Freeze your carcass! (And make broth)

I’m snowed in! First we got snow; then we got freezing rain; then more snow. Frosted ice! Here’s the view out my kitchen window..

So nothing sounded better than putting a big pot on the stove to simmer all day. I’ve actually been collecting the ingredients for a good broth for months now. Back in October, I made Chinese chicken wings; for my recipe, you don’t use the wing tips, so I cut them off and froze them (a dozen of them!). Then, a couple of weeks later, I boned some chicken breasts and poached them; I threw the raw bones into a freezer bag. My big Christmas turkey ended up, picked clean, down to a bag of bones in the freezer. And when I cut up Rex the Rabbit for braising, I ended up with some bits and pieces of backbone, also bagged and frozen. Into the pot!–raw and cooked, chicken, turkey, and rabbit.

Stock is made basically from bones, bones, and bones (cooked, roasted, or raw),  with enough water to cover them. Add a mirepoix, which is just a mixture of chopped onions, carrots, and celery (equal to about one-fifth by weight of the bones). Simmer forever! Then in the last 30 minutes or so, add a sachet of bay leaf, parsley stems, cracked pepper, thyme, and garlic clove. I cooked my stock for a total of about seven hours, skimming it and stirring it occasionally. I added no salt; since I had brined the turkey, it had salt enough. Then I strained it through cheesecloth. I ended up with almost two gallons of stock!

With this mix of ingredients, it’s not an elegant stock, but very flavorful. I used a big ladle of it to make a soup for my early dinner, with frozen peas and toasted croutons made from last week’s rustic bread. I ate it sitting in my warm and fragrant kitchen, watching my icy garden slip into darkness.

Rex the Rabbit (Cacciatore)

This week I once again found myself with that restless urge to cook up something new. Rummaging around in my freezer, I pulled out a package from my Lefever Holbrook Ranch meat delivery: “rabbit ‘Rex’ 2.5 lbs.” Poor old Rex!–I may have scratched his ears back in September when I visited Paulette and her kids on the ranch. Rex wasn’t his name, of course–it was his breed, developed in France in the early 20th century. And now that I think about it, the rabbit I met in Goldendale did have a Gallic air about him, holding me with his dark gaze as I stroked his plush velvet coat.

The whole rabbit family on Paulette’s ranch is pretty cosmopolitan; here’s Madison with one of the babies (“kits”), whose mother was a New Zealand (in spite of its name, first bred in Mexico, also around the early 20th century) and whose father was our friend Rex. (You’d recognize a New Zealand–a big fluffy albino white rabbit with ears that blush pink.) Since rabbits raised for meat are often harvested at two months old, and I got my order from the ranch at the end of November, I’m now thinking that my Rex was actually Rex fils, one of these September kits.

With Rex now defrosting on my kitchen counter, I feel an unexpected pang. I know the usual things about him that I want to know about the food that I eat: where he came from, who raised him, how he was raised. But this time I know him.

Why am I a carnivore? Like you, I’ve read any number of articles about the need to eat lower on the food chain–much less meat and more fruits, grains, and vegetables. For one thing, it’s easier on the environment; it takes 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat, and methane gas from farm animals accounts for around 15% of the world’s greenhouse gases. Also, we’d show some shred of solidarity with the other seven billion of us on the planet–we can’t all eat this way, so maybe none of us should. And then of course it’s easier on the animals!

But eating meat runs deep. When I was growing up in South Texas, we had meat at almost every meal. Ham and bacon. Plenty of beef–pot roast, steaks, hamburger in all of its chameleon forms. Chicken, the noble yard bird!–I remember helping my grandmother slaughter and clean them for Sunday supper.

We got some of this meat by hunting. I went a few times, but my father and brothers went every year. My dad had an old Scout (precursor to the now ubiquitous SUV!) welded and bolted into a hunting machine–braces for standing up to scan across the mesquite brush for quarry, gun racks, a ball-mount tow-hitch to pull his beat-up old jeep behind them. In early fall, before the break of day, they would load up the bird dogs and head out to their lease to hunt quail and white-wing dove. In November, they went off for long weekends to the hunting camp, getting up early every day to hike out to their stand and sit silently for hours watching for a deer to emerge from the dawn shadows and mist.

If they got their shot, on the way back home they would stop at Gafford’s grocery store to leave the dressed animal in a rented freezer locker. It was a tradition in our family that my dad would share his deer with a Mexican woman who worked with him, and then a few days before Christmas, she and her family would bring us venison tamales!–Dozens and dozens of them. To this day, when I am home for the holidays we have chili and tamales for our Christmas Eve meal.

So eating meat, for many of us, is part of who we are, where we came from, how we savor the earth’s bounty together. Do we need to become vegetarians or even vegans? I can imagine getting there (or at least getting close) some day, but for now I just try to choose and prepare my food as thoughtfully as I can.

So, I’m still a carnivore, though I hope a more minimal and mindful one. And today I braised poor Rex alla Cacciatora (hunter style). He was delicious!

Rabbit Stew (recipe from the New York Times, January 4th, 2012)

  • 1 whole rabbit (2 1/2 to 3 lbs.)
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • flour, for dusting
  • 2 cups onions, finely diced
  • 2 cups leeks, finely diced
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon crumbled dry porcini mushrooms, soaked in warm water to soften drained and finely chopped (save the liquid to add to the sauce)
  • 8 oz. cremini or portobello mushrooms, thickly sliced (I used portobellos)
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup chopped canned tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup unsalted chicken broth
  1. 1. Cut up the rabbit; the directions were complicated, but basically you want more or less the same pieces you’d get with a chicken–a breast (you can split it into two pieces), two front legs, a back, and two back legs (possibly split into two pieces each–thigh and drumstick, more or less).
  2. Heat 1/4 inch olive oil in a Dutch oven or deep, wide heavy skillet over medium heat. Season the rabbit pieces with salt and pepper, then dust lightly with flour. Lightly brown the rabbit for about 3 minutes o both sides, working in batches. Drain on kitchen towels, then transfer to a baking dish in one layer. Heat over to 375 degrees.
  3. Pour off the used oil, wipe out the pan and add 2 tablespoons fresh oil. Heat to medium-high, add the onions and cook till soft, about 5 minutes. Add the leek, garlic, rosemary and mushrooms. Season generously with salt and pepper; add red pepper flakes to taste. Cook for 2 minutes more, stirring.
  4. Add the chopped tomatoes and wine, and let the mixture reduce for 1 minute. Add the broth and mushroom liquid, bring to a simmer, taste and adjust the seasoning (but remember that the red pepper flakes will get hotter).
  5. Ladle the mixture evenly over the rabbit. Cover the dish, and bake for 1 hour. Let it rest 10 minutes before serving.

I ate my first serving on a bed of fettucini. Tomorrow I might serve it on rice. Or potatoes? Or just a big slice of beautiful rustic bread.

Cooking Anne Hilton’s Christmas chapbook

My friend Anne made a chapbook of vegetarian recipes for her mother’s Christmas present this year, and I was lucky enough to get a copy too! Entirely handcrafted, “from paper cutting and ink mixing to typesetting and the actual printing,” this little chapbook took me back to my first glimpse, in some dimly remembered college course, of the complicated construction of early letterpress books. Preparing the paper and ink, assembling the type into forms for each page and color, making each impression– every single stage calls for huge care and precision.. And no trivial task, either, to get from a flat sheet of paper to a folded booklet! (Try it! Using these pictures as a guide, take a sheet of printer paper, mark off one side into eight sections, and fold yourself a copy of Anne’s book.)  Anne tells me that the whole project took more than 100 hours of work.

