Foodie Tuesday: Cogitation on Vegetation

Sometimes I just plain crave vegetable goodness. I am an omnivore, generally, and probably something of an addict when it comes to eggs and dairy, but there is nothing to substitute for vegetal deliciousness, at times. Green, give me green! Or at least, things that were growing on and as plants.

For there are so many wonderful non-green vegetable delights, as well. So when veggies call, I answer. Who am I to refuse the marvelous joys of the garden?

Today’s foray: back in the land of cauliflower. I find it to be a remarkably fine ingredient, highly adaptable and versatile despite being relatively strong flavored, because its strength is balanced by an indefinable character that isn’t quite this or that, inherently, so much as a strong framework for other flavors. A great companion or substrate, if you will, for a great number of other kinds of flavors and textures.

Today, I wanted an umami-filled comfort food, and while cauliflower easily gives the texture I want, it is not itself inherently umami loaded. Mushrooms, ah, even the most humble among those are crammed with umami. The recipe, typical of my cooking, is not a recipe at all, but it takes advantage of the strengths of cauliflower and a few other modest yet potent ingredients to pull in the richness of umami as best I could imagine at the moment.

I suspect that in future iterations of this dish I will likely add a deeply green ingredient (spinach? broccoli? collards?) or two. Those are so fulfilling in a wholly different way, seeming rather cleansing to me, and refreshing and lightening and brightening. But that sort of character is not necessary to the pleasure of vegetable dishes in general, as sometimes (especially in fall and winter) what I want from vegetables is a sense of warmth and earthiness. This time, cruciferous and fungal and spiced earthiness, combined with dairy and egg intensity to create a rich, full, round sensory experience best served warm at a candlelit table, no matter what the hour.

Cauliflower, Cheese & “Squashroom” Casserole

Take one head of cauliflower and a pint of white or brown common mushrooms, raw, and pulse them all in the food processor until coarsely minced. Spoon the mixture into a large cake pan or casserole that’s been thoroughly greased (I used coconut oil), and sprinkle with coarsely ground salt and pepper, smoked paprika, brown mustard seeds, and freshly grated nutmeg. Top with about two or three cups of sliced zucchini (I used yellow) and a cup of shredded Parmesan cheese, drizzle with 1/4 cup melted brown butter, spritz again with oil to even out the coating, and bake at 250°F/121°C for an hour or until softened and melding flavors. While that’s baking, mix one 12-14 oz. tin of chopped or pureed unsalted tomatoes, an equal amount of plain whole-milk Greek yogurt, three large eggs, and 1-1/2 cups of shredded cheese (I used mozzarella, which I had in the freezer, but cheddar or any kind of mild-to-sharp melting cheese should do) together thoroughly. Stir and/or layer this with the softened vegetables and bake at 350°F/177°C for another half hour to 45 minutes or until the cheese is thickening and bubbling nicely. I added a coating of crushed corn flake crumbs with Italian seasoning over the top of this before baking to vary the texture just a little, and while it looked a little odd in the baking, it smelled great.

I can only assume that this concoction will pass muster (never mind mustard) when I serve it for lunch later this week after refrigerating it to set it up a bit and then reheating it for the meal, but given that it’s fairly close to the cauliflower pretend-mac-&-cheese I made before I am trusting in the ingredients to behave well together. If you are a reasonably trusting or adventurous spirit, jump in; if not, wait for the verdict later this week (I’ll update this then). For now, here’s the Phase I picture, and I feel pretty confident.

Or does that just prove that I’m a vegetable, too?Photo: I'm a Vegetable, Too

Foodie Tuesday: Zombies, & an Old Lady with Good Bones

Zombies are still surprisingly popular these days, considering their poor (or, at best, wildly over-eager) social skills. The current crop of them was, impressively, a resurrection of many previous generations’ versions of the species, which means that they are not just returned from the dead, but returned from being returned from being dead. Or something like that.

