Foodie Tuesday: Some Useful Rules for Desserts

Our recent trip in Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic served as a fine reminder that Europeans have some special talents when it comes to taking advantage of the fun factor of making and enjoying desserts. A cafe many of us from the choir tour group found on our stop just before crossing the Hungarian-Austrian border had a menu loaded not only with bright, shiny pictures but dessert items guaranteed to put any dedicated diner into a happy but instantaneous snacking coma.

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You really have to admire any dessert that is not only as substantial as this but has booze or some effectively delicious substitute for it in the mix.

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Switch a few of the ingredients and keep the sugary deliciousness quotient (and possibly, the eaters) high, and the menu begins to expand. As do waistbands on both sides of the international border.

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Something with a typically European liquor flair keeps the menu distinctly local, perhaps. Even if your typography can’t keep up with your recipe tinkering, good taste will abound.

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Hot raspberry sauce = Heisse Liebe (Hot Love, a traditional romantic dish) when served over rich vanilla ice cream. A great dessert for honeymooners (I just happen to know), and another way to brighten up the sweetness of a giant sundae.

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No reason to limit the brightness of either color or flavor to raspberries and ice cream; why not add yogurt and kiwi fruit for some jazz?

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But really, if you’re going to get splashy with the colors and textures and flavors, why not get more elaborate yet?

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Or make some kid-crazy concoction that will invite the most stoic and stalwart child of any age to play with his food?

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Heck, why not just make the dessert as *big* as a kid. No point in being shy or subtle if you’re serious about making desserts that compel attention and ravenous attacks on the dish.

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Of course, if you’re planning to entice the larger, older variety of child to eat, you might consider making some semblance of slightly more grownup-sounding dishes. How about a nice spaghetti-style sundae?

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What, that wasn’t flashy enough for you? Try a Pizza sundae. Not surreal enough in the spaghetti imitation department? Make some rich, red strawberry sauce to pour over the ice cream spaghetti. Or for the more soigné palate, perhaps a Carbonara version.

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Still, I have to admit that perhaps my favorite from this elaborate collection was the skillet-with-eggs doppelgänger, which in its simple ingredients would likely be a very yummy, creamy dream of an apricot cooler for a hot afternoon and also take a good run at pretending to be much better for me than piles of whipped cream and sweetened fruit.

All of this enticement aside—and I did, however reluctantly, lay it all aside despite the strong temptations, having already eaten a pretty substantial and dairy-laden traditional European meal of ‘fried cheese’ (crisply crumb-coated slow-melt cheese served with a sweet tartar dipping sauce)—there are other dessert paths to my heart, even in the heart of dessert-magical Europe. So I waited a moderate amount of time for my digestion, stroll aided, to recover from lunch before I opted for a much smaller and less elaborate dessert. elsewhere. It was only a single scoop of Stracciatella gelato, but it was cold, creamy, rich and delectable all the same. I’m not made of stone, you know.

 

 

 

Foodie Tuesday: Buried in Berries

Photo: Raspberry BonanzaOne of the joys of the warmer seasons is the abundance of fresh produce, not least of all, those little jewels the berries and close cousins like the aggregate fruits. Having grown up in a region known for fabulous berries, in a valley renowned, in fact, for farming them in its fertile volcanic soil in the Evergreen state, I know well enough the labor that it takes to successfully farm, pick, process and sell them, never mind shipping them intact anywhere, given their tender sensitivity and fleeting prime. But I certainly found my way past the sweaty, low wage, arm-aching, thorn-scratched, and slug-tormented frustrations of a short-time field hand to renew my love of fresh berries.

I have long since confessed to you that, despite their being among the easiest to farm and to pick, blueberries remain my most hated fruit, and I dislike pretty equally their flavor, smell and texture despite all attempts to convince me they are Superfood and worthy of desire. I am not a big fan, in fact, of any of the round, popping sorts of berries that are similar in my mind to blueberries in any way—currants, gooseberries, huckleberries, and so forth. I’m not that egalitarian. But the berries that I do enjoy, I gladly indulge in enjoying in quantity when they’re at their peak. I seldom tire of strawberries or of those magnificent rose relatives, the blackberries, raspberries, salmonberries, black raspberries and all of their delicious ilk. Ahhh, berry good!Photo: Blackberry Burst

One of the nicest things about really fine, fresh produce, of course, is that it tastes so good whether you do anything to or with it, or not. Straight out of the field, straight into my mouth. Bright, juicy, flavorful little pieces of heaven. Much as I happily enjoyed that dessert combination of my youth, angel food cake with berries and whipped cream, I think I might consider the berries the angel food part more than the cake. Berries in cream, whipped or not, are also a spectacular treat when I can get my hands on a dish, with or without a cake foundation.

The berries are marvelous as individual sorts or in happy combinations. Whole or mashed, sliced or diced. Superb in jams and sauces or salsas. Fabulous in smoothies. Outstanding when added to salads. Unbeatable in pies. One of the most delicious accompaniments to savory foods, especially something like some magnificent wild salmon or game, whether processed in some recipe or just eaten fresh alongside the fish or meat. Sweet and bright.

Oh, and berries make dandy liqueurs. Berries, sugar, vodka. In that order, in declining quantities, in a sealed jar or bottle. Bunch of weeks or months, shaking it up gently from time to time, while keeping it in a nice cool, dark spot between stirrings until the time seems right; strain the niceness and enjoy. Of course, it works fine without booze, too. Berries, some nice sparkling water and some sweetening.

These little gems are delicate. They are so fine in their pristine state that it would be wrong to over-process them. Don’t be a killjoy. There’s really no recipe here for success; in fact, the best so-called recipes for using fresh berries mostly leave them unsullied by cooking and doing much of anything other than stirring them in with other good things. What are you waiting for? If the season’s on, get thee to the nearest farmer’s market and stock up on glorious fresh berries. If they’re not in season, I apologize for your sorrow, but I must encourage you to make the most of preserves and frozen berries. Yep, they freeze well when properly treated. But my friends, do not slouch. Run, quickly, and get some berries. You can thank me later.

Photo: All Sorts of Berries

Foodie Tuesday: Keep Us Company

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Rice and wheat crackers with cheddar dip and salsa; carrots, jicama, olives, watermelon and lime wedges, to zip up any of it that’s in need.

Shared companions at their best help to strengthen individual relationships.

This is true of people, any great net of friends and acquaintances woven, knit and spun together making the two people at their center-most intersection better through their support. It’s true, too, of meals, where the cast of side dishes and sauces, condiments and accompaniments all work together to make the main dish better and more interesting than it would be on its own, and make a standard entrée a standout, distinctive and more memorable for the occasion.

Now, when these two instances of the supporting cast making the show coincide, things can be tons of fun. As on our latest anniversary, for example. We enjoy our twosome time immensely, and are glad to celebrate at any excuse, but we’re not sticklers for specific dates or rigorous traditions. So when our anniversary lined up with a rare opportunity to gather with a houseful of students, we merged our various celebratory plots into one plan.

Dinner for any more than four people is inevitably served buffet style when I’m in charge; besides my preference for informality, I like people to be able to sit at tables for ease of dining, and while I can make that happen for up to a couple dozen in our contiguous living, dining and kitchen spaces, it doesn’t leave much spare room for elbows, let alone heaps of serving dishes, on said tables. So it’s easier to concoct big-batch comestibles in big-batch pots and pans and let the guests scoop up platefuls of their own design at will.

This time, the centerpiece of the meal was my lazy version of carnitas, one of my pet make-ahead foods for carnivores, surrounded by a range of things that could keep the vegetarians, the allergic and the whatever-averse all reasonably well filled.

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The center of attention. Get those edges crispy!

Carnitas de Señora Loca

Take one big, fat-marbled haunch of a pork roast, cut it if/as needed to fit in the slow cooker, and tuck it in for a nice long soak, at least overnight and longer if possible. Its bath should be comfortably Tex-Mex in character: cumin, powdered garlic, chipotle powder or a canned chipotle en adobo, and, if you’re in the mood, some stick cinnamon, all to your taste; equal parts of Mexican [cane sugar] Coke–in my slow cooker, the measure is one individual bottle, orange juice, beer [I generally use either a Mexican beer like Modelo or Corona, or a Texan one like Shiner or Lone Star. I probably should give Armadillo Ale a try, since it’s a new brew produced right here in town. If I want to go wheat-free, I’ll use hard apple cider]. And one more ingredient in equal quantity: lard. Don’t be squeamish; if you’re eating pork, bathe it in the fat with which it was originally designed to be flavored and enriched, preferably great quality leaf lard, expertly prepared. There are plenty of good cooks around who are willing to go to the fuss of rendering their own batches of top-quality lard, but since I have access to grass-fed goodness of that sort I can’t imagine why I should.
A while before serving time, strain the falling-apart pork out of the liquid into a large baking dish, shred it, and put it in a hot enough oven to crisp the top layer, removing it for a toss and redistribution a couple of times so that there are plenty of nice crispy bits throughout but keeping watch to keep the meat generally very moist. Skim most of the fat from the reserved liquids and cook them down to reduce for a sauce while the meat is crisping.
Then pile a bunch of carnitas on your plate and surround it with loads of other food. Eat.

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Carnitas and all the fixings.

Don’t forget some coleslaw when there’s shredded meat, whether BBQ style or otherwise; the two are simply good friends for a good reason. The version of the day had sliced almonds, black and white sesame seeds, and a light lemon vinaigrette with a dash of honey. See, addicted as we are, I can sometimes vary slightly from my standard sushi ginger flavored creamy coleslaw. The creamy dressing, whether made with mayonnaise or yogurt or sour cream in its dressing, would’ve added elements not all vegetarians like, so I wanted to keep an option or two open. Cheese dip for the vegetable crudites was not going to allow such a thing, including not only the grated sharp cheddar and Parmesan cheeses but also an equal mix of mayo and sour cream, along with a pinch of cayenne and a dash of bacon-flavored salt), and I had asked ahead and was pretty sure I didn’t have any true vegetarians, let alone vegans, coming that day, only lighter meat eaters.

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Slaw, of course. Always a good choice, but wait–how to choose its style remains…

Since the non-meatatarians in the crowd might otherwise have been stuck with just salad and fruit, vegetable, cracker sorts of foods, I did make up a big batch of rice without my typical inclusion of homemade bone broth, substituting homemade vegetable broth for the occasion. I credit myself with making a pretty dandy broth, no matter what the kind, so no one was shortchanged in the equation, I hope.

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Corn salad. What, you need more?

The last side dish leaned back toward the savory and did include a little mayonnaise: corn salad made with fresh kernels of sweet corn, diced tomatoes and avocados, and for those who wished, crisp bacon pieces to sprinkle on top. You know me: if a passel of pork is a good thing as the main dish, why not more pork alongside it?

Besides, it seemed in keeping with the whole theme of the event, that of the constellation surrounding the centerpiece enhancing the latter’s goodness, that our friends enhanced our day, and therefore our happiness, by sharing the time and the meal with us.

If It’s Wednesday, This Must be Foodie Tuesday Deja Vu

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Why, yes, if you are a fresh berry. Those sweet little nuggets of juicy goodness are the very epitome of summertime’s joys, and the longer we can extend the berry adventure by means of preserved, frozen or baked goods, the merrier. I’ve already rhapsodized about my mother’s justly famed raspberry pie (the mystic quality of her ethereal pie crusts a deservedly notable part of the equation, in the interest of full disclosure), and she made many a jar of equally brilliant raspberry jam over her wildly productive years of canning and preserving. I will never be her equal in either of these arts.photo

I do, however, have enough fondness for some berries that I will gladly binge on them while their season lasts, and far beyond, in whatever forms are available, because I can practically feel the vitamins rushing into my cells when I do, and more importantly, because they taste so fabulous and are such great utility players on Team Food. On their own, they are magnificent and refreshing. In salads, a divine break from any leanings toward excess of greens. Think, for example, of a marvelous mix of butter lettuce, Romaine, toasted sliced almonds, shavings of fine Reggiano cheese and a generous handful of raspberries all happily commingling with a light creamy fresh thyme dressing. Transcendent! Fruit salad melanges practically insist on having a handful of berries gracing them when the season is right. And I’m told by those who eat blueberries that no berry surpasses them for muffin or pancake making. Me, I’ll gladly stick with Swedish pancakes piled up with whipped cream and fresh strawberries when it comes to the breakfast berry-ations. And of course there are endless possibilities in the universe of fruit smoothies when it comes to berries, whether you’re in the camp that must strain out the seeds or among those who appreciate the fiber therein.

And don’t get me started about desserts! The natural affinity fruit has for sweet foods is showcased wonderfully in so many after-dinner or coffee-time treats that a mere post could hardly suffice to even skim the list. But some goodies do come immediately to mind: strawberries dipped in chocolate; cloudberry cream, as I learned to love it when prepared in the seconds-long fresh season by my brother-in-law’s late mother; blackberry tapioca pudding. Pies, tarts, and crumbles, oh my. A heap of berries and a gentle sluicing of vanilla custard atop a slice of toasted pound cake. Honestly, few ways to go awry.

Still, the berry, with its pristine, bright, zingy flavor, and the hints of sweetness underlying it, makes a superb foil for savory dishes too, not least of all meats and seafoods. One of those ways to slip berry-liciousness into the main dish is to pool any of the multitude of possible berry-enhanced sauces and purees under, over or alongside a portion of entrée. I’m fond of Beurres Rouges ou Blancs made with wine, butter and berries cooked down to dense, flavorful stupendousness. Hard to argue with, say, a blackberry-Cabernet sauce served with lamb or duck, and I can only imagine that a dry, red-fruity Rosé would pair gracefully in such a sauce with raspberries or, dare I say it, salmonberries, to accompany a roasted filet of salmon or breast of pheasant or grilled chicken. Champagne Beurre Blanc is hard to resist with shellfish; why not top that with roasted strawberries and a quick grind of black pepper?

As you can see, what happens when I get the mere image of a berry into my tiny brain is that it plants the seeds for extensive food fantasizing. And that is hardly a bad thing, my friends. Bury me in berries. I could do much worse.

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