One of the many (manymany) benefits of the farmers’ market is the Technicolor burst of summer meals. The colors are brilliant, bright and arresting, drawing you in as they lie there.

Egg Salad
The substitute sunlight of nasturtium blossoms in a morning’s egg salad, accompanied by a midnight dark bowl of blackberries and blueberries.

Dill Salmon
The subtle greens of fresh dill contrasting with the pastel pink of grilled salmon and the earthy depths of cremini mushrooms (not to mention the inevitable nasturtiums on my salad).

Peaches and Cream
Honey-yellow peaches with burnished pink highlights half-hiding a billowing cloud of rich, white cream, freckled with cinnamon.

Blueberry Coconut Crisp
A big white bowl of blueberries, stewed until juicy and glistening, topped with crisp, toasted coconut.

My descriptions are no less purple than the fruit, but it’s hard not to let fly with superlatives when faced with such bounty.

Published in: on August 21, 2008 at 7:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Small Packages

I have always loved tiny things. As I child, I was not only the caretaker of the aforementioned tiny green alligators, but also myriad other tiny plastic animals, old-school metal matchbox trucks (yes, trucks–I don’t think I had any cars at all) a ramshackle dollhouse (built by my mother at half-inch scale, making it even smaller than other dollhouses), and innumerable random small things–woven baskets, wooden ducks, teeny-weeny shells, etc.

Even if nearly all of the ones I owned as a child have disappeared into the ether, I still love tiny things. These days, though, I coo over tiny, perfectly constructed foodstuffs. It grew, I’m sure, out of the tea parties that my best friend and I used to have. Given that we started having them when we were both nearly 18, these were real tea parties, with actual tea and delicate miniature fingerfoods. I don’t think that I ever prepared the ubiquitously expected tea sandwiches, but I made a lot of miniature scones, jelly-tots and comfits. When I wanted something savory, I went for miniature quiches, made in muffin tins, sometimes even mini-muffin tins.

It was only last year that I discovered the perfect tiny savory, though, far too late for my high school tea parties. This paragon? The fritter.

Well. Not really. The recipe title called them fritters, but given that they’re neither deep-fried nor breaded, I don’t know if they can truly be considered anything of the kind. The original recipe was for corn fritters and simply called for beating two egg whites until stiff, then whisking the two egg yolks until smooth and creamy, stirring in a cup of fresh corn kernels along with some salt, pepper and maybe a little herbage if necessary, then folding the egg whites into the corn mixture. Drop by tablespoons-full into a nonstick pan sprayed with oil and saute until browned. Voila–the ersatz fritter.

Simple as they were, those corn fritters were really very good. The result was much more like a silver dollar pancake than a true fritter, but the poppable morsels were light in texture and suffused with the flavor of corn–anyone who objects to ‘eggy’ flavors wouldn’t have been able to muster a single complaint. For a few months after I made them first, pick-a-vegetable fritters appeared at any or all meals of the day; eventually I even branched out into sweetened fritters with fruit–blueberry and apple were my two favorite variations.

Fritter-mania lasted the length of the summer and a short way into autumn, but when the temperatures started falling my cravings inclined towards heartier fare. I hadn’t thought about those pseudo-fritters in months until last week, when I saw a recipe in a newspaper food section for crab, corn and red bell pepper fritters. The recipe was for a real fritter–deep fried and coated in dry breadcrumbs, the internal ingredients bound together with flour, with the final result, if the picture was to be believed, looking like a lumpy hush puppy.

This was less than appealing. The combination of flavors, though, caught my imagination–crab, red bell peppers and corn are all sweet, but their sweetness is different enough that I didn’t think any of the three would overwhelm the others or be so sweet that the whole would be cloying. Contemplating the word ‘fritter,’ my mind flew back to the un-fritters of last summer, and a plan was formed.

For a solo dinner on Thursday night I whipped up an egg white, creamed its egg yolk, then stirred in crab, fresh corn kernels, diced red bell pepper, a chopped scallion, salt and some pepper. I folded in the egg white carefully, but it deflated a bit when confronted with the quantity of filling; the final mixture was still fluffy, though. I added a bit of canola oil to my biggest nonstick skillet, and, when the oil was hot, dropped in diminutive spoonfuls. After about 7 minutes (flipping halfway through) the tiny cakes were entirely golden and caramelized on their flattest sides. I slid them out onto a plate and, armed with a fork, ferried the lot into the dining room for immediate consumption.

As I had thought, the combination of corn, bell pepper and crab was inspired. I had prepared a vaguely Asian dipping sauce to dunk the fritters in, but ended up neglecting it entirely, so much did I love the flavor of the fritters on their own. The natural sugars in the bell pepper increased the amount of caramelization, the sharpness and crunchiness of the scallion contrasted beautifully with the crab, both in texture and flavor, and the corn added bursts of mellow sweetness in the midst of everything else. It was a thoroughly satisfying meal, in spite of its lightness. I have no plans to make this particular variety of fritter in the near future (the farmer’s market is too full of exciting things to repeat a recipe), but its deliciousness was a reminder of how good the little pseudo-fritters can be. I have no doubt that some new vegetable fill find itself fritterized some day soon. I can only hope the resulting morsels will be as toothsome as these were.

