Living things, like certain mathematical systems, are attracted (or not) to each other in a wonderful variety of ways. It’s pretty hard to predict what will constitute an individual’s attractors. Some people might say that a warthog, for example, could only be attractive to another warthog, but that’s a very limited notion, because we all have different definitions of beauty and those definitions can be strictly visual but can easily also include appeals to our other senses, not only the standard receptors of touch, sound, taste or scent but also our sense of curiosity or contentment or spirituality or a whole range of other concepts.If I were a little tiny Texas Spiny Lizard, for example, I might be interested in mating or procreating only with a similar little tiny lizard, but I could also very easily be attracted for other purposes to the warmth of a sunny concrete slab, the smorgasbord of yummy insects that visit a group of potted plants, or the shady shelter between the bricks on which the pots are perched, where I can hide from the patrolling cats of the neighborhood. If I were one of the cats, I can imagine I’d be very attracted to the lizard, not just out of feline curiosity but because cats apparently like Texas Spiny Lizards, I suppose because they are small, moving targets for the hunt and possibly just because a cat might enjoy a good set of lizard drumsticks or baby back ribs or tenderloin on occasion. Do cats analyze their dining on a basis of whether or not a meal ‘tastes like chicken‘? I don’t know, but I do know that small, moving objects and food are both common cat attractors.I’m sure it’s also safe to assume that others are attracted to these little reptiles. Most likely that’s the main reason I’ve rarely seen one on our patio or porch any larger than this three-inch/10 cm specimen. If one of the local hawks swoops close enough to notice them, such dainty critters would logically look like the animal equivalent of fast food, and some of the smaller but reasonably aggressive birds (I’m looking at you, bluejays) might compete for such a snack. Snakes, if any of those nearby are larger than my typical garden snake visitor, would find them delectable. So it goes. We are attracted to partners and friends, but also to that which will sustain our progress toward finer dining or just plain survival.My admiration of Texas Spiny Lizards, tiny or not, is based on several of these elements. There’s the simple appeal of the handsome patterning on and sculptural shapes of their infinitesimal-alligator bodies, of course. Those zippy dashes they make from one spot to another first catch my eye and then intrigue me, especially when one of them stops to practice his pushups for a while. I like the way they hold very, very still in between moves, moving only their eyes as they seem to scan for bugs to eat or new heights of patio slab or plant pot-dom to conquer. And very often, I like to contemplate them at equal leisure, attracted most of all to their very differentness from me.
Many things that taste delicious don’t exactly look as dreamy as they are to eat. Of course, anyone who has eaten in a reasonable number of high-end dining establishments knows that what does look impressive may not live up to its pretensions sometimes, too. But it’s worth trying, at least when serving guests, to make the food look appetizing as well as tasting great, and if guests deserve the respect, why shouldn’t we give it to ourselves?When I’m cooking in my DIY (more accurately translated in food terms as ‘Dish It Yourself’) mode for varied appetites and needs, it limits what I can do in terms of presentation a little more than usual, but in some ways it can simplify it, too: as long as I’m not dealing with allergy, I can serve foods in proximity that I know not every one will want in the same mix or proportions. So ‘composed’ presentation and ‘deconstructed’ dishes can be a fine and fun way to create something that looks more attractive and inviting than if I go ahead and blend all of the meal’s parts before serving. Case in point: this quinoa concoction, which is basically a confetti-like mishmash if stirred all together before serving, whereas if I simply keep the ingredients a little more separate when plating it all up, suddenly it looks ever so much more like an artful arrangement and a come-hither dish–which is more in keeping with its being a pretty tasty collation, by my standards. So yes, I did even make the pretty composed version when I was the only person showing up at the table. I really do like me that much.Strawberry Quinoa Salad
The ingredients for this are quite simple and, as I prefer, completely flexible in terms of trading items in or out of the group and setting the proportions. In this instance, I used the following combination: quinoa cooked in bone broth, sliced ripe strawberries, butter toasted sliced almonds, cubed fresh mozzarella, diced yellow tomato, and minced fresh basil and mint leaves. I kept it all at room temperature and dressed it with my balsamic mint vinaigrette (balsamic vinegar, melted mint jelly, a spoonful of pureed fresh cilantro leaves, and macadamia nut oil blended to taste) and a pinch of crunchy Maldon sea salt, and all together, it was Just Right. And pretty, too. Still and all, when I ate the other half of the salad the next day after having stirred it all together, it was just as good to eat. Guess I’m not too hung up on appearances after all.
