Foodie Tuesday: Figs and Fika

Despite the present day craze for all things piggy when it comes to meats, bacon inserted into every imaginable recipe—and some not even possible to get my brain wrapped around at all—and the undeniable fabulousness of a grand Black Forest classic, a clove-studded Virginia ham, a spiral-cut, home glazed ham, or the umami-loaded and thus much-lauded and wildly expensive jamón ibérico, what I grew up with at home, as I recall, was that differently seasoned and prepared, smooth textured, Danish ham (as my family knew it then, whether that characterization was entirely accurate or not), and I loved it. It’s on the sweet side, generally, and usually subtler than the more intensely flavored aforementioned hams. Truthfully, I love them all, as long as they’re not those tinny, watery, pallid objects of pseudo-meat that have been processed to the point of looking and tasting like cartoon food.

I also, as you well know, am fond to an obsessive degree of salty-and-sweet combination treats, and hams are very compatible with sweet foods, whether in the form of a glorious, uncomplicated afternoon bite of perfect prosciutto wrapped around a melon slice or as a bone-in beauty bathed in fruit compote for the spring table.

Danish ham isn’t my only foodly fanaticism derived from Scandinavian roots. Here’s another thing I’ve learned from that region to love when it comes to food: the Swedish tradition of fika. Not so different in origins, perhaps, from the Italian treat Tiramisu, wherein a tradition of stopping for coffee and a sweet was the perfect pick-me-up in an afternoon or way to meet with a friend for a bit of refreshment, and eventually the practice became the name of the treat itself—the Italian Tiramisu translating roughly as, yes, “pick-me-up” and the Swedish fika deriving, ostensibly, from a syllabic reversal of “kaffe” (coffee). Not that it matters hugely to me, but I do always love an excuse to sit down at the table not only for a full meal but for the more relaxed atmosphere of a break for, say, a bite and a drink, some appetizers and a cocktail, or tea and dessert.

For a recent casual evening with friends, I got the urge for a ham-and-sweetness starter that would be extremely quick and easy to fix but bring out the simple flavors of the ingredients pretty smartly. I think I did well enough with it, because between the five of us we polished off all but a couple of small corner pieces from a whole cookie sheet’s worth, along with the actual roast beef dinner and dessert; but you can be the judge, if you like. It couldn’t be simpler to make, so there’s no excuse not to join in the testing.

Four ingredients: puff pastry dough, ham, fig jam, and Parmesan cheese. One pan. One swift browning in the oven. Slice. Eat.

I wanted to make this with fresh figs, but couldn’t find any at the moment that were in nice enough shape, so I used a small jar of store-bought fig jam that worked quite nicely. Had I used fresh figs, I would have chopped them roughly and mixed them with some honey, maple syrup, or ginger syrup as the delicious glue for the hors-d’oeuvre topping, but jam had that binder handily built right in, so if you’re unable to find fresh fruit, jam is clearly a convenient and equally tasty alternative. I did buy one package of frozen, pre-made puff pastry dough (lazy me) and about a half pound of thinly sliced ham (I chose the deli’s maple glazed version on this occasion). I had shredded Parmesan cheese in the refrigerator. The process was easy-peasy.Photo: Ham & Cheese with Figs

Ham & Cheese Bites with Fig Jam

Set the oven to heat at 400°F. Lay out all of the puff pastry dough needed to cover it (with a single layer) on a large cookie sheet pan with edges. This could get sticky if you don’t contain the food! You should have a little dough left over: I had about an eighth of the dough remaining and set it aside.

Mix equal amounts of chopped sliced ham—mine, when the thin slices were cut into about 1/2 inch (1 cm) squares, amounted to around a cupful of loose ham pieces—and shredded cheese with gently heated and liquefied jam (the jam I used took between a quarter and a half cup to blend the ham and cheese. Glued together like this, the ham, cheese, and jam mixture was probably about a scant two cups’ worth of topping and was easily distributed and spread evenly by spoonfuls over the whole pastry base. I cut the remaining pastry dough into 1/2 inch by 1-1/2 inch rectangles and I twisted each once to make a little bow and stuck those around on top of the jammy mixture. The whole sticky delight went into the oven for perhaps 14 minutes or so, and once it was golden, was ready to be cut into small rectangles that could be easily handled for eating.

