Sunday, March 29, 2009

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Out of This Nettle, We Grasp This Dinner

Spring has officially sprung, and I was so tickled to take my first little stroll down to the forested wetlands at the nearby Reed College campus during an early break in the vernal rains. This time of year is my chance to shake the last of the doldrums of the wan winter pallor, to ditch some of the root vegetable stodge and to taste the first bosky flush of the equinox.

I was delighted, then, that my proposal to prepare a nettle-based dinner was sponsored by Foodbuzz. Having spontaneously submitted my idea as a sudden burst of inspiration, I'm thrilled that our friends at Foodbuzz wanted to help me share it with the food blogging community for the March 24, 24, 24 event.

(from left) Me, Carolyn and Greta

Although I am a botanist by training (and the trade pays the bills), I take so much pleasure in my city life when I'm off the clock. I love going out to fancy dinners with Scott, going out for a movie or to see a favorite band. But I especially love putting on some hot pink lipstick, a skirt and heels and hitting the bars with my similarly city-loving girlfriends. My girls like good food, but don't necessarily love the idea of grubbing around in the swamp to pick their ingredients.

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) grow in swampy places and riparian corridors along streams throughout North America, Europe, Asia and northern Africa. They resemble a mint, though they're in their own botanical family (the Urticaceae). They're easily identified by their pairs of deltoid (slightly triangular), dentate leaves (opposite-decussate in orientation) with fine spines covering the stems and leaves. In the Pacific Northwest, March is when they first poke their little heads out of the alder and cottonwood duff in search of spring's first warming sun. This time of year, too, is when they are at their most tender and nutritious. Nettles are an excellent source of protein, iron and vitamins C and A.

True to their moniker, they do pack a potent sting, delivered mercilessly by the fine, silicate trichomes which act as tiny syringes. The sting comes from the combination of histamine, serotonin and formic acid (similar to the venom injected by stinging and biting formicine ants). The pain is a sharp, tingling sting, and on my skin, leaves small white bumps with reddish swelling. To avoid this, always wear gloves when picking, use a salad spinner and tongs to wash, then blanch the greens in salted water to neutralize the venom before eating.

Rather than haphazardly add nettles to ordinary foods to bolster their nutritional content, I really wanted to showcase the nettles as a primary flavor in a variety of dishes. I put together a menu that would spotlight the stinging nettle in myriad ways:

nässelsoppa (Scandinavian nettle soup) with dill and chive crème fraîche
mixed greens with Granny Smith apples, crumbled smoked fontina and honey-nettle vinaigrette
lamb steak and pan-roasted baby potatoes with nettle pesto
nettle gratin with Pecorino and nutmeg cream

While I prepped dinner, we enjoyed a light cocktail that I created and named the Caddisfly Nymph (after the little water bug upon which salmon and trout feed, and an indicator of healthy streams): 6 oz of Prosecco with a half ounce of elderflower syrup (sold as Flädersaft at Ikea) and a tiny splash of Peychaud bitters (for pinkness and herbal twang). It's flora and girlishness in a glass.

Nässelsoppa is a traditional Scandinavian nettle soup, though I tweaked it slightly by adding cream to the freshly-made chicken stock for richness and body. I sauteed onions and garlic in cultured butter until softened and translucent, added the nettles and chicken stock and simmered until tender (about 15 minutes). I added a glug of heavy cream and some chopped fresh dill, ran the immersion blender through it until smooth, and then returned it to the stove until warmed through. Salt and pepper to taste, then top with crème fraîche mixed with minced chives.

The salad followed the standard formula: mixed greens + fruit+ cheese (tart Granny Smith apples and crumbled smoked fontina from Willamette Valley Cheese Company). The vinaigrette was a loose pistou of nettles, honey, walnut oil, balsamic and sherry vinegars, minced shallot and Dijon mustard. A crunch of salt and pepper finished the salad.

The main was a grilled lamb leg steak (my favorite cut - less commitment than a whole leg and a cinch to cook) and pan-roasted baby Yukon golds smeared liberally with a thick pesto of nettles, garlic, olive oil, pumpkin seeds and the last nub of Manchego (the nuttiness of which nicely complements the smoky earthiness of the nettles).

