Foodie Tuesday: Swim for It

If left to my own devices to raise or, more difficult yet, forage and hunt for all of my food, I’d soon enough be a non-meatatarian. I haven’t the patience or the skill for any sort of animal husbandry, nor the remotest chance of outsmarting anything sentient in order to catch it. But despite my pitiful showing as a junior fisherman alongside Gramps in days of yore, I think I could pull myself together enough to learn how to fish and forage the sea enough to keep my love of seafoods at least occasionally treated. Good protein, too.
Photo: Salmon Champagne Evening

Sometimes I am happy enough to have a rather plain fried, roasted, baked, steamed, raw, or poached piece of fish. When it’s pristinely, spankingly fresh and sweet, fish should probably not be made too fancy. Why mask perfection? At most, a dash of fresh herbs or a little zip of some lovely masala ought to be plenty of interest to vary the day’s meals. Even I have been known to identify and safely pick and consume wild sorrel, which is an excellent companion to fish in modest amounts. And of course, there’s nothing friendlier with a piece of salmon than citrus or ginger root or plain black pepper, if the foraging can extend as far as a grocery store. One thing I do think well worth the [negligible] fuss if I’m preparing salmon with its skin is to sear it, lightly salted, in butter or a high smoke-point oil before I cover its pan to finish cooking it through on cooktop or in the oven, because crispy salmon skin is delicious and its crunch a wildly beautiful complement to the velvety tenderness of the flesh. Once my palate was introduced to this marvel, I wondered how I had managed to enjoy salmon so much, so often, without having known what I’d been missing. Salty, slightly fat, salmon-flavored, and crispy? How could I not love it!
Photo: See Food

Of course, there are innumerable other outstanding ways to enjoy and indulge in seafood, if one does happen to have access to plenty of other ingredients. Seafood fried rice is one very flexible, quick to fix, and reliably delectable way to enjoy such things. Salmon in bite sized pieces, for one seafood treat, goes quite well with the contrasting grains of rice, lovely with rich that’s been cooked in either broth or coconut water or milk and filled with a delicate confetti of diced celery, carrots, onions, bell peppers, or peas, whether shelled or in sugar snap or snow pea form. But as you can see in the accompanying photo, I enjoy, along with salmon or other kinds of fish, those admirable insect imitators the crustaceans. Hardly anything, sea-based or otherwise, is more enticing in fried rice than crab (naturally, I vote for Dungeness first, every time), lobster, langoustines, or shrimps of various sizes. I would guess that some tiny, tender clams might be more than acceptable in this sort of dish as well, but truthfully, I doubt I’ll ever get quite that far, as long as any of the usual suspects are available. Never say never.

Meanwhile, back at the fried rice, I am still an old Occidental renegade when I make it, cooking it much too slowly for a wok-master’s taste and throwing in whatever I have on hand and am in the mood to eat, from the aforementioned vegetable ingredients, crisply sautéed, to seasonings like Tamari or soy sauce, citrus juice, fresh or candied or pickled ginger or ginger syrup (or all four, as I am an unregenerate ginger fiend), honey, shallots, and/or chile pepper flakes. All of these cook in gently, over low heat, while I’m stirring in an egg to scramble into shreds, and then letting the rice slowly develop a good crust amid copious lashings of fat—coconut oil, avocado oil, ghee, whatever I have on hand. All of this, until I can’t quite wait any longer. Must keep that seafood delicate and fresh. Until I can devour it, anyway.

Foodie Tuesday: When Cultures Collide

So many beautiful nationalities and ethnicities with so many fabulous cuisines! How on earth can I possibly choose when I’m about to fix a meal?

Then again, why choose? After all, the best of cuisines have borrowed (or stolen) from each other, been influenced by each other, and often gotten so intertwined that it’s hard to know for certain what the absolute baseline, source, or original version of any popular food or dish really was. Sometimes I think that half the fun of creating the menu for an occasion is figuring out how to play with commonalities and contrasts in the most delicious and interesting ways.

