Foodie Tuesday: Nuts about ‘Em All

I’ve been MIA here for long enough. Long enough to have a really dandy hiatus and enjoy my break from daily blogging. Long enough to think it’s time to get back in regular practice with my readin’ and writin’ skills. And definitely long enough to be going a little nutty with the urge to eat—and blog about it, of course.

Nut-urally, I’m going to start going nuts here if I don’t.

Sorry, couldn’t help it. ‘Cause I really am kind of nuts about nuts. Can’t think of any kind I’m not fond of in one way or another. They’re so versatile. They go with savory foods and sweet ones, they’re tasty on their own or as ingredients in every possible course from soup to…well, you know.Photo: Pine Nuts

I’m happy to munch a handful of toasted nuts for a reasonably healthy snack. Might be almost any kind, depending on what I have around or am just in the mood to eat. Pignoli, or piñones, toasted in salted browned butter are a fine way to start, light and tender and full of really tasty fat that’s only delicate as long as its volatile nature stays fresh, and with just a tiny hint of the piney woods about them. Or maybe I want to get a tiny bit fancier and toast a mix of nuts together, and throw not only a little salt into the butter but also perhaps some cinnamon and sugar and a dash of cayenne. Very lightly candy them, say, a blend of almonds and pecans and pistachios.Photo: I'm Nuts about 'Em All

Sometimes I might even have the patience to use some finely ground nuts to coat a chicken breast or slice of goat’s cheese for frying into a crispy coating. Almonds are of course classic for this, but again, nearly any nut will do, as long as it can take the heat required for the dish: pine nuts would be a poor choice for something that has to cook or bake or fry for too long and/or at too high a temperature, unless you think you can make little teeny charcoal shavings look and taste yummy somehow. The harder, higher-heat-resistant nuts are preferable in those instances. Of course, there’s such a range of nuts and the nut-like seeds that can join them, you might well choose ones that complement every single course of the meal.Photo: Chicken Amandine

Dessert being, often, the most important course. To be honest.

Since I’m such a—you knew this was coming—nut for all-things-dessert-ish, I am quite adept at finding ways, means, and excuses to incorporate nuts of one sort or another into the final (or only: still being honest, here) course, whether as the course, or alongside the cheese or on top of the ice cream or pudding, or perhaps as a nut crust cradling a pie or tart, if I’m patient enough to wait through the prep and baking/chilling time required for such a treat. Oh, who am I kidding. Waiting? Now that’s just. Nuts.Photo: Candied Nuts on Top

Foodie Tuesday: Some Useful Rules for Desserts

Our recent trip in Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic served as a fine reminder that Europeans have some special talents when it comes to taking advantage of the fun factor of making and enjoying desserts. A cafe many of us from the choir tour group found on our stop just before crossing the Hungarian-Austrian border had a menu loaded not only with bright, shiny pictures but dessert items guaranteed to put any dedicated diner into a happy but instantaneous snacking coma.

Photo: Dessert Rules 1

You really have to admire any dessert that is not only as substantial as this but has booze or some effectively delicious substitute for it in the mix.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 2

Switch a few of the ingredients and keep the sugary deliciousness quotient (and possibly, the eaters) high, and the menu begins to expand. As do waistbands on both sides of the international border.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 3

Something with a typically European liquor flair keeps the menu distinctly local, perhaps. Even if your typography can’t keep up with your recipe tinkering, good taste will abound.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 4

Hot raspberry sauce = Heisse Liebe (Hot Love, a traditional romantic dish) when served over rich vanilla ice cream. A great dessert for honeymooners (I just happen to know), and another way to brighten up the sweetness of a giant sundae.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 5

No reason to limit the brightness of either color or flavor to raspberries and ice cream; why not add yogurt and kiwi fruit for some jazz?

Photo: Rules of Dessert 6

But really, if you’re going to get splashy with the colors and textures and flavors, why not get more elaborate yet?

