Foodie Tuesday: Fork It Over

photoThe stick-up artist and the greedy eater alike may demand that someone should ‘fork it over‘ or relinquish the object (monetary or comestible) of affection, and that, at speed. But besides cramming edibles into one’s mouth, the fork can serve a number of other useful purposes in the kitchen and at table. Not least of these commendable actions is the release of air. I shall leave it to your imaginations to determine whether some excessively greedy fressers mightn’t do well to have the fork impale them directly and thereby release some of the pent-up methane or other dangerous-to-diners gases, but there are some ways to use a fork for more benign and neighborly expulsions of atmospheric pressure.

photoThe first is to pierce pastry before baking, so that heated air inside or underneath a pastry layer can escape during the process without tearing or exploding the baked goods and their contents throughout the oven or, more excitingly yet, onto unwary bakers lifting said goodies out of the oven. My mother, famous for making what I still believe is arguably the best pie crust in the universe–always exquisitely flaky and golden and crisp and fragile, never soggy or tough–blind baked crusts without ever using pie weights, and only pierced them thoroughly with a fork before the baking. Crust made this way will indeed rise up like an egotist’s inflated chest, but only before those little vents disperse the steam and let the pie crust relax back into the pan just as it should. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the added benefit of this approach is that when a filling is added that will bake further in the crust, it leaks into the piercings a little and caramelizes there, both stabilizing the crust and adding a little candy crunch to the pie. In the same way, venting the closed top crust of the pie with a fork before baking it keeps the dough from ballooning explosively (oh, the joy of spurting jammy fruit juices around like candy lasers!), and again, from holding in unwanted moisture that can defeat attempts to have a splendidly juicy pie interior without compromising the extravagant crispness of its crust.

photoBut enough about pie for the moment, I’ll get back to that soon enough, as you’d guess. I always tend to come back to desserts, don’t I.

photoMeanwhile, piercing other foods for pressure-control purposes is pretty effective too. If you happen to like baked or roasted squashes, root vegetables and tubers, I hope you’ve been informed in good time that pricking the skin sides of them before exposing them to high heat is a helpful way to avoid reenacting the demise of the Hindenburg. One of these many dreamy dishes made with the help of the humble fork: Baba Ghannouj.

This venerable meal-starter dip or spread is not much beyond roasted eggplant, crushed or pureed and well seasoned. But, like many classic dishes from around the world, that is an egregious oversimplification of the subtlety, complexity and variability of the concoction. What remains true is that it’s mighty tasty. My personal combo for it would be less garlicky or oniony than some, mainly because of how my kitchen palette has changed since my life became linked with Mr Spouse’s, but also because my personal palate followed suit and, further, because I think heavier, more intense flavors like those, if overused, can mask more subtle and delicate ones. I submit to you a version of it.

photoBaby Baba Ghannouj

Eggplant (1 large), tahini (4 tablespoons), preserved lemon (1/2, diced), fresh lemon juice (2 tablespoons), lemon zest (grated peel of 1 whole lemon), cumin (1 teaspoon or more), olive oil (4 tablespoons) and roasted garlic (1 heaping teaspoon).

If you can, blacken and blister the eggplant’s skin over open flame and then roast it to softness in the oven. For this, preheat the oven to 375ºF/190ºC. If you haven’t flame roasted the eggplant, cut it eggplant in half, lay it on a baking sheet or pan greased with olive oil or lined with a silicone sheet, and pierce its skin all over with a fork before roasting it. Roast until it’s well softened, about 20 to 30 minutes (check with gentle pressure occasionally; you can use the back of the fork for that), and finish by blackening the skin under the broiler.
When the eggplant’s soft, rub off its skin. Needn’t be perfect; bits of blackened skin will heighten the smoky flavor of the Baba Ghannouj. Put the flesh in a bowl, along with the rest of the ingredients, and mash it all up together with the famed fork. Serve garnished with a further drizzle of olive oil, toasted sesame seeds, and a sprinkling of thyme, or a toss of za’atar.

Foodie Tuesday: Suh-weeeeeet!

I love fat. I love salt. I love food, period. And as you know pretty well by now, I love sweet tidbits and treats. Dessert may as well not be a real word in my universe. Why limit my sweet tooth to being happy only at the end of a meal, I ask you! Yea verily, I might just possibly have confessed to y’all before that I adore sweet + salty foods and, of course, the marvels of the Five Tastes worshiped by so many is hardly foreign to my palate either.

Like all of my foodly affections, however, the one for sweet eats is nearly as changeable as the weather, so it takes lots of different delicacies to satisfy my cravings for sugary goods.