Published in: on June 9, 2007 at 7:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rubber Bands Redeemed

The first time I ate squid was on a college archaeology trip to Greece.  Our professor was off conferring with an excavator about permission to see a dig in progress and all of the students were wandering around a tiny rural town with nothing much to do.  The hours of waiting were long; everyone was bored.  I was the only one with a book to read, and I had finished it.  Most of the others would only have been happy if a shopping mall had manifested out of the ether, or if the proverbial Hot Euro Chicks appeared to whisk them away to idylls unknown. 

Dinnertime came.  Still no professor.  It was 7 p.m., still too early for any normal Greek person to want dinner, but we Americans were starving.  We stumbled into the only open restaurant–a deserted orektika place just off the main square.  Orektika are like appetizers or tapas, but (obviously) Greek.  This was before appetizer-only restaurants became widespread in America (even last year a colleague was shocked to hear me talking about a tapas bar, because she was unfamiliar with the word and thus could only conclude that I was planning a trip to a topless bar), but I don’t think any of us were surprised by the idea.  We were hungry and we wanted food.

We ordered everything on the menu.  No one in the group was a foodie, least of all me (my cooking skills at the time extended to occasional sauteed chicken breasts interspersed with Hamburger Helper and creatively augmented ramen noodles), but no one was picky about ‘foreign’ cuisine, either.  By this time we had been in Greece for two weeks, and we were used to the flavors and types of Greek food, used to their ways of preparing vegetables, used to the different types of protein.  

Successions of dishes came in myriad waves.  The midwestern meat-and-potatoes guys ate the tripe and the wild bitter greens with no complaints.  Olives were consumed by the gallon, as were quarts of very unfortunate ouzo.  None of us actually liked each other, so there was very little conversation as we passed all the little dishes around the table.

We’d been at it for about 20 minutes when the plate of squid in tomato sauce came within reach.  I ladled a spoonful onto my plate, nestling it next to the marinated feta and the fried zucchini.  A bite.  Oh.  Ew.  Yes indeed–they were exactly as the stereotype has it, like tough, springy rubber bands.  They were impossible to bite through and bounced around inside the mouth as if sentient and trying to get away.  I did not finish my spoonful. 

I could say that I avoided squid for years, but one can hardly be said to be avoiding something if one never encounters it.  Squid isn’t particularly prevalent on American menus, unless deep-fried, and as I rarely went out to dinner at all, let alone to fried seafood joints, squid was not on my dining radar at all.

When I moved to the city, though, I encountered fancy supermarkets.  Fancy supermarkets with fresh-fish counters that carried more than just yer basic farmed salmon and peel-and-eat shrimp.  Lo, squid appeared before me, and I saw that it was cheap.  Cheaper than most other sources of protein.  This made it a must-purchase. 

Having by this time consumed more cookbooks than it would be possible, in cubic feet, to fit in my home kitchen, I was aware of the prevailing wisdom on how to cook squid.  That is, barely. Many recipe writers seemed to be taking lessons from those who wrote recipes for martinis, calling for the bottle of vermouth to be waved in arcane swoops across the room from the glass of gin: the squid was to be passed through the air over the hot pan a couple of times, and then eaten.  Cook the squid any longer, the recipes warned, and the result would be just what I’d had in Greece–inedible rubbery strings, not fit for man or beast.  I took this advice to heart, and learned to make very good seared squid.  Some of my seafood salads might have been a little translucent, but my sources were trustworthy, and the salads were tasty.

It wasn’t long, though, before I began noticing the other recipes for squid–the ones that called for cooking it for an hour, or even more!  I rejected the idea, the memory of the orektika squid still repugnant.  But I couldn’t quite put the method out of my mind.  It was interesting, and more, it was untried (at least by me).  Last night I finally caved in and gave it a try.

It was easy, really–as simple as any of the quick-cooked seafood salads.  One sears the squid until browned, then adds a simple raw tomato sauce to the pan (mine was just a 15-oz can of diced tomatoes whiled in a blender with a red jalapeno, some white wine and some salt).  Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce it to a simmer, cover, and let bubble away for an hour.  After the first minute or two, of course, the squid curls up and rubberizes, but over the remaining hour an unexpected transformation occurs.  The squid gets tougher and tougher until it cannot get any more sproingy, but then, suddenly, it relaxes.  The rings of squid uncurl and become meltingly tender–much more tender than can be achieved by even the lightest and quickest of cooking methods.

Frankly, I was astonished.  Teacherman says that he only likes it ‘as much as’ seared squid, but I think the results of long-cooking are far and away superior to the quicker method.  Simmering anything for a hour isn’t a reasonable proposition on a weeknight, but slow-simmer squid will enter my repertoire as a delicious variation on ragu, perfect for a meal of comfort food.