Photo: Rules of Dessert 7

Or make some kid-crazy concoction that will invite the most stoic and stalwart child of any age to play with his food?

Photo: Rules of Dessert 8

Heck, why not just make the dessert as *big* as a kid. No point in being shy or subtle if you’re serious about making desserts that compel attention and ravenous attacks on the dish.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 9

Of course, if you’re planning to entice the larger, older variety of child to eat, you might consider making some semblance of slightly more grownup-sounding dishes. How about a nice spaghetti-style sundae?

Photo: Rules of Dessert 10

What, that wasn’t flashy enough for you? Try a Pizza sundae. Not surreal enough in the spaghetti imitation department? Make some rich, red strawberry sauce to pour over the ice cream spaghetti. Or for the more soigné palate, perhaps a Carbonara version.

Photo: Rules of Dessert 11

Still, I have to admit that perhaps my favorite from this elaborate collection was the skillet-with-eggs doppelgänger, which in its simple ingredients would likely be a very yummy, creamy dream of an apricot cooler for a hot afternoon and also take a good run at pretending to be much better for me than piles of whipped cream and sweetened fruit.

All of this enticement aside—and I did, however reluctantly, lay it all aside despite the strong temptations, having already eaten a pretty substantial and dairy-laden traditional European meal of ‘fried cheese’ (crisply crumb-coated slow-melt cheese served with a sweet tartar dipping sauce)—there are other dessert paths to my heart, even in the heart of dessert-magical Europe. So I waited a moderate amount of time for my digestion, stroll aided, to recover from lunch before I opted for a much smaller and less elaborate dessert. elsewhere. It was only a single scoop of Stracciatella gelato, but it was cold, creamy, rich and delectable all the same. I’m not made of stone, you know.

 

 

 

Foodie Tuesday: Breakfast of Champers

There’s an American breakfast cereal whose manufacturer advertises it as the Breakfast of Champions, inspiring many a skinny little kid over the decades to eat monstrous quantities of it in hopes of becoming an impressive physical specimen. The slogan also inspired things as diverse as a Kurt Vonnegut novel by that name and a wide range of decidedly non-healthful sounding food and drink combinations that mock the very idea, not least of all the hilariously infamous day-starter of Little Chocolate Donuts ‘advertised’ by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live many years ago.Photo: Arabic Choco-PuffsGiven how often and how utterly our concept of what constitutes perfect nutrition, health and fitness practices changes over time, it seems incumbent on any of us who care about our own well-being to figure out what suits our own bodies’ needs and wants and not slavishly follow anyone else’s regimen, no matter how magically ideal it purports to be. At the same time, you know me well enough to guess that I think every so-called prescription in the dietary realm—barring allergies or other potentially life-threatening pains—deserves to be broken on occasion. At the start of a day seems to me the perfect occasion for such hijinks, particularly if the breaking of the fast leads to mood-enhancement and a general tendency toward having a sunnier day. There were excellent reasons for the invention of Bloody Marys and Bellinis and Mimosas. Break out the champers for breakfast!

Photo: Holy Toast!Or, if you feel it necessary to legitimize your breakfast playtime further than you can by acknowledging the fruit and vegetable content of the aforementioned drinks (not least of all, the venerable fermented grape), I’m sure you’re as able as I am to find the good in any dish that cries out to you at the break of day. Little Chocolate Donuts? Why, not only do they contain the marvelous seed of the Theobroma cacao, and if you can’t argue for the food of the gods for breakfast, then I think you need more help than a mere menu tweak can give you, but they also contain sugar, a sure source of [however short-lived] energy. If you take things a step further, choosing a raised donut, you can argue that the live culture of yeast that begins raising its inflatable goodness to a frying-ready state is also bound to be fine feed for your inner biome and all its happy bacterial citizens.

