There are plenty of good reasons to love winter eating. Every season has its particular pleasures and what appeals and tastes best varies with the weather, activities particular to the time of year, and winter–whatever challenges the season may present in terms of work and play–is rich in favorites too. What I tend to love in winter is mostly the kind of food and drink that spells comfort in colder weather: roasted, fried, grilled, hearty, spicy and/or deep flavored comfort is particularly welcome at my table.
I’m generally in favor of good nutrition, in theory at least. But let’s be honest: I’m neither an actual nutritionist nor so dedicated to good health and sensible behavior that I will go to any particular lengths to insure that what I’m eating is always appropriate. You may, just possibly, have noticed that even before I stated it so shamelessly. Yeah, I’m a little kid.*
So if I can make entrees and side dishes that have any value as sustenance and taste enough like dessert so as to make myself feel I’m misbehaving a bit, so much the better. The particular good news in this is that with a whole lot of tasty ingredients, it’s not all that tough to accomplish the task. I mean, if you can take advantage of the Maillard reaction and make sweet caramelization happen to cruciferous vegetables and, yes, even meat, that’s proof enough for me that we are meant to enjoy dessert as any course of a meal. Sexy seared chops and steaks and fish filets, here I come! Succulent Brussels sprouts? But of course! Life is good.And why limit myself to drawing out the sugars in seemingly non-sugary foods when I can embrace the vitamins in vegetables and, what the heck, throw more sugar and spice on top just because I can. Rather delightful, if you ask me, to occasionally set aside the usual mashed potatoes in favor of what is essentially pie filling. So with those juicy sweet chops, I might give in to the urge to treat them and myself to a scoop of deconstructed dessert thus:
Sweet Potato Pie Mash
Take one peeled sweet potato or yam and an equal amount of carrots, and put both raw vegetables into a food processor or heavy-duty blender with a few friends and blend the whole concatenation into fluffy oneness. My choice last time of company for the two cups’ worth of aforementioned sweet spud and carrots: 2 tablespoons butter or coconut oil, half a teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, a splash of vanilla, one egg and, for added sugar, half a cup of ‘natural’ (handmade) small marshmallows. Because I had them around. Because I have a slight sweets addiction. Because, and I may have mentioned this before*, I’m a little kid. Last move with this mash is to heat it up–just bake or microwave it in a greased heat-proof dish long enough to heat it through fully, and it makes a delightful pie-like accompaniment to practically anything, including, well, a plain old spoon. Candy, I tell you. But chock full of vitamins. Or close enough to encourage me to absolve myself of any misdeeds until the next over-the-top meal.
Ingredients are finite. The possible ways to combine them and make them play together, not so much. I’ve found that true as a visual artist and as a cook just about equally, and in both cases it was clear from very early that I could choose between endlessly repeating myself and looking for fresh and interesting ways to play with the possibilities. If, say, I chose to choose. My friends, we have options.
Having finite resources of money and groceries complicates the cookery. Having finite tastes and interests as an eater takes the complexity further. I congratulate myself on being nearly omnivorous, but yeah, there are things I don’t want to eat. Blueberries (I can never explain this idiosyncrasy to the hordes of blueberry aficionados in the world, I guess). Organ meats (whether of organs one can or can’t live without in one’s own inventory, I generally don’t want them between my teeth). Super stinky cheeses (sorry, Francophiles). Snails (slugs are slugs, whether they’re well dressed or nude, my friends). Being married to a fella with even more limited tastes than mine, well, that’s yet another challenge thrown into the mix. So it may take a tiny bit of puzzling to decide what to prepare and how to blend the available goods into a welcome meal that we’ll both like, never mind how tasty others will find it.
But really, when we’re hungry, it’s not exactly hard to find something that will please a whole range of palates, even if the something needs to come from that aforementioned short list of potential parts. Sugar snap peas: they’re not so specific in flavor or texture or mode of preparation that they can’t be tweaked to fit a huge number of meals and dishes. Raw and plain, they’re sweet and crisp and refreshing. Steamed, they can take in a wide variety of flavors and complement yet more. They work in salads, in hot dishes, and on their own. Hard to go wrong. Meats: beef as a classic steak or roast is no worse or better, no more or less flexible in company with other ingredients or dishes than if the beef is stewed or ground, served spiced or more simply flavored, hot or cold. Bits of food from one recipe that, left over, become the heart of another: orange peel remaining from the peeled supremes used in a salad gets cooked down with stick cinnamon, crushed pods of cardamom and some whole cloves (all, in turn, saved from a baking project or two) and sugar water to make syrup for spiced wine or to be chilled for sodas. The avocado that didn’t get used alongside yesterday’s meal, that one gets put into a smoothie.
