Foodie Tuesday: It Shouldn’t be Too Difficult

People can get so overwrought over the holidays. Whatever those holidays may be, they have a way of bringing out the worst in the expectations we have of ourselves, never mind what we think we have to live up to for others’ sakes. So I tend to opt for the less fussy and somewhat unconventional, and I definitely prefer what’s simple. Leave the designer food extravaganzas to those with more patience and money and fewer friends and loved ones waiting to be visited or holiday lights to be savored where they twinkle and glitter on treetops and roofs, fences and storefronts. But I digress.photoHoliday brunches (it it my firm belief, as a person who does not believe in getting up a second earlier than necessary, that holidays of all times require sleeping in too late for holiday breakfasts) are an opportunity to have some favorite simple treats that can be easily thrown together for a snack-tastic sort of meal. Steamed ‘hard boiled’ eggs, bacon candied with a mixture of brown sugar and dark maple syrup, a little cinnamon and a dash of cayenne, a homemade chocolate malt, grilled cheddar cheese sandwiches, or some plain, juicy-sweet clementines–or all of the above. In that instance, there’ll be plenty to keep you well fueled until holiday dinner. Whenever and whatever that ends up being.photoMy love of savory + sweet foods, too, is not new, not unique to me, and not limited to any particular group of foods. There’s the wonderful long-standing tradition of such delicious delights as ham with sweet glazes, rich curries with sweet chutneys, sundaes with salted nuts, and cheese boards with fruits, just to drool over thoughts of a small few. And it’s interesting that time and tradition contend to restrict our thinking of certain foods or ingredients as belonging automatically to desserts or not, to a sweet category or a savory one, and further, if sweet then to desserts; if savory, non-dessert.

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Cloudy, with a high chance of deliciousness: spiced cider.

These days, then, when I’m cooking I tend to think of what ingredients I’m hungry for among those on hand, how they might go together, and what kind of dish will result. Even when the dish is finished, I’m not always certain it would easily classify as sweet or savory, entrée or side dish, main item or dessert. After all, there are plenty of old recipes leading to such seeming incongruities as smoked salmon cheesecake or candied pork. Herbs and spices, those basically non-caloric, strongly flavored elements that color and distinguish other ingredients, are a logical tool for transformation. A simple cup or glass, hot or cold, of spice infused cider becomes so much more than simply apple juice, and cocktails can turn from frilly to fiery or from crazy to cozy, depending on their infusions.

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Squash and apples make fine companions.

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Then there’s praline happiness, which I’m not averse to eating by the forkful.

If both apples and squashes can make delicious pies or side dishes equally well, why not meld all of those characteristics and veer off onto a slightly divergent path? One day I saw the inviting fall bin of pumpkins and squashes beckoning me from right next to the apple display in the produce section of the grocery store and voila! A sweet-savory side dish was born. I chopped the peeled, cored apples and blended them with lemon juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice, a dash of vanilla, a pinch of salt, a splash of maple syrup and a tablespoon of instant tapioca, and I spooned it all into the two seeded, salted halves of the pretty squash, topped with a big pat of butter to melt over it all. Into the oven it went at medium-high heat until the squash was tender enough to yield to a spoon, and I served the squash and the apple filling together with a praline crumble topping I’d made by baking a mix of chopped salted nuts, butter and brown sugar.

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Many things, sweet or savory, are happily enhanced with a touch of praline.

This little oddity easily occupied the same space on my menu normally reserved for the famous-or-infamous dish with which so many American holiday tables have either a sacred or scared relationship: marshmallow topped sweet potatoes. Sweet and savory, not to mention fatty and ridiculous, either dish is quite okay with me, and it wouldn’t surprise me any more than it would you to hear me described that way as a result. As a bit of an oddity, too, for that matter.

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Steamed carrot pudding. Not bad all on its own whether for any meal or afters.

And speaking of love-it-or-hate-it foods, there’s eggnog. What would you guess about another rich food with outsized calories in a small, sugary package? Yeah, obviously another semi-guilty love of mine. I often make a quickie eggnog for breakfast, blending a raw egg or two plus a pinch each of nutmeg (maybe cinnamon and cardamom, too), salt, vanilla, and raw local honey with cream, whole milk yogurt, or water. [Yes, I eat raw eggs often, and I’ve never in all my years had the remotest problem with it. But I’m generally very healthy. Others do so at their own risk.] When available, a ripe banana makes a delicious thickener/sweetener. Oh, and the same can be said of vanilla ice cream, of course!

