It’s no secret to anyone who reads this blog longer than a week that I like simple, tasty foods. It’s best put by one of my brother’s in law who, when we were all at a restaurant, asked the waitress for his meal without any sauces. “I like the flavor of food.” he said. I understood immediately. He wanted to taste the meat and veggies, not the sauce, or the herbs, or the spices. It made sense. Several posts ago, I wrote about current and changing trends in the food community. One of those, which is gaining more popularity, is Farm-To-Table. Rather than going to the supermarket to get your food, get it direct from the people who are growing it. Or grow it yourself. It’s cheaper, fresher, and it tastes more like what it is. It tastes like food.
I’m not certain when we heard of this particular book, or where, but I’m sure it was on a cooking show somewhere. It’s The Art Of Simple Food, by Alice Waters.
The book itself is more than a collection of recipes. It’s a discussion of the simplicity of cooking, as well as a course in how to cook simply. Ms. Waters believes that when you use the freshest foods, cooking simply is the natural course to follow since it allows the flavors to shine. She says that cooking the world over is basically the same thing. It’s not dependent on technique or recipe, but on pure, simple, fresh foods that taste good.
It’s hard to get more simple than a baked potato.
As a kid, I hated potatoes. Now I love them. It was actually my sister who taught to appreciate potatoes. When I lived with her and her husband while in college, they showed me not only the different varieties of potatoes, but the different ways to cook potatoes so they tasted wonderful. Baked is the best way. Except maybe all the other ways. However, there a bunch of ways to bake a potato. The most important thing to remember is to prick the skin a few times to allow steam to escape, otherwise, they’ll explode. It’s happened to me. In my house, we have to primary ways to bake a potato. The first is clean the potato, prick it, and put it in a 350 degree oven for an hour or until it’s done. This crisps up the skin and a small portion of the inside. While you’re eating the potato, the butter melts all around and softens things up a bit. The other way is after cleaning and pricking, I drizzle a small amount of olive oil on the potato and wrap it in foil then cook. The potato comes out with a soft skin and the flavor of olive oil throughout. Yummers!
One of the simplest ways of cooking I’ve ever encountered is the Brazilian form of barbeque called churrascaria.
It’s high quality meat on a skewer. rolled in salt, and sizzled over an open fire so only the out half-inch or so is cooked. Then it’s brought to the table and sliced directly onto the plate. It’s then returned to the fire with more salt added. It’s always perfectly seasoned, and perfectly rare. They have other things to enjoy, soups, salads, veggies, bread, but it’s the meat that brings people back. It’s a carnivore’s delight. I never leave without that stuffed-to-the-gills feeling. It’s truly one of the most delicious ways of cooking I’ve ever tasted. It’s also the simplest I’ve ever seen, although you have to be certified to be able to actually cook in one of these restaurants. It’s as Ms. Walker says, though. Cultures the world over do the same thing. Simple cooking with the freshest foods result in the best meals.
Another truly simple food is the tomato. Some people don’t like tomatoes. I don’t understand them. I think there’s a missing chromosome somewhere. I was 28 before I ran into someone who didn’t like tomatoes. However, a vine ripened tomato is so good, John Denver wrote and recorded a song about them. Chilled, sliced, and sprinkled with a small amount of salt between two slices of bread and you’ll never go hungry! Or, one of the simplest and best tasting salads ever.
Slice the ripest and freshest large tomato you can get ahold of. Slice mozzarella in the same size and number. Pick an equal number of fresh basil leaves, the larger the better. Arrange on a plate as shown above and drizzle with a high quality olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste and you’re done! My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
Italian cooking delights in using the freshest ingredients. One of my favorite recipes was one I encountered in a hotel in Africa back in 1997 when I did one of my first trips to that continent. I don’t recall the specific country I was in, but since I was by myself and was there for such a short time, I tended to eat in my room. One of my “go to” meals was the pasta al pesto. Now, pesto sauce is fresh basil, garlic, parmesan cheese, and pine nuts whipped to a frenzy with olive oil and drizzled over fresh pasta. It’s pretty good stuff when it’s done right. This place did it different. The put cooked spaghetti in warm olive oil that had fresh minced garlic infusing in it and tossed it about. They put the hot pasta on a plate and sprinkled it with fresh basil chiffonade, freshly grated parmesan, chopped pine nuts, and finely chopped tomatoes. I’ve been making it that way ever since. Totally good stuff!
