Foodie Tuesday: It Shouldn’t be Too Difficult

People can get so overwrought over the holidays. Whatever those holidays may be, they have a way of bringing out the worst in the expectations we have of ourselves, never mind what we think we have to live up to for others’ sakes. So I tend to opt for the less fussy and somewhat unconventional, and I definitely prefer what’s simple. Leave the designer food extravaganzas to those with more patience and money and fewer friends and loved ones waiting to be visited or holiday lights to be savored where they twinkle and glitter on treetops and roofs, fences and storefronts. But I digress.photoHoliday brunches (it it my firm belief, as a person who does not believe in getting up a second earlier than necessary, that holidays of all times require sleeping in too late for holiday breakfasts) are an opportunity to have some favorite simple treats that can be easily thrown together for a snack-tastic sort of meal. Steamed ‘hard boiled’ eggs, bacon candied with a mixture of brown sugar and dark maple syrup, a little cinnamon and a dash of cayenne, a homemade chocolate malt, grilled cheddar cheese sandwiches, or some plain, juicy-sweet clementines–or all of the above. In that instance, there’ll be plenty to keep you well fueled until holiday dinner. Whenever and whatever that ends up being.photoMy love of savory + sweet foods, too, is not new, not unique to me, and not limited to any particular group of foods. There’s the wonderful long-standing tradition of such delicious delights as ham with sweet glazes, rich curries with sweet chutneys, sundaes with salted nuts, and cheese boards with fruits, just to drool over thoughts of a small few. And it’s interesting that time and tradition contend to restrict our thinking of certain foods or ingredients as belonging automatically to desserts or not, to a sweet category or a savory one, and further, if sweet then to desserts; if savory, non-dessert.

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Cloudy, with a high chance of deliciousness: spiced cider.

These days, then, when I’m cooking I tend to think of what ingredients I’m hungry for among those on hand, how they might go together, and what kind of dish will result. Even when the dish is finished, I’m not always certain it would easily classify as sweet or savory, entrée or side dish, main item or dessert. After all, there are plenty of old recipes leading to such seeming incongruities as smoked salmon cheesecake or candied pork. Herbs and spices, those basically non-caloric, strongly flavored elements that color and distinguish other ingredients, are a logical tool for transformation. A simple cup or glass, hot or cold, of spice infused cider becomes so much more than simply apple juice, and cocktails can turn from frilly to fiery or from crazy to cozy, depending on their infusions.

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Squash and apples make fine companions.

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Then there’s praline happiness, which I’m not averse to eating by the forkful.

If both apples and squashes can make delicious pies or side dishes equally well, why not meld all of those characteristics and veer off onto a slightly divergent path? One day I saw the inviting fall bin of pumpkins and squashes beckoning me from right next to the apple display in the produce section of the grocery store and voila! A sweet-savory side dish was born. I chopped the peeled, cored apples and blended them with lemon juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice, a dash of vanilla, a pinch of salt, a splash of maple syrup and a tablespoon of instant tapioca, and I spooned it all into the two seeded, salted halves of the pretty squash, topped with a big pat of butter to melt over it all. Into the oven it went at medium-high heat until the squash was tender enough to yield to a spoon, and I served the squash and the apple filling together with a praline crumble topping I’d made by baking a mix of chopped salted nuts, butter and brown sugar.

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Many things, sweet or savory, are happily enhanced with a touch of praline.

This little oddity easily occupied the same space on my menu normally reserved for the famous-or-infamous dish with which so many American holiday tables have either a sacred or scared relationship: marshmallow topped sweet potatoes. Sweet and savory, not to mention fatty and ridiculous, either dish is quite okay with me, and it wouldn’t surprise me any more than it would you to hear me described that way as a result. As a bit of an oddity, too, for that matter.

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Steamed carrot pudding. Not bad all on its own whether for any meal or afters.

And speaking of love-it-or-hate-it foods, there’s eggnog. What would you guess about another rich food with outsized calories in a small, sugary package? Yeah, obviously another semi-guilty love of mine. I often make a quickie eggnog for breakfast, blending a raw egg or two plus a pinch each of nutmeg (maybe cinnamon and cardamom, too), salt, vanilla, and raw local honey with cream, whole milk yogurt, or water. [Yes, I eat raw eggs often, and I’ve never in all my years had the remotest problem with it. But I’m generally very healthy. Others do so at their own risk.] When available, a ripe banana makes a delicious thickener/sweetener. Oh, and the same can be said of vanilla ice cream, of course!

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Broth-cooked carrot pudding with eggnog sauce.

However it’s made (or bought from a good organic supplier), eggnog also makes a fantastic sauce for another of those holiday-associated goodies, pumpkin pie. And when I say pumpkin pie, I happily include a host of similar sweet/savory and dense-textured treats like sweet potato pie, steamed puddings, loaf cakes, bread puddings and other such brazenly heavy-duty things–all of which would make equally lush and luscious dessert or breakfast, in my book–are nicely complemented by a sauce of smooth, creamy eggnog. If a little is good, a lot is great, or as Dad has wisely taught us: Anything worth doing is worth overdoing! Well worth a little recovery fasting in any event, eh!

