Foodie Tuesday: I have Made a Hash of Things, and I’m Not Sorry

photoThat old expression about making a hash of things implies wreckage and ruination, but there’s a different and much lovelier kind of a hash that results when one finely chops or shreds a bunch of tasty ingredients (leftover or not), mixes them together and cooks them. It’s generally easy to make, and a good way to expand small amounts of ingredients to feed a larger hunger, and when made with a reasonable amount of care and/or experience, it can be very tasty, too. The typical mix of protein (usually meat) and potatoes that serves as the base of a hash is worthy of enough admiration that the technique–I daren’t call it a recipe—has quite deservedly survived for ages.

Still, there’s no reason not to use the methodology with a little twist or two on occasion if mood and ingredient availability so move you. The most recent version appearing on my table lacked both meat and potatoes but still ended up with the texture and character of a fairly classic hash, to my mind. I seasoned the blend with salt, pepper, a little shredded Parmesan cheese and a dose of smoked paprika and then I mixed in an egg to hold the equal parts of cooked rice and creamed corn that I had on hand together a little more like those starchier potato shreds would be, and when at last I put in a fair amount of olive oil, it all fried up in the skillet to a nice crispy-outside cake with a moist interior, and broke up easily with a gentle poke of the fork when I’d loaded that utensil up with a nice creamy bite of dill-seasoned tuna salad. Some fried sage leaves made a nice topper. No potatoes? No meat? No problem.

Foodie Tuesday: Autumnal Comforts

You know that I love the Fall season, even though it’s very late and short here in Texas. Perhaps it benefits from my love of seasonal change in general, but I think the romantic leanings that come in autumn, that sense of impending death softened by the comforts with which we pad ourselves and by the death-defying renewal of the beginning of school and art seasons, have their own peculiar attractions. And of course, there is the bounty of foods that are best appreciated as we slide from the fall equinox to the winter.photoThe World in Autumn

Thin branches caging up the sun

In willow-wavy lacelike hands,

All skeletons and ampersands,

Hold clouds together in the one

Unreadable yet literate

Equation of the interstices

Whose elated season this is,

Crisp and quite deliberate

In tracing every moment in it,

Hour, year, and state of mind

Among the bones of humankind,

As though these things were infinite.

photoOne of the delights I most admire in this season is earthy flavors. An abundance of root vegetables and mushrooms signals time for soups, stews and sauces whose savory riches warm body and soul and recall me to the embrace of home and childhood in many ways. A simple creamy soup loaded with mushrooms is hard to beat for succor on a grey and blustery day. A bouquet of cauliflower roasted with nothing more than a quantity of butter and salt and pepper until just-right is heavenly; adding sage leaves to the butter and a handful of shredded Reggiano to the top of the cauliflower just when they’ll have time to crisp and brown lightly moves the easy dish to a higher floor in the heavenly skyscraper.photoRoasted vegetables of any kind are especially welcome in the cooler seasons, and so easy to toss together with a little olive oil or butter in the oven while everything else is being prepared for the table that it’s almost a crime not to put them in the oven. Throw a chopped lemon in to roast with them and they are sauced in their own juices. Put the remains (if any) the next day into a bowl with a cup of hot homemade broth and a poached or soft-cooked egg or two, add cooked rice or noodles if you like, and, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, (or bi-bim-bap!), you have a bowl full of nutritious, delicious, and not at all ambitious goodness right in your own little corner of this magical autumn season.

Foodie Tuesday: Fork It Over

photoThe stick-up artist and the greedy eater alike may demand that someone should ‘fork it over‘ or relinquish the object (monetary or comestible) of affection, and that, at speed. But besides cramming edibles into one’s mouth, the fork can serve a number of other useful purposes in the kitchen and at table. Not least of these commendable actions is the release of air. I shall leave it to your imaginations to determine whether some excessively greedy fressers mightn’t do well to have the fork impale them directly and thereby release some of the pent-up methane or other dangerous-to-diners gases, but there are some ways to use a fork for more benign and neighborly expulsions of atmospheric pressure.

