Foodie Tuesday: Thrilled Cheese

Photo: SwirlyMy name is Kathryn and I’m a dairy fiend.

I sincerely hope there’s no umpteen-step program out there to cure me of my addiction, because I would be ever so sad to part company with butter (pastured butter, sage butter, beurre noisette…), cream (yogurt, ice cream, whipped cream, a drizzle of heavy cream, sour cream…) and all of their cow- and goat- and sheep-produced milky ilk. Among the most dire of those losses would certainly be cheeses. It’s even a remote possibility that in my childhood I mistook various people’s talk about the power and centrality of a certain deity in their lives as completely understandable allegiance to the prepared and aged dairy product, hearing them intone instead, ‘come into my heart, Lord Cheeses.’

All of that is merely to tell you in what high esteem I hold dairy products. I know I am not alone in this. The worldwide fame of the French cheese board, an Italian feast topped with fine curls of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a glorious firework of Saganaki, a rich fondue or heart- and hearth-warming rustic iron cooker oozing with Raclette (somehow fitting is that the compute offers as a ‘correction’ of this name the word Paraclete, for it is both a helper and rather holy in its way)–these are all embedded in the souls and arteries of generations around the globe, along with many others. The land of my birth has been, if anything, impregnated with this rich and robust love by every wave of immigrants who have ever set foot on its shores, bringing along all of the aforementioned and so much more, and gradually adding a multitude of delightfully cheesy (in every sense of the word) American twists to them. Along the way, besides gleefully adopting and adapting all of the aforementioned, we dairy devotees stateside have high on the short list of our national favorite foods such delicacies as cheeseburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza and macaroni and cheese. [For the latter, by the way, I’d be hard pressed to find a recipe that rivals Amy Sedaris’s death-defying macaroni and cheese for my love; infinite variations of it have become my personal staple when I choose to make the dish.]

I confess that lowest on my personal list of cheese ratings, possibly even below the most notoriously stinky and bizarre of cheeses (yes, Gammelost, I’m looking at YOU) is the one ‘cheese’ named for our country, American Cheese, which I personally think of as purportedly edible vinyl and often has little or no actual dairy contents, though for good or ill there are otherwise reputable American cheese makers currently promoting a new, truly dairy version of this stuff. Yes, I get the whole melt-ability thing, whether for Tex-Mexqueso‘ (an ironic name, to my way of thinking) or for creamy sauces and the like—but I also know there are plenty of ways to achieve that smoothness with what I think of as real cheeses. But I digress. Yet again.Photo: Aging Cheeses

When hungry for grilled or toasted cheese sandwiches I am not averse to tinkering with the most sacred simple versions, as long as the cheese still gets to star in the meal, because after all, the entrée is named after it. Since there are whole restaurant menus devoted to the single item of this sandwich, I needn’t tell you what a wide and spectacular range of goodies goes ever-so-nicely with cheese and bread. Now that I think of it, the stereotype of the French eating nothing but bread, cheese and wine could be excellent reason to pour up a nice glass of red when one is consuming a grilled cheese sammy, but that’s merely a starting point for the whole world of possibilities of course. A cheese and chutney sandwich comprising a sharp white cheddar, Major Grey’s chutney and a lovely dense bread (how about a nice sweet pumpernickel? she asked) is a thing of beauty. A perfect deli Reuben is a great variant of the cheese sandwich. Tuna melt? Why, yes, please! And on we go.

Photo: Dungeness Crab Grilled Cheese

A purist’s dream, amped up: the Bee Hive Restaurant in Montesano, Washington makes a buttery grilled Tillamook (Oregon) cheddar cheese sandwich on sourdough bread, adorned with a heap of sweet Dungeness crab meat. If you can’t find happiness in a bite of that, you’re really not trying.

Sometimes it can be both simple and surprising. I’d be hard pressed to love a sandwich better than the peasant bread grilled cheese from Beecher’s in Seattle with their Flagship in the starring role. But I’ve also discovered that a thick slice of Leipäjuusto (a slow-melt cheese like Saganaki), a few slices of crisped bacon and a generous schmier of ginger marmalade make for a dandy combination, and I would certainly not keep such a stellar combination from you, my friends. Kevin, a Canadian small-kitchen wizard, has published a veritable encyclopedia of grilled cheese sandwich variations on his blog Closet Cooking (a site everyone with cheese in his DNA ought to bookmark, stat), and there are all sorts of other blogs and sites, foodie and otherwise, loaded with such cheesy champions as can make your spirits sing and your capillaries tighten simultaneously. So go forth and chase the cheeses! I’ll be here waiting for you, with the ribbons of some good, fat, stretchy melted mozzarella hanging out of the corners of my loopy grin.

Eating Thistles

Photo: The Big ThistleCardoons and artichokes are every bit as admirable as their strictly-for-visual-admiration wild growing thistle cousins. But as any avid eater should know, the aforementioned relatives are terrific dining companions as well as being attractive plants. Sure, I love the silvery magnificence of a shapely cardoon leaf accenting the garden border, but if I can admire its beauty and then eat it as well isn’t that just so much the better?Digital illustration from a photo: Antique Artichoke

And artichokes, well, we all know those are as worthy of battling past their thorny armor as it was ever worth storming a castle’s battlements and portcullises to get to the treasury inside.Digital illustration from a photo: Artichoke Arrangement

The wonderful earthiness of the artichoke is an outstanding companion to the similarly strong-yet-subtle virtues of asparagus, mushrooms or root vegetables. All of these, in turn, play nicely with the denser, meatier varieties of fish—roasted monkfish or grilled salmon, for example—or a roast or stew of wild game, if one has access to, say, boar or venison. Or, if meat or fish is simply not right for the moment, some boiled, steamed or poached eggs.