That’s not to say complex and saucy aren’t good. But if you truly like the flavors of the food, the actual ingredients to stand out, simple and fresh is the best way to go. Alice Waters said it best, it’s an art.
I’m writing this at the winding down part of a perfect weekend. It involved all the things I love and make me feel warm. There was friendship, laughter, wine, good food, good conversation, good music, small towns, fresh veggies. It was spectacular.
It started Saturday morning when a dear friend called to say she was on her way and would arrive near noon. She said, “Let’s go to XYZ small town and walk around!” In our little area we call home, many small towns are located on islands, and this one was no different. It sounded like fun.
We wanted to impress her with our culinary prowess, so I put big fat country style pork ribs in the slow cooker with garlic, salt, and pepper, and set it to low. Then we went to our favorite veggie stand. We love doing this. Every time we go in there, we find things that are terrific. We usually spend around $30 and come home with enough fresh veggies to get us half way through the week. It’s real farm-to-table kind of stuff, and the difference in flavor from what you get in the store is amazing. One time, we bought one tomato that was two pounds, red as a cherry, and ripened right on the vine. It was an odd shape, as though two tomatoes had grown into each other. When we took it to the counter to pay, the lady remarked about its unusual shape saying that she noticed it when she had picked it that morning. Picked it that morning!! So we bought stuff, a bunch of stuff. When we went to pay, we also put a deposit on our Thanksgiving turkey. It’ll be fresh, not frozen, and it will be delicious. As the lady was ringing us up, she noted that the green beans I’d bagged were exactly one pound. Seemed like a good omen. The lady running the stand that morning kept plying us with free samples of the Thanksgiving menu. We tried the stuffing, the cranberry-apple relish, and she wanted us to try the sweet potato biscuits but they were still in the oven. Good stuff.
At 11:30, my phone rang and our friend said, “What’s your house number?” I told her and she started laughing. “I’m in the wrong driveway! I wondered why the house didn’t look the same. I’m glad I didn’t knock on the door.” After greetings, and hugs, and bathroom breaks, we settled down to lunch of BLTs with L and T from the vegetable stand. Fresh picked that morning. I considered making homemade mayonnaise to put on the sandwiches, but decided no. It’s easy enough to do, but it can be temperamental. Then, as she was sipping a glass of wine, we all discussed the afternoon’s activities with a lot of laughter.
The town was 30 minutes away and was crowded when we got there. They were having their annual Autumn Festival and the parade had just ended. Little kids were dressed up in costume, and floats were being dragged away. The main street was decked out in harvest colors and Halloween scenes. Parking was a challenge but we managed to find a place near the center of the activity. And then we walked. Down one side of the street and up the other. Or up one side and down the other, depending on your philosophical bent.
One of our stated goals presented itself fairly quickly. This was a specialty shop that dealt in imported olive oils and vinegars. The vinegars were all aged balsamic and most were flavored. They were a thick, dark, viscous concoction and the ones I tried were delicious. I love vinegars that are fruit infused so I tried pear, cherry, berry, and orange. I also tried rosemary and garlic, basil, and a few others. They were all tremendous. By the time, I was finishing with the vinegars, I had stopped using the bread bits, and was just putting my finger in my sampling cups. It was faster. The oils were okay. I tried one that was bacon infused. Not a good experience. Then I tried some of their chocolate! Whee, what fun. One piece was called Total Zinger and was hot! I think it had jalapeno in it. Certainly some pepper high on the Richter scale.
We wandered further up/down the street with our friend pointing out various sites of interest. We crossed when it looked like the shops were thinning out and went into a doggy themed store. By this time, we’d walked nearly a half mile and our friend and my partner/spouse both needed to sit for a while. So we stopped at an ice cream store that made their product on the premises. We got me a scoop of chocolate, and her a scoop of peanut butter swirl. Turned out, it was the most popular shop on the street. Timing is everything. There was only one family in the shop when we arrived, but by the time we left (we sat outside) it was overrun. We stopped at a lot of shops, but the two that stand out in my mind are the kitchen store and the Christmas store.
