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: Texas Tapas

photoA more accurate name for this food would probably be something about snacking-as-dinner or Gustatorial Grazing, but it doesn’t have quite the same, erm, kick to it. The concept simply goes back to my perpetual preference for offering a wide assortment of things to nibble and letting everyone at table—or wandering around, as is the usual case when we have a houseful—choose his or her own combination of things to eat. Saves any tough decisions on my part and eliminates the complexity of trying to accommodate each person’s allergies and dislikes individually, as long as I don’t have any tiny persons of no discretion on hand and able to lay hands on everything.

I’m particularly fond of the ease of this approach when, as aforementioned, I have a big gathering of friends or family, but it’s also a convenient method for getting up a meal in a heartbeat when last-minute plans evolve. I found out the other day that we had a chance to see an old friend from Washington who was in town for one mere day; thankfully, he was here to consult with a good local friend, so the two of them wrangled their schedules to make it possible to take a dinner break with the two of us. Instant party!

I know that our visitor, while we’d not seen him here, has been to Texas before, but I didn’t know how much he’d had the typical local foods. As the weather was warmer and sunnier than expected, it seemed fortuitously apropos to put together something that had a hint of picnic, a touch of barbecue, a dash of Southern-ism, and a little Tex-Mex character, all in simple forms that could be served at room temperature and combined into whatever ad hoc plates-full we chose, and we could be as casual as we liked with our good friends.

I started with a quick cheat: pre-assembled jalapeño poppers I’d bought at the grocery, seeded jalapeño halves filled with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon. I roasted them in a cast iron skillet in the oven, knowing that this would also preheat the oven for much of the rest of the meal’s roasting.

I bought an array of vegetables, cleaned them and cut them into rough chunks, steamed the hard root vegetables partway ahead of time, assembled all of the prepared parts in a couple of big baking dishes, and loaded them up with butter and a bit of salt before they all went into the oven to roast together. Russet and sweet potatoes, carrots and beets all got the pre-roasting spa treatment of the steaming, and went into the ovens nestled with fat asparagus, whole ears of sweet corn, small bell peppers and chunks of lemon.

While all of those were roasting, I cut some skirt steak into fajita-sized pieces, seasoned them with cumin, smoked paprika, smoked salt and a little granulated garlic, and seared them before a nice braise in a bottle’s bath of Shiner Bock (a good Texas beer), cooking it all in until it candied into glaze at the last. Those went into a bowl to stay warm, and I took the skillet that was still filled with spicy bacon fat from the poppers and lightly cooked up the beet greens in that. When they were not quite cooked, I just took them off the cooker and let them steam in their own heat, covered. Meanwhile, the first dish of the meal was the last to be prepared: pimiento cheese. There would be salsa and crema on the table for dipping or saucing any and everything, but pimiento cheese seemed like a perfectly good addition to this melange of a meal.

Those who know the southern tradition of pimiento cheese know that the classic White Trash version of it is likely to be a combination of shredded Velveeta (something that is called cheese but bears little resemblance to it, in my book) and diced canned red bell peppers in a lot of mayonnaise, possibly with a little bit of cayenne and salt to season it. Like many regional staples, though, every household is likely to have its own variant, and many of the modern ones use cheddar cheese, the most meaningful improvement in the recipe I can imagine. I kept my own version simple but used lots of cheddar, a largish jar of canned pimientos, and a mixture of about half mayonnaise and half whole milk yogurt. I seasoned it all with only a touch of salt, a good dash of cayenne, and a teaspoon or so of dill. Not bad, if you ask me, on crackers or crisps or tortilla chips or, dare I say it, probably even in the great white trash loveliness of making it a sandwich on slices of squishy super-processed white bread. Y’all, let’s eat.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Does this Seem Corny to You?

photoMy big sister hates corn. Things made with cornflour or cornmeal are acceptable, but sweet corn in all of its forms disgusts her delicate palate. While I, too, in my sisterly fashion may have disgusted her delicate sensibilities from time to time, I do not blame it on my admiration for corn in nearly all of its edible forms. (Surely my two younger sisters have had equally ample opportunity to be mortified by me over the years, despite their sharing my appreciation for corn.) But I do love corn. Perhaps I am just a corny person.

