Foodie Tuesday: When Cultures Collide

So many beautiful nationalities and ethnicities with so many fabulous cuisines! How on earth can I possibly choose when I’m about to fix a meal?

Then again, why choose? After all, the best of cuisines have borrowed (or stolen) from each other, been influenced by each other, and often gotten so intertwined that it’s hard to know for certain what the absolute baseline, source, or original version of any popular food or dish really was. Sometimes I think that half the fun of creating the menu for an occasion is figuring out how to play with commonalities and contrasts in the most delicious and interesting ways.

Multiply the possibilities of that original menu with my affinity for revising every ingredient or dish in its following appearances as a leftover, and you have one impressively complicated matrix of possible and tangential menus. Exponential recipe improvisation: that’s a kind of math that appeals even to a mathematical dullard like me.

There was that recent episode when I found an interesting-sounding ready-to-cook packet of mushroom risotto that had—unlike most prefab dishes of the sort—only about five or six ingredients, all of them actual foods, and thought it’d be an interesting basis for my dinner preparations. Even with pre-packaged items, it’s a virtual certainty that I will fail to prepare them exactly as proposed. I’m not talking about that silly thing where you buy a boxed frozen dinner and because it’s pictured on the box as set on a plate, the seller assumes you’re too stupid to know that you might need to remove it from the box and heat it in order to consume it, so it says in tidy type, “Serving Suggestion.” I’m talking about actual changes in the way the contents of the box are prepared or served.

So, first of all, being the perpetually lazy person I am, I thought the prospect of standing around stirring a risotto for eons was less appealing than seeing what would happen if I put the ingredients into my rice cooker with extra liquids and let it do the work. Ours is a low-tech oldie but goodie among rice cookers, with a chintzy looking removable aluminum pot insert, so I did toast the rice, with its spice and earthy little pieces of dried mushrooms and shallots in a generous pool of butter, setting that little aluminum canister right on the burner, before popping it into the rice cooker shell and pouring in a half and half mixture of homemade broth and water, slightly more than my usual doubling of quantity over dry (rice and other) ingredients, and a good dash of dry sherry. It may not have been a true risotto by a long stretch, but by golly, it was pretty darn tasty all the same. I served it topped with bacon pieces and alongside that, with some patties of slightly spicy chorizo, sauced thickly with lemony avocado cream and topped in turn with sweet grape tomatoes, all with a little green salad on the side.Photo: Risotto & Chorizo

It was a filling and nicely congenial combination, this meeting of Italian influenced risotto rice, Mexican style chorizo, and a very slightly French treatment of the avocado sauce.

Later in the week, this pseudo-risotto segued on down to Puerto Rico when I incorporated a big scoop of chipotle salsa, the rest of those thick-cut cooked bacon pieces from the previous garnish, and crumbled leftover chorizo into it, heated it through, and then let it crisp on the outside during a low and slow rest on the cooker to become a fair facsimile of the Mamposteao we fell in love with on our May visit to San Juan. With some of my sushi-ginger dressed coleslaw on the side, I think I managed to get the meal to span even further global miles than the first time, perhaps. In any case, it spanned from pots and pans to stomachs pretty neatly both times.

Foodie Tuesday: Pie Eyed

photoSince we don’t always make a big deal out of holidays, my husband and I, and even when we do get the urge to celebrate we’re not huge sticklers for partying on the officially designated day or with the popularly traditional foods and events. This year we’re being a little more predictable, perhaps, by having a Thanksgiving gathering with eight musician friends. We’re doing our dinner on Wednesday rather than Thursday to accommodate schedules, but otherwise we’re being more predictable than not. There’s a big pastured turkey, spatchcocked and dry-brining, in the fridge and it’ll be accompanied by plenty of at least somewhat traditional sides and garnish treats, and most fittingly of all for this particular American holiday, we’ll have US-dwelling friends from the Netherlands, Estonia, Austria, Hungary, Puerto Rico, Canada and yes, stateside gracing our celebration with their presence. A great way to remember part of what’s best about this country and what I’m most thankful for–and not just on this holiday.