We went into the kitchen store expecting to find kitchen tools and implements. We found a kitschy, touristy souvenir shop with kitchen themes. They had cheese plates with a nautical theme. They had kitchen towel with a seashore theme. But they did have a boat load (see what I did there?) of food products, including our favorite barbeque sauce, Bone Suckin’ Sauce! And they had the full range of Bone Suckin’ products. We bought the rub. Their specialty was hot sauces. They had them from all over the world. As I was wandering, I heard the clerks telling one customer that the sauce he was buying was one of the hottest on the market, and that it used Scotch Bonnets. I had to grin when they said the only thing hotter was the habanero. Just a few steps further along the street, we stopped at a Christmas store. I tend to “Grinch out” on Christmas. I’m all for the tradition, the family, the feast, etc. but I don’t decorate too much. I leave that for Partner/Spouse mainly. But we did find quite a bit that was fun. And lots of things that were wine themed. My favorite was a small pillow that said “Save Water, Drink Wine.” Our friend picked up a hat somewhere along the way.
Then came the second stated reason for visiting this town. We stopped at a local winery for a wine tasting! It was really only our friend and I since Partner/Spouse was driving. We concentrated on the dry wines and I found my new favorite. Of course, it’s nearly $40 per bottle with tax. I have expensive taste, it seems. But it was certainly worth it. A very good oaky Chardonnay. We also tried their sparkling wine and a couple of others not on the list of dry wines. By the time we left, we were stumbling just a bit.
A short drive around the town, and a short drive to another island, then the drive home. The dogs were happy to see us and it was time to relax, fix dinner and drinks, and listen to some music. The weather couldn’t have been better. Sunny, warm, with a cool breeze. Dinner turned out GREAT!!! The ribs were done perfectly. I cooked them on low in the slow cooker all day. I took them out and poured Apple Butter Barbeque sauce on them and put them in the oven to glaze. While that was happening, I blanched the fresh green beans and sautéed them in olive oil and butter. I rough chopped fresh-from-the-garden cucumber, onion, and tomato and a radish the size of a baseball. I poured a homemade vinaigrette made of olive oil, raspberry balsamic vinegar (not from the specialty store), salt, and garlic over the whole thing. All that plus bread made up the feast. A couple of hours later, we all had a piece of coconut cream pie. A few drinks later, much talk and laughter, it was time for bed.
Overnight, it got cold and windy.
Today started out gray, cloudy, windy, and cold, but ended up just windy.
We had breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, and more talk and more laughter. The dogs were trying to eat off plates and just being generally annoying but lovable. After our friend left for home, we took care of a couple of errands that wanted doing, then spent the bulk of the day lounging in the warm house with the dogs, and chicken and dumplings cooking on the stove. It was a wonderful way to spend the weekend. Good friends, good times, good food.
If you’ve read my blog over the many months, you know that All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, is a special time for us. In the pagan tradition that I and my partner follow, Halloween, or Samhain (pronounced Sow-in), is one of the major feast days, and marks the beginning of the new year. It’s a time for festivity. It’s a time for joy, for hilarity, having fun, welcoming guests and strangers into your home and your lives, remembering those who have passed, and welcoming their spirits to the party. It’s not a time for fear, but for warmth. This time of the year, the predominant foods are the autumn foods. Lots of pumpkins, and apples, and honey, cherries, and squashes, and gourds, nuts, tomatoes, most of my favorite foods.
If you look around your neighborhood, you’ll likely see a plethora (great word, isn’t it? means a lot) of jack o’lanterns. I won’t go into the tradition of these since I’ve done that in years past. They abound at this time of year and some are really creative. Rather than just the “scary” face, people are now carving whole scenes and stories into them. But it starts off the same way. You cut the pumpkin top off, scoop out the insides, carve the face, and put a light in it.
But what do you do with the glop from the inside? Mostly, it gets thrown away. However, savvy people know that you can rinse these seeds, boil them, roast them and season them, and have a treat as good as sunflower seeds! It’s easy. Take the seeds and rinse them in a bowl until all the goopy stuff had detached. Drain them in a colander making certain that all of the membrane, etc. is gone. Boil two quarts of fresh water and salt to taste. Some recipes call for a half cup of salt. Put the seeds in the boiling water and boil until they’re soft. They should turn brownish-grayish and a lot will sink to the bottom. Timing depends on how old the pumpkin is. Drain the seeds in a colander but do not rinse. When cooled enough to touch, pat the seeds completely dry. Put the seeds in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of a good quality olive oil and some salt and stir to coat evenly. Place the seeds on a baking tray in a single layer. Do not allow clumps.
