Post #571 It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

May 13, 2018 at 3:12 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Nope, not Christmas, although that’s pretty special.  I’m talking about the time of year when fresh, farm-to-table produce starts to become available.  Usually at the start of the season you’ll see small zucchini and mounds of green beans.  Shortly after, the tomatoes start showing up, and before you know it, going to a farmer’s market is a bonanza of fresh fruits and veggies.  We just bought a dehydrator, and today we’re drying oranges to make pot pourri.  But I’m anticipating the mounds of things we’re going to dry in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, what to do with the great produce?

Well, obviously, side dishes become the stars.  Think mac and cheese with fresh veggies in it, and casseroles swimming in sauce and cut veggies.  Or my personal favorite, salad.

Remember recently I wrote that I love the simple flavors of food?  Salad is the epitome of that.  Once in a while, I get tired of salad, but not too often.  When I was growing up, salad followed the same formula:  chopped or shredded iceberg lettuce, diced or wedged tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, and sliced onions or scallions.  Toss and chill, then serve in bowls with your favorite dressing.  In those days, mine was Italian or French.  I’ve evolved since then.  In both dressing preferences, and how I build a salad.

Nowadays, salad is mainly a collection of small-cut veggies tossed together.  Doesn’t matter what kind as long as they’re fresh.  Also, because of personal preference, I like cheese in my salad, and as often as not, I have some sort of protein in it too.  I’m always looking through magazines and cookbooks to catch other people’s ideas of salads.

And I found one yesterday as I was thumbing through my new copy of the Cook’s Country TV Show Cookbook which includes every recipe featured on the show for the first ten years.  I’m making it today, but I’m so jazzed about it, I thought I’d share the salad now.

It’s called Chinese Chicken Salad.

  • 2 oranges
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Asian chile-garlic sauce
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons toasted sesame seed oil
  • 4 medium-large chicken breasts
  • 2 cups of thin sliced romaine lettuce hearts
  • 6 cups of thin sliced Napa cabbage
  • 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 cup salted dry roasted nuts
  • 1-2 bunches scallion, chopped

Slice rind and pith off oranges and cut sections into small bowl.  From leftover orange membrane, squeeze 1/4 cup of juice into small bowl.  Combine orange juice, vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, sugar, and chile-garlic sauce in a bowl until well blended.

Put 1/2 cup of the mixture into a large skillet.  Whisk sesame oil and vegetable oil into remaining orange mixture and set aside.  Bring orange mixture in skillet to a boil over high heat and add chicken.  Reduce heat to medium low, cover, and cook or 10-15 minutes, turning once half way through.  Chicken should read 160 on a thermometer.  Move chicken to a plate and rest for 5-10 minutes.

After chicken has rested, boil pan juices until reduced to 1/4 cup, about 3-5 minutes and set aside.  Use two forks and shred chicken to bite-sized pieces.  Off heat, add chicken, any accumulated juices, and two tablespoons of marinade to skillet and toss chicken to coat then let sit for ten minutes.

While the chicken is sitting, prepare the vegetables and toss with remaining vinaigrette in a large bowl.  Transfer to a serving platter and place oranges on top.  Scatter chicken over top and serve.

Now, because I can’t leave well enough alone, let me tell you what I did with it.

I used already cooked chicken that I had on hand.  I made the vinaigrette per instructions without cooking the chicken in it.  I added fresh asparagus to the mix.  I put in more cilantro than is called for.  Then, at the end, I added the fried crispy noodles that come in a can that I sprinkled over the chicken along with a few sesame seeds.

Salads can be complicated with layers and layers of specially prepared veggies and flavorings.  Or they can be as simple as shredded lettuce.

When I was a teenager, we had a type of salad that has come back into popularity.  It’s called a Wedge salad, although back in the day it was just a salad.

Take a full head of iceberg lettuce and peel off the few outer layers so the lettuce is clean and fresh.  Cut off the stem but leave the core.  Cut the whole head into the number of wedges you need and place each wedge into a small bowl slighter larger than the wedge.  Dress the wedge with anything you like.  As a teenager, for me, it was just plain old Italian dressing.  Nowadays, it’s a whole recipe of things, starting with ranch dressing (which I loathe) and adding bacon chips, bleu cheese, etc.  You eat your way down starting with the sweet inner layers.  Good stuff.



Post #570 Steak Tartare Well Done

May 5, 2018 at 7:40 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

One evening this past week, Partner/Spouse and I were having dinner of grilled steak and salad.  It’s fast, easy, delicious, and one of our favorite go to meals when we’re running late.  I had thawed out a sirloin steak that was about a pound and a half, and about half an inch to three quarters thick.  I grilled it on a well heated cast iron stove top grill pan for four minutes on one side, then four minutes on the other.  I finished it off my grilling for an extra three minutes on the first side.  I figured this would get the steak nice and medium rare, the way we like it.

It didn’t.

When I cut the middle to see how well done it was, it was still raw and purple in the center.  A large part of it had not cooked.  So I put it back on the heat for five minutes, then pulled it off and covered it with foil for about seven minutes to rest.  At that point, it was perfectly cooked so I sliced it thin, salted it lightly, and we had salad with steak slices on top.  So yum!

But it got me to thinking about one of the funniest incidents that happened while I was traveling.  I’ve shared it in this blog before, but it bears repeating.

I was working in Paris installing computer systems and applications and training the end users on the whole process.  Since I was the database conversion specialist, I was there through the entire trip, while the application specialists came in and trained then left when their app was up and running well.  The team lead was there from start to finish where my job finished shortly after the final application data was converted and the app went live.  Because the team was fluid in members, it became the habit for anyone who was leaving to be able to choose the restaurant for the goodbye party.

