Foodie Tuesday: You Eat What You Like, and I’ll Eat What I Like

Besides being a wise quote from my perennial hero, Yukon Cornelius, the title of today’s post is pretty great advice for eaters at all times, most particularly so during the holidays. If I’m going to go to the expense and effort to do anything special for a Special Occasion, it matters far more to me that I want to eat the results than that they meet anybody else’s standard for tradition, impressiveness, or perfection. You won’t find me dining on dainties of glorious extravagance and beauty on a holiday or birthday or any other notable date if I’m the designated cook, because spending exhausting and exacting hours in the scullery before the blessed event is not my idea of a great way to arrive at it rested and ready to enjoy its importance in my life with good cheer and an even temperament.

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Appetizer parfait: hash browns (I made these with Gouda and smoked paprika), sour cream, hot smoked wild Pacific salmon and capers. Or, in the alternative version I offered on the same day–another easy to prepare ahead topping for the hash browns–smoked sausage pieces simmered in Pinot Noir BBQ sauce. The sauce was a sticky reduction of equal amounts of red wine and homemade bone broth with brown sugar, tomato passata, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves and cayenne to taste. Guests could assemble the tiny dishes with any combination they liked, and I didn’t have to wrestle with the hors-d’oeuvres at all on the day of the party.

So while I adore Dungeness crab, I will not likely be preparing one fresh and mucking about with the tedious chore of meticulously picking the meat out of the shell–if I can find fresh Dungeness already picked and packed in a neat little carton, it’ll be on the menu; otherwise, not. My fondness for elaborate baked goods will likely be fed by an outstanding bakery, not by my slavish efforts right before a party. I’ll happily dine on a perfectly frenched rack of lamb or a miraculously flaky and tender kulebiaka or bistilla, but only if someone else is going to all of the effort it takes to prepare it.

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Homemade macaroni and cheese can be just as easy to fix as pre-packaged. Here, I blended shredded Gouda, cheddar and Parmesan cheeses in about equal amounts and added melted butter, eggs, smoked paprika, powdered mustard, a little grated nutmeg, and a tiny dash of liquid smoke (no additives, please) before stirring the cooked pasta in with a bit of cream and baking it to melt and meld it all together.

That’s how, when Christmas dining is at home, it may go so far as to be a roast beef that can be cooked sous vide and requires only a quick browning in the oven before carving, but it might also be a made-ahead, very down-to-earth macaroni and cheese. Or even a tuna salad sandwich, a perpetual favorite that, while it’s hardly what anyone I know would consider Fancy, is gladly eaten with a handful of good potato chips and a juicy apple on nearly any occasion chez nous. I want to eat delicious food on Christmas, but it doesn’t have to be unusual or expensive or showy in any way to be delicious, and if its simplicity of preparation means that it’s eaten in a very comfortably relaxed state, that makes it all the more appealing and enhances its flavor remarkably.

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Homemade mac-&-cheese is, in fact, also easy to customize for any number of tastes and occasions, as when I change out the elbow macaroni with some fresh fettuccine and toss in a batch of Langostino tails. Voila! ‘Poor man’s’ lobster fettuccine.

I hope that everyone who is celebrating around now–whether it’s Christmas, the Dongzhi festival, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, the New Year, Kwanzaa, a birthday, or something entirely different–has the wealth and freedom to take the same approach. It’s satisfying to arrive at happy events relaxed and, well, happy. And eating what you love to eat is always better than eating what you think you should eat, only because you think you should. I wish you all great food, simply prepared, great company when you want it and quiet time away when you need it. That’ll make the food taste all the better when it comes. Cheers! Bon appetit! Joy!

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Who says plain salt-and-pepper roasted chicken isn’t fancy enough for a special occasion? If you enjoy it, indulge. Even with the most common of accompaniments, it can be satisfying and tasteful (clockwise from the ruby-colored jellied cranberry sauce at left): pickles (here, okra, green tomatoes and green beans); sweet corn; coleslaw; apple sauce (freshly made brandied maple sauce); mashed baked potatoes with beurre noisette, fried sage leaves and optional red wine/broth reduction sauce; and a spoonful of tiny, tasty green peas. And if you’re a vegetarian, you can always eat the whole rest of the meal and be content. Peas to all the earth, I say!