In my kitchen, I am mostly nicer than a zombie-master, intending only good things to happen via my culinary experiments. But no matter how kindly my purposes, sometimes I am an unintentional bringer-of-doom. Many are my fellows, I’m sure, but perhaps fewer are those who will admit to stumbling around the cooktop in their experimental work, lest they be accused of attempted poisoning or any such mean-spirited rubbish. Sometimes I’m even dumb enough to try to revive the dish that had already failed, which I suppose makes me guilty of the same sort of resurrectionist hubris that has brought about many a modern-day pop-cultural scene of zombie-apocalyptic grocery shopping. At least I don’t attempt to feed the second variation of my experiments to anybody else before carefully being my own lab volunteer. But I hate to be wasteful.

Photo: Who's been Messing with My Cooktop?!

*”WHO’S BEEN MESSING WITH MY COOKTOP?!” roared the Giant. There was silence in the wreckage, for the Zombies had eaten the Cook—along with her only semi-successful Spätzle as a side dish, because her tiny brains alone were clearly not filling enough to assuage their ravenous collective hunger.

So when I made that recent jiaozi whose dumpling dough was less than perfect, I couldn’t resist trying to rescue the remaining dough. It was, honestly, closely based on other cooks’ supposedly successful versions of gluten-free pasta doughs, so I figured my inability to achieve a particularly shining success with the same wrapper recipe was more a matter of practice or tiny ingredient tweaks than anything more serious, and sought to revise the dough just enough to make it noodle-worthy. An added egg did, in fact, help it to have much more of the texture and malleability that I’d want in a pasta dough, although it was still just loose enough that unless I added further flour I couldn’t hope to roll it out in thin sheets. So I thought about thicker noodle variants and opted to give this dough a try as Spätzle, since those tiny schwäbische Schätze (southern German gems) aren’t rolled out before cooking. Indeed, the dough went through my grater rather handily (if extremely messily*), cooked at a good speed in my boiling broth, and floated up as light, petite, pale golden dumplings, just as I’d hoped.

They even tasted quite lovely, straight out of the steaming pot and doused liberally with browned butter and a sprinkling of grated cheese (I used Parmigiano-Reggiano for its added nuttiness). But tasting them ahead of time like this, as well-meant a prophylactic measure as it was, did mean that I would have to reheat the mess yet once more, and alas, even the most gently handled of pastas simply couldn’t survive another round of stasis-and-revivification. Sometimes the dead remain dead. The last reheating left me with buttered paste rather than pasta, and the only effect of adding the egg to the dough was, ultimately, to leave me with egg on my face. Ah, well. Of such mini-disasters are legends, or at least jokes, made. The joke’s on me.

Photo: Tasted Okay at First

Thankfully, the Cook had inadvertently saved the world by cooking dumplings that tasted okay at first but quickly became unpleasantly cement-like in the Zombies’ remaining innards and turned them all into stony statues of their *former* Former Selves. And so the Apocalypse was averted, and simultaneously, a glorious, artful monument in statuary made to commemorate the moment of this, the world’s rescue. You’re welcome.

Don’t get me wrong: being an old enough geezer (“lady” might be a stretch) to want to get the most out of my grocery money and cooking efforts isn’t always a bad thing. I’m ancient and experienced enough, in fact, to know that I should occasionally admit defeat and throw out the last of that failed dough. Chalk it up to been there, tried that wisdom.

Other forms of wisdom are well worth the earning in the kitchen, too. Like, when there’s a fresh batch of bone broth cooking, a really, really fabulous batch made with my usual ingredients plus both chicken feet and beef feet that did indeed come out of the slow cooker as rich, glossy, and jellied as the most beautiful classic aspic of my dreams—but there’s still a pint of the last batch in the fridge, rather than bolt or toss the latter, I simmer it down and get an equally gorgeous reduction for sauce base and soup enhancement. I added some dry sherry before cooking it down. Just for fun. Oh, and a little sweetness. This little tub of wondrous demi-glace is good enough to melt for a beautiful finishing sauce for anything savory that isn’t vegetarian, just as it is.

