Foodie Tuesday: Monster Salads

Photo: Awesome Autumn Salad

I call it Awesome Autumn Salad, not only because it’s impressively tasty but also given the stupendous quantity of it I’m capable of consuming when in the mood.

Fear not! I neither dine with nor on monsters if I can help it. But I will happily prepare and feast on a salad that’s big enough for any monster since I am willfully delusional about salads being lower-calorie options than most other sorts of meals. You will see from my photos and comments that this is clearly a lie: I love to add cheese, nuts, eggs, bacon, leftover casserole hunks, and endless other ingredients that give salads just as much artery-busting potential as any other dish. And don’t get me started ranting about how if a salad dressing’s supposed to be worthy of my salad, it might as well be worth eating (or drinking) on its own, since I will likely use enough of it to make it an actual menu item too.

Given all the disclaimers, you might think I mistook the very concept of Salad for another thing entirely, and perhaps you are right, if we’re going to be all strict about it. But that’s just the point, for me. I like to think of salad as the perfect opportunity for improvisation and combining as many of my favorite edibles in one dish as I like. And if you think I also mistook pulling up a chair to write a post on the blog for walking into a confessional, then you clearly haven’t read around here much before, because that’s no mistake, it’s just the way I always operate.

Enough asides. To food! Salad, or an approximation thereof, to be specific.

The Awesome Autumn Salad above is, like most around our house, Romaine-based. Typically, I like to add an assortment from the following: chopped celery and cucumbers, shredded carrots, sliced yellow or red capsicums, sliced black olives, raw or lightly cooked sweet corn kernels, chopped sugar snap peas, salted sunflower seeds, sprouted pumpkin seeds, and sometimes a bit of chopped boiled egg or grated cheddar cheese. The dressing is really what makes this one for me. It’s a combination of thick, sweet balsamic vinegar and Styrian toasted pumpkinseed oil. Sheer heaven! I usually blend mine with thyme, dill, mustard seeds, and coarsely ground black pepper. I’ll throw a big pinch of Maldon sea salt over the salad and toss it all lightly before eating, and I can put away an astonishing amount of this crunchy madness when I’m good and hungry for it.

Photo: Bit-Part Salad

This one gets the moniker Bit-Part Salad; greens play only a supporting role in it, and there are bits and pieces of innumerable other goodies piled on it.

While I am worlds away from believing that to be a salad, a dish must have fresh greens in it, I do like the leafy sort. Especially when it’s piled to the skies with all manner of crunchy and flavorful goodness in the range of added ingredients. And particularly-specifically-especially when it contains a refreshing element of contrast.

The Bit-Part Salad here was a room-temperature conglomeration of grainy goodness with veg, fruit, cheeses, nuts, and more. I broth-cooked wild rice in some of my slow cooker broth, the latter made with both marrow bones and chicken wings as a winning combo that came together incredibly richly. And made a monstrous mess of the cooker, the counter, the floor, and my nerves in the process, all during only the second time I used that brand new cooker. Perhaps there was a monster in the kitchen after all. No matter. I made the wild rice, then steamed a batch of quinoa with lemon and orange zests, cinnamon and cardamom and roasted coriander, and then I combined the two with beurre noisette, in case they weren’t already ridiculously tasty. Instead of mashing every other ingredient to an unrecognizable pulp or plating everything together tediously for every eater, I opted for my preferred mise-en-place mode of putting out a counter-full of ingredients and letting each person customize his or her salad.

My Bit-Part Salad was thus: a bed of lettuce and wild rice-quinoa mix. Heaps on top of it. Chopped Bosc pear marinated in elderflower syrup and cardamom; suprêmes of blood orange; pomegranate arils. Toasted walnuts and piñons. Celery, snap peas, cucumber, and a squeeze of lime juice. Minced fresh mint and basil. Grated Reggiano and myzithra cheeses. Coarsely ground black pepper and salt. Triple orange dressing. Enough bits of surprise and pleasure to keep even me guessing, each bite having a different little confluence of flavors and textures and perfumes.

