It BURNS

As part of our anniversary celebration, Teacherman and I took a trip up to Madison, to eat at l’Etoile, an AMAZING restaurant dedicated to seasonal, local food, and to go to Madison’s epically-sized farmer’s market.

We bought, among other things, four quarts of strawberries (for Teacherman’s first attempt at making a berry wine) and, something that I’ve never eaten before: garlic scapes.

Garlic scapes are the long green stem that grows up out of a planted bulb of garlic. Rarely seen in grocery stores, most garlic scapes are cut off the bulb and tossed away. People who grow garlic themselves, however, have long known that the scapes can be used in food wherever you need an especially pungent kick of garlic.

I’ve read about garlic scapes, certainly, but I’d never seen a recipe that I particularly wanted to make myself. Last Wednesday, though, a recipe for white bean and garlic scape dip appeared in the New York Times. (I would link to it, but it’ll disappear after a few days, leaving my link broken). It’s virtually identical to most white bean dips–beans, olive oil, salt, garlic–but instead of using garlic cloves, it used raw garlic scapes.

I don’t know why the recipe stuck in my mind–I rarely make white bean dips, tending instead to prefer southwestern black bean dip or hummus–but when I saw the garlic scapes at the farmer’s market I was taken in by the piles and mounds of twisty, spiraling, bean-like shoots. Every farmer selling them only wanted to sell the scapes by the pound, but I couldn’t imagine finding a use for an entire pound. I talked one woman down to just selling me a handful–probably 4 or 5 shoots–and took them back to Chicago. I threw the scapes into the food processor with one drained can of white beans, a pinch of salt and a couple of glugs of olive oil. I blended the whole thing until smooth, then scooped the thick mixture into two bowls and served it for lunch with sugar snap peas for dipping.

White Bean Dip with Garlic Scapes

It was astonishingly delicious, the scapes adding a big hit of raw garlic flavor, but also a grassy freshness not present in even the most recently peeled garlic cloves.  It was also so rich with that rawness (really–it was the scapes that added the richness, not the olive oil at all) that it coated every surface in my mouth, and my nose kept smelling it from inside my head. 

We ate the dip quickly and greedily, reveling in the pungency and burn. We finished up with the rest of the sugar snap peas, the sweetness providing a welcome contrast to what had come before.

A few minutes after we finished doing the dishes, though, we noticed that the burning flavor of garlic scapes wasn’t going away. We brushed our teeth. No difference. We brushed our teeth again. No change. We went out and bought NEW toothbrushes and brushed our teeth again. Gah!

I love garlic, but I don’t really care to taste it for six hours straight, with no ability to rid myself of it. The taste filled my mouth all the way up into my sinuses and it Would Not Go Away.

I loved the garlic scape dip. I loved the taste, I loved the burn, I loved how overwhelming it was. I have no doubt that I’ll be making something with garlic scapes in it again. Even now I’m remembering the flavor of the scapes on my tongue: the heat of the dip, due only to the essential garlic oils. I’m almost longing to make the dip again immediately.

It might, however, have to wait until next spring, when I’ve forgotten how absolutely overpowering it is to walk around with my head utterly infused with garlic for hours and hours. If it wasn’t so delicious, it would be horrifying.

Published in: on June 26, 2008 at 8:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Maybe I Should Just Get Over Myself

I’m having a bit of a crisis of faith.  Faith in myself, that is.

I’m beginning to wonder if I don’t talk up my own cooking skills too much—or rather, not my cooking skills, but the results of my cooking.  (This might sound like it’s the same thing, but consider how wonderful a salad of individually fabulous ingredients is—its transcendence has nothing to do with any artistry of arrangement, but is the result of the wonderful flavor of the components).

The last several times I’ve cooked something for other people—for a potluck, say—I’ve made something that I thought was really great.  A fruit crisp with cherries cooked in red wine.  A batch of popcorn dressed in duck fat and smoked salt.  Each time it was something that I’d made before and loved (this is out of the ordinary for me—usually I take a brand new, unattempted recipe, one for whatever I’m the most excited about at the time), and that Teacherman had loved as well. 