Photo: Raised & Glazed

Cake? Lest we forget, it very often has the proteins and vitamins of eggs, enriched flours, perhaps some buttermilk for further culture. Why restrict it to after-dinner eating, when we have less of the day in which to burn off its calories and possibly, less appreciation for its magnificence when we’re already full from the main meal? Throw in some nuts or dried fruits, some coconut meat, some cinnamon (who knows how true are the speculations on cinnamon’s superfood status)—and you could practically be breakfasting on medicine and having spa treatment before you even leave the house in the morning. There are plenty of people who have busily experimented their way to cakes and quick breads and donuts and all sorts of treats hiding, in their deceptively yummy midst, many clandestine vegetable and other supplemental ingredients to make them Better for You. That’s swell, really it is. But you know, being contented and happy is good for you, too.Photo: Bear Claws

So I’m going to keep eating chocolate at any and all hours of the day and night, cake with and without secret good-for-me ingredients, raised donuts and cake donuts, sugary cold cereals, popsicles, custards, ice cream, smoothies disguised as Protein Shakes, and any pretend-breakfast cocktails I can get my hands on whenever I feel the need. Whatever gets us through the day, no?Photo: Let Me Eat Cake

Foodie Tuesday: More Sugary Bits

Sweets needn’t be hard to prepare. They’re so easy to eat, it’s only fair that they should also be easy to fix or you’ll undoubtedly end up feeling a little desperate between times. Why risk it?

Especially nice if the treats can require no baking or be super-simple to mix and prep before popping into the oven–like these two:photoChocolate Handy Candy

Combine an assortment of the following ingredients into a dense dough, roll into golf ball shapes or squeeze into similar sized blobs, and chill. Before serving, coat in powdered sugar or cocoa powder; mix in some ground spice if you like.

Melted chocolate (I like to use dark chocolate that I buy in bars)

Coconut oil and/or butter, melted

Pinch of salt (crunchy is usually my favorite)

Flavorings (try ginger with black pepper, mint and dried apple pieces, toasted coconut and rosewater, or toasted sesame seeds and almond bits and a pinch of cloves)

Chopped candied peel or crushed freeze-dried fruit

Crushed potato chips or pretzels or chopped nuts (toasted and salted or spiced/candied)

Once you’ve formed these, refrigerate them, and serve them cold. Easy to make and just as easy to like.

And not long ago I came across another ridiculously simple sweet fix. Nutella cookies. If you don’t already know what Nutella is, you need more help than just an easy recipe to make with the stuff. Possibly a term of Nutella Therapy hospitalization. Ooh, can I have that? I have, thankfully, found some pretty good no-name generic copycat versions of it, so if the real stuff isn’t available in an emergency I needn’t panic. But really, it’d be hard to go wrong with the classic combination of chocolate and hazelnuts.

The recipe in question is so uncomplicated as to be hard to classify as a recipe at all, but I proved it does require a tad of technical specificity, so it’s not quite the throw-and-go ease of the first item here. Still, easy. And oh so sweet. And once again, tweak-worthy. The general gist of this combination is popular, if not prevalent, online, to the degree that it’d be a serious magic trick to track down the original author. If any of you know who developed this I’d be delighted to know!photoImpossibly Possible Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies

1 cup flour (I used gluten-free flour mix) + 1 cup Nutella (or substitute) + 1 egg = dough. Makes a dense dough that’s not hard to mix quickly with your bare hands. Form the dough into a log (about 2″ or 5 cm in diameter) with flattened ends and slice it into 24 pieces. Arrange on a cookie sheet and bake in a preheated oven at 350°F (177ºC) for approximately 6 minutes. My usual issue of owning an overactive oven made my first attempt bake too quickly, scorching them slightly.

