Foodie Tuesday: Medium Rare

I know all thoughts hereabouts turn to turkey at this time of year, but not everybody (even the meat-eaters among us) craves turkey, whether they’re celebrating Thanksgiving or not. Why ever eat something that you’re not wild about or hungry for just because tradition seems to dictate it? You’re free to be just as thankful for a fabulous steak dinner as for a roasted turkey, especially if you consider how little our modern image of Thanksgiving turkey dinners probably resemble the original feast they’re meant to commemorate.

And a good steak needn’t be a terribly rare thing. I used to avoid serving it not out of dislike but because I was sure it was too hard to prepare it nicely. Somewhere along the line, fortunately, somebody set me straight on that. If I can heat a pan to just slightly over medium high heat and own a timer, there’s not much excuse for being fearful about it.Photo: Medium Rare

What I learned was so simple that it seems laughable, but then that’s how I operate in the kitchen. This self-educated cook has a doofus for her teacher. Here are the incredibly easy things I learned to do that make steak dinner—with a fairly perfectly medium rare steak in the midst of it—a possibility simple enough I don’t hesitate anymore.

Let the steak be the star. Get the nicest quality cut you can afford for the occasion, at best a well-marbled 1 to 1-1/2 inch (2-3 cm) thick grass-fed beauty; pat it dry, coat it liberally [no matter what your political leanings] with salt and coarsely ground black pepper, or a spice rub if that’s your wish, and let it sit a few minutes absorbing that seasoning while you heat up your heaviest skillet on a middling-hot flame or burner. I love my cast iron skillets best of all for doing steaks. Melt a big dollop of good fat to coat the already fabulously seasoned skillet, and when it’s rippling with heat (but not smoking), gently lay in those steaks. One massive one that almost fills the pan can of course be cut up afterward for sharing, or several smaller ones put in together; just make sure that whatever’s in there has room—if it’s crowded in the pan it’ll steam rather than sear. That would be sad.

When the skillet has been made hot enough for the fat to shimmer in it and the steak is in place, expect it to act like a slightly irritable cat: that steak and the frying fat will hiss and spit a little. You might want to stick a splatter screen on top if you’re fussy about stovetop cleanliness, but it’ll wash off easily enough later if you don’t care in the meantime. What fat should you use? Avocado oil is great, if you can get your hands on some, as it has a high smoke point; for straight-up beefy flavor, you can hardly beat clean beef tallow, but it’s not too common to have that on hand (I keep the skimmed fat from my bone broth for such things at times); bacon fat is a flavorful alternative. Ghee or clarified butter is probably my favorite. Whatever you choose, I recommend something with a high smoke point to give you the ability to get a good, caramelized sear on the exterior of the steak without turning the inside of your house into a smelly barbecue pit full of tarry smoke.

But enough about heat and smoke and fat! The steak, still, is your starring player. What to do with that loveliness? Not much. Leave it alone! When it’s in the skillet, let it sit and sizzle completely untouched for about 4 or 5 minutes. The bottom edge should show you just a hint of the beautiful dark brown crust building below, and you’ll flip it over and do the same thing. The next thing you do is: some more Nothing. When you get a whiff of that superb, incredibly tempting scent of beef perfection as both sides have browned gloriously, you will want to stick your fork right into it, but don’t. Wait. Take the steak out of the skillet and let it rest on a warm plate for at least five or ten minutes while it finishes cooking from residual heat, and reabsorbing the juices that will all run right out of it if you cut into it too soon.Photo: Skirt Steak

When you think you have suffered enough, wait thirty seconds more, and then you can pounce on that steak. While I’m waiting for my steak to be ready, I distract myself to prevent premature steak attacks. I deglaze the pan with a splash of Jack Daniel’s black label tastiness and a smack of salted butter, as often as not, to pour every bit of remaining goodness back onto the steak with a lagniappe of kindness. I make sure the salads, sides, and other accoutrements of the meal are all at table and all ready to play their supporting roles to the marquee meat. If all of that hasn’t kept me in check for quite long enough, I’ll just have to risk it, because I’ll have been sniffing the air like an unchained werewolf, and y’all had better get out of my way now and settle down to your own plates of steak and we’ll all be safe and happy, at least until the next full moon. Or steak dinnertime.