Even desserts–maybe especially desserts, come to think of it–can get treated like such elaborate Fabergé egg-like constructions that they are too precious for ordinary mortals to eat and far too tiring for me to slave over preparing. I’ve hardly ever seen anyone turn up his nose at store-bought ice cream or refuse if I offered her a nice piece of chocolate straight out of the wrapper. A bowl of perfect fresh strawberries, a moist pound cake made the other day, and a quick batch of whipped cream with vanilla give instant summer cachet to the end of a meal. Banana pudding needn’t even be a fuss, and doesn’t look really like much (hence the lack of a photo), but it’s unpretentious and tasty enough that everyone right down to the toddlers will happily eat that old comfort favorite.

Banana Pudding to Make You Go Ape

Don’t bother with cheap, phony tasting artificially flavored instant banana pudding, either, despite a short timeline for the treat (unless you get all nostalgic over it for some reason). All you actually need is some really ripe bananas and a handful of other ingredients, and away you go…

Blend together until smooth (I use the stick blender for this): 5 overripe bananas (too mushy for eating plain), a pinch of salt, the juice and grated rind of 1 large lemon, a generous teaspoon of vanilla, a couple of tablespoons each of raw honey and butter, and about a cup of heavy cream. Chill until thickened. What do you taste? Bananas. What will you do? Go bananas over it. Why work harder than that for your food and fun? Enjoy your holidays and happy days instead!

Oh, and I must add (since what goes without saying may not entirely go without saying for everybody!) that this kind of banana pudding will, of course, oxidize–unlike the aforementioned imitation stuff–so it’s best eaten right when you’ve made it unless you’re like me and don’t care if it’s a little beige in color. And it’s not super thick, so if you like it thicker, I recommend whipping the cream separately and then folding it into the blended banana mash, to which you’ve already added the other ingredients. No matter how you choose to make it, it’s still pretty tasty. And, as Marie has suggested in the comments and I’ve already tested, it makes a dandy breakfast!

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Happy New Year!

Foodie Tuesday: Savory, then Sweet

Dinner and then dessert. That’s the way I was raised, and I think a zillion other people had the same, despite the urge most children I know have always had to eat dessert first–and possibly, to stop there. Now that I’m wonderfully old, I can do that, and don’t hesitate to indulge now and then. But along with my well-known love for combining the sweet and savory together, whether it’s merely by adding a bit more salt to desserts or it’s designing a meal to have a wider range and greater balance between the savory and the sweet, there are plenty of times when a semblance of conformity to the old norm is perfectly satisfying to both my empty stomach and my sweet tooth.photoThere is much that I love about the simplest of meals, not only because it pleases me that they’re easy to prepare but because they also allow–nay, invite–the savoring of their few and uncomplicated parts. A chicken-and-noodles dinner, for example, can be barely more than those two ingredients and fill me comfortably and contentedly. Chunks of roasted or baked or fried chicken tossed in with fresh fettuccine that has been cooked in rich chicken broth (this time until the broth was thickened to sauce, but other times, just as a dandy bowl of chicken & noodle soup) need little but a helping of vegetables or two alongside and they become both welcome nourishment and a little trip down memory lane. My hunger is sated and I am reminded of many a happily simple meal gone by.

But then I succumb, more often than not, to thinking that if this meal is a little like those my mother made, why then it ought to end in dessert as well. And as citrus so complements chicken in nearly any guise, why not make a citrus dessert to follow a chicken dinner? I could certainly opt for the ever-lovely lemon bars that brighten many a table, yet I am not exactly known for coloring inside the lines when it comes to an entire menu, so on the most recent chicken-noodle dinner occasion, I took a slight deviation from that norm. I made what you could callphotoSimply Lime-Coconut Bars

[I took my first cue from a recipe for ‘instant’ lime curd made in a Vitamix so I could skip the slow and attentive cookery most curd recipes require. Our household blender is nothing so sophisticated–or expensive–as a Vitamix and doesn’t reach that machine’s level of heat, but since I was using the curd mostly for these cookie bars where it would subsequently be baked (and because I have no fear of eating raw eggs anyway), I went ahead with the blender I have. Needless to say, besides my alteration of the process I changed the ingredients to the point that you’re now getting my recipe, not that lovely published one I found elsewhere.]