The project also weaves together threads of the story of Anne and her mother; Anne explains that “while I was living in Korea, my mother sent me a book of vegetarian recipes for Christmas one year that she had written by hand. I still have and use that book, so I wanted to return the favor.” What could make a better gift?  The Korean character on the over of the chapbook means “good fortune, luck, or happiness;” Through her craftsmanship, I think Anne has made a little bit of all three–certainly luck for me!

Turning through the booklet, I noticed a recipe for “seitan” and green bean curry. Seitan?–Never heard of it. (At what point will I stop running into new ingredients?) Seitan, it turns out, is seasoned wheat protein–essentially, a very dense reduction of wheat gluten. (Not for everybody, obviously.) Look for it in the same case as tofu. Some people consider it “meat-like;” I bought a version called “chicken-style.” (I used to scoff at vegetarians who ate “pretend meat”–think veggie-burgers–but the more I learn about the costs of diets like my own Texas-size carnivore fare, the more inclined I am to explore alternatives. If a plant food can satisfy a meat craving, so much the better!)

This recipe came from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, one of numerous excellent cookbooks put out by the famous Moosewood Collective in Ithaca, NY. I went ahead and bought the book, but you can also find the recipe online (for instance in Google Books).

Here’s your list of ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped (~2 cups)
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh chile, or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne)
  • 4 teaspoons garam masala
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 pound green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces (~3 to 3 1/2 cups)
  • 1 pound seitan, finely chopped
  • 2 1/2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
  • 2/3 cup coconut milk
  • 3/4 cup water
  • salt and ground black pepper to taste
  • toasted unsalted cashew nuts

This dish is essentially a stir-fry; you want to have all these ingredients ready to go, so that you can work rapidly. Heat the oil in a large skillet or wok and add the onions and garlic. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes before adding the chile or cayenne, garam masala, and cumin. Stirring, sauté for another 2 or 3 minutes. Add the green beans, then the seitan, and mix well. Stir in the tomatoes, coconut milk, and water. Cover and bring to a simmer. Cook, covered, for about 10 minutes, until the beans are firm-tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve topped with toasted cashews for a nice contrast in texture. It came out very nicely! Instead of rice, I cooked farro to go with the curry. Farro (also called emmer) is also a new food for me, although I gather that it is an ancient grain, even collected in the wild by pre-agrarian people as long as 17,000 years ago. My farro, though, was grown by Lentz Spelt Farms from Foundation Seed in arid eastern Washington, in Marlin over by Moses Lake.

This is not a demanding dish to prepare! But as I cooked, I thought about Anne’s mother writing down recipes for her to cook in Korea, and about eighteen hippies in Ithaca, NY forming a collective back in 1973 in to celebrate vegetarian fare, and about Washington farmers carrying forward the life of an ancient grain, and about Anne spending 100 hours crafting her chapbook. And as I serve dinner, I break into a grin: “we made this!”

(By the way, Anne also has a food blog!–be sure to visit her!)

Sauerkraut on the menu for a hearty autumn dinner

I never really went for sauerkraut. I love cabbage a dozen ways–steamed, or rolled around a filling and baked in a sauce, or blanketed with cheese, or shredded raw in a slaw or taco filling. But fermented?–No thanks.

Then my friend Bob Rose introduced me to Pleasant Valley Farms organic sauerkraut, made just an hour’s drive north of here in the Skagit Valley. Here’s Bob standing in front of the operation’s fermentation tanks, near La Conner. (Pleasant Valley Farms has a great story of its own, by the way; stay tuned for an upcoming post about it.)

Love this sauerkraut! Tangy cabbage, not lumpy vinegar. Crisp and crunchy, not limp and slimy. Here’s the entire list of ingredients: organic cabbage, organic cabbage juices, water, and salt. That’s it. As it says on the package, “made the old-fashioned way.”

So I can add one more food product to my growing list of those that taste completely different when fresh or prepared authentically. Ever taste canned asparagus?–Don’t. Still shaking Parmesan from the green can?–Stop; buy a block of the real stuff and grate it yourself. And go get some of this great kraut. You can get it at Whole Foods now; look for it in its plastic pouch in the refrigerated case (and store it in your fridge at home).

After my Thanksgiving cook-a-thon (timelines! flowcharts!), I got interested again in the problem of recipes for whole meals, not just single dishes. So here is one way to use this sauerkraut in a very nice dinner for a chilly autumn evening!

Bratwurst with sauerkraut and beets on their own greens

Start about an hour and a half before you want to eat.

Preheat your oven to 425°. Choose beets (leafy tops intact) that are about the same size, so that they will cook evenly. (I used organic red beets from Ralph’s Greenhouse, also from the Skagit Valley!) Cut the greens off your beets (leaving a short stub) but don’t peel the beets or cut off their tails. (I gather that the stubs and tails help keep them from leaking juice during the roasting.) Rub them with a little olive oil, wrap them in aluminum foil, and roast them for about an hour. (When they are done, you will be able to pierce them easily with a sharp knife.)

After you get the beets in the oven, put the beet greens to soak in a bowl (or sink) of cold water. (At this point, you now have about an hour to kill.)

After the beets are roasted (say after you’ve watched the news), put them on a plate to cool and start the bratwurst. Bring a pan of water to a simmer, add the brats, and let them simmer for about 20-25 minutes. (Don’t boil them!–The casing will split open). Turn them over every so often.

After you’ve gotten the brats going, make a vinaigrette for the beets. Mince a clove of garlic, then add a half-teaspoon of kosher salt on top. Smear the garlic and salt around with the side of a knife-blade until you have a paste. Put it in a small bowl and mix it with a half-teaspoon of a nice coarse (country-style) dijon mustard and a tablespoon of good vinegar. (I used a nice sherry vinegar.) Then, whisking like crazy, add three tablespoons of a good olive oil. (I fill a tablespoon with oil, then rest that hand on the rim of the bowl and let the oil drizzle in as I whisk with the other hand. Then repeat twice.) Set the vinaigrette aside for now to let the flavors blend.

Chop about a quarter-cup of walnuts; toast them if you want to in a dry skillet (but watch them like a hawk because they burn easily).

Then, put a steamer-basket in a saucepan, add water up to the bottom of the steamer basket, and bring the water to a boil.  While you wait for the water to boil, take the beet greens out of the cold water they’ve been soaking in, trim about an inch off the bottoms of the stems, then cut the stems on the bias into pieces an inch or so long. Cut the leaves across their width into ribbons about an inch wide (in cooking school they tell me this is a chiffonade.)

Close to the end of the wurst’s simmer, heat up a skillet, turn the heat to medium-low,  and add a little oil. When the sausage is done, transfer it to the skillet and turn it occasionally as it browns nicely.

While the brat is browning, turn the heat to low under the saucepan with the steamer basket, add the beet stems, and cover the pot. After about five minutes, add the leaves and cover. Cook until the stems are tender and the leaves are wilted but still have nice texture and color. (When are they done? Nibble on a leaf and stem!–Cook them until they are the texture you like. I cooked mine about five more minutes after adding the leaves.)

As the brat continues to brown and the beet greens cook, rub the skins, stem stubs, and tails off your roasted beets. (Just rub them with your hands!–The skin slides right off.) Slice them into rounds and toss the rounds with some of the walnuts and vinaigrette. (Whisk the dressing again if it has separated.) Put the sauerkraut in a microwave-safe bowl and zap it until it is steaming-hot. (Add caraway seeds or dill seeds if you like, but it is great by itself!)

Everything ready? Make two beds on your plate, one of sauerkraut and one of beet greens. Put the bratwurst on the sauerkraut and the dressed beet slices on the greens. Add some of the dijon mustard to the brat if you like. Sprinkle the beets with the rest of the chopped walnuts.

Pour yourself a German beer or a sturdy red wine and enjoy!

