My version of AAA is of absolutely no help if, as my mother warns, “You’re out late at night, in the middle of nowhere and your car breaks down.”

But, I don’t think I’ve ever been out, late at night, in the middle of nowhere.  Because isn’t everywhere somewhere?

My AAA is three of my very favorite vegetables (in alphabetical order):

Artichoke.  I never ate an artichoke until I was in my twenties, at a business dinner.  The wife of the owner ordered one, and gave me a tutorial, and a taste—I loved it at first bite.

The artichoke is a member of the thistle family and has been cultivated and eaten since the time of Homer.  It has some of the highest levels of antioxidants of any vegetable.  It’s high in fiber, vitamin C, folates, and iron.Italy is the largest producer, and consumer in the world.  They also have tons of recipes for them.  But my favorite way to eat them is the first way I had them, and the most classic, simple prep.  I cut off the sharp tips of the leaves, trim the stem, and steam them for 30-40 minutes, or until tender.After it cools I serve each on a platter with a spoon and a small bowl of mayonnaise.  Working from the outside, peel off a leaf, dip in mayo, and scrape the tender meat off with your bottom teeth.  Larger areas of the leaves become edible as you go.

You will eventually uncover the heart.  Using the spoon, scrape off all the inedible hairs, until it is clean.  This is the best part.  Dip it into mayo and enjoy.The second veg is asparagus, another food chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

The heart-breaking thing is that the thinking of many people, even food professionals is utterly backward.  Just like Rubens’ models and bank accounts, with asparagus, bigger is much better.An asparagus farmer once confided to me that he’s thrilled that the trend is for pencil-thin, or “baby” asparagus.  Because it gives the inferior product a market.  They taste like grass and almost impossible to prepare without over-cooking.  The desirable stalks are the ones as thick as your thumb. There are undeniably, people out there who don’t like asparagus.  But there’s a chance they’ve only had the tiny straw-like version.  They deserve to know what good asparagus tastes like.  So serve them in the most simple, basic way.

Rinse, then trim the veg by bending each, and letting it show you where to break the end off.  Steam them for 5-7 minutes until they’re still more crisp than tender.  Drizzle melted butter over and salt generously.  Serve immediately.I first encountered my last favorite veg as a child in Puerto Rico where avocado trees are ubiquitous.  The matriarch of life-long family friends the Murphy clan, Momma Cat was about to tuck into one.  I asked for a bite, and she gave me one, but warned, “they’re an acquired taste.”It was the most disgusting thing I’d ever put in my mouth.  It was like a mean-spirited practical joke.  Why, I wondered would anybody eat avocados on purpose?

But wise Momma Cat was right, and I eventually acquired a taste, and then a love for this unlovely platypus of the vegetable world.

Guacamole is wonderful, and I eat it every chance I get.  But I just adore avocados simply peeled, sliced, and salted, or what I call Momma Cat-style.

So, my AAA will not change your tire, or give you a tow in the middle of nowhere.  But as far as I’m concerned, they’re some of the best eating, anywhere.

Thanks for your time.

As You Like It

This space has evolved into my confessional.  The embarrassing, the disgraceful, the hurt-y; if there’s a red face and burning ears involved, I’m there and have probably recounted it for you, Gentle Reader.These days it takes a lot more to set the blush scale into motion.  I’ve come to terms with my lack of both grace and tact.  But there’s still one category where I’m a tad insecure.

It’s food.  Not the cooking of it, I’m always learning and make an honest effort to grow.  But it’s my taste in food and my capacity to consume it, especially when young.I used to really enjoy sauerkraut mixed with grocery store onion dip.  I could can demolish an entire box of blue box mac in one sitting.  I ate those freaky little La Choy mini egg rolls by the dozen, dunked sour cream.  And once I set up my own kitchen, there was always a can of pre-made frosting handy for snacking.

Then there were canned wax beans.I’d drain them, toss into a saucepan with a too-large dollop of margarine.  Then I’d drop in a couple slices of American cheese food, and cook until it was a gloppy, homogenous mass.

Last week I visited the Carrboro farmers’ market and picked up some fresh Italian wax beans.  I’d never had Italian style (flat) before, and the last time I’d had wax beans, they were full of margarine and “cheese”.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI decided to use my go-to veg preparation.

When preparing, regardless of the type, clean them, and cut into bite-size pieces.  If you’re working with a harder veg (Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, carrots, fall and winter squashes, anything that gives you strong resistance when you try to pierce it with a knife), it’s necessary to par-cook them so you don’t cook out all the flavor and color by braising them for weeks.Par-cooked veg

Hard veg, cut into chunks

1 large saucepan filled with ocean-level salty water

1 large bowl filled with ice, water, 2 tablespoons kosher saltBring the saucepan to a rolling boil.  Slide vegetables into water and cook until the colors are bright, and you can just smell them (4-7 minutes-ish).

