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.

Twisted Citrus

gossipGentle Reader, this week there’s no time to chat because I have two big lemon recipes.

First is a pasta recipe adapted from a Barefoot Contessa dish.  It will look kind of unappetizing at the beginning but cooks into a gorgeous, silky sauce.  Also, it will splatter as it cooks, so use a screen.

Creamy Twisted Lemon Pastalemon cavatappiYield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 or 3 cloves minced garlic

2 cups heavy cream

2 lemons

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1 bunch broccoli

1-pound dried cavatappi pasta

½-pound baby spinach

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan

1-pint multi-colored small tomatoes, halved

Directions:garlic sauteHeat olive oil in medium saucepan on medium, add garlic, and cook for 60 seconds. Add cream, zest and juice from lemons, 2 teaspoons of salt, and 1 teaspoon of pepper. Bring to boil, then lower heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until it starts to thicken.

Meanwhile, cut broccoli in florets and discard stem. Cook florets in a pot of heavily salted boiling water for 3 to 5 minutes, until tender but still firm. Drain broccoli and run under cold water to stop cooking. Set aside.blanced broccoliCook pasta according to package directions in heavily salted water. When done, take out a cup of pasta water and set aside, then drain pasta and place it back into the pot. Immediately add cooked cream mixture and stir together over medium-low heat for 3 minutes, until most of the sauce has been absorbed into pasta. Stir in 1/2-3/4 cup of reserved pasta water to help sauce cling to the pasta and give it a silky mouth feel.  Add spinach, Parmesan, tomatoes, and cooked broccoli and gently toss. Pour into large serving vessel, season to taste, and serve hot.pasta listThe next one is my take on a lemon icebox pie.  It has a vanilla wafer crust with lemon zest, and an unexpected, creamy topping.  It’s the perfect dessert to eat on the porch on a hot summer evening.porchTwisted Lemon Icebox Pie

Preheat oven to 325.

Crust:vanilla wafer crust50 vanilla wafers

3 tablespoons packed brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

zest from 2 lemons

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup brown butter (melt butter then continue cooking, watching closely until the solids are caramel-brown and the butter smells nutty)

Put cookies, sugar, salt and zest into food processor or blender.  Run until the cookies are small uniform crumbs.  While the machine’s running, pour in butter and vanilla extract.

Place the crumbs into 9-inch springform pan and cover bottom and 2/3 of the way up sides.  Use a straight-sided glass to press it into even layer.

Filling:icebox pie2-14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk

1 & 1/4 cups strained lemon juice (from the 2 zested lemons and 4-6 more)

8 large egg yolks

1 teaspoon salt

Whisk filling ingredients until fully mixed and lightened in color, about 1 minute.  Pour into crust, place pan on cookie sheet and place in oven.  Cook for 25 minutes or until filling is mostly set and center is still a little jiggly.

Let pie cool on counter for 1 hour and then in fridge or freezer for at least 6 hours or overnight before removing from pan.  To de-pan, run knife around edge, then open pan slowly in case of stickage. 

Topping:sour cream1 & 1/2 cups sour cream

3 tablespoons packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 teaspoon salt

Whisk together and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours.lemon icebox pieTo serve:

Run serrated knife under very hot water before slicing.  Drizzle on a spoonful of topping.

Try to stay cool, and I’ll see you next week for a longer visit.ladies who lunch

Thanks for your time.

When Life Gives You Lemons…

So, it very well may be the end of an era.

Every Easter, since the beginning of time, dinner has been ham, turkey, pasta and potato salads, baked macaroni and cheese, baked beans, and snowflake rolls (my mom and The Kid love those rolls, but I’ve always thought they had the consistency of stale doughnuts).

Usually, I make the ham and sometimes bring along my blueberry-speckled lemon cheesecake.  A few weeks ago, we were wandering through Costco, lurching from one sample to the next.  In the back at the bakery, they were sampling their key lime pie.  And it’s really good, y’all.  Not too sweet or sour.  Light, but luscious.