This, perhaps, is the defining character I love most in a salad: that it should offer the ideal counterpoint to the other parts of the meal, or—if it is itself the whole meal—that the salad should be filled with delightful contrasts. Opposites in texture, yes…crumbly, soft, crackling and crisp or smooth or juicy. Contrasting flavor types, from at least a couple of the Five Tastes if not more. I will draw the line at combining things that seem to compete with each other. If one element is overpowering all the others then I’d just say Serve it by itself, let it shine, and don’t waste any other good stuff! If the salad has a noticeable leaning in style or ethnicity, save the alien invasions for another dish, another meal.

I’ve posted about salads plenty of times before and listed for you a number of my preferred inclusions, so this is perhaps only an update. If I say I’m boiling it down to a few choice currencies, fear not; I will undoubtedly be happy to throw actual boiled ingredients in with any others, as well as blanched, fried, steamed, toasted, or smoked ones. But it’s hard to beat the beauty of starting with a lovely heap of raw, fresh vegetables and/or fruits and never a bad idea to do that whether there are add-ins, throw-ons, and other edible accessories and decorations or not.

Photo: Flash-fried Salad

Or keep it super-simple…flash-fried fresh spinach and basil leaves, topped with a bit of Shichi-mi tōgarashi or plain toasted sesame seeds—or nothing.

Foodie Tuesday: What’s *Not* in My Kitchen

I don’t mind simple foods, simply prepared, and I’ve had plenty of pit-roasted and wood-stove cooking that was far better than merely edible. Sometimes there is nothing more delicious than the freshly caught fish grilled over an open fire or fried at lakeside in a worn and well-seasoned cast iron skillet. The smoky goodness of things cooked with live coals is sometimes so far superior to what I could conjure out of a high-tech kitchen with the pallid assistance of bottled liquid smoke (no matter how genuine and unprocessed that might be) that I would rather wait months for the proper weather and occasion to arise.
Photo: Chuckwagon Cookery

But I ain’t no chuckwagon Cookie, if you know what I mean. I was never fond of ‘roughing it’ in the sense of being outdoorsy and happy to labor over the building of my kitchen kit before I can even bother to lug buckets of water up from the stream to have on hand for stifling the coals at need. I haven’t the skills or the desire to do my own butchering, and I barely know a chanterelle from an Amanita, if left to forage anywhere wilder than my own pantry and the grocery aisles.
Photo: Chuckwagon Cookery 2

So my kitchen doesn’t sport the assortment of enameled camp cookware and the range of well-weathered cast iron pots and dutch ovens required for real down-to-earth preparation of meals. I don’t even have a clue what I’d do, short of going out in the backyard and having a go at such prairie wizardry, if I were faced with any of the old-school stoves and ovens that my ancestors and predecessors considered modern conveniences in their day. To cook with a wood stove, no matter how much I may have admired others’ mastery of it and the fantastic foods they’ve produced from such contraptions, is beyond my ken and requires subtleties of understanding how recipes and food science converge that I never learned. Even the electric ranges of earlier days have mystical mystery about them that would scare me right off to the local fast food joint for succor. And yes, I’d want fries with that.
Digital illustration from a photo: The Old Swedish Stove

In truth, I am a very limited and unskilled preparer of foods. I have a small palette of familiar ingredients upon which I rely, because I don’t have a clue what to do with many others that will make them safe for human consumption, let alone palatable. I have little patience for the suave or the grandiose in recipes, those techniques and tricks that require grace and keen senses and molecular understanding of the ingredients at play. I’m a reasonably willing eater of new foods and preparations, but not much for trying to make them myself, especially if I think anyone smarter and more experienced is available and willing to fix said dishes in my stead. The exception is mainly to be found in instances when real cooks let me play at being their sous chef without requiring better brains, knowledge of ingredients, or knife skills than I can offer.
Photo: Vintage Cooker

What I do have in my kitchen, most of the time, is fun, and enough decent eating to keep me (and anyone else on hand) from going hungry for long. Thankfully, I do live in a place with good grocery stores close at hand, family and friends to share meals and their preparation, and a kitchen full of my idea of modern conveniences. And if the ovens I got with the purchase of the house have outlived their peak performance by a fair distance and the only mixer I’ve owned for the last couple of decades is a wire whisk or fork, it sure isn’t the same as having to shovel up hard Texas clay to make room for my hand-split mesquite hardwood or having to figure out if those fruits gleaming at me from over there are the euphoniously named Farkleberry or are the similar looking but highly toxic Chinese Privet, so I don’t have to dig a privy, too, in a hurry.

