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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Offfal and other awful things

The other day a neighbor and I were chatting while our grandkids played after school. Somehow we got on the subject of food, and he said that having grown up Chinese in a Jewish neighborhood, he eats a lot of things most people don't. As an example, he cited tongue, and I jumped in with my love of a tongue sandwich. Turns out his mom cooked fresh tongue, while mine cooked corned tongue, like a corned beef. A tongue sandwich is one of my standard orders at Carshon's, our local deli.
The conversation got me to thinking about the things I eat that others don't. Some accuse me of being a fussy eater--I don't like Thai and I don't like peppers from bell peppers on up the Scoville scale. I don't like the pepper flavor, let alone the hotness, ad my stomach doesn't handle either one wll. But other than that, I'm pretty easy.
As a child, I was, like many of my generation, forced to eat liver. I, too, hated it. but now I can cook it so that I really like it. The trick is to cover it on both sides with lemon juice (to cut the gaminess) and then sear it quickly, at hot heat, on both sides--rather than cooking it into shoe leather like our mothers did. Remove from pan and keep warm while you put some butter and diced onion in the skillet, scrape up the drippings, add a bit more lemon;6 serve over the liver. Honest, it's good! I also loved chopped chicken livers, fried chicken livers (okay, don't eat those much--not good for your cholesterol), and almost any kind of pate I've tasted.
When I was a kid, my mom cooked kidneys and bacon. (I think this came from my father's British background). She'd flour lamb kidneys and cook them like fried chicken, but with bacon and in the bacon grease. And then--hold on to your hats!--we ate them with ketchup. A while back I wanted to see if I still liked them, so I asked at Central Market if they could order lamb kidneys for me. They said yes, but I've have to take a whole case. I passed. But all those years ago when I was a bride, I'd find them in the store and sometimes freeze them till I had enough for a meal. I remember we also cooked a chafing dish recipe called "Deviled Kidneys" and I once made beefsteak and kidney pie-which our guests refused to eat.
The only disappointment in my dream trip to Scotland was that I saw no kidneys on the menu--I had look for them on the buffet of a full English breakfast. I did eat haggis twice--once with a chicken breast on it and once with tatties and neeps (mashed potatoes and turnips). Two things proved true: it was much better than the haggis I'd tentatively tasted over here, and it is much improved by brown gravy. I also ate mussels in Scotland for the first time and found them wonderfully fresh and much better than the ones I later tried in Texas. And in place of kidneys for breakfast, I tried blood pudding--it was okay, a bit salty, but it was simply pork blood added to oatmeal and shaped into a pattie. When I asked the host why add the blood, he shrugged and said he supposed it was to use up every bit of the animal.
Beef marrow is the trending dish at many restaurants, to my delight. I remember arguing with my brother over whose turn it was to eat the marrow out of a round steak bone. Now you can get a four-inch split bone with marrow inside both pieces. I love it. The other day my doctor asked if I eat much fat, and out of my mouth popped, "No, but I did have bone marrow the other night."
"Why," he asked, "would you want to do that?"
I love my meat rare, close to uncooked, and don't mind raw meat--carpaccio is a favorite dish, be it beef or tuna. I eat salmon sashimi with gusto, and think caviar is a divine treat.
Christian, my son-in-law, is a confessed non adventuresome eater, and he is astounded by some of the things I eat. But then, he won't eat mushrooms! I've never eaten parsnips nor sweetbreads (though my dad loved both--I guess Mom didn't get that adventuresome). I don't like seaweed with my sushi, and I've never tried brains. I've had tripe in pepper pot soup and not noticed it at all, but a roll of stuffed tripe might stymie me. I've eaten chittlins and loved them but I draw the line at a friend's favorite food of pork liver and turnip greens--or is it rice? Can't do turnip greens, though I love cooked spinach.
I think it's all in what you grow up with and are accustomed to eating. But I also think it's great fun to order new dishes!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Dinner for One, Please

In spite of the fact that I have a fairly constant stream of friends, relatives and neighbors at my dinner table and I eat out at least two evenings a week, I do dine alone three or four nights. I know some people who live alone have weird dining habits—like eat an entire pie in the afternoon and forget dinner or have cold cereal with milk for dinner. Not me.

Sometimes I raid the fridge—if I did that now, I’d find a stuffed half zucchini and the makings for ham salad plus a bit of cold, chopped brisket that would make a delicious sandwich on rye with mayo. Other times I have leftovers from a lunch or dinner out. The other day at lunch I was suddenly grabbed with a longing for the bacon cheeseburger (I rarely eat such fatty things). It was served with a Thousand Island-like sauce on it—more heaven. But it was the biggest thing I’ve seen in forever, and half of it became my Friday night supper (I love cold hamburgers).

