Foodie Tuesday: For Which I’m Very Thankful

Photo: Thanksgiving in New BraunfelsI enjoy cooking. Not as much as I enjoy eating, or I’d probably bother to get chef training and go to work as a cook somehow, but I do enjoy time well spent in the kitchen. Still, I am ever so glad to let other, and very often better, cooks feed me. I was delighted, for example, to let the hotel staff in New Braunfels (Texas hill country) put together the meal my darling spouse and I shared with a ballroom-full of senior citizens and a small handful of their child and grandchild youngsters on Thanksgiving day. The food wasn’t especially gourmet, being an all-day buffet of extremely familiar and generally uncomplicated dishes long associated here with the holiday, but it was satisfying and traditional, and I didn’t lift a finger to help in its preparation, unless you count buttering my own bread. And I loved that—especially at the end of a long no-breaks haul for my hardworking husband, and in the throes of freshly hatched holiday colds for both of us—we could pay someone else to feed us. I’m grateful every day that I can afford to eat, and nearly always whatever I want to eat, and that sometimes others will do the fixing for me.

I’m also pleased to have access to foods that are, when I do want to cook, easy to make into something nice to eat. Vegetables almost never miss the mark in that realm for me, even though the aforementioned darling isn’t quite so hot on so many of them as I might be. It still fascinates me that he has, thanks to being a supertaster, an arguably restricted palate, but likes some foods that one might never expect a picky eater to like. He is an avowed avoider of things garlicky and onion-heavy, yet numbers among his joys when choosing a meal such famously garlic and onion friendly cuisines as Italian, Thai, Mexican, Indian, and of course, Tex-Mex. It’s all about how the ingredients are prepared, integrated, and combined, isn’t it. This guy who despises Weird Foods (and to him, they are myriad) will happily eat raw fish—not so familiar at all in America until recent decades—if it’s in the form of well-made sushi. As we draw near to the two-decade mark of marriage ourselves, I still do not presume to read his mind, culinarily speaking, accurately at all times. Not that this assures I can’t or won’t eat what I please, when it pleases me, but it’s easier to accomplish when dining out than when I’d have to prepare separate dishes for us, a thing I’m willing to do only occasionally. Another reason to appreciate visits to restaurants and friends’ tables.Photo: Fresh Onions

While I’m on the subject of vegetal delights, let us then ponder some specifics. And why not start with garlic and onions? The flagrantly fragrant lily relatives are amazingly versatile, able to range from hot and spicy to mellow, even to sweet; in texture, they can be soft, chewy or crispy, depending on their preparation. They can add color and pattern to a dish with their concentric layers, their bulbs and leaves, or they can melt right in and disappear, leaving only their flavor to remind of their presence. Thanks to my partner’s tastes, it’s rare that I’ll indulge in any of the more potent forms myself unless he’s out of town for a length of time, but I still remember how to use them in gentler ways when I’m in the mood. For example, two very different kinds of soup starring alliums: French-style Soupe a l’Oignon, and a Creamy Leek & Potato Soup.

The Creamy Leek & Potato Soup is simple enough to make, but should be done rather slowly to get the best out of the ingredients gently. Leeks must be cleaned very thoroughly to get the sandy dirt and grit out of their layers, and an aggressive approach to the cleaning is fine when they’ll be pureed anyway. So start by trimming the leeks’ green ends well and removing their root ends, then split them in half lengthwise and soak them in a basin or sink filled with cool water before hand-checking them for any remaining dirt. Meanwhile, clean, chop and boil an equal amount of potatoes (skin on or off, depending on the variety and your wish) in water with a couple of bay leaves and a dash of salt. Drain the rinsed leeks, reserve a small handful, then chop the rest into pieces about an inch/2 cm long, and soften them until they’re melting with a slow sauté in lots of good butter. Slice the reserved leek pieces as thinly as possible and fry them until crisp for use as garnish when the soup’s ready. When the potatoes are fully cooked, remove the bay leaves from the water, pour in the buttery leeks, and puree the water, leeks, butter, and potatoes into a thick soup, thinning it to your preference with cream or half-and-half. Season to taste with salt and pepper, top with a spoonful of sour cream or creme fraiche, and sprinkle some of the frizzled leeks over that before serving.

Soupe à l’Oignon is delicious when made with a chicken broth base. I know, I know: many traditionalists insist that beef broth is the proper foundation for French onion soup. But I always found chicken broth (especially my own homemade stuff) the best fit for the soup’s overall flavor profile. I might even go strictly vegetarian rather than use beef broth in it, knowing how I tend, and if so I would definitely opt for adding some powdered Cremini mushrooms and a splash of Tamari to the roasted mirepoix mix in my veg broth simmer to make it a little more robust before straining it. But my basic recipe always started with the onions. I like plain yellow onions, and slice them into about 1/2″ (1 cm) thick slices after cleaning them. If I’m making the broth on the occasion of the soup itself, I’ll throw the onion skins into it for the beautiful amber color they lend. A nice big pot (even a half-full slow cooker) full of sliced onions with a pinch of salt and a lot of sweet butter can cook slowly and beautifully into a smooth, jammy confit, and that can be used in any number of dishes later, if you save some by vacuum-packing or freezing it.

