Eating Thistles

Photo: The Big ThistleCardoons and artichokes are every bit as admirable as their strictly-for-visual-admiration wild growing thistle cousins. But as any avid eater should know, the aforementioned relatives are terrific dining companions as well as being attractive plants. Sure, I love the silvery magnificence of a shapely cardoon leaf accenting the garden border, but if I can admire its beauty and then eat it as well isn’t that just so much the better?Digital illustration from a photo: Antique Artichoke

And artichokes, well, we all know those are as worthy of battling past their thorny armor as it was ever worth storming a castle’s battlements and portcullises to get to the treasury inside.Digital illustration from a photo: Artichoke Arrangement

The wonderful earthiness of the artichoke is an outstanding companion to the similarly strong-yet-subtle virtues of asparagus, mushrooms or root vegetables. All of these, in turn, play nicely with the denser, meatier varieties of fish—roasted monkfish or grilled salmon, for example—or a roast or stew of wild game, if one has access to, say, boar or venison. Or, if meat or fish is simply not right for the moment, some boiled, steamed or poached eggs.

How about this for a tasty Collage of Earthy Vegetables:

Blanch some cleaned asparagus, small to medium-sized artichokes, halved and trimmed, and russet potatoes, skin on and cut into modest wedges. When they’re all blanched, stem and clean some Portobello mushrooms, toss everything with a little avocado oil, kosher salt & cracked black pepper, and grill or roast until tender.

Serve with any or all of the following as a finger food, small-plate meal or as a side to the main entree (fish or meat or eggs):

Toasted hazelnuts, small wedges of Manchego or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, brown butter Hollandaise, and/or rosemary sherried green olives.

This compilation seems to me almost a vegetable representation of terroir. At the least, it’s very down to earth!

Foodie Tuesday: Autumnal Comforts

You know that I love the Fall season, even though it’s very late and short here in Texas. Perhaps it benefits from my love of seasonal change in general, but I think the romantic leanings that come in autumn, that sense of impending death softened by the comforts with which we pad ourselves and by the death-defying renewal of the beginning of school and art seasons, have their own peculiar attractions. And of course, there is the bounty of foods that are best appreciated as we slide from the fall equinox to the winter.photoThe World in Autumn

Thin branches caging up the sun

In willow-wavy lacelike hands,

All skeletons and ampersands,

Hold clouds together in the one

Unreadable yet literate

Equation of the interstices

Whose elated season this is,

Crisp and quite deliberate

In tracing every moment in it,

Hour, year, and state of mind

Among the bones of humankind,

As though these things were infinite.

photoOne of the delights I most admire in this season is earthy flavors. An abundance of root vegetables and mushrooms signals time for soups, stews and sauces whose savory riches warm body and soul and recall me to the embrace of home and childhood in many ways. A simple creamy soup loaded with mushrooms is hard to beat for succor on a grey and blustery day. A bouquet of cauliflower roasted with nothing more than a quantity of butter and salt and pepper until just-right is heavenly; adding sage leaves to the butter and a handful of shredded Reggiano to the top of the cauliflower just when they’ll have time to crisp and brown lightly moves the easy dish to a higher floor in the heavenly skyscraper.photoRoasted vegetables of any kind are especially welcome in the cooler seasons, and so easy to toss together with a little olive oil or butter in the oven while everything else is being prepared for the table that it’s almost a crime not to put them in the oven. Throw a chopped lemon in to roast with them and they are sauced in their own juices. Put the remains (if any) the next day into a bowl with a cup of hot homemade broth and a poached or soft-cooked egg or two, add cooked rice or noodles if you like, and, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, (or bi-bim-bap!), you have a bowl full of nutritious, delicious, and not at all ambitious goodness right in your own little corner of this magical autumn season.

Foodie Tuesday: I’m Roasting! No, I’m Frying!


photoOh, I know, you all thought I was having hot flashes again. [Not that I wasn’t.]

But it’s Food Fun day again, and I’m referring to cooking edibles this time. Old broads still gotta eat.