Anybody want a slice?  I got plenty.  Really.  Have some.  Please, I beg you, have a slice.  Or two.  Or fourteen.

For $12 you get a pie big enough to serve the entire population of Paduka, Kentucky; I couldn’t make it at home that cheap.  It’s perfect for Easter dinner.

I was also thinking about bringing the potato salad this year.

Lemon and dill are extremely spring-appropriate.  And the potato salad I was thinking of is a lemon potato salad.  It’s a twist on a recipe that is served at a favorite Greensboro deli, Jam’s.  I adore it, and years ago begged one of the owners for the recipe.

Here is that delicious potato salad, and their Reuben, which is also pretty darn kick-ass.

Their version has an unfortunate surfeit of celery.  And as any right-thinking human knows, celery in potato salad is an abomination.  It’s not quite as heinous as mustard or Miracle Whip, but it is pretty darn close.  They also put a large amount of white pepper in it.

They use the wrong brand of mayonnaise, too.  But because I don’t have it in me to engage in the Great Mayo Crusade of 2018, I’m not naming names.

And you can’t make me.

Lemon Dill Potato Salad

spud vinegar

3 pounds waxy potatoes

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

3-4 tablespoons salt

Preparation:

Place salt and vinegar in a large pot of water, along with unpeeled, whole potatoes.  Cook on medium until potatoes are fork tender.  Remove from heat, drain, and allow to cool completely.  Once cool, peel and cut into salad-sized chunks. 

Dressing:

lemon dressing

Juice of one lemon

2 eggs, hardboiled

½ yellow onion

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup mayonnaise

2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped

Salt & pepper

To make dressing, place first four ingredients into food processor and blend until smooth.  Whisk in mayo and dill.  Season, taste, and re-season, if necessary.  Refrigerate for at least an hour.

Gently fold dressing into the potatoes, starting with about half.  Gradually add more until the consistency is to your liking.  Taste and re-season if necessary; don’t forget lemons, fats, and potatoes all need plenty of salt.

Cover and allow to rest in a cool dim place, but not in the refrigerator for 30-60 minutes before service so the flavors can meld and develop.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAServes 8-10.

So, here I am, ready to win Easter with my famous glazed ham, key lime pie, and killer potato salad.

Then, Mom called.

The menu of our normal buffet luncheon was completely changed.  No ham, no turkey, and no salads—including potato.  She had decided on a make-ahead dinner; beef Stroganoff (hers is actually incredibly delicious, almost makes up for the no potato salad), and Aunt Candy was bringing her famous ziti.

Okay…And no pie was needed either, she was making carrot cake and a chocolate icebox dessert.But I am constitutionally unable to go empty-handed.  I just can’t do it.  So, in keeping with the bunny theme, I shall be making the trip with the prepped ingredients for a double batch of my carrot soufflé.

Happy Easter, and I’ll look for you on the bunny trail.Thanks for your time.

They call me Tater Salad

Both of us were very happy at dinner tonight.For Petey, there were big, fat, baked pork chops. When I took them from the freezer, I made a rub using coffee salt, freshly cracked peppercorns, ground caraway seeds, thyme, and fresh rosemary.  I rubbed it all over the chops and put them in the fridge to thaw.

When it came time to cook them I tossed them into a bag of flour.  Them I ran them through a pan of buttermilk and pressed pecan pieces and whole grain cracker crumbs all over them.I set the oven to 375 degrees.  I put a little vegetable oil into a shallow baking dish and nestled the pork chops inside.  I inserted a probe thermometer into the thickest part of the thickest chop.

Common wisdom used to be to cook the pork chops until there was no moisture left in the meat.

But there are a few problems with that tactic.  Pork is very much leaner than it used to be, so the meat comes out dry.  And cooking them to a temperature of 160 or so makes the meat come out very dry.  So the end result is pork that is very dry.Did I mention it would be dry?

