Post #569 The Taste of Food

April 28, 2018 at 5:41 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Several years ago, my brother in law made a comment when I was making dinner for the whole family.  It was a simple comment, but one I’ve never forgotten.  As I was cooking, he asked what was on the menu.  I was explaining what I was making, a variant of boeuf bourguignon with homemade noodles and homemade Cesar Salad.  And, because it’s what I do, I was also explaining how I was going to make it all, the long slow process for the beef; the garnish of sour cream; the tossing of the dressing ingredients in the salad.  And then he said, “It sounds good, but I like the taste of food.  You know, without all the dress up.”  I smiled, and told him I understood.

I did understand.  I understand picking a ripe tomato from a vine in the garden and brushing off the dirt.  Biting down into it and feeling the juices warmed from the sun spilling down your chin while the unique and amazing flavor of a ripe tomato fills your mouth, setting your taste buds quivering.

I understand the amazing sense of accomplishment of putting four ingredients together, and four hours later spreading cool butter onto a still-warm slice of bread and watching it melt into the crumb.  Then biting into the bread and butter and feeling lifted by the flavors competing in your mouth.

I understand walking along a path in the woods and grabbing a bunch of berries cooled in the shadows.

I understand being thirsty and slaking that thirst with watermelon that five minutes before was still attached to the vine.

Food in years before our culture of processing and freezing tended to be highly spiced and over-sauced to help cover the scent and taste of spoilage.  And leftovers were never thrown away.  They were repurposed into other meals.  Meat dried out so it was covered in gravy to help make it palatable.  Veggies would soften or spoil so were mashed into other sauces or soups.  People got used to pairing certain flavors and certain elements to the point where one was thought to be naturally a part of the other.  Mashed potatoes and gravy, for instance.

I don’t often eat mashed potatoes and gravy.  Sometimes a pat of butter, or a little salt, or a slight sprinkle of cheese will do for me.  Unless the potatoes are meant to be the carrying item for something else.  I sometimes make a “hamburger stew” that goes over the top of mashed potatoes incredibly well.  That one’s easy.  Brown up some burger and drain out nearly all the fat.  Add two tablespoons of flour and stir into the hamburger until it’s well coated.  Then add 2-3 cups of water gradually until a good gravy forms to your desired thickness (I like it halfway way between thin and medium.)  Then I add garlic and onion powder, and whatever frozen veggies I have on hand.  DO NOT under any circumstances  use a can of mixed vegetables.  They have no flavor at all.  Cook until everything is hot, adjusting the seasonings as you like.  When it’s ready, it goes over a mound of mashed potatoes, then gets shoveled into your stomach as fast as possible.

But I digress.

We kind of lost the culture of what food tastes like.  What does chicken taste like?  Can you imagine the taste on your tongue right now?  What about peanut butter?  What about popcorn, plain unseasoned popcorn?

There’s been a growing trend over the recent several years of cooking simple foods.  Imagine a pound of fresh green beans, tops and tails cut off.  What are you going to do with them?  There’s dozens of ways to cook them.  My favorite is to blanche them in boiling water for about two minutes, then drain them and flash cool them in an ice bath.  Just before serving, I heat up some butter with some almond flakes until the butter is sizzling the almonds are browning.  I drain the beans completely, toss them in the butter until all the flavors are blended well.  Serve them while still hot if possible, but they’re good warm, too.  The beans are crunch as though just picked from the vine, but the green bean flavor is strong and sweet, and blends perfectly with the butter and almonds.

When I was a kid, my mom would open a can, dump in into a pan, and heat it until the water boiled off.  Then she would put them in a bowl, put a pat of butter on top, jam a spoon into them, and set them on the table.  I liked them, then.  I like them even more, now.

Salad is a favorite because all the flavors are fresh and bright.  Sometimes I don’t put any dressing on it at all.  A small sprinkle of salt and pepper, or a squeeze from a fresh wedge of lemon or lime and the salad is as “dressed” as it needs to be.  One time, when my ex-wife and I were still dating, we went out with her sister to some restaurant.  Her sister ordered a salad, as did I.  When I was asked what dressing I wanted, I asked if they had any lemon wedges.  They didn’t, so I opted for no dressing.  My sister in law then asked if she could have the dressing I turned down.  I thought she was crazy for wanting to mix two dressings on her salad; she thought I was crazy for not wanting any dressing on my salad.

I like the taste of food.  I like it simple and not put upon.  Carrots fresh from the ground are amazing.  Roasted, they take on a completely different flavor that’s just as good.  Baked in a cake, I don’t like them so much.  Glazed with all kinds of syrups or dressings and I’m no longer a fan.  Brussels sprouts taste great by themselves.  But boiled in salt water then chilled, they are amazing.  Slices thin and fried with bacon and shallots, they are so good!  Baked with cheese and cream, and I’m not gonna touch them.

When I go to a steak house, I take notice if they have a “special house seasoning” and make sure I can have a steak without it.  Invariably, the flavor of the beef is hidden by the flavors of the seasoning.  When I was a kid, we always prepped the steak with salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, Accent flavoring, and then “tenderizing” it by poking with a fork about a million times.  Then, one day in my thirties, I skipped all that.  I sprinkled it lightly with kosher salt, grilled it, and ate it.  I rediscovered what beef actually tasted like and found I really liked it!  It’s the only way I have steak anymore.  The flavor of the beef shines.

Simple is good.  Food tastes good.  My ex-wife and I were on a bike ride one time, and trudging up a hill not far from home.  She needed a break; I’d pushed way to hard on this trip.  We stopped in the shade under a tree.  Neither of us had any water left, but my apartment was literally less than a quarter of a mile away at the top of this hill.  She was looking grumpy and put out.  I was trying to figure out how to make her happy again.  I notice the tree we were sitting under was a mulberry and was heavy with ripe fruit.  So I broke off a small branch with a ton of berries and gave it to her.  “Eat this.  It’ll help.” I said.  She looked at it with misgivings.  “What is it?”  “Trust me.  You’ll love it.”  She finished that branch and part of another.  She still talks about it today and how good those berries tasted.

