Hello Friends, I am sorry I have been out of touch the past (gasp) five months.
The sale of our house was a speed of light event this spring that left us in an odd spot. With the home we’re building not ready until late fall, and a rental market not friendly to short term leases, Bill and I were looking at being nomads. Where would we land in the interim?
While on one of their early morning hikes, Bill was lamenting our housing situation–or lack thereof–to his longtime friend Kyle. Loping the trail, Kyle didn’t miss a beat.
“You can stay with me.”
It was a generous offer from a man newly widowed. Abby, his wife of forty-four years, had grappled with cancer the last five, and succumbed in January. That left Kyle alone for the first time in the house they’d bought in 1975. It had been many years since I’d been inside the suburban ranch, but Bill assured me it could accommodate us. It had a guest bedroom and bath off the kitchen, separated from the remainder of the house.
Grateful for a place to live, we accepted.
Preparing for our gypsy time, we adopted the same attitude we did in selling and giving away our belongings to downsize for the next home. What was essential? Other than my basics— clothing, toiletries, and laptop—what would I take with me? I chose my knife set, a favorite cast-iron skillet, and my fig colored Le Creuset Dutch oven.
Of course it never plays out that simply. There were boxes of canned and dry goods from my pantry. Files from my desk. Our bicycles. Clothes and hats and shoes covering two seasons for two adults that filled two large bins. Even when you’re trying to go lean for the long haul, it still mounts up. Our stuff.
When we arrived at our new residence and began unpacking, our host became agitated. “Too much stuff,” Kyle declared.
“Don’t put that there,” he admonished Bill, who was looking for a spot to set a container of his clothes. “You’re covering an outlet.”
“Where’s all that going to go?” he bristled as I tried to unpack a bin of pantry items.
“Nancy’s going to be cooking for us,” Bill called out.
“Not for me,” Kyle responded.
Ouch. What had we done? It was as if he imagined us showing up with a pair of suitcases, like weekend guests. We were both shaken. How was this arrangement going to play out?
In the whirlwind of dissembling our home, and wrapped up in our own jumble of feelings, we hadn’t considered the impact of this move on him. It had taken a lot for Kyle to invite us into his home. Long before his wife’s death, he’d become hermetic. Sure, we would see him several times a week, meeting up for hour-long hikes in the wooded park. But that’s a far cry from meeting a person on his private, grief-filled ground.
I walked through the still house, a snapshot in time. Both living and dining rooms were museumlike, and beckoned no one. A stack of magazines, calendars, and Abby’s reading glasses laid on a side table in the den, as if awaiting her return to the easy chair beside it. In the kitchen, near-empty glass canisters of flour, sugar, and rice lined the back counter like sentinels, bearing witness to the silence. A strand of dried chilis long ago tacked over a window hung sun-bleached and coated in dust.
Into this place we entered, bringing in our energy, a clash that left me stumped: What had prompted Kyle’s invitation? Maybe there was a part of him that wanted us to be there.
I set my skillet on the stove top, my block of knives on the counter and decided that, despite his pronouncements, I would cook for him.
It began fitfully. The cooktop, an old Gaggenau with two gas burners and two electric, was cantankerous–both gas burners wouldn’t function at the same time. Click Click Click Click the automatic pilot wouldn’t fire and the sound vexed Kyle. And then I couldn’t tell if I turned on the correct electric burner—the knob positions didn’t make sense— unless I tested the hot plate with my fingertips. Nevertheless, I pushed through. I pan-seared steaks, fried potatoes with onions, and served them with a big salad, proud to use spuds and greens harvested from our vegetable garden. Score one for the Clean Plate Club! Kyle seemed to relish every bite. Maybe he’d warm to the idea that someone would be cooking him a delicious meal.
Still, it was bumpy. Some things Bill and I couldn’t do right. Latch the gate. Load the dishwasher. Leave the sponge here not there. We did too much laundry and put too many things in the refrigerator. Some days I’d wait until Kyle went out, and I’d scour the fridge or pantry for “scary foods,” items of his long-expired that I pitched into the trash. Any extra cooking–like roasting my garden tomatoes—I’d do during those times too.
For the first awkward weeks, the only place where I felt grounded was our garden, a sunny patch flourishing in the backyard of my brother’s office. Tending the tomato plants laden with plump fruit, scrutinizing the squash plants for hidden zucchinis: these acts felt familiar and comforting, and had no direct bearing to where I was or was not living.
In time, I found grounding in Abby’s kitchen.
A kitchen is personal and I was unsure of how I, a trespasser, would be received. Even though she’d left this earthly plane, this room was her domain. In her health, Abby loved to cook. Her shelves, jammed with cookbooks spanning decades, told a story of home and family, travels and interests. Tucked among the classics Joy of Cooking and The Silver Palate, were funny dated ones like Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah. (Dinah Shore!) Several ring-bound regional collections spoke to her heritage: Talk About Good! from the Junior League of Lafayette. Abby had been born in Texas and raised in Louisiana.
She also had every drawer and cabinet filled with cooking equipment: pots, pans, baking tins, casserole dishes, gadgets, utensils, measuring tools…you name it, Abby had it. Each mealtime included my stealth process of discovery, depending on what I needed at the moment.
I came to appreciate the age and quality of her things. Her first generation food processor still functioned well. While it had no pulsing mechanism, its steel blade, a heavier gauge than current models, worked its magic on my pestos and purees.