And since much of the time I am thermostatically challenged myself, I generally try to find ways to make the hot foods I’m preparing require the least possible amount of time putting me in near contact with the oven or cooktop. Why risk further overheating, of either myself or my preparations, should I need to stray far afield from the heated zones of the kitchen.

One fairly easy solution, though it seems somewhat counterintuitive to me, is to roast or fry food. Yes, they’re relatively high heat methods of cookery. But by using them, I can usually evade the stand-and-stir duty: do all of the prep before even turning on the oven, then tuck the food into the would-be fiery furnace, set the temperature and timer, and head off to cooler climes until the alarm sounds for my triumphant return to check and/or finish the dish, and serve and/or eat it. Simple as that.

Roasted beetroot, for example, a nice way to enhance the flavors and textures of a cool late-summer salad, gets cleaned and quartered and then needs nothing more than a small amount of fat and perhaps a tiny bit of seasoning before it pops into the tanning booth. Goat cheese is delicious when lightly coated and shallow-fried, even if like me you’re not quite the culinary artist to present it with perfect Cordon Bleu pizzazz, and it takes no more than a couple of minutes, tops, at the cooker to brown that fine crumb

Roasted Beetroot and Goat Cheese Salad

Scrub and quarter a handful of medium-sized beets. (Clean and save the greens and stems.) Toss the beetroot pieces with a little fat (oil or melted butter; I used coconut oil to keep its noticeable flavor to a minimum), salt and pepper and scatter them in or on a baking or roasting pan. Since I was making such a small (2-person) meal, I just made a pseudo-pan out of heavy aluminum foil to keep any juices from dripping around the oven. Roast the roots at 350°F just until tender–10-20 minutes, depending on your oven and the size of the beet pieces.

Meanwhile, pat 1/2-cup batches of cold chèvre (goat cheese) into patties and coat them with coarse almond flour, pressing it in on all sides. Quick-fry these in a little butter in a nonstick pan over medium heat. You can see from my photos that I am far from adept at this part, so mine look less like haute cuisine than like something unearthed at Herculaneum, but I assure you, they taste quite fine.

Using in tandem these two homely yet highly edible items plus a small assortment of others, you can quickly assemble a presentable version of some hotshot chef’s beetroot-and-goat-cheese concoction and your stomach will not be critiquing the view anyhow. My version, this time around, consisted of a few of the tenderer, prettier beet greens pared down to the leaf and laid on the plate, a bit of peeled cucumber slices arranged in a green frame around the rest of the plate, and all topped with the chèvre rounds and roasted roots and a sprig or two of fresh dill. I’m sure that roasting any sweet enough veg or tuber–sweet potato, carrot, pumpkin, parsnip for example–would make a similarly fine complement to the bright, fresh taste of the cheese, which in turn could be substituted for with any nice salty/sour cheese, undoubtedly.

Which of course leads me to another hot-weather or hot-mama advantage of this preparation: the leftovers (if any) lend themselves to innumerable variant cold, cool or room temperature dishes that can be popped out of fridge or freezer next time the climate or one’s overheated innards require such things. Behold tomorrow’s dish: minced beet greens and stems, steamed quickly in the microwave while the beetroot was roasting, and now blended with that remaining diced vegetal goodness, some leftover quinoa, some diced dried apricots, a few pine nuts, a little orange dressing . . . and the beet goes on . . .photo


Foodie Tuesday: In a Froth over Broth

How do I love broth? Let me count the ways.

photoSo versatile and so flexible an ingredient, it’s surprising that broth should be so UN-intimidating, so simple to concoct once you get the hang of it. After all, it’s water and flavorings simmered together for a nice long party in the hot tub, nothing more really. I’m extraordinarily simplistic when it comes to broth: if it ain’t easy to brew and full of tasty smooth liquid-gold goodness when it’s done, it ain’t gettin’ made in my kitchen. It ought to have a nice dose of nutrients beaming out of its depths as well, but I’m not getting any meters and test strips and laboratory lunacy involved to prove my point; if the ease is easy enough and the soup is slurpy enough, my litmus test is satisfied.