The gratin was made by layering the blanched nettles into a buttered casserole, then pouring on some hot cream and milk, a generous scratching of fresh nutmeg and then a thick layer of Pecorino Romano. I covered the crock loosely with aluminum foil for the first 45 minutes then browned, uncovered, for the final 20 or so minutes. Rich, creamy, nutty - it was perfect with the meat and potatoes and will be delicious served over pasta as a leftovers lunch.

I was initially going to make a dessert (not using nettles - this isn't Iron Chef for fuck's sake), but Greta had cardamom molten chocolate cakes with ginger-rum ice cream waiting for us at her place, and who can really argue with that? No one, that's who.

I hope you live near some wet woods or a soft streambank. If you don't, then maybe you'll be inspired to take a drive to the country for a free taste of fecundity and nature's produce section. Don't be afraid to get your feet wet, and you might find yourself a tasty dinner.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Mushroom-Cheddar Patty Melt

I know, I know. I take off for a week, and this is all I got to show for it (especially since the last post was a total cop-out, even though I spent hours constructing that chocolatey cave from 2lbs of chocolate truffles)? Don't worry, things will get exciting again real soon, I promise. I'll be in the field off and on every week for a few weeks, and I'm going to try earnestly to find little roadside gems for you during my travels. Until then, I make my own diner food.

Pardon my photos, I'm trying to learn to properly use this camera instead of just clicking it over to the macro setting and letting it auto-focus. Adjusting the f-stop is an embuggerance, but will be worth it once I get it right! It's a bumpy road to perfect mastery, but I'm trying to enjoy the ride.

Behold, the illustrious patty melt. A burger, for all intents and purposes, though open-faced. This one came on a thick slab of French batard (the King of Breads) with chopped green tomato pickle relish, mayo, hot mustard, a 1/3 lb patty of ground chuck and pork, grilled mushrooms and onions, and gooey, melted cheddar (hence, patty "melt").

If you're feeling conflicted about the fat and cholesterol (ha!), serve with lightly sautéed snap peas and a curry pickled okra spear. An ice-cold ginger beer wouldn't hurt, either.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Easter Candy

"Who dares approach my chocolatey cave?"


Get your Easter candy now, on sale at See's!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sweet potato salad with green tomato pickle relish

This is supposed to be about the sweet potato salad, but I really want to talk about the sandwich. Is it even okay to blog about a sandwich when I didn't bake the bread or cure my own charcuterie? Is that allowed?

We paid a visit to the Berlin Inn the other night, to grab an early dinner and a sturdy mug of chest hair-inducing, dark German beer (a bock is my favorite way to drink bread). We were truly raring for it, but then decided to go ahead and stop into Edelweiss for some things while we were in the neighborhood. I've been having exigent (nigh monthly) cravings for the odd meat product (I literally stared at the olive loaf for ten minutes before talking myself out of it). My Grandma Laverne used to serve me olive loaf or Braunschweiger and mayo (or sometimes the Fleishman's/Hellman's sandwich spread) on white bread when I was a small child, and I still get the congenital jones for this stuff.

We came home that night with a 1/4 lb. each of Jagdwurst (a spicy beef and pork sausage that resembles a firm liverwurst with larger meat bits) and Sülze (a vinegary/mustard seed-y headcheese made with beef tongue). We got a half pound of cooked beef salami too (Scott isn't as "German" as I am for the cured meats). Tonight, I really just wanted a sandwich for dinner. I toasted some Bavarian rye and smeared it with homemade sandwich spread (mayo mixed with minced green tomato/shallot pickle), some spicy brown mustard, greenleaf lettuce, a few slices of sharp cheddar and layers of cured meats.

The potato salad was really a basic thing: cubed, steamed (not boiled) sweet potato, minced celery, minced red bell pepper and onion (sauteed lightly with some minced bacon so it wouldn't overpower), chopped green tomato pickle, mayo, mustard, salt and pepper and a little chopped parsley. The sweet potato didn't cloy; rather, it stood up nicely to the spanky pickle and fatty bacon/mayo dressing.

Delightful with potato chips and a cold Weltenburger Kloster Asam Bock (it's awesome).