A cache of vintage Pyrex bowls and storage containers tucked in the back of a cabinet charmed me with their turquoise imprint of a farm couple, corn stalks and roosters. I used them whenever I could. A set of stainless steel cooking tools with melamine handles in a harvest pattern became another go-to; they felt right in my hand. The prize was this Hamilton Beach stand mixer, a relic beauty complete with beaters and thick milk glass bowls, which I found just in time to make my dad’s birthday cake.
Through July and August, I lined her windowsills over the sink with my ripening tomatoes. I found a large basket to hold our bounty of yellow squash and peppers, which I kept on the counter by Abby’s canisters. I didn’t take over her kitchen; I wouldn’t dream of it. But I was reanimating it.
Sometimes, while snapping beans or sauteing onions, I would think about Abby and what she would have been cooking. I wondered if she liked this spatula or that strainer as much as I did. I wondered if she would mind another woman in her kitchen, using her pots, standing over her stove. In a house steeped in sadness, here I tapped into her overriding spirit of generosity.
One evening, I was cooking boneless chicken breasts in fresh lemon and garlic; the heady aromatics filled the kitchen, and soon, the rest of the house. From the den, Kyle called out, his voice brimming with the excitement and urgency of a child on Christmas morning,
And then, he was in the kitchen; his flat grey eyes sparkled. A simple dish became an awakening. And triggered a flood.
He talked about garlic, how much he liked it, how Abby would cook with scads of it. How he’d grown up eating plain country food—he was just a meat-and-potatoes boy—and how Abby introduced him to the wonders of garlic and lemon and hot peppers and dirty rice. She knew how to season, kick up the heat. Pride swelled in his voice: Abby was a very good cook.
It had gotten difficult the last years, though. Pain meds had left her addled; she couldn’t remember all the elements of, say, her gumbo or chili. Food didn’t taste the same, either. She relied on Kyle to sample and advise. More thyme? Or cumin? More often than not, he’d say,
“A dash more cayenne.”
I listened, and thought about my garden, with two plants covered in red and green chilis, little electric-hot Christmas trees. I’d cook with more fire and spice.
LOUISIANA CAYENNE PEPPER SAUCE
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, minced
1 teaspoon salt
50-60 cayenne peppers, destemmed
2 cups water
1 cup white vinegar
Note: be sure that you are working/cooking in a well-ventilated place.
Use a 2 quart saucepan placed on medium heat. Add vegetable oil.
Add garlic and onion. Saute for 2 minutes. Add salt, then stir in peppers and saute for another minute.
Pour in water, stir well and cover. Cook for 30 minutes.
Uncover and simmer for another 15 minutes—water will reduce and the peppers will become tender. Pour in the vinegar. Simmer for 10 minutes.
Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Use an immersion blender, or food processor fitted with a steel blade. Puree.
Pour through a strainer, discarding solids/seeds, then your sauce is ready to bottle.
Keeps, refrigerated, for 3-4 months. Makes 1 1/2 pints.
roasted cauliflower-vidalia onion ragu over blue corn grits and
sea island peas cooked in bay laurel over carolina gold rice
Bins, boxes, bubble wrap,
newsprint, packing tape, Sharpies.
Bit by bit, over the past weeks, moving mode has taken over, as I prepare to leave our home of sixteen years. While my mind churns, What will come with us? What will we sell? What will we give away? shelves and drawers begin to empty. Closets shed their contents. Sturdy cardboard boxes bound in wide tape line up along the walls. Bit by bit, the life force of this house ebbs away.
It’s a process, and through most of it, I’ve felt detached. It’s the best way to plow through the stuff you’ve been living with forever, all snippets of a bigger story. My friend Vicki calls it the house diary, and reviewing it can bring moments of pleasure.
One afternoon clearing out the secretary I found the menu from a little walk-up eatery in Mendocino that served the freshest tasting vegetable burrito I’d ever had. In a flash, I’m on that breezy rise overlooking the Pacific, limitless blue. Another day, a cache of my daughter’s elementary school art work surfaced, like her sweet Thanksgiving drawing of our green planet with her message “I am thankful for the world.”
Sometimes it’s caught me off guard, tapped into feelings deep within, a gush of grief, a pang of regret. Wrapping the little urn that contains photos and ashes of our cats, beloved and long deceased. Or coming across a random catering picture of me and Bill from 1993. We were so young. And I looked so pretty. Why did I not believe that about myself then?
Sorting through the house diary also entails closing out the kitchen pantry. My mission has been to use up those ingredients in the freezer or larder. Of late, I’ve been cooking with an assortment of heirloom grains and legumes I ordered from Anson Mills of Charleston South Carolina.
Do you know about this place, its mission and its products? Since the late ’90’s, Glenn Roberts has labored to repatriate the Southern pantry with heirloom grains once prominent and –due to corporate farming practices–passed over.
Carolina Gold rice, a specialty of the region revered for its plump texture and nutlike taste, had all but vanished. So had different strains of dent corn, which made the best tasting cornmeal and grits. On the wane, too, was the drought-resistant, protein-rich small red peas grown by the Gullah people of the Sea Islands dotting the Carolina coast. Reviving these southern foodways for us to enjoy now, and preserving them for future generations has been monumental work.
Treat yourself (they are pricey) to these heirlooms. The rice, which I cooked in a sofrito of onion, garlic, and sweet red bell pepper and vegetable broth was addictive. Each deep-flavored grain-separate- had satisfying mouth-feel. True gold. The Sea Island red peas, cooked simply as you would other dried beans in onion, garlic and bay leaf, had a delicate savory-sweet pop. Together, they rivaled any bowl of red beans and rice I’d ever dipped my spoon into.
