Foodie Tuesday: All Good Things Must Come to an End

That, my friends, is how the old saying goes. But it’s not, ahem, the ‘last word’ entirely. Many such good things are followed by other good things, after all!

And there are some, like the end of summer, that not only presage the arrival of such genuinely fine things as, say, autumn, but also can be celebrated at their conclusions with festive eating and drinking and other kinds of pleasurable activities that do much to ameliorate any pain of loss.

Some such celebrations are marvelously simple: when the summer is waning, it’s time to indulge in a last gleeful feast or two focusing clearly on the seasonal joys of fresh produce. It needn’t be any more complicated than a marvelous unfussy riff on classic Caesar salad, a glass of sparkling mineral water, and maybe a slab of rustic peasant bread decked out with cool sweet butter or a nice grassy olive oil.Photo: Great Caesar's Ghost!

One little notch upward might give you a Tex-Mex picnic, also uncomplicated and fresh and easy to eat. My recent one took the Southern familiar pimiento cheese and gave it a slight T-M twist when I blended Tillamook’s four-cheese combination of cheddar, Monterey Jack, Queso Quesadero and Asadero cheeses with chipotle salsa and a little butter to hold it all together smoothly. Then I layered this cheese spread with sliced smoked turkey breast between soft white corn tortillas into a little stacked torta. This little goodie makes a nice treat of a light lunch with some equally Tex-Mex pickled okra and a batch of fresh vegetables and other finger foods like black olives, cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas, carrot and celery sticks, and so forth. All washed down with some cold iced tea or fresh-squeezed lemonade, it helps take the edge off of losing summer for the year.Photo: Tex-Mex Pimiento Cheese Torta

If that’s not quite enough, there is always the warm glow that comes from indulging in the most perfectly ripe and gorgeous late-season produce in all its naked glory. Really, is there anything more soothing and refreshing and lovely than biting into a peak-ripe pear or apple or peach and letting its juice just slide down your throat like a mystical elixir of life?Photo: Peaches

Well, okay, there is that possibility of punching up the effect just a tiny bit further by letting slices of that sweet, juicy fruit swim lazily in a pool of lemon- or limeade, a light and sparkly soda, or (as pictured) a marvelous chilled—even, if it’s as hot outside as it was on the pictured occasion—gasp, iced! rosé or white wine. Sipping the very slightly infused drink until those lovely, tender bits of fruit are easier to catch and eat; that is a mighty nice way to bid a fond farewell to the tag-end of summertime. And if you’re a mom or host who appreciates kids’ need to fish out the pieces of fruit with their already sticky hands, that’s great, but you can always put the fruit chunks on skewers, freeze them into fruit-sicles, and use them first as drink chilling stirrers, then as dainty fruit pops. All quite in keeping with the background music of the sprinkler running one last time and the neighbors’ lawn mower getting one last bite out of the grass. Photo: Iced Peaches in Rosé

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!

Foodie Tuesday: Greenglorious

photoHow ’bout a vegetarian lunch? Whaaaat, me, sharp-fanged old carnivore that I am? Really? Oh, yes, my friends, sometimes the vegetarian route, even in my greasy old meatatarian hands, leads to a fine meal indeed. As an eater, I can always latch onto that old saying ‘I’m just happy to be here’. Whatever goodness is on offer.

Vegetarian meals, particularly in summertime, can be marvelously easy to prepare and not get me horribly overheated when I am fighting off the internal flames already. Let me be honest, my dearies, I am over fifty, a prodigy of sorts who got the great gift of hot flashes starting at the ripe young age of forty, so cookery that doesn’t require a whole lot of, well, cooking is a generally welcome thing these days. So, darlings, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Salad. That’s always an easy start. So keep it easy. Romaine lettuce, diced ripe pear. Sliced almonds, white and black sesame seeds. A touch of lemon juice. Couple of spoons full of the pickling liquid from sushi ginger, a lick of Persian lime olive oil and a jot of toasted sesame oil. Fresh, fast, cooling, nice.photo

Not that I’m opposed to heated stuff. After all, the physiological truth is that eating and drinking warm treats is pretty good at starting the body’s cooling mechanisms to work. Cool! Really! So this time around, I went with one of those dishes that are basic throw-and-go foods. Oven roasted cauliflower, fine; oven roasted me: too much of a good thing. So in a lightly oiled casserole I put a couple of cups of broken cauliflower florets, straight from the freezer (not previously cooked), tossed on a few teaspoons of cold browned butter, a couple of tablespoons of pine nuts, a handful of brown mustard seeds, and a quarter cup or so of shredded Parmesan cheese. Into the cold oven it all went at 350°F, covered for the first fifteen minutes and then uncovered until browned, and lastly left covered again at table to keep steaming while the rest of the meal got set.photo