In every case, I excitedly presented the dish to the guests—fun, food-loving people with widely ranging tastes—only to receive comments along the lines of: “What’s so special about this?”  No one hated anything (well, okay, one person hate the cherry crisp), but no one thought the recipes were anything special, anything worth talking about, anything worth any amount of enthusiasm.  “It just tastes like popcorn.”  “I can’t taste any of that stuff.”

Upon seeing my startled reaction to their nonplussedness, my friends back-tracked and praised: “Oh, don’t worry, I like it, but. . .”, “It’s not that there’s anything wrong, but. . .”.

I can only wonder: am I over-hyping my results?  Have I become some kind of culinary girl who cried wolf?  I can’t deny that I’m given to flights of hyperbole in my everyday life, but I never thought I was self-aggrandizing about my cooking.  I genuinely believe that these recipes are delicious and distinctive-tasting, and was excited to share them with other people.

Even worse than making a recipe and having it turn out terribly is making a dish and loving it, but having no one else agree.  It makes one wonder if one is flawed in some intrinsic but inexplicable way.  What’s wrong with me that I love this when no one else does?  What am I missing?  What do I not understand?

I know that I am not A Great Chef—I’m a competent cook who’s been lucky enough to have access to what I think are wonderful ingredients, ingredients that I think combine into meals worthy of enthusiasm.  But are the ingredients really as delicious as I think they are?  Do I produce food that is merely passable and not worthy of additional comment? 

It’s a trying situation, and one that I don’t know how to resolve.

Published in: on February 25, 2008 at 11:57 am  Comments (1)  

Trashy Bar Food OR Why Garlic Powder is a Necessity

It was the day after Thanksgiving.  I was sick, out of my mind on decongestants and at work anyway.  I was also severely lacking in leftovers.

This year, my Thanksgiving repast was surprisingly austere.  We only had one guest, and I was under the weather, so my meal barely required two hands.  I made pumpkin soup, toasted pumpkin seeds, a big salad, cranberry-chocolate ice cream, and some last-minute biscuits.  We also bought a smoked turkey breast from our favorite butcher (who is a genius). 

It was all delicious (well, the soup wasn’t quite what I’d hoped), but I’d planned it to be a single meal, not a Lucullan feast that would produce fridge-busting overflow.  The salad was gone.  The soup was gone.  The pumpkin seeds and biscuits were gone.  There were a few slices of turkey left, but barely enough for a sandwich.  Ordinarily, this would make me happy–I become nigh-upon panicked at the idea of food, not ear-marked for any meal, just SITTING in the fridge.  That way lies Rot, Mold and Waste.  (Trust me, I know my household). 

This time was different, though.  I was so sick that while cooking was not beyond my abilities, I just didn’t want to do it.  I wasn’t prostrate, but on cold medicine my brain was muffled in cotton batting, and off cold medicine (to drive, etc), I was coughing so hard that I couldn’t breathe.  I needed something brain-dead simple for dinner–and something comforting wouldn’t hurt either. 

Thank heavens for Teacherman. 

When I got home I discovered that he had been shopping and was ready to do everything for me.  There was a package of jointed chicken wings and a huge bag of parsnips on the counter, and he was hard at work at the mandoline and deep-frier.

While he sliced and fried the parsnips to shattering crispness, I bestirred myself, determined to help in some way.   I tossed the chicken wings in an easy spice rub–equal amounts of a random grab of things from the spice cabinet.  Cumin, (one of my ur-spices), marjoram (Teacherman’s favorite herb), smoked paprika (which is one of the best things ever invented), salt (of course), and garlic powder. 

I almost never use garlic powder.  I admit that I use jarred minced garlic on a daily basis (I hear you draw back in horror), but I am lazy and hate peeling the cloves.  When I’m making something garlic-heavy, I do use “real” from-the-head garlic.  Garlic powder, though, lives in the back of my spice cupboard and only comes out for one purpose–dry spice rubs.  Real garlic is wonderful in a marinade, but in a rub, when everything else is in tiny, dried particles, powder is the way to go.  (Garlic SALT, though, is anathema.  Do not mention it again).

