Foodie Tuesday: Keeping Up Appearances

Haphazard cook that I am, I feel compelled at intervals to assess whether the cookery itself is laggardly or it’s only that the presentation needs to be spiffed up a touch. I can’t be an impartial judge of the former, since besides being nearly omnivorous I’m also just lazy and frugal enough to eat almost anything I throw together, and I certainly haven’t the refined or experienced palate of a genuine culinary sophisticate, let alone a food critic. But I’ll allow myself the status of having enough visual experience and training to justify my evaluations of what the stuff I eat looks like and how it’s presented.Photo: Eggs & Rice

So when I get into one of my momentary fits of attempted good posture, whether it’s as a maker of ostensibly edible things or as the artiste plating them and arranging them on the table, I do at least attempt to pay better attention. The other day’s breakfast of broth-and-cheddar rice topped with eggs was, as planned, satisfying, filling, and comfortable, but I’ll admit that it would win no prizes for glamor. It’s not that I believe serving breakfast out of a vintage Hermès handbag would improve either the food or my spiritual character—never mind that I’d have to sell my car and a couple of major appliances to afford it—however, a tiny thing like adding a ribbon of sriracha or a sprig of fresh dill and a few capers would not only boost the actual flavor of the rice-cheese-egg combination to far greater heights but get me halfway there before I took the first bite, thanks to improved appearance and, then, scent. The aphorism about ‘eating with our eyes‘ is true, even if it gives me a case of the comedic creeps in my visually-literalist imagination.Photo: Concombres à la Japonaise

Sometimes the things I’m preparing to eat, whether they’re main courses or side dishes or garnishes themselves, are simply rather homely ingredients that don’t look especially pretty or inviting as they are, and I think it can be fun to fiddle around with them a little to lift the presentation of the whole. A quick pickle à la japonaise is a refreshing add-on when one wants a bit of salutary salivary stimulation, especially with fried or heavily sauced Asian foods. But if you’ve seen one sliced cucumber, you’ve seen them all. So when I make my side of cucumbers, I may score the cucumber’s peel with fork tines before slicing and chilling it in a very light mixture of plain rice vinegar, toasted sesame oil, black pepper, and sugar. Adding whole sesame seeds (plain, toasted, and/or black), ribbons of sushi gari (pickled ginger, natural or pink), crushed red chile peppers can enhance the flavor in so many ways as well as adding color and texture to the meal. And further possible flavoring additions that work deliciously with this kind of instant ‘pickle’ are also attractive visually: thinly shaved red or white onion or thinly sliced carrot flowers or unpeeled Granny Smith apples. Of course, if you go far enough with all of these companionable treats, you’ve strayed far from the realm of pickle garnish and into a full-blown salad bowl, and that’s perfectly acceptable, too.Photo: Food Not Touching

Salads are, after all, commonly the main entrée in many homes, including ours. An easy way to make them more visually interesting just happens to be a better way to serve them  to a picky eater or a group with widely varied tastes or needs, and that is to either plate the dish mostly as a composition or a deconstructed assemblage. The ingredients shine in their individuality. They don’t touch each other as much. I hear loud huzzahs of approval from my spouse and all his kindred out there, and I know that for many this is still not enough. The offending ingredient, if there is such, can at least be discreetly scooted to the side of your plate nearest to the person you know who loves it, and his or her fork, without the loss of any of the parts you like. And the salad doesn’t fit the snarky description infamous in our house on presentation-failure occasions, “are ya gonna eat that, or didja?”

But in seriousness on this topic, the best is always to let each diner serve his or her own meal, because the food-not-touching is an incredibly, truly sensitive, emotional, and even sometimes, ethical or life-and-death issue for more people than anyone can safely guess. I am not constrained by any such inhibitions, loving sweet and savory together, textural mixes, contrasts, and all kinds of things that others might find appalling combined, but then I do consider ingredients’ compatibility in taste before I do in looks, and therein lies the need for me to step back like this occasionally. In the meantime, I’ll say that I’m sorry that others can’t enjoy a melange of ingredients as the symphonic experience I find in them, and just hope that most at least delight in a good solo when they eat their meals one item on one plate at a time.Photo: The House Coleslaw

