Archive for the 'Home-cooking' Category
This is Me on Brevity

I talk too much. I definitely eat too much. And I write too much.

Back in July I vowed to do shorter posts. Heh…see the novellas that ensued. But since the excess of Christmas looms, let’s try this again. We rented a cottage on Hood Canal for Thanksgiving. It was adorable, well appointed, a great deal and takes dogs.

BB did the bulk of the cooking, and I’ll respect his first rights to blog fodder as he brags about his insane short-ribs, lamb shank pasta, turkey and mashed potatoes. Much of them are already here at Eat. Think. Drink. but I think he should brag some more. If nothing else, about w’s crazy pumpkin cheesecake and ginger snaps.

I just wanted to share two things:
1) The grilled stix lunch / app we put together, inspired by snax at Biwa and Tanuki. Simple, quick, all using some combo of: lime, fish sauce, garlic, brown sugar, chili, soy. Pretty unanimously I think they ranked: pork belly #1, quail #2, tofu #3, scallops #4. Last-minute-pickled Japanese turnips, turnip tops and Chinese spinach added a bit of acid. Together, they were a nice complement to refreshing beverages provided by our in-house mixmasters.

2) The oysters, we plucked off the beach just steps from the cottage. The triplet we threw back.

The bowl we ate. At 10 pm. After a huge dinner. (Tides were super high during the day, so we had to wait til night.)

That’s cool: a dip in the icy waters and a salty slide down our throats is just what we needed to chill out between heated rounds of Mille Bournes.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

Minnesota Morel Mania

Since my planned post was a giant snooze, thank god c stepped in with some food porno on her Facebook page. This time in the form of the mighty morel mushroom.

cynmorels2They stumbled upon what appears to be a forest of fungus on the way to visit family in Southern Minnesota. (What happened to Oregon morels? c&s usually put a pound on our doorstep… Did I miss the whole season?)

While some are getting partially dried then frozen for future use, some gave their life for dinner: lightly dusted in flour, sauteed in butter, shallots, Italian parsely, with a shot of heavy cream. “Died and went to heaven!” sez c. And today, more went into an omelette with shallots and mozzarella, with a fried tomato on the side.

Damn.

And I had oatmeal.

If anyone needs more recipes, here’s a site dedicated to “The Great Morel“. I’ve never had them battered and fried, but their platter of golden crisp morels looks pretty freaking amazing. And for something a bit more sophisticated, bb dishes up a poster child of spring, Morel & Fava Risotto. Oh the creamy deliciousness….

A few of the drying trays.

A few of the drying trays.

Flexing Your Mussels

Why do I constantly need to “rediscover” mussels as the perfect weeknight meal? How silly to pay $15 at a restaurant for something that’s dirt cheap, ridiculously fast, and even slightly special feeling. At least it’s hot, unlike my other “go-to” fast meal of tuna sandwiches. (Mmmm…tuna sammies…we kind of love tuna sammies night.)

Uninspired and running late, tiny Washington mussels for $2.99 a pound caught my eye at New Seasons yesterday. I dipped back to produce for a tomato and parsley, ran through the monsoon that had hit in the ten minutes between cavorting on the sunny banks of the Willamette with the le-Beastowicz and snaking through checkout, and 45 minutes later had a steaming bowl of mussels ready to go.

img_1184A two-day-old sourdough boule handily gave its life for garlic toast (slice thickly, toast, rub with raw garlic, spread on butter), so pasta wasn’t even necessary. And remembering our moules in Bandol, I rooted through the liquor cabinet for something licoricey. No Pernod, but plenty of ouzo, and in went a capful. (Really cool what it does to the flavor, and it’s subtle. You only notice it if your’e looking.) That’s the beauty of mussels. As long as you have some flavorings, liquid and acid, you can pretty much do what you want.

My base is sauteed onions, garlic, enough dry white wine to make a broth, and tomatoes, parsley and dash of salt at the end. But you can replace wine with clam juice and lemon, use stock, lemon and wine for more soup, add cream, replace onions with shallots or leeks…as long as your mussels are good (and clean) it’s hard to go wrong. Though a handful of shoestring fries with aioli would have been welcome, we made do with a big green salad and the remaining wine.

KML’s standard sign of approval is, “I’d pay $xx for this meal at a restaurant.” In this case it was $22. Not bad for ten bucks in groceries and 25 minutes…most of which was spent cleaning the mussels and the world’s dirtiest lettuce. (Our yard inherited a ladybug in the deal…now that’s a full-service organic grocery store!)

