Foodie Tuesday: Swim for It

If left to my own devices to raise or, more difficult yet, forage and hunt for all of my food, I’d soon enough be a non-meatatarian. I haven’t the patience or the skill for any sort of animal husbandry, nor the remotest chance of outsmarting anything sentient in order to catch it. But despite my pitiful showing as a junior fisherman alongside Gramps in days of yore, I think I could pull myself together enough to learn how to fish and forage the sea enough to keep my love of seafoods at least occasionally treated. Good protein, too.
Photo: Salmon Champagne Evening

Sometimes I am happy enough to have a rather plain fried, roasted, baked, steamed, raw, or poached piece of fish. When it’s pristinely, spankingly fresh and sweet, fish should probably not be made too fancy. Why mask perfection? At most, a dash of fresh herbs or a little zip of some lovely masala ought to be plenty of interest to vary the day’s meals. Even I have been known to identify and safely pick and consume wild sorrel, which is an excellent companion to fish in modest amounts. And of course, there’s nothing friendlier with a piece of salmon than citrus or ginger root or plain black pepper, if the foraging can extend as far as a grocery store. One thing I do think well worth the [negligible] fuss if I’m preparing salmon with its skin is to sear it, lightly salted, in butter or a high smoke-point oil before I cover its pan to finish cooking it through on cooktop or in the oven, because crispy salmon skin is delicious and its crunch a wildly beautiful complement to the velvety tenderness of the flesh. Once my palate was introduced to this marvel, I wondered how I had managed to enjoy salmon so much, so often, without having known what I’d been missing. Salty, slightly fat, salmon-flavored, and crispy? How could I not love it!
Photo: See Food

Of course, there are innumerable other outstanding ways to enjoy and indulge in seafood, if one does happen to have access to plenty of other ingredients. Seafood fried rice is one very flexible, quick to fix, and reliably delectable way to enjoy such things. Salmon in bite sized pieces, for one seafood treat, goes quite well with the contrasting grains of rice, lovely with rich that’s been cooked in either broth or coconut water or milk and filled with a delicate confetti of diced celery, carrots, onions, bell peppers, or peas, whether shelled or in sugar snap or snow pea form. But as you can see in the accompanying photo, I enjoy, along with salmon or other kinds of fish, those admirable insect imitators the crustaceans. Hardly anything, sea-based or otherwise, is more enticing in fried rice than crab (naturally, I vote for Dungeness first, every time), lobster, langoustines, or shrimps of various sizes. I would guess that some tiny, tender clams might be more than acceptable in this sort of dish as well, but truthfully, I doubt I’ll ever get quite that far, as long as any of the usual suspects are available. Never say never.

Meanwhile, back at the fried rice, I am still an old Occidental renegade when I make it, cooking it much too slowly for a wok-master’s taste and throwing in whatever I have on hand and am in the mood to eat, from the aforementioned vegetable ingredients, crisply sautéed, to seasonings like Tamari or soy sauce, citrus juice, fresh or candied or pickled ginger or ginger syrup (or all four, as I am an unregenerate ginger fiend), honey, shallots, and/or chile pepper flakes. All of these cook in gently, over low heat, while I’m stirring in an egg to scramble into shreds, and then letting the rice slowly develop a good crust amid copious lashings of fat—coconut oil, avocado oil, ghee, whatever I have on hand. All of this, until I can’t quite wait any longer. Must keep that seafood delicate and fresh. Until I can devour it, anyway.

Foodie Tuesday: Texas Tapas

photoA more accurate name for this food would probably be something about snacking-as-dinner or Gustatorial Grazing, but it doesn’t have quite the same, erm, kick to it. The concept simply goes back to my perpetual preference for offering a wide assortment of things to nibble and letting everyone at table—or wandering around, as is the usual case when we have a houseful—choose his or her own combination of things to eat. Saves any tough decisions on my part and eliminates the complexity of trying to accommodate each person’s allergies and dislikes individually, as long as I don’t have any tiny persons of no discretion on hand and able to lay hands on everything.

I’m particularly fond of the ease of this approach when, as aforementioned, I have a big gathering of friends or family, but it’s also a convenient method for getting up a meal in a heartbeat when last-minute plans evolve. I found out the other day that we had a chance to see an old friend from Washington who was in town for one mere day; thankfully, he was here to consult with a good local friend, so the two of them wrangled their schedules to make it possible to take a dinner break with the two of us. Instant party!

I know that our visitor, while we’d not seen him here, has been to Texas before, but I didn’t know how much he’d had the typical local foods. As the weather was warmer and sunnier than expected, it seemed fortuitously apropos to put together something that had a hint of picnic, a touch of barbecue, a dash of Southern-ism, and a little Tex-Mex character, all in simple forms that could be served at room temperature and combined into whatever ad hoc plates-full we chose, and we could be as casual as we liked with our good friends.

I started with a quick cheat: pre-assembled jalapeño poppers I’d bought at the grocery, seeded jalapeño halves filled with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon. I roasted them in a cast iron skillet in the oven, knowing that this would also preheat the oven for much of the rest of the meal’s roasting.