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.Nestled 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.Cherry-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.
The complication, if there is any, of having a household of two (or one) is that so many foods, dishes and meals are easier to prepare in larger quantities than are appropriate or even desirable for a single meal. It’s very easy, if planning isn’t finely tuned, to have things spoil and go to waste before we’ve plowed through them at our own pace. The upside of this very problem, though, is that if I do plan reasonably well (and have a little luck as a side dish) I can make several meals out of little more than one prep.
I do this, in part, via the method of complexification and conglomeration. The one or two elements remaining after one meal get combined with each other, with some new element or ingredient from the next meal’s intended menu, or both. Yes, it’s quite possible and even sometimes preferable to simply repeat a dish as-is, especially if it’s already its own elaborate concoction. But often, things seem a little less tired and tiresome if they appear in new guises each time so as to stimulate the palate, if not the imagination. So the small amounts of leftover vegetables from lunch and dinner the last couple of days may find themselves married in a new mixed-veg medley with a little sauce or seasoning that helps them play together as nicely as possible and suddenly, they’re not just two spoonfuls of This and a handful of That but an actual, sort of, recipe.
‘Mains’–the central or focal items on the meal’s menu–are seldom hard to incorporate into some new iteration of a main dish. Even when they have already been prepared with a hard-to-ignore or -disguise sauce or presentation, they can find new playmates on the plate next time they head to the table. Roasted chicken, for example, whether homemade or grabbed ready-roasted on a busy day as one flies through the grocery store, is a truly marvelous ingredient when it comes to flexibility. Once seasoned or sauced distinctively, it can pose a slightly more complicated puzzle for renewal, but even then, if the dish is well liked once it’s pretty likely to be popular on a second visit.
So the chicken, whether it was already dressed in the satay-like peanut sauce–I took a shortcut with a pre-made one this time–or not–we liked it well enough to use the same pre-made sauce at the second meal even though it was not already on the chicken–can be reincarnated as a different dinner altogether simply by changing its context. One day, it’s served with a very simple wedge salad dressed with citrusy vinaigrette and a tangle of Pad Thai style rice noodles seasoned lightly with rice vinegar, a squeeze of lime juice and a splash of soy sauce and sprinkled with black sesame seeds.
Next day’s ‘satay’ is served with butter-steamed green beans, fresh cold apple slices and fried rice made from–yes, you guessed it–the fridge stash of jasmine or Basmati rice previously cooked up in broth and now pan-toasted until almost crisping with Persian lime olive oil, soy sauce, a touch of raw honey and a handful of chopped sushi gari (pickled ginger, if you somehow haven’t yet noticed, is one of my favorite seasonings for practically everything!). A sprinkling of white sesame seeds, just for a little visual contrast with yesterday’s offering, and there’s Chicken Pseudo-Satay 2.0 ready to be eaten.
And while there’s certainly nothing that says dessert is a required part of every meal, some of us kind of think of it as a specific food group, so even for dessert it’s nice to have some fine ‘recyclable’ ingredients for whipping up something to finish the day’s eating nicely. One of the things that very regrettably can go to waste far too often in a small household is fresh produce, and when I’ve a beautiful batch of fresh fruit on hand I can’t bear to think it will spoil before we can reasonably eat it all. So a large ‘find’ of sweet fresh strawberries, though it was far too great a quantity for two people on the day it was at its peak, got cleaned, sliced and frozen until the other day when it beckoned to me, siren-like, and I blended it thoroughly with a little whole-milk yogurt, splashes of vanilla and rosewater, a tiny pinch of salt and a bit of honey, poured it into a flat sealable container and froze it until it became a brightly fruity semifreddo or granita of sorts for later consumption.
