Foodie Tuesday: Good Gravy, Man!

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.


Squash and apples make fine companions.


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.


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.


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!


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!


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

Foodie Tuesday: Salmon Champagne Evening


Shake it up a little even when you’re hungry for a favorite: this time I made my staple smoked salmon pasta in lemon cream sauce with a half-and-half combination of hot-smoked and cold cured salmon. It was a hit, and we demolished the dish in double time.

Salmon is calling me once again. Steamed, poached, roasted, smoked; cold, room temp or hot. I love it as a broiled filet and I love it as freshly made sushi. It is the perfect fat and tender foil for lemon cream sauce with pasta, the ideal topping for a chewy cream cheese-schmeared bagel, and the cedar planked heart of a gorgeous summer supper.


Salmon, simply cooked in a covered stove-top pan with ginger juice and lime juice, makes a quick and tasty main dish for a simple meal. And can you tell I love dill with salmon? Must be my Norsk roots showing. Of course, I could also make a Champagne beurre blanc or a Champagne version of Hollandaise, and wouldn’t that be nice, too?

So I thought it was time to make some nice salmon cakes to cheer my salmon-loving heart and fill my seafood-hungry innards. What else is a landlocked mermaid to do?photo

Sweet Salmon Cakes

2 hand-sized boneless, skinless wild salmon filets

1 small tin of tiny, briny sweet shrimp (drained) [when minced, these combine with the potato flour and egg as great binders for the cakes]

Juice and zest of 1 small lemon

1 teaspoon of Tamari

1 teaspoon of vanilla

1 Tablespoon of sushi gari (pickled ginger)

1 Tablespoon of potato flour

1/4-1/2 teaspoon lemon pepper

1 egg

Combine all of these ingredients in a food processor and pulse them together until they’re as coarse or fine as you like for fish cakes. [In lieu of a food processor, you can of course hand mince the fish and shrimp and mix together lightly with the other ingredients.] Don’t overwork the blend. Form the mix quickly into 4 cakes and coat them generously with no-additive dehydrated ‘mashed’ potato flakes. Fry the cakes over medium-high heat in butter (use a nonstick pan) until golden brown. Turn off the burner before the cakes are fully cooked, and just let them finish cooking as they set up while the heat’s dissipating from the burner. These, too, would of course be swell with Hollandaise or beurre blanc, but worked nicely on this occasion with lemony avocado puree, and were happy companions with a cup of Southern style tomatoes, okra, corn and green beans, plus  butter-steamed carrots bathed in maple

Foodie Tuesday: Ploughman’s Lunch & Cavegirl Quiche



I want to eat joyfully and intently and live a long, healthy life, then die and get recycled.

You know that although I respect veganism and the very solid reasons millions of people have for choosing not to eat animals and animal products, I am, like some other animals, an omnivore myself. Like these brother animals, I am okay with eating my fellow creatures. Hopefully people who respect animals’ right to be carnivores can respect a human’s wish to be a carnivorous animal as well. Yes, I want animals to be treated with great care and respect while they live, and yet I know that they’ll die; I expect no less on either count for myself. I would love to know that when I die it would be permitted, instead of my personal-leftovers having to be buried in a state-sanctioned impermeable box to take up prime real estate in perpetuity, for the aforementioned detritus to be left in the woods for some nice creatures to eat up, and what remains to fade into the grand recycling unit of the forest. Short of that, I have arranged with my loved ones to cremate what-was-me [after any possible organ farming is accomplished] and put my ashes into garden-feeding, where at least I will fertilize feed for ruminants and so serve as a smaller part in earth’s renewal. That’s what I think we’re all designed to do. Carbon to carbon. So whether I get eaten or make a less obvious contribution as a small pH balancing agent in the dirt, I plan to return the gifts that others, animal and plant alike, have given me in my life. This is not particularly meant to be a political or religious statement on my part, as I apply it only to myself, and I don’t begrudge anyone’s disagreement with it, it’s just a worldview that seems pragmatic to me. I am not saying this to court condemnation or controversy (you know I despise them) but simply to be honest with myself as much as with you.