Lime-Coconut Curd (Makes 6 servings.Theoretically.)

In the blender, whiz 3 whole eggs until frothy, adding ½ cup sugar + 1 hefty pinch of salt and ½ teaspoon of vanilla as you go; add ½ cup melted, very hot coconut oil in a thin stream, followed by a stream of ½ cup fresh lime juice, and keep blending it until it’s good and smooth or you think your blender and you will both swoon from overheating.

Set the curd in the refrigerator if you’re taking very long to prepare the rest of the cookie bar recipe, but if you’re like me, it’ll already be in the fridge from a couple of days ago when you made a double batch and spooned out a few helpings of the curd, plain, to snack on between times. As one sometimes must do. And I think you do know what I mean. Meanwhile, let us return to our cookie bar recipe.

Lime-Coconut Bar Cookies

[I am told I will be a complete failure as a human being if I don’t add the curd to a warm, just-baked crust layer, so I conform to the Rules at least that far. And I lined the bottom of the 9″ x 13″ pan with a single piece of baking parchment so that I could easily lift out the bars when ready.]

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Okay, I can’t resist adding a dash of additional crunchy salt on top some of the time. Whether I eat them in any particular order or together, I do love both the savory and the sweet.

To make the crust, blend 1 cup flour (I used gluten-free flour), 3/4 cup coconut flour, 2/3 cup confectioners’ [powdered] sugar, 1/4 cup cornstarch, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom and 1/4-1/2 teaspoon almond extract. Cut 3/4 cup [yes, really! What, you think I’d lie about adding lots of good fat?] of cold salted butter into this dry mix until it becomes a crumbly, sandy blend and then press it evenly into the pan. Refrigerate this for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to your equivalent of 350°F [as you know, my oven has its own ideas about what that means, so I adjust accordingly]. When the crust has chilled, pop it into the oven for about 20 minutes or until it’s beginning to brown lightly. Out of the oven it comes. Reset the oven to 325°F, stir up the curd

, spread the curd over the crust, and pop the pan right back into the oven, for about 20 minutes or until the curd has set when gently touched. Almost done, now. Turn off that oven of yours before you forget, let the pan cool on a rack for about another half hour, and then you can take a quick swipe around the perimeter of the bars with a knife tip to loosen any stuck things before lifting them out in their parchment sling. These, like any citrus curd topped bars, are pretty to serve with a final dusting of powdered sugar on top, but any you’re saving for later should get dusted directly before serving, as it’ll absorb into the bars in the meantime. If, however, you’re going to devour the entire pan in one sitting, who am I to blame you? Powder up, my friends. Life is short and dessert is long-awaited.

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Or there could be pomegranate and pistachio, for a change . . .

The second time around, I decided to try the bars with a little north-African influenced twist: substituted salted, roasted pistachios (ground to flour) for the almond flour in the crust, decreasing the added salt to 1/2 teaspoon; made the curd with pure pomegranate juice and butter instead of the lime juice and coconut oil, and because the curd wasn’t quite as bright in either flavor or color as the original recipe, made a little layer of zing from 1/4 cup each of pomegranate juice and ginger preserves, pureeing them together completely and softening a tablespoon of gelatin in them to thicken slightly, and finally topping the bars with whole pistachios and a dusting of powdered sugar and edible glitter for a dash of, well, dash. Messy, yes. Edible? Oh, yes. You people do know how I like my variations on a theme! And if we’re going to have dinner first, then I’m not opposed to two desserts to make up for the waiting . . .