photoIt’s a little surprising that I find the texture appealing, given that among the very few foods I don’t enjoy are berries or fruits that have an arguably similar texture, with tight skins that burst open to soft insides, but there it is, I’ve never claimed to be logical. It could also be argued that corn has little flavor, being fairly bland if sometimes quite sweet, but this is of course one of its attributes that I particularly like. After all, I am very fond of foods that can be enjoyed in a wide variety of ways and many sorts of dishes or meals. Corn is exceedingly versatile in this sense, able to be incorporated in both sweet and savory dishes without competing with other ingredients, and capable of being processed in a huge range of ways to create yet more uses for it. You can dry it, soak it, pound it, puree it, pop it, use it as a whole kernel or even a whole cob, roast or fry or boil or steam it. It’s hard to think of many ways you can’t use corn.

Still, I’ll admit that my favorite treatments for it are usually the simplest. A garden-plucked ear of sweet corn is so delicious that I will not only eschew my normal craving for twenty pounds of butter per meal and eat it plain when it’s so fresh, I will happily gnaw it uncooked from the cob in that state. I’ve probably mentioned here before that when I was young and Gramps had his garden in its grand proliferation, there was that harvest time of year when the greatest treat was to have a meal of nothing but corn straight from the patch.

photoI also love kernel corn, hot and buttered, and newly baked cornbread. Mom used to make corn cakes on the griddle for an occasional breakfast, and despite my preference for my pancakes to be thin and moist, I happily made exception for those corn cakes’ thicker and cakier character because their toasted cornmeal flavor and sweetness made them much more like slim slices of cornbread or even a piece of celebratory cake than like any typical pancakes. Come to think of it, they would be a perfect dessert cake if made larger in circumference and stacked with some fabulous penuche or chocolate or cream cheese frosting between. Uh-oh. Dessert alarm is going off noisily in my head (stomach).

Corn clearly makes a wonderful and uncomplicated addition to all sorts of casseroles, soups and hot dishes as well in its cut-kernel form. It’s good to remember, though, that corn is also lovely cold. Added to salads, whether as a part of a mixed, dressed kind of salad or simply added to any combination of mixed greens that make up your favorite tossed salad, corn is a wonderful jot of sweetness and light color in the blend. I’m particularly a fan of corn added to salads of ingredients common to hot-weather climes: avocado, black beans, tomatoes, olives or capiscum pieces; citrus, mangoes or peaches can add a dash of brightness; dry, salty cheeses grated in, cilantro or mint or basil snipped on, and sweet or savory spices sprinkled over the dishes can all help to customize the dish, and corn is friendly with all of them.photoAnd me, I’m pretty friendly with nearly anything that has corn in, on or with it.

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: Big Pigs Like Figs

photoBig pigs: who, me? Yes, I’ve admitted to it many a time. Being a food-loving piggy myself, and being terribly fond of the gifts of the pig to food-lovers. I fully understand that vegans, vegetarians, Muslims, Jews, those with health restrictions, and any number of others have valid, legitimate and honorable reasons (philosophical, physiological, religious, ethical, etc.) for not eating pigs; my own litmus test for foods is also personally derived and has much more to do with how much respect has been given the plant or creature in question in its tending while alive, in its preparation when being readied to eat and, especially in how it is used for sustenance and, often, the building of community. So no, I would never dream of knowingly serving pork to any of the aforementioned friends. But I am content to obtain and prepare and consume it myself with respect and gratitude. I have no wish to offend, any more than my abstemious friends would judge me for my being a carnivore. Those who wish to do so are of course very welcome to skip this post entirely.

Meanwhile, back at the board, I will say that I am often quite happy to eat vegetarian style too. I never feel deprived when the food pleases my palate, no matter what the range or contents of the menu, and I can easily be just as blissful about a superb salad, an ounce of outstandingly fresh pistachios, or a pan of colorful mixed roasted vegetables (on tonight’s menu again, as it happens). And good fresh fruit, well since that combines the flavor and vitamins and juicy joys of good health-giving food with the sweetness of dessert, why, you know that I am happy to plunge right into that when it’s offered.