Photo montage: The Broth Brothers

But another old-lady bit of kitchen witchery that more people should know and respect nowadays is that, while minimal cooking of vegetables can preserve more of their original nutrients, not to mention textures and colors, than boiling them to mush in the fashion of days long past—or as though they’d started cooking back then—softer veg is not nasty. Gentle handling is the difference. Some good Southern cooks in the US have not entirely forgotten and forsworn the low-and-slow glories of vegetables simmered for ages in bacon grease or butter, and any culture that values its stews, dutch-oven artistry, and slow cooker magic, for example, retains something of this truth.Photo: The Softer Side of Vegetables

So for a recent lunch with a couple of friends, I opted to carry on these traditions at both levels, piling up a batch of bite-sized cauliflower, carrots, and celery in my trusty small Pyrex covered dish, put a knob of browned butter and a quarter-cup of said demi-glace, still jellied, on top, and steamed the lot gradually in the microwave into lightly softened submission. For the finish, I stirred the vegetables, topped them with a piquant garnish “salad” I’d made earlier and refrigerated, a mix of preserved and chopped green olives, pimientos, black olives, and mushrooms. I added a generous sprinkle of Parmesan shreds, and let the dish heat one last bit before serving. Old-fashioned vegetable happiness. With a deep undercurrent of old-fashioned cooking from a rather old-fashioned person.Photo: Old Fashioned Covered Dish

Foodie Tuesday: For Which I’m Very Thankful

Photo: Thanksgiving in New BraunfelsI enjoy cooking. Not as much as I enjoy eating, or I’d probably bother to get chef training and go to work as a cook somehow, but I do enjoy time well spent in the kitchen. Still, I am ever so glad to let other, and very often better, cooks feed me. I was delighted, for example, to let the hotel staff in New Braunfels (Texas hill country) put together the meal my darling spouse and I shared with a ballroom-full of senior citizens and a small handful of their child and grandchild youngsters on Thanksgiving day. The food wasn’t especially gourmet, being an all-day buffet of extremely familiar and generally uncomplicated dishes long associated here with the holiday, but it was satisfying and traditional, and I didn’t lift a finger to help in its preparation, unless you count buttering my own bread. And I loved that—especially at the end of a long no-breaks haul for my hardworking husband, and in the throes of freshly hatched holiday colds for both of us—we could pay someone else to feed us. I’m grateful every day that I can afford to eat, and nearly always whatever I want to eat, and that sometimes others will do the fixing for me.

I’m also pleased to have access to foods that are, when I do want to cook, easy to make into something nice to eat. Vegetables almost never miss the mark in that realm for me, even though the aforementioned darling isn’t quite so hot on so many of them as I might be. It still fascinates me that he has, thanks to being a supertaster, an arguably restricted palate, but likes some foods that one might never expect a picky eater to like. He is an avowed avoider of things garlicky and onion-heavy, yet numbers among his joys when choosing a meal such famously garlic and onion friendly cuisines as Italian, Thai, Mexican, Indian, and of course, Tex-Mex. It’s all about how the ingredients are prepared, integrated, and combined, isn’t it. This guy who despises Weird Foods (and to him, they are myriad) will happily eat raw fish—not so familiar at all in America until recent decades—if it’s in the form of well-made sushi. As we draw near to the two-decade mark of marriage ourselves, I still do not presume to read his mind, culinarily speaking, accurately at all times. Not that this assures I can’t or won’t eat what I please, when it pleases me, but it’s easier to accomplish when dining out than when I’d have to prepare separate dishes for us, a thing I’m willing to do only occasionally. Another reason to appreciate visits to restaurants and friends’ tables.Photo: Fresh Onions

While I’m on the subject of vegetal delights, let us then ponder some specifics. And why not start with garlic and onions? The flagrantly fragrant lily relatives are amazingly versatile, able to range from hot and spicy to mellow, even to sweet; in texture, they can be soft, chewy or crispy, depending on their preparation. They can add color and pattern to a dish with their concentric layers, their bulbs and leaves, or they can melt right in and disappear, leaving only their flavor to remind of their presence. Thanks to my partner’s tastes, it’s rare that I’ll indulge in any of the more potent forms myself unless he’s out of town for a length of time, but I still remember how to use them in gentler ways when I’m in the mood. For example, two very different kinds of soup starring alliums: French-style Soupe a l’Oignon, and a Creamy Leek & Potato Soup.

