Foodie Tuesday: What’s *Not* in My Kitchen

I don’t mind simple foods, simply prepared, and I’ve had plenty of pit-roasted and wood-stove cooking that was far better than merely edible. Sometimes there is nothing more delicious than the freshly caught fish grilled over an open fire or fried at lakeside in a worn and well-seasoned cast iron skillet. The smoky goodness of things cooked with live coals is sometimes so far superior to what I could conjure out of a high-tech kitchen with the pallid assistance of bottled liquid smoke (no matter how genuine and unprocessed that might be) that I would rather wait months for the proper weather and occasion to arise.
Photo: Chuckwagon Cookery

But I ain’t no chuckwagon Cookie, if you know what I mean. I was never fond of ‘roughing it’ in the sense of being outdoorsy and happy to labor over the building of my kitchen kit before I can even bother to lug buckets of water up from the stream to have on hand for stifling the coals at need. I haven’t the skills or the desire to do my own butchering, and I barely know a chanterelle from an Amanita, if left to forage anywhere wilder than my own pantry and the grocery aisles.
Photo: Chuckwagon Cookery 2

So my kitchen doesn’t sport the assortment of enameled camp cookware and the range of well-weathered cast iron pots and dutch ovens required for real down-to-earth preparation of meals. I don’t even have a clue what I’d do, short of going out in the backyard and having a go at such prairie wizardry, if I were faced with any of the old-school stoves and ovens that my ancestors and predecessors considered modern conveniences in their day. To cook with a wood stove, no matter how much I may have admired others’ mastery of it and the fantastic foods they’ve produced from such contraptions, is beyond my ken and requires subtleties of understanding how recipes and food science converge that I never learned. Even the electric ranges of earlier days have mystical mystery about them that would scare me right off to the local fast food joint for succor. And yes, I’d want fries with that.
Digital illustration from a photo: The Old Swedish Stove

In truth, I am a very limited and unskilled preparer of foods. I have a small palette of familiar ingredients upon which I rely, because I don’t have a clue what to do with many others that will make them safe for human consumption, let alone palatable. I have little patience for the suave or the grandiose in recipes, those techniques and tricks that require grace and keen senses and molecular understanding of the ingredients at play. I’m a reasonably willing eater of new foods and preparations, but not much for trying to make them myself, especially if I think anyone smarter and more experienced is available and willing to fix said dishes in my stead. The exception is mainly to be found in instances when real cooks let me play at being their sous chef without requiring better brains, knowledge of ingredients, or knife skills than I can offer.
Photo: Vintage Cooker

What I do have in my kitchen, most of the time, is fun, and enough decent eating to keep me (and anyone else on hand) from going hungry for long. Thankfully, I do live in a place with good grocery stores close at hand, family and friends to share meals and their preparation, and a kitchen full of my idea of modern conveniences. And if the ovens I got with the purchase of the house have outlived their peak performance by a fair distance and the only mixer I’ve owned for the last couple of decades is a wire whisk or fork, it sure isn’t the same as having to shovel up hard Texas clay to make room for my hand-split mesquite hardwood or having to figure out if those fruits gleaming at me from over there are the euphoniously named Farkleberry or are the similar looking but highly toxic Chinese Privet, so I don’t have to dig a privy, too, in a hurry.

Foodie Tuesday: Fork It Over

photoThe stick-up artist and the greedy eater alike may demand that someone should ‘fork it over‘ or relinquish the object (monetary or comestible) of affection, and that, at speed. But besides cramming edibles into one’s mouth, the fork can serve a number of other useful purposes in the kitchen and at table. Not least of these commendable actions is the release of air. I shall leave it to your imaginations to determine whether some excessively greedy fressers mightn’t do well to have the fork impale them directly and thereby release some of the pent-up methane or other dangerous-to-diners gases, but there are some ways to use a fork for more benign and neighborly expulsions of atmospheric pressure.

photoThe first is to pierce pastry before baking, so that heated air inside or underneath a pastry layer can escape during the process without tearing or exploding the baked goods and their contents throughout the oven or, more excitingly yet, onto unwary bakers lifting said goodies out of the oven. My mother, famous for making what I still believe is arguably the best pie crust in the universe–always exquisitely flaky and golden and crisp and fragile, never soggy or tough–blind baked crusts without ever using pie weights, and only pierced them thoroughly with a fork before the baking. Crust made this way will indeed rise up like an egotist’s inflated chest, but only before those little vents disperse the steam and let the pie crust relax back into the pan just as it should. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the added benefit of this approach is that when a filling is added that will bake further in the crust, it leaks into the piercings a little and caramelizes there, both stabilizing the crust and adding a little candy crunch to the pie. In the same way, venting the closed top crust of the pie with a fork before baking it keeps the dough from ballooning explosively (oh, the joy of spurting jammy fruit juices around like candy lasers!), and again, from holding in unwanted moisture that can defeat attempts to have a splendidly juicy pie interior without compromising the extravagant crispness of its crust.

photoBut enough about pie for the moment, I’ll get back to that soon enough, as you’d guess. I always tend to come back to desserts, don’t I.

photoMeanwhile, piercing other foods for pressure-control purposes is pretty effective too. If you happen to like baked or roasted squashes, root vegetables and tubers, I hope you’ve been informed in good time that pricking the skin sides of them before exposing them to high heat is a helpful way to avoid reenacting the demise of the Hindenburg. One of these many dreamy dishes made with the help of the humble fork: Baba Ghannouj.

This venerable meal-starter dip or spread is not much beyond roasted eggplant, crushed or pureed and well seasoned. But, like many classic dishes from around the world, that is an egregious oversimplification of the subtlety, complexity and variability of the concoction. What remains true is that it’s mighty tasty. My personal combo for it would be less garlicky or oniony than some, mainly because of how my kitchen palette has changed since my life became linked with Mr Spouse’s, but also because my personal palate followed suit and, further, because I think heavier, more intense flavors like those, if overused, can mask more subtle and delicate ones. I submit to you a version of it.

photoBaby Baba Ghannouj

Eggplant (1 large), tahini (4 tablespoons), preserved lemon (1/2, diced), fresh lemon juice (2 tablespoons), lemon zest (grated peel of 1 whole lemon), cumin (1 teaspoon or more), olive oil (4 tablespoons) and roasted garlic (1 heaping teaspoon).

If you can, blacken and blister the eggplant’s skin over open flame and then roast it to softness in the oven. For this, preheat the oven to 375ºF/190ºC. If you haven’t flame roasted the eggplant, cut it eggplant in half, lay it on a baking sheet or pan greased with olive oil or lined with a silicone sheet, and pierce its skin all over with a fork before roasting it. Roast until it’s well softened, about 20 to 30 minutes (check with gentle pressure occasionally; you can use the back of the fork for that), and finish by blackening the skin under the broiler.
When the eggplant’s soft, rub off its skin. Needn’t be perfect; bits of blackened skin will heighten the smoky flavor of the Baba Ghannouj. Put the flesh in a bowl, along with the rest of the ingredients, and mash it all up together with the famed fork. Serve garnished with a further drizzle of olive oil, toasted sesame seeds, and a sprinkling of thyme, or a toss of za’atar.