Foodie Tuesday: Artful Eating

Another pleasure of travel—of getting out of my familiar paths and habits—is discovering not only new things to eat but new ways of preparing and presenting foods I might have known all along. Whether there’s some entirely unforeseen ingredient or the known ones are combined in a completely unfamiliar way or plated more exotically or beautifully than I’ve seen before, it’s all, well, food for thought. And a danged fine way to assuage the hunger pangs brought on by wandering and exploring in new territory.

The time we spent in Europe in July was yet another happy example of this truism. So much so that I’ll just give you a few tantalizing shots for your contemplation and not go further. You’ll be wanting to dash off for lunch before I have any time to go on further anyhow, don’t you know.Photos: Artful Eating (Series) 2014-08-05.2.artful-eating 2014-08-05.3.artful-eating 2014-08-05.4.artful-eating 2014-08-05.5.artful-eating 2014-08-05.6.artful-eating 2014-08-05.7.artful-eating 2014-08-05.8.artful-eating

Foodie Tuesday: I’ll Have the Usual

photoThere are times when only the familiar favorite will suffice. The lucky socks worn for every winning match must be worn for every match thereafter; once found, the chair in the aural sweet spot of the venue must be sought for every concert to come. And there are a whole lot of us who, once we find a favorite food at a favorite eatery, are hard pressed to keep from going there over and over, ordering the same dish every time we walk into the door. This tried and true preference can be so strong that even if, like me, you’ve eaten other delectable items on a place’s menu before discovering your special favorite, you can’t go back to rambling around the menu any longer but are forevermore committed to that new-found love.

photo

When you’re not on your home turf, ask the locals for their favorites.

Naturally, there are places we discover that become go-to favorites in general, too. Places where we know we’ll be able to find an assortment of meals and dishes that please us no matter how many times we visit or even how much we vary our choices from the menu. For a lot of people, I suspect that the most likely such places, menus or dishes will always be familiar and comforting ones representing our own backgrounds, our personal histories. That’s how I end up visiting the same joint every chance I get when I revisit a particular town, and sit there feeling as contented and reassured as though I were sitting at the table with my cousins or siblings, or the neighbors or schoolmates of my youth.

photoAnd it’s no disparagement to think of it all this way; this stuff becomes sanctified in our memories and preferences most often because it’s really and truly delicious. It doesn’t have to be one kind of thing or another, neither fussy nor simple, extravagantly doctor-frightening nor miraculously healthful, decorative nor homely, to have this mystical power.

photo

Whether you call it Prime Rib or Poor Man’s Roast Beef, if it’s well made it’s all good!

The truth, I suspect, is that it doesn’t have to be our own history and comfort that the food and the atmosphere represent, but someone’s honest spaces and spices, and that’s quite compelling enough. There’s room for new favorites all the time when we visit different cities and towns or are introduced to their favorite corner booths and bar stools by our friends. After all, the company and the occasion are probably the most significant ingredients for making any eating experience a favorite. I think I hear a few places and meals calling my name right this minute!

Foodie Tuesday: To Market, to Market

photoFarmer’s markets are a joy. The magnificent and munificent ‘food halls’ of many countries and cities are an abundant and slightly less-seasonal delight. I grew up with a father who, in turn, was raised by parents who had, so to speak, groceries in their blood–Grandma having grown up in her father’s grocery store near the turn of the last century, and Grandpa having been employed by a major regional grocery producer and supplier. So Dad was not only accustomed to a childhood spent roaming and critiquing every aisle of every grocery store his family passed on any given expedition but later also to having his own children cajole him into being the parent taking us on the weekly family shopping trips because with his genetic grocery cred we thought he was the more easily swayed into buying the weird and possibly deliciously bad-for-us stuff.

What this all leads to in my case, is the appreciation I have, deep down, for farmer’s markets and food halls and all sorts of grocery stores.

But the real source of that love is, of course, all of the grocerrific goodness found in said worlds of wonder. The ingredients for infinite feasting are all there at hand, arrayed in an artless or artful arsenal of endless recombinant recipes, and it’s not easy to spend any real time in the midst of such wonders without at least stumbling over a good number of fine meal, snack or menu inspirations.

photo

Some fruits of the shopping expedition are worthy of eating in their purest natural state and deserve no less respect and admiration.

photo

Even the best can be deliciously Prepared, though: why not the simplest of preparations. Steamed green beans with butter, for example. How can one improve on that?

photo

An uncomplicated recipe can also be a pleasurable way to showcase a beautiful ingredient. Here, caramelized Bosc pears–gently sautéed in salted butter and maple syrup with cardamom, then reduced in Riesling and vanilla.

photo

The occasional grand ingredient can be appropriately preserved for multiple happy uses. Diced fresh ginger root, for example, lives a good, long and productive life of transforming one dish after another when it’s been diced and saved in a jar full of vodka. Which, in turn, can be a delightful treat on its own later, this sprightly ginger infused vodka.