The Creamy Leek & Potato Soup is simple enough to make, but should be done rather slowly to get the best out of the ingredients gently. Leeks must be cleaned very thoroughly to get the sandy dirt and grit out of their layers, and an aggressive approach to the cleaning is fine when they’ll be pureed anyway. So start by trimming the leeks’ green ends well and removing their root ends, then split them in half lengthwise and soak them in a basin or sink filled with cool water before hand-checking them for any remaining dirt. Meanwhile, clean, chop and boil an equal amount of potatoes (skin on or off, depending on the variety and your wish) in water with a couple of bay leaves and a dash of salt. Drain the rinsed leeks, reserve a small handful, then chop the rest into pieces about an inch/2 cm long, and soften them until they’re melting with a slow sauté in lots of good butter. Slice the reserved leek pieces as thinly as possible and fry them until crisp for use as garnish when the soup’s ready. When the potatoes are fully cooked, remove the bay leaves from the water, pour in the buttery leeks, and puree the water, leeks, butter, and potatoes into a thick soup, thinning it to your preference with cream or half-and-half. Season to taste with salt and pepper, top with a spoonful of sour cream or creme fraiche, and sprinkle some of the frizzled leeks over that before serving.

Soupe à l’Oignon is delicious when made with a chicken broth base. I know, I know: many traditionalists insist that beef broth is the proper foundation for French onion soup. But I always found chicken broth (especially my own homemade stuff) the best fit for the soup’s overall flavor profile. I might even go strictly vegetarian rather than use beef broth in it, knowing how I tend, and if so I would definitely opt for adding some powdered Cremini mushrooms and a splash of Tamari to the roasted mirepoix mix in my veg broth simmer to make it a little more robust before straining it. But my basic recipe always started with the onions. I like plain yellow onions, and slice them into about 1/2″ (1 cm) thick slices after cleaning them. If I’m making the broth on the occasion of the soup itself, I’ll throw the onion skins into it for the beautiful amber color they lend. A nice big pot (even a half-full slow cooker) full of sliced onions with a pinch of salt and a lot of sweet butter can cook slowly and beautifully into a smooth, jammy confit, and that can be used in any number of dishes later, if you save some by vacuum-packing or freezing it.

Last-minute prep of this beauty is simple. Heat the number of desired 1-cup (or so) servings in a heavy pan, and when the onions are just about to stick to the pan, deglaze it with a good splash of dry sherry, broth, or water. Spoon each helping into a heavy bowl, mug, or ramekin. Barely submerge the onions with a helping of broth, whichever kind you have in mind. Top each helping with a slice of well grilled dense, chewy peasant bread. Top the bread with a hefty slice of Gruyère cheese, broil until bubbling and golden-brown, and it’s ready to serve. Not quite ready to sip, though. Try to wait until you won’t get broiled by the hot cheese yourself. Worth the wait. It’s kind of like growing the vegetables in the first place. Patience pays in deep flavor.Photo: Fennel & Carrots

In this regard, there’s a whole range of marvels in the vegetable world that are only made more lovely by roasting the veg. Take fennel. The homely bulb is somewhat celery textured and mildly licorice flavored in its garden-fresh state. Generally speaking, I hate licorice. But with a light roasting in a bit of oil (preferably olive or avocado) or butter, fennel becomes an ethereal and delicate variant of its former self that I really do enjoy in small amounts. Swell in a combined vegetable roast; fabulous in a bouillabaisse or cioppino. Throw some herbs, carrots, and onions, along with masses of seafood, in the tomato-based broth, and with that whisper of perfumy fennel as a top-note, you have some magical brew.Photo: Radishes

