Monday, June 22, 2009

Family Style

I’ve always been of the belief that summertime meals are the greatest of all seasons. Some may argue for the soul-warming benefits of the hearty stews and braised meats of winter, the sweetly inviting aroma of roasted vegetables in the fall, or the refreshing first salads of spring. I would grant these meals as thoroughly enjoyable, but the best? I think not.

Summer meals have the benefit of vast arrays of colorful fresh produce, and encourage eating in varied abundance. As you already know, in my family, we support colorful eating, and there is no time better than now to have a colorful meal, no place better to eat such a meal than outdoors, and no way better to prepare and eat it than with a bunch of people – family style.

A couple of weeks ago, my parents, brother, sister, and I fixed a taco spread with flank steak, a pepita chimichurri, black and white beans, and grilled local veggies. Another night my parents and I feasted on chilled cucumber soup (the cucumbers picked fresh from the garden), caprese salad, fresh avocado, and bread and cheese. The meal lay somewhere between snacking and dining, an embrace of all things casual and fresh.

Later that week, my aunt, uncle, and cousin roared through, bringing my grandmother into town for a trial stay at an assisted living home. Earlier that day, my mom had stopped at a fruit stand and picked up fresh okra, limas, and lady peas (of all summer vegetables, fresh peas are one of the greatest gifts, especially when they’ve been pre-shucked). I had been itching to try another one of David Tanis’s recipes,* a variation of succotash, using jalapeño butter instead of plain. His recipe called for green beans and zucchini, but I subbed in the limas and okra, and used extremely fresh (and cheap!) local white corn.

My dad threw pork ribs (marinated in Mojo sauce instead of BBQ, for a more subtle and less sticky flavor - you can actually taste the pork!) on the grill, my mom made another caprese salad, and we sliced up some crusty bread. American summer food all the way, baby.

For dessert I baked a raspberry-blueberry galette. I used cornmeal in my crust again – I’m coming to think that even a small addition of cornmeal adds a wonderful crumble to the crust, with just a slightly nuttier taste that helps to balance the sweetness of the berries. My cousin was a huge fan, and fought (and won, mind you) with my dad for the last piece.

For your next summer meal, here is my version of the succotash – use as fresh ingredients as possible! It's the difference between good food and great eats.

Okra Succotash
(loosely adapted from A Platter of Figs … again)

about 3 cups fresh lima beans
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 Vidalia onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 ears of corn, shucked, and kernels cut off
about 3 cups okra, washed and then sliced into bite-sized pieces
salt and pepper
½ stick butter, at room temperature
1 jalapeño, minced (use the seeds if you want it spicier, or leave them out)
zest and juice of 1 lime

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, add the lima beans, and gently simmer for about 20 minutes, or until just under al dente (you’ll finish cooking them with the rest of the veggies, so stop when they’re almost-but-not-quite done). Drain and set aside.

Heat the oil in a large, somewhat deep skillet or pot over medium. Add the onion and cook until soft. Add the garlic, corn, okra, and limas. Season with salt and pepper. Turn the heat up to high and cook for a minute or so. Add about a cup of water and cover the pan. Steam the vegetables for about 5-7 minutes, or until they’ve reached your ideal consistency.

Meanwhile mix together the butter, jalapeño, lime juice, and lime zest in a small bowl. When the vegetables are done, mix in the butter and serve right away, or let sit and serve at room temperature, with other summer treats.

*I promise I source my ideas from other places as well. I promise my next post will have something different!!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Three Colors

Sometime when I was in middle school, my mother grew tried of cooking for the family every day of the week. I can imagine that it would get boring after awhile, cooking the same meals over and over, catering to our still undeveloped picky tastes. On top of this, she had decided to go back to work, and it seemed only fair to share the kitchen burden. So one night after dinner, she pulled out the calendar and had each of us (my father, brother, sister, and me) pick one day a week in which we would each cook dinner. Five of us meant that all of the school nights would be covered, and with teenagers in the house, these would be the only realistic nights for a family meal anyway. I can’t remember what my original day was; I’m pretty sure it changed every once in awhile, after quitting gymnastics, beginning dance class, or joining the cross-country team. In any case, I think we were all pretty nervous about the change in meal quality in the beginning. My sister, Sally, was something like eight years old at the time – frozen chicken nuggets and Kraft were her favorite foods. I’m not sure if my brother, Sam, hadn’t cooked much more than nachos. I was enamored of baking and not much else. Not exactly nutritious.

