Think Outside the Shell


risottoEscargots + Risotto = Escargotto (cute, eh?!)

I have nothing against eating escargots out of their adorable little shells or from one of those almost as adorable little ceramic dishes made for that sole purpose, but it’s easy to forget there are other ways to enjoy them that don’t require what our practical pal Alton Brown calls a monotasker, a kitchen item that has only one function and just takes up storage space.

Recently I was in the mood to make risotto, and when I reached into the pantry for the arborio rice, I spied a can of escargots just waiting to be noticed. And I thought, “Why not?”

Note: If you contend that you’d never eat a snail but you have no problem chowing down on scallops, clams, oysters and calamari, just keep in mind that all of these critters are mollusks. Snails are essentially earthbound seafood. Fancy that!

I call this dish of risotto with snails “Escargotto,” and essentially you can make it by using a basic risotto recipe and stirring in rinsed canned snails at the end. They’re precooked, so they’ll only need heating up. I also stirred in a quarter of a head of roughly chopped radicchio and a teaspoon of lemon zest and garnished the dish with julienned French breakfast radishes. They add a nice crunch without the heat.

risottoingredsThis is what I used for making Escargotto, because it’s what I like. But no law says this is the only way.

I’d like to encourage home cooks to move away from slavishly following recipes to the letter (unless you’re baking—then you must be meticulous, since you’re dealing with chemistry and proportions). If you like shallots, sauté a handful in a combination of butter and olive oil before adding the rice. If you don’t want to use butter, replace it with the same amount of olive oil. (On the other hand, if you opt to use all butter and no olive oil, take care that the butter doesn’t burn.)

The more you make a dish, the more you’ll discover your own tricks and preferences. If your showcase ingredient is mildly flavored—like snails—use a broth that won’t overpower it. I made a quick leek broth for this one, which added a velvety mouth feel and a delicate, complementary flavor.

It’s about balance and making something you like to eat. The more you do this, the better you’ll get at it and the tastier your results.

That’s thinking outside the shell, and it’s delicious.


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Givings & Misgivings

 gourmetdonationDo I dare donate these foods to the hungry?


One lazy Saturday morning recently a Boy Scout rings the doorbell. He and his troop mates are canvassing the neighborhood collecting canned goods for a feed-the-homeless drive. He’s polite and well spoken, and I’m happy to open my kitchen cabinet for the cause. But as I turn from the door to get something to contribute, I realize I have nothing to offer.

Not that the cupboard is bare. On the contrary, our kitchen bulges with enough comestibles to see us through any catastrophe that might render food scarce. But the only canned goods I have are coconut milk, artichoke hearts and snails. In fact, I have multiple cans of each.

“This is ridiculous,” I grumble as I peer into the depths of my pantry. How many cans of snails does one household need?

“Does it have to be canned?” I yell toward the open door.

“No, ma’am, it just has to be nonperishable.”

That doesn’t help much as I poke in frustration at two tiny jars of salt-packed capers, a tin of anchovies and a regiment of home-canned relishes and preserves. And condiments from Armenian and Indian markets, the seals of which I have yet to break. And the bottles of Tabasco sauce I hoarded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina when I feared that McIlhenny’s would be either washed or blown away, an embarrassingly shallow disaster response to admit.

I rummage on, looking for a suitable contribution as my Boy Scout waits patiently on the front porch, softly crinkling the stack of Trader Joe’s grocery bags dangling from his wrist.

Why did he have to call me ma’am? I’d expect that back home in Tennessee, but here in Southern California, the Land of Youth-and-Image-Are-Everything, no one wants to be addressed as a ma’am or a sir outside the military. Suddenly I feel ancient, not to mention Odd-with-a-capital-O.

But this is my living as well as my eating. After enduring the boot camp that is culinary school, I’m more dedicated to exploring world cuisines than most, and the peculiarities of my cabinets and refrigerator reflect this.

Now I’m completely flummoxed by what to most households would be a simple request. The fact is, my pantry is filled with ingredients. Himself and I buy ready-to-eat canned goods for one reason only—to stock our emergency earthquake stash, an ample reserve of food in a huge plastic bin in the garage that I forget we have until long after my Boy Scout has moved on.