Confessions from the Pantry Part II: Sibling Revelry

cynbrynisenaeSiblings b, c and I couldn’t be more different (pictured here with cousin Renae on the right). At least it seems so to us. While the outside world may see three self-reliant, factually careless critics, we see a decisive impatient, a gregarious persistent, and an unsure complacent. But we do have one or two areas of commonality beyond that pesky “why wouldn’t everyone want to know our opinion?” thing. Even after living apart for over 30 years, I can guarantee there’s a pantry in Jacksonville, one in Portland and another in Minneapolis that are genetically linked.

I can probably guess the foodstuffs I’ll find in my siblings’ kitchens with 90% accuracy. And we’re not talking eggs and milk, or even balsamic and soy. All families probably have this: a common peanut butter brand, an inexplicable fondness for Grape Nuts, galangal in the spice cabinet…. For us, it’s capers and Korean black bean paste (kochujung). Red pepper paste and pickled peppers. Smoked oysters, sardines, chutney. A pound of herbes de Provence, a gallon of sesame oil. The peppers may be of a slightly different bent —one woman’s sambal olek is another’s sriracha— but there they are in various pasted and pickled forms.

Our spouses have managed to influence us slightly, so while b’s fridge may sport South African salted mango, mine holds sauerkraut, and c’s has three shelves (at least) dedicated to the pickled accoutrement necessary for getting one’s self pickled.

It’s not just the condiments. Years ago at a family gathering I was handed some tomatoes and told to make a salad. At first bite, my brother’s girlfriend’s eyes grew wide. “Oh my god it tastes exactly like his!” Who knew? Apparently the taste memory of tangy/sweet, oily/salty, oniony/tomatoey lies deeply embedded. And perhaps we hold the same conviction that the point of a tomato salad is to saturate great hunks of bread with the remaining juice, and for that, the proportions have to be just so.

And though we grew up with mayo on top of the dressed tomatoes, we’ve each independently discontinued that practice (except for once in awhile). Similarly, when I shared with sis that I was making our family’s bastardized version of curry for j’s birthday (a lamb concoction topped with fruits, nuts, sweet and savory treats), she laughed and said she’d just made the same dish to use up leftover Easter lamb. Only, she confided, nowadays she adds coconut milk. Scary. Years ago I’d modified mine exactly the same. (Note to self: because the coconut milk mellows out the flavors, kick up the heat quotient. Made intentionally mild for the birthday girl, there’s got to be enough heat to give the apples, oranges, bananas, raita and raisins a raison. d’etre, that is.)

Today, gray salt, dijon mustard, truffle oil and wasabi are ubiquitous, so our genetically related pantries are less unusual than back in 1985. But there’s still some comfort in knowing that if we serve feta, it will be sliced, sprinkled with herbes de provence and black pepper, and drizzled with olive oil. That if you’re asked to cook dinner at someone else’s house, you’ll not only find toasted sesame seeds, anchovies and lap cheong, but you’ll find the “right” kind of mustard and plain red wine vinegar for the “right” vinaigrette.

Opinionated? Who, us?

Confessions from the Pantry Part 1: The Awesome Power of the Condiment

I can’t follow a recipe worth a damn, even when I try. And I’m an incurably lazy cook. More than 3 pots…hmmm, I have another pot around here somewhere…. More than 4 steps…oof…how about I just start with canned chicken broth? It’s a shameful thing for a food-lover and admirer of the farm-to-table / slow-food movement to admit, but there it is. A not-so-well-kept secret. I’m a quarter French, and in France we pick cassoulet up over in Aisle 12. (Okay, some are raising ducks, rendering fat and growing their own beans, but those industrious genes went to my siblings.)

My kitchen talents lie in creating something palatable from the random elements of a picked-over pantry. The Top Chef challenge I’d have a shot at? The Quickie Mart competition. Let’s see, corn nuts, blue Icee and gum…I’m thinking an appetizer of opposing tastes and textures. Okay so maybe not, but at the risk of sounding like a certain chicken-nugget-spewing “semi-homemade” Stepford wife on the Food Network, the right staples and condiments are my key to banging out decent unplanned meals.

My fridge holds a battalion of encrusted jars of mysterious origin and frightening expiration dates. The basics, of course: Worcestershire, Tabasco and oyster sauce. Pepperoncini, olives, pickles (kosher, dill, bread & butter). Fermented black beans, green curry, sambal olek, crab paste and tamarind juice. Cheap lumpfish caviar (thanks for the Ikea tip, Cyn!). Tahini, that must-have for emergency hummus, and with which I’m still trying to replicate Al Amir’s roasted vegetables.

