Foodie Tuesday: Something Completely Different

It’s not just a trademark Monty Python phrase; sometimes in cookery it’s worthwhile and enjoyable to veer off and say it’s time for Something Completely Different. I’m not talking about molecular gastronomy, because I have neither the knowledge nor the patience to imagine and execute anything quite so transformative, but it can certainly be useful and even tasty to rethink the what-I’ve-always-done approach from time to time.photoMaking broth as often as I do, I’m regularly faced with the aftermath of it in the form of tiny meat scraps, softened bones and mush-cooked vegetables and think it a pity to waste anything that might be salvageable. So a little while ago I got intrigued by seeing what I might do better with this stuff than merely throwing it out.

First thought was that bones are bulky yet biodegradable objects that, in a landfill, will take up a hunk of space there a lot longer than, say, those of a decaying creature left to the elements would do. And that, coincidentally, a soil amendment and critter-control element often required for good gardens is bone meal. So I dried out the bones thoroughly and set them out in a safely remote corner of the yard where the compost heap lives. Waste not, and all that.

More to the culinary point, I thought it silly to toss out all of the vegetable leftovers of the process when, though they will certainly have given up some of their nutrients to the broth, will probably also have gained some back from their fellow ingredients along the way, so they oughtn’t to have lost all of their nutritional worth in the cooking. The carrots are the only members of the party that haven’t mostly melted to nothingness in my usual broth process and can be individually retrieved, so I picked them out of the strained ingredients, along with a few small pieces of celery and onion, and pureed them with just a touch of added broth and a pinch of salt, and had a nice, faintly savory pudding.photoAdding some juice-packed mandarin orange segments (reserving the juice for later use elsewhere) made it into a really tasty little side dish of comfort food with very little effort. Warming some black raspberry jam and drizzling it on top of the pudding or swirling it in made it into an even jazzier little light dessert. The contrast of the punchy colors was matched by the contrasts in savory and sweet, in the soft pudding and bursting orange sections and the tiny crunches from the berry seeds.photo montageAll that was left for reinvention from the broth straining was the marrow and meat that, while not enough to make a meal alone, still filled a bowl with beefy goodness. It was clearly too soft to be especially attractive as a pot roast sort of thing, let alone a plated slice of anything recognizable as meat. Paté came to mind. Heck, I’d already had the stick blender busy to make my carrot pudding, so why not put it to further use on the day? The beef bits, along with a couple of hefty tablespoonfuls of butter, a half teaspoon or so of salt, and a little broth to make it workable, got pureed into a smooth, buttery spread that waits in the freezer for the time when it will be thawed, chilled in a ramekin, and served with crackers or toast, cornichons and cocktails, just as though I were an ideal 1960s magazine housewife. Well, I grew up in the ’60s and I’m a homemaker; close enough.

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It may not look like much, but as a poor-man’s fois gras it’s dreamier than you might think. I like to think of myself in a similar fashion, ’60s housewife or not. Wink-wink.

Foodie Tuesday: Savory, then Sweet

Dinner and then dessert. That’s the way I was raised, and I think a zillion other people had the same, despite the urge most children I know have always had to eat dessert first–and possibly, to stop there. Now that I’m wonderfully old, I can do that, and don’t hesitate to indulge now and then. But along with my well-known love for combining the sweet and savory together, whether it’s merely by adding a bit more salt to desserts or it’s designing a meal to have a wider range and greater balance between the savory and the sweet, there are plenty of times when a semblance of conformity to the old norm is perfectly satisfying to both my empty stomach and my sweet tooth.photoThere is much that I love about the simplest of meals, not only because it pleases me that they’re easy to prepare but because they also allow–nay, invite–the savoring of their few and uncomplicated parts. A chicken-and-noodles dinner, for example, can be barely more than those two ingredients and fill me comfortably and contentedly. Chunks of roasted or baked or fried chicken tossed in with fresh fettuccine that has been cooked in rich chicken broth (this time until the broth was thickened to sauce, but other times, just as a dandy bowl of chicken & noodle soup) need little but a helping of vegetables or two alongside and they become both welcome nourishment and a little trip down memory lane. My hunger is sated and I am reminded of many a happily simple meal gone by.

But then I succumb, more often than not, to thinking that if this meal is a little like those my mother made, why then it ought to end in dessert as well. And as citrus so complements chicken in nearly any guise, why not make a citrus dessert to follow a chicken dinner? I could certainly opt for the ever-lovely lemon bars that brighten many a table, yet I am not exactly known for coloring inside the lines when it comes to an entire menu, so on the most recent chicken-noodle dinner occasion, I took a slight deviation from that norm. I made what you could callphotoSimply Lime-Coconut Bars

[I took my first cue from a recipe for ‘instant’ lime curd made in a Vitamix so I could skip the slow and attentive cookery most curd recipes require. Our household blender is nothing so sophisticated–or expensive–as a Vitamix and doesn’t reach that machine’s level of heat, but since I was using the curd mostly for these cookie bars where it would subsequently be baked (and because I have no fear of eating raw eggs anyway), I went ahead with the blender I have. Needless to say, besides my alteration of the process I changed the ingredients to the point that you’re now getting my recipe, not that lovely published one I found elsewhere.]

Lime-Coconut Curd (Makes 6 servings.Theoretically.)

In the blender, whiz 3 whole eggs until frothy, adding ½ cup sugar + 1 hefty pinch of salt and ½ teaspoon of vanilla as you go; add ½ cup melted, very hot coconut oil in a thin stream, followed by a stream of ½ cup fresh lime juice, and keep blending it until it’s good and smooth or you think your blender and you will both swoon from overheating.

Set the curd in the refrigerator if you’re taking very long to prepare the rest of the cookie bar recipe, but if you’re like me, it’ll already be in the fridge from a couple of days ago when you made a double batch and spooned out a few helpings of the curd, plain, to snack on between times. As one sometimes must do. And I think you do know what I mean. Meanwhile, let us return to our cookie bar recipe.

Lime-Coconut Bar Cookies

[I am told I will be a complete failure as a human being if I don’t add the curd to a warm, just-baked crust layer, so I conform to the Rules at least that far. And I lined the bottom of the 9″ x 13″ pan with a single piece of baking parchment so that I could easily lift out the bars when ready.]

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Okay, I can’t resist adding a dash of additional crunchy salt on top some of the time. Whether I eat them in any particular order or together, I do love both the savory and the sweet.

To make the crust, blend 1 cup flour (I used gluten-free flour), 3/4 cup coconut flour, 2/3 cup confectioners’ [powdered] sugar, 1/4 cup cornstarch, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom and 1/4-1/2 teaspoon almond extract. Cut 3/4 cup [yes, really! What, you think I’d lie about adding lots of good fat?] of cold salted butter into this dry mix until it becomes a crumbly, sandy blend and then press it evenly into the pan. Refrigerate this for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to your equivalent of 350°F [as you know, my oven has its own ideas about what that means, so I adjust accordingly]. When the crust has chilled, pop it into the oven for about 20 minutes or until it’s beginning to brown lightly. Out of the oven it comes. Reset the oven to 325°F, stir up the curd

, spread the curd over the crust, and pop the pan right back into the oven, for about 20 minutes or until the curd has set when gently touched. Almost done, now. Turn off that oven of yours before you forget, let the pan cool on a rack for about another half hour, and then you can take a quick swipe around the perimeter of the bars with a knife tip to loosen any stuck things before lifting them out in their parchment sling. These, like any citrus curd topped bars, are pretty to serve with a final dusting of powdered sugar on top, but any you’re saving for later should get dusted directly before serving, as it’ll absorb into the bars in the meantime. If, however, you’re going to devour the entire pan in one sitting, who am I to blame you? Powder up, my friends. Life is short and dessert is long-awaited.

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Or there could be pomegranate and pistachio, for a change . . .

The second time around, I decided to try the bars with a little north-African influenced twist: substituted salted, roasted pistachios (ground to flour) for the almond flour in the crust, decreasing the added salt to 1/2 teaspoon; made the curd with pure pomegranate juice and butter instead of the lime juice and coconut oil, and because the curd wasn’t quite as bright in either flavor or color as the original recipe, made a little layer of zing from 1/4 cup each of pomegranate juice and ginger preserves, pureeing them together completely and softening a tablespoon of gelatin in them to thicken slightly, and finally topping the bars with whole pistachios and a dusting of powdered sugar and edible glitter for a dash of, well, dash. Messy, yes. Edible? Oh, yes. You people do know how I like my variations on a theme! And if we’re going to have dinner first, then I’m not opposed to two desserts to make up for the waiting . . .

