Foodie Tuesday: Drinks are on Me

CafeculturaWhy is it that it often takes getting together with friends to remind me what a welcome refreshment it is to spend even a short time sitting down for a break with a drink in good company? It matters little whether the liquid in question is a glass of water, a cup of tea or coffee or cocoa, icy soda or lemonade, vintage wine or a crisp cocktail. The venue isn’t the most important factor either, though I’ll readily admit that I think sitting in a gleaming Art Nouveau patisserie over cafe au lait et un petit morceau de gateau beats the Ouefs a la Neige out of drinking a cuppa Joe in the kitchen over a back issue of Home Plumber magazine. The length of the interval isn’t entirely the deciding factor, for that matter, though the stretchier it can be, the better the chance of full recovery from what ails me, whether it’s a minor moment of annoyance or full-on encroaching grouch-itude. Clearly, different occasions require different libations, too.

The primary determinant of the break’s quality and value, not to mention its memorability, is the company in which the break-with-a-sip is taken. No one I know would argue against the existence of occasions wherein the best (even the only acceptable) company is one’s own. But often, even when I think I desire nothing so much as to be alone, I discover that the finest of respite is found in the sharing of a drink in good company. So whenever you and I find ourselves coming together in the same place at the same time, let’s sit down for a moment or two and savor life over the liquid renewer of choice, if you please. Good for the corporeal fluid levels; better for the soul.Enjoy Cafecultura

Foodie Tuesday: If the Bunny is Coming, Maybe We Should have Some Eggs

Whether you’re on board with the celebration of Easter or not, you probably know that around this time of year lots of people think thoughts in a bunny-related vein. Rabbits have long been popular as symbols of fertility, spring and renewal in a wide range of human cultures and groups. If a cute little long-eared, hopping critter should happen to appear at your door in the near future, why not assume it’s a friendly visitation from the harbinger of true spring, whatever the form, and welcome the visit with great hospitality.

In addition to the bunny business, there’s the widespread recognition of the symbolism of eggs to express similar ideas. So whether or not you’re planning to celebrate a visit from the Easter Bunny with Easter Eggs, a rabbit’s presence could very happily be marked by a feast of eggs. Brunch, or otherwise.

I love eggs in so many, many preparations, but I am surely not alone in forgetting, that along with all of those familiar favorites, the egg represents not only a great symbolic entity but also an astoundingly versatile ingredient, capable of being prepared and enjoyed in innumerable ways. Go ahead and celebrate your spring rabbit revels with a great Benedict or soufflé or custard or omelette or eggnog, if you like; I will continue to delight in eating and drinking all of those and many more lifelong loves.photo

But I might also fiddle around with those tasty little packages of refreshing nourishment in some less expected ways. Like, perhaps, a simple anytime meal of fried eggs on mashed potatoes, with a drizzle of rich gravy (my little trick for making it with meat juices is yummy for this, but I’d leave out the wine when making it for eggs; cream or yogurt would be nicer here; add sausage or leave it plain, as you wish) and a nice scattering of crispy potato crumbs made by pan-frying instant potato flakes in butter. Or enjoy the eggs as an accent in the meal, making Mexican-inspired deviled eggs—my own version of Huevos Diablos, if you will—a very simple item to prepare by mashing the yolks of hard boiled eggs with spicy salsa and crema to taste. Guacamole, by the way, makes the perfect egg-stabilizing perch on the plate, as well as a fitting accompaniment. Mmm, eggs. Hop on over and eat some.photo

Foodie Tuesday: After-Math

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Just for starters…don’t forget that previous meals’ leftovers can be reconstructed into the appetizers for the next meal, like what happened with the remaining bone broth ingredients that lived on after soup-making and made such a nice beef pate for Thanksgiving.

A signature of holiday cooking and eating is, logically, a host of holiday leftovers. After all, we tend to cook and eat more of everything in the first place, when holidays happen, so there’s bound to be more food around, and since most of us do fix more of our favorites on and for celebratory occasions, we’re a bit more likely to want to be careful not to waste them. Holiday leftovers are tastier than everyday ones, aren’t they.

So it is that remnants of glorious sweets will continue to lure us into the ever-so-aptly named larder and the refrigerator will, after Thanksgiving, still have some turkey lurking in it too. While a great turkey sandwich is far from restricted seasonally, the grand whole bird in its pure roasted form is less commonly perched on dinner tables outside of the Big Day, making it anything but boring to have the leftover turkey and its trimmings served without tremendous alteration at least once or twice after the party has passed.

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Red relishes are such a nice touch on holidays that when a friend said she was bringing whole cranberry sauce, I decided to add the jellied kind *and* some home-pickled beets for the trifecta.

