If I’m Eating This, It’s Spring, Right?

It can stop snowing any day now.

Don’t misunderstand me: I love winter. I love being inside a cozy house and looking out into storm and wind. I love wearing sweaters and boots. I love frost on the windows and snow-heaped sills and winter holidays and all of that. At the end of February, though, this begins to get rather tiresome. The walls of my shabby old Victorian house let in drafts at every right angle, the three-mile round-trip walk to the train station seems longer and longer, and the precipitation changes from beautiful (if mildly treacherous) snow to hideous (and always treacherous) freezing rain. I do not enjoy spending hours hacking my car of out a block of ice, and I begin to believe that I will never be warm again.

Lacking powers of meteorological manipulation, all I can do is try to summon spring with my meals. I’m not exactly tired of root vegetables and stews yet, but I find myself daydreaming of brighter accents for them. Last night I roasted a medley of beets, Brussels sprouts and turnips (three of my favorite vegetables, season notwithstanding), tossed them with lemon juice and hazelnut oil and served them with lemon-marinated turkey fillets. Lemon is bright, yes, but I wanted something to contrast with the earthiness of the vegetables and to make the entire meal pop. Online (on epicurious.com, where I get a lot of ideas), I noticed a recipe for lemon-marinated chicken breasts (similar to my turkey fillets) served with a watercress-scallion mayonnaise, all of the ingredients for which I had in the fridge. I didn’t like epicurious’s proportions–it seemed like a whole lot of mayonnaise to comparatively little herb–so I just added in whatever amounts I wanted.

Into the food processor went the leaves from an entire bunch of watercress, two torn up scallions (roots removed, of course), a squirt of lemon juice and salt and pepper. I pulsed the machine a bit until everything was chopped and violently green, then added in two or three tablespoons of mayonnaise. (I love mayonnaise, and have even been known to lick the spoon, but I don’t think that the stipulated 3 Tbsp per person is a reasonable serving size).

I pulsed the mayonnaise in, spooned the vibrant, green-bestudded sauce onto the waiting plates, and idly licked the spatula as I put it into the sink. I paused, licked again, then put down the spatula and used my fingers to get all of the remaining flecks out of the food processor bowl. It was good: spicy from the watercress, oniony from the scallions, sparky from the lemon juice and rounded by the mayonnaise. The ingredients blended into a piquant whole without an identifiable main ingredient; one might, however, say that it tasted like the platonic ideal of onion dip.

Indeed, it was the hit of the meal. The vegetables were excellent and the poultry was fine on its own (white meat is so difficult), but the sauce made it into food, not just items on a plate in a cold cold room.

Published in: on February 28, 2007 at 10:02 am  Leave a Comment  

Day of Unusual Snacks

Today I have a cold. A massive, awful, requiring-of-medication cold. Not only that, but there’s an unnerving ice storm going on outside that, according to the weather channel, will continue in various iterations until Monday at 4 pm. Yes, I made stock (beef). Yes, I made soup (split pea-lettuce). Yes, I made GALLONS of tea (lemon-ginger). All of these things are good for colds/days-of-inclement-weather. For some reason, though, I really needed something more, something that I could indulge myself with. I ended up making two rather involved snacks.

I’m not usually one for finicky prepared snacks; if anything I go for hastily sliced cheese or arm-long celery stalks out of the crisper. I don’t know what possessed me on a day when I felt so horrid, but I spent considerable time hovering over the stove and wrestling with implements, resulting in 1. popcorn with browned butter and orange zest and chocolate, and 2. homemade toasted soynut butter.

The popcorn recipe is one I had first noticed on seeing an episode of Michael Chiarello’s show on the Food Network. I’m addicted to Nigella Lawson in any form, and her latest show is broadcast at noon on Sundays; if I’m not at work, I never miss it. Chiarello’s show follows immediately after, and through complete laziness and sloth, sometimes I watch at least part of it, too. I don’t remember anything about that particular episode as a whole, but I do remember the popcorn. I was captivated by the idea of coating popcorn with browned butter (and intrigued by Chiarello’s tips on browning the butter without burning it), feathery shavings of orange rind zested on the spot, and chocolate grated with the same implement.