How about this for a tasty Collage of Earthy Vegetables:

Blanch some cleaned asparagus, small to medium-sized artichokes, halved and trimmed, and russet potatoes, skin on and cut into modest wedges. When they’re all blanched, stem and clean some Portobello mushrooms, toss everything with a little avocado oil, kosher salt & cracked black pepper, and grill or roast until tender.

Serve with any or all of the following as a finger food, small-plate meal or as a side to the main entree (fish or meat or eggs):

Toasted hazelnuts, small wedges of Manchego or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, brown butter Hollandaise, and/or rosemary sherried green olives.

This compilation seems to me almost a vegetable representation of terroir. At the least, it’s very down to earth!

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: Restaurant Food = Leftover Heaven Too

photoLest you think I’m so thrifty, what with my numerous posts regarding the delights of leftovers, hashed and rehashed, that I’m not equally overindulgent when it comes to food freshly prepared, I could just refer you to all of the other Foodie Tuesday posts regaling you with proof positive of the opposite. Wherever, whenever and however I can get my choppers on it, I love good food. But of course if someone else has done the preparation, it’s often that much more to be–no pun intended–relished. Who doesn’t love having somebody else do all the work, I ask you.

So when I do go out to dine, I’m very pleased if it turns out there’s more to the meal than can be eaten at one sitting. Good once, good twice. In fact, good twice can = good at least three times, as in a recent casserole-like conglomeration of leftovers from eating out more than once upon a weekend. Convenient to the occasion, I had picked up a small carton of ready-made Parmesan tuiles (yes, I do know how to make them by hand, but there they were staring right at me in the store) and had also just taken it into my head to also make a sort of onion jam, so I already had good companions to side the dish. The ‘jam’ was simply two large yellow onions all sliced up thinly, three modest sized navel oranges (cut segments plus the peel of about a quarter orange, chopped), a half cup of butter and a half cup of dry sherry, a big pinch of salt and a couple of tablespoons of honey, all cooked down together for about 24 hours in my slow cooker until fully caramelized. The tuiles were of course prepared by the even more complicated method of Open Packet, Place Contents on Plate variety.photoIn spite of such ridiculous ease, the simplicity of preparing the ‘casserole’ was its rival in that regard. I chopped up and stirred together these leftovers from my weekend restaurant peregrinations: 1 chicken paillard, grilled with Italian seasonings and heaped with diced ripe tomatoes and parsley; 1 handful of hand-cut french fries made in beef tallow; about a cup of deep-fried zucchini, light breading and all. I seasoned them with a little smoked paprika, mixed them with about a half-cup of plain yogurt and a quarter cup of shredded Parmesan cheese, heated the whole thing in a covered casserole until it melted and melded together, and voilà! Instant main dish happiness. That it all came together with so little effort on my part only added to its savor. ‘Cause that sort of lazy success is exactly what appeals to this person who is mighty thrifty with her kitchen time.

Foodie Tuesday: Clean Hands and a Cooked Chicken

 

photoNo fingers must be licked for chicken to be considered notably delectable. Still, being no stickler for any particular sort of manners, I am not averse to slurping at any remnants of good food stuck to my fingers no matter what they are or, possibly, where I am. And I find that some of the appeal of eating chicken is that it lends itself to an enormous range of edible iterations that are a pleasure in the making, in the dining, and in the finger-licking aftermath of it all. Chicken plays such a lovely supporting role to any number of costars among the pantheon of possible flavorings and ingredients that it’s never difficult to imagine yet another wondrous way to enjoy a chicken dish. Add to that the potential for re-imagining the chicken in numerous follow-up dishes if there should happen to be any left over from dinner, and you’ve got one fine, fine companion in the kitchen.photoOur friendly chicken on this occasion, a handsomely fat-breasted creature of purportedly wholly organic origins (and who am I to argue), was gently consigned, in a Dutch oven larded with a generous quantity of sweet pastured butter, and wearing a good dusting of homemade lemon salt and pepper, to lie on a bed of neck and giblets, celery chunks and quartered limes that suspended it above the cupful or so of white wine pooled underneath. The oven, set at about as low a temperature as it could sustain below the mere warming of its interior light could generate, brought the chicken up to moist-cooked interior temperature over a long, slow afternoon before being brought out from under its protective lid for browning under the broiler at the last moment. Not the fast food version of ‘finger-lickin’ good’ but rather a lengthily slow-cooked bit of tenderness that deserves hand-cleaning after the fact all the same.photoThe simple sequel to this supper can come from any number of inspirations. On the latest occasion it was pairing the chicken with some crisp-tender hash browns, along with warming some leftover marinara sauce, butter-cooked mushrooms and herbs together to create a facsimile of Chicken Parmigiana. Rather than create the breaded cutlets in the traditional style, I simply layered the slices of moist chicken next to the potatoes, spooned on some mushroom marinara, sprinkled on some shredded Parmigiano, and melted the cheese just a little to round out its flavor. Far from the heights of authentic Italian culinary art, but let me tell you, it wasn’t hard to eat all the same. Might be having some again soon, since there’s still more of that nice chicken that I cut up and popped in the freezer after roasting it the other day. Of course, I could veer off toward some Tikka Masala . . . or chicken noodle soup . . . or quesadillas con pollo. photo

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

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