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.
You know that one of my favorite things in cooking is when one meal or dish is flexible enough for the leftovers to be transformed into a different version for the next meal or dish without too much difficulty. Cooking once for two or more meals is preferable! This time it was easy to use several parts of the meal and tweak them into a couple of different modes for the following days.
Day One’s version was a steak dinner. The beef steaks were cooked sous vide with plain butter, salt and pepper and then pan-seared for caramelization, the pan deglazed with red wine for jus. Asparagus was steamed and refrigerated before a quick last-minute sear in toasted sesame oil and soy sauce and tossed with a sprinkle of sesame seeds for serving. Russet and sweet potatoes were cubed and oven roasted in butter, salt and pepper. And a room-temperature salad of sweet kernel corn had crisped bacon bits, diced and seeded tomatoes, butter and lemon juice and lemon pepper seasoning it. Dessert was a soft lemon verbena custard (just eggs, cream steeped with a big handful of fresh verbena leaves from the patio plant, vanilla, honey and a pinch of salt) topped with fresh strawberries in honey.
Next morning’s iteration: chop the remaining asparagus into small pieces, mix it with the leftover corn salad, stir in two eggs, pour it all into a buttered microwave-proof bowl, put a couple of small squares of sharp cheddar cheese on top, cover it to prevent spatter, and microwave this instant-omelet on High for about 4-6 minutes (‘waves vary) until done. Fast and tasty. Dessert, later that day: another dish of lemon verbena custard, stirred with a tot of almond extract and a little ground cardamom and topped with sliced almonds and peaches. The beef was all gone at the end of the first meal, but even a few roasted potatoes of both kinds were left and made a fine mash with just a little extra butter and cream, and kept in the fridge for another meal yet. All this from one main preparation. Food is good. When it’s good enough, even better to get second helpings with ease.
In wintertime, it’s a great and welcome thing to put one’s hands around a mug of hot tea, cocoa, coffee, cider; a great and welcome hand-warmer that, when upended at the lips, becomes heartwarming as well. The mulled drinks and toddies and steaming honey lemonade can do so much to ameliorate the harshness of the cold months that I am always grateful for the offer of a cup of such kindness.
Nonetheless, it is in the hottest parts of the year that my mind turns continually to longings for a glass, a pitcher, a fountain of something refreshing to drink. Thirst becomes more of a necessity and sometimes borders on unseemly obsession. And I find that when it’s offered to me, a good drink can be full of surprises, too.
I suppose it’s a little like whatever crossroads in my life led me to learn that many flowers were edible. That cheering revelation, coupled with the realization that this was only in keeping with recognizing how many other parts of plants I had already been eating without so much as a second thought, meant that a whole realm of unexplored flavors and methods of preparation and recipes unfurled before my hungry mind and stomach.
Safe to say that ever since that tipping (or tippling) point, I’ve been on a perpetual hunt for the next flavor, common or unique, and the next combination, easy or complicated, that will thrill my taste buds and those of my buddies, alike. Prickly Pear
To the uninitiated, it’s unappealing to think of cooling the desert air
by slurping at something named for its prickles
But after slaking fiery thirst with it, one finds the Prickly Pear
just as fine and dandy as ice cream and popsicles.
As with all of my ‘recipes’, the best way to make this in either version–or your own–is to have the ingredients on hand and then mix them, a little at a time, to your own taste.
I love fat. I love salt. I love food, period. And as you know pretty well by now, I love sweet tidbits and treats. Dessert may as well not be a real word in my universe. Why limit my sweet tooth to being happy only at the end of a meal, I ask you! Yea verily, I might just possibly have confessed to y’all before that I adore sweet + salty foods and, of course, the marvels of the Five Tastes worshiped by so many is hardly foreign to my palate either.
Like all of my foodly affections, however, the one for sweet eats is nearly as changeable as the weather, so it takes lots of different delicacies to satisfy my cravings for sugary goods.
