Foodie Tuesday: Thrilled Cheese

Photo: SwirlyMy name is Kathryn and I’m a dairy fiend.

I sincerely hope there’s no umpteen-step program out there to cure me of my addiction, because I would be ever so sad to part company with butter (pastured butter, sage butter, beurre noisette…), cream (yogurt, ice cream, whipped cream, a drizzle of heavy cream, sour cream…) and all of their cow- and goat- and sheep-produced milky ilk. Among the most dire of those losses would certainly be cheeses. It’s even a remote possibility that in my childhood I mistook various people’s talk about the power and centrality of a certain deity in their lives as completely understandable allegiance to the prepared and aged dairy product, hearing them intone instead, ‘come into my heart, Lord Cheeses.’

All of that is merely to tell you in what high esteem I hold dairy products. I know I am not alone in this. The worldwide fame of the French cheese board, an Italian feast topped with fine curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a glorious firework of Saganaki, a rich fondue or heart- and hearth-warming rustic iron cooker oozing with Raclette (somehow fitting is that the compute offers as a ‘correction’ of this name the word Paraclete, for it is both a helper and rather holy in its way)–these are all embedded in the souls and arteries of generations around the globe, along with many others. The land of my birth has been, if anything, impregnated with this rich and robust love by every wave of immigrants who have ever set foot on its shores, bringing along all of the aforementioned and so much more, and gradually adding a multitude of delightfully cheesy (in every sense of the word) American twists to them. Along the way, besides gleefully adopting and adapting all of the aforementioned, we dairy devotees stateside have high on the short list of our national favorite foods such delicacies as cheeseburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza and macaroni and cheese. [For the latter, by the way, I’d be hard pressed to find a recipe that rivals Amy Sedaris’s death-defying macaroni and cheese for my love; infinite variations of it have become my personal staple when I choose to make the dish.]

I confess that lowest on my personal list of cheese ratings, possibly even below the most notoriously stinky and bizarre of cheeses (yes, Gammelost, I’m looking at YOU) is the one ‘cheese’ named for our country, American Cheese, which I personally think of as purportedly edible vinyl and often has little or no actual dairy contents, though for good or ill there are otherwise reputable American cheese makers currently promoting a new, truly dairy version of this stuff. Yes, I get the whole melt-ability thing, whether for Tex-Mexqueso‘ (an ironic name, to my way of thinking) or for creamy sauces and the like—but I also know there are plenty of ways to achieve that smoothness with what I think of as real cheeses. But I digress. Yet again.Photo: Aging Cheeses

When hungry for grilled or toasted cheese sandwiches I am not averse to tinkering with the most sacred simple versions, as long as the cheese still gets to star in the meal, because after all, the entrée is named after it. Since there are whole restaurant menus devoted to the single item of this sandwich, I needn’t tell you what a wide and spectacular range of goodies goes ever-so-nicely with cheese and bread. Now that I think of it, the stereotype of the French eating nothing but bread, cheese and wine could be excellent reason to pour up a nice glass of red when one is consuming a grilled cheese sammy, but that’s merely a starting point for the whole world of possibilities of course. A cheese and chutney sandwich comprising a sharp white cheddar, Major Grey’s chutney and a lovely dense bread (how about a nice sweet pumpernickel? she asked) is a thing of beauty. A perfect deli Reuben is a great variant of the cheese sandwich. Tuna melt? Why, yes, please! And on we go.

Photo: Dungeness Crab Grilled Cheese

A purist’s dream, amped up: the Bee Hive Restaurant in Montesano, Washington makes a buttery grilled Tillamook (Oregon) cheddar cheese sandwich on sourdough bread, adorned with a heap of sweet Dungeness crab meat. If you can’t find happiness in a bite of that, you’re really not trying.

Sometimes it can be both simple and surprising. I’d be hard pressed to love a sandwich better than the peasant bread grilled cheese from Beecher’s in Seattle with their Flagship in the starring role. But I’ve also discovered that a thick slice of Leipäjuusto (a slow-melt cheese like Saganaki), a few slices of crisped bacon and a generous schmier of ginger marmalade make for a dandy combination, and I would certainly not keep such a stellar combination from you, my friends. Kevin, a Canadian small-kitchen wizard, has published a veritable encyclopedia of grilled cheese sandwich variations on his blog Closet Cooking (a site everyone with cheese in his DNA ought to bookmark, stat), and there are all sorts of other blogs and sites, foodie and otherwise, loaded with such cheesy champions as can make your spirits sing and your capillaries tighten simultaneously. So go forth and chase the cheeses! I’ll be here waiting for you, with the ribbons of some good, fat, stretchy melted mozzarella hanging out of the corners of my loopy grin.

Foodie Tuesday: Not the Raw Prawn

It should be noted that while I prefer my prawns cooked in various ways, I would trust a sushi master to feed me uncooked ones without (as my Oz friend and colleague John taught me in grad school would be a less kindly gesture) either giving me or coming the proverbial ‘raw prawn‘. Old-school colloquialisms aside, it can be a great kindness to feed me well prepared prawns in a number of guises, as they’re not only tasty protein sources but well respected in a number of the world’s great cuisines. I’ve had the good fortune to live and/or vacation in a few places noted for particular kinds of prawns and shrimp, and when they’re ‘done up right’ I would be hard pressed to resist them as a top choice for eating.

