Foodie Tuesday: The Journey of a Thousand Meals begins with a Single Spoonful

It is my intention to have a far, far happier thousandth day than that poor Anne Boleyn apparently did, and since my thousandth post occurs on this, a Tuesday, I will enhance my happiness by thinking and writing about food. It’s such a reliable way to fill myself with good cheer, filling myself with good food, that—well, you all know by now that I can’t resist thinking and writing about it here at least once a week as well.

Am I insatiable? Perhaps. I am certainly mad for good food and drink. I’m kind of crazy for messing about with cookery trickery myself, and most certainly that feeds (both literally and metaphorically) my cravings. And you know that I’m happy to indulge at every turn in talking and/or writing about food and drink, making photos and artworks about them, and dreaming up ever more new ways to get ever more treats into my hands, my glass, my spoon and my stomach. That’s how I operate.

Naturally, the right thing to do in celebration of a thousand-day-versary would be to make some party treats. I have company coming over shortly, so I thought I really ought to make those dinner and lunch engagements into occasions for those goodies. Any excuse will do. The excuse of friends’ visits? Irresistible.

Dinner first, with a couple of friends on Monday. Starter: an appetizer of crackers topped with a nice Dutch gouda or brie, or spread with some homemade brandied beef pate and a little bit of fig jam. Roast beef, a nice chuck shoulder roast cooked simply sous vide with butter, salt and pepper, as the centerpiece. Mashed potatoes sauced with a bit of beurre rouge and pan juices. Tiny peas with mint butter. Sweet corn with crispy bacon. Some quick beet pickles. Chocolate mousse with apricot coulis spiked with homemade orange liqueur and topped with chopped dark chocolate bits for dessert.photoLunch on Thursday with another couple. Mint-apple-honeydew cooler to drink. Shrimp toasts as a starter: butter-fried slices of chewy French bread with spicy lime avocado spread and tiny sweet shrimp on top. Pasta with smoked salmon and langoustines in lemon cream for the entrée. Carrots and celery in cooked in white wine with snippets of dill. Ginger coleslaw with Bosc pears and toasted sliced almonds. Fresh strawberries and cardamom shortbread with salted caramel icing for the big finish.

I always hope that everyone lunching or dining with me will enjoy everything I’m feeding them, but I have to admit that it’s kind of a big deal that I like it all, too! How else will I get fat and sassy in my old age? I may be ahead of the curve on the Sassy part, but I’m still hoping to be somewhat moderate or at least slow about the fattening-up part. Not that you could tell by my eating meals like this whenever I can get my gnashers on ’em. But here we are and I haven’t ballooned out of existence quite yet, so no doubt I shall continue my food adoration for at the very least another thousand days. Or whatever…come back and ask me later; I’m heading to the kitchen. Recipes will undoubtedly follow….photo

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: Culinary Iterations

You know that one of my favorite things in cooking is when one meal or dish is flexible enough for the leftovers to be transformed into a different version for the next meal or dish without too much difficulty. Cooking once for two or more meals is preferable! This time it was easy to use several parts of the meal and tweak them into a couple of different modes for the following days.

photoDay One’s version was a steak dinner. The beef steaks were cooked sous vide with plain butter, salt and pepper and then pan-seared for caramelization, the pan deglazed with red wine for jus. Asparagus was steamed and refrigerated before a quick last-minute sear in toasted sesame oil and soy sauce and tossed with a sprinkle of sesame seeds for serving. Russet and sweet potatoes were cubed and oven roasted in butter, salt and pepper. And a room-temperature salad of sweet kernel corn had crisped bacon bits, diced and seeded tomatoes, butter and lemon juice and lemon pepper seasoning it. Dessert was a soft lemon verbena custard (just eggs, cream steeped with a big handful of fresh verbena leaves from the patio plant, vanilla, honey and a pinch of salt) topped with fresh strawberries in honey.photo

Next morning’s iteration: chop the remaining asparagus into small pieces, mix it with the leftover corn salad, stir in two eggs, pour it all into a buttered microwave-proof bowl, put a couple of small squares of sharp cheddar cheese on top, cover it to prevent spatter, and microwave this instant-omelet on High for about 4-6 minutes (‘waves vary) until done. Fast and tasty. photoDessert, later that day: another dish of lemon verbena custard, stirred with a tot of almond extract and a little ground cardamom and topped with sliced almonds and peaches. The beef was all gone at the end of the first meal, but even a few roasted potatoes of both kinds were left and made a fine mash with just a little extra butter and cream, and kept in the fridge for another meal yet. All this from one main preparation. Food is good. When it’s good enough, even better to get second helpings with ease.