As for the blue corn grits, a native American strain, I took care to follow the Anson Mills directions. The grits really benefit from a long soak and cook. Coarsely ground, my batch yielded a rich pebbled yet creamy texture. And what a color! When I topped it with the caramelized cauliflower-vidalia onion mixture—a tower of candy-sweet tastes—the result was so delicious, Bill and I could have been at Husk. Almost.
BLUE CORN GRITS WITH ROASTED CAULIFLOWER-VIDALIA ONION RAGU
ROASTED CAULIFLOWER-VIDALIA ONION RAGU
1 head cauliflower, washed, chopped or broken into florets
2 Vidalia sweet onions, peeled and cut lengthwise into eighths
several sprigs of fresh thyme
kosher or sea salt
coarse ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Place cut pieces of cauliflower and onions in to a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Liberally coat with olive oil and spread out onto a baking sheet.
Place into the oven and roast for 15-20 minutes, until pieces are browned and caramelized.
BLUE CORN GRITS (recipe adapted from Anson Mills)
1 cup Anson Mills Blue Corn Grits (or coarse grain white or yellow)
2 1/2 cups filtered water
2 cups vegetable broth
Fine sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Place the grits in a 3 quart heavy-bottomed saucepan and add the water. Stir well and let the grits settle for a few minutes. The chaff and hulls will rise to the surface—skim and discard. Cover and let the grits soak at least an hour–or overnight at room temperature.
Set the saucepan over medium heat and bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for 5 to 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and cover the pan. Meanwhile, warm 2 cups of broth in a small saucepan. Every 10 minutes or so, uncover the grits and stir them; each time you find them thick enough to hold the spoon upright, stir in a small amount of the hot water, adding about 1½ cups water or more in 4 or 5 additions. Cook until the grits are creamy and tender throughout, but not mushy, and hold their shape on a spoon, about 50 minutes if the grits were soaked or about 90 minutes if they weren’t. Add 1 teaspoon of salt halfway through the cooking time. To finish, season to taste with salt and pepper.
Ladle grits into bowls. Mound each with roasted cauliflower-onion mixture. Sprinkle shredded pecorino and chives over the tops. Serves 4.
Kale, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, parsnips, beets:
After years of being forgotten, feared, distained, dismissed, each of these veggies is having its moment of redemption. They all have found their way back onto the restaurant menu and everyday dinner table, in creative delectable ways.
We’re no longer surprised by roasted Brussels sprouts, pan-seared cauliflower steaks, or parsnip puree.
I had to laugh, when I went to a modern diner that offered “The Obligatory Kale Salad.”
We’re in the midst of a vegetable renaissance.
So, here’s my latest discovery I’d like to share: beet hummus.
(Upon viewing my gleaming magenta bowl, friend Steve jokingly declared, “There’s no such thing as beet hummus.”)
Well, yes. In part, it’s all in a name—although I have seen some recipes that puree the root vegetable with hummus essentials chick peas and tahini.
But I decided those might overshadow the earthy-sweet complexity of the beets.
Plus, by themselves, beets possess enough body to make a thick, hummus-like dip. So, I made mine in simpler fashion, relying on another middle Eastern staple, Sumac, to give it tangy depth.
(You can find sumac at most global markets and some grocery stores such as Whole Foods.)
After you’ve cooked (you may either boil or roast ’em–whichever works for you at the moment!) and chilled your beets, you’ll pulse them in a food processor with garlic, lemon juice and zest, sumac, ginger, salt, red pepper flakes and olive oil.
Healthful and delicious and, in its way, beautiful.
If you want add a little more pizzazz to the batch, top the ruby churn with crumbled goat cheese and chopped scallions. Or toasted walnuts. Sesame seeds. Cilantro.
Serve with crackers or pitas.
But wait, one more thing!
Don’t pitch your beets’ leafy green tops into the compost bin. Not only delicious, beet greens are rich in vitamins and minerals. More iron than spinach. More nutritional value than the root!
You can saute them in a bit of olive oil and garlic, as you would with Swiss chard, or finely cut and marinate them for a salad, as you would kale.
The leaves make a mighty fine pesto, too. I’ve included that recipe below. Use it in any applications that call for traditional pesto. The simpler, the better: Spread over flatbread and topped with roasted vegetables or tossed over penne, coating the warm pasta with garlicky-green piquancy.
Following the way of The Third Plate, use the whole beet.
2-3 garlic cloves
1 lemon for zest and juice
1 tablespoon sumac
1 tablespoon fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4-1/3 cup olive oil
1-2 ounces crumbled goat cheese
1 green onion, finely chopped
Place cooked and chilled beets into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade.
Add garlic cloves, lemon zest and juice, fresh ginger pieces, sumac, salt, and red pepper flakes. Pulse until the ingredients are chopped up together. Continue to pulse while pouring in the olive oil.
Taste and adjust for seasonings–for salt, citrus, and peppery heat.
Spoon into a serving bowl. Topped with crumbled goat cheese, chopped green onion, and any remaining lemon zest.
Drizzle the top with olive oil and serve with crackers, toasted flatbread, or pita chips.
BEET GREEN PESTO
1 bundle fresh beet greens, saved from 1 bunch fresh beets–washed and dried
2 cloves garlic
1 green onion–green and white parts
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup grated pecorino romano
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup olive oil
Place all of the ingredients into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade.
Pulse, occasionally scraping the sides of the bowl. Taste for salt and pepper.
Place into a clean jar. Cover and refrigerate. Makes 1 1/2 cups.