No matter what the small tidbit, most leftovers that are not on the edge of spoiling really do beg for a kindly reinterpretation before we give up on them. Once I get fully in my Friendly Frankenstein mode and think hard about how to zap new life into worthwhile remaindered ingredients, it’s only a matter of letting the locals trade their pitchforks for dinner forks and we can all remain good friends without fear of monstrosities. Good eating!
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.
Precooked 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.
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 . . .
The change of seasons, whenever and however it happens, always leads me to revisit the idea that we humans are mighty changeable creatures ourselves. This week it suddenly started to act like Autumn here in Texas, after stubbornly refusing to budge from sunny sameness for-seemingly-ever, and instantly there appeared on the public horizon a whole shift of attentions and fashions to go along for the ride. It reminds me as always of what will o’the wisps we are, how fickle and full of silly fancies and steered by every faint current into yet another direction entirely tangential to purpose and meaning, but gripping to us all when we are in it just the same.
Our concepts of beauty and usefulness and value are so mutable, so flexible, it’s a miracle we can find any consensus in our own hearts let alone in the larger community to define what’s important and desirable in our lives from day to day, year to year. I would include most “hard-liners” of any sort in this human whirlpool of constant shift and adjustment too. They will argue that their political or religious or societal stance never alters, but in fact it must if its context is constantly flickering and wriggling uncontrollably, just to maintain the semblance of fixity: the language, tactics, audience-targeting, tools to be used and even reasons for being considered an Immovable Object all have to adjust to the surrounding circumstances and forces in order to keep the believer’s sense of continuity and commitment firm. And that’s both a good and a very scary thing for both sides of the conversation. The Believer side, because it’s really not open to discussion and therefore should neither be questioned nor called to adjust, and the Other-Views side because it’s sometimes hard not only to consider whether we have become fixed in our own ways but also to consider which ways we can and should be going.
That idea alone can veer off into far deeper waters than the initial premise of this rumination warrants, so I’ll leave it by saying that I think of myself as being fairly comfortable with uncertainty and rather not so certain when it comes to taking sides. There isn’t much in the world I know that I see in clearly demarcated black and white, practically speaking. Maybe that’s why I do like to make black and white artworks as much as I do, after all.
In the meantime, the changing of the seasons and its concomitant change of more frivolous things teases me into enjoying the oddity of how easily we are steered in matters of taste and pleasure. The college cuties rambling off-campus are still wearing the same few molecules of skirts and spray-painted tops, but in a faint nod to the changing wind and temperature, suddenly they’re accessorized with bigger than ever Sasquatch boots, long-fringed fake-fur (though still sleeveless) hoodies and, when the males of the species are out of gawking range, garments that look suspiciously like emergency-rescue wrappings used to save hypothermia victims from impending death. I presume these latter items reside, in male-proximal moments, in the depths of those Volkswagen-sized handbags so prevalent nowadays.
Certainly, you can see just from the way I use of the word “nowadays” that I’m old enough to be wearing underpants that could be mistaken for a parachute, holding my socks up with garters, and wearing clothespins on the back of my neck to keep my facial features more reliably in place. To be fair, I was a geezer in many ways from about when I hit the age of ten, so although I eschew such age-appropriate gear myself, I have never quite been what anyone would call At One with the trends. Fortunately for me, I find myself quite fabulous as-is, and apparently those around me have either built up serious tolerance or agree with my skewed view.
