Using Up the Bits

Sometimes you can use the carved away bits to make something wonderful—bones produce hearty broth, the foundation of good soups, stews and sauces. Watermelon rinds make the most delectable pickles. Salmon skin trimmed away from the filet and baked or fried makes a good sushi wrap and adds flavor and crunch as a garnish. Personally I’m not a salmon skin fan, but I can hear some of you out there squealing “Moooore for meeee!” and that’s just fine. I’m glad to share, if you’ll let me have the pickle that’s languishing on the edge of your plate.

Ta-dah! Paula Wolfert’s Deconstructed Hummus

Here’s a new trick. You know those slippery little jackets worn by garbanzo beans? I’d never thought to remove them, but doing so gives those hazlenut-like beans a much creamier texture. I thank Paula Wolfert for starting me down this path.

Unforgettable, her combo autobiography and collection of beloved recipes, gifts us with what is to my mind—and tastebuds—the best hummus ever. Her Deconstructed Hummus is visually appealing, texturally interesting and mighty tasty. In fact, it’s likely I’ll never make any other hummus. I long ago wearied of the sameness of every bite of standard hummus, even good hummus. Frankly, all that dredge-crunch-swallow-dredge-crunch-swallow of dense puréed bean matter grew leaden and uninteresting.

Aside from the garbanzo beans resting beneath an airy, silky purée of all the other ingredients, Paula introduces the nifty little trick of liberating the beans from their outer “skins.” The result is a hummus that rises from the snack category into the entrée zone.

Recently my friends Jenn and Trace pitched in to help make some Deconstructed Hummus, slipping the skins off each garbanzo. A nice little group activity—“many hands make light work” as the saying goes. They rounded up a good two cups of skins from the double batch I was making and asked, “What do you want to do with these?” I hadn’t thought about it before, but it seemed a shame to throw them out, especially considering that each one had to be individually removed. Why not figure out how to use them?

So I experimented, toasting some in the oven. The rest I lightly fried on stove top in a swirl of olive oil. We agreed we preferred the dry, toasted ones. The fried skins absorbed too much oil and were soggy and dull.

Garbanzo “skins” toast up quickly and make a nice, crunchy garnish for anything that needs it.

As for flavor, there’s no great revelation here. Garbanzo skins taste just like the beans themselves (unless you let them get a bit scorchy like I did the ones in the above photo). If you want to add salt or other flavorings, to get them to adhere you’d have to introduce a fat of some kind, which would soften the skins. You wouldn’t want to munch on them like you do popcorn, but they’re good for adding crunch and provide a foil to softer, creamier textures.

Even if you prefer your hummus puréed, try removing the garbanzo skins first, then toast them and garnish the hummus with them. It takes less time than toasting nuts, chopping parsley or prepping any other prospective garnish. And you’ll get at least a minor kick out of knowing you’re getting a little more protein and throwing out a little less food. Let’s hear it for a hungry compost bin!

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Surviving a Kitchen Remodel

Good-bye ugly drop ceiling, gross linoleum, chipped tile countertop, and beat up old cabinet doors…

I just found this blog post in the draft file. I began it a couple of years ago and am not sure how it slipped through the cracks, but better tardy than not at all, as they (sort of) say. This is the kitchen is in our house in Los Angeles, and while we love living in Seattle now, we sure do miss this kitchen!

I’ve never had plastic surgery, but I can imagine it would be a lot like undergoing a major kitchen overhaul: expensive, time consuming, inconvenient, painful, disruptive not only for you but for everyone in your household, and not a 100% given—you won’t know for certain that you’re going to like the outcome until you’ve gone through the entire process. All your friends and loved ones will be cautiously optimistic but fully expecting a freakout phone call (or perhaps a dozen) from you at any moment.

It took a lot of patience, creativity and humor to get through the six weeks of having our gnarly old kitchen demo’d and a new one built. Strangers making lots of noise in our personal living space, construction dust covering everything, and nothing in its usual place all conspired to make us tense and desperate at times. And we were paying these guys to do this to us! Our poor cats were certain that the end of the world was nigh. We began to believe it too.

