pork loin to my orthodox Jewish friends or a traditional but utterly inappropriate Asian feast of glazed short ribs and chicken feet when a vegan comes to call. A simple inquiry beforehand can put off any number of embarrassments.

It can’t, however, protect me perfectly from serving things that some among a larger group won’t love. That’s yet another reason that it’s helpful to offer a wider assortment of things in smaller quantities, when I can. No one has to feel any obligation to try everything, nor should they be forced to choose between only two or three things that are all less than favorites or just go hungry and thirsty when everyone else in the room is happily munching and sipping away. Thus, knowing we were all going to be either performing or hearing some beautiful Spanish music, I was rescued by the easy outlet of serving a tapas-style array of food and drink. I’ve already admitted that authenticity of product was less a factor in this party than simply being inspired by the notion, so when I tell you what I served I hope you’ll be as cheerfully accommodating as our guests were.photo

Almonds: Marcona almonds (those lovely little fat Spanish almonds), served simply as toasted in olive oil with a little sea salt; sticky, spicy-sweet almonds that I glazed in a pan with honey thinned with extra dry sherry, salt, cracked black pepper and lots of cinnamon; and savory almonds that I toasted in blood orange olive oil with fresh rosemary and alder smoked salt.photo

Celery sticks, plain as plain can be, because someone nearly always longs for the very simple and fresh among the more complex tastings of a snacking party.

Mango-Manchego bites: Tasty as it is, I had no membrillo handy to serve with cheese, so I wrapped cubes of Manchego in narrow strips of mango fruit leather. That turned out to be a fairly popular move, and it was certainly easy enough to assemble each with a toothpick, so I’ll keep it in mind for the future.

Marinated treats: Spanish olives–I just took a batch of the standard grocery store pimiento stuffed green olives, drained them of their brine and replaced it with dry Sherry and extra virgin olive oil; Marinated mushrooms–I bathed some sliced medium-large cremini mushrooms in a simple vinaigrette dressing of balsamic vinegar, red wine, olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme.photo

Chorizo-Date bites: Again, simple as can be–dry-aged chorizo, casings removed and meat cut into small pieces, and each piece speared on a toothpick with a cap made from a quarter of a sweet Medjool date.photo

Papas Bravas: My version of the popular spicy potato bites–dice scrubbed, skin-on russet potatoes into about 1 inch cubes, toss them with olive oil, salt, pepper, smoked paprika and chili powder, spread them out in a greased baking pan, and brown them in a medium oven.photo

Fig Bread: I didn’t have any fig bread handy, but I did have a batch of my nut-and-seed bars in the freezer, and I did after all have some figs in this batch–so I whizzed them up in the food processor (and crumbled the recalcitrant harder-frozen bits by hand), melted a bar and a half of white chocolate I had around with a heaping tablespoon or two of cocoa powder and a spoonful of instant coffee and a pat of butter, stirred that in to the crumbs, and chilled it all, patted flat, in the fridge until it was solid enough to cut into cubes. I rolled the cubes in a mixture of powdered sugar and cinnamon to keep them from stickiness.photo

Drinks: I had other things around, but what ended up getting used was mighty easy, and I got the impression that no singer left un-slaked. Besides store-bought limeade (the plain lime juice and cane sugar and water kind) and water, I had a cooler of beer and a big pot of Sangría. That was it. The Sangría, always an ad-hoc concoction in my house, was a mixture of hearty red and sweet white wines, homemade orange liqueur (made some months ago with vodka from home-candied mandarin peels, fresh mandarin + lemon + lime juices, and dried coconut and brown sugar for the sweetening), a small bottle of Mexican green apple soda, a small bottle of green apple hard cider, a tin of sliced peaches canned in fruit juice, a pint of sliced fresh strawberries and a pint of frozen blackberries. All I can say about my Sangría methodology is it’s very much a matter of combining what I have on hand at the moment with what I’m in the mood for on the occasion, the liquid equivalent, I suppose, of my casseroles.photoThe happy conclusion to the story is of course that, whatever I prepare (or don’t), it’s all about the company we keep, and my partner and I are pretty good at surrounding ourselves with outstanding people. So, was the food good? Good enough! The drinks? Wet enough! The company? Outstanding. The party? Just exactly right.