And what do I learn from all of this? I don’t change all that much. I always did rather like going to get the groceries. I still do. Living and lounging among the comestibles is a grand pastime and so often leads to good eating and drinking, doesn’t it. I do believe I hear the siren song of a grocery cart beckoning me for a little outing, or is that the gentle rumbling of my empty innards? No matter, one leads to the other, leading right back to the first, in an endless loop of hunger and deliciousness, craving and satiety that I hope won’t end for a very long and very slightly fattening lifetime.

photo

Fresh, alluring and beautiful. It’s never too much, but always a lovely temptation.

Foodie Tuesday: Hospitality as Apotheosis

photoBeing good and doing well make us just a little bit more like angels. Making good food and treating guests well is just that much better. It’s a feeding not just of the stomach but also of the spirit. It puts one in a state of grace that can be earned, but at the same time is the richer for being given without thought of such recompense. A simple cup of hot coffee proffered with kindness becomes through this transubstantiation the elixir of joy.

Today I woke up thinking of such hospitality as I was remembering a time thirty years ago when I was the fortunate beneficiary of it. I was a recent college graduate, working for my uncle’s construction company while I paid off undergraduate loans and contemplated the prospect of taking out more for grad school, and I was sent out with a couple of fellow workers to spend a few days laboring on the repair and renovation of a hundred year old farmhouse out in the country. The weather was pleasantly warm and the house only moderately shaggy for its vintage, and the owners were friendly on our arrival.photoThe work, still, was dirty enough–removal of and repair from exterior dry rot and moss that was encroaching on the northerly upper story window frames and trim, and some interior rebuilding that the lead carpenter on the team would start framing in as a new arch between living and dining spaces as soon as the group effort of tear-out was finished on the second story outside. It was a pretty and classic old farmhouse, with a wraparound porch hugging it so that we were able to set up on the porch roof’s venerable cedar shakes to do our second-story work without having to run our ladders the full height from the ground. But therein lay the problem: by the end of the first day of demolition, the aforementioned carpenter was almost demolished too when the footing he’d installed on the roof for his ladder gave way, the ladder went flat with its top end spearing through an upstairs window and its base making a perfect slide for said gentleman to go shooting straight, if uncomfortably, off the roof.

The other guy and I were close by on either side of Chuck, but neither Jake nor I could, in the split second it took for this to happen, stop the ladder or him from going straight down into the gloom below. There was a terrible moment of near-silence while we scrambled over to the gutter to see whether we could get to him; the first thing we could see was the steel post of the truck bed spearing upward menacingly right about where he’d fallen, so we were breathless with horror as we peered over the edge into the dusk. To our immense relief, Chuck was lying in the spiny shrub next to the truck bed, where he’d slid instead, and though he had some impressive bruises afterward, he’d neither been impaled nor broken a single bone. Needless to say, there was a different wrap-up to the day than we’d planned, what with boarding up a broken window for the night and assuring the owners of the house, who’d come running at the crash, that all was going to be fine. No deaths, no lawsuits from either side, and an even better-repaired window, since we’d now rebuild the thing and re-glaze it rather than just scraping and painting.

Perhaps it was a bit of bonding brought about by the emergency that made them adopt us afterward, the homeowners, but whatever the cause, our next few days were among the most pleasant I ever spent on the job (along with those spent working in the house of the lady who afterward became another uncle’s life partner!), and the sweetness of it lingers in my memory. The second day was such a benevolent spring day that I opted to stay on the roof and eat my lunch while reading an Agatha Christie novel. That worked out remarkably well, for when the man of the house came out to see why I hadn’t come down with the others, he chatted me up about my enjoyment of British mysteries, disappeared, and reappeared later with a grocery bag crammed with said delicacies. It turned out that he was an English professor at the University and taught a course in this very topic, and that along with the house’s ‘issues’ for which we’d been hired there was one of steadily decreasing bookshelf space thanks to his and his wife’s reading habits.