Old friends and great food in Bozeman

For years, way before I’d ever given the least thought to learning how to cook, I spent many a weekend evening sitting at my friend Carolyn’s kitchen counter, glass of wine in hand, chatting with friends while she prepared us a great dinner. Then she and Barrie deserted Seattle for Bozeman!–What now?

Well, seven years without dinner is too long, so my friend Mary and I hopped a plane for a  weekend visit. Back in Carolyn’s kitchen once again! She’s a planner, so by the time we got there she already had her mise pretty much en place; while she put the finishing touches on her delicious chicken and squash tagine, our tasks amounted to the old ones of chat and sip.

I’ve become a city person; from the deck off my kitchen, I can touch the magnolia that shades my whole back garden, and I can nod at my neighbors digging in their vegetable plot a few feet away on the other side of my trellis fence. Barrie and Carolyn offer an entirely different proposition!-We are in the West now. Here’s my friend Mary, pouring herself a judicious glass of wine for dinner, in front of the sweeping backdrop that is Barrie and Carolyn’s back yard. And here are Barrie and Carolyn themselves, about to tuck into our dinner spread. I took the seat on this side of the table, looking across the dip and swell of the field to the blue edge of the mountains in the distance, so I could savor the dinner and the view as well.

(An aside: among their many talents, Barrie and Carolyn are musicians, and lately they’ve been performing with a Bozeman group called the DupliKates. Check it out!–Carolyn’s in the straw hat and slacks and Barrie’s behind that post on keyboard.)

Carolyn shared her recipe (below) for the chicken and squash tagine, which she actually made in a Dutch oven. Delicious! I’ll make it myself soon and let you know if I do as good a job as she did. But before I go, I just have to tell you about the next couple of days that Carolyn and Mary and I spent in Yellowstone Park!-A first for me. Have you seen pictures of Old Faithful?–I took some too, but it struck me as the tamest of the park’s features. The acres of steaming, muttering pools and vents that perforate the thin crust of the ground make the world seem about two days old! The commentary on the interpretive boards carries the ominous news that the timing or force of the numerous geysers has been altered repeatedly (and recently) by explosive releases of pent-up pressure. As I take in this information, I’m standing with say a dozen other people on a boardwalk over a pool of boiling water swelling up from a black worm-hole that coils down who knows how deep. Faintly, the question forms . . . is this a good idea?

The water in Yellowstone pounds down as well as boiling up. Before we left the park, we also climbed a few hundred steps down a metal stairway bolted to the side of a mountain to get a head-on view of the magnificent Lower Falls–then the next day walked to the platform at the top of the Falls (barely visible at the top right edge) for a top-down look.  So before I go back to my kitchen, I’ll leave you with this uncharacteristically outdoorsy shot of myself!

Carolyn’s Chicken and Squash Tagine

Ingredients

  • 1 recipe Moroccan spice mixture (see recipe below)
  • 2 pounds meaty chicken pieces (breast halves, thighs, and drumsticks), skinned
  • 3 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, cut into wedges
  • 6 large garlic cloves, halved lengthwise
  • 5 to 6 threads saffron, crushed
  • One 2-1/2 to 3-pound butternut squash, seeded, peeled, and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 cup chicken broth or water
  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 1/4 cup snipped fresh parsley

Directions

  • Prepare the Moroccan spice mixture. Rub the chicken pieces with 1 tablespoon of it.
  • In a 4-quart Dutch oven, heat 2 teaspoons oil over medium heat. Add the chicken. Cook, uncovered, for 6 to 8 minutes, turning to brown evenly. Remove chicken.
  • Add the remaining 1 teaspoon oil to the Dutch oven. Add the onions, garlic, and saffron. Cook and stir over medium heat for 2 minutes.
  • Add the squash. Sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of the spice mixture; toss.
  • Add the chicken and broth. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 1 hour.
  • Add the raisins; cover and cook for 10 to 25 minutes more until the chicken is done and squash is tender.
  • Meanwhile, make couscous. (You can find it with the rice and other grains in your grocery store; follow the directions on the box.)
  • To serve, put the couscous on your serving platter and top with the chicken mixture. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with parsley.

Moroccan spice mixture (makes about 3 tablespoons):

  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom
  • 1 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp ground pepper

Cooking Becky Selengut: Seared scallops with carrot cream

Becky Selengut sears a mean scallop! In her fantastic new cookbook, Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast, she divides the world of fish into shellfish, finfish, and littlefish & eggs, and under shellfish has a whole five-recipe section devoted just to scallops. The recipes proceed from easy to advanced, so I decided to tackle the middle one:  scallops with carrot cream and marjoram. Here’s what Becky’s version looked like. (Becky, don’t ever fire your food stylist (Clare Barboza)!–This is just one of dozens of mouthwatering shots of beautifully prepared seafood.)

The scallops section opens with a two-page spread devoted to tips for searing scallops. (You can also go to the video: www.goodfishbook.com.) I’m scared of high heat, so I really meditated on this tip sheet. Plus, I’ve never cooked a scallop in my (long, long) life!–But we’ll be fine; just listen to Becky.

Let’s take stock here. To cook this dish, we are going to make a carrot cream, we are going to pickle some carrot strips, we are going to make an herb oil, and to top it off we are going to garnish the whole thing with some fresh marjoram leaves. And of course cook our scallops! Becky’s recipe talks about the herb oil last, but (partly to postpone the showdown with the scallops) I’m going to move it up ahead of cooking the shellfish.

Carrot cream

This part is easy. And I can think of a dozen different uses for it–keep this one on hand. Here’s what you need:

  • 1/2 lb. of carrots, peeled and cut into a large dice (about 2 cups)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • freshly ground pepper to taste

Put the carrots and salt into a medium saucepan, cover them with water, bring the pot to a boil, and cook until the carrot pieces are tender (7 or 8 minutes). (I turned the heat down a bit once they began to boil.) Drain them, put them in a blender with the cream and pepper, and blend them until you have a very smooth purée. That’s it! Set them aside until you are ready to plate the scallops.

Pickled carrots

Now on to our pickled carrots. Once again, easy. Here’s what you need:

  • 1 large carrot, sliced into short ribbons using a vegetable peeler (about 1 cup)
  • 1/4 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar

Actually, I tried using a vegetable peeler, but I didn’t get the nice fat shavings that look so great in the photo, so instead I used the slicing option on a box grater; it worked great. (I decided to put off worrying about how they made those cool curls.) The other thing to note is that “seasoned rice wine vinegar” is an off-the-shelf product. After fretting about how to season it, I just went to the store–no problem, there it is on the shelf in the ethnic section. Marinate the carrots for at least 20 minutes, then drain (save the vinegar for another purpose) and set aside until time to assemble the dish. Actually, as you’ll see, I ended up leaving the carrots in the vinegar for several days; still delicious. (These carrots would also be a nice garnish for an antipasto plate or appetizer spread, with pepperoncinis and other vinegary treats.)

Marjoram leaves

This has been a bad summer for my garden (sun? heat? no such luck). But my back deck does better than anyplace else in the garden, so my herb pots are flourishing. Which means I strolled out to the deck and pinched off a generous handful of fresh parsley and marjoram leaves for the herb oil and the garnish. Nice.

Herb oil

On to the herb oil. What you need:

  • 3/4 cup packed fresh Italian parsley leaves
  • 1 tablespoon fresh marjoram leaves
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup neutral vegetable oil, like canola or safflower
  • pinch of salt

In a blender, combine the parsley, marjoram, olive oil, vegetable oil, and salt. Blend until the oil turns a vibrant green color, about 3 minutes. You can strain the oil through a fine-mesh strainer if you’d like, or leave it with some texture. Transfer it to a bowl or squeeze bottle.