Then, of course, we ate them. Whenever I make them again, I will try pre-baking the puff pastry and simply adding the jam blend for a final, melting warm-up just before serving. Crispier results, I should think. But even with a slightly chewier texture…we ate them all.

Foodie Tuesday: Sweets, Treats & Healthy Eats

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What’s good for my heart might be as much a spiritual question as a nutritional one, even at table. Mmm, BBQ!

I am one of those silly people who don’t think the title’s terms are mutually exclusive. Call me a cockeyed optimist (because, well, I am), but it also happens to follow a certain logic if I tell you that not only do scientists and nutritionists and doctors sometimes concede that what was once thought the epitome of healthful behavior and ingestion is now believed to be quite the opposite, or that things we once considered horrendously dangerous and likely to contribute to the destruction-through-dining of the entire human race might not be quite so terrible after all. Not to mention the recognition that each person’s body type, genetic makeup, chemistry, environment and so forth all make him-her-me unique in the ways we suffer or benefit from our diets.

So I will refrain from posting—on Tuesdays or otherwise—ruminations on what is Always or Never good for anybody. Besides which, as you well know on visiting with me even twice on a Tuesday, even my own two-person family household has vastly different ideas and tastes and preferences when it comes to what we simply like or don’t like to eat and drink. Thankfully, we can work out those differences in many ways, so the reality of our widely divergent food loves has relatively little impact on our love of being together.

This is, among other things, a reason that it’s nice to have something to amuse each member of the party at table, and let each choose his or her own combination of dishes, drinks and delectables. I am well aware that having no children in the family may be seen as a dodge of the most difficult issues in this regard, because as a supposedly responsible adult one might be expected to see that every child present is getting reasonable nutrition at all times, and hopefully, also building practices and habits that will lead to her continued healthy living. But of course one can point to numerous folk who have in various ways had the ability to subvert the rules and live and thrive. And of course, I live with an adult who has managed to do so despite having been raised to eat ‘right’ yet arriving at adulthood with a general dislike of much of what is, was and perhaps ever shall be considered ‘right eating’: he doesn’t like very many vegetables at all, and could probably survive on pizza, mac and cheese, hamburgers and fries, and those with little deviation from their simplest forms, especially preferred without annoying vegetable side dishes or icky sauces. While I enjoy nearly all of the foods he does like, I’ll also eat lots of other things gladly, including the veggies and sauces and many more things he would far rather not.

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Cucumber, all by itself, is refreshing; as a simple salad made with rice vinegar, honey, fresh dill and black pepper, it’s also delicious.

Does this in any way make him less intelligent or well-bred or good or admirable? It most certainly does not, any more than it confers sainthood upon me. It may be true that ‘the heart wants what it wants’, but baby, I’d say with ten times the conviction that the gut has powerful reign over our existence—stomach, tastebuds and brain in concert, that is. And I’ll bet you dollars to sugary, fat, wonderful donuts that this alone will not determine who among us lives well, survives long and dies contented. So I eat my vegetables, more often than not, alone even when eating at the same table as my beloved. He will order the same classic meat-and-potatoes food a bit more frequently than I will. We will both worry about our health and weight and shapes from time to time and each of us, occasionally, do some little thing or other to alter them, together or individually.

All I can say for certain is that I hope neither of us will ever lose interest in food and drink altogether or, especially, lose the ability to eat and sip much that we enjoy, because those tastes and those communal activities and shared experiences give us pleasure that is as beneficial to health and happiness as the nutrients themselves can ever begin to be. That makes Foodie Tuesday here a perfect day to celebrate a very special cook, hostess, family member and dear friend, whose birthday is upon us. Happy birthday, Mom Sparks! Your good cooking and your graciousness, both at table and all around, make you a Sweet Treat yourself—and helped to shape, unquestionably, the marvelous man with whom I am privileged to dine nearly every day, no matter what we choose to eat and drink.