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Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Toast it with a spiced cider, perhaps?

Foodie Tuesday: Suh-weeeeeet!

I love fat. I love salt. I love food, period. And as you know pretty well by now, I love sweet tidbits and treats. Dessert may as well not be a real word in my universe. Why limit my sweet tooth to being happy only at the end of a meal, I ask you! Yea verily, I might just possibly have confessed to y’all before that I adore sweet + salty foods and, of course, the marvels of the Five Tastes worshiped by so many is hardly foreign to my palate either.

Like all of my foodly affections, however, the one for sweet eats is nearly as changeable as the weather, so it takes lots of different delicacies to satisfy my cravings for sugary goods.

One day, what I have handy drives what I desire to fix: I’m looking at a basket of about a half-dozen mandarin oranges and four mid-sized lemons and thinking thoughts of citrus sweets, so I zest and juice them all together as soon as I’ve washed them. And I’m wafting on a cloud of gorgeous citrus oils and juices and hankering more for juicy joy with every minute. Thinly peeled slices of zest are too fresh and fruity to kill with over-treating. So rather than fuss with the supposed need to do repeated soaking and simmering, I decide to give the already pith-free shavings a lovely swim in the spa of sweetness, about a cup of pure maple syrup plus a hearty splash of brandy, gently bubbling it until the peels become a bit translucent; when they get strained out of the syrup, they take a roll on a sandy beach of cane sugar to keep them from staying too sticky and at the same time, give them a little hint of sparkle. Sweets enough at the end of it, between the fresh candied peels and the preserved citrus-infused maple syrup resulting, to keep the candy-monster at bay. The final bonus was that, though the syrup was pleasant enough to simply drizzle on some plain yogurt, it fed the Monster even better when it cooled completely and turned into citrus-infused pralines. Ooh, yeah.photosSometimes my hunger for sweets drives me to be overzealous in production. Even my crazy lust for candy can’t always keep up with the quantity of Noms I’ve made on many an occasion, and if we’re not having company or visiting someone I think might share my fondness for the treat of the moment, I hate to see it go to waste. So I’ll often find the way to renew the food with a little tweak or ten. For example, since we went out of town shortly after I’d made them, the recently-baked Texican Brownies left a few fellows behind until they were getting a hint too dry to be delicious as-is anymore. Quick-change artist to the rescue! I crumbled up the remaining brownies as finely as I could, softened the remaining strawberry frosting I’d set aside for them, blended the frosting with about a cup of whole milk yogurt (that I hadn’t eaten up with the syrup), added the tangerine and lemon juice I’d squeezed while making candied peel, and mixed all that creamy, thick stuff with the brownie ‘flour’ until it melded into what was a very yummy, thick, spiced, gooey mousse.photoI do realize I can’t eat all of this stuff all of the time, at least not if I have plans to, you know, live very long. But I know from experience that if I don’t please the candy dragon from time to time I get cranky and whiny. Even more than my usual. And I rather enjoy living a really multifaceted life and don’t plan to get all monk-like and deprivation-happy anytime soon either. So it cheers me up a little bit when I see that others take a pretty forgiving attitude toward sugar, salt and fat too. I might croak a leetle bit younger, but if it’s happier too, it’s probably worth it. ‘Course, I’d rather find out that sugar and fat and salt are all extreme health foods after all. I have my preferences.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Guess My Weight!

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

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

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

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

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

Foodie Tuesday: Last Suppers and Beyond

I Loves Ya, Cupcake!

I kiss your cherry-colored lips

And suddenly, straight over flips

My heart in loping, loopy leaps

As sugared-up as Mallo Peeps

Get kids at Eastertime to fly,

As ice cream piled on apple pie

And candy canes in cocoa make

Our livers strain, gallbladders quake,

Arteries cringe and capillaries

Bloat, collapse, and the Tooth Fairy’s

Rounds expand a hundredfold

When molars instantly grow old.

You get my drift: one little kiss

Of your sweet lips can lead to this

Extreme, near-paralytic dose

Of dearness, loveliness, and close-

Encountered expiration date,

But loving you is surely fate,

My cupcake, my delicious sweet,

And death of it the final treat.

 

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If one’s not careful, trimming one’s waistline can lead to wasting away. There’s an art to eating well, after all. What you eat can kill you, but what you don’t eat can, too. What to do?! Think I’ll just lie down here in this quiet spot in the graveyard . . .

The Great Equalizer

Willowy or wallowing?

Slinky or obese?

Ma likes the taste of salad greens

And Pater thrives on grease.

What’s odd is, their cholesterol

And blood pressure and weight

Don’t seem to correspond at all

With anything they ate.

I can’t quite comprehend how one

Eats lard, the other, toast,

And both don’t change; I guess

Food matters little

To a ghost.

Foodie Tuesday: *Arroz* by Any Other Name

It is conceivable that by now you have figured out that I am mightily fond of Mexican, Tex-Mex, Mexican American and Mexican influenced foods and flavors. Having grown up in rich farm country where the migrant workers not only settled eventually but brought a veritable second-town of family and friends to join them over time, I was blessed to be fed by a number of eateries in our area run by the fantastic chefs all trained by one little lady in their hometown. By rights, she should have a whole county in Western Washington named after her at the very least, though I might suggest a shrine as more appropriate, because thanks to her a whole lot of us have faithfully eaten exceedingly well on both roots food from her teachings and wonderful inventions and innovations based on them.

