Foodie Tuesday: To Quell Your Fears

I suppose it’s only natural that if one is expecting a visitation from anyone scary or spooky, one might require a good drink to calm the nerves. After all, one of the most predictable symptoms of fear and trepidation is a dry mouth and that tends to heighten the other signs of nervousness in turn. One can quickly devolve into a quivering heap of ghostly dust at the mere thought of being stalked by ghouls and goons. And of course, the arrival of  the Halloween crowd is a virtual guarantee that such terrors will appear on the doorstep.Photo: Keep Your Glassware Handy

So I recommend that you keep your shelves of glassware well lighted for the occasion, and have a dram or two of life-saving elixirs handy as well. The thirty-first is nearer than you think, and close on its heels, a horrible horde of wandering souls planning to maraud your home and demand a ransom from your candy-related treasury in exchange for safety from their pranks.

For the dedicated defender of the home barricades, it might be apropos to do up one’s home like that belonging to the landlady of Hänsel and Gretel‘s nightmares, the formidable cannibal who lured them in with the decorative delights of her gingerbread cottage. One could sit on the porch of such a candy-dandy place and leer meaningfully at passers-by over the lip of a neat little glass of Hexenblut. While that might be a counterintuitive choice for threatening them, it could also be seen as a warning that you’re so tough you slurp up your own wicked witchy sisters’ veins just as readily as any flimsy little trick-or-treaters’.Photo: Hexenblut

Me, I tend to be content to assuage my fears far more moderately and without putting up such a frightful front. I’m more inclined to turn off the front porch light and hole up in the back room to watch a nice double feature of, say, The Innocents and Gaslight or perhaps Bunny Lake is Missing and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, all while drinking a nice soothing glass of dry white wine or Scotch. The family label of “dry Riesling” from the Hungarian Count and Countess Károlyi’s estate that we visited this summer is not a bad choice for a light counterpoint to some delightfully creepy movies, or if I want something to warm my chilled heart better, I can opt for a short medicinal snifter of Bushmills 1608 or the Macallan 12 year old single malt.Photo: Karolyi Trocken

Naturally, there are times and places and people not requiring the nerve tonic of alcohol. In that case, there’s nothing more quenching and comforting than the old standby of spiced cider. Nothing warms the cockles of the heart better while simultaneously moistening the dry and gibbering lips of a scaredy cat like me than a nice steaming mug of that stuff. I like mine very well when I get some beautifully unfiltered apple cider (happily, I’ve some on hand right now) and mull it well with stick cinnamon, whole cloves, and pieces of ginger root, but this too can be made more festive if one wants to get a little more playful with it or, when necessary, make it a more potent potion for warding off baleful beasts and cryptozoological creeps. One could, for example, add some black peppercorns to the spice blend for a little more bite. (Take that, ye murky monsters!)

Still, there are so many delicious directions to go with a mulled cider it can be hard to choose: add sliced whole [seedless] oranges, especially of course beautiful blood oranges if you can get them in late October; melt in a dollop of dark molasses before adding the spices to create a little liquid gingerbread effect; serve simple hot cider with hard caramel lollipops as stirrers, if you’d like to drink a caramel apple; and of course, you could go for all-out reassurance and flavor the apple brew, instead of with spicy flavors, with dashes of rose-water and almond essence and a steeping quantity of green tea leaves for something much gentler to soothe your quaking spirits. For spirits will, one way or another, abound on this night.

Foodie Tuesday: Some Useful Rules for Desserts

Our recent trip in Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic served as a fine reminder that Europeans have some special talents when it comes to taking advantage of the fun factor of making and enjoying desserts. A cafe many of us from the choir tour group found on our stop just before crossing the Hungarian-Austrian border had a menu loaded not only with bright, shiny pictures but dessert items guaranteed to put any dedicated diner into a happy but instantaneous snacking coma.

Photo: Dessert Rules 1

You really have to admire any dessert that is not only as substantial as this but has booze or some effectively delicious substitute for it in the mix.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 2

Switch a few of the ingredients and keep the sugary deliciousness quotient (and possibly, the eaters) high, and the menu begins to expand. As do waistbands on both sides of the international border.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 3

Something with a typically European liquor flair keeps the menu distinctly local, perhaps. Even if your typography can’t keep up with your recipe tinkering, good taste will abound.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 4

Hot raspberry sauce = Heisse Liebe (Hot Love, a traditional romantic dish) when served over rich vanilla ice cream. A great dessert for honeymooners (I just happen to know), and another way to brighten up the sweetness of a giant sundae.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 5

No reason to limit the brightness of either color or flavor to raspberries and ice cream; why not add yogurt and kiwi fruit for some jazz?

Photo: Rules of Dessert 6

But really, if you’re going to get splashy with the colors and textures and flavors, why not get more elaborate yet?

Photo: Rules of Dessert 7

Or make some kid-crazy concoction that will invite the most stoic and stalwart child of any age to play with his food?

