Foodie Tuesday: Up to My Elbows in It

Photo: Fat, Glorious FatYou already know that of my many edible obsessions, fats are among the most prized. Butter in virtually any form is the glistening Sun of my oblations when it brings its sleek graces to the sweet and the savory alike. Meat fats, vegetable-derived fats: yea verily, I can’t imagine how I would find culinary happiness if it weren’t for the kind kisses of olive oil, duck fat, tallow, avocado oil, sweet and mild nut oils, leaf lard, coconut oil, and all of their slick cohort bringing the foods I eat to their most well-rounded state. Barbecue of the highest order doesn’t even exist, in my book, unless I have to scrub like a surgeon after eating it to clean up the goodness that ran up my arms before getting to my mouth. The mere sheen of the translucent butcher paper sticking to the smokehouse table is enough to start a Pavlovian response in me.Photo: Brisket, Burnt Ends, Ribs, & Sausage

The thing is, I’ve learned over a long and avid career as an eater, that it’s not fats, per se, that make me rounder, but which fats I eat, and when, and how much. I am well aware that food is faddish, and you know I’ve posted about such things on many a Tuesday of yore, but I pay better attention to my own body’s definition of what works and what doesn’t than I used to do, and by now I’ve seen that while it’s not very helpful to me in terms of my physical fitness or comfort to indulge as much as I wish in eating like a ruminant or like a three-year-old with a credit card, I can be more generous with my desire for fat. You can cringe if you like; I know it’s not for every body, and Fat has been made a dirty word for generations not only because it’s been considered unhealthy, unseemly or both but because it’s been considered dangerous and therefore ugly on people.

But I’ve known folk who lived long, happy, productive lives without ever being particularly svelte, let alone stick-figure thin like fashion models are wont (and expected) to be. I’ve known of dietary health or fitness fanatics who died young of health-related causes. They aren’t the supposed norm, no, but then most of us aren’t, one way or another. When I get my medical checkups I have consistently high cholesterol levels, enough so the doctor sends me off for sophisticated coronary calcium tests, and I come home with a chart that could just as well have a grade school star sticker or happy face on it to go with its perfect Zero score; it defies not only the odds but logic, yet there it is. My blood pressure remains on the low-moderate side, my heart keeps ticking, and the amount of cholesterol in my pipes seems to be irrelevant to my general health thus far in life.

On the other end of the scale, for me, is the unfortunate truth that two things I adore eating, wheat (breads, cookies, pasta, and the like) and uncultured dairy products (ice cream, ice cream, ice cream, and a few other items), almost instantaneously expand my gut and make me feel logy and uncomfortable. I would love to be that grass-eating goat who can munch on wheat-based goodies endlessly without consequence, or that toddler with a bank account running amok in a forty-flavors ice cream parlor, but I’m learning to face the reality that I’m not one of those for whom that’s a good or even fun choice.

One way I am learning to deal with the profound sense of loss that not indulging those wicked-tasty urges very often, if at all, is of course by simply substituting temptations that I like as well and that like me back a little more kindly. Fats. As my spouse just read to me from a newsmagazine, pretty much anything can be improved with a drizzle of browned butter, and who am I to argue with printed infotainment? I suspect there are few foods that, if listed on two menus with one touting Beurre Noisette as an ingredient and the other not, wouldn’t sucker me right in for the sale with the former version. And don’t even get me started on low-fat and nonfat foods being offered as supposed temptations to my fat-loving palate. If they were low-fat or nonfat in the beginning, say, leafy greens, I’m quite happy to eat them, but I promise you I’ll dive in so much the faster if you cook ’em and offer me a good dollop of butter melted on top.

Inspired by Emeril Lagasse‘s skillet cornbread recipe, I merely added a little seasoning, slightly more fat and Voila! It got even better. See how easily that works?!Photo: Slightly Fatter Cornbread

Slightly Fatter Skillet Cornbread

Preheat oven to 450°F/232°C (or whatever approximates those temps in your oven), with your well-seasoned cast iron skillet in it.