In any case, I rubbed the wings with the spices, then arranged them on an olive-oiled baking sheet.  I roasted them at 425 for 20 minutes, then flipped them over and left them in for another 20.  Even my addled brain could handle it. 

Dinner–the sweet and salty parsnip chips and the smokey, spicy, blisteringly hot chicken wings–was perfect.  The fat on the wings had melted away in the oven, leaving behind tender meat that pulled away from the bone at the slightlest pressure.  The skin was crispy, but not greasy, almost like the parsnip chips.  The parsnips emerged from the frier as caramelized shards of the essence of parsnip, so well-fried that they left no residue of oil on our fingers.

(Moreover, all of the flavors were assertive enough to register well even on my cold-suppressed taste-buds, while not being too strong for Teacherman). 

Wings and chips?  For dinner?  Yes, those are things that most people buy in bars, or ready-made at the grocery store.  I make no claims that our meal was cuisine.  It was, however, satisfying; the next day, I started to get better.

Published in: on November 26, 2007 at 12:28 pm  Comments (2)  

Marshmallows and Manners

It is only 2 p.m. on Easter, and already there are no marshmallows left in the fridge. 

I have made marshmallows before; in fact, there was a time when I made them almost weekly.  Made by the method I use, they are simplicity itself to prepare, and, because I grossly disregard the advice of most recipes and do not coat them in powdered sugar, they have next to no food value.  This is helpful if one finds oneself eating an entire batch, as I have been known to do.

I don’t know if the recipe I use compares favorably to other homemade ones: I’ve never made the things any other way.  One day about five years ago I happened upon the recipe, made it with just the ingredients I had in my house, loved it, and have never been fickle enough to stray. 

The method is simple–let some (rather a lot, actually–3 whole packets) of gelatin soften for a few minutes in a small amount of water.  Bring some more water and simple syrup to a boil, then add the gelatin and dissolve it thoroughly–no floating globules, please!  Let the mixture cool until it spoons up like maple syrup, then stir in some vanilla (or whatever flavor extract you wish). 

Now the part that might be frightening: egg whites.  Put three egg whites into a bowl and whip them until they reach soft peaks (to me, this stage looks like whipped cream, but we like very floppy whipped cream in my family).  When the whites are satsifactorily mounded and thick, keep beating them, but pour in the gelatin-syrup mixture in a thin stream (not as thin as if you were making mayonnaise, but don’t just slosh it all in at once, either).  Put the empty jug down and keep beating.  In a minute or two the mixture will turn glossy and firmer than before–it will be slightly reluctant to follow the advice of gravity when you turn the bowl, for instance.  Pour the still-fluid marshmallow out onto a plastic-wrap- or parchment-lined jelly roll pan and refrigerate until solid.  Cut them into shapes (I just slice the slab into traditional rectangles, but one could easily get mimsy with cookie cutters) and voila: marshmallows. 

When I was planning our Easter menu (and though it’s just for two people, this is definitely a planned day-long feast), I hadn’t originally thought to make marshmallows.  I was deep into fantasies of spring produce–peas and tender greens were featuring heavily, and strawberries appeared at almost every meal.  Alack for unrealized dreams–the city has plunged so deep into a regressive cold snap that even the birds have flown back south. 

While at the grocery store on Friday, though, crankily buying frozen peas and imported (but at least still tasty) strawberries, I was mildly cheered by the seasonally pastel colors used on the produce signs.  When I got home, I noticed the Easter basket Teacherman’s mother had sent him.  All those little pastel candy eggs and jelly beans.  Out of nowhere (and I speak sooth, for there was no trademarked marshmallowy poultry in that basket) the idea of pink marshmallows leapt to mind. 