This year, Thanksgiving at our house was both traditional and extended. Ten of us sat around the table: our musical friends from Germany (why did I write Austria, then?), Hungary, Canada, Puerto Rico, Estonia and the Netherlands as well as the US gathered with our plates of roasted turkey and a fair assortment of other treats and sweets, and though we had our feast the day before most others’, the ingredients of food, drink, and conviviality were the same, and the leftovers equally profuse. My prepped appetizers, turkey, mashed potatoes, wine/stock gravy, creamed sausage, and buttermilk cornbread (the latter two, parts of the planned southern cornbread dressing, remained separate at my husband’s request) were joined by dishes the others brought–Greek salad, squash puree, homemade whole cranberry sauce, and carrot cake and handmade Hungarian biscuits for dessert. My own dessert offerings were the apple pie and Tarte au Sucre.

The Tarte was not only a good excuse for ingesting vast quantities of fabulous dark maple syrup but, as I discovered, when it’s accompanied by salty roasted pecans it becomes a perfect inversion or deconstruction of pecan pie, another very traditional Thanksgiving treat in many homes. I made my Tarte with a crumb crust of mixed pecans and walnuts, so it was perhaps already a variation on a nut pie before the garnishing pecans even arrived on the scene. In any event, it pleased my maple-fiendish heart.

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Lightly spicy sausage in cream makes a good alternative to gravy for the turkey and potatoes, if you don’t end up putting the sausage into the cornbread dressing as you’d thought you were going to do…

The idea of creating a meal of any sort, let alone a holiday meal, for a group of ten people and coming out with everyone perfectly sated but without a jot of leftovers is, of course, more mythical than mathematical. It’s in fact ludicrously unlikely to happen, even if the ten are all people one knows intimately and whose preferences and appetites never vary–also, to be fair, a virtual impossibility–so the question of how to manage the leftovers with the best grace remains. In our house, that problem is never terribly difficult. First visitation of this year’s re-Thanksgiving was a smaller and simpler version of the original, turkey and mashed potatoes, cornbread and cranberry sauce, with a side of buttered green beans and bacon. Meanwhile, I’d already started a slow cooker full of vegetables and giblets while the turkey was roasting, and added the bones and bits afterward, so there will surely be turkey-noodle soup soon to follow.

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Thanksgiving, Round 2–and only the second of many, perhaps.

What comes after? Probably a little turkey curry or a sandwich or two, but not much more, because having grad students and young, single faculty members at table on the holiday also meant that it was rather important to see that they left with some leftovers of their own to carry them forward. Leftovers, truth be told, are really just a new beginning in their own way. Hospitality, you know, isn’t a solo; it requires participation. One person doing it all, no matter how perfectly, is not a party but a lonely and self-centered business and misses the point of the whole thing.

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Ah, do not let the focus on the main meal eclipse all of the good that can follow: a mere creamy turkey soup is a heartwarming way to honor the memory of the great meal that started it all.

Let others partake, help, contribute. And yes, do give to them: share the feast, both in the party’s environs and in the sharing of all that surpasses what was needed for the moment. And share, first and foremost, your time and attention, your companionship and humor and warmth and love. Then there should be plenty of those for leftovers, too, or all the turkey and potatoes in the world will not be enough. Much better, more filling and fulfilling, to be so hospitable that it spills over everywhere.

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The only thing better than a delicious dessert is just a little too much of it.

Foodie Tuesday: Wine, Dark & Light

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Close observation magnifies everything, both the good and the bad.

One day in the wine aisle of the local store I had occasion to observe a striking study in contrasts.

As I drifted along in search of a couple of bottles for an upcoming dinner party, I couldn’t avoid overhearing two twenty-something guys as one told the other quite volubly that he was hoping he could fine a lawyer good enough to negotiate him out of Resisting Arrest charges if he pleaded guilty to the Driving Under the Influence charge. There were a whole slew of reasons I was horrified to hear this conversation. First of all, it was yet another example of the loss of social inhibition that saddens and frustrates me these days; how is it acceptable to discuss personal, legal, private matters in normal tones and in great detail in a public place like a grocery store?

I was privy, however unwillingly, to details like the confessor’s noting his level of drunkenness as having been so profound that three hours later when he was having blood tests in the hospital he was still unable to speak clearly, and his friend’s commiseration for apparently having had a similar experience. What I did not overhear, not once, was any indication of regret, remorse or contrition. This was all discussed pretty much in the same manner as they might have recounted a tedious everyday hassle at the office. No sense anywhere in this that the guys themselves could’ve been killed or maimed, or property been damaged or destroyed, let alone that they had opted to put everyone in their proximity at the same risks by choosing to get behind the wheel.

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Of course, when seen so clearly, some things, and people, turn out to be just a bunch of drips.

Talk about, no pun intended, a sobering time.

But I drink alcohol, too. It’s just that I find the idea of drinking past where it’s for taste into where the drink starts making my decisions for me repugnant. I drink specifically to taste.