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Gratin Dauphinois

Gratin Dauphinois is a basic thing. So basic, in fact, that I can't imagine any reason why people would eat the boxed shit. The garbage dehydrated crap isn't even cheaper. Okay, I'll admit that it is marginally easier to open a box and a couple bags, but you end up having to boil water and milk to pour over the dehydrated potatoes anyway, when you could just slice a couple of real potatoes on your mandoline (or in the processor), dump them in a glass bowl and microwave them in the milk. Then all you do is dump the whole lot into a buttered casserole with a slice garlic clove, top it with cheese, and whack it into the oven for an hour. Easy peasy.

I used 50-50 milk and half & half (so I guess it was 75% milk, and 25% cream), a few pinches of salt and some pepper, and a few scratches of nutmeg. I topped it with the last of the Madrigal cheese and tented some foil over the whole pan to keep the cheese from browning too early.

Serve with a medium-rare ribeye (grilled with only crunchy salt and cracked pepper) and a bitchy red (I like 2006 Three Winds Syrah these days - a little brash and ign'unt, but she calms down if you give her some space. Plus, the label looks like a Kurosawa movie poster).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cardamom-scented Dover sole with orange and braised fennel

I don't know if I can make this look any prettier. It's a lot of monochrome visually, but the flavors were anything but one-note. I half-filled an olive-oiled baking dish with shaved fennel, layered on some milky-fleshed Dover sole filets (they smelled only of the Pacific and made me long for a gray day at the Oregon coast) the zest of an heirloom navel orange and some lightly crushed cardamom pods. Crunchy sea salt and black pepper, top with a protective layer of fennel fronds and into a hot oven. It's done when the translucent fish goes porcelain-opaque.

Serve with a willowy Gewürztraminer and an ort of wit so obviously forced that it may as well be salami.

Hey, so I guess I feel like I've been doing a half-assed job at the blogging these days, and it 75% because I just don't give a shit about food or cooking right now. I could probably eat a burrito or a bowl of noodles from a sketchy Chinese joint alternately and be perfectly happy. I guess part of it is shaking off the last bit of winter (unpredictable weather is causing a bit of learned helplessness) and some of it is the hassle of hobbling around in an orthopedic boot, but I just feel creatively tapped out.

How ironic, then, that I've been getting requests from marketers wanting me to blog about their product that they're delighted to send me for free (chocolates? cheeses? sure, I'll bite), and I've even been contacted a couple times to do a bit of real writing. The validation feels great, but unwarranted. When I feel the most proud of what I do, I feel my talents are being squandered and I'm unappreciated. When I blog through my self-loathing about a fucking grilled cheese sandwich with bacon and a fried egg, my traffic goes through the roof (it's like the fucking Lotka-Volterra predator-prey model from Ecology 101). So I'm faced with an actual conundrum: do I whore myself to the traffic (and the sweet, sweet cash that it funnels into my PayPal account, thank you Foodbuzz), knowing that the people clearly want This Is Why You're Fat SFW pornography? Or do I keep challenging myself creatively, accept that people's eyes will glaze over if they can't immediately relate, and resign myself to obscurity?

These questions don't need your answers. I know the answer: you can't force creativity and bacon fucking tastes good.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Tallarines con guasanas y carnitas

Don't be afraid - it's just pasta with fresh chickpeas and shredded pork. I threw in some calabacitas (a small, rounded zuke relative), too, just 'cuz. I also found out that there is a Spanish word for pasta, and decided to use it instead of "spaghetti" to make my meal appear to be more cogent than fusion.

Imagine my delight at finding fresh chickpeas at Winco foods. I never shop there, but was helping a friend bargain-shop and I was actually really surprised at their variety of Latin produce and wealth of bulk bins (though I still think Cash & Carry has better meat deals, if you don't mind buying in 10lb increments). Normally steamed and shelled directly into the mouth (like so much edamame), guasanas are an interesting Mexican vegetable. I don't know of any other legumes consumed as a fresh vegetable in Latin America, come to think of it. The lanuginous pods bear one seed, though the occasional twin is present. I'd never seen them before, and brought home a bag of them to try.

I sautéed the shelled chickpeas with minced onion and garlic, some minced red chili and sliced calabacitas. I added generous pinches of fresh-ground cumin, achiote and Mexican oregano, salt and pepper. Then I shredded the leftover pork steaks from last week (I made this dinner last week, too, but am just getting to it), added a few unctuous spoonfuls of the tomato-caramelized onion gravy (similarly leftover) and simmered until the shreds of pork buckled under their own weight. I ladled the mixture over cooked spaghetti, and sprinkled on some crumbled cotija and torn cilantro. The spicy, silky carnitas married well with the nutty, lightly crunchy guasanas and the salty, dry cotija and verdant cilantro brightened the whole plate up nicely.

