Monday, June 1, 2015

Pea on this, Pea on that

Peas have a reputation.  And it ain't good - starchy and a weird color, very often the color of something a babe has recycled. But in fact, they can be delicious and there's a reason we feed them whooshed to infants, they're nutritious. If you hate peas, my theory is, you've probably never had a good pea.  

Where to find a good pea?  In my opinion, there are only two options.  1.  You're in a field of peas, and you're picking them at the perfect stage of readiness - not too fat, not too skinny.  From there, you immediately walk to a kitchen, have everyone in the house help you shell, then directly into salted boiling water.  30 seconds later, you have perfectly delicious peas.  Sound like a lot of work and effort?  Yep, sure is.  I eat my peas in the garden, and very generously share one or two with the cockers, who adore them.  They'll pick their own peas given a chance, and have ruined many a vine to get at them.  Turns out, pea shoots are just as delectable as peas.  Option 2.  Go to the freezer section of your local grocery and find the peas - choose the smallest ones you can find, possibly labeled petite or baby, and purchase.  I pay $1.29 for a 10oz foil wrapped box of BirdsEye in my local grocer.  I would actually pay a lot more for this treasure, but please don't tell the grocer.  There are bags of frozen baby peas available at a lower price, but for my money, the box o'peas is the clear winner for taste.  Dunno why, but there it is.

So you have your box of peas, what to do with them?  You could cook them per pkg direction. Borrrring. Tasty, but boring.  How about a pea pesto?  It's simple, SO lovely, tasty and easy. 

Let the peas defrost on the counter.  When they're almost unfrozen, dump them into your food processor.  (You could mash in a bowl as well, but the texture suffers.)  Add to the peas:  a fat handful or freshly grated parmigiana reggiano or pecorino romano.  I like a combination of the two.  Smashed garlic, to taste.  One fat clove works for me.  Salt, sparingly, and black pepper.  Pulse a time or two to get things going, then whoosh, adding a thing stream of EVOO, maybe a 1/4 cup total, until a nice paste forms.  Taste and adjust seasoning.   Voilá!  Pea pesto.

10oz box of frozen petite peas, mostly unfrozen
1/3-1/2 cup grated cheese
1-2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/4ish cup EVOO
salt and pepper to taste

The sweetness of the peas is the first thing to hit your palette, followed quickly by the zing of the garlic,  then the cheese and bread bring up the rear.  For me, I could eat it until I burst - it's a perfect sweet, salty, rich, sharp/bitter, creamy combo.

Because there are so few ingredients, they have to be quality ingredients.  No green can cheese, use real imported, and shred or grate it yourself.  Frozen crushed garlic would be ok, but please, nothing already crushed from a jar.  Buy whole cloves if you want that shortcut, the already crushed has a weird flavor. Extra virgin olive oil - I could write a book about EVOO.  Trader Joe's has two very good ones on their shelves, at good prices - the California Estate, and the 100% Greek Kalamata Olive.  

How to use this magical green food?  My favorite way is slathered on a toasted piece of good bread, with a shaving of manchego on top.  Breakfast of champions.  But it also makes a lovely and unusual hors d'ouevres, works phenomenally mixed with fresh pasta (add a dollop of ricotta on top!), would be lovely aside a piece of crispy fish, under a broiled or grilled tomato, make green eggs, and have I mentioned that most kids will eat it, if you don't tell them it's peas?  My nephew thinks it's hilarious to eat Shrek food - Shrek only eats green things of course, to stay green himself.  (We do check for any color changes post meal, and I promise to make more in the future to try and turn Shrek green again.  Remind me to tell you about the time I slathered a little bit of seaweed face mask on my skin to get him to try it the first time.  Who doesn't want to be green?) 

You could also add or subject ingredients to change the profile slightly, and get a little more sophisticated with the flavor profile.  I would stay with the peas and parm, but maybe you add a little tarragon or chervil, add some nuts - pine nuts, hazelnuts, even macadamias would be nice (cut the oil a bit).  Add some sautéed shallots or onions.  Add a little sherry.  Top with some crispy bits of country ham or bacon, add some cream or creme fraiche instead of evoo. If you wanted to get super fancy, as I did for our 17th wedding anniversary recently, grilled a slice of bread (I used a batard for it's dense texture) and rub with raw garlic once it's off and cooled enough to touch.  Pesto top it.  Top pesto with a dab of roasted tomato sauce (you know the One) that you've reduced down with a little vodka, then good Spanish manchego on top of that.  It's penne a la vodka without the penne - flavor match and set.  