Foodie Tuesday: So Hungry I Could Eat a Pin

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Cobb- or chopped-style salad with a few tweaks: Romaine lettuce, yellow grape tomatoes, black olives, taco-seasoned ground beef, crumbled Cotija cheese, grated hard-boiled egg, toasted pine nuts and a light Thousand Island-like dressing made of chipotle salsa and Mexican crema.

Slow as I am to tiptoe into the digital realm, I have taken another little baby step: I’m on Pinterest. I resisted entering into yet another entertaining time-suck, but I had heard and read enough about Pinterest to think that a list-making and visual idea collecting addict like me might find it useful as well as fun, and thus far that is indeed the case. I’ve not learned enough yet about its functions to know if it’ll do all of the things I’d find most helpful, but as a starting point it’s quite encouraging. You can pop over and visit me there if you like!

As a land of research, too, Pinterest proves to have some serendipitous intersections of ideas and folk with similar or, hey, different-yet-inspiring interests and knowledge.

So when I got Pinning, I started collecting recipes along with the other stuff that piques my interest. I looked at a picture or two of yummy foods online and thought to myself, “I could eat that!” So yeah, I have a Pinterest board called I Could Eat That! And I saw very quickly that many of my fellow Pinners ‘keep house’ in a similar way; need to find a recipe or idea for lunch? You could hunt through your cookbook shelves once again. Choose one of the many recipes and menus that you’ve made before and enjoy the guaranteed success of offering the tried and true.

But you could, of course, go wandering around through the land of recipes on Pinterest. There are a zillion boards dedicated to pretty much any sort of individual ingredient, taste, technique, style or nationality of cuisine, and/or combination thereof, and if you can’t find something to get you interested in fixing that lunch, you haven’t begun to Pin. If you want to get cooking, get looking.

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Flank steak with buttery mushrooms, steamed green beans and carrots are good at lunch or dinner any day. Whether you consult Pinterest or not!

Color Me Surprised

digital illustration

Big News, Everybody! Read all about it!

I stopped by Michelle’s blog at The Green Study, because the other day I managed to find an unexpected four minutes glued together that weren’t jammed with must-do things and there’s nothing I like better than wandering around the inspiring nooks and crannies of my friends’ homes in the interwebs. I just went there for the great reading and brain-jolting goodness that seems to be forever hovering at Michelle’s fingertips, and as I went through the post at hand I was busy enjoying the anticipation she created in me to visit some other blogs she described along the way. That’s how I’ve found nearly as many good blogs to read and follow as I have through connecting with commenters on my own blog: looking at others’ suggestions and finding new ideas and interests and friendly ‘study groups’ and kaffeeklatsches of endless variety in so many unexpected lanes and forests and classrooms everywhere.

I certainly wasn’t expecting to meet myself there. But thanks to her open door policy, there I was in black and white. I hope I at least had my fly zipped and the lettuce brushed out of my teeth when I appeared in The Green Study. In any event, I am delighted to flounce further [farther? I’m unclear about whether the applications of these two cousin words differs from ‘earth’ grammar when met in the binary world…] around in cyberspace and explore yet more new worlds. You, on the other hand, if you haven’t already met Michelle, should pop by her place and have a look around as well. I never come away from there without some new and piquant angle from which to view my reality, and the fact that she can make me collect and inspect such intriguing items with such a perfect brew of intelligence, outrage, insight, hilarity and compassion means I can promise you won’t be sorry for going there either.

Meanwhile, she has encouraged me to shine a little light on a few other bloggers I’ve perhaps neglected to introduce to you here before or at least recently. Herewith, in no particular order—starting, appropriately enough, with Random Rose.

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Random Rose’s Blog: http://wordpress.com/read/blog/id/17201311/ —This lovely Rose brings everything around her into bloom with intuitive artworks and magical prose and poetry. I sensed sisterhood the minute I stepped into her blog space, yet never find her the least bit predictable, so it’s always a joy to pop in and see what’s new in her garden.

