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It may not look like much yet…

Spring has fully returned to north Texas. That means repeated visitations from wind and tornado warnings, thunderstorms that lead to flash floods, and threats of baseball sized hail. More often, though, it means warm temperatures and plants seeming to grow 50% taller in a day. And it brings on bud, leaf and bloom with a flourish that reminds me how showy and productive a Texas garden can be at its—however brief—peak.

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Will you think me impertinent if I show you my bloomers?

A Saturday outing is splashed with roadside waves of Showy Primrose, Paintbrush and Bluebonnets, and the trees are bursting with a dense, cheering liveliness that belies the likelihood of a relatively short span of such intense lushness.photo montage

Our own garden is reawakening, sending up promises left and right of everything from capsicum and tomato, parsley and kale to the same primrose standard-bearers ushering in roses, Salvia and Echinacea. The saplings garnered of the city’s largesse in the annual tree giveaway—redbud, Mexican Plum and Texas Ash, to date—are awakening as well. Though the odd temperature fluctuations and ice storms this winter hindered their bloom, they are leafing out in style. And as much as I’ve been known to vilify and slander all of squirrel-dom as thieving rats, I will grant them all manner of amnesty for their one generous act of planting acorns across our property and providing a welcome lagniappe of oak seedlings in my planters for the increase of our little backyard grove.

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I’m up to my irises in spring bloom…

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Can you blame me for being dazzled?

For shorter-term flair, it would be hard to argue with iris as my chief fancy at this time of year. Always a favorite flower for both my partner and me, it was the centerpiece of our wedding design, courtesy of Mom’s garden, and an indulgent purchase last fall in the form of a self-gifted bunch of fans for the garden here. Along with the classic lavender bearded and highly perfumed variety given us by a dear friend, the newcomers are flourishing in their bed in the front corner of our lot, and I am wholly enamored of their flashy, curling flounces and the radiant tendrils of their beards. The graphic drama sustained by their swordlike leaves after the flowers pass is a pleasing bonus of irises’ appeal, but the magnificence of a bed in full bloom will always be one of my most beloved signs that this season of nature’s great exuberance is in full swing, a grand hurrah in floral form.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: The Daily Grind Need Not Grind Us Down

When I did a bit of checking on it, the name of my variant of Shepherd’s Pie seemed to be, by rights, ‘Pastel de Carne y Patatas’–but you know me, I can’t stick to proprieties very well. So I named it the more mellifluous sounding ‘Pastel al Pastor’, thinking as I do that shepherds get very short shrift in this day and age and can use a little flattering attention. What the dish is calls for it anyway, for it’s a rustic Mexican-tinged take on the comfort-food standard Shepherd’s Pie. In any event, like many longtime popular recipes, it got its start partly by using ground or minced meat, a hallmark of well-fed poor people’s diets since the cheaper cuts of most meats can become tenderer and allow much more expansive fillers and the disguise of plenteous seasonings in order to be palatable while still being relatively affordable.

Rustic and comforting it may be, but the simplicity of the end result in this recipe belies the multifaceted process by which it’s made. Don’t let that put you off, though, because it can be made in large quantities and frozen in smaller batches between times, so it can easily become a quick-fix dish after the first preparation. Shepherd’s Pie, in the vernacular, derives from the longtime concept of Cottage Pie, which in turn originated when cooks began more widely using potatoes to stretch those more expensive ingredients of the meal, the meats. Typically, these pies (and there are versions of them in an enormous number of countries, cultures and cuisines) are simply meat dishes, often made with the ‘lesser’ cuts or a mixture of leftover meats, with a potato crust. Probably the most familiar of them here in the US is the minced meat (and often, vegetable) mixture topped with mashed potatoes that is served in many a British pub and home kitchen and that we co-opted in our own American ways.

Mine, on this occasion, was to veer as I often do toward Mexican seasonings and enjoy my own little twist on the dish.photoPastel al Pastor

Seasoned minced or ground meats, topped with vegetables and mushrooms and gravy and served over smashed potatoes make altogether a hearty and countrified dish, not at all difficult to make but taking a little bit of time because of its individual parts. I make this in a generously buttered baking dish both because it’s easier to clean afterward and because–you guessed it–I love butter.

