Category Archives: Jam Today

On Husbands, Farmers Markets, Serendipity, and Red Peppers.

My husband, bless him, loves to go to the Grower’s Market.

This was not the kind of thing I expected when I fell in love with him. Mind you, this was the kind of thing I wistfully dreamed about. But not what I thought of in relation to the Dear Husband…dear as he was and is.

But once again, damned if Fate doesn’t have surprises in store for the unwary. Fate and the surprising husband. He went to the market from time to time with me, mainly to hold the bag as it filled up with my various buys. True, he didn’t look bored, but it never occurred to me he might want to take my place.

I blame the turnip omelet. Turnip omelets can only be made successfully (and what a success!) with early spring turnips, those little white ones with the perky pale green tops. Alex loves the turnip omelets I make, particularly when I make them with fresh marjoram.

So there was this month where I was just too busy to go to the Grower’s Market. There must have been a husbandly longing for said turnip omelet. Because by Goddess, if he didn’t offer to go. Offer and come back with bags bulging with all manner of vegetable and fruit options. Mainly three—THREE!—bunches of turnips. And two marjoram plants.

After that it became (the way these things do) his job to do the Grower’s Market marketing. He would ask me what I wanted, but neither of us took that list very seriously. For one thing, you can’t predict what there will be at the market. Part of the pleasure. And another part of the pleasure is to let the buyer follow his heart.

It turned out that for me, a large part of the pleasure was seeing where his heart led him.

I had a great deal of fun looking through the bags he brought home, trying to decide what to cook with all the miscellaneous and unexpected bounty.

And it was unexpected and miscellaneous.

There was the time he brought two huge bunches of parsley (tabbouleh salad). The time he brought three bunches of carrots even though we had five pounds of them in the fridge (carrots baked in cream, leftovers into soup, carrot tops chopped and added to dog stodge). Five pounds of onions (goat cheese and onion puff pastry tart). Six enormous yellow squash (squash frittata, ratatouille). Five mashed peaches (“I thought I put them on the top of the bag,” —quick jam to fill another puff pastry tart).

This week: a pound bag of jalapenos (chile relish); another bag filled with chile peppers (rajas to be eaten with tortillas), and an enormous bag of the most enormous red bell peppers I have ever ever seen.

There must have been at least ten of them. Each and every one the size of a baby’s head.

Now here was a challenge.

 

What on earth was I going to do with ten red bell peppers?

The obvious starting point is to char them and peel, storing them in their own juice mixed with a little olive oil, some sliced garlic and a couple of red pepper pods. Do you ever do this? It’s the best way to store peppers of any kind; generally I do this with green bell peppers.

A bit messy, but worth it in the long run. You can just stick them all on a foil lined cookie sheet and put in a hot 450 degree oven, turning them as they blacken, or do the same but under the broiler. OR you can do what I did, which is turn the stove top grating over on the burners so they can cradle the peppers, turn on the burners and, using tongs, carefully turn the peppers till their skin is blackened.

Then toss them into a deep bowl (this can be a paper bag, but trust me, ten peppers is too much for any known paper bag), cover with a plate, and let them steam their skins loose.

When they’re cool enough to handle, push the skin off. (Don’t worry if you leave some black bits behind; they’re actually kind of aesthetic, and they add taste.) Do what Mexican cooks picturesquely call ‘castrating the chile’, which is just the way it sounds: pull the top off and deseed. As you do all this, try to collect the juice in a clean bowl, the one where you plan to store your peppers.

By the time you’ve finished with all your peppers, if you had ten like mine, you’ll probably have a lot of juice. But if you’re going to keep them (and if you’ve just made ten roasted peppers and there are only two of you in the household, this is probably what you are going to do), you want to add some olive oil, probably about a quarter cup. Sliced garlic cloves are nice. Red pepper pods too. Cover and refrigerate.

Now: you have your roasted peppers. What do you do with them?

Ah, roasted red peppers. The luxury of roasted red peppers. Let me count the ways:

 

–a roasted pepper sandwich is particularly nice lined with some thin sliced white onion atop a garlic mayonnaise, with a few leaves of arugula thrown in

–a roasted pepper pizza is tasty, particularly when the crust has been spread with pesto sauce and the peppers are topped with some grated jack cheese

–a ratatouille made with onions and tomatoes and zucchini is delicious with squares of roasted red pepper thrown in.

–a salad of roasted pepper strips mixed with capers, whole anchovies, and chopped Kalamata olives, tossed with a squeeze of lemon juice, is really superior

 

But best of all is probably Roasted Red Pepper Puree, which goes on such a variety of things I can hardly stop thinking about it: on top of humuus. On top of crackers. On top of slabs of feta. Mixed in a soup.

Here’s the nice way we had it, though. I had some pesto leftover from an exuberant basil harvest. And I was tired coming home from a day of errand running. So I cooked up some linguine, tossed it with the pesto, topped it with chilled red pepper puree, topped that generously with grated Parmesan, and served it forth.

To hear the husband, it was as if I’d spent all day in the kitchen just to make him something resembling food of the gods for his supper.

I effusively thanked him for the effusive thanks. Then reminded him from whence the red peppers had sprung. Which made him quietly pleased, which, along with being well fed, is not a bad state to have a husband in, any day of the week.

 

 

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Cold Soup (yes! that’s right! COLD SOUP).

It’s 104 degrees outside, and you feel like a wilted bunch of parsley. How to revive? How to unshrivel? How to nourish? Two words: cold soup. Yes, that’s right. Liquid refreshment that surges through the system and reminds the body that there is more to life than sitting listlessly in a darkened room. And there are so many delights to be had in the cold soup category. Gazpacho, essentially a tomato/cucumber/herb liquid salad waiting to add its Spanish verve to your day. Potato/onion/sorrel soup, what could be easier?: cook diced potatoes and onions in water till they’re falling apart, add shredded sorrel (or shredded watercress, or shredded spinach), cook till that’s done, salt/pepper, turn off the heat, add a dollop of cream, either blend or don’t, up to you, and chill…some minced chives on top before you serve. Yum.