Roast in the a 350 degree oven for 20-30 minutes. They should look white. If they turn brown, you’re overcooking them. You don’t need to move them about during the roasting process. Take them out of the oven and cool and eat. Of course, it stands to reason that you can adjust the seasonings to anything you want to create hot seeds, savory seeds, sweet seeds, buttery seeds. Limited only by your taste and your cupboard.
Another fun trick with pumpkins is the Pumpkin Pincushion. It’s simple. Get a small to medium pumpkin and a box of toothpicks (wood or plastic) that have the pointed ends. Skewers work well for this. Dice up fruit and cheese and make poke onto the toothpicks in various combinations. Leave enough space at one end so you can poke it into the pumpkin. Easy peasy. Intersperse with lollipops for a good children’s treat.
Apples are good at this time of year, too. As kids, we ate so many apples that today I can’t stand to look an apple in the eye. But right now, the smell of fresh apples makes my mouth water. We got some at our favorite vegetable stand the other day, and they are so good! Here’s a variation on a theme that will make kids old and new say Wow!
Apple Lollipops are easy. Take several apples and wash them well so there are no chemicals on the skins. Slice them about a half inch thick. Slice across, up and down, diagonal, any way you choose to get crazy shapes. Stick a popsicle stick in each slice being very careful not to break the apple. Use a sharp knife to assist if necessary. Then combine 3 cups of sugar, 1 cup of light corn syrup, 1 1/2 cups of water, and several drops of whatever food coloring you like (most prefer red) in a medium sized pan. Heat over medium heat until the mixture looks like wet cracks, about 8-10 minutes. Be very careful cuz this stuff will be HOT!! Quickly dip and turn each apple slice on its stick to evenly coat, then roll in chopped nuts, or coconut flakes, or sprinkles, or chocolate chips, whatever you have a mind to. Place on wax paper sprayed lightly with cooking spray until completely cooled. Wrap loosely with clear plastic wrap and you’re done! You can very this by dipping in melted caramel, or melted chocolate, or melted candy substance that’s not chocolate despite what they tell you, and rolling in various toppings or your choice. Again, it’s creativity time.
Ever make applesauce at home? The recipes I’ve seen involve peeling, cooking, mashing, straining and several steps. I know one that involved the apples, a little lemon, a little sugar, and a blender. Core and roughly chop, but do not peel two pounds of your favorite apple. In a large bowl, toss them with 1 tablespoon of water, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice. Sprinkle the apple with 1/2 cup to 1 full cup of sugar depending on how sweet you like it. In batches, spoon the apples into a blender and puree the heck out them. Add cinnamon if you like. Once all the apples have been pureed, eat it. Store in airtight containers. No cooking, and if you use red apples, you get a nice rosy color too!
One way to dress up your table, or create a nice accent light for a room is to take a nice large glossy apple and slice the bottom so it sits evenly. Core the apple about three quarters of the way down. Rub a small amount of melted candle wax on the bottom of the apple and place it in a nice decorative dish, or a small piece of cardboard. This adds stability. Place a tapered candle of your favorite color and the same width as the core hole into the apple. When using the candle, be aware as any open flame can be dangerous. As you can see from the pics, the apple candles can be as elegant and creative as your imagination and surrounding decorations.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, and I’ll probably go to my grave saying it. I am the world’s worst vegetarian. I like the concept of being a vegetarian. I know it’s a healthier way to eat. I know that it can be done successfully. I like vegetables enough to create an entire menu and lifestyle based on eating them. The trouble is that I also like meat. I’m a total caveman-driven carnivore. I can’t go more than a few days without meat. Trust me, I’ve tested this several times. I just don’t have the won’t power necessary to be a dedicated vegetarian.
However, right now, on the peninsula, it’s the perfect time to be a “modified vegetarian.” We’ve been getting the most amazing vegetables and fruit from the farm markets around here. Everything tastes amazing, even the veggies I don’t like. Throwing them together with a good piece of meat that’s been cooked to perfection creates an amazing meal.
But there’s the problem. How do you cook meat to perfection. Every cookbook you read tells a different story. Every chef has a different palate. Every restaurant serves it a different way. So how do you season it? How do you cook it? Do you serve it with a sauce? How many sides?