And how did I make them?  I could have used raspberry juice instead of water, but I didn’t know the fruit enzymes would react with the rest of the ingredients (a food scientist I am not), and I am also very lazy.  Right in my cupboard is a bottle of raspberry-flavored (and arrestingly magenta) simple syrup, meant for flavoring coffee or Italian sodas.  I have a shameful number of these syrups hanging around–enough that I sometimes worry about the strength of the bolts holding that particular cupboard onto the wall.  I have used various flavors of coffee syrup to make marshmallows before, but never anything that has a color. 

I worked through my recipe in the usual way, using the raspberry syrup instead of the simple syrup, but still throwing in the vanilla extract to round out the flavors.  The mixture behaved as usual–better, even.  It expanded so much during whipping that it threatened to overflow the 4-quart pudding basin and climb up the beaters of my hand-mixer. 

The final color was a pale but vivid pink, exactly what I wanted.  All through the morning, Teacherman and I (though I believe I made at least three times as many passes as he did) would wander into the kitchen, swoop into the fridge, and have a marshmallow.  Or four.  At two-o-clock I paused, mid-swoop, and saw that there were only two left.  I considered being mannerly and taking one of them to Teacherman in the other room, but in the end, greed won out.

I thoroughly enjoyed those last two marshmallows.  Let’s hope he forgives me when he sees that I’ve washed the pan.

Published in: on April 8, 2007 at 2:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pulchritudinous Pickles

Next Saturday we’re having a St. Patrick’s Day party for twenty people. I’m not entirely sure how I ended up at such a pass. I knew that I wanted to have a party, but I didn’t know that I wanted to invite the entire population of my home state; Teacherman has a lot of friends.

In any case, because we are insane, Teacherman and I will be feeding this multitude on a vast array of superior–and homemade–comestibles. The usual St. Patrick’s Day suspects will be in evidence: corned beef, braised cabbage, champ, etc. I had wanted to corn the beef myself, but I was dubious about presenting a cured meat product that I haven’t mastered to that many people. I’m willing to risk my own health on the duck pastrami that I made the other week, but not that of Teacherman’s sister. Nor all of those other people, even. Instead, I wimped out and bought the corned beef, which I still feel guilty about, especially as Teacherman chose this party to begin his forays into alcoholic beverage creation. Another one of his Christmas presents this year was a book on home-brewing, and scarcely had the new year begun before he’d sent away for all the required ingredients for making an Irish stout. I do not care for beer, except as an ingredient in stews, but I hear that this batch turned out particularly well. In addition to the bubbly stuff, there is a big bottle of home-mixed Irish Cream in the fridge, mellowing.

As lovely as a St. Patrick’s Day party is, though, the expected menu leaves considerably little scope for creative cooking. I expect that the beef and vegetables will be lovely–I have no problem with meals based around slabs of protein–but it’s very difficult not to have something fiddly to do. I’m sure I’ll come up with something interesting to for dessert, and I’m not above noodling with the soda bread recipe to make it more my own, but I wanted something exciting to add that wasn’t baked. While contemplating the plainness of the planned appetizer (good Cheddar cheese and the aforementioned soda bread) I was suddenly struck by the idea of a ploughman’s lunch. Even when in Britain I had never consumed such a meal (or at least never purchased one billed as such), but I recalled descriptions of the requisite bread and cheese being accompanied by an onion pickle.

Aha!

I am a bit of a fiend when it comes to pickling–in season, no vegetable is safe from me, and even flank steak was once subjected to an Asian soy-pickling treatment (and very well it turned out, too). Earlier on the very day of my revelation I had made up a southern recipe for pickled corn, and I had all of the base ingredients readily at hand. I swung by the store for a small bag of red pearl onions, blanched and peeled them, then wedged them into a pint-sized canning jar. I boiled cider vinegar, a little sweetener, allspice berries, black peppercorns and a crumbled bay leaf or two, then poured the mixture over the onions. As soon as it cooled I put the lid on and slid it into the fridge. (As you may notice, I did not seal or boil the jars–the pickles I make are refrigerator pickles and thus do not require actual preservation techniques).

