A Bit of Whining

This post will not be eloquent. It will be whiny.

I have complained about colds and flus before–it’s so hard to cook when you can’t taste, and/or smell, and/or do anything but sniffle.

I find, however, that I need to qualify that statement: it is certainly a less enjoyable to cook when one has a cold, but things are considerably more grim when one has a sprained ankle.

In this situation, of course, I cannot cook at all. I can balance on one foot long enough to heat things up in the microwave, but that’s about it. Luckily, Teacherman is secretly a saint, so he’s been doing all of the cooking (and dealing with all of my “helpful” shouts from the living room: “We should use up the kale!” “Don’t forget to add SALT!”) Also, I have progressed to the point that I can prop myself up in front of the sink long enough to at least wash my own plastic containers, so I’m not a total leech.

Still, it’s frustrating: cooking is the main thing I do for fun, and now I can’t do it at all. Obviously, this is not a condition that will last forever (my sprain is pretty minor, in the continuum of sprains, and it certainly isn’t as bad as a break), but my innate impatience (definitely my fatal flaw) is already in overdrive. As someone who walks 3 miles a day, dances for fun, and spends at least half of every working day on my feet, I cannot WAIT to be back to normal. Still, though — I have read 15 books in the last week. (I’ll just leave out the part where I mention that I’m actually getting tired of reading).

So: whining completed.

Tomorrow night I’m actually going to try to cook something simple. We’ll see how that goes.

Published in: on April 28, 2008 at 7:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

Avocado Heresy

As I have mentioned innumerable times, my father is from New Mexico. I grew up eating southwestern foods — like salsa — before they were well known in the rest of the country. (It was only a few years ago that I realized that they hadn’t been well known in the rest of the country. I just assumed everyone was eating that stuff).

I don’t have any deep, defining memories of guacamole from my early childhood. In fact, we may not have eaten it particularly often, or even at all. My mother went through a couple of cycles of trying to eat low-fat foods, and avocados weren’t on any of the lists of allowable items, no matter who you asked.

By the time I was in college (and my mother had switched to a moderation-in-all-foods mind-set), guacamole did make regular appearances at our dinner table — usually as a side dish, rather than a dip. We almost always ate it with salmon, I remember: each of us getting a heaping dollop on the plate next to our burnished fillet, the two meant to be eaten together in each bite.

For graduate school, I moved to Austin, TX, a place where one could scarcely avoid guacamole if one wanted to. I was possibly even more cash-strapped than most graduate students are (ask me sometime about the financial aid check that never arrived), but it never occurred to me to scratch the relatively expensive avocados off of my weekly grocery list. (That was probably a good thing. Given how little food I had to survive on, calorie-dense avocados [and my other contemporary indulgence, freshly-ground almond butter] may have kept me alive and healthy).

For all those years, though, I never deviated from the usual guacamole ingredients. Avocado. Tomatoes/tomatillos (my mother’s choice). Onion, jalapeno, lime juice, cilantro. Chop. Mix. Eat. The End.

It wasn’t until I was out of school and a full-fledged recipe junkie that I began to notice avocado recipes from other cultures. Sure, I was aware that things like California rolls existed, but it would never have occurred to me to make ersatz guacamole with wasabi, soy sauce and sesame oil. Or a Hungarian version with roasted red peppers, caraway and sour cream.

I never really cared for any of the variations. In many cases, the resultant mixture had too many flavors to taste of anything in particular, and, almost universally, the recipes called for the addition of another kind of fat–sesame oil, sour cream–which I found highly suspect. Avocados are practically made of fat (not that I mind); adding more of it seemed bizarre. The mouth-feel of the finished mixture went from silky smooth to mouth-coatingly fatty.

(This is one of the reasons that I’ve never seen a recipe for an avocado soup that appealed to me. 2 cups of heavy cream to 1 avocado and a paltry pinch of salt? Served hot? Pardon me while I try to get that mental residue off of my tongue).

Not to mention that things like sesame oil and sour cream have very strong flavors of their own, which tended to mask the actual flavor of avocado. If an avocado is in a recipe simply for the buttery texture and to heck with the flavor, just make a cream-cheese dip or flavored butter or something. Leave the avocado alone.

