Archive for March, 2008

Hot, not bothered

I’m not one for surprises, not even the good kind. I’m a planner, an anticipator. If you’re going to whisk me away to Paris for the weekend, I want to know about it, so that I can pack accordingly — so that I can check the forecast and lay out the five-piece mix-and-match wardrobe and shop for shoes, sensible but chic.

But there is a bi-weekly surprise I can’t help but sign myself up for: my local produce co-op. Surprises pertaining to fresh fruit and vegetables don’t hold quite the same stipulation for anxiety. It’s delightful really, that smidge of mystery, a hands-clapped-together case of expectation. (I must admit that if I could actually sign myself up for the Paris surprise, I would. Mais, tant pis, it’s just not an option.)

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Some weeks I get giddy just thinking about it, about the possibilities of red leaf lettuce and avocados, the potential promise of haricot verts and nectarines. I never know what Brian will bring home early on co-op Saturday mornings, charcoal-grey recycled PET totes brimming. It’s serious inspiration for the cook in me: I sort through the produce and plan menus, ticking off in my head and on paper the things I can make. I rifle through cookbooks piled on my counter, my elbows propped, chin in hand, as I turn pages in search of a preparation that strikes me, mulling over the many ways to make asparagus anew (crudi this time in a salad? Or roasted and topped with an egg just poached?), or to find out what on earth one does with a bagful of fuyu persimmons.

There is this singular drawback: If I have a recipe in my file I’d really, really like to make, and it contains, say butternut squash, but the co-op isn’t offering squash at all that week, I just have to keep that recipe stashed for another time. But the economics of it all outweigh any disappointment.

This last basket threw me for a loop, though: Giant green chile-looking things, along with some smaller (inevitably hotter) ones. Were the large ones just green chile peppers? Were the smaller ones jalapenos or serranos (bingo!, that one)? I’ve eaten this stuff before, but I’ve never bought it, never prepared it myself. I had to Google images to learn that those outsized ones were poblanos: mild, I discovered, supposedly good roasted.

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Enabled by my freshly repaired oven (jumping-up-and-down-hoooraay!!), I roasted the poblanos and the tomatillos and the serranos, then simmered it all (with onions, toasted pepitas, a showering of Mexican oregano) into a salsa complete with chopped cilantro and more than a slight suggestion of lime.

It’s been feeding us all week: plopped atop salmon, as a sort-of enchilada sauce, spread on toasted pitas. And the remaining roasted chiles have gone into a Mex-style macaroni and cheese, for starters. Yes, we’re feeling hot, hot, hot…

 

Cooked Tomatillo Salsa

(adapted from “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian,” by Mark Bittman)

This is a fairly mild salsa; Add more serranos or other hot chiles if you don’t have little naysayers at your table. The recipe requires some advanced prep work: toasting the pepitas and roasting the chiles.

10 to 12 tomatillos, husked and chopped

2 tbsp canola oil

2 large onions, diced

5 cloves garlic, minced

1 C green pumpkin seeds (pepitas), toasted in a dry skillet and finely chopped in a food processor

2 medium poblano chiles, roasted and cleaned (short on time, I stuck mine under the broiler for 20 minutes, turning after the first 10)

1 to 2 serrano or other hot green chiles, roasted and cleaned

1 tsp dried Mexican oregano (regular oregano is fine, too)

1 cup water

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ C chopped fresh cilantro

¼ C freshly squeezed lime juice

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Roast the tomatillos on a baking sheet until skins are lightly browned and blistered, about 20 minutes. When tomatillos have cooled, chop them finely, along with the chiles, in a food processor to conserve the juices.

While the tomatillos are cooling, heat the canola oil in a large skillet over easy medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until very soft and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatillos, pepitas, chiles, oregano, water and large pinches of salt and pepper. Stir and bring to a low simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is slightly thickened, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Finish with the cilantro and lime juice, adjusting to taste.

 

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Plain and simple

“The food was plain but appetizing, and Nancy ate with zest.” (from The Secret of the Old Clock — Nancy Drew Mystery Stories by Carolyn Keene)

Funny how “plain” food can motivate one to eat with such gusto, with such enthusiasm, but why not? In Nancy’s case the plain food she was digging into (as Emmy shared with me while reading the other day) was a campfire dinner.

Thanks to our very own mystery, The Mystery of the Broken Oven Latch, we just had our own little twist on the old tinfoil dinner. We went a little more refined than chunks of meat and hunks of potato and carrot lumped together with a dash of dirt then charred on an open flame, though — but only because we have four walls and we’re fresh out of Duraflames. Instead we cued up juicy whitefish filets atop fine slices of carrot and waifish spears of asparagus, dotted with herbs and splashed with broth and lemon, each portion packaged in its own parchment paper pocket.

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Sounds perfectly lovely, I know, but there was a hitch. In the midst of my meal planning for the week, when I’d penciled in our dinner of fish en papillote, I’d counted wholeheartedly on one thing: that our oven would be fixed. And, sigh, it wasn’t.

