Archive for the 'Around the house' Category
Banh and Beyond

I have a banh mi fetish. There, I’ve said it. After too many “meh” experiences (and stomach-aches) from Stumptown samples, I set out to make my own. My ideal? The crusty, spicy, sweet, chewy, meaty, herbacious monster sold at Saigon Banh Mi, combo sandwich shop/jewelry store in New York’s Chinatown. (You know what they say, nothing goes together like pearls and swine.)

My first foray was a banh mi canapé riff (mini-mi? banh mi slider?) for the ever-delightful and deserving Bruce Bauer’s 50th birthday celebration. I threw everything but the kitchen sink atop rounds of toasted white bread and results were good…if a visual mess. Mini-Mi I also suspected the complexity (marinated and fried pork belly mixed with the pork butt) could be dialed back with no discernible ill effects.
←Tastier than it looks

Then Jade Teahouse & Patisserie moved into Sellwood and the impetus to make my own disappeared. They’re not classic, and in fact after one bbq pork sandwich I switched, at April’s suggestion, to their sublime Vietnamese meatball banh mi, and have never looked back. Yes, the veggies are awkwardly chunky, but the baguette…oo-la-la, tres jolie. And the spiced pork is light as air and bursting with flavor. Not to mention the warm vibe, great tea selection, $5 salad rolls and addictive sesame balls. If they’d always steam their bao instead of microwaving them? It would be my perfect escape.

But wait, this is all about “mi”.

A Sunday potluck cocktail party to warm the house of ethereal E. provided the perfect excuse to try again. And this time I did my best to document a recipe. Cyndi, Billie and Judy, this is for you! Remember, it’s all by feel and taste, so take the measurements with a grain of salt. (Or is it two?)

The Gist
Simmer pork butt with spices until it’s fall-apart tender. Shred, marinate and fry the cooked pork, shred and marinate julienned veggies, and assemble. Whether you put them on Wonder bread, baguettes or kaiser rolls doesn’t much matter (imho); as long as the bread’s tender enough to bite through, crisp enough to support and hold the fillings, you can’t go wrong. Active cooking time is 1 to 1.5 hours. The more pre-shredded veggies you get, the faster it goes.BanhMiResize
Simmer Stock:
Cover a (4 lb?) pork butt / shoulder (as much as you get, you’ll eat, trust me) generously with cold water and add:
- 3-5 star anise
- cinnamon stick
- large chopped onion
- chunk of ginger
- 4 rough-chopped cloves of garlic
- a generous splash each of soy and fish sauce (nam pla)
- a rough cut jalapeño pepper
- whatever else you want to make the stock tasty. A stalk of celery and a carrot are fine, maybe even a bay leaf. Though I think star anise is critical, you can substitute it and the cinnamon stick with a generous pinch of Chinese 5-spice.

Simmer covered for about two hours, uncovering it halfway through if you have plenty of liquid and want to start reducing your soup (more on that bonus later). When it’s fork tender and pulls apart into shreds, remove from the liquid and cool.

The Veggies:
Cilantro is critical, Thai (or plain) basil are good, and mint used sparingly would be nice. Simply clean and remove the biggest stems. Set aside. Peel, seed and julienne a cucumber. Twice I’ve done jalapeños, once plain and once pickled, and neither time did anyone eat them. So do what you think is best.

Pickle a melange of julienned vegetables: carrots are critical, daikon is classic. I had high hopes for a Fubonn (local Asian grocery superstore) tub of pre-sliced carrot and daikon, but found it too daikony and badly julienned. But their finely shredded green papaya? A cheater’s dream! Instant crunchy fabulousness. Cheat as you see fit, especially if you don’t have a wondrous knife or mandolin.

For about 2 cups of julienned veggies, mix in:
- Fish sauce (4 T?)
- Rice vinegar (quarter cup?)
- Juice of 1 lime (why lime and vinegar? Because I’m not sure which I prefer so I split the diff. You can use one, the other or both, lime is slightly more sour)
- Asian sweet chili sauce, found these days everywhere—even Safeway—5-10 “plops”. If you don’t have any, add 1-2 T brown sugar and 1 tsp chile sauce, such as olek sambal.

Taste and correct the balance of salty, sweet and sour. If it tastes yummy? It’s right. I keep the cucumbers out of the shredded veggies because of the water they give off.

The Meat:
Shred the cooked pork into medium-sized chunks when it’s cool enough to handle. The smaller your bread, the smaller the meat. Toss any chunks of fat, drain off liquid that’s collected. Assuming you have about 4 pounds of pork, mix with:

- 4 cloves chopped garlic
- Fish sauce (4 T?)
- Soy sauce (3 T?)
- The juice of 1 lime
- Sweet chili sauce (1/4 cup?)
Taste and correct the balance of salty, sweet and sour. If it tastes yummy? Yeah…you know.

