Sunday, April 3, 2011

Putting on the heat

A little char

If you remember the reference to that tongue and flavor concept earlier, then you may also remember that sweet is pretty much as important as salt in the tactical perspective of taste.  We can crave sweet about as equally as we crave salt; and yes, we can likewise build up a tolerance to that flavor as well, especially if it is abused.  I didn’t say I don’t abuse, but I won’t point fingers.

Heat not only ‘cooks’ our food by rendering cell walls digestible, it removes some difficult elements found in some foods, while also promoting positive elements.  And wonderfully more, heat also has the potential for raising flavor quality.

If you wander through the internet or your encyclopedia, you’ll find when looking up a scientific term call Maillard Reaction, a description recalling proteins, enzymes, carbonyl and nucleophyllic groups (are you still here?) in the cooking process, you’ll see that carbonization reacting with amino acids in meats and some foods is the process described as the Maillard Reaction which raises the ‘flavor bar’ considerably. 

Like a hundred-fold! 
Now are you listening?

Caramelization is the reduction of natural or added sugars in foods to the point of an oxidized, sometimes carbonized, more complex flavor.  The encyclopedia has a lot of scientific words to give you there as well, but most folks are at least acquainted with caramelization and how it tastes, chews and smells.  

Caramelization and the Maillard reaction are NOT the same thing.  As I stated, the Maillard reaction deals with proteins and enzymes reacting to carbonization – while caramelization is sugars (natural and processed) reacting to carbonization.  The two effects are based with heat application bringing complexity, but then the reactions to the carbonization differs in structure and chemical process. 

Both of these ‘scientific’ flavor alterations are a huge contribution to foods, the natural sugars are more easily processed in our digestion than are the added processed sugars, and the flavor is, well, who doesn’t like a complex sweet?

I don’t think I even need to say what our society would be without chocolate or coffee.  But the chocolates and coffees of the world as we know them are completely dependent on the roasting stage of production -- that ‘bit of char’.  Those hundred-fold flavor complexities found in both chocolate and coffee could not happen without this Maillard effect. 

Or the savory, rich crust on steaks or turkey skin, or the yeasty crunch of fresh baked bread, or the hypnotically resonant sweet aroma, taste and texture of roasted corn and vegetables.  Thank you caramelization!

To caramelize vegetables and fruits, or to bring the Maillard effect and caramelization to meats, fowls, and fishes is, to me, a necessity. I’ve had boiled meats and vegetables – they taste ok, depending on other factors like spicing, texture and aromas – so believe me, without the chew and complex sweet found with caramelization, the difference is approaching legendary.  The act of using controlled high heat, or extended low heat to our advantage is a lesson to learn. 

Trust me.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Grains are the base, the foundation of societies, the continuation of the species – if I may be so bold to proclaim.  Vast fields spanning huge expanses of land are dedicated to the propagation of them.  Their oftimes used term ‘staff of life’ is no misnomer.  The uses, flavors and recipes for grains are so vast, I’m not going to try to give a repertoire of recipes, but lay out my perspective on the basics and treatment for attaining best flavors and textures – with a couple of examples for you to expand from.  Give it your ear.

By definition, grains, simply said, are the seeds of various grasses.  There ya are.  The most commonly known varieties are:  

WHEAT:  Wheat is perhaps the best-recognized grain in the US, if not the world.   In its whole grain form (NOT to be confused with ‘multi-grain’, ‘100% grain’ or ‘full grain’.  Whole wheat may also be found as related varieties known as ‘buckwheat’, ‘kasha’ and ‘bulgur’) it is richest in taste, fuller in texture, and most nutritious in content (in that the ‘bran’, ‘endosperm’ and ‘germ’ are still intact).  The downsides to this form are that ‘light’ bread preparations and pastries are most difficult, ‘quick’ cook methods are not feasible, and ‘mildness’ of taste is basically over-ruled.  In this form, it can be rough-cracked and softened with moisture and used in soups and breakfast cereals.  While ground fine, whole-wheat flour makes a dense, hearty bread or other baked good – even when utilizing leaveners such as sodas and yeasts – or when prepared as a flatbread (naan, tortilla, pita etc).  

In a refined form (the hull, ‘bran’ and ‘germ’ removed), it is paler in color, more susceptible to absorption of liquids and lighter in flavor and in texture.  In this form it is best known in the US, being used as  ‘pastry flour’, ‘all purpose flour’, and ‘bread flour’ – depending on the proportion of protein (in the form of gluten) in the particular variety of wheat grain selected, with ‘pastry’ being the lowest, up to ‘bread’ being the highest.  This form is more suitable with yeasts for most breads; and when whole-wheat flour is used alongside the refined, it makes a more pleasant texture.  It is usually re-fortified with vitamins, minerals and nutrients post-harvest to compensate for the losses brought on in refinement.  Choosing ‘unbleached’ is the best form of the refined option one can choose nutrition-wise.

RICE – Given more detail in the ‘rice is nice’ section of this blog.  It is found in thousands of varieties across the globe.  Like most all grains, it too has a popular use in alcoholic beverages.

