Foodie Tuesday: Yummy Bugs

I am neither an avid gastronomic adventurer of the mad-scientist or TV food show host variety nor a very tough customer when it comes to things creepy, crawly, and wriggly occupying my kitchen, let alone my dinner plate. But since I do love eating a fairly wide variety of foods and I read about them enough to stumble on a few I’m more than willing to try along the way, I find occasion to be reminded that many of the things I do like or love to eat and drink might just be as strange and off-putting to others as their regional special treats or foods, especially those born and developed over generations of poverty, hunger, privation, and desperation can seem to me. Both times and people in them change, and so do our tastes, as a result. If I were to have a time machine, my first inclination might not be to hop in and create world peace, but to dash off to a fortuitous point in history that’d suit my greedy appetites, like perhaps the era when lobster was considered throwaway food to the rich and worthy only of a pauper‘s table.

Because, after all, my Southern countrymen are not wrong in revering a diet full of tasty crayfish, also known as crawfish, crawdads, or among some Southerners, mudbugs. And the latter nomenclature is perfectly apropos: I find crawfish delicious, too, but when I think about it, I’m well aware that crustaceans, some of my very favorite foods, are indeed also arthropods, just like crickets and grasshoppers, I realize that I might be exceedingly silly in my selective squeamishness about eating insects that are popular in many other cultures and cuisines. So much meaning lies in the tiny spaces between name and nation, between  attitudes and recipes and what we’re used to seeing on a plate. Yes, I am very happy I can buy bags of crawfish tails, ready to put into Étouffée or gumbo or perhaps just cleaned and piled on buttered bread with a squeeze of lemon juice and washed down with a cold beer, even though I can look right there in the heap of cooked crawfish and see perfectly clearly that I am about to serve and devour a bag of bugs.

Photo: Crawfish Tails

Calling mudbugs Bugs doesn’t change that they’re highly edible crawfish protein. That little white “smile” in the lower right corner is the thawing tail meat of one such insect of the sea, and a mighty edible one at that.

I’ve told you how obsessed I can be with the very thought of all sorts of magnificent sea treats that have the obvious connection with their land-borne arthropod cousins: classic northeastern lobster rolls, Dungeness crab in virtually any available form, tempura prawns, San Francisco style Cioppino loaded with crustacean charms, Steak Oscar, Vietnamese shrimp rolls. My eyes almost roll back in my head as I swoon the minute I get thinking of such glorious stuff.

None of it has to be especially fancy, either, though I’m still a little iffy about eating the bugs of the aquatic world raw, let alone their turf-tied relatives. Unless and until you convince me you’re a five-star sushi chef or an aboriginal expert in your local insect cuisine, I will still tread lightly around these treats. But a quick roast, simmer, or—often my favorite with the smaller fellows, as it can make even their exoskeletons not just crispy enough to eat but quite delectable as well—deep fry, and suddenly what I was inclined to swat away as a nuisance might have me stalking it with equal vigor. The arthropods themselves don’t often require complicated prep, merely great care in avoiding unintentional eating of the cartilage and other bits that are either too hard to bite or to digest. Steam. Pick apart. Eat.

Photo: Nekkid Prawns

Dry ice certainly adds to the drama, but really, is there much nicer than sweet, sea-fresh, naked prawns?

So I devote more of my attentions to figuring out just which fantastic vehicle I crave for giving full reverence to their tender and fresh attractions, which altar is the one on which I’ll lay their treasure before I eat. Cooked and chilled entirely naked [yes, the seafood, people], with a mere squeeze of lemon or a nip of cocktail sauce to highlight them? Piled high on a grilled cheddar cheese sandwich? Gracing a bracing Louis salad (so wonderfully easy at home)? Or one of the perpetual best and most over-the-top fatteningly satisfying, mac and cheese with name-your-crustacean-favorite?

Last week, the latter was the choice of the day, so that I could serve dinner to a roomful of friends who were all arriving at different times and I could keep the meal mostly warm with all of the comings and goings but it didn’t have to stay sizzling hot. Somehow, macaroni seemed apropos anyhow, for a table with an international crew of diners passing around both dishes and jokes in a variety of languages. I base my macaroni and cheese recipe on the ever-fabulous Amy Sedaris‘s paean to arteriosclerosis, because it’s ridiculously yummy and quite flexible, but also given its flexibility, it’s never exactly her recipe either.