So go get your pea on!  But if I see you in the market perusing the canned peas, I will have to take away your food lover card. Sorry, those are the rules.  

Friday, February 13, 2015

Adding SPICE to your Valentine's Day

My Valentine to You --- hope you have a super spicy day  XoXoX, Cyn

With great humility and a healthy hit of confidence I report to you that I seem to be viewed as an above average Whipper Upper in the kitchen.  It started early, with a family that encouraged my presence in and around the kitchen, and ate my ‘special’ sauces and praised me for their deliciousness.  (Mix ketchup, A-1 steak sauce and oregano.  It really is pretty delicious, as any 4 year old dipper will tell you.)  Their support and willingness to try anything I produced gave me the confidence to cook.  I caught the bug, and am happiest in a kitchen full of hungry people. 

So what’s my secret?  Seasoning.  Yup, that’s it.  SO simple, yet so rarely executed well.  And when I say seasoning, I just don’t mean the basic salt and pepper, I mean all the herbs and spices that can enhance a dish.  Al and I were once invited (key word here:  once) to a couples’ house for dinner - we had a lot in common with these two on paper:  loved good music, drank good wine, golfers, fellow northeasterners, etc...and they purportedly loved good food.  “Hey,” we thought, “they could really be good friends!”  We arrived with wine and flowers, and proceeded to choke down the blandest hospital food you could imagine before arriving at a truly divine chocolate dessert, but even that could have benefited from a shot of salt.  The hosts’ comments to us while finishing up cooking details was that he felt salt/pepper/herbs/spices only conflicted with the taste of what you were eating.  Needless to say, that friendship didn’t last much past that dinner,  but the lack of spice wasn’t the only reason.  Just the biggest.

Now that may sound like an elitist food bitchy thing to say, or even think, but really?  No salt?  No pepper?  No pepperoncino?  What the hell kind of life are you eating?  Not a tasty one, as I can attest to!  This brings me to the secret of my success in the kitchen - seasoning.  That’s it, that’s all there is to it, I can season well.  I know what spices will convert a piece of broccoli into a delicacy dripping with garlicky juices, I know a little bit of cayenne wakes up almost anything and should be in everything, I know that curry salt will make my eggs sing an aria where regular old salt is the national anthem.  What’s the secret to knowing who plays nicely with who in the kitchen playground?  There is some segregation, and this should be respected in the kitchen, until you have the basics  under your belt.  Don’t be going all southeast asian with the cinnamon until you’ve got a handle on what’s happening in the playground at home.  Try a little cinnamon stick in the brewing coffee grounds in the morning, add a little to your butter and toast, dust a pork chop with it before cooking and add apples.  Understand how it’s going to go from sweet to savory, and then get all southeast asian on it.  Make a chinese five spice and create a little pho.  Most spices are pretty liberal, and can go both ways.  Sweet or savory.  All depends on the applications.  

So where to start?  Let’s start with the last list I wrote about, the ten you should have in your pantry.  I’ll give you the spice, who it plays nicely with in the spice playground, a food or two you should be trying with said spice, and a blend that’s its widely used in, and where that blend originates.  Where it originates should give you a clue as to how and where that spice should be used as well - think of the dishes that are from that area and you’ll probably have a perfect way to add that blend to your repertoire.  For example, herbes de Provence, a blend of spices that is/was typical to the cooking of southern France, as that was what on hand outside one’s kitchen window, as most blends are.  It can include thyme, savory, rosemary, marjoram, and as the French chef from Provence told me last summer in his kitchen, never lavender, that’s for Americans.  (See, food bitches everywhere, not just America.)  Use it on grilled meats, fish, eggs, over cheese...with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon it makes a delightful light dressing.  The four major herbs I mentioned grow well on sunny windowsills too, and fresh herbes de Provence in an omelette made with creme fraiche, ooo la la!  THAT will give you a reputation as someone who knows what they’re doing in the kitchen.  Add a little baguette and some tomatoes, perhaps a little chervil if it’s to hand, a glass of rosé,

but I digress...