CORN – Cultivated for millennia in the Americas.  The propagation has been divided into hundreds of varieties, ranging from very rustic, firm and basic for animal fodder – to very sweet, juicy and light varieties for fine dining.  It can be used fresh and consumed even raw off the cob – or dried and ground to a meal or flour.  In a ground flour or meal presentation, it has been a staple on the human plate for centuries. 

The most common whole grain corn offering is directly off the cob (in thousands of cooked and raw fashions), plus found also in the ever-popular snack – popcorn.  As an alcoholic source, corn not only is used for human consumption (ask anyone in the southern US about ‘white lightnin’), but now is also used as a fuel additive and alternate combustion option.

BARLEY, OATS AND RYE:  Lesser-known grains that are still greatly used, and known perhaps more for their contribution to alcohols and fermented presentations than a daily thought to a chewable diet.  In the US, these were more widely used in times past, and took a ‘back seat’ with the introduction of the more easily grown wheat.  They all contain much less gluten than wheat, making them a less successful option for breads as we know them.  Their flavor, texture and aromas are very unique, unlike the more ‘main-stream’ flavored wheat, making their addition to any food a very obvious one (but a good one!).  Barley makes an excellent flavor/nutrition boost to soups (turkey barley soup is my favorite), breads, cereals and pastas (with barley as an additional flour).   Oats are likewise a huge nutritional contributor, and although used greatly for animal fodder, it also has a very large place on the human plate as well.  Mostly oats are found in ‘rolled’, ‘bran’ and ‘flakes’ presentations, and claim a sizable offering with breakfast, soup, dessert and baking menus.   Rye is the least known with US homes.  It has a delicious specific taste; that as in flour form, works well with breads, crackers and other savory pastry presentations.  Like oats, it can be whole or rolled in use.

GRAIN-LIKE FOODS:  Legumes and seeds that have been used similar to grain for breads and other carbohydrate dishes are quinoa (pronounced ‘keen wah’ – a seed, but not of the grass family), wild rice (a water grass seed), lentils and chickpeas/garbanzo beans (both legumes), and ostensibly couscous (coos-coos) – a northern African grain dish that is basically a dried, crumbled pasta.

PREPARATIONS:  ROAST:  Applying indirect heat, as I have said a few times ;>) in this blog/book, one of our best taste friends is caramelization.  This rings so very true with grain preparations as well.  Like the specific seeds used for coffee and chocolate (can you imagine THEM without caramelization?), the roast has the potential for bringing enormous flavor complexities to any grain/seed dish.   This success may be accomplished through either a dry heat roast, toast or an oil fry preparation.  Roasted corn has a huge presentation selection, ranging from many Native American/Mexican/Italian sources (corn pudding, elote, polentas, salads etc) to European dishes from the east as well as the west.  Roasted cracked wheat grains and bulgurs offer a rich flavor in soups and long-cook dishes, plus offer an enlarged nutrition contribution as well.

TOAST:  Applying direct heat, like a dry frying pan or ‘toaster’ style oven brings a nice fresh ‘up-surge’ of grain flavor.  The essential oils have been encouraged, as with the other heat applications, but in this dry sense, the structure remains more ‘true’, if not wonderfully enhanced.  Toasted oats, barley, wheat (I love the smell of toast in the morning), quinoa, couscous and rye are a scent to behold.  This step as a first one makes the final dish even more richly enjoyable.

FRY:  Some rice examples, Rice Pilaf and Risotto, are prepared by sautéing the selected rice grains in butter/oil/animal fats prior to addition of the waters and liquors.  Toasted or sautéed barley introduced into a hearty soup is famous for many grandmothers to attest.  We can go on for days about fried corn (any couch potato will happily affirm), as the effort is so worth the rich tastes given.  And with wheat, the effects of fried wheat flour (a caramelized roux) are legendary in Creole and Cajun cuisines. 

MOISTURE:  A freshly roasted, toasted or fried grain will be more ‘thirsty’ for moistures to re-constitute the grain texture to an edible state.  Usually, the first moisture added to a dish after heating the grain will be the primary flavor the grain will take on into the individual granule.  Usually this flavor is found with wine in some form; but stocks/broths, flavored oils, juices and various flavored waters are used as well to a lovely success.

Some grains are very hard hulled, or densely formed, requiring that moisture be added patiently and slowly – so, as with many beans and legumes, a good overnight soak may be desired (especially with faro and rye).  Rice often is soaked for extraction of the delicate flavor and using primarily this liquid, continued further to become puddings, drinks and soups.  Dried/treated corn has been ground then re-constituted for centuries, creating many American Indian/Mexican dishes (i.e. masa), Italian polenta, as well as a mandatory Southern staple – grits. 

Some grains, if not all, are grown and/or stored in a fashion that the fine powders of other crushed grains – or a surface residue produced within the growth or storage process – may most likely cover the individual grains, affecting the final cooked tastes and textures.  Submerging, rinsing and draining the grains at least once in cool, fresh water as a basic preparation step makes a good idea for pretty much all grains you wish to use in a dish. 

Cooking most whole grains in a simmer/steam fashion requires about 40-50 minutes cooking time to soften (some after an overnight soak), while most refined grains require 20-30 minutes for their tender ‘bite’.

As with any new idea, always smell the ingredient options together under your experienced nose. Trust how it ‘sounds’ to you.  Try stepping out of your comfort zone and give new taste ideas a try.