The bottom layer of the dish is made by frying a mixture of equal parts ground beef, pork and lamb, seasoned freely with salt, black and cayenne peppers, chili powder, smoked paprika and lots of cumin. Those without supertaster spouses will likely want to add some garlic powder as well, though it’s not essential. A splash of rich chicken broth or a spoonful of good chicken bouillon adds a nice layer of flavor, if you have it. Next, add a heaping spoonful of tomato paste and enough good salsa to make the meat mixture very slightly saucy, and just as the meats begin to caramelize, you’re done. [My go-to, if I’m not making my salsa by hand, is Pace’s mild Chunky Salsa with a prepared chipotle en adobo blended in thoroughly–I see on their web page that they’re reintroducing their chipotle salsa, so that’s probably fine too.] Drain the fat from the meat mixture and spread it in the bottom of your baking dish.

While the meat’s cooking, you can be preparing the vegetable-mushroom layer. I mixed about equal amounts of small cut carrots, sliced celery and sliced brown mushrooms, covered them with some of my ubiquitous chicken broth and cooked them until tender. Then I pureed half of them with a stick blender, adding a heaping tablespoon each of chipotle en adobo (that’s about a half a pepper), unflavored gelatin and potato flour for flavor and texture, mixed that with the remaining vegetables, and poured it all over the meat. I topped this with a cup or so of frozen sweet kernel corn and got ready for Potato Happiness.

Today’s version of this meal, Ladies and Gentlemen, was potato-fied with leftovers. I had half a baked potato and about a cupful of good french fries in the fridge, and they worked wonderfully when warmed with some cream and a touch of salt and smashed roughly. It would have been just fine to do the typical Shepherd’s Pie treatment of spreading the potatoes over the meat-and-veg before heating the dish through in the oven, but since this was all concocted of things I had around (taco meat I’d made and frozen, salad vegetables and leftover potatoes), on this occasion we just put nice heaps of mash on our plates and spooned the rest over them like meat-and-vegetable gravy.

For the more normal approach, I’d roast, boil or bake potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and combine with cream for the mash and then top the casserole, possibly adding some nice cheese either on top before browning it in the oven (a mix of shredded cheddar and Monterey jack, for example) or as a fine garnish, a serving-time crumble (cotija on top, anyone?). But ‘normal’ is overrated, and the dish was mighty, mighty tasty even deconstructed in this way. And it’s still flexible–yes, even a dish concocted of multiple leftovers has variety left in it, my friends. Add some peas (so many tasty cottage pies have peas in them), cauliflower, green beans, or any number of other vegetables. Make it spicier. Soup it up into a stew, with potato pieces incorporated. Change the seasonings to Indian and make it a post-Colonial curried version. You get the drift.

Thing is, of course, that this is precisely how the dish was conceived: as a loose general structure into which any number of variables could successfully be introduced, depending upon what was on hand. Save time, save labor, save money. Eat delicious potatoes and whatever flavorful wonders you can afford and imagine to combine under them.

Well, get along with you now, you know how it works. And you can be pretty sure that it’s going to taste good. That’s how folklore ‘recipes’ survive–on flexibility and reliability. Oh, yeah, and great fillers.

Even chicken, which sometimes gets short shrift when it comes to minced meat dishes because it’s left too unseasoned or cooked in ways that make it too dry, can make lovely ground meat dishes with a little effort. In the latest instance, I chose to precook mine in a sort of meat loaf sous vide, keeping the juices and additions in and on it until it was fully plate-safe, but this could easily be chilled in its loaf form, sliced and pan-fried without the intervening hot bath, I’m sure. And a food processor makes the loaf prep a snap, but it can be done with a knife and a pair of hands for mixing, too. In any event, I veered more toward Italy this time with my glorified chicken meatloaf concoction.photoCotolette di Pollo e Pancetta

[About 6 servings.] Mince and mix together the following and shape into a compact loaf: 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (dark meat stays moister), 3 ounces pancetta, 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon thyme, 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1/8 teaspoon powdered lemon peel, 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons cold butter and 1/2 teaspoon minced dried shallot. Wrap and chill the loaf until ready to fry it, or do as I did: vacuum pack it, cook it sous vide like a confit (low and slow–I let it go overnight), and then refrigerate until ready to use.

When it’s time to fix the meal, cut the loaf into slices about 1/4 inch thick and fry them over medium heat until lightly browned. With a well seasoned iron skillet or a nonstick pan, the butter in the loaf is quite sufficient to keep the slices from sticking, and they get a nice little lightly crispy crust outside their tender middles. I served mine with slices of fried cheese (any slow-melting mild cheese would do for this after-the-fact application, or you can top the meat slices with faster-melting sorts like mozzarella or provolone as the meat cooks) and a simple sauce cooked down from jarred passata (simple tomato puree–I like the Mutti brand passata I used, pure tomatoes with a little salt) mixed with the loaf’s excess juices, salt and pepper and oregano to taste. On the side, little ramekins of rice and buttered green beans are plenty, though of course there’s always room for invention on the plate. The whole assembly, since I’d put up both cooked rice and the confited loaf in the refrigerator beforehand, took not more than fifteen or twenty minutes to prepare.