Multiply the possibilities of that original menu with my affinity for revising every ingredient or dish in its following appearances as a leftover, and you have one impressively complicated matrix of possible and tangential menus. Exponential recipe improvisation: that’s a kind of math that appeals even to a mathematical dullard like me.

There was that recent episode when I found an interesting-sounding ready-to-cook packet of mushroom risotto that had—unlike most prefab dishes of the sort—only about five or six ingredients, all of them actual foods, and thought it’d be an interesting basis for my dinner preparations. Even with pre-packaged items, it’s a virtual certainty that I will fail to prepare them exactly as proposed. I’m not talking about that silly thing where you buy a boxed frozen dinner and because it’s pictured on the box as set on a plate, the seller assumes you’re too stupid to know that you might need to remove it from the box and heat it in order to consume it, so it says in tidy type, “Serving Suggestion.” I’m talking about actual changes in the way the contents of the box are prepared or served.

So, first of all, being the perpetually lazy person I am, I thought the prospect of standing around stirring a risotto for eons was less appealing than seeing what would happen if I put the ingredients into my rice cooker with extra liquids and let it do the work. Ours is a low-tech oldie but goodie among rice cookers, with a chintzy looking removable aluminum pot insert, so I did toast the rice, with its spice and earthy little pieces of dried mushrooms and shallots in a generous pool of butter, setting that little aluminum canister right on the burner, before popping it into the rice cooker shell and pouring in a half and half mixture of homemade broth and water, slightly more than my usual doubling of quantity over dry (rice and other) ingredients, and a good dash of dry sherry. It may not have been a true risotto by a long stretch, but by golly, it was pretty darn tasty all the same. I served it topped with bacon pieces and alongside that, with some patties of slightly spicy chorizo, sauced thickly with lemony avocado cream and topped in turn with sweet grape tomatoes, all with a little green salad on the side.Photo: Risotto & Chorizo

It was a filling and nicely congenial combination, this meeting of Italian influenced risotto rice, Mexican style chorizo, and a very slightly French treatment of the avocado sauce.

Later in the week, this pseudo-risotto segued on down to Puerto Rico when I incorporated a big scoop of chipotle salsa, the rest of those thick-cut cooked bacon pieces from the previous garnish, and crumbled leftover chorizo into it, heated it through, and then let it crisp on the outside during a low and slow rest on the cooker to become a fair facsimile of the Mamposteao we fell in love with on our May visit to San Juan. With some of my sushi-ginger dressed coleslaw on the side, I think I managed to get the meal to span even further global miles than the first time, perhaps. In any case, it spanned from pots and pans to stomachs pretty neatly both times.

Foodie Tuesday: Without Chopsticks

I might be on a little bit of a tear with this deviled egg thing lately. Besides that the original concept of hard-boiled eggs with spicy ingredients and something creamy like mayonnaise added to their yolks are, well, devilishly delicious, the possible variations are nearly endless as well, and also exceedingly tasty. This treat can change nationalities and styles easily and frequently, according to preferences and the hunger of the moment.
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The other day, I had yet another urge for a deviled egg bite, and had some inclination to eat something at least vaguely Japanese as well. So that’s what I did. Both, that is.
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It was a refreshing menu.

I made coconut Basmati rice. Cooked in half coconut milk (my preferred brand, Chaokoh) and half coconut water (Amy & Brian Natural brand), it was topped with sliced and slivered almonds that I’d toasted with a touch of almond extract, some sesame seeds toasted in a spoonful of toasted sesame oil, some sweet little tiny, briny shrimp, and the deviled eggs in question. Those, I made with a creamy sushi-inspired filling.

I took the hard-cooked egg yolks and an equal amount of fresh avocado, nearly the same amount of Japanese wasabi mayonnaise, a hearty splash each of lime juice and tamari, and a handful of pickled sushi ginger, and blended them all together until creamy with my trusty stick blender. When I assembled these little goodies, it seemed only fair to crown them with a little ginger rosette each. I didn’t really have the skill to do it properly, but a curly bit of sushi gari tastes delectable regardless of whether it’s a perfect representation of a sweet little rose or not. I like to think I’m a bit like that myself, being slightly off kilter and messy in my way but well-meaning and amusing, and hey, sometimes even almost tasteful in my way.