My blender isn’t the greatest, so I don’t think I got the mix as completely emulsified as Becky intended. But, because I had a delay of a couple of days in the middle of finishing this recipe, the bright-green oil separated from the chopped leaves, and I was able to spoon some clear oil off the top of the little bowl. (Becky talks about variations on this recipe and explains why she uses the two kinds of oil, but hey, buy the book! You’ll be happy you did, and I’m ready to get on with searing these scallops.)

Seared scallops

What you need:

  • 1 pound sea scallops
  • salt (Becky uses sea salt; I used kosher) and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon high-heat vegetable oil (I used grapeseed oil)

Here we go. Becky’s instructions: “To prepare the scallops, dry them with paper towels. Place them on a plate and season generously with salt and pepper. Heat a heavy skillet over high heat. Add the vegetable oil and, when it is really hot, carefully add the scallops to the pan, being careful not to splatter oil on yourself or crowd the pan with too many scallops. Cook the scallops for 2 minutes on one side without disturbing them, or until they are caramelized, then flip, cooking the other side for only a minute or so more.” Before you get going, watch the video; it helps a lot.

I didn’t (the first time through). Plus, I did exactly what she warns us not to do–I dialed down the heat before I even put the scallops in the pan. So, to get some color on them, I left them in there for oh four minutes or so. Rubber! Say hello to the most expensive erasers you ever saw.

But let’s move on. A few days later (carrot cream, pickled carrots, and herb oil waiting in the fridge) I tried again. The second try was not bad; I still didn’t have the pan hot enough to get a really thorough sear on both sides, but they tasted pretty good. So I went for one more try, this time using grapeseed oil and my heaviest cast-iron skillet. Fire it up to high!–Don’t flinch! (I found it helpful to yell “Gaaaaa!” as my bare fingers placed the scallops into the slightly smoking pan.) Still not as pretty as Becky’s picture, but closer. And they had more crunch and texture, plus I swear they tasted sweeter and brinier for it.

So now to attempt to copy Becky’s fantastic presentation. It turns out that you can make the carrot strips curl by . . . well, curling them up. Once you anchor them in the carrot cream, they don’t uncurl too much, and look very pretty. Spoon on some oil, scatter some marjoram leaves. And then eat!

(Thanks, Becky, for giving me permission to clutz my way through your recipe in public. Everybody, look for Becky’s classes at PCC and elsewhere. You can also follow her link on my blogroll or go straight to her own site.)

Grilled pork loin with Bittman glaze and broiled tomatoes

Clear skies, temperatures finally above the 60’s!–Tonight I just had to grill! But grill what?

When I stopped at Rain Shadow Meats last week, in addition to my pork fat I also got a pork tenderloin (from the same provider, Carlton Farms in Oregon). And last Monday when I was up at La Conner Flats in Skagit Valley, I got four beautiful early tomatoes and a nice head of lettuce. Plus, think back–do you remember Mark Bittman’s glazed lamb ribs?–I made more glaze than I needed, so I had a tiny bit stashed in the freezer (I’m cheap).

So let’s pull something together! This morning I nuked the glaze, then brushed the pork loin with it and put it in the fridge to marinate. Come dinner time, I cut the almost over-ripe tomatoes in half across the equator and salted and peppered them. Then I went out to my herb pot on the deck and cut a big sprig of “spicy hot” oregano, chopped up the leaves, and sprinkled them on the tomatoes. Finally, I drizzled the tomato halves with my Portuguese olive oil. Ready to broil.

Next, I oiled my gas grill and fired it up to the max. I slapped on the pork loin and grilled it on its four sides about three minutes a side, then pulled it off and tented it with foil while I broiled the tomatoes. (It had nice color but needed to continue cooking under the foil for just a few minutes. I like pork pink in the middle; otherwise, it gets dry.) Taste?–The glaze had a sweet note from the honey, and the spicier flavors (coriander, fennel, vinegar) worked really well with the smoke of the grill.

So then I broiled the tomatoes for a few minutes, watching the whole time and pulling them out as soon as the oregano crisped up and they got some color (I didn’t grill them because I was afraid that they would lose structure and fall into the fire. They were ripe!)

Then I put down a crisp leaf of La Conner Flats lettuce, topped it with some tomatoes, and added some big curls of Parmesano-Reggiano cheese. I added a few slices of the pork tenderloin, and done!–I had a very nice dinner.

On a day like today when the evening news is absolutely soul-killing, it is comforting to enjoy a simple meal made from beautiful ingredients that are the products of intelligence and labor and care. Bon appetit!

Rendering lard (or making chicharones!)

On the road to making home-made tamales, I stumbled across a very tasty little bonus. Real tamales are made with lard; but store-bought lard is hydrogenated and otherwise unappealing (the brand sold at my grocery store has “BHA, propyl gallate, and citric acid added to help protect flavor”–and still tasted rancid).  So I ended up home-rendering some. (Are you cringing? So did I, at first. But stay with me here.) Surprise: when you render lard from cut-up pork fat, you end up with mouth-watering little “left-overs”–fried bits that are called in various traditions cracklings, pork rinds, chitlins, or in Spanish-speaking regions, chicharones. (These terms can also mean fried pork skin, but I’m talking about the “fat husks” that are a by-product of making lard.)

Here’s how I made the lard, and in the process discovered these little goodies. First I went off to Rain Shadow Meats in the Melrose Market to buy about a pound of pork back fat. (“Leaf lard,” the fat from around the pig’s kidneys, is supposed to make higher quality lard, but they didn’t have any on hand and I was ready to get going.) By the way, Rain Shadow tells you where everything they sell comes from; this hunk of frozen fat arrived in Seattle from Carlton Farms in Oregon.

The experts out in Blogville laid out the process for me: cut up the fat into small pieces (half-inch cubes), put about a half-cup of water in a heavy pot, add the fat, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently. How hard could that be? So I got the pot going. (I gather that the water keeps the fat bits from sticking or burning until the fat begins to melt; it evaporates off after a while.) It took about 45 minutes for the fat to start melting, and there were some pretty impressive pops and sizzles as the water trapped in the fat cooked off.

But here came the surprise!–Fat doesn’t melt like say a pat of butter does; it leaves behind a “skeleton.” Fat has structure! Why this blew me away I don’t know; fat is a body tissue, after all, and anyway I’ve certainly fried my share of bacon. But I didn’t know that the fat would leave behind these little fried cubes. At first, they float to the surface, but when they sink to the bottom of the pan, they tell me, your lard is rendered. (I used a big stock pot for my pound of fat, so the liquid was pretty shallow!–It became a judgment call to say when they “sank.”)

After all the fat has melted and the fried bits have sunk (it took about an hour and a half), you let the pot cool slightly. Then you line a strainer with cheesecloth and pour the lard through it into a glass jar.  (A pound of fat yields about a pint of lard.) The liquid lard is straw-colored. Put it in the refrigerator; after it solidifies, it turns almost white. (They tell me that leaf lard is almost perfectly white, but mine looks pretty good to me!) The word is that lard will keep in the refrigerator for three months, or frozen for up to a year.

And now about those succulent little morsels left behind in the cheesecloth! They taste like the most delicate bacon you ever fried! So now I’ve gone from a reluctant lard-maker to an enthusiastic chicharones-maker. I’m going to eat them with anything that tastes good with bacon! In fact, last night I had them with poached eggs and chard.

Poached eggs with chard and chicharones

Chicharones–the little crispy pieces that are left after you render pork fat into lard. I had no idea how good they could be! When you make them at home, they taste like the lightest possible bits of crunchy bacon fat! So I wanted to come up with a way to use them the same way we might use bacon bits, but in a simple supper dish.

I decided to have poached eggs with chard, garnished with chicharones.

So I went out to my tiny garden and collected about six big leaves of rainbow chard. After washing and drying the leaves, I cut the stems into 1/2″ long pieces, then cut the leaves cross-wise into 1/2″-wide ribbons.