I’ve never talked about it here, but one of the food hats I wear is that of restaurant critic for our newspaper, The Tennessean. For over six years, I’ve been covertly dining around town and writing columns about my experiences. “Dream job!” so many people say to me. I smile and respond, “Yes and no.” Like most jobs, it has both its up and down sides.
I enjoy being out in the community, and this work allows me to go to many many places, sampling many many dishes (some wonderful, some less so) that I would otherwise not be in a position to do. While I don’t believe that any of my negative reviews have put someone out of business, I do think that my focus on an eatery, be it brand new or one of the old and perhaps forgotten ones, can make a difference in terms of its success.
Dining out at least two times a week, eating a wide variety of foods can wreak havoc on a body. No matter if it’s high-end, chef-driven, farm-to-table, mom-and-pop, ethnic, or low brow, restaurant food simply is richer, more calorie laden than what I cook at home. (Plus I wind up eating more than I normally would.)
I’ve adopted a plan: VB6. Vegan Before 6pm It’s not new. Mark Bittman, cookbook author and former New York Times food columnist, introduced this concept a few years ago. He would eat strictly vegan–no meat, no eggs, no dairy—throughout the day. Instead, lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. After 6pm, he would eat, in moderation, whatever he wanted.
He found it to be effective-simple-flavorful way to shed unwanted pounds and overall improve health.
I’m only on day 3 of this new approach. I have confidence that this will help–I’ll let you know in weeks to come. In the meantime, I wanted to share this especially delicious soup I recently made that satisfies any number of dietary criteria:
It is vegan. (No meat, eggs or dairy)
It is gluten free. (No wheat)
It is paleo. (No dairy, wheat and cereal grains, potatoes, legumes)
It is whole 30. (No meat, dairy, wheat, grain, legumes.)
Did I mention that it is truly delicious? (Smile)
It is easy to make! (might be the best part.)
I found the recipe on the New York Times cooking website, and its sunny appearance appealed to me. The recipe is by the esteemed Melissa Clark, who notes that the soup’s beauty is that once you make it, you don’t need a recipe. Any number of vegetables and variations are possible.
Of course, I made a few alterations.
Cauliflower is the versatile wonder-vegetable. Simmered and pureed, it gives the soup its velvet body. Carrots add bright sweetness; onions and garlic are ever the work horses in anchoring the soup’s foundation.
But, it’s in the layering of spices and lemony herb oil that brings true dimension to the dish, and soulful satisfaction in the eating.
Be sure to toast the coriander seeds in the skillet to release the aromatic oils before crushing them with your mortar and pestle. Lemon zest and juice stirred into the olive oil-cilantro mixture really make it sing.
CARROT-CAULIFLOWER SOUP WITH LEMONY CILANTRO OIL
adapted from Melissa Clark, Cooking New York Times
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 large onion, peeled and diced
2-3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed
1/2 head cauliflower, cut into florets
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
1 quart vegetable stock
zest and juice from one lemon
½ bunch cilantro, leaves finely chopped
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
Place a large pot over medium heat. Add the oil and heat until warm. Stir in onion; cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about 7 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook 1 minute. Add carrots and cauliflower. Season with salt, turmeric, and curry powder. Pour in vegetable stock. Cover and bring mixture to a simmer for 10-12 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.
Meanwhile, make the garnishes—toasted crushed coriander and cilantro pesto oil.
Recipes are below:
Remove the soup from the heat. Using an immersion blender, purée the soup until smooth. Taste for salt and adjust.
Ladle into warm soup bowls. Sprinkle toasted crushed coriander over each, then spoon and dot a little cilantro pesto oil and serve.
Makes 4 servings
In a small skillet over medium heat, toast coriander seeds until fragrant and golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a mortar and pestle and coarsely crush.
Cilantro Pesto Oil
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro leaves
zest and juice of one lemon
salt, to taste
In a small bowl, add the olive oil, cilantro, lemon zest and juice. Stir well.
Add a pinch of salt to taste. Stir well again.
Confit: from the French word confire meaning “preserved”
a confit is any type of food cooked slowly, often in fat, as a method of preservation.
If the stars align and I happen to be shopping at Costco soon after their shipment of chanterelles arrives, I am able to delight us all with something delicious using these wild mushrooms. (The Costco price, around $10 a pound, makes them irresistible.)
Some years it works out, prompting me to make the likes of chanterelle tart, risotto, and savory bread pudding. When I discovered the cache this year, I knew in an instant that I could use them on crostini for a party I was catering. (toasts, slathered with butternut squash puree, topped with simmered chanterelles and shallots.)
Um, yes. I fell off my no-catering wagon, and put together a fall-inspired menu of passed hors d’oeuvres for a fundraising event last Thursday evening. 150 guests! It was for a noble cause–Radnor Lake State Natural Area--an extraordinary 1000+ acre preserve in the heart of a Nashville suburb.
So, while I was figuring how to prepare these for the event, I wanted to learn a way to preserve the golden beauties. Add some staying power to their ephemeral nature.
We’re all familiar with duck confit; wouldn’t confit of chanterelles work?
A little interweb research confirmed my suspicions.
The Earthy Delights Blog, devoted to hard-to-find funghi, truffles and such, has an informative post about the confit in question: a slow savory meld of chanterelles, onions, garlic and dried apricots (fitting–the mushrooms themselves have a stonefruit essence) in olive oil and chicken stock.
I adapted the recipe, opting for vegetable stock instead of chicken, adding a splash of sherry vinegar and some fresh thyme. (For those of you with certain dietary concerns, my version is vegan and gluten-free.)
The result? A jammy mushroom mix that is exotic,
supple, sweet, meaty, with a little sherried vinegar tang…truly luscious.
