Does my post title confuse? Bemuse? Please, friends, excuse. My moment of enthusiasm is not meant to give you a contusion, it’s only about infusion.
For my infusion effusion: nope, not a solo meatball, but a tea ball full of flavoring goodies.
Putting flavor into liquid without leaving the flavoring agent in it any longer than necessary (or desired) is what one does when one is longing for a spot of tea or a cuppa joe, but it is surprising how seldom we remember the option when cooking. Cooking, as I do, for a mostly anti-veggie person, I find that he objects less to things that have been cooked into a dish or sauce until they’re visibly indiscernible and mild in flavor, so sometimes it’s also nice to infuse the food with flavors but not leave the actual flavoring agent in it at all, so as not to distract my partner from his appointed dining.
Making a mild variant of Tom Kha the other day, then, I used a tea strainer for the green stuff and a few other tasty Thai ingredients, knowing that I could pull out the solids when the liquid was seasoned enough by them. A base of homemade bone broth mixed with coconut milk and a bunch of home-ground curry powder is easy enough to throw together when those are all in the fridge, freezer, and/or pantry, as is almost always the case here, curries being as favored as they are in our house. I filled the tea ball fairly full of my various secret-agent Thai flavors: lots of minced fresh ginger and varying smaller quantities of Thai basil and cilantro leaves, lemongrass, red pepper flakes, and I would usually add kaffir lime leaves too, but had run out. In addition, I poured in a little lime juice (to substitute for that last ingredient) and some Tamari. Sometimes it’s fish sauce, sometimes Tamari.
Strange looking, perhaps, but also strangely tasty.
I put some chunky diced carrots and celery and mushrooms into the broth along with the tea ball and the other liquids and simmered them all until they were cooked to my liking, keeping the heat on a very low simmer for a fairly long time. At the end of the process, it’s so easy to toss in, as I did, a big handful of langoustine tails to finish cooking them. Also great as a plain vegetable dish, with tofu (though I’m supposed to limit soy, because of my thyroid meds), with prawns or cubed chicken. Lastly, though it’s hardly a strict adherence to Tom Kha traditions, I do like to either serve the soup like a sauce over rice or add bean threads or, as in this instance, rice noodles.
So easy, so flavorful, so flexible. And such a dish, in turn, infuses my senses with all kinds of pleasant memories, going back to my first tastes of southeast Asian foods, most notably the feasts prepared by my fabulous Thai roommate and girlfriends when we were all in college together. Delicious. Yes, the memories, of course—and the food, too!
I am prejudiced. It seems logical to me that any garden grown for beauty should be grown for utility as well, and any garden grown for use ought to be pretty to look at and full of great sensory experiences well before it gets put to work. Why shouldn’t gloriously pretty edible and functional plants be shown off in all parts of the landscape, and why shouldn’t we take better advantage of what we have growing around us anyway?
Thankfully, these biases of mine are becoming more widely put into practice all the time. While kitchen gardens have a grand tradition of being ornamental and landscape design has long had its elements of utility inserted, those approaches have tended to be rather exceptional than the norm. So I’m thrilled to see such a proliferation, a flowering, if you will, of the whole concept that these belong as integrated into a delightful whole.
My friend Christopher’s interest in starting the garden personalization of his next home with herbal inclusions and infusions (not to mention his appreciation of adventuring in the kitchen) got me thinking about my own past and present herbal operations. What do I consider a good framework for inserting my own preferences, herbally speaking, into the garden nowadays? And what, in turn, is actually happening in that way here? Not surprisingly at all, this thinking turned into a lengthy exercise in list-making. Herewith, my mental inventory of herbal ideas. Foremost among them: that I plant every and anything in my garden where I think it will thrive best, then opt for where it will provide the most splash and panache in complement with the nearby plants, and finally, tuck in some elements of surprise wherever I think they can inspire even the casual visitor to the place. Herbs, fruit, vegetables, common or exotic. So long as I’m not trying to subvert the laws of nature too far, let alone encourage an invasive alien species anywhere, it’s all fun.
For the moment, though, I’m focused mainly on herbs and a few similar animal (human or otherwise) friendly options.
Easiest to keep as perennials or self-sowing annuals are some of the best kitchen basic herbs and also some of the prettiest flowering or border texture plants, so they’re what I’d call genuine bargains in the herb dept:
Parsley (curled and flat-leaf); both can get pretty large over time, but are also pretty easy to cut back if necessary. Be prepared for gigantism, since parsley can easily top two meters in height when it’s stretched out in bloom. Chives (common and so-called Garlic Chives); both give that nice light oniony flavor, and of course the ‘garlic’ variety has a hint of garlic in it as well. The purple pompom-like head of the common chive is attractive in the garden or as garnish and also edible, but I’m especially fond of garlic chives as a garden plant–they don’t look at all like the common chive, having a flattened stem and clusters of tiny white lily-like flowers in place of the purple variety’s. Rosemary comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and leaf lengths, most tasting similar. It’s a woody, shrubby plant in general, but some are upright, some trailing. The blooms vary: white, pink, lavender, purple, even quite blue, depending on the variety. Pretty and fragrant even while still in the yard, and bees and butterflies tend to like it too. Thyme also comes in a ton of forms. Its types vary slightly in the pink-to-violet bloom range (quite tiny flowers) and quite a bit in the leaf type: white- or yellow-edged green, solid green, silvery; some, like Lemon Thyme, have mildly differing flavors as well, and some, like Woolly Thyme, are more strictly ornamental. Me, I’m quite happy with common thyme (Thymus vulgaris); it’s really quite easy to grow, even as a sort of ground-cover plant in borders, easy to control, has those cute little blooms, and is a very versatile herb for cookery. My favorite with chicken. Sage is pretty easygoing, too, and also has numerous colors. I like growing the purple-leaf and variegated yellow- or lime-and-green varieties for what they bring to the flowerbeds. They can get big and leggy and woody, so sometimes sage plants require some good pruning, but it’s not hard to do with them, and sage is so lovely with poultry and winter vegetables, not to mention that their fried leaves are fabulous with lots of dishes!