One day, what I have handy drives what I desire to fix: I’m looking at a basket of about a half-dozen mandarin oranges and four mid-sized lemons and thinking thoughts of citrus sweets, so I zest and juice them all together as soon as I’ve washed them. And I’m wafting on a cloud of gorgeous citrus oils and juices and hankering more for juicy joy with every minute. Thinly peeled slices of zest are too fresh and fruity to kill with over-treating. So rather than fuss with the supposed need to do repeated soaking and simmering, I decide to give the already pith-free shavings a lovely swim in the spa of sweetness, about a cup of pure maple syrup plus a hearty splash of brandy, gently bubbling it until the peels become a bit translucent; when they get strained out of the syrup, they take a roll on a sandy beach of cane sugar to keep them from staying too sticky and at the same time, give them a little hint of sparkle. Sweets enough at the end of it, between the fresh candied peels and the preserved citrus-infused maple syrup resulting, to keep the candy-monster at bay. The final bonus was that, though the syrup was pleasant enough to simply drizzle on some plain yogurt, it fed the Monster even better when it cooled completely and turned into citrus-infused pralines. Ooh, yeah.Sometimes my hunger for sweets drives me to be overzealous in production. Even my crazy lust for candy can’t always keep up with the quantity of Noms I’ve made on many an occasion, and if we’re not having company or visiting someone I think might share my fondness for the treat of the moment, I hate to see it go to waste. So I’ll often find the way to renew the food with a little tweak or ten. For example, since we went out of town shortly after I’d made them, the recently-baked Texican Brownies left a few fellows behind until they were getting a hint too dry to be delicious as-is anymore. Quick-change artist to the rescue! I crumbled up the remaining brownies as finely as I could, softened the remaining strawberry frosting I’d set aside for them, blended the frosting with about a cup of whole milk yogurt (that I hadn’t eaten up with the syrup), added the tangerine and lemon juice I’d squeezed while making candied peel, and mixed all that creamy, thick stuff with the brownie ‘flour’ until it melded into what was a very yummy, thick, spiced, gooey mousse.I do realize I can’t eat all of this stuff all of the time, at least not if I have plans to, you know, live very long. But I know from experience that if I don’t please the candy dragon from time to time I get cranky and whiny. Even more than my usual. And I rather enjoy living a really multifaceted life and don’t plan to get all monk-like and deprivation-happy anytime soon either. So it cheers me up a little bit when I see that others take a pretty forgiving attitude toward sugar, salt and fat too. I might croak a leetle bit younger, but if it’s happier too, it’s probably worth it. ‘Course, I’d rather find out that sugar and fat and salt are all extreme health foods after all. I have my preferences.
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.
At least, it couldn’t have quenched her thirst in the same delightful ways. Because, of course, what I’m talking about is the titillating tipple. And perverse or subversive as that sounds, I mean only that I’m referring to some scintillating drink. There are a lot of versions of it out there! Many of them are ones I’m very happy to taste, test and share whenever I get the chance. There are even some standouts I’m willing to admit are probably quite fantastic even though I’d rather never drink them myself.Thing is, I think few of us are as adventuresome as we ought, perhaps, to be. We don’t put as much thought into what we drink as we do into our eating. More’s the pity, my friends. Why on earth should we be dullards about food or drink when there is so much tremendous, dreamy, splendiferous stuff for the choosing? Me, I’m rather chuffed when I manage to remember not only to pay attention to the details but to enhance the food and drink by finding a great complementary pairing of them. Good food? Good! Good drinks? Goody! Good combination? Better yet!Still and all, I must say that no amount of clever combining will save the day if the drinks aren’t magnificent right from the start. Yes, let’s just get cut to the chase: good drinks are a benison and a crowning glory and a celebration altogether. Alcoholic or not, indeed. And I adjure you, when you are serving non-alcoholic drinks at the same time as alcoholic ones, be sure to make the ‘dry’ ones as pretty or impressive as the boozy ones or someone will feel slighted. Kids, especially, but why encourage either children or sober guests to covet that which they oughtn’t have? Differentiate clearly so that those who aren’t meant to have the tipsy treats can’t mistake them for the abstemious ones. But give everyone something equally delicious and glamorous-looking, and they’ll all be happier. I know I would, anyway.