That, however, gave me the excuse to play with spice and start thinking of a number of other ways I might happily vary the treat. Version 2 was also easy; all I did was make the cookies as prescribed (while lowering the oven temp significantly, thankyouverymuch) and as I placed the slices on the baking sheet, I sprinkled over them a mixture of copper-colored edible glitter for visual interest and sweet-hot curry powder for additional flavor. Went over nicely with guests, and I found it quite enjoyable.photoFor future versions, I’m thinking of a number of possible enhancements to this delightfully easy cookie dream. I know that it’s also possible to substitute peanut butter and sugar for the Nutella and flour, and I assume one could just as easily use other nut butters. But there are a zillion ways I might play with the existing combination too. Roll the log of dough in finely chopped toasted hazelnuts before slicing into cookies. Add a splash of rum or rum flavoring. Add the finely grated zest of a large orange or a couple of small mandarins; add minced candied peel or ginger to the zested dough. Ice the cookies with a glaze made of pure cherry juice and powdered sugar. Skip the flour and egg and stick the big spoon loaded with Nutella directly in your mouth. Okay, that last one’s not exactly a recipe either, unless you want to call it a recipe for disastrous health, but it’s still probably worth a try. Because it’s sweet, and it’s simple. And when I have a crazy hankering for a bit of dessert in a big hurry, that’s a very fine thing.

Foodie Tuesday: Sugar, Spice & Other Things Nice

Garnishes, condiments, flavorings and all the trimmings, oh my!photoIf God–or the devil–is in the details, well, either one might very well explain why I’m so enamored of them that the main ingredient sometimes feels like an afterthought.photoYes, I suppose I would notice if everyone started serving me meals consisting solely of garnishes, condiments, et. al. Can’t promise I would, though. ‘Small plates’ and all that. As it happens, I pretty nearly could live on the frills alone. Wouldn’t choose to, but seriously, what’s not to love about heaps of chopped toasted nuts, a multitude of exotic spices, a grand assortment of syrups and sauces, shavings of fine cheese, curls of chocolate, meringues, leafy herbs enough to furnish a king’s garden, and pretty little haystacks of finely grated citrus zest?photoThe plain and homely, the grand and glamorous, the simple and the subtle: these are all made into memorable foods and unforgettable meals by the company in which they’re enjoyed and the ambience of the location and occasion. But they’re made further into a special sort of magic by the alchemy of wise and clever additions of cardamom or cumin, condensed tomato paste, a tot of brandy or rosewater, candied grapefruit peel, sweet pea shoots, fresh violets, sieved hard boiled egg yolk, or a judicious sprinkling of crisply fried shallot bits. Get me candied, brandied and dandied up and I’m a happy diner!photoYes, I’m simply nuts about all of the lovely trimmings. Now, what shall I fix tomorrow that calls for a bit of edible decor? Maybe something with metallic sugar glitter on top. (And yes, I have that in the cupboard, too. Did I mention I have this little obsession–?) Stay tuned.

Foodie Tuesday: Sweets from the Sweet

photoI knew we’d hit the neighbor jackpot yet again. We have a history chock-full of fine neighbors between us, my husband and I, of that sort who are not only great to chat with at the mailbox but offer help and led tools when they see projects underway, share their mystical gardening secrets, and advise on who’s the best resource for automotive care, where there’s still an independent pharmacy in town, or what the local ordinances are on right-of-way maintenance.

But we all know that the best neighbors of all have not only generosity in their hearts but also food in their hands when they show up at the door. Rhonda was known to trade her fresh-picked raspberries for our over-abundant plums. David–actually the manager at our then apartments–went door to door delivering home-grown green beans, tomatoes and zucchini that he and his wife grew in the ‘bonus’ plot on the complex’s property. Peter rang the doorbell at our place in Tyee bearing bending boards of fantastic barbecued meats and salmon and vegetables.

Add to this that we had not only other great neighbors but also heroic postal carriers, pest treatment and HVAC specialists, and remodeling contractors who have become admired friends, and you know that our standard for being spoiled is very high.

So when we moved to our current home, perhaps it was only par for the course that our new next door neighbors would arrive with welcoming smiles–and food. But what food! We didn’t have to lift a finger for anything other than unpacking and furniture-dragging for at least three days after arriving in this house because we were handed an enormous platter laden with an assortment of deliciously varied homemade salads, another piled with home-baked breads and rolls and biscuits, a plate of tender, moist cream cake, and a gallon pitcher of sweet tea. If it hadn’t been love at first sight, it would surely have to have been at first bite.