So it was a startling, and rather refreshing, change of pace when the offending fools finally vacated the aisle and I was approached by a very gracious young woman who asked me politely for advice to a neophyte on choosing red wines. Her adorable toddler daughter sat cheerily and peaceably in the shopping cart throughout what turned into a fairly lengthy conversation, because of course I was suddenly acutely aware of all sorts of questions I’d not considered in a long time. It seems that this lady had a companion who was encouraging her to broaden her horizons and join him in his enjoyment of red wines, and she was accustomed only to cocktail liquor. That’s admittedly a pretty big leap for a palate, whether you’re used to straight vodka or mixed drinks with it as an ingredient.

What could I say that would be of any use to her at all?

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Wine choosing is so hard to learn. Is it *true* that eggs and wine are *always* terrible companions?

Start, yes, with the idea that wines have enormous range in terms of flavors, intensities and affinities–there can be something for nearly every taste and occasion. This, coupled with the personality of wine being perhaps even more of an acquired taste than fruity, herbal or spicy cocktails even when those are made high-octane with something like vodka, is hugely intimidating. Wine snobs do nothing to dispel the fears, with their wacky vernacular of nose and legs, drinkable cement and tar and leather, and huffiness toward anyone drinking anything not Serious or trendy enough.

Finally I did think to tell her that the only really useful and non-terrifying way I’ve learned about red wines other than over a long, long time is to turn to that friendlier set of ‘experts’, those who have an interest in selling you wines. I rarely think of salespeople as my first choice for information resources, but in the (pun intended, this time) case of wine merchants, their vested interest in selling their wares and further, in making them appealing and accessible to a wide audience, makes them a bit more willing and artful educators on the subject than experts who have only themselves to please.

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I mean, sheesh, there are so many red wines; what on earth is my ideal one to drink with a grass-fed skirt steak?

That’s what moved me to tell the nice lady not to risk her hard-earned cash on bottle by bottle experimentation but to seek out the local venues that offer wine tastings. A series of sips, and any amount of snob-sanctioned spitting that it takes to keep sanely sober and free of swallowing swill, is a far quicker way to get a hint of what one actually likes than any other.

Get thee to a wine tasting! My palate is far from sophisticated, but I’ve learned enough over time about what I do and don’t enjoy in wines that I can choose–red or white or any other color, still or bubbly, dry or sweet, or distinct in any other way–with some confidence that I’ll enjoy what I taste. One good glass at a time. Meanwhile, don’t forget to read, too. Not only can articles and even wine labels themselves tell you a lot of useful stuff you might find helpful in your search for deliciousness, as any of you reading this blog would undoubtedly know, being veteran web researchers, there are now a huge number of online resources devoted to oenophilic wisdom.

Most importantly, trust yourself and do what suits you. You might find, after all of the effort and education, that wine is simply Not Your Thing. Why on earth waste time and money (and, potentially, healthy sobriety) on something that doesn’t suit you! You may very well find, if you do like wines that the wines you enjoy most aren’t those that the critics and suave sophisticates admire and tout. If so, feel free to come slumming with me. I’m sure I have a bottle or two in my tiny collection that would make any expert swoon with horror, yet I am more than content to keep sipping at what I like because I like it. And I have been through a few wine tastings, done a bit of reading, and spent plenty of adult years getting the experience that has taught me what I do like, and that it’s perfectly okay to like what wines I like and drink them, no matter what anyone else thinks. Including having a cocktail or beer instead, if that’s my mood.

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Two drink-related things I *am* pretty sure about involve salt: 1, avoid that hideous abomination purporting to be ‘cooking wine’ that is really just cheap vino with salt added to it (as wiser folk have admonished, if it ain’t worth drinking, it ain’t worth cooking with it); 2, salt can, conversely, be quite friendly with tequila or beer if applied properly. See also: Margaritas, Coronitas…

Foodie Tuesday: To Market, to Market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foodie Tuesday: You Slake Me

photoIn wintertime, it’s a great and welcome thing to put one’s hands around a mug of hot tea, cocoa, coffee, cider; a great and welcome hand-warmer that, when upended at the lips, becomes heartwarming as well. The mulled drinks and toddies and steaming honey lemonade can do so much to ameliorate the harshness of the cold months that I am always grateful for the offer of a cup of such kindness.

photoNonetheless, it is in the hottest parts of the year that my mind turns continually to longings for a glass, a pitcher, a fountain of something refreshing to drink. Thirst becomes more of a necessity and sometimes borders on unseemly obsession. And I find that when it’s offered to me, a good drink can be full of surprises, too.

I suppose it’s a little like whatever crossroads in my life led me to learn that many flowers were edible. That cheering revelation, coupled with the realization that this was only in keeping with recognizing how many other parts of plants I had already been eating without so much as a second thought, meant that a whole realm of unexplored flavors and methods of preparation and recipes unfurled before my hungry mind and stomach.