Two of my topmost grain recipe thoughts:

ROASTED CORN, ah, roasted wonderfulness.  Of all the grain options, this is certainly one of my favorites.  There’s something about the taste of the caramelization along with the sweetness of the corn that finds such deliciousness.   Whether roasted in a hot pan (lightly oiled or non-stick), or over an open flame, or in a hot oven – the results will be almost the same – light brown edges with an occasional dark bit here and there.  Placing the un-husked cob directly on the coals in a BBQ can make a delicious roasted taste.  Just watch and sniff carefully (plus, removing the ‘silks’ is easier after the corn has cooked).  Just prior to finishing the roast, slather the naked cob in a flavor/texture ‘ointment’ that ensures the adhesion of further tastes and textures.  Some like mayonnaise (famous for just being delicious), some like butter (but try garlic and/or herb butter).  I personally found bleu cheese dressing to make a nice accompaniment to corn.  One can also try a bit of nut-butter as a base slather, starting with the famous peanut butter, but don’t stop there – cashew butter (!), almond butter – so evilly good.  Mix a portion, about a fourth, with three-quarters cow’s milk butter, and use as you would table butter. 

Returning the cob to roast just a bit further (in the case of the BBQ, this time the peeled back corn is set on the grill) sets this ‘slather’ well into the flavor of the corn.  The roasted coating you choose also makes a great adhesion for just one more flavor and texture layer.  Some like grated Parmesan, Grana padano or Cotija cheeses.  Some like crushed nuts/seeds – try sesame, sunflower or caraway seeds!  Some like crushed prepared snack foods like potato chips, corn chips or salty pretzels.  Some also like to sprinkle roasted spices or fresh herbs:  Cumin, paprika, cayenne – it would seem they are made to go with corn.  When all is done, after all the roast, try adding fresh chopped cilantro, thyme, dill and/or tarragon.   And always, salt and pepper.  Remember, your dining guests will most likely have these messy ingredients up their cheeks, and perhaps in their ears, so lavish this dish with only your closest friends! 

A safer ‘less-mess’ version, corn pudding, is almost the same ingredients and options, but the corn is trimmed first, the ‘corn milk’ squee-gee’d off the cob, the corn and sugars slow roasted together with the flavorants, with milk and eggs into a custardy, rich, very flavorful mass.  Yowza.

RICE PUDDING – Another wonderfully delicious taste, and so many versions and preparations for it.  Some choose to start with raw rice (a short grain or arborio), and cook it in three times the volume of milk or half-half (cream is just too rich).  This makes a lovely textural and rich rice, but the ease of scorching the milk is very high – so proceed with caution, stirring often, like risotto.  Sometimes soaking the rice in water and/or milk several hours to overnight will ease the final heat preparation a bit (use the soaking liquid in the cook as well).  When tender, almost mushy and just barely approaching dry, the rice is then mixed with a selection of ‘creamy’ ingredients such as sweet potato mash, pumpkin pie (canned or fresh) filling, nut butters, preserves/jams/marmelades, mashed soft fruits such as very ripe bananas, mangoes, papaya and/or persimmon – even a portion of canned sweetened condensed milk along with canned evaporated milk, which may then be slow baked or stove-top cooked till thick like porridge, and is only limited by your imagination. 

Other versions call for cooked rice, this time long grain (used while warm and soft).  In this preparation, the pudding is prepared as if a custard, with eggs as the gentle thickener.   Either full eggs for a lighter texture, or egg yolks alone for a denser finish.  Simmered in a milk base, with sugar, sweetened condensed milk and/or honey/molasses/maple as well as barley or agave syrups and brought to a careful finish by either baked in a bain-marie (water bath) low and untouched – or roasted dry and stirred occasionally – or very low stove top with careful stirring and blending.

Flavor and texture additions can be diced dried or fresh fruits (dark or golden raisins, dried cherries, dried cranberries/Craisins, dried pineapple, dried apricots/peaches/strawberries etc, dates, currants, figs, fresh berries, fresh cherries, fresh apples/peaches/plums, segments of citrus – oranges, limes, lemons – with their juices added into the original bake). 

Spicing can be the usual cinnamon and vanilla – but try cardamom, nutmeg, cayenne and/or just a hint of allspice.   Almond extract at the finish, simply a breath of luscious.

Subtle textures can be chewy, as in the dried fruits, but a mild crunch may be asserted with nuts, seeds, fresh crunch fruits diced small (apples, pears, jicama, celery etc) or crushed candies and/or candy barsButterfinger anyone?   In the warm pudding, try stirring in shaved or morsel bits of chocolate, white chocolate, butterscotch, caramel – yes, it’s bad but so good.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Herbs and spices - and everything nices!

There was a time when food was eaten pretty much as a necessity, and not essentially as an enjoyment.  Oftimes the meat, fish, pork, poultry or vegetables were somewhat tainted at the best, if not running near rancid, but less than fresh was certainly a given.  Breads, root vegetables and cheeses were the foundational mainstay.  Fresh water?  Only if you lived near a fast moving stream.  Wines, beers and ales, dairy and juices offered the best safe liquid (wines and ales due to boiling of the water in the creation - although they hadn't yet learned about the act of sterilization).  Aside from alcohols, pickling and preserving, the act of cooking/boiling was the first (and usually the only) line of defense to deal with these taste and health issues for most of society.  Salt was treated like money.  SPICING, in any form, you’d think would have been considered a necessity, but unfortunately a high luxury for most.  Just the demand for peppercorns (and followed closely by cinnamon) was enormous once introduced to the European table from the Orient by Marco Polo. 