Our persevering Maytag repairman had arrived time and again on our doorstep, carrying what was purported to be just the part to fix our cold, vacant oven. But each time (and there were several times, believe me, I lost count), he discovered that the parts people had sent him something either a little too large, a little too small, or something just not right at all.

Who knows what was going on over there at Maytag headquarters, but in the meantime recipes for things I couldn’t make — things that required baking, roasting, broiling — were collecting all around me. I had an entire new brownie book by Linda Collister, cookie recipes from Heidi, salmon and bread recipes from Cook’s Illustrated. It seemed the longer I was without my oven, the more I wanted to make things that had to be made in an oven. And those things wanted to be made, I’m telling you. The recipes were finding me, not the other way around, the way it usually goes.

Perhaps the saddest thing about all this is that the oven went kaput smack in the middle of winter, during those very few weeks when it’s cool enough that cranking the oven temperature is actually a welcome activity. In mid-spring and throughout summer, forget it – using the oven for anything more than baking cookies is downright unreasonable, environmentally irresponsible, even.

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But life has a way of imposing gratitude on you sometimes, not to mention strong arming you into greater flexibility (something perfectly warranted, in my case). So in no time I summoned thankfulness for all the dishes I could call to order on my stovetop or on my indoor, countertop grill. You know: stir fries, risotto, things on skewers. There was even a lasagna that had a surprisingly successful rendezvous with the microwave.

But when it came down to making my fish packets, it was a now or never proposition (wait to make that fish sitting in your fridge and you’ll be sorry). I didn’t know if technically it was alright to cook parchment paper on top of my indoor grill, but there was just no other way. And, blessed thing, it worked! Eight minutes flat, and the fish flaked perfectly, the asparagus and carrots were just tender, and the whole thing smelled mighty good. We all dug in with purpose — or with zest, as Miss Nancy Drew might say.

 

Fish Wrapped in Parchment

This is as pretty as it is easy. Switch it up with different combinations of fish and vegetables -– whatever you have laying around. Just make sure the vegetables are all cut to about the same size for even cooking. The parchment paper instructions are adapted from those of Alton Brown, Mr. Exactitude himself.

4 4-to-6-ounce skinless whitefish filets, such as tilapia or snapper

16 asparagus spears

4 medium carrots, peeled

½ bunch chard, stems trimmed

1 to 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

½ C vegetable broth, water or dry white wine

chopped herbs (you call it! We like basil, thyme, parsley, chives…)

8 lemon slices (orange slices are an amazing variation)

salt and pepper, to taste

 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees or preheat indoor (lidless) grill to medium high.

Cut parchment paper into four 12X30 inch rectangles. Fold each piece in half (“like a book,” Alton says). Draw large half heart shapes on the rectangles, the fold being the center of the heart. Cut out hearts and lay flat (see? Told you it was pretty).

Snap the ends off the asparagus. Slice carrots in half horizontally, and then slice again lengthwise into thin strips, about ½-inch wide. Stack chard leaves on top of each other and roll them up, then cut into strips about 1-inch wide.

Divide vegetables evenly among parchment hearts, laying them up against the fold, and sprinkle lightly with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Top vegetable piles with fish filets. Top filets with herbs, lemon slices, salt and pepper. Fold the other half of heart over fish and, beginning with the top of the heart shape, fold up both ends of the parchment. Once you reach the end tip of the heart, gently lift up the packet and pour in a couple tablespoons of broth. Continue folding the parchment, twisting it tightly to secure it.

Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until fish flakes easily with a fork.

Serves 4.

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Feast meets west

Does anyone have a recipe for Vietnamese street crêpes? It’s just one of many recipes I need to track down in my culinarily festive state, fresh as I am off the feed wagon that is the West of Western Culinary Festival.

The other — seemingly unrelated — bit of information I’m in need of involves how to handle it when the Most Odious Woman in the kingdom wedges her Botox-ed, self-important-ness between you and your husband five minutes into the truly important chocolate class (I mean, who has their priorities so twisted that they’re tardy to the chocolate class?).

But more bitterness from me on the M.O.W. later. Let’s focus first on culinary festivity, which is altogether better for you, heart, soul and all.

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Brian and I attended the festival with willing stomachs and open minds, to scout out new ideas and tastes. The annual event purports to be a showcase for food trends, concepts, equipment and methods, savory and sweet. But who’s fooling who? Really it’s a posh line-up of mostly newish Phoenix-area restaurants and other food purveyors foisting prettily plated sample after sample on us poor attendees. It was an ordeal of a day, let me tell you, slurping down seafood panang while standing in line for corn and jalapeno focaccia and all the marinated olives a girl could ever hope for — then chasing it all with a hot and chili-spiced cider “shot.”

At the end of the day, my head was full of all the things I need to try to make, including those Vietnamese street crêpes: strips of tofu and shiitake mushrooms, stirred on a hot griddle and then covered in a quick-cooking blanket of thin, egg-heavy batter. There was also a veritable cloud of polenta, the fluffiest I’ve ever tasted, but with a disarming melty richness. On the sweeter side was a vanilla-bean layer cake with mascarpone frosting that was so dense it will from this day forward change the entire hateful paradigm I’ve constructed around cake in general, and a soy-caramel fondue with pound cake and pineapple skewers.

