Foodie Tuesday: Rinse and Repeat

You all know what a fan I am of leftovers and ‘repurposed’ ingredients. Most of the foods I’ve been fixing lately have been a continuation of that tradition of mine, especially because it’s been a particularly busy time around our place. We’ve had the usual spate of spring concerts and recitals, more than the usual number of social and business-social events at home and other places, and planning and preparation for a large quantity of upcoming happenings. The garden’s been coming in at top speed. I’ve been trying to clean house more seriously than I had in a long time, because it’s really overdue and I’d love to sell off and give away a lot of underutilized Things. Oh, and I’m trying hard, really I am, not to fall behind with my writing and artwork.

That latter means, naturally, keeping my blogging current, but in addition it means working on two art commissions—one a super-fast turnaround project I just got a few days ago. It also includes attempting to continue with the development of several books to follow up on the one I published in January.

I’m neither complaining nor bragging, just stating a truth that is pretty much like the daily one facing the majority of people I know, each with his or her variations on the details. And it reinforces my attachment to quick, simple, reusable and flexible ingredients and dishes more than ever. Today, for example, I made and froze what will (I’m certain) be a delicious potato side dish for later this week, when friends are coming over for a casual dinner visit. I used a combination of a smashed microwave ‘baked’ potato, a handful of chopped and mashed leftover french fries—good hand cut ones from our favorite old school steakhouse—a handful of crushed leftover potato chips, and enough leftover pimiento cheese from the batch I made for our party the other night to make it all into a cheesy potato casserole. I had some crisped bacon in the fridge, so the casserole is topped with that for the finish. It doesn’t look like so much yet, being in the freezer and all, but I’m expecting to enjoy it quite a bit, along with whatever else I manage to put together for the occasion.photo

Confession: I got an itch to do something trendy, despite being so rarely trendy myself, and I made a lattice out of the bacon. Silly, but kind of fun. And if one is going to wrestle with trying to cook a little in the midst of lots of real life busyness, shouldn’t there be a little bit of silly fun involved? No, wait: a lot?

 

Foodie Tuesday: Simple Sips & Snips

I do appreciate stuff that is not only easy to fix but lives on past the fixing. By that I mean the sort of kitchen trick that provides more than one episode of eating and/or drinking, and the more the merrier. It might be something that, while it can be somewhat time-consuming while in the process (I’m looking at you, lasagna!) can be portioned and frozen for multiple meals, so the subsequent preparations are ever so much easier and faster than the initial one.

Or it might be more like what I did the other day. It doesn’t take terribly long, and requires virtually no brilliance or skill on my part to do it, but when I expend the effort to chop and then puree a goodly quantity of fresh ginger root and preserve it in vodka, it keeps for ages in the refrigerator and the mash is instantly accessible for any of my myriad edible loves. If I manage to drain the puree slightly when using it I might even score a small quantity of high-octane ginger-infused vodka at the end to enhance a sauce or a party drink that will more deservedly gain the title of Punch.photo

On this particular occasion, it provided me with the reasonable excuse to do a quick side-by-side taste testing of two Texas vodkas, as I knew I had none either for drink mixing or for the ginger preservation, let alone for the second set of ‘preserves’ I intended to make that day. So I bought the two bottles, one of Tito’s (a brand I’ve mentioned here before as I had discovered it is quite smooth, mellow and even drinkable straight, which is saying some for vodka in my book) and one of Western Son (a brand I’d not tried, but since it’s produced less than half an hour from where I live I thought I ought to give it a fair shake). I found Tito’s still more to my taste and less hard-edged, but both were perfectly pleasant. It’s always interesting and informative to read others’ reviews of these or any other alcoholic drinks (see the links through their names above for just a quick example) to be reminded that everything has its fans and haters, and often the most extremely opposite opinions can be backed by the exact same characteristics.

My purpose in this was pretty uncomplicated, though: I only wanted to decide which I’d rather keep some of for making the occasional spiked drink and which I would put to use as the preservative in my day’s longterm mise en place prep. Tito’s stayed in the freezer for drinks; WS got voted into eau-de-vie duty. That title is apropos not only because it will lengthen the life of the two flavorings I was treating, but also because it may become a bit of ginger firewater if the use of the root leaves enough liquid behind, and it will certainly become some beautifully flavored stuff after a good long mingling with the other flavoring agent I paired it with this time.