I started two pots, one to steam the chard and one to poach the eggs. (We’ll have all the fat we need from the pork bits!) For the chard, I put a steamer basket into a small pot, added water almost up to the level of the bottom of the steamer, and, once the water started to boil, turned it down to a bare simmer and put the cut chard stems in. I let them steam, covered, for two minutes while I broke two eggs into individual cups and, once the water reached a very low simmer in the second pot, slipped them straight into its hot water. Then, back to the chard pot, I added the chard leaves to the stems and covered the pot again; both the chard and the eggs simmered for about four minutes more.

Done! I used tongs to transfer the chard leaves and stems to the plate, then used a strainer to fish out the poached eggs and pile them on. I added a couple of drops of sherry vinegar to the chard, and kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper over both eggs and chard. Finally, I shaved a cherry tomato and bit of red onion into paper-thin slices and added them. Then I sprinkled the dish with my fresh home-made chicharones. Bacon and eggs! (–Re-thought).

Stuffed tomatoes for arugula lovers

I love big fat juicy heirloom tomatoes, and I love arugula!–So I decided to make a nice lunch combining the two. (The first time I ate a tomato with arugula was on the island of Crete when I was there  . . . how long ago? a decade?–at a professional conference. Do I need to add that attendance at the conference was huge but attendance at the sessions was skimpy?–A couple of earnest souls and the rest indoors to pamper their sunburns.)

Anyway, here’s where we are going: an arugula pesto for the plate, a beautiful tomato (don’t even reach for the salmon-colored golf ball), and a nice filling with chopped arugula, walnuts, bell peppers, red onion, bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, and a few other things. And let’s dress up the plate with tendrils of lemon zest, a scattering of arugula flowers, and (why not, since they are in bloom in pots out on my deck?) a few nasturtium flower petals.

But first things first. Here’s your list of ingredients:

  • 2 large or 4 small heirloom tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 C arugula leaves (divided)
  • A few arugula flowers, if you have them
  • 2 small cloves garlic, minced (divided)
  • 1/4 C plus 1 T mild olive oil
  • A few nasturtium flower petals, if you have them
  • Half of a red bell pepper, diced (or a mix of colors)
  • 1/4 of a small red onion, diced (about 2 T)
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon (zest divided)
  • 1/2 C chopped walnuts (divided)
  • 1/4 C bread crumbs
  • 1/4 C grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (divided)
  • 1/8 tsp red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper, to taste

Note that the filling is not cooked! Dice or mince the vegetables small enough for you to stay happy when you bite into the raw pieces.

Make the pesto

(Note: If you don’t have breadcrumbs on hand and are going to make them,  do it before you make the pesto–it makes for an easier cleanup between steps. After I have people over for dinner, I always end up with a quarter of a baguette or some such lying around, so I frequently make breadcrumbs in my food processor and almost always have a bag of them in the freezer. Which I did today, so all I had to do was measure!)

Rinse and dry the arugula leaves.(Option: I used arugula from my garden, so I also pinched off a few of the flowers and put them in a shallow bowl of water to use later for garnish. They are perfectly edible and taste just like the leaves. Also, if you have a nasturtium or other edible flower in your garden, add a few of its petals to the bowl (not the whole flower!–just the petals).

Put one cup of the arugula in a small food processor. (Be sure to save the other 1/2 cup for the filling!) Add half the minced garlic, a pinch of salt, and a grind or two of pepper. Pulse a few times to get a coarse paste.

Then, drizzle in up to 1/4 cup of olive oil, to get a mixture as smooth as you like (I like mine kind of coarse). (Check the lid of your food processor; does it have one or two small holes in it? If so, with the motor running, you can slowly pour the olive oil onto the lid and let it drip down into the bowl. Or, if you are using a blender, stop and add the oil in one-tablespoon increments and run the motor in between.)

Set the pesto aside for use later.

Make the filling

Zest the lemon. (Use a zester/striper if you have one; otherwise, use a regular vegetable peeler and cut the wide strips into skinny ones.) Save about half the strips for garnish and mince the rest. Then cut the naked lemon in half and juice it.

Prepare the peppers by using a sharp knife to skim off the inside membrane (the whitish layer). This gives you a deeply colored, glossy surface that is very pretty.

Dice the pepper (or peppers, if you are using a mix of colors; I used red and orange). Dice the onion. Save about a tablespoon of the diced peppers for garnish. Chop the walnut pieces coarsely and divide into two portions.

Chop up the remaining half-cup of arugula leaves.

Grate the cheese. (Use real parm-reg! The stuff from the green can doesn’t taste good.) Since it costs an arm and a leg, I tend to grate it coarsely so that I can savor its taste separately!

Now make sure that you have put aside the items that we need later for garnish: half of the walnuts and half of the grated cheese for a topping on the tomatoes; and the pesto, a little bit of the diced pepper, half of the lemon zest (the strips), and the flowers for the plate.

In a small bowl, combine all the remaining ingredients for the filling: the breadcrumbs, the remaining half of the minced garlic, the remaining diced pepper and onion, the chopped arugula leaves, the remaining half of the chopped walnuts, the remaining one tablespoon of olive oil, the lemon juice and minced lemon zest, the red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt and grind of pepper (or to taste).

Fill the tomatoes

This amount of filling works for two large or four small heirloom tomatoes. Cut off the top one-fourth (that’s the stem end) of each tomato. Core the tomatoes, being careful not to let the knife cut through the skin. (Especially if you are using very meaty tomatoes, save the top and core!–You can just chop them up and use in a tuna salad or something. These tomatoes taste too good to waste any of the flesh!)

Gently press the filling into the cored tomatoes, ending with a slightly rounded top. If the filling felt dry at all, drizzle each with a small amount of olive oil (about a teaspoon). Then sprinkle the surface with the remaining walnut pieces and cheese.

Turn on the broiler and broil the tomatoes just until the cheese melts and gets a little color. Watch them!–I let mine go a bit too long, and the walnut pieces got darker than I wanted. (They still tasted good though.)

Plate the stuffed tomatoes

It’s fun to play with your food! Make a puddle of the arugula pesto on the plate. (I’m not happy with my pesto; it has separated a bit. I’ll make it a few more times in the next couple of weeks to see if I can figure out what I did wrong.) Place the tomato next to it. Dry the flowers and petals, if you are using them. Sprinkle the plate with the garnishes: bits of pepper, lemon zest, and flower petals. If you like, you can add a slice of crusty bread, and maybe a light dessert like a sherbet. (This is actually a pretty hearty lunch; you won’t need much else.) Even with my beginner’s problems, this was a tasty dish. Serve it and EAT!

Ham pairs well with nectarine-papaya salsa!

Aside

Remember the nectarine-papaya salsa I talked about on June 30th?–I had a little bit left. Then in rummaging around in the fridge for lunch today, I saw that I had a little slice of my Lefever Holbrook Farm ham steak left as well. Piled on the salsa, and it was really good!

When I was growing up, for a special treat my mother used to decorate a canned ham with pineapple slices (also from a can) and maraschino cherries (from a jar, natch). She would stick each cherry with its pineapple ruff to the ham with a brightly colored toothpick. (I bet your mother did too.) We always considered it very festive! I thought of that old dish as I ate my ham with salsa, also very festive with its bits of golden nectarine, papaya, and bright red cherry tomatoes!

Cooking Mark Bittman: Glazed lamb ribs

I haven’t cooked lamb ribs in months (–actually, now that I think about it, not since I wrote about my wonderful Lefever Holbrook Farm ribs on January 16). So Mark Bittman’s recipe for glazed lamb ribs in the New York Times Magazine last week caught my eye. A little complicated!–Not hard, but lots of steps. He’s playing with deep layering of flavors and textures. But for me, the flavor of lamb is deep enough! I often add nothing to it at all (or at most a little garlic and rosemary). Why would  you do all that to succulent little lamb ribs?

