Go With The Flow

There are many advantages to growing up an Army brat, like Petey, or a Coastie kid, like me.

It fostered an appreciation of the commitment and sacrifices that men and women are willing to give to this nation.  It’s humbling. 

It allowed us to see many different cultures around the country and world.  Seeing the various ways in which people live as a child means there is almost no judgement.  Kids are still learning how the world works, so don’t come from a position of cultural superiority.  It’s not better or worse, just endlessly fascinating.

We always knew that there was a huge population that had a vested interest in us and had our backs.  At times, it could be a little uncomfortable, when the entire United States Armed Forces and the Coast Guard are acting as in loco parentis.  But when the chips are down, and you need them, they’re right there. 

But, probably the best gift Petey and I received from our upbringings was the gift of resilience. 

Every few years, usually at the end of the summer, we’d pack up and move our entire lives to a whole new world.  But, by the time Halloween was on the horizon, we’d be home.  What was once strange and new became both familiar and comfortable.

And this week’s recipe is a culinary example of resilience.  The vegetables are the only constant.  The seasoning and the dressing itself are incredibly malleable. 

Za’atar  

Za’atar is a middle Eastern spice which contains thyme, toasted sesame seeds, and sumac.  It can be found in Asian and Middle Eastern markets.  Sumac is a dried ground flower.  It has a bright, lemony flavor.  

Although not one of the most common spices in the kitchen, you can buy sumac in most grocery stores.

But.

If you would like the flavor of za’atar for the dressing, you can make something very close by mixing one 1 teaspoon lemon zest, and ½ teaspoon each, toasted sesame seeds and dried thyme.

Roasted Cauliflower Summer Salad

6 slices thick cut bacon

On a parchment-covered, rimmed baking sheet, cook the bacon at 350 degrees until completely browned and crispy (18-24 minutes), turning once.  Remove bacon to paper towel covered plate, reserving rendered bacon fat.

1 head cauliflower, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 cup white corn kernels, either from frozen, or roasted fresh

2 scallions, sliced very thinly on the bias

1 small head of Boston bib or butter lettuce

Turn oven up to 450.  Once the bacon is removed from the pan, replace with the cauliflower on one single layer and drizzle on two tablespoons of bacon grease and season with salt and pepper.  Roast the veg for 20 minutes, stirring once.  When cooked, remove from sheet pan and set aside.

Dressing #1:

¾ cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon za’atar or 2 teaspoons of homemade za’atar

2 tablespoons bacon grease

Salt and pepper

Whisk together all ingredients and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Dressing #2:

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons bacon grease

1 teaspoon za’atar or 2 teaspoons of homemade za’atar

Salt and pepper

Whisk together ingredients and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Assembly:

Place cauliflower, corn, and green onions in bowl.  Fold in dressing of your choice, a bit of a time until lightly coated—don’t overdress.  Serve on a bed of torn, bite-sized pieces of lettuce, and top with shards of crispy bacon.

This salad works as a side dish at Sunday dinner, a cookout, or for a unique addition to a bagged lunch.  Like the recipe itself, it’s infinitely adaptable.

Thanks for your time.

What Can Brown Do For You?

My mother would be convinced that the veggies were burnt and should be discarded.  This would result in my father running over to Food Lion to acquire more microwavable veggies as the family sits around the dinner table and Mom frets about everything getting cold and dried out.

It’s because she has the lowest of thresholds of what burned is.If her baked macaroni and cheese has brown spots on the top, it’s burned.  If rolls go beyond the lightest of caramel-color, they’re burned.  And if veggies get a barely perceptible touch of char, they’re burned and ruined.

Except.

Except, as Chef Ann Burrell delights in proclaiming in a fake, growly, bear-like voice, “Brown food tastes good!”.The Maillard (my-yard) reaction is when amino acids and sugars mix with heat and to a certain extent, pressure, making those delicious, delicious brown markings on food.