In my house, it means that to my al dente pasta I add equal (large) amounts of Monterey Jack cheese, which I did have on hand; a good sharp cheddar (Tillamook extra sharp white, my go-to choice); a buttery, very mild but also smoked cheese (sometimes smoked Gouda, but smoked fresh mozzarella, this time). Along with the vast quantity of butter and other dairy—mine: 1 part heavy cream, 1 part whole milk yogurt—in the mix, I add several eggs to bind it all a bit better. Then I throw in the seasonings. Amy’s is generally an unseasoned casserole except for salt and pepper; mine has a combination of my perennial favorite, smoked paprika, plus ground mustard, a good grating of fresh nutmeg, and a little cayenne pepper. Once I’ve grated the cheeses, stirred in the eggs, cream, and yogurt and the spices, I spread it all in a big glass casserole dish and sprinkle the top with grated Parmesan cheese and heat it slowly at a low temperature in the oven until the top just begins to brown.

A very handmade dish, since my most effective food processor is a pair of clumsy tools at the ends of my arms. All of that intensive cheese grating, at least, worked off enormous quantities of calories so I wouldn’t have had to worry about the wickedly high number of them in the dish. Of course, mac and cheese is a completely calorie-free entrée, as everybody knows. Just ask any self-respecting insect you happen to find swimming in the residual butter at the edge of your plate. I’d let you test mine for proof if the seven of us hadn’t wiped out the entire quantity in no time flat. Even the bugs couldn’t get there faster.

Photo: Macaronic Bugs

Clockwise from top left: warm mixed crabmeat and crawfish tails, baked macaroni and cheese, smoked Texas sausages cooked in hard cider, green beans, and carrots and celery steamed in white wine and dill.

Foodie Tuesday: You Eat What You Like, and I’ll Eat What I Like

Besides being a wise quote from my perennial hero, Yukon Cornelius, the title of today’s post is pretty great advice for eaters at all times, most particularly so during the holidays. If I’m going to go to the expense and effort to do anything special for a Special Occasion, it matters far more to me that I want to eat the results than that they meet anybody else’s standard for tradition, impressiveness, or perfection. You won’t find me dining on dainties of glorious extravagance and beauty on a holiday or birthday or any other notable date if I’m the designated cook, because spending exhausting and exacting hours in the scullery before the blessed event is not my idea of a great way to arrive at it rested and ready to enjoy its importance in my life with good cheer and an even temperament.

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Appetizer parfait: hash browns (I made these with Gouda and smoked paprika), sour cream, hot smoked wild Pacific salmon and capers. Or, in the alternative version I offered on the same day–another easy to prepare ahead topping for the hash browns–smoked sausage pieces simmered in Pinot Noir BBQ sauce. The sauce was a sticky reduction of equal amounts of red wine and homemade bone broth with brown sugar, tomato passata, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves and cayenne to taste. Guests could assemble the tiny dishes with any combination they liked, and I didn’t have to wrestle with the hors-d’oeuvres at all on the day of the party.

So while I adore Dungeness crab, I will not likely be preparing one fresh and mucking about with the tedious chore of meticulously picking the meat out of the shell–if I can find fresh Dungeness already picked and packed in a neat little carton, it’ll be on the menu; otherwise, not. My fondness for elaborate baked goods will likely be fed by an outstanding bakery, not by my slavish efforts right before a party. I’ll happily dine on a perfectly frenched rack of lamb or a miraculously flaky and tender kulebiaka or bistilla, but only if someone else is going to all of the effort it takes to prepare it.

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Homemade macaroni and cheese can be just as easy to fix as pre-packaged. Here, I blended shredded Gouda, cheddar and Parmesan cheeses in about equal amounts and added melted butter, eggs, smoked paprika, powdered mustard, a little grated nutmeg, and a tiny dash of liquid smoke (no additives, please) before stirring the cooked pasta in with a bit of cream and baking it to melt and meld it all together.

That’s how, when Christmas dining is at home, it may go so far as to be a roast beef that can be cooked sous vide and requires only a quick browning in the oven before carving, but it might also be a made-ahead, very down-to-earth macaroni and cheese. Or even a tuna salad sandwich, a perpetual favorite that, while it’s hardly what anyone I know would consider Fancy, is gladly eaten with a handful of good potato chips and a juicy apple on nearly any occasion chez nous. I want to eat delicious food on Christmas, but it doesn’t have to be unusual or expensive or showy in any way to be delicious, and if its simplicity of preparation means that it’s eaten in a very comfortably relaxed state, that makes it all the more appealing and enhances its flavor remarkably.

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Homemade mac-&-cheese is, in fact, also easy to customize for any number of tastes and occasions, as when I change out the elbow macaroni with some fresh fettuccine and toss in a batch of Langostino tails. Voila! ‘Poor man’s’ lobster fettuccine.