I bought an array of vegetables, cleaned them and cut them into rough chunks, steamed the hard root vegetables partway ahead of time, assembled all of the prepared parts in a couple of big baking dishes, and loaded them up with butter and a bit of salt before they all went into the oven to roast together. Russet and sweet potatoes, carrots and beets all got the pre-roasting spa treatment of the steaming, and went into the ovens nestled with fat asparagus, whole ears of sweet corn, small bell peppers and chunks of lemon.

While all of those were roasting, I cut some skirt steak into fajita-sized pieces, seasoned them with cumin, smoked paprika, smoked salt and a little granulated garlic, and seared them before a nice braise in a bottle’s bath of Shiner Bock (a good Texas beer), cooking it all in until it candied into glaze at the last. Those went into a bowl to stay warm, and I took the skillet that was still filled with spicy bacon fat from the poppers and lightly cooked up the beet greens in that. When they were not quite cooked, I just took them off the cooker and let them steam in their own heat, covered. Meanwhile, the first dish of the meal was the last to be prepared: pimiento cheese. There would be salsa and crema on the table for dipping or saucing any and everything, but pimiento cheese seemed like a perfectly good addition to this melange of a meal.

Those who know the southern tradition of pimiento cheese know that the classic White Trash version of it is likely to be a combination of shredded Velveeta (something that is called cheese but bears little resemblance to it, in my book) and diced canned red bell peppers in a lot of mayonnaise, possibly with a little bit of cayenne and salt to season it. Like many regional staples, though, every household is likely to have its own variant, and many of the modern ones use cheddar cheese, the most meaningful improvement in the recipe I can imagine. I kept my own version simple but used lots of cheddar, a largish jar of canned pimientos, and a mixture of about half mayonnaise and half whole milk yogurt. I seasoned it all with only a touch of salt, a good dash of cayenne, and a teaspoon or so of dill. Not bad, if you ask me, on crackers or crisps or tortilla chips or, dare I say it, probably even in the great white trash loveliness of making it a sandwich on slices of squishy super-processed white bread. Y’all, let’s eat.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Does this Seem Corny to You?

photoMy big sister hates corn. Things made with cornflour or cornmeal are acceptable, but sweet corn in all of its forms disgusts her delicate palate. While I, too, in my sisterly fashion may have disgusted her delicate sensibilities from time to time, I do not blame it on my admiration for corn in nearly all of its edible forms. (Surely my two younger sisters have had equally ample opportunity to be mortified by me over the years, despite their sharing my appreciation for corn.) But I do love corn. Perhaps I am just a corny person.

photoIt’s a little surprising that I find the texture appealing, given that among the very few foods I don’t enjoy are berries or fruits that have an arguably similar texture, with tight skins that burst open to soft insides, but there it is, I’ve never claimed to be logical. It could also be argued that corn has little flavor, being fairly bland if sometimes quite sweet, but this is of course one of its attributes that I particularly like. After all, I am very fond of foods that can be enjoyed in a wide variety of ways and many sorts of dishes or meals. Corn is exceedingly versatile in this sense, able to be incorporated in both sweet and savory dishes without competing with other ingredients, and capable of being processed in a huge range of ways to create yet more uses for it. You can dry it, soak it, pound it, puree it, pop it, use it as a whole kernel or even a whole cob, roast or fry or boil or steam it. It’s hard to think of many ways you can’t use corn.

Still, I’ll admit that my favorite treatments for it are usually the simplest. A garden-plucked ear of sweet corn is so delicious that I will not only eschew my normal craving for twenty pounds of butter per meal and eat it plain when it’s so fresh, I will happily gnaw it uncooked from the cob in that state. I’ve probably mentioned here before that when I was young and Gramps had his garden in its grand proliferation, there was that harvest time of year when the greatest treat was to have a meal of nothing but corn straight from the patch.

photoI also love kernel corn, hot and buttered, and newly baked cornbread. Mom used to make corn cakes on the griddle for an occasional breakfast, and despite my preference for my pancakes to be thin and moist, I happily made exception for those corn cakes’ thicker and cakier character because their toasted cornmeal flavor and sweetness made them much more like slim slices of cornbread or even a piece of celebratory cake than like any typical pancakes. Come to think of it, they would be a perfect dessert cake if made larger in circumference and stacked with some fabulous penuche or chocolate or cream cheese frosting between. Uh-oh. Dessert alarm is going off noisily in my head (stomach).

Corn clearly makes a wonderful and uncomplicated addition to all sorts of casseroles, soups and hot dishes as well in its cut-kernel form. It’s good to remember, though, that corn is also lovely cold. Added to salads, whether as a part of a mixed, dressed kind of salad or simply added to any combination of mixed greens that make up your favorite tossed salad, corn is a wonderful jot of sweetness and light color in the blend. I’m particularly a fan of corn added to salads of ingredients common to hot-weather climes: avocado, black beans, tomatoes, olives or capiscum pieces; citrus, mangoes or peaches can add a dash of brightness; dry, salty cheeses grated in, cilantro or mint or basil snipped on, and sweet or savory spices sprinkled over the dishes can all help to customize the dish, and corn is friendly with all of them.photoAnd me, I’m pretty friendly with nearly anything that has corn in, on or with it.

