Romanesco Romance

Right now there’s a deluge going on here in Southern California, something we should be happy about, seeing as we’re in the midst of a beastly drought that threatens to destroy crops and livelihoods. But rain like this is troubling because the ground can’t absorb it all at once, causing the roads to morph into fast moving rivers and the mountainsides to lose their grip and slide down onto whatever is below them, be it a neighborhood, a school or a business district.

While I love rain, this kind distracts me. So rather that focusing on the writing I need to do, I’ve been in the kitchen today, roasting every vegetable that will allow it. Lettuce doesn’t need it, so it’s safe for now. Even the radishes will eventually get their turn in the heat, thanks to my friend Molly’s brilliant idea for glazing them. (Okay, so she got the recipe from the cookbook of another amazing Molly.)

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But then there’s this head of romanesco cauliflower, with all those florets that look like the tops of a lot of the Buddhist temples I’ve seen in southeast Asia. (I’ve decided I don’t like the word “floret.” It sounds like something you put in your shoes to make them smell better. Ick.)

Confession time: The first time I got a romanesco in my CSA box I let it go bad.

This sounds stupid, but I was intimidated by its beauty and exoticism. So I let it sit until it was unfit for consumption. By the time I threw it out, it was clearly inedible but still pretty in a creepy Miss Havisham way, if Miss Havisham had been a cauliflower.

I resolved not to let that happen again. But another romanesco arrived a few days ago, and once again I have let it sit. I glance at it every time I open the fridge door, giving it a sidelong peek as I reach past it for the yogurt, as if it were the handsome guy in class who couldn’t possibly ever be interested in me, so why should I bother trying to make eye contact and speak?

So today as I prepped turnips, squash, garlic, beets, both red and golden, and potatoes, both sweet and not, slathering everything in olive oil and blessing it with flaked sea salt, I spied that lovely romanesco sitting on the top shelf of the fridge like a perfect wedding cake left in the detritus of a picnic. I pulled it out and cradled it in my hands for a couple of minutes. How could I take a knife to those lovely regiments of whatever we must agree to call them instead of florets?

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That’s when it hit me–I’d have to make my assault on the back side of this thing. So I took a knife and cut down the stem to halve and then quarter it long ways. Each quarter made a perfect serving size, and the peaks remained intact.

I dappled the quarters with olive oil, sprinkled them with sea salt and put them into the 450°F oven with all those other vegetables, which I poked and prodded every so often to determine when something was ready to come out. When they started to char just a bit (after about 15 minutes), I tented them with some aluminum foil to keep them from burning. When I could easily slip the knife tip into the thickest part of the stem (about another 15 minutes later), I knew they were done.

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Romanesco really doesn’t need anything else, although a light vinaigrette would be good on it. So would a dab of hollandaise. But while I’m here alone (Himself is off in the wilds of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula on a writing retreat), I may eat it all with just that touch of sea salt. With my fingers. Standing at the counter. And listening to the rain.

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In Praise of the Sides

http://blogs.houstonpress.com/eating/1917-12-01-The-Country-Gentleman-Norman-Rockwell-cover-Cousin-Reginald-Catches-the-Thanksgiving-Turkey-no-logo-400-Digimarc.jpg

“What do you MEAN, you don’t like turkey?! No wait….Never mind…”

I hate turkey.

There. I’ve said it. Does this make me a Thanksgiving Grinch?

When I was a kid my family only ate turkey on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we ate it at a relative’s house. I was never impressed with it. And since my mother never cooked it herself—meaning there were no leftovers to endure in the weeks following—I didn’t have the repetition of, well, turkey gobbling, to make a turkey lover out of me.

Each year I’d find myself dodging the bird-of-honor in favor of foods with more flavor and better texture. And GIVING THANKS that in the space of about a month’s time I’d be done with this wretched turkey business for another year.

“Here hon, have some white meat!” I’d flinch as a well-meaning relative would fork a whopping dry-as-dust shingle of turkey onto my plate, taking up precious real estate that I’d intended for country ham (yeah, ham!), dressing (hold the gravy), blackeyed peas, wondrous ambrosia and those ubiquitous brown-and-serve rolls. And a slice of can-shaped cranberry gel-stuff. If only I’d known that the dark meat had better texture and more flavor, perhaps I could have learned to like it a little.

As an adult I’ve made my peace with turnips and lima beans, but turkey still leaves me cold. So I’m always the one signing up for anything-but-turkey for holiday meals at church and at friends’ houses. If I’m bringing meat, it will be a beef roast or a ham, because I’m sure there are others who are similarly unimpressed by turkey. And those meats always disappear, so I think I’m right about this.

But usually I sign up for a side. I’m no traditionalist on this score either. Typically I’ll bring whatever I’ve just discovered in the pages of Saveur or my new favorite cookbook (last year it was Maria Speck’s fabulous Ancient Grains for Modern Meals). This year for church–and for tomorrow’s feast–the side of choice is one I cobbled together on my own, featuring swiss chard, roasted squash, red quinoa, Israeli couscous, toasted pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries tossed in a golden balsamic vinaigrette.

And not only do I bring a side, but I fill my plate with them. Vegetables. In season or not, I don’t care. Just bring on those veggies, baby! Salads. It’s amazing the sheer variety of ingredients and their combinations that can make a dazzling salad, either savory or sweet or both. Casseroles. Ditto. All so varied and wonderful. (Usually wonderful. Some people are so phobic about salt that they don’t use any. Not even that merest breath of salt required to balance flavors.)

