Saturday, June 28, 2008

Know Cukes

I have a love-hate relationship with cucumbers. There is no real drama behind the story; its actually very simple. In June, I love cucumbers. By the end of July, I am much less fond of them. Or, put another way, I love the first 149, but I feel considerable angst about the 763 that follow.Cucumbers are just one of those things for me, for our whole family actually. They are beautiful and refreshing and deliciously delicately-flavored when they’re crisp, cold, and of a normal size. It never seems to be long though before I find myself with a pile that are going soft in the peel, have grown to annoying proportions, and are more seedy than I would like.

I try not to hold it against them. After all, most things grow old after a while, especially vegetables that just won’t quit. Everyone in the South gets grumpy about yellow squash by the end of the growing season, you know, and most of us have no trouble admitting that there are only so many ways to enjoy a zucchini. Tomatoes are never a problem, and I’ve never heard a complaint about too many blueberries or too many strawberries. Remember last year when the entire peach and blueberry crops in Georgia got killed by the Easter freeze? While we never run out of ways to celebrate a fruit, we can feel a bit differently about some of the vegetables.

But, really, what can you do with a cucumber? Well, let’s count: you can make pickles (yum), you can slice them and put them in a bowl of vinegar in the fridge (one of my favorite summertime treats), you can eat them out of hand, you can put slices in a sandwich, and you can chop them and throw them in a salad. That’s it. Oh, sure, you’ll find cookbooks that claim you can sauté them, but that’s just whacked. I know. I’ve tried. And I don’t really want to talk about it.

Whacked, I tell you.

I suppose this is where I should admit that I don’t know how to make pickles. I know it can’t be all that hard, but I just, oh, I don’t know, get BORED before I finish reading instructions on pickling and I just move on. There are some things a girl feels like doing, and there are some things that just feel like a colossal waste of time when I have so LITTLE time to start with. Maybe when the kids are older…

In the early years of our marriage, when we still lived in town in that cute little pink rental house that didn’t have air conditioning, we were cucumber fools. The Carnivore made sure we never ran low, and would always have a giant casserole dish in the fridge filled with slices of red onion and cucumbers swimming in vinegar and cracked black pepper. During those steamy months when we would open the freezer door just to stick our heads in so we could stop sweating for a brief moment, we lived on those cucumber slices. They were bracingly cold and acidic, the ideal refreshment to sate our short-lived hunger (who can eat when it’s that hot?) and to make our lips pucker.

But then, you know, we grew up. We moved out to the country, restored an old house and added central air conditioning. Three separate units to be exact, with programmable thermostats and crazy energy-efficient systems that mean we can keep this entire house cool without batting an eye at the electric bill. Granted, The Carnivore owns a heating and air business, but still…

The thing is though, we have since tried filling our refrigerator with those lovely vinegar cucumbers, but, well, it just wasn’t the same. Maybe it’s because we aren't hot and sweaty anymore, or maybe our palates have, dare I say it, become more mature, but we just weren’t interested in them anymore. I was a little disheartened. It was a little like giving up yet another part of our youth. No longer did we sit on the front porch in the evenings, talking with neighbors as they walked by. No more did we lay around languidly on sweltering Saturday afternoons, talking and laughing and drinking iced coffee because it was too doggone hot to enjoy it any other way. Gone were the days of living on vinegar-soaked cucumbers for dinner followed by frozen fruit cocktail for dessert.


Needless to say, I guess, when I picked up the third or fourth box from our CSA this summer, I was more than a little chagrined to see the first cucumbers show up. Even though I knew I had actually been craving some cukes, I was already feeling a bit negative about the whole thing because I was wary of getting to that point when I would shudder to find them in the bottom of the box. I did what I always did with the first one though: I cut it in half right down the long side, dribbled it with coarse salt and balsamic vinegar and ate it out of hand, fighting The Big Boy for the last bite, but I chomped away a little half-heartedly and then I tucked the rest of them in the crisper and moved on to the beets (something I will never tire of).

But then I pulled out my binder of recipes that I had clipped in anticipation of the new CSA season. All year long, when I came across recipes that seemed to be intriguing uses for eggplant or squash or any of the other summer veggies, I put them in this binder, knowing full well that as the glow of June waned, I would be desperate for new ways to cook kale or turnips or eggplants or any of the other stumpers that the farm would throw my way.

It was one of those fabulously serendipitous moments as I opened the binder to find a teeny-tiny little piece of paper, no more than one column-inch in length and in a pale, hard-to-read font, for an Asian twist on the good, old-fashioned Southern marinated cucumber. This one called for rice vinegar and sesame oil and crushed red pepper. The idea was the same, but the flavors would clearly be vastly different.

Having nothing to lose, I gave it a shot. All the ingredients were ones I keep on hand anyway, and goodness knows I wouldn’t be lacking for cucumbers through the summer so even if worse came to worst, I could toss the whole thing into the compost heap without shedding more than a tear or two.

Ah, but there was not only no ‘worse,’ there was no ‘worst’ either. We all loved the results, even Little Miss Piggy, who likes to suck out the vinegar and the seeds and then throw the sliced cucumber carcasses under the kitchen table where they end up sticking to our poor little dog.

These flavors are unexpected in marinated cucumbers, but not so unusual that they qualify as a kitchen experiment, and all the blessed qualities of the traditional recipe remain the same, namely the crisp texture and the refreshing acidity. The scant bit of oil balances the vinegar though, and adds a nutty tone that I love.