And on and on……..

img_1092Tubes of emergency salvation (paprika paste, tomato paste, anchovy paste) that invariably slide down behind the jars, losing themselves for months (oh hell, who am I kidding? years) behind the walnut oil, kimchee and green peppercorns.

How long will an open jar of sun-dried tomatoes in oil keep? No, not what does the label say, how long do you REALLY think they’ll keep? They’re priceless for topping crostini for unexpected guests (and there are always feta dregs and pinenuts in the crisper…). Five of those suckers whizzed with a half-glass of old red wine turned mediocre pasta sauce into something quite delicious the other night. And admittedly, it only takes a few minutes to roast and peel red peppers, but what if you’re staring into a vacant fridge for inspiration and are not willing to battle the store? Or weren’t willing to pay a ridiculous dollar-a-pepper? Or finally unearth the pepper you remember seeing, only to find it sadly shrunk, shriveled and shivering in a forgotten corner of your fridge? Or the dried tomatoes in oil have developed mold and because you love your friends and don’t want to be responsible for their death, you need a replacement? What was the point of this paragraph? Oh yeah, jarred peppers.

tagu1Then there’s the king of the condiments, tagu. Whether you think of it as squid candy or hot, sesame jerky, even timid eaters love this sticky, orange, chewy, sweet, spicy, sesame-oil drenched Korean treat. An ambitious chef would undoubtedly make her own, building character—and muscle—shredding the dried fish. I, however, buy it at Pal Do (61st and SE Foster) for $4.99 and “fix it” with more sesame oil and hot pepper. Roll it into a strip of seaweed or lettuce, dollop on some pepper paste…. BB, your assignment is find the perfect cocktail accompaniment to this bite of delight. (And thank you for the beauty shot…dried squid has never looked so glam.)

Since (wo)man can’t live on the pickled and fermented alone, my micro-pantry (a two-shelf, thigh-high corner spinny-cabinet) hides cous-cous, canned hominy, coconut milk and tuna. A range of canned beans: white bean salad with olive oil tuna? Dinner’s ready! Black bean and corn salad with cilantro and salsa? Three-bean salad, hummus, chili? Done, done and done. I have stacks of dried legumes too, admittedly so much better, but those take forethought and don’t fit the sleazy theme of this post. And on to noodles…pastas covering the Italian heritage, gray Korean yam noodles, Japanese rice noodles and Chinese lo mein supporting my Asian bits.

Ohhhh, did I forget to mention premade sauces? (What would a “confession” be without the really embarrassing admissions?) Although the collection has shrunk in recent years after reading labels and trying to avoid MSG and hydrogenated oils, I wouldn’t know how to make my quick pozole without those tiny cans of Herdez tomatillo and casera salsa. And how could I make a five-minute meal with leftover chicken bits and frozen peas without Trader Joes Masala sauce? No peas? No chicken? No problem, there are always garbanzos and frozen spinach at hand. And while I can make a legit Thai dressing when backed into a corner, who will know that you’ve plopped that disgusting sweet chili sauce (I’d guess 5 plops) into the fish sauce, ginger, garlic and lime juice in place of cane sugar and chiles? I’ve even resorted, on occasion, to topping the salad with pre-roasted, salted peanuts rather than frying my own, and god help me, k. prefers the short-cut version. Polish heretic.

Are there lows even I won’t sink to? Yes. (Fake lemon juice and pre-peeled garlic come to mind.) But we each have to find our own way, and answer to our own higher power.

Odd to celebrate laziness / shortcuts / unhealthy habits during my “year in the slow lane” (if you talk to k., do me a favor and call it 10 months). I have NO excuse for a fridge devoid of fresh veggies, sides of meat in need of butchering and an array of tinctures from which to make my own sauces. But bad habits are hard to break. And since someday I’ll be back to 65-hour-workweeks (won’t I? someday?), it would be a shame to get rusty. Plus, I am taking this time to ditch some truly disgusting habits, and work out some new 15-minute dinners. I recently found an even more convenient form of one of my convenience food staples (oh the wonders of the modern world!) but that’s a topic for another day……….

Seasons Collide in Sellwood

The weekend heat was luscious. We sucked up vitamin-D-rich rays like eggplant absorbs olive oil. Like onions in butter, we sweated lightly, turning over occasionally, without urgency, browning slowly. Warm breezes slid over skin like strawberry sauce over vanilla ice cream, coating palest white with a rosy blush.