Even the USDA, historically a very conservative and safety conscious bunch, now recommends that pork only needs to be cooked to 145 degrees.  I cook our pork chops to 140, which gives us a very light pink center.  Even if pink is not a color you want in your chop, 145 will be cooked through, but still juicy, and a radical sea change from the chalk-like 160 or higher.

So that was Petey’s treat.  What was mine?Tater salad.

I don’t remember exactly I lost my heart and mind to potato salad, but I do know that unbelievably when I was little I didn’t like it.  If you’ve read more than one or two of these essays, you know that my two favorite foods on the planet are potato salad and birthday cake.  And even I know that woman cannot live on birthday cake alone—although I’d be happy to volunteer for a study to find out exactly how much birthday cake one can live on.  So if you know somebody in research…Anyway.

My treat tonight was the potato salad portion of the program.  And I was trying out a new recipe.

That’s the great thing, but also most problematic part of potato salad.  When I googled recipes, I got 6.33 million results.  Putting “classic” in front only lowers that number to 1.78 million.  There is no one right recipe.  It varies according to culture, geographical region, ingredient availability, and even mood.

What.The.Literal.Hell?

What this means is that there are numerous amazing, delicious versions of the dish.  And there are just as many recipes for dreck.  Mustard, celery, relish?  Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

But, you might think that broccoli or olive oil are abominations.  Everyone has a place at the potato salad table.  So pull up a seat, and grab a fork.

Thanks for your time.

Parma potato salad

parma potato salad3 pounds red skin or yellow potatoes

½ red onion, diced

½ cup pancetta, cut into strips, cooked until crispy, and set aside

3 tablespoons pancetta fat, divided (if you don’t have enough, add olive oil)

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Zest of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 cup mayonnaise

Salt & pepper

In a large heavy pot with heavily salted water, boil unpeeled potatoes until a knife easily pierces it.  Drain, and let cool.  When fully cool, peel and cut into bite-size chunks.

Place into a large bowl along with onion, and drizzle 2 tablespoons of fat over veg, along with salt and pepper to taste.  Gently stir to coat.  Cover, and let sit at room temperature for thirty minutes.

Make dressing.  In a small bowl whisk together the last tablespoon of fat, Parmesan, lemon juice, zest, thyme, and mayo.  Season, taste, and reseason if necessary.  Cover and refrigerate thirty minutes.

Thirty minutes before service mix dressing into potatoes starting with about ¾ of it, adding more if needed. 

Sprinkle pancetta on top of each serving.  Serves 4-6.

I’ve never said this before, but I can’t even.

   

Salad ‘daise

No matter where, or when, if I’m eating out and there are Eggs Benedict on the menu, I order it.  And I always ask for extra Hollandaise.

When I am lucky enough to have potato salad on my plate, I eat everything else then slowly, savoring each bite, consume my potato salad.What do these facts say about me?

  • That if I can see the finish line and the wait isn’t too long, I enjoy a small amount of not-too-delayed gratification.
  • I’m a big fan of silky, well-made emulsification.

This is the fifth and final week of our mother sauce series.  We are wrapping up with my very favorite, Hollandaise.  And although some people might disagree, The Kid and I firmly believe that because of the emulsification in the making of it, mayonnaise belongs in this category as a sort of step-daughterThe info on this sauce is all over the place.  It was either invented in the 1600’s or maybe the 1700’s.  Hollandaise is named for the region in Netherlands, either because it was invented there, or because Holland has the best eggs and butter, which are the two main ingredients.

Traditionally, Hollandaise sauce is not the easiest of mothers.  It involves a double-boiler and whisking raw eggs over heat while retaining the smooth silky texture.  There are few tragedies as heart-rending as the sight of curdled or separated Hollandaise.

So just don’t make it at home, right?

Wrong.Long ago, my mom belonged to a book club.  Not the kind where you sit around in somebody’s living room drinking pinot and discussing the latest Oprah pick.  Books came in the mail.