If you want to know how important and tasty the Maillard reaction is, think about a hot, melty grilled cheese, on limp blond, not browned, but crispy bread.  Or, flaccid bacon.  Enjoy grill marks?  Maillard reaction.Due to exposure to my mom’s brown food aversion, and my own, near-certifiable level of impatience, I came exceedingly late to the brown food fan club.

But I’m now recording secretary.

It’s easy to get a nice brown crust on meat, no matter how long it needs to cook, the recipe you’re using, or the method of preparation.All you need is a metal pan (a cast iron is best here) that’s screaming hot and a little oil.  Dry both sides of the meat, put the thinnest coats of oil on it, then season both sides.  Place the pieces in the pan without crowding them, which will steam them, rather than sear.  They should be no closer than ½ inch.  And the more contact meat makes to hot surface, the more of it will be brown.

Then cook the meat on each side until there’s a beautiful, deeply caramel-colored crust.  Flip, and cook the other side.  Finish cooking according to directions. Brown veggies though, are my newest obsession.

It all started with some frozen, multi-colored Trader Joe’s cauliflower.

The directions said to put a bit of vegetable oil in the pan to cook them.  But, we really love cauliflower with brown butter, so I put a few tablespoons in the pan and let it brown.  Then I put in the still frozen cauliflower, turned it down to about 4, and covered it.When the cauliflower was heated through, I uncovered the pan and turned it up to about 6.  There was a little water in the skillet from the veg which I wanted to cook off.  This is where I had the happy accident.

I was preoccupied with getting the rest of dinner put together, so I neglected the cauliflower, and it cooked longer than normal (for me).When I got back to it, it had developed beautiful browning.  In the past, I never cooked vegetables until they picked up color.  But, instead of deciding it was burned and discarding it, I just flipped it to expose another part to the pan.

The result was a side dish that Petey is still talking about.You can do this with both frozen and fresh.  But it must be a harder veg, like broccoli, cauliflower, or carrots.  A more tender veggie like peas, will turn gray.  So cook them gently, then roll them in brown butter.  They’ll pick up the maillard flavor without going all elementary school cafeteria food on you.

Chef Ann Burrell and chocolate can’t both be wrong.  Brown is good.And, not burnt.

Thanks for your time.

Fairly Balanced

My favorite ice cream treat is Dairy Queen’s peanut buster parfait.  It is a miracle of simplicity; vanilla soft serve draped in hot fudge sauce and studded with peanuts.

But who knew my affection was rooted in science?

While each component is plenty tasty on its own, it’s the contrasts that push it to icon status.  The hot/cold, salty/sweet, and creamy/crunchy excite us and satisfy the palate.  It’s called dynamic contrast.

The accepted definition for this term is: moment-to-moment sensory contrast from the ever-changing properties of foods manipulated in the mouth.All this fancy scientific palaver boils down to one thing: humans like contrast, and crave it.

The Kid recently found a dish on the website Smitten Kitchen, which was inspired by an Ina Garten recipe and features contrast.

Crusty Baked Cauliflower and Farro

Final amended recipe

I’m sorry guys, there are just a crap ton of ingredients in this dish.

2 cups cooked farro

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Olive oil

2 1/4 to 2 1/2 pound head of cauliflower, cut into small florets

2 tablespoons capers, drained

2 large or 3 regular cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons lemon zest

2 cups coarsely grated Manchego

½ cup Marcona almonds, given a brief, rough chop into halves or thirds

1/2 cup full-fat ricotta cheese

1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs

1/3 cup finely grated Parmesano Reggiano cheese

2 teaspoons dry thyme

Directions:

Place farro into large bowl.

Par-cook cauliflower:

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Brush a large baking sheet with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Spread florets in one layer, drizzle with 1 more tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roast for 20 minutes until lightly browned and crisp-tender (they will finish baking with the farro). Reduce heat to 400 degrees.  Place cauliflower into bowl with farro.

