Foodie Tuesday: Keeping Up Appearances

Haphazard cook that I am, I feel compelled at intervals to assess whether the cookery itself is laggardly or it’s only that the presentation needs to be spiffed up a touch. I can’t be an impartial judge of the former, since besides being nearly omnivorous I’m also just lazy and frugal enough to eat almost anything I throw together, and I certainly haven’t the refined or experienced palate of a genuine culinary sophisticate, let alone a food critic. But I’ll allow myself the status of having enough visual experience and training to justify my evaluations of what the stuff I eat looks like and how it’s presented.Photo: Eggs & Rice

So when I get into one of my momentary fits of attempted good posture, whether it’s as a maker of ostensibly edible things or as the artiste plating them and arranging them on the table, I do at least attempt to pay better attention. The other day’s breakfast of broth-and-cheddar rice topped with eggs was, as planned, satisfying, filling, and comfortable, but I’ll admit that it would win no prizes for glamor. It’s not that I believe serving breakfast out of a vintage Hermès handbag would improve either the food or my spiritual character—never mind that I’d have to sell my car and a couple of major appliances to afford it—however, a tiny thing like adding a ribbon of sriracha or a sprig of fresh dill and a few capers would not only boost the actual flavor of the rice-cheese-egg combination to far greater heights but get me halfway there before I took the first bite, thanks to improved appearance and, then, scent. The aphorism about ‘eating with our eyes‘ is true, even if it gives me a case of the comedic creeps in my visually-literalist imagination.Photo: Concombres à la Japonaise

Sometimes the things I’m preparing to eat, whether they’re main courses or side dishes or garnishes themselves, are simply rather homely ingredients that don’t look especially pretty or inviting as they are, and I think it can be fun to fiddle around with them a little to lift the presentation of the whole. A quick pickle à la japonaise is a refreshing add-on when one wants a bit of salutary salivary stimulation, especially with fried or heavily sauced Asian foods. But if you’ve seen one sliced cucumber, you’ve seen them all. So when I make my side of cucumbers, I may score the cucumber’s peel with fork tines before slicing and chilling it in a very light mixture of plain rice vinegar, toasted sesame oil, black pepper, and sugar. Adding whole sesame seeds (plain, toasted, and/or black), ribbons of sushi gari (pickled ginger, natural or pink), crushed red chile peppers can enhance the flavor in so many ways as well as adding color and texture to the meal. And further possible flavoring additions that work deliciously with this kind of instant ‘pickle’ are also attractive visually: thinly shaved red or white onion or thinly sliced carrot flowers or unpeeled Granny Smith apples. Of course, if you go far enough with all of these companionable treats, you’ve strayed far from the realm of pickle garnish and into a full-blown salad bowl, and that’s perfectly acceptable, too.Photo: Food Not Touching

Salads are, after all, commonly the main entrée in many homes, including ours. An easy way to make them more visually interesting just happens to be a better way to serve them  to a picky eater or a group with widely varied tastes or needs, and that is to either plate the dish mostly as a composition or a deconstructed assemblage. The ingredients shine in their individuality. They don’t touch each other as much. I hear loud huzzahs of approval from my spouse and all his kindred out there, and I know that for many this is still not enough. The offending ingredient, if there is such, can at least be discreetly scooted to the side of your plate nearest to the person you know who loves it, and his or her fork, without the loss of any of the parts you like. And the salad doesn’t fit the snarky description infamous in our house on presentation-failure occasions, “are ya gonna eat that, or didja?”

But in seriousness on this topic, the best is always to let each diner serve his or her own meal, because the food-not-touching is an incredibly, truly sensitive, emotional, and even sometimes, ethical or life-and-death issue for more people than anyone can safely guess. I am not constrained by any such inhibitions, loving sweet and savory together, textural mixes, contrasts, and all kinds of things that others might find appalling combined, but then I do consider ingredients’ compatibility in taste before I do in looks, and therein lies the need for me to step back like this occasionally. In the meantime, I’ll say that I’m sorry that others can’t enjoy a melange of ingredients as the symphonic experience I find in them, and just hope that most at least delight in a good solo when they eat their meals one item on one plate at a time.Photo: The House Coleslaw

As for salads, since you know I make our household’s standard version of coleslaw very regularly, they’re not likely to look wildly different, let alone inspiring or exciting, unless I take the time to alter an ingredient or garnish or two. Or, as I did with our good friends coming for dinner the other day, serve it as a composed salad garnished with the starring variants on top and the dressing on the side. Everybody gets the proportions they like of the different components of the salad, and as much or little dressing as preferred. Yes, I did ask them what they could or would eat beforehand. And I’m far more willing to make my friends and guests do some of the work to make their own best choices than to give them something that only a few at table will like or can eat just as it’s served. Most of our friends end up milling around the living and dining rooms and kitchen with glass or dish in hand at some point anyway, so if they choose what they’re carrying, they’re more likely to want to eat it before it drops on the floor.Photo: Mandarins & Snap Peas on Top

The latter being, of course, not at the top of my list of food presentation styles, but hey, if spilled food is really artfully splashed and smashed, I can always make an exciting photo out of it for later inspiration.