So my protein preferences arrive as fatty and delicious nuts, eggs, seafood and, indeed, meats. I tend to be very old-fashioned in that way, following the path of my workman ancestors, and even their ancestors back in the hunter-gatherer days. I am enormously (no pun intended) grateful for the gifts of the earth that keep me not only alive but healthy and even well fed, and I don’t want to squander or be thoughtless about such magnanimity. Hence my determination to eat more deliberately and moderately as I grow older, and also my penchant for being ever more inventive in refusing to waste the goodness of any part of my personal food cycle. The recent posts about rescuing broth-making remnants are a tiny testament to this commitment. I’m a junk food junkie like everybody else, loving stuff that’s far from good for me, but I’m gradually learning to lean a bit further toward the less trashy ways to enjoy those elements that are the true reasons I like junk, not the addictive formats in which they’re presented to us by commercial producers and retailers so that we’ll just treat them–and our bodies–like garbage by over-consuming them thoughtlessly.

I want to eat joyfully and intently and live a long, healthy life, then die and get recycled.

A couple of the variant meals I based on my recent beef ginger mousse making fed both my frugal and my treat-hungry sides. Having the pre-made avocado mash around amped up both aspects as well, and the addition along the way of some other easy-to-keep ingredients made it all pretty much homemade fast food without the related regret.


Another day, another ploughman’s.

Ploughman’s lunch, that great English enthusiasm for serving and eating what’s essentially deconstructed sandwiches–bread, cheese, chutney, pickled goodies, and so forth–are pretty common around our house. The differences in our tastes, multiplied by the number of friends sharing the meal, makes it easier to stick to assemble-it-yourself service for so many things that the logic of the operation is obvious. Since I’m generally weaning myself from wheat, that makes a hands-on, fork-in version of the Ploughman’s even more useful. Beef mousse and avocado mash make this easy. Hard boiled eggs are a grand addition, but a quick scramble or fry is fine as well. Chutney or jam alongside? Oh, yeah. Pickles of any sort are a plus. Add the crunchy pleasures (and instant utensils) of carrots, snap peas, celery, apples, jicama, radishes or any number of other good crudites and you’ve got all you can handle, short of a cold cider, iced tea, beer or lemonade. Filling, varied and delicious.


Ploughman’s redux: beef mousse with pureed fresh tomatoes and mint, olives, pickled green beans, roast chicken, snow peas and apple.

For a cave-dweller-pleasing rearrangement of the same essential ingredients, I stacked it all up and sliced it into a semblance of a pie, first as a single layer and then as a double-decker version. Rather than baking it all up as an actual crustless quiche or omelet, which should be simple and tasty with the addition of some beaten eggs (and if I had some on hand, a bit of shredded cheese), I ate it cold and was not sorry to have the quicker version either. This one, given my previous pseudo-recipes on the topic, can be pretty easily illustrated in assembly by pictures only. What you choose to do with it is up to you! As long as you don’t disappoint me by wasting it. [Winking broadly.]

photo montage

The Cavegirl Quiche Assembly Line: sliced chicken or smoked turkey; mashed lemony avocado; sliced olives; pate or beef mousse; fried or scrambled eggs; tomato-mint puree; pickled green beans.


A wedge of cavegirl quiche. Enough to take the edge off a day’s hunting and gathering.


The double-decker version of cavegirl lunch: how to get ready for yet further mastodon chasing and saber-tooth battling.

Foodie Tuesday: Some Things Never Change. And Why Should They, Eh!

It’s unclear where the phrase ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ originated (though it can easily be believed attributable to Texans before its wider popularization), but the precept is in my mind particularly apropos when it comes to foods and eateries that reach a particular stage of development that makes them Classic. Every town seems to have a diner, joint, cafe or pub that has essentially congealed into a certain form and is revered to the point that its regulars and even unattached fans will gladly rally in defense of its remaining unchanged forever. Where else would we go?photoGreatness is not essential, but being the paradigm of whatever it might be that the place or food represents gradually becomes codified as something very nearly sacred. The comfort in being able to revisit one of these places any time and find the familiar favorite food, drink, decor and ohyespeople, people is pretty much a saving grace in the midst of a dull or dark spot in life, whether it’s been a bad day or a bad decade–or just a time when you’re hungering for something more than just calories.photoMe, I’ve got a passel of favorites from all of the phases and places my life has crossed thus far, and doubtless I’ll find new ones as long as I do live. That speaks less to my personal obsession with food, good food, lots of food and equal amounts of fun and atmosphere than it does to the wide availability of tremendous cooks, distinctive and colorful rooms, buildings and locales, and fantastically personalized recipes for nearly everything imaginable. The fundamental dish, drink, dining space or clientele need not be genuinely unique or even world-class (not that that hurts!)–it’s about the combination of them and the way that the parts all strike one on the occasion that lures her back. And then back again.photoAll I should really say on the occasion of such fond reminiscences is that if you don’t already have favorite spots that you’ve visited often enough for the people running them to recognize you, exchange information about life outside the eatery, and then bring your order with all of its weird customized combinations and/or deletions without batting an eye, you had better get moving and find one or ten.photoAnd further, I should say Thank You, Tea Leaf and Harbor Lights [here, if you read the critic’s linked review of the recent renovation and its early results, is living proof of my thesis, should you be interested], Ranchman’s and Miko Sushi, Anglea’s and Mi Ranchito and 42nd Street Cafe & Bistro [an example of a place that has kept a fantastic balance between changing over time and maintaining high quality food and great people]; Thank You, Dave and Hallie, Francisco and Tony, Blaine and Cheri, Teresita and Allessio and Abuelita and all of you other wondrous souls who have been keeping the rest of us contented and coming back over all these years. Yeah, you too, you people over there in England (ohhh, that fabulous Chinese hole-in-the-wall with Sizzling Lamb, and the suave Indian place across from the V&A) and Sweden (I’m looking at you guys making us shrimp pizzas in the wood fired oven in the Stockholm train station and the people creating amazing steak frites with cognac and green peppercorn sauce in Gamlastan) and Panama (Italian salmon pasta in Central America? Oh, yes! Oh, boy!) and so many, many more. Thank You.

Foodie Tuesday: India Calling

Who needs call centers in India, I ask you. India calls me all the time, without any help from batteries of trained phone service representatives, using only its myriad delicious foods. Works all the time!photoFor a recent sit-down, for example, I was lured by the siren song of Tikka Masala. Too short a lead time for cooking on the occasion meant I’d need to doctor up some ready-made sauce, and there are certainly plenty on the supermarket shelves, so I picked out a jar and took it home to sauce some leftover roasted chicken and serve over leftover chicken broth rice. On tasting, the sauce proved to be a bit insipid and not quite what I had in mind, but it served as a fair base for a good dish with just a few little additions.  A bit of tweaking with cloves, cardamom and cayenne got it going slightly more brightly. A toss of coconut is seldom amiss, so yeah, I threw that on top.

Buttery peas, freshly cooked pappadums and a spoonful of raita rounded out the meal. I was delighted to discover that ready-to-fry pappadums from the grocery could be easily prepared in the microwave, of all things, which made my dinner’s trip over from India just that much shorter, a good thing indeed. Raita is such a grand condiment, jazzing up many a different dish or meal with its cool and refreshing blend of plain yogurt with a few flavor enhancers like, in this instance, finely diced cucumber, dill, fresh mint and a touch of salt and pepper.photoThe leftovers, since the raita was eaten and gone after the first day of this batch of Tikka Masala and there wasn’t a lot of chicken left in it either, got further doctoring. I added some plain yogurt directly to the dish, and a good sprinkling of my favorite homemade curry powder along with some brown mustard and black sesame seeds. I didn’t want to fix or add more chicken at the moment but wanted to expand the dish enough to fill me up, so I thought I’d love some palak paneer alongside. I love that spinach puree with farmer’s cheese in it, but, erm, it’s hard to make when there’s no spinach around. And no actual paneer, either, it turns out. So I took the similarly slow-melting cheese I did have on hand and cubed it directly into the sauce along with the chicken and peas. I’m pretty sure that this iteration of mine departed so far from true Tikka Masala dishes that it would be virtually unrecognized by any real Indian cook (no matter how far the true Indian versions vary, from what I’ve heard), so I guess India can’t be blamed for what I have perpetrated. But then again, the inspiration, the motivation–that’s all India’s fault.photoAnd I, at least, thank her.

Nuclear Winter Descends on the Kitchen

I am so not that blogger. You know, the one who makes stupendous, dazzling, dream-fulfilling, frenzied dance inducing deliciousness every time I enter the temple of cookery and take skillet in hand. The artiste-de-cuisine whose documentation of each morsel of impending salivary serenity is preened and primped into further gleaming gloriousness and photographed more glossily than a phalanx of supermodels in swimsuit season. The doyenne of dining, the poet of pumpernickel, the queen of quenelles, writing elated paeans to the plate that stimulate the appetite and soothe the spirit simultaneously, every word a twinkling, perfectly faceted gem of gustatory wisdom and love.photoSee, what my heart is cooking and what my hands and brains are genuinely capable of producing are not necessarily identical in nature, not wholly synchronous. I start out with a perfectly innocent yellow capiscum, intending nothing more sinister than to slice it into tidy segments and give it a friendly saute in a spot of sweet butter, and I think to myself, Why, that’s a mighty pretty bit of golden sunshine! I really ought to take its portrait. And sometimes it cooperates moderately well, and at other times it becomes something of an extended exercise in abstract thinking to even discern that the resulting portraiture is indeed of a sweet pepper, and a rather tasty one. It refuses to be anything other than a poor defenseless bell pepper mauled malevolently by bad knifework and lying listless, awaiting its ultimate destruction in a frying pan. I mean well, really I do.photoThere was, for example, an incident the other day involving an attempt to make (for the first time in a verrrrrry long time, mind you) crepes for supper. I wanted to make them without flour, since I’m making a sincere effort to battle an addiction to wheat and offset the unkindness it seems to do to my stomach. So to the eggs I added only a splash of cream to thin them a bit, a pinch of salt and a touch of vanilla for depth of flavor. So far, so good. But of course, not having made crepes in eons, I made the first one so far too thick that it morphed quickly into a leather-thick omelette of unwieldy proportions and promptly subdivided into continental shapes and semi-detached crevasses when I attempted to force it to wrap around the roast-chicken chunks anyway. The second was more successful, but given that the crepes were already going to be fairly huge and there were only two of us coming to the table, I’d only made enough batter for two crepes, so one remained a geographical disaster area when plated.

It’s hardly the worst sin I’ve committed in the cooking realm, but even the vegetable-mushroom medley in herbed tomato cream sauce being lapped over the top and sprinkled with shredded mozzarella to melt couldn’t exactly disguise the rocky profile of the crude assemblage underneath. Ah, well! It tasted fine enough that (given the huge portions) chopping up the remainder in a little casserole with some added tomatoes and more sprinkled mozz and cheddar to melt in made a perfectly serviceable (and actually, prettier) pseudo-lasagna for brunch the next day. I keep reminding myself that aroma and flavor, not good looks, must always remain the chief arbiters for the biters of the dish.

photoBut I can’t help but judge a dish on its beauty, still, and neither do any others unless they’re genuinely starving. Christmas Day’s standing rib roast of beef (above) was as tender and juicy and flavorful as any I’ve made, and in fact the gravy was a delicious simple reduction of beef juices and Cabernet finished with a bit of butter, but they didn’t impress with their devilishly handsome appearance as much as they might have done if I’d more intelligently plated the meat on top of the sauce, especially in the company of such homely looking side dishes as sweet coleslaw and brown-butter mashed potatoes. Presentation remains elusive, and capturing it on camera even more so. I must continue to learn!

Meanwhile, back at the oven, there are more serious disasters, ones that if compounded one with another and another as they were last week for some infernal reason beyond my ken, verge on apocalyptic. The centerpiece of one such Perfect Storm of kitchen failures was the day in which I managed to mis-set two crucial cooking elements at once. The end result of the first was that the wrongly timed egg boiling created not the expected hard-boiled eggs (a simple enough thing!), not even soft-boiled eggs mind you, but implosive mutant mush that was unsalvageable and decidedly unpalatable and went straight from kettle to compost in a trice. I was relieved that the Dutch oven finishing its long time in the sauna at least held a nice batch of broth that had been simmering overnight–that would cheer me up–relieved, that is, until I discovered that I had apparently jostled the lid out of place the night before and left just enough gap that not only did the liquid all vanish in a beautiful cloud, it left behind such a blackened, smoking pile of bones and charred vegetables and meat bits that I not only had to chisel out what I could and soak the pot for two days, continuing the excavations until I could scrub it back to a recognizable enamel surface, but I could also literally not photograph it at all. It was the perfectly even black of deep outer space, offering not a single change in surface that could reflect the light required by a camera lens for recognition. The smoke released when I opened the pot took days to clear from the house, and the only upside I can think of is that the pot was too tough to die despite its trial by fire.photoSo any time you are feeling a little blue, a little inadequate as a chef or depressed as a foodie, take heart. I have not only managed in spite of myself to keep self and fellow diners alive and un-poisoned for all of these years, even without resorting to the antique cure-all elixir waiting on the apothecary shelf, but have even occasionally risen above my faults and produced some memorably tasty, yes, even prettily presented, treats that people who didn’t even owe me money complimented. I’d show you the best of them and preen a little, but documentation still remains my weakest suit, and of course there’s that perpetual problem where the really good stuff gets eaten before you can say Photo Op! and dash for the camera. Later, perhaps. Dig in!