Foodie Tuesday: Not the Raw Prawn

It should be noted that while I prefer my prawns cooked in various ways, I would trust a sushi master to feed me uncooked ones without (as my Oz friend and colleague John taught me in grad school would be a less kindly gesture) either giving me or coming the proverbial ‘raw prawn‘. Old-school colloquialisms aside, it can be a great kindness to feed me well prepared prawns in a number of guises, as they’re not only tasty protein sources but well respected in a number of the world’s great cuisines. I’ve had the good fortune to live and/or vacation in a few places noted for particular kinds of prawns and shrimp, and when they’re ‘done up right’ I would be hard pressed to resist them as a top choice for eating.

In their compact and sturdy form they do lend themselves to skewering and grilling or to the great dive-in-and-get-messy kind of eating in a traditional Shrimp Boil or rekefest (the classic Cajun and Norwegian shrimp-eating parties, respectively), and I’ve certainly been served spectacular ones whole in dreamlike paellas, gumbos, cioppinos and other dishes. No complaints here! But when it comes to fixing things myself, I’m more inclined to think my fellow diners might like to be as lazy as I am, given the chance, and prefer most often to peel and devein shrimp and prawns before using them in my cooking. There’s no reason not to use the shells then and there for cooking up in a great batch of broth, of course, so I don’t see the necessity of wasting them, but I love to be able to eat meals unencumbered by the slowing process of dressing out the food unless it’s really a necessary part of the experience. Once the critters are cleaned, the meal prep is just as easy anyway, and if broth is on hand as a result, it’s the perfect base for an enriched soup or sauce in the bargain.

So what do I use these splendid shellfish for, finally? Nearly anything is good with such a sweet, clean taste and firm yet delicate texture. Shrimp puree, as I’ve mentioned before, is a fantastic binder for fish cakes because they don’t dull down the flavor like a starch binder (flour or crumbs, typically) would do, and though I haven’t tested it yet I’m certain it’d make a grand seafood soup or sauce thickener as well. But beautiful prawns deserve respect, too, in their unadulterated-yet-naked form, so they feature in a wide variety of dishes chez moi in addition to the aforementioned international classic presentations.

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Butter Prawns—my style—in Basmati.

Curries probably top the list hereabouts, mainly because both members of the household are fans of curry in a wide range of styles. Many classic Indian and Indian-influenced sauces and dishes, in fact, lend themselves beautifully to showcasing shrimp: butter sauce, mainly seen on American plates napping chicken, is one marvelous option, as are Tandoori-spiced grilling on a skewer, prawns biryani, and prawns simply seared in ghee and garam masala and served with fragrant rice.

Italian cooks, too, have given us a multitude of glorious ways to honor the delicious beauty of these shellfish, not least of all in a beautiful marinara sauce over pasta. If you want any advice or inspiration whatsoever regarding Italian cookery, you can’t do better than to visit my friend Chicago John over at his blog From the Bartolini Kitchens, and you can do your own happy swimming through all of his shrimp- and prawn-related dishes with a quick search there. But despite my reverence for John’s glorious and historically rich cookery, I have been known to dabble in my own variants at times, and think I didn’t do too much harm to the image of the Real Thing. One example of this would be when I make my version of prawns Fra Diavolo, which according to Signore Mario Batali is Italian-American anyway, so I have no compunction about further stretching the idea. For mine, I make a sauce of tomato passata with shallots, a splash of a nice, intense red wine if I’ve got one open, a squeeze of lemon juice, a good grind of black pepper, oregano, basil, and a hit of red pepper flakes, varying the amounts to the tastes of my fellow diners, and finally, warm the prawns in the sauce just until they’re pink and curling like a charming devil’s tail.Fra Diavolo can be a friendly little devil.You who love shellfish equally will know that I could go on rhapsodizing about them and the many ways in which to dress them up and swallow them down, but for now I think that that should be the end of this tale.

