Thursday, June 27, 2013

Foreign Road Trip

Last spring we went to Frankfurt for a conference.  Because no one likes to fly 9 hours to spend 2 days standing on your feet just to turn around and head back, we decided to take some time afterward to travel around the Western German and Eastern French countrysides with a brief detour in Luxembourg.  It is absolutely beautiful there and it is certainly not a destination I would have selected if not for the conference.  

To do our touring we rented what we hoped would be a station wagon.  Jim is 6’5” which makes VW Golfs, the rental car of choice in the EU, difficult for us.  Well... the joke was on us; instead of the standard Peugot or VW they gave us a Spanish minivan, because if nothing else says ‘American overseas’ besides white tube socks and golf shirts, it’s a minivan.  It’s like wearing a giant “kick me, I’m American” sign.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a finely designed minivan (which I opened up on the autobahn as much as you can with a minivan) but with just 2 people in it you do look like an asshole, or rather, two assholes, while everyone else is quietly idling away in their eco-friendly Mercedeses.

A lot has been said about German food and most of it is not kind.  It’s the same tired joke as those about British dental hygiene.  I truly enjoyed most everything I had there.  It does not hurt that their culinary culture tends to be pig-centric. The Germans love the pig morning, noon and night.  Especially in the morning. All the hotels we stayed in had expansive buffets featuring an impressive array of cured pig products, with some eggs, cheeses and white asparagus to lighten the menu.  Needless to say, I came back noticeably heavier than I went over and it took months to reverse my week long porcine bender. 

For our road trip, our lunch of choice was the ubiquitous salami sandwich.  They could be found in coffee shops, gas stations and cafes.  The salami sandwich they serve is austere (surprise!):  it is salami and bread, sometimes salami, bread and butter and, rarer, salami, cheese and bread.  That’s it. These seemed to me to make a sensible and durable road snack:  zero refrigeration needs, filling, inexpensive, tasty.  I found eating dry salami sandwiches in a Spanish minivan while watching the postcard worthy German countryside roll by incredibly charming.

I find myself longing for those salami sandwiches, but I can’t offer a recipe for just salami and bread.  And I doubt a dry salami sandwich would taste as good in Atlanta even if I headed for our garage and eaten in our own German station wagon.  Last week I had a large head of kale seriously considering wilting, so before it could fall over I whipped it in to a pesto.  The pesto can go with anything really, pasta, crackers or just served as a dip but it goes great with salami and cheese in sandwich form.

Kale Pesto - Makes 1 cup

1 large bunch kale
4-5 cloves garlic
2 ounces parmesan
1.5 tbs. oregano chopped
6 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper

Blanch the garlic and the kale in a pot of boiling water for 3 minutes.  Run under cool water and drain.  Roughly chop kale.  Place kale, garlic, cheese, oregano, 4 tbs. of oil, s&p in food processor and process, add the additional oil as needed.  

Salami Sandwich with Kale Pesto - Serves 1

1 small ciabatta roll (or 1/4 baguette)
5 slices hard salami
2 slices provolone
3 tbs. kale pesto

Note:  You can make these for a road trip and serve them at room temperature but it’s even better if you can toast the bread in the oven face down for a few minutes, then add the meat and cheese to one side and return to the broiler and bake until the cheese is bubbly.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Jim in the Kitchen

When I first moved in with Jim he had about 50 pots and pans.  If you include the lids I promise I am not exaggerating.  His angle was that he could cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner without ever washing a single pan as he went.  Can you imagine that horror show?  I can’t.  On a regular day Jim uses a spectacular number of dishes when he cooks, so it’s best to limit his options.

Now, the oddity here is that Jim is the master of ‘Bucket Food’.  This means he likes to make an entire meal that can be served from a single pot (or bucket if you’re expecting a crowd). But in spite of that simple dining concept somehow those 49 other pots, pans and lids have some other involvement in the meal.  And you absolutely cannot clean up behind the man.  He won’t stand for it.  “I’m still using that.  Did you clean that up? Why?   Why?  Baby, can you get out of the kitchen?”

So, what is bucket food?  It is not a derogatory term, it is shrimp etouffe, chili, stew, gumbo, jambalaya.  A lot of the recipes for Jim’s bucket food comes from something we refer to as “the meat skirt.”  This involves comments like “Have you looked in the meat skirt?”  “Did meat skirt make this?”  Meat skirt is a Paul Prudhomme cookbook from 1984.   If you have a copy of this cookbook, and everything in it is very good and fool-proof, you already know the author is wearing what appears to be a skirt made of sausage and chicken with crab accessories.  I pulled the book out to accurately document Paul’s accouterments for this blog entry and Jim walked by and excitedly asked “Oooooh are you making something from the meat skirt?”  So, I highly recommend the meat skirt; it elicits what can only be described as squeals of joy from my spouse.