But today I’m going to share an even easier version, one that everyone loves. You’ll thank me for this. Iced Tomato Soup. The perfect picnic soup. The perfect use, indeed perhaps the only use, for that can of condensed tomato soup lurking in your pantry. (Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup: Cue the “Lassie” theme song and admit your age if you get the reference.) Here’s how: Take a can of the above named soup. Dump in blender or Cuisinart. Add a can of whole plain yoghurt (Greek is best), sour cream, or a mix. A bit of grated onion or some chopped scallion. A branch of marjoram or basil is nice. A grind of pepper. Add two or three ICE CUBES. Hit the ‘blend’ button. Either serve immediately, or put in the refrigerator or a thermos to keep cold till needed. Voilà! Sip dreamily and feel spirit and body revive. There. You’re welcome.

Happy summer.

 

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Glamorous Camping Food OR The Day The Husband Debearded Mussels

You who know me know also that I do all the cooking in our household. That, in fact, I am even a tad nuts on the subject of not letting anyone else cook in my kitchen. This quirk led me to hardly notice that the Dear Husband’s main function around mealtime was to greatly admire and enjoy whatever was on his plate. And then, of course, doing the dishes after the eating was done.

But I did always have a slightly uneasy feeling that this was not a well-balanced state of affairs. After all, we’ve now been together as a couple for about a quarter of a century. That’s a lot of meals. I had a blast preparing them. But…but what would the Dear Husband do when I wasn’t around to prepare?

The answer over the last twenty-five years: Cheese and salsa sandwiches, with raw carrots on the side.

I did worry a little bit about his being apart from me and subsisting on his inevitable cheese and etc. So the other night when I hauled myself home from a day in town, and unpacked the groceries, to my delight, I found him watching intently.

“What are you cooking tonight?”

“Mussels. For some reason they were marked down. But I had a chat with the butcher, and we couldn’t figure out why—they’re all alive.”

“Do they have to be alive?”

“Oh yeah.”

“How can you tell?”

“If they shut up when you squeeze them. If they’re shut already (but if they don’t open when you cook them, those ones are dead, too). If they’re not cracked.”

“Okay. So what I want to know is: could they be cooked in one pot? Like if I went camping?”

I looked at him in astonishment. Was my Dear Husband actually asking me to teach him to cook mussels on a CAMPFIRE? Oh my. I breathed in and tried not to look as astonished as I felt. Or as proud. If this was what was happening, I felt my success as a wife was complete.

“Are you…are you asking me to teach you to cook things you could do while you’re camping?”

“Well. Yeah. I get kind of tired of cheese sandwiches.”

Oh. Oh. YES! (Silent high five between my spirit and myself.)

Hold back the enthusiasm, Tod. Go easy here. You don’t want to scare him.

“You know, I think that’s a great idea. If you were in a place where they had mussels on sale, they’re a great camp dinner choice. They’re easy, they’re inexpensive, they’re delicious, and you don’t even need a fork to eat them.”

“I don’t?”

“You use the shells. I’ll show you when we sit down with the finished product. But first…”

First. Here’s how to cook mussels in one pot, on the stove or…over a campfire.

Buy your mussels. About a pound is good for one hungry camper. Make sure the store has punched holes in the cellophane if the mussels are wrapped. You don’t want them smothering to death before it’s their time.

Now. Back at the campsite. If it’s easy, fill a bowl with some water and salt. Add the mussels to soak. You can use the bowl to eat them out of later. If it’s not easy, it’s not going to kill you this once to eat mussels that haven’t been rinsed off.

Chop some garlic, and some kind of onion (shallot, white, red, scallion), any kind you like. Add to the pot, in a puddle of some kind of fat (butter, oil, bacon fat, your choice). Cook on low heat until soft. If you have any spices with you that you like, you can add those now. Chile powder is a good camping spice. Smoked paprika. I like to add curry powder myself. Just a small shake is good. Or a sprinkling of thyme is nice.

If you don’t have any fat, no worries. Move on to the next instruction, and add all the above ingredients to the liquid. It will be marginally less toothsome, but this is camping, for God’s sake.

If you DO have fat, cook the above a bit more till slushy. Now add a quarter cup (I mean a quarter cup of whatever you’re drinking out of; no need to get pedantic here) of some kind of liquid. Beer. Wine. Tomato juice. Veggie broth. V-8. Clam juice. Whatever you have on hand. Cook for a moment more.

While that is happening, debeard your mussels. This is simple. Drain the mussels. Then just pull the beard off them and toss the cleaned mussels into the pot. If you can, turn the heat up a bit, but no worries if you’re only on one kind of heat.

Cover the pot. Shake it from time to time to help the shellfish cook evenly. If you have any parsley or cilantro on you, now is the time to chop.

Open the lid cautiously. Are the mussels all open? (If almost all are WIDE open, but one or two aren’t, discard the unopened ones without eating. But be careful—sometimes a mussel is more stubborn than its fellows, and those tend to be the most delicious of all.) IF they are, take the pot off the heat, scatter the parsley if you have it, pour them into your bowl, and have at it, preferably with a bit of bread or tortilla to mop up the juice.

If you don’t have bread or a tortilla, just lift the bowl and drink the juice down straight. After all, if you can’t behave like that when you’re camping, what’s the point of camping at all?

And—as I showed the Dear Husband at dinner that night—you can use the shells themselves as little tongs to pull the mussels out of their shells, conveying them mouthward.