SALT - numero uno for so many reasons.  If you only have one in your pantry, make it a finishing salt -an unrefined sea salt, like Maldon, Celtic, the Himalayan stuff showing up everywhere.  It hasn’t been dissolved, all the minerals removed, and re-crystalized like kosher or other ‘girl with the umbrella‘ salts we all grew up with.  You can find it flakes or  crushed to the crystal form, aka table salt.

Kosher salt is a workhorse salt, for the rougher jobs in the kitchen like brining, or salting pasta water, preserving things, it’s not supposed to be seasoning your finished project.  It’s the cheap salt you use when you need a lot of salt to get a job done.  It’s known as kosher salt because it was used to ‘kosher’ meat, drawing the blood out.

IF I accomplish one thing with this blog post, I hope it’s to get you to stop using kosher salt to season your food.  Would you use ice melting salt to season your food? (And yes, I know most of it’s magnesium or calcium chloride you smarty pantses, not sodium chloride, but it makes my point).  

Plays well with: everyone, and is especially good in blends, think truffle salt, curry salt, smoked (!) salt.  To make a fancy blended salt, throw salt and your flavor of choice in your spice grinder (coffee grinder you bought esp to whoosh spices, they’re cheap and plentiful, this is not snotty).  Try a little curry powder, 1/8-1/4 tsp in a tbsp of salt to start.  Season your eggs with it.  Now this assumes you have a good curry powder on hand, like it to begin with, and perhaps even made your own?  

Ever since that ill-fated under-seasoned meal, I carry a little stash of salt on me at all times.  Live and learn people, live and learn.

A little side rant - salt has been much maligned by dietitians and doctors as the root of all health evil.  And it can be if you're eating all of your food pre-made by Marie Callender or McDonald's.  The salt we use to season food we prepare from scratch at home with quality ingredients is not the problem.  Look it up, ask your doctor, I ain't lyin'.

PEPPER - stimulates your appetite and probably best used to finish a dish (meaning it’s added at the end or the completion of cooking).  It’s hot and warming, and there are white, pink, green, Szechuan, several kinds of black, Tasmanian - lots of different types.    My grandmother had access to one, McCormicks black pepper, and some of the dishes of hers that I make aren’t the same unless that pepper is in play.  

Plays well with: basil, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, nutmeg,  parsley, SALT, thyme and turmeric

Dish that highlights:  fresh strawberries with balsamic and black pepper

Blend to try: Montreal Steak Seasoning, also McCormick, and the only hints they give you as to what’s inside is salt, spices (including black and red pepper), garlic, paprika extracts and the kicker, natural flavor.  Which can be anything.  <raising a fist in the air and shaking it> Curse you FDA for not mandating better labeling!  I just want to know what I’m eating!

NUTMEG - my honey, my boo.  I love nutmeg.  I put it on alot of things.  I order in bulk and always whole.  I have a grater devoted to my nutmeg.  I even have a nutmeg necklace and am a Nutmeg State native, although that’s not a flattering moniker when you know the story.  Nutmeg adds a certain depth of flavor and works in mysterious ways.  Nutmeg is also a flirty spice, since it goes both ways, sweet or spicy with ease.

Plays well with: allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, mace, pepper, thyme, vanilla.  Is a core ingredient in the french spice blend, quatré epices (with clove, ginger and white pepper)

DIsh that highlights:  creamed spinach, mac n’ cheese.  Pretty much any time you have dairy in a dish, add a little nutmeg.  It’s also what makes eggnog eggnoggy.

GARLIC - I would hope that by now, almost everyone has been initiated into the cult of garlic.  If your only experience to date is garlic bread from the freezer section of your local grocer, I pity you.  Garlic is sharp and can be hot when raw, but give it a little heat, and it gets all mellow and downright sweet if baked.  

Plays well with: BASIL, bay, caraway, cayenne, chives, cilantro, coriander, cumin, fennel, ginger, lemongrass, mustard, oregano, paprika, parsley, pepper, rosemary, saffron, sage, salt, tarragon, thyme

Dish that highlights: for cooked, I'd go with a simple marinara  raw: grilled bread rubbed with a raw clove  PESTO!