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Broth-cooked carrot pudding with eggnog sauce.

However it’s made (or bought from a good organic supplier), eggnog also makes a fantastic sauce for another of those holiday-associated goodies, pumpkin pie. And when I say pumpkin pie, I happily include a host of similar sweet/savory and dense-textured treats like sweet potato pie, steamed puddings, loaf cakes, bread puddings and other such brazenly heavy-duty things–all of which would make equally lush and luscious dessert or breakfast, in my book–are nicely complemented by a sauce of smooth, creamy eggnog. If a little is good, a lot is great, or as Dad has wisely taught us: Anything worth doing is worth overdoing! Well worth a little recovery fasting in any event, eh!

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Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Toast it with a spiced cider, perhaps?

Foodie Tuesday: Something Completely Different

It’s not just a trademark Monty Python phrase; sometimes in cookery it’s worthwhile and enjoyable to veer off and say it’s time for Something Completely Different. I’m not talking about molecular gastronomy, because I have neither the knowledge nor the patience to imagine and execute anything quite so transformative, but it can certainly be useful and even tasty to rethink the what-I’ve-always-done approach from time to time.photoMaking broth as often as I do, I’m regularly faced with the aftermath of it in the form of tiny meat scraps, softened bones and mush-cooked vegetables and think it a pity to waste anything that might be salvageable. So a little while ago I got intrigued by seeing what I might do better with this stuff than merely throwing it out.

First thought was that bones are bulky yet biodegradable objects that, in a landfill, will take up a hunk of space there a lot longer than, say, those of a decaying creature left to the elements would do. And that, coincidentally, a soil amendment and critter-control element often required for good gardens is bone meal. So I dried out the bones thoroughly and set them out in a safely remote corner of the yard where the compost heap lives. Waste not, and all that.

More to the culinary point, I thought it silly to toss out all of the vegetable leftovers of the process when, though they will certainly have given up some of their nutrients to the broth, will probably also have gained some back from their fellow ingredients along the way, so they oughtn’t to have lost all of their nutritional worth in the cooking. The carrots are the only members of the party that haven’t mostly melted to nothingness in my usual broth process and can be individually retrieved, so I picked them out of the strained ingredients, along with a few small pieces of celery and onion, and pureed them with just a touch of added broth and a pinch of salt, and had a nice, faintly savory pudding.photoAdding some juice-packed mandarin orange segments (reserving the juice for later use elsewhere) made it into a really tasty little side dish of comfort food with very little effort. Warming some black raspberry jam and drizzling it on top of the pudding or swirling it in made it into an even jazzier little light dessert. The contrast of the punchy colors was matched by the contrasts in savory and sweet, in the soft pudding and bursting orange sections and the tiny crunches from the berry seeds.photo montageAll that was left for reinvention from the broth straining was the marrow and meat that, while not enough to make a meal alone, still filled a bowl with beefy goodness. It was clearly too soft to be especially attractive as a pot roast sort of thing, let alone a plated slice of anything recognizable as meat. Paté came to mind. Heck, I’d already had the stick blender busy to make my carrot pudding, so why not put it to further use on the day? The beef bits, along with a couple of hefty tablespoonfuls of butter, a half teaspoon or so of salt, and a little broth to make it workable, got pureed into a smooth, buttery spread that waits in the freezer for the time when it will be thawed, chilled in a ramekin, and served with crackers or toast, cornichons and cocktails, just as though I were an ideal 1960s magazine housewife. Well, I grew up in the ’60s and I’m a homemaker; close enough.

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It may not look like much, but as a poor-man’s fois gras it’s dreamier than you might think. I like to think of myself in a similar fashion, ’60s housewife or not. Wink-wink.