In their early days, these primary spice imports traveled through many hands from the Orient – sailed around India, caravan packed up through the Persian Gulf area, then shipped across the Mediterranean; and sometimes shipped around Africa and up that continent’s west coast to the western end of the Mediterranean -- making any imported spices so expensive by the time they reached western Europe, they were paid for in herds of cattle or parallel to that expense level.  At one point, one single peppercorn was exchanged with one head of cattle!  Yikes.  Ultimately, more localized agricultural opportunities lightened that huge financial restriction, but they were still a class/social/expense issue.

I’m so grateful that those historical eating restrictions have been dealt with for most of the world, and we have the luxury of eating for pleasure as well as sustenance.

Pepper is historically popular greatly because it has the remarkable ability to mask bad flavors and enhance the good ones in most foods.   The volatile oils open the senses, clear the taste buds of any residual blockages, and allow a more pure, original taste to be enjoyed.  The ‘fire’ also diminishes unpleasant tastes and odors.  What a magical little ‘corn’.

Try it on strawberries, or cheeses, or greens or cherries or . . . 

Other flavor enhancers are to be found in the forms of:

HERBS (leaves, petals, stigmas and stems of flowers,
plants, and shrubs), etc

SPICES (ground dry seeds, buds, bark, roots; and ground
dried fruit and berries of plants, shrubs and trees), etc

EXTRACTS (reduction, steeping or evaporation of
flavors resulting in condensation, derived from essential
serums and oils suspended usually in alcohol – mostly
found presented as vanilla, nut, citrus/fruits, & liquors), etc

sauce; fermented pepper sauces – like Tabasco, Cholula or
Louisiana Hot Sauce; soy and fermented soy bean sauces
and pastes [miso] and other Asian condiments -- oyster sauce,
bean sauce, Thai chili paste and fish sauce; mustards/horse-
radishes; vinegars and ketchup), etc

     FLAVORED OILS (sesame, sunflower, coconut, peanut,
      grape seed, avocado, pine seed and other seed oils; walnut,
      hazelnut, cashew, peanut and other nut oils; olive; soy; corn;
      palm kernel; and other hot or cold processed and infused oils
      such as annatto/achiote, garlic, truffle, basil, chive, and lemon-
      flavored oils), etc

All work wonderfully to enhance flavor, and also stimulate saliva and digestion, fortify aromas, and encourage appetite. 

I much prefer eating for enjoyment, but as it is also a necessity, might as well make it strong on all fronts.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Vegging out

I’ve shared with you a great cornucopia of vegetable-based or vegetable-oriented dishes – like the cranberry sauce/relish, the twice-baked potatoes and all kinds of fries, some wonderful green beans, sumptuous baked beans, plus a plethora of soups, zesty chiles rellenos, (my secret love) ratatouille – and more.  Well, here are some additional foody ideas, so that you may stay in good health always – with good taste, of course.




PETIT POIS (petty-pwa)

Europe seems to have a better relationship with this humble little green vegetable than we yanks do.  England has amazing fresh pea soups and a plethora of mashed peas or mushy peas.  France has a lovely braised pea and lettuce dish (I do love those braised surprises).   Italian pea dishes use the little guy in a baked dish with fresh herbs.  And they all pretty much have basically the same ingredients and flavor enhancements, but just different presentations.  This recipe is the basics of all of these countries’ idea of the pea, and you can run with it to your pea-pickin’ heart’s content.

Most all the recipes of these origins are based first with the pea, butter, then sweet onions and salt and pepper – some sweetener, a thick ‘gravy’ carrier and fresh herbs follow suit.  Finally, a finish with some crunch factor, whether bacon bits, nuts, or the introduction of other crisp vegetables.

Tools:  cutting board and knife, food processor, saucepan

Prep: Frozen peas are the best option, as they are lightly braised then chilled within hours of harvest, saving the best texture and nutrition.  Canned varieties may seem sufficient, but usually choose to use an elevated contribution of salts and other preservatives.  I don’t recommend cooking the frozen peas much further, other than bringing to ‘thawed’ and room temperature.  Minor cooking with the other ingredients is the best option for enhancing the blend of the ingredients.  Thawing is best done by placing the frozen in the refrigerator to slowly thaw, or in the microwave at 30% power (usually marked as ‘thaw’).  It doesn’t take long, especially with the tiny size of what you’re thawing.