The next day, there was to be no reading on the roof. All three of us workers were summoned into the house at lunchtime and seated at table. While the Professor expressed his kindliness in the gift of books, his wife expressed hers in culinary largesse. I had already thought her a very beautiful woman, with her elegant and mysteriously foreign-looking features, deep-set warm black eyes and smooth brown skin and all, her patrician carriage that belied a gentleness of manner, and her sleek black hair, but I think I fell in love with her more than a little when she put the food in front of us. It wasn’t terribly complex, perhaps, this meal, but it was heavenly. She served us robust bowls of satin-smooth potato-leek soup with slices of dark pumpernickel bread covered in rich Brie. When we thought we might be entirely filled up, we made room for more, because she came back to the table with a freshly baked, perfectly spiced apple pie.

It may be that these things have long since disappeared from the minds of all of the other players (though I find it hard to imagine Chuck has forgotten his scary adventure entirely), but the beauty of that meal so suffused me with happiness that I find it coming to me intermittently still, after all these years. I have no idea who the Lady and the Professor were and don’t even know precisely what became of Jake and Chuck, so I can’t check my facts let alone repay the kindness. I can only hope to pay it forward. I do have some of my home-brewed chicken broth in the fridge; might have to fix someone some soup soon.

Potato-Leek Soup (as remembered)

Boil a few medium-sized potatoes in enough well-seasoned chicken broth [vegetable broth, if you’re not a meat-eater] to cover them fully. While the potatoes are cooking, saute a bunch of sliced leeks in butter with a little bit of salt until melted. Deglaze the pan with a hearty splash of dry Sherry or brandy or whatever dry white wine happens to be handy.

(If you have to open the bottle for the occasion, why then you’ll probably have to have a sip whilst you cook. This is all the better if you have a friend or acquaintance standing by for the meal; you’ll enjoy the visiting all the more.)

When the potatoes are cooked and softened through, add the leeks to the pot, along with (optionally or–if you ask me–optimally) a splash of cream. Using a stick blender, puree the lot until as smooth as possible, adjusting the thickness with any of the three previously introduced liquids as desired, and tasting for seasoning. If you don’t have a stick blender, a regular blender will do as long as you take the necessary precautions against blending hot foods–or just use a potato masher and have a more rustic soup. This soup won’t lend itself perfectly to chilling like a Vichyssoise, because the butter and cream can curdle or separate, but warm or hot it should certainly be filling and definitely warm the spirits.

Cook. Share. Polish your halo. Enjoy.photo

 

Foodie Tuesday: Pretty as a Picture

photoThere’s an almost unbreakable rule when it comes to sensory perception and food: if it looks bad, it’ll taste bad. People will eat the most strange-smelling stuff–witness durian, any number of aged cheeses, fermented foods, and a large number of culture-specific items from around the world that, to anyone not either genetically inclined to be attracted to it or else remarkably brave and adventuresome, will yell at the lizard brainPOISON! POISON!’ The emetic reflex is, indeed a powerful thing when triggered by smells, but somehow a vast quantity of people have not only overcome that response but embraced the non-toxic results of the experiment. But things that look unpleasant are often a much harder sell. We humans respond intensely to appearances.

That’s not to say that we won’t eat things that look fairly nasty. The first person who looked at a monkfish probably didn’t say to himself, ‘gosh, that looks inviting,’ so much as something like ‘good thing I’m starving here!’ and the famously slimy strands of nattō (compounded, I’m told on good authority, by a perfume that’s fully its equal for off-putting qualities) were unlikely the source of its original appeal. In our household, the favorite rude comment if food has a notably unpalatable appearance is, ‘are ya gonna eat that or did ya?’–to which my response is generally to spoon up a big bite of it, because I’m almost always the one who eats Weird Things and I’m also a petulant show-off.

But for the most part, looks are terribly important, not only because in the rawest sense they can mean the difference between safe and unsafe eating but also because ultimately, we like food to stimulate our pleasure centers. So it’s not the worst rule of thumb to look around, when seeking ingredients and recipes, for things that have the inherent beauty we will respond to most happily, and that can sustain their loveliness throughout the prep and presentation arrangements.