Beetroot is a master of flexibility, whether as the star of the moment or as a sweet and sultry mystery ingredient in a dish. Even the homely radish raises the possibility of delicious dining, when kindly handled. The old standby of a radish sandwich (just thinly sliced, lightly peppery radishes served open-faced on sturdy but refined white sandwich loaf slices, heavily buttered and lightly salted) is a fine place to start. An icy-spicy salad of sliced radishes, fresh mint chiffonade, and sliced sweet apples (something like Fuji, Jazz, or Pink Lady) in a light dressing of rice vinegar, macadamia oil, sugar, a grind of black pepper, and a pinch of salt. Of course, I can’t give you actual recipes for my foods, being almost constitutionally incapable of replicating the quantities and combinations of any dish I’ve made. I vary what I’m preparing based on what’s on hand, and I’m awful at following existing recipes, so you should take what say with a pinch of salt, too. Something that rarely hurts the preparation of a fine vegetable, by the way, a pinch of salt.

The other instructive clue I’m happy to share with you about vegetable preparation today is, of course, the efficacy and beauty of somebody else doing the work. Works for me!

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: I’ll Eat Anything (Except That)

Photo: Oddments in Aspic

I’ve many times here admitted to being something of a pig, loving food and eating so much that I might as well be in the barn with the rest of my kind, snuffling around in glee at the trough. But lest you think me an utterly indiscriminate eater, let me say in my defense that (a) I do have a modicum of manners when I absolutely have to and know enough not to put my bare feet up on the table when having tea with the queen, and (b) there are a few actual items I would rather not eat or drink.

I’ve mentioned, indeed, such delicacies as blueberries that I find entirely resistible in any form, despite the practically universal admiration for them among others. And though I’m not opposed to eating things that have been living (vegetable and animal), I have no interest in eating things that are still alive, particularly those that have any capability of trying to escape from me as they enter my mouth. There are plenty of animals whose offal and organs I will also happily avoid, though they are considered magnificent delicacies by many people, and plenty of plants whose seeds, bark and roots have equally little appeal to me other than as decorative items or mulch.

I’ve even met the occasional cook, in my life’s wanderings, whose entire oeuvre of cookery I would be sincerely delighted never to taste, once I knew how skilled he was at removing all appealing and edible qualities and characteristics from any item brought to that singular hall of horrors known as his kitchen.

Still, there are relatively few things in the vast pantheon of foods that I would rather avoid than eat, and even many of those I will ingest if diplomacy requires it. This summer’s travels were, thankfully, 99% delicious. The cooks and their cookery were generally fine, and often outstanding, and I certainly didn’t come home any thinner than I was when I left. Better yet, there was little along the way that didn’t beckon to me as I gripped my fork in anticipation. Travel has such potential for culinary joy! Revisiting favored tastes from previous journeys is always complemented by the pleasures of trying new dishes.

Well, there was that aspic (pictured above), on this trip. It was so curious-looking that I couldn’t resist trying it, even though the oddments scattered through it were rather unrecognizable, for the most part. For something that looked playfully like jelly with tiny, mysterious pieces of toys in it, it turned out to be strangely dull in flavor, leading to a disappointment not entirely unlike that felt by a child on pulling open a party cracker and expecting a nice snapping noise, a fun trinket, and a shower of colorful confetti inside and instead finding a slightly used pair of socks. I ate most of that aspic, dutifully if not quite enthusiastically, but was mighty happy to move on to better things.

Another entertainment frequently offered in the Bad Food Department is, of course, the ever-popular menu-mishap. This is far from limited to foreign travel, given the American propensity (and, I suspect, that in other nations) for menu-writing to be handed off to people who haven’t the same level of linguistic skills as a restaurant’s chefs are supposed to have culinary ones. I found plenty of fodder for my amusement in this department along the summer’s ways, but saved one little sample for you as I’m still slightly uncertain how to decipher it fully. And very unwilling to try to eat it, if there’s any chance it was written out correctly.