As for salads, since you know I make our household’s standard version of coleslaw very regularly, they’re not likely to look wildly different, let alone inspiring or exciting, unless I take the time to alter an ingredient or garnish or two. Or, as I did with our good friends coming for dinner the other day, serve it as a composed salad garnished with the starring variants on top and the dressing on the side. Everybody gets the proportions they like of the different components of the salad, and as much or little dressing as preferred. Yes, I did ask them what they could or would eat beforehand. And I’m far more willing to make my friends and guests do some of the work to make their own best choices than to give them something that only a few at table will like or can eat just as it’s served. Most of our friends end up milling around the living and dining rooms and kitchen with glass or dish in hand at some point anyway, so if they choose what they’re carrying, they’re more likely to want to eat it before it drops on the floor.Photo: Mandarins & Snap Peas on Top

The latter being, of course, not at the top of my list of food presentation styles, but hey, if spilled food is really artfully splashed and smashed, I can always make an exciting photo out of it for later inspiration.

Foodie Tuesday: Keep Us Company

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Rice and wheat crackers with cheddar dip and salsa; carrots, jicama, olives, watermelon and lime wedges, to zip up any of it that’s in need.

Shared companions at their best help to strengthen individual relationships.

This is true of people, any great net of friends and acquaintances woven, knit and spun together making the two people at their center-most intersection better through their support. It’s true, too, of meals, where the cast of side dishes and sauces, condiments and accompaniments all work together to make the main dish better and more interesting than it would be on its own, and make a standard entrée a standout, distinctive and more memorable for the occasion.

Now, when these two instances of the supporting cast making the show coincide, things can be tons of fun. As on our latest anniversary, for example. We enjoy our twosome time immensely, and are glad to celebrate at any excuse, but we’re not sticklers for specific dates or rigorous traditions. So when our anniversary lined up with a rare opportunity to gather with a houseful of students, we merged our various celebratory plots into one plan.

Dinner for any more than four people is inevitably served buffet style when I’m in charge; besides my preference for informality, I like people to be able to sit at tables for ease of dining, and while I can make that happen for up to a couple dozen in our contiguous living, dining and kitchen spaces, it doesn’t leave much spare room for elbows, let alone heaps of serving dishes, on said tables. So it’s easier to concoct big-batch comestibles in big-batch pots and pans and let the guests scoop up platefuls of their own design at will.

This time, the centerpiece of the meal was my lazy version of carnitas, one of my pet make-ahead foods for carnivores, surrounded by a range of things that could keep the vegetarians, the allergic and the whatever-averse all reasonably well filled.

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The center of attention. Get those edges crispy!

Carnitas de Señora Loca

Take one big, fat-marbled haunch of a pork roast, cut it if/as needed to fit in the slow cooker, and tuck it in for a nice long soak, at least overnight and longer if possible. Its bath should be comfortably Tex-Mex in character: cumin, powdered garlic, chipotle powder or a canned chipotle en adobo, and, if you’re in the mood, some stick cinnamon, all to your taste; equal parts of Mexican [cane sugar] Coke–in my slow cooker, the measure is one individual bottle, orange juice, beer [I generally use either a Mexican beer like Modelo or Corona, or a Texan one like Shiner or Lone Star. I probably should give Armadillo Ale a try, since it’s a new brew produced right here in town. If I want to go wheat-free, I’ll use hard apple cider]. And one more ingredient in equal quantity: lard. Don’t be squeamish; if you’re eating pork, bathe it in the fat with which it was originally designed to be flavored and enriched, preferably great quality leaf lard, expertly prepared. There are plenty of good cooks around who are willing to go to the fuss of rendering their own batches of top-quality lard, but since I have access to grass-fed goodness of that sort I can’t imagine why I should.
A while before serving time, strain the falling-apart pork out of the liquid into a large baking dish, shred it, and put it in a hot enough oven to crisp the top layer, removing it for a toss and redistribution a couple of times so that there are plenty of nice crispy bits throughout but keeping watch to keep the meat generally very moist. Skim most of the fat from the reserved liquids and cook them down to reduce for a sauce while the meat is crisping.
Then pile a bunch of carnitas on your plate and surround it with loads of other food. Eat.

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Carnitas and all the fixings.

