Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bacon for a crowd

In July my brother brought his family from Australia for a visit.  I knew that Robbie, his 11-year-old son, was keen on American bacon, which is different from and, at least in Robbie's mind, better than their local stuff.  So we went to the grocery, found my favorite brand on sale, and decided what the heck, there was room in the freezer, why not buy six pounds? 

Then came the glorious moment -- the bacon rang up at its original price, not the sale price.  We told the cashier, she sent for a price check, and we got all six pounds for nothing!  What's more delicious than free food?

Fortunately my son the cook had told me about his new method for painless bacon.  Doesn't get the stove greasy, doesn't require any tending, tastes great.  The first morning we made one pound of bacon and realized it wasn't enough.  The second morning we made two pounds and it was superb.  I'll spare you the details of subsequent porkomania (heck, we're German, what do you expect?).

Here's the easiest bacon you'll ever make.

Get a cookie sheet with walls, or a jelly roll pan.  Line it with foil.  Spread out the bacon so it's only one layer deep.

Put the pan into a cold oven and turn it on to 410 degrees.  After 20 minutes, take the pan out and if the bacon is swimming in grease, spoon off as much as you easily can.  Put the pan back in the oven rotated 180 degrees, just in case you have hot spots.  After 7 more minutes, check to see whether the bacon is done to your liking.  Guten Appetit!

PS -- save the bacon grease.  It improves many a dish.  I'll talk about that some day soon.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Watermelon memories

One of the side benefits of getting old is the chance to complain about how things used to be so much better.  Fortunately (?) the subject of food presents many such opportunities.

I'm not talking about minor inconveniences such as favorite brands that disappear -- I'm talking tectonic shifts in food production and availability, and when they take away your beloved foods it's cause for mourning.

The first to come to my mind is the Northern Spy apple.  In the day, Spies were everywhere in upstate New York, a tart, firm apple with the best taste and texture I've ever known. And I'm not alone.  A brief Google search turned up this paean from Fred Lape, the director of an arboretum in New York, in 1973:  "As a standard of excellence by which to judge, I would set the Northern Spy as the best apple ever grown in the United States.  To bite into the tender flesh of a well-ripened Spy and have its juice ooze around the teeth and its rich tart flavor fill the mouth and its aroma rise up into the nostrils is one of the outstanding experiences of all fruit eating."  Yes!  Yes!  Fred!  Yes!

By 1973, however, the Spy was already getting hard to find. Wikipedia reports "it fell somewhat out of favor due to its dull coloration, irregular shape, tendency of the thin skin to allow bruising, and lack of disease resistance, specifically subject to bitter pit and blossom fireblight."  Well, that does make quite a list of handicaps, but then again it tastes great.   I chatted with an upstate NY apple grower last month at a farmer's market and asked whether Spies are all gone; he said some orchards still have a few trees but only for walk-up customers.  Supermarkets don't want them, dullness and irregularity being two qualities that trump great taste any day. 

Then there's pork.  When I learned to cook as a teenager, porkchops were one of the favorite family meals and my mom's recipe was foolproof.  But as the years went by, I started to notice that the chops didn't turn out so good any more.  The fat was didn't melt right so the chops didn't brown.  The meat seized up and got tough instead of simmering to tender perfection.  The pig farms had bred all the good fat out of pork, called it "lean meat" and then because it was so dry and tasteless, shot it full of saline solution to make it "moist and tender."  I no longer buy pork at the supermarket, only at the specialty butcher where it's not really like the good old days but at least has no saline additives.

My latest endangered food is just now going over the cliff.  It's the watermelon, the good old-fashioned huge watermelon with seeds and all the flavor in the world.  Last year we were able to buy two seeded watermelons that sneaked into the supermarket by accident.  This year we have found none.  Instead we have seedless melons, because who could be bothered to spit out seeds, and though they still cost the same, they're small, because who could be bothered to eat the same dessert three nights in a row. 

We've been avoiding these puny "personal melons" all year but finally found one that, while seedless, was at least big enough to make it worth the six bucks.  Yes, it takes up half the top shelf of the fridge, but isn't that part of the mystique of summer?  I must admit this is a pretty good imitation of a real watermelon, but I think they bred out some of the the flavor at the same time they bred out the seeds.