Guests clamored for the chanterelle crostini at the Radnor Lake party. (Overall a huge success, by the way, wherein many guests asked, “Who’s the caterer?” Knowing that I was doing this as a one-time thing, my friend Bev came up with the best answer: “It’s Anonymous Catering.”)
Days later, I cooked some brown rice and ladled gently warmed confit and juices over the top for our dinner. Some still remains in my refrigerator–enough to fold into omelets, or spoon over creamy polenta, or blend with sour cream and dry mustard for a stroganoff sauce.
Refrigerated, the confit keeps a month (if it lasts that long.) You can freeze it too, for up to six months. Perhaps I’d better go back to Costco and get some more—if they’re still in stock!
CHANTERELLE CONFIT (adapted from The Earthy Delights Blog)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 pound fresh chanterelles, cleaned and cut (or torn) into 1/2″ strips and pieces
1 large onion, small dice
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup dried apricots, chopped
1/2 cup sherry vinegar
1 cup vegetable stock
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar
pinch crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon coarse ground pepper
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
Heat the olive oil in a deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the chanterelles, onions & garlic and saute until the onion becomes translucent and the mushrooms begin to soften. (15 minutes) Stir often, making sure that the ingredients cook evenly. Add the diced apricots, sugar, salt, pepper and crushed chili, then pour in the sherry vinegar and vegetable stock. Add the sprigs of thyme.
When the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low. Continue to cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has reduced and the mixture thickens. ( 40 – 60 minutes.) Taste for seasoning and set aside to cool.
Spoon the confit into a clean glass jar and top it with a pour of olive oil. Cap it and refrigerate. This will keep for a month. You may freeze the confit for up to 6 months.
The Plus Element
That’s what my friend Maggie calls it. On any path to mastery, there’s always one more step.
I think that’s why I both enjoy and feel challenged by my kitchen calling.
Thirty plus years on this culinary path, and I am still learning.
Thirty plus years, and I am still excited about food.
Today’s post shares two of my most recent discoveries, and they couldn’t be more disparate.
The first took its inspiration from a meal at a new vegan-raw food eatery AVO.
The second was the product of a little pre-Thanksgiving research and experimentation.
I served both at our last potluck, to raves.
AVO (as in avocado) is Nashville’s first full service vegan raw food restaurant. (Nothing heated above 118 degrees, can you imagine?) I was beyond surprised by how delectable–and creative—it’s offerings are. No-bake sea salt chocolate “cheesecake” made from soaked cashews pureed with coconut milk, maple syrup, and bitter chocolate. Pad Thai noodles made from threads of zucchini, daikon, and kelp in a spicy almond-based sauce.
And a remarkable tabbouleh, made from pulverized cauliflower curds.
And while I’m less likely to attempt the mock cheesecake (despite its incredible, creamy mouthfeel, and rich, deep chocolate taste) the tabbouleh-style salad using cauliflower as its grain is nothing short of genius.
Finely chopped by hand, or pulsed in a food processor, the curds have the right appearance. The texture is a ready receptor for the lemony vinaigrette. The taste is convincing–bright, fresh, healthful and delicious. To the ever-growing repertoire of dishes where this species of Brassica oleracea mimics something else (like mashed potatoes, or piccata, or pizza crust…) add this recipe.
Isn’t cauliflower the versatile one?
My recipe takes the Middle Eastern mainstay, and flips it further. Instead of flat leaf parsley, I chopped a mound of tangy peppery arugula to fold in with the cauliflower. I “quick-pickled” thinly sliced red onions, for spark and color contrast. I added finely chopped broccoli. I even cooked up a batch of pearled couscous, to extend the salad for our group. (It didn’t need it.)
The second trial is the “Dry Brine.”
We are all familiar with brining–immersing a hunk of meat or poultry in a highly seasoned-salted bath for an extended, which acts as both marinade and tenderizer. I’ve brined pork roasts to my satisfaction, but my efforts with turkey have not entirely pleased me.
The flavor was there. The juiciness too. But the skin never got that same compelling crackle.
And the gravy–not that rich brown.
I attempted dry brining a turkey breast. So easy and less cumbersome. It was always a challenge to find a receptacle Large enough to hold the brine-and-bird, much less fit it into the fridge without making a sloshing mess.
Create your dry brine blend of salt, pepper, and herbs. Sprinkle all over the bird. Place into the refrigerator UNCOVERED for 24 hours. Remove the next day, thirty-minutes before roasting–let it lose some of the chill while you preheat the oven. Drain off any collected liquid at the bottom of the pan. Slip some pats of butter underneath the skin.
It’s a WOW.
Crisp browned skin, tender, juicy meat, wonderful infusion of seasonings. And this was for the breast—which can get dry. I’m looking forward to using this technique on a whole turkey for our grand Thanksgiving feast. Another step on the path.
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 small red onion, sliced very thinly
1 head cauliflower, washed and cored
1/4 cup olive oil
1 lemon, juiced
1 lime, juiced
1 head broccoli, washed and stemmed
2 cups arugula, stemmed and coarsely chopped
Quick-Pickle the Red Onions: In a separate bowl, mix the red wine vinegar, salt, black pepper, and sugar together. Add the red onions. Cover and allow the mixture to soften and pickle the onions—about 15 minutes.
Break the head of cauliflower into manageable sized pieces. Finely chop the curds and stems.
If you prefer, you may use the food processor and pulse them into fine pieces. Place into a large bowl.
Add lemon and juice. Season liberally with salt and black pepper. Pour in the olive oil and stir to coat the pieces.