Published in: on June 4, 2007 at 1:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

No Excitment

After Sunday’s proto-nuptial feast, nothing has been very exciting.  The meals have all been good–entirely comforting and satisfying–but no dish has made me want to leap up from my seat and run to the computer to tell everyone about it.

There was a chuck roast rubbed with chipotle powder and cooked with tomatillos, zucchini, carrots and tomato sauce: spicy but mellow and perfect for leftover lunches with a crisp salad.  There was a cherry-yogurt panna cotta with vanilla cherry sauce that made an indulgent, creamy breakfast.  There were the fish cakes so full of herbs that they were virtually green, with a lemon-horseradish sauce and a radicchio-endive-arugula salad (too bitter for Teacherman, but just right for me).  Tonight there were ample bowls of tofu laksa, slippery with shiritake noodles and bean sprouts, silky with coconut milk and tofu, with a faint memory of chile and utterly lacking in verve. 

This cannot go on. 

Comforting fare is all very well and good, but it isn’t enough.   Unfortunately, though, Teacherman and I will be away from home for both lunch and dinner tomorrow (more wedding-related meetings)  which considerably reduces my immediate scope for shocking our meals back to life.  There is, however, tomorrow’s breakfast. 

Teacherman does not know it yet, but that forthcoming morning meal will be arresting, invigorating, and above all, exciting.  I have no firm plans, but after a concentrated period of opening cupboards, my brain is spinning with ingredients, equipment and ideas.   So many ideas, in fact, that they may spill over onto Sunday’s breakfast. 

And I think I see a jar of harissa off in the corner. . . .

Published in: on May 4, 2007 at 8:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

When the Cat’s Away

When Teacherman is out of town, I eat shrimp.  This is not to say that I do it stealthily, or on the sly, hiding my illicit shellfish hedonism, but I do only eat it alone.  Teacherman, alas, is allergic to shrimp.  He certainly doesn’t object to me eating shrimp, or to having it in the house when he’s there, but somehow, even though I occsionally eat meals alone when he is in town, I only make shrimp when he’s away.

In any case, he is off on a weekend teaching jaunt to Cleveland, leaving me with several meal to insert shrimp into, should I desire.  Given my current budget, I decided that two crustaceany splurges were in order, and tonight was the first of them.

My meal was relatively simple and entirely gleaned from other resources–Friday night after a full work week and an ill-starred concert the previous evening is no time to get elaborate, and any ‘creative’ excursions made in such an exhausted state can only end badly.  To that end I took up a recipe I’d been saving for just such an occasion, one from March’s issue of Bon Appetit: Shrimp and Scallop Posole.  I was immediately attracted to the recipe, since not only did it include both shrimp and scallops, which I love (and which, for the record, Teacherman is not allergic to), but also salsa verde, one of my absolute favorite things.  I have happy memories of childhood visits to my father’s parents in Albuquerque, and, though I’m sure I scorned it at the time, in past years my love for southwestern green chile salsa has become rather boundless.

In any case, the meal is easily made.  I have never had “real” posole, so I don’t know how this compares thereto, but it is quite good, nonetheless.  It starts as most soup recipes do, sauteing onions and garlic until soft, a procedure that always seems to take me much longer than recipes indicate, no matter how high or low I turn the heat.  After 5 (or 15 minutes) of softening, one adds a little lime peel, a diced sun-dried tomato or two, salsa verde, and enough clam juice to make it soup-like. 

At this point one is also supposed to add a can of hominy.  Hmm.  The recipe calls for one can of hominy for six servings, and I was reducing quantities of everything to feed one.  Did I really want to open a 15-oz can just for a few tablespoons?  Instead, I dumped in a handful of frozen corn; not quite the same, but the flavors are similar enough that I don’t think the recipe was ruined.   After that has simmered away for a few minutes, one adds in the shrimp and scallops, along with a handful of cilantro, and lets the shellfish cook until done (something which always takes me much less time than recipes indicate, no matter how large my shrimp are.  This time the recipe called for simmering the shrimp for 5 minutes, and my extremely jumbo specimens were done in about 2).

The finished soup was surprisingly molten, so I let it cool for a few minutes, while I quickly sauteed another serving of shrimp for a cold Thai salad tomorrow.  When the posole was cool enough to eat without lasting oral damage, I dove in.  It was exactly what I had been hoping for.  One might think that the shellfish, corn and sun-dried tomatoes, each with their own particular sweetness, would compete against each other and end up cloying, but the spicy acidity of the salsa verde cut neatly through each one and somehow tied them all together into a balanced whole.  The salsa also thickened the posole to a much more substantial consistency than the brothy soup in the recipe’s accompanying picture.  As someone who prefers soups so reduced that they might as well be a kind of medieval pottage, this thickness was quite welcome. 

The soup may not be fancy or difficult to prepare, but it’s not unattractive, either, with its bright pink shrimp, off-white scallops and red and green flecked depths.  I can easily see it making regular appearances at my solitary shrimp feasts.  Who knows: some day I might even make it with nothing but scallops, and serve Teacherman a meal he would otherwise never know he was missing.

Published in: on April 20, 2007 at 6:58 pm  Comments (1)  

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)