I have managed to whittle down the pot collection, for which I receive a lot of teasing, because once every three years or so we “need” two mandolines. If we are missing some key cooking tool I am, of course, told that I forced him to give “insert cooking tool name here” away, as if I chucked his record collection, which I have not.

Jim has perfected what he refers to as “my world famous breakfast potatoes.”  I’m not sure where else they are famous but they are extremely popular in this house.  This recipe was born from an annual man camping trip. That’s 30 dudes in tents, drinking, fishing, drinking, doing manly manual labor, drinking, some of them shooting guns and cooking bucket food and an array of meats.  Jim came back determined to perfect his take on this staple of the trip’s annual menu.  His are really good, lots of caramelization.  But the problem we had was he couldn’t cook enough of them to satisfy our appetites for them.  Pan over crowding is the death of a crispy hash brown.  So, this year for Christmas the kids decided to get him a special new breakfast potato pan.  I believe it was a similar sentiment to when they got me an ice cream maker for my birthday.  Helping him restock his pilfered arsenal we got him a 14” diameter cast iron pan.  It is a behemoth, it takes two hands to lift and it’s so large we cannot store it in a regular kitchen cabinet.  But it gives Jim great joy and now he can make enough potatoes to satisfy us all.

Jim’s World Famous Breakfast Potatoes - Serves 4

4 tbs. unsalted butter
2 tbs. olive oil
4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes
1 yellow onion
Salt and pepper
A few dashes of cayenne

Slice the onions and potatoes thinly (about 1/8”), on a mandoline, if you have one.  Heat 1/2 of the butter and the oil in a cast iron skillet.  Saute the onions over a medium heat for about 10 minutes until they start to brown.  Add in the potatoes, salt, pepper, and cayenne and stir occasionally.  You are trying to get them copper brown and even a little burny, so you don‘t have to stir them often, about every 5 minutes.  About 1/2 way through you will need to add the additional butter.  Continue until the potatoes are al dente but with a good char, about 20-30 minutes longer.

Note: The key to this dish isn’t so much a special secret ingredient but time, patience, temperature and a very large pan.  I also very much enjoy mine with sriracha and a poached egg on top.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Snake Baby

There is an unwritten rule, drinks are not served at baby showers; unless you happen to be my group of friends.   No offense to the genre of party that is a shower, but it is called a shower and not a party.  Showers are duty, not recreation, hence the lack of social lubricant. Not that I’m bitter about it but potato salad, finger sandwiches, iced tea and silly games do not a party make. When my friends started divvying up the dishes for an upcoming shower we were all co-hosting I was awarded the “signature cocktail.”  What the hell?  Not even just a few bottles of Vinho Verde; these ladies were going for a signature cocktail?  Bold move.  No arguments here, just confusion.

I’m not drink crafty.  I have about a dozen cocktails I can call up on command.  Many of them are as exotic and complicated as “gin and tonic” or “martini.”  Now that I had been assigned a dish, where to start?  Well, the oracle of all things entertaining,, had nothing that referenced “baby shower booze.”  I could even hear her admonishing me in the back of my head.  I pulled my ace in the hole and emailed a colleague from college who writes a very popular drink column, but she was busy with the publication of her first book.  I could have dared to have consulted the trusted resources of my aunt or step-mom but I could hear the responses:  “Why, I’ve never heard of such a thing” or  “Isn’t that different?.”  I was alone in the world for this one.  Obviously, I could have punted with a bellini or a mimosa but, not to sound jaded; those have been done to death.  Luckily, a Chinese Lunar New Year theme emerged.  Now, there was a structure to work within.

One day Jim and I were at the fancy liquor store.  By fancy, I mean it has things like shorties of St. Germain.  The average liquor store in the inner city of Atlanta does not give real estate to such frivolity.  A few dusty bottles of Campari and a White Star end cap is as poofy as it gets around these parts.  While cruising the wall of esoteric liquors I found a bottle of ginger flavored cognac.  Surely that fit bill.  After the initial taste test the bottle sat around untouched for weeks.  I was intimidated and rising to the challenge by ignoring it. 

Jim and I spent Christmas in New Orleans.  One day we were headed from a walk in Audubon Park (which included a James Carville jogging sighting!) to a show in Treme.  As kismet would have it, we had some time to kill so we stopped in to The Hotel Modern for a drink.  I saw the ginger liqueur on the bottle display.  The bartendress was holding court:  she was a little bawdy, very outspoken and she had a captive audience listening to her tales, one of which, included James Carville.  I explained my predicament to the her and she very generously and patiently helped me with my drink for the baby shower.  

