February 27, 2014

The Broken Home and The Baklava Fix

Baklava: The Easy Way
Far from a spate of bad luck and more akin to overuse, objects in my house have become broken--seemingly all at once and sadly, on the heels of several writing deadlines. Thankfully, one of my best qualities is my resourcefulness followed closely by my sense of humor.

I dug out my old iBook with the bootlegged copy (not my work) of Windows 97 to work on my writing, but unfortunately, the browser is so out of date that I can't access my email. For that, I employ my Kindle, and to conduct general business, Mr. B will graciously let me slip into his chair to use his computer--provided that I leave things the way I found them, a simple task that often eludes me.

And for the first time, I had to send an FYI to an new editor who I am working with alerting him of my dilemma and yes, it rang heavily of the old "the dog ate my paper."A weak and suspicious excuse to be sure, but worse, it fell into the category of being pedestrian. So, later in the afternoon when I managed to finish my work in spite of all the glitches, I submitted it with a more creative note:

"Dear Editor,
The computer glitch would be comical, if it weren’t my second one to go in a few short months. I’ve also worn out a blender, a mixer, a toaster, a coffee maker and the oven. The household appliances and small kitchen electrics are calling me “The Angel of Death” and even the lamps are whispering unkind things behind my back.”

Feeling slightly better for providing a more interesting explanation, it was time to reward Mr. B for playing musical desks with me. For months now, he's been telling me how much he's been craving baklava, although I haven't a clue what brought about his hankering since I haven't made baklava in over a decade and honestly, that was a fiasco. I struggled to work fast enough to keep the filo dough from drying out, I made a mess of the syrup and in the end, we needed a jack hammer to get it out of the pan.

Riding on the fumes of victory and in spite of the broken oven, I decided to see if I couldn't take my success to a new level. I was set on making baklava for Mr. B and since I still had an amicable relationship with the toaster oven, I decided to push forward.

Instead of looking for a recipe, I read recipe reviews and cobbled together my own after reading where others went wrong. Surprisingly, baklava is quite easy and what I managed to make in my toaster oven could easily rival the best Greek bakeries and left both Mr. B and I stunned. Thus, while it's been a week requiring me to think on my feet, adapt to the unexpected and push myself to use my creativity--and ingenuity--the results couldn't have been better. The moral of the story: never let obstacles prevent you from succeeding, even when you're coming from a broken home!

February 21, 2014

Poached Pears with Edible Flowers

Poached Pears with Lavender and Saffron
Lest anyone think that the only cooking going on in my kitchen of late has to do with the butchering of small animals--which by the way, Mr. B would be thrilled with--I  decided to share a beautiful, feminine, and artistic dessert recipe. Not only does this one cook up in a hurry, but it's guaranteed to perfume your home with the aroma of exotic spices and, it makes for a beautiful presentation.

In general, I've never been one for cooked fruits, unless otherwise employed in a heavenly chutney or savory jam. Honestly, the thought of putting my spoon to a soft and smooshy apple or pear, has at best, left me more than a little underwhelmed. Then, by chance, I hit upon a marvelous deal on a rather large bag of very petite D' Anjou pears and I couldn't resist.

I'm not sure what secrets the grocer uses to prevent pears from ripening all at once, but they weren't at my disposal and in what seemed a matter of hours, my pears were ripe and ready to eat. While devouring pounds of pears might seem a worthy activity and an admirable way of passing an afternoon, it wasn't something I was interested in undertaking, so instead, I decided to put aside my dislike of cooked fruit and give poaching a try.

Just about anything can be poached, from the usual egg or chicken breast right on through the vegetable bin and the fruit bowl. Poaching liquids can be as simple as water flavored with a few clippings of herbs, or as complicated as a proportionately measured mix of liqueurs and brandies. I decided it would be best to fall in the middle and chose a simple mix of water, honey, spices, and for good measure a few star anise and lavender heads. Then, having passed through my garden in pursuit of herbs and not being able to resist the spectacular and vibrant geranium flowers, I plucked a few of them for good measure.

Of course, one must exercise caution when adding blooms and petals to a dish. At the very least, some are bitter and could entirely ruin hours of cooking, but more importantly, many are poisonous and their inclusion could have a drastic result. Edible flowers require researching and then, I advise, never eating any that you've purchased commercially unless you are entirely certain they haven't been treated with any pesticides or chemicals. However, if you practice organic gardening techniques, then I say wander amid your plants and taste as you go, then feel free to add--although sparingly--the blooms to any dish you wish to brighten.