Meticulous Mick: http://meticulousmick.wordpress.com —A day spent with John in Ireland is a holiday, no matter what he’s up to at the moment: chasing The Hound, his hilariously handsome companion, over hill and dale or exploring the everyday beauties of the nearby towns and parks or musing, gently, on what is important in life.

Dreams to Reality! http://afsheenanjum.wordpress.com —My instant-little-sister Afsheen blogs family affections, artful crafts, inspirational contemplation, and numerous other forms of happiness that prove her education, her Muslim roots and great upbringing give her a heartfelt appreciation for what binds all of us together in joy and love.

Belsbror: http://belsbror.wordpress.com —Another contemplative fellow, Bror Blogger has a heart for what inspires, a mind for contemplating what can make us better, and an eye for inviting imagery that makes me want to visit and linger at his place.

My Life as an Artist (2): http://jcrhumming.wordpress.com —Janet’s sumptuously dainty (yes, that’s possible; just go and see!) artwork is blended skillfully with tales of fact and fiction, and some fact, like the stories of her idyllic former home in Wales, almost too pretty and charming not to be fiction, too.

David Emeron: Sonnets: http://davidemeron.com —Don’t be deceived by the title and subject of this blog; David’s sonnets are full of more widely varied and deeply felt content than many less vehicle-focused authors ever dream up in their worldly wanderings. His beautifully realized sonnets each (and in their pairings) evoke endless musing.

Shivaay Delights: http://shivaaydelights.wordpress.com —Her blog is a marvelously warm place where the beautiful Dimple shares recipes and stories from her Indian heritage and family love, making me feel very welcome and very, very hungry every time.

The Ancient Eavesdropper: http://tylerpedersen02.wordpress.com —Besides being in awe of the enormous quantity of Tyler’s output in photographs, prose and poetry, I am always amazed to find that not only does he do all of that stuff well, he has apparently got several other parallel lives of work, love and play that are equally artful and impressive.

A Holistic Journey: http://holisticwayfarer.com —Diana’s deep compassion and endlessly patient dives into the central topics of our humanity and our ability to expand humanity’s horizons keep me coming back for more and lead me to think about things in ways I’d not yet explored about how I fit into the universe and whether there’s anything I can do to make that more meaningful.

The Vibes: http://thevibes.me —Far more than simply managing, as if this weren’t enough,  to be a top-shelf graphic artist and insightful traveler, Mark is also a music aficionado and expert, thoughtful critic, garden enthusiast, cat wrangler and all-around delightful guy.

Curls and Carrots: http://shannaward.com —If it isn’t enough to gaze upon her duo of exceedingly adorable children (and it is, trust me) or to learn some of the heartfelt history of modern Judaism at the elbow of a gifted sharer (and that’s true here, too), then go over for big helpings of fantastic cookery in Shanna’s inviting kitchen.

DreamPrayAct: http://dreamprayact.com —A Methodist minister who challenges us to shape our mortality with humane graces, Mark uses his gently persistent voice to advocate for justice, hope and peace, individually and between us all.

Blue Jelly Beans: http://bluejellybeans.wordpress.com —The beautiful Giovanna shares cultural and personal history, all cooked into magnificent recipes in both English and Spanish that make me want to eat them all day long, no matter what the language.

Photo Maestro: http://photomaestro.wordpress.com —Specializing in, but far from limited to, location photography, Rhys has a gift for capturing the ephemeral Moment that makes each place, each person and each subject in his work uniquely appealing.

Journey into Poetry: http://journeyintopoetry.wordpress.com—Sharing Christine’s journey isn’t merely poetic, though that is pleasurable and insightful enough indeed, but it’s also a journey alongside the gracious, thoughtful and good-humored Christine, who embraces a life-affirming and open-handed hospitality with great intentionality.

Vultureşti: http://atdoru.wordpress.com —Doru reminds me with every post how universal are some qualities of human existence. I am immersed in the stories implied in the human-interest photos, the sense of history contained in details of buildings and hidden alleyways, and the attractions of minute details of frost and bloom.

Hot, Cheap & Easy: http://hotcheapeasy.com —Like the gorgeous recipes she posts, Natalia is certainly Hot, but the cheap and easy aspects she adds on to her cookery make it particularly useful and appealing to study and imitate her ways in the kitchen. Add on a great sense of history and sense of humor, and you’re in a great place ‘over there’.