The contractor’s men were the cheerful early risers and arrivers who grew accustomed to the sight of Himself and me staggering around their periphery in our pajamas, pouring bowls of cereal each morning and pondering the merits of drinking the cold coffee leftover from the previous day’s breakfast.

Cooking in the midst of the kitchen rebuild: roasting CSA veggies for the next few days’ meals.

I’d put a hold on our CSA deliveries for a few weeks, but one evening after the workers had cleared out, a CSA box showed up on our porch. I began racing around the kitchen, making hay while the moon was shining, looking for everything I needed to prep and roast all the vegetables I could. I fired up the rice cooker and made a batch of red quinoa. I sauteed tiny mushrooms to use in future dishes. I boiled eggs to make egg salad, garnish other salads, and be at the ready for snacking. This batch of pre-cooked food would carry us through quite a few meals that I could assemble quickly and easily.

During this adventure in homeownership I learned a few coping mechanisms that I’ll share with you, in case you ever decide to undertake a kitchen remodel:

1. Before the actual work starts, make a plan and give serious thought to what you’ll want while your kitchen is mostly out of commission. Pull a few of everything you think you’ll need for the duration—dishes, including smaller ones for sandwiches, bowls, mugs, glasses, eating and cooking utensils. Don’t wait and do this at the last minute, or you’ll forget something you really need (voice of experience!).

2. Store all of those things in the dishwasher. Each evening we’d handwash whatever we’d used and put it all back into the dishwasher and click the door shut. Even after the demolition was done, there was still an awful lot of white dust coating everything. We could be sure of having clean things to cook with and eat off of by sealing them up in the dishwasher.

3. Before the work begins cook everything you possibly can and stash it in the fridge, freezer and pantry (or whatever acts as your makeshift pantry during construction) so you have some decent meals during those first few days. Eating out is expensive and after awhile not much fun, and relying on store bought frozen dinners is just plain sad.

4. Make a few concessions. I think nothing of making my own stocks and prepping fresh vegetables. But it’s okay to buy frozen veggies—nutritionally they’re the equivalent of fresh—and pick up a few cans or boxes of broth. Remember, this is just a temporary thing. And when you’re at last commandeering your shiny new kitchen, making that first batch of your favorite dish is going to be such a pleasure!

That lovely new expanse of quartz countertop gave Himself,
the resident alchemist, loads of space for developing cocktails…


…and it gave me lots of room for giving cooking lessons. During our Crepe Party, Bob and I made
enough crepes to feed an army! (And for the record, Himself and Grace played games.)

5. Learn to rely on your small appliances. Put the rice cooker where you can reach it, and see how much you can do with a countertop toaster oven. Ours has a convection oven setting and was wonderfully helpful. I’ve never liked toasters that do nothing but make toast, just for this very reason. You can’t toast nuts or make nachos or melt the cheese over a sandwich in a plain ol’ toaster!

6. If you have a camp stove and a stash of cooking gear for camping/earthquake survival, do a little cooking outside and make an adventure of it. Some of our most memorable meals have been in our backyard. Yes, I said “memorable” and not “best.” That’s okay. Those produced some fond memories all the same.

7. When you absolutely have to go out for a meal, invite sympathetic friends to join you. The operative word here is “sympathetic.” You need supportive souls who can help you keep your eyes focused on the horizon and on how great it’s going to be when the last stroke of paint has dried, the last cabinet door has been hung, and the last item of cookware and decoration has been put into place.

I realize this involves positive thinking and perhaps more cheerfulness than you feel you can muster when every day begins with workers in your personal space. I kept asking them to please put the lid down on the toilet. They kept forgetting, until the day I heard a “sploosh!” and had to fish our cat, Athena, out of it. I carried her into the kitchen where they were all on ladders, putting the finishing touches on the ceiling.

With as much humor as I could muster, I held up our drippy little gal and said, “Guys, this is why I ask you to put the lid down on the toilet.”

“Oh, Atheeeeeeena!” sang the Master of the Smooth Ceiling who had a sweet little love affair going on with this cat.