Really. Mussels are ideal camping food. And I never would have known if he hadn’t thought of it. Which is why we’re a great team. Now I have to plot what to teach him next…scrambled eggs with smoked salmon is what I’m thinking, hhhhhmmmmm…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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There’s No Place Like Home.

I firmly believe that everyone has a home, a place where they feel they belong—and if they don’t have such a place, they should, they need one. Where I feel at home won’t be the same as where you do, nor should it. Just think how crowded if we all felt the same way! Having a home that you know and love is just about the best thing a human being can earn, after a partner and a family and some kind of work that brings out the best in you.

So when I count my blessings, I start (after my partner and my family and my work that I find absorbing day after day) with my home. I’ve lived in many different places over the years, many different countries, many different towns, many different kinds of places…but home has stayed the same for a good long part of my life. And that is the Pacific Northwest, or as some of us fondly refer to it, Cascadia.

When I came home this time, after years of commuting back and forth hundreds of miles to an undeniably lovely and hospitable spot whose only defect was that it wasn’t home, I felt as if my feet were more firmly on the ground than they’d been in years. I could breathe again. I could hear stories of new possibilities in the wind through the trees. (That last is no hyperbole by the way, just simple fact. Try it, next time you find yourself alone in a wood.) I set out, delighted, to reconnect with my neighbors. And to connect with neighbors I had yet to meet.

One of these connections which I delightedly made was with the food editor of our local newspaper, the Medford Mail Tribune. I’d idly read her posts on and off from far away, and thought with a touch of homesickness, of how she was foraging in my home markets. I noticed when she foraged, she found similar opportunities to the ones I would have seized upon myself. Her recipes, in short, showed we had a lot in common.

This had happened a few times before. When Gourmet magazine was still going, I used to clip a recipe or two out of every issue. One day I noticed that every single recipe I clipped—every single one—was by the same food editor. So I sent her a copy of Jam Today, and now, you know, we are very good friends. We meet up every time I’m in New York, and indulge together in a mutual love of garlic laden Chinese food. We never stop talking the whole time. Mostly about food. But about a lot of other, related, things as well. Because the people I have the most in common with know that food is just one of the ways, albeit one of the most important ways, that we have of expressing the fact that we are human. And that we are human together.

Remembering this, I sent the food editor of the Mail Tribune a copy of Jam Today Too. And sure enough, it turns out we do have shared food values—and maybe even more. For example, take frittata. Anyone who knows me, knows I love a good egg dish. They’re all over the Jam Today series, all over. And honestly, I thought I knew every single egg dish there was on offer. But here, today (June 22), in this blog post by Sarah Lemon (and if that isn’t a great name for a food editor, I don’t know what is), is an egg dish I have not only never heard of but am dying to try. How often does that happen, I ask you.

Mashed potatoes, herbs, and eggs. ‘Fresh Herb Kuku’ it’s called. Yes, indeed, I am going to make this one pronto. And if I’m going to gild the lily (which I suspect I am), I may add a bowl of garlic mayonnaise, aka aioli, to the table to be dipped into at will and used to anoint said frittata. I think that would be very nice indeed. And then maybe I’ll use a trick I discovered about how to easily make a salad on the side. I’ve mentioned this in both the Jam Todays, I think. First you make your garlic mayonnaise in a food processor, then scrape it out into a bowl. But wait! There’s still lots of the unctuous stuff clinging to the sides of the processor bowl, not to mention the blades. Don’t worry, there will be no waste (and there probably wouldn’t be if you have someone in house who wants to lick the bowl, either…but that is a slightly more dangerous option, those food processor blades being sharp as they are).

What I used to religiously do was add chunks of cabbage to the bowl, and then process. It turned out there was just enough aioli clinging to the sides to mix with the cabbage to make a fresh tasting salad for the side of whatever else I had going.

Then the other night, I made an aioli to go with a Spanish style rice dish. But no cabbage in sight—it had all gone into a tuna salad the night before. I was just going to make a green salad, when, looking in the vegetable drawer, I had a mild brain wave. Why not make this salad with carrots? So I peeled some, chunked them up, threw them in, and processed.

It tasted fine, but it looked a little pallid. I wanted something green in there. That was when I remembered I had a huge bag of sorrel, which grows like a weed in the Indigo Ray’s garden, and which no one around here but Indigo and I ever pick (can’t imagine why, it makes fantastic lemony tasting soup). So I threw some of that in and pulsed. Beautiful orange and green flecked salad resulted. And the taste! My! Lemony and garlicky and sweet and fresh all at once.

I highly recommend it. In fact, I would recommend you seek out some sorrel to make just this dish. And if there’s anything I think it would go superbly well beside, well, it would have to be the Fresh Herb Kuku that Sarah Lemon so wonderfully revealed to me today.

It’s good to be home. Yes, indeed.

 

 

 

 

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My Chicken Soup That Cures.

It happens. I got a cold and it just kept going, forcing me to cough and hack and wake up in the morning wondering if I could even remember what it was like to get up without feeling like I was choking. This went on for months, sometimes fading back, but then coming slamming in every time there was a little stress…or, face it, even a lot of stress. Because that’s the recipe for a cold that lasts for months: a vicious little virus meeting up with me at a particularly rocky part of the road forward.

Did I let it get me down? Well, maybe some days. Other days, though, I picked myself up and scolded myself, arguing that I’m supposed to be a glass is half full sort of a person, which, really, is the only kind of person to be these days, when the glass is constantly under threat.

No, I was determined not to let it get me down, not even in the FIFTH month of the foul thing, not even when the ‘regular’ doctors prescribed antibiotics which did just about nothing except mess with my usually stellar digestion.

What did I do instead? I did what a more tuned-in doctor sympathetically suggested, of course (thank you, Dr. Deborah Gordon). I took vitamins. I tried to get more sleep. I treated myself a little more gently than usual. Tried to, anyway.

