Fighting Fire With Fire

Those who know me well, know that I have both an affinity and a prodigious capacity for raw vegetables. I have a tendency to fill a 2-3 quart mixing bowl with grated or chopped raw vegetables, add a little salt and some kind of dressing and call it salad. This can be a bit much for Teacherman, who can think of more appealing side dishes than an entire English cucumber, seasoned with nothing but salt.

Tonight, though, I was alone for dinner, and my vegtabular overindulgence of choice was radishes. I don’t find radishes particularly exciting, but I’m continually seduced by their physical beauty, and by the innumerable rhapsodies of many of my favorite writers. I want to love radishes with butter and sea salt, the way everyone else seems to, but I just . . . don’t. I don’t hate it, but neither do I understand it–to me, the flavors don’t work together. No matter how tasty the butter is on its own, its flavor is obscured by the spiciness of the radish, and the added salt is entirely separate from the other two ingredients, startling with its harshness (again, no matter how mild the salt is on its own).

I keep buying radishes, though. I slice them into salads, take them on picnics to eat whole, and, depending on the variety, grate them into soups. At the farmer’s market yesterday, casting about for something to make a salad out of, I noticed a big basket of watermelon radishes. They were pretty–off-white on the outside and brilliantly magenta on the inside, with a line of pale green on the border–and also cheap. I spent $2 and got an enormous bunch.

Tonight, as I began to slice the radishes for a side salad, I put a disc into my mouth. Explosion!

They weren’t the spiciest radishes I’ve ever tasted, but it did actually burn the inside of my mouth. I obviously could not eat an entire bowl of such flaming spiciness, no matter how refreshingly crunchy. I had heard somewhere, years ago, that cooking radishes could tame their assertiveness. In an attempt to save my dinner, I grated the entire bunch of radishes, then threw them into a pan with some olive oil. I sauteed them over medium heat for a few minutes–10 or 15–and then dressed the limp slivers with the same ingredients I would have put on the raw salad. A big squeeze of lemon juice, some minced green olives and garlic, and a sprinkling of white pepper. I tipped the mess into a big bowl and topped it with a few thin slices of leftover steak.

Unexpectedly, it was incredibly comforting. The radish mixture was salad-like, but (obviously), it was warm and slightly yielding. The radishes were still spicy, but no longer incendiary, and the flavor had melded with that of the dressing. The olives negated the need for salt, heightening the flavor of the radishes, and the garlic added a bit of sweetness, but the seasoning star was the white pepper. White pepper is more warming than spicy, but its peppery backnotes played off of the radishes well. It rounded out the flavors, adding an almost smoky meatiness to the salad.

I ate the entire bowlful, which, as usual, was far too much; my stomach is now stretched as tight as a drum. I’d feel embarrassed to admit to the average person that I ate myself into this amount of discomfort on radishes, but the dish was delicious, and, on reflection, I do not regret a single bite.

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Published in: on October 12, 2008 at 6:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

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  

Spring, at the Last Minute

Yes, it really is spring. Finally.

I know that in less than a week it will technically be summer, but spring itself has been a long time in coming. First it was exceptionally cold and rainy, and then it was exceptionally hot and violently stormy, and in neither of those conditions were any spring vegetables available except for salad greens and occasional rhubarb.

Now, though, there are actually strawberries at the farmers’ markets, not to mention tiny carrots, multicolored radishes and asparagus in myriad sizes. This weekend I even bought some eensy little baby zucchini–THAT made me believe that summer really is on the way, even though today’s high was only in the 60s.

The weird weather, though, has meant that my meals are not as aggressively seasonal as they usually are at this time of year. I’ve had to augment my market-purchased greens with store-bought vegetables, just to vary the salad rut. On the cold days I’ve fallen back on over-wintered, somewhat unfortunate roots and pomme fruits (I’m beginning to be tired of apples), and on hot days I’ve guiltily eaten greenhouse-grown eggplant from much too far away.

Last Wednesday, though, I ate a meal that was almost 100% spring. At the morning market I picked up a small box of sugar snap peas and a small box of shelling peas, along with a bunch of spring onions, a sheaf of fresh dill and a bag of crunchy baby romaine lettuce. When I got home, I chopped the sugar snaps, shelled the remaining peas, and put both into a large salad bowl. I quartered the head of romaine, then sliced the quarters into chunks. I finely minced some of the dill and haphazardly sliced two or three spring onions, slicing finely only near the bulb. The lettuce and aromatics went into the bowl with the peas. Enamored by the crunchy sweetness of the sugar-snap peas and romaine, I went in search of more crunch and found a can of water chestnuts in the cupboard. I drained and chopped the water chestnuts and threw them in as well.

It was shaping up to be a delicious salad. I probably could have stopped here, but I needed some protein as well. I’ve seen a similar recipe that included bacon, but that fat, delicious though it might be, didn’t seem to fit with the clean, springy aesthetic of the salad. I liked the idea of a light smokiness, though, so I decided on some smoked turkey I had in the fridge. I cut a couple of ounces of the meat into pieces similar in size to the sliced sugar snap peas.

The salad now had every component except for dressing. The smoked turkey, the dill and the peas made me think of creamy casseroles; to work in the same mouth-feel and similar flavors, but without the heaviness of a cream sauce, I added a few tablespoons of mayonnaise, a squeeze of lemon juice, salt and pepper. One quick stir to coat the salad with the dressing, and the salad was complete.