Assemble casserole: Add the capers, garlic, lemon zest, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper to cauliflower and farro and stir to combine. Stir in manchego and almonds. Transfer half of the mixture to an oiled 10-inch ovenproof frying pan or equivalent baking dish. Dollop rounded tablespoons of ricotta all over. Sprinkle remaining cauliflower and farro over the ricotta, leaving the pockets of it undisturbed.

In a small dish, combine panko with Parmesan, thyme and 1 tablespoon olive oil until evenly mixed. Sprinkle over cauliflower and farro.

Bake casserole: For 20 minutes, until browned and crusty on top. Dig in.Do ahead: Farro can be cooked up to 3 days in advance, kept in an airtight container in fridge. Cauliflower can be cooked 2 days in advance. Casserole can be assembled and baked a day later, easily, although the crumbs might lose their crisp from absorbing the moisture below if not added right before baking. Casserole keeps for several days in fridge and longer in freezer.

The Kid loved this dish so much it was a struggle to leave enough for me to try.  I liked it a lot, but had a couple of tweaks in mind.

The sample I tasted had a lot of lemon zest; like a whole lemon’s worth.  It was too much.  It became very floral, and the flavor overpowered the other components.  We reduced it.

It needed crunch, and we picked nuts because they don’t go soggy.

We both thought about pine nuts, but Chinese pine nuts from the Pinus armandii can give you something called “pine mouth” which deadens your taste buds for a while and leaves you with a metallic taste for two weeks or more.   And unfortunately, it’s not usually easy to discern the origin of your pine nuts.So we chose Marcona almonds because they’re addictively tasty.  They were the perfect foil for the other ingredients.  It was a true balance of both taste and texture.

And, here’s one more contrast for you.

When I eat something outrageously delicious, it makes me want to cry; with pleasure, gratitude, and the ephemeral nature of the food. But The Kid gets angry.

Yeah, angry.I only offered another contrast.  I didn’t promise it wouldn’t be bonkers.

Thanks for your time.

Ghosting your machines

There’s this new relationship term—ghosting.

It’s a no fuss, no muss way to break up with someone.  One simply disappears.  They stop calling, texting, smoke signaling.

And you’re probably doing it right now, as you read this.

I’m not talking about your love life.  I’m talking about all those machines in the cabinets, and pantry, and that closet where stuff goes to die.  Those gadgets that you thought you couldn’t live without (but did).

A couple weeks ago, while perusing the interweb, I stumbled upon a recipe that intrigued me.  It was gluten-free biscuits.So, here’s the thing; for various reasons, I am extremely skeptical about the whole gluten-free, celiac thing.

1.)Gluten-free products.  Gluten’s job in food is to make it stretchier so it can rise, and not having it makes the food dense.  There’s a reason gluten is present, so when it’s not, you notice.

2.)Gluten-free people.  There are two kinds of people; those with celiac, and those without.  Unfortunately, there are lots of people who don’t have it that are absolutely convinced that they do.  In truth, only 1% of the population has doctor-diagnosed celiac disease.

3.)Cauliflower abuse.  Ever since gluten and celiac became part of popular lexicon, poor old cauliflower has been abused.  It’s mashed “potatoes”, pizza crust, even (sadly) brownies.

caulicrap

This is all made with cauliflower.  And I’d have to be mighty hungry…

Because of this, when I saw the recipe from Cooking Light magazine, it was a minor miracle that I even read it.  But I did read it, and decided it sounded so tasty that I would make it.  And I used three kitchen gadget and appliances.

But I can’t call it a biscuit, ‘cause it’s not.  It’s actually a soufflé.  A soufflé that tastes really good at only 25 calories each.

Cauliflower Soufflé Cupscauli souffle4 cups steamed, fresh cauliflower

3 garlic cloves, minced

1/3 cup nonfat Greek yogurt

½ cup cheddar cheese, shredded

¼ cup grated Parmesan

2 eggs

2 egg whites

1 teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Place cauliflower into food processor along with garlic and whole eggs.  Blend until smooth.  Add yogurt, salt and pepper.  Mix until smooth and creamy.

