Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It’s A Cryin’ Shame Nobody Makes Things Like This Anymore.

It was the hit of Memorial Day: crab dip in the shape of a fish. Here is the recipe as given to me. I adjusted it, as seen below.

2 4-oz cans Bumble Bee baby shrimp, drained
2 8-oz packages of cream cheese, softened
1 10-3/4 oz can condensed tomato soup
2 pkgs Knox unflavored gelatin
½ cup warm water
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup Hellman’s mayonnaise (light or regular)

Dissolve gelatin in ¼ cup warm water. Heat tomato soup over low heat then blend in gelatin. Blend in cream cheese with a whisk or stick blender until creamy. Remove from heat, add mayo. Mix in celery, onion and shrimp. Pour into a mold that has been sprayed with Pam and refrigerate overnight.

I cut the recipe in half, but kept the protein quantity the same. I used two cans of crab instead of shrimp, added a generous tablespoon of lemon juice and a half-teaspoon of cayenne pepper to the final mix. Chop the vegetables very fine; use sweet or Vidalia onion, if available. Once unmolded, I dusted it with Old Bay seasoning.

Decoration included sliced olives and carrots chipped thin on a box grater for scales and fins. I’d fantasized about creating a layered fantail out of Italian parsley, but my sage plant is just so lush this year and full of new leaves. They looked great.

You could layer your “scales” or d├ęcor into the mold and spoon in the mixture carefully. Alternatively, decorate the unmolded shape the next day. I just knew I’d be short on time in the morning, and took care of things the night before.

The unmolding was, of course, ceremonious in my sister’s kitchen: My 4 year-old daughter ooohed and aahed. My sister raised an eyebrow, then cracked a smile and a laugh. I was proud in my own way, but let out a laugh too, then started in on the finishing touch of greenery. My brother-in-law dryly requested three colors of layered Jell-O for the 4th of July in the shape of an undulating flag. My mother looked at the fish and said, “Elise, you’re crazy.” But she’s the one who took the first taste.

What surprised me in the end was not just how little of the mold was left at the end of the day, but that no one ate the olive eyeball or cut off the head.

But that’s just me.

Maybe it’s because the fish stinks from the head.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Merguez Sausage

A few weeks ago, a page in the Dining In section of The New York Times caught my eye: it was all about sausages. I’m generally not a sausage person, and I’d never made sausages before, but the combinations featured in the article drew me right in. I just had to try. So, after Easter, what is usually on sale? Lamb. In all shapes and forms – but especially ground. Yes, I know why. But I purchased a 1.5 pound package and got to business on the Times’ Merguez recipe.

The process was easy, stuffing the casings was less so, and the results were tasty. But it was all of the little meze-like accompaniments that made the meal, at least for me. They came from the usual suspects: my head and the pantry. All items were basics on hand. And not a single element or assembly took more than five minutes. I had it the next night cold, assembled as a salad (right). Easy, fresh cooking. Ah, I can feel summer coming now.

Merguez Sausage
from The New York Times (I’ve grown to enjoy Melissa Clark’s column.)

½ t. cumin seeds
½ t. coriander seeds
½ t. fennel seeds (I omitted these)
1 pound ground lamb
2 T fresh chopped cilantro
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ t. salt
1t. paprika
1/2 t. cayenne pepper

Toast the spice seeds until fragrant, then grind until fine.
Combine spices and remaining ingredients and mix very well.
Fill your sausage casings, or roll into sausage shapes or patties and chill until ready to cook. Garnish with fresh cilantro. Serve with lime wedges, as I did, if desired.

The sausages turned out milder than expected. You could easily ramp up the cayenne. I still also have a good amount left uncooked – stocking the freezer, you know. I plan to grill the sausages and serve them sliced as a quick and easy hors d'oeuvre next time we have guests over, doused with a little lime juice, extra sea salt and good olive oil. Or, since they are somewhat mild, I’d rather whip up a little tzaziki for dipping and switch lemon for the lime.