Some of the less common ones I love are well worth mentioning, too:
Lemon Verbena is better started from a live plant than seed and is fragile. I suspect it could work as a kitchen-window dweller for longer life, though I’ve not tried it indoors. I got lucky with it wintering over last year! As I said, great to add to tea (hot or iced), and would be dandy in anything where you want a less astringent lemony, kind of perfumy, flavor. There’s a lemon verbena ice cream recipe on epicurious.com that is sheer HEAVEN. Borage is an annual, but I got lucky last year and it self-sowed from the previous season. It’s a kind of straggly and tall plant and has hairy, even lightly spiny, leaves and stems, but the hairs actually look kind of pretty in daylight, adding a lacy aura to the plant, and they don’t outright hurt when you touch them at all. Both leaves and flowers have a lightly cucumber-like flavor that’s nice in salads or cold drinks (chop the leaves finely or smash ’em to keep the fuzziness from being an off-putting texture in food), and the blooms are gorgeous, starry, true-blue dainties.
& Sweet Bay, if you have the room for an actual tree, is a pretty one and exudes a faint resinous perfume on a windy day as well as providing bay leaves for all sorts of cookery. In a former home I had a 4 foot tall lollipop shaped semi-bonsai one I grew in a big galvanized tub and wish I could’ve taken it with me.
& Saffron is both useful and a glorious choice for the garden, being the dried stigmas of a very pretty kind of crocus. These bulbs don’t naturalize readily like some crocus, but are of course worth the effort and expense if you can get them.
& Sorrel‘s bright acidity makes it a welcome herb with which to spike a salad, my favorite use for it. The zippy sourness comes from oxalic acid, so it’s not something you want to eat by the bale, but it’s not so potent you can’t safely make soup or just eat it raw in small amounts. The flower stalk is slightly weedily aggressive, and the leaves are very popular with munching insects, but since it’s not a virulent spreader the flowering isn’t hard to nip, literally, in the bud, and those insects are often butterflies and moths, so I’m happy to share with them.
Some herbs are big on flavor but not worth trying to grow in the wrong climate or simply too short-lived for my lazy wishes:
& Cilantro: I love it, but it bolts (goes to seed) so fast that unless I grew a huge patch of it for one-time harvest and freezing or kept planting it repeatedly through the season, it’d be sprouted and dead in no time, so I’m happy to pay farmers to grow it for me.
& Kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass and ginger (okay, that’s a rhizome, not an herb) are exceedingly delish in all kinds of Asian foods but require more tropical conditions than I’ve lived in for their happiness!
Some annual herbs are worth the effort, even if they don’t tend to self-sow:
& Basil is one that I have been known to plant in a couple of varieties a season for different purposes: the purple leafed types are pretty as well as decent tasting; Thai Basil gives a specific and welcome familiar spice to Thai and Vietnamese cookery; Sweet Basil is the most versatile flavor king among them. They all have nice blooms, though not showy; if you let them bloom, though, they tend to wind down as their work is done, so you want to keep beheading at least some if you plan to keep using it through the whole growing season. Then basil tends to keep proliferating. Cruelty pays! 😉
& Lettuces are of course lovely, but cabbages too are often forgotten as ornamentals, but as you know, I like planting them for their leaf color and texture, can cut occasional leaves for food or garnish, and when I leave the rest to do so, they bloom in very hummingbird-friendly ways and are a fun novelty in the flowerbed as well. Another lettuce cousin I like a lot is chard (silverbeet), whose leaves are tasty spinach imitators (raw or cooked) and whose varieties include some with great colorful stems that make them look like rhubarb or Pop Art versions of it in yellow and orange. Mine wintered over this year in the front flowerbed, surprisingly. Radicchio is a great member of this whole group, too: edible and showy burgundy colored leaves, and if you let some or all of them go to flower, they’re tall blue daisy-like things. Quite delightful.
& Shiso, or Perilla, is a less commonly used leafy herb in the US, but the popular Japanese treat comes in a number of often quite attractive leaf shapes, textures and colors. I grew a gorgeous one some years ago that had a slight scallop on the leaf edges, a gracefully veined texture, glorious purple and green-black hues, and a spectacular metallic sheen. I confess I didn’t use it much for food because I couldn’t bear to snip it.