I’m going with pies for dessert. That’s the real reason for today’s post title, not that I’m planning on getting plastered to celebrate, if that’s what you were wondering. Ahem!

Apple pie, as any of you who’ve been around here for any length of time know, is not just a supremely suitable dish for the season but my spouse’s first choice for dessert any time there’s the slightest possibility of having it. Easy choice, clearly. Another thing that’s wonderfully fitting for the season and my tastebuds is maple syrup, and since we have a jug of gorgeous dark Grade-B-heaven maple syrup, a gift from another friend, just beaming at us with its heavenly come-hither look from the pantry, I deemed it a sign that I should get around to trying my hand at another pie I’ve long wanted to make, Tarte au Sucre. Here goes!

Meanwhile, there’s other stuff to get ready. Spiced apple cider is in a big pot, infusing at room temperature overnight until I heat it tomorrow. Potatoes are [literally] half-baked and will get finished on the day as well, smashed with cream and butter and a little salt before going to table next to the chicken-white wine gravy I put up last week and am storing. The appetizers of Gouda, homemade beef pate and crackers, nuts (including some Marcona almonds I set a-swim in olive oil a couple of weeks ago) and pickles–homemade beetroot pickles along with southern style pickled okra, green beans and green tomatoes–are all ready to set out as we sip some bubbly and cider for a start. Since the turkey’s ready to roast all I have to do is take that big, handsome bird out of the fridge and bring it up to room temperature right in the pan it’s in now and roast it on the rack of celery, carrots, apple chunks, cinnamon sticks and lemon pieces it’s been resting on overnight.photo

I’m using store-bought bread but will hope to have time to make our friend Jim’s southern corn bread and sausage dressing, so ridiculously tasty that when he made it for me the first time we two ate most of the batch which I later learned from the written recipe is meant to serve twelve. Not kidding you.

I’m keeping the vegetable sides exceedingly simple, serving steamed green beans with bacon I crisped up and froze earlier, plus sweet coleslaw, so those will practically make themselves, being so easy and quick. What the others bring, if anything, will be entirely a surprise, with the exception of one person saying she was likely to bring some pureed squash and cranberry sauce, either or both of which would be deliciously appropriate. All of this, regardless of whether anyone does bring more, means that we will very likely have heaps of leftovers, one of the true treasures of the occasion and certainly one of the reasons we give thanks!

I will share pictures after the fact–not much to show for the process that will thrill or impress you for now–but first I would like to share with you my wish that whether you are planning to celebrate this American holiday this week or not, you will all be blessed with immeasurable reasons yourselves to be thankful. As I am, indeed, thankful not only for my many other privileges and joys, but most of all for the wonderful people filling every corner of my life, including you, my friends in Bloglandia. Thank You!photo montage

Foodie Tuesday: The Daily Grind Need Not Grind Us Down

When I did a bit of checking on it, the name of my variant of Shepherd’s Pie seemed to be, by rights, ‘Pastel de Carne y Patatas’–but you know me, I can’t stick to proprieties very well. So I named it the more mellifluous sounding ‘Pastel al Pastor’, thinking as I do that shepherds get very short shrift in this day and age and can use a little flattering attention. What the dish is calls for it anyway, for it’s a rustic Mexican-tinged take on the comfort-food standard Shepherd’s Pie. In any event, like many longtime popular recipes, it got its start partly by using ground or minced meat, a hallmark of well-fed poor people’s diets since the cheaper cuts of most meats can become tenderer and allow much more expansive fillers and the disguise of plenteous seasonings in order to be palatable while still being relatively affordable.