Hello, satisfaction. Please make yourself at home.

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But I made sure to feed the brain as well as the belly (the better to feed the belly later on, based on information stored in the brain). I learned to “bloom” my stir fry oil with ginger or other spices for a more authentic Asian dish and to use a potato peeler to thinly slice carrots for said stir fry. I discovered — and received a free bagful of — tepary beans, indigenous to Arizona, as well as Bambu All Occasion Veneerware. These little guys biodegrade in four to six months and seem an eco-friendly alternative to paper plates.

Especially memorable was the chocolate tasting, where not only did I learn that there are more than 1,500 flavor compounds present in chocolate — more than wine, more than coffee — but that M.O.W. eschews anything but 85 percent dark. (And I thought I was a shoo-in for Club Choco Snob, well-versed as I am in terroir and cocoa solid content blah blah but nevertheless offering thrice-weekly tributes to M&M Darks.)

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Once M.O.W. and her husband hustled in and she aggressively inserted herself between me and Brian at our table, we were party to their back-and-forth, high-volume grunts and haughty commentary regarding the lecturing chocolatier. Other than a couple of swift under-table kicks to Brian’s leg and some subtly rolled eyes (all to signal, “Can you believe this woman?”), I didn’t know what to do. Surely there was some pointed (but not mean) comment I could have made to quiet her, but I wasn’t coming up with a darn thing.

At the end of the lecture — and despite her moments-ago criticism — M.O.W. spared no toes lunging for one of the few absinthe truffle samples. We took the opportunity to flee her perfume, which had unfortunately tainted our chocolate tasting. We didn’t stick around to see if the Green Fairy would whisk her away to the hollow of a wormwood tree (not that I’d really wish that on the good folk of Jura) and stepped out again to mingle amongst the white tents, ready anew to taste something else plated on white Styrofoam.

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Peel, chop, boil…breathe

I have these little people in my house that need to be fed on a regular basis. Meaning a few times daily (sometimes more: my five-year-old is on a somewhat worrisome pretzel bender. Although she’s contemplating making the leap to Honey Nut O’s, the Trader Joe’s version of Honey Nut Cheerios. Shall we compare the nutritional merits of each snack? Their levels of processed foodness?). The two big people who live here also require sustenance via some nutrient-delivering source or another, and I’m not talking Carnation Instant Breakfast.

The beautiful thing about all this feeding is that, more often than not, the fashioning of foodstuffs feeds not only our stomachs, but that part of me that needs to just freaking take a timeout once in a while.

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Take the other night, for example. I’d been shuttling my girls around all the late afternoon, shopping for a baby gift, as well as for the requisite accompanying big sister gift, and we ended up arriving home much later than my usual dinner prep time. Our stomachs were nagging and blood sugar was lagging and the evening still held an agenda (sound familiar, anyone?).

But I had a dinner plan, and darn it if I was going to stray from it. Even if we near imploded because said dinner required a fair amount of prep and every pot in the drawer.

On our way home, I’d been lip-bitingly close to falling into the takeout trap, tempted as I was to just ever-so-casually stop by our favorite Asian food joint and “grab” dinner, as those people who frequent takeout say. So easy, it would have been. They have curbside service and the best, perfectly spiced, not overly cheesy crab wontons, you see. But full of the knowledge that the ingredients to my dinner plan were on standby in my fridge, I just couldn’t call someone else to make me food.

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I shooed my hungry girls away to shower — the better to keep them occupied, to shave precious minutes off the bedtime routine — and got to my chopping and peeling and boiling, to my using near every pan in the house (five total for this recipe – this is craziness). I was making Lentil and Sweet Potato Burritos, a variation on a Sweet Potato Enchilada recipe I made once, and inspired by a Lentil and Sweet Potato Stew recipe I have stashed in my “Make This Soon” file.

It was one of those meals you make when it’s slim pickings in your pantry and you kind of need to get to the store. But instead, in a fit of resourcefulness, you find that if you only combine a little of this (sweet potatoes) with a little of that (lentils), and toss in a bit of something else (onions, cilantro, spices), you have a meal that couldn’t have come together better had you actually planned and shopped for it.

This is my favorite way to prepare a meal right now. It makes me feel… oh, I don’t know, a little inventive, like I’ve got a bit of domestic cleverness up my sleeve, after all. And the making of it was actually a really relaxing thing, despite the way I rushed into the kitchen and started banging around, rifling for potato peelers and cutting boards and cumin, warm and comforting.

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Sometimes it’s a relief not to have to undertake the mental exercise of following a recipe, of reading directions dictated by some detached recorder of a particular method. I’ve sautéed an onion so many times that I’m as comfortable with that as I am layering on mascara. And that, friends, does not make sautéing an onion a daily bore, but a ritual akin to slipping on your favorite fluffy socks.

You hear that exhaling sound? That’s me — all four stove burners turned on to one heat setting or another, my onion chopped and looking all glisten-y, my lentils simmering their lives away — remembering to breathe.

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