Saturday, July 31, 2010

An old married couple

Artichokes are frumpy. That's really all there is to it. They actually look pretty nice when you first buy them. The lovely color green, sometimes brushed with purple, all in a neat little bulb, with the "petals" hanging down like a tutu. But then, you cook it. And that pretty little green becomes a dull and completely lifeless shade of camo green. The petals, which had once been tightly closed, open up a bit. It's not the prettiest sight.

But all that is made up for because artichokes are so fun to eat. I grew up eating artichokes, and as a kid, they were probably the most fun food. Eating an artichoke is like playing with your food. You break off one little petal, scrape off the meat with your teeth and continue. My mom has always served artichokes in a pretty traditional way, steamed, with lemony mayo for dipping. I've never been much of a mayo girl, and though I am coming around, I've started to prepare mine a little differently. The cooking method remains the same, but before cooking, I stuff bits of lemon peel, mint, and garlic between the petals. Toward the end of cooking, I pour over a little vermouth, which adds a lovely sweetness. All of this adds some subtle flavor to the artichoke.

Recently, I had two artichokes. I prepared one in my usual way. But then I decided to try something different with the other. I'd read about bagna cauda in an issue of Bon Appetit magazine, and had been wanting to try it. Bagna cauda means "hot bath" in Italian, and is a warm, garlicky dip for vegetables. The dip is very easy to make, and contains very few ingredients: garlic, butter, anchovies, olive oil. You can read a recipe here, though I made mine a little differently, with less olive oil.

And oh my goodness, it was perfect. An amazing accompaniment to the artichokes, which have a very mellow flavor. Bagna cauda, as you can probably tell from the ingredients, is anything but. So the combination of mellow and intense works really well. The artichokes let the other flavors shine. The garlic becomes mellow and sweet, and the anchovies add their very unique saltiness. And though I can't believe I ate a whole bulb of garlic in one sitting, it was worth it, and not at all hard to do.

Plus, bagna cauda is just as frumpy as an artichoke. They are a perfect pair.

Comfort Food

Today I'm writing about something I was sure I'd blogged about before. But I checked just to make sure, and I haven't. So it's about time I give a shout out to one of the most sublime dishes of all time, the croque monsieur. This little baby comes to us from France, and is basically an amped-up version of a ham and cheese sandwich. The big difference is that everything is slathered in cream sauce and then thrown under the broiler.

I first heard about croque monsieur in high school French class, which is most likely where you've heard of it if you ever took high school French. I seem to remember it being pretty ubiquitous; "Qu'est-ce que tu veux manger?" "Je voudrais un croque monsieur." That sort of thing. Well, high school passed, and so did my study of French, but I was reunited with the sandwich on the pages of Ina Garten's Barefoot in Paris. I decided to give it a shot, and let me tell you, it was amour at first bite. I began making croque monsieur all the time. I think my mom thought I was a little crazy. But I was hooked. Croque monsieur (with a glass of red wine) has become my ultimate comfort food.

Maybe that statement is a little shocking. For one, isn't comfort food supposed to be hearty things like meatloaf and pot roast that are rich and warm and make us feel good in the winter? Perhaps. And isn't comfort food those meals we grew up with, the ones our moms poured so much love and care into, and to this day remind us of childhood? Absolutely. But for me, I choose a croque monsieur, and I choose it for two reasons. (1) It's quick. The brilliance of the croque is that it takes very simple ingredients and makes them into something that doesn't taste simple. Making a cream sauce may seem like a lot of work for a sandwich, but you can make one in less than five minutes. When I come home after a long day and need something to cheer me up, I know that I can have bliss, quick. (2) It just. tastes. good. In yesterday's post, I talked about taste, and how we can eat food and not even be aware of what we're tasting. That never happens to me with my little monsieur. It tastes delicious to me every time.

I think it's the mustard. Funny, because growing up, I never liked mustard. In fact, I didn't like many condiments. I've come to realize it's mostly a texture thing--globs of those soft, almost gelatinous mixtures just didn't appeal to me. But then I made croque monsieur. And I just spread the thinnest layer of mustard on just one slice of my bread. It was a revelation. The gooey texture of the mustard is not there at all, but the flavor certainly is. And it's a sharper flavor than everything else. It cuts through the creaminess of the sauce, the nuttiness of the cheese, and the silkiness of the ham. And the result is beautiful.

So, I'm thinking right now you might be wanting to make a croque monsieur of your own. Do it. Here's how:

Throw a couple slices of good white bread (Pittsburgh people--I use Mancini's, but anything Italian-style will do) in the toaster to lightly toast. Basically, you just want to crisp it up.