February 14, 2014

Tying the Knot: Homemade Sausages

Duck and Pork Sausages

If you would have asked me 15 years ago whether or not I would consider making sausage, I would have laughed. Teetering on the edge of vegetarianism, for me sausage making was the very worst of culinary pastimes and the thought of participating in such a grizzly and violent activity was unimaginable. 

It certainly didn't help matters that one afternoon, when I came home from work early, I found Mr. B in a blood spattered apron with the remains of a deer leg sticking out of the kitchen sink.

After thoroughly sanitizing the kitchen with bleach, Mr. B swore that I would never again come home to such a scene, but like the carnivore--and as it turns out--expert sausage maker that he is, he was just blowing smoke.

When you love someone, you try to overlook their slights and such was my course, but not long after the deer leg incident,  I came home to an even more brutal sight--a pig's head in my refrigerator!

We were bound in matrimony, so there was nothing to do except devise a plan that would  accommodate both my inability to emotionally process a kitchen scene straight out of a low budget horror flick and Mr. B's desire to pursue the sausage arts.

And so, therein was the secret to our road to a happy marriage--striking the sweet spot, or finding the harmonious balance between our ideas of acceptable kitchen activities. After all I surmised, the key to a long and happy marriage was accepting each others' faults (his) and finding a way to move on from one's indiscretions (his, again), and so, we (I) decided that on afternoons when Mr. B would take to sausage making, I would take in a matinee.

But then, as time went on and we racked up anniversary after anniversary, a funny thing happened--Mr. B grew too busy to make sausages and so he packed up his meat grinder and tucked his sausage maker into a box and shoved it into the depths of the cabinet, and I, well, I was left to stare blankly into the butcher's case at the pallid, lackluster--and thin--sausages. I didn't miss the bloody scenes or the overwhelmingly strong smell of bleach, but, secretly, I missed Mr. B's passionate and expert sausage making.

Years passed and the dust on his equipment grew formidably thick and then, a curious event occurred--I was tasked to write an article about--of all things--making sausages at home. Me. Sausage making. Then, like many a married woman, I was forced to stand before my husband and ask him to do something that for years I'd tried to get him to stop. It was, in essence, the classic tale of matrimony, but it was being played out in my own kitchen.

"So," I began, "would you consider helping me with a new article that I'm writing?" He looked at me, his eyes narrowing and I could tell that he knew I was going to ask him for help doing something that I'd already made him stop doing. "Such as..." he asked, and then, I could no longer hold back my panic and I spilled it all to him--the article--the expectations--the photographs--I needed HIM to make sausages for me. And just like that, without a single question or a bit of chiding or pointing out the irony, he nodded his head and wrote out a grocery list.

"But," he countered, "I have one stipulation..." Yes, yes, yes, I nodded vigorously; I would agree to anything. "You'll have to help me," he said.

If there was any hesitation in my voice, he didn't hear it. I merely nodded in agreement.

"You can either stuff or run the meat through the casings. Your choice. But, when we're finished, we'll work together to tie the knots. Deal?"

I nodded and then reached out to shake on it, but before I could fully extend my hand, a gesture of both agreement and truce, he reached out and swept me into his arms. He was happy, to be sure, finally, after all of these years, we'd be tying the knots together.

February 12, 2014

Heart and Sole

Pan Sauteed Skate with Classic Menuiere Sauce
Trying to get a jump start on planning a Valentine's Day dinner often means coming up with a menu days--if not weeks in advance. Shopping pre-Valentine's Day for either a gift or food can be nightmarish at best, so I like to have my ducks in a row early on.

Never one to follow the crowd, I won't be stalking the butcher for the best looking filets or strips, nor will I be haggling with the fishmonger over the choicest lobsters or crabs, instead, while my competition swarms, I plan on quietly sliding down the length of the seafood display until I reach one of my all time favorites, and often overlooked, delicacies--skate.

Skate fish isn't very popular in the U.S., but in countries such as France it makes a regular appearance on many menus. I first discovered it many years ago when Mr. B and I spontaneously stopped at a Saturday morning fish market in a neighboring seaside town. Mr. B, who spent a good bit of time traveling through France, pointed it out and convinced me to give it a try. Honestly, since Mr. B is such as accomplished poissoneur, I hardly needed any convincing at all. Turns out, skate is delicately flavored and very much, in my opinion, like sole.

In New Orleans, one of the most popular preparations for fresh fish is to pan sautee it and top it with a classic Menuiere sauce, which is really nothing more than a brown butter sauce with lemon, capers, and parsley. Always one of my favorite ways to eat fish, preparing skate in this manner makes for an incredibly satisfying and delicious meal, especially when served with Crispy Oven Fries, a tossed green salad, and a large glass of chilled white wine.