Teacherman stirred furiously while I zested the chocolate and watched the popcorn become slowly covered with melted flecks. It was the perfect snack food. The popcorn absorbed the butter, the chocolate set almost hard and the orange breathed in the background of every bite we took. It wasn’t too messy, but I still wimped out and ate it with a spoon.

Later, digging through our chest freezer to find one of my myriad bags of summer-frozen fruit, I happened upon half a package of soy flour, bought for a recipe I made nearly a year ago. I stood there, the freezer open and icicles developing on my sleeves (not that our back porch needs help in that regard, even though it’s enclosed), and remembered the soynut butter that I used to buy before the ingredient list started making me nervous. Why couldn’t I make soynut butter at home? I knew I couldn’t just grind it the way I do nuts, but there had to be some way.

I bundled the soy flour on top of my bag of rhubarb and carried it back to the kitchen. I threw about a cup of it into a big nonstick pan and stirred it over lowish heat until it started smelling toasty. I will gloss over the part where my medicine-head made me stare out the window at nothing, my stirring hand immobile until I returned to reality, shrieked and whisked the pan off the stove.

I added 2 Tbsp of roasted peanut oil (one of the best things ever invented, by the way, and I curse the day the nearby health food store stopped stocking it), an enormous splash of water and an equal amount of flavored coffee syrup. (That is, syrup for flavoring coffee with, not coffee-flavored syrup. This particular syrup was hazelnut-flavored). It was quite, quite lovely, and tasted much nicer than the store-bought variety; the sweetness is subtle, the toastiness rounds out the flavor and the texture is more like a real nut butter than the terrifying emulsification of the jarred. I don’t think I’d make this every weekend in order to have a continuous supply in the fridge, but a soft, sweet spoonful is a comforting indulgence for a snowy weekend with a cold.

Published in: on February 24, 2007 at 8:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cacao Nibs and Cocoa

Lately I’ve been interested in cooking savory dishes with chocolate. This isn’t exactly a new idea–Hispanics have been making mole for more years than I would care to estimate, and I’ve seen recipes for cocoa-crusted proteins in various high-end cookbooks for years. I always resisted these, precisely because of mole; or rather, because of my one experience with mole.

My father is originally from Albuquerque, NM, and when I was young and he still made dinner occasionally, he would often make Southwestern (or at least Southwestern-esque) dishes. For a Fancy Grown-Up Dinner Party once, he made real mole. I’m sure, given that it was the 80s in the midwest, he didn’t toast and grind all of his spices from scratch, but I remember the ingredient list being prodigious, and that it contained one square of unsweetened chocolate. I was in the kitchen when the sauce neared completion, and he offerred me a taste. I don’t know why I acquiesed–I was an incredibly picky child–but I did. I don’t remember what it tasted like, but I remember that I hated it. This was not run-of-the-mill hate, the way I hated lasagne and enchiladas (two things that I have since grown to love), this was a revulsion that was actually shocking and arresting. I think I may even have run from the room to rinse out my mouth. The adults at the dinner party loved it.

Because of that lone incident, one that most likely took place before I even reached the age of ten, I absolutely refused to have anything to do with savory chocolate for nearly 20 years. Even after I grew up and became a voracious devourer of cookbooks and an eater of bizarre foods, I utterly rejected the idea of chocolate in savory preparations. I would read the recipes and curl my lip, thinking: “This chef, in spite of his years of culinary training and critical and popular adulation, is obviously an idiot.” I felt vindicated when I read a Nigella Lawson recipe for a spice-coated salmon in which she confessed that she’d adapted it from another author’s book, removing that author’s addition of cocoa powder. (Cocoa powder on SALMON! The lip curled further). I was comfortable in my superiority.

But at the beginning of February I unexpectedly began to think about savory chocolate. I’d like to say that it was inspired by the Valentine’s week episode of Iron Chef, or by the lovely new Scharffenberger chocolate cookbook that I just checked out of the library, but the interest arose before I ever saw either. I was making an otherwise unexceptional salad with avocados and oranges the other week, and for some reason threw in some cacao nibs.