MARJORAM (OREGANO) - In my opinion, marjoram tastes like softened oregano, and it doesn't scream pizza.  It's a fine herb for adding a tiny bit of a fresh green flavor to dishes, and works especially well with tomatoes, same as oregano.  In fact, they're both in the origanum genus of plants, which is in the mint family.  (Getting my inner plant geek on.)  Marjoram for cooking is often referred to as sweet marjoram as well, hinting as its less forceful nature.

Plays well with: basil, bay, chives, garlic, mint, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme

Dish that highlights: roast chicken with marjoram and lemon.  It's one of the fines herbs in the spice mix fines herbes, along with parsley, tarragon, chives and chervil.  Which is fantastic fresh over scrambled eggs, btw.

BAY - Sweet bay, bay laurel, it's a large green leaf and more people have choked to death on them than probably any other herb in history.  Why?  They weren't removed from the pot before serving.  I religiously count them going in, and count them coming out.  Why bother?  There's something about bay - a little brightness that makes any soup/stew better, and is a must for polenta.  My absolute favorite way to enjoy bay is to dip the leaves in tempura batter and fry them.  When they come out, strip off the batter with your teeth, chuck the leaf in the compost.  The hit of flavor is amazing.  

The only leaves I use are dried from Turkey.  California bay leaves, which can be found fresh in markets and is sold as plants, is a different type of bay, and to me, is like adding a little Vicks VapoRub to your dish.  Not my ideal flavoring.  It's also one of the only cases of an herb being stronger when it's fresh that when dried.  That's not natural, so just avoid the California bay for eating.  You can buy Turkish bay leaves incredibly cheaply in bulk, stored in the freezer they will keep for years.  Unless you develop an unhealthy addiction to frying the leaves in tempura, then no storage problem.  You were warned.

Plays well with: allspice, garlic, juniper, marjoram, parsley, pepper, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme, vanilla

Dish that highlights:  add a couple leaves to any soup or stew, magic with marjoram and garlic in tomato sauce

CAYENNE - my Daddy's Daddy was born wayyyyy down South, in the same town as Elvis (my brother is a dead ringer and could make millions if he could just sing (love you J)), so it's no surprise that there's a little cayenne peppa running through my veins.  It's a warming spice, adds a little zing, or a lot of zing, depending on how much you use, and when it's added to the pot.  Personally, I love a little zing, so cayenne goes fast around here.  I find it also cleanses your palate a bit, setting you up for the next bite.  Heat is addictive, and once you catch the fever, it's hard to go back to bland food.  PS…you'll want to know the longer you cook it, the hotter it gets, so add at the end of cooking and just a bit if you're a novice.  And it intensifies the flavor of basil, so add a smudge with any basil in any dish.  It's always in my pesto.

Plays well with:  basil, cilantro, coriander, cumin, garlic

Dish that highlights:  crack bacon - brown sugar and cayenne baked bacon

CINNAMON - When little kids are asked what spices they know, cinnamon is always at the top of the list.  Why?  Cinnabon, of course.  Which is kinda sad, but at least they learn a spice.  It's probably one of the first spices I ever had too, on a piece of toast with sugar and butter.  It flavors baked goods to delicious acclaim, and makes apples taste like they're bad for you they taste so good.  Just writing this makes me think of a bread pudding with apples and cinnamon, which is really just my cinnamon toast gilded and glorified.   Real cinnamon is the bark of a tree, and there are many different (literally 100's) of types of cinnamon, but only 4 are used in commercial production of the spice.  Cassia and Ceylon.  I won't go into the geeky plant differences, what you need to know is cassia is stronger and has a more in-your-face-I'm-cinnamon flavor, and Ceylon is more mild and somewhat sweeter.  

Plays well with: allspice, cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, garlic, ginger, mace, nutmeg, saffron, star anise, turmeric, vanilla

Cinnamon is the star in many blends, such as chinese five spice, garam masala and ras el hanout.  

Dish that highlights: anything with apples, but try apple crisp.  Add a little to your hot chocolate with a squosh of cayenne and you'll be living la vida loca.

CUMIN - Another warm spice, it blooms when added to a little warm oil in a pan - the oils in the spice reactivate and you'll know it's cooking, it's very fragrant.  It comes both whole and ground, and of course I recommend the whole to be ground by you as needed.  Whole can also be added directly to your soup/stew/chili, and it gives a lovely lighter flavor than using ground.  It's the chili in chili, by the way, no chili without cumin in my humble but firm opinion.  Cumin is synonymous with curry in many cultures, although it's just one part of a spice blend that is curry.  