Why indeed?–I decided to find out. Some time toward the end of last week I pulled my last package of Lafever Holbrook lamb riblets out of the freezer to defrost. But the recipe sat on my kitchen counter until, about to walk past it one more time yesterday afternoon, I found myself pulling out spice jars–time to do it!

As a beginner, I have to apply a kind of kitchen hermeneutics to any new recipe. He asks for “2 racks lamb ribs;” does my package of riblets qualify as a “rack?” How much does a “rack” weigh?–My package is a little over a pound; do I halve the recipe? My ribs are already cut apart; will that fatally undermine the cooking process he recommends? With a complicated recipe like this one, I can see that cooking it is going to be one long interpretive act. Well, let’s get on with it.

Essentially, we are making lamb ribs with yogurt sauce. But oh those ribs! First they will be rubbed with herbs and roasted, then they will be glazed and grilled, and then they will be dusted with a crunchy sprinkle. Finally they will be paired with a yogurt sauce (like tzatziki, but with mint and chives instead of cucumber). Here’s how it goes.

Step One

Start with “2 racks lamb ribs.” (I went with my riblets; if you decide to cook along, go see your butcher first.) The ingredients for the initial layer of flavors, the herb rub:

  • 2 T kosher salt
  • 6 cloves garlic, peeled and finely diced
  • 6 sprigs thyme
  • 3 sprigs rosemary
  • 2 bay leaves

Here’s the recipe narrative for this step: “Preheat oven to 275. Trim most of fat from the surface of the lamb racks and place them in a large roasting pan. Combine salt, garlic, and herbs and rub over lamb. Place in oven and roast for 2 hours. Remove pan from oven and turn ribs, then return to oven for 30 to 60 minutes longer, or until the lamb is just tender and starting to pull away from the bone. Remove pan from oven and set aside.”

I didn’t trim any fat off the ribs; I love fat. (Will this mess them up?) I don’t have a large roasting pan, but I have a roasting pan, and the ribs fit, so it will do fine. I halved the amounts of the herbs, sort of. Also, I used fresh Tabor thyme and rosemary from my garden, but a dried bay leaf. (it says “sprig,” so that must mean to use fresh herbs, right? And if you are going to rub them on the ribs, you should mince them, right?) My riblets, although already cut apart, were kind of stuck together in a block, so I decided to leave them that way, and rubbed the herb mixture on the block as a whole. I roasted them for an hour and a half, then turned them and roasted them for about another 30 minutes; I reduced the time because I was pretty sure I had a much smaller amount than Mark had in mind, but I think they might have ended up a bit more tender if I had cooked them as long as he wanted me to. (Honestly, I could happily have eaten them at this point!)

Step Two

But now on to the glaze. Here’s the list of ingredients:

  • 1 C sherry vinegar
  • 1 C honey
  • 1 T fennel seeds, cracked
  • 1 T coriander seeds, cracked
  • 1 T freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 T ground Aleppo chili
  • 2 T unsalted butter, cold

And the narrative: “Meanwhile, make the glaze. Combine vinegar and honey in a small sauce pan placed over moderate heat. Add fennel, coriander, black pepper and Aleppo chili and bring to a slight simmer. Lower heat and allow the mixture to reduce by half. Remove from heat and whisk in the cold butter.”

I used the full quantities of ingredients because the glaze sounded so good that I wanted to save some for another use. But I didn’t have sherry vinegar, so I subbed in a really good zinfandel vinegar (how far wrong could that go?). I measured out my fennel and coriander seeds onto a cutting board, covered them with a paper towel, and thwacked them with a mallet. (Some mistakes you make only once–if you hit an unconstrained mound of coriander seeds with a mallet, it explodes like a fireworks flower all over your kitchen.) Getting back to making this glaze, I wish that I had clobbered the fennel seeds first, then the coriander; the spheres of coriander cracked but not so much of the fennel. Also, what is “Aleppo chili?” I couldn’t find it at my neighborhood store. But Wikipedia says it is a mild chili like an Ancho. Bonanza!–I have ground ancho chili right there on the shelf. Then, “reduce by half”–I didn’t actually notice the starting level of the liquid in the pan. Oh never mind, it’s supposed to be a glaze, I cooked it until it became a shiny syrup.

Step Three

Now let’s make the sprinkle. The ingredients:

  • 2 T coriander seeds, toasted and cracked, or 1 T ground coriander
  • 2 T Aleppo chili
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 T parsley, finely chopped

And the narrative: “Combine coriander, chili, salt, lemon and parsley in a small bowl and set aside.” I halved the amounts, and toasted and cracked the coriander seeds. (The sprinkle is supposed to add crunch, right?–So why would I use ground coriander?) I minced the lemon zest; it probably would have been better if I’d left it coarser. Next time!

Step Four

Let’s grill these babies! Here’s the narrative: “Light a fire in grill or preheat broiler in oven. Slice ribs into individual pieces, cutting between each bone. When coals are covered with gray ash and fire is hot, put chops on grill directly over coals, or on a pan in the broiler. Using a pastry brush, coat lamb lightly with glaze and continue to cook, turning occasionally, until the meat begins to turn golden and crisp, approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Remove to a platter and sprinkle with the topping.”

Well, I have a gas grill, but we get the idea. I think “chops” is a typo? (I love it when the New York Times has a typo; this morning I had to stare for a moment at a description of a misbehaving male as a “rouge.”) At any rate, my riblets cooked to a lovely mahogany and smelled fabulous.

Step Five

Now, the yogurt sauce:

  • 1 C best-quality whole milk yogurt
  • 1/2 C creme fraiche
  • 1/4 C mint, minced
  • 1 T chives, minced
  • 1/2 clove garlic, finely diced or grated on Microplane
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce, to taste
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

The narrative: “Combine yogurt, creme fraiche, mint, chives, garlic and lemon zest in a medium-size nonreactive bowl, then whisk to a smooth consistency. Season to taste, transfer to small bowls and serve with lamb ribs.” Except that I didn’t add any Tabasco (add Tabasco, after slaving over all these spices?!?), I stuck to the script. (Actually, later on I added a little sriracha to the yogurt sauce, to follow through on the recipe’s concept. Delicious!)

The Result!

Worth the effort?–Absolutely! Mark, we love you!

(I drew the recipes directly from Bittman’s article “Aye, There’s the Rib” in the June 26th issue of the New York Times Magazine. Bittman adapted these recipes  from originals by Jim Leiken of DBGB Restaurant in New York.)

Fourth of July grill! Halibut with Nectarine-Papaya Salsa

Try something different for the Fourth of July!–How about grilled fish with a grilled-fruit salsa? This is a flexible, relatively simple dinner with lots of tasty variations!

Here’s where we are going: grilled fillet of halibut on cilantro pesto, with grilled nectarine-papaya salsa and a salad of field greens and shredded red pepper with honey-lime dressing. I just came up with these recipes and made this dinner tonight! (Practicing up for the Fourth.) Let’s take it step by step–I’m a beginner, so I’ll suggest a couple of variations along the way in case you don’t like some of the ingredients, but I hope you’ll suggest some other ways to go!

Shopping list

This is a pretty comprehensive list of ingredients; note that you divide up these quantities to use in the different components of the dinner.

