Food Musings: Memorial Day, New Friendships

Since the beginning of 2016, I’ve been working with my friend Ann, sending her a photo of food every week, so that she can write a poem about it that celebrates peace and send it off to her subscribers. I’ve decided to write a companion piece to the photos I send, musing about the way that food plays into our lives.

Standard party spread. Extraordinary party company.

Standard party spread. Extraordinary party company.

Last week, George and I were invited to a backyard party thrown by one of the regular attendees in a Zumba class I’ve started teaching. I knew that some of the other regulars from the class would be there, so I would have a cushion of people to talk to, but the only person George would know there was…me. Which can be daunting, both for the don’t-know-anyone partygoer and for the invitee. Should he stick by my side the entire time? Will the other kids play nice with him? Could I leave him to his own devices after a few minutes? Since I’m fairly confident that George is a likable kind of guy and that the people at the party weren’t going to hit him with sticks, we took a deep breath and went to a party full of new people.

It was wonderful.

These people, who I only knew in a limited capacity (sweaty, shaking their moneymakers in my Zumba class) until the party, were warm and welcoming and funny. It took George and I thirty seconds–maybe less–to feel settled. And the ritual was the same. There was the greeting, the acclimation to the surroundings, waving hello and party-wide, informal introductions, and the piling high of plates filled with familiar picnic food. We broke bread and got to know each other. We made our way through heaps of beans and macaroni and chips and dips and crudites and fruit salad, all straightforward and comforting, like the people at the party.

And I’ve seen the same layout in New Jersey, in Texas, in Boston. Maybe some of the regional specialties were different, but the overall gist is the same. And it’s good. It’s a way to connect, to build community, to take part in something that is greater than the sum of its parts. For that day, in those few gentle, funny, happy, warm hours, we were all connected in a way that made the world a slightly better place than if we had eaten the same food separately, in our own houses. And that is the point of our being social creatures, isn’t it? To be greater together than we are apart?

Read Ann’s original poem here!

Food Musings: Lunch with a Friend

Since the beginning of 2016, I’ve been working with my friend Ann, sending her a photo of food every week, so that she can write a poem about it that celebrates peace and send it off to her subscribers. I generally tell her what the photo is about and if, for some reason, it holds any sort of significance for me, but it’s still her poem and her thoughts that she expresses, rightly so. I’ve decided to write a companion piece to the photos I send, musing about the way that food plays into our lives.

lunch w stef-002

Recently, I went to lunch with a friend. It was an impulse date; we’re both busy (she’s a mom and owns her own business, I’m juggling four different jobs and trying to write in the middle of it) but I happened to call and ask her if she was free on the weekend I wasn’t visiting family and it was the one weekend in the entire month she had some time. Score!

For the record, we normally have to plan these things weeks in advance.

Our lunch was a funny affair, two hours long and filled with laughter that ranged from saucy giggles to full-on belly laughs. We told stories. We shared concerns. We shared nachos. It was indulgent, both in our menu choices (yes, please, I want the fries, she got a Bloody Mary and HOLY POCKETS I think my beer goblet was crafted from the skull of my enemy) and in our focus. For two hours, we had the privilege of leaving behind our roles as mother and business owner and instructor and writer, and we got to be, simply, friends. Communing over food, telling ridiculous stories, being each other’s sounding board, honest advice-giver, and confidante. It is the best kind of friendship; in the time we spend together, we can drop our pretenses and just BE.

Thank you, friend, for being there that Sunday. And thank you, friends, for being there at all. I’m not sure what I did to deserve the friends I have in my life, but I’m so, so glad you’re in it. Here’s to our lunches, past and present and future!

Visit Ann’s prayer!

Travel Theme: Sensory

This week, the travel theme at Where’s My Backpack? is: Sensory!

OK, look. There’s a part of me that wants to make crap jokes asking “are you ready to be stimulated?” *tee hee* but then I think, what am I, twelve? My struggle is real. Onward to maturity! Here’s to our senses, and please enjoy the ride.

Paris. There are small ponds in the park that surrounds the Eiffel Tower. If you lean over the railing and look straight down from one of the upper observation decks, you can see them for yourself. And it’s a little disconcerting. Note: if you have vertigo, perhaps you should avoid this exercise.