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: It Shouldn’t be Too Difficult

People can get so overwrought over the holidays. Whatever those holidays may be, they have a way of bringing out the worst in the expectations we have of ourselves, never mind what we think we have to live up to for others’ sakes. So I tend to opt for the less fussy and somewhat unconventional, and I definitely prefer what’s simple. Leave the designer food extravaganzas to those with more patience and money and fewer friends and loved ones waiting to be visited or holiday lights to be savored where they twinkle and glitter on treetops and roofs, fences and storefronts. But I digress.photoHoliday brunches (it it my firm belief, as a person who does not believe in getting up a second earlier than necessary, that holidays of all times require sleeping in too late for holiday breakfasts) are an opportunity to have some favorite simple treats that can be easily thrown together for a snack-tastic sort of meal. Steamed ‘hard boiled’ eggs, bacon candied with a mixture of brown sugar and dark maple syrup, a little cinnamon and a dash of cayenne, a homemade chocolate malt, grilled cheddar cheese sandwiches, or some plain, juicy-sweet clementines–or all of the above. In that instance, there’ll be plenty to keep you well fueled until holiday dinner. Whenever and whatever that ends up being.photoMy love of savory + sweet foods, too, is not new, not unique to me, and not limited to any particular group of foods. There’s the wonderful long-standing tradition of such delicious delights as ham with sweet glazes, rich curries with sweet chutneys, sundaes with salted nuts, and cheese boards with fruits, just to drool over thoughts of a small few. And it’s interesting that time and tradition contend to restrict our thinking of certain foods or ingredients as belonging automatically to desserts or not, to a sweet category or a savory one, and further, if sweet then to desserts; if savory, non-dessert.

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Cloudy, with a high chance of deliciousness: spiced cider.

These days, then, when I’m cooking I tend to think of what ingredients I’m hungry for among those on hand, how they might go together, and what kind of dish will result. Even when the dish is finished, I’m not always certain it would easily classify as sweet or savory, entrée or side dish, main item or dessert. After all, there are plenty of old recipes leading to such seeming incongruities as smoked salmon cheesecake or candied pork. Herbs and spices, those basically non-caloric, strongly flavored elements that color and distinguish other ingredients, are a logical tool for transformation. A simple cup or glass, hot or cold, of spice infused cider becomes so much more than simply apple juice, and cocktails can turn from frilly to fiery or from crazy to cozy, depending on their infusions.

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Squash and apples make fine companions.

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Then there’s praline happiness, which I’m not averse to eating by the forkful.

If both apples and squashes can make delicious pies or side dishes equally well, why not meld all of those characteristics and veer off onto a slightly divergent path? One day I saw the inviting fall bin of pumpkins and squashes beckoning me from right next to the apple display in the produce section of the grocery store and voila! A sweet-savory side dish was born. I chopped the peeled, cored apples and blended them with lemon juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice, a dash of vanilla, a pinch of salt, a splash of maple syrup and a tablespoon of instant tapioca, and I spooned it all into the two seeded, salted halves of the pretty squash, topped with a big pat of butter to melt over it all. Into the oven it went at medium-high heat until the squash was tender enough to yield to a spoon, and I served the squash and the apple filling together with a praline crumble topping I’d made by baking a mix of chopped salted nuts, butter and brown sugar.

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Many things, sweet or savory, are happily enhanced with a touch of praline.

This little oddity easily occupied the same space on my menu normally reserved for the famous-or-infamous dish with which so many American holiday tables have either a sacred or scared relationship: marshmallow topped sweet potatoes. Sweet and savory, not to mention fatty and ridiculous, either dish is quite okay with me, and it wouldn’t surprise me any more than it would you to hear me described that way as a result. As a bit of an oddity, too, for that matter.

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Steamed carrot pudding. Not bad all on its own whether for any meal or afters.