Saturday night I wanted to fix myself a real dinner, and I decided on sea scallops and the aforementioned stuffed zucchini.

I’d seen a recipe for stuffed zucchini in Southern Living, but didn’t save it because I was confident I could stuff a squash. Pride goeth before and all that. This was different, and when I tried to recreate it I couldn’t exactly remember how it went. I ended up with a half zucchini with prepared bread crumbs (first mistake), scallions and Parmesan. Okay, but not great. My usual way is to sauté scallion and chopped celery just a bit, add to scooped out zucchini with home-made bread crumbs and cheddar cheese; stuff the zucchini shells and then sprinkle with Parmesan. More work but much better.

I love scallops but I never get them quite right—in my fear of overcooking and turning to rubber, I don’t let them get that good initial brown crust. A friend told me her grandson, a budding chef (as she described it “not even up to sous chef level yet”) told her the secret—rinse, pat dry, and let sit in the refrigerator overnight. I didn’t quite let them sit overnight but for about six hours, covered only by a paper towel—which meant the fridge smelled of scallops every time I went in it. The budding chef’s advice was to rinse and dry a second time, but I figure if they had already dried to a certain extent, why do that? I used salt and pepper and sautéed in a fairly hot and generous amount of butter and olive oil. (Butter burns; olive oil splatters and spits; the combination avoids these hazards). Result was a pretty good crust—just needed a little more patience on my part. But it was a good dinner.

There are other great things to do for dinner alone—a single loin lamb chop with something green (if you feel fancy put a chunk of goat cheese on the chop for the last few minutes); scrambled eggs—add whatever suits your fancy, from scallions and tomatoes to diced smoked salmon. One slider makes a good dinner for me; make a meatloaf and freeze it in single-size servings. Do pasta for one—tomato sauces are easy and quick.

Please! Don’t eat cold cereal. If you treat yourself to a good dinner, you’ll feel better about yourself. I admit I never go as far as to set the table with linen (I eat at my desk) but it’s a thought.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A beautiful cookbook

 Because I do some food writing, cookbooks wander across my desk from time to time. It’s rare, however, that one takes my breath away. The last one I can think of was Terry Thompson-Anderson’s Texas on a Plate. The combination of food philosophy, magnificent photography, and wonderful recipes had me spellbound. I still want to try the quail with dirty rice and coffee gravy.

But a week or so ago, I received a copy of Temple Ranch Cookbook. It’s what co-author and former publisher Ellen Temple calls a memory cookbook; it will never be on the cookbook shelf of your local bookstore.  So I’m not saying “Buy this,” but I do want you to know that it’s out there. If you ever get a chance to browse through a copy, jump to do it.

Two things I like (among many)—the book introduces us to Patrick Hieger, now a full-time chef at the ranch, but watch for his name to become well known in Texas culinary circles. Patrick is the other author, and he writes in an introduction to the cuisine section that food is the centerpiece for a visit to the ranch. It draws people together, and gives them reason to celebrate…and ways to celebrate. I love that philosophy about food, which I have always thought, from a simple dinner for two to a large celebration, binds us together. Further, he assures us his recipes are not so complex that we cannot duplicate. They are meant for the home cook. To the right is Hieger's version of eggs benedict.

The theme of Ellen Temple’s introductory essay is conservation and historical restoration. The ranch is located on the South Texas Plains, a land of chaparral and prairie. The ranch began in the 1860s as El Rancho La Gloria and has maintained its record of conservation of the land ever since. During the Temple years several historic structures have been renovated, including the Rock House, which once served as cookhouse and lodging for the shepherd to a large herd of Merino sheep. The discovery of a subterranean lime kiln nearby indicated the founding Gray family made their own mortar, plaster, whitewash and chipichil flooring. A cemetery for the Labbé family and a chimney are the only evidence of the brief residency of that family in the 1860s on a small portion of the land. Preservation of artifacts is important, but more important is the effort made by the Temple family to restore and preserve the native, rapidly vanishing Texas landscape. This landscape and its wildlife are captured in smashing photography by Chase Fountain and David Nix, with occasional photos credited to others. Cover design is by David Nix.

Having been a publisher (she published some of my Texas young-adult books), Ellen Temple knows beauty in a book, and this is one spectacular volume, from the hard case cover, without a bothersome jacket, and simple but bright endsheets to the understated, simple typography and design.

