Eating Thistles

Photo: The Big ThistleCardoons and artichokes are every bit as admirable as their strictly-for-visual-admiration wild growing thistle cousins. But as any avid eater should know, the aforementioned relatives are terrific dining companions as well as being attractive plants. Sure, I love the silvery magnificence of a shapely cardoon leaf accenting the garden border, but if I can admire its beauty and then eat it as well isn’t that just so much the better?Digital illustration from a photo: Antique Artichoke

And artichokes, well, we all know those are as worthy of battling past their thorny armor as it was ever worth storming a castle’s battlements and portcullises to get to the treasury inside.Digital illustration from a photo: Artichoke Arrangement

The wonderful earthiness of the artichoke is an outstanding companion to the similarly strong-yet-subtle virtues of asparagus, mushrooms or root vegetables. All of these, in turn, play nicely with the denser, meatier varieties of fish—roasted monkfish or grilled salmon, for example—or a roast or stew of wild game, if one has access to, say, boar or venison. Or, if meat or fish is simply not right for the moment, some boiled, steamed or poached eggs.

How about this for a tasty Collage of Earthy Vegetables:

Blanch some cleaned asparagus, small to medium-sized artichokes, halved and trimmed, and russet potatoes, skin on and cut into modest wedges. When they’re all blanched, stem and clean some Portobello mushrooms, toss everything with a little avocado oil, kosher salt & cracked black pepper, and grill or roast until tender.

Serve with any or all of the following as a finger food, small-plate meal or as a side to the main entree (fish or meat or eggs):

Toasted hazelnuts, small wedges of Manchego or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, brown butter Hollandaise, and/or rosemary sherried green olives.

This compilation seems to me almost a vegetable representation of terroir. At the least, it’s very down to earth!

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.