¡Buen provecho! Buon appetito! Now, stop mincing around and get eating!

Foodie Tuesday: What’s the Difference between an Old Smoothie and Desiccation?

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What does it matter whether I’m an old smoothie or just desiccated with age?

There’s no time of year that’s wrong for a tasty smoothie. Since these little flavor powerhouses can be packed with vegetables, fruits, dairy or non-dairy liquid goodness, and countless herbs, spices, elixirs and sweeteners of choice, why not occasionally enjoy a few of the day’s nutrients in a deliciously sippable form? And why not, while I’m at it, sometimes enjoy them in an outright ridiculously dessert-sweet version right in the middle of the rest of the meal? Behold the Peach Pie Smoothie. It knows no season, being easy to make with canned peaches–home canned being the loveliest, if one happens to have access to them. Never having embraced the thrills of home canning myself, I’m satisfied with finding ready-made canned fruits that are preserved in fruit juices (their own or mild flavored companion ones) rather than the heavy syrups that merely mask flavor and put the fruits into suspended animation that extends beyond their shelf life.

Peach Pie Smoothie [for one]

1/2 cup canned sliced peaches in fruit juice
1/2-3/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup whole milk yogurt
1 T honey
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp Saigon cinnamon
pinch of salt

Blended together until smooth, this combination becomes a potable pie–and probably every bit as sugar and calorie laden as its forebear, so I’d better not make it a habit–that adds a happy note of variety to the meal of the day, whatever it is. I’d add a dollop of whipped cream to the top, given its rich dessert-like nature, but that would surely spell doom for my chances of minimizing the habit. When I say ‘that’s how I roll’ it begins to have a whole different meaning than I’d hope. Meanwhile, I’m too busy slurping to stop and whip the cream anyhow, luckily for me.

Besides this, there’s the sure knowledge that there are other sweet delights out there waiting for me all the time, and they’re not necessarily terrible for me either. The addition of salt–as you know, one of my favorite things on earth–to this smoothie has a specific purpose and reminds me of another grand feature of food that can be captured with little effort when one’s in the mood. Sweetness through the contrast with other types of flavor: sour, bitter, umami, or in this case salt. The enhancement of sweetness can also be relatively easily achieved by means of concentration.

No, I’m not referring to thinking-makes-it-so, though I have been known once or twice to furrow my brow in deep cogitation over whether I mightn’t be able to find more ways to bring out the sweetness of a dish or ingredient. My furrowed brow, however, hints at the other means to which I’m referring, because let’s face it (no pun intended), as I get older and my youthful juices start to dry up, my face does get more creased and crevassed. And desiccation is precisely what I’m talking about. Concentration sounds much cheerier, perhaps, but the meaning and effect are generally the same: to reduce or remove the liquids rounding out an ingredient or dish in order to enhance the detectable presence of the remaining portions. Salt, as a natural desiccant, can do this by means of leaching out juices as well as by its own salinity contrasting with other kinds of tastes. Evaporation, however, is another option and, though it’s a slower process than adding a bit of salt, depends on the ingredient itself to take the forefront, so to speak.

Let me just say that if anyone should call me a prune I would consider it highly complimentary, a tribute not only to my maturity but an indirect admission that I’m sweeter than most of those undeveloped youngsters out there.

Drying fruits in particular is a great way to pack concentrated, deeply flavorful sweetness into them. It seems only in the fads of recent years have we returned to a fuller appreciation of how marvelous that magic is, as evidenced in the skyrocketing prices and popularity of dried fruits of every sort, not to mention the pastes, candies and preserves we can make of them with little further effort. To wit:

OH, DRY UP!

Apricot, apple
Blueberry, banana
Cranberry, cherry, coffee
Date
Elderberry
Fig
Guava
Honeydew
Illawarra plum
Jackfruit, jujube
Kumquat, kiwi
Loquat, lemon, lime, lychee
Mango, melon, miracle fruit
Nectarine
Olive
Prune (plum), peach, pear, persimmon, pineapple
Quince
Raisin (grape), rambutan, rose hip
Strawberry
Tomato, tamarind
Uvilla, Ugli fruit
Valencia orange, vanilla bean
Watermelon (I’ve only heard of compression with this one, admittedly, not outright drying for concentration)
Xocolatl (okay, cacao is a berry that requires a fair amount of processing, but isn’t it highly worth the effort?!)
Youngberry
Zinfandel grape, zapote

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Peach Pie Smoothie

SPECIAL ELECTION DAY LINK LOVE!