Heat a frying pan with 3T peanut or canola oil. Dust the meat with cornstarch, toss, and transfer a single layer to the hot pan. Turn as it carmelizes (2-3 minutes), transfer to a paper towel, repeat til all the meat’s fried. Replenish oil if needed. Is frying necessary? Probably not, but I’m trying to duplicate the chewy, fried texture of the Saigon banh mi, and this was the least decadent way to do it. Would a sandwich be good and quicker using just the spiced meat? Yup.

The Secret Ingredient
And here it comes, the critical component………garlic mayo. All the trouble we’ve just gone through and it’s mayonaise? Sad but true. Without garlicky mayo, the whole thing would fall flat. Crush 2 cloves of garlic in a half cup of mayo,and spread it on anything you can lay your hands on.

The Bread
While some claim bread is the key to a great bahn mi, my standard is simply that the bread not suck (too dry/hard to chew/crumbly). As long as it serves as a neutrally crisp receptacle for a massive amount of filling / topping, I’m happy. If you happen to be lucky enough to live near Jade, you’ll see Mom Lucy’s baguettes—simultaneously toothsome, tasty and ‘bite-able’—are the exception that proves the rule.

If you’re making a full-sized sandwich, err on the side of a softer…but crisp on the outside…bun that can mold itself around your fillings and hold things in place. You don’t want a rigid bread or they end up too dry. For the cocktail party I split and toasted up Trader Joe’s mini baguettes, about the size of a large breadstick, five to a bag. Perfect with a parchment paper wrap and a toothpick. (Keith ate my photo sample. I’d yell at him but it’s his birthday. Oh wait, I did yell at him. “Dude, seriously, you ate my prop?”)

Assembly
Toast your bread, slather with garlic mayo, heap on meat and pickled veggies, slide in cuke, a few sprigs of cilantro and basil, smush together if it has a lid, “fluff it” if you’re trying the canapé.

The Soup
IMG_1715Aside from the sandwich, here’s your reward for all your hard work: steaming hot, flavorful pork broth. Strain out the flavoring agents, add a bunch of watercress and boil til cooked. Or just eat the broth refreshed with lime and maybe some green onion or cilantro. Eating it makes you feel like you’re healing things you didn’t even know needed healing. In fact, I think I’m going to finish off the pot right now to try to stave off this sore throat. Sorry Bruce…I’d planned to bring it down to you.

Mmmm, better already.

A Cut Above, from the Man I Love

Knife_ReposeThis is a love letter to my new knife.

Keith, who gave me this weapon of delicious destruction is pretty great too, but he’ll have to wait for a Hallmark-sanctioned holiday to get his love letter.

He loves tools. I’m notoriously cheap. You can see the collision course. I’ve been perfectly content with the same knives for 25 years: a Chicago Cutlery 8″ chef, 6″ chef and paring knife (of which, whether slicing a roast or coring an apple, I pretty much only use the 8″ ). K keeps them meticulously sharp and I hone them in between with Grandma’s 10 pound steel, so the fact that they’re ancient, thick and clunky hasn’t been an issue. Friends with badass blades frequently exclaimed over my finely honed edges, and the accolades of others was enough for me.

But then I have a birthday (insert scary pipe organ: dum-dum-dum) and my tool-loving husband goes into a last-minute-must-buy-something-after-work panic. I wince when I open the package. Internal dialog: don’t need this, jeez it must have been expensive, omg he got it at Sur la Table: r-i-p-o-f-f, aren’t they awfully brittle I’ll probably break it…  

But it’s awful darn pretty. And maybe it IS time for me to have a big-girl knife. And besides, wouldn’t it be nice to be grateful for a gift for once, rather than being a practical bubble-burster?  Out loud: “Thank you darling, I love it.”

And oh. my. god. How I love my Shun 8″ Chef Knife. My poor Chicago knives have been cast aside like so much refuse, as unwanted as copyediters at The Oregonian. My former nemisis, the carrot? We’re having an affair. I relish the mire poix. I melted carrots into stroganoff last night (Tzar Nicholas is spinning in his grave-y) just so I could fine-dice a carrot. See?

MirePoix

I know America’s Test Kitchen says a $24 Victorinox is all you need, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Wielding my Shun I feel invincible. I am Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Volume 2. The insane schoolgirl killer and her gang? Just so many carrots.