Fold in the arugula.
Finely chop the broccoli. Add it to the salad.
Drain the pickled red onions and fold them into the salad as well.
Taste for seasonings and serve.
Makes 6-8 servings
DRY-BRINED AND ROASTED TURKEY BREAST
8-10 pound turkey breast
4 tablespoons butter
Poultry Dry Rub:
3 tablespoons Salt
1 tablespoon Black Pepper
1 tablespoon Rosemary
1 tablespoon Thyme
1 tablespoon Ground Sage
1 teaspoon Granulated Garlic
1/4 teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes
The Day Before Roasting:
Rinse the turkey breast under cold water. Pat dry. Sprinkle the rub over the entire breast, pushing some underneath the skin. Place onto a baking pan and refrigerate uncovered, overnight.
Remove the turkey breast from the refrigerator. Drain off any liquid which may have collected on the bottom of the pan. Cut the butter into small pats and slip them underneath the skin.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
Place the turkey breast onto the middle rack and let it roast undisturbed (and uncovered) for 1 1/2–2 hours. Check the turkey after an hour and rotate the pan.
Puttering in the garden. A dip in the pool. A day trip to the country. Stirring a pot of blackberry jam. Tomatoes, and more tomatoes, at every meal.
That’s the summer in my mind.
I’ve caught glimpses of that idyllic summer, even taken the occasional dip and day trip. For the most part, that slow carefree pace has eluded me. It’s not a complaint, don’t get me wrong. In the life of a food writer-educator-recovered caterer-grandmother, you gotta roll with whatever assignments come your way! From cooking camps to grandson care, life has been full.
But, here I am. And, I have hopes for a languid August. Beautiful produce is coming into the markets; look at that bounty. I haven’t stopped cooking. Here are a few summer dishes I’ve enjoyed.
ROASTED TOMATO-PESTO FRITTATA
Have your heard of Juliet tomatoes? They are a paste variety that look like mini-romas. I really like them for certain applications. Thick sauces. Salsa. Ketchup. And, they slow-roast into meaty ovals of sweetness.
I used them, in their slow roasted state, to make this frittata. The process started on the stovetop in my cast iron skillet, and finished in the oven.
A frittata is a fast and versatile recipe to have in your repertoire. You can find numerous variations here. I served this for an impromptu brunch for friends–it couldn’t have been simpler, and more satisfying.
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup cream (you may substitute half-and-half or whole milk if you prefer)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
1 pound roma or paste tomatoes, roasted
1/2 cup fresh basil pesto
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Coat a 9 inch cast iron (or oven safe) skillet with butter.
Beat eggs, cream, salt and black pepper together until no traces of yolk can be seen.
Place skillet over medium heat.
Pour in the egg mixture.
Add the tomatoes, dollops of pesto and shredded cheese. Cook on the stovetop for about 5-7 minutes.
Place the skillet into the oven to finish—about 15 minutes.
SPICY SUMMER-YELLOW VEGETABLE SALAD
One of the teen cooking camps I taught at the food bank was all about “Street Eats.” We explored cuisines around the world, from the standpoint of what you’d buy from a street vendor, pushcart, food truck: some times the most delicious dishes ever! One day, we made Mexican fare—grilled fish tacos, pickled cabbage, churros dusted with cinnamon sugar, and elotes—those spectacular ears of grilled corn slathered with lime-and-chili spiked mayo.
We had a few extra charred ears which I brought home. They soon wound up in this salad that celebrates summer yellows: wax beans, sweet bell pepper, onion, sungold tomatoes and crookneck squash. I blanched the beans (fresh picked from a friend’s garden!) in water seasoned with garlic and bay leaf. I sauteed the peppers, onion and squash. I scraped the grilled and slathered kernels off the cob, and mixed the whole she-bang together. Finished with a scatter of sungolds, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime. Mercy. Summer in a bowl. It was so so good.
1/2 pound yellow wax beans, trimmed
1 clove garlic, sliced
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 yellow squash, cut into julienne strips
1 golden bell pepper, cut into julienne strips
1 small onion, sliced
2 ears of corn, cooked: grilled, oven roasted, boiled
1 cup sungold tomatoes, cut in half
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro
Elote Dressing (recipe below)
Fill a skillet with water and place over medium heat. Add the garlic, bay leaf and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil. Cook the wax beans ( a few at a time–do not crowd) until tender-crisp–about 4 minutes. Remove and let cool.
Empty the skillet, dry it, and place over medium heat. Add olive oil. Add the squash, peppers and onions. Saute for about 4-5 minutes. Remove from heat.
In a large bowl, place the wax beans and sauteed vegetables. Scrape the corn kernels into the bowl. Add the sungold tomatoes, cilantro, and Elote dressing. Toss well and serve.
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons chili powder
1/4-1/3 teaspoon cayenne
lime juice from 1 lime
pinch sea salt
1/2 cup grated cotija or parmesan cheese
Mix all of the ingredients together in a small bowl until well combined.
Makes a scant cup.
MANGO BLUEBERRY LIME YOGURT PARFAIT
What do you do when you have a ripe mango, a pint of blueberries, a container of plain Greek yogurt and a lime? This is the answer. Easy-Pretty-Tasty-Healthy.
This one is barely a recipe.
2 cups plain Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons of your favorite honey
1 lime—juice and zest
1 pint blueberries, rinsed and stemmed
1 ripe mango, peeled and sliced
Place the yogurt into a bowl. Add lime juice, zest and honey. Stir until well combined. Taste and adjust for sweetness, if desired.