Plays well with: allspice, anise, bay, cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, clover, coriander, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, mace, mint, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, pepper, saffron, thyme and turmeric

Dish that highlights:  lovely in a chicken salad, egg salad, with red lentils or in a butter served with shellfish.  

SPICE BLENDS - this is a whole other blog.  There is only so much patience you'll have in reading, and if you've gotten this far in this blog post, hurrah!  There are a ton of commercial blends available, some of them very good.  Take a look at the ingredients and consider if you like the individual spices.  Chances are you'll like the blend if you like the components.  Don't be scared by an ingredient or two that you don't know.  I will give you my all-time cheater spice mayo recipe if you promise not to tell----I make it with a spice blend and serve it with fried anything, but especially catfish.  Paul Prudhomme's Redfish Magic mixed with Duke's mayonnaise (Hellman's is okay for my northern contingent), a little lemon and cayenne to taste.  You now have the secret to unlocking the universe and can never say I don't love you.  

How to make the spices work together?  Say you want to use marjoram in something.  Take a look at what spices go well with it and start there.  Maybe you add basil and garlic.  Smush this up with some butter and olive oil and decorate bread for broiling, a chicken for grilling, or even go crazy and use it on some stir fried zucchini (please add crushed red pepper if you do!).  I realize these herbs are just the tip of the iceberg, but it's a good place to start if you're among the Spice Deprived.  You know I'm dying to say it so here it goes - get some SPICE in your life!

Happy cooking!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Romancing the Egg - Part 2

So, I was wrong. In my last post, cleverly titled Romancing the Egg - Part 1, I predicted that my next step in the path to Eggdom would likely involve breakfast. Seemed logical, didn't it? Breakfast is all about eggs, or so it has seemed to a non-egg eater for the past half century. Omelets, breakfast sandwiches, fried, scrambled, over easy, sunny side up, poached, breakfast burritos...... ....eggs, it's what's for breakfast (with apologies to the The Beef Industry Council)

I'm not really sure what this has to do with eggs - when I went looking for an appropriate picture to use here I stumbled onto this and it made me laugh.

 Every few weeks I play poker with a bunch of semi-degenerates. We have a rule that each player needs to bring a snack to share. Most of the time it's what you would expect from a group of guys - chips and salsa, a box of tacos from the local Mexican restaurant, sushi from the local supermarket, and chicken wings. Cynthia asked me if I had decided what I was going to bring that night and when I told her I planned to pick something up, she said she would take care of it.Little did I know that when I got home from work, I would find this waiting.

That, my friends is not only a deviled egg, it is a deviled egg with a piece of Nueske's bacon that has been candied on top! If you don't know about Nueske's applewood smoked bacon, check out the link. WARNING: if you get up the courage to spend the money to have your bacon shipped from Wisconsin like we do, you'll never buy that brand we all grew up with again - but I digress.

So, there I was, confronted with something that actually looked a lot like an egg. Remember, in the previous episode of this journey into Eggdom, I tackled a cheese souffle which, in all honesty, didn't look at all like an egg, but this thing, nope, no mistaking it - EGG. But there was BACON too - I love bacon (OK, who doesn't?). I decided to suspend my primal urge to run away. 

So, without further ado, here is are my impressions of the first deviled egg I've ever eaten.

  • Texture - a little odd, not unlike jello that was "older", but pleasantly offset by the creaminess of the yolk and the crunch of the bacon.
  • Taste - actually, pretty delicious. The mayonnaise, smoked paprika and bacon may have contributed (ya think?)
  • Fragrance - well, you all probably know, but I worked in the chemical industry for a good part of my career and have a high tolerance for odors.
  • Conclusion - I'll eat them again. In fact, I did that night at the poker game.
I took the rest of the batch to the game and want to share an excerpt from an email that was sent around the next day....

" Al's wife for the Deviled Eggs with Bacon, I think we can market those and make millions...they were super and I only had 2 because they were gone around 7:38. #AWESOMELYDELICIOUS"

For the record. I got there at 7:30.

Now on to breakfast.....

P.S. for those of you that may be jumping into this ongoing egg saga, you may want to read this post which will help put some of these seemingly odd ramblings in perspective.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Romancing the Egg - Part One

Last week I wrote this post exposing my irrational fear of eggs, the basis for it and my plan to begin to deal with it. Knowing that it would be very easy to put off this journey into eggdom, I decided that I better get started. Well, more accurately, Cynthia decided I should get started.

When I arrived home from work, I found her where I often do, in the kitchen up to her elbows in pots, pans, dishes, whisks, knivstainless steel mixing bowls, with one or more of her large collection of cookbooks open. This time, it was one of Julia Child's, specifically The Way To Cook.

I instantly had my normal reaction when I see this - here comes something yummy. However, as they say in the NFL, upon further review, I spied the eggs. Pretending to be nonplussed, I asked what she was making (all the time knowing this was to be my first real close encounter with eggs in more than a half a century). The answer: a classic cheese souffle!

Cyn explained that serving something with "cheesy goodness" might be a good way to take the focus off of the eggs. Sure, why not? I like cheese, no wait, I love cheese! Julia's recipe called for a classic Gruyere cheese.

Since we were having a salad of mixed organic greens on the side she informed me that if I didn't like the souffle, I could add tuna to my salad to get my protein. Nice, way to set a positive tone, right?

About 30 minutes later, this exited the oven. I have to admit, it looked beautiful and smelled really good.

Long story short - it was light and airy with a pleasant crust that added an alternative texture. I'll admit, I expected to taste something that would cause me to say, ahhhh, that's what eggs taste like. Well, in this case, at least to my taste, the eggs acted as a very subtle palette for the Gruyere, allowing its natural sweet/nutty flavor to shine. Two quite generous scoops later I was pretty sure I had taken the first step in banishing that irrational fear.

I'm not completely sure what's next, but I suspect breakfast will be involved.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Incredible Edible Egg - A Journey of Enlightenment (I hope)

We all have fears. Many times they are irrational. The problem with irrational fears is that they are, well, irrational.The dictionary definition of this tidy little word is as follows:

1. without the faculty of reason; deprived of reason.  
2. without or deprived of normal mental clarity or sound judgment.  
3. not in accordance with reason; utterly illogical

This pretty much describes my relationship with eggs during the past 57 years. There, I've said it. To better understand this, I need to provide a little more context, right? Here goes......

When I was four years old (so I've been told), I had a full on convulsion after eating eggs for breakfast. Apparently I survived, but this event lead to a battery of tests that subsequently determined that I was allergic to a long list of pretty common foods, eggs being right at the top of said list. In the spirit of full disclosure, the list also included tomatoes, peanut butter, cantaloupe, and green vegetables. Alright, that last one isn't true but I distinctly remember trying to convince my parents it was.I won't bore you with the extended list of environmental allergies (think dust, pollen, ragweed), but be assured that starting at age five I was one big bundle of allergies.I spent much of my youth getting allergy shots on a regular basis and sneezing.

So, what does a child of that age do when it is drilled into his head that he's violently allergic to something? Well, he avoids it like the plague. As the years passed, I either consciously or subconsciously managed to get past most of the food allergies and started eating and enjoying mostly everything. Eggs, on the other hand retained some sort of mystical standing in my mind. After all, they had caused me to have a convulsion when I was four! Eat eggs? Are you kidding me? Are you trying to kill me?

Don't get me wrong, I ate pies, cakes, cookies and lots of other things that had eggs in them. The trick was, I couldn't see the eggs - so - they weren't there. Offer me scrambled eggs, egg salad, soft boiled, hard boiled or anything else where they egg looked like an egg and I just took one step back and said no thanks.If this doesn't make any sense to you, just scroll up a few paragraphs and re-read the definition of irrational.

So, here we are in 2015. I'm 61 years old and I think I'm on the verge of an epiphany. The flash of brilliance of which I speak is that I've been eating eggs all my life and the one convulsion was just that, an isolated incidence that may have had nothing to do with eggs in the first place. 

If you've read this blog before, you probably know that I am married to a quite amazing cook. Cynthia and I have spent our nearly 20 years together making food an important part of our lives and I am a much better person for it. She has helped me to really understand food, appreciate it in many different ways and to broaden my horizons about it. It's not that I was ever a picky eater, I was just somewhat provincial. 