While the bread is toasting, make your Bechamel (the cream sauce). Here's how to do it:
  • Melt 1 T of butter in a saucepan over medium low heat.
  • When the butter is melted, add 1 T of flour and stir together, making a kind of paste (this is called a roux, and it's what thickens the sauce).
  • In a slow stream, pour in about 1 cup of milk (maybe less), quickly stirring the whole time, to avoid lumps.
  • Let come to just under a boil, and cook for a few minutes so it thickens a bit.
  • Take off the heat and add a combination of grated parmesan and gruyere (or swiss) cheese, about 1/3-1/2 cup.
  • Sprinkle in a pinch of salt, nutmeg, and fresh ground pepper. Stir.
That's it!

Now assemble the sandwich. Take the bread, and on the bottom slice, spread a thin layer of mustard. The French would probably use Dijon, but I like something with a little spice. Use what you like.

Put a couple slices of ham on top.

Spread a thin layer of Bechemel on the top slice of bread, and put the sandwich together.

Now slather the whole thing with Bechemel. Make sure all the bread is covered in sauce. Any parts that aren't may burn when you broil.

Sprinkle with grated cheese (or sometimes I just a slice of swiss from the deli counter).

Put on a pan and put under the broiler until the cheese is bubbly and golden.

Eat with a knife and fork. And a glass of red.

Bon Appetit!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Umami, or, why our senses matter

“It’s good when food tastes good. It’s kind of like proof you’re alive.”

The above quotation is from a novel by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (I believe Norwegian Wood). It's a simple and profound truth—our senses matter. Sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste, these are the mediums through which we perceive the world. They are crucial to our understanding, to our emotions. A writing professor of mine once said that our senses are avenues to our feelings. Our brains react to what we perceive and register an emotional reaction. When we feel the sun on our skin, we are happy. When we see grey skies, we are subdued. Yet somehow, we often forget that our senses exist, even as they are happening. Our eyes take in images that we forget. We hear music, yet simultaneously drown it out.

Taste is perhaps the most interesting of all the senses because taste comes to us through a necessary human action—eating. We must eat and drink to sustain our physical lives. Yet it is possible to participate in the act of eating and never taste a thing. Perhaps we only see and feel our food. We eat a plum, and our mind registers the image, so our brain knows to “taste” a plum. But the experience of actually tasting is much different. We do more than see purple, smell sweetness, and feel juices. All of these other senses affect our taste, but they are not taste. Taste is rather difficult to describe. Scientists say our tongue registers four tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. In the early 2000s they finally acknowledges a fifth--umami. Technically, umami is amino acid. It's what we taste in meat and parmesan cheese. But umami, named from the Japanese language for the Japanese chemist who first did experiments to "discover" it, is translated into our language with one simple word--delicious.

And can we really describe food any other way? We see that it is beautiful. We smell that it is fragrant. We feel that it is crunchy (or smooth). We even hear it sizzling in the pan. But when it comes to taste, I think the best we can hope for is to taste that it is delicious. To be truly aware of what we are eating. It is possible to eat and not know that the food is good (and sometimes, it really isn't). The food will keep you alive. But when you eat, and know that the food is good, you can also know that you are alive.

To close, some random photos of what I've been eating this summer (it was all delicious):

Hodge-podge meal: Golden beets with ricotta salata, greens with bacon, sauteed corn with jalapeno

Summer lunch: fried green tomato "BLT", toast with roasted red pepper spread and summer sausage, ricotta salata

Summer breakfast: lemon blueberry pancakes with black mango tea

Summer happy hour: soft-ripened goat cheese, peaches with honey, glass of vinho verde

Friday, July 23, 2010

Remembering summer one bite at a time

So, recently a friend blogged about summer experiences/memories and ended by asking other people to share some. So I thought I'd leave a few thoughts here...

I'm sure it's obvious that food is a big part of my summer. It's exciting to eat so many fresh vegetables after the cool winter months. It's the time of year for picnics and grilling. I love that I can go grab some fresh mint if I need it. I can drink iced tea. And probably best of all, eating outside all the time.

And looking back, food has always been a big part of my summers. Here's what I remember:

Dad grilling ribs and me loving them so much...making sassafras wraps with my friend Catherine and opening our little "Nature's Way Cafe" with my brother and sister as customers...eating sassafras off the tree in our lower yard and my dad commenting, "looks like deer have been getting the sassafras"...husking corn on the cob...picking black raspberries for hours...walking down the creek to the falls with my mam-ma and making "soup" with cut up carrots and celery...sucking the "milk" out of milkweeds...the whole family going out for ice cream after random dinners...going to the camp in Punxsutawney and cooking over the fire...telling Abby that my favorite drink was "highly shooken water" and shaking water in a bottle to make it...eating artichokes and then using the leaves to "draw" on brown paper bags...always bringing my parents a "treat" with their beers...