So I’m quite happy to live-and-let-live when it comes to personal decoration, even if it means watching delusional dames dress like teenagers, teenagers dress like trashy skanks, and grown men unable to recognize that their comb-overs neither fool anyone other than themselves nor do they remain hugging the skull as insulation when the wind arises but rather take sail and remain vertical until alighting after the storm passes or the gents go indoors, whichever comes first. After all, what would be the excitement, the entertainment value, if we all decorated ourselves well or sensibly or beautifully?
What, especially, would be the fun in all of us considering the same things beautiful? I know one thing: all species would die out shortly after becoming severely inbred if every creature were attracted to only one form of every feature of that creature. And don’t get me started on the likelihood that a handsome sawfish would find a cyclamen pretty or a person who loves to grow prizewinning turnips would like to date a person who looks like a really fine turnip. When it comes to beauty, I’m all for letting you keep your ridiculous prejudices as long as you let me keep my equally ridiculous ones, my friends.
It’s a redundancy, isn’t it, ‘preposterous beauty’? What could be more unlikely, more outlandish and excessive, than beauty itself? Yet it’s the one thing we all seek, in one form or another. We long for what seems perfect, what appears flawless. We yearn after those things that, at least in our own minds, represent the ideal.
In some ways, it strikes me as puzzling that we should be anything other than repelled by beauty, if indeed it is representative of perfection: who on earth should want to be reminded of her own imperfection and inability to achieve it? I can’t imagine that there are so many people so deluded as to think themselves either perfect or deserving of association with the perfect that they would willingly submit to being even juxtaposed with any other such wonder. So why do I, of all people, so wonderfully aware at all times of my almost cartoonish capability for exemplifying the imperfect in so many aspects, find that I too am compelled to seek beauty?
Beauty is perhaps the everyman‘s Everest, so I will intone along with George Mallory and all of his philosophical heirs: “Because it’s there.” If few can deserve of a prize, that is sometimes motivation enough for all of the remaining horde to contend for it, hoping that perseverance and pure luck will combine to favor them. If something is desirable, even if merely because of its beauty, why would we not wear ourselves out in the pursuit of it?
The particular joy of Beauty is, if I may, that it is not so particular. That is, there are so many kinds of beauty possible in all of existence, and so many ways of perceiving and interpreting them, that there are almost endless sorts of beauty to be pursued. It makes a person like me, who sees herself as among the least-likely deserving recipients of the benevolence of beauty, think that perhaps there’s enough to spare for me anyway, if I show appropriate reverence for it and make an effort. It’s the only way that I can explain to myself how a person of my humble means has been so indulged with so many forms of beauty granted me in my life.
I think of beauty as it is understood and distilled through all of our senses: that which can be tasted, smelled, seen, heard, touched and intuited–any and all of this can be beautiful. The range of possibility is overwhelming. Imagine sitting in a peaceful room and listening to a sure, sweet voice singing a compelling melody while sunlight suffuses the space with warmth and the scent of leafy spring creeps in at the windows. Isn’t it preposterous to think all of those beauties could converge in one act? And yet they can. Imagine kneading wonderfully elastic yeasty dough with the sweetest grandmother, one who laughs softly and often, her velvety skin crinkling up around her eyes in a mischievously creased smile, and the sound of her old radio down the hall sending you Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli to accompany your kneading and chuckling together. Preposterous? Of course! But such confluences of perfection do exist.
So I keep believing and hoping and yearning. I make drawings and poems and think that, when the stars align just so, in spite of myself I may make something of beauty. Or just stumble over it and be glad. It’s so ridiculous, so impossible; true beauty is so beyond my reach it might as well be Mount Everest and I a mere speck on the earth. But it has drawn me to try the climb before, and I know it will again and again. Beauty is really preposterous that way.
I give myself credit for being a tolerably decent cook. Once in a blue moon I even fuss with fancy-schmancy cookery or baking, but less often with every passing year. As it is, I’m mostly far too impatient to get to the actual eating to consider fooling around with any processes that delay that significantly. For a visual artist, I’m shockingly laissez-faire about plating and presentation, and depend on the goodwill and patience of those at table with me to get me past that part of the meal to the part where I get to play human forklift.