Combine dry ingredients with a fork or whisk in a large measuring pitcher (I like my 64 oz pitcher, because it makes ingredient transfers so easy) or bowl: 3 cups cornmeal, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp baking soda, 2 tsp salt, 1 tsp smoked paprika, 1/4-1/2 tsp cayenne pepper. In a separate measuring pitcher or bowl, beat together the wet ingredients: 3 cups buttermilk (or my on-hand substitute of 1 cup heavy cream, 2-3 T lemon juice, and enough whole milk to bring the total to 3 cups—which combination I think I might like even better than the buttermilk), 3 large eggs, and 2/3 cup of melted [salted] butter. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir just until mixed.

When the oven’s temp is right, pull out the skillet, melt 2 T bacon fat in it and tip the pan to coat it thoroughly. Pour in the cornbread mixture, pop the skillet back in the oven, and bake until a rich, russety golden brown, somewhere around 30 minutes. In a household of two, I find it’s useful to cut the cornbread into 12 wedges, and as soon as it’s cool enough to handle, package two at a time in bags or parchment wraps and seal them in a big zipper bag in the freezer, where the residual steam will help keep them moist and manageable for thawing for later meals.

But I do keep a couple of pieces handy for the day’s lunch or dinner straight from the oven, preferably slathered with yet more [browned] butter and topped, perhaps, with some sweet honey, molasses, jam, fresh fruit…or more butter. Don’t tell anybody. They’ll know when they see the shine on my lips, anyhow.

Foodie Tuesday: Drink Me

photoShe may have had quite the colorful and sometimes even delicious adventures, but Alice never had so much good fun in Wonderland.

At least, it couldn’t have quenched her thirst in the same delightful ways. Because, of course, what I’m talking about is the titillating tipple. And perverse or subversive as that sounds, I mean only that I’m referring to some scintillating drink. There are a lot of versions of it out there! Many of them are ones I’m very happy to taste, test and share whenever I get the chance. There are even some standouts I’m willing to admit are probably quite fantastic even though I’d rather never drink them myself.photoThing is, I think few of us are as adventuresome as we ought, perhaps, to be. We don’t put as much thought into what we drink as we do into our eating. More’s the pity, my friends. Why on earth should we be dullards about food or drink when there is so much tremendous, dreamy, splendiferous stuff for the choosing? Me, I’m rather chuffed when I manage to remember not only to pay attention to the details but to enhance the food and drink by finding a great complementary pairing of them. Good food? Good! Good drinks? Goody! Good combination? Better yet!photoStill and all, I must say that no amount of clever combining will save the day if the drinks aren’t magnificent right from the start. Yes, let’s just get cut to the chase: good drinks are a benison and a crowning glory and a celebration altogether. Alcoholic or not, indeed. And I adjure you, when you are serving non-alcoholic drinks at the same time as alcoholic ones, be sure to make the ‘dry’ ones as pretty or impressive as the boozy ones or someone will feel slighted. Kids, especially, but why encourage either children or sober guests to covet that which they oughtn’t have? Differentiate clearly so that those who aren’t meant to have the tipsy treats can’t mistake them for the abstemious ones. But give everyone something equally delicious and glamorous-looking, and they’ll all be happier. I know I would, anyway.

Some drinks are so lovely as-is that they require no further doctoring than to get them, one way or another, from container to mouth. Even purely good, sippable liquids, though, can be friends in combinations that make them that much more spectacular.photoThis includes liquids that are stellar as individual drinks, from water right on up through numerous juices and nectars to the top of the drink charts. It would also, of course, include in my estimation a number of brews and elixirs and decoctions that combine those original ‘root’ ingredients aforementioned into singular teas, wines, liqueurs, beers or liquors that are magnificent drinks in their unadulterated forms. But sometimes I think people get a little too prissy, if not ossified, in their reverence for such beautiful things, thinking it sinful to even consider enjoying them in new ways or combinations. Even a modestly fine Scotch, for example, is often pretty expensive and gets people intimidated out of being imaginative with it when in a fabulous mixed drink it can actually get a little life-extension by sharing the stage with other ingredients and yet still be admirably present in the mix. And as for cocktails and any other kind of mixed drinks, I have the same attitude I was taught for food appreciation: don’t put into a recipe anything (with very few exceptions) that you wouldn’t happily eat on its own. Seriously–don’t put corn syrup based imitation stuff in front of me and expect me to choose that over pure maple syrup. (And while you’re at it, gimme Grade B–the more intense the maple flavor, the better I like it.)  Don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink! Don’t make a cocktail with cheap and dirty booze! Garbage in, garbage out!