& Garlic and Onions, on the other hand, have distinctive and fun flora, and can survive longer term if you don’t choose to dig all of them up to eat.
Some herbs are potentially invasive pests but I still like them for their beauty and/or culinary gifts, so I’m willing to keep massacring them occasionally to keep them in check:
& Oregano spreads fairly easily but is a pretty bloomer as well as a tasty leafy herb, and not awful to control.
& Mint is a genuine monster that wants to take over the world, especially my favorite commonly named ‘apple mint’ (huh??? I’ve never figured out what’s apple-y about it) that’s so incredibly versatile, but I try to plant it in places where it can spread without turning into square-stemmed kudzu. There are a number of interesting and fun varieties of mint ‘flavors’ available, but I stick with my old reliable despite the allure of Chocolate Mint, Orange Mint, and even true Peppermint and Spearmint, since one aggressive invader variety is enough for me. Wintergreen is a beautiful plant but, besides not being a mint variety at all, is pretty hard to find. It’s a broad-leafed evergreen with small white flowers and big pinky-red berries, and the crushed leaf is wonderfully fragrant, but it’s not commonly found, isn’t a snap to prepare for edible uses like most of these others, and has a picky attitude in climate and growth requirements. Still, I did grow it once in Washington because of its peculiar attractions. Maybe I feel an affinity with it by virtue of my husband’s having chosen me for my peculiar attractions. Ha.
& Dill is sometimes known as Dill Weed for good reason, as it can run rampant in friendly climates and it’s a large, blowsy plant despite its delicate thread-like leaves. But its starburst flora and subsequent seed heads are pretty among the leafy lace, and it’s so danged delicious in so many meals that even if your climate is conducive to such running amok it’s worth the trouble. Besides, in that case you can at least put in some of the dwarfish kinds of dill. Pretty unbeatable with fish, and indispensable in deli pickling!
& Fennel is similarly a member of the uncontrollable-toddler plant type, moving aimlessly but at speed all over the garden and being a big showoff of a thing, but even if you’re a little hesitant about the licorice-y hints it gives food, it too has a nicely delicate look for such a tall plant, and you can bring some nice color into the beds by planting bronze fennel. Just chop it ruthlessly when it wants to flower to keep it in check. I’ve never tried growing bulb fennel myself since as rarely as I use it, it’s easier to buy it and give the garden space to something else.Clearly, I could wander on like this for ages. My experimental wildflower mini-meadow out back has behaved modestly well in its first half-season last year and appears to be letting a few sprouts emerge for a good beginning again now. I will go out in the next few days and give it a thorough haircut with the weed-cutter so that it has its own mulch through the remaining unreliable chills of late winter and early spring, and have been feeding it a kind of pre-compost over the winter by tossing the chopped and blended remains of the kitchen’s dregs in and letting them freeze and decay gradually as they would have in a regular garden, and will add to that with some other treats as the patch begins to revive. I am very curious to see what of the multitudinous kinds of seed I’ve planted out there now makes an appearance and what will take hold for the long term, as much of what I put in was intended to be naturalizing perennial feed for the birds and insects as well as soothing wildflower beauty. The bonus, if all goes well, will be lots of herbal fun for my dining companions and me. Only time and Mother Nature will tell.
Health is a wildly, weirdly, wonderfully complicated state. Both physical and mental health are astoundingly omnidirectional networks of intersecting matrices and random points; genetics, environmental influences, accidents, allergies and so much more come together and continue to change over the life of any one person. Furthermore, these meet in an intersection of the two networks (mental and physical) in every single person, that it’s nothing short of miraculous that any of us human conglomerations actually survive and have relatively good health.
It’s completely unsurprising, then, when something or other does break down or fail to be really perfect when it comes to health matters. Thank goodness there are more and more answers and helps for us when it comes to such moments of concern. But for every solution, there are shortcomings and side effects, and we still have to make choices and experiment, test and try and hope.
I’m one of those relatively rare creatures blessed with generally outstanding and reliable good health. I’ve never had a broken bone; I’ve had all of three stitches in my whole life, and I’ve never worn a cast or a brace unless you count the kinds I could buy in a neighborhood pharmacy for an achy hyper-extended knee or a fiddly fingertip whose little cut made a mockery of my hale-and-heartiness when I was whimpering over the pain every time I’d bump it. My various moles, cysts, and bumps have all thus far been benign and manageable. Even those more significant elements that might affect my function and longevity are so far pretty reasonable to deal with and don’t require enormous amounts of care just yet.
The essential tremor, noticeable since I was about ten or twelve, has never gotten so obtrusive that I have had to do anything for or about it. The mitral valve prolapse (heart murmur) is so mild that it went unnoticed until I had a regular physical exam from a person who, as pure chance had it, was conducting a study of that specific condition and so was attuned to its unlikely presence. Very minor hypothyroidism like mine is easily kept at bay with very little medicine (mostly pretty common ones at that) or monitoring. I am especially grateful that thus far there is no indication that the Parkinson’s Disease that poses as the only true black sheep of my family has not to date taken up residence in my body.