I hope that everyone who is celebrating around now–whether it’s Christmas, the Dongzhi festival, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, the New Year, Kwanzaa, a birthday, or something entirely different–has the wealth and freedom to take the same approach. It’s satisfying to arrive at happy events relaxed and, well, happy. And eating what you love to eat is always better than eating what you think you should eat, only because you think you should. I wish you all great food, simply prepared, great company when you want it and quiet time away when you need it. That’ll make the food taste all the better when it comes. Cheers! Bon appetit! Joy!

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Who says plain salt-and-pepper roasted chicken isn’t fancy enough for a special occasion? If you enjoy it, indulge. Even with the most common of accompaniments, it can be satisfying and tasteful (clockwise from the ruby-colored jellied cranberry sauce at left): pickles (here, okra, green tomatoes and green beans); sweet corn; coleslaw; apple sauce (freshly made brandied maple sauce); mashed baked potatoes with beurre noisette, fried sage leaves and optional red wine/broth reduction sauce; and a spoonful of tiny, tasty green peas. And if you’re a vegetarian, you can always eat the whole rest of the meal and be content. Peas to all the earth, I say!

Even desserts–maybe especially desserts, come to think of it–can get treated like such elaborate Fabergé egg-like constructions that they are too precious for ordinary mortals to eat and far too tiring for me to slave over preparing. I’ve hardly ever seen anyone turn up his nose at store-bought ice cream or refuse if I offered her a nice piece of chocolate straight out of the wrapper. A bowl of perfect fresh strawberries, a moist pound cake made the other day, and a quick batch of whipped cream with vanilla give instant summer cachet to the end of a meal. Banana pudding needn’t even be a fuss, and doesn’t look really like much (hence the lack of a photo), but it’s unpretentious and tasty enough that everyone right down to the toddlers will happily eat that old comfort favorite.

Banana Pudding to Make You Go Ape

Don’t bother with cheap, phony tasting artificially flavored instant banana pudding, either, despite a short timeline for the treat (unless you get all nostalgic over it for some reason). All you actually need is some really ripe bananas and a handful of other ingredients, and away you go…

Blend together until smooth (I use the stick blender for this): 5 overripe bananas (too mushy for eating plain), a pinch of salt, the juice and grated rind of 1 large lemon, a generous teaspoon of vanilla, a couple of tablespoons each of raw honey and butter, and about a cup of heavy cream. Chill until thickened. What do you taste? Bananas. What will you do? Go bananas over it. Why work harder than that for your food and fun? Enjoy your holidays and happy days instead!

Oh, and I must add (since what goes without saying may not entirely go without saying for everybody!) that this kind of banana pudding will, of course, oxidize–unlike the aforementioned imitation stuff–so it’s best eaten right when you’ve made it unless you’re like me and don’t care if it’s a little beige in color. And it’s not super thick, so if you like it thicker, I recommend whipping the cream separately and then folding it into the blended banana mash, to which you’ve already added the other ingredients. No matter how you choose to make it, it’s still pretty tasty. And, as Marie has suggested in the comments and I’ve already tested, it makes a dandy breakfast!

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Happy New Year!

Foodie Tuesday: When in Texas . . .

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A menu from the LBJ (US President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s) ranch, from the 1960s.

. . . eat like a Texan.

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Well-made biscuits go perfectly with everything, of course.

That’s simply to say that, since we’re on the road with Mom and Dad S and dining out much of the time, the logical thing to do is to eat classic local and regional foods, as well prepared as possible. If you don’t already know the area fully, just ask who’s the nearby iconic source of said goodies, and any folk in town will surely share their opinions and recommendations. We all like to let others in on what’s good, as long as they promise to eventually leave town again for their homes and don’t take up our spaces at the table!

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Pull up a chair at Black’s.

This trip, such practices mean that we’re enjoying lots of beef, fried foods, Mexican and Tex-Mex delicacies, and pecans. The ‘World’s Largest Pecan’ (a–to my eye–humorously humble sculpture we saw on the courthouse lawn in Seguin) notwithstanding, there are an almost infinite number of exquisite food specialties featuring the nut of the Texas state tree, ranging from the simple and unadorned to mouthwatering pralines and brittle and crunchy chocolates and spiced nuts and intensely rich pecan pies. Pretty much anything one can imagine putting in one’s mouth to eat is considered prime material for putting into the deep fryer first, in this state, so it would be wrong not to feast on chicken fried steak or, yes, chicken fried chicken. The latter, not to be confused with that other magnificent delight fried chicken, is made like its steak cousin: a nice chicken breast pounded into a thin cutlet, coated with a nice breading (usually a thin, seasoned batter), and deep fried until its fragile shell is as daintily crackling-crisp as the sugar crust of a crème brûlée, and then of course devoured with large quantities of fried potatoes or biscuits or bacon-cooked green beans or buttered sweet corn or coleslaw.