Sometimes, of course, the best rule of thumb in the event is to simply eat the food as we found it, because if it looks pretty to start with it probably doesn’t need any plastic surgery from us ordinary non-chef mortals. See it, eat it. Pretty good recipe, pretty often.

photo

What’s-in-My-Kitchen Week, Day 2: Foodie Tuesday

Having guests for a meal can be a lot of work. Or not. But either way, if it’s mostly ready when they arrive (unless it’s a cook-together occasion), it’s a great time to have fun with friends. Few occasions are as welcome as those that include comestible-related conviviality. Last week’s get-together fun was occasioned by the impending retirement time move to Pennsylvania of our dear next door neighbors, who joined us for dinner just after I’d finished clearing out the dining room and enough of the kitchen from our week’s plethora of minor house maintenance projects to make way for us all to fit comfortably at the dining table.photo

One of the pleasures of having company is the excuse to set a pretty table, even if it’s not at all formal. While we do sit down to a ‘set’ table often enough to pass for civilized, formality of any sort is almost always as far from my modus operandi as one end of the galaxy is from another; still, it’s nice to have a reason to pull out a different tablecloth or put on a seasonal character at the board. For this day I wanted to keep things light, airy and summery, so I started with a small vintage tablecloth of graphic pale yellow butterflies on a crisp dark background and used the plain white crockery. These I enhanced with the  graceful twisted stems of our delicate Hadeland crystal wineglasses in their discontinued ‘Lord‘ pattern–which we were fortunate to have handed down to us by my parents, who in turn were given them by my Norwegian sister and her husband. Every time we use these beauties I am reminded of our family and of our Norwegian roots; at the same time, they are infinitely well-balanced and sweetly appealing to the eye, so they often ‘set’ the table all by themselves, so to speak.photo

Food was kept simple, in my usual adherence to unfussy ways. Having seen a wildly delicious sounding recipe for a California Peach Caprese Salad at the delicious blog A Feast for the Eyes, I was smitten with the idea of feasting, indeed, on peaches and was gifted not only with finding some fine, nearly ripe ones at the same store as a smashingly fat and lovely filet of wild-caught Alaskan salmon, I had the foundation of my meal in mind. The demise of my cooktop and its current unavailability had already inspired me to plan that I would oven-roast some vegetables and fruit to add a sort of barbecue-ish tinge to the meal’s summery theme (we don’t yet have a functional barbecue, latecoming Texans that we are). Thus, a super-plain green salad started things off without interfering with all of the other flavors and colors to be heaped on the table. Romaine, diced glorious avocado and a drizzle of simple Italian-style vinaigrette. I did put out small dishes of pignoli and yes, a chiffonade of fresh basil and mint leaves for those of us who wanted to have a sort of Cal-Italianate hint of the inspirational peach Caprese infused into the meal. Like me, for example.photoThe salmon preparation was something of an experiment: my doctor recommends I limit my soy intake for various reasons, so although I’m often addicted to soy sauce in my fish marinades, I was enamored of a slab of hot-smoked salmon at the grocery and bethought myself to use that as the salinizing element in my salmon prep this time. I laid the filet lovingly in a pan greased with coconut oil and topped it with crumbled smoked salmon, freshly ground black pepper, minced fresh ginger, a splash each of ginger juice and freshly squeezed lemon and orange juices, a faint drizzle of raw honey, and a little more coconut oil on top of it all, and into the oven it went. It was joined there in short order by pans of vegetables and fruits, respectively (hurray for the benison of double ovens!), and there was time during the baking and broiling to hunt up some dessert from the freezer.photo

The vegetables could hardly have been simpler: whole green beans, asparagus, orange and yellow capsicum–those sweet and fruity bell peppers add elements of both color and flavor brightness to a vegetable dish so neatly–and thickly sliced cremini mushrooms. Crystallized salt, pepper, a squeeze of lime, and a slick of my precious Stonehouse olive oil (using their luscious Persian Lime this time) and the whole pan was ready for its oven close-up too. I left the fruit in all its naked glory, except for a little gloss of the aforementioned coconut oil to help protect them from sunburn while increasing their chance of a good brown skin in their broiler tanning bed. I know some folk say to add sugars to build (or to even out) caramelization but I figured the fruits were sugary and ripe enough to take care of themselves: those treasured peaches, a handful of my very first batch ever of homegrown figs, and that living gold of pineapple.photo

The dessert was well into my lazy comfort zone, being a chocolate combination of my nut truffles (a simple mix of melted dark chocolate with a little good butter, a pinch of salt, and finely chopped and toasted mixed nuts of my choosing, set up in a flat pan and cut into small pieces) and my almond-flour brownies that I keep handy in the freezer between times, and the mellow, dense chocolaty goodness played nicely with all of the fruity sweetness that preceded it.photo