Heard it through the Grapevine

Although what I’d really like to do is publish another homage to tomatoes, I figure everyone’s relishing the last of their summer fruits, soaking in every last ray of sunshine on their tongues in a sweet-tart-dance of happiness. You’re doing your own smoking / roasting / canning / slicing / milling / stewing and swooning…you don’t need to hear about mine. So down into the cellar we go, deep into the bowels of the earth, to whisper a rumor from my very own ‘Deep Throat’. (Not my throat…my Deep Throat.)

small_TwoBuck

I have it on good authority that a combination of economic crisis and harvest have conspired to create another Central Valley / Central Coast grape glut. From my trench-coated, rubber-booted inside informant (with no stake in sales) comes this:

For obvious reasons, sales of pricier wines have suffered over the past year. For many, it makes no economic sense to spend the money bottling new juice that will simply end up being severely undervalued.* With the harvest coming up, the rubber’s hit the road and wineries are being told to clear out their stored juice from, where else? Charles Shaw. With its millions of gallons of storage (oak barrels and stainless tanks) and massive bottling plants, Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wines operation (aka Charles Shaw) is once again in the catbird seat, buying up juice for pennies on the dollar.

The good news for us is that this $15 to $20 wine-worthy-juice will soon become Three Buck Chuck.

For some, no number of “really’s” before “good” can make a $3 Chuck good enough. It’ll always be swill and you’d rather stick with a reliable $15 Cotes du Rhone. I get that. But I’ll also be picking up periodic cabs and merlots (I don’t know if this affects all varietals or one in particular) along with my milk, yogurt and tunafish, especially after the “2008″ on the label switches to “2009″. If it’s swill, the bottles will still make a respectable braising liquid for winter short-ribs, oxtails and pigs’ feet.

*Why higher end wineries don’t just bottle their juice and sell it for cheap, I don’t know. Brand dilution, perhaps?

P.S. Pssst! Look at this gorgeous bowl of tomatoes! Our bedraggled little plants have been cranking fruit out heroically since the first of July. Okay, couldn’t resist. Now pretend you didn’t see this. IMG_1636

A Little Summer Nostalgia

MedFlowers
Despite the 90 degrees broiling up outside, I’m aware of fall creeping in like never before. Without kids to send to school the seasons usually pass seamlessly, one to another, year after year, me glued to a computer 12-hours-a-day. Like everyone, I’d wake up periodically to, “Oh crap, Christmas is in four days and I haven’t bought anything.” Or, “If we don’t get a dry day soon I’ll need to add a fourth raincoat to my repertoire.” Or, “Hmm. Mid-July. Perhaps time to swap the shorts’ box from the basement with the sweater drawer in the closet.”

But this summer’s been different. Except for a slight Twitter and blog addiction, the computer’s been a choice, and I have been aware of every blissful long, warm, sunny day. And the occasional stormy one. I didn’t do a single house project that I should’ve, but we had a steady flow of guests, parties in the backyard, countless bottles of rosé. And the dog and I bonded. Almost every day we’d walk through the quaint streets of Sellwood, along the train tracks, through the ‘forbidden field’, under the Springwater Corridor, through Oaks Amusement Park, down the stairs to the beach, along the water, up into the Monkey Trail, out to the dog park, back up along Oaks Pioneer Church, and home. We’ve watched green turn to gold, gray to blue, brown to purple, and every day I’m amazed that this is my neighborhood.

So one day not long ago I grabbed my camera in an attempt to capture a little bit of this urban oasis that my stubborn, socially inappropriate, bully of a dog has forced me out into. Thanks Koko.

P.S. I’m a terrible photographer and I don’t even have the rudimentary ability to crop. If you want great photos, go to my friend Leslie’s site…holy mama! But this is my story (and I’m sticking to it).

P.P.S. There’s not a crumb of food in this post. And I’m breaking a self-imposed rule not to talk about my dog. Next thing you know I’ll be sharing feelings…God help us all.

Since Koko’s not great with other dogs it’s best to burn off some energy before she mingles. Walking along the tracks and into the Forbidden Field (so named because of the giant Dogs On Leash signs…but Koko never, er, hardly ever, chases the birds) is perfect for this. Plus the ever-changing wildflowers and weeds are always amazing.

A quiet moment in the forbidden field…phpo8DYahPM
…awaiting….
SpeedMed …Koko to pass through at the speed of a bullet train. “Lab mix” my ass, dear humane society. She’s half pit, half jack-a-lope.

CloudsMed There was great cloud action, turning the sky from brilliant blue to gray in the blink of an eye, one minute illuminating the newly-frescoed Mausoleum, the next turning it hulking and ominous.