See my youngest sister (and her good friend Rachel Myr) on Norwegian television being interviewed about being American citizen residents in Norway who still care passionately enough about their home country to pay attention to and vote in the elections. [Both the live/filmed interview and the print one are in Norwegian, but they aren’t terribly hard to decipher, really. Plus, you get to see my beautiful sister. Bonus!]

http://www.nrk.no/nyheter/distrikt/sorlandet/1.8381396

Foodie Tuesday: Inner Beauty

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Holy Basil--Ocimum tenuiflorum--Batman!

There are nearly as many food aphorisms and adages as there are things to eat. Or not to eat. Humans have long sought specific herbs, seeds, barks, flours, shellfish, eggs, and much, much more for the decoctions and concoctions made of them as treatment or cure for far more than starvation. Theories abound regarding what is and isn’t healthful and when and why and for whom, and they swing from one extreme to another at the drop of a spoon. The only fairly dependable approach, it would seem, is to listen to one’s own body. Not such a bad thing to do, in any event, but remarkably rare among the extreme advocates of numerous dietary practices, for whom their personal insights and experiences become a matter of faith.

Indeed, faith (as expressed in religions) has long been a significant factor in shaping what is deemed good or ill at table. Religions often determine what their adherents consider healthful or horrible, sacred or profane. Many religions require strict practice of particular dietary laws, from veganism to vegetarianism to specifying what meats or fruits one may or may not eat and how they must be prepared and in what season they may be embraced. My own beliefs about foods are far less religion-driven–as you can probably tell from my food-related posts here, anyway–but I don’t think religious strictures are any more or less perfect or questionable than dietary practices developed by most other means. I would no more knowingly offend anyone’s religious dietary practices than tell them they should eat foods they’re deathly allergic to or that they must like or dislike the same food and drink as I do. And let’s just be honest here: if others say No Thank You to something I like, then there’s more of it for me!

But what is on my food-crazed mind on this particular day is the practice of finding what foods suit one’s own particular health and happiness. Aside from any laws and limitations, and of course availability and accessibility, we must make constant choices about what to eat. Nearly as long as humans have eaten with any deliberation, any sense of knowing what will kill them or preserve their lives, they have also looked at foods as capable of qualifying the degree of health and well-being they enjoyed.

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Love-Apple or Deadly Nightshade?

Tomatoes, perhaps because they are members of the Solanum clan, the nightshades, were considered poisonous in some places (including North America) long after other places’ cuisines were safely and even happily employing them as food. Consciously or not, we all revisit the notion of a comestible‘s safety and health-enhancing properties rather constantly, choosing those things whose tastes we prefer or that make us feel new-and-improved in any way, and avoiding those that give us heartburn, nausea, gallbladder attacks, the Wind, loss of hair, loss of appendages, dropsy, dyspepsia or excessive whimsy. (Well, masochists aside, at least.) Herbalists and nutritionists teach us the known and purported characteristic effects of pretty much everything that can be chewed or swallowed. And ultimately, all I can do is try to learn from my own body what it does and doesn’t want or need.

That’s not to say that I will always do what I believe is best for my health and welfare, by any stretch of the imagination. And you know I have one.

What I want is to feel good. And sometimes stuff that’s not necessarily guaranteed good for me makes me feel good.

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Dear Verbena, let me be candid: I may be a little lipophilic, but I'm no radical . . .

It’s really quite amazing what the things we eat and drink can do to us, in us and for us. And I’m not just talking about pharmaceutical effects. Necessarily. See, lunch affects how we feel until dinner, yes, but there’s also the general effect on mood and attitude, on what we see when we look in the mirror, on whether we feel healthier and happier or more impressive in any way. Part of me wants to believe that if I just ate the right stuff I actually would look fabulous in my long-ago orange fake-fur trench coat. That I would be suddenly as smart as I’ve always thought I was and solve all the problems of the world. And of course, that I would be the most spectacular version of myself possible and live that way for another half-century or so at least.

But really, I’m just happy when I figure out what pleases my inner workings and makes me feel pleasantly sated and really ready for whatever the next few hours bring. Oh, and doesn’t make me break out like I’ve reverted to my teens. I’ll get back to you when I’ve developed the perfect diet for all humanity. All I know so far is that it has lots of butter, salt, and chocolate in it. And that it guarantees a certain degree of both inner peace and vigorous smiling when taken regularly and judiciously.

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. . . meanwhile, back in my orange trench coat days . . .