One day, what I have handy drives what I desire to fix: I’m looking at a basket of about a half-dozen mandarin oranges and four mid-sized lemons and thinking thoughts of citrus sweets, so I zest and juice them all together as soon as I’ve washed them. And I’m wafting on a cloud of gorgeous citrus oils and juices and hankering more for juicy joy with every minute. Thinly peeled slices of zest are too fresh and fruity to kill with over-treating. So rather than fuss with the supposed need to do repeated soaking and simmering, I decide to give the already pith-free shavings a lovely swim in the spa of sweetness, about a cup of pure maple syrup plus a hearty splash of brandy, gently bubbling it until the peels become a bit translucent; when they get strained out of the syrup, they take a roll on a sandy beach of cane sugar to keep them from staying too sticky and at the same time, give them a little hint of sparkle. Sweets enough at the end of it, between the fresh candied peels and the preserved citrus-infused maple syrup resulting, to keep the candy-monster at bay. The final bonus was that, though the syrup was pleasant enough to simply drizzle on some plain yogurt, it fed the Monster even better when it cooled completely and turned into citrus-infused pralines. Ooh, yeah.photosSometimes my hunger for sweets drives me to be overzealous in production. Even my crazy lust for candy can’t always keep up with the quantity of Noms I’ve made on many an occasion, and if we’re not having company or visiting someone I think might share my fondness for the treat of the moment, I hate to see it go to waste. So I’ll often find the way to renew the food with a little tweak or ten. For example, since we went out of town shortly after I’d made them, the recently-baked Texican Brownies left a few fellows behind until they were getting a hint too dry to be delicious as-is anymore. Quick-change artist to the rescue! I crumbled up the remaining brownies as finely as I could, softened the remaining strawberry frosting I’d set aside for them, blended the frosting with about a cup of whole milk yogurt (that I hadn’t eaten up with the syrup), added the tangerine and lemon juice I’d squeezed while making candied peel, and mixed all that creamy, thick stuff with the brownie ‘flour’ until it melded into what was a very yummy, thick, spiced, gooey mousse.photoI do realize I can’t eat all of this stuff all of the time, at least not if I have plans to, you know, live very long. But I know from experience that if I don’t please the candy dragon from time to time I get cranky and whiny. Even more than my usual. And I rather enjoy living a really multifaceted life and don’t plan to get all monk-like and deprivation-happy anytime soon either. So it cheers me up a little bit when I see that others take a pretty forgiving attitude toward sugar, salt and fat too. I might croak a leetle bit younger, but if it’s happier too, it’s probably worth it. ‘Course, I’d rather find out that sugar and fat and salt are all extreme health foods after all. I have my preferences.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Sugar, Spice & Other Things Nice

Garnishes, condiments, flavorings and all the trimmings, oh my!photoIf God–or the devil–is in the details, well, either one might very well explain why I’m so enamored of them that the main ingredient sometimes feels like an afterthought.photoYes, I suppose I would notice if everyone started serving me meals consisting solely of garnishes, condiments, et. al. Can’t promise I would, though. ‘Small plates’ and all that. As it happens, I pretty nearly could live on the frills alone. Wouldn’t choose to, but seriously, what’s not to love about heaps of chopped toasted nuts, a multitude of exotic spices, a grand assortment of syrups and sauces, shavings of fine cheese, curls of chocolate, meringues, leafy herbs enough to furnish a king’s garden, and pretty little haystacks of finely grated citrus zest?photoThe plain and homely, the grand and glamorous, the simple and the subtle: these are all made into memorable foods and unforgettable meals by the company in which they’re enjoyed and the ambience of the location and occasion. But they’re made further into a special sort of magic by the alchemy of wise and clever additions of cardamom or cumin, condensed tomato paste, a tot of brandy or rosewater, candied grapefruit peel, sweet pea shoots, fresh violets, sieved hard boiled egg yolk, or a judicious sprinkling of crisply fried shallot bits. Get me candied, brandied and dandied up and I’m a happy diner!photoYes, I’m simply nuts about all of the lovely trimmings. Now, what shall I fix tomorrow that calls for a bit of edible decor? Maybe something with metallic sugar glitter on top. (And yes, I have that in the cupboard, too. Did I mention I have this little obsession–?) Stay tuned.

Foodie Tuesday: Drink Me

photoShe may have had quite the colorful and sometimes even delicious adventures, but Alice never had so much good fun in Wonderland.

At least, it couldn’t have quenched her thirst in the same delightful ways. Because, of course, what I’m talking about is the titillating tipple. And perverse or subversive as that sounds, I mean only that I’m referring to some scintillating drink. There are a lot of versions of it out there! Many of them are ones I’m very happy to taste, test and share whenever I get the chance. There are even some standouts I’m willing to admit are probably quite fantastic even though I’d rather never drink them myself.photoThing is, I think few of us are as adventuresome as we ought, perhaps, to be. We don’t put as much thought into what we drink as we do into our eating. More’s the pity, my friends. Why on earth should we be dullards about food or drink when there is so much tremendous, dreamy, splendiferous stuff for the choosing? Me, I’m rather chuffed when I manage to remember not only to pay attention to the details but to enhance the food and drink by finding a great complementary pairing of them. Good food? Good! Good drinks? Goody! Good combination? Better yet!photoStill and all, I must say that no amount of clever combining will save the day if the drinks aren’t magnificent right from the start. Yes, let’s just get cut to the chase: good drinks are a benison and a crowning glory and a celebration altogether. Alcoholic or not, indeed. And I adjure you, when you are serving non-alcoholic drinks at the same time as alcoholic ones, be sure to make the ‘dry’ ones as pretty or impressive as the boozy ones or someone will feel slighted. Kids, especially, but why encourage either children or sober guests to covet that which they oughtn’t have? Differentiate clearly so that those who aren’t meant to have the tipsy treats can’t mistake them for the abstemious ones. But give everyone something equally delicious and glamorous-looking, and they’ll all be happier. I know I would, anyway.