Across the field I got a flash of purple from the wetlands, and walked through the trees to this.WetlandsMed

PurpleCloseupMedWalking into it we were surrounded by a six-foot-tall forest of purple. The stereoscopic buzzing clued me into the teeming bees surrounding us, as I delicately backed out.

Then under the trestle to that magical white-trash wonderland that is Oaks Amusement Park. I particularly love it in its abandoned winter state, but summer brings its own treats too…..FerrisCrop

Like this Little Miss Sunshine moment.LilMissSunshineMed

WavesMed But now to Koko’s playland where she can run off-leash again. Downtown’s on view from one end of the beach and the Sellwood Bridge anchors the other. Did I mention this is all one walk? It amazes me every time.

ChapelMed And looping back up to the chapel, again with the iPhone because at this point Koko was in the doghouse and we were booking miles. I have no idea what this couple was doing. She’s in jeans, with ribbons and a veil. At one point he was on one knee. Gotta love this town.

And so we end. This is my thanks to you Koko, for getting me out every day to enjoy the summer and this amazing neighborhood. We have our battles, you and I. Your sense of loyalty is severely misplaced. I despair of you ever learning what, “Get your kong!” means, or learning to fetch. And some day your bullying ways will will land you, not just me, in hot water. But you do have your moments. HeartCrop

RIP, Mark…You’ll be Sorely Missed

MakersMedIs there a sadder sight? To see through to a crystal-clear center and beyond, a mere shadow of its former self, no mellow gold to hide the glare….

From humble beginnings in Loretto, Kentucky to the shelves of a California Costco, smuggled lovingly into Oregon…such provenance…we lay our cherished friend to rest.

You were like a grandfather, embracing, warm, good for a lot of laughs, mellow in a glass after dinner. But you could be sassy, too, with a shot of sweet vermouth, a cherry breaking your icy surface. And loverlike, surprising, Benedictine heightening your natural sweetness, leaving behind a rosy glow and the desire for a smoke.

We celebrate your 1.75 liter, larger-than-life…life, as we mourn your demise. Kicked to the curb to join the crush of the hoi polloi, to be reborn…as what?

You lived a good life, you amassed good karma. I predict good things.

You shall be missed.

Just Plum Delish

img_1378

Thanks ladies at exercise class for the giant bag of perfectly ripe Italian plums. Of course they turned into a crisp that used an entire cube of butter and nearly a cup of sugar, thereby negating a month’s worth of senior aerobics, but what the heck.

img_1404K said it was the best ever. Using, once again, a variation of the crisp topping I found on Eat. Think. Drink., which bb found on blazinghotwok, which Darlene modified from Ina Garten. Phew. When summer fruit season ends it’ll be back to store-bought-cookies and ice cream for our guests. Poor guests.

(Modifications, since K is trying to cut down on sugar, included 100% of the butter, half the sugar throughout, and half the flour though 100% of the lovely oats and almonds. And I made it in an 8×8 square pyrex instead of individual ramekins. What can I say? It was midweek and not for a dinner party, we were being casual.)

Le Tomato-Love, a la Jacques

img_1373

The Flavel Street “farm” has one crop…tomatoes. (K grows pumpkins but primarily for their big, showy leaves that he lets run rampant across the lawn. We’ve never actually eaten one…he grows attached. That would be a-kin [heh] to murder.)

But back to tomatoes.

It’s been a weird year. Some people had blight before the fruit could ripen, we had the smallest crop on record. And the earliest. It seemed that ours were the only plants to hit their stride in mid-July; oh how we cackled with glee over the 2009 plan to under-water. It was working! True, the plants were sad, bedraggled little things, but the tomatoes were delicious, early (for Portland’s wet spring), nicely sized, with skins not overly tough (as ours usually are). But then…

The fruit got smaller and smaller until normally small Stupice shrank to the size of cherry tomatoes. The beefsteak? Roughly the size of a golf ball. Lemon boy? Like a junior baseball.

The flowers? Very few flowers. And by mid-August, very few tomatoes.

We started sneaking water.

Then madly dousing to coax along the few green ones left on the vines.

img_1329We have a healthy crop of Romas on the way, the Sun Gold’s continue indestructable as usual, and time will tell if the others rally. With the extreme heat, this may not have been the year to experiment, but really, can one complain about a steady stream of delicious fruit over several months? And as ours peter out? I figure friends will be looking for a home for their excess.

< Here's what a July haul looked like.

For YOUR extras, here's one of my favorite Jacques Pepin recipes from 1992′s Today’s Gourmet. I’ve made it countless times, and the proportions and herbs are endlessly forgiving and flexible. I’ve even cut up regular tomatoes to make up the difference, if the cherries measure short. Bon appetite!