The rest included some good gluten-free crackers to spread with almond butter and peach chutney, a few of my homemade sesame crackers and smoked almonds, and some cornichons and pickled lotus for a touch further of pizzazz. My favorite part of the meal–not a huge surprise in this hot summertime, I suppose–happened to be the day’s beverage. I put a cup each of peeled and seeded cucumber pieces, chopped fresh celery, cubed honeydew melon and fresh mint leaves into the blender with about a pint of water and the juice of a whole lime and a tablespoon or two of raw honey, gave it all a thorough smash-up, and then strained it. When I drank the blended juices straight up, that was lovely, so if you want your zing without cane sugar or effervescence, just leave out added pop. I’d chilled it that way a couple of days before, but to serve it, I combined it with equal amounts of cucumber soda (Mr. Q Cumber, yummy stuff), and it made a good, refreshing accompaniment to the rest of the meal.

Best accompaniment, of course, is always the good companionship of a fine fellow eater at the table. Yes, thanks, this was a delicious day.photo

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: All about the Ingredients

photoI’ve said it before, and lots of food experts smarter than I am have said it lots of times before I ever did: good food preparation starts with good ingredients. No amount of genius and skill will make a great meal out of so-so ingredients, let alone out of bad ones. And me, I have a modicum of smarts and very modest, though for a lazy goof-off like me, surprisingly patient skills. So yeah, I can get the job done, as long as I have some excellent ingredients in hand.

photoStarting with salt. One of the most indispensable of delights in the entire pantheon of foods and culinary assets from its first discovery, good salt in just the right quantity is the First Rule of Yumminess in many, many a dish. But, hang on, salt should still often be the last ingredient applied. Tricky, no?

photoThe meal, however, if it’s with fun guests on hand and stretching a little over the course of the day or evening, well that should begin with a little taste of something nice. For the other day’s dinner guests, who were indeed a whole lot of fun, the starters were simple enough, and already on hand: the crackers I made (and posted) last week, the olives I’d previously bathed in sherry and olive oil, and smoked almonds, plus a few chilled prawns with dill-enhanced cocktail sauce. A fresh, cold batch of light Sangría:

Blushing Sangría

Two 750 ml. bottles dry rosé (I used a nice dry Pinot Noir rosé by Toad Hollow), plus 1 bottle of sweet white wine (I used a bottle of Moscato), 1/4 cup of Amaretto, 1/4 cup of Himbeergeist, 1/2 pint of fresh raspberries, 6 small or 3 large fresh peaches, 1 teaspoon rose-water, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/4-1/2 cup of light agave syrup or raw honey. Stir gently and chill thoroughly before serving.

The peaches I bought were an unexpected mix of half overripe and half underripe fruits, so I peeled and sliced the underripe pieces into the Sangría, where I’d already immersed the raspberries, and the too-ripe ones I pitted; I put the mushy peaches and all of the skins from both kinds into the blender with a bunch of the liquid ingredients, blended them all thoroughly and sieved the pulp into the Sangría, so I still got all of the mileage of flavor and color from the peaches, if a little less sliced fruit. In the end, it was plenty drinkable, so all was well in our pre-prandial world.photo

photoThe meal needed vegetable balance, of course, so I kept the ingredients to a fair minimum again and the flavors simple. Why mess with good contents? A mix of heirloom tomatoes and red cherry tomatoes made a simple but flavorful topping for romaine lettuce with a couple of simple salad dressing choices. Sweet corn, freshly pared off of the cob, was gently and quickly warmed in butter. And some delicate asparagus was steamed with a little soy sauce, a little plain rice vinegar, a very small dash of toasted sesame oil and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