photoThe first is to pierce pastry before baking, so that heated air inside or underneath a pastry layer can escape during the process without tearing or exploding the baked goods and their contents throughout the oven or, more excitingly yet, onto unwary bakers lifting said goodies out of the oven. My mother, famous for making what I still believe is arguably the best pie crust in the universe–always exquisitely flaky and golden and crisp and fragile, never soggy or tough–blind baked crusts without ever using pie weights, and only pierced them thoroughly with a fork before the baking. Crust made this way will indeed rise up like an egotist’s inflated chest, but only before those little vents disperse the steam and let the pie crust relax back into the pan just as it should. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the added benefit of this approach is that when a filling is added that will bake further in the crust, it leaks into the piercings a little and caramelizes there, both stabilizing the crust and adding a little candy crunch to the pie. In the same way, venting the closed top crust of the pie with a fork before baking it keeps the dough from ballooning explosively (oh, the joy of spurting jammy fruit juices around like candy lasers!), and again, from holding in unwanted moisture that can defeat attempts to have a splendidly juicy pie interior without compromising the extravagant crispness of its crust.

photoBut enough about pie for the moment, I’ll get back to that soon enough, as you’d guess. I always tend to come back to desserts, don’t I.

photoMeanwhile, piercing other foods for pressure-control purposes is pretty effective too. If you happen to like baked or roasted squashes, root vegetables and tubers, I hope you’ve been informed in good time that pricking the skin sides of them before exposing them to high heat is a helpful way to avoid reenacting the demise of the Hindenburg. One of these many dreamy dishes made with the help of the humble fork: Baba Ghannouj.

This venerable meal-starter dip or spread is not much beyond roasted eggplant, crushed or pureed and well seasoned. But, like many classic dishes from around the world, that is an egregious oversimplification of the subtlety, complexity and variability of the concoction. What remains true is that it’s mighty tasty. My personal combo for it would be less garlicky or oniony than some, mainly because of how my kitchen palette has changed since my life became linked with Mr Spouse’s, but also because my personal palate followed suit and, further, because I think heavier, more intense flavors like those, if overused, can mask more subtle and delicate ones. I submit to you a version of it.

photoBaby Baba Ghannouj

Eggplant (1 large), tahini (4 tablespoons), preserved lemon (1/2, diced), fresh lemon juice (2 tablespoons), lemon zest (grated peel of 1 whole lemon), cumin (1 teaspoon or more), olive oil (4 tablespoons) and roasted garlic (1 heaping teaspoon).

If you can, blacken and blister the eggplant’s skin over open flame and then roast it to softness in the oven. For this, preheat the oven to 375ºF/190ºC. If you haven’t flame roasted the eggplant, cut it eggplant in half, lay it on a baking sheet or pan greased with olive oil or lined with a silicone sheet, and pierce its skin all over with a fork before roasting it. Roast until it’s well softened, about 20 to 30 minutes (check with gentle pressure occasionally; you can use the back of the fork for that), and finish by blackening the skin under the broiler.
When the eggplant’s soft, rub off its skin. Needn’t be perfect; bits of blackened skin will heighten the smoky flavor of the Baba Ghannouj. Put the flesh in a bowl, along with the rest of the ingredients, and mash it all up together with the famed fork. Serve garnished with a further drizzle of olive oil, toasted sesame seeds, and a sprinkling of thyme, or a toss of za’atar.

A Beautiful Sun-Baked Land

photoBread for the morning came from five-o’clock ovens fired with passion and streaked with musky, pungent olive oil; the steam rolled out of those great clay caves and up the terraced resin scented hills of vineyards’ cool and shadowed kiss. Inside the chalk-white walls with their gauzy curtains strewn and the brick brown pavers all around worn by pacing wiry dogs and treading cats, the whole countryside slept, immobile, somewhat far retreated in their beds before the wavy rays of fourteen-karat sun-baked into turquoise heat our ceiling of sky.

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Foodie Tuesday: Like, Totally Fried