Watch that first step. It's a doozy.

Watch that first step. It’s a doozy.

There’s something profoundly invigorating about getting on a boat. At least there is for me. When I’m on the water and the smell of the salty air hits me, and boat’s engine roars to life and we are seaward bound, and the wind whips my hair around my face, I feel everything come alive. I think I was a sailor in a past life.

See you later, Boston.

See you later, Boston.

Welcome to the Day-Glo Garden at the Great Lakes Science Center. Fun fact: I totally want to build an inner sanctum that looks like this. With a killer stereo system and all the streamable TV I want. Because really, this is what things look like inside my brain most of the time. Hashtag when I am a millionaire.

The only thing this is missing is are tiny sparkly pixies.

The only thing this is missing are tiny sparkly pixies.

When in Rome

Go to the Jewish ghetto, find a nice place to eat with sunny, pleasant outdoor seating and, if the fried artichokes are in season, eat them. When you go inside to use the restroom, prepare yourself for the smell of garlic wafting down from the rows and rows of corded bulbs hanging from the ceiling.

 

I had no idea what I was walking into.

And nary a vampire to be found. Savvy.

Behold! Music is just moments away with this handy-dandy travelling turntable and a trusty guitar. Photo taken at an Ellis Paul concert. Who I need to go see again, soon, but I digress.

Looks like the party's about to start.

Looks like someone has the party well in hand.

And finally.

My place. Black bean burgers with cilantro pesto on a bed of shredded sweet potatoes. It was delicious. My mouth is watering at this photo: Paging Dr. Pavlov!

I like vegetables. That is all.

Therein lies my sensory challenge. I hope you have fun checking out the other participants in this week’s photo challenge. Thanks for dropping by!

Nosh: Salad with Grilled Asparagus, Potatoes, and Lemon-Caper Vinaigrette

I love summertime salads. Great big salads, accented with all sorts of lovely, yummy, seasonal things.

Though I confess, as I sit here eating leftover salad for breakfast, that maybe I am a tad overly fond of the greens. Eh. There are worse things I could do.

So I wanted a salad, and I had a hankering for lemon-caper something. But, I also wanted asparagus and potatoes, because I like to eat those things and I am a simple creature bent on satisfying my wants. Here’s how it all went down.

  • 1 bunch asparagus
  • 1/4 teaspoon of herbes de Provence or tarragon
  • 1.5-2 pounds Yukon Gold (OR red OR new) potatoes
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary (crushed)
  • Olive oil
  • Salt & pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh chives, chopped

For the dressing

  • 2 Tablespoons capers
  • 1 Tablespoon shallot (or mild onion), minced
  • Juice and zest from one lemon
  • 1 Tablespoon finely chopped parsley
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • 1/4-1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar (OR white wine vinegar OR champagne vinegar)
  • 1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 (ish) cup olive oil

Salad, prepared however you prefer

A few rounds of thick pita bread, for serving

The hardest ingredient to work with in this recipe is the potatoes because they have to be boiled first. I chose Yukon Golds for this because…well, because I like how they taste, and because I think their waxy texture holds up better to  a double-cooking process than floury russet potatoes. Take smallish whole potatoes, or cut them so they are halved and roughly the same size (but do not slice or dice yet). You can peel them if you’d like. I didn’t bother. Boil them until they are fork-tender. They can be a little underdone when you decide to drain them, as they’re going to cook further on the grill. But they should be at the very least, nearly done. Set aside to cool.

While the potatoes are boiling, prep the asparagus. Snap off the woody ends (no knife required! Just bend a stalk and it will naturally break at the spot where tender stalk meets tougher bottom) and put in a mixing bowl. Toss with oil, salt, pepper, and the seasoning of your choice. I like herbes de Provence, with its mix of herbs and fragrant hint of lavender.

Springtime veggies make me so happy.

Springtime veggies make me so happy.

Set these aside, and make your dressing.

Get a big container–a nice big soup bowl with a lid, or a Ball jar that you can close and shake. Spoon capers into a strainer and rinse. Assemble ingredients.