Some drinks are so lovely as-is that they require no further doctoring than to get them, one way or another, from container to mouth. Even purely good, sippable liquids, though, can be friends in combinations that make them that much more spectacular.photoThis includes liquids that are stellar as individual drinks, from water right on up through numerous juices and nectars to the top of the drink charts. It would also, of course, include in my estimation a number of brews and elixirs and decoctions that combine those original ‘root’ ingredients aforementioned into singular teas, wines, liqueurs, beers or liquors that are magnificent drinks in their unadulterated forms. But sometimes I think people get a little too prissy, if not ossified, in their reverence for such beautiful things, thinking it sinful to even consider enjoying them in new ways or combinations. Even a modestly fine Scotch, for example, is often pretty expensive and gets people intimidated out of being imaginative with it when in a fabulous mixed drink it can actually get a little life-extension by sharing the stage with other ingredients and yet still be admirably present in the mix. And as for cocktails and any other kind of mixed drinks, I have the same attitude I was taught for food appreciation: don’t put into a recipe anything (with very few exceptions) that you wouldn’t happily eat on its own. Seriously–don’t put corn syrup based imitation stuff in front of me and expect me to choose that over pure maple syrup. (And while you’re at it, gimme Grade B–the more intense the maple flavor, the better I like it.)  Don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink! Don’t make a cocktail with cheap and dirty booze! Garbage in, garbage out!

Bentley Cocktail: 1 part Calvados or apple brandy + 1 part Dubonnet Rouge
on the rocks. That’s the simple classic version. But why not play with the idea and enjoy the apple aspect further by garnishing with a sprinkling of apple pie spices? Or serving the drink with salted dried-apple crisps? Or, as with many apple-eating delights, by offering sharp cheddar crisps (did you know you can make those by simply oven-browning small heaps of grated cheese and cooling them on a rack or paper to absorb released fats?) alongside to complement the apple sweetness? You can make a fair non-alcoholic facsimile of a Bentley simply with substitutions of, respectively, strong freshly pressed apple juice (I’d use unfiltered for the fullest flavor) and cream soda or birch soda.

Gimlet [‘Vodka & Lime’, as it was introduced to me in London when I was a stripling, is my favorite version rather than the gin original]: 1 part Tito’s vodka + 1 part Rose’s lime juice on the rocks. This is essentially a grownup version of a very old-fashioned fountain drink that I loved as a kid and still love, the Green River Phosphate. So for nonalcoholic versions of it you can easily either buy Green River soda right off the grocery shelf, make a homemade version with any of the online recipes easily found, or you can even be more extravagant and make homemade lime simple syrup, simmering both juice and zest into the sugar water, and mix it with carbonated water or soda. If you’re going that far, it only makes sense to use the same lovely syrup for both the ‘hard’ version and the other drink, no? And again, why not emphasize the clean lime taste with a little complement or contrast, and consider visual impact as well as taste; classic presentation is not the law, only a set of codified cues. I’m not against even playing with frozen slices of carambola (star fruit) for the rocks in a gimlet because they have a bright citrusy taste with the added element of a surprising grassy note, they look like stars, and they keep the chill in the glass in a cheery green way without diluting the drink as they thaw. The kid in all of us, alcohol-aged drinkers or not, likes a starry surprise once in a while. I can imagine it being both entertaining and tasty to put together a simple little tribute to the tertiary color triad: a sprightly, lime-y Gimlet garnished with a bold twist of orange zest and served with a batch of sweet and salty beet crisps.

Scotch and Ginger: 1.5-2 oz. Scotch poured over ice in a tall glass, then filled with ginger ale or ginger beer (sodas, sometimes fermented). When going to have a Scotch and Ginger, I’ve seen folk shudder with horror at the very idea of adulterating decent Scotch with soda, but as you can see, my attitude toward such things is more of the [OK + OK = just more of OK] vs. [Good + Good = Better] variety. The optional iterations are so many that one could drink nothing but S&G and hardly ever have the same drink twice. I think perhaps my top choices for experimentation with this might be something like the following:

S&G 1: The Macallan 12 year old Sherry Oak Scotch + GuS Grown-Up Soda Extra Dry Ginger Ale vs.

S&G 2: Laphroaig 10 year old Scotch + Vernors ginger ale (a particularly sweet and gingery soda, it’s the oldest US ginger ale still in production)photoThese are, of course, existing and well-known mixed drinks, and among the simplest of them as well. The more numerous the ingredients, the more a drink recipe can be tweaked for fun and pleasure. It’s no wonder the new recipes never cease to, ahem, pour forth. And luckily so: I know I’ll always be thirsty for more. Here’s looking at you (through the bottom of my glass)!