photoThe main dish, which I’ve undoubtedly mentioned in previous posts, was our old favorite household standby of Smoked Salmon Pasta. Not even a true recipe, really. Dearest John, I did not hand-craft my pasta. Yes, I bought refrigerated fresh fettuccine. Would that I’d had you supervising the party, not to mention in charge of the pasta-making, this element would indeed have been more, erm, elemental. Not to worry. Some day I shall reform. Meanwhile, a decent store-bought fresh fettuccine is not such a bad thing when dressed up just a leetle bit with smoked salmon cream. Simmer about a pint of heavy cream until it thickens to a nice sauce thickness, add about 1/4 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg and 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, 1 cup of broken up [hot smoked] alder smoked wild salmon, and a good splash of lemon juice. Toss gently with the freshly cooked and drained pasta and serve.photoThere are only two main high-quality ingredients needed to complete a pretty good party with all the rest of this, then. Dessert, naturally, should be offered–a bit of sweetness to follow all the preceding, and stretch as far into the evening as can be managed by all. But most significantly, the last essential ingredient of the gathering is, well, the gathering. The good company. We had that. Good enough company to want to stretch out the evening. So there was just a touch of dessert. Fresh strawberries and, you guessed it, chocolate.

photoI never said I was original in my menu planning. But I am really good at putting myself in excellent company, and that’s always what the party is all about. There you go: my real culinary talent is cooking up a right magical blend of outstanding people and enjoying the delights that result from the combination. Too bad there’s no cookbook out there that teaches that–no, wait–every good cookbook in the world gives guidance for just this art. As these good books teach us, choose your excellent ingredients wisely, food or company, and you will brew up a marvelous party.

Foodie Tuesday: My Salad Days are Not Behind Me

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Is it salad or crudites when it's deconstructed? Do I care, or am I just *really* hungry? Is salad so hard to eat unabashedly that it must be disguised as something else to pass muster? Is Vilma secretly seeing Ernesto at his nightclub El Gallo Llorón while she thinks Juan Maria is away on vineyard business?

Sometimes I think that Salad has a little bit of a stigma in the popular mind, even though ‘some of my best friends eat salads’. There’s just a hint that if one is too obviously fond of salads one must be (a) stuck in the 1970s–don’t get me started on alfalfa sprouts–(2) trying to lose weight and hopelessly clueless about all of the better miracle diets out there, or (lastly) some sort of chlorophyll-blooded alien. Despite the widespread knowledge that there are endless kinds and combinations of foods that can be classified as salads and that the vast majority of them are both rather tasty and potentially nutritious, there’s always some naysayer out there who thinks that there’s something just a tiny bit off about people who embrace frequent salad-eating.

I would find it seriously boring to eat salad often, too, if all salads were born alike, but that is far from the case. There are all sorts of recipes and inspirations available from every quarter, and definitions galore of what constitutes a salad. The origin of the salad construct is arguably that of a simple collation of a dish or meal, in antique times, consisting simply of raw, fresh vegetal matter seasoned with salt (the ‘sal‘ of salad), and occasionally, with vinegar and oil. The idea has expanded over the centuries gradually to include cheeses, meats, fish, eggs and nuts, and at some point probably around the latter nineteenth to regularly include mixtures of warm ingredients and often grains, legumes, and their offspring of breads and pastas as well. If you can’t figure out how to keep a salad interesting then you are as sadly unimaginative as the average politician and probably deserve to go hungry for a while to contemplate your sins.

All the same, I have no objection to a rather staid and standard sort of salad, a plain bit of greens or greens with a few ‘classic’ add-ins–juicy sweet tomato; a bit of diced avocado, perhaps–and maybe a splash of good dressing, either as a light meal or a side dish. The much-maligned ordinariness of even a wedge of supposedly flavorless iceberg lettuce can sometimes add an exceedingly welcome and refreshing bit of mild crunch and hydration to offset an otherwise heavy or over-the-top sort of meal. There’s a perfectly good reason the ‘Wedge Salad’ has remained wedged onto the menu of virtually every standard American steakhouse for so very long, in between the slabs of highly seasoned beef and the creamed This and butter-slathered That and deep-fried Other, all quite delicious indeed but occasionally in want of one coy kiss of contrast or brightness in some fashion.

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In our hearts, we're all kind of plain, but is being ordinary a *bad* thing? Or is it mostly just comforting? Is a salad comprising only common uncooked vegetables and dressed abstemiously with a squeeze of lemon juice and a slurp of olive oil anathema, or can it be loved for its pure, taste-able simplicity? Honey, do deer eat salad in the woods? (Or just salal?)