Foodie Tuesday: No Aphasia from Persia to Asia

photoIf America really is a Melting Pot, combining a multitude of cultures into one big, satisfying stew, it’s most believably so in the kitchen. Nobody can convincingly argue this concept to my satisfaction as applied to a nation founded over the centuries by invasive species of the human variety in a bizarre and often violent series of waves, frequently waves that if they don’t actively seek to wipe out everything Other that made a beachhead on these shores before them, are still not very good at blending and assimilating and otherwise embracing each other. We’re fond of ‘talking the talk,’ so to speak, as long as the other guy is willing and able to do it not only in our preferred language but with the same point of view.photoBut when we get to the table, our omnivorous love of good things can at least fairly often override our worst instincts. It’s true that breaking bread together is one of the best ways of finding commonality and even, perhaps, community. So although it’s sometimes quite delightful to be thematic in our thinking and our tastes to the point of specificity, it’s also very possible to enjoy the bounty of whole parts of the world when one is hungry for ideas, culture and especially, for good food. One can easily find a north Indian restaurant or a Sicilian one or a New Orleans-style Cajun one, but it’s not unusual either to find eateries that have a wider-ranging reach: pan-Pacific, Middle Eastern, Scandinavian, or Mediterranean, perhaps. My own tastes are shaped not only by the foods and flavors I like, but of course by the versions of them with which I am familiar and those I adopt or adapt for my own purposes and interests.photo

So it’s quite common indeed to arrive at my table and find foods influenced by particular places’ or regions’ cuisines sitting side by side with foods from decidedly different ones, or even trying a little intermingling in one dish, just for fun. The other day the meal consisted of a warm quinoa dish with a bit of Persian inspiration, right along with a salad that had slight Japanese leanings. However incongruous they might be geographically, their flavors and textures seemed complementary enough to me, and I found the combination not only edible but pretty friendly after all. So here for your refreshment, and a table-top vignette of world peace, is a little lunch invention of the Persian-Asian persuasion.

Spiced Lamb Quinoa

Cook one cup of plain quinoa in water or (as I did) homemade broth until tender. While that’s cooking, brown 1/2 lb of ground lamb, seasoning it fairly liberally with salt, pepper, thyme and nutmeg. Set both of these elements aside while preparing and combining the following in a spacious bowl: about 1/2 cup each of crumbled feta cheese, sliced black olives of any variety on hand, chopped preserved lemon, diced dried apricots, and sliced almonds (plain or toasted), and about 1/4 cup each of chopped fresh mint leaves and sesame seeds (plain or toasted). Finally, mix the prepared quinoa with that bowl of flavor-boosters, and either layer on or stir in the ground lamb. Dress the dish with fresh lime juice, raw honey and olive oil (I used my favorite blood orange olive oil), and re-season the whole with salt or pepper or any of the other previously included seasonings to adjust to your taste.

Serve warm or hot–let your taste and the weather be your guide. This dish stores well in either refrigerator or freezer and can be reheated in the microwave once mixed. Vegetarians can certainly omit the meat, and those who don’t enjoy lamb might also like ground or diced chicken better in the dish.

Quick Green-&-Orange Salad

Assemble these ingredients and mix freely, or present separately for guests to mix: sweet orange sections, snap pea shoots and carrots are the ‘big three’ here. I put them in separate “stripes” in the serving dish to show off the alternating orange-green-orange of the simple ingredients, and topped the oranges and carrots with fresh lime zest and the pea shoots with fresh orange zest just to exaggerate the color effect.

I had some pre-shredded carrots handy and in retrospect would have preferred to shred my own with the coarse side of the blade rather than have the oversized bulk of store-bought shreds. The pea sprouts are easy to cut up once plated and look kind of pretty as a long-stemmed mini-bouquet, but I’m pretty pragmatic about my food (you may have noticed), so in future I’d probably chop those into 1″ lengths beforehand too. The orange (one large navel orange) was cut into about 1″ dice and was good and juicy.

The dressing for this bright fruit-and-veg combination was a simple blend of about 2 Tablespoons of minced pickled ginger (sushi gari), orange juice squeezed out of the peel I’d cut off the orange sections while dicing it, the juice of half a lime, a splash of soy sauce, a splash of ginger juice, and a hint of honey. The soy sauce makes the dressing a less than picturesque muddy color (maybe I should try white miso next time), so I served it separately so as not to spoil my little orange-green-orange picture before we chomped all of it into moot bits.photo

And if I am to make a statement about interculturalism or ecumenism or any such blending in the way of my household cuisine, it might just be that when we eat food it all gets turned into Us, respectively and eventually, kind of the same way that every one of us on the planet will all turn after living into the same dust (unless we get to be reincarnated), so why not simply embrace the differences that become one in us, eh? At least we’ll eat happily.