This is not to say that I have no inkling of any of the irksome and unpleasant effects of imperfect health. I’ve come to recognize the recurrent, and in some cases, chronic, annoyances and inconveniences that come with allergies. While mine have remained moderate and turn out to be treatable if not controllable, I figured out after getting some help that they had had a far greater control over my daily life and well-being before that time than I had realized. And as I’ve said here before, I have had my adventures with Spasmodic Dysphonia, clinical depression, and anxiety; these had larger influences on me and, therefore, those around me, by a magnitude of difference.
What arises every time I contemplate these things, all of which are in my own life more survivable and treatable than I know that they can be for others, is the notion that as a typically complicated human health exemplar, I still have to work continuously to discern what combination of the tangible and medical kinds of interventions and treatments with those more intangible approaches of meditation, activity, and trust—call it faith, hope, prayer, optimism, or attitude adjustment, it’s all fodder for feeling, and possibly, getting, better—will suffice to keep any of my anomalous conditions in check.
Thus far, the answer for me has been a shifting combination of the tangible and the intangible; I think that’s how it works for most people. My personal recipe for success is neither absolute nor permanent, any more than my personal state of being is fixed or unchangeable. Health, both physical and mental, changes rather constantly over a life span, and the longer one lives the more cycles and spikes of change are likely to occur during the stretch. What, then, can I do?
Keep trying. What combination of body-chemistry-altering substances serves my needs at the moment? They might well be outright commercially made and sold and officially, doctor- or nurse-administered drugs, but they can also easily be homeopathic or folk cures, foods or herbs or numerous other things that I’ve discovered through trial and error suit my physical and mental well-being. The same can be true of physical therapy: it might be specific exercises recommended to me by my doctor or other trusted medical and health experts, or as is often the case, it can be a set, series or group of activities that simply make me feel closer to my optimal conditioning. Nowadays, as always, I find myself using quite the mixture of these helpers to suit my specific needs and wishes for better health and happiness. For me, that means a full combination of what could be loosely classified as medication and meditation.
I can’t begin to tell you how that works or is explained scientifically. Some of it I’d bet good money can’t be clarified in scientific terms. But experientially, that I can tell you: I feel pretty good. I get the occasional sneezes or headaches, and there are times when it irritates me, yes, that my vocal cords are recalcitrant and unreliable. I’d definitely prefer if the shadow of Parkinson’s hied itself off my family’s shoulders, most especially Mom’s, and would never try to sneak up on me later despite any efforts on my part to ward it off if possible. But let’s be honest. Right now I feel pretty good, and that makes me happy. Whatever I’m doing or not doing, taking or not taking, it seems to be working.
People can get so overwrought over the holidays. Whatever those holidays may be, they have a way of bringing out the worst in the expectations we have of ourselves, never mind what we think we have to live up to for others’ sakes. So I tend to opt for the less fussy and somewhat unconventional, and I definitely prefer what’s simple. Leave the designer food extravaganzas to those with more patience and money and fewer friends and loved ones waiting to be visited or holiday lights to be savored where they twinkle and glitter on treetops and roofs, fences and storefronts. But I digress.Holiday brunches (it it my firm belief, as a person who does not believe in getting up a second earlier than necessary, that holidays of all times require sleeping in too late for holiday breakfasts) are an opportunity to have some favorite simple treats that can be easily thrown together for a snack-tastic sort of meal. Steamed ‘hard boiled’ eggs, bacon candied with a mixture of brown sugar and dark maple syrup, a little cinnamon and a dash of cayenne, a homemade chocolate malt, grilled cheddar cheese sandwiches, or some plain, juicy-sweet clementines–or all of the above. In that instance, there’ll be plenty to keep you well fueled until holiday dinner. Whenever and whatever that ends up being.My love of savory + sweet foods, too, is not new, not unique to me, and not limited to any particular group of foods. There’s the wonderful long-standing tradition of such delicious delights as ham with sweet glazes, rich curries with sweet chutneys, sundaes with salted nuts, and cheese boards with fruits, just to drool over thoughts of a small few. And it’s interesting that time and tradition contend to restrict our thinking of certain foods or ingredients as belonging automatically to desserts or not, to a sweet category or a savory one, and further, if sweet then to desserts; if savory, non-dessert.
Cloudy, with a high chance of deliciousness: spiced cider.
These days, then, when I’m cooking I tend to think of what ingredients I’m hungry for among those on hand, how they might go together, and what kind of dish will result. Even when the dish is finished, I’m not always certain it would easily classify as sweet or savory, entrée or side dish, main item or dessert. After all, there are plenty of old recipes leading to such seeming incongruities as smoked salmon cheesecake or candied pork. Herbs and spices, those basically non-caloric, strongly flavored elements that color and distinguish other ingredients, are a logical tool for transformation. A simple cup or glass, hot or cold, of spice infused cider becomes so much more than simply apple juice, and cocktails can turn from frilly to fiery or from crazy to cozy, depending on their infusions.
Squash and apples make fine companions.
Then there’s praline happiness, which I’m not averse to eating by the forkful.