Photo: Rules of Dessert 8

Heck, why not just make the dessert as *big* as a kid. No point in being shy or subtle if you’re serious about making desserts that compel attention and ravenous attacks on the dish.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 9

Of course, if you’re planning to entice the larger, older variety of child to eat, you might consider making some semblance of slightly more grownup-sounding dishes. How about a nice spaghetti-style sundae?

Photo: Rules of Dessert 10

What, that wasn’t flashy enough for you? Try a Pizza sundae. Not surreal enough in the spaghetti imitation department? Make some rich, red strawberry sauce to pour over the ice cream spaghetti. Or for the more soigné palate, perhaps a Carbonara version.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 11

Still, I have to admit that perhaps my favorite from this elaborate collection was the skillet-with-eggs doppelgänger, which in its simple ingredients would likely be a very yummy, creamy dream of an apricot cooler for a hot afternoon and also take a good run at pretending to be much better for me than piles of whipped cream and sweetened fruit.

All of this enticement aside—and I did, however reluctantly, lay it all aside despite the strong temptations, having already eaten a pretty substantial and dairy-laden traditional European meal of ‘fried cheese’ (crisply crumb-coated slow-melt cheese served with a sweet tartar dipping sauce)—there are other dessert paths to my heart, even in the heart of dessert-magical Europe. So I waited a moderate amount of time for my digestion, stroll aided, to recover from lunch before I opted for a much smaller and less elaborate dessert. elsewhere. It was only a single scoop of Stracciatella gelato, but it was cold, creamy, rich and delectable all the same. I’m not made of stone, you know.

 

 

 

Foodie Tuesday: Buried in Berries

Photo: Raspberry BonanzaOne of the joys of the warmer seasons is the abundance of fresh produce, not least of all, those little jewels the berries and close cousins like the aggregate fruits. Having grown up in a region known for fabulous berries, in a valley renowned, in fact, for farming them in its fertile volcanic soil in the Evergreen state, I know well enough the labor that it takes to successfully farm, pick, process and sell them, never mind shipping them intact anywhere, given their tender sensitivity and fleeting prime. But I certainly found my way past the sweaty, low wage, arm-aching, thorn-scratched, and slug-tormented frustrations of a short-time field hand to renew my love of fresh berries.

I have long since confessed to you that, despite their being among the easiest to farm and to pick, blueberries remain my most hated fruit, and I dislike pretty equally their flavor, smell and texture despite all attempts to convince me they are Superfood and worthy of desire. I am not a big fan, in fact, of any of the round, popping sorts of berries that are similar in my mind to blueberries in any way—currants, gooseberries, huckleberries, and so forth. I’m not that egalitarian. But the berries that I do enjoy, I gladly indulge in enjoying in quantity when they’re at their peak. I seldom tire of strawberries or of those magnificent rose relatives, the blackberries, raspberries, salmonberries, black raspberries and all of their delicious ilk. Ahhh, berry good!Photo: Blackberry Burst

One of the nicest things about really fine, fresh produce, of course, is that it tastes so good whether you do anything to or with it, or not. Straight out of the field, straight into my mouth. Bright, juicy, flavorful little pieces of heaven. Much as I happily enjoyed that dessert combination of my youth, angel food cake with berries and whipped cream, I think I might consider the berries the angel food part more than the cake. Berries in cream, whipped or not, are also a spectacular treat when I can get my hands on a dish, with or without a cake foundation.

The berries are marvelous as individual sorts or in happy combinations. Whole or mashed, sliced or diced. Superb in jams and sauces or salsas. Fabulous in smoothies. Outstanding when added to salads. Unbeatable in pies. One of the most delicious accompaniments to savory foods, especially something like some magnificent wild salmon or game, whether processed in some recipe or just eaten fresh alongside the fish or meat. Sweet and bright.

Oh, and berries make dandy liqueurs. Berries, sugar, vodka. In that order, in declining quantities, in a sealed jar or bottle. Bunch of weeks or months, shaking it up gently from time to time, while keeping it in a nice cool, dark spot between stirrings until the time seems right; strain the niceness and enjoy. Of course, it works fine without booze, too. Berries, some nice sparkling water and some sweetening.

These little gems are delicate. They are so fine in their pristine state that it would be wrong to over-process them. Don’t be a killjoy. There’s really no recipe here for success; in fact, the best so-called recipes for using fresh berries mostly leave them unsullied by cooking and doing much of anything other than stirring them in with other good things. What are you waiting for? If the season’s on, get thee to the nearest farmer’s market and stock up on glorious fresh berries. If they’re not in season, I apologize for your sorrow, but I must encourage you to make the most of preserves and frozen berries. Yep, they freeze well when properly treated. But my friends, do not slouch. Run, quickly, and get some berries. You can thank me later.

Photo: All Sorts of Berries

Foodie Tuesday: The Wages of Thirst is Garnish

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.

photoThe 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?
photoSometimes, 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]!photo

Don’t Worry about Eating Up Your Time If It Means Good Eating After All

photoYesterday 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.photo

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.photo

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.photo

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.photo

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.photo

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.photo

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.photoThe 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.