Fact: I haven't purchased salad dressing for my home in years.

Fact: I haven’t purchased salad dressing for my home in years.

Remember to zest your lemon before you juice it. And the capers are going to get minced, too. Chop everything that needs to be chopped (including parsley, strangely absent from this picture), and dump it all in the mixing container. Add in honey, thyme, mustard, and lemon juice. Add the white balsamic vinegar into the mix. If you want a thicker dressing, add less vinegar. If you’d like it thinner, add a little more. Black pepper goes in now, too, and I use kind of a lot of it in here; using my pepper mill, I probably added ten turns of the grinder. Add according to your taste. But be careful with salt! Even though you’ve rinsed the capers they’ve been pickled in brine and can still be salty. Taste your dressing first before you add any extra salt, and do that at the end, after everything else has been mixed in.

Whisk in oil until it’s fully incorporated. I generally like to have an almost even proportion of oil to vinegar, so if you’ve got a half-cup of vinegar, look to add roughly that much oil. Taste, and adjust. Does it need salt? More pepper? A dash more honey or another hit of mustard? This dressing should be savory and lemony and a little bit sweet, with a refreshing, green bite from the capers. When you’re satisfied, set it aside.

Heat your grill/grill pan. I used the double-griller that stretches across two burners on my stove but of course, this can also go outside. Get it ready to go at a medium/medium-high heat.

Take cooled potatoes and slice them into half-inch (or thicker) slices. Toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, and rosemary.

It was hard for me to not eat these as-is. But hold on! They get even better.

It was hard for me to not eat these as-is. But hold on! They get even better.

When the grill is hot, put the asparagus and potatoes on the burners, then let ’em go. The asparagus will cook much more quickly than the potatoes so don’t wander too far off while they’re cooking. Also, I had to cook in batches for purposes of space. That’s the beauty of salads. If the food gets a little cool…so what?

While the potatoes and asparagus are grilling, make your salad. I had feta cheese so we made sort-of a Greek salad, but really. Make whatever kind of salad you’d like. 

Turn the asparagus at least once to ensure even cooking, and if the stalks are thin they should be done in five minutes.  Put on a serving platter and drizzle with some lemon-caper vinaigrette.

Yeah. It was as good as it looks.

Yeah. It was as good as it looks.

The potatoes will take a little longer–flip them when you take the asparagus off the grill. They get all texturally fun, though, as the inside stays soft and potato-y while the outside crisps up from the grill. When they’re done, toss with chives et voila! In a serving bowl.

Does it get better than this?

Does it get better than this?

Grill the pita bread.

Really. You’ll thank me for it. You’ll only need like two minutes per side and the flavor gets beautifully deep and surprising. I mean, it’s pita, right? But oh, what an effect the grill has on it.

Yum. YUM.

Yum. YUM.

Cut the pita into quarters when it’s done.

Gather everything together and bring it out onto your fantastic, aesthetically pleasing back porch, which you have just freed from all its winter grime.

Feast.

Feast.

This? Is the way to eat a summertime salad. But if you don’t have the back porch, don’t let that stop you! This would taste great if you were seated at a little kitchen table with a single candle burning in the middle for a soft glow, or spread out on a blanket on the floor of your living room while the rain fell outside. 

Ha! Now I need to remember to make this again for an indoor picnic. 

Whatever, so long as I get to eat it again.

I hope you enjoy! 

Nosh: Grilled Fennel with Orange and Parsley

Ahhh, the weather is warming up! Birds are singing, flowers are blooming, and spring is springing itself all over the place. This breezy, glorious weather also beckons us outside, making us think of back yard parties and long candle-lit summer nights with friends, after a feast that you’ve grilled outdoors. With this in mind, I’m offering up grilled fennel with orange and parsley. It’s one of my favorite grilled sides, one that’s easy and quick, and takes almost no skill to execute successfully. 

Ironically, I am not an outdoorsy girl (mosquitos love me) and I grill inside. Eh. Whatever works. (And, bonus! I do this all through the winter.) If you love to grill your food then invest in a grill pan; you won’t regret it. To the grilling purists who are apoplectic at the thought of taking it indoors, I apologize if I hurt your heart. But it won’t change me. Moving on.

