Garnishes, condiments, flavorings and all the trimmings, oh my!If God–or the devil–is in the details, well, either one might very well explain why I’m so enamored of them that the main ingredient sometimes feels like an afterthought.Yes, I suppose I would notice if everyone started serving me meals consisting solely of garnishes, condiments, et. al. Can’t promise I would, though. ‘Small plates’ and all that. As it happens, I pretty nearly could live on the frills alone. Wouldn’t choose to, but seriously, what’s not to love about heaps of chopped toasted nuts, a multitude of exotic spices, a grand assortment of syrups and sauces, shavings of fine cheese, curls of chocolate, meringues, leafy herbs enough to furnish a king’s garden, and pretty little haystacks of finely grated citrus zest?The plain and homely, the grand and glamorous, the simple and the subtle: these are all made into memorable foods and unforgettable meals by the company in which they’re enjoyed and the ambience of the location and occasion. But they’re made further into a special sort of magic by the alchemy of wise and clever additions of cardamom or cumin, condensed tomato paste, a tot of brandy or rosewater, candied grapefruit peel, sweet pea shoots, fresh violets, sieved hard boiled egg yolk, or a judicious sprinkling of crisply fried shallot bits. Get me candied, brandied and dandied up and I’m a happy diner!Yes, I’m simply nuts about all of the lovely trimmings. Now, what shall I fix tomorrow that calls for a bit of edible decor? Maybe something with metallic sugar glitter on top. (And yes, I have that in the cupboard, too. Did I mention I have this little obsession–?) Stay tuned.
I knew we’d hit the neighbor jackpot yet again. We have a history chock-full of fine neighbors between us, my husband and I, of that sort who are not only great to chat with at the mailbox but offer help and led tools when they see projects underway, share their mystical gardening secrets, and advise on who’s the best resource for automotive care, where there’s still an independent pharmacy in town, or what the local ordinances are on right-of-way maintenance.
But we all know that the best neighbors of all have not only generosity in their hearts but also food in their hands when they show up at the door. Rhonda was known to trade her fresh-picked raspberries for our over-abundant plums. David–actually the manager at our then apartments–went door to door delivering home-grown green beans, tomatoes and zucchini that he and his wife grew in the ‘bonus’ plot on the complex’s property. Peter rang the doorbell at our place in Tyee bearing bending boards of fantastic barbecued meats and salmon and vegetables.
Add to this that we had not only other great neighbors but also heroic postal carriers, pest treatment and HVAC specialists, and remodeling contractors who have become admired friends, and you know that our standard for being spoiled is very high.
So when we moved to our current home, perhaps it was only par for the course that our new next door neighbors would arrive with welcoming smiles–and food. But what food! We didn’t have to lift a finger for anything other than unpacking and furniture-dragging for at least three days after arriving in this house because we were handed an enormous platter laden with an assortment of deliciously varied homemade salads, another piled with home-baked breads and rolls and biscuits, a plate of tender, moist cream cake, and a gallon pitcher of sweet tea. If it hadn’t been love at first sight, it would surely have to have been at first bite.
The flow of gustatory glories has continued unabated (and ably washed down with Mr. Neighbor’s lovely wine-selecting and punch-making skills as well as his fine Scotch collection) from that day forward. You will have no trouble believing and understanding when I say that we are devastated that these neighbors have retired and have the temerity to plan to move back to home territory in another state. Who will phone us in Canada when our sprinkler system fails during a hot spell, to tell us that they’ve already hired the company that installed it to do repairs before we come home? Who will deliver our entire stash of newspapers they collected over our out-of-town trip, updating us on the rest of the neighborhood or sharing delightful stories of their own adventures? And who will show up at random, numerous and very welcome times bearing, say, cake or cookies or pie, or a handmade bread cornucopia with a massive vegetable-and-floral display in it at Thanksgiving, a gorgeously crafted Bûche de Noël at Christmas, a sprightly spring assortment of cookies and cupcakes and jellies at Eastertime?
The answer, as you well know, is that it is our turn to become those neighbors, to show up unannounced with that very special something-extra whenever we can, to lend tools and perhaps the hand to use them, and to spread the joy of hospitality whenever and wherever we can. The torch–or the torchon de cuisine–has been passed. I hope I’m up to the task!I’ll probably start with something supremely simple like the nut-and-seed crackers that have no real recipe and change every time I make them. They make a handy vehicle for dips, salsas and salads when I want a quick bite of lunch or a not too terribly naughty snack. This time they were thus:
Nut and Seed Crackers (and Tuna Salad)
8 cups of finely chopped mixed nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, pecans, macadamias, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds) tossed together with about a cup of grated extra sharp cheddar cheese plus coarsely ground salt and black pepper and good chile powder to taste, all mixed with just enough water to clump together into ‘dough’ and rolled or patted onto a non-stick cookie sheet (I use a silicone lining sheet in the pan so I can be extra lazy on the cleanup), and then baked at 325-350 degrees F (depending on your oven) until golden brown. I let these ones cool in one big slab and then just broke them into uneven pieces about the size for carrying, say, some bacon and cheddar cheese dip or guacamole or seasoned labne or some tuna salad. Tuna Salad, around here, is nothing more than a good quality tinned tuna (one of the brands that cooks its filet directly in the can and adds nothing other than a little salt; I like High Seas and Tuna Guys and can order it online from both, but there are other excellent sustainable-fisheries purveyors as well) seasoned with ground pepper, dried or fresh dill, smoked paprika, yellow ‘ballpark’ style mustard and sometimes chopped capers, and bound with good mayonnaise until slightly creamier than just glued together (spreads better that way).