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‘Green Banana’ Pudding: ripe bananas and avocado blended until smooth with fresh lime juice and zest, honey, butter (of *course* I’m not kidding), almond extract, and a pinch of salt. A few toasted coconut chips on top add just a hint of crunch. Banana-lime happiness in a spoon!

Foodie Tuesday: Come Away with Me

Travel eating can be a horror, of course, since the challenges of being in unfamiliar territory, changing time zones (and therefore, often, the times when we’re hungry or not), having to figure out the differences in price based on a travel budget and possibly foreign currencies and the simple odds of finding great food in a new or different place can all conspire to put us at risk of eating badly, if at all. I can think of a few classic examples in my own history, to be sure. A trip to a certain little (long gone, God willing) Inn that wanted ever so dearly to be thought quaint and Elizabethan and folkloric springs instantly to mind: a speedy glimpse into the dining room should have warned of danger ahead, had either my sister or I bothered to note that the decor included a plate rail circling the room and bearing an ominously vast collection of cartoonish miniature boxes of cold cereal. What followed, since we failed to notice this flagrant danger signal before we’d ordered and waited quite awhile, was remarkable in its weirdness and memorably awful tasting, a meal in which every single ingredient smacked noticeably of the tin from whence it sprang and the pièce de résistance was a salad thus composed: one wet leaf of iceberg lettuce cupping a hard, slightly greenish canned peach half that in turn cradled one whole pitted black olive. If ever a thing eyed me ominously, it was that thing.

But more often than not, lest you think me incapable of finding out the true culinary delights peculiar to any place I visit, I love travel in large (no pun intended) part because I do find and relish such specialties of places-not-my-home.

In Texas, besides the fine variety of regional treats influenced by the mix of whatever native and immigrant populations rule therein, there is almost always some great Mexican and/or Tex-Mex food to be had, not to mention the whole range of beefy, meaty and BBQ-smoky goodness that reigns in the hearts and stomachs of the locals. So you know full well that when my spousal-person and I get to do any wandering in our current state of dwelling, we tend to hunt for those joints where the area’s avid eaters congregate to eat such good and glorious things.photoA trip to the Boston Early Music Festival is reason to rejoice by virtue all of the fantastic playing and singing we hear there. High art and musical culture are always a thrill. But it’s also an outstanding excuse to indulge in Boston‘s superlative food culture. So, given the chance, you can bet I’ll dash to one of the nearest provisioners of provender to order up a beatific lobster roll as soon as I can manage it. If it is repeated numerous times and also happens to be followed by a number of equally fine regional treats, say, a dainty dish of Boston baked beans swimming in molasses-sticky sauce or some spectacular Italian food at the north end of town, why then, I’m all the happier.photoDriving through Oregon wine country is a sure way to enjoy some spectacular scenery, its vineyards interspersed with small organic farms and fruit and hazelnut orchards, but do you think there’s any chance I would settle for merely viewing such glories and not dining on them too? Think again! Would I go visiting in northern Italy and not fill up on ethereal handmade pasta with wild mushrooms? Never! Cross an inch of Hungarian soil without seeking out a good dose or ten of paprikás or gulyás? Perish the thought! This musing is motivated in part, of course, by the opportunity and intent to spend a bit of this summer engaged in this beloved sport of eating-while-traveling. (Or, admittedly, traveling-while-eating.) But if it also serves to move you to further such adventures, rest assured I will be cheering you on all the way. And if I can find you and join you at the table, I most assuredly will.photo

Foodie Tuesday: *Arroz* by Any Other Name

It is conceivable that by now you have figured out that I am mightily fond of Mexican, Tex-Mex, Mexican American and Mexican influenced foods and flavors. Having grown up in rich farm country where the migrant workers not only settled eventually but brought a veritable second-town of family and friends to join them over time, I was blessed to be fed by a number of eateries in our area run by the fantastic chefs all trained by one little lady in their hometown. By rights, she should have a whole county in Western Washington named after her at the very least, though I might suggest a shrine as more appropriate, because thanks to her a whole lot of us have faithfully eaten exceedingly well on both roots food from her teachings and wonderful inventions and innovations based on them.