If you watch much food television (and we do), I'm sure you've noticed that when people who (allegedly) know a lot about food talk about eggs, it often sounds like they are describing either a religious experience or the best sex they've ever had. For a very long time, I've just watched this and scoffed - really, eggs? I've managed to go more than half a century without them, how big a deal can they be? More recently however, I've wondered if I am truly missing something. So, you can only imagine the look on Cynthia's face when I came home from work one day and during dinner, asked her if she would help me learn to like eggs. I'm pretty sure if I had asked he to help me learn to walk on the ceiling she wouldn't have been any more surprised.

So, here I sit, on the edge of what seems like a big adventure to me and I'm sure sounds insanely trite to you. I'm going to eat eggs. I'm going to put aside the 1 in 100 billion chance that I'll have another convulsion and live on the edge. 

Wish me luck and check back here to see how it goes.......... 

....and now for the completely self serving plug for a post Cynthia wrote about eggs a few years back. No, I didn't eat them.....Slow Cooked Eggs with Pistachios

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Spiceman Cometh

I’m staging a coup.  It’s been over a year since The Reluctant Foodie sat down and wrote a post, despite the numerous pokings and proddings of his not-so-reluctant wife.  Do you think he’ll notice the hostile takeover of his blog?  Let’s write this puppy and find out!

Happy New Year!  When you hear this phrase, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?  Champagne and parties?  Resolutions?  OMG another year and I haven’t cleaned out that front hall closet?  How about your spice hangar?  You know, the drawer, little corner of the pantry, or box in the bottom of the cabinet where you keep your spices?  Do you ever clean that out?

McCormick, Durkee, Penzey’s, The Spice Hunter, Frontier - wherever and from whomever you buy your herbs and spices, are going to tell you that’s it’s best of you throw out your spices every six months and buy a whole new set.  And I would too, if I were trying to sell you herbs and spices.  The simple fact of the matter is:  they’re not spoiling, they’re just less potent than fresh.  So while the dried mustard you inherited from your Great Aunt Nellie is probably a good candidate for your compost pile, the fenugreek you purchased to make the deliciously satisfying Adasi is just fine.  Yes, it’s lost some of its potency, and is probably a little stale.  Solution?   Use your eyes, nose and tastebuds  - is it not too terribly faded from what you remember?  Does it still have a nice fragrance?  Does it taste ok when you dab a little on your tongue?  Then save your money and use it!  You may need to be a little more generous with it to get the same taste profile, but it is certainly still a viable product.  Bloom it in a little warm oil or water if you’re in doubt as to whether or not it’s still suitable for consumption.   Worse case scenario?  It’s wayyyyy past its prime and you have a good excuse to head to your local specialty spice store for a nice shopping spree.  And unlike shopping for shoes or single batch aged bourbon, you won’t have to hide the receipts.  

For what should you be shopping?  What are the base herbs spices everyone should have in their pantry?  Well, that’s actually complicated.  What do you like to eat?  What turns you on in the kitchen?  (Regarding food, people!)  Are you a heat miser who gets all weepy at the thought of a scorching hot and spicy chili filled with chiles?  Do you enjoy a good bake, and want a cabinet full of warm spices that remind you of your Nana?  Does the freshness of a salad dressing full of bright herbs from Provence do it for ya?  There’s an herb or spice for that!  And you should seek out your favorites.  But just in case you need a basic stock to pull from, here are some of my Must Haves:

---Salt.  A basic cooking salt, like kosher AND a finishing salt, like fleur de sel.  I’m seriously into salts right now, and I won’t confirm what a geek I am by telling you how many I have in my pantry, but there is a difference.  If you’re still using the basic iodized salt your gran did, I will tell you that you’re missing out.  That salt has been mined and stripped of everything that makes it interesting - all the minerals have been dissolved out and sold.  Find something unrefined and see what a difference it makes.  If you can’t tell, you probably shouldn’t be reading this blog, it will just confuse you.

---Pepper.  Whole, in a grinder, even if it’s a disposable one that comes full of pepper berries from your Super Shop Here Market.  Branch out when you’re feeling frisky, add a little white pepper, or pink pepper, or even Szechuan pepper.  I’m a pepper, you’re a pepper, he’s a pepper, she’s a pepper, wouldn’t you like to be a pepper too?

---Whole nutmeg, with its own dedicated mini grater.  Rachel Ray let the cat out of the bag with this one, but it bears repeating.  Fresh grated nutmeg is that je ne sais quois in any recipes, whether it is your macaroni and cheese or your bloody mary.

