Foodie Tuesday: For Which I’m Very Thankful

Photo: Thanksgiving in New BraunfelsI enjoy cooking. Not as much as I enjoy eating, or I’d probably bother to get chef training and go to work as a cook somehow, but I do enjoy time well spent in the kitchen. Still, I am ever so glad to let other, and very often better, cooks feed me. I was delighted, for example, to let the hotel staff in New Braunfels (Texas hill country) put together the meal my darling spouse and I shared with a ballroom-full of senior citizens and a small handful of their child and grandchild youngsters on Thanksgiving day. The food wasn’t especially gourmet, being an all-day buffet of extremely familiar and generally uncomplicated dishes long associated here with the holiday, but it was satisfying and traditional, and I didn’t lift a finger to help in its preparation, unless you count buttering my own bread. And I loved that—especially at the end of a long no-breaks haul for my hardworking husband, and in the throes of freshly hatched holiday colds for both of us—we could pay someone else to feed us. I’m grateful every day that I can afford to eat, and nearly always whatever I want to eat, and that sometimes others will do the fixing for me.

I’m also pleased to have access to foods that are, when I do want to cook, easy to make into something nice to eat. Vegetables almost never miss the mark in that realm for me, even though the aforementioned darling isn’t quite so hot on so many of them as I might be. It still fascinates me that he has, thanks to being a supertaster, an arguably restricted palate, but likes some foods that one might never expect a picky eater to like. He is an avowed avoider of things garlicky and onion-heavy, yet numbers among his joys when choosing a meal such famously garlic and onion friendly cuisines as Italian, Thai, Mexican, Indian, and of course, Tex-Mex. It’s all about how the ingredients are prepared, integrated, and combined, isn’t it. This guy who despises Weird Foods (and to him, they are myriad) will happily eat raw fish—not so familiar at all in America until recent decades—if it’s in the form of well-made sushi. As we draw near to the two-decade mark of marriage ourselves, I still do not presume to read his mind, culinarily speaking, accurately at all times. Not that this assures I can’t or won’t eat what I please, when it pleases me, but it’s easier to accomplish when dining out than when I’d have to prepare separate dishes for us, a thing I’m willing to do only occasionally. Another reason to appreciate visits to restaurants and friends’ tables.Photo: Fresh Onions

While I’m on the subject of vegetal delights, let us then ponder some specifics. And why not start with garlic and onions? The flagrantly fragrant lily relatives are amazingly versatile, able to range from hot and spicy to mellow, even to sweet; in texture, they can be soft, chewy or crispy, depending on their preparation. They can add color and pattern to a dish with their concentric layers, their bulbs and leaves, or they can melt right in and disappear, leaving only their flavor to remind of their presence. Thanks to my partner’s tastes, it’s rare that I’ll indulge in any of the more potent forms myself unless he’s out of town for a length of time, but I still remember how to use them in gentler ways when I’m in the mood. For example, two very different kinds of soup starring alliums: French-style Soupe a l’Oignon, and a Creamy Leek & Potato Soup.

The Creamy Leek & Potato Soup is simple enough to make, but should be done rather slowly to get the best out of the ingredients gently. Leeks must be cleaned very thoroughly to get the sandy dirt and grit out of their layers, and an aggressive approach to the cleaning is fine when they’ll be pureed anyway. So start by trimming the leeks’ green ends well and removing their root ends, then split them in half lengthwise and soak them in a basin or sink filled with cool water before hand-checking them for any remaining dirt. Meanwhile, clean, chop and boil an equal amount of potatoes (skin on or off, depending on the variety and your wish) in water with a couple of bay leaves and a dash of salt. Drain the rinsed leeks, reserve a small handful, then chop the rest into pieces about an inch/2 cm long, and soften them until they’re melting with a slow sauté in lots of good butter. Slice the reserved leek pieces as thinly as possible and fry them until crisp for use as garnish when the soup’s ready. When the potatoes are fully cooked, remove the bay leaves from the water, pour in the buttery leeks, and puree the water, leeks, butter, and potatoes into a thick soup, thinning it to your preference with cream or half-and-half. Season to taste with salt and pepper, top with a spoonful of sour cream or creme fraiche, and sprinkle some of the frizzled leeks over that before serving.

