Foodie Tuesday: You Slake Me

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

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

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

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

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

by slurping at something named for its prickles

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

just as fine and dandy as ice cream and popsicles.

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

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

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

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


Foodie Tuesday: Ten Thousand Things I’ll Never Know

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Nash your teeth over this! Celery, raw . . .

Okay, you are all very well aware that there are more like ten squillion things I’ll never know, but it doesn’t make for as mellifluous a title, now, does it? Ahem. Confession is all well and good, but I might as well please my inner critic, too.

I am referring, in the title I did choose, to the multitude of cool tricks and fabulous skills I am quite unlikely to learn and/or acquire as a chef in this lifetime. Some of them I could undoubtedly get the hang of, if not exactly master, were I to make a dedicated effort. But I’m such a dilettante by nature and so easily moved to any attractive tangent, that such dedication is a fairly rare commodity in my personal performance toolbox. I certainly admire all of you artistes and culinary technicians who have such an abundance of graces in the kitchen, at the grill, and around any old fire pit you can conjure out of architectural rubble, used tuna tins and flammable leaf-mold. And I’ll leave such things to you.

If I were a serious student I might be able to learn how to poach, candy, spherify, souffle, smoke, sear and pulverize the universe of edible things into perfect submission, but I am instead the kid who sits in the corner and stares alternately out the window and down at my left shoelace until galvanized by the lunch bell, whereupon I am first in the cafeteria line and probably sticking my fork into my food well before I have sat at a table. So my hopes of becoming a great chef are limited at best. Part of the problem is getting practiced and patient enough to merely remember what I just did in preparing a dish to have even the remotest chance of either replicating it at some future date or–if it turns out it’s awful–avoiding said replication, at least by improving those things that were unsatisfactory about it in the event. That makes one of the Ten Thousand Things that ranks very high on my list the ability to prepare and eat the same thing twice.

While I’m all for playing Variations on a Theme and enjoying change and novelty, I’m not entirely free of the rather common human urge to indulge in familiar favorites. That means it’s often wisest not to stray exceedingly far from the few techniques I do know and the moderate batch of ingredients that are well-loved in my cookery adventures, or I’m surely doomed to a perpetual cycle of this battle with my limited memory, always eating whatever random concatenation or ridiculous concoction happened to come out of my latest crash course dans la cuisine.

Today, I was faced with a fair fridge-full of unrelated leftovers that, if I didn’t want them to die of old age, needed to be made into something approximating tastiness that I could at least freeze until we would be home to heat-and-eat them. Combined, there were the makings of a whole simple meal; it only required my ‘repurposing’ everything, if that’s not too odd an application of the term, and the time was decidedly now. Tonight the garbage and recycling bins get put out for morning collection, and if we’re not going to actually eat the stuff, it’s clearly better to cut losses before that cleansing event than after it.

So, since the ingredients presented themselves, I prepped three simple recombined dishes as follows. The main course: a BBQ meatloaf of sorts. Sides couldn’t be simpler than yet another version of my mainstay potato casserole and steamed vegetables, and that’s what we’ll have to feed our hunger and clear out the refrigerator this time. What I’ll do with the leftovers of the leftovers is anybody’s guess. I’m quite sure I won’t remember how they got this way in the first place.

Meatloaf probably sounds a bit better, or at least a little more identifiable, than A Hunk of Barbecue-Sauced Meats Put Together, but either way, it’s the simple truth. This loaf came out very tender, indeed, almost to the point of falling apart, so there’s clearly a spot that I could adjust in the recipe, if there were a recipe. Ah, well. I simply took equal parts of leftover pit ham and roast beef (both thoroughly cooked already, obviously) and a little bit of roasted chicken that I had, too–a little under 3 cups of meat in total, I suppose–and put them all together with about a quarter-to-half a cup of barbecue sauce plus two eggs (raw) in the food processor and chopped them all together into a light minced meat ‘dough’, pressed it into a lightly greased loaf pan, and baked it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 minutes or so. Pretty nice tasting results for so little effort, really. Even better when I will have only to warm it up when it’s time to eat. And when, of course, I will already have forgotten entirely what I did with what ingredients to have made the food.

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Whatever you call me, just don’t call me Late for Dinner . . .