The onions’ red flesh deepened to ruby under the heat of the pickle brine, and they are now bobbing in their jar like tiny stained-glass orbs. By Saturday they should be ready for consumption and will make an excellent accompaniment to an extremely aged Irish cheddar and an as-yet-to-be-determined variety of soda bread. (The pickled corn, though, will be ready to eat by tomorrow, and if the scent of the mace- and turmeric-infused brine is anything to go by, it will be an excellent accompaniment to anything, even down to just a spoon in a very greedy hand).

Published in: on March 12, 2007 at 8:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Vegetarians, Avert Your Eyes

Teacherman and his family have a very straight-forward approach to Christmas presents. Halfway through December, while out on some errand or other, he called his sister:

“Hey, Sis, have you bought me a Christmas present yet?”
“Nope, what’s up?”
“Well, I’m just right now buying the present you’ll be giving me.”
“Okay, bring the receipt the next time you see me. ‘Bye!”

This is a bit more nonchalance about the Deep Mystery of Christmas Presents than I’m used to, but it does produce satisfactory results. This year, Teacherman was the recipiant (so to speak) of a medium-sized electric deep-fryer. Its’ frying chamber is entirely enclosed and the exterior has many little lights that go on and off and handles that move the basket up and down while the lid is still closed–I haven’t played with it yet, but then, I don’t need to. Teacherman is in love with it and has been producing item after delicious item out of it at every opportunity. We’ve fried chicken and cheese and slices of sausage and onion rings and catfish and just about everthing we could lay our hands upon.

Until this Friday, the undisputed best result was deep-fried hard-boiled eggs. Yes, really–don’t make that face at me! I remembered that I’d read about such a thing in an Asian cookbook one time, so we slightly under-hard-boiled some eggs, peeled them and tossed them into the fryer. About a minute later we pulled out eggs with a golden, crispy exterior that could have been breading, but wasn’t. I don’t know the alchemical process behind it, but the top layer of egg fries into a puffy, crunchy shell while leaving the inside still soft and yielding. I pretty much defines the word appetizing, especially when dipped in a mixture of soy sauce and lime juice.

You might have noticed, however, the sneaky word _until_ in that beginning superlative. This Friday we deep-fried something that was not only delicious, but actually slightly shameful. We deep-fried chicken skin. Earlier in the week the grocery had been out of boneless skinless chicken thighs for our stir-fry, so we bought whole legs and boned and skinned them. The bones went into an already-started chicken-carcass bag in the freezer (for stock-making), and the chicken skin, because I cannot stand to throw anything away, went into its own bag in the freezer, though for what future purpose I knew not.

A few days later, though, when delving into the icy depths for a snack, I noticed the bag of chicken skin and had a brain-wave. When ever I make duck breasts, I peel off the skin and fat before cooking, then cut it up and oven-render the resulting cubes into duck cracklings. Chicken skin doesn’t have nearly as much attached fat, but that wouldn’t matter if it were deep-fried. I am inordinantly fond of the crispy skin from a roast chicken (though I am always disappointed about the wasted skin from the bottom and sides that ends up soggy, flabby and greasy). This idea struck me as one that would produce similar, if not better, results. I immediately hatched a plan.

The next night (after some defrosting of the main ingredient), Teacherman cut up the chicken skin into strips, placed it into his contraption, and closed the lid. Five minutes later we had shatteringly crisp, bronzed shards that, after draining on a paper towel, weren’t at all greasy. We sprinkled them with salt, pepper and poultry seasoning and served them on top of a romaine salad dressed with a garlicky vinaigrette. In my opinion, it was just as good as a frisee au lardon–the cracklings combined the characteristics of both the lardons and the croutons, the the texture of the romaine lettuce and the cracklings contrasted just enough to be interesting, and it was still possible to get both on the fork, which is often difficult with a crouton.

Unlike bacon, though, chicken skin is not an ingredient that one would seek out on its own. I don’t know when I’ll next have any leftover chicken skin, but when I do, I can think of nothing else I’d rather do with it besides deep-fry it.

Published in: on March 11, 2007 at 2:16 pm  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