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I'm a lucky chick, having such sweet neighbors!

The flow of gustatory glories has continued unabated (and ably washed down with Mr. Neighbor’s lovely wine-selecting and punch-making skills as well as his fine Scotch collection) from that day forward. You will have no trouble believing and understanding when I say that we are devastated that these neighbors have retired and have the temerity to plan to move back to home territory in another state. Who will phone us in Canada when our sprinkler system fails during a hot spell, to tell us that they’ve already hired the company that installed it to do repairs before we come home? Who will deliver our entire stash of newspapers they collected over our out-of-town trip, updating us on the rest of the neighborhood or sharing delightful stories of their own adventures? And who will show up at random, numerous and very welcome times bearing, say, cake or cookies or pie, or a handmade bread cornucopia with a massive vegetable-and-floral display in it at Thanksgiving, a gorgeously crafted Bûche de Noël at Christmas, a sprightly spring assortment of cookies and cupcakes and jellies at Eastertime?photo

The answer, as you well know, is that it is our turn to become those neighbors, to show up unannounced with that very special something-extra whenever we can, to lend tools and perhaps the hand to use them, and to spread the joy of hospitality whenever and wherever we can. The torch–or the torchon de cuisine–has been passed. I hope I’m up to the task!photoI’ll probably start with something supremely simple like the nut-and-seed crackers that have no real recipe and change every time I make them. They make a handy vehicle for dips, salsas and salads when I want a quick bite of lunch or a not too terribly naughty snack. This time they were thus:

Nut and Seed Crackers (and Tuna Salad)

8 cups of finely chopped mixed nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, pecans, macadamias, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds) tossed together with about a cup of grated extra sharp cheddar cheese plus coarsely ground salt and black pepper and good chile powder to taste, all mixed with just enough water to clump together into ‘dough’ and rolled or patted onto a non-stick cookie sheet (I use a silicone lining sheet in the pan so I can be extra lazy on the cleanup), and then baked at 325-350 degrees F (depending on your oven) until golden brown. I let these ones cool in one big slab and then just broke them into uneven pieces about the size for carrying, say, some bacon and cheddar cheese dip or guacamole or seasoned labne or some tuna salad. Tuna Salad, around here, is nothing more than a good quality tinned tuna (one of the brands that cooks its filet directly in the can and adds nothing other than a little salt; I like High Seas and Tuna Guys and can order it online from both, but there are other excellent sustainable-fisheries purveyors as well) seasoned with ground pepper, dried or fresh dill, smoked paprika, yellow ‘ballpark’ style mustard and sometimes chopped capers, and bound with good mayonnaise until slightly creamier than just glued together (spreads better that way).

This combination may not exactly constitute sweets for neighborly delivery, but then we know that the sweetness derives just as much from not needing to fix any food oneself, if only for a brief moment. Or for days on end, if you happen to get one of our neighbor’s fabled deliveries!

Foodie Tuesday: In Praise of Little Things

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A sea of green goodness growing . . .

It’s so often the littlest details that have the most unexpectedly impressive impact. We just don’t expect too much from small stuff. But where would we be without those tiny crystals of salt and jots of freshly ground spices? Without the tiny seeds that become minute sprouts and in turn, lush plants that give life to our favorite fruits and vegetables, and that feed the animals that grace our tables sacrificially?

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Red cabbage, well watered . . .

My tiny mite of a farm is bursting with promise. It won’t be all that long before I’m harvesting cut-and-come-again salad greens, herbs and baby carrots and beets. My patience is an equally miniscule thing, so I hover over their beds and fuss as though my attention would do anything other than attract more insects to come and flit around my head. Meanwhile, I can always raid the grocer’s stock of edible things to keep the table well decorated, no matter how plain or fancy my edible desires.

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Cauliflower, admittedly no less delicious if I have to snag it at the market than if it came from my own private patch of dirt . . .