That, my friends, is vanilla. Store-bought vanilla beans at the grocery are often tragically bad facsimiles of their former selves, being shriveled and dry and bland and pathetic from poor packaging and over-long sitting on grimly over-lit shelves. Real, well prepared vanilla bean pods, on the other hand, are as sleek and fat and glamorous and moist as the sweet orchids that bear such beautiful fruit. Buying in bulk, with the quick turnaround of today’s online ordering and shipping, can be a much more productive and cost-effective way to bring that beauty home. So I bought a handful of nice, heavy vanilla beans and, like Jack in the fairy tale, got instant bounty from them. All I had to do was to take the WS vodka bottle that had had some liquor removed for the blending of that ginger root (now safely tucked up in a clean jam jar in the refrigerator) and the bottle had, conveniently, just the right amount of space for me to spear all of the beans down its neck into the vodka for immersion. Now all that’s left is to wait while the vanilla steeps into its full glory.photo

I can, in the meantime, take out a bean or two to cut and scrape and otherwise use to infuse and flavor any number of kitchen wonders. I can, very shortly, use the booze as a perfectly unadulterated vanilla extract, knowing that a little proper cooking or baking will remove the alcohol and leave the voluptuous flavor in its wake. And last of all, I can look forward to using the heavily perfumed vodka to jazz up drinks of the adult variety if I should so desire.

All of this from a short stint at the chopping board with nothing more than a knife for peeling and chopping the ginger, a couple of little saucers for testing the vodkas’ smell and taste characteristics side by side, and a bag of magic beans. And so much good should come of it in the days and weeks ahead.photo

Foodie Tuesday: You Slake Me

photoIn wintertime, it’s a great and welcome thing to put one’s hands around a mug of hot tea, cocoa, coffee, cider; a great and welcome hand-warmer that, when upended at the lips, becomes heartwarming as well. The mulled drinks and toddies and steaming honey lemonade can do so much to ameliorate the harshness of the cold months that I am always grateful for the offer of a cup of such kindness.

photoNonetheless, it is in the hottest parts of the year that my mind turns continually to longings for a glass, a pitcher, a fountain of something refreshing to drink. Thirst becomes more of a necessity and sometimes borders on unseemly obsession. And I find that when it’s offered to me, a good drink can be full of surprises, too.

I suppose it’s a little like whatever crossroads in my life led me to learn that many flowers were edible. That cheering revelation, coupled with the realization that this was only in keeping with recognizing how many other parts of plants I had already been eating without so much as a second thought, meant that a whole realm of unexplored flavors and methods of preparation and recipes unfurled before my hungry mind and stomach.

Safe to say that ever since that tipping (or tippling) point, I’ve been on a perpetual hunt for the next flavor, common or unique, and the next combination, easy or complicated, that will thrill my taste buds and those of my buddies, alike.photo Prickly Pear

To the uninitiated, it’s unappealing to think of cooling the desert air

by slurping at something named for its prickles

But after slaking fiery thirst with it, one finds the Prickly Pear

just as fine and dandy as ice cream and popsicles.

1 cup Prickly pear syrup + 1 cup fresh lemon juice + 1 qt/4 cups sparkling water = Prickly Pear Pink Lemonade

1 batch Prickly Pear Lemonade + 1/4 cup Limoncello + 1/4 cup Prickly pear liqueur + speared pieces of dragon fruit as garnish = Parents’ Potent Prickly Pear Lemonade

As with all of my ‘recipes’, the best way to make this in either version–or your own–is to have the ingredients on hand and then mix them, a little at a time, to your own taste.

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Not that any friendly drink won’t do … a Tuaca Lemon Drop, for example, can quench thirst too …


Foodie Tuesday: A Little Latin Love

photoIt was Tapas Tuesday today. Since we were having the Collegium crew over after their performance of the exquisite Requiem that concluded the compositional career of the magnificent Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria, it seemed only appropriate to feed them some Spanish-influenced food and drink. I am neither a Latina–though much of my Norwegian ancestry did come from the southernmost part of Norway, so that makes me virtually Mediterranean, no?–nor knowledgeable about Spanish cuisine, but I took my usual loose and playful approach and didn’t get any complaints.

It’s wonderful to start learning a cuisine by means of a party rather than a full meal, to be sure. Numerous bite-sized dishes offer a much more forgiving palette for pleasing a large number of guests. Among the attendees were some who needed vegetarian, peanut-free, and gluten-free options, a couple of underage visitors and a nursing mother, all of whom would be needing non-alcoholic drinks–and then there were those for whom none of that was relevant. Again, the variety of items possible in a tapas party easily lends itself to such flexibility. It’s no wonder hors-d’oeuvres and cocktail parties and bar menus have remained tremendously popular since their inception.

