Foodie Tuesday: And now for something not entirely different!

Did you think that I would never, ever be done talking about lobster and lobster rolls? You might be right. A summer with trips to both the American northeast and Nova Scotia would be woefully incomplete for me, despite all of its charms and treasures, if it weren’t also a fully loaded lobster pilgrimage. So even though I made quite the pig of myself eating as many lobster rolls as I could lay hands upon while dashing through Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania, I had no compunction about keeping my eyes—and jaws—open for further lobster attractions on reaching Halifax.

This being my first visit to the Canadian Maritimes, I didn’t know for certain what to expect in this regard, although I was confident there would be some place I could get a bit of fresh Canadian (Atlantic) lobster. What I didn’t in the least expect was that it would be at the local outpost, right next door to our hotel, of a continent-wide and not especially high-end fast food submarine sandwich chain. That’s right: fresh lobster salad at SubWay. I’m just gonna go on record as saying that I have a new dash of respect for SubWay.

I like sandwiches and eat them reasonably often, but SubWay had fallen very low on the roster of places I opted to find my fix when I wasn’t making my own sammies. There are, in addition to any number of bistros and soup-and-sandwich specialty shops and cafes nearly everywhere in the western world these days, plenty of competing sandwich chains and most of them, in my opinion, more reliable for fresh ingredients and those, not as heavily processed as what I was getting for a while at SubWay stores. If this apparently annual offering of lobster salad (lobster meat with a minimum of mayonnaise binding it) ever moved close to where I was living, I would have to change my stance entirely, at least during the lobster event.

This is not to say that their sandwich would supplant, or even fully competes with, the lobster rolls that became objects not only of admiration but outright obsession at such places as Neptune in Boston—this, boosted, admittedly, by the house’s swell hand-cut fries—and Libby’s in Brunswick—my current chief heartthrob of lobster roll-dom, on the strength of a butter-toasted bun, options for cold-with-mayo or hot-with-melted-butter, and most importantly, the unsurpassable fresh and sweet perfection and massive quantity of lobster meat—these will not be usurped in the lobster roll pantheon by a mere sub shop lobster salad sandwich. But I owe the corporate sandwich emporium sincere admiration and kudos for giving an affordable and eminently edible, credible lobster sandwich. Not anyone’s run of the mill SubWay offering, that.

And if the chiller is refilled by the next lunchtime when I’m near enough to do it, I’ll buy it again. Because, as I’ve said before: Lobster.Photo: Lobster Again

Foodie Tuesday: Hot Weather? Cold Treats.

Photo: Black Raspberry Ice CreamI don’t think it necessary to explain to you. That title…you know just what I mean. It’s summer here. All over the whole danged country, it’s summer; it’s hot, or the local equivalent of Hot wherever we are, and we’re a bit uncomfortable with it, most of us.Photo: Chocolate Soft Serve

The solution is obvious. Cool it, my friends. Chilled food and drink save the day. Heck, they can save the whole week, when necessary. I love good cold eats and treats at any time, but especially so in hot weather.Photo: Gianduia Gelato

And there are so many worthy options that it would be impossible to exhaust the inventory before the too-warm season ended. But I’m willing to try. Ice cream, sorbet, frozen fruit. Icy cold smoothies, Thai iced tea, lemonade, and cold, clear ice water. Gelato. Ahhh. You have my permission. You’re welcome.Photo: Sea Salt Caramel Gelato

Foodie Tuesday: Butter and Bread

Photo montage: Peasant BreadYou have noticed, I am sure, that the phrase in English is virtually always given as “Bread and Butter,” but if you’ve been here even once before on a Tuesday, you know quite well that for me, butter—not bread—is the sine qua non of this duo, and indeed, in a multitude of other pairings and combinations. Bread, no matter how delicious, is first and foremost a vehicle for a quantity of excellent butter. I will, like other people, eat bread without butter if it’s superb bread or there is no butter to be had, but if you think I won’t eat butter without bread you are very much mistaken.

Butter is delicious.

It is also emerging, in latter years, from under the cloud of privation-inspired (wartime rationing, the Great Depression, and so on back through the ages) inhibitions that resulted in the invention and embrace of all kinds of butter substitutes and, subsequently, the pedantically reinforced attitude that fat in general, and butter, specifically, represented the earthly form of Pure Evil. Turns out that the less dramatic and more practicable truth is that fats, butter among them, are no more dangerous when eaten by non-allergic people and in reasonable quantities proportionate to their other food intake and not processed in ways that remove it too far from its natural state—fat is digestible, useful, and even healthful. Well, butter my biscuits!