Foodie Tuesday: Ruminations

Chew on this: vegetables, especially raw vegetables, make for great relief from the heavier stuff in a meal. I’m not fond of some vegetables raw, and I know I’m far from alone in this, but most of the ones that are mild, sweet and/or snappingly crunchy are a pleasure and a refreshment in mid-meal. Their textural and flavorful contrast with the rest of the dishes are a delectable addition to the repast, and the big bonus is, of course, that many vegetables are, gasp!, actually pretty good for me.

Add some fruit and you have yet more opportunities for variety and full, fanciful flavors, a slew of great, vibrant colors, freshness and coolness, more vitamins and other such great stuff. Whatever you do, it doesn’t have to be complicated; in fact, it’s often best to leave things uncomplicated. Just enjoy the simple foods. Chomp, chomp. Yummy.

Here are a couple of suggestions, in case you should be looking for some such lively refreshment to add to your meal. You’re welcome.photoCarrot-Apple Slaw

Shred together raw carrots and an equal amount of sweet apples like a Honeycrisp, Gala, Braeburn or Fuji. Mince up some candied ginger and candied mandarin peel. Dress the mix with lemon juice and honey. Toss in a goodly sprinkle each of brown mustard seeds and black sesame seeds. Since I served this with an Indian dinner, I suppose the sesame seeds could well have been ‘black cumin’ or ‘onion seeds’–those Nigella sativa seeds often used as seasoning in delicious Indian foods. But golly, the sesame seeds were just fine and dandy. A snippet or two of fresh cilantro or mint might be a great addition as well. Aw, you already know that there are endless options, don’t you.photoWhere’s Waldorf? Salad

I’ve always liked the celery-apple combination in good old Waldorf Salad. So why not a version with celery root, I ask you. Since celeriac is a little bit of a tough vegetable, I think the traditional Waldorf presentation would be a bit like an apple salad with small chunks of wood in it. So when I made this salad I shredded the peeled celeriac. Then it seemed like I was headed in a slaw-like direction (anybody sense a theme in my salads?), so I left the peel on the apple I added to this one, too. Besides, being shredded as well, the crisp Granny Smith apple brought some nice bright color. I kept this one monochromatic but went for good juicy flavors, using the juice and zest of half a lime, lots of honey, a little pinch of salt, and a dollop of mayonnaise. For a slightly more Waldorf-like touch but nice brighter color, instead of raisins I’d add (and might, with the second day’s batch of the salad) diced dried apricots. Celery leaf is a logical garnish, but lacking that, I used simple flat-leaf parsley for its similar look and strong, snappy taste.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Best of the Wurst

 

photoLong before anyone imputed a less well-mannered meaning to the phrase ‘sausage-fest’ there were plenty of people who appreciated the finer points of delicious minced and seasoned meats in casings (or patties) enough to not only dine upon them but celebrate them as well. Among those people, families and cultures where sausage is known and admired, it may begin in early childhood with tasty little links at breakfast or frankfurters, better known in much of the US as hotdogs, served up for lunch or supper, and from there it’s off to the races.photoWhat goes with sausage? What doesn’t? But I have to ask as well: does good sausage really have to have anything go with it? Okay, maybe it’s got to have an accompanying drink to be at its best, and a good beer is hard to beat as a way to wash down a good sausage, whether it’s a fine adult beverage or an outstanding root beer. All ages covered by serving different versions of one libation!photoNow, if I’m hungry for a good southern-style sort of sausage, say perhaps a savory hunk of Andouille or a juicy smoked Texas sausage, a piece of skillet-baked cornbread is a perfect taste to enjoy on the side and ideal, too, for sopping up the sausage’s drippings. Did I say smoked Texas sausage? Oh, yeah, maybe a whole bucketful–nothing like a classic Tejas BBQ joint with a tub full of smoky rings of hickory-scented sausage to get the salivary juices flowing just as fast as the hot-links‘ juices.photoOf course, the American south is far from the only place on earth producing miraculously delicious kinds of sausages. I have devoured plenty of fantastic ones on foreign turf, and gladly. Another accompaniment that nearly always appeals is the ever-welcome potato. From plain boiled, baked or mashed potatoes to crisps and chips and all sorts of fried ones, there are endless wonders that can be wrought from potatoes to enhance to beauty of sausages. One of my favorites, both in the German-speaking lands and at home, is Rösti, a crispy-tender variant of what we know as hash browns in the States, and since it’s so quick and easy to fix and sausages are too, it’s not an uncommon meal hereabouts.photoSometimes having an exclusively meat-and-potatoes meal isn’t entirely enough, and a bright vegetable addition becomes a delightful contrast in texture and flavor and a palate cleansing lightener of the occasion as well. Often, a simple, quick salad like a melange of Mandarin orange segments and cut sugar snap peas, toasted sliced almonds and pine nuts, and light lime-honey-ginger vinaigrette makes just the right complement to the fat happiness of sausages and starch.photoAnd sometimes the sausage is most welcome incorporated into a well-loved main dish. It might be Italian sausage in a classic red sauce; could be chorizo in a glorious paella; may be a welcome casserole of Cassoulet. Last week, it was Gumbo loaded with minced ham, crawfish tails and both pork and beef sausages all playing along nicely with the okra, corn, carrots, celery, onions and bell peppers cooked for a long, low, slow simmer in homemade bone broth and store-bought fire-roasted tomatoes and a bottle of Czech beer, seasoned with bay leaf, cloves, black pepper, cumin, smoked paprika and premixed Cajun spice and thickened at the last just a little further with the traditional filé (sassafras powder) before being spooned over broth-cooked rice. Next week, it might be time for bangers and mash, kielbasa and noodles, or possibly just some marvelous eggs, scrambled until custard-like and served with sage-scented breakfast sausage.photoAnd no, all of this goodness is not reserved for those of the manly persuasion (slangy phrases notwithstanding). This here girl-type person, for one, will fight for her share of the feast, so I guess it doesn’t qualify as a total sausage-fest, if you know what I mean.