Or a tasty banana pudding. Or used as a chopped salad ingredient. Mint frosting base for brownies or a chocolate cake. Who knows. I might even make a dish of avocado with peas, beef, and whatever other readily available ingredients come to mind, because that’s the way I tend to cook. And eat. And it never really gets old.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Why, yes, if you are a fresh berry. Those sweet little nuggets of juicy goodness are the very epitome of summertime’s joys, and the longer we can extend the berry adventure by means of preserved, frozen or baked goods, the merrier. I’ve already rhapsodized about my mother’s justly famed raspberry pie (the mystic quality of her ethereal pie crusts a deservedly notable part of the equation, in the interest of full disclosure), and she made many a jar of equally brilliant raspberry jam over her wildly productive years of canning and preserving. I will never be her equal in either of these arts.
I do, however, have enough fondness for some berries that I will gladly binge on them while their season lasts, and far beyond, in whatever forms are available, because I can practically feel the vitamins rushing into my cells when I do, and more importantly, because they taste so fabulous and are such great utility players on Team Food. On their own, they are magnificent and refreshing. In salads, a divine break from any leanings toward excess of greens. Think, for example, of a marvelous mix of butter lettuce, Romaine, toasted sliced almonds, shavings of fine Reggiano cheese and a generous handful of raspberries all happily commingling with a light creamy fresh thyme dressing. Transcendent! Fruit salad melanges practically insist on having a handful of berries gracing them when the season is right. And I’m told by those who eat blueberries that no berry surpasses them for muffin or pancake making. Me, I’ll gladly stick with Swedish pancakes piled up with whipped cream and fresh strawberries when it comes to the breakfast berry-ations. And of course there are endless possibilities in the universe of fruit smoothies when it comes to berries, whether you’re in the camp that must strain out the seeds or among those who appreciate the fiber therein.
And don’t get me started about desserts! The natural affinity fruit has for sweet foods is showcased wonderfully in so many after-dinner or coffee-time treats that a mere post could hardly suffice to even skim the list. But some goodies do come immediately to mind: strawberries dipped in chocolate; cloudberry cream, as I learned to love it when prepared in the seconds-long fresh season by my brother-in-law’s late mother; blackberry tapioca pudding. Pies, tarts, and crumbles, oh my. A heap of berries and a gentle sluicing of vanilla custard atop a slice of toasted pound cake. Honestly, few ways to go awry.
Still, the berry, with its pristine, bright, zingy flavor, and the hints of sweetness underlying it, makes a superb foil for savory dishes too, not least of all meats and seafoods. One of those ways to slip berry-liciousness into the main dish is to pool any of the multitude of possible berry-enhanced sauces and purees under, over or alongside a portion of entrée. I’m fond of Beurres Rouges ou Blancs made with wine, butter and berries cooked down to dense, flavorful stupendousness. Hard to argue with, say, a blackberry-Cabernet sauce served with lamb or duck, and I can only imagine that a dry, red-fruity Rosé would pair gracefully in such a sauce with raspberries or, dare I say it, salmonberries, to accompany a roasted filet of salmon or breast of pheasant or grilled chicken. Champagne Beurre Blanc is hard to resist with shellfish; why not top that with roasted strawberries and a quick grind of black pepper?
As you can see, what happens when I get the mere image of a berry into my tiny brain is that it plants the seeds for extensive food fantasizing. And that is hardly a bad thing, my friends. Bury me in berries. I could do much worse.
Non-chef that I am, I’m not really all that often full of impressive inspiration when headed into the kitchen. Lack of super-skills aside, my more impressive store of laziness usually wins the day, and if there’s nothing spectacular lurking in fridge or pantry that simply cries out to be doctored up and consumed, what’s much more likely to occur is that I’m faced with a modest selection of bits, bites and bobs that require a small amount of creative re-combination or even disguise to avoid boring us all to starvation.
And there are those items best made in large quantities anyway, or at least larger amounts than needed for a single meal for our household-of-two. You’ll never catch me making chili or lasagna or any other labor-intensive concoction in a two-serving batch when most of them taste better with the passing days for their fridge lifespan and the rest can be frozen in smaller packets for time beyond that.