The basic question is what kind of meat do you serve? I like them all, with very few exceptions. Organ meats and baby meats don’t qualify. But when I’m in a meat deprived state, the only one that will do is beef. In almost any form. I’ve been known to brown up a couple of pounds of hamburger and eat it right out of the skillet with a little salt. Sometimes a little cheese. Add some lettuce and tomato and it’s basically a taco without the tortilla. But I digress. Well, you can tell from the title where I’m heading with this. It’s roast beef time!
Fall is the best time to make a good roast. To take this:
and turn it into this:
And I’m going to tell you how. In Fall, veggies are at their freshest best. The air is cool so having the oven on won’t heat up the house terribly (unless you live in one of those perennially hot places). And long cooking times, an investment in your family’s nutrition and enjoyment is always satisfying.
Before we talk about the main part of the meal, lets talk about sides. Side dishes, sides as they’re called, can be as light or as heavy as you like. Traditional thinking has always said Meat-Starch-Veg-Veg. The Starch-Veg-Veg are the sides. And there are a bazillion of them. But when thinking about a Roast Beef Dinner, typically people think of the heavier starches like potatoes or doughy puddings.
Let’s talk about that pudding for a moment. In the U.S., when you say pudding, most people think of a cooked sweetened and flavored milk concoction. As a kid, my mom made buckets of butterscotch pudding. It was her favorite so we ate it, too. Hell, for us, it was sweet and a treat. We didn’t care what it was. We had chocolate a lot, too. Sometimes vanilla and sometimes coconut. Another big variety is bread pudding, basically bread bits soaked and baked in a sweet egg custard, sometimes with fruit, dried or otherwise. But there’s another kind of pudding, a savory style, that’s a purely British invention, and is amazingly good. I’ve talked about it in the past, so I won’t go into great detail. But it takes flour, egg, and milk that’s been beaten to a froth, and placed into a muffin tins with beef dripping heated very hot. When they’re cooked, they turn into a sort of soufflé. Pour gravy into those and you can skip the meat altogether.
Looking at the picture, you can see the “typical” sides for a roast beef dinner. Root vegetables tend to go well with the heartiness of a good roast beef. Potatoes in nearly any form, carrots that have been steamed or boiled then sautéed in butter, breads, garden salads, rice. It all works. But in a “traditional” roast beef dinner, the starchy root veggies are the norm.
But back to the question of how to turn this:
Again, it starts with roast. I use a 3 pound eye roast (the top picture). You can take the fat layer off if you like, but I leave it on and cook it with the fat layer on top. The fat melts over the meat, basting it with the seasonings you’ve put on it. There’s one thing you’ll want to take off, the silverskin. You’ll recognize this immediately when you see it. It’s a connective tissue and completely inedible. No matter how long you cook it, it will never taste good or get chewable. I use a three pound roast because that will serve up to six or seven people in one sitting, or two people for three or four meals. Prepare the roast by patting it dry, then taking your favorite meat rub and rubbing it all over the roast on every side, including the ends. I usually put just salt and pepper on it. Wrap the meat in plastic and put it in the fridge for at least an hour and up to 4 hours.
Heat your oven to 450. Place your roast in a pan that allows the roast to sit off the bottom of the pan. A good roasting pan will work, but I also use a cast iron skillet with ridges. Put the roast in the oven at 450 for 7 minutes per pound of meat. Then turn the oven off and DON’T OPEN THE OVEN DOOR FOR TWO AND A HALF HOURS. That’s important. It’s using the residual heat to cook the roast. Opening the door lets all the heat escape. At the end of the time, remove the roast and cover loosely with foil. I usually put mine in the microwave. It acts as a hot box. Also, do not prick the meat with a fork or knife or anything. All the meat juices will drain.
At this point, make all your sides. I tend to go simple with a salad and bread, but you can be as elaborate as you like. When you’re ready to serve, use a VERY sharp knife to slice the roast into whatever thickness you like. When storing for later, wrap tightly in plastic, then foil. The key is to keep the meat juices inside the roast. When reheating, follow a modified form of the cooking instructions. Take the plastic off, then wrap in foil. Place in a cold oven and heat to 350. Turn oven off and let roast set in oven for about twenty minutes or so. It will be heated through, but still at the medium rare stage.
Hope you enjoy!
Had a lot to do today, and started a post, but didn’t finish. I’ll have it ready for Wednesday. In the meantime, a couple of things to tickle your funny bone. Vintage ads from vintage magazines. Can you believe our parents might have actually tried these things?
And my new personal favorite: