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Thursday, May 30, 2019

For your sweet tooth—easy appetizers with honey

For years I thought I didn’t like honey—too sweet, cloying. But a couple of years ago, something changed. I had a case of the flu or that dreaded flu-that-is-not-the-flu, and coffee just tasted awful to me. So I began to drink tea, and then, because I heard it was better for you, I moved on to green tea. But it needed something, so I began to add a scant teaspoon of honey every morning. Voila! I had found my drink of choice. Now I start every day with a mug of green tea sweetened with honey.

We’ve all heard and seen the dire warnings about bees disappearing form our planet and subsequently taking with them many of the foods we love, foods that they pollinate. For some reason, coffee and avocados come to mind, but there are many others. So I’m a fervent opponent of toxic pesticides that kill bees and a proponent of planting bee-friendly gardens. Bee-friendly plants include daisies, marigolds, zinnias, crocus, hyacinth, foxglove, hosta, and many others. You can find lists and directions for a bee garden online.

But there’s another concern about honey. Most of what we buy in the grocery has been adulterated—mixed with other substances to change the color, flavor, thickness—and above all, the cost. So when you think you’re buying honey, you may be buying mostly corn syrup, a cheap imitation which has none of honey’s healthful or medicinal powers—or its pure taste.

You can buy pasteurized honey, filtered honey, raw honey. Filtered takes out the bits of pollen and beeswax that maybe found in raw honey; pasteurization sterilizes it but may well remove some of the natural benefits. I prefer the raw, mostly because I trust it to be purer and less adulterated. Best choice? Buy at a farmers’ market from a beekeeper.

They say it’s best to buy honey that is produced within 30 miles or something of your home, because it contains antidotes to local allergens. When I can’t get to a farmers’ market or when they don’t have honey, I try to buy Texas honey and avoid some that I suspect come from China. I looked on the label of the jar currently in my cupboard, and the only warning was that you should not give honey to infants under a year of age.

Raw honey sometimes crystallizes. Just remove the cap and set the jar in a pan of really hot water. It will go back to being liquid. If honey doesn’t crystallize, it’s probably been adulterated.

Did your grandmother ever put a teaspoon of honey in a cup of hot tea to soothe a cough or a sore throat (with maybe also a teaspoon of bourbon)? Honey has lots of medicinal uses as well as cooking uses. We find it frequently in marinades (often to balance soy sauce) and in salad dressings. Honey mustard is a classic dressing. But have you ever thought of using honey to create appetizers? It pairs well with cheese and fruit both.

A young friend who occasionally comes for happy hour taught me to put a drop of honey on a hunk of blue cheese served on a cracker or an apple slice or whatever. Here are some other ways to use honey for appetizers:

--bake pear slices with butter until just barely soft, top with goat cheese and drizzle with honey

--stuff figs with cream cheese softened with port, peppercorns, and honey, and bake briefly

--grill peach halves, top with a basil leaf and a drizzle of honey

--mix equal parts of a good blue cheese and cream cheese and serve with honey

--bake a block of good feta in a dish brushed with olive oil; top the cheese with more olive oil and a drizzle of honey; bake until top of cheese is caramelized; sprinkle with fresh thyme, and drizzle a bit more honey if you wish

--bake a wedge of brie; drizzle with honey, and use wedges of apples and pear to dip into the molten cheese

--fry thick slices of firm banana in olive oil until lightly browned on each side; remove from skillet and top each slice with a drop of honey and a sprinkle of cinnamon.

Of course, you need a good crisp white wine with these nibbles.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Meatballs, or fiddling with recipes

Yesterday I was supposed to post my cooking blog, but I got so carried away with domestic crises—stained carpet, water erosions, and so on—that I forgot. So here’s yesterday’s Gourmet on a Hot Plate, only a day late.

Love meatballs but hate making them? I do! Recipes seem unnecessarily complicated; in some you bake them and then finish in a skillet; in others, you simply brown them in the skillet, which makes me testy—my meatballs are never perfectly round, and browning all sides is a problem. So I was delighted to find a basic recipe that can be used with any ground meat and requires only baking. But of course I had to fiddle with it.

Here’s the basic recipe:

1 lb. ground meat—beef, pork, veal, chicken, turkey, or a combination

½ cup panko

1 egg

1 tsp. kosher salt

Black pepper and other seasonings of your choice—depending on the meat. You might choose cumin, curry, chile flakes, smoky paprika, whatever.

Minced garlic, onions or shallots.

Chopped parsley, basil or cilantro

What I did:

1 lb. ground lamb

½ cup panko

1 egg

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. oregano

1 Tbsp. tomato paste

Minced shallot

Chopped cilantro

Mix all ingredients together thoroughly and shape into 1-1/2-inch balls. Bake until firm and golden, 7-10 minutes, at 350. The recipe advises frying or broiling to finish them, but I just baked them a little longer and they were a nice golden brown all over. Don’t overbake so that you end up with hard little lumps.

If it’s lamb, I figured tzatziki sauce would go with them.

Tzatziki sauce

1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced

2 cups plain Greek yogurt

Pinch of cayenne

1 tsp. dried dill or 1 Tbsp. fresh

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 Tbsp, fresh lemon juice

½ tsp. kosher salt

¼ tsp. fine ground black pepper

Grate the cucumber, using the large holes on the grater. Drain in a colander and wrap in paper towels to press out as much liquid as possible. Let it sit fifteen minutes.

Mix everything together. Chill at least four hours before serving.

Yogurt gets watery in the fridge, and your tzatziki sauce will get watery in you have leftovers. That does not mean it’s gone bad. Just pour off the liquid. Should keep a week in the fridge.

For some reason, mysterious even to me, I decided corn salad would be good with the meatballs. When I first put it together and tasted it, I was not pleased. But then I began to add things, and my family gave a thumbs up to the final product:

Corn salad

3 cups corn kernels—in an ideal world, grill three ears of corn and strip off the kernels; but you can use frozen corn. Either way make sure the corn is cooked until tender.

Kosher salt

½ cup mayonnaise

½ cup crumbled feta—make sure it is soft and fresh; I had some in the fridge that was old, hard, and tasteless

1 4 oz. can chopped green chillies

Juice of two limes

1 Tbsp. chili powder

2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro

Mix all together and chill thoroughly before serving.

These recipes made a great meal, and three of us had leftovers to nibble on for a couple of days. Now I’m pondering chicken meatballs for a variation—what seasonings would you use? I’m not a great fan of tarragon, which is usually paired with chicken.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Green Noodles

No, it's not green eggs and ham. This is perhaps even better. Te story goes that yesrs ago (more than fifty), my brother was courting the woman who became his first wife. She had promised to cook him dinner but had no money for groceries, so she used what she had on hand, melting butter in the skillet, adding cooked spaghetti and lots of lemon juice. Over the years, I “improved” on the idea.

First, I substituted spinach fettucine for the spaghetti. Then I added scallions and mushrooms. Next inspiration was to add chopped artichoke hearts. Finally, when I had lots of basil, made my own pesto, and froze it in an ice cube tray, I began to add a cube of pesto. I always topped the whole thing with freshly grated Parmesan although these days I prefer Pecorino.

I frequently served this to my children as they were growing up. It was a family favorite that they called “green noodles.” Megan, always weight conscious, used to complain I used too much butter, but I like it that way.

The beauty of it is that it’s still good without any one of my additions, if you have butter and lemon. I often make a single serving for myself.

Green noodles

1 16-0z. pkg. spinach egg noodles or fettucine

1 stick butter

8 oz. mushrooms, sliced (I always buy whole and slice them myself)

4 scallions, chopped

1 can quartered artichoke hearts, chopped

1 ice-cube of pesto, thawed (about a generous Tbsp)

Juice of one lemon

Grated fresh Parmesan or Pecorino

Cook and drain noodles. Melt butter in the skillet. Sauté the mushrooms and scallions in the butter. Add lemon juice to taste—I like lots; the mushrooms soak up the lemon and are delicious. Add artichoke and pesto and stir to incorporate. Add noodles and toss to coat. Top with cheese

Jamie’s wife, Melanie, did a slightly different version for her daughters, Maddie and Edie, both of whom at a very young age loved sour things like pickles and capers. Mel cooked angel hair pasta and buttered it liberally; then she added lemon juice and capers. I watched in amazement as she dumped in capers out of the jar, not bothering to drain them (as I always do, with some difficulty). “Oh, yeah,” she said, “the juice adds a really good taste.” I tried it, and she’s right.

Makes a good and quick meatless meal.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The everyday sandwich

Sandwiches seem to be all over the internet food sites these days. I first noticed this trend with an article on peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches. It seems you either love them or despise them, with most people falling into the latter camp. This struck home to me because I’ve eaten those sandwiches all my life. My mother fixed them for me, and now my oldest son eats them while the rest of the family scoffs. We like to put some lettuce in the sandwich for a bit of crispness—and, you know, eat your greens every day.

It seems the sandwich, once as revered as peanut butter and jelly, was a staple in the South during the Depression, when rib-sticking food was hard to get. I’m not sure how my mom, who spent almost her entire life in Illinois, came by this southern tradition, but it was a staple in our house.

In other parts of the country, people experiment with additions—you can put pickle on the sandwich, or bacon, or cheese. But always that thick layer of mayo. I have been known to try a combination of peanut butter, mayo, cheddar, and bacon—in some regions that’s called an Elvis sandwich (or how much cholesterol do you want in one bite?). Today I’ve heard of people putting Siracha sauce on peanut butter sandwiches. I’m not a fan of that hot sauce, though I have a friend who puts it on almost every and anything, especially pimiento cheese.

Grilled cheese is another staple that’s in for revision these days. Many of us grew up on tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. To me, they present a dilemma—I never get them quite right. They’re either undercooked—the cheese still firm, the crust on the bread pale and limp—or they’re burnt. One grandson refuses my grilled cheese because they’re always burnt.

Now I’ve seen suggestions for modernizing that standby. I’ve tried adding pickle and bacon before cooking. That makes one huge and hearty sandwich! But it’s difficult to keep all the parts in place as you flip it, unless you let the cheese get gooey enough to hold everything before flipping it. I think I like the idea of adding just pickle better, and I have always liked tomatoes in a grilled cheese.

How about grilled pimiento cheese with tomato? Or grilled cheese with pesto? The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

Then there’s the question of bread—traditionally these sandwiches have been made with white bread, what I call “cotton candy bread” because it sticks to your teeth and the roof of your mouth. I prefer a bread with more substance—a light wheat or a rye. And a modern technique I’ve begun trying—use mayo rather than butter on the outside of the sandwich to fry it.

My mom used to have a kitchen gadget that made round grilled cheese sandwiches. It was two round pieces of metal, attached at one end and each with a long handle. You made your sandwich the same way, fit it into the mold, clamped the mold shut, and trimmed off the outside bits of bread. We “grilled” by holding over a burner. The process sealed the sandwich shut all around—no leaks. You could use it for all other kinds of things—I remember banana sandwiches, I think, and egg. Sound familiar to anyone? I’ve looked online but don’t know what to call it to do a thorough search.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Chicken lettuce wraps

On Wednesdays, Sam Sifton’s column in the New York Times usually includes a no-recipe suggestion for a dish—directions but no quantities. Just kind of “do this and then do that.” Recently the recipe was a chicken lettuce wrap that struck my fancy. The night I wanted to fix it, I discovered I was missing several ingredients—cilantro, fresh mint, fish sauce (I didn’t really miss the latter—never used it, though I suppose I should try sometime). Also I didn’t have head of iceberg lettuce. I usually refuse to buy it—all water and no taste. I buy leaf, but we found that leaf lettuce doesn’t wrap. We ended up with open-faced salads, with a meat layer as the base. Here’s what I did:

Ingredients (this serves two, two-to-three wraps each)

4-6 leaves from a head of iceberg lettuce (no other), washed and patted dry

1 lb. ground chicken

1 small red onion (if such exists—all I ever find in the stores are huge red onions), diced

3 scallions. chopped

¼ c. dry white wine

A generous glug of soy sauce, to taste

Pepper, if needed—go light on salt because the soy is salty

1 small can chopped green chillies

Diced tomatoes

Cilantro sprigs (I didn’t use but will next time)

Crumbled feta

Optional: ½ tsp. cumin.

            Use a large skillet. I started out with my small skillet and found ground chicken jumping over the side. Put a little water in to keep the chicken from sticking and cook until all pink is gone from the meat. Remove pan from hot plate. Keep warm on a low heat while you dice the tomatoes and onion. Add onion, scallions, and chillies to the meat  mixture and remove from heat (you want the onions to be crunchy, not sautéed).

Spread lettuce leaves flat. Put generous spoon of meat mixture in center, top with tomatoes, cilantro, and feta. Wrap—or eat with a fork, like a salad. This is best eaten the night you cook it—I had some meat leftover and tried to duplicate the wrap for lunch the next day but without heating the meat. It wasn’t as wonderful as it had been the night before.

Every cook is entitled to an oops moment. Please don’t judge me by my biscuits. First of all, I should make them from scratch, but I don’t (hear the guilt!); I use a tube of grands. But my wonderful toaster-oven-sized cookie sheet will only hold five biscuits at most, so I do them in batches. My attention clearly wandered the other day when I was baking my breakfast.