The good news is that a few people remember the way food used to be.  We have a resurgence in heirloom tomatoes, heirloom apples and heirloom pigs.  Of course they cost twice as much as the supermarket varieties and are hard to find.  How many years will we have to wait for the return of heirloom watermelons?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Kyoto market

I visited Japan last month and was struck by how many menu items were new and mysterious.  That was brought home when we went to the food court/fruit and vegetable section of Takashimaya, the biggest Japanese department store.  For your viewing pleasure, here's a selection of foods that I can only guess the identity of.  They're probably all delicious!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My current favorite exotic ingredient

Right now it’s Swad Lime Pickle Hot, an Indian condiment that I buy at the ethnic market. Love the slogan -- takes you back home. 

Here's the lime part.

There's also a lot of pulp.

It also comes in a sweet variety, I discover from checking online sources, but that one's not at my grocery.  Indians use "pickle" to describe any concoction of vegetable or fruit with garlic, vinegar and spices.  I also enjoy eggplant pickle but this is something special.

It’s seriously hot – this much on a piece of bread

had me gasping (but I’m a wimp about spicy food, so maybe you would like more). When I just need a little oomph in a hurry, I scoop out the seedy pulp to apply to the food. You don't get much lime flavor that way, just heat, so with a little more leisure I will cut up the pieces of lime and use them too.

I continue to be surprised at the situations where lime pickle improves what I'm fixing.  For instance:

-- Spread a little on the inside of the bread when you make grilled cheese sandwiches (see above -- this is how much I use).
-- Put it in the Cuisinart with cream cheese, or cream cheese plus ricotta, to make a dip or sandwich filling. Especially nice on a fruit bread with a slice of cucumber for crunch.
-- Stir it into a soup or sauce that seems a little bland.
-- Use it on bread instead of butter.
-- Spread it on a waffle before you melt cheese over the top.
-- Add to a stew, especially one with an Asian leaning.
-- Stir it into tomato juice (vodka optional).
-- Put a little onto a slice of fresh pineapple.

I’m not a hot sauce aficionada but I bet it would work well anywhere you use Tabasco – eggs, oysters, your choice.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Improvisational rice

I ranted recently on my other blog about the product police making my favorite brand of salsa disappear from the shelves.  In search of a substitute, I bought three different varieties to try.  The first one failed the test, leaving me with an almost full jar of red stuff that we didn't particularly like.  Struck by the spirit of improvisation, I decided to make it part of our dinner.

Hauled out the rice cooker, made a one-cup batch using the normal proportions of rice and water, then dumped in about half the jar of salsa, maybe a half cup.  The improvisation was a success -- the rice looked good and tasted good.  According to the label, this added about 25 calories to the dinner.

Although the salsa was only "medium" in hotness, the rice was spicier than I would have expected.  It made a good complement to pork chops and broccoli.  I would even serve it to company.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Zucchini 2.0

So everybody knows about zucchini (Italian for "little squash") but hardly anybody knows about zucchetta (also Italian for "little squash") -- which happens to be one of our favorite vegetables to grow.  We've never seen it in a store or farmer's market.  Think zucchini, except with a pale green skin instead of dark green. I think of it as zucchini 2.0 because it's improved in so many ways over the version we all know and sometimes love.

First, it's prettier than zucchini.  Zucchetta is a long squash, and it likes to curl itself into strange shapes if it encounters even the slightest obstacle as it grows. 

But on to more substantive advantages.  Zucchetta has a slightly firmer texture than zucchini, and it keeps that texture even if you cook it a little too long, never turning to mush the way zucchini can.  I think it has a better flavor, a bit nutty. And all the seeds are confined to a two-inch bulbous area at the flower end, leaving the long neck of the fruit totally free of seeds, perfectly white and firm.

Look, Ma, no seeds!!

Zucchetta is fine raw, to put in salad or blend into gazpacho.  And it's great cooked because of that firm texture.  We like it sauteed as a side (hot or cold) or as an ingredient in panini, slipped into lasagna or baked pasta, or put into soup (it's the pale green vegetable in the title picture at the top of this page).

The only drawback to growing your own zucchetta is that it does like a lot of real estate.  We let the long vines grow out onto our driveway, which makes it easier to walk around and see new fruits lurking under the leaves.  Also the plant doesn't get muddy when it sits on concrete instead of dirt.  Too late for this year, of course, but if you're intrigued by this lovely squash variant, you can order seeds for next year from Pinetree Garden.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Welcome to the soup kitchen

Welcome to my new blog.  I have been blogging for several months about fiber art, and thought it might be just as much fun to write about what goes on in my kitchen as what goes on in my studio.  I hope you'll enjoy it too.