Foodie Tuesday: Lemon Chicken without Cats

A friend of ours once told us about the Chinese restaurant in the small southern town where he grew up that was renowned for its trademark Lemon Chicken–until, that is, the owner was questioned about the disappearance of many of the neighborhood’s pet cats on a timetable that coincided a little too closely for comfort with the preparation and the offering of said dish on the menu.

I prefer to offer a more strictly bird-based version of the dish when I get hungry for lemon chicken. Call me old-fashioned.

I kept it very simple too, though. I’m rarely interested in making things terribly complicated in the kitchen; that’s above my pay grade. My one innovation particular to this occasion was to test a new kind of gluten-free pasta and put together a dish that could sit around in the oven for an indeterminate period without dying, since our dinner guest wasn’t sure how quickly she could get to our house from Dallas that evening. Worked out pretty nicely, as it turned out, and was both lemony and quite acceptably chicken flavored, as planned.photoLemon Chicken Linguine

Layer into a covered four- or five-quart nonstick pan in order: 1 package of RP’s fresh GF linguine (9 oz)–uncooked, straight out of the package; 2 cups of roasted, poached or braised chicken cut into 1 inch pieces (I used chicken left from one I’d oven-braised a day or two before in butter with homemade lemon seasoning (oven-dried lemon peels finely ground with Tellicherry peppercorns and Kosher salt); 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese; the juice and zest of one lemon; about 1/4 cup of heavy cream. Season with ground mace, ground coriander and [the aforementioned] lemon seasoning to taste. Cover the pan snugly with its lid and set it in a low oven (not above 225°F/107°C) until the liquid is absorbed or the guests arrive, or both.

Side dishes for such an uncomplicated meal should also be uncomplicated. Good old, ubiquitous in our household, coleslaw, with apples complementing the ginger. Green beans Amandine, done up Southern style by throwing a handful of crisped bacon on top. Dessert? Why, of course. I (conveniently) had some of my strawberry-mandarin granita right in the freezer and, by golly, found some rather nice fresh strawberries and lovely sweet mandarin oranges at the grocery store as well, so I macerated a dish of those two mixed together in vanilla sugar; spooned over the granita and accompanied by some little nut and cocoa truffles I’d also made and stashed earlier.photoAlong with these foods, of course, there needed to be good drinks aplenty. Nice for wetting the whistle. But remember, one should always show appropriate restraint with the drinking or one might not know the difference if someone tries to serve a less savory sort of ‘lemon chicken’ than mine.photo