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Turkey Day Trials 2014; Floating

25 Nov

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Sometimes, just silly things happen in the kitchen. Like when I went to strain a sauce and acting on habit, strained it down the drain. Or when (and this is from my mom’s perspective) I do a little kitchen jig when the food I make is good. Or spicy. Well, the other day, as a part of my Turkey Day Trials, another mishap came about that still has me giggling.

When Rob and I lived in Oregon, for a treat we would go for a cocktail and appetizers at the lounge at Bandon Dunes. We would dress up Pacific-Northwest-Golf-Club-fancy (yes that is a real fashion category) and watch as the cold-to-the-bone expert golfers would finish up the 18th. It was a little bit boushie and out of our Coos Bay ordinary, and we always struck up conversations with the most interesting (and sometimes famous) people. It got to a point that “our” bartender would put in the usual orders when he saw us walk in the door, and a few minutes later our Blue Cheese Chips were fragrantly awaiting our devour.

The bowl of freshly-fried potato chips always went down quickly and shook off the lingering chill from the constantly-present coastal winds. But what always added to our Bandon experience was driving by the cranberry bogs on the way to the golf resort. I’d always strain my neck to see what stage of growth the cranberries were in, and harvest was always the best time. Stretching fields of red bogs, like giant ruby blankets against the green pines, the floating berries were sucked up into a tube and then shot out like miniature cannon balls into a truck, ready for processing and distribution.

This water-powered firing of small, red fruit usually marked the autumnal season, signaling Thanksgiving was right around the corner. So this year, I paid homage to the cranberry by making an irresistible cranberry relish – one that puts even the coveted, jellied amazingness to shame.

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By simply taking 1 quart of fresh cranberries, ½ c sugar, a bottle of strong ginger beer (I like Reeds), a 4-in stick of cinnamon, a pinch of salt, and (here’s the kicker), a tea infuser of chamomile flowers, you will end up with a reduced, naturally pectin-infused bowl of beautiful, fragrant, and more-than-tasty cranberry relish. The trick is waiting until the boiling bubbles are shiny and slow-to-pop in the pot, almost like preparing a jam. After the relish is cooled, it will be thick yet spreadable, sweet yet tangy. Simple perfection at the Thanksgiving dinner table, or just the everyday autumn and winter breakfast spread.

So what was so silly about making this relish? The fact that in my first batch (a major mishap), I added a bit of liquid, then a bit more, then a bit more, each time expecting the berries to be covered and give me a culinary visual of the accurate liquid amount. And after all those days watching the bogs, I completely forgot that… cranberries float!!! No matter the liquid amount, the cranberries will never sink in the pot like they do with other jam fruit. So stick with the recipe – it works, thanks to my silly mistake.

Have a very happy Thanksgiving! Enjoy with food, love, laughter, and memories!

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Thoughts and Taste

5 Nov

More often then not, whenever I daydream, or really dream, or take a break from analyzing assessment data, or find myself turning on the TV, I am thinking about (or watching) something involving food.  More generally, I think about what I will be cooking for dinner, what Rob may like, if I’ll have enough leftover for lunch the next day, or what I can eat for breakfast that will start off my day like that inspiring Nutri-Grain commercial.  Although lately, I have been thinking about the delicate balance of flavors that really make up the “taste-art” of cooking.  I remember going to a fairly renown restaurant in Portland and being deflated because of the one-note taste of the risotto I had ordered.  Yes, it was creamy, the Aborio rice grains were perfectly cooked with a chewy bite, but the whole dish tasted of basil.  That was it.  No nuttiness from the Parmesan Regiano, no acidy from the tomatoes… and I realized that most people would have been perfectly delighted by the dish, or would have at least thought it was OK.  But me, being a bit – shall we say, obsessed – with my passion for food with a palate that can taste buttered popcorn out of an aged Cabernet, I was disappointed.

Taste buds and their link to the sinuses is an anatomical gift!  The perfect example I can think of is a Honey Dijon dressing.  Most everyone has tasted it, and if made correctly from scratch, it hits your mouth all over.  It is sweet from the honey, tangy and fresh from the lemon juice, slightly peppery, coats your mouth from the creaminess of the oil, and has a spicy aftertaste that sits on the back of your tongue and quickly travels up to the inside of your nose  just long enough to remind you that you just had a cousin from the horseradish family.  See my thought process?  I think I should start a support group.

My point: I think about food a lot.  And I work with people a lot.  And I’m realizing the intricate complexity of both.

Driving home today, I started to get philosophical.  When faced with a difficulty, I have always been instinctively drawn to the emotional reaction, so I consciously put Debby Downer on the back burner with a bitter beer, and started to think logically.  Both Rob and I have had situations in our jobs this week that have led to the tarnish of the shiny buffer of the people and industries we have committed ourselves to.  I, personally, wanted to get to the root of my thoughts by determining the difference between stupidity and ignorance.  Here is my conclusion:

Stupidity, though unfortunate, can be more easily forgiven when offense is presented.  A person who doesn’t really know better, won’t know how their words, actions, or even expression of professional theory may affect someone else.  It isn’t until it is presented as a possible offense, that they may (or may not) realize their wrongdoing, and may (or may not) genuinely apologize.