Now, I have great admiration for those who are serious and artful chefs, and I certainly prefer to feast upon delicious, rather than fit-only-for-subsistence, foods. And if those foods are a feast for the other senses as well, why that’s nigh unto nirvana. But mostly that happens at other people’s hands, others’ tables. I’m too busy concentrating on not eating the entire meal while preparing it to devote much attention to subtleties of composition. When I’m a guest in another’s dining room, it’s everything a piggy like me can do to feign manners enough to keep from leaning over my dessert with a maniacal tooth-baring slaver that belies the need for utensils while I wait for the host to take that first bite. A picture comes to my mind of our former neighbor Everett, so in love with both carpentry and helping out, that when he knew a project was afoot at our place across the street he would place his lawn chair at the front of his open garage and perch on the edge of it in runner’s-starting-block position, gripping his favorite Sawzall® at the ready, for the moment when he might be summoned to join in the party.
Likewise, I never have much in the way of photo documentation of any culinary successes I have, because those are usually dived into and massacred unceremoniously even as the last sprig of fresh herbs or the final flourish of confectioners’ sugar is drifting down to alight upon them. Yes, I have made heaps of glistening handmade pork jiao-zi, a mountainous mocha Intercontinental torte, delicate Norwegian-style fishcakes with dainty potetkaker (fat mini-lefse potato cakes) dripping with butter on the side, steamed zucchini blossoms stuffed with scented couscous, homemade rosemary pasta with wild mushroom cream sauce, and many more such dishes and meals over the years. I have fussed and fiddled with sauces and garnishes meant to make a sultan sigh with admiration. But dang it, when the perfume gets too heady and the urgency to get this stuff on the board gets too intense, well, how can anyone blame a poor ordinary cook and unbridled scarfer-of-foods if the comestibles get hustled to table and everybody just puts his head down, knife up, and plunges in?
There is the additional problem of what some foods look like in the first place. I’m not talking about the delightfully horror-movie appearance of a freshly caught monkfish or that sort of thing, but about the kinds of delicious dishes that resist being prettied up. Food stylists and top-flight chefs find ways around this all the time, but in truth, there’s not much point in gussying up a mousse. It is what it is.
In the case of this mousse from last week, I didn’t even bother to fool much with the fineness of the puree, since I like the slightly chunky chew of the peaches that emerges in each spoonful of otherwise creamy texture. Okay, I went so far as to put the dessert in tall stemmed glasses and even powder the top of the servings with a bit of good ground cinnamon, so that the scent of them would be that much closer to the diners’ noses in case the odd brownish-orange color and irregular texture were a teeny bit suspect. But I wouldn’t necessarily trade in for a prettier appearance the simple richness of peaches caramelized deeply in vanilla and cinnamon and butter and then pulverized to blend with lightly sweetened heavy cream. That’s just my set of priorities, you see.
I have eaten and heard described plenty of dishes that start out with individual ingredients that simply oughtn’t to have been invited to the same party, so there’s a certain incompleteness to the general rule of ingredient-quality = finished-dish-quality, but the converse is so definitively true that it’s best to rely on this side of the equation. The most elaborate and skillful preparation of kæstur hákarl (the classic rotten shark preparation) is still going to taste like rotten shark, so either get with the Icelandic program and learn to enjoy it on its own merits or don’t be serving it in puff pastry with sugarcrafted butterflies on it. (Sheesh, at least you could put sugarcrafted arctic foxes on it.) Even I with my limited-experience palate and low tolerance for foods not appreciated outside of their native cultural circles will know something’s just not right.
I’ll take a slightly sloppy looking plateful of hearty and unpretentious homemade goodness any day. Especially if the singular parts of it are fabulous ingredients and haven’t been ridiculously tortured in the process. Then the only danger is if you get in the way of my ninja-like attack on the dish with my gleaming cutlery. I can only keep up the guise of manners for so long, my dears.