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Brisket and ribs and *some* of the fixin’s at Black’s.

I could, as you know, go on and on, rhapsodizing endlessly on the variety and virtues of Texas cuisine, but it would leave me fewer subjects for future Tuesday posts. More importantly, it might eclipse what was one of our goals in visiting this part of central Texas, which was to eat some fine Texas barbecue. Beef-centric in the main and not so much defined by sauces as are some other regions’ BBQ specialties, Texas BBQ is more characteristically recognized as being wood-smoked meats, brisket being probably the star of the show followed by various sorts of ribs, pit-smoked turkey and ham and pork roasts, pulled meats and, not least of all, sausages. Like many other regional signature foods, in Texas there are as many signature styles and flavors of sausage as there are barbecue masters and smoker chefs.

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All fired up at Smitty’s.

Our aim, specifically, was to visit what is pretty widely acknowledged as the BBQ capital of Texas, the town of Lockhart. It’s kind of a pity that Lockhart became so renowned for BBQ and so defined by it, because (apparently unbeknownst to all of the guidebooks and programs I’ve ever seen about Lockhart, since it’s never been mentioned in my hearing) it’s really a pretty town, with a gorgeous Victorian courthouse in its center surrounded by a charming square full of shops and restored vintage buildings, neighborhoods full of a grand mixture of old-fashioned architectural styles ranging from tin shack to Southern mansion, and groves of beautiful old oaks, soapberry trees and pines undergirded by fine clumps of prickly pear and wild grasses.

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A whole mess o’ Texas-style libations.

But barbecue is, for better or worse, Lockhart’s middle name, and since we’ve been staying less than an hour from there it seemed it would be a sacrilege not to test its validity. Though there are in fact additional reputable places in town for eating good barbecue (we have it on local authority), Lockhart is famed primarily for three eateries that are all longtime institutions in town and known each for its own unique style of both food and atmosphere. We had only the one chance to visit on this our first trip to the area, and one day on which we could sensibly do so, so we decided to check two of the three big-name places for the sake of comparison. Smitty’s Market and Kreuz Market both sprang from the same joint’s origins, so we opted to go with the completely unrelated Black’s for our first stop, shared a two-plate assortment of foods there between the four of us, and then wandered over to Smitty’s (something of a coin-toss decision winner between the two ‘cousin’ places) to sample a little of the competition.

I will simply say that this first brief encounter made me a believer in Lockhart rather than a fixed advocate for one or the other place. Each had its marvels and was an emporium of fine BBQ dining in its own way. Both had delicious, moist brisket. Smitty’s prides itself on letting the meat star in the show to the extent that not only would a visitor insisting on sauce be shown the door, there are few other adornments even available. A very short list of drinks, some saltine crackers or plain squashy white bread, plastic knives and spoons and butcher paper wrappings for carrying the meat to table, and if you aren’t feeling quite well fed enough you’ve clearly just ordered too little meat. Both eateries offered delicious house-made sausages, Smitty’s being more peppery than the plain variety we had at Black’s, but both succulent and flavorful. Black’s seems almost dressy by comparison when it comes to dining room atmosphere–Smitty’s is a long, plain, barn-like series of rooms painted floor to ceiling with layers of dense pit smoke that gives it a superb patina of authenticity, but Black’s is classic Texas kitsch, checkered cloth-covered picnic tables lined up cheek by jowl between walls plastered with longhorn and deer-antler trophies, taxidermy and celebrity-visitor portraits.

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The fabled Pink Ring of smoked brisket looks mighty purty alongside some peppery house-made sausage, don’t it.

I could tell you about the starch and vegetable sides at Black’s, but ‘that ain’t barbecue’ after all, and I could tell you about the desserts there, which looked perfectly dandy, but we didn’t touch those since we still had a stop to make at Smitty’s. I could admit to you that even after we ate small meals at both Black’s and Smitty’s we still had the room and the gumption to stop at a shop on the square and have a scoop each of ice cream, but that might be giving away too much information and setting a bad example at the same time. I will tell you that the drive out and back was through the picturesque central Texas landscape and in the company of loved ones and therefore a very pleasant way to pass a slightly drizzly afternoon at the tail end of the year. And yes, that it’s well worth your while to drive along out to Lockhart, Texas, no matter what the weather when you’re in the mood for some barbecue. I’ll get back to you when I’ve been able to test the other places’ competence in that realm, but after all, it’s worthwhile enough just to know that two of the touted sources of BBQ goodness are all they’re cracked up to be, because when you need some barbecue, well, it’d better be good.