It was very good.

I didn’t have a revelatory experience that caused me to fall to my knees and recant, but I did enjoy the flavors. And when I saw a Cooking Light recipe for a beef stew that included cocoa powder in the spice rub, I thought for a moment, then gave it a try. Also very good. The cocoa doesn’t add anything like an aggressively chocolate flavor (if I hadn’t tossed it in myself, I’d never recognize the cocoa) but in combination with what are really prodigious amounts of coriander, it adds an ineffable _something_. It being a stew, there was a vast quantity left over, and I’ve been eating it all week long for lunch, enjoying it just as much each day. Like all tomato-based stews, the flavors mellowed and melded, which, in my opinion, is a wonderful thing.

It still wasn’t a religious conversion, but I’m now definitely in favor of trying more savory foods with chocolate–or at least with cocoa. Maybe I’ll even add the cocoa powder back to Nigella’s recipe for salmon.

Published in: on February 21, 2007 at 10:18 am  Leave a Comment  

Jugfish IS Halibut

Yesterday I made a recipe I tore of out a years-old Bon Appetit: Prosciutto-wrapped Halibut. I made it with no great expectations, but because I had both prosciutto and halibut languishing in the freezer, on the verge of getting too old. I am almost pathological about wasting food (I think this comes from finding mold on things in my parents’ fridge once too often), so I had a NEED to use up those two ingredients or everlasting SHAME would descend upon me. (I am, you might find, a bit overdramatic).

The recipe is very simple–I just sprinkled halibut fillets with thyme leaves, salt and pepper, wrapped the prosciutto around the things, seared them in an oven-proof skillet, and then baked them at 375 for 6 minutes. The original recipe calls for making a pan sauce with wine, butter and shallots, and though I did also have those ingredients, I’m not a big fan of butter sauce on fish, so I left it out, instead sprinkling a few flakes of shallot onto the fish before wrapping it in the prosciutto. Best Fish EVER. I love fish, though I didn’t eat much white fish before Teacherman came into my life, but I tend to eat it coated in spice rubs, or in many-flavored ethnic preparations. This was undoubtedly the best white fish that I’ve ever had. The paper-thin prosciutto was crisped to shattering by its searing in the cast-iron skillet, the fat in the prosciutto kept the fish from drying out in the oven, and the thyme (forgive me, I used dried) tied the two flavors together better than I might have thought. I kept putting my fork down because the taste was so astonishing.

Thyme and prosciutto is a combination that I wouldn’t have found surprising on, say, chicken, but for some reason using them with the halibut was a revelation. On the side we had high-temperature roasted green beans and shallots in a hazelnut oil and lemon juice vinaigrette. It was fine–it might even have been really good–but I ended up eating it quickly so I could linger over the halibut. Teacherman liked it even more than I did, and is now full of ideas about wrapping seafood in pork products. Hmmm–cod saltimboca, maybe?

Published in: on February 18, 2007 at 10:45 am  Comments (1)  

In the Beginning. . . .

How auspicious is it to start a food and cooking blog on a day when I will be doing absolutely no cooking whatsoever?  I cannot say.  For the first time in eons I am not responsible for providing myself with lunch (snatched at a barn-like seafood restaurant in a break at a job-related workshop) or dinner (a soon-to-be-prepared belated romantic dinner from my resident Teacherman).  True, I did actually make everything I ate for breakfast, but considering that it consisted of apple-pear-cranberry sauce that I made on Sunday, some merguez-ish lamb sausage I made and froze in portions two weeks ago, and an egg that I hard-boiled yesterday, I don’t think any of this morning’s assemblage really counts as cooking.

Tonight’s meal will consist, so I assume, of the two ingredients that Teacherman brought home from the store–some very nice salmon filet and a less-than-usually gnarled celery root.  What he will do with these ingredients I have no clue.  Time will tell!

Published in: on February 15, 2007 at 2:40 pm  Leave a Comment