And I made, for myself, at Dr. Deborah’s request, an enormous vat of deeply golden, steaming, unctuous CHICKEN SOUP.

Here’s how. (With some missteps at the beginning.)

Of course the first step, and misstep in my case, is: buy your chicken. This is very important, the way you choose your chicken. Stressed as I was, and not really thinking the way I might have been had I felt calmer and more at home in a body that wasn’t spending all its off time hacking and sniffling, I probably wouldn’t have been fooled by the label ‘Simple Truth farm fresh Chicken’, which is the kind of name corporations give things when they WANT to fool you into thinking they, and their products, are your Friend. I hate that. I absolutely hate that they want me to think they are my Friend.

Let me tell you, that chicken was not made in a friendly way. Either to me or the chicken.

I roasted it, and immediately saw my error, cursing my stupidity as I watched water flow out of it and pool at the bottom of the roasting pan. This is the added evil of the nonorganic chicken. Of course the Original Sin of said nonorganic bird is how the poor little lorn thing was treated in the first place, while it was alive (if we can call it that). Add to that the disgusting habit factory farms have of pumping chicken corpses full of liquid to make them look plumper, more appealing to the poor harried, stupidly unthinking shopper.

It made crummy soup, too, that bird. Didn’t even start to touch the underlying misery from which the months long sniffles sprang.

I cursed myself. My own fault. How can you cure yourself by adding mightily to the misery of another being? Of course you can’t.

Now you vegetarians among you are thinking to yourselves (or saying, depending on how outraged and/or smug you are feeling), why don’t you just make some vegetable broth, for Goddess sake? But vegetable broth does not have the same magic powers as chicken soup. Vegetable broth is the earnest, scrubbed, healthful, athletic student whose skin always glowed and who always helped the teacher put away the equipment after gym class.

But a good chicken soup, deep and fulfilling, is like the older kid who babysat you when you were sick, and laughed at your jokes, letting you have sip of her beer, who listened to your childish prattle and shared just enough funny stories to make you feel good, and not like you weren’t adult enough to join in the conversation. The kind of person who made you feel better just being there.

I trust that’s clear? It was chicken soup I needed, NOT vegetable broth. I like vegetable broth. But this was serious. I’d been sick since September, and here it was March.

So then I got serious.

I made real chicken soup.

And yes, it made me feel better. It made me feel a lot better.

Here was how:

First I bought my chicken. This time I did not mess around, but picked out a good, plump, organic free range bird. The hell with the price. Whatever that chicken cost was a lot less than months of antibiotics and cough syrup made with codeine.

Then I roasted it. Yes, that’s right. This is not a mistake with your real, organic, well treated bird. You can eat all the meat at a separate meal. BUT…and this is an important BUT…you must SAVE THE BONES. And any uneaten scrap. And, of course, the neck and the heart and the giblets, too.

In fact, start with the neck and the heart and the giblets too. Add them to a pot with a scrubbed organic carrot, a scraped organic stalk of celery, a handful of washed unpeeled organic garlic cloves, a sprig or two of organic parsley, a washed organic onion cut in half. Do you like thyme? I do. If so, add a sprig or two of that.

Cover with water, bring to a boil, skim the scum (feed that to the dog), turn it down to a murmur and let it go till after your bird is roasted.

Eat your roasted bird (some day I’ll share my recipe for this; a brined bird is my favorite right now). As you have bones in front of you instead of meat, toss said bones into the pot.

If you’re going to eat leftover chicken for a few days, as I do in my house where the husband is a vegetarian, put the pot in the refrigerator. As you have cold chicken for breakfast or lunch (highly recommended), toss the bones into the pot.

When the carcass is stripped, put all the bones in the pot. Put it back on the stove. Bring it back to a boil, repeat skimming, simmer for an hour or so, however long you want until it smells golden and like it might do something for a cold. Yes. It should be smelling pretty darn good, if you are a chicken soup aficionado, by this time.

Strain it. Feed the veggies, the heart, the gizzard, and any meat left clinging to the neck, imbued with chicken goodness, to the dog. Just watching how happy the dog is made should help toward curing the endless cold. Throw the bones away, or compost them if possible.

Now you should be left with a pot of golden, deep smelling goodness. Thank the chicken. Thank the people who raised and killed the chicken.

Now set about making your soup.

You can do this a number of ways.

You can

–boil the broth, add a touch of soy sauce and a hit of sesame oil, stir in an egg or two, top with chopped scallions, and breathe in the goodness of a real Eggdrop Soup

–add vegetables at will, chopped carrot and celery and mushroom, a bit more onion, finish off with a dollop of butter, and drink, in bed, from a wide mouthed pitcher

–add cooked noodles, or cooked rice, let them soak up some chicken goodness, and spoon at will.

Or you can do it my favorite way.

Onion and Garlic Chicken Soup that Cures

Take as many organic onions as you like. Slice thinly. Sweat in butter as long as you like, letting them get deep brown without burning.

Mince as much garlic as you think you need to frighten your cold back to wherever it came from.

Add them both to the simmering broth. Salt to taste.

Meld together until it smells the way you want it to smell in order to comfort you and make you sleep peacefully for the first time in weeks without having to dose your poor body with cough syrup.

Add it to a DEEP BOWL. This should be a pretty bowl, one that has always been a comfort in times of need. Add a little pepper from a pepper mill.

Sit there, inhaling the scent of the garlic and the onions and the chicken broth. The total should be far greater than the parts separately.

Spoon it up. Drink deep. Inhale the steam as you do (very important). Feel it soak into every one of your up-till-now sickly pores. Feel the health of it restoring you to balance and calm.

Sleep well. Get over that damn cold. And face the inevitable stresses of life with renewed joie de vivre.