Set up 4 glasses (or whatever serving vessels you’d prefer.) Place a dollop of yoghurt in the bottom of each. Follow with a handful of berries, a few slices of mango, and repeat the layering until the glass is full. Garnish with basil or mint leaves and serve.
Welcome the return of
Neighbor Ray’s petite green beans, true haricots verts
grown in his meticulous urban backyard garden.
Sleek and delicate, just picked and crunchy sweet.
The sack still holding the day’s warmth.
A summer highlight that had gone missing for a couple of summers.
Two years ago, Ray’s crop did too poorly. Pests and such.
Last year, I was out-of-pocket. Book promotions and such.
But this year, they’re back.
And I’m back. Thank goodness.
As I’ve done in productive summers past, I’ve created a dish to celebrate them.
This time, I gleaned inspiration from a favorite local chef, Roderick Bailey of The Silly Goose, who makes a bowl of green beans and yukon gold potatoes, nestled in a pool of hazelnut romesco sauce. He finishes the dish with shavings of Manchego cheese and a flourish of paprika oil, in Spanish tapas fashion.
Now, in my pantry and fridge I had many of the ingredients to replicate. Those golden potatoes, buttery companion to the beans. I had cremini mushrooms to add to the mix, impart their own kind of meaty umami.
As for the romesco, I had ripe bell peppers. An anaheim too, for a mild kick of heat. A couple of tomatoes. Half an onion. A piece of shallot. The critical sherry vinegar.
A few missing elements, though. No hazelnuts, nor Manchego cheese. No paprika oil, either.
No matter. I could still achieve a luscious base for the dish. A simpler romesco. I even eliminated the soft breadcrumbs often used as a thickening agent in traditional preparations. Let’s keep it gluten free. The peppers, once roasted and pureed with a splash of vinegar, a teaspoon of paprika, would have rich body and deep flavor.
It all comes together with minimal work. Blanche the slender green beauties–done in just minutes. Roast potatoes and mushrooms. Roast, then puree peppers, tomatoes, onions and the like. Pool and spread the romesco. Arrange the vegetables; let them settle into the sauce.
(If you have Manchego, or toasted hazelnuts to garnish–go for it.)
Stand back and admire the brilliant composition of colors and textures.
Then, dig in.
For other ideas for preparing and serving romesco sauce, visit here.
RAY’S BEANS AND ROMESCO
1 pound haricots verts, or young thin green beans, stems removed
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into cubes
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, quartered
coarse ground black pepper
Bring a large skillet of lightly salted water to a boil. Put in the beans and cook for 3 minutes. Plunge them into an icy bath to cease the cooking and set their bright green color. Drain and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Place the cubed potatoes onto a baking sheet. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt and black pepper. Toss to coat.
Place quartered mushrooms onto a baking sheet. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt and black pepper. Toss to coat.
Place each pan into the oven and roast until the potatoes are crisp and lightly browned, yet have soft cooked interiors—about 20 minutes. The mushrooms will roast more quickly, about 15 minutes.
Set both aside and make the romesco sauce.
SIMPLE ROMESCO SAUCE
1 red (or yellow or orange) sweet bell pepper, cut in half, stemmed and seeded
1 Anaheim pepper, cut in half, stemmed and seeded
2 cloves garlic
2 roma tomatoes, cut in half
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon paprika
Place peppers, onion, garlic, tomatoes onto a baking sheet. Coat with olive oil and dust with salt.
Roast in the preheated 425 degree oven until the skins of the peppers are blistered—about 20 minutes.
Remove and cool. Peel and discard the skins of the peppers and tomatoes.
Place the vegetables into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade.
Pulse and process.
Add the sherry vinegar and paprika.
Pulse and process until smooth. Taste for seasonings and adjust as needed.
Pour most of the romesco sauce onto the bottom of a shallow bowl.
Toss the green beans, potatoes and mushrooms together. Place on top of the pool of romesco.
Dot the vegetables with remaining sauce and serve.
Makes 6-8 servings
Note: This is delicious served warm or room temperature. Enjoy!
Whether we can tolerate gluten in our diet or not, there’s one thing for certain: We all have benefited from the gluten-free food revolution. The mass introduction of alternative grains has added wonderful variety to our pantry, replete with taste and nutrition. Beyond corn and rice there’s amaranth, kasha, millet, teff, and quinoa, just to name a few. And alternative flours? I can’t keep up.
We don’t have any problems with gluten in our family, thank goodness. But I’d like not to rely on wheat as much as I have. (Sorry, pasta!) Living with a vegetarian, I am always on the lookout for meat-free protein-dense recipes to satisfy a hearty appetite. Over the past months I’d noticed several dishes from Cooking Light that use a quinoa pastry crust. The idea intrigued me.
I’ve had success with cornmeal crust in the past, why not quinoa?
The folks at Cooking Light have developed 2 pastry crust recipes using the New American grain—one with already-cooked quinoa, the other with uncooked, toasted and ground. For this Southwest-inspired vegetable tart, I opted for the former. It couldn’t be easier to make–combine the grains with egg and oil, press the mixture into the pie pan and bake. (It’s a good way to use up any leftover quinoa too.)
The crust has integrity–it holds the roasted vegetables and custard while imparting its toasty nut-like flavor. We like the smoky taste of the poblanos with the other summer vegetables, a Southwest spin—but you can use your imagination and veggies at hand to create whatever filling you like. The quinoa crust is an amenable canvas.
The latter, which also has ground almond meal and cornstarch in the mix, seems like a contender for fruit pie, maybe plums—if the devil-squirrels don’t wipe out the potential bounty from my backyard tree.
QUINOA CRUST from Cooking Light
2 cups cooked quinoa
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8-1/4 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Mix quinoa, egg, olive oil and salt together in a bowl. Press the mixture onto the bottom and sides of a pie pan.
Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.
SOUTHWESTERN VEGETABLE TART
2 yellow squashes
1/2 red bell pepper
1 medium onion
1 poblano pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup half-and-half
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup shredded cheese: combination of white cheddar and cotija
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Slice zucchini and yellow squash lengthwise. Coat with olive oil and arrange on a baking sheet.
Slice peppers (red bell and poblano) into strips, onions into thick slices. Coat with olive oil and arrange on a baking sheet. Sprinkle each pan with salt and black pepper.
Place both into the oven and roast for 15 minutes.
Remove from oven and cool.
Beat the eggs with half-and-half, salt and black pepper until no traces of yolk can be seen.
Sprinkle a little cheese over the bottom of the crust and place the first layer of roasted vegetables. Repeat until you fill the shell.
Pour the custard mixture over the vegetables. Top with remaining cheese.
Place into the oven and bake until the custard is set and the top is golden—-25-30 minutes.
Cut into wedges and serve.
I had forgotten how it is, when I travel by car for any length of time. In mere days, the rhythm of the road takes over as the rhythm of life, marked off in mile posts and fuel stops, Best Western Motels and Starbucks coffees, paced by the hospitality of friends and family along the way.
Thoughts and cares of my own home fade. What is present becomes my focus–the endless flat stretches of highway through Kansas prairie, the shifting views of snow-capped Rockies in mist, the blue skies over Utah, wide and deep, dotted with lolling cotton clouds, the pink and white oleanders, heavy in bloom, spilling over the median on the California freeway.
Driving away from the day-to-day takes you to new places in the mind. For me, it brings up the curious mix of lives not claimed, and yet, the pervasive connection of all life.
What if the barren high desert of Nevada was the place I called home? Can I imagine life on a lone ranch, miles from neighbors? “Choosing this life sends out roads to earn their way without us.”
And then there’s the wonder of connection. My cousins and I see one other rarely, and yet the warm familial love doesn’t care about the years. It time jumps. Hanging out in the kitchen, making food for the book event, talking and laughing…we’ve never been apart.
Here’s another one: On the morning of the book signing, my cousin Jeanne got an email from a woman named Nancy H. Turns out she used to play bridge with my aunt, AND she is a long-time follower of my blog. It wasn’t until she read my last post with the invitation that she made the connection. She came to book signing, and we got to meet. How amazing is that?
That theme continued on our journey. In Berkeley, a friend from high school days–again someone I’ve seen little of over 40 years– helped me get ready for the signing at Pegasus Books. We shopped at the Berkeley Bowl together. I made Cornbread Panzanella in her kitchen.
And, at the Pegasus signing itself: Gerlinde of Sunny Cove Chef took the sweet notion to drive up from Santa Cruz to attend. We’ve virtually met through our blogs, now we’ve really met. The power of the web. The power of connections.
Five thousand miles, and we’re back home. Bill and I thought that everything looked fine, but felt different. We wandered from room to room, detached from our place. We’d taken up the gypsy life and hadn’t switched back into our old and familiar ways.
There’s nothing like preparing a meal in your own kitchen, sharing it with friends, to get you grounded. I’m getting there.
For today’s dish, I rummaged the fridge and pantry—found viable potatoes, beets,and green onions…green peas in the freezer. I snipped arugula and thyme from the yard.
It was kind of a throw-together, but it worked. Roasting the veggies, coating them in mustardy sweet-sour marinade, pulsing tangy arugula into the vinaigrette combined to make a delicious late spring salad.
LATE SPRING POTATO-PEA SALAD WITH ARUGULA-THYME VINAIGRETTE
2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, washed and cut into 1/2 ” slices
3 medium beets, cleaned
1 cup olive oil, divided
kosher or sea salt
2 cups small green peas, frozen
1 bundle green onions, divided
8 ounces fresh arugula
1/2 cup, divided white balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup coarse grain mustard
1 bunch fresh thyme
3-4 strips crumbled bacon (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. On one sheet pan, place the sliced potatoes. Pour about 1/4 cup oil over the slices, and toss to coat. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Roast for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown.
One another sheet pan lined with foil or parchment, place the beets. Coat with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and place into the preheated 425 degree oven to roast for 25-30 minutes.
Place the peas into a saucepan. Add 1/4 cup water and bring to a simmer on low heat, cooking the peas until tender, but still with bright green pop. Remove from heat, drain and cool.
Chop two greens onions and pick 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves. Stir into the peas and set aside.
Remove potatoes from baking pan. Deglaze the pan with 1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar and 2 tablespoons coarse grain mustard. Stir up any crusty bits into the sauce. Pour over the potatoes.
Remove the beets and allow to cool. Peel and slice into rounds. Splash with 1 tablespoon vinegar and set aside.
Make the Arugula Thyme Vinaigrette:
In a food processor fitted with the steel blade, place 3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon coarse grain mustard, 3 chopped green onions, 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, and 1 cup arugula leaves. Pulse until chopped together, then process, pouring in the 1/2 cup olive oil, a little at a time.
Season with salt and black pepper to taste.
Place a bed of arugula onto the base of the salad bowl. Place a ring of marinated potato slices, followed by a ring of sliced pickled beets, finished with a mound of peas. Dot the salad with little pours of the green vinaigrette. Sprinkle bacon bits over the salad if desired.