Foodie Tuesday: To Quell Your Fears

I suppose it’s only natural that if one is expecting a visitation from anyone scary or spooky, one might require a good drink to calm the nerves. After all, one of the most predictable symptoms of fear and trepidation is a dry mouth and that tends to heighten the other signs of nervousness in turn. One can quickly devolve into a quivering heap of ghostly dust at the mere thought of being stalked by ghouls and goons. And of course, the arrival of  the Halloween crowd is a virtual guarantee that such terrors will appear on the doorstep.Photo: Keep Your Glassware Handy

So I recommend that you keep your shelves of glassware well lighted for the occasion, and have a dram or two of life-saving elixirs handy as well. The thirty-first is nearer than you think, and close on its heels, a horrible horde of wandering souls planning to maraud your home and demand a ransom from your candy-related treasury in exchange for safety from their pranks.

For the dedicated defender of the home barricades, it might be apropos to do up one’s home like that belonging to the landlady of Hänsel and Gretel‘s nightmares, the formidable cannibal who lured them in with the decorative delights of her gingerbread cottage. One could sit on the porch of such a candy-dandy place and leer meaningfully at passers-by over the lip of a neat little glass of Hexenblut. While that might be a counterintuitive choice for threatening them, it could also be seen as a warning that you’re so tough you slurp up your own wicked witchy sisters’ veins just as readily as any flimsy little trick-or-treaters’.Photo: Hexenblut

Me, I tend to be content to assuage my fears far more moderately and without putting up such a frightful front. I’m more inclined to turn off the front porch light and hole up in the back room to watch a nice double feature of, say, The Innocents and Gaslight or perhaps Bunny Lake is Missing and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, all while drinking a nice soothing glass of dry white wine or Scotch. The family label of “dry Riesling” from the Hungarian Count and Countess Károlyi’s estate that we visited this summer is not a bad choice for a light counterpoint to some delightfully creepy movies, or if I want something to warm my chilled heart better, I can opt for a short medicinal snifter of Bushmills 1608 or the Macallan 12 year old single malt.Photo: Karolyi Trocken

Naturally, there are times and places and people not requiring the nerve tonic of alcohol. In that case, there’s nothing more quenching and comforting than the old standby of spiced cider. Nothing warms the cockles of the heart better while simultaneously moistening the dry and gibbering lips of a scaredy cat like me than a nice steaming mug of that stuff. I like mine very well when I get some beautifully unfiltered apple cider (happily, I’ve some on hand right now) and mull it well with stick cinnamon, whole cloves, and pieces of ginger root, but this too can be made more festive if one wants to get a little more playful with it or, when necessary, make it a more potent potion for warding off baleful beasts and cryptozoological creeps. One could, for example, add some black peppercorns to the spice blend for a little more bite. (Take that, ye murky monsters!)

Still, there are so many delicious directions to go with a mulled cider it can be hard to choose: add sliced whole [seedless] oranges, especially of course beautiful blood oranges if you can get them in late October; melt in a dollop of dark molasses before adding the spices to create a little liquid gingerbread effect; serve simple hot cider with hard caramel lollipops as stirrers, if you’d like to drink a caramel apple; and of course, you could go for all-out reassurance and flavor the apple brew, instead of with spicy flavors, with dashes of rose-water and almond essence and a steeping quantity of green tea leaves for something much gentler to soothe your quaking spirits. For spirits will, one way or another, abound on this night.

Foodie Tuesday: A Balanced Diet

Photo montage: Fun with Fruit & VegetablesI appreciate good health and all of the dietary elements that can determine whether I’m healthy, and if so, just how healthy I am. I know that diet includes not only the things I eat but how I combine them, when I eat, how much I eat, and many more factors that interact to create the ever-changing state of good health I seek. I realize, too, that nutritionists and scientists and other dietary mavens are always learning new things, and nearly always getting new ideas, too, some of which they can prove and others, not so much. That doesn’t stop tons of people, including me, from becoming obsessed, however temporarily, with the latest dietary trends and tweaking our diets without always considering whether those new, however ingenious seeming, ideas have anything to do with how our own bodies operate best.

Huh.

Yeah, I’m always thinking of new and better ways to make my diet more seemingly ideal for me, and I have some goofy thoughts on the subject at the best of times, and that’s the truth. What I can say in my defense is that among the relatively few things I have managed to learn in my lifetime thus far is that there is a whole lot more involved in my health and well-being than food.

I love when I can find the balance I need in any day by eating when I’m hungry, stopping when I’m no longer hungry, and focusing on getting not only a reasonable apportionment between protein and fat and carbs and vitamins and minerals and all of that dandy stuff. I love when it’s satisfying to my taste buds as well. Most of all, I love when that’s all fitted into a balanced diet of being with loved ones, going wonderful places, learning new fun things, and not least of all, of making art. There are always going to be theories, guides, charts, Rules and expectations about what constitutes the ideal way to eat, from the old spa cures that had people eating nothing but blandness or drinking rather large quantities of vinegary-dry white wine to the FDA-approved Food Pyramid, to the various independent dietary regimes from Scarsdale to South Beach, from Paleo to the Perfect Health Diet. I’ll outlive some of them, and many more will follow me. My budget and schedule, my taste preferences of the moment, and the company I keep, will continue to change my dietary wants and needs as well.

As long as I can keep listening to music, writing and drawing, and surrounding myself with great and interesting people, I will feel well fed.

Photo montage: Another Balanced DietI need to tell you that there’s one sure way to have just the right diet, at least if you happen to be me and visiting Vienna. You just wend your way down a couple of funny little narrow byways and find the welcome that waits for you behind the door of the Gösser Bierklinik. That’s right: a clinic dedicated to beer. If that doesn’t make you feel better, you don’t know a healthy diet at all, wink-wink. Hail, Austria! It’s really a lovely old, old restaurant—don’t miss the neatly labeled Türkenkugel, the cannonball reputed to have been shot into the place in 1683 and still enjoying the pride of place where it sticks out of, or into, the wall.Digital illustration: Bierklinik Highlights

But don’t get hung up on ancient history too much, or you will miss out on one of the best Wienerschnitzeln I’ve had anywhere, and I am a fan, so I’ve enjoyed a few. The Bierklinik’s is tender inside, lightly seasoned, crispy on the outside, and unadulterated with anything other than the requisite lemon wedge for squeezing a drop or two of extra sunshine on it. Fabulous. Combine that with some ordinary but blazing hot fries and a bracing drink of anything from water to the titular beer, to what our server assured me was the ‘ladylike’ way to have a beer, a Pfiff mit Schuss, or beer spiked with elderflower cordial—I can’t speak to the waiter’s assertion, not being so incredibly ladylike myself, but it was a light and sprightly accompaniment to the Schnitzel, and given the perfectly convivial group with whom we were dining on the evening I tried it out (my husband and I were with three delightful friends, but also joined eventually in conversation with the marvelous German couple and his parents who were sitting at the next table), it was no more, and no less, effervescent than the conversation. Schnitzel, fries, a good drink and excellent company. Sounds like a perfectly balanced diet to me!Photo: Gösser's Schnitzel

 

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: Been There, Eaten That

Travel: good. Travel while eating delicious foods along the way: fabulous. Puerto Rico last week: a joy.

We went there for a specific reason, to attend the wedding of loved friends. But if one, well, has to go to an island paradise for any reason, one might as well enjoy as many other  aspects of said island as possible during the visit. So we did that, too. Good excuse to try out a few of the classic traditional foods of the place, enjoy a few modern additions, and relish the marvelous atmosphere that makes it all taste so wonderful.

Photo: Bacalaítos

Bacalaítos (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacala%C3%ADto) are a delicious small bite, fried seasoned salt cod that is often served with a dipping sauce to complement it—for example, here, a buttery garlic sauce; elsewhere, a sweet-bright guava sauce. When beautifully made, as tender and light as the most fabulous fish cakes or fish-and-chips cod anywhere.

Photo: Kitty Cat Fried Eggs

While we did sample our way through the trip, we couldn’t manage to eat *everything* on offer. I was left wondering what precisely this menu item was, if not eggs produced and cooked by felines, but it amused me to ponder on it all the same.

Photo: In Lieu of Ginger Ale

If what’s requested isn’t available, sometimes what you get might be even more fitting for the occasion. No ginger ale? Coconut soda suits a casual meal of Puerto Rican treats just fine!

Photo: Fried Pork Luncheon

A delicious lunch of fried pork, beans and rice, and tostones goes down ever so nicely and makes perfect fuel for a busy afternoon of exploration in San Juan Viejo, especially when eaten with a massive side order of mofongo.

Photo: The Apotheosis of Limeade

The current crisis of the Mexican lime crop notwithstanding, the fabulously refreshing limeade at Cueva del Mar is jammed with both limes and flavor.

Photo: Egg-Battered Shrimp

Seafood reigns supreme in island culture, and with good reason. The egg-battered prawns my spouse ordered were fresh and sweet and tender. Better yet, they were plentiful enough he was willing to share some with me. Hurray for seafood!

Photo: Conch Empanadillas

I, meanwhile, opted to get my first taste of conch. Also tender and flavorful! Diced up and seasoned as they were, they reminded me a little of something about halfway between ham and clams. And all the way delicious.

Photo: Yummy Little Fried Pies

I started with shrimp and mahi-mahi empanadillas, because despite the server’s assurance that my initial choices of conch and crab were her two favorite varieties, the kitchen was entirely out of them at the moment. Turns out they were *all* tasty little fried hand pies.

Photo: Mamposteao

One of the clear favorites in the dish derby of our trip was Mamposteao, the glorious beans-and-rice concoction originating as leftover bean stew mixed with rice and cooked in a hot pan until it develops a crisp crust around its tender and succulent insides. (https://www.google.com/search?q=mamposteao&client=safari&rls=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=z16BU7r7GdWVqAakwYLgBQ&ved=0CEEQsAQ&biw=1328&bih=763). We ordered it more than once, and I think I could eat it more than once a *week* if given the chance.

Photo: Madame St. Germain

A lovely drink, the Madame St. Germain; simply add a splash of St. Germain (elderflower) liqueur to a flute of Prosecco, and splish-splash, you have a sparkling glass of sunlight at any time of day or evening.

Photo: Chocolate Grilled Cheese

As it happens, the Madame St. Germain goes beautifully with the chocolate grilled cheese sandwiches at the magical Casa Cortés ChocoBar, made of brioche, cheddar and cocoa-blended butter and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar just in case you didn’t feel delightedly decadent enough already.

Photo: Swiss Pastries

Even with my seemingly boundless appetite, sometimes there were actual items I couldn’t quite manage to eat. It didn’t stop my wandering, food-lustful eyes from enjoying every bit, though, as in the Swiss bakery where we went with our friends to pick up a birthday cake. Because having a big wedding celebration for his sister and the opening of his new brewpub wasn’t quite enough celebrating for one fantastic man.

Photo: the Wedding Cake

There *was* a glamorous and deliciously moist wedding cake, should you wonder, and I assume it came from that same phantasmagorical bakery. So beautiful, so happily massacred by the hungry after-wedding crowd.

Photo: Pork, and All the Trimmings

But first there was the buffet of roasted pork with all of the trimmings: an unfussy and freshly crisp salad, more delicious rice and beans, what I believe were pasteles (a sort of tamale cousin—http://www.theawl.com/2012/11/puerto-rican-pasteles) and, oh yes, more pork.

Photo: The Pig in All Its Glory

All of the wedding feast was magnificent, but the star is and was, as it should be, the roasted pig in all its shiny, juicy, crackling-skinned glory.

What, you want more? Of course there was more, and plenty of it, beginning with a scrumptious party at the bride’s brother’s brewery (try saying that trifecta after a couple of glasses of his spectacularly creamy Scotch Porter style beer, infused with just a touch of Puerto Rican rum!) with all kinds of pizza made on the spot, my favorite of which was bacon and sweet plantains. We succeeded in eating more than was necessary, but not more than was enjoyable, on every single day of our visit, not counting having to get up at 4:30 on the last one to get to the airport on time. And I will certainly get right on board, fork in hand, with the opportunity to revisit the island and all of its culinary kindnesses any time I get the chance. You probably should, too.

Foodie Tuesday: Drinks are on Me

CafeculturaWhy is it that it often takes getting together with friends to remind me what a welcome refreshment it is to spend even a short time sitting down for a break with a drink in good company? It matters little whether the liquid in question is a glass of water, a cup of tea or coffee or cocoa, icy soda or lemonade, vintage wine or a crisp cocktail. The venue isn’t the most important factor either, though I’ll readily admit that I think sitting in a gleaming Art Nouveau patisserie over cafe au lait et un petit morceau de gateau beats the Ouefs a la Neige out of drinking a cuppa Joe in the kitchen over a back issue of Home Plumber magazine. The length of the interval isn’t entirely the deciding factor, for that matter, though the stretchier it can be, the better the chance of full recovery from what ails me, whether it’s a minor moment of annoyance or full-on encroaching grouch-itude. Clearly, different occasions require different libations, too.

The primary determinant of the break’s quality and value, not to mention its memorability, is the company in which the break-with-a-sip is taken. No one I know would argue against the existence of occasions wherein the best (even the only acceptable) company is one’s own. But often, even when I think I desire nothing so much as to be alone, I discover that the finest of respite is found in the sharing of a drink in good company. So whenever you and I find ourselves coming together in the same place at the same time, let’s sit down for a moment or two and savor life over the liquid renewer of choice, if you please. Good for the corporeal fluid levels; better for the soul.Enjoy Cafecultura

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: I’ll Have the Usual

photoThere are times when only the familiar favorite will suffice. The lucky socks worn for every winning match must be worn for every match thereafter; once found, the chair in the aural sweet spot of the venue must be sought for every concert to come. And there are a whole lot of us who, once we find a favorite food at a favorite eatery, are hard pressed to keep from going there over and over, ordering the same dish every time we walk into the door. This tried and true preference can be so strong that even if, like me, you’ve eaten other delectable items on a place’s menu before discovering your special favorite, you can’t go back to rambling around the menu any longer but are forevermore committed to that new-found love.

photo

When you’re not on your home turf, ask the locals for their favorites.

Naturally, there are places we discover that become go-to favorites in general, too. Places where we know we’ll be able to find an assortment of meals and dishes that please us no matter how many times we visit or even how much we vary our choices from the menu. For a lot of people, I suspect that the most likely such places, menus or dishes will always be familiar and comforting ones representing our own backgrounds, our personal histories. That’s how I end up visiting the same joint every chance I get when I revisit a particular town, and sit there feeling as contented and reassured as though I were sitting at the table with my cousins or siblings, or the neighbors or schoolmates of my youth.

photoAnd it’s no disparagement to think of it all this way; this stuff becomes sanctified in our memories and preferences most often because it’s really and truly delicious. It doesn’t have to be one kind of thing or another, neither fussy nor simple, extravagantly doctor-frightening nor miraculously healthful, decorative nor homely, to have this mystical power.

photo

Whether you call it Prime Rib or Poor Man’s Roast Beef, if it’s well made it’s all good!

The truth, I suspect, is that it doesn’t have to be our own history and comfort that the food and the atmosphere represent, but someone’s honest spaces and spices, and that’s quite compelling enough. There’s room for new favorites all the time when we visit different cities and towns or are introduced to their favorite corner booths and bar stools by our friends. After all, the company and the occasion are probably the most significant ingredients for making any eating experience a favorite. I think I hear a few places and meals calling my name right this minute!