Yes, bread is delicious, too.

The list of breads I love is astoundingly long, beginning with the simplest unleavened kinds and wending its way through worlds of batter-based, raised, kneaded, savory or sweet, dark or light, dense and moistly heavy (say, a chocolate-y black pumpernickel) or ethereally feather-fluffy and flaky (perhaps a vanilla-scented brioche or a just-baked croissant) to the filled, sculpted, decorated concoctions of the most masterful bakers. While I was never a baking genius, I was a dedicated maker of a variety of rather delicious breads during grad school, using the kneading time as my meditation and the choices of style and flavors as my medication, both necessary for the survival classes like Ed-Psych and Statistical Data Analysis for Pedagogical Applications.

My favorites to make tended toward the frivolous dessert-tinged breads, upon which a slathering of butter served, in essence, as icing on the cake. I used that classic baking bible, Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Breads, for many of my inspirations, though as I always do, I roamed far and wide in making substitutions to suit my pantry and my mood as I baked. But probably the two recipes I used as my foundational go-to favorites most often were from Mom, for Limpa (light, sweet Swedish-style rye) and Julekake (cardamom scented sweet bread traditionally made with dried and candied fruits and peels). I’ve made Limpa plain, once or twice, to be sure, but I can guarantee I never made Julekake exactly according to recipe, since every single version I’ve seen or eaten elsewhere contains raisins and often, candied cherries, neither of which I like texturally in baked goods. Just not my thing. So I’d either delete some add-ins or make all the measures of fruity/candied ingredients in the recipe be strictly candied peel and citron, which will undoubtedly make lots of people laugh, since very few folk I know dislike raisins, or even those neon red-and-green candied cherries, but citron is notoriously a love-it-or-hate-it ingredient and I gather, is less often admired than reviled.

Go figure.

Much of the time, when I’ve baked from recipes that called for candied peel and fruits, dried fruit pieces, nuts, and that sort of thing, I like most of all to substitute that sort of thing with my preferred varieties of them, whether it’s in breads, cakes, cookies, steamed puddings, or anything else. So you’re more likely to find me making a facsimile of Julekake that contains a combination of citron, juicy candied orange peel and ginger, diced dried apricots, and coarsely chopped dark chocolate. That’s the way I roll knead to do it.

And still. Even though it may be full of candy, I’m going to slather some fresh, cool, lightly salted butter all over that bread before I eat it, if I get the slightest chance. Makes it slide down mighty nicely, if I do say so!

PS—All of that being said, I do greatly enjoy bread’s natural suitability as a superb support and vehicle for lovely fats. Being in Texas, I am glad to indulge my admiration for fine BBQ (and whether it’s meat or not, it ought to be good and greasy) as often as possible, and sometimes even the squishy, soulless processed bread traditionally served with BBQ is perfect with it, a plate you can eat when the rest of the meal is gone. Incredible burnt ends. A hunk of bread to sop up the fat, outside and in. No dishes to wash. Bonus points.Photo: BBQ Fat Happiness

Foodie Tuesday: Freshness, with a Hint of Asia

For cold-weather refreshment, try a composed salad of roasted beets, fresh pears and sugar snap peas, dried apricots, ginger, rice vinegar, macadamia or avocado oil, elderflower syrup, chopped roasted salted peanuts or almonds, mint, and black pepper.

Served over Pad Thai noodles seasoned with a little tamari, it becomes a more filling meal. When you add a lovely piece of grilled or poached salmon (how about poaching it in—mmm—coconut milk?) or a succulent roasted duck breast to the plate, it becomes more elegant and yet more satisfying to a hungry guest.

Sake on the side might be a dandy tipple, or perhaps some apple cider (still, sparkling, unfermented or hard) is more to your taste.

Photo: A Hint of AsiaAnother version:

Salad of carrot-shred “noodles” dressed simply with lime juice, ginger syrup and a little avocado oil and sprinkled with plain sesame seeds.