Spring Pea Salad

It really was spring in a bowl. The fresh crunchiness of the sugar snap peas, water chestnuts and lettuce ribs contrasted with the yielding chew of the shelled peas and the smoked turkey, the pungency of the spring onions and the grassiness of the dill. The dressing was both creamy and tangy, and that tied all the ingredients together. The entire bowl–an enormous pudding basin–disappeared in an instant, and I could have eaten almost twice as much again. To finish? Two or three perfect strawberries, dripping with juice and perfectly balanced between sweet and tart.

I want to eat another salad as seasonally rooted as this, but I don’t know where to start. I’ll be going to one more farmer’s market before the first day of spring; hopefully I’ll find inspiration amidst the stalls.

Published in: on June 16, 2008 at 7:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

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  

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  

Hmmm

Hmm.  We seem to be having a spot of technical difficulties, what with not having photographs anymore.  Rest assured, we are working on it. . . .

Published in: on October 2, 2007 at 8:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Food is Love?

As previously mentioned, Teacherman is out of town, not to return for 8 more days.  I am very sad (tsk, tsk, these new brides and their codependancy), but, as usual, I’m taking the opportunity to eat a lot of shellfish and broccoli, his two allergic triggers. 

What’s unusual, though, is how little pleasure I’m taking in making delicious meals.  I have the ingredients and the recipes and the palate, but I don’t have anyone to make the meals for.

Some, I’m sure, would say that wanting to cook FOR other people rather than for oneself was unhealthily self-effacing, but for me, a great deal of the enjoyment I get from cooking comes from feeding people I care about.  When I have a dinner party, I don’t make fancy comestibles because I’m trying impress my guests, but because I’m actually excited at the idea of giving them really good food, excited about making them happy through the flavors of what they’re eating.

This sounds odd, I know, and I have a number of colleagues who refuse to believe it, unable to grasp that entertaining could be anything but stressful and exhausting.  These same colleagues have a hard time understanding why I would be happy at the prospect of “having” to cook almost every night of the week for even just two people.  To them, even though cooking can sometimes be fun, it is always a form of drudgery, always a form of oppression, no matter how benign. 

I am not opressed.  I do not toil.  Cooking is what I have to give to the people I love, and as much as I enjoy cooking for myself (I’m sure I’ll regain my equanimity after a few days), I miss sharing what I’ve made with my husband. 

Evidence?  At noon today I took a picture of a tomato–the first Brandywine tomato picked from one of the backyard plants–so I could show him how beautiful it was.   The tomato itself was ur-tomato perfection: acidic and spicy and sweet and warm from the sun and smelling of earth.  Thank heavens for the six other tomatoes ripening on the plant; a flavor like this should not be horded for one alone.  The topmost one looks like it might be perfectly ripe eight days from now. . . .

Published in: on August 3, 2007 at 7:21 am  Comments (3)  

Lemon Triumverate

Why do people associate lemons with springtime? Last time I checked, they were (barring horrible West-Coastian ice storms) available all winter long, starting early enough in the season for most people to still be excited by the prospect of snow and ice. In November and December we concentrate on apples and pears, though, and after the new year on exotic tropical fruits. Come March, however, and we all unerringly trot out the lemons to try to brighten up the remaining root vegetables and winter stodge.

Tonight I knew I’d be slightly late getting home from work, so I left Teacherman a recipe to start for dinner: braised fennel with Meyer lemons. Fennel is one of our favorite vegetables, though neither of us grew up liking it. (I’m trying to keep this from becoming the How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Scary Foods Blog, with, as you can see, only partial success). In both of our cases, we only became enamored of fennel after learning to cook it long enough to soften its unyielding texture and sweeten its licorice-like bite. Our favorite preparations are either high heat roasting, which brings out the best in anything (as Teacherman says, “Mmm, carcinogens”), or braising, a flavor-rich shortcut to stewing. Since I am still getting over my aforementioned cold, braising fennel into a soft and comforting tangle seemed the way to go.

The recipe calls for searing the fennel in a large skillet until browned on both sides, then adding a little chicken broth, the juice and zest of a single Meyer lemon, and letting it bubble away, covered, until soft. It would be a decent enough recipe if it stopped here, but it continues on to require that one remove the fennel from the skillet, reduce the sauce to a glaze, and then stir in the cooked fennel along with some chopped fennel fronds. Tangy, spicy, sweet and toothsome. Quite quite lovely.

After dinner Teacherman did the dishes and the leftover lemons stared at me from the counter. I shouldn’t have, but I took those lemons and, for the tenth time in the last two months, made myself my latest favorite indulgence. This delicious item, and the reason that I am probably guaranteed never to have scurvy, is Lemon Jam, a recipe I found in the new cookbook The Improvisational Cook. One simply cuts up and seeds lemons (or clementines), puts them in the food processor with a little salt, some sweetening and maybe some compatible spices or herbs, and then whizzes it to a chunky puree. Then–and this is the exciting part–one whirls in some flavorless oil until the mixture emulsifies, as if one were making a mayonnaise or vinaigrette. Instead, one ends up with a cross between a lemon curd (due to the oil) and a lemon marmalade (due to the included pith and peel). I have been known to consume nearly a cup of this grainy goodness, bite by bite off of the spatula, pretending that there isn’t enough room in the jar I’m scraping it into. This time I added a bit of ginger to the chopped lemons, resulting in a marmalade-curd redolent of spice and almost as strong as my similarly-flavored herbal tea. I managed to get most of this batch into the jar, but I don’t know how long the jar itself will last.

I did restrain myself somewhat–I didn’t use up _all_ of the lemons on the counter. Twelve organic lemons are lying in wait for a bottle of vodka, ready to turn into homemade limoncello. And from limoncello, I immediately mentally leap to the idea of ripe strawberries with limoncello and cream; the months cannot pass fast enough.

Published in: on March 6, 2007 at 9:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

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