Using a slotted spoon remove the veg and put into the salted ice water.  When they are completely cool throughout, drain into colander.When you’re ready to finish them, put them in a skillet (don’t overcrowd).  Then you need a couple more items.

First, a fat; butter, olive oil, vegetable oil, ghee.  For a whole skillet I’d say two tablespoons, max.  Then an acid; I usually use wine—1/4 to 1/3 cup.  But if you are using something much more acidic like lemon juice or vinegar, add it at the very end, because it’ll discolor the veg.  Then, a liquid; normally water, but you can use stock, juice, even tea.  The more liquid you use, the longer it will have to cook, so for tender veg, use much less liquid.Put everything into the pan along with a pinch of salt and pepper, then cover.  Cook on medium-low until the veg is tender-crisp.  Remove cover and let cook until the liquid’s gone.  For a tender vegetable, like peas, remove from heat as soon as liquid’s gone.  For harder veg, let them cook until they pick up some browning.This is a very versatile method which gives you plenty of ways to customize.  The biggest thing is to not overcook them.  If you went to all the trouble of getting fresh, keep it fresh.

And my wax beans?  I cooked them until they had a little browning, and then I tossed them with a little shaved cheese from the “Under $5” basket at Whole Foods as nod to that earlier, scarier dish.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThanks for your time.

Char Girl

In everything I’ve ever cooked, baked, or even merely applied heat, I have burned almost nothing.  And it’s not because I am some miraculous cooking genius, ‘cause trust me, that I am not.

The reasons are twofold.

Reason number one is because of my first kitchen role model; my mom.

We always joked that my mom does all the worrying, so we don’t have to.  I think a lot of it is a massively overgrown maternal instinct; she wants to take care of the whole world and make it all better.FB_IMG_1497871818034_resized (1)In the kitchen this manifests itself in two main ways.

No matter how much food is prepared, my mom is terrified there won’t be enough.  She’ll make five pounds of meatloaf, and fret that it’s not enough for the eight people expected to dinner.If she was a wedding planner or caterer, her head would regularly explode and she would likely take up strong drink.

Her other phobia is the one which contributed to the fact that I’ve charcoaled very few dishes in my cooking history.

Mom has a horror of burning food.

I’ve seen her almost in tears because something had more color on it than she thought was proper.  And anything darker than the golden shade of peanut butter is inedibley burned, and good for nothing but decorating the insides of the trash can.

If it sticks to the bottom of the pan that is evidence enough to her that the whole dish is ruined.  But, I have a fix for it, burned or just stuck.First scrape a little up and decide whether it’s burned or not.  Don’t go just by color—give it a smell and a taste.  If it’s not burned and just stuck, turn the burner down low and wait a couple minutes.  It will then be easy to scrape up and stir in.  Then, for the rest of the cooking time, turn it down a smidge, and stir it more often, making sure to keep the bottom unstuck.

What if it actually is burned?  Don’t scrape anything else from the bottom.  Get out a new pot and pour the food into it, making sure that the burned, stuck stuff stays in the other pan.  You’ll lose some of it, but that’s way better than having an entire foul-tasting pot of sadness going down the drain.

Sorry, I think the chicken might be a tad underdone.

The other reason why I seldom overcook food is simple and embarrassing.  I’m too impatient.  Normally I have the opposite problem—it’s tough for me to wait for things to fully cook.  Which is actually worse than overcooking; burned food tastes bad, undercooked food can kill.

But, I’m working on it.  I view it as a measure of my growth as a cook and a human to have the patience for food to cook the way it should.

I’ve recently started cooking vegetables in a manner that calls for them to be charred and blistered.I roast them in the oven.  It works for almost all types of veg.  I clean and trim them then dump them in a large zip top bag.  For two servings, I pour in about 1/3 cup of dressing.  And not only salad dressing, but you can use that; the other day I used Barnes Supply sweet onion dressing on some French beans.  I’ve also used brown butter on broccoli.  We really liked honey mustard and canola oil whisked together, with some thinly sliced shallots.

Once they’re coated let them hang out in the fridge for a while.  At dinner time I put a rimmed baking sheet in the oven and let it heat up.  For larger, slower cooking veg I set the oven to 400.  I lay them in a single layer and cook for about 15-20 minutes, giving them a stir about halfway through.For vegetables that cook quicker I put them on the top rack and use the low broiler setting.  They take about 10-12 minutes.

With very little effort you end up with fresh vegetables that are different, deeply flavored, and caramelized.  To me they are a testament to my growth.

But if my mom saw them, she’d run for the hills.Thanks for your time.