2      packages peas (usually 10 oz each) – the smaller,
the sweeter and more tender – baby peas,
petit peas (frozen - not in the can or jar)
1      package onions – pearl, red pearl, cipollini, thawed
– or fresh leeks small diced
½     tsp salt
½     tsp pepper
1      tbs sugar/honey
2      tbs butter and/or olive oil mix
¼     head lettuce, sliced in ½ inch ribbons
1      tbs flour
¾     cup milk – canned, half/half or cream
2      oz cream cheese (one-fourth of an 8 oz block)
1      cup broth/stock
1      tsp lemon juice or rice/sherry/champagne vinegar
4-6   leaves fresh mint, chiffonade
1      tsp fresh oregano, minced (dried is OK, reduce to ½ tsp)

2 tbs-¼ cup toasted slivered almonds, pine nuts, sunflower
nuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds etc
            as you like 'crunch'
Bacon/pancetta/salt pork – the fat and the crisped bits –
about 1/3 pound pre-cooked, with about
1 tbs fat

Options:  For color, texture and variety – as well as flavor and nutrition (folded in at the end):  Carrots, diced medium; winter squash – the oranger the better -  diced and roasted; legumes/beans – red, kidney, lima, white/cannellini, garbanzo/chickpea, fava etc.  You have the tasty braised lettuce, but try also halved diagonals of peeled cucumber, also lightly braised - 'lish! 

Preparation:  Take one package of the room temperature peas, the sweetener, salt and pepper, and process with half the broth/stock (room temperature or warmer) to a smooth and thick ‘paste’.  Meanwhile, heat the saucepan to mid-hot, and add the butter – or oil and butter mixture and bring to a toasted ‘nutty’ golden (butter will do this, not oil alone).  When just beginning to become lightly toasted, add the onions or leeks and continue to fry/toast them in the fats until they too begin to golden.  Add the flour and continue to bring it as well to a golden hue and nutty scent.  To this add the rest of the broth, the lettuce, the acid (lemon juice or vinegar), the milk or canned milk, the tiny bit of cream cheese – and finally the second package of the room temperature peas.  Heat, stirring well, only until it begins to simmer gently.  Fold in the fresh chopped herbs, the pea puree, and any other roasted vegetables you may wish to include - plus your 'crunch factor' found in other veggies, nuts or crisped pork bits - plus the pork fat - in the dish and gently fold together to a final, lovely ‘mash’.
Optional options:  Hey garlic, how can we have pork and not garlic?  And other herbs – most any of the ‘grassy’ herbs fare well with peas – cilantro, chives, parsley, mint (as you know), plus the heartier varieties such as tarragon, basil, thyme, oregano etc.  Other ideas to fold into the mass at the serving could be meats – sausages, shredded pork, diced ham.

And mushrooms, there's always room for mushrooms!  Lovely, meaty, rich and tasty - sauteed in garlic and a bit of wine - wonderful mushrooms. 

And why not adding to that diced avocado chunks, fresh diced tomatoes, roasted peppers – pick a country!

But you have to try it first as the simpler basic version - Enjoy! 

serves four to six

When I lived in Paris, I sometimes would eat dishes for lunch that I’d find in delicatessens around the neighborhood I worked, or if on an errand, in other arrondissements I found myself.  Arrondissements (are-on-diss-mon) are neighborhoods associated by the then relatively new five digit postal ‘zip’ codes, which were introduced in 1973, I was there in ‘74 and ‘75.  My mail came to 75005.  One such find was quite new to me, so I thought I’d give it a try.  I had never heard of endives (on-deev) – a mild type of chicory, like radicchio – but they had Belgian endives braised in wine and chicken broth and wrapped in ham.  These rolls were then baked in a Béchamel (white) sauce till all bubbly.  It was incredible. 

Belgian endives aren’t easy to find or can be expensive, so I tried using leeks (such a wonderful flavor and aroma) that I’d braised till tender and did the same wrap and presentation.  Knowing me, I had to try just a bit more, and added a few more ingredients.  I added a handful of grated Gruyére/Swiss to the white sauce, and also a handful on the finished top.  But under that cheese, I also added wedges of tomato and hard-boiled egg.  A great accent to the dish.

Tools:  fry/sauté pan, cutting board, nine by thirteen oven-safe baking dish or casserole dish

Prep:   Braise leeks or Belgian endives:  Endives look like a small ear of corn, pale green and semi-firm.   For either one, first wash, removing dirt and old leaves/layers.  Trim root end and top leaves, split leeks in half and rinse out the inside leaves.  Braise in salted water, wine-broth mix or broth alone till fork tender in the covered frying pan.  It will smell wonderfully incredible.  Drain and let cool enough to handle.  Use sliced deli ham or leftover ham you may have in the refrigerator.  Sliced turkey or beef can work as well.  Spray the baking dish with food release or cooking spray.

Set oven to 350°

12     small (or fewer larger and divided up) leeks,
                 white to light green part, making a shape about ¾ to one
     inch in diameter and four to six inches in length, braised tender  
                -- and/or --
12     Belgian endives (slender whole -- or 6 large-sized, halved),
                  braised tender
12     slices ham (or chicken, turkey or beef), at least four by six inches
                  square or thereabouts
1-2    cloves garlic, minced
 ¼     cup butter (4 tbs, half a cube), olive oil and/or heart-healthy
                   margarine (not water-based)
 ¼     cup flour
2-3     cups milk, canned is the best option, thinned as desired with broth
                   (or whole or 2%)
 ¼     cup white wine or sherry
 ½     tsp oregano
 ½     tsp thyme
 ¼     tsp (pinch) grated nutmeg
 ¼     tsp (pinch) cayenne pepper
6-8     oz Swiss or Gruyére cheese, white cheddar, fontina,
                    jack, pepper jack -- grated