If both apples and squashes can make delicious pies or side dishes equally well, why not meld all of those characteristics and veer off onto a slightly divergent path? One day I saw the inviting fall bin of pumpkins and squashes beckoning me from right next to the apple display in the produce section of the grocery store and voila! A sweet-savory side dish was born. I chopped the peeled, cored apples and blended them with lemon juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice, a dash of vanilla, a pinch of salt, a splash of maple syrup and a tablespoon of instant tapioca, and I spooned it all into the two seeded, salted halves of the pretty squash, topped with a big pat of butter to melt over it all. Into the oven it went at medium-high heat until the squash was tender enough to yield to a spoon, and I served the squash and the apple filling together with a praline crumble topping I’d made by baking a mix of chopped salted nuts, butter and brown sugar.
Many things, sweet or savory, are happily enhanced with a touch of praline.
This little oddity easily occupied the same space on my menu normally reserved for the famous-or-infamous dish with which so many American holiday tables have either a sacred or scared relationship: marshmallow topped sweet potatoes. Sweet and savory, not to mention fatty and ridiculous, either dish is quite okay with me, and it wouldn’t surprise me any more than it would you to hear me described that way as a result. As a bit of an oddity, too, for that matter.
Steamed carrot pudding. Not bad all on its own whether for any meal or afters.
And speaking of love-it-or-hate-it foods, there’s eggnog. What would you guess about another rich food with outsized calories in a small, sugary package? Yeah, obviously another semi-guilty love of mine. I often make a quickie eggnog for breakfast, blending a raw egg or two plus a pinch each of nutmeg (maybe cinnamon and cardamom, too), salt, vanilla, and raw local honey with cream, whole milk yogurt, or water. [Yes, I eat raw eggs often, and I’ve never in all my years had the remotest problem with it. But I’m generally very healthy. Others do so at their own risk.] When available, a ripe banana makes a delicious thickener/sweetener. Oh, and the same can be said of vanilla ice cream, of course!
Broth-cooked carrot pudding with eggnog sauce.
However it’s made (or bought from a good organic supplier), eggnog also makes a fantastic sauce for another of those holiday-associated goodies, pumpkin pie. And when I say pumpkin pie, I happily include a host of similar sweet/savory and dense-textured treats like sweet potato pie, steamed puddings, loaf cakes, bread puddings and other such brazenly heavy-duty things–all of which would make equally lush and luscious dessert or breakfast, in my book–are nicely complemented by a sauce of smooth, creamy eggnog. If a little is good, a lot is great, or as Dad has wisely taught us: Anything worth doing is worth overdoing! Well worth a little recovery fasting in any event, eh!
Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Toast it with a spiced cider, perhaps?
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.
The 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? Sometimes, 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]!
Garnishes, condiments, flavorings and all the trimmings, oh my!If God–or the devil–is in the details, well, either one might very well explain why I’m so enamored of them that the main ingredient sometimes feels like an afterthought.Yes, I suppose I would notice if everyone started serving me meals consisting solely of garnishes, condiments, et. al. Can’t promise I would, though. ‘Small plates’ and all that. As it happens, I pretty nearly could live on the frills alone. Wouldn’t choose to, but seriously, what’s not to love about heaps of chopped toasted nuts, a multitude of exotic spices, a grand assortment of syrups and sauces, shavings of fine cheese, curls of chocolate, meringues, leafy herbs enough to furnish a king’s garden, and pretty little haystacks of finely grated citrus zest?The plain and homely, the grand and glamorous, the simple and the subtle: these are all made into memorable foods and unforgettable meals by the company in which they’re enjoyed and the ambience of the location and occasion. But they’re made further into a special sort of magic by the alchemy of wise and clever additions of cardamom or cumin, condensed tomato paste, a tot of brandy or rosewater, candied grapefruit peel, sweet pea shoots, fresh violets, sieved hard boiled egg yolk, or a judicious sprinkling of crisply fried shallot bits. Get me candied, brandied and dandied up and I’m a happy diner!Yes, I’m simply nuts about all of the lovely trimmings. Now, what shall I fix tomorrow that calls for a bit of edible decor? Maybe something with metallic sugar glitter on top. (And yes, I have that in the cupboard, too. Did I mention I have this little obsession–?) Stay tuned.