Earthquake Boy: http://earthquakeboy.wordpress.com —David has a seriously keen eye for fantastic subjects and the skills to make them into photographic art, but it’s often his clever titles that take them over the top to truly outstanding levels.

The London Flower Lover: http://thelondonflowerlover.wordpress.com/about/ —The deep-hearted Team at TLFL brings thoughtful grace to exploring the immense impact that something as seemingly simple and relatively small as a flower, or a bouquet of them, can have. Their musings and artful arrangements never fail to remind me to think about how something as seemingly simple and relatively small as an individual person can have immense impact by being equally thoughtful and kind.

Spiderpaw’s Blog: http://spiderpaw.wordpress.com —I’m particularly in awe of the way Lionel uses the character of light and patterns sharpened by contrasting values to create enormous depth and richness in his views of what might otherwise be missed in the local and personal landscape of home and hometown.

Veggiewhatnow: http://veggiewhatnow.wordpress.com —If you’re a vegetarian, great, you won’t have any excuse for being bored or limited by what you can make under the tutelage of this delightful blogger. But if you’re a meatatarian of any kind, go on over to discover that you don’t have any excuse for avoiding vegetable deliciousness either!

Amazing Pictures by Michael Taggart: http://amazingpicturesblog.com —Clearly I have a soft spot for fabulous photography. But Michael, along with the other photobloggers I admire, has a gift for bringing us far more than mere photos. Even when he’s showing us SOOC kinds of images he’s got a terrific eye, but I’m especially drawn to his inventively processed story images, which really are Amazing.

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And that, my dear reading friends, is what I love about blogging in general. Each of us, though we may share some personal roots or points of view, explores our existence in truly distinctive ways that become art and inspiration. And at the same time, these unique voices and ways of expressing ourselves show over and over how much we really have in common, and that fills me with both hope and happiness.

Thanks again, Michelle, for reminding me of it so often and so powerfully.

Foodie Tuesday: Nearly Great Eating

Just because I’ll eat practically anything doesn’t mean I don’t care what I eat. I would far rather wait a bit longer between meals than eat something not entirely thrilling just to fill myself. On the other hand, if it’s dinnertime and something I was fixing didn’t come out entirely the way I planned it, I’m loath to let it go to waste. So while the skillet potatoes I put together for a recent meal weren’t quite what I had thought I was going to have, I ate them without much complaint, and so did the others at the table. I made them from thinly sliced raw russet potatoes, the peel still intact, and thought to create something between a country-fried potato dish and Hasselback potatoes and yet different, layering these on top of a handful of sliced almonds, seasoning the potatoes on top with salt and mixed pepper (my home grinder blend of pink, white, green and black peppercorns and whole cloves) and drizzling the whole dish with a small splash of almond extract and a very large splash of melted browned butter. The verdict after baking: good concept, poor execution. I liked the flavors very much but the texture will be far better next time when I add a good dose of broth to the pan to soften the potatoes into submission.photoBetter luck next time, I say to myself, but hedge my bet for the current meal by choosing a trusty standby for another part of the dinner. For vegetables, the range that will please my spouse is very narrow, and though I’m not averse to making separate things that I alone will eat, on a day when I wasn’t fully satisfied that one part of the meal was exactly as I’d planned it so we’d both enjoy it to the highest degree, I opted to keep on the ultra-safe side by using only the most uncomplicated and uncontroversial ingredients. So I just steamed some nice carrots and celery and baby corn (not pickled), buttered them up, and Lo, it was very good.photoWhen it was all plated up it didn’t look like a recipe fail day at all. And it was all perfectly edible, if some in more appealing ways than others.photoThe last part of the meal to get prepared was fairly quick and simple, and despite being an untried variation on my standard approach to a stir-fry of beef it wasn’t so far afield that I didn’t trust its outcome. So while the pan was heating up, I sliced a lovely grass-fed skirt steak and whizzed up the frying sauce of fresh ginger root (about two tablespoons of small-diced root that I preserved in vodka in the fridge, with just a dash of the vodka to help it blend), Tamari, lime juice, a tiny bit of honey, and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Spicy but not fiery, and full of fresh ginger flavor.photoQuickly searing the beef and adding the sauce at the last so as to keep it from scorching while it could still caramelize a bit, I gave a shout to my dinner partner in the other room, and we piled up our plates. The potatoes were fine, if not exactly stellar; the vegetables were predictably comforting in their apologetic simplicity after the potato near-miss, and the beef was tender and zingy with ginger’s welcome tingling heat. I’d say I’m working my way up in the culinary world, gradually at least.