In their compact and sturdy form they do lend themselves to skewering and grilling or to the great dive-in-and-get-messy kind of eating in a traditional Shrimp Boil or rekefest (the classic Cajun and Norwegian shrimp-eating parties, respectively), and I’ve certainly been served spectacular ones whole in dreamlike paellas, gumbos, cioppinos and other dishes. No complaints here! But when it comes to fixing things myself, I’m more inclined to think my fellow diners might like to be as lazy as I am, given the chance, and prefer most often to peel and devein shrimp and prawns before using them in my cooking. There’s no reason not to use the shells then and there for cooking up in a great batch of broth, of course, so I don’t see the necessity of wasting them, but I love to be able to eat meals unencumbered by the slowing process of dressing out the food unless it’s really a necessary part of the experience. Once the critters are cleaned, the meal prep is just as easy anyway, and if broth is on hand as a result, it’s the perfect base for an enriched soup or sauce in the bargain.

So what do I use these splendid shellfish for, finally? Nearly anything is good with such a sweet, clean taste and firm yet delicate texture. Shrimp puree, as I’ve mentioned before, is a fantastic binder for fish cakes because they don’t dull down the flavor like a starch binder (flour or crumbs, typically) would do, and though I haven’t tested it yet I’m certain it’d make a grand seafood soup or sauce thickener as well. But beautiful prawns deserve respect, too, in their unadulterated-yet-naked form, so they feature in a wide variety of dishes chez moi in addition to the aforementioned international classic presentations.

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Butter Prawns—my style—in Basmati.

Curries probably top the list hereabouts, mainly because both members of the household are fans of curry in a wide range of styles. Many classic Indian and Indian-influenced sauces and dishes, in fact, lend themselves beautifully to showcasing shrimp: butter sauce, mainly seen on American plates napping chicken, is one marvelous option, as are Tandoori-spiced grilling on a skewer, prawns biryani, and prawns simply seared in ghee and garam masala and served with fragrant rice.

Italian cooks, too, have given us a multitude of glorious ways to honor the delicious beauty of these shellfish, not least of all in a beautiful marinara sauce over pasta. If you want any advice or inspiration whatsoever regarding Italian cookery, you can’t do better than to visit my friend Chicago John over at his blog From the Bartolini Kitchens, and you can do your own happy swimming through all of his shrimp- and prawn-related dishes with a quick search there. But despite my reverence for John’s glorious and historically rich cookery, I have been known to dabble in my own variants at times, and think I didn’t do too much harm to the image of the Real Thing. One example of this would be when I make my version of prawns Fra Diavolo, which according to Signore Mario Batali is Italian-American anyway, so I have no compunction about further stretching the idea. For mine, I make a sauce of tomato passata with shallots, a splash of a nice, intense red wine if I’ve got one open, a squeeze of lemon juice, a good grind of black pepper, oregano, basil, and a hit of red pepper flakes, varying the amounts to the tastes of my fellow diners, and finally, warm the prawns in the sauce just until they’re pink and curling like a charming devil’s tail.Fra Diavolo can be a friendly little devil.You who love shellfish equally will know that I could go on rhapsodizing about them and the many ways in which to dress them up and swallow them down, but for now I think that that should be the end of this tale.

Foodie Tuesday: Some Things Never Change. And Why Should They, Eh!

It’s unclear where the phrase ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ originated (though it can easily be believed attributable to Texans before its wider popularization), but the precept is in my mind particularly apropos when it comes to foods and eateries that reach a particular stage of development that makes them Classic. Every town seems to have a diner, joint, cafe or pub that has essentially congealed into a certain form and is revered to the point that its regulars and even unattached fans will gladly rally in defense of its remaining unchanged forever. Where else would we go?photoGreatness is not essential, but being the paradigm of whatever it might be that the place or food represents gradually becomes codified as something very nearly sacred. The comfort in being able to revisit one of these places any time and find the familiar favorite food, drink, decor and ohyespeople, people is pretty much a saving grace in the midst of a dull or dark spot in life, whether it’s been a bad day or a bad decade–or just a time when you’re hungering for something more than just calories.photoMe, I’ve got a passel of favorites from all of the phases and places my life has crossed thus far, and doubtless I’ll find new ones as long as I do live. That speaks less to my personal obsession with food, good food, lots of food and equal amounts of fun and atmosphere than it does to the wide availability of tremendous cooks, distinctive and colorful rooms, buildings and locales, and fantastically personalized recipes for nearly everything imaginable. The fundamental dish, drink, dining space or clientele need not be genuinely unique or even world-class (not that that hurts!)–it’s about the combination of them and the way that the parts all strike one on the occasion that lures her back. And then back again.photoAll I should really say on the occasion of such fond reminiscences is that if you don’t already have favorite spots that you’ve visited often enough for the people running them to recognize you, exchange information about life outside the eatery, and then bring your order with all of its weird customized combinations and/or deletions without batting an eye, you had better get moving and find one or ten.photoAnd further, I should say Thank You, Tea Leaf and Harbor Lights [here, if you read the critic’s linked review of the recent renovation and its early results, is living proof of my thesis, should you be interested], Ranchman’s and Miko Sushi, Anglea’s and Mi Ranchito and 42nd Street Cafe & Bistro [an example of a place that has kept a fantastic balance between changing over time and maintaining high quality food and great people]; Thank You, Dave and Hallie, Francisco and Tony, Blaine and Cheri, Teresita and Allessio and Abuelita and all of you other wondrous souls who have been keeping the rest of us contented and coming back over all these years. Yeah, you too, you people over there in England (ohhh, that fabulous Chinese hole-in-the-wall with Sizzling Lamb, and the suave Indian place across from the V&A) and Sweden (I’m looking at you guys making us shrimp pizzas in the wood fired oven in the Stockholm train station and the people creating amazing steak frites with cognac and green peppercorn sauce in Gamlastan) and Panama (Italian salmon pasta in Central America? Oh, yes! Oh, boy!) and so many, many more. Thank You.

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: 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 . . .