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Foodie Tuesday: Pork Chops Go with Everything

There might not be any ‘universal donor‘ food anywhere, the sort of food that’s perfect with all other things and at all times, but if you’re a pork eater, it’s mighty close. Seasoned pork becomes, in turn, seasoning when it’s great bacon, pancetta, guanciale, and that sort of thing. Because it has a very mild flavor on its own, pork takes on flavors of all kinds readily. It’s a culinary chameleon, becoming subtle, spicy, bold, sweet or savory; takes readily to being ground, sliced, shredded; blends with other meats or fruits or vegetables, and once prepared, is delicious cold or hot. Large numbers and quantities of flavoring agents make pork delicious, but it’s pretty grand with very little added as well.

photoSo there’s this dinner, then, where thick pork chops, though lean and not heavily flavored, become the centerpiece of the meal. They’re cooked simply, sous vide, with butter and salt and pepper, and seared at the last. When I cut open the sous vide packets to pat dry and sear the chops, I collected the juices in a pitcher, covered it and microwaved it to cook and thicken them, then blended them with a spoonful of [Kewpie brand] wasabi mayonnaise to make a warm sauce for serving with the pork. Some oven roasted wedges of Russet potatoes with a hint of coconut oil and salt sopped up the sauce that spilled over from the chops. Coleslaw being a consistent favorite in our house (as you’ve undoubtedly figured out long since if you visit here at all often), there was some in this dinner, garnished with black sesame seeds for a little visual pizzazz.

photoFor additional sides, there was a fruit compote of sliced and peeled apples, canned-in-juice peach slices, a little butter, honey and cinnamon and a pinch each of ground cardamom and cloves, and a tiny salad for each diner of avocado mash with lemon, cumin, lemon zested salt and a little bit of butter, each hearty-spoonful-sized helping topped with a small tomato and a dainty flower. Between these, there was a bit of piquancy and juice, color and textural variety so that all of them helped to keep the chops from seeming dull or predictable.

photoDessert couldn’t have been much simpler. Cream, whipped until Chantilly-soft with a touch of almond extract and then blended with an equal amount of lemon curd (I had some ready-made curd in the refrigerator) was served as a lemony mousse topped with a couple of small pieces of home-candied peel and a handful of toasted sweetened coconut. Really heady stuff. The end.

Foodie Tuesday: Getting a Menu Transplant

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Sticking to my ribs, yes, but maybe with the barbecue sauce twisted into a (Southern) peach chutney style to suit the Basmati rice alongside . . .

It’s not what it used to be, moving to a different place. The world is so much smaller than it once was! We talk via computer and cell phone as though we were sitting right next to each other–and sometimes when we’re sitting next to each other. Language and culture and history are all getting a good mash-up in this shrinking world where we live.

One genuinely wonderful aspect of this not-entirely-perfect scenario of homogenization is that we have access to so much that was once unreachable to everyone but the most extremely far-flung intrepid explorers and have commonalities that our ancestors could never have dreamed remotely possible. Not least of all, we can indulge in the joys of cuisines and ingredients from places we can’t even pronounce, let alone afford to visit.

Most of these regional, national, racial, cultural treasures, by virtue of being intermingled with and sampled by so many others to such a degree that sometimes it seems something learned from the Chinese by the Dutch traders and then passed along to their colonial outposts in the south seas, who in turn brought it along when they immigrated to North America, well, these ideas and arts and recipes have been so transformed along the way that they, like the initial message in the old game of Telephone, are utterly new inventions by the time the Chinese ever experience them again. And yet, in a happy twist, we who create and share the first iteration often fall in love with it and repeat and refine it until it becomes part of who we are, so it’s not wholly lost in the translation, either.

For someone who grew up in one part of the vast American patchwork of a country and experienced East Coast specialties, Southern cooking, Midwest traditions, and Southwest cuisine as being no less foreign in their ways to my Northwestern experience and palate, it’s always been a pleasurable study to try out the fabled deliciousness of Other Places. So while I’ve long loved Chinese and Dutch and Polynesian and Italian and German and Thai and Indian and North African foods of various kinds, it’s no less exotic and thrilling and delicious to sample the comestible culture of different regions of my own homeland.

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Fajitas today, quiche tomorrow . . .

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. . . but you only have to switch from a Coronita to a Trappist ale to suit the occasion, right?