Ignorance, however, is much different though guised by the same resulting emotions.  Though the feeling of offense, and the initial questioning of motives may be the same as stupidity, ignorance is ultimately a choice.  The choice to be ignorant, and the pain that is caused by that choice, is very difficult to move past.

But, like the one-note risotto, Rob and I have learned that people’s ignorance can be an isolated event.  Though easily remembered and recalled, and after one unpleasantly lingering taste, it can surely be thought about, but then learned from, and eventually avoided.

Wow – that was about as heavy as a scone made with hot butter.  Am I growing up?  Well, pushing 30, it’s about time.

So, as I choose not to be ignorant, I also choose not to be one-note in my cooking.  I believe in simple food artfully prepared, with ingredients that are hopefully close to home, and leave the taste buds that enjoyed that food feeling like they got a special treat.  Most often that special treat-feeling is an undertone taste, or a secret special ingredient that really makes the “what-IS-that” difference.

Rob has a ginormous sweet tooth, and when I first told him that I was going to make onion jam to top our grilled peppered swordfish, he made a face at me.  It looked like this:  ;o%.  But then he tasted it – the sweet white onions, wilted to submission while still containing a slight bite, with the accompaniment of seasonal D’Anjou pears, and we couldn’t get enough.  The pears added that special unique sweetness, and the reduced lemon juice provided fresh citrus as well as the natural pectin to give a thickening texture.

Our fall veg basket gave us loads of beautiful squash, and mixed with a blend of Mexican Riviera and Spanish spices, black beans, and pomegranate seeds, we were left with a salad that was delicious and warming by itself, but even better with oven-crisped chicken breast.  The touch of cinnamon raises your eyebrows, and the familiar cumin brings you back to the late night tacos (without the grease and the ensuing food coma).  The snap and burst of the pomegranate seeds completes the dish, leaving a feeling of having eaten something slightly exotic.  

And, since I mentioned it before, I must touch on the Honey Dijon.  I have a TON of versions of Honey Dijon dressing and marinades – some with herbs, some without, some with vinegar, some with Meyer lemon juice, some with lime, one with goat cheese.  But the one provided here is one of my favorites – it incorporates two of my favorite tastes: citrus and hot spice.  This is a very simple dressing.  I pour it over roasted asparagus (olive oil, s&p, roasted at 435 for 15 minutes, turning once), and top it with a poached egg.  The creaminess of the warm, runny egg yoke mixed with the tangy and slightly hot dressing makes the most mouth-bursting combination of flavors.  Although the French might turn their noses as me for saying this, I think it’s better than the hollandaise sauce traditionally used over roasted asparagus (sorry Le Cordon Bleu!).

As I’m learning to really investigate textures and flavors and secret surprises in my food, I’m learning to not be offended by one-note-ness of some people.  Though it wasn’t the most enjoyable edible experience, the basil risotto didn’t offend me, so neither should ignorance in the world.

Please enjoy these flavor treats, and let me know how you use them!

Onion Pear Jam (makes about 1 pint)

  • 4 med white onions, sliced
  • zest 1 lemon
  • 1 tbsp + 1 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 c dry white wine
  • juice 1 lemon
  • 1 D’Anjou pear, peeled and diced
  • 3 springs thyme
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • s&p

In a large saute pan over medium heat, saute onions in olive oil, sugar, and a pinch of salt until translucent (do not let brown/caramelize).  Add the lemon zest, and saute for a minute.  Deglaze the pan with the wine, and reduce by 3/4, until pan is almost dry.  Add the pears, let them warm up, and smash with the back of a wooden spoon.  Add the lemon juice and thyme, mix well, and let cook until onions turn into a jam-like consistency (you may need to adjust the heat to med-low).  Taste for seasoning (I usually need to add cracked pepper).

Try over fish, in a sandwich with greens, olives, and cream cheese, or atop an omelet.

Enjoy!

Warm Squash and Beans (serves 4) 

  • 2 c diced fall/winter squash
  • 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/4 + 1/8 tsp chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp paprika
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp cumin
  • juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • 1 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 1/3 c pomegranate seeds
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • s&p

Over med-high heat, let squash brown on all sides in olive oil.  Add lemon juice to deglaze pan, then add beans and spices.  Mix to combine.  Turn heat down to med-low, and let the flavors marry together.  Before serving, off the heat add parsley and pomegranate seeds, and mix.

Great warm or at room temperature with meat, fish, as a side dish, or as a healthy veg salad with greens.

Enjoy!

Tangy Dijon Dressing (makes 1/4 c) 

  • 2 large tsp Dijon mustard
  • 3/4 tsp good quality honey
  • juice 1/2 lemon
  • 3 shakes Tabasco sauce
  • 1 1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • s&p

Combine mustard, lemon juice, honey and Tabasco sauce in a small bowl.  Whisk in the extra virgin olive oil, and taste for seasoning.

This is great with roasted veg, eggs, or adding pizzaz to grilled chicken.

Enjoy!

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