Instead of starving, we started to read cookbooks. My sister learned properly cook pasta. My brother learned to grill. I learned how to chop an onion. In a matter of months, we all had a few recipes under our belt – Sally had taco night, Sam had his own version of gyros, and I had roasted chicken and black beans and rice. As it turns out, we were all naturals in the kitchen, and while not every night was an exciting culinary adventure, we were eating well and getting excited about food.

From the beginning my mother had set some ground rules.

Well, actually, it was one rule: every meal must have three colors. Shades of brown did not count, and neither did artificial colors, like Skittles or M&Ms. For the longest time, I could not understand why she didn’t specify three food groups – I always made my colors match up this way, because the food pyramid seemed to be the epitome of healthy, balanced eating. And I still generally eat at least three food groups at every meal, but not always. The colors are what have really stuck with me.

When I left for college and was forced to eat cafeteria food I learned that there is something about a multicolored meal that is always fulfilling. I believe that our eyes sense a balance in the composition of our meals when they are varied in this way. Multiple food groups are not always so visually stimulating. If you eat a plate of brown vegetable, chicken, and rice mush, you might get your protein, veggie, and starch, but you’re not getting any pleasure out of your food. It’s all the same texture, it’s all the same consistency, it’s all the same color. It’s gross, and it’s boring.

As soon as I moved off-campus and off-board, I started eating three colors again, and was happier and healthier for it. Thanks to my mother’s rules growing up, I knew how to cook, and I knew how to cook well.

In celebration of colorful food, here’s my rendition of David Tanis’s spinach cake, which is actually more like a mousse or a quiche without the crust. It’s a bright green, fluffy, surprise of a dish, filling enough for a light lunch or as an assistant to roasted chicken and strawberries for dinner. The mousse is also the best at room temperature, so make it early in the day and let it sit out until you’re ready to eat.

Spinach Mousse
(adapted from A Platter of Figs)

2 medium leeks, cleaned, and chopped into a small dice
2 tablespoons, or a little less, unsalted butter
salt and pepper
about ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
2 pounds spinach, cleaned and chopped into 1-inch (or so, it’ll be processed) pieces (if you’re using pre-washed spinach, drizzle a little bit of water over it once it’s been cut to help the steaming process)
2 cups milk (the recipe calls for whole, but I used 2% lactose free, and it was great)
6 eggs
about ¼ teaspoon cayenne
Parmigiano (I forgot this, so I ended up eating it cold on the side, and that works too)

Melt the butter in a large pot (use the biggest stock pot you can find, 2 pounds of spinach is a lot!) over medium heat. Add the leeks and season with salt and pepper. Sauté until soft but still green, and definitely not crispy. Turn up the heat, add the nutmeg. Layer the spinach in the pot, alternating with a bit of salt. Push it down and cram it all in there (trust me here; the spinach cooks down fast). Cover tightly and let steam for a minute. Stir the spinach around so the raw pieces on top can get closer to the bottom. Cover again and let steam for about another minute. You don’t want to cook the spinach completely; instead it needs to be just wilted, and still very very green. Turn the entire contents of the pot, including the juices, onto a shallow platter to let cool.

Heat the oven to 400°. Once the spinach is cool, taste and adjust seasonings (this is your last chance to do so, unless you like to eat raw eggs). Mix the eggs and milk together. In a blender or food processor, puree the milk mixture with the spinach mixture in batches. (If you use a food processor, be careful to not overfill. You’ll make a huge mess. Trust me.) Include some of the juices from the pot as well. Add the cayenne.

Pour into a buttered baking dish or a well-seasoned cast iron pan. Grate a bit of cheese on top if you’re using it, and bake for about 45 minutes, uncovered, until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool completely and serve with at least two other colors.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

On extraordinary eating: Sel Gris / Safeway cake

Ever since Daniel Mondok’s shiny bald head graced Willamette Week’s restaurant guide last year, I had been pining to dine in his restaurant, Sel Gris. From its namesake (a grey French sea salt) to its seasonal “bistro” style food – it seemed to be the ideal Portland fine dining experience. It took a while to get there – college students can’t easily afford a meal that easily comes to $50-60 a head (if you’re eating and drinking properly) without tip. And the reservation policy, rare in Portland, makes it near-impossible for the spontaneous Let’s go out to eat trips that most frequently make up my dinners out. I thought about taking my parents there when they were in town, but the small size and super-hip vibe didn’t seem right somehow.

