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.

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