Rustic and comforting it may be, but the simplicity of the end result in this recipe belies the multifaceted process by which it’s made. Don’t let that put you off, though, because it can be made in large quantities and frozen in smaller batches between times, so it can easily become a quick-fix dish after the first preparation. Shepherd’s Pie, in the vernacular, derives from the longtime concept of Cottage Pie, which in turn originated when cooks began more widely using potatoes to stretch those more expensive ingredients of the meal, the meats. Typically, these pies (and there are versions of them in an enormous number of countries, cultures and cuisines) are simply meat dishes, often made with the ‘lesser’ cuts or a mixture of leftover meats, with a potato crust. Probably the most familiar of them here in the US is the minced meat (and often, vegetable) mixture topped with mashed potatoes that is served in many a British pub and home kitchen and that we co-opted in our own American ways.

Mine, on this occasion, was to veer as I often do toward Mexican seasonings and enjoy my own little twist on the dish.photoPastel al Pastor

Seasoned minced or ground meats, topped with vegetables and mushrooms and gravy and served over smashed potatoes make altogether a hearty and countrified dish, not at all difficult to make but taking a little bit of time because of its individual parts. I make this in a generously buttered baking dish both because it’s easier to clean afterward and because–you guessed it–I love butter.

The bottom layer of the dish is made by frying a mixture of equal parts ground beef, pork and lamb, seasoned freely with salt, black and cayenne peppers, chili powder, smoked paprika and lots of cumin. Those without supertaster spouses will likely want to add some garlic powder as well, though it’s not essential. A splash of rich chicken broth or a spoonful of good chicken bouillon adds a nice layer of flavor, if you have it. Next, add a heaping spoonful of tomato paste and enough good salsa to make the meat mixture very slightly saucy, and just as the meats begin to caramelize, you’re done. [My go-to, if I’m not making my salsa by hand, is Pace’s mild Chunky Salsa with a prepared chipotle en adobo blended in thoroughly–I see on their web page that they’re reintroducing their chipotle salsa, so that’s probably fine too.] Drain the fat from the meat mixture and spread it in the bottom of your baking dish.

While the meat’s cooking, you can be preparing the vegetable-mushroom layer. I mixed about equal amounts of small cut carrots, sliced celery and sliced brown mushrooms, covered them with some of my ubiquitous chicken broth and cooked them until tender. Then I pureed half of them with a stick blender, adding a heaping tablespoon each of chipotle en adobo (that’s about a half a pepper), unflavored gelatin and potato flour for flavor and texture, mixed that with the remaining vegetables, and poured it all over the meat. I topped this with a cup or so of frozen sweet kernel corn and got ready for Potato Happiness.

Today’s version of this meal, Ladies and Gentlemen, was potato-fied with leftovers. I had half a baked potato and about a cupful of good french fries in the fridge, and they worked wonderfully when warmed with some cream and a touch of salt and smashed roughly. It would have been just fine to do the typical Shepherd’s Pie treatment of spreading the potatoes over the meat-and-veg before heating the dish through in the oven, but since this was all concocted of things I had around (taco meat I’d made and frozen, salad vegetables and leftover potatoes), on this occasion we just put nice heaps of mash on our plates and spooned the rest over them like meat-and-vegetable gravy.

For the more normal approach, I’d roast, boil or bake potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and combine with cream for the mash and then top the casserole, possibly adding some nice cheese either on top before browning it in the oven (a mix of shredded cheddar and Monterey jack, for example) or as a fine garnish, a serving-time crumble (cotija on top, anyone?). But ‘normal’ is overrated, and the dish was mighty, mighty tasty even deconstructed in this way. And it’s still flexible–yes, even a dish concocted of multiple leftovers has variety left in it, my friends. Add some peas (so many tasty cottage pies have peas in them), cauliflower, green beans, or any number of other vegetables. Make it spicier. Soup it up into a stew, with potato pieces incorporated. Change the seasonings to Indian and make it a post-Colonial curried version. You get the drift.