One month it was a cookbook; The New York Times International Cookbook by Craig Claiborne.  Years later, Mom gave it to me.  I had no idea that the author was considered one of this country’s all-time best food writers.  I also didn’t have a clue that one day I would be a food writer myself.  But, as an extreme novice in the kitchen, I took help and inspiration wherever I found it.

One day while perusing said cookbook, I stumbled upon a recipe for Hollandaise that to me, looked pretty doable.  Instead of the usual procedure that came with a huge possibility of inedible failure, it was made in a blender.

Craig Claiborne’s Blender Hollandaiseblender hollandaiseMakes 4 servings.

Heat one-half cup butter to bubbling; do not brown.  Into container of an electric blender, put two egg yolks, two tablespoons lemon juice, one-quarter teaspoon salt and a pinch of cayenne.  Flick motor quickly on and off twice at high speed.  Remove cover, turn motor on high and add butter gradually, until mixture thickens.  If too thick, add cold water.  Serve with vegetables, fish or eggs.

So it looks like you’ve got raw egg yolks in the sauce.  And if you are a child, pregnant, or have a compromised immune system, just steer clear.

But.

To get the butter nice and bubbly, shoot for 200 degrees (F).  An egg yolk is considered cooked enough to be safe at 145.  The hot butter and the friction from blending should put the yolks clearly in the “safe” category.Like Craig says, the sauce goes great on veggies, fish, and eggs.  But I love it on fried, boneless, skinless chicken breasts and it’s crazy good on any type of pasta.

If you’re like me though, it doesn’t have to be all fancy-fied.  Forget the vessel on which to put it.  Just chug it right out of the blender.Thanks for your time.

Pie Redemption Challenge

So Petey, The Kid and I went to Chapel Hill last weekend to visit Southern Season and Trader Joe’s.When dinner time rolled around, we decided to eat at K&W Cafeteria.  We all enjoy cafeteria eating.  It’s usually pretty cheap for a tray heavy with Southern food.  Each person can get whatever they want—three helpings of carrots and a piece of garlic bread?  Go for it.  Spaghetti, chicken livers and ham on one plate?  Enjoy!  Feel like gravy on your fries, or jello on your cabbage?  Just ask.

The Kid had their chicken tenders, which are pretty good; crispy and juicy, if sometimes a touch greasy.  I normally get the country style steak, but instead had the meatloaf, which was moist and tasty.  Petey had the comedy item; hoki fish, which sounds like something crafted into the shape of fish from tofu, but was really fish.

I threw caloric caution to the wind and picked both bread (a biscuit; not bad), and dessert.I chose a slice of light looking, fluffy chiffon pie.  The signs under it indicated it was either lemon or lime.  But either way I was looking forward to an airy, citrus-flavored treat at the end of my meal.

Only.

Only it was orange.  But that was ok–I like orange just fine.  The problem was, it was extraordinarily sweet and artificial tasting.  After the entire Matthews Family Band tasted it, the consensus was that too much boxed jello had been used to make it.  Because not only was it cloyingly saccharine, the texture of the pie was similar to that insulation that is blown onto the wall with a gun, then expands and hardens.

Room for dessert?  We’ve got pie!

It was gummy, stiff, and thoroughly unpleasant.

 

The Kid and I discussed the pie on the ride home, and I decided to come up with my own version.  This pie would be made with fresh ingredients.  It would not be too sweet, or have a weird, creepy texture.  And because it was my pie, I wouldn’t go the traditional route of straight lemon, lime, or orange.  I was going rogue.

I thought maybe I’d do a lemon-orange combo, but at Earth Fare they had Meyer lemons.  Myer lemons are sweeter than regular lemons, and have a beautiful orangey-yellow color.  But they’re expensive and can be hard to find.meyerThen I thought about blood oranges.  They have deep scarlet flesh, and a berry component to the taste.  But they don’t show up in stores for another month or so.