No surprise, then, that I was so delighted when that scrawny little $4 twig I bought this winter first burst into leaf and then, to my great amazement, produced lovely, plump Brown Turkey figs. It inspires me to think that perhaps I shall be able to grow some produce of other kinds if I put my mind to it, despite the challenging temperatures and soil character here in the roasty-toasty land of north Texas.

photo

I am *not* the only ham in my kitchen.

But to return to my porcine loves, I have eaten pork in almost uncountable ways and have loved a great many of them. One standby favorite is a well-made ham. I will happily bypass any of those artificially ‘enhanced’ varieties that are injected with water and so many other, less savory, ingredients and often are processed to the degree that they are no longer recognizable as meat, let alone pork. But a good pit-smoked ham, well, there’s a sweet-and-savory treat of which I am immensely appreciative. I love oven roasted and glazed hams, too, even boiled ones, but I think my affections are most readily given to an unadorned and slightly fumy beauty right out of the smoker.

One of the benefits of being in Texas is that I do have access to a few places that produce such ethereal goodness. As a result, I can often indulge in a meal of simply sliced ham with vegetables or salad or, on a wintry day, perhaps with mashed or roasted sweet or russet potatoes. Or, as I did the other day, with a heap of fabulously fresh and sweet fruits. And of course any leftover bits may be tossed into other welcome meals of the same. Or into sandwich fillings. Or casseroles. Or, as on the day following the feast of ham and figs (and avocado and strawberries and pineapple), next mixed with minced roasted chicken, dill and pepper and stirred into eggs for a quick frittata. Because if ham is good one day in my kitchen, it’s probably a treat for three days in a row if I’ve shopped wisely enough.photoJust now, though, I guess I’d better dash out and check the baby fig tree to see if I can beat the raccoons to the next ripe piece of tree-candy.

What’s-in-My-Kitchen Week, Day 2: Foodie Tuesday

Having guests for a meal can be a lot of work. Or not. But either way, if it’s mostly ready when they arrive (unless it’s a cook-together occasion), it’s a great time to have fun with friends. Few occasions are as welcome as those that include comestible-related conviviality. Last week’s get-together fun was occasioned by the impending retirement time move to Pennsylvania of our dear next door neighbors, who joined us for dinner just after I’d finished clearing out the dining room and enough of the kitchen from our week’s plethora of minor house maintenance projects to make way for us all to fit comfortably at the dining table.photo

One of the pleasures of having company is the excuse to set a pretty table, even if it’s not at all formal. While we do sit down to a ‘set’ table often enough to pass for civilized, formality of any sort is almost always as far from my modus operandi as one end of the galaxy is from another; still, it’s nice to have a reason to pull out a different tablecloth or put on a seasonal character at the board. For this day I wanted to keep things light, airy and summery, so I started with a small vintage tablecloth of graphic pale yellow butterflies on a crisp dark background and used the plain white crockery. These I enhanced with the  graceful twisted stems of our delicate Hadeland crystal wineglasses in their discontinued ‘Lord‘ pattern–which we were fortunate to have handed down to us by my parents, who in turn were given them by my Norwegian sister and her husband. Every time we use these beauties I am reminded of our family and of our Norwegian roots; at the same time, they are infinitely well-balanced and sweetly appealing to the eye, so they often ‘set’ the table all by themselves, so to speak.photo