Thank the chicken. (Thank Dr. Deborah.) And make a silent note to yourself never to buy anything labeled ‘Simple Truth’ ever again, never ever ever, in this life or in any lives you may have to come.

Postscript: Since writing this, I have made the acquaintance of the wonderful Conner Middelmann-Whitney, who wrote the anti-cancer diet cookbook Zest for Life. The book is terrific. Delicious recipes and Good For You without being smugly pious, as so many of these books are. If you’re looking for some great new ways to deal with ingredients like turmeric, mackerel, sardines, and veggies of all kinds, Conner’s book is for you. I read it straight through myself, and immediately tried her way of cooking spinach. AND IT WAS MUCH BETTER THAN MY OWN. Thanks, Conner.

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I Love Tripe (especially Menudo).

As some of you may know, my freezer is the sly receptacle of all sorts of foods that have caught my attention in one way or the other, waiting for the happy day when I can meld them into something I hope will be delicious. So when I got home to the winter Oregon woods, and took a happy inventory, there they were, these two packages that spoke to me immediately: a carefully wrapped package of pigs feet, which my dear friend Cindy had saved from being tossed out after a barbeque, on the principle that I would enjoy doing something or other with them, and…a package of tripe.

Now what is tripe? This was the first thing my friend Teri said when I enthusiastically told her about my plans for a Boxing Day soup fest, to which she and Cindy, and their respective spouses, were bidden.

Tripe, I explained to her, is the lining of a cow’s stomach. Now that does not sound in the least appetizing, and indeed, Teri’s expression showed she did not consider it in the least appetizing…quite the contrary. I tried then to explain that tripe is a bit of the cow that cooks up with a velvety, unctuous consistency, quite desirable (and honored) for hangover cure purposes. This was where Menudo comes in, I said. Menudo, the Mexican hangover cure par excellence, being what I planned on turning this package and the pigs feet into as one of the options for our soup dinner, for I had also discovered, in the cupboard, another valued ingredient: a hoarded can of hominy—so I told Teri.

She still looked doubtful. Don’t worry, I reassured her. I’m making a huge pot of vegetarian split pea soup as well.

But it was the Menudo that had my heart. I mean, I love split pea soup, but it was the tripe and pigs feet and hominy that grabbed my attention when I was spending happy hours cooking in my Oregon Christmas kitchen.

The thing about tripe, as about so many other wonderfully worthwhile things, is that it needs patience. Patience and flavor. The broth that you make from it is key to the end of Deliciousness. I had a big bunch of organic cilantro, for example, and usually the stems go into the dogs’ stodge. Not this time, though. This time I cut them off, twined them around with string to hold them together in a nice neat cilantro log, and used them in the soup. I love stuff like that. It’s what makes cooking the pleasure that it is for me. And it was a pleasure to make that soup.

So here is what I did to make Menudo for Boxing Day, for a group of people wary of tripe.

For the broth:

A pound of tripe
Two roasted pigs feet
A dried chile pepper (I used two, which most people would regard as excessive. Use your own judgment)
A head of garlic
An onion, cut in half and stuck with a couple of cloves
The stems from a bunch of cilantro, washed and tied together
A teaspoon of dried oregano
A half teaspoon of crushed coriander seed

I put all of these into a big soup pot, and covered with water. Brought to a boil, skimmed the scum off the top, and then put it on to simmer on the upper shelf of our woodstove, which kept it at a nice murmur while the stove heated our house. Left it there all Christmas day, then let it cool off and popped it in the refrigerator for the final additions.

The next day, for the soup:

I strained the broth, discarding everything but the tripe and the pigs feet. Cut the tripe into little squares, about one inch; shredded what meat there was from the pigs feet and threw away the bones.

Added the broth, the tripe, and the pigs feet meat into a cleaned out soup pot. And then added:

One drained can of hominy
Salt to taste

I set this at a simmer for about an hour on the woodstove. Let it cool again. And then, before the guests arrived, put it back on to heat, while I chopped the fixings to be put out in small bowls so that people could choose for themselves what to add to their own personal Menudo.

Fixings for Menudo:

Thinly sliced chile pepper
Chunked limes for squeezing
Chopped fresh cilantro
Sliced scallions
Dried oregano

The Menudo smelled heavenly. Really, I thought I would be the only one who ate it, so I made a lot of split pea soup, but then everyone but the Vegetarian Husband wanted a spoonful ‘just to see what it tastes like’, and then everyone but the Vegetarian Husband had a happy bowl of the stuff.

Even more happily, though, there was one serving left the next morning—this morning—when I woke up with a craving for it all over again. There was a covered plate of what was left of the fixings, and there was that ample serving in a pot. I heated the latter up, covered it with what I wanted of the former, and sighed with pleasure as I ate.

For if there is one thing better than Menudo, it is day old Menudo, when the unctuousness of the former melds into the luxury velvety richness of the latter. And this is the final prize for the canny cook, that leftover, final bowl.

I love tripe. And I especially love Menudo. Surely I’ve made that plain?

May you love what you eat as much as I loved my breakfast this morning. And remember: in love, as in all else, it’s very important to be brave! Be brave about what you eat, as about all else in life! May we all be brave!

And may we all have a very Happy New Year indeed.

 

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The Night I (Almost) Poisoned One of My Best Friends.

If it’s true (and I do believe it) that you can only find out what your parameters really are by pushing the envelope, then it’s also all too true that while you’re pushing that envelope, you’re inevitably going to push it too far. Alas. I certainly do, in cooking and in everything else as well. How else am I going to learn if I don’t push it a little…a trifle…too far. I mean, I ask you.