Still, it’s been an entertaining and tasty part of the adventure of moving from Washington state to Texas that I’m experiencing Tex-Mex and Southern and cowboy cuisines in places of their origins and that’s mighty rich learning and dining, too. So I’m more than happy to indulge in all of those special items here anytime I can. But you know me, y’all: rarely do I go into the kitchen without bringing my own machinations and deviations to the party, so I am more than likely to emerge bearing platters and bowls filled not only with classic Texan foods but also with Texan foods as filtered through Washingtonian hands, perhaps with a hint of Chinese cookery here, Dutch baking there, Polynesia and Italy and Germany and Thailand and India and North Africa and all of my other palatable favorites making inroads and appearances whenever I see fit.

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A Texas-sized pork chop can also be cooked sous-vide, even if it’s getting classic Southern sides like bacon-sauteed sweet corn and coleslaw . . .

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. . . and if you want to shake things up a little in a more cosmopolitan way, you can always make the slaw a variant of Waldorf Salad while you’re at it by adding chopped apples and celery and sliced almonds . . .

Foodie Tuesday: Fine Dining should be Easy

Among those of us who have the privilege of eating affordably and often, there should be no reason at all for us not to eat well, too. Least of all should we eat mediocre meals for lack of time. Today’s solution: a main dish precooked and finished at top speed at the very last minute, accompanied by super-quick fixes as side dishes. No reason to make it more complicated than it is on its own merits.

photoPrecooked pork tenderloin was in this instance a dainty piece of meat seasoned with salt, pepper and butter, sealed in a vacuum pack and simmered gently in the sous-vide to a tender pink overnight–easy-peasy. If one has the luxury of a sous vide cooker. If not, I think I’d try to do the same in a slow cooker, because that’s the way this chica operates, though there’s no reason I couldn’t also steam it low-and-slow, covered, in the oven.

At suppertime, easiest of all. The tenderloin, removed from its vacuum pack and cut into pieces about 1-1/2 inches in length, is tossed into hot bacon fat along with a handful of sliced almonds and caramelized until lightly crisp on the outside, getting a nice deglazing bath of very dry sherry to moisten at the last and loosen up all of that lovely fond. While the meat is browning and falling into delicate pulled shreds, it’s a moment’s work to fix the side dishes.

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It all goes down a treat with a glass of very cold Viognier jazzed up with a dash of Limoncello. Salut!

 

Green beans slicked with a little clarified browned butter, and my standby creamy ginger coleslaw, go pretty well with sherried pork tenderloin and almonds, as it turns out. Once it came to the end of the meal, I wasn’t exactly dessert-starved, but given this time of the season it would almost be a crime not to have a prime piece of fruit. A pear, silky and sweet as syrup but a whole lot juicier and more fulfilling, is dessert in the loveliest of ways. Hope I have another pear handy for breakfast, though . . . another good meal should always lie ahead . . . photo

What’s-in-My-Kitchen Week, Day 4: Luxurious Tools

photoSome people love cars. Some are attracted to bling (you would think I’d be quite the blingy specimen, given my magpie eye, but I don’t at all like to wear it, generally) and others are collectors of shoes, antiques, sports memorabilia, whatever inspires them and warms the cockles of their hearts. Me, I’m a fool for tools. I try to restrain myself reasonably when it comes to actually buying them, since I haven’t the budget, storage space or skills to use many of them in reality, but there are some that do have a place in my pantheon of tool treasures. Some, also, in my pantry.

photoSimple is often best, to be sure. I do love my two cast iron skillets. And when it comes to kitchen tools, good knives are just about the pinnacle of both necessity and happiness for most cooks I know. I have a selection of knives (looking exceedingly dusty here after the granite was re-cut to fit our new cooktop properly), and I use all of them on occasion, but I pretty much devote my favored attentions to using one particular knife, a fairly modest Henckels 6″ stainless sweetheart that keeps its edge with very little sharpening and is just the right heft and balance for my ordinary purposes. I’ll bet there are plenty of others among you that are like me in this: no matter how many lovelies you collect of your most-used sort of tools, find you’re using the same one ninety percent of the time. When it’s right, it’s right. And knives, while they can’t make a chef out of anyone, can bring the average home cook closer to mastery than possible otherwise.