Serve with a spanky Pinot Noir and a hot date with a stationary bike.*

*I finally made a trip to the gym after more than a month, with a taped-up broken toe and a permission slip from the orthopedic surgeon. The bike is okay as long as I keep my foot straight, and so I kicked back and enjoyed a magazine while I did the exercise of the lazy. I will, however, feel the upper body strength-training tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Bacon-Grilled Cheese Egg-in-the-Hole

Less may be more, but so is more. I thought it would be a great idea to make a egg-in-the-hole for breakfast awhile ago, but instead of the usual toast with an egg fried into the middle of it, why not use a grilled cheese sammich? With bacon in it? Why the fuck not.

I made a coupla grilled cheese sandwiches (with Provolone and crispy bacon), punched a hole in the center and cracked an egg into it. I nibbled the cookie-cutter mini-sammies while I nervously paced back and forth, worrying that I'd over-toast the sandwich waiting for the egg to cook, then flipped it gingerly. Perfection. Though delicious, next time, I'll add a little something to brighten it up - tomato slices? Slivers of sweet onion?

Serve with The Believer and a fiery Bloody Mary.

(Note: thank you to this sassy bitch who corrected my original title, a misuse of toad-in-the-hole. Toad-in-the-hole is bangers in Yorkshire pudding, not an egg in toast. It was cool of her to call me out - it's how I learn!)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Chicken Pot Pie

Hey, I know I can't bake. I hate making pastry dough, and pie crust, and all that. Too much work. But one I thing I can do right is make fun of myself. I decided it would be absolutely hilarious if I used the scraps of dough to form a penis shooting a projectile onto the top of the pie, a la the foursquare folded paper fortune teller in Eastbound and Down the other night.

A delicious chicken pot pie with potatoes, carrots, celery, peas and corn and some dried "gourmet" mushrooms for good measure, in a savory chicken gravy, baked in a buttery, flaky pastry.

Suck on it.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Celebrating Black History Month - African Contributions to American Cuisine

February is Black History Month. Last year, to celebrate, I introduced myself to blogger Courtney Nzeribe from Coco Cooks and interviewed her about her cultural identity, her cooking style and her favorite childhood foods. This year, I chatted a bit with my buddy Donald Orphanidys from Mr. Orph's Kitchen on how being black has influenced his culinary identity (not much), where he learned to love food (his Grandma's house), and how food in Philly differs from food in the South (wildly). His experience growing up on "helpers" (of the hamburger and tuna varieties) and gub'ment cheese are familiar to me, as are the Southern inflections to his cooking that stem from his time spent stationed (and later living) in Atlanta, Georgia.

Like me, Don finds inspiration in many places, and this year, to reflect on the contributions black people have made to American culture, I was inspired to create a celebratory meal, with a soundtrack. And I'm so pleased that our friends at Foodbuzz wanted to support my celebration by accepting my proposal for their February 24, 24, 24 event.

As they have with music, black people have informed the American culinary vernacular by bringing elements and ingredients from their homeland in Africa to the genesis of their tumultuous history in North America. Many ingredients heavily associated with the South - black-eyed peas, watermelon, greens, sweet potatoes, okra and peanuts - were brought directly to the US by slaves. As a German-American, my perspective on African-American culture and cuisine is based almost solely on the experiences of other people, and over the past few months I’ve begun to explore the African roots of some of my favorite foods. I wanted to share my newly-gained insights with some old friends. The menu I created is an attempt at honoring these contributions:

Green Tomato and Watermelon Pickles
Black-eyed Pea and Corn Fritters with Sweet Pepper Chutney
Duck and Shrimp Gumbo “Ya-Ya” with Okra
“Smothered” Pork Chops with Caramelized Onions and Tomato Gravy
Swiss Chard with Braised Pork Hock
Spicy Sweet Potato Fries
Hominy Grits Pudding with Bananas Foster and Peanut Praline

The pickles were fast fridge pickles, in a sharp brine of white and sherry vinegars, shallot, salt and sugar. The watermelon rinds took sweet spices like star anise and fennel seed, while the tomatoes got a little hot chili and coriander. Both were bright and acidic, cutting through the rich, fatty meal and cleansing the palate. Mike (writer and occasional artist of film review blog and occasional webcomic Culture Pulp) kept grazing on them after the meal, plucking juicy spears from the chilly jars, happily crunching and regaling us with stories of Ravioli Day.