Toward Home and Hearth

photoAt Close of Day

After the labor that fills the day and long before full darkness falls,

We long to gather and go away, to leave the dimness of labor’s halls

And go back home to the fireside, where supper and books and armchairs wait,

To spend the remains of eventide over soup and a novel beside the grate.

This is the way the day should end, and peace and renewal repair the spent,

Frayed souls whose work was less than friend, for whom the fire is heaven-sent–

This nest of comfort from which we roam always draws us back to hearth and home.photo montage

Foodie Tuesday: Un-, Ex-, De-, Out-

We are leaving one season and entering another. Time to divest ourselves of pretense and the impulse to be over-elaborate when making a change. I see people all around me worrying that their Thanksgiving menu isn’t finalized, their Fall-themed altar of mantel decor not as impressive as the next neighbor’s, and their Halloween costumes not thrilling and polished enough to accompany their hundred handmade sweets for the twenty-seven tiny Monsters who will come knocking. Better, sometimes, to enjoy simpler approaches and simpler pleasures! Autumn can be:

Uncomplicated.

Extricated from fussiness.

Demystified.

Outrageously edible.

photoAt the change of each season I do have a tendency to shift in my flavor preferences. When it’s been summer-hot out and finally becomes cool, those warming, earthy, old-fashioned and evocative spices and scents of Fall–cinnamon and cardamom, roasted roots and mushrooms, sweetly freckled pears and chalky-skinned, slightly scabby McIntosh apples (not the electronic kind, mind you) begin their annual siren songs of woodsy, sit-by-the-hearth allure. And I can go a little crazy.

[I can see you out there rolling your eyes at my gift for stating the obvious.]photo

It’s easy to go a bit wild, to be the over-swung pendulum flying to opposite extremes, when one has been long immured in the cooling pools of summer’s lovely seasonal foods and beginning to long for something different. But of course delicious flavors needn’t be exaggerated to be glorious. Sometimes the over-the-top approach is indeed precisely what I desire, since I’m a more-is-more kind of person in general, but sometimes a little subtlety is also a welcome thing. A restrained hand in the kitchen can allow a smaller assortment of lovely notes to interplay beautifully, and the pleasure of savoring one gorgeous individual taste at a time, too, can provide moments of sublime happiness that stretch well beyond the culinary.

I know this stuff perfectly well in my head, but my heart frequently scarpers off with my stomach quick as the dish with the proverbial spoon, and once again I have to calm myself and remember that there’s plenty of time in the season for me to slow down and savor the flavors before the next change arrives. It happened again last week, and I had a narrow escape from the annual autumnal overkill. I pressed aside my rabid plans for the sort of dangerously delirious feast that would’ve kept me comatose right up until the next fit of wildness did hit me at Thanksgiving. Fanning myself thoughtfully with a big spatula, I got busy making a much less complicated, sautéed and simmered, soup treat and found it as satisfying as could be.photo

Hearty Cauliflower & Mushroom Soup

Simmer 1 bunch of fresh sage leaves in 1/2 lb of pastured butter (I use salted–I’m very fond of my salt, thankyouverymuch) until the butter’s golden brown and fully infused with the herb and the leaves have given up their moisture. Strain out the leaves onto paper and let them crisp up nicely, giving them an additional sprinkle of salt if desired for crunch. Sauté 2 cups cauliflower florets and 1-1/2 cups sliced brown mushrooms (both can be fresh or frozen) in plenty of the sage butter until they’re soft and caramelized. Add a little liquid–water, dry sherry, broth, buttermilk or cream as you blend it all with a stick blender. No need to get it thin or even quite smooth: this is a rustic Fall soup, after all. Garnish it as you wish: a swirl of buttermilk or Crème fraîche, some crumbled crispy bacon, some deeply caramelized onions, or just a generous toss of those crisped sage leaves.

There’s only a little bit left to complete this recipe: take your bowl of prepared soup, curl yourself in the arms of a big, well-worn overstuffed chair, bundle up in that wonderful old afghan lap-rug your granny crocheted for you in your youth, crack open a musty classic book, and lap up your thick soup with a big, deep spoon. Sigh, turn page, sip, repeat. Winter’s just a few chapters away.photo

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!