Thing is, of course, that this is precisely how the dish was conceived: as a loose general structure into which any number of variables could successfully be introduced, depending upon what was on hand. Save time, save labor, save money. Eat delicious potatoes and whatever flavorful wonders you can afford and imagine to combine under them.

Well, get along with you now, you know how it works. And you can be pretty sure that it’s going to taste good. That’s how folklore ‘recipes’ survive–on flexibility and reliability. Oh, yeah, and great fillers.

Even chicken, which sometimes gets short shrift when it comes to minced meat dishes because it’s left too unseasoned or cooked in ways that make it too dry, can make lovely ground meat dishes with a little effort. In the latest instance, I chose to precook mine in a sort of meat loaf sous vide, keeping the juices and additions in and on it until it was fully plate-safe, but this could easily be chilled in its loaf form, sliced and pan-fried without the intervening hot bath, I’m sure. And a food processor makes the loaf prep a snap, but it can be done with a knife and a pair of hands for mixing, too. In any event, I veered more toward Italy this time with my glorified chicken meatloaf concoction.photoCotolette di Pollo e Pancetta

[About 6 servings.] Mince and mix together the following and shape into a compact loaf: 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (dark meat stays moister), 3 ounces pancetta, 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon thyme, 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1/8 teaspoon powdered lemon peel, 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons cold butter and 1/2 teaspoon minced dried shallot. Wrap and chill the loaf until ready to fry it, or do as I did: vacuum pack it, cook it sous vide like a confit (low and slow–I let it go overnight), and then refrigerate until ready to use.

When it’s time to fix the meal, cut the loaf into slices about 1/4 inch thick and fry them over medium heat until lightly browned. With a well seasoned iron skillet or a nonstick pan, the butter in the loaf is quite sufficient to keep the slices from sticking, and they get a nice little lightly crispy crust outside their tender middles. I served mine with slices of fried cheese (any slow-melting mild cheese would do for this after-the-fact application, or you can top the meat slices with faster-melting sorts like mozzarella or provolone as the meat cooks) and a simple sauce cooked down from jarred passata (simple tomato puree–I like the Mutti brand passata I used, pure tomatoes with a little salt) mixed with the loaf’s excess juices, salt and pepper and oregano to taste. On the side, little ramekins of rice and buttered green beans are plenty, though of course there’s always room for invention on the plate. The whole assembly, since I’d put up both cooked rice and the confited loaf in the refrigerator beforehand, took not more than fifteen or twenty minutes to prepare.

¡Buen provecho! Buon appetito! Now, stop mincing around and get eating!

On New Year’s Eve: 2012 in Review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog. I, as proprietress and perpetrator of this site, THANK YOU all from the bottom of my humble heart for your kind and gracious and astonishingly friendly support here. It’s a joy to meet with you here and share our lives and loves so happily. May each and every one of you be gifted with a sweet, magically wonderful 2013!

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 35,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 8 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

 

Foodie Tuesday: Getting a Menu Transplant

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Sticking to my ribs, yes, but maybe with the barbecue sauce twisted into a (Southern) peach chutney style to suit the Basmati rice alongside . . .

It’s not what it used to be, moving to a different place. The world is so much smaller than it once was! We talk via computer and cell phone as though we were sitting right next to each other–and sometimes when we’re sitting next to each other. Language and culture and history are all getting a good mash-up in this shrinking world where we live.

One genuinely wonderful aspect of this not-entirely-perfect scenario of homogenization is that we have access to so much that was once unreachable to everyone but the most extremely far-flung intrepid explorers and have commonalities that our ancestors could never have dreamed remotely possible. Not least of all, we can indulge in the joys of cuisines and ingredients from places we can’t even pronounce, let alone afford to visit.

Most of these regional, national, racial, cultural treasures, by virtue of being intermingled with and sampled by so many others to such a degree that sometimes it seems something learned from the Chinese by the Dutch traders and then passed along to their colonial outposts in the south seas, who in turn brought it along when they immigrated to North America, well, these ideas and arts and recipes have been so transformed along the way that they, like the initial message in the old game of Telephone, are utterly new inventions by the time the Chinese ever experience them again. And yet, in a happy twist, we who create and share the first iteration often fall in love with it and repeat and refine it until it becomes part of who we are, so it’s not wholly lost in the translation, either.