Nuclear Winter Descends on the Kitchen

I am so not that blogger. You know, the one who makes stupendous, dazzling, dream-fulfilling, frenzied dance inducing deliciousness every time I enter the temple of cookery and take skillet in hand. The artiste-de-cuisine whose documentation of each morsel of impending salivary serenity is preened and primped into further gleaming gloriousness and photographed more glossily than a phalanx of supermodels in swimsuit season. The doyenne of dining, the poet of pumpernickel, the queen of quenelles, writing elated paeans to the plate that stimulate the appetite and soothe the spirit simultaneously, every word a twinkling, perfectly faceted gem of gustatory wisdom and love.photoSee, what my heart is cooking and what my hands and brains are genuinely capable of producing are not necessarily identical in nature, not wholly synchronous. I start out with a perfectly innocent yellow capiscum, intending nothing more sinister than to slice it into tidy segments and give it a friendly saute in a spot of sweet butter, and I think to myself, Why, that’s a mighty pretty bit of golden sunshine! I really ought to take its portrait. And sometimes it cooperates moderately well, and at other times it becomes something of an extended exercise in abstract thinking to even discern that the resulting portraiture is indeed of a sweet pepper, and a rather tasty one. It refuses to be anything other than a poor defenseless bell pepper mauled malevolently by bad knifework and lying listless, awaiting its ultimate destruction in a frying pan. I mean well, really I do.photoThere was, for example, an incident the other day involving an attempt to make (for the first time in a verrrrrry long time, mind you) crepes for supper. I wanted to make them without flour, since I’m making a sincere effort to battle an addiction to wheat and offset the unkindness it seems to do to my stomach. So to the eggs I added only a splash of cream to thin them a bit, a pinch of salt and a touch of vanilla for depth of flavor. So far, so good. But of course, not having made crepes in eons, I made the first one so far too thick that it morphed quickly into a leather-thick omelette of unwieldy proportions and promptly subdivided into continental shapes and semi-detached crevasses when I attempted to force it to wrap around the roast-chicken chunks anyway. The second was more successful, but given that the crepes were already going to be fairly huge and there were only two of us coming to the table, I’d only made enough batter for two crepes, so one remained a geographical disaster area when plated.

It’s hardly the worst sin I’ve committed in the cooking realm, but even the vegetable-mushroom medley in herbed tomato cream sauce being lapped over the top and sprinkled with shredded mozzarella to melt couldn’t exactly disguise the rocky profile of the crude assemblage underneath. Ah, well! It tasted fine enough that (given the huge portions) chopping up the remainder in a little casserole with some added tomatoes and more sprinkled mozz and cheddar to melt in made a perfectly serviceable (and actually, prettier) pseudo-lasagna for brunch the next day. I keep reminding myself that aroma and flavor, not good looks, must always remain the chief arbiters for the biters of the dish.

photoBut I can’t help but judge a dish on its beauty, still, and neither do any others unless they’re genuinely starving. Christmas Day’s standing rib roast of beef (above) was as tender and juicy and flavorful as any I’ve made, and in fact the gravy was a delicious simple reduction of beef juices and Cabernet finished with a bit of butter, but they didn’t impress with their devilishly handsome appearance as much as they might have done if I’d more intelligently plated the meat on top of the sauce, especially in the company of such homely looking side dishes as sweet coleslaw and brown-butter mashed potatoes. Presentation remains elusive, and capturing it on camera even more so. I must continue to learn!

Meanwhile, back at the oven, there are more serious disasters, ones that if compounded one with another and another as they were last week for some infernal reason beyond my ken, verge on apocalyptic. The centerpiece of one such Perfect Storm of kitchen failures was the day in which I managed to mis-set two crucial cooking elements at once. The end result of the first was that the wrongly timed egg boiling created not the expected hard-boiled eggs (a simple enough thing!), not even soft-boiled eggs mind you, but implosive mutant mush that was unsalvageable and decidedly unpalatable and went straight from kettle to compost in a trice. I was relieved that the Dutch oven finishing its long time in the sauna at least held a nice batch of broth that had been simmering overnight–that would cheer me up–relieved, that is, until I discovered that I had apparently jostled the lid out of place the night before and left just enough gap that not only did the liquid all vanish in a beautiful cloud, it left behind such a blackened, smoking pile of bones and charred vegetables and meat bits that I not only had to chisel out what I could and soak the pot for two days, continuing the excavations until I could scrub it back to a recognizable enamel surface, but I could also literally not photograph it at all. It was the perfectly even black of deep outer space, offering not a single change in surface that could reflect the light required by a camera lens for recognition. The smoke released when I opened the pot took days to clear from the house, and the only upside I can think of is that the pot was too tough to die despite its trial by fire.photoSo any time you are feeling a little blue, a little inadequate as a chef or depressed as a foodie, take heart. I have not only managed in spite of myself to keep self and fellow diners alive and un-poisoned for all of these years, even without resorting to the antique cure-all elixir waiting on the apothecary shelf, but have even occasionally risen above my faults and produced some memorably tasty, yes, even prettily presented, treats that people who didn’t even owe me money complimented. I’d show you the best of them and preen a little, but documentation still remains my weakest suit, and of course there’s that perpetual problem where the really good stuff gets eaten before you can say Photo Op! and dash for the camera. Later, perhaps. Dig in!