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: Advantageous [Gifted] Food

Starting the preparation of a meal with fabulous leftovers given to me by friends after I’ve dined at their place is truly one of the most cheering and hunger-encouraging ways to go to the task. Food that was delicious in itself, made more so by having been prepared for me by good friends, and now the excess of which has been gifted for yet another meal’s foundation, becomes an almost perfect centerpiece for another delicious and happy meal.

The gift that shaped such a duo of meals recently was grilled pork tenderloin. Our friends served it hot from their patio grill along with an assortment of glorious side dishes and the grand finale of homemade pie, all of this well-seasoned with beautiful, comforting, joyful good company. Fresh garden salad, baked potatoes, vegetable crisps, and that succulent, clean-flavored pork tenderloin. I didn’t even pretend to resist when I was offered some of the remaining roast to take home at the end of the day.Photo: Grilled Pork Tenderloin

My version of the meal went in a little different direction, any attempt to copy that event exactly being doomed from the start, but I knew I wanted to keep the simple excellence of that roast’s flavor as the centerpiece. It was made for such things. I already had a variant sort of loaded-baked-potato in my refrigerator, so I used the cheese, cream, and bacon filled mashed potatoes, deepened with smoked paprika, there as the stand-ins for the day. Not having had any success with growing greens, I thought store-bought ones might seem like a little bit of a come-down after the previous dinner’s, so I skipped salad. Peas, instead; peas barely cooked in a batch of brown mushrooms that had been marinated and cooked in Tamari, dry sherry, and butter and then cooked until hot enough to warm the peas without further time on the cooktop.Photo: Mushrooms and Peas

I made a compote of fresh pears with lime juice, maple syrup, and butter and seasoned them with a splash of homemade vanilla, a pinch of salt, and a healthy pinch of ground cardamom. I guess I must’ve been in mashing mode after the potatoes, so I just cooked the pears down until they, too, could be mashed, and I finished the pork the same way I’d finished the peas: got the pear sauce good and hot, laid the slices of pork loin on top of it, put the lid on the pan, and took it off the burner, letting the sauce steam the meat through to warm it once more. Dinner was delicious. Again. Now, isn’t that twice as nice?Photo: Pork Tenderloin Dinner

Foodie Tuesday: I Feel Crabby and that’s Just Fine

I’m having those old crustacean cravings again. It’s a good thing I’ll get a chance to visit some coastal locales this summer to indulge. Will it be time for a cool, refreshing Crab Louis again? Crab mac and cheese? Crab cakes? Crab sushi*? Or the pristine classic of plain, freshly cooked crab with melted butter and a wedge of lemon?

All of the above, if I’m lucky.

Digital painting from a photo: Feeling Crabby

The more, the merrier, when it comes to such things. I love shrimp and lobster too, yes, but crab—particularly Dungeness crab—has my heart. Maybe I feel a little kinship with those crusty crustaceans, if only in name. I certainly have a nostalgic connection, remembering many a delicious crab feast from my younger days as a coastal kid.

Photo: Crab, Chillin'

Perhaps I’ll fix up something that can be eaten hot, cold or room temperature and can be made ahead and chilled and/or reheated, something like:

Crab Noodles

Combine cooked glass noodles or rice noodles, fresh Dungeness crab, chopped fresh sugar snap peas, a handful of finely shredded raw carrots, fine matchsticks of fresh ginger root, and cubes of grilled pineapple. Dress the blend with a mixture of Tamari, lime juice or rice vinegar (the latter unseasoned), honey, and either red pepper flakes or hot chili oil to taste. Sprinkle with some black or toasted white sesame seeds before serving.

PS—Turns out sushi won the race, but I’m not done with the search yet!