For someone who grew up in one part of the vast American patchwork of a country and experienced East Coast specialties, Southern cooking, Midwest traditions, and Southwest cuisine as being no less foreign in their ways to my Northwestern experience and palate, it’s always been a pleasurable study to try out the fabled deliciousness of Other Places. So while I’ve long loved Chinese and Dutch and Polynesian and Italian and German and Thai and Indian and North African foods of various kinds, it’s no less exotic and thrilling and delicious to sample the comestible culture of different regions of my own homeland.

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Fajitas today, quiche tomorrow . . .

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. . . but you only have to switch from a Coronita to a Trappist ale to suit the occasion, right?

Still, it’s been an entertaining and tasty part of the adventure of moving from Washington state to Texas that I’m experiencing Tex-Mex and Southern and cowboy cuisines in places of their origins and that’s mighty rich learning and dining, too. So I’m more than happy to indulge in all of those special items here anytime I can. But you know me, y’all: rarely do I go into the kitchen without bringing my own machinations and deviations to the party, so I am more than likely to emerge bearing platters and bowls filled not only with classic Texan foods but also with Texan foods as filtered through Washingtonian hands, perhaps with a hint of Chinese cookery here, Dutch baking there, Polynesia and Italy and Germany and Thailand and India and North Africa and all of my other palatable favorites making inroads and appearances whenever I see fit.

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A Texas-sized pork chop can also be cooked sous-vide, even if it’s getting classic Southern sides like bacon-sauteed sweet corn and coleslaw . . .

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. . . and if you want to shake things up a little in a more cosmopolitan way, you can always make the slaw a variant of Waldorf Salad while you’re at it by adding chopped apples and celery and sliced almonds . . .

What’s-in-My-Kitchen Week, Day 6: Good Reading

photoI used to have a large bookcase full, top to bottom, of just my favorite cookbooks (and a few choice cooking magazines). Then we moved into an apartment half the size of our previous house. Guess what. I discovered that even most of my favorites were dispensable in exchange for the good trade in housing. The ones I parted with had to go to good homes, of course, and were a fine cause for bonding with family and friends over food in a new and different way–conversationally rather than via consumption, for a change. Still, there are some things one values above open shelf space, and a few of the ‘basics’ and a few of my personal favorites really did call out for rescue from the give-away goods enough to move with me–to all of my various domestic locations since then.

Cookbooks are far from Legal Documentation to me: I rarely follow any recipe to the letter. But they are instructional all the same, and highly inspirational. Since I depend on them so much for acting as kitchen muses, two things tend to happen–I almost always prefer cookbooks stuffed with vivid pictures as well as the recipes and descriptive tutorials, and I love cookbooks as bedtime reading and coffee-table books even more than as technical guides for my cookery, when they can stir my imagination without my being distracted by my stirring the pot. Still, I have a good number of cookbooks that are more pedagogical than pictorial and rely on them for my factual education whenever I’m in need.

My kitchen operations aren’t generally terribly sloppy, so I don’t tend to have grease marks and mustard stains all over my cookbooks. However, I am such a mad-scientist in their use that recipes not only get tweaked endlessly as I work but instantly forgotten in their current iterations if I don’t write them down, so I do desecrate my cookbooks by writing in them. They’re the only books I can think of that I have ever written in directly, but when I used to jot notes and stuff them into the pages, pretty soon I had a cookbook with a broken spine from my fattening it too much–if the book was really any good.

I’m very fond, when traveling, of finding local cooking magazines as well, because like any good picture book, they’re well enough illustrated so that I can pretty quickly translate what’s being said–okay, the Hungarian and Czech magazines are not so quickly conquered, but I can still suss out what’s going on eventually. And I love getting a taste of either the local traditions or what’s trendy there as opposed to what’s current here. Talk about tasteful souvenirs of my wanderings.