So the pulled pork lying in wait in the refrigerator might dress up as crispy-edged carnitas redolent with cumin one day, to be served with an array of good Mexican side dishes, and then appear as a chopped topping with cheese and vegetables and hard boiled eggs for a big chef’s salad, and finally, become glistening barbecue pork, sauced with a sweet and spicy Memphis-style stickiness and served up with buttery roasted sweet potatoes and creamy coleslaw. Yesterday’s leftover fried chicken gets broken down into chopped meat and chopped crispy skin; the meat gets tossed together with an equal amount of leftover rice and stirred up with salsa and cream, topped with shredded cheese and then the skin ‘cracklings’, and it all gets baked up into a simple Tex-Mex fried chicken casserole that’s hearty and heartwarming enough nobody even complains that it’s YMCA (my Oz compatriot John’s loving title for leftovers as Yesterday’s Muck Cooked Again).And of course, roasts and chops and steaks are easy as, well, Steak-and-Guinness Pie to deal with any old time. Besides the infinite variations on a casserole possible, there are the omelets, quiches and frittatas, the sandwiches and salads, and the curries and stir-fries. So many ways to spell deliciousness without excessive slavery over the hot cooker. As witness, a quick variant of teriyaki beef that goes neatly atop a cold sesame noodle salad, steaming fried rice, or on a marvelous glossy heap of citrusy wok-fried snow peas, yellow capiscum, celery, carrot flowers–when you cut 5 or 6 v-shaped grooves lengthwise down the sides of whole peeled carrots and then slice them across, you get nice little folk-arty orange flowers to throw in the pan–and finely julienned fresh ginger.Just hot up the sliced leftover steak in a hot skillet or wok with a mixture of appropriate Asian flavors that suits your mood and the occasion and blends the sweet, the sour, the spicy and the salty to your taste, and there you have it. The solution to your empty-stomach problem in the blink of an eye. The steak here was glazed with a mixture of soy sauce, raw honey, ginger juice, lime juice, and a couple of drops of toasted sesame oil for mellowness, and finished with sesame seeds for a little delicate crunch. A little hot oil or hot sauce at the table for those who like a hit of zing on top. No fuss. Lots of flavor. If you ask me, the only thing to add is your chopsticks, then your teeth.
I am antique enough to remember the time when what Americans knew as Chinese food was ‘Chop Suey‘ in a glutinous and sickly-sweet sauce, followed by fortune cookies filled with good-luck predictions that were exciting and interesting only when recited with the popularly immature addendum ‘between the sheets’. When Italian food meant spaghetti, cooked until ‘al dente‘ only to infants under six months of age and smothered in characterless tomato puree with some insipid approximation of a meatball-like object swimming in it and perhaps a halfhearted sprinkling of pretend Parmesan cheese granules from the canister that sat on the shelf until nearly archaeological in quality. And French food was just plain weird, some sort of girly, foofy stuff that, if any man would be caught eating it, he had better be wearing a beret and a pencil-thin mustache and sticking his pinky finger out while wielding his tableware.
Then there was a bit of an awakening. It was slow, to be sure, but meant that people might actually admit that their ancestral foods from the aforementioned regions were ever so much more varied, colorful, flavorful and exciting than the paltry offerings that had been dumbed down to virtual nothingness and blandness and predictability, supposedly to suit the American palate. Of course, that completely ignored the reality that the vast majority of the American populace originated in other countries, on other continents, and eating anything but boring cuisines. And not just Chinese, Italian and French either.
At some point, some wit decided that the US simply needed to be reeducated one dish at a time, choosing the humble yet incredibly versatile vehicle of the quiche as focus, et voilà! The 1970s became the era of the quiche-eaters. Thankfully, many of the quiches promoted were perfectly edible and did in fact counter the myth that ‘Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche‘ (originating in Bruce Feirstein‘s book poking fun at masculine stereotypes) because they were good, tasty, and ultimately satisfying concoctions. Even better, the idea that being a fledgling foodie nation was permissible, even laudable, meant that suddenly a whole host of other delectable cuisines became gradually more familiar, dish by dish and restaurant by restaurant. That’s not to say that every flavor is for every one, by any means.