Foodie Tuesday: Without Chopsticks

I might be on a little bit of a tear with this deviled egg thing lately. Besides that the original concept of hard-boiled eggs with spicy ingredients and something creamy like mayonnaise added to their yolks are, well, devilishly delicious, the possible variations are nearly endless as well, and also exceedingly tasty. This treat can change nationalities and styles easily and frequently, according to preferences and the hunger of the moment.
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The other day, I had yet another urge for a deviled egg bite, and had some inclination to eat something at least vaguely Japanese as well. So that’s what I did. Both, that is.
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It was a refreshing menu.

I made coconut Basmati rice. Cooked in half coconut milk (my preferred brand, Chaokoh) and half coconut water (Amy & Brian Natural brand), it was topped with sliced and slivered almonds that I’d toasted with a touch of almond extract, some sesame seeds toasted in a spoonful of toasted sesame oil, some sweet little tiny, briny shrimp, and the deviled eggs in question. Those, I made with a creamy sushi-inspired filling.

I took the hard-cooked egg yolks and an equal amount of fresh avocado, nearly the same amount of Japanese wasabi mayonnaise, a hearty splash each of lime juice and tamari, and a handful of pickled sushi ginger, and blended them all together until creamy with my trusty stick blender. When I assembled these little goodies, it seemed only fair to crown them with a little ginger rosette each. I didn’t really have the skill to do it properly, but a curly bit of sushi gari tastes delectable regardless of whether it’s a perfect representation of a sweet little rose or not. I like to think I’m a bit like that myself, being slightly off kilter and messy in my way but well-meaning and amusing, and hey, sometimes even almost tasteful in my way.

Foodie Tuesday: Nearly Great Eating

Just because I’ll eat practically anything doesn’t mean I don’t care what I eat. I would far rather wait a bit longer between meals than eat something not entirely thrilling just to fill myself. On the other hand, if it’s dinnertime and something I was fixing didn’t come out entirely the way I planned it, I’m loath to let it go to waste. So while the skillet potatoes I put together for a recent meal weren’t quite what I had thought I was going to have, I ate them without much complaint, and so did the others at the table. I made them from thinly sliced raw russet potatoes, the peel still intact, and thought to create something between a country-fried potato dish and Hasselback potatoes and yet different, layering these on top of a handful of sliced almonds, seasoning the potatoes on top with salt and mixed pepper (my home grinder blend of pink, white, green and black peppercorns and whole cloves) and drizzling the whole dish with a small splash of almond extract and a very large splash of melted browned butter. The verdict after baking: good concept, poor execution. I liked the flavors very much but the texture will be far better next time when I add a good dose of broth to the pan to soften the potatoes into submission.photoBetter luck next time, I say to myself, but hedge my bet for the current meal by choosing a trusty standby for another part of the dinner. For vegetables, the range that will please my spouse is very narrow, and though I’m not averse to making separate things that I alone will eat, on a day when I wasn’t fully satisfied that one part of the meal was exactly as I’d planned it so we’d both enjoy it to the highest degree, I opted to keep on the ultra-safe side by using only the most uncomplicated and uncontroversial ingredients. So I just steamed some nice carrots and celery and baby corn (not pickled), buttered them up, and Lo, it was very good.photoWhen it was all plated up it didn’t look like a recipe fail day at all. And it was all perfectly edible, if some in more appealing ways than others.photoThe last part of the meal to get prepared was fairly quick and simple, and despite being an untried variation on my standard approach to a stir-fry of beef it wasn’t so far afield that I didn’t trust its outcome. So while the pan was heating up, I sliced a lovely grass-fed skirt steak and whizzed up the frying sauce of fresh ginger root (about two tablespoons of small-diced root that I preserved in vodka in the fridge, with just a dash of the vodka to help it blend), Tamari, lime juice, a tiny bit of honey, and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Spicy but not fiery, and full of fresh ginger flavor.photoQuickly searing the beef and adding the sauce at the last so as to keep it from scorching while it could still caramelize a bit, I gave a shout to my dinner partner in the other room, and we piled up our plates. The potatoes were fine, if not exactly stellar; the vegetables were predictably comforting in their apologetic simplicity after the potato near-miss, and the beef was tender and zingy with ginger’s welcome tingling heat. I’d say I’m working my way up in the culinary world, gradually at least.

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