No fingers must be licked for chicken to be considered notably delectable. Still, being no stickler for any particular sort of manners, I am not averse to slurping at any remnants of good food stuck to my fingers no matter what they are or, possibly, where I am. And I find that some of the appeal of eating chicken is that it lends itself to an enormous range of edible iterations that are a pleasure in the making, in the dining, and in the finger-licking aftermath of it all. Chicken plays such a lovely supporting role to any number of costars among the pantheon of possible flavorings and ingredients that it’s never difficult to imagine yet another wondrous way to enjoy a chicken dish. Add to that the potential for re-imagining the chicken in numerous follow-up dishes if there should happen to be any left over from dinner, and you’ve got one fine, fine companion in the kitchen.Our friendly chicken on this occasion, a handsomely fat-breasted creature of purportedly wholly organic origins (and who am I to argue), was gently consigned, in a Dutch oven larded with a generous quantity of sweet pastured butter, and wearing a good dusting of homemade lemon salt and pepper, to lie on a bed of neck and giblets, celery chunks and quartered limes that suspended it above the cupful or so of white wine pooled underneath. The oven, set at about as low a temperature as it could sustain below the mere warming of its interior light could generate, brought the chicken up to moist-cooked interior temperature over a long, slow afternoon before being brought out from under its protective lid for browning under the broiler at the last moment. Not the fast food version of ‘finger-lickin’ good’ but rather a lengthily slow-cooked bit of tenderness that deserves hand-cleaning after the fact all the same.The simple sequel to this supper can come from any number of inspirations. On the latest occasion it was pairing the chicken with some crisp-tender hash browns, along with warming some leftover marinara sauce, butter-cooked mushrooms and herbs together to create a facsimile of Chicken Parmigiana. Rather than create the breaded cutlets in the traditional style, I simply layered the slices of moist chicken next to the potatoes, spooned on some mushroom marinara, sprinkled on some shredded Parmigiano, and melted the cheese just a little to round out its flavor. Far from the heights of authentic Italian culinary art, but let me tell you, it wasn’t hard to eat all the same. Might be having some again soon, since there’s still more of that nice chicken that I cut up and popped in the freezer after roasting it the other day. Of course, I could veer off toward some Tikka Masala . . . or chicken noodle soup . . . or quesadillas con pollo.
Yesterday was rather long. Heck, it stretched right into today. But that, as you all know, is not inherently a bad thing. I would never begin to compare a day’s labor in the midst of my remarkably comfortable life with one in the farm fields, in the classroom, the clinic, office, or certainly in thoughtfully and lovingly caring for children, parents, friends–one’s own or others’. And when the goal of the work is hospitable and happy, why then so should the work be also. As it was. So, long story short, a long day can end in feeling short enough!
That, after all, is what makes anything resembling hospitality happen. If it’s done wearily or begrudgingly it’s bound to show. Even I, in my natural state of obliviousness, can generally tell from the other side of the table whether the hosts’ smiles are forced or genuine, whether the invitation was obligatory or willingly made. I credit myself with enough savvy to be able to differentiate between a relaxed conversation with a friend on the porch and her frantic attempt to make a life-saving dash for her car. And to my knowledge, I have never failed to find something that everyone in attendance could and would eat or drink on any given occasion. It demands a small amount of forethought, but then the pleasures of good company would be ever so much lessened by, say, a case of anaphylactic shock brought on by a stray peanut or an understandable case of high dudgeon induced by serving a roast of bacon-wrapped pork loin to my orthodox Jewish friends or a traditional but utterly inappropriate Asian feast of glazed short ribs and chicken feet when a vegan comes to call. A simple inquiry beforehand can put off any number of embarrassments.
It can’t, however, protect me perfectly from serving things that some among a larger group won’t love. That’s yet another reason that it’s helpful to offer a wider assortment of things in smaller quantities, when I can. No one has to feel any obligation to try everything, nor should they be forced to choose between only two or three things that are all less than favorites or just go hungry and thirsty when everyone else in the room is happily munching and sipping away. Thus, knowing we were all going to be either performing or hearing some beautiful Spanish music, I was rescued by the easy outlet of serving a tapas-style array of food and drink. I’ve already admitted that authenticity of product was less a factor in this party than simply being inspired by the notion, so when I tell you what I served I hope you’ll be as cheerfully accommodating as our guests were.
Almonds: Marcona almonds (those lovely little fat Spanish almonds), served simply as toasted in olive oil with a little sea salt; sticky, spicy-sweet almonds that I glazed in a pan with honey thinned with extra dry sherry, salt, cracked black pepper and lots of cinnamon; and savory almonds that I toasted in blood orange olive oil with fresh rosemary and alder smoked salt.
Celery sticks, plain as plain can be, because someone nearly always longs for the very simple and fresh among the more complex tastings of a snacking party.
Mango-Manchego bites: Tasty as it is, I had no membrillo handy to serve with cheese, so I wrapped cubes of Manchego in narrow strips of mango fruit leather. That turned out to be a fairly popular move, and it was certainly easy enough to assemble each with a toothpick, so I’ll keep it in mind for the future.
Marinated treats: Spanish olives–I just took a batch of the standard grocery store pimiento stuffed green olives, drained them of their brine and replaced it with dry Sherry and extra virgin olive oil; Marinated mushrooms–I bathed some sliced medium-large cremini mushrooms in a simple vinaigrette dressing of balsamic vinegar, red wine, olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme.
Chorizo-Date bites: Again, simple as can be–dry-aged chorizo, casings removed and meat cut into small pieces, and each piece speared on a toothpick with a cap made from a quarter of a sweet Medjool date.
Papas Bravas: My version of the popular spicy potato bites–dice scrubbed, skin-on russet potatoes into about 1 inch cubes, toss them with olive oil, salt, pepper, smoked paprika and chili powder, spread them out in a greased baking pan, and brown them in a medium oven.
