Friday, July 28, 2006

Ode to my little artichoke

In spring 2005, I planted some artichoke seeds in a pot on the deck. Those seeds came back with me from Hawaii in about 2003. So I had little hope that anything was going to happen. And it didn't, for a rather long time. Finally, some plants came pushing up. Hoping against all odds that I'd get something edible, I tended those plants lovingly. However, so did a lot of bugs (they like artichokes, too!). Insecticidal soap didn't make the artichokes any happier than the bugs, so I resorted to tomato leaf tea to get rid of aphids and gave in to the fruit flies (or at least that's what they looked like). All 2005, nothing but leaves. Several plants died. But two held on over the winter, still teasing me with the potential of producing my first artichoke. Finally, in about May, one plant got a little bud. Glory be!!! If I could save it from the critters, I might have something there. Keep in mind, we have a small balcony and so this much time (and real estate, it is a big pot) is a pretty big investment when I could be doing something like banging my head against a wall trying to grow tomatoes. (More on that later.) Anyway, today the artichoke, still only about 3" across, started behaving like the flower it is and looked like it was about to bloom. Time for harvest! Simple preparation here -- make sure all the critters are gone and steam it in the microwave for about 2.5 minutes. Usually, I use artichokes as an excuse to eat rich sauces -- I love them with mayo, or hollandaise, or melted butter. But today, nothing was getting between me and my produce! It was very nice, and all I did was put a little bit of salt on the heart. Of course, ten minutes of artichoke ecstasy is a rather meager return on an investment of 18 months :) But sometimes I can be persistent.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Florida seafood and the best meal

Sure was toasty down in Florida. As they say, it's not the heat, it's the humidity. Tried amberjack for the first time. It was very good. Place called Rick's Crab Shack. They grilled it, and it was done perfectly. Just as good were the fried shrimp -- just lightly coated in flour and fried, so no bulky breading. Later in the week I went back there and tried their grouper nuggets with hush puppies. Also perfectly cooked, and a huge portion for lunch. More grouper at RumRunners. One of the best pieces of fish I've ever eaten. Coated in ground pecans and coconut and sauteed. Nice and firm, with a lobster-like texture, but not rubbery or dry. Served with a beurre blanc. I was in heaven. AJ's in Destin claims to have originated chargrilled amberjack. It was okay, a little dry. But still a nice assertive flavor without being fishy. Also had assorted fried fish sandwiches, and a grilled striped bass sandwich. The latter was served as two big chunks of fish, which I kind of had to mash up to make it a sandwich. That was a little fishy for me but not bad. My biggest complaint about the grouper sandwiches was that the grouper filets were too thin, so there was as much breading as fish. But my best meal down there wasn't seafood, it was prime rib. And really prime. A place called Callahan's in Destin, where they have a butcher shop and a bunch of plastic picnic tables (with umbrellas!) inside the shop. You choose your steak from the case, or in my case choose to have a (massive) slice of medium rare prime rib. That was one of the best pieces of meat I've eaten in a long time. Beefy, very velvety, none of that graininess that can show up. Perfectly seasoned, it had no need of the au jus or horseradish that came with it. Strange little place, but one I'd go back to if I'm ever in Destin again.

Refrigerator postscript

New fridge got delivered on Monday -- seems to work. But they gouged the new kitchen paint in the process, and the door handle is scratched. So we're not quite past this one yet. And...they sent us yet another compressor! That makes three compressors and assorted refrigerator parts sitting in my dining room. I know that Whirlpool would like them back, but we are having a hard time getting the dealer to pick them up and I'm certainly not going to go through the hassle of packaging them up and shipping them out. Come to think of it, we never did get that check from Whirlpool, either. Guess there's more to this story.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Reflections on my last day of class (for now)

Last day of the preserving class series. Chef Gabe told us today that over the course of the class we made 38 different things. Wow! Ranging from pancetta and bacon and ham to mustard, ketchup, sauerkraut, and foie gras and confit. A very strange thing happened today. When we went around the room to talk about what our favorite part of the class was, I got all teary-eyed. Felt pretty silly about that, but not really embarassed. It was honest emotion. This has been in many ways a life-changing experience for me. I feel more comfortable with knowing what I do know, and not knowing what I don't. And it has confirmed how much passion I have for cooking. Maybe I'm also sad for the years (and maybe career) lost when I didn't know that this was where my passion and skills were. Ah, but better late than never. As I said when I started the class, I felt kind of like an outsider. But by today I didn't. At least I felt comfortable talking about what I might do with certain ingredients without being afraid that Chef would think I was an idiot -- in fact, I was able to talk that way without the little voice in the back of my head telling me to shut up. That's when I knew that my confidence has expanded. Today's agenda was fresh sausages. I got to work with caul fat today, something I've always wanted to do (It's funny how many things in this class dealt specifically with things I've always wanted to learn more about: foie gras, caul fat, terrines, cured meats...). Anyway, the caul fat went around some very lean greek lamb sausage. They were just plain great. All the sausages were great. So the meal today was a buffet of most everything we made. Scary huge table of food. I was so tired I really couldn't eat a plate of food, but I did sample most all of the sausages. Including trying the blood sausage, another of those things that I really really didn't want to eat. So that list goes like: blood sausage, gizzard confit, sweetbreads, raw foie gras. Not bad to get past all of those taboos for me. Can't say I liked everything but at least I tried! Our cured sausages were yummy, and cooking the collards with the cured pork shank was quite great. The Camembert got kind of funky, and the rind got very bitter. But it looked kind of neat. I won't be posting for a while, since I'm off to join Dave in Florida for a week. Gotta go eat grouper and amberjack, and try to forget the refrigerator trauma :)