---Garlic powder, not garlic salt.  Find one you like, some are hotter than others, some have more crap mixed in with the garlic.  If you can find Sylvia’s Garlic Powder, you will have found my hands down favorite.  If you can’t find it, send me a note and I’ll send you some.  It’s by far the best I have used, and sometimes fresh is just too fresh and you need the maltier tones of the dried.

---Marjoram or oregano.  To my mind, they’re really not interchangeable, marjoram is much more subtle and complex, but you should have one or the other in your possession.  Greek or Turkish oregano in a bag is superior to anything in a bottle, and Mexican oregano is not really an oregano (origanum for all you other plant nerds out there) but a member of the verbena family and a lippia.  Nevertheless, you should be using that for anything with chiles, if you’re after a truer hot climate flavor.  Origanums are native to more temperate climes, and marjoram and oregano are both in the mint plant family - use with veg, eggs, especially good with lamb, pizza and pasta...If, for some reason the flavor of marjoram or oregano doesn’t do it for you, try rosemary.  This is my preferred flavor over marj/oreg, but not as suitable for some dishes.  That’s why I have both, but if you could only choose one, marj/oreg is more versatile and slightly easier on the palette.   You should have a green herb in your spice drawer, but please don't waste your time and money on something dried that should be used fresh, like basil, parsley, cilantro or chervil.  For these, Dorot brand of frozen herbs from Israel is a nice alternative to fresh, and will always be on hand in your freezer.  Look for them at Trader Joe's, Wegman's and Whole Foods.

---Bay leaves.  Turkish.  Whole.  Don’t forget to count them as they go in to flavor your soup, stew, stock, rice, what have you, and count them as they’re coming out to throw away before service.  I cannot stress the importance of making sure you don’t serve these leaves enough - they are a serious choking hazard.   

---Crushed red pepper or cayenne.  Different companies use different peppers for these, try a few to get your fruity to hot balance perfect.  McCormick is our house crushed red, followed by Penzey’s Aleppo.  

---Cinnamon.  Real cinnamon, not cassia.  It’s not just for sweets, try it in a pork rub or in a maple cinnamon rosemary glaze for winter squashes.  Penzey’s sells my favorite.

---Cumin.  Whole, if you have a spice grinder or are handy with a mortar and pestle.  Would life really be worth living without a good curry and chili?  Cumin is the basis for both of these delicious meals, and a little goes a long way, so purchase in small quantities.

---A spice blend.  Yes, I said it, you heard me, purchase a pre-made spice blend.  Which one?  What are your comfort flavors?  My brother loves McCormick’s Montreal seasoning blend, my Mom loves the no salt blends from Penzey’s, especially Mural of Flavor, I’m a Herbes de Provence gal, and my husband, the overthrown Reluctant Foodie dictator, loves a certain smoked seasoned salt.  Now you could go ahead and make your own blends....but that’s another story.

There are so many other herbs and spices I would like to include, like paprika in sweet, half sharp and smoked, celery seed, dill weed, coriander, fennel and caraway - but these are my top ten must haves in the spice drawer.  What are your favorite herbs and go to spices?  

PS - just so we're completely clear - the brands I mention in any blog post have not paid me to do so, they're my completely unbiased (and unpaid) opinion.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Cyn's Birthday Meal - In Pictures

Just the other day, Cynthia posted this blog about the meal she was planning to make for her birthday. Well, I thought it was worth posting the pictures. Before you read further, go get a napkin just in case you can't help drooling a little.

Goat Cheese Tartlets with Onion Jam
Arugula Salad, Balsamico, Calimyrna Figs

Asparagus and Orange Salad, Fried Shallots

Roasted Shitake and Leek Risotto,
Black Truffle, Duck and Veal Demi Glace
Macerated Florida Strawberries, 
Blood Orange Zabaglione, Orange Scented Olive Oil Torta

Bayley Hazen Bleu, Marcona Almonds with fresh Tuscan Blue Rosemary
Aged Irish Cheddar from County Kerry, Plum Chutney,
  Pistachio Biscotti and Dove chocolate

Pea on this, Pea on that

Peas have a reputation.  And it ain't good - starchy and a weird color, very often the color of something a babe has recycled. But in fa...