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

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Celebrations....happy birthday to me!

Every year, around this time, The Husband asks, "What would you like for your birthday?"  And every year, around this time, I'm still playing with the cool things I received for Christmas (except this year, as that new sous vide thingy is back ordered and won't ship for awhile yet).  So most years, I just want to play in the kitchen and make food that I love to celebrate another year of living.  Here is the menu for this year, dinner starts at 6 - don't be late!

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

Elderflower Martini, Tanqueray No. 10
Roasted Shitake and Leek Risotto, 
Black Truffle, Duck and Veal Demi Glace

Asparagus and Orange Salad, Fried Shallots

Cline Cellars Ancient Vines Mourvedre
Macerated Florida Strawberries, 
Blood Orange Zabaglione, Orange Scented Olive Oil Torta

Earl Grey Tea with Lemon
Bayley Hazen Bleu, Marcona Almonds with fresh Tuscan Blue Rosemary
Aged Irish Cheddar from County Kerry, Plum Chutney
Fresh made Ricotta with Gainesville Honey,  Pistachio Biscotti

Lustau Pedro Ximenez, San Emilio Sherry

Appears ambitious, doesn't it?  I will share a secret with you - a good portion of this menu has help from trusted sources.  For example, the Goat Cheese Tartlets?  Trader Joe's makes fabulous little canapes and freezes them beautifully.  Pop them in the oven, toss some arugula with a little reduced balsamic vinegar and slice some beautiful dried figs (also from TJ's) and voila!  You look like a genius.  Use a larger plate that you normally would and take time with your presentation and you'll have something a restaurant would be proud to serve.  

In the next course, the duck and veal demi glace is a product I trust from D'Artagnan.  If you don't know about this producer, and their amazing product line, this is a great introduction.  Using a little of their duck fat, fry some potatoes, add some cheese curds (preferably Beecher's), top with warmed demi glace, and you will think you have died and gone to foodie heaven.  

Do you know about Spanish tortas from Ines Rosales?  Imported from Seville, Spain, they come in several flavor variations, and all are terrific.  A round, pita like crisp cracker like cookie, they are superior to adding a bit of crunch and flavor without any heaviness.  

I will make the ricotta myself, but that is as easy as making a cup of tea (a future blog!) and the plum chutney is from a local producer - Virginia Chutney.  When you're putting together a cheese plate to finish a meal, try to consider a little savory with your sweet and creamy.  It leaves the palate refreshed.

So while we will have a fabulous dinner tomorrow evening, I won't work as hard as I typically would, making everything from scratch.  After all, it is a school night.  What are your favorite foods for celebrations?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Pomegranates and Persimmons

Pomegranates and Persimmons

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the food world is in the midst of a renewed love affair with pomegranates and persimmons, and they are a formidable culinary combination.

Pomegranates are easier to tackle than it appears.  Simply cut in half through the middle, hold the cut end down in your palm over a bowl and whack the uncut side with a wooden spoon.  Seeds come flying out (best to have a nice generous bowl for this process) along with some of the white membrane that holds them in place.  Hopefully I don’t have to tell you the membrane is yucky and should be composted.  Seeds are ready for eating or juicing at this point.

Persimmons are the tomato of winter in our house.  They are in season now in Virginia, and when choosing an eating persimmon, choose a Fuyu variety, the ones that look like an orange tomato and are pretty firm.  The peel can be a little tough, but it is edible, so make the call to peel on whether you’re feeling up to it (a veg peeler works well) or your guests warrant the effort, i.e., will your mother-in-law complain?  The Hachiyas are tasty as well, but not to be eaten fresh until they’re good and ripe (read: soft and schmooshy).  You’ll know Hachiyas by their large acorn like appearance.  For all you mnemonic people out there, Hachiyas ‘hatch a seed’, Fuyus ‘eff yeah I want a bite.’  Hey, you’ll remember it now, won’t you?  Just don’t pass this trick on to the kids.

So why do these two autumn superstars work well together?  I think it’s a combination of the disparity in texture, as well as the contrast in acidity.  Persimmons are creamy and dense, with a subtle sweetness that plays backup to the vegetal fruitiness.  Pomegranate seeds aren’t dense at all, until you hit the tiny crunchy nugget in the center of the seed, which is a nice surprise and adds meatiness to an otherwise ethereal experience.  The bright acidity with a touch of twang brings out the best in a persimmon, and the persimmon adds character and depth to the pomegranate.  Substitute the combination of p&p for tomato and onion in a salsa, and watch the magic unfold when paired with a piece of grilled fish or over a salty queso fundido.  Magic I tell you, magic!