But quiche, as it happens, is such a simple and endlessly variable dish, being pretty much an egg base used to bind and carry any combination of vegetables, meats, starches and other flavors suitable to one’s own taste, kitchen contents and the occasion. Quiche, omelette, tortilla española, frittata; whatever you call it, if you’re not averse or allergic to eggs, the possibilities of a wonderful, simple-to-make meal are endless. If you happen to be an old Texas ‘Cookie’, watching the hungry horde of cowboys close in on your chuck-wagon from across the lonesome plains, it might not be a bad idea to throw whatever you’ve got on hand into those trusty cast iron skillets and pots with some stirred-up eggs and get ‘em cooking over the camp fire as speedily as a jackrabbit can dodge your shot. Use some of your biscuit dough for a dumpling-style crust, or just serve the stuff without crust–no one will complain, as long as the food’s hearty and ready when the dust settles around the corral.
Being in Texas, I do take advantage of the ready availability of good beef pretty often, so I end up with a little left over from time to time, and the egg-based dish is a perfectly easy way to make good use of all manner of leftovers. Heck, I even live in a ‘ranch-style’ house, for what it’s worth. So, since I had a whole lot of good eggs on hand at the moment and a very meat-and-potatoes, manly-man sort of collation of ingredients lurking in the ol’ refrigerator, I cooked up a crustless quiche fit for any sturdy appetite, Tex-Mex or plain cowpoke, from hereabouts to, say, Paris, Texas. Being so all-fired Frenchified and all.
The base, in this case, is nothing but about a half-dozen eggs (I like plenty) and a half cup of thick plain yogurt, stirred together and thinned with a little tiny bit of water as needed to coat the other ingredients well. The rest of the filling comprised about a cup and a half of 1/2″ diced leftover lean beefsteak, two small leftover oven-baked potatoes in their jackets, diced about the same or a little smaller (skins and all), three slices of crisp-cooked bacon, broken into pieces, and a good half cup of grated sharp cheddar cheese.
Between the bacon, the cheese, and the salt with which both the steaks and baked potatoes had been prepared, I didn’t think there was much necessity for added salt (you may gasp with amazement at this salt-aholic’s abstemiousness now), but I seasoned the mixture with a good dose each of chili powder and smoked paprika.
This crustless quiche got baked in a small, well-buttered ceramic casserole, and today it was cooked in a newfangled microwave oven, because even though it does just fine in a conventional oven I was really hungry, cowboy on the plains hungry–somehow breakfast and lunch got forgotten in the midst of other doings today–and I didn’t want to wait any longer than I had to. I’d made up the quiche beforehand and put it in the fridge, so all that was required was to pop it in the oven and hot it up until it wasn’t too wiggly and jiggly anymore. I’m never entirely certain on timing and temperature, so in the microwave I just cooked it for 4 minutes to get the initial cooking underway and then several 2-minute intervals after, cooking it on High for about 8 minutes total and then letting it rest and set up for another five minutes or so.
To serve it, I went with Tex-Mex favorites, because I like them well and so of course I had them handy. Guacamole, which in our house is nothing more than mashed ripe avocado seasoned with fresh lime juice, salt, pepper, chili powder and lots of ground cumin, lasts longer in the refrigerator than you might think–but only if you make a big batch, because we do eat it in quantity when the mood strikes. Salsa must always be on hand. As I’ve said before, we like a mild chunky-thick salsa, spiced up at home with a chipotle en adobo or two well blended in. Some fresh, bright Mexican crema. A few black olives. I think all I left out of the meal was a nice chilled cerveza, but not every day calls for it. Or does it? I forget. Anyway, there were no other fruits or vegetables today, because that would just be too girly, wouldn’t it!
You know, even with such a frilly sounding French name, a quiche like this ain’t half bad after a long day running the ranch.
Oh, yes, Ladies and Gentlemen all, it is Valentine’s Day. At least, here in the good old US of A, where we constantly rebel against being told what to do and how to live our lives but are terrible sticklers for traditions that may or may not even suit our beliefs and needs. Now, celebrating the life–and, let’s face it, not-so-charming-to-celebrate death, since 14 February recognizes the officially accepted date of the martyrdom of St. Valentine by clubbing and beheading–of a possible whole group of Christian martyrs, who all have become conflated in the popular mind as one really nice guy who pitied and assisted the lovelorn, all of that is a matter of personal belief and taste, to be sure. Celebrating the highly adapted holiday of Valentine’s Day is one as well: as it’s been popularized, it’s a day for telling people we love them, filling them up with romantic food and drink and notions, showering them with flowers and sparkly gifts, and paying homage to our love in generally showier ways than usual.