I guess that settles my indecision over what to get Mr. B for Valentine's Day. I think he'd like a big piece of skate--I know I would!

February 07, 2014

Off and Running: The Year of the Horse

Chinese BBQ Pork and Scallion Pancakes
Not ones to miss a holiday celebration, Mr. B and I look forward to kicking off the Chinese New Year every February. When we lived in San Francisco, it was a big event and since our apartment was a short walk to Chinatown, we were surrounded by the festivities--parades, feasts, and the palpable sense that something big was about to happen.

You've probably guessed--and correctly--that I know a thing or two about Chinese astrology. I've already researched how I will fare in the coming year, and while the forecast for Snakes is fortuitous, so far, the year has gotten off to a rocky start.

First, the kitchen accident that almost cost me an eye. After I cut open the bag of Kim Chi and dropped it on the kitchen counter, a spray of hot, fermented liquid spurt upward and right into my eye. Talk about burning-hot-fire-I'll-never-see-again pain that didn't subside until after a full 20 minute eye flush!

Then, and thankfully, this didn't happen until after I'd finished the pork, my beloved little white Amana's ignition mechanism bit the dust. Normally, I'd be pretty bummed out about it, but I've got to say, that oven has been, well, an absolute work horse for me over the last 5 years. There hasn't been very many days that I didn't work that oven, and there were many stretches when she literally stayed lit around the clock.

I'm not sure how the year will progress, but I'm fairly positive that once I steady my horse, I'll fly over the terrain. My little Amana will soon be fixed and ready for the ride and thankfully, my vision--and sense of humor is still intact.

Now, for the dish. I took my basic pork recipe for Skinny Crock Pot Carnitas and after the meat was shredded, I spread it out onto a sheet pan and tossed it with a spicy, sweet Chinese-style BBQ sauce and put the whole of it under the broiler until the meat was crispy and caramelized. I had Mr. B whip up a batch of scallion and cilantro pancakes that I based on a crepe recipe. Finally, what really made this dish sing was that after topping the pancakes with a big spoonful of shredded BBQ pork, I added an equally big spoon of Kim Chi.

Learning the ways of the horse may be difficult at first, but I'm confident that I've finally mastered the way of the pig!

February 05, 2014

The Green Gene: The Girls From Tennessee

Easy Smothered Greens
Is there anything better than discovering the secret to mastering a pot of quick collard greens? Most likely, you can think of a million better things to praise, but for a girl who loves greens in the I-can't-get-enough-of-these-greens way, what I learned a few weeks ago was truly life changing.

Many people would be surprised to learn that collard greens are a member of the brassica family, which includes the cruciferous vegetables of cabbage and broccoli. While collards aren't as popular (at least not on the West Coast) as their cousins, I would venture that they sure are a lot tastier--even without the requisite ham hock. Truthfully, had I known there was an easy way to make a 'mess o' greens,' I would have turned out at least a pot a week.

But, I didn't. In fact, I thought that greens required nothing short of a Herculean effort and frankly, more often than not, it was a task that I didn't care to mess with. Like fresh spinach, kale, and chard, collard greens are dirty and require several washings to remove the grit--lest you chip a tooth while eating them--and, since they reduce down to almost nothing, you need a lot of greens to make a reasonable sized pot.

So, imagine my surprise when the secret to good smothered greens was revealed to me, not by one--but by two--girls from Tennessee! Actually, they're not girls at all, but rather grown women who I count among my friends and while it seems a bit coincidental that they'd each have a 'green' secret to share, it's really not unusual at all. Smothered collard greens hail from the Deep South and although Louisiana is in the mix, greens are low country fare--not French, Creole, or Cajun.

The first secret that I learned was that you can buy frozen greens! Seriously, this knowledge was life changing for me. I'd never thought of looking. In fact, aside from frozen peas and the odd bag of frozen corn, I never ventured near the frozen vegetable bin. Who knew?? The second secret was revealed to me several days later by my other friend who mentioned that adding a can of Rotel to the pot gives the greens just enough heat to round out their flavor. Genius!

I couldn't get to the market quickly enough, where I spent the better part of an hour wandering the frozen vegetable section and although I saw a number of things I'll eventually try, when I wheeled my cart into the checkout lane, it was only filled with frozen greens and Rotel--I already had the bacon and onions at home. And, while I'm certain that those girls from Tennessee don't hold back on the bacon, I went for a healthier style and showed some restraint.