Then I thought about bergamot.

Bergamot orange is a Mediterranean citrus fruit.  Like the Asian yuzu, it’s not really eaten in fruit form much, but used for its ability to flavor food and drink.

You may already know, gentle reader, the most common item in which bergamot is used.  It’s Earl Grey tea.  Earl Grey’s a combination of black tea, and oil of bergamot.

Earl Grey Chiffon Pie   

Ingredientsearl-gray1 envelope unflavored gelatin

¾ cup sugar

¾ teaspoon salt

½ cup milk

3 egg yolks, lightly beaten

¾ cup strong Earl Grey tea, made with 2-3 tea bags and cooled

¼ cup lemon juice

1 ½ teaspoons grated lemon zest

1 cup heavy whipping cream, whipped to soft peaks

1 9-inch pie shell or 1-11 inch tart shell, either homemade or store bought, baked and cooled

Directions

In a saucepan, combine the gelatin, sugar and salt. Add milk and egg yolks. Cook, whisking constantly over medium-low heat just until mixture comes to boil and gelatin’s dissolved. Remove from the heat; whisk in tea, juice, and zest. Chill until partially set.Very gently, fold in whipped cream and chill just until mixture is cool, and starts to hold its shape. Artfully mound into pie shell; chill thoroughly (3-4 hours).  Makes 6-8 servings.

While this pie would be epic on a hot summer day, I think it would also be a welcome, lighter dessert alternative to a holiday meal.  Plus, whoever heard of Earl Grey pie?  You’ll definitely get points for originality.

But if you sub out the tea and juice for other components, the recipe contains the procedure to make any type of chiffon pie.  Even (Horrors!), pumpkin spice.Thanks for your time.

The big chill

Cryostasis. According to the Oxford dictionary, it’s “A frozen state of a person…induced in order to preserve it for long periods; cryosuspension.”

Well, it’s not just for deep space travel and Walt Disney anymore.

The Kid and I adore avocados.  It wasn’t always this way.  We developed our love for them through their most famous gateway drug; guacamole.  But we now love them on toast, sliced and salted; just about any way.

Avocados can be a giant pain in the keester, though.  If you’re buying and eating on the same day, good luck.  Stores get them in as hard as a baseball; they ripen on the grocer’s shelf as they wait to be picked to go to a new home.

So choose them according to when you need them.  4 or 5 days out?  Buy rocks.  For a couple days from preparation, pick ones that give just a little to gentle pressure.

At Costco there’s plenty of choices.  Take your time, and pick out a bag of boulders.

I buy a bag of six from Costco, and try to get the hardest ones they’ve got.  This gives me a few days grace to get my ducks in row, and be prepared for when they’re ripe.

But what to do when the avocado is ready and you’re not?  Because everybody knows that when a good avocado goes bad, it joins a gang, gets a face tattoo, and starts bullying onions and tomatillos for their lunch money.  And they only possess perfect, delicious ripeness for twenty minutes or so.

This is where the cryostasis comes in.  If you have a mess of fully ripened avocados (they’ll give to the light pressure and be slightly softened all over,) lying around the kitchen, set them, unwrapped, in the fridge.

I refrigerated ripe ones with the idea of using them in a few days.  But I figured what would happen is that I’d cut into one and discover something so bruised it would be as appetizing as a cigarette put out in a piece of birthday cake.  Last Tuesday, 2 days after stashing them in the chill chest, I took out a perfect avocado; no strings, no bumps, no bruises.

And then I made my new favorite avocado dish.

Avocado and spinach pesto

avocado pest ingredients

12 ounces short pasta

3 ½ cups raw baby spinach

2 avocados

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Juice of 2 lemons (bout ¼ cup)

¼ cup olive oil

¼ cup chives or scallions

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper

1 cup reserved pasta cooking water

Cook pasta according to directions in heavily salted water.  Microwave spinach for about 1 minute 45 seconds or completely wilted.  Place into food processor.