A half-and-half mixture of Pad Thai rice noodles and bean threads, cooked in broth (my homemade chicken broth, in this instance) and dressed with a sauce of blended peanut butter (no additives but salt, please), fresh mint, Thai basil, and cilantro leaves, minced fresh ginger and a sparking of red chile pepper flakes. A little fresh lime juice squeezed over the top, and there you have it, a meal ready to eat that’s a fair sight fresher and zestier than, say, the MRE goodness our military friends get served. This combination works fine on its own as a light meal, or can have quickly cooked prawns or roasted chicken or fried tofu added for a boost in flavor, texture and protein as well.Photo: Fried Rice & Wasabi Eggs

Of course, there’s the old standby as well: fried rice is always easy and tasty. In the photo above, it had toasted almond slices and (barely visible) tiny shrimp, along with soy sauce and sliced water chestnuts, honey and shallots, and peas as tiny as the shrimps. It might be accompanied by something unique each time just to shake things up a tad and keep that sense of freshness humming. Wasabi-deviled eggs are a simple and welcome textural and flavoring pizzazz, along with the ubiquitous garnish we love, sushi ginger. As always, the ingredients I keep on hand may not vary widely, since we have our household favorites and limitations just like anyone else does, but it’s amazing how many variations can be made from different groupings and proportions of them and techniques for the dishes’ and meals’ preparations. Some things never really change!

Thirsty Thursday: Egging Me On to Greatness…

…not really. Just to warmth and contentment. But, given my adoration of nearly all things egg-centric (see what I did there?), it’s no surprise that when I got both thirsty and chilly this week my thoughts turned once again to eggnog, but this time warmed, not cold. If I thought I could procure some fresh ostrich eggs for the purpose, I might well experiment with ostrich eggnog, because every time I make that drink it mysteriously disappears in a trice, and cracking and separating so many eggs at a time does get a little tedious.Photo: Ostrich Eggs

Never mind that, eggnog is worth it.

So this time, I varied it again with both the heat treatment and the flavors, just to please my  palate with a little change from the most recent batches. One part cream, two parts whole milk, a splash of vanilla bean paste, a pinch of salt, a hefty sprinkling of ground cardamom (one of my very favorite spices, as you know, and very holiday-friendly too) and a squirt of honey. I steeped traditional Earl Grey tea in the mix while bringing it all to a steaming scald and then, having separated eggs and put the yolks into the blender at medium speed to fluff ’em up for a while, I poured the hot-hot milk mix in a thin stream into the machine and let it cook up the eggs whilst whipping the whole into nearly as enthusiastic a froth as I was building up in anticipation of drinking it.

I did let it cool enough to not scald me as well, and it was worth the wait. It’s even worth the wait I put you through by forgetting to put up a Foodie Tuesday post this week. Oops. The nog was warming and comforting, as hoped, and with a dash of yolks for protein that made it a great way to stave off any hints of hunger until dinnertime. At dinner I ate a bit of chicken, but I think I can safely say that though I’ve nothing against trying ostrich meat, which I hear is delicious, the likelihood of my finding any of it handily nearby to fix for my dinner in north Texas is about as high as that of my getting its eggs for my eggnog, so I’m sticking with the chicken-and-egg approach for now, and can assure you that at least on this particular day, the egg came first. But I win. Now you know.

Photo: Earl Grey Eggnog

2014 will soon be So Yesterday!

Digital illustration from photos: Pedaling Furiously

Here we go again, pedaling furiously into the next year. Wow! So much hustling and hurtling. So many fireworks going off in every direction! So many possibilities.

First, a little bit of a kindly sendoff for the year-that-was. A tasty dinner together with my beloved, a refreshing glass of brut champagne for an early toast, just in case we don’t care about staying up until midnight. We’re not fussy about holidays and parties and when they get celebrated, and yeah, we’re kind of old geezers about a whole lot of things, and have been since way before we were technically old, or geezers. In any event, as ordinary as we are in most ways, we’re not necessarily conventional in many of them, either, so we sip our champagne at 7:30 pm and wash down our steak and roasted potatoes with it. The apple crostata didn’t set up, so it was better served as applesauce (with the few little bits of the crust that toasted up properly) for dessert, and washed down with homemade eggnog. No big deal; the day when a crostata doesn’t crisp up fully before the filling tries to scorch is neither a new thing nor the end of the world.Photo: Meat & Potatoes are Nothing New

And the eggnog was spiked, after all.

Happy New Year’s Eve!

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!