Safe to say that ever since that tipping (or tippling) point, I’ve been on a perpetual hunt for the next flavor, common or unique, and the next combination, easy or complicated, that will thrill my taste buds and those of my buddies, alike.photo Prickly Pear

To the uninitiated, it’s unappealing to think of cooling the desert air

by slurping at something named for its prickles

But after slaking fiery thirst with it, one finds the Prickly Pear

just as fine and dandy as ice cream and popsicles.

1 cup Prickly pear syrup + 1 cup fresh lemon juice + 1 qt/4 cups sparkling water = Prickly Pear Pink Lemonade

1 batch Prickly Pear Lemonade + 1/4 cup Limoncello + 1/4 cup Prickly pear liqueur + speared pieces of dragon fruit as garnish = Parents’ Potent Prickly Pear Lemonade

As with all of my ‘recipes’, the best way to make this in either version–or your own–is to have the ingredients on hand and then mix them, a little at a time, to your own taste.

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Not that any friendly drink won’t do … a Tuaca Lemon Drop, for example, can quench thirst too …


Foodie Tuesday: Quick Fixes & Peach Treats

I enjoy a good paella, when I can get my hands (and teeth) on it. But it’s not one of those things that in its truer forms can exactly be thrown together in a trice just because I happen to get an urge for it. But, being a fan of fried rice as well, I have been known to think to myself that there might be a hybrid incorporating a bit of both processes that gives me a plate full of paella-like food in a hurry and at least tide me over until the occasion for the real deal arises again. Having so often kept a batch of cooked rice at the ready in our refrigerator, not to mention the gifts of freezer, dried goods and canned foods, I had at least a reasonable chance of putting a faint facsimile of paella on the table at speed.photoPretend Paella

For this highly simplified variant, I made the batch of rice with a blend of broth and dry sherry and a pinch of saffron (should have used a bigger pinch, though). On top of it I put a very simple combination, which while it didn’t replicate paella closely, was reminiscent enough of that grand dish that it served as a reasonable place-holder until I can once more indulge in a beautiful slow-simmered paella. This time, I chose to saute a half cup of diced celeriac (celery root) and a cup of roughly chopped carrots in bacon fat, add a generous cup of sliced chorizo, heat that through, and add about a dozen or more large peeled, cleaned uncooked shrimp, adding water or broth or sherry as needed to keep everything plump and moist while cooking through and caramelizing a little. I didn’t season this further because the bacon fat and well-seasoned chorizo gave everything plenty of flavor. At the last moment, I stirred in a good three cups or so of the cooked rice and a cup of frozen peas, blending it all together just until the peas were heated through. One pot meal, with a touch of nostalgia, and as ever, infinite possible variations depending upon what’s in the kitchen waiting for me.

Having eaten this light and refreshing meal in warm weather, we didn’t need much except some cool drinks (icy water and a bit of cold sangria and chilled Sauvignon Blanc worked well for us three on the particular occasion), but we weren’t so over-filled that we weren’t of a mind to have dessert as well. A one-dish meal, after all, has a reasonable chance of not making diners feel coma-proximal. The afternoon trip to the grocery store, the one wherein I ascertained that there was no giant inspiration that steered me away from my thoughts of insta-paella, did inspire me with the produce section’s wafting scents of fresh fruit, and the image of underripe peaches made me salivate for the late-season ones not yet on hand.digital artworkSo I shamelessly fell back on preserved peaches for dessert shaping. The strawberries in the store had come into seasonal ripeness, but had clearly already been snapped up by earlier shoppers, so although the slightly over-aged ones remaining smelled sweet enough, the flies perched on them were a deterrent as well. Those, then, were substituted for by some freeze-dried strawberries. A ragtag pantry is not a problem in nearly the way that a lack of pantry would be, after all.

Coconut Soft Custard with Peach-Berry Coulis

While we sat eating our Pretend Paella, I had a cup of freeze-dried strawberry slices macerating in the liquid from a pint of canned-in-juice peach slices in the fridge. Also in the refrigerator waiting was a soft custard: one can of coconut milk, three eggs, two teaspoons of vanilla paste, and a half cup each of dark rum and dark maple syrup, and a pinch of salt, then whipped up and heated until slightly thickened, cooling and setting up in the fridge to thicken more fully. After supper, dessert finalizing was simply a matter of pureeing the strawberries in their liquid plus a cup of the peach slices into a smooth coulis, spooning the puree and custard in layers into dessert dishes, and topping them with a sprinkle of toasted sweetened coconut. In theory, this will serve five or six people, but we three are not theoretical exemplars by a long shot, so I’ll just say the dessert was as completely gone after our attacks as the rice dish had been earlier. Proper portions? You be the judge.photo