This combination may not exactly constitute sweets for neighborly delivery, but then we know that the sweetness derives just as much from not needing to fix any food oneself, if only for a brief moment. Or for days on end, if you happen to get one of our neighbor’s fabled deliveries!
It’s so often the littlest details that have the most unexpectedly impressive impact. We just don’t expect too much from small stuff. But where would we be without those tiny crystals of salt and jots of freshly ground spices? Without the tiny seeds that become minute sprouts and in turn, lush plants that give life to our favorite fruits and vegetables, and that feed the animals that grace our tables sacrificially?
My tiny mite of a farm is bursting with promise. It won’t be all that long before I’m harvesting cut-and-come-again salad greens, herbs and baby carrots and beets. My patience is an equally miniscule thing, so I hover over their beds and fuss as though my attention would do anything other than attract more insects to come and flit around my head. Meanwhile, I can always raid the grocer’s stock of edible things to keep the table well decorated, no matter how plain or fancy my edible desires.
Another highly welcome Little Thing is a raindrop. Lord knows we’ve dreamed of them with something verging on the unseemly in our drought of recent past. But like the seasoning of a dish, what is desirable in a little may be wildly inappropriate if given with too much exuberance. Today it’s looking a little iffy in that regard: we’ve been told in the last couple of weeks that thanks to the new year’s rains, most of Texas has already bypassed the borders of drought and headed right into surfeit territory. Outside is a pounding rain, accompanied by beautiful flashes of brilliance slicing up the sky and shouts of thunder pounding down right along with the cataracts of rain. Not thirty minutes away there are reports of a tornado and baseball-sized hail. There are expectations that this storm system will throw off a few more tornadoes and lots more wind and rain and hail before it’s done. Me, I’m keeping a good thought for all of the people, animals, houses, and cars being blasted by the wind and pelted with rocks of ice, and hoping against hope that none of that nonsense wanders over this way too. We have plenty of friends in the area whose roofs have been demolished or cars totaled by that sort of thing before.
My little item of great happiness at the moment is that not only am I cozily dry under a roof out of the lashings of rain, but our car is in the safest place it could possibly be to hide from the storm: on a mechanic’s lift at the place where we bought it. It was merely due for its periodic checkup (taking inspiration, perhaps, from my own recent annual visits to the doctor and radiologist and such), but couldn’t have been timed better in terms of dodging the fiercest part of the storm. I hope. Not to mention that the mechanic discovered that the two tires not replaced following our recent road-debris encounter are worn down to replacement status as well. If I’m going to drive around in this kind of flash-flood-inducing waterfall, I may as well have good tires. After all, it’s only money. Sigh.
Which brings me back ‘round to my original point (and I did have one). Life is just too short to be spent without savoring all of the minor triumphs, moments of good luck and serendipity, and all of the tiny treats that we can find or are handed to us. And by that, I mean of course that I will continue to eat snacks and desserts with a certain amount of regularity if not abandon, because they are seriously happiness-inducing items in my life. Who am I to refuse to attend when the last fridge stash of guacamole and the tuna salad from yesterday’s sandwich get all friendly and decide to get married and become a cracker spread? I would have missed a great party!
On the 17th of March we had a friend visit for dinner. Since she’s of partially Irish descent, I thought it incumbent to include an item or two with at least a hint of Irish pedigree in the meal, though I didn’t quite go all-in, so I incorporated a few tasty tributes to the Emerald Isle. It was ‘specially easy to do at the end of the meal. I’d happened on an inspiring sounding cheese, so dessert was a little plate of cheese and chocolate. I served my little homemade chocolate-nut truffles with the loveliest Guinness-infused cheddar cheese that, at room temperature, tasted buttery, the tiniest bit sharp, and had that mellow veining of stout bringing another nice layer of complementary flavor to the collation. Needless to say, this combination goes down quite smoothly with a tot of good Irish whiskey (well, what doesn’t?) or of course would be appropriately paired with a crisp Guinness, if it’s on hand. We had it with a bit of bubbly because I’m certain that St. Patrick would approve of our saying a fond thank you to and well-wishing a certain great—-grandniece of his who has been a fine colleague and a good friend and is soon off on a new adventure in an altogether more Irish-rooted American city.
I leave you without a real new recipe today, I guess, but sometimes the moment presents itself when something that requires no new preparations at all but is just as delicious as can be is just the bite or sip to be enjoyed on the spot. There are times when the company is so grand, the bottle cracked open is so perfectly aged, and the slant of the sun so perfectly angled in the proper window that whatever we take to eat is a tiny taste of heaven. It’s like being visited by a butterfly that comes and takes its rest right at my feet and sits patiently to have its portrait taken before fluttering away, for no apparent reason other than to bring its own miniature glint of perfect beauty to the day.