Soupe à l’Oignon is delicious when made with a chicken broth base. I know, I know: many traditionalists insist that beef broth is the proper foundation for French onion soup. But I always found chicken broth (especially my own homemade stuff) the best fit for the soup’s overall flavor profile. I might even go strictly vegetarian rather than use beef broth in it, knowing how I tend, and if so I would definitely opt for adding some powdered Cremini mushrooms and a splash of Tamari to the roasted mirepoix mix in my veg broth simmer to make it a little more robust before straining it. But my basic recipe always started with the onions. I like plain yellow onions, and slice them into about 1/2″ (1 cm) thick slices after cleaning them. If I’m making the broth on the occasion of the soup itself, I’ll throw the onion skins into it for the beautiful amber color they lend. A nice big pot (even a half-full slow cooker) full of sliced onions with a pinch of salt and a lot of sweet butter can cook slowly and beautifully into a smooth, jammy confit, and that can be used in any number of dishes later, if you save some by vacuum-packing or freezing it.

Last-minute prep of this beauty is simple. Heat the number of desired 1-cup (or so) servings in a heavy pan, and when the onions are just about to stick to the pan, deglaze it with a good splash of dry sherry, broth, or water. Spoon each helping into a heavy bowl, mug, or ramekin. Barely submerge the onions with a helping of broth, whichever kind you have in mind. Top each helping with a slice of well grilled dense, chewy peasant bread. Top the bread with a hefty slice of Gruyère cheese, broil until bubbling and golden-brown, and it’s ready to serve. Not quite ready to sip, though. Try to wait until you won’t get broiled by the hot cheese yourself. Worth the wait. It’s kind of like growing the vegetables in the first place. Patience pays in deep flavor.Photo: Fennel & Carrots

In this regard, there’s a whole range of marvels in the vegetable world that are only made more lovely by roasting the veg. Take fennel. The homely bulb is somewhat celery textured and mildly licorice flavored in its garden-fresh state. Generally speaking, I hate licorice. But with a light roasting in a bit of oil (preferably olive or avocado) or butter, fennel becomes an ethereal and delicate variant of its former self that I really do enjoy in small amounts. Swell in a combined vegetable roast; fabulous in a bouillabaisse or cioppino. Throw some herbs, carrots, and onions, along with masses of seafood, in the tomato-based broth, and with that whisper of perfumy fennel as a top-note, you have some magical brew.Photo: Radishes

Beetroot is a master of flexibility, whether as the star of the moment or as a sweet and sultry mystery ingredient in a dish. Even the homely radish raises the possibility of delicious dining, when kindly handled. The old standby of a radish sandwich (just thinly sliced, lightly peppery radishes served open-faced on sturdy but refined white sandwich loaf slices, heavily buttered and lightly salted) is a fine place to start. An icy-spicy salad of sliced radishes, fresh mint chiffonade, and sliced sweet apples (something like Fuji, Jazz, or Pink Lady) in a light dressing of rice vinegar, macadamia oil, sugar, a grind of black pepper, and a pinch of salt. Of course, I can’t give you actual recipes for my foods, being almost constitutionally incapable of replicating the quantities and combinations of any dish I’ve made. I vary what I’m preparing based on what’s on hand, and I’m awful at following existing recipes, so you should take what say with a pinch of salt, too. Something that rarely hurts the preparation of a fine vegetable, by the way, a pinch of salt.

The other instructive clue I’m happy to share with you about vegetable preparation today is, of course, the efficacy and beauty of somebody else doing the work. Works for me!

Foodie Tuesday: Ploughman’s Lunch & Cavegirl Quiche

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Ploughman’s-in-a-bowl.

I want to eat joyfully and intently and live a long, healthy life, then die and get recycled.