I love the savory twist that comes from a fresh fennel plant. Yes, the seeds are pungent and taste of licorice. When fennel is raw the sharp licorice taste remains. Once it starts to cook, the flavor mellows into a sort of caramel-crisp-crunchy, mildly-anise-y flavor bomb that moves into your brain as one of those, “Oh, man, I don’t know when I’ve had this but I know I’ve always liked it!” sort of taste memories. There is much to love about a good bulb of fennel. And you can use all of it, bulb, stem and leaf, so none of it goes to waste. Extra-fun!

When you do cook it, bear in mind that one bulb will produce a tremendous amount of food. I’ve never needed more than one bulb when I cook for two people, and we always have leftovers. If you’re cooking for four, you might need to add in another bulb, but if there’s only two people to feed…here’s what I used:

  • 1 fresh fennel bulb, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 tsp dried rosemary (or other favorite herb)
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper (to taste)
  • 1 Tablespoon orange zest
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped parsley

Put a grill pan on your stovetop and turn the burners on (or heat your grill) so it will be ready and waiting for the fennel. You’ll want it to get kind of hot, so a medium-to-medium-high heat will do nicely.

If any of the outside leaves of the fennel look gnarly or damaged, peel them off and throw them away. Cut fennel stalks and fronds off the bulb and save them for another use (think garnishes, or soup stocks). Cut the fennel bulb in half. You could cut the core out if you’d prefer. I usually cut the core because it’s a little tougher than the rest of the fennel, but if you don’t feel like it, it’s not a big deal. You’ll be cutting thin slices, it will all cook. Cut fennel into nice narrow strips and toss in a mixing bowl. Then add in rosemary, salt, pepper, and oil. Give it a stir.

Isn't it gorgeous?

Isn’t it gorgeous?

Turn fennel on to your waiting, heated grill pan. If you have a single-burner pan (like the one I used here) you may have to cook the fennel in two batches. Like I said, one bulb can provide an enormous amount of food; and you really need to provide food with adequate room to cook in. It’s OK. The fennel is nice and thin, so even if you have to split the batch it won’t take long.

Give it room. Show it love. Or, use a larger grilling surface if you're in a hurry.

Give it room. Show it love. Or, use a larger grilling surface–an outdoor grill, or a double-burner grill pan– if you’re in a hurry.

Leave the fennel strips alone for a few minutes. While they cook you can zest your orange and clean and chop the parsley. Give the fennel a stir on the grill after they’ve been browning for a few minutes. If they’ve been on your grill for five minutes and haven’t started to brown yet, then turn up the heat because your pan isn’t hot enough. Once they’ve gotten that lovely, grill-specific, brown-in-some-places-kind-of-charred-in-others look, and are soft and mellow (yet savory and still pleasantly crunchy), put it back in the mixing bowl. Add in orange zest and parsley.

Really. All there is to it.

Really. All there is to it.

Combine all ingredients. Taste a piece and decide if you need to adjust for more seasonings. More salt? Pepper? Nothing? Something? Ready? FEAST!

We served this with some ravioli and a side salad, but this could go with anything. With burgers. ON burgers. With grilled chicken, or crepes, or as a fruity and refreshing counter to a rich pulled pork. It’s such a simple side with readily-available ingredients, and it’s so easy to make. 

Plus, it looks great. Helloooo, you sexy dish.

Plus, it looks great. Helloooo, you sexy dish.

Don’t let the licorice-y reputation of fennel turn you off. When cooked, fennel offers an entirely different taste experience. Give it a shot! Explore your produce department. You never know what kind of new favorite thing you might encounter along the way.

Enjoy!

Nosh: Super-Garlicky Mashed Potatoes (Sort-Of Skordalia)

Hi all! I know my food writing hasn’t been happening much. So much of my time has been taken up teaching Zumba and getting certified to teach Body Combat…and baking cookies…and blah blah blah…that I haven’t spent nearly as much time in the kitchen as I would have liked. Thank goodness for George. Well, thank goodness for him for many reasons; among those is the fact that he’s a great cook and has picked up my kitchen slack without complaint, keeping me fed and watered and healthy.