I suppose I could be said to be more fond of or partial to salads that take the trouble to stand out from the crowd just a little bit, or at least less likely to become jaded by them since they vary the input on the palate. Why not jazz up the greens with a bit of roasted vegetable or bright fruit, with some shredded or crumbled cheese, some toasted nuts? Give the dressing a little boost of unexpected flavor. Make it a meal by putting some handsome protein in that invitingly verdant nest. But let’s not get crazy here! At some point, a concoction too complicated ceases to be a salad and becomes either a circus sideshow not very enticing as actual sustenance or more about ideas than about taste, and I find that tiresome in any part of a meal. If food is entertaining, great, but if entertainment is inedible, don’t try to tell me it’s dinner.

For that’s what it all means to me, finally: does what I’m serving genuinely satisfy hunger? Does it actually taste good? Does it express hospitality by being sensitive to the tastes and health of guests at the table? If it doesn’t meet those criteria, all of the artful towers of constructivist salad art and all of the impressive molecular gastronomist foams and gels and powders, the foodie-swooning truffles and caviar and smoked duck ravioli and balsamic-martini dressings in the world won’t save it from death-by-silliness. Let’s hear it instead for a thoughtful, pleasurable combination of flavor, texture, color, scent and sensibility that balances the needs of the diners and plays nicely with whatever else is brought to the feast.

Lately, my salads have been fairly basic again, combining the wonderfully homely base of romaine lettuce leaves or shredded cabbage with whatever array of old-fashioned but still tasty partners I happen to have on hand and be hungry to devour and topped with a lick of some complementary dressing for the big, if unsurprising, finish. I’ll be hungry soon enough for a hit of pizzazz in some part of the salad equation, whether it’s a whole new salad or just a garnish I’ve not enjoyed in a while. Because I’d hate for the old-familiar to become dull and unappealing. That is the very definition of being too far gone to recapture one’s salad days.

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A salad certainly needn't be fussy, only friendly, to enhance the dining experience; it's more important to balance the other characteristics of the meal than to show off what wild and weird tricks a salad can be made to perform. Unless you happen to know how to, say, make yellow tomatoes turn into red tomatoes when you put the dressing on the salad or how to make origami swans out of butter lettuce leaves.

Being beautiful, after all, is more about attitude than pedigree, so I’m more concerned that my salads be composed of flavorful fresh ingredients, play a proper supporting role to the stars of the meal (the people, first, and then the entrée), and in true Coco Chanel style, always be appropriately dressed. Even Coco, I feel certain, would admit that certain occasions require tasteful nudity, but she would know better than anyone that most events are best served by a well-designed and appropriate ensemble and careful accessorizing. With that, I scratch out here a couple of my thoughts about salad dressings, which like salads themselves seldom require an actual recipe–if they need one, they may have gotten too complicated for their own good.

I think of salad dressing as a marvelous way to distinguish the beauties of a particular salad. Something astringent works better with salad than with nearly any other course of the typical meal, so if the meal needs a little flash, that’s a great place to create it. For milder needs, despite my love affair with heavy cream, I know that creaminess in salad dressings is rarely best accomplished by incorporating actual dairy cream. A better partner with salads is an emulsion, generally two liquids that want to hate each other being brought into détente by mechanical means. Typical examples would be an acid ingredient like vinegar or citrus juice and a fat-centric goodie like oil or egg yolk, the two ingredients being beaten into submission by gradually incorporating the fat into the acid with a vigorous, airy, steady whisking. Sort of like a cranky teacher putting the harsh reality of thoughts into my fat head by forceful means. Not that any of my own teachers was ever like that. (Cough! Mrs. Finley!) Once I have (or a persnickety teacher-like person has) made the dressing’s basic parts behave properly together, there are endless sorts of herbal, spicy or other flavors that can be invited to play along with them for individuation and to better suit all of the dinner’s other ingredients.

Here’s a little combination to try: 1 part ginger juice (freshly grated ginger root will do, if you don’t have bottled juice), 1 part soy sauce, 2 parts maple syrup or raw honey, 2-3 parts lime juice, 2-4 parts macadamia or coconut oil (or any mild flavored oil you like). Put them all together in a tightly lidded jar or bottle and shake vigorously. Adjust to taste. Dress the salad just before serving or let guests dress their own salads. Fitting add-ins or add-ons for this sort of dressing are toasted or black sesame seeds, ground black pepper, toasted sliced almonds or pine nuts. Well suited to mixed green salads with sweet orange segments, diced dried apricot, ripe avocado, grated myzithra cheese, kale, thinly sliced jicama or daikon or sweet radish, or . . .

What? You can’t hear me over the crunching? Well, then, grab your salad fork and join me. I won’t tell anyone you’re one of those, you know, salad eaters.