Having moved to Texas might even be considered a logical next culinary or at least dietary step in my lifelong love of La Cocina Mexicana.

In any event, I will keep today’s post simple but say that once again I was influenced by that saintly lady’s culinary offspring when I entered the kitchen to begin dinner prep. I had intended to make something with the big gulf shrimp I had tucked into the freezer, but until it was really dinnertime I wasn’t sure but that I’d repeat the recent quick, hot-weather meal of the previous week, where I simply poached the cleaned shrimp and served them as part of a sort of deconstructed Louis or Cobb salad cousin.photo

Which would’ve been fine.

But, you know, I opened the refrigerator and saw a carton of leftover broth-cooked rice and suddenly I got all faint and dreamy-eyed and (cue theremin music and wavy-screen fantasizing-fade here) thought with longing of one of Our Lady of Mexico‘s disciples’ lovely Arroz con Camarones–that beloved combination of rice and shrimp favored by all of the Latin coastal cultures–this one a favorite version I miss from back in Tacoma.

So this day’s shrimp were coarsely chopped and kept on hand with a finely-slivered slice of leftover ham (to add some bacon-y goodness, and to help clear out the fridge) while I sautéed about a scant cup each of julienned carrots, sliced celery and chunky-cut mushrooms in some flavorful bacon fat just until crisp-tender with a little black pepper and some cumin, added the freshly squeezed juice of one big orange and about a cup of slightly drained crushed tomatoes (I used Muir Glen‘s fire-roasted tomatoes, since I like the flavor spike they add) and cooked the vegetables and sauce until slightly thickened, adding the prepared shrimp and ham just long enough to lightly cook the shrimp through. Served over the warmed rice, and with a dollop of whole yogurt to stand in for the absent crema, it was almost as good as I remembered.photo

I did have to add the hovering Abuelita in imagination to complete the effect.

Foodie Tuesday: Nothing Freaky about Frikadeller

Kjøttkaker, as they’re known in my Norwegian-descended (and oh, how far we can descend!) family, or frikadeller, as the Danes and some other ‘cousins’ of ours call them, are simply and literally seasoned ground (minced) meat cakes. My husband finds them strange because they aren’t cozied up inside a hamburger bun, since that’s pretty much what the patties are, though usually on a slightly smaller scale. He finds it equally strange to serve them without a nice tomato-based sauce over the top of some beautiful fresh pasta, since again, they’re pretty much meatballs too, though usually on a slightly larger scale. And they certainly aren’t meatloaves, being far too teensy to serve sliced to anyone without smirking at the sheer silliness of it, though it might be worth it just to watch their expressions, while you counted out five peas per person alongside the meat and baked one fingerling potato for each. In any case, it’s really no surprise that these little dandies should suffer an identity crisis on this side of the pond.

Truth be told, said spouse isn’t a huge fan of ground meats outside of some favorite places where they commonly lurk, as in the previously mentioned hamburgers, or as meatballs in pasta sauce, or in a nicely spicy taco filling. The texture isn’t all that appealing to him without some distracting vehicle or accompaniment. I will have to continue on my search for some other alternatives or just know that any kjøttkaker cooked up around here are all mine for the munching. Hmm, was I thinking there was anything wrong with that scenario? How ridiculous!

Because I do like a nice chopped meat treat of one sort or another occasionally. So I made up a batch the other day. These are no more than a lightly-mixed blend of equal parts ground beef, veal and pork (about a half pound each, I suppose) with a couple of eggs to bind them and boost their nutrients a bit, some salt, black pepper, smoked paprika, ground coriander and a nice toss of shredded Parmesan for a touch of textural variety. I oven-baked them (in bacon fat, because I’m a flavor-holic), having made a big enough batch to freeze a bunch and have a few left in the fridge for weekday meals in the short term. Then I stuck the ones headed for supper into the skillet where the side-dishes were waiting, so all would arrive together hot at the table.photoWhile the patties were roasting, I’d cooked up a nice big batch of crimini mushrooms in butter and my homemade bone broth, set them aside and lightly cooked some nice thin green beans in the fat of the pan, and then layered it all back up together. While the vegetable portion of the program rested a moment, I’d taken the meat patties out of the oven, poured off the fat and scooped up all of those nice meaty drippings into a little container where I whipped them up with some heavy cream. The drippings were already plenty well seasoned and nicely condensed by their medieval-hot-tub adventures in the oven, so I had Instant Gravy of a kind you’re not likely to find in a packet of powdered whatsis on your grocery’s shelf. Which is to say, rich and flavorsome enough even for the likes of me.photoAll I added at table were some nice little fresh tomatoes to add a bit of color both to the plating and to the palate, a brightener welcome alongside the warmth and savory goodness of the rest. A little shot of sunshine is always welcome, whether in the kitchen or on the grinning face of someone happily gobbling up what’s served for supper.photo