  • 1 bunch cilantro (divided) (or if you don’t like cilantro, I think you could go with Thai basil, or regular basil)
  • 1 C nice olive oil, or a bit more (divided)
  • up to 4 cloves garlic, minced (divided)
  • about 2 tsp of salt (ideally, kosher) (divided)
  • 3 to 4 limes, depending on size and juiciness (divided)
  • 1-1/2 (one and a half) tsp honey
  • 1/8 tsp fish sauce or to taste (optional)
  • dash of cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 lb. salad greens (I used a mix of field greens, some from my garden)–enough for four people
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1/4 red onion, medium-diced (or other onion, but the red is pretty)
  • 2 red jalapenos (ditto)
  • 1 C cherry tomatoes (a mix of colors is nice)
  • 4 ripe nectarines (or peaches)
  • 1 Mexican OR 2 Hawaiian papayas (the Mexican ones are bigger) (or cantaloupe)
  • Canola oil or similar “hot” oil for prepping the grill
  • Halibut fillet (about 1/4 lb. per person) (or other mild white fish)

Let’s take the components one by one, in what seems to me the best order (for flavor development and stress reduction, as well as having the one component that should be hot, the fish, actually come off the grill at the right moment and not be sitting on the counter over-cooking while you frantically mince cilantro.)

Cilantro pesto

You can make the pesto ahead (I make it every time one of my cilantro plants is about to bolt, which is about every 15 minutes or so!). It is very simple! Pinch off the leaves of a cilantro plant (or small bunch from the store) and put them in a Cuisinart bowl (I have a “mini-prep plus” that is great for small jobs like this). Add a chopped clove of garlic and a pinch of salt. Have on hand about a half-cup or more of nice olive oil; drizzle it into the mixture as you chop it up. (The cover of the Cuisinart has a little hole in it for this purpose.) I like a fairly coarse, thick pesto; if you want it to be thinner, you can always add more oil. That’s it! Put it in the fridge if you’ll use it within say a week, or freeze it in an ice tray and store the cubes in a freezer bag in the freezer.

For this meal, you want enough to make a puddle on each plate below the piece of fish. The amount above should do for four.

Honey-lime salad dressing

A sweet-tart salad dressing seems like a natural to go with grilled fruit! You can also  make this ahead, and it’s nice to have around this time of year (I’m assuming that you live somewhere where “this time of year” means “sunny and warm”). Again, it’s simple! Combine these ingredients (this is at least enough to dress a salad for four; multiply for more people):

  • 1 T fresh lime juice
  • 1-1/2 (one and a half) tsp honey (I used a nice local raspberry honey)
  • 1/8 tsp fish sauce (or to taste) (optional, but gives it a nice base)
  • 1 minced small clove garlic
  • pinch of salt
  • dash of cayenne pepper (optional–but not to me!)

Whisk these ingredients together, then slowly whisk in (so that it makes a nice emulsion):

  • 3 T good olive oil

You could make this well ahead of time (even a day ahead); just re-whisk it before using.

Grilled nectarine-papaya salsa

I first ate papaya in Guatemala in 2005–for breakfast, like cantaloupe! It’s really good with lime juice, which gave me the idea for this salsa.

Prep the basic salsa ingredients

As far as I can tell, a salsa pretty much always has most of these ingredients: minced garlic, lime juice, cilantro (or another herb), diced onion, maybe diced tomato, and some kind of pepper, in addition to the starring ingredient. This one is no different!–Here’s what I did this time, for the supporting cast:

  • 2 minced cloves of garlic
  • 1/4 C lime juice
  • About 1/4 C coarsely chopped cilantro leaves
  • About 1/2 C medium dice of red onion (about 1/4 of a large onion)
  • 2 red jalapenos, cored and seeded, then shredded (or less, for less heat)
  • 1 C halved cherry tomatoes (I used a mix of yellow pear and cherry tomatoes)
  • Salt to taste

Gently toss all this stuff together.

Grill the fruit

For four people, get one Mexican papaya or two Hawaiian ones. Also get about four nectarines. Be sure to get ripe fruit!–The end result will be only as good as the fruit.

If you aren’t familiar with papaya, here’s a half-peeled Mexican one. (Be careful in peeling and slicing it; it will be a slippery devil!) It has seeds like a cantaloupe; cut it in half along the length of it and scoop them out. Then turn it cut side down and slice it into thick slices (at least one inch thick–you’ve got to be able to turn them on the grill without too many of them breaking apart).

If you hate papaya or don’t want to try it, use cantaloupe instead–it also grills really nicely!

Cut the nectarines in half around the stone, twist them off the stone (“unscrew” the halves), peel them, and slice them thickly (I get just about two slices per half). While you are at it, cut a lime in half and slice one or two thin pieces off each half. You can grill them briefly to make a nice garnish!

Oil your grill rack and get it VERY hot. (I have a gas grill; I let it get up to 500 degrees.) Open it and quickly put down your slices of papaya, nectarine, and lime. (I use two small spatulas to handle the pieces so I can work fast and very few go down in flames.) I leave the top up because I don’t really want the fruit to cook; I just want to get some char on it. I leave them there for about two minutes, then turn them for another two minutes. (Sometimes I lower the hood briefly if the grill is cooling too much.) But don’t depend on time; look at them and make sure they are getting some char before you take them off. I take off the lime slices much more quickly than the other fruit–just as soon as they pick up some charred color.

Then I rush the plate into the house and put it in the fridge–I don’t want the slices to cook, just pick up some color and flavor from the grill.

I use the brush to clean the grill, but leave it on–we’ll need it for the fish.

Now I have a glass of wine.

Pull everything together

Get the grilled fruit out of the fridge and carefully dice it so that you have evenly sized pieces with good color. Gently fold it into the basic salsa (I hardly stir it!–just place the pieces so that I can spoon a good cross-section of the mixture onto each piece of fish). Let that sit at room temperature while you do the rest of the prep.

Get out your salad dressing and cilantro pesto and also let them sit at room temperature. Re-whisk the dressing if it needs it.

Wash and dry your salad greens and tear into bite-size pieces. Core your red pepper, trim out the white edges and discard all the seeds, and shred it into very thin slices. Mix the greens and red pepper pieces.

Grill the fish

Oil your grill again and get it moderately hot (I shoot for around 400 degrees to start).

Portion your halibut fillets (or whatever mild white fish you prefer). Have at least a quarter-pound piece per person. Rub the fish with a small amount of olive oil and dust the pieces with salt and pepper.

Put them on the grill and close the cover. For a piece of fish about one inch thick at the thickest point, cook it one one side for about five to six minutes, then turn it over and cook for another say four minutes. You want it to begin to flake but be a little translucent in the middle–it will continue to cook for a bit after you take it off the fire.

Assemble!

While the fish is grilling, toss the salad with the salad dressing.

On each plate, make a “puddle” of cilantro pesto.

When the fish is done, put one piece on each plate on top of the cilantro pesto. Spoon some of the salsa over the fish, and add a lime slice or two.

Add a helping of dressed salad. Here we are! Serve with a piece of good crusty bread; have a dessert if you care to. I have to tell you, this was a very fresh-tasting, pleasant meal!

If you try this recipe, please comment on how it went! This is my first attempt to actually write up what I do and call it a “recipe,” and I’d really like to get your feedback.

Panza verde on Cinco de Mayo

So the buzz-kill commentariat has spent all week making sure that we understand that in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo isn’t really that big of a deal. But people, let’s focus on the real meaning of the holiday:  a ready-made excuse to INDULGE for every panza verde–lover of the avocado! I decided to celebrate by making a meal out of the Big Three–guacamole, sopa Azteca, and mango-avocado salsa.

Guacamole

Everybody has a guac recipe! Mine actually focuses more on technique, since the ingredients are pretty much standard. How to get the meat out of the avocado?–After cutting the avocado in half and twisting the halves apart, I thwack my (very sharp) knife into the pit and give it a quarter-turn. Out it comes. Then I dice the fruit still in the skin, and use a spoon to scoop it out. Sprinkle with some lime juice so it doesn’t darken. Done.

While that’s going on, I roast the tomatoes, garlic, and peppers (hot!–about 450 for 15 minutes or so, until I’m getting some char). This time I used a serrano pepper; not hot enough. Next time, back to jalapeno (or ratchet up to a habanero?–try a small one). Chop all that up. Dice some onion, chop some cilantro, juice a lime. Add some salt.