The two Painter Dudes joined in in unison, “Oh, Atheeeeeeena!”

We all had a good laugh, and I toweled her off as best as I could before she scurried out of the kitchen and under the bed.

Athena regains her composure after taking a dip…

I’ll never forget the sight of my mother in her bathrobe, shimmying out of the bedroom window on a 2 x 6-inch plank, her work clothes tucked under her arm. I was 10 years old, and we were in the middle of a major expansion and reworking of our house—and we lived in it while all that work was going on. That particular day the hardwood flooring in the hallway had just been refinished, and we couldn’t walk on it, so we were all climbing in and out of windows as we readied ourselves for school and work.

I often thought about that memory while our kitchen remodel was underway. If my family could endure a whole-house overhaul, I knew Himself and I could certainly survive getting a single room reworked. And we did!

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The Weirdness of Losing Your Sense of Taste

In early spring I was laid low with bronchitis, accompanied by about three weeks of being able to neither taste nor smell. This has happened to me once before, a few years ago when I had a really aggressive cold. I spent the better part of two months experiencing food only through texture and color. It was actually the worst part of being sick. And it was unsettling too. I wondered what I’d do if those senses never returned.

When you’ve spent your entire life taking for granted that you can eat food and enjoy it—or even NOT enjoy it—it’s a bizarre sensation when those senses take a hike and leave you gauging your food only by the senses of sight and touch. The only positive during those few weeks was saving money eating things like the sub-par pizza that I’d never eat any other time, since I couldn’t taste it anyway. I was eating solely for fuel. Aesthetics be damned! Himself didn’t enjoy this time, either. There’s only so much you can do to make a dish taste appealing when you can’t season it with your usual finesse. (Sorry, Darlin’!)

My taste began to return—gradually. I’d take a bite of food and taste the salt, the sweet, the sour but not the food itself. A bite of beef stew offered up the grain of the meat, the velvety quality of the stew as I make it, the saltiness, and the pepper. But of the “beefness” there was none.

It made me think about the personality of individual foods. What makes an olive an olive, especially considering what’s required to make it both edible and desirable? Why does cheese make a better dessert (in my opinion) than something sweet? Why are artificial flavors so vexing? Tasting an artificially flavored food is a little like seeing someone you love in the crowd, only it’s not really that person. And in fact it’s someone you see littering or breaking in line. Your loved one would never do that! Why is this cherry soda merely “red tasting” and nothing like any type of cherry you’ve ever had? Blehhhh!

Deprived of your sense of taste you feel sorry for yourself, but you can’t whine too loudly about it without sounding like an A#1 First Class Crybaby. After all, it’s probably a temporary condition. For those who’ve lost their sight or hearing, it’s usually a permanent state and much more limiting and life altering.

But temporarily losing your sense of taste helps you gain a newfound appreciation for it. The raspberries in this photo were sweeter and more delightful than I’ve ever known raspberries to be. And a choice bite of epoisses? and roquefort? I went on quite a cheese eating jag in celebration of the return of my sense of taste. And if I ever lose it again, a half dozen choice cheeses will help me celebrate its return!

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A Playlist for “Churnin'”

I’m just back from this year’s conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals with a fistful of business cards, loads of notes scribbled during myriad sessions and panels, and the memories of some fine conversations and really good food (thanks, Louisville!). One other thing I returned with that was a profound honor and totally unexpected—the award for Best Food Writing, Personal Essays/Memoir, for “Churnin’.”

At the awards with IACP President Glenn Mack, showing off in our gladrags, champagne in hand… (photo by Timothy P. Valentino)

As I reached the stage to collect my certificate and a kiss on the cheek from hosts Top Chef Carla Hall and Washington Post Food and Dining Editor Joe Yonan, I realized that the microphone was right there in front of me, awaiting whatever I had to say—and that this was something I forgot prepare for. YIKES!

I managed okay, giving a shout-out to the writers of all those naughty blues songs about food that aren’t really about food. Those songs had inspired me to write the winning essay, some with chuckleworthy titles like “Your Biscuits Are Big Enough For Me” and “My Stove’s In Good Condition.” Some made it into the essay, while others provided sublime background music as I wrote.