So tonight, our menu is grilled steak with a little salt, baked potatoes, and grilled asparagus that I’m grilling with olive oil and sea salt.  Good Stuff!

Post #568 Rememberries

April 15, 2018 at 8:33 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Health is on the upswing, getting things under control, until Boom!  The flu hits.  Racking deep coughs, fevers leaving me weak as a kitten.  Luckily these things seldom last long with me.  And even though today was cold and gray (snow fell while I was walking the dog), yesterday was warm and sunny.  Need more of those days.  When I was a kid in Arizona I could lay out in the yard for an hour or so and bake any disease right out of me.  No so much here on the east coast.  In our never ending efforts to get to know our new state and neighborhoods, we were on a drive recently, and in one back road out of the way area we passed a house that had a grape arbor in it.  Do you know what a grape arbor is?

Grapes grow on vines.  Like most vines, they can’t support themselves, so unless they have something to grow up onto they will grow along the ground.  As you might guess, that’s not very good for the grapes.  So when people decided to cultivate grapes, they came up with all kinds of solutions.  Trellises were favorites for a long time.  But for the back yard gardener, the simplest solution was an arbor.  Picture a series of arches connected into a walkway of whatever length you like and you have the idea.

As you can see, it gets the grapes off the ground, and it lets the grower see how the harvest is coming along.

When I was kid, we lived in upstate New York and down the street about three house lived the family who became our best friends while we lived there.  I loved their house.  One big family, three floors, three separate family units.  The house had one of those wrap around porches that went along the front and the side.  The front yard was practically non-existent, but the side yard and the back yard were any kids delight.  We had endless games of tag, hide and seek, and kickball there.

Grandma was completely old school.  She was the type that always had a cookie for every kid in the neighborhood.  She also made things from scratch.  Whatever that was.  When I was 8, I used to think about her scratching at the table a lot until I figured out what it meant.

One thing I remember most about her was her unending campaign to keep us kids out of her fruit and vegetables.  Every Spring snow drops would poke their heads out of the dirt first.

Right after that, the trees would start showing green buds, crocuses would poke up, and she’d be out in the vegetable patch getting rid of the leaves and “trash” she used to protect the beds.  We’d help her reluctantly since all we really wanted to do was play.  I learned a lot watching and helping her.

We were kids, constantly running around and screaming, burning energy like it was going out of style.  So we were constantly looking to refuel.  Cookies were good, but not always forthcoming.  Things growing in the dirt were better, if we could get them without Grandma catching us.  She usually did.  Our Spring and Summer games were punctuated by here shrill voice “You kids keeps away from those apples!  You kids get out of that garden!”

Our kickball games were non-ending and her apple tree was first base.  Our diamond was lopsided and the space between first base and second was the longest stretch of the whole game, but we had a blast.  It only took two people to get up a game, but it was more fun with more people.  It was hot and tiring and we took constant breaks.  The hose got a good workout providing us with plenty of cool water.  The best part was when the little tiny apple nubs started appearing.  We developed quite a taste for under ripe hard green apples.  I think they were Granny Smith apples.  I don’t remember they ever turned red, and I do remember tons of apple pies, apple cookies, apple bread, apples cake, and apple sauce coming from her kitchen.

The thing that was hardest to keep our hands off of were the grapes.  I grew up liking sour better than sweet.  Don’t get me wrong.  Like any kid, I ate my fair share of candy, cake, and cookies.  I kind of still do although I’m having to change that quite a bit these days.  My passion was dill pickles.  My mom used to mourn because she couldn’t keep pickles in the house.  Once a jar was open, it was fair game.  All three of us kids would descend en masse and wipe out a jar like a plague of locusts.

Under ripe grapes were like an addiction.  You had to wait until the grapes were about the size of the fingernail on your little finger.  Any earlier and there was no juice in them.  You popped one from the bunch and crunched it between your teeth and felt that unique bitterness that tasted faintly of grapes flood over your tongue and down your throat.  If you got them too early it would actually hurt going down.  I’ve heard stories of kids who ate under ripe fruit and veggies who got tummy aches.  Never happened to me or anyone I knew.  I guess we could have digest nails back in them days.

But, Lord, if you got caught!  Grandma would shrilly list all the things she wouldn’t be able to make because you ate a grape.  I know she was really just trying to warn us off of eating unripe fruit and making sure there would be enough.

Funny thing was, every end of summer picnic, every Thanksgiving, every holiday had plenty of fresh fruit pies, cookies, preserves, everything that made the celebrations special.

I remember one time when I was about 7 or 8 we wanted PBJs for lunch.  We couldn’t find any jelly.  Mom remembered that Grandma Down The Street had given us some homemade jelly a while before.  She found it hidden in the back of a shelf and handed it to us.  We managed to get the lid off after a time but the next step stopped us in our tracks.  There was a thick layer of something white and hard on top.  We tapped it with a knife but it was unyielding.  We tried a little harder and even though we tried, it was impervious to our attempts.  We could see the jelly through the glass jar, but we couldn’t get to the jelly despite our best efforts.  We finally called mom who dissolved into tears of laughter.  When she managed to collect herself, she explained how they used to make sure the preservers wouldn’t spoil by sealing them with a layer of wax.  She took it off for us and we made our sandwiches.  I took a bite and tasted summer and fall.

When I saw that grape arbor, for a few moments I could hear her shrilly telling us to leave those grapes alone!



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