I have to admit, I pushed it a little bit too far last night, making dinner for my dear friend Teri. Now, my dear friend Teri is just about the most wonderful dinner guest you can imagine. The most tolerant. The most non-judgmental. So when I called her this morning, and said, “Oh my god, to think I almost poisoned one of my dearest friends,” she just laughed and said, “I was just thinking about how we had such a good time—neither of us is EVER going to forget last night’s dinner.”

Now that is true. I don’t know how you can forget a dinner that you cough all the way through from the fumes of the dried habanero pepper that somehow got thoughtlessly pounded in with the garlic and cumin seeds and cilantro and black pepper and salt and lemon juice and olive oil, and then used to coat a couple of sirloin tips with the idea of making some gringoesque version of Carne Asada. No, really. You can’t forget it.

Sigh. I won’t forget it. Because that’s what I did. And let me tell you, those fumes from that pounded habanero dried pepper are intense. It was a good thing we had killed a bottle of rosé before dinner; that just made us laugh harder, and made my increasingly intense apologies (the more we coughed, the more I apologized) funny rather than as annoying as they would have been had we both been completely stone cold sober.

Although here’s the thing. I mean, here’s the important thing. It still would have been funny, and fun, and part of our history, even if Teri and I had the same dinner last spring, when she and I experimented with drinking soda water mixed with various flavored vinegars as an aperitif rather than wine—just for the change.

(And delightfully refreshing it is, too, as a drink—our prairie foremothers knew this, and used to serve vinegar shrubs on their front porches in the dog days of summer. Just put a little vinegar in a tall glass, fill with soda water, ice if you like it, stir and sip. The type of vinegar is your call, though my personal favorite is raspberry, closely followed by the alluringly exotic taste of Chinese black vinegar. The Dear Husband likes cider vinegar. Teri likes coconut. It’s all a matter of taste, as in everything else in life.)

That was a nice change, drinking those shrubs. This is what I believe about excess: sometimes you like excess. Sometimes you like moderation. Sometimes you like abstemiousness. It’s up to you to figure out when those times are and act accordingly.

Anyway, last night, we were both into excess, since a period of virtue had made that the most festive way forward. And it was great. Well, it was all great except for that little bêtise of mine involving the dried habanero pepper.

Now, you want to be careful with any kind of habaneros. These chilies rank so high on the scoville unit chile heat ratings that they are probably off the chart. The best way to use the whole, undried variety, in fact, is just to pierce a couple of holes in one, add it to the stew, and then take it out and throw it away before serving the food. Trust me, you’ll taste the spice, but you won’t get scoville’ed out of your seat that way.

So if I hadn’t been so thoughtless—which I think was a symptom of the general ‘let’s celebrate the end of summer’ abandon both Teri and I were feeling—I would never ever ever have pounded a dried habanero in my mortar along with the other marinade ingredients for my carne asada. Because when you heat that dried habanero, the fumes are near deadly. They engage all the senses, and make you cough like a consumptive fiend. No, this is what I would have done instead:

For Nondeadly Carne Asada:

Take some sirloin tips. Pound the following, in whatever proportion you like, or blend in a blender:

Some cumin seeds
Some chile powder
Some dried Mexican oregano
Some garlic cloves
Some green onion
Some fresh cilantro
Some salt
Some peppercorns

Squeeze in as much lemon as you like. Then add enough olive oil to make a nice slooshy marinade, add to the sirloin tips, massage the marinade into the beef, let sit for at least an hour, or overnight if you like.

Then barbeque, or do what I did (but WITHOUT the dried habanero) and sear on a really hot cast iron skillet. While that’s happening, slice a couple of onions and toss them with the remaining marinade. When the steak is done to your liking, take it out and let it rest a few moments while you toss the coated onions on high heat in the same skillet. Serve sliced, topped with the onions, and with the accouterments of your choice. Guacamole is nice. Or just sliced avocado with lime juice squeezed on top. A tomato/ cucumber/ onion/ cilantro salad is good, too. Heated tortillas are nice, and you can wrap the steak and salads in one and make a very satisfying taco.

Just skip the dried habanero. And—very important—no matter what you do, remember that who you do it with is the most important point to the meal. What you want is a friend, family member, or loved one, who will answer your apology for any culinary mistakes thusly:

“PS my memory of dinner is a happy one. We laughed so much while we were coughing, and it was still delicious!”

Thanks, Teri. I had a great time myself.

 

 

 

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Creamed Spinach (for Lanny).

Do you know creamed spinach? It is, in my opinion, one of the dishes given to us by the gods to make our lives more than usually glad. I even loved it when it came out of those horrid little plastic packets that ’60’s moms dropped in boiling water before snipping open and decanting. I loved it when you could get it by the bowlful in a little restaurant in downtown San Francisco: a perfect lunch. I have loved it in every incarnation I have ever eaten it in steakhouse restaurants specializing in the stuff as being the only side that didn’t overly gild the beef lily. I even loved it through my many experiments with overly fussy recipes: bechamel, garlic, white wine and all.

But really, as so often proves to be the case, simplest is best. Simplest, unadorned, classic, one skillet creamed spinach. Easy. Quick. Adorable. Liable to draw loud bouts of applause at the dinner table. Delicious and good for you.

This is how:

A big armload of fresh spinach (more than you think you’ll need, it cooks down incredibly like all greens)
Butter
Shallots, minced
Wondra flour (or plain flour, but Wondra mixes better)
Lemon
Nutmeg
Salt & pepper
Cream

Ready?

Take your large bag, or part of a large bag, of preferably organic spinach. Dump in a colander. Wash thoroughly—fresh spinach has a tendency toward clinging dirt, a sign of its serious organic intent. Drain but don’t shake off all the extra water still clinging to the leaves.

Heat a large skillet on medium low (or big pot, or whatever you have, as long as it’s big enough to hold the spinach before it cooks down). Add a chunk of butter. Say one or two tablespoons.

Mince one or two shallots, however many you like. Add to the butter. Push around until they start to sizzle and soften. Don’t brown them (although if you do, don’t panic, they’ll still taste fine as long as they’re not burned).

Add a tablespoon or so of Wondra or plain flour.

Watch carefully now, so the flour and the shallots don’t burn. Stir around so a paste forms and cook it a bit.

If you’ve used plain flour, turn the heat way down and cook it an extra few minutes to get the floury taste out. Wondra mixes more quickly, so you don’t need this step.

When a paste has formed and is starting to turn golden, prepare to act quickly.

Turn the heat up under the pan to about medium high. When the contents of the pan start to sizzle attractively, dump in the spinach with the water still clinging to its leaves. This is important. It’s this water hitting the hot pan and creating steam as it evaporates that is going to cook your spinach quickly, so it maintains its lovely fresh spinachy taste.

Turn the spinach over and over in the shallot butter as it cooks. Tongs are very useful for this. Watch the fresh spinach shrink and turn into cooked spinach.

Squeeze some lemon over, as much as you like. Hear it sizzle? It’s cooking the spinach too, as well as adding flavor.

Add a little salt. A little fresh ground pepper.

Now stand over the pan with your carton of cream. Add a little. Stir till it amalgamates with the butter and flour. Add a little more. Stir again. Add as much as you want, and cook down till it looks creamy and good.

Grate some fresh nutmeg atop. A grate or two (I usually do three). You won’t taste it later, but it’ll make a difference.

Turn off the heat. Give it a final stir.

And serve.

 

I made this on Easter to go with a lovely bit of lamb for my brother John, and he immediately asked how it was done—it tasted so much of our childhood festivals. Then I served it up last night to my friend Lanny (there was spinach left in the fridge from the Easter binge on the weekend) to go with a mushroom and garlic frittata, and SHE said it reminded her of eating in a German restaurant when she was a child, and how did I make it? So it seemed important to get it down. It’s so simple and good, and it does tend to remind those of us of a certain age of a happy childhood. Even when the childhood in question wasn’t really particularly happy. It was, though, I maintain, whenever we ate creamed spinach.

Creamed spinach to the fore! Onward!

(And don’t forget leftover creamed spinach is a very handy thing to have, if you can ever manage to have some. Folded into a French-style omelet it is, I still maintain, food for the gods and goddesses in your life. Put some sauteed mushrooms atop, and sit back to bask in the admiration of those you love.)

 

 

 

 

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Potato and Kale Soup…or Caldo Verde…or Tuscan Potato Soup.

Anyone who knows me knows this bedrock fact of my personality: I love anything that makes something big out of something apparently small. I loathe those dishes that include every conceivable expensive ingredient; I would have been hell at a Victorian dinner party, turning my nose up at everything but a dish of sauteed spinach, probably.

And one of the classic dishes that makes something out of practically nothing, the whole being way way way greater than the sum of its parts, is the Portuguese national soup Caldo Verde.  Which boils, literally, down to this: Potatoes. Water. Cabbage.

Yep, that’s it.

I love it.  I loved it when we were in Portugal, where they serve it with every possible meal. They use a special kind of cabbage over there, and the basic concept is you boil hell out of the potatoes until they puree themselves, then you shred the cabbage as thinly as you can (they sell specially shredded cabbage just for this in Portuguese markets), then right before you serve, dump the shreds into the boiling potato soup, cook quickly till done, not more than a few minutes, salt, generously pepper, and serve.

That’s the basic dish.

I do fiddle with it, enriching it a bit at home, but it’s still the same comforting, healthy, sustaining, economical dish it is in its homeland.

My version amps up the taste a bit. And I use my favorite kind of kale in place of the unobtainable Portuguese cabbage (though you can use regular drumhead cabbage, or other greens, as long as you sliver them as thinly as you can). My favorite kind of kale, of course, is called by various names: dinosaur kale, lacinato kale, black kale, Tuscan kale. That last is the result of the first few names not really making it from a marketing perspective.

My dear friend Teri—my accountant—and I have a joke about this. When you can’t sell something, call it Tuscan. She once sent me a picture of a billboard advertising a Tuscan mobile home park. In Oregon.

So if I can’t get you to make this soup when it’s called Potato and Kale soup, how about when it’s called Caldo Verde? You don’t really need me to call it Tuscan potato soup,  do you? I will, though, if you want me to.

It doesn’t matter what you call it, as long as you enjoy it after all.

Here’s how.

Take about 4 to 6 russet potatoes. Peel, dice or slice anyway you want, add to water*, with two or more tablespoons of good olive oil, a minced onion, and a minced garlic clove or two. Boil hard to start with to combine the oil with the water, then turn down heat to medium. Cook to a fine mush, salting to taste. Feel free to mush the ingredients down to taste with a fork or big spoon or potato masher. Before serving, shred a bunch of Tuscan kale, destemmed, as thinly as you can manage. Add and boil for about three minutes till the kale is cooked. Add pepper to taste.

Delicious.

*about that water. It’s particularly good if it’s water that you’ve saved from cooking vegetables. (All those vitamins! Saved! Add flavor!) What I like to do is cook a vegetable hash for one dinner, parboiling the potatoes and greens for the sauteed hash in the same water, which, after they’re removed, I then leave on the stove overnight in its pot–don’t worry, it’s just veggie water; it won’t go bad–throwing the potatoes, onion and garlic for this soup in the next day for lunch. Only one pot! Two meals! You don’t even have to move it to the refrigerator! Save time, eat well! Another one of my many mottoes…

Happy eating.

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Dining with a Friend.

It was a snowy day, and the Dear Husband was off somewhere or other in another clime, and I was homesick for my hearth in Oregon, and the friend there who I liked to sit alone with on winter evenings, drinking wine and talking about things that really happened and thoughts we really have–a rare conversation, generally. How many times do you talk about what’s really going on with someone who will tell you what’s really going on with her?

I had almost given up hope of finding a friend of that kind in the new place we were living, although why I should want to find the same friend I’m sure I don’t know–friends being unique, irreplaceable. It was a lapse. But there I was feeling sad, although we had a new hearth in the new home in the new place (gas, of course, less fussy than wood, more…urban). And I was feeling sad. I had invited a woman I had met only twice before to come share my dinner, but she lived an hour away, and it was, as I’ve said, snowing. I was sure she wouldn’t want to come. And I wanted to let her off the hook. So I called her up.

“Don’t feel you have to come if you don’t want to. And you can wait till evening to decide.”

“Is it snowing? Really? I have a cold, and I’m in bed. I’ll  worry about it later, if that’s okay with you.”

“Of course it is. And here are your choices, if you do decide to come. I’ve just been shopping, so I can give you 1.) macaroni and cheese,  with a celery salad dressed with mustard, 2.) sauteed trout with brown rice and vegetables and wasabi butter, or 3.) roasted vegetables with thyme, and a beet salad.”

There was a considering silence for a moment. A perfect kind of silence, actually. She was weighing the options, she was taking them seriously in a way I thoroughly appreciated.

“Won’t the trout not keep?”

“Naw, don’t worry. I’ve put it in a teriyaki marinade; it’ll only get better. Alex and I can have it tomorrow.”

More thought.

“I think,” she said, and you could tell she was really thinking about it, and the thought was really giving her pleasure, “since I’m sick, I think not the macaroni and cheese. Too rich for a cold. I vote for the vegetables.”

“Veggies it is. If it’s not snowing too hard. And you still want to come.”  I was sure she wouldn’t want to. It was snowing harder and harder outside, and if it had been me…

An hour before dinner, the phone rang.

“I’m up. I’ve been in bed all day and I feel fantastic. Looking forward to those veggies.”

I was pleased. “Don’t bring anything, okay?” I said earnestly. “Anyone who has to drive an hour in the snow to dinner is exempt.”

Chopping the vegetables and strewing them with thyme, I remembered I didn’t have anything sweet in the house for dessert. I’d meant to buy a couple of chocolate bars, but forgot. I always think you should have a little bit of chocolate for dessert. Damn.

When she arrived, she was holding a bottle of wine, and a bar of chocolate. “You should have a little bit of chocolate for dessert,” she said earnestly. I smiled.

I offered her a Kir Framboise. “Oh yes,” she said. You know a Kir Framboise? It’s a Kir, which is a French aperitif made by dolloping a heart of liqueur into a glass of wine–but with raspberry liqueur, framboise, instead of the cassis usually called for. You put a small capful of the deep red purple stuff at the bottom of the glass, and fill to the top with white wine. Delicious. And beautiful, too.

I brought those out along with a few celery and carrot sticks, and a little bit of blue cheese smooshed into some Greek yoghurt for dip. And we curled up in the matching huge chairs Alex and I have by the fireplace with those rosy drinks, with the smell of the vegetables–fennel, carrot, celery, onion, garlic cloves, and sweet potato, all diced and mixed with olive oil and branches of thyme that I dug up out of the snow in the garden–filling the house.

And we talked about things that mattered, the things that mattered to her, and the things that mattered to me, and the things that mattered to us both. Love and art and solitude and companionship, and a few intellectual back roads I was delighted to find she enjoyed a meander on once in awhile. We meandered on them together and sipped our pink glowing wine.

When the vegetables had cooked so long that they were nice and browned and caramelized, we sat down to them and a little more of that rosy aperitif because it was so tasty, neither of us wanted to move on to red wine, and the snow came down outside, and everything was warm and kind and good.

Afterwards, we had a little piece of chocolate or two, because we both know you should have a little bit of chocolate after dinner, and then we said good night, and I sent her on her way (“That was a breeze getting here, even in the snow! We’ll have to do it again soon!”). And as she turned to walk off the deck down to her car, she paused and said, “Those vegetables were delicious. They kept me from regretting I didn’t ask for macaroni and cheese after all.”

“Next time,” I promised, with a laugh, and waved as she drove down the snowy street. And I went inside, quite pleased, because I knew there would be a next time, and I didn’t feel sad anymore. And I slept wonderfully well, all night long.

 

How to make Roasted Vegetables for a New Friend with a Cold:

Take whatever vegetables you have at hand, but always remembering to include onions and whole peeled garlic cloves. As many veggies as you think you’d like and can eat. That night I had a couple of sweet potatoes bursting out of their papery skins. I had an ivory and emerald bulb of fennel; I had celery stalks. I had carrots (of course, I always have carrots), and an onion, and garlic, and lots of parsley. And I had the beet greens that came with the beets I baked for our salad.

So this is what I did:

Chopped the onion.

Diced the fennel, the celery, the carrots, the sweet potatoes, all about the same size.

Chopped the beet greens. Chopped a handful of parsley.

Peeled about a dozen garlic cloves.

 

Mixed all of the above in a big ceramic casserole, anointed them with enough olive oil just to coat, not to drown, salted with coarse salt, and then threw in about five or six branches of fresh thyme. Swooshed the whole thing together with my hands, and put it in a 400 degree oven for about an hour and a half, which is just the right amount of time to prepare a couple of Kirs Framboise for a new friend, and sit with her by the fire and talk about the things that matter to you both. Wait till the veggies get nice and browned and caramelized. Serve with a salad, in this case, sliced beets baked in the same oven, dressed with a mustard viniagrette. A little piece of chocolate for dessert is always nice.

Talk, sip, serve, and sleep well, knowing you’ve dined with a friend.

 

 

 

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