Pickled Red Onions
Cut one red onion in half lengthwise then slice it very thin. Combine equal parts cider vinegar and water in a pan. Add sugar and salt, a few peppercorns and an allspice berry. Bring to a near boil to dissolve the solids. Pour hot liquid over the onions and sprigs of cilantro (if desired for this dish.) Let them stew for at least an hour and serve. They’re good for a few weeks refrigerated, so double your quantities and use on sandwiches and the like.

Chick Peas
Drain and rinse well one 19-oz can of chick peas (garbanzo beans); place in a bowl. Add one clove garlic, minced or microplaned, the juice of one lime, the equivalent quantity of good olive oil, a tsp sea salt, pepper to taste and a big handful of chopped fresh Italian parsley. Toss and serve. Lemon in place of lime is also good.

Cous Cous
Yes, that last jar on my windowsill of grains has been filled for the season. Cous-cous is super quick and easy and uses the same 2:1 proportions as white rice. I recommend bringing to a boil 1 cup of canned chicken broth, 1 cup of water and a drizzle of olive oil. Take off heat, stir in 1 C. cous cous, cover and let steep for 5 minutes. Fluff w/fork and serve.

Serve any and all of the above with a green salad heavy on fresh sliced tomatoes. I also included mixed olives, warmed pita wedges and garlic confit for spreading.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Planting Party

It was a happy Mother’s Day. A crisp-breezed, blue-skied, birds-chirping, muddy, grubby, dirt-under-your-fingernails Mother’s Day.

We planted seeds and seedlings all afternoon.

The day started with a brunch at my mom’s townhouse and a stop on the way to purchase a floral hanging basket for her. My daughter and I went to a local nursery and farm where I also picked up a 4-pack of yellow bell pepper seedlings for $1.79. The plants looked terrific, and I’m happy to support that nursery and farm. It’s a small but longstanding business in competition with not one or two but three Home Depots in Bergen County, in addition to a Lowe’s that opened last year.

Plus, the excitement and prospect of planting them that afternoon made me stop by on the way back from my mother’s. I purchased a 4-pack of Rosa Bianca eggplants and a 3-celled pack of Kirby cucumbers that contained six plants.

Once home, my daughter and I got down n’ dirty, building the pole bean teepees and erecting a cucumber contraption we constructed from twine and some old garden edging we found in the shed. We cut holes in the plastic sheeting I’d applied weeks ago to pre-warm the soil, measured, dug, spaced, sowed, planted and watered for much of the afternoon, with, to my memory, just a few breaks: a game of tag, a change from soaked shoes to dry (hers), a change from a soaked dress to dry jeans (ditto), one stop to make a peanut butter and birdseed sandwich to fit into the suet feeder, another to make a peanut butter sandwich for the humans, the unraveling, re-raveling and unraveling yet again of the entire spool of twine, two glasses of pink lemonade, playing with the cats underfoot, an incident involving two bottles of bubbles – it’s a wonder we got so much done!

What’s in the ground now, coded with an S for “from seed” and a P for “purchased plant”:

Tuscan Kale and white cauliflower (S)
Watermelon radishes, Detroit red beets, golden beets (all S)
Radicchio (S) – my cats are not fending off the rabbits there.
Red Carrots, Rhubarb Swiss Chard & Rainbow Swiss Chard (all S)
One row of corn (S) – two more to come over the next two weeks.
Pole beans: Kwintus, Emerite Filet and Purple Podded (all S)
Winter squash: Butternut, Buttercup and Delicata (S)
Pattypan Squash (S)
Yellow bell peppers (P)
Rosa Bianca eggplants (P)
Lemon cucumbers (S)
Kirby cucumbers (P)

While we were at it, I tossed in three fingerling potatoes that had sprouted in the kitchen, plus a Russet that I cut in half and scabbed over. They went in just around the outer rim of the largest bed. We’ll see what happens there.

Tomato varieties (all S) and celery root (S) are going in soon. Zucchetta Trombolina and Christmas Limas (both S) will have to wait a week more. I didn’t pre-warm that bed.

In hindsight, I’m glad I bought the seedlings this weekend. I felt as if I were cheating in some way, but geez, do I have square footage to fill! After cramming crops into two very small beds near the house for years, I’ve realized that I need to reformulate my mental proportions. The area I ripped up last fall for gardening can hold a lot more that I’d thought.

