Foodie Tuesday: Start with Simplicity

The end of the year is a good and fine and happy thing. I would never claim to be so tough and unsentimental as to reach the end of anything without a glance backward, without a touch of wistfulness about all of the great things that have been. I’m much too thankful for my wonderfully blessed life to leave it all behind without a blink. But the obvious upside of the end of a good thing is that it is, potentially, the beginning of any terrific other thing I can imagine and am willing to work toward experiencing, knowing, or achieving.Photo: Sparkler

I’ll toast that. Something sparkly is always appropriate for inviting the most dazzling future imaginable to come and be mine. So whether it’s mineral water with a little fizz, elderflower or fruit pressé, or some refined adult bubbly beverage, I’ll drink to a magnificent future. Some delicious food is appropriate with that, not to mention a good way to slow down the drinking of the sparkling drinks in a good and healthy way. My preference for occasions like this is food that is easily prepared ahead of time, varied in flavors and textures and temperatures and all of those lovely kinds of qualities, and easy to eat without a lot of fiddling around with cutlery. Yep, a cocktail party. Kids love hors d’oeuvres or appetizers just as much as their elders do, and most of us get a special kick out of miniature stuff, too, so finger food with spritzy drinks wins!

Photo: Smultron

Well, maybe not *that* miniature. A girl could starve to death.

But a new year also begs me for a new attitude in general. One of my particular wishes for the year ahead is that, despite the many worthwhile and appealing events that guarantee a busy twelvemonth, I will live as mindfully as I can. I want to savor all the food and drink of which I partake, just as I should relish all of the events of the day to the fullest extent I can. Do less, and do it more slowly, just because I can get more out of what I do choose, from the food and drink I enjoy to the events of the day in which I enjoy them. What a thought.

For my New Year’s Eve and Day celebrations to gleam the most brightly and beautifully, perhaps a contrasting context of unhurried, uncomplicated quiet and calm will be the best setting for the jewels of newness and anticipation. I resolve to unplug sooner, more often, and for longer periods throughout the year ahead. Our recent power outage adventures were a marvelous reminder of what sweet benefits come from that one easy commitment. A single evening with the lights off, the oven, microwave and TV out of commission, the batteries of our computers run down to empty, and the bridge into town closed by the same storm that knocked out the power—that night was an unexpectedly welcome and timely reminder of what really gives me joy. Even a dinner of cold cereal was a remarkably delicious last-minute substitute for the intended hot food, when I ate it in the company of my beloved, the two of us leaning in over our bowls by amber candlelight and laughing like little kids at the campfire-casual quality of our romantic evening.Photo: Candlelight Dinner

Later, we sat on the couch, with our handful of candles occasionally flickering brightly enough to reach as far as the rain-blurred windows, and enjoyed sipping an exceptional red wine while doing nothing more plugged in than attuning ourselves to an actual, slow, lengthy, lingering, lovely—hey! Watch those minds of yours, y’all!—conversation. Heaven. An uninterrupted evening of candlelit dinner and conversation over a superb glass of wine. I’ll enjoy this New Year’s Eve with my medium-rare roast beef and baked potatoes, the dessert of freshly baked apple and brown sugar crostata (pictures to follow!), and the happy midnight toast of sparkling goodness, yes, absolutely. I look forward to many more such delights in the year yet to come. But I’ll take better advantage, too, of the day with a plate of fried eggs, a rasher of bacon, and a glass of milk, or the evening when I thought I was going to have to eat on the run and a canceled event let me stay home instead and fix up a nice, slow-simmering ragout of vegetables and mushrooms to eat with chewy, crusty peasant bread, perhaps complemented by another glass of that marvelous red wine.

Photo: Dawn's Early Light

A new day is dawning…

Slow and steady doesn’t just win the race; it is the race. Happy New Year to us all!

Foodie Tuesday: All Good Things Must Come to an End

That, my friends, is how the old saying goes. But it’s not, ahem, the ‘last word’ entirely. Many such good things are followed by other good things, after all!

And there are some, like the end of summer, that not only presage the arrival of such genuinely fine things as, say, autumn, but also can be celebrated at their conclusions with festive eating and drinking and other kinds of pleasurable activities that do much to ameliorate any pain of loss.

Some such celebrations are marvelously simple: when the summer is waning, it’s time to indulge in a last gleeful feast or two focusing clearly on the seasonal joys of fresh produce. It needn’t be any more complicated than a marvelous unfussy riff on classic Caesar salad, a glass of sparkling mineral water, and maybe a slab of rustic peasant bread decked out with cool sweet butter or a nice grassy olive oil.Photo: Great Caesar's Ghost!