Friday, July 14, 2006

%&(*#!! Refrigerator

Well, I thought it was fixed. But it died again last night, leaving me to schlepp frozen food to a borrowed freezer at 12:30am. AAAAARRRRRGGGGHHHH!!!! So I sent a heavily-edited flame mail to my dealer, and v-mail directly to Whirlpool (Whirlpool makes KitchenAid, in case you didn't know -- I didn't). I explained that they were going to replace the appliance, no further debate on the subject allowed. By 9am this morning they were all marching to my drum. Of course, I'm leaving town tomorrow night and not returning for a week, so the new one doesn't get delivered for a week. But I've re-purposed the wine coolers for the condiments, and I have an electric "cooler" that now has my undying loyalty. Have pressed that back into service to keep the duck confit, pork rillets, and cheeses fresh until we have the real thing again. This has been an amazingly stressful experience, I think because I felt completely out of control of events. But defective units leave manufacturing facilities all the time, I just lost the "lemon lottery" this time.

Dontcha just love potatoes and onions this time of year?

New potatoes -- the skin is so tender you can rub it off with your fingers. They are so darn sweet if you cook them simply. I'm talking 1/2" dice, parboil them until they are nearly done, then browning them in butter or olive oil. A little bit of minced rosemary can't hurt, or a little tarragon, or thyme... But pair them with the wonderful sweet onions you get this time of year, Walla Walla or Vidalia, then it gets really special. In fact, the contract of the sauteed potatoes with some diced raw sweet onion is great, or you can put the onion in at the beginning of the saute to get some nice caramel notes from all that sugar in them. Finally, to gild the lily, pour a few beaten eggs over them and make a Spanish torilla, or an Italian fritatta. Today, I added a little blanched and chopped mizuna -- the mixture toned down the bite of the mizuna and it stayed really bright. Yummy.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Heidi's Tasting Project

At the last minute last Saturday we got invited to an "event" at Culinary Communion (did I mention that's where I'm taking these classes?). Heidi, Gabe's wife, has an interesting project going on about how we think foods should taste and how they actually taste, over time. Like do in-season tomatoes really taste better, and if so, how? I took Dave along with me because I wanted him to meet Gabe and Heidi as he decides if he's willing to do the Provence trip with me (I really want him to). I thought it was fun though challenging. Dave discovered I think that he doesn't think about how food is supposed to taste, and what his vision of the "perfect" tomato or orange or asparagus is. So I think in the end, while it was kind of hard for him, that he was intrigued and wants to do it again (Heidi's intention is to do this monthly). I think it's a creative idea and it will be interesting to see where it leads for Heidi. Hardest thing for me about the evening was that I was there in class all day, got home after 5 and had to make something to take to the party at 7. Oh, yes, that was intimidating! Had some very new potatoes, fresh summer squash, and freshly shelled peas that I needed to use anyway (remember, I didn't have a much of a fridge!). So I steamed them all and tossed them with a vinaigrette and some fresh onions. Only problem? I didn't have any ice to chill the veggies with (no freezer at all!), and the vinaigrette sort of separated as the whole thing cooled. Rather, the veggies sucked up all the vinaigrette except for some of the oil -- curious thing, I'm working to understand why that happened. But the freshness of everything was great, so in the end it was fine since the oil I used was a very nice peppery EVOO. Another step of faith off of a cliff for me.

More cooking class thoughts

In all of my stress over the impending demise of my fridge (now repaired, finally, incidentally) I haven't talked about the latest coolness of my cooking class series. Last week, I learned how to bone a duck thigh as part of making confit. That was cool, because although I've made plenty of confit, I have not learned boning. So I am very happy about that, and because I then boned five hindquarters, I got to get some reinforcement of the learning. I also made tasso -- or at least did the curing and spicing of it before Gabe put it on the smoker. But because I went to an event there the same evening (more on that in my next post) Gabe had smoked it and we (Dave and I) got to try it the same day. Boy was it yummy -- thanks in much part of course to Gabe's recipe, which included allspice and marjoram in addition to cayenne and white pepper. But I was thrilled to have done the prep on this one. In fact, I just get very excited seeing the results of the things I've worked on in this class, since for the most part they are things I would never do/get to do in the normal course of life at home. I mean, making Camembert? Only in class. And it really looks like Camembert! And the prosciutto -- where would I have room to hang an entire ham? But there, oh, it's a thing of beauty. This weekend we will make some fresh sausages, and then eat all the stuff we've made in what seems to me to be an embarassment of riches :) and a surfeit of pork fat...YUM!!! What this cooking class series has done for me, though, is much deeper than just getting to make things I've never made. It has made me more confident in my knowledge, or at least made me aware that a lot of knowledge is living up in my head that I draw on instinctively. It's also made me (sometimes painfully) aware of what I don't know, and of how I am still lacking in confidence. But I'm going to continue on this journey, I've already signed up for another class and I think we're going to go to Provence with these guys next spring. I think Gabe has a lot to teach me, and I appreciate that he has the formal education that I don't and that he has a passion for sharing it. The first step was the hardest, now I have to keep myself from over-indulging in this.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

AARGH!! Fridge meltdown

For the past two weeks I have been dealing with a steadily declining fridge. That's right, the oh-so-wonderful built in isn't so wonderful anymore. Finally tomorrow they are supposed to come and replace pretty much everything. Don't know why they don't just replace the whole unit. In the meantime, I've been struggling to keep things cold enough for health, and keep meat frozen. Today I'm going to have to reboil all of my stocks from the freezer and make more duck stock, even though it's not time to. Luckily there is a freezer in our rec room here at the condos so today I moved all the frozen food there, and then put the refer side of the food into my freezer since the refer side has completely stopped working. Not very fun. Funny how the dealer just doesn't want to know you anymore when things aren't going well...