So, let’s add Sunday’s expenditure to the tally. I had figured early on that only seeds would be part of my Eco-Nomics experiment, but I may as well add the purchased plants. It’s just $5.37, and including it in the running total will make harvest calculations that much easier.

Past total of Seeds,

Peat Pellets, other: $44.33
New Plants: $5.37
Total: $49.70

Saturday, May 2, 2009

$1.13. Total Cost: As Yet Undetermined.

I’ve whored myself for five pounds of meat.

And the worst kind: ground beef. I found a mis-marked package at the grocery store. I don’t know how I saw it, or even quite why I was in the beef section. I was making a loop around the cases, thinking about taking advantage of a hot Italian sausage special (I didn’t), and somehow I saw the price from the corner of my eye among the mountains of pre-packaged meat: $1.13.

I labored over it. Oh, no, I didn’t immediately dump that hulking package into my cart. But once I did, I made a loop back to return it to the case, or to one of the meat department employees. But I didn’t. I kept it. And bought it.

I haven’t purchased industrial beef in years. Thinking back, I began tapering off significantly since reading Fast Food Nation, then pretty much stopped completely with The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’ve also had my run-ins with other supermarket meat (see Birdzilla). But I do purchase other meats and fish. Look, I like it to an extent, and my daughter, since starting solid food, almost always eats her meat first.

We do go meatless probably more often than most American families, with an ever-growing repertoire of grains, beans and any invented combination thereof. And it’s not because we’re vegan, vegetarian or even anti-flesh. It’s just a fresh, good way to eat: inventive, expressive and inexpensive, and the household enjoys it.

But, my God, what have I done.

For one dollar. And thirteen cents.

My ticking time bomb is still sitting in the lowest, coldest part of my fridge, waiting to be either divided, or pre-shaped or simply frozen into a 5+ pound block. I can’t get it out of my mind, yet can’t bring myself to face it for further butchering.

Any way you cut it, I won’t be partaking of it once prepared, or if prepared. I bought it, yes, but won’t eat it. Does that make me a hypocrite? If I serve it to my family, what does that say – it’s not good enough for me, but good enough for you? If I spread it among extended family and friends, perhaps grilled for Memorial Day, July 4th, or any given softball league weekend, am I making them all complicit in this sin? Am I being a budget-minded pragmatist by utilizing this find, or am I completely and morally compromised?

What bothers me further is that I keep coming up with ideas for variations on the basic burger, and I can’t help it. This boatload of beef could be turned into enough burgers to feed the neighborhood and cover all tastes and preferences: Microplaned garlic mixed into the beef and a knob of Gorgonzola tucked inside the patty. Mixed olive tapenade inside the burger, topped with Iberico or Zamorano [yes!] sheep’s milk cheese, served with a slightly chilled Tempranillo. Thinner patties, topped with grilled Portobellos, fresh rosemary from the garden, aged balsamic and melted, oozing Teleggio cheese. Or I could try a variation of a Sicilian meatloaf I have made with ground pork: integrate grated aged Provolone cheese into seasoned meat full of fresh Italian parsley, with a slice of hard-boiled egg in the center. Trust me, it’s delicious. Choose your Italian red to accompany.

I disgust myself.

And I can’t give the beef away. My church always accepts foods for the needy in our area, and we donate to the box on the occasional Sunday or whenever there’s a drive. But this is packaged meat, not a canned good or boxed cereal. I could return it to the grocery store, but it would not be accepted back. If it were, it would be discarded. I’ve thought about divvying it up between my parents and in-laws. Remember, I’m a believer in a well-stocked freezer. But see the paragraph above beginning, “Any way you cut it.” It’s the same as cooking and serving it to them as guests.

I don’t think anyone enjoying a burger in my backyard or a Sicilian meatloaf in my dining room would take this as seriously as I am right now. And, given the problems in the world, and my coming up a little short on my daughter’s preschool tuition this month, my considering this $1.13 Styrofoam pallet of beef so extensively is a luxury.

I should just take it for what it is. And try to live with myself later.

I’ll let you know if I can.