Fig Bread: I didn’t have any fig bread handy, but I did have a batch of my nut-and-seed bars in the freezer, and I did after all have some figs in this batch–so I whizzed them up in the food processor (and crumbled the recalcitrant harder-frozen bits by hand), melted a bar and a half of white chocolate I had around with a heaping tablespoon or two of cocoa powder and a spoonful of instant coffee and a pat of butter, stirred that in to the crumbs, and chilled it all, patted flat, in the fridge until it was solid enough to cut into cubes. I rolled the cubes in a mixture of powdered sugar and cinnamon to keep them from stickiness.
Drinks: I had other things around, but what ended up getting used was mighty easy, and I got the impression that no singer left un-slaked. Besides store-bought limeade (the plain lime juice and cane sugar and water kind) and water, I had a cooler of beer and a big pot of Sangría. That was it. The Sangría, always an ad-hoc concoction in my house, was a mixture of hearty red and sweet white wines, homemade orange liqueur (made some months ago with vodka from home-candied mandarin peels, fresh mandarin + lemon + lime juices, and dried coconut and brown sugar for the sweetening), a small bottle of Mexican green apple soda, a small bottle of green apple hard cider, a tin of sliced peaches canned in fruit juice, a pint of sliced fresh strawberries and a pint of frozen blackberries. All I can say about my Sangría methodology is it’s very much a matter of combining what I have on hand at the moment with what I’m in the mood for on the occasion, the liquid equivalent, I suppose, of my casseroles.The happy conclusion to the story is of course that, whatever I prepare (or don’t), it’s all about the company we keep, and my partner and I are pretty good at surrounding ourselves with outstanding people. So, was the food good? Good enough! The drinks? Wet enough! The company? Outstanding. The party? Just exactly right.
Since several people have asked, I’m posting a list today. No, it’s not one of those house-fixing lists I mentioned full of projects. But related, in a way, as it constitutes my contract of To-Do fun with my yard, garden, flower beds, and planter pots. It’s my seed and plant list–what I’ve put in thus far, and some of what I intend to add, the latter being primarily a larger batch of the listed Wildflower Sowing Mix. It’s my own blend, by the way, concocted from reading up on and observing what is native and/or simply adapts well in our part of the landscape. Starred (*) items are known natives or very long established growers here in north Texas, and items marked with two plus signs (++) are ones I’m emphasizing in placement or quantity because they’re particular favorites of mine.
For the Front Yard Flower Beds:
Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisirynchium)* ++ I’ve long been attracted to the tiny-orchid flowers of this miniature lovely, and was thrilled to discover the plant is native here. A surprise bonus when moving to a place that has a generally less easy climate than my place of origin in the Pacific Northwest.
Chives, Garlic (Allium tuberosum)
Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)* ++
Garlic (Allium sativum) I don’t cook with a whole lot of garlic since marrying a Supertaster, but since they’re beautiful plants, I figure I’ll get what little garlic I need for cooking and have the garden attraction besides.
Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)
I have to admit I enjoy plants whose babies I can recognize early and so chart their progress a little more accurately. Nasturtiums are a very easy one to spot . . .
Spreading Petunia (Petunia x hybrida ‘Purple Wave’)
Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis)* ++ Seriously, how could I not put in any of this classic when I’ve moved to Texas? Not to mention that I’m a sucker for blue flowers. And things that will self-perpetuate once established.
Herbs (Planted front, back, indoors and out)
Basil, Sweet (Ocimum basilicum)
Borage (Borago Officinalis) ++ A rather magical herb, in my estimation, with its refreshingly cucumber-like flavor and exquisite bright blue flowers.
Chives, Onion (Allium schoenoprasum)
Parsley (Petroselinum hortense)
Italian Flat-Leaf @ John: I’ll try to have it fully in leaf when you show up here!
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) ++ I have one healthy plant going, and since it seems to thrive in this yard and I love the plant and its culinary qualities, I have a feeling it will get siblings eventually.
Vegetables (Mostly integrated into the flower beds, for fun)
Beetroot (Beta vulgaris ‘Tall Top Early Wonder’)
Kale (Brassica oleracea ‘Dwarf Blue Curled Vates’)
Bright blue like that of this Salvia gives such pizzazz to the garden . . .
Blueberry(Vaccinium corymbosum ‘Biloxi’) ++ You may recall that I really dislike eating blueberries–but I know the birds and creatures will like them if I leave them, and I think the plants are beautiful!
Irresistible little blooms on the blueberry . . .
Clematis(Clematis, var.) I’ve put in several varieties, and the first leaves are beginning to appear, so I think I had better give those little green pretties something to climb up soon or risk their meandering in the underbrush.
Peering out from under oak leaf-mold and purple tradescantia that's already shown its first bloom of the season, the clematis leaves are beginning to crawl forward . . .
Columbine (Aquilegia ‘Origami Mix’)
Corkscrew Rush (Juncus effusus ‘Spiralis’)
Eastern Redbud(Cercis canadensis) The first of our little city give-away adoptees appears to have survived the winter, but won’t yet show its bud growth.
Fig Tree (Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’) I found a sturdy fig tree rooted in a three-gallon pot for four dollars. How could I refuse? Even if it turns out to be only semi-productive (though I’m told they grow well enough here), the leaf will be a nice variant in the yard.
Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia) A good shot of early color is always welcome.
Horsetail Reed(Equisetum hyemale) Strangely for a place that verges on drought, the yard here has one or two water-collecting spots! So wet-footed plants should do fine.