Some drinks are so lovely as-is that they require no further doctoring than to get them, one way or another, from container to mouth. Even purely good, sippable liquids, though, can be friends in combinations that make them that much more spectacular.This includes liquids that are stellar as individual drinks, from water right on up through numerous juices and nectars to the top of the drink charts. It would also, of course, include in my estimation a number of brews and elixirs and decoctions that combine those original ‘root’ ingredients aforementioned into singular teas, wines, liqueurs, beers or liquors that are magnificent drinks in their unadulterated forms. But sometimes I think people get a little too prissy, if not ossified, in their reverence for such beautiful things, thinking it sinful to even consider enjoying them in new ways or combinations. Even a modestly fine Scotch, for example, is often pretty expensive and gets people intimidated out of being imaginative with it when in a fabulous mixed drink it can actually get a little life-extension by sharing the stage with other ingredients and yet still be admirably present in the mix. And as for cocktails and any other kind of mixed drinks, I have the same attitude I was taught for food appreciation: don’t put into a recipe anything (with very few exceptions) that you wouldn’t happily eat on its own. Seriously–don’t put corn syrup based imitation stuff in front of me and expect me to choose that over pure maple syrup. (And while you’re at it, gimme Grade B–the more intense the maple flavor, the better I like it.) Don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink! Don’t make a cocktail with cheap and dirty booze! Garbage in, garbage out!
Bentley Cocktail: 1 part Calvados or apple brandy + 1 part Dubonnet Rouge
on the rocks. That’s the simple classic version. But why not play with the idea and enjoy the apple aspect further by garnishing with a sprinkling of apple pie spices? Or serving the drink with salted dried-apple crisps? Or, as with many apple-eating delights, by offering sharp cheddar crisps (did you know you can make those by simply oven-browning small heaps of grated cheese and cooling them on a rack or paper to absorb released fats?) alongside to complement the apple sweetness? You can make a fair non-alcoholic facsimile of a Bentley simply with substitutions of, respectively, strong freshly pressed apple juice (I’d use unfiltered for the fullest flavor) and cream soda or birch soda.
Gimlet ['Vodka & Lime', as it was introduced to me in London when I was a stripling, is my favorite version rather than the Tito’s vodka + 1 part Rose’s lime juice on the rocks. This is essentially a grownup version of a very old-fashioned fountain drink that I loved as a kid and still love, the Green River Phosphate. So for nonalcoholic versions of it you can easily either buy Green River soda right off the grocery shelf, make a homemade version with any of the online recipes easily found, or you can even be more extravagant and make homemade lime simple syrup, simmering both juice and zest into the sugar water, and mix it with carbonated water or soda. If you’re going that far, it only makes sense to use the same lovely syrup for both the ‘hard’ version and the other drink, no? And again, why not emphasize the clean lime taste with a little complement or contrast, and consider visual impact as well as taste; classic presentation is not the law, only a set of codified cues. I’m not against even playing with frozen slices of carambola (star fruit) for the rocks in a gimlet because they have a bright citrusy taste with the added element of a surprising grassy note, they look like stars, and they keep the chill in the glass in a cheery green way without diluting the drink as they thaw. The kid in all of us, alcohol-aged drinkers or not, likes a starry surprise once in a while. I can imagine it being both entertaining and tasty to put together a simple little tribute to the tertiary color triad: a sprightly, lime-y Gimlet garnished with a bold twist of orange zest and served with a batch of sweet and salty beet crisps.
Scotch and Ginger: 1.5-2 oz. Scotch poured over ice in a tall glass, then filled with ginger ale or ginger beer (sodas, sometimes fermented). When going to have a Scotch and Ginger, I’ve seen folk shudder with horror at the very idea of adulterating decent Scotch with soda, but as you can see, my attitude toward such things is more of the [OK + OK = just more of OK] vs. [Good + Good = Better] variety. The optional iterations are so many that one could drink nothing but S&G and hardly ever have the same drink twice. I think perhaps my top choices for experimentation with this might be something like the following:
S&G 2: Laphroaig 10 year old Scotch + Vernors ginger ale (a particularly sweet and gingery soda, it’s the oldest US ginger ale still in production)These are, of course, existing and well-known mixed drinks, and among the simplest of them as well. The more numerous the ingredients, the more a drink recipe can be tweaked for fun and pleasure. It’s no wonder the new recipes never cease to, ahem, pour forth. And luckily so: I know I’ll always be thirsty for more. Here’s looking at you (through the bottom of my glass)!
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.
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.