I'm sure there are many more! What are your summer food memories? Or what summer food do you like forward to this summer?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Birthday Treats

Monday was my birthday, and it would be impossible for me to celebrate without a few special food items. To start the day, I made gingerbread waffles with a star-anise-scented plum syrup. (In keeping with the slightly Asian theme, served with Chinese black gunpowder tea.) Both of these were new recipes, and I was really pleased with how both turned out. The waffle recipe was from the Colorado Collage cookbook, and I based the syrup off of your basic bar staple, simple syrup. Here's how to make it:

Mix 1/4 c brown sugar and 1/3 c water in a saucepan with two small pieces of star anise. Bring to a boil, stirring to mix. When boiling, add 4 small halved plums (I had mini plums from the farmers' market, if yours are bigger, cut into smaller pieces) and boil for a few minutes to let the sauce thicken. Take off the heat and let cool slightly. (I used the leftover syrup, chilled, to make martinis later that evening--recommended!)
For happy hour, I made some simple cocktails and hors d'oeuvres for my mom and me to share. Drinks were Gin Rickeys with raspberries, and the food was radish-ginger pot stickers and homemade pickled beets. I used chioggia beets, which have a lighter red skin than regular beets, and are red and white striped on the inside. They are also a little sweeter. I sliced the beets very thin and put in a pot with about 1/4 c vinegar, 3/4 c water, a few peppercorns, and a bay leaf. Bring to a boil and then simmer until beets are cooked through, just a few minutes. Let cool and then chill in the fridge. Yum!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Crabbiness is next to godliness

I've been putting off writing this post all week, because the task of putting into words culinary perfection is so daunting. But that's just what I experienced last weekend, so I'll give it a shot...

I wonder what it would have been like to live in the Garden of Eden. Can you imagine? Perfection. Perfect love between Adam and Eve. Perfect harmony between all God's creatures. And perfect food just waiting to be eaten. I don't imagine that Adam and Eve spent time trying to build fancy cooking gadgets. They probably didn't marinate their steaks for hours before they grilled them. They just, you know, reached up to a tree and grabbed a piece of perfect fruit. Granted, that method didn't always yield such desirable results, but you get the picture: peaches were hanging there in all their peachy-ness, lemons have never been more lemon-y, and beets were sweet enough to pull out of the ground and bite into, skin and all.

All this to say, that sometimes the best food doesn't need much adornment. When that first ripe tomato of summer comes along, what do you do? Certainly not mash it into a pulp with garlic and spices for spaghetti sauce. Save that for winter. You just eat the tomato. That's it. In this month's issue of Real Simple magazine, one of the features is "3-Ingredient Summer Recipes". In the introduction, the editor comments, "Smart, sophisticated food is not about the number of ingredients involved; it's about finding great elements that work perfectly together."

Well, I'd like to share a little 3-ingredient recipe that just about equals perfection. It's been around for ages, and it goes a little something like this: dump crabs (1) and Old Bay seasoning (2) into boiling water (3). Take crabs out. Eat.

This is what I was blessed enough to experience for hours on end last Saturday at Jimmy Johnson's annual Crab Feast. Jimmy is my mom's cousin, and for the last ten years he's invited carloads of crazy relatives down to his place in Maryland, and tirelessly serves up crabs all day. People go around dumping buckets of crabs on the tables. There's also corn, and plenty of mallets and paper towels to go around. This is simple food. But it's real food, and other than a couple cold beers to wash it down, you don't really need anything else.

But, I would be remiss if I didn't mention one important ingredient, and that's the family. All the wonderful people milling about are what make the day. Hearkening back to the Eden reference, it's a day of perfect love between this big Italian family. And of course that makes everything more delicious. Because no one wants to eat crabs in a room all alone.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Summer Lovin'

One of my most favorite types of produce to buy from a farmers' market is apricots. I love their small, humble beauty. Tiny little orbs of light, they are simple, and a little sexy. To me, they have one of the most pure tastes I've ever experienced; very definitively apricot. There is no mistaking it. I love that, like orange, grape, and tangerine, they have a color name.

Ever since my 21st birthday, my mom has always given me a handmade card. Nothing fancy, just white paper with "Happy Birthday" written on it. But the precious part of these cards, is that, year after year, she finds some little poem to paste onto it. I don't know where she comes across these things. She doesn't particularly care about poetry, but she knows I do. And so there they are. These small, surprising, unknown poems.

The first year she did it, the poem was about apricots:

A Newborn Girl
by Nan Cohen

Consider one apricot in a basket of them.
It is very much like all the other apricots--
an individual already, skin and seed.

Now think of this day. One you will probably forget.
The next breath you take, a long drink of air.
Holiday or not, it doesn't matter

A child is born and doesn't know what day it is.
The particular joy in my heart she cannot imagine.
The taste of apricots is in store for her.

Ah, I just love that. The taste of apricots is in store for her. The mother is so excited for all the beautiful things that her daughter has yet to experience. Surely the taste of apricots is one of them.