I like to fix meals but I don’t particularly want to spend hours in the kitchen or obsess over recipes.  I want to eat healthy foods with a minimum of salt, sugar, fat and preservatives and a maximum of vegetable matter.  We’re not vegetarians by any means, but we try to make vegetables a major part of practically every meal.  We’re willing to eat canned or frozen foods, but we read the labels carefully and don’t buy things with a lot of salt, sugar or other strange additives.

My favorite kind of meal is one that starts with reconnaissance in the kitchen.  What’s on hand, what needs to be eaten soon, what’s left over in the fridge.  Then I call upon a favorite plan (I don’t like to use the word recipe because I rarely follow the plan exactly).  Sometimes the plan gets executed to closely resemble meals of the past; other times it takes off in a different direction.

My approach to meal preparation is something like my approach to fiber art – start with some ingredients and a general plan, then use your good judgment and improvise.  I have lots of cookbooks, one or two of which I actually consult, but mainly I cook by instinct.  In this blog I’ll share some of my plans and favorite ingredients with you – maybe one will be just the thing you need to jump-start your dinner tonight.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

My pasta plan

I wrote in my fiber art blog about teaching traditional quilters how to design their own pieces rather than use commercial patterns. When I teach workshops on this subject, I make an analogy between quilts and cooking.

If one day you decide to learn to cook, you often make a recipe exactly as the book says. After a while you gain confidence and realize that you can make substitutions. The recipe called for rotini with broccoli, and you don’t have any rotini, so you make penne. Or even more daring, you make penne with cauliflower!

After you get more confident with one-for-one substitutions, you realize one day that you don’t even need the original recipe because you’ve learned the general plan for making pasta. You need four things: some pasta, some liquid, some solids, and some flavor. As long as you have all four represented, you can do pretty much anything you want. If you wanted to, you could serve pasta every night and never repeat yourself exactly.

The same can be true for quilting. My favorite general plan for functional quilts is log cabin, just as my favorite general plan for food is pasta. And just as I could happily serve a different meal for many nights in a row from my general pasta plan, I could make a lifetime’s worth of quilts from my general log cabin plan.

So here's the pasta plan.

You need four things: a sauce that (1) is strongly flavored, (2) has enough solids to be filling, and (3) is liquid enough to coat your pasta, not just sit there on top. And of course, (4) some pasta.

To achieve (1) you will use ingredients such as:
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced, raw or cooked a little bit
  • sun-dried tomato paste or tapenade
  • anchovies or anchovy paste
  • onion, chopped, cooked in a little oil over medium heat till it starts to caramelize
  • lots of oregano, rubbed between your hands as you put it into the pot
  • basil or pesto
  • chopped green or black olives (cut out the pits, please)
  • ham, pepperoni or salami, sliced into small shreds

To achieve (2) you will use any ingredients that are handy, such as:
  • canned or fresh tomatoes
  • canned kidney beans or white canellini beans
  • canned artichoke hearts -- nicest if sauteed in olive oil till golden brown
  • sauteed green or red peppers
  • leftover chicken or other meat
  • celery or carrots, chopped or diced, raw or sauteed
  • leftover cooked vegetables (add at the last minute so they don't get overcooked and soggy)
  • fresh vegetables such as succhini, beans, broccoli, cauliflower -- raw or cooked in the sauce or with the pasta
  • 3 cups leftover lobster
  • cooked ground beef or Italian sausage
  • canned tuna or clams
To achieve (3) each person must have at least 1/2 cup of liquid (not counting the solids).  The sauce can be almost clear or very opaque -- it doesn't really matter.  Use liquids such as:
  • cooking water from the pasta, at the end after it's gotten starchy and whitish
  • wine
  • beef or chicken broth
  • juice from a can of beans, clams or anything else you use in (2)
  • tomato juice or V-8
  • canned tomatoes plus their juice

In general, start by sauteing ingredients such as onion, peppers or celery with olive oil.  Just before you start to add liquids, push the solids to the side of the pan, turn down the heat, add the garlic and cover it with a little olive oil.  Let it saute only about 20 seconds.  The instant you see it starting to get brown, dump in a liquid so the garlic doesn't burn.

Add whatever needs to be cooked longest, then add the other ingredients in stages.  Ideally you will cook everything for at least 10 minutes so flavors meld.  For ingredients that need only minimal cooking, such as zucchini, add at the last minute.  Just before you serve, check liquid content; if it seems dry add more broth or pasta water.  As insurance, always reserve a cup of pasta water before you drain the pasta, in case you need extra liquid.  Serve with Parmesan cheese, unless you have seafood ingredients, in which case cheese is optional.