I’d like to share my *Dirty Dozen with you, all quirky examples of yet another way–and a truly imaginative one—in which to use food.


*This playlist is on Spotify, but if you don’t have an account, you should be able to find these songs elsewhere on the internet with a little searching:

“Keep On Churnin’ Til the Butter Comes,” by Wynonie Harris

“I Need a Little Sugar In My Bowl,” by Bessie Smith

“All That Meat and No Potatoes,” by Fats Waller

“My Stove’s In Good Condition,” by Lil Johnson

“It Must Be Jelly ‘Cos You Know Jam Don’t Shake, by Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon

“Your Biscuits Are Big Enough For Me,” by Bo Carter

“I Like My Baby’s Pudding,” by Wynonie Harris

“Lean Meat Won’t Fry,” by Memphis Minnie

“Lollypop,” by Hunter & Jenkins

“Sam the Hot Dog Man,” by Lil Johnson

“Banana In Your Fruit Basket,” by Bo Carter

“Coffee Grindin’ Blues,” by Lucille Bogan

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Oysters OFF the Half Shell

po’ boy!

After stuffing myself with an array of raw oysters recently, I decided to turn my attention to their cooking possibilities. But what should I make with them, I wondered. Rockefeller? Bienville? Hangtown fry? A stew or chowder?

Our lovely friend Reg grew up here in Seattle, and she said that when she was a child, one of her favorite meals her mother fixed for her was bottled oysters she’d picked up at the seafood counter, dredged in egg and flour, fried and served with saltines. I loved the simplicity of Reg’s good memory and decided that, flush from the thrill of all those lovely raw oysters we’d enjoyed lately, I’d prepare some this way.

So I tried a simple fry, dredging bottled oysters in egg and a half-and-half combo of flour and cornmeal and frying them in a lightly oiled pan until they were golden, about the color(s) of our marmalade tabby, Cosmo.

Cosmo was kind enough to demonstrate the color to which breaded oysters should be fried.
(Photo courtesy of Traca Savadogo, a.k.a. The Cat Whisperer)

I stirred up a mixture of mayo with some spicy seasoning and slathered it onto split French rolls and piled on the fried oysters with lettuce and tomato and made po’ boys. The sandwiches were okay, but Himself and I concluded that what we tasted was bread, spread, oysters, lettuce and tomato—that is, we tasted the individual ingredients but not a blend of flavors. We might have been better satisfied if we’d dipped the fried oysters into the spicy mayo and skipped the bread and vegetation, because they were overpowered by all that competition.

Which seasoning should you use? Whichever one you like. These were what we had on hand. We settled on the Konriko, along with a dusting of cayenne, some dried thyme and a squeeze of lemon.

A few days later I decided to take another stab at cooking oysters and hit upon an amazing roasted oyster dish. If you decide to make this dish—and you should, because it’s fabulous!—note that the ingredient list doesn’t include the ingredients for the sauce. Be sure when you’re making up your grocery list to read all the way through and take note of those (Himself gallantly dashed out into the chilly Seattle evening to fetch some whipping cream for me.). And prepare the dish according to its basic components—prep the oysters, the spinach topping, the sauce and the cheese. Then it’s a snap to put the components together and bake the dish.

roasted oysters under a bed of bacon & spinach, topped with a creamy sauce

We enjoyed this dish with a mound of baguette slices to scoop up the sauce and soak up the juices. To accompany it we drank pinot gris, from which we’d removed a splash for making the sauce. The flavors meld beautifully in this dish, so this recipe is definitely a keeper.

The first time I recall eating oysters was many years ago at a Thanksgiving feast in New Orleans. The stuffing was filled with fried oysters, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them—there was so much else in the stuffing. And it was my first trip to New Orleans, so I was already overwhelmed and suffering from sensory overload. All these years later, I’m happy to report that I’ve learned a thing or two about how to handle oysters. Himself and I concur that we prefer our oysters raw. But it’s nice to know how to treat them when the heat is on!

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