One little notch upward might give you a Tex-Mex picnic, also uncomplicated and fresh and easy to eat. My recent one took the Southern familiar pimiento cheese and gave it a slight T-M twist when I blended Tillamook’s four-cheese combination of cheddar, Monterey Jack, Queso Quesadero and Asadero cheeses with chipotle salsa and a little butter to hold it all together smoothly. Then I layered this cheese spread with sliced smoked turkey breast between soft white corn tortillas into a little stacked torta. This little goodie makes a nice treat of a light lunch with some equally Tex-Mex pickled okra and a batch of fresh vegetables and other finger foods like black olives, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, carrot and celery sticks, and so forth. All washed down with some cold iced tea or fresh-squeezed lemonade, it helps take the edge off of losing summer for the year.Photo: Tex-Mex Pimiento Cheese Torta

If that’s not quite enough, there is always the warm glow that comes from indulging in the most perfectly ripe and gorgeous late-season produce in all its naked glory. Really, is there anything more soothing and refreshing and lovely than biting into a peak-ripe pear or apple or peach and letting its juice just slide down your throat like a mystical elixir of life?Photo: Peaches

Well, okay, there is that possibility of punching up the effect just a tiny bit further by letting slices of that sweet, juicy fruit swim lazily in a pool of lemon- or limeade, a light and sparkly soda, or (as pictured) a marvelous chilled—even, if it’s as hot outside as it was on the pictured occasion—gasp, iced! rosé or white wine. Sipping the very slightly infused drink until those lovely, tender bits of fruit are easier to catch and eat; that is a mighty nice way to bid a fond farewell to the tag-end of summertime. And if you’re a mom or host who appreciates kids’ need to fish out the pieces of fruit with their already sticky hands, that’s great, but you can always put the fruit chunks on skewers, freeze them into fruit-sicles, and use them first as drink chilling stirrers, then as dainty fruit pops. All quite in keeping with the background music of the sprinkler running one last time and the neighbors’ lawn mower getting one last bite out of the grass. Photo: Iced Peaches in Rosé

Foodie Tuesday: Texas Tapas

photoA more accurate name for this food would probably be something about snacking-as-dinner or Gustatorial Grazing, but it doesn’t have quite the same, erm, kick to it. The concept simply goes back to my perpetual preference for offering a wide assortment of things to nibble and letting everyone at table—or wandering around, as is the usual case when we have a houseful—choose his or her own combination of things to eat. Saves any tough decisions on my part and eliminates the complexity of trying to accommodate each person’s allergies and dislikes individually, as long as I don’t have any tiny persons of no discretion on hand and able to lay hands on everything.

I’m particularly fond of the ease of this approach when, as aforementioned, I have a big gathering of friends or family, but it’s also a convenient method for getting up a meal in a heartbeat when last-minute plans evolve. I found out the other day that we had a chance to see an old friend from Washington who was in town for one mere day; thankfully, he was here to consult with a good local friend, so the two of them wrangled their schedules to make it possible to take a dinner break with the two of us. Instant party!

I know that our visitor, while we’d not seen him here, has been to Texas before, but I didn’t know how much he’d had the typical local foods. As the weather was warmer and sunnier than expected, it seemed fortuitously apropos to put together something that had a hint of picnic, a touch of barbecue, a dash of Southern-ism, and a little Tex-Mex character, all in simple forms that could be served at room temperature and combined into whatever ad hoc plates-full we chose, and we could be as casual as we liked with our good friends.

I started with a quick cheat: pre-assembled jalapeño poppers I’d bought at the grocery, seeded jalapeño halves filled with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon. I roasted them in a cast iron skillet in the oven, knowing that this would also preheat the oven for much of the rest of the meal’s roasting.

I bought an array of vegetables, cleaned them and cut them into rough chunks, steamed the hard root vegetables partway ahead of time, assembled all of the prepared parts in a couple of big baking dishes, and loaded them up with butter and a bit of salt before they all went into the oven to roast together. Russet and sweet potatoes, carrots and beets all got the pre-roasting spa treatment of the steaming, and went into the ovens nestled with fat asparagus, whole ears of sweet corn, small bell peppers and chunks of lemon.

While all of those were roasting, I cut some skirt steak into fajita-sized pieces, seasoned them with cumin, smoked paprika, smoked salt and a little granulated garlic, and seared them before a nice braise in a bottle’s bath of Shiner Bock (a good Texas beer), cooking it all in until it candied into glaze at the last. Those went into a bowl to stay warm, and I took the skillet that was still filled with spicy bacon fat from the poppers and lightly cooked up the beet greens in that. When they were not quite cooked, I just took them off the cooker and let them steam in their own heat, covered. Meanwhile, the first dish of the meal was the last to be prepared: pimiento cheese. There would be salsa and crema on the table for dipping or saucing any and everything, but pimiento cheese seemed like a perfectly good addition to this melange of a meal.

Those who know the southern tradition of pimiento cheese know that the classic White Trash version of it is likely to be a combination of shredded Velveeta (something that is called cheese but bears little resemblance to it, in my book) and diced canned red bell peppers in a lot of mayonnaise, possibly with a little bit of cayenne and salt to season it. Like many regional staples, though, every household is likely to have its own variant, and many of the modern ones use cheddar cheese, the most meaningful improvement in the recipe I can imagine. I kept my own version simple but used lots of cheddar, a largish jar of canned pimientos, and a mixture of about half mayonnaise and half whole milk yogurt. I seasoned it all with only a touch of salt, a good dash of cayenne, and a teaspoon or so of dill. Not bad, if you ask me, on crackers or crisps or tortilla chips or, dare I say it, probably even in the great white trash loveliness of making it a sandwich on slices of squishy super-processed white bread. Y’all, let’s