The other food is and was equally easy. The potato casserole this time is a mix of a cup of leftover good french fries (chips) plus one raw Russet plus 1/4 cup of queso blanco, all diced into similar small-sized pieces and mixed with a tablespoon of butter, a handful of shredded Parmesan cheese, and sprinklings of ground black pepper and salt and a small pinch of grated nutmeg and microwaved until the queso was just beginning to melt. I cooled this mix and put it in the fridge, and when it’s time to fix it for eating I’ll put it in a heat-proof container and warm it through thoroughly with a half cup or so of heavy cream. That always gives potato casseroles a nice texture somewhere in between baked and mashed potatoes, both of which I think are pretty fine, and helps the cheeses blend into the mix well.

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I’m always making a hash of things . . .

The steamed veg is prepared in the way that makes the dish, if you can even call it that, the easiest of all of them. Carrots and celery, cut into 1″ pieces and steamed with a pat of butter in a half cup of chicken broth (vegetarians can obviously substitute veg broth, wine, water or juice) plus a splash of Limoncello–that’s all there is to it. This one will get salted at the table because I don’t want to get any of that metallic hint of mixing salt and booze in cooked food that can sneak through when the dish is so wholly uncomplicated. The carrots and celery should mostly speak for themselves. And they will still taste pretty fresh and sweet, even in a day or two, rather than wilted and antique as they would have been had I not preemptively cooked them today.

Best defense is a good offense, so I’m told, and nowhere do I see it demonstrated as often as in getting food at least par-cooked before its shelf life has ended. A pseudo-science I learned because, among all of the other kitchen cuteness I will probably never know is the refined art of getting everything prepared and eaten exactly when it’s at its peak, never mind not having odd-lot leftovers or not losing time, tears and groceries if we get invited out to dinner after I’ve half-prepared a meal so it sits around extra days waiting for our attentions. Perfection in the kitchen? No, never. But this old dog does know a tiny trick or two, and that has kept us alive reasonably well so far.

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Celery, stewed . . . or steamed . . . oh, just hush up and eat your vegetables while they’re hot!

Foodie Tuesday: Beetroot & Brassica

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It is good to have a zest for one's food. That can lead to more zest for life . . .

My favorite vegetables vary just as often as all of my other preferences, but like all of them, they range most of the time from ultra-sweet to slightly edgy, making stops everywhere in between. For today’s examples, let’s head toward the two ends of that spectrum. Beets for the sweet. Brassica for the brassy.

The other day’s beets were developed enough in their sugary content that they required very little enhancement of it. So they got steamed until tender with only butter, a good dose of orange zest–because such firm traditions as that combination of orange and beets form around associations that are popular with good reason–and salt. Turns out, the beets were so very sweet that they could have done with the addition of some lemon juice as a brightener. Next time!photo

Still, a good and very simple taste treat, and speaking of brighteners, despite being dutifully punctured before cooking, the beets exploded in their steaming bowl, giving me a wonderfully vivid reminder of another thing I’ve always adored about them. Had I not had such a hankering to eat them, I’d have had to soak some fabric in them to celebrate the occasion. Beets to dye for, indeed.photo

A fine contrast to the brilliant fuchsia coloring and that mellow sweetness is to be found in any of the friendly green Brassicas. On this occasion I wasn’t necessarily looking for sharpness or boldness quite so much as a textural and color-happy change of pace, so I opted for sautéed Brussels sprouts. Slicing them fairly thinly, I sautéed them in bacon fat with chopped walnuts, thyme and alder-smoked salt. If I weren’t so lazy and well-supplied with excellent bacon fat in my fridge, I’d have fried chopped bacon and then caramelized the sprouts with that, but there you are, I am a wonderfully lazy creature. Had I had any on hand, I might also have liked to throw in a bit of crumbled Gorgonzola to melt in just slightly, but lacking that, I drizzled the saute at table with a little thin sour cream.

With the two vegetables, all that lunch required for my sense of repletion was some simple Jasmine rice cooked in my homemade broth and topped with a big spoonful of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Simple. Filling. Varied. Amen, let’s eat.photo

But since one could make a slightly fussier meal, say, by adding a nice sizzling lamb chop garnished with a relish of balsamic-caramelized onions, why not also finish with a drink. The one my sister and I sipped the other day would do nicely: muddled fresh mint and basil leaves and a shot of Limoncello, topped with a smooth quality vodka (we used Austin’s own Tito’s, a very nice sip, as opposed to the many vodkas that taste slightly reminiscent of nail varnish remover when supped plain) over ice and stirred. Light, refreshing, and a good perspective-brightener before, with, or after a meal. Or, sure, instead of one. Cheers, y’all!photo