2-3     hard-boiled eggs, wedge quartered (see under ‘devilled eggs’
                    how to prepare)
2-3     firm, smaller-sized ripe tomatoes or roma tomatoes,
         cored and wedge-cut to six

Preparation:  In the same medium-hot frying pan, melt the butter/margarine and/or oil, and add minced garlic as the butter/margarine melts and evaporates water.  Sauté gently till the aroma rises, then add the spices for a half-minute, and lastly add the flour.  Whisk the fat, spices and flour together until blended and cook to remove the raw flavor of the flour for a minute.  Add the wine and work with the whisk to blend, cooking just long enough to finish removing the raw flavor of the flour as well as the alcohol and pungency of the wine.  The roux will be elastic and thick; add milk a half cup at a time whisking constantly, bringing to heat at each addition until the sauce comes to a cream-like consistency.  Add half the grated cheese a bit at a time and blend; remove from heat.  Optional, add a four-ounce softened bit of cream cheese instead of Swiss cheese – or be evil and do both.

Roll the leek/endive portions with the ham together and set seam-side down in the casserole or baking dish.  Arrange among them the wedge-cut tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs.  Pour the white cheese sauce over the rolls/eggs/tomatoes, allowing it to seep between and under, then topping all; sprinkle the second half of the grated cheese across the top.  Crushed potato chips, onion rings, crackers, shoestring potatoes, and/or dried breadcrumbs/Panko may be added with the topping cheese for more ‘crunch’.  Bake at 350° to heat the dish and render the top chewy and golden, about twenty to thirty minutes. 

Bon appetite!


I know we’re not quite settled into anything resembling summer, but thanks to world-wide purchasing now available in our markets, summer squashes may be found.  I keep reading that there isn’t any notable difference between yellow squash (crookneck) and green squash (zucchini).  I can’t help but differ on that one.  There is definitely a sweeter taste to the yellow, and a more ‘peppery’ taste to the green.  Well, to resolve this, I almost always serve the two together, and we’re all richer for it.

Summer squashes have enough moisture in them that only a minimal addition of liquids for cooking is required.  I prefer methodically to sauté more than to boil, so as to bring a caramelization to the pieces and not leech out flavors.  Always good there.

Preparation is minimal, just keeping in mind to render the pieces to a tender-crisp state, a bit caramelized and keep the oil to a minimum.  A small bit of water or broth can be added at the onset to help ‘jump start’ steam the cooking, but don’t boil the pieces.  I’ve had my fill of mush-mash type squash.  Squash is delicious any fashion, but let’s still optimize the taste.  The name isn’t the cooking style.

I used to add a sprinkling of dill to my summer squashes, then I later went to the other side of the ‘wheel’ and tried nutmeg, and loved it both ways.  So at one dinner party, in fact it was Thanksgiving, I thought ‘why not both at the same time?’ and a ‘blending’ was born. Remember, these flavorings are quite strong, so use very sparingly, in fact, lighter than you think you should - and then it'll be perfect.

Slice a medium-sized onion to match the portion sizes of the squash.  If the squash is diced, then dice the onion.  If the squash is sliced like a coin, then slice the onion in half-moons of the same thickness.  Begin with the onion in a medium-hot pan.  Your cooking oil medium should be olive, vegetable or canola oil for the high heat, combined with butter for the browning or caramelization as well as flavor.  Add about a tablespoon of each to the pan, when hot, add the onions and let them sweat.  Then add just a pinch of the nutmeg (it works well with oil-based liquids), stir and add the crookneck and zucchini squashes and minced garlic and a bit of liquid, cover and braise for a minute or two.  Uncover and sauté the liquid away, and bring the vegetables to almost limp, with the vegetables beginning to golden on the edges.  At this point modestly sprinkle either dried or fresh minced dill, both work well – just remember half the amount if dried, simmer a minute and serve right away.

Options:   Other summer squash varieties may certainly be used (straightneck, scallop, calabacita, chayote etc).   Try roasted nuts, almost any kind, slivered or chopped to a non-invasive size.  Shredded Parmesan cheese or Romano or pecorino just prior to digging in – or broiled a bit to set a nice chew.  Mmmmm.  



Acorn squash.  Butternut, pumpkin, ‘spaghetti’ and buttercup squash.  Calabaza, cushaw, and hubbard squash.  What a sampling of wonderful things to smell, chew, taste and savor.  What a wonderful association with a frosty winter’s heart-warming meal.  I have my memories of Mom baking halved acorn squashes with butter and brown sugar, and that was heaven.  But other baking associates are out there to try.

Drizzles and bakes: Balsamic and other vinegars, maple/cane/sorghum/agave and other syrups, olive oil, orange/citrus juices and zests – see also the ‘sauces’ listed in this book, plus the aforementioned brown sugar and butter
Curries and spice rubs: oiled, then coated – red/green curry, dried sage, rosemary, thyme, garlic cumin, chili, my rub, flavored salts/peppers, sugars

Simmer/bake/roast with fruits and grains: dried fruits (raisins, Craisins, cherries, apricots etc.), and nuts:  rice, barley, quinoa; sautéed/baked in risottos, pilafs, gratins; with mushrooms/truffles, mirepoix – (meer-pwa) onions/garlic/celery/carrots, peppers, artichoke hearts, and any of your favorite flavors. 