Every time I slide the old slow cooker off its shelf and out to start the party going, I clutch at my heart to still the palpitations of happy-tude. Because somewhere along the line, this kitchen commitment-phobe who dreaded attempting to prepare anything that looked complicated and fussy and mysterious discovered that while a good broth may require a certain amount of attention and a couple of brief periods of semi-assiduous activity over a couple of days (!), it doesn’t have to be scary and impossible, even for me. And hooray, it doesn’t have to follow a persnickety recipe full of esoteric ingredients either.

Good soup-secret factoids I’ve learned:

1 – Don’t think too hard. The more I muck about with a Plan in the kitchen for anything, the more I tend to want to give up.

2 – Use good ingredients. Don’t cook with anything you wouldn’t be willing to eat as nearly unadulterated on its own as is safe or any booze or juice you wouldn’t be caught drinking on purpose. That age-old wisdom is handed down from the earliest generations of cooks precisely because it’s True and it works.

3 – Choose tools that work the way you want them to and keep the techniques as uncomplicated as possible. Good broth can be made without much real skill, I’ve learned, so don’t go and make it more daunting than necessary.

4 – Let the ingredients, tools and time do the work for you as much as possible.

I use a Crock-Pot®, because it’s the slow cooker I happen to have and I like it. I’ve had it for about a decade and it puts up with all of my kitchen monkeyshines without breaking a sweat. Okay, that’s a complete fib: slow cookers tend to “sweat” profusely inside; it’s part of what they’re designed to do. Mine has a see-through (except for that condensation) glass lid and a removable stoneware lining that lets me soak all of the evidence away after whatever I’ve wrought in my cooking frenzies.

The rest of my broth-making arsenal is basic as can be. My 10×14″ Pyrex® casserole baking dish (not seen here–it was in use elsewhere during today’s modeling photo-shoot) to put bones and/or vegetables in for roasting before the big simmer starts. Tongs and a sturdy spoon for tending and fishing around in the broth contents once in a while if needed, and a sturdy cooking spider (this 6″ diameter baby works great for my purposes). Our old pasta strainer cook pot, lined with a flour sack dish towel, is the perfect way to finish the broth straining once the cookery is done.

photoThe ingredients of my broth parties are variable. A basic vegetable broth from my kitchen is likely to be nothing more complex than the classic aromatic combination of carrots, celery and onion, with seasonings dictated by my mood and the intended uses of the broth (mmmm, shall I go southeast Asian this time? Head for something more Spanish and gently tuck in some saffron at the end? Throw in some fruit?).

Seafood broth starts with the same aromatics and gets whatever shellfish parts–yay, I get to say exoskeletons, because it’s correct and such a cool word!–I can get my paws on thrown in along with the available vegetal treats. I’m not entirely open-minded when it comes to the veg that gets added to broth blends, because there are some (cruciferous culprits, I’m looking at YOU, for example) that will take over the pot the minute they get a chance and you won’t taste anything else. No matter how much I like broccoli, I’m saving it for Cream of Broccoli soup where it can show off all it wants without being a pest, but otherwise I’m a segregationist lest there be a liquid coup d’état.

Roasting almost anything before simmering it in liquids, thanks to the ethereal effects of caramelization or Maillard reaction, is a great way to enrich and intensify the flavors of the brew, so if there’s time to do a medium-heat roast beforehand, it’s always a dandy addition. And since that process is so ridiculously simple, it’s one there’s no reason to avoid.

How I roast this stuff: scatter coarse chunks of tasty ingredients in a big flat pan (the aforementioned Pyrex, in my house), season them with a light sprinkling of good salt and black pepper and a spritz of some delicious fat (coconut oil, olive oil, butter, lard, bacon drippings–whatever the mood requires that happens to be on hand), and stick it all in the oven at around 350 degrees Fahrenheit until it smells irresistible and looks as pretty as a roasted-goodies picture should look. What to roast: aromatic vegetables, root vegetables, sturdy mushrooms, and/or any protein supplements headed for the pot. That shellfish armor, some hunks of not-very-tender meat or just bones from the same birds or beasts that are destined to be the centerpiece–they can all benefit from a bout in the tanning bed. If some of it browns nicely before the rest, pull it out earlier and throw into the cauldron to get a head start simmering.

photoAll of this takes far longer to tell than it does to do.

So. Pre-roast whatever you want browned. Then you load up the slow cooker with the browned goods, vegetal parts, and seasonings, cover it all with water and/or white wine (red almost always overpowers the flavor too much for mere broth), throw in another knob of butter or other fat if so moved. Me, I’m almost always moved to add fats, okay? Then Let. It. Cook. No need to fiddle with it again for a very long time. I usually let my broth simmer for a whole twenty-four hours and get all of the flavor and life I can out of the meat, bones, vegetables and seasonings I’ve corralled in my concoction.

Dedicated vegetarians, I accept your choice, but please allow me to differ; while I relish good vegetarian dishes any time, I also respect and admire quality seafood, poultry and meats that are simmered down to their essences in broth. I cook mine so intently–but not, I insist, intensely, as that would kill their flavor and defeat the purpose of this slow ritual–that often the heaviest beef bone in the pot will break into several pieces when I begin the straining process by shoveling out the solids with my spider. Waste not; taste’s in the pot.

I cannot emphasize enough how little it matters to me to do the constant-skimming, water-changing, pot-cosseting stuff that I’m sure has perfectly meaningful and scientific reasons for being done by so many expert chefs. I can’t be bothered, because when I finally do strain out my broth and let it cool and chill it overnight and pull off the fat cap, I haven’t got any leftover grunge I won’t happily glug down plain or in a recipe. I have clear, rich, smiling, shimmering soup stuff that straight out of the fridge wiggles like a happy dashboard hula doll from all of the natural gelatin in it, soup that has rich, deep flavor from the roasting and the combination of delectable ingredients, and especially from the long sensual spa treatment melding it all together, and that I personally think has benefited greatly from not being pestered or treated with distrust. I’m not above poking the spoon in about once every two hours during daylight to slightly rearrange the parts and just make sure everyone gets an equal soak, not to mention to let a little of that intoxicating steam float around the house, but otherwise I’m all about letting the low heat and long time do their thing without interference from moi.

My general favorite broth combination these days is as follows:

Yellow onion, skin and all. Sweet onions are too soulless for soup. Sorry, sweet onions!

Carrots and celery, washed but not peeled or trimmed.

Beef: shanks, oxtail, short ribs, marrow bones, and all of the trimmings from steak dinners that got set aside in the freezer for Broth Day. Chicken: the picked carcass of last week’s roast chicken, plus a piece of fried chicken that didn’t get et at the picnic on Saturday, also all rescued from freezer purgatory. Beef and poultry are great as soloists, but together they rock the house. Just sayin’.

A small palm-full of black peppercorns, several good bay leaves, a big sprig of thyme, about a half-dozen whole cloves and a half-teaspoon or so of whole allspice. Sometimes a stick of whole cinnamon. I never add salt at this phase, since the roasted stuff was lightly salted, the meats were seasoned for their previous meals, I don’t (yes, I confess it right here in front of God and everybody) bother to use unsalted butter, and I concentrate this brew all too well to get anything but seawater if I’m adding further salt incautiously.

[Sometimes I add a knob of grassy pastured butter at this point. Because it’s insanely delicious. If I don’t put it in the pot I’m tempted to just eat it anyway, so better in the broth than in me. Maybe.]

Lop everything into approximately 2″ rough hunks. Neatness doesn’t count. Fill the cooker loosely up to the max-fill mark and then fill in the nooks and crannies with liquid. Set it a-simmer and wait for the angels to come and alight on the kitchen counter in anticipation of the unveiling lo these many hours later.