So, what are my favorites? Betty Crocker, that maven of miracles in the kitchen, is an icon of my childhood and so still keeps her place in my heart and home. For truly basic kitchen science, I’m still attached to the Joy of Cooking (Rombauer & Becker), but I like Alton Brown‘s playful yet factual approach to the chemistry and physics of it all, too. I’ve got a superb Swedish compendium (Mat Lexikonet, above) that a friend edited, not just because she’s such a dear but because in spite of having very little illustration it’s a very thorough encyclopedia of the tools, terms, dishes and ingredients commonly used in the Swedish kitchen, including all of the foods adopted and adapted from other cultures that have become part of Sweden’s rich heritage as a result of their delicious wonders. From our times spent in Sweden I have a few other great cookbooks, a couple of them also edited by our friend Birgit, and chose them primarily because while editing she would sometimes prepare the dishes for photo shoots or, better yet, test them on us who were lucky enough to visit during one of those preparatory periods. America’s Test Kitchen is also a fine source of scholarly information, and the organization’s focus on developing recipes through multiple trials and experiments makes them truly a litmus test for quality control; even though I still play with substitutions constantly I know the science behind my choices better.

For specifics that I love, I go back to a very few books regularly. For breads, I couldn’t beat Bernard Clayton‘s old standard that always gave me the right technique and proportions (in baking, of course, this is a far more fussy matter than in many other practices in the kitchen) and I could play with my variations on a theme as long as I knew precisely where and when and how that should work. My other baking go-to has remained the beautiful Country Desserts. Lee Bailey’s attention in it to lushness and depth of flavor is matched so exquisitely by the glorious photography, and frankly, I love that he emphasizes in this a laid-back approach to the dishes’ presentation that is much more in keeping with my fix-it- and-chomp-it-down mode of operation than any of those dainties that may cause me such heart palpitations when others do the decorative work but keep me waiting too long in my panting desire when they’re in my own hands in preparation. Donna Hay‘s photographers always make her cookery look even more desirable than the descriptions can do (and they can do a lot, I find), so hers are cookbooks and magazines I love to peruse for artful ideas any time.

As I do have a deep affection for pigs, living or cooked, and my kind friend Ellen knows it, she presented me with the lyrical Pork & Sons, which though filled with delectable recipes indeed, is even more a gorgeous photo album of and paean to the French farmers, chefs, butchers and eaters who revere the pig in all of its glory. International love of food–that’s half the reason for reading about it as well as eating it. And as a great admirer of the cuisines of many different cultures, I have always enjoyed reading cookbooks as a form of cultural and social and political as well as culinary history and often enjoy a meander through the tasty pages of books of Indian, German, Thai, Jewish, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Spanish or whatever other places and peoples capture my imagination at the moment. Probably one of my other greatest favorites in that realm is to peruse the local Junior League or church or social club’s cookbooks from American small towns and obscure organizations, because they too have such colorful and thought-provoking takes on what makes them who they are. I will always adore the late, lamented Ernest Matthew Mickler‘s classic White Trash Cooking as both a terrific piece of artistry and one of the most truly compassionate and funny documents of rural American cookery and culture ever to come off a press. Heart-stopping foods, perhaps, but well worth the danger for the love and laughter with which they’re garnished.

Maybe my enjoyment of that book and its cousins is really just because I’m a little trashy myself and feel so at home among the people whose crusty, hardscrabble, can-do, make-do good cheer and affections would accept pretty much anybody at the table, so long as I eat what’s put in front of me gratefully and don’t spit on the floor. White Trash is one cookbook I could never bear to write in, come to think of it, so perhaps there is something with a whiff of the sacred about great cookery books. All I know is, they’re close to my heart and so I keep ’em close to my kitchen too.