But then, we went. Somehow we were squeezed in (almost) last minute for an early dinner on Saturday, ending up at a table as far away from the open kitchen as possible, delightful nonetheless. Despite its not-much-larger-than-a-closet size, Sel Gris didn’t seem to have a bad table in the house. The sun shone through the ceiling-high windows, reflecting off the steel beams of the interior, making the room almost sparkle.

The buzz of excitement led me to forget not only my camera from my house but also Matt’s camera from the car; however, the small size, close proximity of our neighbors and constant wait staff attention would have made photography uncomfortable. So you’ll have to make due with my words.

We started with the Ris de Veau, veal sweetbreads with “bacon and eggs” – a semi-poached egg encased in batter with bacon bits on the top – and an herb oil. Smaller and daintier than the sweetbreads I ate at Paley’s, these were wonderfully rich when eaten with the runny yolk and fragrant oil. Matt was impressed (he hadn’t had sweetbreads on their own) and was struck by their pungent complexity.

Following the appetizer, I had the soup special – a puree of asparagus and green garlic, poured tableside over sautéed morels and fried onions. While the presentation was beautiful and the body of the soup was deliciously fresh and delicate, I wasn’t sold on the incorporation of the fried onions. The contrast between crunchy and smooth could have been nice, but the soup was so hot that I couldn’t eat it until the onion batter had dissolved into mushy globs at the bottom of the bowl. Next time, perhaps caramelized onions, or simply crispy ones, would be better.

Matt had the asparagus salad with smoked trout, prosciutto, an aioli, and a number of other ingredients. Despite its heavy busy-ness (it probably would have been a better match for a pasta entrée than what Matt actually ordered), the salad was a tasty combination of smokiness and fresh snappy green flavor.

For my entrée, I had the lamb prepared two ways – braised and a quickly grilled rack – served with chickpeas, favas, and a root vegetable puree. The lamb was tender and fragrant, and both methods prepared perfectly. But it was nothing terribly special. Not like Matt’s dish – the duck served with foie gras, artichoke hearts, and peas. Up until this dinner, my duck experience had been limited to bad Chinese restaurants. Overcooked, greasy, stringy. The duck on Saturday, however, was marvelous. Served almost rare, with the crispy, fatty skin on top, it was like slicing into a petit filet, but with the flavor of the best dark poultry meat. Bites containing bits of fat and foie were the best – rich, buttery, satisfying. I am now a duck convert.

And, finally, despite being underwhelmed by the dessert selections, we decided to order the Napoleon. Bright local strawberries were layered between crisp pastry and crème pâtissière for a clean and fresh end to the meal.

The next night (my last in Portland) came with the goal of eating up all the fresh vegetables I had bought the other day when I lost self-control at New Seasons. Matt and I invited Ted and Emmeline over, and we chopped, sliced, and stir-fried our way to dinner. Unfortunately there was no leftover desserts needing to be eaten, and so we scoured the internet for a bakery open late on Sunday nights.

It turns out there is no such place.

Well, at least there is no such place that doesn’t turn into a bar past dinner, and, given Matt’s embarrassingly young age, we were stuck with what seemed like the worst case scenario – Safeway. After fantasizing about Papa Haydn and Piece of Cake, Safeway cakes sound like hell. Artificial, dry, chemically. But they are cakes just the same. Emmeline and I decided to split the “Giant Artisanal Carrot Cake” and Matt and Ted ate some chocolate cherry concoction.

As it turns out, carrot cake is a good choice. Despite the very long list of ingredients, it lacked that grocery-store cake aftertaste and was surprisingly moist and flavorful. Our biggest complaint was the improper ratio of icing to cake, but that is easily remedied with a little self-control. And compared to the boys' dry, flavorless chocolate thing, it was close to great.

Our lesson? Always get the carrot cake.

Sel Gris on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


I have left the land of the West for a visit back home in Georgia.
It's a long plane ride and I'm working on getting over the jet-lag and the heat, but expect news about my last Portland dinners soon (hint - one was super-fancy, and the other was super-not fancy), along with reports from the Decatur Farmer's Market!