So I continued along my rigid — but merry — way, making traditional guacamole and eating enormous quantities at each sitting. Every now and then a recipe would worm its way into my mind and I’d try something new, usually disappointing myself enough to send me scurrying back to the salsa.

Last week I got the usual bug in my ear. I had a wonderful new middle eastern-inspired cookbook checked out from the library, and behold: its recipe for guacamole contained chopped preserved lemon rind (which I adore).

Aside from that one fanciful deviation, the recipe was what I was used to. Chopped tomatoes, cilantro, garlic, green chiles, onions: all these ingredients are traditional for middle eastern cuisine as well as southwestern American. I had high hopes for the result.

I peeled, pitted and chop/mashed two avocados, until chunky. I added several generous pinches of salt, a small clamshell’s worth of cherry tomatoes, halved, a big handful of minced cilantro leaves, a few spoonfuls of minced onion and garlic, and half of a minced Hatch green chile. (I do keep my loyalty).

I extracted one of my preserved lemons from its jar of salt, rinsed it off, scooped out and discarded the pulp, then finely chopped the rind. I added half of the resultant dice to the avocado mixture (saving the other half for another dish) along with a few spoonfuls of fresh lemon juice, to take the place of the usual lime juice (I couldn’t leave citrus juice out entirely). A few seconds of light mixing later: guacamole.

AND?

It was delicious. My mind was not blown and I did not fall to my knees and weep, but I was very pleasantly surprised by how well the preserved lemon rind fit into the guacamole. Its astringent saltiness was the perfect foil for the unctuousness of the avocado — fulfilling much the same role as jalapeno, in traditional guacamole. (Yes, this version had green chiles as well, but the parallel was undeniable).

This is a variation on my usual guacamole that I will definitely make again: I can see pairing it with a middle-eastern spiced fish, much in the same way that my mother pairs the traditional version with salmon. Maybe next time I’ll go wild and even try adding some sumac or za’atar.

*(Note: for the record, avocados and wasabi can coexist very peacefully in, say, an Asian-inspired mixed vegetable salad. Just leave out the sesame oil).*

Published in: on April 16, 2008 at 7:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

This is Not a Recipe

It is, however, a moment of astonishing clarity. It was sublime. Also a little ridiculous.

So. I made oatmeal.

Wait! Wait! There’s more to it than that! (But that is the ridiculous part).

This morning I was making breakfast, and I decided that I wanted oatmeal, so I started in on my usual routine: put a measure of oats in a saucepan with twice that amount of liquid, some spices, some sweetener, bring the whole thing to a boil, stir it once, turn it off and let it sit for a few minutes until the liquid is absorbed and the oats are tender, and then eat it. For some reason, this morning I got stuck on the choice of liquid.

Even though it’s in the low 30s again (snow! fie!), I didn’t really want the wintertime richness associated with cream or milk, or even coconut or nut milks. I also didn’t want to be so ascetic as to go for plain water, though–I love oats, and I love Scotland, but I’m not such a purist that I take my oats neat.

I stared into the fridge for a considerable amount of time, wasting shameful amounts of electricity. Eggs. Olives. Green Beans. Leftover soup. This was not helpful. Umeboshi plums. Vodka. Solitary muffin.

Wait. Muffin?

Yesterday I made a batch of muffins for a get-together with some friends. I used a recipe for applesauce-almond muffins, but instead of using applesauce, I used my last jar of quince butter, made in the heady days of last fall when fresh fruit was still a reality. (Don’t talk to me about those strawberries in the store right now. They are not real).

During quince season, I made quince butter and quince jam and poached quinces in wine and syrup and quinces ad nauseum. I stored some of everything in freezer, meaning to spread it out over the entire twelve months until quinces were ripe again, but what with one thing and another, I obliterated my quince reserves in just seven months. I used the last of the poached quinces a few weeks ago (baked and stuffed with lamb, lemon zest and pine nuts: phenomenal), but saved the poaching syrup. The muffins (which were also delicious) used all but a few tablespoons of the quince butter.

When I saw the muffin, I remembered the nearly-empty jar of quince butter hidden behind the mayonnaise, and when I saw the quince butter I remembered the quince poaching syrup in the freezer. Oatmeal. Cooked in quince syrup? With quince butter stirred in? Yes.