Today’s recipe is a take on skordalia, a classic Greek appetizer/dip/sauce made of garlic and potatoes. I can’t remember the first place I’d ever even heard of skordalia, though I suspect it was somewhere in Toronto’s Greektown. (Side note: if you go to Toronto, GO TO GREEKTOWN. Because yum! And fun. And why not? I digress.) What is this thing, I thought to myself, as I looked at the fragrant dish before me. This rich, super-garlicky, potato-tastic thing, that gives me so much joy to eat? Why have I not heard of it before? And why am I not eating more of it?

It’s that sort of moment that forces me to take a situation into my own hands. Now, I readily admit that this is in no way a traditional, dippable, sauce-able skordalia recipe, and I don’t want to infuriate the Greek community by trying to claim otherwise. Rather, I took the ingredients and now enjoy sort-of skordalia as beautiful, smooth, super-garlicky mashed potatoes, ones that are totally vegan.

Vegan? Mashed potatoes? That are rich and creamy and mooshy and delicious? Yes, way! You’ll need:

  • 2-ish pounds of your favorite mashing potato (I favor Yukon golds, but it’s your call)
  • 5 or 6 or 8 cloves of garlic. As much as you can stand, really. Peeled and smashed.
  • A good, flavorful extra-virgin olive oil. Amount is dependent on the texture you want
  • 1/2 tsp (ish) dried rosemary, or thyme, or your favorite herb
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Chopped parsley, or chives, for garnish
  • Note: traditionally, skordalia involves mixing in lemon juice too. I don’t care for it, but if you want to try it, go for it!

Wash and peel your potatoes, and chop them into 1-inch (or so) cubes. Smash and peel garlic. Put them all in a big pot and cover with water.

Notice the big clove of garlic, front and center.

Notice the big clove of garlic, front and center.

Make sure the pot you use is big enough to accommodate everything. Food needs adequate space to cook in. The starch from the potatoes will foam in the pot; if you don’t allow enough room for that then you’ll spend much of your time cleaning up foam overspill on your stove. Let the potatoes and garlic come to a boil and cook for 15 or 20 minutes, until the potatoes are fork tender. Before draining, reserve about a cup’s worth of the starchy, potato-y boiling water. Then drain, and put the potatoes and garlic back in the pot you boiled them in, and have at them with a masher.

Could these ingredients be any simpler?

Could these ingredients be any simpler?

As you begin mashing the potatoes and garlic (yes, all together), start incorporating the other ingredients. Add some salt and pepper and rosemary right away, so the hot potatoes can soak up all that good flavor. Then add in the starchy water and olive oil incrementally. Mash, and test for texture and taste. And mash, and add some more pepper and rosemary if necessary, and test again, until you’re happy with the flavor and have all the lumps out. You’ll be amazed by how successfully the water and oil come together to form a deceptively creamy potato mash.  When you’re ready, give the potatoes a whip.

Whip it good.

Whip it good.

Whip the potatoes until they’re pillowy. They were so soft and pliable I didn’t even need the electric blender, which remained in its box, unopened and forlorn.

Then spoon the potatoes out into a lovely serving bowl and top with a little additional olive oil and your garnish of choice. This dish is ridiculously versatile and goes with anything you’d normally eat with traditional mashed potatoes, whether it’s at a backyard summer party or at the holiday table.

I'm going to go and have some right now.

I’m going to go and have some right now.

Plus, they taste even better the next day.

Now, I know as well as anybody that it’s hard to compete with a buttery, creamy batch of mashed potatoes, and when I was in the throes of my picky-kid eating stage, traditional mashed potatoes were one of the few things I would eat without complaint. I still adore them. But this version, with loads of garlic flavor and zero dairy, is an incredibly satisfying alternative.

Give ’em a shot! Let me know what you think. Happy cooking!

Nosh: Roasted Parsnip Fries

Welcome to the easiest and most versatile recipe you’ll ever…ever…encounter.

In the long, cold winter nights, like everybody else, I long for comfort foods. You know the kind, the ones that exude savory warmth and just make you feel good and safe and warm, from your heart outwards. For me–and believe me when I say I have no idea why–I get the warm-fuzzies from parsnips.