I didn’t catch her name but she deserves credit.  I had to adjust the proportions for a large format but this is essentially what she gave me.  If you are making just one, the proportions of sugar and soda are increased; no clue why.  The baby shower punch bowl was certainly more exotic.  

Snake Baby Punch - Makes many

1 Bottle Domaine Canton Ginger liqueur
3/4 cup simple syrup
2 cups lime juice
1.25 cups soda water
Cilantro springs - for garnish

Combine the ginger liqueur, simple syrup and lime juice, just prior to serving top with soda water and garnish with cilantro and lime slices.

Note:  I have not tried this but I suspect infusing the cilantro into the simple syrup would elevate the drink.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Perfect Day

Most colleges have that guy, you know, the guy living the Matthew McConauhey cliche, having graduated or dropped out years before but still hanging out at the college.  At my school that man was named Matt the Hippie.   You can guess what he looked like from the moniker alone.  I suppose he needed the 'the hippie' by-line to distinguish himself from all the other Matts. Or maybe, and more likely, it was applied because unlike all the other college campuses in the early 90s Bennington, thankfully, did not have a large roving pack of nouveau hippies. By my junior year only the senior class had actually attended school with him and he was older than them.  However, Matt continued each fall to make friends with the incoming freshman and transfers.  He even had a girlfriend at the school. 

However, differing from the cliche, Matt was not predatory.  Everyone knew Matt and everyone liked him.  He made his rounds with all the cliques on campus. He had a toe in every door.  Even the elitist L.A. clique tolerated him.  

One summer I was living in an apartment North Bennington with my boyfriend and two of our friends.  North Bennington isn’t a busy town normally and certainly much less so when school is not in session.  And that summer was New Orleans hot, hot for any town and scorching for a state with maybe three AC units.

I worked from 6AM - 11AM which left me free to spend the rest of my day pecking out angst ridden diatribes on my Underwood while everyone else worked normal hours.  One afternoon while I was cooling off by hanging out of the window looking out at not bustling Main Street Matt the Hippie came bounding up the stairs and in to our apartment (the front door did not lock, in fact, I don't think there was even a lock).  He was, no doubt, looking for Luke, or Jean Paul, or Andy but more than likely, not me.  He was smiling as usual.  Realizing I was the only one there he declared his purpose.  “Hey, I just found this crazy blackberry bush.’ And he produced a quart of blackberries, ‘Do you want to go to the Tastee Freez and put these berries on our ice cream?’  I had never had more than pleasant but meaningless chats with Matt before and us hanging out together seemed unnatural and bizarre but he had a great idea and I had nothing better to do.  So we hopped in his (surprise) VW bus and headed to the Tastee Freez.  The Tastee Freez is (or was) basically a shack that is only open during the summer; it serves frozen custard that they curl up to ridiculous and delightful heights.  Matt and I sat there on a picnic bench across from each other with the blackberries in between us.  We threw them  on our giant mounds of ice cream as quickly as we ate them.  I remember feeling slightly envious, I would have liked to have found that blackberry bush and picked those berries.  We had a surprisingly lively conversation and after our ice cream feast Matt suggested we drive go-carts.  I had no idea Bennington even had a go-cart track.  We went for two go arounds at the track and laughed the entire time.  It was a perfect day.  Matt and I were not going to grab a beer after this adventure nor were we going to be fast friends or even attempt to have such another outing again, it was an anomaly, but it was a perfect one.

When I got home I told my roommates ‘The oddest thing happened today.’  Matt left Bennington after that summer.  I guess he realized he had reached his expiration date.  And while I never had a real friendship with Matt I cannot look at a blackberry and not remember that day.  

The weather here has been kooky and the plants seem to be about a month behind, so Jim and I were surprised to find that what we thought was an invasive thorny rose bush we have been trying to kill was actually a blackberry bush.  I had to convince Jim to quit his methods of murder since it is a food provider.  And so I have been slowly foraging and collecting over the past week. 

Blackberry Thai-Basil Muffins (Makes 16 muffins)

2 2/3rd cups AP flour
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. salt

1 egg
1 cup milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla
4 tbs. unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp. lemon zest

2 cups blackberries
1/2 cup Thai basil cut in to a chiffonade 

Preheat the oven to 400.  Combine the dry ingredients together, storing with a fork.  Combine the wet ingredients together.  Add the dry into the wet, folding in with a spatula.  I add the dry ingredients in in 3 batches.  Once incorporated add in the basil and berries, give a quick stir to incorporate them.  Line a muffin pan with muffin liners (or grease the muffin pan).  Using a 1/4 cup scoop, scoop the batter in to the muffin pan.  Place the muffin pan on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in to the muffins comes out clean.  Let cool.