A natural outgrowth of loving fat as I do is loving fried foods. There is a bit of truth in the claim that Texas is the heartland of all-things-deep-fried, and not only at the state fair (though that event lays a credible claim to being the epicenter of glorious fry-dom) but right on through this great and glorious state. Logically, living in this state should keep me in a state of bliss. As it happens, there are less than perfect and even somewhat horrendous fried foods (including at the State Fair of Texas, forgive me O sainted Big Tex), but there really are a whole lot of goodies that, no matter how swell they are from the beginning, get just that much better by virtue of bathing in hot fat until crispy.photoMy state of residence is far, far from the only place where recognition (or worship) of the marvels of frying food dwells. There is, of course, a long and respected tradition of such wonders, well documented in the great cuisines, from elegant tempura to calamari fritti (thank you, Chicago John!) and arancini, chiles rellenos and those magical Vlaamse Frieten of Belgian dreams. If it can be cooked, it has a good chance of being fry-able. Why, there are a number of foods that are treated to the process more than once, not least among them the ever-popular twice-fried tostones and Chinese green beans and leading up to such modern classics as that Southern inevitability, chicken fried bacon. Beyond that are the infinite possibilities of frying that the scientists of food never fail to pursue with great delight: long before state fairs all across the US got so seriously competitive about frying, to the point where they don’t even bother with any fatuous titular attempts to disguise the degree of culinary craziness and just come right out and call their recipes Deep Fried Butter and Deep Fried Sugar, there were pioneers of the art dunking candy bars, haggis, Twinkies [aficionados of the famed snack cake will be relieved that despite the demise of its American parent company the Canadian distributor appears to continue production] and pickled eggs into the hot oil at Scottish chip shops.photoDespite all of the fantastic and phantasmagorical delights possible in the whole fried world, there are times when simple is grand enough. Think of oven fries–julienned Russet and sweet potatoes tossed with half olive oil, half melted butter and seasoned with lemon pepper and salt and chili powder (and rosemary, if nobody green-phobic is dining with you) and roasted in a medium oven until toasty and browning nicely–they go with practically anything, and are easier than easy to make. Then again, there are some of the classics that are well worth the mess and fuss. Fried chicken, for example. Coat it in buttermilk (or if you, like me, haven’t any on hand, in yogurt) seasoned with salt, pepper, cinnamon and cayenne and soaked for a couple of hours; shake off all of the excess yogurt or buttermilk and coat the pieces in a mixture of 1 part cornstarch, 2 parts fine masa, and 2 parts potato flour, seasoned with salt, pepper and chili powder. Fry until golden and finish in a medium oven–conveniently enough, the temperature used for oven fries works pretty nicely for such purposes. And coincidentally, one fried food (oven fries) tastes rather yummy when paired with, say, another one (fried chicken). Or so I’ve heard.

Foodie Tuesday: In Small Doses

Another lunch, another assortment of dishes. I’m not much on trying to unravel what magical single dish or small group of dishes will satisfy every person at the table when I’m serving them lunch, so as always, when I had a few friends over a few days ago, I opted for my usual ‘safe’ approach of a larger number of smaller dishes. As I so rarely use actual recipes, I do tend to make up a menu in the form of simple notes, lists of ingredients, combinations, that sort of thing. Here we go. Imaginary eating is sometimes half the fun!

For the occasion, a bunch of my friends became the LADIES WHO LUNCH.
*‘Virgitarian’ Green Punch
* 1 small honeydew, cubed
* 1 cup finely sliced celery
* 1/2 apple
*1 whole cucumber
* 1 cup water
* 1 bunch of fresh mint
* Juice of 1 small lemon, 1 lime
* 3 cups Stirrings Simple Mojito mix

photo    * Quinoa with browned butter and myzithra
   * Cornichons, Membrillo and fried shallots

photo    * Tomato Apricot Jam as ‘relish’
* 1/2 cup grape tomatoes
* 1/2 cup dried apricots
* 1/4 cup Cabernet
* 2-3 T Balsamic vinegar
* 2-3 T honey
photo    * Beef & Rice Stuffed Portobellos
* 2 large Portobello caps
* 1 cup broth-cooked rice
* 3/4 cup minced roasted beef
* 2 T cooked/thickened beef jus
* 1/2 cup whole milk yogurt
* 1 T sweet-hot or Dijon mustard
* 2 T sliced pimiento-stuffed green olives
* 1/4 cup finely grated Reggiano
*2 T (2 ‘butter pats’) sharp white cheddar
* (Optional: top with crumbled fried sage leaves)
photo    * Braised Kale in Tomato Sauce
* 1 bag (ca. 4-5 cups) of washed, cut kale
* 1/4 cup chopped celery
* 2 T butter
* couple of small pieces of Parmigiano-Reggiano rind
* 1-1/2 cups fire roasted tomatoes
* 1/2 cup orange or tangerine) juice
* Pinch of sugar
photo    * Mixed Potato Gratin
* 1 Russet and two sweet potatoes, scrubbed and thinly sliced
* EV olive oil
* Alder smoked salt
* Ground black pepper
* Sprigs of fresh rosemary
* 1 cup heavy cream
photo    * Marinated Green Beans & Radishes (serve hot or cold)
* 2 cups lightly steamed cut green beans
* 1 bunch of radishes, cleaned and sliced
*1/2 cup cider vinegar
*1/4 cup mild oil (I used canola)
* Sugar to taste
* 1 tsp ground mustard
*1 tsp dried dill
* 1 tsp brown mustard seeds
* Salt and pepper to taste
* Black sesame seeds for garnishphoto
 * Tangerine & Fresh Strawberry Frozen Mousse & TJ’s caramel-sea salt chocolate

Foodie Tuesday: Once Cooked for Eight Equals Four Times Prepped for Two

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Roasted cauliflower and red capiscum, sautéed celery, steamed green beans–what do they have in common? A new ‘recipe’ for dinner’s vegetable dish, apparently . . .