Optional options:  Most any winter squash can be brought to tender by heat applied with a roast/bake/simmer.  These tender bits, along with other vegetables, herbs and aromatics described above can then be (blender, immersion blender, food mill) blended and simmered with broth/stock, creammilk and/or spirits and made into an incredible soup!  A final drizzle of sour cream/yogurt, plus pomegranate or balsamic vinegar molasses along with roasted nuts or french fried onions or shallots - wow!


Such an odd edible.  Looks like a big asparagus tip – or something that belongs in the briar patch.  In fact you aren’t too far from true.  The part we do eat of the artichoke is indeed a closed blossom, it’s a member of the thistle family, and heavens to those who first thought it might be something one could possibly eat.

I kind of feel the same way about those funny little Brussels sprouts.  Have you ever seen them growing?  They’re arranged on a stalk, like gladiolas, with a very geometric radial pattern in their placement on the stalk.  Some things in nature are just plain interesting and great to get to know.

But back to the artichoke.  When I was a kid, I loved eating each leaf, savoring them one at a time, dipped in a bit of mayo then scraped across my teeth to get that oh so tasty flesh from inside each leaf.  My only problem was – when I was little, I had two front teeth that could’ve made Bugs jealous.  When I’d scrape those leaves across my teeth to get that scrumptious scrape – it looked like somebody skied down the center of each leaf!  I eventually learned to scrape against the bottom teeth for a more successful gather.

I used to rarely eat artichokes because they weren’t all that fun to prepare, and I didn’t want to take up to an hour to have one on the table.  But here’s a less invasive idea, but the result isn’t as ‘pretty’ as boiling or steaming, but a heck of a lot easier.
Choose a weighty, closed-leaf solid artichoke head – with a consistent color and texture.  Avoid loose leaves, discoloration, marks and bruises, ‘dry’ looking and pale.

Cut the top inch or so from the leaf tips with a sturdy, serrated knife.  With the thumbs inserted into the mid part, gently encourage the circular gather of leaves to open a bit more and loosen up a bit.  Trim the base/stem level with the blossom, and leave a good half inch if not an inch - or more if you have it - the stem is very delicious, but only for about that length or so, and if longer, it could be peeled to remove the tough skin, altho the insides are quite lovely.  Remove the outer ring of leaves, 'clean' up the edges and trim of any rough or discolored spots.  Rinse the blossom/head well, inside and out, leaving the moisture inside as much as possible.  If you like, squeeze fresh lemon juice into the interior as well.

Place the head(s) into a clean plastic grocery produce bag or plastic wrap and then into a micro safe bowl.  Arrange the head/blossom so that the leaves are facing upward, keeping as much of the rinse and lemon liquids inside the choke as possible.  Micro on high (for one artichoke) about six or seven minutes, and if more than one, four minutes per artichoke.  Your micro may time this differently, but mine is about 1100 watts, and that’s the timing it does best.  Large artichokes may be cut in half and then cooked the same way, with just fine results.   Test by wiggling an outside leaf which should almost fall off – that means you’re on the mark.

Serve with mayo, drawn butter, hollandaise, aioli (fresh garlic mayonnaise), herbed soft butter, cheese sauce, thickened broth, ranch or other salad dressings, or spicy mustard – it’s yours to embellish.

Options:  One can halfway cook the artichokes, gently work them more open, then hollow out the inside choke (the bristly part) with a spoon.  Stuff with your favorite stuffing – like a sautéed mix of sausage, onions, garlic and mushrooms with a later addition of parmesan cheese and bread crumbs – and arrange pointing upward in a casserole dish with more crumbs and parmesan sprinkled over.  A bit of broth/stock, beer or wine added to the bottom of the casserole dish will help keep them moist and tender - plus raise the flavor level considerably.   Bake at 350 for about 35–45 minutes - half covered, half uncovered.



Call it Spanakopita, spinach quiche, Ispanakli Borek or spinach pie.  Just call it!

Between two crusts – either with pie crust (half-baked to lightly golden, filled with the mix, topped or not with another crust, and continue to bake till done), or prepared puff pastry (cut a ‘bottom’ then a ‘wall’ over that to make a containment and half-cook to a light golden and raised.  Add a dollop of filling – about a quarter of a cup to a half cup – and continue to cook with a sprinkle of parmesan/bread crumbs over), or layered and buttered filo dough layers (1-2 layers of a full sheet, folded in half or thirds length-wise, dolloped with about a quarter to half a cup of the filling at one end, then loosely folded in a triangle ‘flag’ style wrap) and cook till golden and firm.   Par cook for about 20-30 minutes, finish baking for about another 20-30 minutes, or until done (no jiggles except in the middle).

Frozen spinach is a lifesaver.  If you’ve ever priced fresh spinach, then you’ll appreciate the savings by choosing the frozen, chopped offering - there’s no comparison.  The frozen is already cooked adequately to eat just as is, and does NOT need to be cooked again (only warmed), except for enough heating for the ‘set’ with the egg necessary in this filling.  Thaw packaged frozen spinach either in the fridge overnight, or in the micro at 30% power for a few minutes, or as a last resort, set in hot tap water in the sink, changing the water as it cools down back to hot again.