Glancing up at his silhouette in the security door, backlit by the morning sun, I note that his uniform is neatly pressed and that he wears it with obvious pride. I don’t remember Boy Scouts being quite so tall. I hope he isn’t just some college student with a clever way of augmenting his diet of ramen, beer and smokes.

I glimpse back into the cabinet and note at least two-dozen packages of assorted grains and dried beans. But how many homeless people are equipped to soak beans overnight and then cook them for a few hours? The nuts and dried fruits are all partially used, as is the honey. The molasses. The Nutella. I can’t give away used food. That would be as inexcusable as gifting someone the avocados from our backyard that have squirrel bites in them.

Finally I spot a can of haricot verts, green beans from France that I bought during a recent trip to an import wholesaler during one of its periodic open houses. There’s nothing complicated about preparing them, so who cares if the writing on the label is all in French? It’s obvious from the photo that there are green beans inside. It even has a pull-tab top, so it’s easy to open.

I snatch it from the pantry and rush to the door.

“Here you go!” I chirp a little too gleefully as I drop the lone can into the waiting grocery bag. It lands with a light crink of crisp brown paper.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he says and quickly glances away. Is he trying to hide his disappointment? No doubt he’s thinking that was a long time to wait for one measly can of beans.

I return to the kitchen feeling defeated and take another peek into the pantry. Still, no good candidates for the donation bag leap out at me. Then I consider one of those cans of snails. I bought it at the same import market where I got the green beans. As with the beans, all the writing on the label is in French. However, there are no pictures of the curlicued little garden dwellers in their natural state. Instead, the photo wisely shows the finished product on the plate, swimming in butter, garlic and parsley. Even without those classic ingredients the snails are cooked and ready to eat right out of the can. And they’re tasty little morsels of protein.

I rush out onto the porch and glance down the street. My Boy Scout is on his way up the drive a couple of houses down.

“Excuse me!” I call, waving the snails. “I found another can.”

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Measure For Measure

Know what makes me crazy?

A lot of things do actually, but close to the top of the list is a recipe that reads, “Take the juice of one lemon…”

lemonsCan you imagine the difference in flavor between a salad dressing made with the lemon on the far left and the same salad dressing made with the one on the far right? My tonsils are seizing up as I type these words. Ouch, that hurts!

Usually the difference in the size of lemons isn’t quite this extreme, but even a portion of an ounce can make a huge difference in the outcome of what you’re cooking.

This is especially true when it comes to baking, whether the ingredient in question is acid, salt (is that kosher or table salt?) or eggs. Some recipe writers don’t bother to specify egg size. This might not seem like a huge deal, but consider:

a dozen jumbo eggs weigh 30 ounces

a dozen extra-large eggs weigh 27 ounces

a dozen large eggs weigh 24 ounces

a dozen medium eggs weigh 21 ounces

a dozen small eggs weigh 18 ounces

That’s a 3/4-pound difference in weight between the largest and smallest eggs! Use the wrong size when you’re baking a cake, or neglect to account for the difference, and your results could be less than dazzling. Flavor, richness, texture and volume are all at stake. It would be like not having a handle on how much flour, fat or sugar you’re putting into your batter.

This is one reason why I study a recipe carefully before deciding to use it, sort of like sizing someone up before agreeing to go out on a date.

I like to ask:

Are you a worthy recipe or will I be wasting my time, money and effort on you?

Will I be happy I selected you or will I be filled with regret?

Will I want to fall face down on you or will I wish you’d never caught my eye in the first place?

Maybe selecting recipes and sizing up potential dates don’t make the best analogy, but I’m sure you get my drift.

It’s easy for a pretty picture accompanying a recipe to catch my eye, but what really matters are how clearly the recipe is written and how precisely the ingredients are presented. Weight and volume are always going to be more accurate, unless every unit of a particular ingredient is of precisely the same size and quality.

Otherwise the picture of the dish may end up tasting better than the dish itself (kind of like on those dating websites).

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Mr. Cabbage Buys a First-Class Ticket to Decadenceville

Last week’s blog entry on cabbage drew interest from people who wanted to know how to give it the bacon and maple treatment. Here’s the recipe I devised…

baconymaplecabbageBacon Maple Cabbage

Makes 8 servings

The Internet has loads of variations on this idea. This is how I do it:

1 head of cabbage, whatever type you have on hand or like best

¼ cup melted bacon drippings, or as needed

¼ cup real maple syrup, more if you like

1 tsp. cider vinegar

sea salt, to taste

red pepper flakes, to taste, optional


Preheat oven to 400°F.