And speaking of love-it-or-hate-it foods, there’s eggnog. What would you guess about another rich food with outsized calories in a small, sugary package? Yeah, obviously another semi-guilty love of mine. I often make a quickie eggnog for breakfast, blending a raw egg or two plus a pinch each of nutmeg (maybe cinnamon and cardamom, too), salt, vanilla, and raw local honey with cream, whole milk yogurt, or water. [Yes, I eat raw eggs often, and I’ve never in all my years had the remotest problem with it. But I’m generally very healthy. Others do so at their own risk.] When available, a ripe banana makes a delicious thickener/sweetener. Oh, and the same can be said of vanilla ice cream, of course!

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Broth-cooked carrot pudding with eggnog sauce.

However it’s made (or bought from a good organic supplier), eggnog also makes a fantastic sauce for another of those holiday-associated goodies, pumpkin pie. And when I say pumpkin pie, I happily include a host of similar sweet/savory and dense-textured treats like sweet potato pie, steamed puddings, loaf cakes, bread puddings and other such brazenly heavy-duty things–all of which would make equally lush and luscious dessert or breakfast, in my book–are nicely complemented by a sauce of smooth, creamy eggnog. If a little is good, a lot is great, or as Dad has wisely taught us: Anything worth doing is worth overdoing! Well worth a little recovery fasting in any event, eh!

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Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Toast it with a spiced cider, perhaps?

Foodie Tuesday: Warm Up the Winter

There are plenty of good reasons to love winter eating. Every season has its particular pleasures and what appeals and tastes best varies with the weather, activities particular to the time of year, and winter–whatever challenges the season may present in terms of work and play–is rich in favorites too. What I tend to love in winter is mostly the kind of food and drink that spells comfort in colder weather: roasted, fried, grilled, hearty, spicy and/or deep flavored comfort is particularly welcome at my table.

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Roasted squash stuffed with artichokes and sage is complemented by roasted beetroot and rosemary. They can all go in the oven at the same time, too, with just a little supervision!

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Shredded slow-cooked or roasted meats like spicy chicken or [pork] carnitas are filling and satisfying. If there were roasted vegetables yesterday, a mash or puree of them can make a lovely accompaniment to today’s entree. Simple, silky carrot puree with lemon juice and butter, for example, works in companionable comfort with the coarser mash of guacamole–the latter, easily made on the fly when I keep some mashed avocado handy.

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A moist and tender pork roast, with a half avocado, some pan-fried green beans and red capiscum slivers, and potatoes roasted in the oven with butter, salt and pepper, smoked paprika, mustard seeds, and crushed cheddar cheese puff crumbs, makes a grand and gratifying meal.

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A good curry (at our house, nearly always nothing more than good coconut milk spiced with homemade sweet curry masala*) is a great way to combine any sort of roasted, grilled or sauteed vegetables, with or without seafood or meat. A couple of pieces of grilled citrus for drizzling into the curry to taste, adds a nice bright note that can bring a dash of sunshine to the winter, too.

KINCURRY
A curry masala recipe, courtesy of the late Quentin Kintner of Port Angeles, WA.
I think Q would approve of my sharing this, since he was generous enough to share it with our family in the first place!

4 T (tablespoons) ground turmeric
3 T ground coriander
2 T ground cumin
2 T ground ginger
1 T ground cardamom
1 T ground mace
1 T whole white peppercorns
1 T whole cloves
1 T whole fenugreek
2 tsp ground cayenne

Grind the spices together and store carefully away from light and heat; I use a dedicated small coffee grinder for my spices. That’s all there is to it! This masala freezes well, if you’re not fast enough to use a whole cup of it up quickly or are planning to give some away. I like to make a double batch (about 2 cups) since it does keep. It’s wonderful toasted in either a dry pan or a little ghee before adding to various dishes, savory or sweet.

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Even the standard steak dinner, sided with rice and vegetables, can be jazzed up a little for winter with some seasonal fruit favorites as garnish. Here, a perfectly ripe pear and a handful of brightly-sweet pomegranate arils please the eye as wonderfully as they do the palate.