Bentley Cocktail: 1 part Calvados or apple brandy + 1 part Dubonnet Rouge
on the rocks. That’s the simple classic version. But why not play with the idea and enjoy the apple aspect further by garnishing with a sprinkling of apple pie spices? Or serving the drink with salted dried-apple crisps? Or, as with many apple-eating delights, by offering sharp cheddar crisps (did you know you can make those by simply oven-browning small heaps of grated cheese and cooling them on a rack or paper to absorb released fats?) alongside to complement the apple sweetness? You can make a fair non-alcoholic facsimile of a Bentley simply with substitutions of, respectively, strong freshly pressed apple juice (I’d use unfiltered for the fullest flavor) and cream soda or birch soda.

Gimlet [‘Vodka & Lime’, as it was introduced to me in London when I was a stripling, is my favorite version rather than the gin original]: 1 part Tito’s vodka + 1 part Rose’s lime juice on the rocks. This is essentially a grownup version of a very old-fashioned fountain drink that I loved as a kid and still love, the Green River Phosphate. So for nonalcoholic versions of it you can easily either buy Green River soda right off the grocery shelf, make a homemade version with any of the online recipes easily found, or you can even be more extravagant and make homemade lime simple syrup, simmering both juice and zest into the sugar water, and mix it with carbonated water or soda. If you’re going that far, it only makes sense to use the same lovely syrup for both the ‘hard’ version and the other drink, no? And again, why not emphasize the clean lime taste with a little complement or contrast, and consider visual impact as well as taste; classic presentation is not the law, only a set of codified cues. I’m not against even playing with frozen slices of carambola (star fruit) for the rocks in a gimlet because they have a bright citrusy taste with the added element of a surprising grassy note, they look like stars, and they keep the chill in the glass in a cheery green way without diluting the drink as they thaw. The kid in all of us, alcohol-aged drinkers or not, likes a starry surprise once in a while. I can imagine it being both entertaining and tasty to put together a simple little tribute to the tertiary color triad: a sprightly, lime-y Gimlet garnished with a bold twist of orange zest and served with a batch of sweet and salty beet crisps.

Scotch and Ginger: 1.5-2 oz. Scotch poured over ice in a tall glass, then filled with ginger ale or ginger beer (sodas, sometimes fermented). When going to have a Scotch and Ginger, I’ve seen folk shudder with horror at the very idea of adulterating decent Scotch with soda, but as you can see, my attitude toward such things is more of the [OK + OK = just more of OK] vs. [Good + Good = Better] variety. The optional iterations are so many that one could drink nothing but S&G and hardly ever have the same drink twice. I think perhaps my top choices for experimentation with this might be something like the following:

S&G 1: The Macallan 12 year old Sherry Oak Scotch + GuS Grown-Up Soda Extra Dry Ginger Ale vs.

S&G 2: Laphroaig 10 year old Scotch + Vernors ginger ale (a particularly sweet and gingery soda, it’s the oldest US ginger ale still in production)photoThese are, of course, existing and well-known mixed drinks, and among the simplest of them as well. The more numerous the ingredients, the more a drink recipe can be tweaked for fun and pleasure. It’s no wonder the new recipes never cease to, ahem, pour forth. And luckily so: I know I’ll always be thirsty for more. Here’s looking at you (through the bottom of my glass)!

Foodie Tuesday: Once Cooked for Eight Equals Four Times Prepped for Two

photo

Roasted cauliflower and red capiscum, sautéed celery, steamed green beans–what do they have in common? A new ‘recipe’ for dinner’s vegetable dish, apparently . . .