But all was not well in Stumptown.

A week earlier, amidst chill rains and unrelenting gray, a dinner date had been set: Family. Sunday. Lunch.

There’s a lot to be said for the Terrarium where b1 and b2 reside, but good food isn’t usually one of them. So being a dutiful daughter, I considered what they’d like to eat. What wouldn’t institutional chefs typically serve to good, God-fearing seniors? What couldn’t the b’s easily cook in their own small kitchen? What might I already have in the freezer? (No, I swear that part was just a coincidence. A happy coincidence I thought at the time, but now I wonder what nefarious spirit was at work.)

Though I don’t watch the weather, even I’m aware that winter’s coming to a close, and with it braising season. So what better occasion to cook up the gorgeous oxtails recently purchased at my Korean grocery? b2 craves rich, saucy dishes regardless of the season, and if they include membranes, marrows and the chance of mad cow disease, so much the better.

You can see where this is heading. The perfect storm. The tragedy that was Sunday.

img_10991Thawed Friday night and started Saturday for defatting, there was no going back, even as the mercury continued to rise. In the oven, the Le Crueset gathered steam, simmering mirepoix, wine, thyme, tails, merrily away, sending yeasty wafts out the open doors and windows to mingle with the neighborhood scents of fluid-drenched charcoal, sizzling burgers and newly shorn lawns. On Sunday, I pushed ahead, like a lamb to the slaughter, adding roasted mushrooms, fresh slivers of carrot, a sprig of rosemary and more wine for a final hour of folly.

“But wait!” you cry. “Replace the carmelized zucchini side with lemon-spritzed, reggiano-topped asparagus! That’s spring in every bite.” Oh but how b2 detests asparagus.

“Okay then for god’s sake ditch the mashed potatoes and boil up some pasta instead.” Disgust has crept into your voice. Don’t deny it. I hear it behind that facade of helpfulness.

But my pantry had let me down. I had pappardelle enough for three, maybe four, but not the five I needed. And besides, what would I do with four pounds of potatoes? I’d finally tossed the remaining Christmas russets abandoned in the basement…russets, for chrissakes…good for so little… And though I’m infamously cheap, the coffin was nailed: I had a real reason for not switching starches. The horns of the dilemma on which I sat were as pointy as the oxtails themselves.

1) Can one, in good conscience, toss a pile of bones onto a silky nest of pappardelle? Even if you deboned half, how could you achieve the proper per-mouthful proportion of chewy, succulent meat with slippery, starchy noodle? Where might the grated cheese land and melt? How could one manage the complexity of twirling a fork with one hand while maintaining a good grip for gnawing with the other?

2) And if I chose to pastacize properly, could I live with having denied my family the domed gel caps of semi-soft cartilage, the nooks, crannies and spines just begging to be sucked and scraped? Rich sauce is all well and good, but it’s the cartilage that makes life worth living.

And so it was. Out in the blazing 2 o’clock sun we faced our demons, sweating and laboring, battling lunch and attempting to quench our thirst with a rich bottle of Sicilian red that held its own as it morphed from cellar-cool to lukewarm to hot over the course of 20 minutes.

Bees buzzed.

The dog snoozed in a shady patch of dirt.

Oblivious to our pain, BB texted his glee at his first G&T and grilled steak of the season.

Like Spartans rushing headlong to certain death at Thermopylae, we soldiered on.

In the distance, children laughed.

Ode to A French Butter Dish (with apologies to Keats)

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Thou new unwrapped bride of distant Carre Four
Thou receptacle of sleek supple shape
O sylvan platter that canst now embrace
A brick more sweetly than dishes of yore.
What churn-ed history can your sheer width trace
Of pats, dollops and bricks neath yon domed pate?
From a land drenched in aubergine, grape-vines
Sweet porcine perfection and lore, what chance!
That lowly milk curdled belongs in the dance
And now, on wooden splendor reclines.

Tasted treats are sweet but those well slathered
Are sweeter still. Therefore ye cooks rage on!
Entice the sensual bud with glee
Whether blanc’d, emulsed, bernaised or ghee.
If but one spread for eternity rather’d
I, choose this cream, this fatted Don Juan.
“O happy fat! Most happy fat!” I utter.
Kept salted or un, cold hard or soft warm,
Twixt dough for the flaky or left intact form—
Fat is flavor flavor fat. None other truth. Truth, in butter.