The fritters, based on the west African succotash adalu, were simple and delicious: black-eyed peas (also called cowpeas), corn, a couple eggs, S&P and a pinch of sugar, and a dusting of flour to stick the batter together. Fried in a little oil until browned, they were perfect with the sweet pepper chutney (minced yellow and red bell peppers and a cayenne chili slow-sautéed with onions and a pinch of my seven spice, a splash of balsamic vinegar and a little salt and sugar). The Swiss chard was braised in a splash of red onion vinegar (homemade from red onion pickle) with a pork hock, cooked until the greens were tender.

The gumbo is worth a post on its own. Being roux-based, mine is Cajun. I made a roux from duck fat and flour, cooked for two hours until rich caramel-brown and fragrant. I scored the skins on four duck legs and pan-fried skin-side down until the fat was rendered out, then flipped them and roasted them in the oven until tender. Meanwhile, I removed the heads and shells from two pounds of spot prawns and got some stock started. When the duck legs were done, I pulled out the bones, cracked them up and tossed them into the pot of vermilion stock. The next day, I started the gumbo by sautéing the Holy Trinity until glossy, then adding bay leaves, the roux and the stock (stirring to dissolve the roux), a can of chopped tomatoes, lots of chopped garlic and thyme, cayenne and S&P. I tossed in the shredded duck meat and let the whole thing cook low and slow for a couple hours until the duck was nowt but tender, filamentous hunks. When we were all ready to eat, I added the prawns and okra to cook for five minutes. Technically, gumbo yaya doesn't have okra, but I like okra and wanted to enrich the dish with an egg. I poached the eggs in the hot gumbo broth until the whites were set. David (the mastermind behind BadAzz MoFo and writer/director of such cinematic classics as Black Santa's Revenge) was reluctant to try the gumbo - being unfamiliar with some Southern ingredients, he mistook the okra for jalapeños and was getting heartburn just looking at it. It didn't take much convincing to get him to taste it once the confusion had been cleared.

The pork chops (from our quarter hog) were slow-braised in chicken stock amended with crushed tomatoes, caramelized onions and ginger, with a few shots of Maggi sauce and a few spoonfuls of my homemade Berbere spice mix. They braised for about three hours until the meat was falling from the bone.

Awhile back I made the dish kelewele, a spicy fried plantain from Ghana. This time I adapted it to a sweet potato fry, and it definitely translated well. Chopped ginger and Berbere spice, salt and pepper and a massage in some oil, then into the oven until crisped on the edges. This afforded me time to bake some cornbread (baked in cast iron, greased in bacon fat). Tanya (my beautiful, pregnant Scandinavian princess from Madison, WI and the joyful wellness diva behind Recess and frequent diner at Casa de Voodoo and Sauce) had a southern grandpa and was eager to expose her spawn to some of his/her culinary roots. I was happy to oblige.

The dessert was a new creation, fudged on the fly. My friend Eric (a doughy Jewish kid from Maryland) told me about grits pudding he'd had once, and I wanted to figure out what that should taste like, and how to make it. I started by making basic grits, whisking stone-ground cornmeal into simmering cream (to which I'd added sugar and homemade bourbon vanilla). When it had set up moderately well, I added two whisked eggs (tempered to avoid an omelet) and spooned it into a buttered souffle dish. I baked this for awhile, covered, at 350, until the edges were set up and slightly browned. I spooned it into little serving dishes and topped it with sliced bananas (browned in a hot pan with butter and brown sugar, flambeed with bourbon), vanilla whipped cream and some crushed peanut praline. I guess it worked pretty well, but next time I'll add more eggs to and bake it in a shallower pan to get more of a spoonbread consistency.

I'm having a hard time concluding this post. I've been away awhile on a conference and a broken toe, and two days of cooking is exhausting. So I hope you enjoy this special food-based mixtape I made for you in lieu of a proper closer. It consists of R&B and jazz greats of the 1940s and 50s, and like with food, proves that pretty much everything good about America is because of black people.