Our fastest and most favorite way to enjoy p&p is in a fresh salad, where the flavors are separate but combine to make a bright and palate readying appetizer.  This salad would also be fantastic at the end of a meal, when you want a little something to cleanse, with some cheese, but you don’t want dessert.  Have I mentioned the beauty of the composition??  The bright orange of the persimmon and the gemlike quality of the pomegranates are a feast for the eyes as well as the tummy.  

Persimmon and Pomegranate Salad - The Basics
serves 4 as a side

Greens - three nice fat handfuls of a green with a little bitterness to it, like arugula, frisee, baby kale or a combination thereof.  Mesclun makes a nice base, especially if bolstered with a little endive or radicchio.

1/2 pomegranate, just the seeds

2 Fuyu persimmons, stem removed, peeled if you like, sliced

at least 2 ounces of a good, salty cheese, like Manchego, ricotta salata, feta or gorgonzola

1/3 cup nuts, your choice, but I like the Pomegranate, Persimmon, Pecan alliteration

That’s it.  The basics.  Add a nice vinaigrette, nothing too flashy, maybe add a little smoked paprika or other interesting herb, and voila!  You look like a food stylist.  Our favorite dressing for this salad is a simple white balsamic vinaigrette, with a dash of garlic dust in it.  Lemon, honey and thyme comes a close second.  

If you wanted to really gussy up the salad, add a few pears that you’ve baked off with a dusting of cardamom. Prosciutto shavings are divine with persimmons - think melon and prosciutto and you have the flavor profile.  My mouth is watering just considering the possibilities.  Hope you get on the persimmon train this week - let us know how you use them!

Friday, August 30, 2013

An Unexpected Birthday Treat

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know these two things:

1) I've been very lazy about writing posts and 

2) I was born and raised in NJ. See this blog post for more on that...Tomato Pie, Pork Roll and Oyster Crackers

 I'm trying to get back to posting more often and I hope this is the start of that. I bring up the New Jersey connection because I spent a lot of my youth at the shore. Yes, we called it the shore, not the beach. Those from NJ will understand. Well, these days I rarely, if ever, get to the NJ shore but in the last 4 years, Cynthia and I have fallen in love with another beach community, the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Just about 5 hours from our home in Northern Virginia, OBX, as they call it, is a narrow strip of islands just off the East Coast, connected to the mainland by the occasional causeway or bridge. 

That's where we recently spent 3 days celebrating my birthday. Did I mention it was one of those "round number" birthdays? The ones that seem to have all kinds of special meaning and sometimes traumatic effect? For me, this one was number 60 - or as I prefer to call it, 30 version 2.0. The trip was a bit of a last minute thing that Cynthia convinced me to do. After all, we have a week scheduled back down there at the end of September. But, it was my birthday, so I managed to rearrange some stuff at work and Cyn found a bed and breakfast willing to rent us a room for exactly the three days we needed AND allow us to bring both our dogs.

gratuitous dog picture

Our first full day was a Monday, my birthday, and after a perfect day at the beach and then an exploration of a part of the area that we hadn't seen before, Cynthia mentions, oh so casually, that she had done some research and found a restaurant that looked pretty interesting. You know, good reviews from people on Chowhound, good looking list of craft beers, solid menu - and that she hoped we could get in.

The restaurant, the Brine and Bottle, is less than imposing from the road. It's the kind of place you might ride by for a really long time without giving it a second glance. That would be a mistake. When we arrived and I say to the person who greets us, "two for dinner", Cyn manages to slip in, "we have a reservation, Cynthia and Alex". Next thing I know, we being escorted across the room to the perfect table for two overlooking the deck that sits right on the Roanoke Sound. As we're seated, I see she has that sly smile on her face giving me a look like "fooled you, didn't I?"

Then, I look down and see this.....

Note the date and the "Happy Birthday Alex". My wife had been planning this little soiree for quite some time and had been working with the owners, Andrew and Ashley Donovan, to plan the individualized six course meal with paired craft beers!

I won't bore you to death by recounting the meal blow by blow, but do know that the food was nothing short of outstanding and the beer pairings were spot on. Well, maybe I'll bore you just a bit, if only to show off the presentaion.
If you haven't had bacon jam, find some or find a recipe and make some. This rich, slightly sweet dollop of heaven is making my mouth water just looking at the picture.