Cherry Tomato Gratin
1 1/4 pounds cherry tomatoes (approx 3.5 cups)
3 oz day-old french bread (about 3.5 cups) cut into 1″ cubes
4-6 cloves garlic, peeled & sliced (about 2 T) (interesting; had forgotten these were sliced. I’ve always chopped)
1/2 cup coursely chopped flat-leaf parsley (mixing basil and parsley is nice)
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 T virgin olive oil (I use a bit more, usually)
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese (even good w/o this)

IMG_1469 Preheat the over to 375. Wash tomatoes and discard stems. Mix tomatoes and all ingredients in a bowl. Transfer the mixture to a 6-cup oven-proof dish. Bake at 375 for 40 minutes, serve immediately.

Four servings: 185 calories; 6 gm protein; 21 gm carbohydrates; 9.4 grams fat; 2.1 grams saturated fat; 5 mg cholesterol; 506 mg sodium.

Guest Post: Adventures of a Ninja Chef

First, who’s Ezra?

A friend and new Portland transplant who writes things like:

“Cooking
Like jazz
(Like all art, really)
Is an expression of love, joy, pain and sorrow.
The delicious sustenance that results is almost an afterthought.”

He’s also an Excel whiz. And he doesn’t like to be bound by the constraints of pre-figured directions or maps (which, considering that quote, shouldn’t come as a surprise), as I found on a recent field trip to Uwajimaya. The next time I get turned around in the US-26 / downtown spaghetti tangle I’ll try to remember I’m not lost at all, merely “riffing”.

What else to know? My dog loves him. She has no use for Google maps either.

I don’t know if Ezra would have needed extra inducement to Koko-sit during our Seattle trip, but I figured that opening the pantry and pointing out all the weird foodstuffs he could play with wouldn’t hurt. And indeed, that clinched the deal.

Now let’s be clear: Ezra has a large, gorgeous kitchen at his disposal, filled with healthful, vegetarian products, while mine is tiny, battered (mmmm…batter) and sullied by all manner of questionable ingredients. But he kept his eye on the adventures that he could concoct within this small, tiled space, transcending physical limitations, ethnic boundaries and, once or twice I’m sure, common sense.

In this guest post, Ezra describes his time. “A lot of ideas really crystallized for me during that week.” says he, and for that I’m so glad!


The Space
I pause for a moment at the entrance to the kitchen. It’s the same whenever I enter an unfamiliar house. I’m thinking about how this room reveals the soul of the house and of the people who have made it their home. I cross the threshold and suddenly I’m an anthropologist. What do I know about the inhabitants? What is their relationship to food? What traces of life do I sense in this place?

A quick tour of the garden, pantry and cellar reveals that these folks have a healthy and positive relationship with their food. I’ve cooked in many kitchens, but this one is set up perfectly for an improvisational cook. The utensils are in their proper place. Spices and herbs wait patiently in their containers and packets. This is a kitchen where good food is honored.

The Preparation
Before cooking I envision the food to be created. I breathe in the smells of the kitchen, orienting myself among the shelves, racks and cupboards. I feel the temperature and humidity in the air.

For me cooking is about creating and maintaining optimal conditions for food. I enjoy the prospect of creating food out of whatever’s available. This kitchen is bursting with possibility. Wherever I turn there is culinary inspiration.

Eating
Eating is one of my favorite aspects of food. It’s easy to take this step for granted. But it is just as important as all the other parts. And it is equally rewarding.

Cleanup
There’s an old saying, “when you are finished eating, clean your bowl.” This is most true when practicing food preparation. A fundamental aspect of cooking is care for utensils. They are for the cook what brushes are for the painter.

When I’m finished eating I lovingly clean every knife, bowl, spoon and pan. Ingredients are replaced in their original location. A ninja chef, I leave the kitchen with barely a trace behind me. Perhaps the space has been altered subtly by this process. But everything is just as I found it, ready for another food adventure.

P.S. Two other things came to mind as I was writing this. Big surprise, they are both about food and are both Japanese. Hmmm… I definitely see a pattern emerging here.

Kitchen (Banana Yoshimoto) is one of my favorite books. A major theme throughout is food in general, but especially the energy created by the kitchen space and different types of people and kitchens.

Tampopo (Juzo Itami) is one of my favorite movies. It’s all about food, cooking, eating, food culture, the art of food, etc. Basically it’s two straight hours of Ramen. Every time I watch it I want to make miso soup with noodles.

Editor’s Note:
“But what did you MAKE, Ezra?” I wail.