Last-minute prep of this beauty is simple. Heat the number of desired 1-cup (or so) servings in a heavy pan, and when the onions are just about to stick to the pan, deglaze it with a good splash of dry sherry, broth, or water. Spoon each helping into a heavy bowl, mug, or ramekin. Barely submerge the onions with a helping of broth, whichever kind you have in mind. Top each helping with a slice of well grilled dense, chewy peasant bread. Top the bread with a hefty slice of Gruyère cheese, broil until bubbling and golden-brown, and it’s ready to serve. Not quite ready to sip, though. Try to wait until you won’t get broiled by the hot cheese yourself. Worth the wait. It’s kind of like growing the vegetables in the first place. Patience pays in deep flavor.Photo: Fennel & Carrots

In this regard, there’s a whole range of marvels in the vegetable world that are only made more lovely by roasting the veg. Take fennel. The homely bulb is somewhat celery textured and mildly licorice flavored in its garden-fresh state. Generally speaking, I hate licorice. But with a light roasting in a bit of oil (preferably olive or avocado) or butter, fennel becomes an ethereal and delicate variant of its former self that I really do enjoy in small amounts. Swell in a combined vegetable roast; fabulous in a bouillabaisse or cioppino. Throw some herbs, carrots, and onions, along with masses of seafood, in the tomato-based broth, and with that whisper of perfumy fennel as a top-note, you have some magical brew.Photo: Radishes

Beetroot is a master of flexibility, whether as the star of the moment or as a sweet and sultry mystery ingredient in a dish. Even the homely radish raises the possibility of delicious dining, when kindly handled. The old standby of a radish sandwich (just thinly sliced, lightly peppery radishes served open-faced on sturdy but refined white sandwich loaf slices, heavily buttered and lightly salted) is a fine place to start. An icy-spicy salad of sliced radishes, fresh mint chiffonade, and sliced sweet apples (something like Fuji, Jazz, or Pink Lady) in a light dressing of rice vinegar, macadamia oil, sugar, a grind of black pepper, and a pinch of salt. Of course, I can’t give you actual recipes for my foods, being almost constitutionally incapable of replicating the quantities and combinations of any dish I’ve made. I vary what I’m preparing based on what’s on hand, and I’m awful at following existing recipes, so you should take what say with a pinch of salt, too. Something that rarely hurts the preparation of a fine vegetable, by the way, a pinch of salt.

The other instructive clue I’m happy to share with you about vegetable preparation today is, of course, the efficacy and beauty of somebody else doing the work. Works for me!

All Gardens should be Herb Gardens

photoI am prejudiced. It seems logical to me that any garden grown for beauty should be grown for utility as well, and any garden grown for use ought to be pretty to look at and full of great sensory experiences well before it gets put to work. Why shouldn’t gloriously pretty edible and functional plants be shown off in all parts of the landscape, and why shouldn’t we take better advantage of what we have growing around us anyway?photo

Thankfully, these biases of mine are becoming more widely put into practice all the time. While kitchen gardens have a grand tradition of being ornamental and landscape design has long had its elements of utility inserted, those approaches have tended to be rather exceptional than the norm. So I’m thrilled to see such a proliferation, a flowering, if you will, of the whole concept that these belong as integrated into a delightful whole.photo

My friend Christopher’s interest in starting the garden personalization of his next home with herbal inclusions and infusions (not to mention his appreciation of adventuring in the kitchen) got me thinking about my own past and present herbal operations. What do I consider a good framework for inserting my own preferences, herbally speaking, into the garden nowadays? And what, in turn, is actually happening in that way here? Not surprisingly at all, this thinking turned into a lengthy exercise in list-making. Herewith, my mental inventory of herbal ideas. Foremost among them: that I plant every and anything in my garden where I think it will thrive best, then opt for where it will provide the most splash and panache in complement with the nearby plants, and finally, tuck in some elements of surprise wherever I think they can inspire even the casual visitor to the place. Herbs, fruit, vegetables, common or exotic. So long as I’m not trying to subvert the laws of nature too far, let alone encourage an invasive alien species anywhere, it’s all fun.