Scallops can either be great when done right, or terribly disappointing when done badly. These were clearly the former. Perfectly seared on the outside and translucent on the inside they were paired with summer squash fritters that just screamed southern food. The charred tomato vinaigrette was tart and complemented them both.

Admittedly, foie gras isn't my favorite (OK, I'm a heathen, I admit it), but I will say this was prepared expertly and I ate my share, you know, just to be polite. For the record, I think Cynthia is still salivating over hers. For me, the stewed honey fig compote was the star of the dish.

It wouldn't be a southern meal without shrimp and grits, right? Well, these local shrimp were perfectly complimented by the rich cava creme and the grit cakes were a surprising and pleasant twist on the typical version.

Perfectly cooked duck breast with goat cheese spoon bread - this is about where I started to run out of steam. I wonder if the 5th beer had anything to do with that?

I rallied a bit when this inspired choice of desserts was served - watermelon brulee with a beautiful little cheese plate

Seriously, if you ever find yourself in or around the Outer Banks make a point of eating a meal at the Brine and Bottle. Thanks Andrew and Ashley!

Side note from Cyn:  These smaller, 'boutique' restaurants are worth seeking out - no matter where you are.  Usually owned and managed by dedicated and educated food people, they're working their butts off to make sure your dining experience is spot on.  Ashley was a dream to work with on this surprise for Alex, and the wait staff at the restaurant followed up with amazing service.  The kind you don't expect from a little place on the causeway to Manteo but are delighted to receive.  I didn't catch our servers name (thank goodness she wasn't required to give us the 'spiel') but she was personable, friendly and had exactly the right amount of personality while maintaining a professional attitude.  If the food didn't impress the heck out of me (and it did! Chef, you're talented!) then the service we received would have made us repeat customers anyway. Can't wait to see these guys again in late September and see what new seasonal offerings appear!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

a simple sandwich with tomatoes still warm from the sun

One of the great joys of gardening is eating the tasty fruits of your labor.  And one of the great joys of summer is the vine ripened tomato.  Put the two together and you have my favorite lunch.

At the moment, it's open faced, just showing off the gorgeous color of the tomatoes.  This particular sandwich has all my favorite tomatoes in it, Green Zebras are under all the baby Gem lettuce.   Green Zebra has the best flavor - slightly tart with a hint of acid but big bold tomato flavor and a certain richness.  The heaping pile in the foreground sees red Juliet, a large grape tomato with fabulous meaty flavor and wonderful disease resistance, and it's our favorite for sauce making as well.  (See this post for my sauce recipe.)  Cherry tomatoes top Juliet, both Sungold, an early prolific producer of sweet sort of tropical flavored tomatoes, and White Cherry, which isn't really white, but a blushed lemon color, and has a true tomato flavor with a nice juicy finish.  A beautiful collection, even if I do say so myself.  

The bread used here is a miche from Wegman's made with a nice sour starter and OG flour.  Crusty and relatively dense, it makes a nice sponge for all those juices.  To help prevent the bread from getting too soggy, I've shmushed an avocado with a little sea salt and used that as my schmear, something all good tomato sandwiches need.  Very often the schmear is mayonnaise.  Now we can debate the merits of mayo vs Miracle until the cows come home, each has their audience.  As long as there are tomatoes and good bread, in a pinch, I could go either way.  

The baby Gem lettuce is basically miniature romaine, and I cut it in thin slices the sort way to get more surface area.  This helps prevent the dreaded sandwich slide.  You know the one, where your sandwich  filling squirts out the bottom of your bread and you end up taking the next bite with your hands over your head?  The shreds create all sorts of nooks and crannies for the tomatoes to snuggle into and stay locked in place.  Have I sold you on the merits of the shred yet?

This simple sandwich benefits from a good amount of seasoning, so be generous with the salt and pepper.  Dousing the shred with a housemade balsamic dressing that the husband makes adds umami to the dish and really brightens up the acidity, something I love.  You could just as easily use a Green Goddess or something else creamy and tangy.  In fact, if you're so inclined, there are infinite variations to my tomato theme.  You could add or substitute:

-fresh mozzarella and basil
-shmush some white beans and spread 
-arugula, feta and watermelon
-prosciutto, salami, crispy pancetta
-simple drizzle of the best olive oil you can buy along with aged balsamic

Or for something a little outside the box, cube and toast your bread and mix with wedges of tomatoes and basil for a panzanella.  Add some butter or olive oil and garlic to that bread before toasting takes your panzanella to a whole new level. 

You can't go wrong with tomatoes and bread, enjoy!