Having moved to Texas might even be considered a logical next culinary or at least dietary step in my lifelong love of La Cocina Mexicana.

In any event, I will keep today’s post simple but say that once again I was influenced by that saintly lady’s culinary offspring when I entered the kitchen to begin dinner prep. I had intended to make something with the big gulf shrimp I had tucked into the freezer, but until it was really dinnertime I wasn’t sure but that I’d repeat the recent quick, hot-weather meal of the previous week, where I simply poached the cleaned shrimp and served them as part of a sort of deconstructed Louis or Cobb salad cousin.photo

Which would’ve been fine.

But, you know, I opened the refrigerator and saw a carton of leftover broth-cooked rice and suddenly I got all faint and dreamy-eyed and (cue theremin music and wavy-screen fantasizing-fade here) thought with longing of one of Our Lady of Mexico‘s disciples’ lovely Arroz con Camarones–that beloved combination of rice and shrimp favored by all of the Latin coastal cultures–this one a favorite version I miss from back in Tacoma.

So this day’s shrimp were coarsely chopped and kept on hand with a finely-slivered slice of leftover ham (to add some bacon-y goodness, and to help clear out the fridge) while I sautéed about a scant cup each of julienned carrots, sliced celery and chunky-cut mushrooms in some flavorful bacon fat just until crisp-tender with a little black pepper and some cumin, added the freshly squeezed juice of one big orange and about a cup of slightly drained crushed tomatoes (I used Muir Glen‘s fire-roasted tomatoes, since I like the flavor spike they add) and cooked the vegetables and sauce until slightly thickened, adding the prepared shrimp and ham just long enough to lightly cook the shrimp through. Served over the warmed rice, and with a dollop of whole yogurt to stand in for the absent crema, it was almost as good as I remembered.photo

I did have to add the hovering Abuelita in imagination to complete the effect.

Foodie Tuesday: Big Pigs Like Figs

photoBig pigs: who, me? Yes, I’ve admitted to it many a time. Being a food-loving piggy myself, and being terribly fond of the gifts of the pig to food-lovers. I fully understand that vegans, vegetarians, Muslims, Jews, those with health restrictions, and any number of others have valid, legitimate and honorable reasons (philosophical, physiological, religious, ethical, etc.) for not eating pigs; my own litmus test for foods is also personally derived and has much more to do with how much respect has been given the plant or creature in question in its tending while alive, in its preparation when being readied to eat and, especially in how it is used for sustenance and, often, the building of community. So no, I would never dream of knowingly serving pork to any of the aforementioned friends. But I am content to obtain and prepare and consume it myself with respect and gratitude. I have no wish to offend, any more than my abstemious friends would judge me for my being a carnivore. Those who wish to do so are of course very welcome to skip this post entirely.

Meanwhile, back at the board, I will say that I am often quite happy to eat vegetarian style too. I never feel deprived when the food pleases my palate, no matter what the range or contents of the menu, and I can easily be just as blissful about a superb salad, an ounce of outstandingly fresh pistachios, or a pan of colorful mixed roasted vegetables (on tonight’s menu again, as it happens). And good fresh fruit, well since that combines the flavor and vitamins and juicy joys of good health-giving food with the sweetness of dessert, why, you know that I am happy to plunge right into that when it’s offered.

No surprise, then, that I was so delighted when that scrawny little $4 twig I bought this winter first burst into leaf and then, to my great amazement, produced lovely, plump Brown Turkey figs. It inspires me to think that perhaps I shall be able to grow some produce of other kinds if I put my mind to it, despite the challenging temperatures and soil character here in the roasty-toasty land of north Texas.

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I am *not* the only ham in my kitchen.

But to return to my porcine loves, I have eaten pork in almost uncountable ways and have loved a great many of them. One standby favorite is a well-made ham. I will happily bypass any of those artificially ‘enhanced’ varieties that are injected with water and so many other, less savory, ingredients and often are processed to the degree that they are no longer recognizable as meat, let alone pork. But a good pit-smoked ham, well, there’s a sweet-and-savory treat of which I am immensely appreciative. I love oven roasted and glazed hams, too, even boiled ones, but I think my affections are most readily given to an unadorned and slightly fumy beauty right out of the smoker.