Don’t forget some coleslaw when there’s shredded meat, whether BBQ style or otherwise; the two are simply good friends for a good reason. The version of the day had sliced almonds, black and white sesame seeds, and a light lemon vinaigrette with a dash of honey. See, addicted as we are, I can sometimes vary slightly from my standard sushi ginger flavored creamy coleslaw. The creamy dressing, whether made with mayonnaise or yogurt or sour cream in its dressing, would’ve added elements not all vegetarians like, so I wanted to keep an option or two open. Cheese dip for the vegetable crudites was not going to allow such a thing, including not only the grated sharp cheddar and Parmesan cheeses but also an equal mix of mayo and sour cream, along with a pinch of cayenne and a dash of bacon-flavored salt), and I had asked ahead and was pretty sure I didn’t have any true vegetarians, let alone vegans, coming that day, only lighter meat eaters.

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Slaw, of course. Always a good choice, but wait–how to choose its style remains…

Since the non-meatatarians in the crowd might otherwise have been stuck with just salad and fruit, vegetable, cracker sorts of foods, I did make up a big batch of rice without my typical inclusion of homemade bone broth, substituting homemade vegetable broth for the occasion. I credit myself with making a pretty dandy broth, no matter what the kind, so no one was shortchanged in the equation, I hope.

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Corn salad. What, you need more?

The last side dish leaned back toward the savory and did include a little mayonnaise: corn salad made with fresh kernels of sweet corn, diced tomatoes and avocados, and for those who wished, crisp bacon pieces to sprinkle on top. You know me: if a passel of pork is a good thing as the main dish, why not more pork alongside it?

Besides, it seemed in keeping with the whole theme of the event, that of the constellation surrounding the centerpiece enhancing the latter’s goodness, that our friends enhanced our day, and therefore our happiness, by sharing the time and the meal with us.

Foodie Tuesday: You Slake Me

photoIn wintertime, it’s a great and welcome thing to put one’s hands around a mug of hot tea, cocoa, coffee, cider; a great and welcome hand-warmer that, when upended at the lips, becomes heartwarming as well. The mulled drinks and toddies and steaming honey lemonade can do so much to ameliorate the harshness of the cold months that I am always grateful for the offer of a cup of such kindness.

photoNonetheless, it is in the hottest parts of the year that my mind turns continually to longings for a glass, a pitcher, a fountain of something refreshing to drink. Thirst becomes more of a necessity and sometimes borders on unseemly obsession. And I find that when it’s offered to me, a good drink can be full of surprises, too.

I suppose it’s a little like whatever crossroads in my life led me to learn that many flowers were edible. That cheering revelation, coupled with the realization that this was only in keeping with recognizing how many other parts of plants I had already been eating without so much as a second thought, meant that a whole realm of unexplored flavors and methods of preparation and recipes unfurled before my hungry mind and stomach.

Safe to say that ever since that tipping (or tippling) point, I’ve been on a perpetual hunt for the next flavor, common or unique, and the next combination, easy or complicated, that will thrill my taste buds and those of my buddies, alike.photo Prickly Pear

To the uninitiated, it’s unappealing to think of cooling the desert air

by slurping at something named for its prickles

But after slaking fiery thirst with it, one finds the Prickly Pear

just as fine and dandy as ice cream and popsicles.

1 cup Prickly pear syrup + 1 cup fresh lemon juice + 1 qt/4 cups sparkling water = Prickly Pear Pink Lemonade

1 batch Prickly Pear Lemonade + 1/4 cup Limoncello + 1/4 cup Prickly pear liqueur + speared pieces of dragon fruit as garnish = Parents’ Potent Prickly Pear Lemonade

As with all of my ‘recipes’, the best way to make this in either version–or your own–is to have the ingredients on hand and then mix them, a little at a time, to your own taste.

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Not that any friendly drink won’t do … a Tuaca Lemon Drop, for example, can quench thirst too …


Foodie Tuesday: The Wages of Thirst is Garnish

Nobody in her right mind wants her wages garnished, but the price of making a good cocktail lies, in part, in creating the perfect trimmings for it. And making a good cocktail can be a great way to pay oneself for a hard day’s work.