2    pkg frozen spinach, thawed and wrung of water and flaked apart
1    medium onion, diced small, sautéed in olive oil and/or butter with
2    cloves minced garlic, let cool

1    pint (2 cups) ricotta cheese and/or sour cream
½  cup grated Parmesan cheese and/or crumbled feta
salt and pepper to taste (remember, the cheeses have salt)

pinch cayenne or several shakes to your liking of hot sauce
2    eggs

Options:  Add diced ham, sautéed mushrooms, rough chopped artichoke hearts, olives, capers, peppers, nuts (sesame seeds/oil, crushed and slightly roasted pistachios, almonds, pine nuts, etc) – with spicings of thyme, nutmeg, sage, cilantro, garlic – l think you get the idea.



Baba ghanoush, baba ganush, baba ghannouj or baba ghannoug

One of the greatest treats of living in Atlanta, and one of the biggest misses since I’ve departed, was going to a Middle Eastern restaurant named Nicola’s.  Nicky wasn’t happy until your tummy was.  His food was unlike anything I had eaten, and he introduced me to wonderful combinations of foods, spices, flavors and ingredients that I hadn’t known before.  One of his introductions to edibility heaven was his baba ghanoush.  A delicious mix of vegetables, mostly eggplant, lemon juice and garlic (how can that be bad?) – that one dipped a selection of breads into with your hands and then you smiled and made mmmmming noises a lot.  He boasted that his was made of eggplant that was slow-roasted, and the oils in the dish weren’t so much added oils such as olive usually is, but the oils produced in the slow roast, further enhancing and confirming that unique eggplant flavor.

I celebrated several birthdays with Nicky, and his charm and welcome will never be forgotten.

Heat oven to 275°

Tools:  roasting/sheet pan, food processor, mixing bowl

Prep:  Find smallish, dense, rather young eggplant bulbs – the larger and the older they are, the lighter they become, and the more fibrous and seedy the insides develop.  I’d say two that are each over a pound in weight, and the size of a small kid's play (Nerf) football.   Take your clean, dry roasting pan (something at least about twelve by sixteen inches) and pour a bit of olive oil on the bottom.  Cut each eggplant in half (spoon out any obvious seeds if present), and rub into the oil on the cut side, then flip the half and set cut-side up and salt and pepper, then sprinkle the garlic pieces into the oiled top. 

Many recipes call for using tahini, a nut 'butter' made from the sesame seed.  It’s also used as a main ingredient for hummus, a chickpea (garbanzo bean) based dish.  Since only a quarter cup is required, the purchase may be difficult or expensive to add this dish, unless you already have some, or you wish to make hummus as well, along with the baba ghanoush dish here.  Otherwise, I recommend using sesame oil, which is a staple you may already have in your cupboard (it literally belongs in your refrigerator).  The taste is still wonderful, but the sticky texture is reduced (which I prefer not having) and all is still wonderful with this dish.

 2     medium, dense eggplants
8-10 cloves garlic, rough chopped
 ¼    cup lemon juice (fresh is best)
salt and pepper
 2     tbs olive oil
 2     tbs sesame oil or ¼ cup tahini sesame butter
½     tsp cumin
¼     cup fresh chopped parsley (flat-leaf is best)

Preparation:  In low oven, roast the eggplants and garlic bits for at least an hour, best if closer to two.  Let cool and gently remove all the luxurious oils, garlic and bits from the pan along with the eggplant.  Scoop the flesh from the skin (or peel skin off) and place in processor along with all the treasures you created in the roast.  Add the tahini/sesame oil, cumin, lemon juice, salt and pepper, olive oil and process to a rich, thick ‘oatmeal’ consistency.  (if you can stand waiting, it’s best to just leave it in the processor bowl, cover in plastic, and let set chilled to blend all the flavors, then bring back to room temp when serving.  Add a splash of hot tap water to thin a bit, then re-swirl just a bit to lighten).  Taste and adjust seasonings.  Remove from processor bowl and fold in the parsley.  Serve in a flattish-type serving bowl (like a broad, flat soup bowl) and offer breads – ripped pita, naan, sourdough (or any wonderful rustic bread) slices, firm baked pita wedges and corn ‘scoop’ chips, etc.  Top with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice – and a sprinkling of smoky paprika, then circle with your favorite hot sauce about the perimeter over the top.  Diners eat by sliding the bread face-down from the middle of the mass outward, collecting some of the oil, lemon juice, hot sauce and of course, the baba ghanoush in the process.  Lovely.

Options:  Hand dice to a small dice, but not in the processor – oil-cured olives (Calamata, Niçoise etc), artichoke hearts, palm hearts, capers, sautéed mushrooms, cilantro, etc.  With these additions, it may be necessary to ‘scoop’ up or spoon out the baba ghanoush rather than customarily dragging over as with the breads, but really, who cares? 

While you're at it, try folding in some warm baba ghanoush with your mashed potatoes, or with diced up fresh steamed cauliflower - or have a great dish and mix all three!

What sounds good to your ear?