One of the benefits of being in Texas is that I do have access to a few places that produce such ethereal goodness. As a result, I can often indulge in a meal of simply sliced ham with vegetables or salad or, on a wintry day, perhaps with mashed or roasted sweet or russet potatoes. Or, as I did the other day, with a heap of fabulously fresh and sweet fruits. And of course any leftover bits may be tossed into other welcome meals of the same. Or into sandwich fillings. Or casseroles. Or, as on the day following the feast of ham and figs (and avocado and strawberries and pineapple), next mixed with minced roasted chicken, dill and pepper and stirred into eggs for a quick frittata. Because if ham is good one day in my kitchen, it’s probably a treat for three days in a row if I’ve shopped wisely enough.photoJust now, though, I guess I’d better dash out and check the baby fig tree to see if I can beat the raccoons to the next ripe piece of tree-candy.

Foodie Tuesday: Pleasing Paternal Palates

photoFather’s Day 2012 arrived on a date when we were both in the same state as our respective fathers. How about that. So it was our pleasure to gather up both sets of parents and the one sibling in close enough proximity and have a meal together.

I know that you all love food, and most of you love cooking and entertaining, too–especially if it’s for loved ones. You’ve told me so on many a Tuesday, not to mention with many a blog post of your own heralding the glories of your hospitality. I appreciate these wonders more than I can express–and the insufficiency of my words to do so is still mitigated, I think, by your awareness of my good intentions when it comes to these things. But being ‘on the road’ and having no kitchen to call my own, I knew it was the better part of valor to find a good meeting place that would supply the edible, drinkable provisions and let us all sit back and do the eating and drinking unencumbered by such worries.

Since all seven of us in the party are fans of various kinds of seafood, we opted for the Father’s Day Brunch at a local waterfront eatery well known for such stuff and let it go at that. Not a bad choice. Buffets are often a dangerous no-man’s-land of dining, to be sure, but a very popular and well-attended one is virtually guaranteed not to have the infamous nastiness of those foods that crepitate tragically on the serving board until petrification or putrefaction begin to gain ascendance over them and everything gets that creepy sheen of something that may or may not have been prepared using automotive lubricants and plumbers’ tools. Father’s Day is clearly one of the Top Five when it comes to holidays associated with hauling the parental units off to an eatery, because of course even the worst cretins among us know at some level that it’s not very polite to ask Dad to cook up his own celebratory treats and not a lot of us have the time, talent or gumption to do the deed ourselves. So we were not remotely surprised to see our restaurant of choice, and all of those we passed en route to it, jammed and jiggling with crowds of hungry visitors.

The buffet was not particularly unusual or even, probably, more sumptuous than many we’ve seen or heard others describe, but it was certainly lavish enough and varied enough to keep all of us from trying very hard to converse in the noisily crowded dining space, but rather left us making cheerily knowing winks across table at each other while cramming yet another tidbit of roasted or sugary whatsis onto a fork and into our grinning mouths. The weather was far more cooperative than predicted, so we enjoyed sunny views out through the expansive windows straight across the Sound to the big city, gulls parked on the old piling remnants of the piers adjacent to us, scudding clouds that failed to reflect in the increasing chop of the water and a few water taxis and ferries cutting through the chop to zigzag from shore to shore.photoWe ate lox and blackened salmon and hot-smoked salmon, fried shrimps and steamed prawns and seafood chowder, crab legs and crab Benedicts and crab salad; fruit and greens and vegetables and pickled goods. We ate roasted potatoes and hashed and steamed and whipped; roasts of beef and lamb and pork, and sausages and bacon; pasta and bread, muffins and scones. Cakes and pancakes, crepes and rolls, desserts and cheeses and so, so much more. Bloody Marys and coffee and tea and liquid chocolate poured from a fountain over pretty much whatever you might opt to stick under the flow. Fingers included, if I judge correctly by the number of small persons hovering near said fountain. But who’s to blame them? It’s Father’s Day, after all, and without those little scarpers there would be no fathers to celebrate, eh.photo