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Ice cream is good medicine even when you’ve overeaten during the main meal.

Now, eat up, y’all. There’s a whole new year of good food ahead of you!

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Lady Bird Johnson (President Johnson’s First Lady) served up some good Texas food on her campaign-support train trip, introducing more of America to the deliciousness that is Texas cuisine. (Choose the chili, if you want to be like Mr. President.)

 

Foodie Tuesday: Season’s Eatings

Up on the roof there arose such a clatter! Nothing like a good dawn thunderstorm to ring in Christmas Day. No, really. Great rain falling here is an excellent present, and the drum rolls and fireworks that introduced it just made its entrance the grander. It’s not exactly the fabled White Christmas for which so many yearn, but I’ll take a good Texas rainstorm as a true gift all the same. Somehow it makes the need for cozy nesting seem all the more apropos and real in a place where I’ve yet to fully adapt to the concept of a two-week-long winter season. So, Merry Christmas to me.

photoIt also heightens and enhances the glow of our seasonal lights–the few white sparklers on the front porch, the reflection off the shiny little red Texas star ornaments I hung from the dining room light fixture, and the candles glowing warmly at table, as well as the flickering fire in the living room fireplace. Whether it’s for Christmas or it’s my gentile substitute for a menorah, or it’s simply a sign of the inner warmth to be cultivated when all of the world’s holidays converge at this time of year, the beauty and comfort and symbolism of both candlelight and firelight is a gift too.

photoThen again, a White Christmas really is an extraordinary thing in Texas–northern or not–and at about 1:45 pm local time our lovely rain actually turned into an even more lovely snowfall. First the smattering of sleet that intermixed with the raindrops began to look ever so slightly whiter, and gradually it transformed into genuine flakes falling, even sticking, on the trees, the roof, the yard, the path. Quite a pretty sight, and one that will continue to water the thirsty ground but also look grand in the meantime.

photoSo I can greet you all with a completely sincere sense of winter, Christmastime, and the holidays in general and wish you the same glorious warmth and sweetness my husband and I are enjoying here, hunkered down in our cozy home with my dear mother and father in law [who road-tripped down here from Seattle for the occasion], and sending thoughts of love and peace and hope and joy to all of our family and friends around the globe. Some of the Norwegian contingent (my youngest sister and her husband and daughter) are with the Washingtonian bunch, celebrating the holidays in the cool and rainy Northwest, while the rest of the Norwegians are back in Scandinavia, some nephews and their families in the Oslo area and the youngest nephew having a quick break with the family but back to the recording studio in Stockholm with his band shortly after the holidays, if I remember right. Loved ones all around the world, whether related by blood or marriage or by the strong bonds of friendship and collegiality and camaraderie are all held especially tightly in our hearts at this time of year, adding to the warmth and glow of the candlelit house battened down cheerily against the light crisp cold of the snow.

photoIn my typical fashion, I celebrated the day by sleeping late, and we all snagged Christmas breakfast in bits and bobs–coffee here, toast there, cereal for another, and so forth–while sitting around the kitchen table chattering about everything and nothing. The later meals in the day are more significant times to set the table a tiny bit more formally, but we’re not much for standing on ceremony in our clan on either side, so the food is unfussy so that we can enjoy the company rather than slaving over the cookery. Lunch was pot roast, made a while ago and frozen and then simply heated in the oven, with roasted potatoes and carrots and some buttery green beans, accompanied with Pinotage for the red wine drinkers and hard apple cider for the others, and for dessert, glasses of eggnog and pieces of my homemade fudge with lots of mixed nuts (previously soaked walnuts, homemade candied/spiced almonds, and salted pecans and macadamia nuts) chopped in it so rampantly as to make it fall apart. Not very decorative, but not too bad to eat all the same. Simplicity trumps presentation nearly every time in my kitchen.photo

Supper will be even less glamorous and perhaps equally quirky for holiday feasting by the popular standards, yet equally edible. We’re having homemade macaroni and cheese with champagne. I think that pairing pretty much says it all for how I operate as a hostess and as an eater, and the tolerance with which family and friends treat me when they spend time in my company. And that, of course, is the acme of celebrating, to my taste: surround yourself with the best and dearest of people who will love you no matter what you do or don’t do, and sit back with them and enjoy it. I wish each and every one of you the same privilege and pleasure, whether you’re celebrating any holidays yourself or not, and to all the world, I send my hopes for peace and comfort and hope for all the days ahead.photo