When the pasta has five more minutes, make sauce. 

Add the avocado meat, cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.  Process, adding enough hot pasta water until it’s sauce consistency.

Drain pasta and return to pot.  Pour sauce over and gently stir to coat.  Garnish with chives.

Serves 2-4.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The pesto would also make a good dressing or dipping sauce. 

This stasis trick is even more amazing.  Last Tuesday, 2 full weeks after entering stasis, The Kid cut into a refrigerated avocado.  It was perfect and delicious.  I think we’ve cracked the code.  No more waste.  With all the scary avocados I’ve tossed in my life, I could probably finance a week’s vacation to Kill Devil Hills, and bring along Petey, The Kid, and the dog too.

Best of all, avocado’s pernicious stranglehold over me has been broken.  They’ll be eaten and used at my pleasure.  I will never again be a slave to botany.

Thanks for your time.

A spare goose

 

Hey!  I think that kid in the lower left is wearing pajamas.

Go to any schoolyard, and talk to the kids about food likes and dislikes.  You’ll find out that French fries and pizza are big hits.  But my guess is that among the Brussel sprouts, liver and avocado, asparagus will land unequivocally among the top-ten “Ewww, Gross, No way!” list.

I’ve always been a fan.  Even when I was a kid, and asparagus came from a can, I liked those enigmatic green spears.

I don’t think I ever ate or even saw it fresh until I was in my teens.  Then I thought myself quite the gourmand to purchase, prepare, and eat pipe-cleaner sized asparagus.

And I thought that grassy was just the flavor of fresh.

Au contraire, mon frère.

One day, many years ago, I purchased some fresh asparagus.  On the tag was the farm’s phone number for more information about the veg, and recipes.  So, I called it.

The produce gods must have been smiling down on me that day because the phone was answered by the farm’s owner.  And this guy took me to asparagus school

Not the actual asparagus farmer.From left: Dancing Bear, Bunny Rabbit, Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Moose, and Mr. Green Jeans-my template for a farmer.

We spoke for at least an hour.  But by the time I hung up, he made sure I had a thorough understanding of his product.

The first thing we talked about is the life cycle of the plant.  It’s a perennial, meaning instead of starting a new plant every year, it grows year after year.  Many people already know this, but it must grow for a few years before the spears can be eaten.  But a healthy plant might last up to thirty years, with many happy springtime harvests.

But those pencil-thin, so-called babies?

no pencils

That’s what you get with a weak plant, or one that’s lived a full life and now is played out.  It is not, let me repeat this; not desirable.  It will never get the satisfying snap of a correctly cooked spear, and quelle surprise; tastes grassy because there is a surfeit of chlorophyll.

And this, I think, is why kids and many adults dislike this potentially delicious vegetable.  They’ve never eaten a good spear, cooked well.

My farmer friend informed me that the best asparagus is bright, healthy green, as thick as your thumb, with closed, dry tips.  Those restaurants that serve and grocers that sell those infuriating twigs are pulling the compost over your eyes.   They’re not gourmet specimens, they’re lies.

Why don’t we see fatties in stores more often?

Because these are the vegetables that the farmers keep and eat themselves.  And when they feast, sometimes they cook them like this:

Roasted asparagus

Untitledroasted goose

2 pounds fat asparagus cleaned, with woody ends broken off

Juice of half lemon with zest set aside

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon honey

2 teaspoons mayonnaise

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons finely grated parmesan + more for sprinkling

Salt & pepper

Whisk together all the ingredients except asparagus and sprinkling cheese.  Pour the marinade over asparagus in shallow baking dish and let sit for one hour.

15 minutes before cooking, place a large baking sheet with cooling rack on it into oven and preheat to 450.  Place veg onto cooling rack in single layer.  Sprinkle with the rest of the Parmesan and bake for 15-20 minutes turning once, until lightly tender, but crisp.