“The trouble is I don’t know what I made. I know what I used, what I did, and it was all really good. But I was aiming for *formless* food (ed: and by this he means without boundaries or limitations, not literally formless), going by what I know about the way the food works, and whatever inspired me. So I could list the ingredients, the specific processes. But in a sense these are accidental and it’s the finished product which matters. These are meals which will never, can never, be made again.

Perhaps this is an unsatisfactory answer. Or maybe I’m just trying to maintain an air of mystery. But I really am trying to develop an approach to cooking which is scientific, creative and focused on the larger issues of what food is all about.”

img_1288(What I do know is this: our aged, DOC balsamic hand-carried back from Italy in 2002 had been shifted. My, what good taste he has! And the jar of South African salted, green papaya was open in the fridge. As long as he didn’t use them together, I’m pleased.)

“Not unsatisfactory at all, Ez. Just hard for a process-oriented, don’t-like-to-get-lost person such as myself to accept. But okay. There. I’ve just accepted it.”

To read more of Ezra’s posts, check out his eclectic thoughts on cooking, movies and inspiration here.

Summer Bounty Followup: Corn Soup Recipe

img_1277Here’s Michael Chiarello’s recipe for the corn soup served at our recent vegetarian dinner party. If you want to keep it veggie, disregard my thought that some chicken stock might be nice. Also, IMO, sauteeing a bit of onion and corn in butter would do more than the small of amount of cream he adds, but I haven’t tried it this way; it’s just a guess.

Summer Corn Soup
Michael Chiarello (italics=dds modifications)

4 c corn kernels (~5 ears corn; reserve cobs)
6 c water (or 2 c low sodium chix stock/4 c water)
1 onion, chopped, divided into 2 piles
1 celery rib, chopped
1 bay leaf
3 T butter, preferably unsalted
1/2 c heavy cream (optional)
Salt
Topping / garnish of choice

Cut corn off cobs and set aside. Cut cobs in half and add to water with celery, half the onion and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes; remove the cobs.

Saute the remaining half of onion in butter until soft, add corn and salt, saute another minute, add to stock. Bring to a boil until the corn is tender, about 3 minutes. Remove bay leaf, adjust salt, add cream.

Transfer in batches to a blender and blend thoroughly (start at a low speed & then ramp it up to avoid lid eruptions). Strain through a fine mesh sieve placed over a clean pot, pushing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible.

Reheat the soup gently to serve; do not allow to boil! Serve warm, cool or cold, and top with garnish. A dollop of pesto, creme fraiche, basil or tarragon leaves….

I also froze a bit of this, stirring as it hardened to produce crystals. Delicious corn ice resulted, but I have yet to think of what to put it on. Not interesting enough to stand on its own. I keep thinking about chorizo…..

Flavel Street Farm Report

A tweet from Ruth Reichel (Gourmet’s editor) pronounced: “10 vegetarians to dinner. Too bad it’s not corn and tomato season.”

By coincidence, I was having vegetarians to dinner the same day, and tomatoes (cherry) and corn (soup) were most in-season on the west coast, and precisely what were on the menu. But that’s neither here nor there, since we bought both and this was supposed to focus on eating what our garden produced. Damn my wandering attention span…

flex-012And the winning plant for first ripe tomato of the year (last week) is….Stupice! Once again. Tiny even for a Stupice but we’ll take it. And the Sungold cherry tomato plant is starting to squirt out some ripe babies. Mmmmm, tomato candy. And in third place, after this weekend’s heat, Stupice plant #2 has red clusters galore. Tomorrow I’ll be able to slice them on toast with olive oil, pepper and salt…the best breakfast in the world.

Because I keep forgetting to use it, we had enough lettuce to feed six for a first course on Saturday. My typical French vinaigrette weighs down the tender leaves, so we had a semi-successful light dressing of lemon, oil, worcestershire and salt. [Oh gads! Just realized that's not vegetarian! A thousand apologies...it was just a dash.... So much for mindfulness.] Had intended to add whole parsley leaves along with the thinly sliced radishes, something my Persian cousin does which is so simple but unique, but it got left behind in the flurry of plating. (Which is more acceptable than the post-bbq marinade that got left off shish-kebabs the week before, but that’s a subject for a different day.)

Whole “needles” of fresh garden tarragon adorned a simple vegetarian corn soup for the second course of that same dinner. Bright and licoricey, and a nice change from basil. I can share that super simple recipe (actual recipe! From a book and everything!) if the experienced vegetable eaters thought it was tasty enough. Cold the next day, on a palate unpolluted by raw garlic & tomato drenched bread, it tasted richer. Next time I’d double the onion and saute it and the corn kernels in a bit of butter and salt. Cuz y’know, what’s not better with a bit of butter and salt?