For the moment, though, I’m focused mainly on herbs and a few similar animal (human or otherwise) friendly options.photo montage

Easiest to keep as perennials or self-sowing annuals are some of the best kitchen basic herbs and also some of the prettiest flowering or border texture plants, so they’re what I’d call genuine bargains in the herb dept:

Parsley (curled and flat-leaf); both can get pretty large over time, but are also pretty easy to cut back if necessary. Be prepared for gigantism, since parsley can easily top two meters in height when it’s stretched out in bloom.
Chives (common and so-called Garlic Chives); both give that nice light oniony flavor, and of course the ‘garlic’ variety has a hint of garlic in it as well. The purple pompom-like head of the common chive is attractive in the garden or as garnish and also edible, but I’m especially fond of garlic chives as a garden plant–they don’t look at all like the common chive, having a flattened stem and clusters of tiny white lily-like flowers in place of the purple variety’s.
Rosemary comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and leaf lengths, most tasting similar. It’s a woody, shrubby plant in general, but some are upright, some trailing. The blooms vary: white, pink, lavender, purple, even quite blue, depending on the variety. Pretty and fragrant even while still in the yard, and bees and butterflies tend to like it too.
Thyme also comes in a ton of forms. Its types vary slightly in the pink-to-violet bloom range (quite tiny flowers) and quite a bit in the leaf type: white- or yellow-edged green, solid green, silvery; some, like Lemon Thyme, have mildly differing flavors as well, and some, like Woolly Thyme, are more strictly ornamental. Me, I’m quite happy with common thyme (Thymus vulgaris); it’s really quite easy to grow, even as a sort of ground-cover plant in borders, easy to control, has those cute little blooms, and is a very versatile herb for cookery. My favorite with chicken.
Sage is pretty easygoing, too, and also has numerous colors. I like growing the purple-leaf and variegated yellow- or lime-and-green varieties for what they bring to the flowerbeds. They can get big and leggy and woody, so sometimes sage plants require some good pruning, but it’s not hard to do with them, and sage is so lovely with poultry and winter vegetables, not to mention that their fried leaves are fabulous with lots of dishes!photo montage

Some of the less common ones I love are well worth mentioning, too:

Lemon Verbena is better started from a live plant than seed and is fragile. I suspect it could work as a kitchen-window dweller for longer life, though I’ve not tried it indoors. I got lucky with it wintering over last year! As I said, great to add to tea (hot or iced), and would be dandy in anything where you want a less astringent lemony, kind of perfumy, flavor. There’s a lemon verbena ice cream recipe on epicurious.com that is sheer HEAVEN.
Borage is an annual, but I got lucky last year and it self-sowed from the previous season. It’s a kind of straggly and tall plant and has hairy, even lightly spiny, leaves and stems, but the hairs actually look kind of pretty in daylight, adding a lacy aura to the plant, and they don’t outright hurt when you touch them at all. Both leaves and flowers have a lightly cucumber-like flavor that’s nice in salads or cold drinks (chop the leaves finely or smash ’em to keep the fuzziness from being an off-putting texture in food), and the blooms are gorgeous, starry, true-blue dainties.

&    Sweet Bay, if you have the room for an actual tree, is a pretty one and exudes a faint resinous perfume on a windy day as well as providing bay leaves for all sorts of cookery. In a former home I had a 4 foot tall lollipop shaped semi-bonsai one I grew in a big galvanized tub and wish I could’ve taken it with me.
&    Saffron is both useful and a glorious choice for the garden, being the dried stigmas of a very pretty kind of crocus. These bulbs don’t naturalize readily like some crocus, but are of course worth the effort and expense if you can get them.
&    Sorrel‘s bright acidity makes it a welcome herb with which to spike a salad, my favorite use for it. The zippy sourness comes from oxalic acid, so it’s not something you want to eat by the bale, but it’s not so potent you can’t safely make soup or just eat it raw in small amounts. The flower stalk is slightly weedily aggressive, and the leaves are very popular with munching insects, but since it’s not a virulent spreader the flowering isn’t hard to nip, literally, in the bud, and those insects are often butterflies and moths, so I’m happy to share with them.

Some herbs are big on flavor but not worth trying to grow in the wrong climate or simply too short-lived for my lazy wishes:

&    Cilantro: I love it, but it bolts (goes to seed) so fast that unless I grew a huge patch of it for one-time harvest and freezing or kept planting it repeatedly through the season, it’d be sprouted and dead in no time, so I’m happy to pay farmers to grow it for me.
&    Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass and ginger (okay, that’s a rhizome, not an herb) are exceedingly delish in all kinds of Asian foods but require more tropical conditions than I’ve lived in for their happiness!photo montage

Some annual herbs are worth the effort, even if they don’t tend to self-sow:

&    Basil is one that I have been known to plant in a couple of varieties a season for different purposes: the purple leafed types are pretty as well as decent tasting; Thai Basil gives a specific and welcome familiar spice to Thai and Vietnamese cookery; Sweet Basil is the most versatile flavor king among them. They all have nice blooms, though not showy; if you let them bloom, though, they tend to wind down as their work is done, so you want to keep beheading at least some if you plan to keep using it through the whole growing season. Then basil tends to keep proliferating. Cruelty pays! 😉
&    Lettuces are of course lovely, but cabbages too are often forgotten as ornamentals, but as you know, I like planting them for their leaf color and texture, can cut occasional leaves for food or garnish, and when I leave the rest to do so, they bloom in very hummingbird-friendly ways and are a fun novelty in the flowerbed as well. Another lettuce cousin I like a lot is chard (silverbeet), whose leaves are tasty spinach imitators (raw or cooked) and whose varieties include some with great colorful stems that make them look like rhubarb or Pop Art versions of it in yellow and orange. Mine wintered over this year in the front flowerbed, surprisingly. Radicchio is a great member of this whole group, too: edible and showy burgundy colored leaves, and if you let some or all of them go to flower, they’re tall blue daisy-like things. Quite delightful.
&    Shiso, or Perilla, is a less commonly used leafy herb in the US, but the popular Japanese treat comes in a number of often quite attractive leaf shapes, textures and colors. I grew a gorgeous one some years ago that had a slight scallop on the leaf edges, a gracefully veined texture, glorious purple and green-black hues, and a spectacular metallic sheen. I confess I didn’t use it much for food because I couldn’t bear to snip it.
&    Garlic and Onions, on the other hand, have distinctive and fun flora, and can survive longer term if you don’t choose to dig all of them up to eat.

Some herbs are potentially invasive pests but I still like them for their beauty and/or culinary gifts, so I’m willing to keep massacring them occasionally to keep them in check:

&    Oregano spreads fairly easily but is a pretty bloomer as well as a tasty leafy herb, and not awful to control.
&    Mint is a genuine monster that wants to take over the world, especially my favorite commonly named ‘apple mint’ (huh??? I’ve never figured out what’s apple-y about it) that’s so incredibly versatile, but I try to plant it in places where it can spread without turning into square-stemmed kudzu. There are a number of interesting and fun varieties of mint ‘flavors’ available, but I stick with my old reliable despite the allure of Chocolate Mint, Orange Mint, and even true Peppermint and Spearmint, since one aggressive invader variety is enough for me. Wintergreen is a beautiful plant but, besides not being a mint variety at all, is pretty hard to find. It’s a broad-leafed evergreen with small white flowers and big pinky-red berries, and the crushed leaf is wonderfully fragrant, but it’s not commonly found, isn’t a snap to prepare for edible uses like most of these others, and has a picky attitude in climate and growth requirements. Still, I did grow it once in Washington because of its peculiar attractions. Maybe I feel an affinity with it by virtue of my husband’s having chosen me for my peculiar attractions. Ha.
&    Dill is sometimes known as Dill Weed for good reason, as it can run rampant in friendly climates and it’s a large, blowsy plant despite its delicate thread-like leaves. But its starburst flora and subsequent seed heads are pretty among the leafy lace, and it’s so danged delicious in so many meals that even if your climate is conducive to such running amok it’s worth the trouble. Besides, in that case you can at least put in some of the dwarfish kinds of dill. Pretty unbeatable with fish, and indispensable in deli pickling!
&    Fennel is similarly a member of the uncontrollable-toddler plant type, moving aimlessly but at speed all over the garden and being a big showoff of a thing, but even if you’re a little hesitant about the licorice-y hints it gives food, it too has a nicely delicate look for such a tall plant, and you can bring some nice color into the beds by planting bronze fennel. Just chop it ruthlessly when it wants to flower to keep it in check. I’ve never tried growing bulb fennel myself since as rarely as I use it, it’s easier to buy it and give the garden space to something else.photoClearly, I could wander on like this for ages. My experimental wildflower mini-meadow out back has behaved modestly well in its first half-season last year and appears to be letting a few sprouts emerge for a good beginning again now. I will go out in the next few days and give it a thorough haircut with the weed-cutter so that it has its own mulch through the remaining unreliable chills of late winter and early spring, and have been feeding it a kind of pre-compost over the winter by tossing the chopped and blended remains of the kitchen’s dregs in and letting them freeze and decay gradually as they would have in a regular garden, and will add to that with some other treats as the patch begins to revive. I am very curious to see what of the multitudinous kinds of seed I’ve planted out there now makes an appearance and what will take hold for the long term, as much of what I put in was intended to be naturalizing perennial feed for the birds and insects as well as soothing wildflower beauty. The bonus, if all goes well, will be lots of herbal fun for my dining companions and me. Only time and Mother Nature will tell.

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