Using a pastry brush (or your fingers), coat a 9” x 13” baking dish with bacon drippings.

Discard outer, messy layers and give the cabbage head a good rinse. Cut in half from root to top, then into quarters, root to top, and then trim out the core. Then halve the quarters longways so that you have eight wedges.

Arrange cabbage wedges in prepared baking dish. Brush cabbage with bacon drippings, drizzle with maple syrup and sprinkle with cider vinegar, sea salt and red pepper flakes to taste, if you like a little heat. (If the cabbage head is extra large you may want to cut it into 12 wedges and bake it in two layers. If that’s the case, arrange the first layer of cabbage, add half of the drippings, syrup, vinegar, salt and pepper flakes; then lay down the second layer and repeat.)

Tip: It’s difficult to sprinkle such a small amount of vinegar, so to make it easier I first put a teaspoon of it into a quarter cup measure, then fill the measure with maple syrup and give it a little stir with the tip of a knife. Then when I’m drizzling the syrup, the vinegar is being distributed too.

Cover with aluminum foil and bake for about an hour, or until the thickest parts of the cabbage are melty soft, which you can determine by poking them with the tip of a knife. When you’re going for decadent vegetables it seems silly to cook them only until they’re still crispy, so let them have the full heat treatment.

Enjoy hot, room temperature or cold. It’s even better the next day or two. I think room temp is best and suggest removing the cabbage from the fridge and letting it sit on the counter top for a couple of hours. When food is too hot or too cold you don’t get the full flavor.

Note: When you have just a few ingredients, be sure they’re best quality. For those of you living in the South, there’s no problem finding good bacon for your drippings. For everyone else, try to find bacon that is smoked, not just smoke flavored. And be sure the maple syrup is real, not maple-flavored corn syrup.

And there we go! Let me know how yours turns out.


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Cabbage Gets a Spring Makeover

veggiebin“Arrright, Cabbage! Your days in this bin are numbered!”
“Nooo, Mr. Carrot. Listen to me, Mr. Celery, just ’cause I ain’t a member of the Mirepoix Gang don’t mean I ain’t got no place here!”

(Yeah, I know. I really should get out more.)

Anyway, I didn’t start out loving cabbage. When I was growing up I had a grand aunt who adored cooked cabbage and crowed over it excessively. What she loved of course would be cabbage prepared in our native Southern way of boiling it to freakin’ death.

It looked disgusting. It tasted vile. And the squidgy texture was right out of a Halloween scary house where you wander around blindfolded and let them put your hands into bowls of icky stuff as they tell you what dissected body parts you’re handling.

I had no problem with slaw, so I got plenty of “good cabbage” when I was a kid. But when it came to the cooked stuff, I had to put my tiny foot down.

Even when, as an adult, I decided I liked cooked cabbage okay, I was still a little squeamish about it. Sometimes it was good, but at others, I’d have flashbacks to the bad old days and wonder if I needed some sort of trauma therapy.

Lately even the raw stuff is haunting me and my fridge. Our bi-weekly CSA boxes this winter have delivered to us way too many heads of cabbage—huge ones, I might add. It’s gotten to the point where no one wants to see me show up for a potluck because they know I’ll come bearing yet another cabbage salad.

cabbageNext time I might go for a little more char…

So while roasting other vegetables this morning I decided to try roasting some cabbage too. I cut it into inch-thick slices, brushed it with olive oil and sprinkled on a little sea salt. When it came out of the oven, I used the same bowl and brush to pour out a little orange-muscat vinaigrette, and I brushed the roasted slices with that and then sprinkled a little black pepper over top. And mercy me, I hit upon a great way both to enjoy the bounty of cabbage and to empty out my overcrowded vegetable bins. It was delicious hot. And chilled. And room temp, my personal fav.

Roasted cabbage is incredibly versatile. You can put anything on it that strikes your fancy. Next time I’ll brush on some bacon drippings and follow that with a drizzle of maple syrup (the real stuff, not brown-colored corn syrup with maple-ish flavoring). I’m betting it will be even better.

No siree, I don’t think I’m going to be plagued by a surplus of cabbage anymore.

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