Sometimes a side will suffice for dessert. At this year’s Thanksgiving dinner at church my dessert was my pal Chuck Taggart’s amazing Pork ‘n Pork ‘n Pork ‘n Beans. It was just that decadent. (Chuck, God bless you and your Aunt Faye with the recipe!) This dish represented servings #2, 3 and 4 of pork for me that day. Yes, I dodged the turkey and fell face-down on the ham straightaway.

It was a lush and satisfying meal, replete with the variety flavors, colors and textures that make me happy as a clam. (mmm, clams…) If this aversion to turkey makes me a Thanksgiving Grinch, I’m sure there are others of my kind out there. And to all of you I say,

“Happy Thanksgrinching!”

 

 

 

 

The Rockwell image comes from http://blogs.houstonpress.com, although I’m sure they pinched it from someone else, too.

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The Southern Parfait

 food writing book

First, an announcement, which really does lead into this blog entry, I promise!

This past year I dredged up memories of my favorite Southern cocktail, the Coke-and-peanuts combo that I enjoyed during my growing up years in Tennessee, and spun them into an essay that made it into Leite’s Culinaria, which is a big deal. Then to make a big deal even bigger, my essay was included in the 2013 edition of Best Food Writing, which just came out. You can click and read here, but by all means, please buy the whole book. It’s a fine anthology of the past year’s musings on cooking, eating and the culture of food. I’m honored to be included with such an outstanding collection of food writers.

When my contributor copy arrived, I reread my essay on the Southern penchant for pouring a handful of salty, Spanish roasted peanuts into bottled Coca-Cola before drinking it. And it reminded me of another Southern delicacy I grew up with, another food-and-beverage-mixed-in-the-same-container kind of thing. It’s one I learned to love during the golden days I spent with my grandmother.

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Grandmother and me, squinting into the summer sun

Velna was a lean, energetic woman who approached each day as if it were a chicken that had to be caught before supper could be cooked. As my mother accurately described her, she could accomplish more before breakfast than most people could in a day. The wife of a Depression-era sharecropper, she had to be hardworking and resourceful.

By the time I got to know her, those difficult years were past. She and my granddaddy had moved into town, and she stayed at home and watched her “stories on the Tv set” (accent on the “T”) while he left behind the plow and team of mules for co-ownership in a small grocery.

I loved staying with her while my mother worked at Granddaddy’s store. While those memories are a bit fuzzy, I recall that there was flower garden tending in the spring and summer and picking up pecans beneath the broad canopy of trees in the fall. And afternoon naps under homemade quilts of gingham, floral and paisley. I’d lie there when I was supposed to be sleeping and envision faces in the knotty pine walls of her bedroom. What I remember most clearly is the feeling that we were the absolute best of friends.

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buttermilk & cornbread: it still satisfies

For a mid-afternoon pick-me-up (who’d ever heard of a “snack?”), we observed our daily ritual: Grandmother would take the cornbread left over from dinner (outside the South they call this meal “lunch”), crumble it into a couple of tall iced-tea glasses and fill them with cold, cold buttermilk. We’d sit on the porch swing together and watch the world go by as we enjoyed this delicacy, using long-handled iced teaspoons to scoop out every tart, velvety, saturated crumb.

These days I may be the only person outside of the South who eats this combination, and if I am, that’s a pity. All you need is good cornbread and some buttermilk. Even the ubiquitous 2% buttermilk from the chain groceries will work just fine. It is sufficiently smooth, while containing an amount of fat more suitable to today’s tastes. But I humbly request that you make some Southern-style cornbread for this concoction. The thick, cakey, sweet cornbread of California and elsewhere is not what you want. Since no one bothered to write down recipes when I was growing up, it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I found a recipe that most clearly represents the cornbread of my youth.  (Thank you, America’s Test Kitchen!) It’s closest to what I remember from home.

Give it a try, and let me know what you think.

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It’s Howloween!

You want to see something really scary? I recently started writing a blog entry but then thought, “Hmm, I wonder if I could get this out there to a bigger audience.” So I did. Check it out!

“Little Cabinet of Horrors”

 

Thanks to Leite’s Culinaria for giving it a home.

Now, excuse me while I get back to picking out all my favorite bits from the candy I bought to dole out to the kiddies tonight!

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When You Just Can’t Bear to Throw It Away…

greenbeans

Happy munching just ahead…

Lately life has gotten way-out-of-hand busy. I won’t go into the particulars, but I did slow down long enough to consider a jar in the fridge door this afternoon. It had held green olives preserved in lemon olive oil. They were so good that once we’d polished off the last of them, I couldn’t bear to throw away the oil. So I kept it, waiting for the right thing to use it for. (By lemon olive oil, I mean olive oil that was so deeply imbued with lemon that you’d be hard pressed to call it anything else.)

And that thing happened today. This week’s CSA box had a small portion of green beans in it, enough for about two servings. While I blanched the beans on one stove eye, I heated the oil on the one next to it. I put as many of the beans into the olive jar as I could fit and then poured the heated lemon oil over them. When they cool I’ll stash them back in the fridge and let the oil get cozy with the beans. And they will be good, maybe not as good as those olives were, but I’m betting we’ll enjoy nibbling on them all the same.

I can’t claim too much credit for this. I recently read Tamar Adler‘s wonderful book An Everlasting Meal. She’s a master at using every little thing, producing good food in the process of wasting nothing. This is her basic idea, one of many I hope to steal, er, borrow from her amazing collection of food wisdom.

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