Foodie Tuesday: Salmon Champagne Evening

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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.

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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 syrup.photo

Foodie Tuesday: To Market, to Market

photoFarmer’s markets are a joy. The magnificent and munificent ‘food halls’ of many countries and cities are an abundant and slightly less-seasonal delight. I grew up with a father who, in turn, was raised by parents who had, so to speak, groceries in their blood–Grandma having grown up in her father’s grocery store near the turn of the last century, and Grandpa having been employed by a major regional grocery producer and supplier. So Dad was not only accustomed to a childhood spent roaming and critiquing every aisle of every grocery store his family passed on any given expedition but later also to having his own children cajole him into being the parent taking us on the weekly family shopping trips because with his genetic grocery cred we thought he was the more easily swayed into buying the weird and possibly deliciously bad-for-us stuff.

What this all leads to in my case, is the appreciation I have, deep down, for farmer’s markets and food halls and all sorts of grocery stores.

But the real source of that love is, of course, all of the grocerrific goodness found in said worlds of wonder. The ingredients for infinite feasting are all there at hand, arrayed in an artless or artful arsenal of endless recombinant recipes, and it’s not easy to spend any real time in the midst of such wonders without at least stumbling over a good number of fine meal, snack or menu inspirations.

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Some fruits of the shopping expedition are worthy of eating in their purest natural state and deserve no less respect and admiration.

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Even the best can be deliciously Prepared, though: why not the simplest of preparations. Steamed green beans with butter, for example. How can one improve on that?

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An uncomplicated recipe can also be a pleasurable way to showcase a beautiful ingredient. Here, caramelized Bosc pears–gently sautéed in salted butter and maple syrup with cardamom, then reduced in Riesling and vanilla.

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The occasional grand ingredient can be appropriately preserved for multiple happy uses. Diced fresh ginger root, for example, lives a good, long and productive life of transforming one dish after another when it’s been diced and saved in a jar full of vodka. Which, in turn, can be a delightful treat on its own later, this sprightly ginger infused vodka.

And what do I learn from all of this? I don’t change all that much. I always did rather like going to get the groceries. I still do. Living and lounging among the comestibles is a grand pastime and so often leads to good eating and drinking, doesn’t it. I do believe I hear the siren song of a grocery cart beckoning me for a little outing, or is that the gentle rumbling of my empty innards? No matter, one leads to the other, leading right back to the first, in an endless loop of hunger and deliciousness, craving and satiety that I hope won’t end for a very long and very slightly fattening lifetime.

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Fresh, alluring and beautiful. It’s never too much, but always a lovely temptation.

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: Con Mucho Gusto

So many meals, Latin-inflected or not, are best enjoyed with a nice cold glass or two of sangria. Particularly helpful is the knowledge that sangria has so many tasty potential variations that it can be made the perfect complement to nearly anything. Or substitute for it, if such dire need should arise. But I’ll concede that the many magnificent flavors of the Latin cultures are also, often, what make the sangria so wildly delicious.

In addition, the simplicity of combining the marvelous ingredients for either the food or drink portion of such a meal adds the appeal of quick preparation. While a number of recipes, including many for sangria, are improved by a little time spent melding their flavors together with heat or chilling, the actual labor time might not be terribly lengthy nor the effort especially challenging. Just gather the supplies, put them together in a dish or bowl, and wait for them to come to full fruition. Fruit being, of course, a hallmark of a refreshing batch of sangria.

The dish of the day is so easy it can be assembled and heated in minutes. Even the slowest portion of the prep, the cooking of quinoa, can be accomplished with little trouble, particularly if like me you have a rice cooker. I use a brand of quinoa that requires no rinsing or soaking, and it works easily to prepare it in my rice cooker by combining cooking liquid (usually my ubiquitous homemade broth) with the grain in a 2:1 ratio. I do this in larger batches, refrigerating all but the day’s portion for later meals.photoNestled Eggs [one hearty serving]

In a microwave-proof bowl, put a cup of cooked quinoa and make a hollow in the center of the grain. Break two eggs into the nest and puncture the yolks a little; cover and heat the dish on High for two minutes. [A nice optional variation: stir eggs with steamed fresh spinach leaves that have had the liquid pressed out of them.] Remove the bowl from the oven and top the eggs with a handful of cheese (cotija, queso blanco or sharp cheddar, for example), re-cover, and continue to cook on High for another minute or two, until the eggs are lightly set. Spoon some nice chipotle salsa [see my semi-handmade chipotle salsa hack here] on top, add a tablespoon of cilantro-tequila pesto [just a bunch of fresh cilantro finely pureed with tequila] and some crunchy salt, and serve with a glass of cold sangria.photoCherry-Peach Sangria

Combine a Jeroboam [four bottles] of Cabernet-Merlot blend wine with a magnum [two bottles] of Riesling, one 32 oz bottle of Just Black Cherry juice, 2 cups of dark pure maple syrup, one orange, thinly sliced (including peel), and one 23.5 oz jar of sliced peaches in juice; stir gently to blend, chill, and serve.