Food was kept simple, in my usual adherence to unfussy ways. Having seen a wildly delicious sounding recipe for a California Peach Caprese Salad at the delicious blog A Feast for the Eyes, I was smitten with the idea of feasting, indeed, on peaches and was gifted not only with finding some fine, nearly ripe ones at the same store as a smashingly fat and lovely filet of wild-caught Alaskan salmon, I had the foundation of my meal in mind. The demise of my cooktop and its current unavailability had already inspired me to plan that I would oven-roast some vegetables and fruit to add a sort of barbecue-ish tinge to the meal’s summery theme (we don’t yet have a functional barbecue, latecoming Texans that we are). Thus, a super-plain green salad started things off without interfering with all of the other flavors and colors to be heaped on the table. Romaine, diced glorious avocado and a drizzle of simple Italian-style vinaigrette. I did put out small dishes of pignoli and yes, a chiffonade of fresh basil and mint leaves for those of us who wanted to have a sort of Cal-Italianate hint of the inspirational peach Caprese infused into the meal. Like me, for example.photoThe salmon preparation was something of an experiment: my doctor recommends I limit my soy intake for various reasons, so although I’m often addicted to soy sauce in my fish marinades, I was enamored of a slab of hot-smoked salmon at the grocery and bethought myself to use that as the salinizing element in my salmon prep this time. I laid the filet lovingly in a pan greased with coconut oil and topped it with crumbled smoked salmon, freshly ground black pepper, minced fresh ginger, a splash each of ginger juice and freshly squeezed lemon and orange juices, a faint drizzle of raw honey, and a little more coconut oil on top of it all, and into the oven it went. It was joined there in short order by pans of vegetables and fruits, respectively (hurray for the benison of double ovens!), and there was time during the baking and broiling to hunt up some dessert from the freezer.photo

The vegetables could hardly have been simpler: whole green beans, asparagus, orange and yellow capsicum–those sweet and fruity bell peppers add elements of both color and flavor brightness to a vegetable dish so neatly–and thickly sliced cremini mushrooms. Crystallized salt, pepper, a squeeze of lime, and a slick of my precious Stonehouse olive oil (using their luscious Persian Lime this time) and the whole pan was ready for its oven close-up too. I left the fruit in all its naked glory, except for a little gloss of the aforementioned coconut oil to help protect them from sunburn while increasing their chance of a good brown skin in their broiler tanning bed. I know some folk say to add sugars to build (or to even out) caramelization but I figured the fruits were sugary and ripe enough to take care of themselves: those treasured peaches, a handful of my very first batch ever of homegrown figs, and that living gold of pineapple.photo

The dessert was well into my lazy comfort zone, being a chocolate combination of my nut truffles (a simple mix of melted dark chocolate with a little good butter, a pinch of salt, and finely chopped and toasted mixed nuts of my choosing, set up in a flat pan and cut into small pieces) and my almond-flour brownies that I keep handy in the freezer between times, and the mellow, dense chocolaty goodness played nicely with all of the fruity sweetness that preceded it.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Potato Famished

photoI’m going to keep this supremely simple. I love potatoes. Among my ridiculously long list of edible loves, potatoes rank pretty high on the list. It’s clear that my Viking ancestry designed my particular corporeal form to be composed of 70% potato water, so I’m spending my years just fueling it up as best I can.

Barring allergies or outright dislike, it’s hard not to admire the potato regardless of one’s lineage. It’s one of the most inspiringly versatile foodstuffs on this little old planet. There’s hardly anything that a potato can’t gussy up nicely. Let me just commune with the spirit of the potato here for a moment:

Boiled, roasted, fried, baked, steamed. Even raw. Yes, on rare occasions Mom gave them to us sliced like cold little potato bruschetti, buttered and salted and munched out of hand. Odd, but not unpleasant. Still, I’m a little more of an old stick in the mud and like them best cooked up one way or another. Grated, mashed, bashed, diced. Sliced and made into insanely tasty (and of course buttery as can be) Hasselback potatoes. Cooked and smashed, with lots of gloriously rich cream. French fried, skin on, in beef fat. Scalloped with a passel of cheese. Okay, you caught me. I’m stuck as always on my beloved theme of delicious FATS. Yeah, I yelled. Ahem. Now, back to our regularly scheduled swooning over potatoes. Tenderly toothsome cubes in vegetable soup or clam chowder or some dreamy slow-cooked stew. Crisply golden-browned hash browns tenderly steaming at heart. Silky smooth in a luscious cool Vichyssoise.

And of course, sometimes nothing else can possible compare to a fine and dandy baked potato. Say, served with tonight’s very simply cooked steak and very simply plain romaine and tomato salad. Just halve the russet potatoes, coat well with coconut oil, place cut side down in a baking pan and then stab them thoroughly in the back with a fork or knife to prevent in-oven explosion (or zombie resurrection, if that’s your concern), salt them well with coarse good salt, and bake until they’re tender inside and crispy outside (circa 20-30 minutes, depending on the oven and the size of your potatoes) at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Some things can’t really be improved, now, can they.photo