Foodie Tuesday: Bechamel Mucho (Songs for a Saucy Character)

photocollage + textI love sauce. Saucing a great dish properly is a little bit like creating the right music to shape a fine piece of text: suddenly this new dimension brings out a whole range of new and beautiful textures and nuances that were lying there in wait all along but are awakened by the new partnership into something even deeper and lovelier. Words and music. Food and sauce.

Sing along with me, if you will. Bésame Mucho! Glorious things happen in the kitchen, love is brought to light, when the sauce is a-simmer. It’s enough to make a clodhopper like me sing and dance. (Sensitive readers, please avert your eyes, or you’ll end up wanting to evert them.)

One of the best things about saucing is that it doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult to have a great impact on a dish. The prime example of this, natürlich, is a simple deglaze–one additional ingredient that brings a lot of happiness to the dinner party. It’s nothing more than a way to rinse the pan with any fitting liquid that will loosen all of the good fond, or browned goodies and drippings, left in the pan in which the dish’s main ingredients were cooked. It can be kept nice and thin and loose or further reduced to thicken, either easy without adding a single other ingredient, or it can form the friendly base for yet more monkeying around. All good!


Sometimes all it takes is a nice loose juice to deglaze the pan . . .

Which brings me to another great and lovable thing about sauces. There are such an enormous number of possible combinations of ingredients, proportions, and techniques that I’d bet any cook worth her salt (never mind all of the other ingredients) could cook her way through a long and delicious life without ever repeating a single sauce precisely. Almost frightening, that, but really quite exciting and encouraging in its way. A restaurant chef’s career depends on just the opposite, that she be able to reproduce to a virtually molecular level the same sauce over and over, meal by meal, dish by dish, once it’s on the menu. Patrons will rebel if given any surprises or disappointments. But the home cook, if his family is the least bit adventuresome or just plain ravenous, has the possibility of playing with his food and, if he’s lucky, discovering in the process the next world’s favorite. Or at least his wife’s.

Even the classic sauces offer incredible opportunity for invention, if you can master the basic form. Bechamel, salsa verde, Bolognese, hoisin, barbecue sauce, mole, tartar sauce. Me, I’m not such a master of basics. But I eventually figure my way around things, with enough expert guidance from my various kitchen muses in person or through recipes and other forms of fabulous foodie folklore. I try a whole bunch of different versions and variations and mess around, I read up, I lick the spoon, I experiment on all of my friends and loved ones (and I sincerely apologize for whatever culinary atrocities I may have perpetrated over the years against any undeserving parties), and I work my way around to sauces that I’m willing to try repeating, or that I even get asked for again. Sometimes it’s a long, puzzling path of kitchen adventure that leads to a complex and subtle sauce. Sometimes it’s just the joyful re-creation of a straightforward childhood favorite, and no less welcome on the plate or on the tongue.

So in closing today, I commend to you my very favorite variation on perhaps my very favorite sauce. I am mad for Hollandaise. In particular, my lifelong love is the Hollandaise version I learned from my mother, who learned it long ago from Queen Betty Crocker. It’s not an old-school French version with vinegar or white wine, it’s purely eggs, lemon juice and butter. I’m such a down-home bumpkin that I like it best made with [really top quality] butter that is <horrors!> salted. I’ve even learned that I like it quite well if I just hot up a cup of butter with two tablespoons of lemon juice until nice and sizzly, pour it into a blender, and spin it while I drop a couple of pretty whole farm fresh eggs right in, and watch it whiz while it quickly cooks the eggs just enough to thicken into a ridiculously delicious “instant” whole-egg Hollandaise that I will happily eat on fish, on pasta, on pork, on sautéed greens, on (sure!) Eggs Benedict, on sweet fresh fruit, on a shortbread, on a spoon. What can I say, I have a lemony Hollandaise <ahem!> problem. Thankfully, there’s not yet a twelve-step program to cure me, so I can keep on indulging my addiction as long as I like.

That, my friends, is sweet music to my ears.


Sing along with me again . . . shall we have a little Monteverdi this time?