photoThe usual bar staples tend to include fresh fruit, pickles and olives, candied fruits, vegetables, herbs, and rims or drink surfaces dusted with sugar, salt and/or spices. Add to that the graces of toasted nuts or seeds or coconut, perhaps a drop of edible essential oil rubbed on the glass rim or dripped on the surface of the drink, and your repertoire will increase further. Edible flowers thrown into the mix will instantly give you exponential increases in your oeuvre. It seems that there are no limits to the recombinant cocktails and mocktails possible with the changing of garnishes alone. Considering that you have all of those fluid ingredients to begin with, are there really any excuses for not drinking well?
photoSometimes, though, nothing beats being straightforward and well suited without getting tricky. Boston‘s Legal Seafoods serves a refreshing drink they call French Lemonade, and the most logical thing to do is to tell the world that this drink that looks like old-fashioned pink lemonade is indeed lemony and bright, and a slice of lemon, however trite it may seem to a cocktail snob, does the job best of all. That the drink consists mostly of actual [American style*] lemonade makes it plenty easy to lay hands on a fresh slice, and that that marvelous flavor is enhanced with a little lovely Saint Germain liqueur, a bit of Chambord, and a jot of Berkshire LSF Ethereal gin just makes it eminently drinkable. At home, of course (not being a big gin fan), I’d substitute Tito’s tasty vodka for the gin, but it’s good just as it is. Not much need for excesses of flourish when it comes to the decor.

* When ‘lemonade’ is offered, many of our overseas friends expect something more like our carbonated lemon or lemon-lime soft drinks. And frankly, this drink combination could be very enjoyable with that substitution too. I’d probably garnish that one with a largish wedge of fresh lemon rather than a mere slice, to keep the taste bright and not too sweet. As opposed to me, perhaps [sweet but not too bright]!photo

Foodie Tuesday: A Touch of the Sun

Mediterranean-style foods bring with their ingredients and flavors a joyful dose of the sun that nurtured them into being. Eating Mediterranean-inflected foods almost makes me feel I’m giving my insides a solar power retrofit. I rather wish that this meant I would become the human equivalent of a ray of sunshine, but at least I hope there’s a noticeable mood enhancement in the short term when I indulge in such deliciousness.

A characteristic I’ve seen in the foods of sunny climes is that many of their indigenous cuisines have built-in traditions of hors-d’oeuvre style dining. Given warm temperatures, lighter meals of smaller portions can often be a grand way to ward off feeling overcooked as an eater. Many of these same food cultures are characterized by wonderfully intense flavors, and somehow the right combination of heightened spicy, zingy, smoky or, say, tomato-y tastes tends to make foods seem slightly more-ish to an extent that the nibbles make a perfectly fulfilling and lovely whole meal.

The treats of this occasion light up with some of that bright, vivid deliciousness and make for a nice nibble or snack, or when combined with a few more of their kind, a pleasant summery version of complete dining. No matter what the season or the weather.

A good sunshiny plate-full:

Stuffed grape leaves (homemade would undoubtedly be grand, but I’m not above choosing ready-made ones as I did here), marinated artichoke hearts, pimiento-stuffed green olives, sun-dried tomatoes rehydrated in red wine, and soft boiled egg, with a dip made of whole-milk yogurt seasoned with lemon pepper, dill and salt to taste.photoSparked-up Three Bean Salad:

Three bean salad is a longtime favorite of American picnickers and lunchers, and there is a fairly classic style of making it: green and wax beans and kidney beans combined in a lightly sweet vinaigrette, sometimes with minced onion and even, occasionally, with added chickpeas–and often, using all canned beans for convenience and the traditional texture. There’s no law, however, that this already delicious old recipe can’t have a few surprises added. My latest combination was the simple three-bean version with only two small additions, canned (not marinated) baby corn, and for a contrasting splash of sweetness, some more of that minced sun-dried and red wine rehydrated tomato. The sun is inherent in the salad, but if I’m going to tweak it anyway, I couldn’t resist garnishing it with the first tender dandelion sunbeams that came my way.photoEven adding any of these individual items to a menu can heighten the flavors of the other foods in the meal and bring some of the same cheering pizzazz to the occasion. Think of serving the pickled-tasting salad alongside a deeply roasted leg of lamb, or trimming a magnificent platter of rosemary-scented pork roast with the plate-full at the top of the post, and adding a few fat-roasted potatoes; methinks there might be a whole number of diners that would feel sunlight pervading their innards and their spirits when presented with such taste treats. I know I wouldn’t mind even just repeating this part of the menu, and you never know when the rest might follow.