The complication, if there is any, of having a household of two (or one) is that so many foods, dishes and meals are easier to prepare in larger quantities than are appropriate or even desirable for a single meal. It’s very easy, if planning isn’t finely tuned, to have things spoil and go to waste before we’ve plowed through them at our own pace. The upside of this very problem, though, is that if I do plan reasonably well (and have a little luck as a side dish) I can make several meals out of little more than one prep.

I do this, in part, via the method of complexification and conglomeration. The one or two elements remaining after one meal get combined with each other, with some new element or ingredient from the next meal’s intended menu, or both. Yes, it’s quite possible and even sometimes preferable to simply repeat a dish as-is, especially if it’s already its own elaborate concoction. But often, things seem a little less tired and tiresome if they appear in new guises each time so as to stimulate the palate, if not the imagination. So the small amounts of leftover vegetables from lunch and dinner the last couple of days may find themselves married in a new mixed-veg medley with a little sauce or seasoning that helps them play together as nicely as possible and suddenly, they’re not just two spoonfuls of This and a handful of That but an actual, sort of, recipe.

photo‘Mains’–the central or focal items on the meal’s menu–are seldom hard to incorporate into some new iteration of a main dish. Even when they have already been prepared with a hard-to-ignore or -disguise sauce or presentation, they can find new playmates on the plate next time they head to the table. Roasted chicken, for example, whether homemade or grabbed ready-roasted on a busy day as one flies through the grocery store, is a truly marvelous ingredient when it comes to flexibility. Once seasoned or sauced distinctively, it can pose a slightly more complicated puzzle for renewal, but even then, if the dish is well liked once it’s pretty likely to be popular on a second visit.

So the chicken, whether it was already dressed in the satay-like peanut sauce–I took a shortcut with a pre-made one this time–or not–we liked it well enough to use the same pre-made sauce at the second meal even though it was not already on the chicken–can be reincarnated as a different dinner altogether simply by changing its context. One day, it’s served with a very simple wedge salad dressed with citrusy vinaigrette and a tangle of Pad Thai style rice noodles seasoned lightly with rice vinegar, a squeeze of lime juice and a splash of soy sauce and sprinkled with black sesame seeds.

photoNext day’s ‘satay’ is served with butter-steamed green beans, fresh cold apple slices and fried rice made from–yes, you guessed it–the fridge stash of jasmine or Basmati rice previously cooked up in broth and now pan-toasted until almost crisping with Persian lime olive oil, soy sauce, a touch of raw honey and a handful of chopped sushi gari (pickled ginger, if you somehow haven’t yet noticed, is one of my favorite seasonings for practically everything!). A sprinkling of white sesame seeds, just for a little visual contrast with yesterday’s offering, and there’s Chicken Pseudo-Satay 2.0 ready to be eaten.

And while there’s certainly nothing that says dessert is a required part of every meal, some of us kind of think of it as a specific food group, so even for dessert it’s nice to have some fine ‘recyclable’ ingredients for whipping up something to finish the day’s eating nicely. One of the things that very regrettably can go to waste far too often in a small household is fresh produce, and when I’ve a beautiful batch of fresh fruit on hand I can’t bear to think it will spoil before we can reasonably eat it all. So a large ‘find’ of sweet fresh strawberries, though it was far too great a quantity for two people on the day it was at its peak, got cleaned, sliced and frozen until the other day when it beckoned to me, siren-like, and I blended it thoroughly with a little whole-milk yogurt, splashes of vanilla and rosewater, a tiny pinch of salt and a bit of honey, poured it into a flat sealable container and froze it until it became a brightly fruity semifreddo or granita of sorts for later consumption.

photoNo matter what the small tidbit, most leftovers that are not on the edge of spoiling really do beg for a kindly reinterpretation before we give up on them. Once I get fully in my Friendly Frankenstein mode and think hard about how to zap new life into worthwhile remaindered ingredients, it’s only a matter of letting the locals trade their pitchforks for dinner forks and we can all remain good friends without fear of monstrosities. Good eating!