So that’s what I did. I microwaved the quince syrup for a few seconds, until it was liquid again, poured it over my oats, added a little cinnamon and ginger, then followed my usual method. I scraped the finished oatmeal into a bowl, then added the last scrapings of quince butter and stirred it all together, leaving the quince butter in big whorls throughout the oats.

It was truly lovely. The rich nuttiness of the oats went perfectly with most apparent apple-pear flavor of the quinces, and the floral/vegetal/lemony backnotes of the quinces lightened the dish enough that it didn’t seem heavy.

It’s a dish that, sadly, I don’t think I’ll ever make again–the confluence of ingredients is unlikely to recur–but it’s one that I am extremely happy to have eaten.

Published in: on April 13, 2008 at 3:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Marshmallow Ice Cream

It’s above forty degrees, therefore: ice cream.

Really, I should stop trying to come up with excuses. It’s much more like: I’m alive, therefore: ice cream.

Yesterday the temperature barely made it to thirty-five degrees, work was extremely trying, and dinner did not come together well. (All of my cooking oils have gone rancid, in spite of being practically new. This distresses me). I really needed ice cream.

I’d planned a fruit dessert for dinner, though, meaning that I didn’t have any cream–or dairy products of any kind. I did, however, have coconut milk. I always have coconut milk–it’s probably one of the few canned goods, aside from tomatoes, that I think of as a staple–and I rarely have cream, unless I’ve purchased it with a specific recipe in mind. At least half of the ice cream recipes I make seem to end up being prepared with coconut milk.

Thus: coconut milk! I scanned through my copy of The Perfect Scoop (the best ice cream cookbook I’ve encountered) for a recipe that could easily be adapted to the use of coconut milk. No out-of-the-ordinary ingredients, nothing so simple that it relied on the flavor of cream to be good, etc.

In the end, I chose the recipe for Leche Merengada, a Mexican dessert in which milk (not cream, just plain milk) is mixed with beaten eggs whites and then used as the base for an ice cream. A recipe calling for milk seemed like a better fit for the thickness of coconut milk and there were barely any other ingredients involved. Instant gratification: I love it.

I poured one can of coconut milk into a small bowl, then added several dashes of cinnamon and a big pinch of dried lemon peel (my frozen stash of ‘fresh’ lemon zest was just depleted last week). The original recipe, of course, calls for infusing the milk with a cinnamon stick and fresh lemon zest, but I didn’t have the time. I sweetened the mixture with a little simple syrup–another deviation from the recipe, which calls for sugar, but I wanted to make up the volume of liquid the recipe actually called for, and a can’s worth of coconut milk didn’t quite measure up.

I whipped three eggs whites–the recipe calls for two, but my eggs are local, and thus (given that it’s barely spring) quite small–sweetened them a tiny bit, then folded the glossy, shiny beaten whites into the coconut mixture. It didn’t combine perfectly, but I didn’t really expect it to. I poured the slightly lumpy mixture into the ice cream maker, and Teacherman (he of the strong biceps) set to churning.

Continuing in the spirit of the day, alas, the churning didn’t go very well. The mixture flash froze to the walls of the cylinder, but stayed rather liquid in the center, in spite of a very long churning time. Hmph. We scooped out what we could, hacked a bit at the sides, and gave up. We put our bowls in the freezer for a while, but before more than half an hour had gone by, I got jumpy, and we took them out again, ready to dig in.

Swoon.

I’m not entirely sure how, but the ice cream tasted like marshmallows–or rather, the perfect marshmallows, the platonic ideal of marshmallows that only really exist in one’s imagination.  I suppose that this isn’t too hard to understand, given that the marshmallows I make are based on sweetened, beaten egg whites, sometimes with cinnamon, but still.  The ice cream’s final flavor was more than the sum of its comparatively few ingredients, and, except for the “marshmallow” tag, which immediately leapt to mind, I can come up with few descriptive markers.

The coconut milk made it creamy, without making it tongue-coatingly heavy; the egg whites gave it the light, airy quality of a good, soft meringue; the cinnamon added an indefinable background layer of sweetness; and the lemon added an almost floral note, one that wasn’t at all obtrusive, but that made me stop at the first bite, wondering.

Coconut milk is already a staple; I don’t really need a reason to buy it.  But now I might have to dedicate an entire cupboard to it.

Published in: on April 2, 2008 at 8:57 am  Leave a Comment