Photo: Delicious Lye Sandwich

Since this menu was meant to celebrate the World Cup semifinals then in progress, I suppose it’s possible that the so-called Lye bread was intended to simultaneously hold the sandwich together and wash out the mouth of anyone caught swearing at the referees. I’m still not clear, though, on whether the Pigling Ham was named to prove that the meat on the sandwich came from a very tender, youthful beast or it was, perhaps, *pickled*. If I ended up loosely interpreting this as a sort of Germanic (in one Viennese menu writer’s eyes, anyway) take on a Reuben sandwich, maybe it would all make some kind of sense. Maybe with a touch of Joppiesaus it’d be more palatable. But honestly, I’d prefer, in this instance, to merely enjoy the beer herein recommended, and skip the sandwich.

Foodie Tuesday: Mixed Grill Girl

I’m married to a person whose fondness for vegetables is, shall we say, somewhat limited. Fruits, yes; starches, yes; seafoods and meats, yes and yes. Veg, not so much. He’ll eat some quite willingly, but he’d make a fairly poor version of a vegetarian. Me, I love many kinds of vegetables, along with all of the other foods, but I am a pescetarian and carnivore as well, so I don’t mind having the occasional festival of meat kind of meal.photo

We had a friend join us for dinner today, a person whose leanings are not far different from my spousal-person’s, so it seemed like a fine time to indulge in a freezer-freeing festival of the mainly meat sort. I had a small but solid hunk of grass-fed beef waiting to be enjoyed, a quartet of all-natural bratwurst all ready for a taste test, and the goofy woven square of bacon lying atop my cheesy potato-mash dish in the freezer drawer in quiescent quiet to prepare for use as well. Now I have a lot of space that I didn’t have in the freezer. Of course, I’ve got quite a bit less space in my innards at the moment than before. Yup.photo

So we had our mixed-grill meal together and had fun. Bratwurst, simmered for a long time in a bottle of Shiner Bock, until the beer was syrupy and the sausages fully cooked. The potato mash was quickly heated through and ready to go to table. The beef got cut up into small steaks and pan-seared in avocado oil, with just a little sea salt. Yes, we did in fact have a vegetable, too: peas. Tiny peas, steamed and served with lemon-mint butter, sweet salted butter mixed with minced fresh mint leaves and grated lemon zest.

All of this certainly sated the hunger for savories. That can, in turn, trigger the sweet tooth response. So there was dessert. Probably the richest version of a chocolate pudding I’ve concocted to date, dressed with honeyed peach slices.photo

Rich Chocolate Pudding & Peaches

Pudding: blend 3/4 to one cup each of whole milk yogurt and coconut milk, about 1/4 cup of raw honey, a pinch of salt, a splash each of orange liqueur (homemade months ago from mandarins, juice and zest both, with toasted coconut and brown sugar and vodka), vanilla and almond extracts, and three large eggs, and cook them gently until thickened. Add a bunch of yummy dark chocolate pieces and melt them down. I used 14 pieces of Dove dark chocolate, and just let the residual heat of the thickened custard melt them as I stirred. The coconut milk left the mixture just a tad less than perfectly smooth, so I used the stick blender to make it all silky. A stint in the fridge before dessert time finished the thickening and glossing and it was all ready to serve.

With topping. I took 2 cups of sliced frozen peaches and cooked them gently with a pinch of salt, 2 tablespoons each of butter and honey, a teaspoon of almond extract, and spices to taste (I used allspice and cardamom). Spooned at room temperature over the chilled pudding, they gave just enough brightness and freshness to jazz up the rich pudding and fool me into thinking I wasn’t overindulging in dessert after overindulging in dinner. My style entirely, and I think you do know what I mean. Sorry? Not the teeniest whit.

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