 

Foodie Tuesday: Fine Dining should be Easy

Among those of us who have the privilege of eating affordably and often, there should be no reason at all for us not to eat well, too. Least of all should we eat mediocre meals for lack of time. Today’s solution: a main dish precooked and finished at top speed at the very last minute, accompanied by super-quick fixes as side dishes. No reason to make it more complicated than it is on its own merits.

photoPrecooked pork tenderloin was in this instance a dainty piece of meat seasoned with salt, pepper and butter, sealed in a vacuum pack and simmered gently in the sous-vide to a tender pink overnight–easy-peasy. If one has the luxury of a sous vide cooker. If not, I think I’d try to do the same in a slow cooker, because that’s the way this chica operates, though there’s no reason I couldn’t also steam it low-and-slow, covered, in the oven.

At suppertime, easiest of all. The tenderloin, removed from its vacuum pack and cut into pieces about 1-1/2 inches in length, is tossed into hot bacon fat along with a handful of sliced almonds and caramelized until lightly crisp on the outside, getting a nice deglazing bath of very dry sherry to moisten at the last and loosen up all of that lovely fond. While the meat is browning and falling into delicate pulled shreds, it’s a moment’s work to fix the side dishes.

photo

It all goes down a treat with a glass of very cold Viognier jazzed up with a dash of Limoncello. Salut!

 

Green beans slicked with a little clarified browned butter, and my standby creamy ginger coleslaw, go pretty well with sherried pork tenderloin and almonds, as it turns out. Once it came to the end of the meal, I wasn’t exactly dessert-starved, but given this time of the season it would almost be a crime not to have a prime piece of fruit. A pear, silky and sweet as syrup but a whole lot juicier and more fulfilling, is dessert in the loveliest of ways. Hope I have another pear handy for breakfast, though . . . another good meal should always lie ahead . . . photo

Foodie Tuesday: Meatless had Better Not be Tasteless

 

photoJust because I am generally an unregenerate carnivore, that does not make me averse to vegetarian delights. I am not so silly as that, really, my dears! It’s still very much about great flavor and appetite fulfillment, is it not? Oh–and that glorious connectivity that occurs at table between friends and loved ones, of course. Of course. Sitting and watching the dragonflies and wood wasps and butterflies tumble through the air outside the kitchen window, and the occasional marvel of a buzzing hummingbird or flashy scarlet cardinal.photoBut those non-meaty treats for eating, they beckon too. Oh, yes they do. As long as they’re loaded with flavor, texture, deliciousness and appeal of their own kinds. It’s not too much to ask. For a simple example, let’s consider having a few crackers or pieces of flatbread to dip in a bowl of easily made eggplant spread. When my girlfriend joined me for lunch, I made it the easiest way possible: I took a jar of roasted eggplant (nothing but salt and a little citric acid, for preservative, added in processing), tossed it in the blender with a good dose each of cumin and smoked paprika, topped it in the bowl with some Thai fried shallots, and we dug in to our lunch. A sort of Baba Ghannouj 2.0, perhaps.photoThe other dish of the day was supremely easy, too. Warm quinoa salad. Quinoa, to begin, naturally. A nutty, crunchy salad, because I wanted lots of texture. Sliced almonds, black and white sesame seeds. And I wanted something fresh and summery in it, and a little chew to complement the toothiness of the quinoa and contrast with the nuts’ crunch. For the latter, small pieces of queso blanco. Too mild for you? Some snappier feta or goat cheese would do it nicely. But I did brighten it up for that summery aspect. Chopped navel orange, some zest from it; juice, too, along with a little lime juice. A bit of Persian Lime olive oil, a little salt and pepper. I certainly could have added lots of possible further tweaks, as could you, my friends: fresh mint, fresh or pickled ginger, toasted pine nuts, dried apricots or figs; preserved lemon, rice vinegar; toasted coconut; chopped fresh tomatoes or cucumber. No matter how composed, very edible. No fuss, lots of taste. Oh, and no meat. Purely coincidental? Karma? Or just good eating? I know where my own inclinations lead. Oh, yessiree, now hurry up and hand over a fork, please.photo