Place cooked asparagus into serving vessel and sprinkle with pinch of large flaky salt and reserved lemon zest.  Serves 4-6.

Nope.

And oh yeah, about that goose in the title?   There’s no lurking fowl.  Here at Chez Matthews, it’s just what we call asparagus.

Thanks for your time.

Pucker up

What’s better than lounging around your pool, drinking a thick, creamy, chocolate milkshake?  Or if you’d rather, a daiquiri; you be you.

How about Antonio Banderas holding that glass for you, and bringing the straw to your lips.

You know…I don’t even need the pool, the milkshake, or the boat.

What’s better than lounging around your pool, sipping on a drink held by Antonio Banderas?

Drinking from a glass held by Antonio Banderas while lounging around the pool on your disgustingly opulent yacht.

In that same vein, what’s better than a creamy lemon cheesecake?

full cheesecake

A creamy lemon cheesecake that’s unbelievably, insanely, easy to make, and topped with a lemony blueberry streusel, that’s what.

When I started cooking in earnest, I loved to pick up the little cookbooks in the checkout line in the supermarket.  My favorites are the Pillsbury Cook-Off booklets.  They have the top recipes from all categories.  I purchased my favorite, which I still have and use, in 1994.

Although there are quite a few dishes in it that I still prepare, there’s one recipe in it that I’ve made literally hundreds of times.  It alone was more than worth the price (which back then was all of $2.75).

As always, I played with it, tweaked a few things, and made the recipe my own.  The newest twist is the addition of blueberries.  I love them, but my mom’s really crazy for those navy nuggets.  She is whom I had in mind when I made the change.

It would make a terrific dessert for Easter dinner.  And it travels great, in case you’re doing dinner elsewhere.

Vanilla bean lemon cheesecake with blueberry streusel

lemon blueberry cheesecake

Crust:

1-18.25 ounce package lemon cake mix

½ cup butter, softened

Zest of 1 lemon

Filling:

2-8 ounce packages of cream cheese, softened

3 large eggs

1-8 ounce container lemon yogurt

1-16 ounce can lemon frosting

1 vanilla bean

Topping:

1-2 cups fresh blueberries

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly spray bottom of 9 or 10-inch spring form pan with non-stick cooking spray.  Place a piece of spayed parchment that is about 2 inches larger all the way around over the bottom, then clip the bottom and ring together, letting parchment hang outside. 

Blend cake mix, butter, and zest in large bowl at low speed until crumbly. Reserve 1 cup of crumb mixture for topping. Press remaining mixture into bottom and 1 ½ inches up sides of pan.  Using a metal measuring cup to help form it will get a smooth, even, crust.

Beat cream cheese, eggs, yogurt, frosting, and vanilla bean innards in same bowl at medium speed with whisk attachment until completely smooth. Pour into crust-lined pan. Very gently, one at a time, place the blueberries evenly on top.  Sprinkle reserved crumb mixture evenly over berries and filling.

Bake 1 to 1 ½ hours or until center is set, but slightly jiggly and edges are light golden brown. Cool 30 minutes. Run knife around sides of pan to loosen. Remove sides of pan, then carefully slide the parchment off the pan bottom onto serving plate and trim the excess paper. Refrigerate 2 hours before serving.  Slice with unwaxed dental floss or serrated knife dipped into very hot water.  Sliced thinly—and you really should, this serves 16.

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Store leftovers in the fridge.

This makes a delicious lemon cheesecake.  But the only thing limiting the potential flavor is what kind of cake mix, frosting, and yogurt you pick.  You could also combine flavors, like chocolate and coffee, vanilla/pomegranate, or orange/caramel.

Heck, this fall you could go nuts and get your pumpkin spice on.

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Or not.

Thanks for your time.

Hello Yellow

It’s a bum rap.

Calling a faulty piece of machinery a lemon—it’s wrong and unfair.  It’s just blatant anti-lemon propaganda.

It may not look like much, but don’t you dare call it a lemon.