The complication, if there is any, of having a household of two (or one) is that so many foods, dishes and meals are easier to prepare in larger quantities than are appropriate or even desirable for a single meal. It’s very easy, if planning isn’t finely tuned, to have things spoil and go to waste before we’ve plowed through them at our own pace. The upside of this very problem, though, is that if I do plan reasonably well (and have a little luck as a side dish) I can make several meals out of little more than one prep.

I do this, in part, via the method of complexification and conglomeration. The one or two elements remaining after one meal get combined with each other, with some new element or ingredient from the next meal’s intended menu, or both. Yes, it’s quite possible and even sometimes preferable to simply repeat a dish as-is, especially if it’s already its own elaborate concoction. But often, things seem a little less tired and tiresome if they appear in new guises each time so as to stimulate the palate, if not the imagination. So the small amounts of leftover vegetables from lunch and dinner the last couple of days may find themselves married in a new mixed-veg medley with a little sauce or seasoning that helps them play together as nicely as possible and suddenly, they’re not just two spoonfuls of This and a handful of That but an actual, sort of, recipe.

photo‘Mains’–the central or focal items on the meal’s menu–are seldom hard to incorporate into some new iteration of a main dish. Even when they have already been prepared with a hard-to-ignore or -disguise sauce or presentation, they can find new playmates on the plate next time they head to the table. Roasted chicken, for example, whether homemade or grabbed ready-roasted on a busy day as one flies through the grocery store, is a truly marvelous ingredient when it comes to flexibility. Once seasoned or sauced distinctively, it can pose a slightly more complicated puzzle for renewal, but even then, if the dish is well liked once it’s pretty likely to be popular on a second visit.

So the chicken, whether it was already dressed in the satay-like peanut sauce–I took a shortcut with a pre-made one this time–or not–we liked it well enough to use the same pre-made sauce at the second meal even though it was not already on the chicken–can be reincarnated as a different dinner altogether simply by changing its context. One day, it’s served with a very simple wedge salad dressed with citrusy vinaigrette and a tangle of Pad Thai style rice noodles seasoned lightly with rice vinegar, a squeeze of lime juice and a splash of soy sauce and sprinkled with black sesame seeds.

photoNext day’s ‘satay’ is served with butter-steamed green beans, fresh cold apple slices and fried rice made from–yes, you guessed it–the fridge stash of jasmine or Basmati rice previously cooked up in broth and now pan-toasted until almost crisping with Persian lime olive oil, soy sauce, a touch of raw honey and a handful of chopped sushi gari (pickled ginger, if you somehow haven’t yet noticed, is one of my favorite seasonings for practically everything!). A sprinkling of white sesame seeds, just for a little visual contrast with yesterday’s offering, and there’s Chicken Pseudo-Satay 2.0 ready to be eaten.

And while there’s certainly nothing that says dessert is a required part of every meal, some of us kind of think of it as a specific food group, so even for dessert it’s nice to have some fine ‘recyclable’ ingredients for whipping up something to finish the day’s eating nicely. One of the things that very regrettably can go to waste far too often in a small household is fresh produce, and when I’ve a beautiful batch of fresh fruit on hand I can’t bear to think it will spoil before we can reasonably eat it all. So a large ‘find’ of sweet fresh strawberries, though it was far too great a quantity for two people on the day it was at its peak, got cleaned, sliced and frozen until the other day when it beckoned to me, siren-like, and I blended it thoroughly with a little whole-milk yogurt, splashes of vanilla and rosewater, a tiny pinch of salt and a bit of honey, poured it into a flat sealable container and froze it until it became a brightly fruity semifreddo or granita of sorts for later consumption.

photoNo matter what the small tidbit, most leftovers that are not on the edge of spoiling really do beg for a kindly reinterpretation before we give up on them. Once I get fully in my Friendly Frankenstein mode and think hard about how to zap new life into worthwhile remaindered ingredients, it’s only a matter of letting the locals trade their pitchforks for dinner forks and we can all remain good friends without fear of monstrosities. Good eating!