Stir it all together with a fork, mashing the avocado as you go, until you get the texture you want. (I like chunky.) If you roast the tomatoes, you trade off the texture of fresh for the flavor of roasted. I go back and forth; both are good!

Then you eat it!–And in the process, maybe you use up the whole first batch of fried corn tortilla chips that you made for the sopa Azteca.

Sopa Azteca

Do not let people tell you this is tortilla soup!–So much tastier! I found my recipe in Oaxaca back in 2006; it’s in Spanish, so some interpretive maneuvers come into play. To start, “muela y fria el tomate”–”grind and fry”? Okay, make that “chop and fry.” So, take a couple of pounds of ripe tomatoes, chop them up, and fry them in hot oil with a chopped onion and a couple of garlic cloves (“dientes” or “teeth” in Spanish). You end up with a very fragrant thick tomato slurry.

Add a handful of epazote leaves (nature’s beano), some salt, and a little water (“un poco”–I add about a quart and a half. Decide by the thickness you want). Some recipes go for chicken stock instead.

While that’s simmering, remove the seeds, veins, and stems from about three dried chiles guajillos (find them in the ethnic aisle). Toast them in a dry pan until they are fragrant and your throat is catching a little from the vapors. Cool them and cut them into little strips or squares. Add them to the soup and continue simmering for say 15 minutes minimum.

Cut four fresh corn tortillas into wedges (or strips, if you want more crunch per spoonful). Heat one or two inches of oil until it’s hot. (I’m afraid of hot oil!–I use a candy thermometer and go for no less than 350.) Add the pieces of tortilla in batches; they should foam and bounce exuberantly. Stir them until they are getting golden, then skim them out and drain them on a brown paper grocery bag. (I don’t know why either, but that’s how it’s done.)

Then dice some avocado and some queso fresco (use mozzarella if you can’t find it). Put the tortilla bits, avocado, and cheese, as well as some chopped cilantro and lime wedges, each in its own dish on the table. Ladle the soup into shallow bowls and let everybody garnish it the way they like. For me, it’s always all the way!

Mango-avocado salsa

I don’t remember where I got my recipe for mango-avocado salsa, but it’s probably a lot like yours. Diced avocado, diced mango, diced red onion. Add chopped cilantro and lime juice. A little salt. All this talk about habaneros!–I seeded one and minced the flesh. Never going back!

A salsa goes on something; in this case, a little halibut steak. Salt, pepper, a dusting of flour. Fry it until it is almost completely opaque, then let it sit there on the plate for a minute or so–it’ll finish cooking through.

After the sopa Azteca, I was way too far into hot oil! My steak picked up more of a crunchy skin than I really wanted. Note to self: take it easy (and maybe skip the dusting of flour). But very moist and tasty nonetheless! Bueno apetito!

Pocket Granny

I didn’t grow up in a bustling kitchen with a plump mother and grandmother teaching me to cook to exacting family standards. In our house we inclined more to canned ham and Potato Buds. So my cooking imagination can be let’s say a bit on the arid side.

But so what! These days, we have “virtual grannies” of every ethnicity, region, and cuisine clamoring to teach us their kitchen secrets. Cookbooks! Cooking classes! TV shows! Sites! Blogs! Mobile apps! There’s a whole world of food knowledge out there to draw on.

In fact, just this weekend, I found myself pulling together what was probably my most “informated” meal so far.

I recently got Becky Selengut’s beautiful new cookbook, Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast, and decided to make her recipe for fried rainbow trout. (For each of 15 types of seafood, Becky offers five recipes ranging from easy to hard; the fried trout is the first in its section. No need to get ahead of ourselves here.)

So I headed off to buy my fish. But the whole point of Becky’s cookbook is that we should buy sustainable fish!–Very much in keeping with my commitment to mindful munching. And here I am at the fish counter, looking at the one choice of “farmed rainbow trout.” The cookbook is at home; so, where are we on farmed fish, again?

Then I remember that just last week I downloaded the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch app to my phone: “Trout, rainbow, US farmed. Best choice.” Excellent! I buy it. All of it–it comes with head and tail intact. (But mercifully, no scales.)

Back at home, I go to Becky’s book’s companion site, www.goodfishbook.com, to watch the how-to video on how to fillet a fish. Oops!–The videos aren’t up yet. (This cookbook is hot off the press.)

No problem!–I go to Videojug (“get good at life”) http://www.videojug.com/film/how-to-fillet-a-fish-4, where I get a reasonable idea of how to proceed. I decide that it will be enough to get rid of the head and tail and get the fillets off the bone–I’ll cook it skin-on. (I should have taken some “process” pictures, but at this point no sane person would put these gunked-out hands on a camera.)

The recipe calls for a garnish of fried bacon (diced), mushrooms, and sage leaves. I bought some bacon when I got the fish. I already had a little package of dried chanterelles, so I reconstituted them to use, and I have a sage plant out in my garden plot where I got some leaves. To make it a meal, I got some nice fat asparagus (to me, much better than those skinny spears), which seemed like a perfect match for the bacon-y garnish.

(I see this morning in the New York Times that Mark Bittman also likes bacon with fat asparagus. He says this in his occasional column named “EAT.” Mark, you are so annoying.)

Add a little green salad with a simple vinaigrette. Satisfying! And prepared under the guiding hands of my pocket Granny! Do you have a similar knowledgeable online tribe that you consult for your cooking?–Share your favorites!

Update:  Becky’s videos are up!–and they’re excellent!:

http://www.goodfishbook.com/gfb/index.asp

How I poach an egg

I love poached eggs! And I make them by sliding eggs straight into hot  liquid–no little trays or cups between them and the almost simmering water.

But I have to protect myself from my beginner’s clumsiness, so I start off by breaking each egg into its own teacup.

TIP:  If a chip of eggshell falls into the cup, use a piece of the eggshell itself to fish it out. The slime-on-slime encounter between big and small pieces of shell somehow persuades the chip to ride up the side of the cup instead of slithering away on a swell of raw egg-white from your finger.

Meanwhile, I’ve put a pot of water on the boil. I use one with rounded sides, so you can fish around in there no matter where your egg settles in; I’m not a patient person, so I blast it at high heat until it almost boils (but doesn’t!).

Then, I tip each egg into the almost-simmering water. (Some people like to set up a swirl, so the eggs are less likely to stick. I don’t bother–if they stick a bit, I slide a spatula under them to set them loose in the water.)

NOTE:  An egg white has two parts–the thin albumen and the thick albumen. You have to accept the fact, as far as I can tell,  that the thin outer albumen layer is going to be a loss. It will spread out in the water, turn murky, and not look like anything you want to eat. As a cheap person, this bothers me, but I’ve learned to live with it.

So I leave the eggs in there for almost four minutes while I make the muffins or toast that I am going to put them on. Tonight, I didn’t have any muffins, but I always have a loaf of Grand Central Bakery sliced Como bread in my freezer. So I fish out a couple of slices of this wonderful honeycombed bread.

I happen to belong to the same book club as Gwen Bassetti, the founder of Grand Central Bakery; one of these days I’ll do a posting on her first-class operation. But for now, back to the eggs.

I toast a couple of slices of the Como and butter it nicely. (I’ll save the discussion of butter to another day.)

Then I use a wire-mesh strainer or slotted spoon (whichever one is clean) to scoop the eggs out of the water and slide them onto the toast.  Kosher salt, fresh-ground pepper, and EAT!

Update:  I heard from Ez the Food Pro (more later about him): “Here’s the key to losing as little of the white as possible: white vinegar.  A cap full or two in the water before it boils keeps the egg together when it’s dropped in. Doesn’t change the flavor really either.”

I tried it and it worked!