There, my friends, is the rub where this stubborn old lady is concerned. I’m not really as curmudgeonly as all of this sounds however arguable my crankiness is on other topics. It’s just that I feel mighty strongly that if the love isn’t expressed on a fairly constant basis, in (as one might say) thought, word and deed, it means nothing whatsoever on Valentine’s Day, an anniversary, a birthday, or any other celebratory occasion no matter how the gifts and gooey treats are piled up and the lyrical words flow. It’s got to be the real, the every single day sort of deal, or it’s so much useless fluff.
That said, I am among the biggest mush-meisters inhabiting the supposed real world, never tiring of being madly in love with the one person who’s crazy and silly enough to love me back in equal extremity. When we’re sitting at our respective desks down the hall from each other–which we have positioned conveniently so we can see each other across the way while working and maybe sneak a wink for no better reason than that after more than 16 years we still have a school-kid crush on each other–we are both inclined to chirp I Love Yous back and forth at intervals just because we actually do. He cheers me up when I’m feeling low and cheers me on when I’m flagging, chauffeurs me because I’m not fond of driving, works long hours to keep our accounts balanced, and tells me I’m smart and pretty like he really believes it.
So I am delighted to make a favorite dinner for him on Valentine’s Day. Appropriately enough, I can operate on the K.I.S.S. [Keep It Simple, Stupid] principal on this day of romantic silliness, because he likes things unfussy. So all he gets is a slab of tender, untrimmed Texas filet mignon, skillet seared in butter with salt and pepper (my blend of black, white, green and pink peppercorns and whole cloves) and a pinch of ground coriander, a handful of fresh-cut Romaine lettuce and some juicy tomato pieces and a few ripe strawberries, a flute of South African bubbly, and a piece of dark chocolate with toasted almond bits and crunchy salt in it. Couldn’t be easier. No recipes, no muss, no fuss, and because I made big steaks, we both have enough left over for steak and eggs in the morning.Because romance is not a one-day deal, and expressing love should be the most important practice of the everyday. Bon appetit!
Let’s just say I’m not the most compliant or enthusiastic when it comes to trying to eat what I think I ought to eat. It’s not that I don’t love eating practically everything–it’s that I do–limiting my choices to what’s right at the moment seems amazingly hard to manage when I’d rather just eat what I feel like eating, in the largest possible quantities and whenever I’m so moved. Sadly, this is what gradually moves me toward the zaftig and less ‘peep show’ sexy than that of a Marshmallow Peep. While its High Season of springtime is ever nearer on the calendar, I don’t really fancy being the latter shape no matter how popular the treat is with other people as sweet-toothed as I am. In fact, I’d have nightmares about being chased around by lust crazed Sugar Zombies in a yellow snowstorm. The very thought!
So I’m going to see if I can’t reduce my carbohydrate footprint, so to speak, and eat things that stay with me in a more kindly manner, that is, in the form of longer-lasting energy and higher nutritive value and deeper savory satisfaction. Frankly, I’m not as worried about fats as I am about the quantity and quality of sugars I’m capable of packing away and have no real need of, nutritionally. So pardon me while I butter myself up, as long as I can learn to more nearly kick the carb habit.
Today I went for an easy start: steak and eggs, Tex-Mex style. I put a couple of cuts of steak in the Sous Vide cooker last night just before bedtime, and when we got going (at our respective times) today, each of us had a piece of medium-rare beef to sear off in the skillet when we were ready to eat. I browned mine in butter and while it rested momentarily on the plate, deglazed the skillet with some of the bone broth from the last batch, handily waiting for the summons from the fridge, and while the broth cooked down to a thin gravy I poached an egg in it. I topped it with a little gussied up salsa: I often buy a jar of Pace Picante Chunky salsa–a pretty mild type–and stick-blend part of it with a (yes, one) chipotle en Adobo, mixing all together for a slightly smoky kick. Then a spoonful of sour cream (didn’t have real crema on hand) and a spiff each of smoked paprika and some lovely crunchy Maldon sea salt flakes, and immediately stuck my fork in and got to work.
Thankfully, such a hearty brunch (I won’t lie to you about when I got up) holds up well when it comes to that Work thing, so I’m contentedly looking toward a 7 pm supper with nary a twitch. Well, okay, there is that completely hunger-unrelated humming in my candy molars . . .