What I don’t wish to do is to attempt to be all-things-to-all-people. It’s futile. It’s overly precious and annoying anyway. I’m just not willing to attempt that in any aspect of my life, least of all when I rather hope that people are visiting us at home because they actually want to visit with us, not because they’re looking for some mythic party experience. The funny (and not at all surprising) thing about it, of course, is that it still took me all day to get ready for the shindig before my husband got home from school to get ready and head over for the performance before 6 pm. Because, large or small, food and drink items take some prep work.

I did want to squeeze in some time for house tidying, at least in the rooms we were using tonight, and of course there was a load of laundry to be done and a kitchen-full of dishes to be washed and put away, a batch of bone broth to set to cooking, and oh, yeah, some errands, some garden watering. You know, the usual. Which is all to say that there is a reason or two that it’s a shade after midnight, and yes, I can tell time, so I know it’s not Foodie Tuesday, strictly speaking, anymore. Therefore I’m just posting this with a teaser photo or two (murky and fuzzy at that) to assure you that tomorrow I will tell a bit more about what I made for today. Come to think of it, perhaps I’ll get to eat some of it tomorrow. Because as you all know, when you spend the whole day fixing things for a party and then have fun people show up for the event, chances are pretty good that you’ll go to bed without having actually eaten any of what you fixed, other than a quick taste here or there while in mid-prep.

But I got to meet a few new people, or at least visit with some I’d not yet gotten to chat with before, and hold the exceedingly charming 5-month-old daughter of one of the singers. So I’m not complaining in the least! Still, it’s past my bedtime and well past when I would like to have posted this, so I’ll just bid you all a good night and sign off until tomorrow. Stay tuned, my friends!photo

Foodie Tuesday: Nothing Sexier than Proper Mise en Place

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Ready for mirepoix-making?

Let’s face it, I’m as predictable as romantic comedies when it comes to many things, not least of all, choosing the path of least resistance when fixing food. If there’s a shortcut to the shortbread, lemme at it. If there’s a snappier way to trim snap peas, I’m on board with that. But if there’s one thing I know is worth any amount of trouble, it’s prep. It’s not glamorous, I’ll grant you, and sometimes gets mighty tedious, especially when there’s a sizable party or elaborate meal on the horizon. But there is nothing that makes the rest of the time in the kitchen more tolerable, even enjoyable, than having the best of mise en place at my fingertips.

I did my time as a house painter, back in the misty distance, and I learned tout de suite that there was no substitute for careful first steps when it came to a fine finished product; I spent some time laboring backstage and behind the scenes in theatres and found that what’s seen when the curtain’s rung up is about a thousandth of what’s been and being done for the production. Of course, my conductor husband works in a discipline where the inexperienced concert-attendee would be wildly off base to think that all performers do is get up onstage and wave arms or pipe on musical contraptions or flap tongues. Even if they have an inkling that rehearsals are necessary, they haven’t imagined the tiniest increment of blood, sweat and tears that went into a performance. And I’m fairly certain I haven’t come across any other field in which that doesn’t generally hold true. What goes on before-hand is such an essential and formative part of what comes out of the proscenium or oven that sometimes I think we’re guilty of assuming everyone would just plain intuit that. We need to tell the inexperienced what a beautiful thing is that dull seeming preparatory work, what glorious jewels are the salt-cellar and oil bottle and dishes of neatly diced Tasso and shredded Reggiano and chiffonaded basil.

Even the finished dish may not look particularly artistic, unless it’s something generally far more designer-iffic than what I’m likely to produce at my board, but it is an infinitely greater pleasure to prepare and serve food that was made easier to prepare and serve by having arranged for good mise en place in good time. There’s both the initial set of ingredients and tools that ought to be at the ready, and then there’s the lineup of Parts that precedes the final plating for presentation, and both serve to wonderfully streamline the efforts.

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The cranberry-mandarin-maple relish that will add a note of piquancy to the Thanksgiving plate is nothing much to look at, but will add its own essential character to the plate . . .

Part of the effectiveness and pleasure of mise en place for a visual obsessive like me is that it allows me to ‘paint’ with the food, whether in creating the individual dishes or in building the presentation, modest though it might be, by considering not only all of the flavors and practical characteristics of the ingredients but also their colors, shapes, visual textures and other attributes that can contribute to the integrity and–God willing–deliciousness of the whole.

So this is why, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I’ve been brewing broth for gravy, concocting relishes and garnishes, butterflying the turkey and brining it (tomorrow it bathes sous vide, Thursday gets its high-roast crunch on!), roasting potatoes so that they will make heavenly light mash despite the added gallons of cream and pounds of butter, and all of that other ‘peripheral’ stuff. It’s not much to look at, to be sure, but I think I’ll manage to get a pretty fair showing out of it all eventually, because I’m laying the groundwork and setting the foundations first. Amen, let’s eat!

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That's it for today's sage advice.