One of those gatherings ended up as some restaurant that we’d all enjoyed in the past and consisted of about sever or eight of us sitting around the table.  The menu was in french, naturally, but my high school french stood the test and everyone was able to figure what they wanted.  The guy next to me asked me to order him a plate of steak tartare.

I was surprised so I asked him, “You know what that is right?  It’s raw meat.”

He looked puzzled but replied, “No, I saw a little girl eating it the other day at a restaurant.  It’s just a hamburger.”

I nodded.  “Yes, it’s a ground beef patty that hasn’t been cooked.”

“No, it’s a hamburger patty.  I saw it.”

The lady on the other side of him chimed in, “Listen to him.  He knows what he’s talking about.”

We discussed it largely for a few minutes with him insisting that he was going to order it, but get it well done.

Now, for those who don’t know, steak tartare, or any meat made in the tartare style, is simply chopped, minced, or ground with some spices added, and a raw egg cracked on top.  Sometimes a cool sauce made from the blood of the meat is added.  Other times, a cool sauce made from fresh vegetables is used.  The two most common forms of tartare are steak and tuna.  I’ve eaten it, but don’t really care too much for it.  I don’t mind my steak being rare, but I want it cooked.

So the waiter appears and we each order what we want.  I ordered potato gnocchi with “fromage quatre”, a four cheese sauce using white wine as its base.  I like gnocchi, a small potato dumpling in various sauces and it makes a filling, vegetarian style meal.  Someone ordered chicken chow mein, another asked for lasagna, someone had a burger,  some wanted an omelet, and someone else had a steak with fries.  It was a very eclectic mix until he got to the man sitting next to me.

“I’d like steak tartare, well done, please.”  He looked quite proud of himself for that order.

The waiter’s pencil stopped and he looked up.  “Well done?”

“Yes, please, steak tartare well done.”

I was biting the inside of my cheek to keep from smiling as I let the situation unfold.

The waiter, still clearly puzzled, looked at my friend and finally asked, “Do you mean no blood?”

As I explained, steak tartare sometimes comes with a cooled sauce made from the meat juices, but I didn’t explain that to my colleague.  I watched his face and could read the thoughts flitting through his brain.  Blood?  Oh, the meat juices that collect when you are eating a cooked steak.  So that would mean there would be some pink in the middle, and he wanted it well done.

“That’s right,” he said.  “No blood, not a speck of that anywhere.”

Me, being me, I turned that screw just a little tighter.  I leaned over and said, “You realize there’s a raw egg on top that, right?”

He looked up at the waiter and said, “Could you ask the chef to fry that egg for me?”

The waiter gave up all pretense of professionalism and replied, “I’ll check, sir.”

I know he was going back to laugh his ass off and share the story of the stupid Americans.  He returned fairly quickly, reporting the chef said he didn’t have the right pans to fry an egg.  I didn’t laugh, but it was close.  After all, someone at our table had ordered an omelet, after all.

So we all sat at the table talking about the work and the upcoming flights and other trips.  After several minutes, the waiter returned with our food and set the plates down.  He very purposely set the “steak tartare well done” down last.  Then he stepped back discreetly, knowing what was coming.

My friend looked at his plate holding a simple ground beef patty, uncooked, devoid of anything but some salt and pepper.

“What is this?” he asked in a flat voice.

“It’s steak tartare with no blood and no egg, ” I replied.  “Exactly what you ordered.”

“Why isn’t it cooked?”

Someone at the table replied, “Because steak tartare is raw, not cooked.  He tried to tell you but you wouldn’t listen.”

“They’ll take it back if you don’t want it,” I said.

“No, no, I’m gonna try this.”

I started eating my gnocchi which was delicious while watching him toy with his food.  He finally braved the inevitable and put a small piece in his mouth.  He immediately spit it out onto his plate with a loud splat.

“It’s cold!” he exclaimed.

I nodded.  “I know.  To warm it would be to cook it and it’s served raw.  At best, it’ll be served at room temperature, but not often since that could breed bacteria.”

He turned to the waiter who was standing by at the ready.  “I’m very sorry.  I can’t eat this.  I’ll be happy to pay for it, but can you bring me some of that?”  He pointed blindly at my dish.

Very quickly, the waiter brought back another heaping serving of potato gnocchi with four cheese sauce and set it down.  My colleague took a bite and set his fork down.

“Joe, what the hell am I eating now?”

I explained what it was.  He sighed and toyed with it for the rest of the meal.  We had a pleasant evening, left the waiter a big tip, and headed out.  As we exited, I took my colleague by the arm and guide him toward the nearest metro station.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“We’re going to the nearest KFC to get you something to eat.  Come on.”

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!



Post #567 Catch You On The Flipside

March 25, 2018 at 7:37 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

I’m really sorry folks, but my energy levels have tanked this week.  I’m going to take a break from blogging to concentrate on my health issues.  I want to thank everyone who reached out to me; it was sincerely appreciated.  I’m going to be fine.  It’s just going to take a little more time than I expected.  Please feel free to reach out to me on the blog or on FB.  I have a FB page for the blog which I’ll be adding posts to pretty often so you can see what’s happening.  I’m keeping the actual specifics of the health stuff off FB so I’d appreciate it if you would, as well.

For now, I’ll leave you with some giggles I’ve shared before.  And as always,

Jack Relaxing

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