Foodie Tuesday: Advantageous [Gifted] Food

Starting the preparation of a meal with fabulous leftovers given to me by friends after I’ve dined at their place is truly one of the most cheering and hunger-encouraging ways to go to the task. Food that was delicious in itself, made more so by having been prepared for me by good friends, and now the excess of which has been gifted for yet another meal’s foundation, becomes an almost perfect centerpiece for another delicious and happy meal.

The gift that shaped such a duo of meals recently was grilled pork tenderloin. Our friends served it hot from their patio grill along with an assortment of glorious side dishes and the grand finale of homemade pie, all of this well-seasoned with beautiful, comforting, joyful good company. Fresh garden salad, baked potatoes, vegetable crisps, and that succulent, clean-flavored pork tenderloin. I didn’t even pretend to resist when I was offered some of the remaining roast to take home at the end of the day.Photo: Grilled Pork Tenderloin

My version of the meal went in a little different direction, any attempt to copy that event exactly being doomed from the start, but I knew I wanted to keep the simple excellence of that roast’s flavor as the centerpiece. It was made for such things. I already had a variant sort of loaded-baked-potato in my refrigerator, so I used the cheese, cream, and bacon filled mashed potatoes, deepened with smoked paprika, there as the stand-ins for the day. Not having had any success with growing greens, I thought store-bought ones might seem like a little bit of a come-down after the previous dinner’s, so I skipped salad. Peas, instead; peas barely cooked in a batch of brown mushrooms that had been marinated and cooked in Tamari, dry sherry, and butter and then cooked until hot enough to warm the peas without further time on the cooktop.Photo: Mushrooms and Peas

I made a compote of fresh pears with lime juice, maple syrup, and butter and seasoned them with a splash of homemade vanilla, a pinch of salt, and a healthy pinch of ground cardamom. I guess I must’ve been in mashing mode after the potatoes, so I just cooked the pears down until they, too, could be mashed, and I finished the pork the same way I’d finished the peas: got the pear sauce good and hot, laid the slices of pork loin on top of it, put the lid on the pan, and took it off the burner, letting the sauce steam the meat through to warm it once more. Dinner was delicious. Again. Now, isn’t that twice as nice?Photo: Pork Tenderloin Dinner

Foodie Tuesday: When Cultures Collide

So many beautiful nationalities and ethnicities with so many fabulous cuisines! How on earth can I possibly choose when I’m about to fix a meal?

Then again, why choose? After all, the best of cuisines have borrowed (or stolen) from each other, been influenced by each other, and often gotten so intertwined that it’s hard to know for certain what the absolute baseline, source, or original version of any popular food or dish really was. Sometimes I think that half the fun of creating the menu for an occasion is figuring out how to play with commonalities and contrasts in the most delicious and interesting ways.

Multiply the possibilities of that original menu with my affinity for revising every ingredient or dish in its following appearances as a leftover, and you have one impressively complicated matrix of possible and tangential menus. Exponential recipe improvisation: that’s a kind of math that appeals even to a mathematical dullard like me.

There was that recent episode when I found an interesting-sounding ready-to-cook packet of mushroom risotto that had—unlike most prefab dishes of the sort—only about five or six ingredients, all of them actual foods, and thought it’d be an interesting basis for my dinner preparations. Even with pre-packaged items, it’s a virtual certainty that I will fail to prepare them exactly as proposed. I’m not talking about that silly thing where you buy a boxed frozen dinner and because it’s pictured on the box as set on a plate, the seller assumes you’re too stupid to know that you might need to remove it from the box and heat it in order to consume it, so it says in tidy type, “Serving Suggestion.” I’m talking about actual changes in the way the contents of the box are prepared or served.

So, first of all, being the perpetually lazy person I am, I thought the prospect of standing around stirring a risotto for eons was less appealing than seeing what would happen if I put the ingredients into my rice cooker with extra liquids and let it do the work. Ours is a low-tech oldie but goodie among rice cookers, with a chintzy looking removable aluminum pot insert, so I did toast the rice, with its spice and earthy little pieces of dried mushrooms and shallots in a generous pool of butter, setting that little aluminum canister right on the burner, before popping it into the rice cooker shell and pouring in a half and half mixture of homemade broth and water, slightly more than my usual doubling of quantity over dry (rice and other) ingredients, and a good dash of dry sherry. It may not have been a true risotto by a long stretch, but by golly, it was pretty darn tasty all the same. I served it topped with bacon pieces and alongside that, with some patties of slightly spicy chorizo, sauced thickly with lemony avocado cream and topped in turn with sweet grape tomatoes, all with a little green salad on the side.Photo: Risotto & Chorizo

It was a filling and nicely congenial combination, this meeting of Italian influenced risotto rice, Mexican style chorizo, and a very slightly French treatment of the avocado sauce.

Later in the week, this pseudo-risotto segued on down to Puerto Rico when I incorporated a big scoop of chipotle salsa, the rest of those thick-cut cooked bacon pieces from the previous garnish, and crumbled leftover chorizo into it, heated it through, and then let it crisp on the outside during a low and slow rest on the cooker to become a fair facsimile of the Mamposteao we fell in love with on our May visit to San Juan. With some of my sushi-ginger dressed coleslaw on the side, I think I managed to get the meal to span even further global miles than the first time, perhaps. In any case, it spanned from pots and pans to stomachs pretty neatly both times.

Foodie Tuesday: Restaurant Food = Leftover Heaven Too

photoLest you think I’m so thrifty, what with my numerous posts regarding the delights of leftovers, hashed and rehashed, that I’m not equally overindulgent when it comes to food freshly prepared, I could just refer you to all of the other Foodie Tuesday posts regaling you with proof positive of the opposite. Wherever, whenever and however I can get my choppers on it, I love good food. But of course if someone else has done the preparation, it’s often that much more to be–no pun intended–relished. Who doesn’t love having somebody else do all the work, I ask you.

So when I do go out to dine, I’m very pleased if it turns out there’s more to the meal than can be eaten at one sitting. Good once, good twice. In fact, good twice can = good at least three times, as in a recent casserole-like conglomeration of leftovers from eating out more than once upon a weekend. Convenient to the occasion, I had picked up a small carton of ready-made Parmesan tuiles (yes, I do know how to make them by hand, but there they were staring right at me in the store) and had also just taken it into my head to also make a sort of onion jam, so I already had good companions to side the dish. The ‘jam’ was simply two large yellow onions all sliced up thinly, three modest sized navel oranges (cut segments plus the peel of about a quarter orange, chopped), a half cup of butter and a half cup of dry sherry, a big pinch of salt and a couple of tablespoons of honey, all cooked down together for about 24 hours in my slow cooker until fully caramelized. The tuiles were of course prepared by the even more complicated method of Open Packet, Place Contents on Plate variety.photoIn spite of such ridiculous ease, the simplicity of preparing the ‘casserole’ was its rival in that regard. I chopped up and stirred together these leftovers from my weekend restaurant peregrinations: 1 chicken paillard, grilled with Italian seasonings and heaped with diced ripe tomatoes and parsley; 1 handful of hand-cut french fries made in beef tallow; about a cup of deep-fried zucchini, light breading and all. I seasoned them with a little smoked paprika, mixed them with about a half-cup of plain yogurt and a quarter cup of shredded Parmesan cheese, heated the whole thing in a covered casserole until it melted and melded together, and voilà! Instant main dish happiness. That it all came together with so little effort on my part only added to its savor. ‘Cause that sort of lazy success is exactly what appeals to this person who is mighty thrifty with her kitchen time.

Foodie Tuesday: Hospitality as Apotheosis

photoBeing good and doing well make us just a little bit more like angels. Making good food and treating guests well is just that much better. It’s a feeding not just of the stomach but also of the spirit. It puts one in a state of grace that can be earned, but at the same time is the richer for being given without thought of such recompense. A simple cup of hot coffee proffered with kindness becomes through this transubstantiation the elixir of joy.

Today I woke up thinking of such hospitality as I was remembering a time thirty years ago when I was the fortunate beneficiary of it. I was a recent college graduate, working for my uncle’s construction company while I paid off undergraduate loans and contemplated the prospect of taking out more for grad school, and I was sent out with a couple of fellow workers to spend a few days laboring on the repair and renovation of a hundred year old farmhouse out in the country. The weather was pleasantly warm and the house only moderately shaggy for its vintage, and the owners were friendly on our arrival.photoThe work, still, was dirty enough–removal of and repair from exterior dry rot and moss that was encroaching on the northerly upper story window frames and trim, and some interior rebuilding that the lead carpenter on the team would start framing in as a new arch between living and dining spaces as soon as the group effort of tear-out was finished on the second story outside. It was a pretty and classic old farmhouse, with a wraparound porch hugging it so that we were able to set up on the porch roof’s venerable cedar shakes to do our second-story work without having to run our ladders the full height from the ground. But therein lay the problem: by the end of the first day of demolition, the aforementioned carpenter was almost demolished too when the footing he’d installed on the roof for his ladder gave way, the ladder went flat with its top end spearing through an upstairs window and its base making a perfect slide for said gentleman to go shooting straight, if uncomfortably, off the roof.

The other guy and I were close by on either side of Chuck, but neither Jake nor I could, in the split second it took for this to happen, stop the ladder or him from going straight down into the gloom below. There was a terrible moment of near-silence while we scrambled over to the gutter to see whether we could get to him; the first thing we could see was the steel post of the truck bed spearing upward menacingly right about where he’d fallen, so we were breathless with horror as we peered over the edge into the dusk. To our immense relief, Chuck was lying in the spiny shrub next to the truck bed, where he’d slid instead, and though he had some impressive bruises afterward, he’d neither been impaled nor broken a single bone. Needless to say, there was a different wrap-up to the day than we’d planned, what with boarding up a broken window for the night and assuring the owners of the house, who’d come running at the crash, that all was going to be fine. No deaths, no lawsuits from either side, and an even better-repaired window, since we’d now rebuild the thing and re-glaze it rather than just scraping and painting.

Perhaps it was a bit of bonding brought about by the emergency that made them adopt us afterward, the homeowners, but whatever the cause, our next few days were among the most pleasant I ever spent on the job (along with those spent working in the house of the lady who afterward became another uncle’s life partner!), and the sweetness of it lingers in my memory. The second day was such a benevolent spring day that I opted to stay on the roof and eat my lunch while reading an Agatha Christie novel. That worked out remarkably well, for when the man of the house came out to see why I hadn’t come down with the others, he chatted me up about my enjoyment of British mysteries, disappeared, and reappeared later with a grocery bag crammed with said delicacies. It turned out that he was an English professor at the University and taught a course in this very topic, and that along with the house’s ‘issues’ for which we’d been hired there was one of steadily decreasing bookshelf space thanks to his and his wife’s reading habits.

The next day, there was to be no reading on the roof. All three of us workers were summoned into the house at lunchtime and seated at table. While the Professor expressed his kindliness in the gift of books, his wife expressed hers in culinary largesse. I had already thought her a very beautiful woman, with her elegant and mysteriously foreign-looking features, deep-set warm black eyes and smooth brown skin and all, her patrician carriage that belied a gentleness of manner, and her sleek black hair, but I think I fell in love with her more than a little when she put the food in front of us. It wasn’t terribly complex, perhaps, this meal, but it was heavenly. She served us robust bowls of satin-smooth potato-leek soup with slices of dark pumpernickel bread covered in rich Brie. When we thought we might be entirely filled up, we made room for more, because she came back to the table with a freshly baked, perfectly spiced apple pie.

It may be that these things have long since disappeared from the minds of all of the other players (though I find it hard to imagine Chuck has forgotten his scary adventure entirely), but the beauty of that meal so suffused me with happiness that I find it coming to me intermittently still, after all these years. I have no idea who the Lady and the Professor were and don’t even know precisely what became of Jake and Chuck, so I can’t check my facts let alone repay the kindness. I can only hope to pay it forward. I do have some of my home-brewed chicken broth in the fridge; might have to fix someone some soup soon.

Potato-Leek Soup (as remembered)

Boil a few medium-sized potatoes in enough well-seasoned chicken broth [vegetable broth, if you’re not a meat-eater] to cover them fully. While the potatoes are cooking, saute a bunch of sliced leeks in butter with a little bit of salt until melted. Deglaze the pan with a hearty splash of dry Sherry or brandy or whatever dry white wine happens to be handy.

(If you have to open the bottle for the occasion, why then you’ll probably have to have a sip whilst you cook. This is all the better if you have a friend or acquaintance standing by for the meal; you’ll enjoy the visiting all the more.)

When the potatoes are cooked and softened through, add the leeks to the pot, along with (optionally or–if you ask me–optimally) a splash of cream. Using a stick blender, puree the lot until as smooth as possible, adjusting the thickness with any of the three previously introduced liquids as desired, and tasting for seasoning. If you don’t have a stick blender, a regular blender will do as long as you take the necessary precautions against blending hot foods–or just use a potato masher and have a more rustic soup. This soup won’t lend itself perfectly to chilling like a Vichyssoise, because the butter and cream can curdle or separate, but warm or hot it should certainly be filling and definitely warm the spirits.

Cook. Share. Polish your halo. Enjoy.photo