Lemons are one of the tastiest and most versatile items in any kitchen.

The other day I was waxing rhapsodic about lemons, and said, “Lemons make everything better.”

A miracle can grow on a tree.

And Petey said, “Not if you don’t like ‘em.”

Well first off, I don’t think that person exists.  But, for the sake of argument let’s say that this freak of nature is out there somewhere, leading a lonely, lemon-hating life.

There are unconfirmed reports coming out of North Korea that this man is an unrepentant lemon hater. Figures.

Unbeknownst to him, he probably ingests them all the time.

Many fruit juices add lemon to keep them from becoming cloyingly sweet.  Lots of salad dressings contain a spritz or two.  And all kinds of dishes, especially long cooked ones, are finished by squeezing a bit of lemon juice into them.  Just enough to perk up the flavors, but not enough to taste.

Recently I cobbled together a recipe for sautéed spinach.  Except for creamed spinach, I’ve never liked it cooked, because it seems bitter and slimy.  But I read about a method that’s easier, and less messy.  I had a surfeit of spinach in the fridge, so I decided to experiment.  Besides, The Kid loves sautéed spinach, and I get a kick out of giving my culinary schooled child a little schooling from me.

Popeye called. He wants in.

To my surprised delight, wilting the spinach by microwave gets rid of both bitterness and sliminess.  I loved it.

Sautéed spinach

32 ounces fresh baby spinach (2 large boxes)

*1 tablespoon garlic oil

1 large shallot or 1/2 red onion, diced

¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

Juice of ½ lemon

Kosher salt to taste

Cracked black pepper to taste

*To make garlic oil, peel 2 cloves garlic and bruise by giving them a whack with a spoon.  Place into skillet with olive oil.  Warm until fragrant, then remove cloves with slotted spoon and discard.

Directions for spinach: Place raw spinach into very large bowl, pressing down to get it all in.  Cover with damp paper towel.  Microwave for 2 minutes.  Toss and put back into microwave.  Cook in 2 minute increments until completely wilted.

Put into colander and let it cool enough to handle.

Once cool, squeeze with your hands to get out as much water (and the bitterness it contains) as possible.  Put it on a cutting board and roughly chop.  Return to colander and squeeze it again to get out all the liquid you can.  Let rest in colander until ready to cook—or refrigerate and hold for up to 6 hours.

Heat skillet, add garlic oil.  Add shallots, season, and cook until translucent.  Stir in spinach, and nutmeg.  Season.  Sautee until it’s hot and it seems almost dry.

To preserve color of the spinach, take pan off heat then stir in lemon juice.  Check for seasoning, and serve.  Makes 4-5 servings.

Even though there’s lemon in the spinach, it only brightens the flavor.  So, there you go, mythical lemon hater.

But if you like lemon, there’s all kind of places to put it for a kick of citrus.

Lemon can make a good thing better.

Add it to scrambled eggs—but only after cooking; adding it to raw will curdle them, which is a pretty unappetizing sight at breakfast.  Give soup a hit; I recently added lemon juice to both Panera’s cream of chicken, and a bowl of egg drop soup.  Turned out awesome.  But lemon loves salt, so taste and re-season if needed.

Not just savory, lemon’s heavenly in sweets.

For a quick delicious dessert that will impress and delight your diners, make a granita.

A granita is a frozen non-dairy dessert that when placed in a goblet, looks like a million bucks.

See how pretty?

Just make a pitcher of lemonade and pour it into a baking dish and freeze (add a splash of grenadine for pink lemonade).  Every 15 minutes, take it out and scrape with a fork.  Keep doing this until it’s completely frozen and looks like snow.  Scoop into wine glass, and garnish with a sprig of mint or a twisted strip of lemon peel.

I hope I’ve convinced you to appreciate this sunny, daffodil-colored fruit so much that you, like me, are beseeching life to give you some lemons.

May I some more, please?

Thanks for your time.