A cup of home-grown basil provided the base for course #3′s pasta sauce: basil blended with two cups of cherry tomatoes (courtesy of New Seasons), toasted almonds, garlic and oil. Cooks Illustrated said to mix a half cup of parmesan into the pasta, but I think it dulled the bright taste of the “pesto”. Thanks to Skip’s shrimp pasta, I thought to mix in a big batch of raw arugula, which leant a peppery, fresh bite.

flex-006 All boy flowers on the pumpkin so far. Except for the first girl back in June…before there were any boy flowers for fertilizing. Isn’t that just the way it is in love and life? Well, I suppose if we get no pumpkins we’ve at least enjoyed the vines carousing across the lawn. Next year I know I’ll be brave enough to harvest the blossoms. It’s one of my favorite things to eat but I have a mysterious block against picking and cooking them. (The photo at left is two weeks old. After consuming a boot and a neighbor’s cat, we reigned in the vines with a climbing corral.)

flex-011Ah, and a footnote, appropriate because it’s directly related to Oregon’s bounty. I made this Berry Crumble for the second time, this time using local blueberries and boysenberries from New Seasons. It was, once again, spectacular and I can’t wait to make it with peaches. The boysen wasn’t as bright as the raspberry, even after adding extra lemon and cutting the sugar by 1/3, but it still killed. After seven years in Portland, I still can’t get over the size, flavor and variety of these monsters.

Kali the Gardener

Mmmmm, that sun feels great on my back. And the belly-laughter from the kids next door…is there a greater sound on earth? My hands turn slimy brown as they root around in the cool earth. Koko snoozes in the sun as I encourage little lettucey life forms that will be tasty later in the summer, and until consumed, will help our planet breathe easier.

It’s extremely satisfying to push the shovel (oh I get it, shove-l) down into the heavy, damp clay, levering the long handle to pull up ten weed bulbs in one scoop. I squat, break up the clumps, pull out the bulbs that have multiplied like rabbits on Chlomid over the winter.

Such are my observations during the first five minutes in the garden. Then my feet fall asleep.

img_1228I stand up and wait for the dizziness to pass, working the shovel for a second scoop. This time, the bulbs lie just below my shovel tip and the shiny green stems snap off crisply, leaving the offenders buried deep in the clay. I squat again, breaking apart the hard clumps searching for lost bulbs that range in size from onions to pearls. My back starts to hurt and the dog moves into the shade.

Again I stand, supported heavily by the shovel as the blood rushes back to my feet and a blackout moment passes. Childish laughter has turned to squabbling as I unearth another batch of noxious weed bulbs (one shovel’s worth at left) and encounter a hard root that refuses to budge. I tug and see the razor sharp blackberry bramble across the yard rattle. I hack away and manage to break the root in half. Next year it will undoubtedly return at twice the size and strength. A bleeding finger and bafflement as to where the bramble originated temporarily take the focus off my throbbing back and tingling feet.

Giving up on the digging, I move to the less perilous task of pulling knee-high grass out of what used to be a planting bed. The roots rip satisfyingly easily out of the damp ground, though I’m feeling distinctly resentful at how well the grass thrives here in comparison to our bald, brown patch of “lawn”…much like the toxic blue flowers that have squeezed out my brother’s carefully planted daisies, dahlias and columbine. I ponder the perversion of weeds. So like humans to elevate anything labor intensive to that which is desirable. Tomatoes are divas (if pampered correctly, they’ll repay you with transcendence), dandelions the Everyman. And when the rosemary goes ballistic and takes over the herb bed and needs to be hacked back with a saw resulting in an unsightly mess? Brittany Spears. Or LiLo…take your pick.

I go back to digging to give my knees a break. I’m pretty sure I can hear my lower back creak as I stand. Done with the bugs, the mounting hysteria from next door and my audible groans, Koko the traitor moves inside. I picture the grass clippings and mud clumps she’s tracking through the house and onto the couch. I wonder if she’s mastered the remote and found the America’s Next Top Model marathon on cable.

Another shovelful of tops only, no bulbs. The earthworm carnage is getting critical (and no, cutting a worm in half doesn’t create two worms). My karma quotient is falling. The ranting in my head is getting shrill….or is it the child’s tantrum coming from over the fence? My back is officially in pain, I have a headache, it’s hot, I’m bleeding. I’ve now been gardening for 15 minutes and I’m completely over it. The space beyond the back door is once again officially dead to me. In a couple of years perhaps, lulled by the pretty pictures in Sunset Magazine and the delighted successes of friends, I may venture back out. But for now, I see it clearly.