Another highly welcome Little Thing is a raindrop. Lord knows we’ve dreamed of them with something verging on the unseemly in our drought of recent past. But like the seasoning of a dish, what is desirable in a little may be wildly inappropriate if given with too much exuberance. Today it’s looking a little iffy in that regard: we’ve been told in the last couple of weeks that thanks to the new year’s rains, most of Texas has already bypassed the borders of drought and headed right into surfeit territory. Outside is a pounding rain, accompanied by beautiful flashes of brilliance slicing up the sky and shouts of thunder pounding down right along with the cataracts of rain. Not thirty minutes away there are reports of a tornado and baseball-sized hail. There are expectations that this storm system will throw off a few more tornadoes and lots more wind and rain and hail before it’s done. Me, I’m keeping a good thought for all of the people, animals, houses, and cars being blasted by the wind and pelted with rocks of ice, and hoping against hope that none of that nonsense wanders over this way too. We have plenty of friends in the area whose roofs have been demolished or cars totaled by that sort of thing before.

My little item of great happiness at the moment is that not only am I cozily dry under a roof out of the lashings of rain, but our car is in the safest place it could possibly be to hide from the storm: on a mechanic’s lift at the place where we bought it. It was merely due for its periodic checkup (taking inspiration, perhaps, from my own recent annual visits to the doctor and radiologist and such), but couldn’t have been timed better in terms of dodging the fiercest part of the storm. I hope. Not to mention that the mechanic discovered that the two tires not replaced following our recent road-debris encounter are worn down to replacement status as well. If I’m going to drive around in this kind of flash-flood-inducing waterfall, I may as well have good tires. After all, it’s only money. Sigh.

Which brings me back ‘round to my original point (and I did have one). Life is just too short to be spent without savoring all of the minor triumphs, moments of good luck and serendipity, and all of the tiny treats that we can find or are handed to us. And by that, I mean of course that I will continue to eat snacks and desserts with a certain amount of regularity if not abandon, because they are seriously happiness-inducing items in my life. Who am I to refuse to attend when the last fridge stash of guacamole and the tuna salad from yesterday’s sandwich get all friendly and decide to get married and become a cracker spread? I would have missed a great party!

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Cheese and choccies--where could you go wrong?

On the 17th of March we had a friend visit for dinner. Since she’s of partially Irish descent, I thought it incumbent to include an item or two with at least a hint of Irish pedigree in the meal, though I didn’t quite go all-in, so I incorporated a few tasty tributes to the Emerald Isle. It was ‘specially easy to do at the end of the meal. I’d happened on an inspiring sounding cheese, so dessert was a little plate of cheese and chocolate. I served my little homemade chocolate-nut truffles with the loveliest Guinness-infused cheddar cheese that, at room temperature, tasted buttery, the tiniest bit sharp, and had that mellow veining of stout bringing another nice layer of complementary flavor to the collation. Needless to say, this combination goes down quite smoothly with a tot of good Irish whiskey (well, what doesn’t?) or of course would be appropriately paired with a crisp Guinness, if it’s on hand. We had it with a bit of bubbly because I’m certain that St. Patrick would approve of our saying a fond thank you to and well-wishing a certain great—-grandniece of his who has been a fine colleague and a good friend and is soon off on a new adventure in an altogether more Irish-rooted American city.

I leave you without a real new recipe today, I guess, but sometimes the moment presents itself when something that requires no new preparations at all but is just as delicious as can be is just the bite or sip to be enjoyed on the spot. There are times when the company is so grand, the bottle cracked open is so perfectly aged, and the slant of the sun so perfectly angled in the proper window that whatever we take to eat is a tiny taste of heaven. It’s like being visited by a butterfly that comes and takes its rest right at my feet and sits patiently to have its portrait taken before fluttering away, for no apparent reason other than to bring its own miniature glint of perfect beauty to the day.photo

. . . and just so you know, no tornadoes or monstrous hailstorms have ventured into our town today. Another nice little plus for the occasion!