I find it strange that there is a place--ANYWHERE in this north Texas garden--that can stay wet for so long, but it's a handy spot to put water-tolerant plants like the Corkscrew and Horsetail reeds, after all . . .
Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina)
Mexican Plum(Prunus mexicana)
The Mexican Plum tree just planted this last fall has wasted no time in putting out dainty little white flowers . . .
New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax) Going for a bit of large-scale drama, here. (You can see the NZ flax’s big burgundy swords in front of the wet growing bed above.)
Red Cabbage(Brassica oleracea var. capitata f. rubra)
When it's on sale, why not use the bedding plant! And I got a half-flat of red cabbage babies, so they went out front for their ornament as well as in hopes of good eating . . .
Soapberry (Sapindus saponaria)
Even the six inch tall Soapberry tree seedling from last year is swelling into bud . . .
Tulips (Tulipa spp.) Of a white unnamed variety; oh, yes, I did succumb. I put just a dozen in my front porch planters. Half of them were soldas orange, but buying a generic handful of bulbs, one gets what one gets, no? And white tulips are beautiful too, so I shan’t complain.
A splash of orange might have been showier, but there's no classic like an elegant white flower . . .
There are nearly as many food aphorisms and adages as there are things to eat. Or not to eat. Humans have long sought specific herbs, seeds, barks, flours, shellfish, eggs, and much, much more for the decoctions and concoctions made of them as treatment or cure for far more than starvation. Theories abound regarding what is and isn’t healthful and when and why and for whom, and they swing from one extreme to another at the drop of a spoon. The only fairly dependable approach, it would seem, is to listen to one’s own body. Not such a bad thing to do, in any event, but remarkably rare among the extreme advocates of numerous dietary practices, for whom their personal insights and experiences become a matter of faith.
Indeed, faith (as expressed in religions) has long been a significant factor in shaping what is deemed good or ill at table. Religions often determine what their adherents consider healthful or horrible, sacred or profane. Many religions require strict practice of particular dietary laws, from veganism to vegetarianism to specifying what meats or fruits one may or may not eat and how they must be prepared and in what season they may be embraced. My own beliefs about foods are far less religion-driven–as you can probably tell from my food-related posts here, anyway–but I don’t think religious strictures are any more or less perfect or questionable than dietary practices developed by most other means. I would no more knowingly offend anyone’s religious dietary practices than tell them they should eat foods they’re deathly allergic to or that they must like or dislike the same food and drink as I do. And let’s just be honest here: if others say No Thank You to something I like, then there’s more of it for me!
But what is on my food-crazed mind on this particular day is the practice of finding what foods suit one’s own particular health and happiness. Aside from any laws and limitations, and of course availability and accessibility, we must make constant choices about what to eat. Nearly as long as humans have eaten with any deliberation, any sense of knowing what will kill them or preserve their lives, they have also looked at foods as capable of qualifying the degree of health and well-being they enjoyed.
Love-Apple or Deadly Nightshade?
Tomatoes, perhaps because they are members of the Solanum clan, the nightshades, were considered poisonous in some places (including North America) long after other places’ cuisines were safely and even happily employing them as food. Consciously or not, we all revisit the notion of a comestible‘s safety and health-enhancing properties rather constantly, choosing those things whose tastes we prefer or that make us feel new-and-improved in any way, and avoiding those that give us heartburn, nausea, gallbladder attacks, the Wind, loss of hair, loss of appendages, dropsy, dyspepsia or excessive whimsy. (Well, masochists aside, at least.) Herbalists and nutritionists teach us the known and purported characteristic effects of pretty much everything that can be chewed or swallowed. And ultimately, all I can do is try to learn from my own body what it does and doesn’t want or need.
That’s not to say that I will always do what I believe is best for my health and welfare, by any stretch of the imagination. And you know I have one.
What I want is to feel good. And sometimes stuff that’s not necessarily guaranteed good for me makes me feel good.
Dear Verbena, let me be candid: I may be a little lipophilic, but I'm no radical . . .
It’s really quite amazing what the things we eat and drink can do to us, in us and for us. And I’m not just talking about pharmaceutical effects. Necessarily. See, lunch affects how we feel until dinner, yes, but there’s also the general effect on mood and attitude, on what we see when we look in the mirror, on whether we feel healthier and happier or more impressive in any way. Part of me wants to believe that if I just ate the right stuff I actually would look fabulous in my long-ago orange fake-fur trench coat. That I would be suddenly as smart as I’ve always thought I was and solve all the problems of the world. And of course, that I would be the most spectacular version of myself possible and live that way for another half-century or so at least.
But really, I’m just happy when I figure out what pleases my inner workings and makes me feel pleasantly sated and really ready for whatever the next few hours bring. Oh, and doesn’t make me break out like I’ve reverted to my teens. I’ll get back to you when I’ve developed the perfect diet for all humanity. All I know so far is that it has lots of butter, salt, and chocolate in it. And that it guarantees a certain degree of both inner peace and vigorous smiling when taken regularly and judiciously.
. . . meanwhile, back in my orange trench coat days . . .