If the kitchen is God’s workshop, the yard is the devil’s playground.

img_1234The fragrant Sellwood brilliance that effortlessly surrounds us is a torturous hallucination…move along now, this is not for you. You will always be the new homeowner who dilligently weeded out the Columbine, leaving just one plant to laugh in your face come May when it flowered. Make peace with the blue-flower bulb weed, because it’s the only flower you’re ever likely to cultivate.

Gardening is a dangerous past-time. Look at the cuts and bruises you’ve amassed in a quarter of an hour. You actually stepped on the rake and bonked your head like a Laurel and Hardy cliche, for chrissakes. Look how gardening managed to kill your dear, cherished 90-year-old neighbor last year. She worked in her fabulous garden every day, and where did that get her? (Or was it the sight of your ever-disintegrating yard that did her in? I’ll always wonder.) You tried and failed, nature has beaten you down once again. Character flaw, cosmic conspiracy, karma, call it what you like, but your 15-minute brush with a self image of nurturer, sower of beauty, giver of life is over.

Even the vitriol-fueled mental post composed in staccato bursts of loathing as I hacked, crumbled, picked, yanked and panted my way through a 2’x2’ patch of overgrown land is lost. In the cool of the house, with Tylenol in my system and a sweating glass of scotch rocks in my hand, the fire and brilliance wrought of extreme suffering has faded. I’m just a beaten woman with swollen wrists and new motivation to get a job. Gardeners cost money, you know.

Hapa Haoli* Chronicles: Condiments Redux

April is hereby designated Asian Experimentation month.

I’m not sure if it’s the in-between-ness of the seasons (time to put braising to bed, too wet for bbq, haven’t yet hit the farmer’s markets to be inspired by spring veggies…), or the fact that we’re on a budget, but I’ve been cranking out my peasant Italian-French-Korean version of Asian food lately.

Mom’s chicken long rice is my perfect comfort food; if I’d grown up white and in a trailer, this would be my mac and cheese. If I’d grown up in Korea, it’d be called Jap Chae. In Hawaii (where b1 grew up), it’s chicken long rice. With a million variations, ours/mine uses dark, on-the-bone, skin intact chicken (to give it some stickiness), shitake mushrooms (so in love with pre-sliced dried shitakes I could marry them), “long rice” (Korean yam noodles), which aside from being a gloomy gray manage to be delightfully slippery, bouncy and toothsome, and the ‘essential 5’ of Korean cooking: garlic, soy, ginger, onion, sesame. Brown up salted chicken, toss in a sliced onion, add loads of chopped ginger and garlic, add softened noodles and shitakes (and some of the soaking liquid) , throw in a slightly scary amount of soy and sesame oil, slap it on a plate, top with kimchee or peperoncini and turn on the Hee Haw reruns.

From old standard to bastardized newcomer, my version of mapo tofu was a complete shot in the dark, but tasty enough to warrant a rerun.

img_1116I don’t even know what real mapo tofu is, other than a sense that it’s spicy, porky, silky and in bad Chinese restaurants, frequently served with peas. Armed with that scholarly wisdom honed to a fine edge by meticulous imaginings, and thinking k deserved something he liked after putting up with chicken long rice (despite Irish / Polish genes he adores tofu and anything pepper-hot), I set out to pair my new favorite cheater food…ground lap cheong…with tofu. Lap cheong (Chinese sausage) is the secret ingredient behind company-appropriate fried rice (as in, “Hon, set aside the possum, we gots company at the door”), how to get hubby to eat slightly bitter gai lan (Chinese broccoli) in oyster sauce, and, in a bizarre collision with some Frenchie thing b2 used to make, sauteed with thinly sliced and fried potatoes and snow peas. And now these slim packets of fat / sweet / salt come chopped up. Hooray, life just keeps getting better for the lazy and undeserving. Using lap cheong in place of ground pork, a tablespoon of crab paste and a hefty dose of pepper paste and red pepper, and dinner pretty much made itself. Toss in frozen peas or chopped up gai lan stems (a little lap goes a long way, so it got made twice) and voila! Gotta say, it was pretty tasty, though I shudder to think about how unhealthy it must be, even pushing the tofu-to-pork ratio. (A run to the fridge shows no MSG in the crab paste, phew, but “crab fat” is called out separately from the crab meat. Crab fat? Crab FAT? Woot.)

*Hapa Haoli a Hawaiian term used these days to commonly mean a half (hapa) white (haoli)/ half Asian person.