photoI’ve mentioned a few times before that I also luxuriate in the privilege of having some more specialized and, indeed, expensive kitchen tools. The sous vide immersion cooker that my husband kindly presented when we moved into this house isn’t used constantly by any means, but when I want fall-apart ribs or a beef roast as near to perfection as I can make, it’s absolutely the go-to favorite tool for those sorts of labors. The internal temperature monitoring version of my heavily used slow cooker, if you will, which gets a fairly constant workout cooking my various broths down to dense savory heaven, with the occasional chili or pot roast thrown in for good measure. The more high-tech tools in my kitchen arsenal include, of course, a good microwave; besides being so convenient for warming lunchtime leftovers, it’s great for steaming vegetables quickly, making a one-person egg souffle, or melting butter or chocolate for the current concoction.photoI like my hand tools, too, both the powered (I use my stick blender not just for pureeing things for soups and sauces but for whipping cream or eggwhites, too) and the old standbys of a small whisk, tongs–updated with nice gripping heat-proof silicone ends–or that lovely construction tool that has moved into the kitchen, the Microplane, which is a snap to use for zesting fruits or rasping nutmeg or finely shaving some nutty Reggiano. And that large strainer to the left is so very well-suited to my broth clarifying. I just wish it could work on my thoughts too. One present thought that is crystal-clear, however, is that the new cooktop–that smooth black glass on which the hand tools are resting–is going to be such a boon to this cook as has seldom been seen. While we’d love to have afforded the line plumbing and cooker for using gas, this functional and even topped electric will be such a stupendous improvement over the literally half-dead and wholly uneven old coil burner stove that I am elated just to have made scrambled eggs for breakfast. Such is the improvement in life of a new and improved tool.photo

The oldies are still goodies, as well. I am so fortunate as to have bought a house with (albeit thirty years old) a double oven. The pair shows its age visually, to be sure, but once I painted the two oven doors with a slightly glittery metallic black finish they don’t stick out of the updated kitchen decor too terribly, and they operate remarkably well in general. I’ve pulled together some meals for largish gatherings without much difficulty in finding enough space to roast, bake, broil and warm whatever was needed for the crowd. That’s when I pull out lots of my more specific and seldom-used other tools from my bag of kitchen tricks, too, to go with the less common ingredients I might use for special occasion eating events. Okay, the ice cream scoops and the wine bottle equipment aren’t all that rarely used around here, nor are a number of the other utensils here in these drawers. More often, it’s the pretty old silver and plated serve-ware–those sugar tongs with claws, and the beveled-bowl spoons and ladle, the pewter handled Norwegian forks and spoons–that makes me smile on mere sight.photo

Some of the tools I treasure most are, of course, sentimental for various reasons. Probably among the best of those in my kitchen are ones I don’t necessarily give constant notice precisely because they are so constantly in use and so well suited to their uses. My everyday stainless flatware is a perfect example. My paternal grandmother was a rather tender and sentimental lady (in her eighties, she still couldn’t hang up photos of her little daughter who had died at age two) but almost never showed it; she wasn’t much good at overt expressions of such emotion so it arose in subtler ways, like her declaring that it wasn’t right for young women of my generation (and my sisters’) to wait until we might-or-might-not get married to have well stocked home lives, so she told each of us when we entered high school to choose a flatware pattern, and she would give us Christmas and birthday gifts each year of a place setting of that pattern. The pattern I chose–Design 2 by Don Wallance–turned out to be singularly interesting in the event: first of all, I immediately found out that the company producing it was being bought by another and as it was produced in Europe and the new company favored an Asian manufacturer the pattern was likely to be discontinued (it wasn’t, as it happened, but the switch to a different mfr. changed some significant details, as well as the heft, of the pattern). Grandma, bless her, went off and bought a complete 12-place set of it and then just doled it out after. I, being forewarned, bought up serving pieces and extra teaspoons. And I have never once regretted my selection. I guess I’m not alone; at some point I discovered that it’s one of the few flatware patterns that was chosen for inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art‘s design collection in New York.photo

All things considered, it’s practicality that does win my heart most readily in my kitchen utensils as with my other tools. The true affection I have for my flatware is that it sits in the hand so very comfortably, the forks have strong, even tines and slight spoon-like bowls, the knives have no joint in them to collect food or get weak but do have a remarkably good edge, and both men and women seem to appreciate their balance and utility. They are in fact very attractive to my eye, yes, but if they didn’t do the job so well they wouldn’t have remained favorites for so very long (high school was an eon ago). It’s the same way I have come to be so pleased with my choice of kitchen sink when we renovated on moving in here a couple of years ago. I do enjoy it for its handsome looks and the way it neatly complements the granite counters, but more than that I love that its black composite surfaces are so incredibly easy to keep clean, are heat resistant when I stick in a hot pot to fill it with soaking water, and those deep and deeply useful double bowls could even, if some accident should demand it, be sanded back down to perfection. Now, if I could easily apply that sort of abuse and restoration to my body, that would be a welcome technique. But at least in this kitchen I have the tools to feed my body pretty well and–I hope–forestall any such extreme necessity.photo