. . . and just so you know, no tornadoes or monstrous hailstorms have ventured into our town today. Another nice little plus for the occasion!
If America really is a Melting Pot, combining a multitude of cultures into one big, satisfying stew, it’s most believably so in the kitchen. Nobody can convincingly argue this concept to my satisfaction as applied to a nation founded over the centuries by invasive species of the human variety in a bizarre and often violent series of waves, frequently waves that if they don’t actively seek to wipe out everything Other that made a beachhead on these shores before them, are still not very good at blending and assimilating and otherwise embracing each other. We’re fond of ‘talking the talk,’ so to speak, as long as the other guy is willing and able to do it not only in our preferred language but with the same point of view.But when we get to the table, our omnivorous love of good things can at least fairly often override our worst instincts. It’s true that breaking bread together is one of the best ways of finding commonality and even, perhaps, community. So although it’s sometimes quite delightful to be thematic in our thinking and our tastes to the point of specificity, it’s also very possible to enjoy the bounty of whole parts of the world when one is hungry for ideas, culture and especially, for good food. One can easily find a north Indian restaurant or a Sicilian one or a New Orleans-style Cajun one, but it’s not unusual either to find eateries that have a wider-ranging reach: pan-Pacific, Middle Eastern, Scandinavian, or Mediterranean, perhaps. My own tastes are shaped not only by the foods and flavors I like, but of course by the versions of them with which I am familiar and those I adopt or adapt for my own purposes and interests.
So it’s quite common indeed to arrive at my table and find foods influenced by particular places’ or regions’ cuisines sitting side by side with foods from decidedly different ones, or even trying a little intermingling in one dish, just for fun. The other day the meal consisted of a warm quinoa dish with a bit of Persian inspiration, right along with a salad that had slight Japanese leanings. However incongruous they might be geographically, their flavors and textures seemed complementary enough to me, and I found the combination not only edible but pretty friendly after all. So here for your refreshment, and a table-top vignette of world peace, is a little lunch invention of the Persian-Asian persuasion.
Spiced Lamb Quinoa
Cook one cup of plain quinoa in water or (as I did) homemade broth until tender. While that’s cooking, brown 1/2 lb of ground lamb, seasoning it fairly liberally with salt, pepper, thyme and nutmeg. Set both of these elements aside while preparing and combining the following in a spacious bowl: about 1/2 cup each of crumbled feta cheese, sliced black olives of any variety on hand, chopped preserved lemon, diced dried apricots, and sliced almonds (plain or toasted), and about 1/4 cup each of chopped fresh mint leaves and sesame seeds (plain or toasted). Finally, mix the prepared quinoa with that bowl of flavor-boosters, and either layer on or stir in the ground lamb. Dress the dish with fresh lime juice, raw honey and olive oil (I used my favorite blood orange olive oil), and re-season the whole with salt or pepper or any of the other previously included seasonings to adjust to your taste.
Serve warm or hot–let your taste and the weather be your guide. This dish stores well in either refrigerator or freezer and can be reheated in the microwave once mixed. Vegetarians can certainly omit the meat, and those who don’t enjoy lamb might also like ground or diced chicken better in the dish.
Quick Green-&-Orange Salad
Assemble these ingredients and mix freely, or present separately for guests to mix: sweet orange sections, snap pea shoots and carrots are the ‘big three’ here. I put them in separate “stripes” in the serving dish to show off the alternating orange-green-orange of the simple ingredients, and topped the oranges and carrots with fresh lime zest and the pea shoots with fresh orange zest just to exaggerate the color effect.
I had some pre-shredded carrots handy and in retrospect would have preferred to shred my own with the coarse side of the blade rather than have the oversized bulk of store-bought shreds. The pea sprouts are easy to cut up once plated and look kind of pretty as a long-stemmed mini-bouquet, but I’m pretty pragmatic about my food (you may have noticed), so in future I’d probably chop those into 1″ lengths beforehand too. The orange (one large navel orange) was cut into about 1″ dice and was good and juicy.
The dressing for this bright fruit-and-veg combination was a simple blend of about 2 Tablespoons of minced pickled ginger (sushi gari), orange juice squeezed out of the peel I’d cut off the orange sections while dicing it, the juice of half a lime, a splash of soy sauce, a splash of ginger juice, and a hint of honey. The soy sauce makes the dressing a less than picturesque muddy color (maybe I should try white miso next time), so I served it separately so as not to spoil my little orange-green-orange picture before we chomped all of it into moot bits.
And if I am to make a statement about interculturalism or ecumenism or any such blending in the way of my household cuisine, it might just be that when we eat food it all gets turned into Us, respectively and eventually, kind of the same way that every one of us on the planet will all turn after living into the same dust (unless we get to be reincarnated), so why not simply embrace the differences that become one in us, eh? At least we’ll eat happily.