Parsnips are a less-popular cousin of the carrot, and while I enjoy the noble carrot, I have no idea why parsnips take second place. They taste better. You can do more things with them. And their flesh is almost-creamy, so you get a textural treat as well. If parsnips are still in the ground when the first frost hits, they become even sweeter than they are in summer, so yay for winter produce! They weren’t anything I ever ate when I was a kid; I didn’t have my first parsnip until well into my adulthood, but I took to them so fast it’s like I’m making up for lost time. I’ve eaten them practically every way possible; roasted with balsamic glaze, mashed, sauteed…you name it, I’ve tried it. But turning them into oven-roasted fries is my current favorite parnsip incarnation, as it fills both my inner yearnings for yummy parsnips and the “I want to eat my weight in french fries” craving.  Here’s what you need:

  • 1 lb. parsnips
  • Olive oil, enough to coat the parsnips
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Seriously. That is all you need. More on this in a little bit.

Preheat your oven. Remember how I said this was versatile? Well. Are you roasting anything else this evening? Put the parsnips in at that temperature. Depending on the size and thickness at which you slice them, they may take a little more time, or a little less, than the expected 400°, 25-30 minutes, cooking time and temp. For example: we have sliced them thicker, and let them cook in a 450° oven for twenty minutes, turning them once mid-cook-time. In today’s blog, the parsnips were cut super-thin and cooked for exactly 22 minutes at 390° (the spinach and mushroom tart we made for dinner had a very specific temperature, it was kind of funny), and they came out beautifully browned and crispy. (And the tart was OK, but I won’t be blogging about it. Please focus on my beautiful parsnips.) The point is, you can make this recipe work with whatever else you’re roasting.

Often, the core of a parsnip is a little woody. Your first objective once the ‘snip is washed and peeled is to take out that woody core, so cut the parsnip in half. You’ll see a definite line where the core differentiates from the flesh. Carve out the core and start slicing your parsnips into surprisingly addictive ersatz fries.

Cored, and ready for fry creation.

Cored, and ready for fry creation.

A few things.

1) If you have a mandoline you’re not terrified of using, that would make the julienning process easier. I do not have a mandoline that doesn’t terrify me. Look at this as an opportunity to improve your knife skills. Slicing them is the hardest part of the entire recipe, and slicing’s not so bad, right?

2) I think thinner is better, in this instance. The parsnips bake up nice and crispy when they’re cut thin, but of course, this is your kitchen so cut the fries as thick or thin as you like.

When you’re done, you’ll have a beautiful pile of parsnips.

IMG_0223-001

Just waiting for you to do with them what you will.

Toss them with the oil and your choice of seasonings. I’ve seen them roasted with a wide range of herbs and spices, so if you’re devoted to the idea of adding in more spices, the go for it! You can use thyme, or rosemary, or Aleppo pepper,  or chili powder, or Parmesan cheese, and so on, and so on. But I recommend making them relatively au naturel the first time ’round, so you get to experience beautiful parsnips in their inherent radiant beauty. Sometimes, less is more.

Once you’ve herbed and spiced and oiled your ‘snips, lay them out in a single layer on a baking sheet.

Pretty much it.

That’s pretty much it.

Then pop them into your nice hot oven. Turn them once every ten minutes to ensure even cooking and so you can check on them. As I said before, these were in for exactly 22 minutes. We probably could have pulled them at the 20-minute mark, but we gave them a few extra moments to maximize future crunch. When we were done, we had a beautiful pile of gorgeous, totally delicious parsnip fries.

Don't even think about trying to steal fries off my plate.

Don’t even think about trying to steal these fries off my plate.

George and I have been known to eat every last bit of parsnip in one sitting; they are THAT good. And they’re best when they’re crispy-fresh, straight out of the oven. Overnight, they tend to soften, though they still taste incredible. We’ve probably made these a dozen times in the past few months, and will make them again and again. Because parsnips.

(Side note: Mom, did you ever imagine, when I was a kid, that I would be such a vegetable junkie? No. Me neither.) 

 

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