You know that although I respect veganism and the very solid reasons millions of people have for choosing not to eat animals and animal products, I am, like some other animals, an omnivore myself. Like these brother animals, I am okay with eating my fellow creatures. Hopefully people who respect animals’ right to be carnivores can respect a human’s wish to be a carnivorous animal as well. Yes, I want animals to be treated with great care and respect while they live, and yet I know that they’ll die; I expect no less on either count for myself. I would love to know that when I die it would be permitted, instead of my personal-leftovers having to be buried in a state-sanctioned impermeable box to take up prime real estate in perpetuity, for the aforementioned detritus to be left in the woods for some nice creatures to eat up, and what remains to fade into the grand recycling unit of the forest. Short of that, I have arranged with my loved ones to cremate what-was-me [after any possible organ farming is accomplished] and put my ashes into garden-feeding, where at least I will fertilize feed for ruminants and so serve as a smaller part in earth’s renewal. That’s what I think we’re all designed to do. Carbon to carbon. So whether I get eaten or make a less obvious contribution as a small pH balancing agent in the dirt, I plan to return the gifts that others, animal and plant alike, have given me in my life. This is not particularly meant to be a political or religious statement on my part, as I apply it only to myself, and I don’t begrudge anyone’s disagreement with it, it’s just a worldview that seems pragmatic to me. I am not saying this to court condemnation or controversy (you know I despise them) but simply to be honest with myself as much as with you.

So my protein preferences arrive as fatty and delicious nuts, eggs, seafood and, indeed, meats. I tend to be very old-fashioned in that way, following the path of my workman ancestors, and even their ancestors back in the hunter-gatherer days. I am enormously (no pun intended) grateful for the gifts of the earth that keep me not only alive but healthy and even well fed, and I don’t want to squander or be thoughtless about such magnanimity. Hence my determination to eat more deliberately and moderately as I grow older, and also my penchant for being ever more inventive in refusing to waste the goodness of any part of my personal food cycle. The recent posts about rescuing broth-making remnants are a tiny testament to this commitment. I’m a junk food junkie like everybody else, loving stuff that’s far from good for me, but I’m gradually learning to lean a bit further toward the less trashy ways to enjoy those elements that are the true reasons I like junk, not the addictive formats in which they’re presented to us by commercial producers and retailers so that we’ll just treat them–and our bodies–like garbage by over-consuming them thoughtlessly.

I want to eat joyfully and intently and live a long, healthy life, then die and get recycled.

A couple of the variant meals I based on my recent beef ginger mousse making fed both my frugal and my treat-hungry sides. Having the pre-made avocado mash around amped up both aspects as well, and the addition along the way of some other easy-to-keep ingredients made it all pretty much homemade fast food without the related regret.

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Another day, another ploughman’s.

Ploughman’s lunch, that great English enthusiasm for serving and eating what’s essentially deconstructed sandwiches–bread, cheese, chutney, pickled goodies, and so forth–are pretty common around our house. The differences in our tastes, multiplied by the number of friends sharing the meal, makes it easier to stick to assemble-it-yourself service for so many things that the logic of the operation is obvious. Since I’m generally weaning myself from wheat, that makes a hands-on, fork-in version of the Ploughman’s even more useful. Beef mousse and avocado mash make this easy. Hard boiled eggs are a grand addition, but a quick scramble or fry is fine as well. Chutney or jam alongside? Oh, yeah. Pickles of any sort are a plus. Add the crunchy pleasures (and instant utensils) of carrots, snap peas, celery, apples, jicama, radishes or any number of other good crudites and you’ve got all you can handle, short of a cold cider, iced tea, beer or lemonade. Filling, varied and delicious.

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Ploughman’s redux: beef mousse with pureed fresh tomatoes and mint, olives, pickled green beans, roast chicken, snow peas and apple.

For a cave-dweller-pleasing rearrangement of the same essential ingredients, I stacked it all up and sliced it into a semblance of a pie, first as a single layer and then as a double-decker version. Rather than baking it all up as an actual crustless quiche or omelet, which should be simple and tasty with the addition of some beaten eggs (and if I had some on hand, a bit of shredded cheese), I ate it cold and was not sorry to have the quicker version either. This one, given my previous pseudo-recipes on the topic, can be pretty easily illustrated in assembly by pictures only. What you choose to do with it is up to you! As long as you don’t disappoint me by wasting it. [Winking broadly.]

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The Cavegirl Quiche Assembly Line: sliced chicken or smoked turkey; mashed lemony avocado; sliced olives; pate or beef mousse; fried or scrambled eggs; tomato-mint puree; pickled green beans.

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A wedge of cavegirl quiche. Enough to take the edge off a day’s hunting and gathering.

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The double-decker version of cavegirl lunch: how to get ready for yet further mastodon chasing and saber-tooth battling.

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