Foodie Tuesday: Good Gravy, Man!

Things should never be made harder to accomplish than they already are. I am a fond aficionado of sauces and gravies and syrups of all sorts, but many of them are so famously hard-to-assemble in their rare and numerous ingredients and even harder to assemble in their finicky techniques that I am cowed into quitting before I even make the attempt.

Gravy shouldn’t fall into that category, but often, it does. If you’re like me and not superbly skilled at even the most basic tasks of cookery, making a perfect roux or incorporating any of the standard thickening agents into a fine meat sauce without outlandish and unseemly lumps and clumps is about as easy as it would’ve been getting 50-yard-line tickets to the Superbowl. Which, as you know, and as is also the case with the gravy perfection, I had no intention of ever attempting anyway.

But here’s the deal. If you find a technique that does work for you and requires little effort and no exotic ingredients and can be varied in a number of ways once you’ve mastered it, why on earth wouldn’t you go to that as the default recipe? I’ve found the little preheated-pan trick I learned from Cook’s Illustrated for roasting a chicken so nearly foolproof and so delicious that I use it every time, even though my oven is showing such signs of impending demise that the merest whiff of said pan in its vicinity gets the smoke billowing right out the oven door and the alarum bells a-yelling even when the oven is freshly spick-and-spanned. Now, you may say that it is not the recipe or even the oven that’s at fault but rather the idiot who is willing to risk life and limb to roast a chicken in a dying, antiquated oven, and you would be correct, but that’s not the point of this little exercise, now, is it? I’m merely highlighting for you the immense appeal and value of a tried-and-true, easy recipe.photoThe same can be said of using my much-appreciated sous vide cooker for a reliably fabulous roast beef, medium rare from edge to edge and tenderly moist in a bath of its own juices, salt and pepper and a knob of butter, so flavorful that it needs little more than a quick searing caramelization to be more than presentable at table. But while it requires nothing more, it is in no way harmed or insulted by the presence of side dishes, and with them, a fine gravy is a benevolent companion indeed. And as I am not one to be bothered with fussy preparations, the nicest way to make gravy in my kitchen is to pretty much let it make itself.

So when the roast is done hot-tubbing it sous vide, out it comes, gets a quick rest so that some of the juices that have emerged from it during its bath return to their appointed place in the roast before I cut the cooking bag open, and then I get the real sauce-sorcery underway. I pour the buttery juice from the bag into a microwave-proof container and nuke it until it cooks and coagulates, as meat juices will do. Sear the roast in a heavy pan and set it aside to rest again. To continue, deglaze the pan with a good dousing of whatever tasty red wine you happen to have handy, a cup or two if you can part with it from the drinks cupboard, and just let it reduce at a simmer until it thickens slightly all by its little ol’ self. In just a few minutes, it’ll be quite ready for the big, saucy finale: puree the clotted microwaved juices and the wine reduction together (use a stick blender, if you have one, so you can keep the ingredients hot without exploding your blender!) until they’re silky smooth. Adjust the seasoning if you like, but it’s already going to be mighty delicious, don’t you worry. Easy does it.photoIsn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Now, eat up, everybody.

P.S.—don’t think because you’re a vegetarian you’re off the hook with this one. This not-even-a-process works pretty easily with nearly any roasted vegetables too. Deglaze your roasting pan with wine or, of course, some fabulous alcohol free homemade vegetable broth or some apple juice, and reduce it a bit; the final thickening agent is in your pan of roasted vegetables. Just take a nicely roasted portion of the plant-born treats and puree that goodness right into the pan reduction and Bob, as one might say, is your parent’s sibling. Your gravy is done and ready to shine. Be saucy, my friends!