While blending cauliflower, put egg whites into mixer with whisk attachment.  Mix on high until stiff peaks form.

Pour cauliflower mixture in large bowl and stir in cheeses.  Stir in one spoonful of beaten whites to lighten the mix.  Then gently fold in the rest of the whites.

Spray a mini-muffin tin with cooking spray.  Put a heaping spoonful into each cup.

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until top is browned and edges are caramelized.  Let sit ten minutes before removing from pan.  Makes 24 mini soufflé cups.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo get in there and break out some neglected kitchen toys.  You’ll remember why you thought they were such a great idea in the first place.

But some stuff you just gotta have.  I’m going to Amazon and ordering a paper towel holder that charges electronics, and a carrot sharpener.  I’m positive I’ll use them all the time.Thanks for your time.

The great cauliflower compromise of 2016

Sadly, to many people, compromise has become a dirty word.  Concession is considered obscene.  And accommodation is beyond the pale.

After more than three decades of marriage, I have learned the vital importance of finding a middle ground.  Bargaining and accommodation is the reason why I’ve seen most movies on TV multiple times, in ten to fifteen minutes bursts.  Petey will turn on a show, and then wander off to another channel, returning later for another short burst.  Just as I get interested and begin to suss out the plot, I’m whisked away to golf, a religious service or a couple of guys trying to sell me a blender.

 

Wait…Who are those guys? Oh, this isn’t the movie anymore, is it?

 

It normally takes around eight showings before I’ve pretty much seen the whole thing.  But there are always gaps; sometimes they’re minor scenes, sometimes major plot points.

Compromise is also the reason Petey knows the difference between pumps and platforms, eats albacore tuna and uses name-brand toilet paper.

The air was thick with compromise the other night when I made cauliflower.

The Matthews family love cauliflower.   Normally I use frozen because it’s quick, easy, and I can always have a bag at hand in the chill chest.

The default preparation is heated in the microwave and topped with browned butter.  It’s the one half of a favorite meal; road kill and brown butter cauliflower.

 

Not actual roadkill.

 

Now let me disabuse you of the image of me on the highway with a shovel and a bag.  Road kill is Matthews-speak for porcupine meatballs.  They are morsels of hamburger mixed with rice and cooked in a tomato sauce.  Because keeping the orb shape of a meatball is my kulinary kryptonite, I make them into patties.  The Kid declared the sight of them resembled roadkill, and the name stuck.

Brown butter tossed cauliflower is a terrific counterpart to the beefy patties.

But I also really like cauliflower the way my Aunt Pollie cooked it.  She cloaked it in a rich buttery cream sauce, speckled with a dusting of nutmeg.  It’s delicious and addictive, but because it’s prepared with butter and whole milk or half and half, a dish I only enjoy infrequently

The evening in question I was making a pork tenderloin and black rice, cooked with a Caribbean citrus marinade called mojo.  Because of this, both protein and starch would be relatively light so I toyed with the idea of my Aunt Pollie’s creamed cauliflower.

 

Delicious, but maybe a bit heavy?

 

But…I really like it with brown butter, and that cream sauce can feel heavy.  Then my brain turned to compromise.

I decided to try making the cream sauce with brown butter.  The recipe for classic cream sauce is butter and flour cooked together with dairy whisked in.  But roux is just butter and flour.  And I normally use peanut better-colored roux, which coincidently is the color of the solids when I make brown butter.

Brown butter cream sauce

brown butter cream sauce

¼ cup butter

¼ cup flour

1 ¼ cup skim milk

Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in a saucepan and stir in flour.  Cook until over medium-low heat until it’s the color of caramel. 

Whisk in milk and cook just until it starts to bubble.  Season to taste.  Pour over 16 ounces of nuked cauliflower.  Serves 4.

It turned out tasty, and made with skim milk, felt relatively virtuous.

 

Normally when there’s a compromise, all sides get something, but nobody gets everything they want.  But in this case, I got my brown butter and ate my cream sauce too.

Thanks for your time.