Foodie Tuesday: All about the Ingredients

photoI’ve said it before, and lots of food experts smarter than I am have said it lots of times before I ever did: good food preparation starts with good ingredients. No amount of genius and skill will make a great meal out of so-so ingredients, let alone out of bad ones. And me, I have a modicum of smarts and very modest, though for a lazy goof-off like me, surprisingly patient skills. So yeah, I can get the job done, as long as I have some excellent ingredients in hand.

photoStarting with salt. One of the most indispensable of delights in the entire pantheon of foods and culinary assets from its first discovery, good salt in just the right quantity is the First Rule of Yumminess in many, many a dish. But, hang on, salt should still often be the last ingredient applied. Tricky, no?

photoThe meal, however, if it’s with fun guests on hand and stretching a little over the course of the day or evening, well that should begin with a little taste of something nice. For the other day’s dinner guests, who were indeed a whole lot of fun, the starters were simple enough, and already on hand: the crackers I made (and posted) last week, the olives I’d previously bathed in sherry and olive oil, and smoked almonds, plus a few chilled prawns with dill-enhanced cocktail sauce. A fresh, cold batch of light Sangría:

Blushing Sangría

Two 750 ml. bottles dry rosé (I used a nice dry Pinot Noir rosé by Toad Hollow), plus 1 bottle of sweet white wine (I used a bottle of Moscato), 1/4 cup of Amaretto, 1/4 cup of Himbeergeist, 1/2 pint of fresh raspberries, 6 small or 3 large fresh peaches, 1 teaspoon rose-water, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/4-1/2 cup of light agave syrup or raw honey. Stir gently and chill thoroughly before serving.

The peaches I bought were an unexpected mix of half overripe and half underripe fruits, so I peeled and sliced the underripe pieces into the Sangría, where I’d already immersed the raspberries, and the too-ripe ones I pitted; I put the mushy peaches and all of the skins from both kinds into the blender with a bunch of the liquid ingredients, blended them all thoroughly and sieved the pulp into the Sangría, so I still got all of the mileage of flavor and color from the peaches, if a little less sliced fruit. In the end, it was plenty drinkable, so all was well in our pre-prandial world.photo

photoThe meal needed vegetable balance, of course, so I kept the ingredients to a fair minimum again and the flavors simple. Why mess with good contents? A mix of heirloom tomatoes and red cherry tomatoes made a simple but flavorful topping for romaine lettuce with a couple of simple salad dressing choices. Sweet corn, freshly pared off of the cob, was gently and quickly warmed in butter. And some delicate asparagus was steamed with a little soy sauce, a little plain rice vinegar, a very small dash of toasted sesame oil and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

photoThe main dish, which I’ve undoubtedly mentioned in previous posts, was our old favorite household standby of Smoked Salmon Pasta. Not even a true recipe, really. Dearest John, I did not hand-craft my pasta. Yes, I bought refrigerated fresh fettuccine. Would that I’d had you supervising the party, not to mention in charge of the pasta-making, this element would indeed have been more, erm, elemental. Not to worry. Some day I shall reform. Meanwhile, a decent store-bought fresh fettuccine is not such a bad thing when dressed up just a leetle bit with smoked salmon cream. Simmer about a pint of heavy cream until it thickens to a nice sauce thickness, add about 1/4 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg and 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, 1 cup of broken up [hot smoked] alder smoked wild salmon, and a good splash of lemon juice. Toss gently with the freshly cooked and drained pasta and serve.photoThere are only two main high-quality ingredients needed to complete a pretty good party with all the rest of this, then. Dessert, naturally, should be offered–a bit of sweetness to follow all the preceding, and stretch as far into the evening as can be managed by all. But most significantly, the last essential ingredient of the gathering is, well, the gathering. The good company. We had that. Good enough company to want to stretch out the evening. So there was just a touch of dessert. Fresh strawberries and, you guessed it, chocolate.

photoI never said I was original in my menu planning. But I am really good at putting myself in excellent company, and that’s always what the party is all about. There you go: my real culinary talent is cooking up a right magical blend of outstanding people and enjoying the delights that result from the combination. Too bad there’s no cookbook out there that teaches that–no, wait–every good cookbook in the world gives guidance for just this art. As these good books teach us, choose your excellent ingredients wisely, food or company, and you will brew up a marvelous party.