Food is the centerpiece of any cookbook, but I have room only to list a few items—chicken fried venison, veggie burger with black-eyed pea hummus (left), fried fish and dirty rice, steamed mussels in chorizo-fennel broth, pan sausage and cabbage, venison chili with jalapeño cornbread, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and cream gravy, migas, chocolate orange mousse with cinnamon shortbread cookies, Temple family mayonnaise, tartar sauce—I could go on and on but you get the drift. The recipes are a combination of ranch cookery and South Texas Hispanic influences.

Me? I think the first recipe I’ll try is grilled quail with white beans, mushrooms, and argula. Then again, I’ve always wanted to make dirty rice, and I love venison chili….choices, choices. Whatever I cook, the book will be protected from splatter in one of those cookbook shields. It’s a collector’s item, and I’m grateful to have been on the list to receive it.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Cooking up a storm

 I have been cooking up a storm lately…and loving it. During our Christmas vacation, each family provided a nightly meal, we went out a couple of times, and we collaborated on Christmas dinner. That was the only time I got to cook—I got responsibility for the turkey. I know some of the girls have cooked them, but they remain a bit squeamish. So I cleaned out the giblets (unanimous vote not to cook them), seasoned it with salt and pepper, rubbed butter under the skin, and roasted it. None of us have mastered altitude cooking but that bird was ready two hours before dinner. Ultimately though it was moist and good, if a tad cool.

Since then I’ve done cheese fondue for Jacob—using the traditional Gruyere and Emmenthaler, which are not cheap. Jacob liked it okay but not as much as last year, and I even felt it was lacking zing. Next year, I think I’ll look for a recipe for cheddar and beer. But the whole thing was fun—he liked the dipping and was horrified when I said if you lost your bread cube in the fondue you had to kiss the other person.

The next night I cooked dinner for four adults and Jacob—neighbors brought ham (they had a ton left over), and a friend brought wonderful sweet potatoes—wedges slightly caramelized but with a hint of cayenne. I fixed black-eyed peas (from scratch, thank you very much) and a spinach casserole. For appetizers, we had dry salami and smoked Gouda a friend had brought me. For dessert—defrosted cookies left over from before our trip.

Saturday night I was home alone and wanted a good dinner, so I got enough bay scallops for me and browned them. Then I gave them a Provencal treatment—olive oil, dry white wine, chopped tomatoes and chopped scallions.

Tonight a couple I’m fond of but don’t often see except in a crowd were supposed to come for supper—I promised just the three of us chickens. Turned out his ticket back to California was for today, not tomorrow. But I pulled out all the stops. Because they are gourmets and she’s an excellent cook, I was stymied and almost resorted to my dinner al fresco platter—small portions of salmon, chicken, tuna, maybe sardines, haricot verts or asparagus, cherry tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs and whatever else strikes your imagination. It always makes a showy presentation, but it’s a cold supper—and the weather is very cold tonight. Not appropriate.

I decided on a recipe I haven’t tried—herbed lamb meatballs in a tomato sauce. For me, part of the fun of entertaining is trying out new recipes, especially those I know my family won’t eat.  Made it in stages—sauce Friday night, meatballs Saturday, and put it all together Sunday night with a salad. Served in bowls topped with a glop of ricotta and a sprinkling of parsley for decoration. Find the recipe for Herbed Lamb Meatballs in the January 2014 issue of Food & Wine. For appetizer, smoked trout with crackers.

Tomorrow night is Twelfth Night and we traditionally burn a small branch of greens and make a wish for the new year. Five or six adults and Jacob. I’ll make a ground beef and noodle casserole I’ve made before. I got it from Mystery Lovers Kitchen, contributed by Riley Adams who regularly cooks for a large family, including teenage boys. I couldn’t find it in the blog archive, so I hope Riley won’t mind if I repeat it here.

Cheesy, Creamy Beef Noodle Casserole

Cook 6 oz. egg noodles and set aside

Brown 2 lbs. ground beef, with 1 chopped onion, 3 T. chopped garlic, salt and pepper, and sliced mushrooms until beef is brown. Drain

Add to beef mixture: noodles, 1 can cream of mushroom soup, 1 can cream of chicken soup, 1 can corn, drained.

Sprinkle about a cup of grated cheese on top (more or less if you wish)

Crush half a package of buttery crackers (I use Ritz) and mix with one half stick butter, melted; distribute evenly on casserole.

Cook 30 minutes, uncovered, at 350. Enjoy! I never said it’s good for your waistline.

May 2014 be a year of happy cooking for you.