NOTE: there is a little bit of sugar in this, mom, so you will need to bear with me – remember that there is sugar in bread-and-butter pickles as well, and keep an open mind.


MARINATED CUCUMBERS (from Cooking Light)
  • 2 cups sliced cucumbers (as thinly or thickly as you like)
  • 3 Tbs rice vinegar
  • 1 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
  1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl with a tight-fitting lid. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.
  2. Shake bowl to redistribute marinade before serving (or before reaching into the fridge to grab a slice or two for a quick snack).

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ode to a Potato

It is a relatively rare occurrence for me (lo, the entire family) to get so excited about a new recipe that I end up making the same dish multiple times in one week. I mean, sure, there has been the occasional dessert recipe that has knocked our socks off and been cooked back-to-back, but that hardly counts.

I try a lot of new recipes, and we have long since grown accustomed to the nightly meal evaluation in which we pick apart what we’ve eaten and decide whether or not to add a new dish to our repertoire. So of course there are evenings around the dinner table when we all smack our lips with delight and declare a meal delicious and lick our plates clean, but these times are tempered by the other suppers that make us shrug with boredom. Even with the recipes that we fall madly in love with, the most those winners can hope for is that I will cook them again in a few weeks or so. With so many new recipes waiting in a stack on my menu desk, and with a binder bulging with tried-and-true recipes, and two bookcases groaning under the weight of too many cookbooks, we can go weeks without duplicating a recipe.

Of course, it is summer now, and the vast majority of our produce comes from the CSA we subscribe to (supplemented by my mother's and grandmother’s gardens), so the ingredients I’m cooking with are fairly constant. Like the summer squash, obviously, and kale for the fifth time in as many weeks, just to name a few of the standards. Needless to say, I have scoured my cooking resources for variations on these themes.

Oh, but then there is the magical potato. As much as I love a good beet, and as excited as I get to eat just-picked fruits, very few things can make my heart flutter like a potato. Good old boring potatoes. You know you feel the same way. Even if you’re the type to shun a real potato, I bet you can eat a French fry or a potato chip with the best of them, right?

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I too love those bastions of ill-health. While I’d rather starve than eat a typical convenience store potato chip, I’ll knock you (and your mother) over to get to a bag of Mrs. Vickie's. And then there’s the French fry. I do love a good French fry. I have a recipe that we use fairly regularly for baked fries, but if I’m totally honest with myself, I have to admit that nothing compares to a deep-fried French fry. There is just no way around it. Baked is to adequate as deep-fried is to delicious.

Normally I’m not one to deny myself a guilty pleasure. I might not tell anyone about it – that is why they call it ‘guilty,’ after all – but if a girl needs a French fry, a girl needs a French fry, right? The problem is that I made a fatal mistake in my reading recently, and I read Fast Food Nation nearly back-to-back with Don't Eat This Book. I haven’t been able to bring myself to eat a fast food fry since.

But enough of the moralistic stuff. It is the potato itself that is my object of affection, and I’ll take a potato any which way. I like them baked, I like them roasted, I like them grilled. I will eat them on a train. I will eat them in the rain. I love potatoes. Yukon golds are beautiful and baby reds are sublime. In a pinch though, I wouldn’t even dream of turning my nose up at a good, old-fashioned Idaho clunker.

A while back, I ran across an intriguing recipe in Fine Cooking for Crispy Potatoes. They sounded scrumptious, and I cut the recipe out and then promptly lost it in the towering stack on the menu desk in my kitchen. I would run it across it sporadically, but frankly, the recipe looked a little fussy, and I rarely feel like knocking myself out on a side dish. Time constraints, teething babies, hungry husbands, houseguests and preschoolers – well, the list of reasons to not bother was endless. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that recipe.

Then, a few weeks back, Pioneer Woman, in one of her hilarious and highly-entertaining step-by-step photo recipes, made a version of the Crispy Potato that she called Crash Hot Potatoes. And she made it look easy. My interest was more than a little piqued. So I rummaged and made a big mess and pushed a lot of paper around and finally got my hands on that Fine Cooking recipe again. The recipes were strikingly similar, except that Pioneer Woman didn’t bother with the fussy steps that had been repelling me. So I did what I often do: I took the two recipes to the counter next to my stove and I just decided to go for it.

Oh. My. Stars. I am SO glad I went for it. I must warn you that this recipe is highly addictive. I made it two nights in a row. And then I made it again. And again. I think we’ve had these four or five times in the past two weeks now. We all love them, even the vegetable-averse houseguest. See, the potatoes are boiled until tender, and then you lay them out on a baking sheet and flatten them. Then, and this is my favorite part, you smother them in olive oil and salt. What could be wrong with that, right? Then, oh maybe THIS is favorite part, you put them in a hot oven until they – dig THIS – get brown and crispy on the outside.

They’re really as easy as can be. Total time is about an hour and a quarter, and that alone can be daunting, but truly, the hands-on part is only about 10 minutes. My-oh-my, they are worth the wait of the cooking time. The end result is somewhat of a cross between a potato chip and a French fry. Honest.

I think I might have to make them again tonight. Just thinking about these babies is making my heart go all pitter-patter.


CRISPY FLATTENED POTATOES (adapted from Fine Cooking and Pioneer Woman, serves 4 as a side dish)
  • 1 1/2 lb small red potatoes, golf-ball sized or smaller work best
  • Kosher salt
  • Olive oil
  • Black pepper
  • Italian seasoning dried herb blend (McCormick's makes one that I like that has thyme and rosemary in it)
  1. Put the potatoes in a large pot, and add water until water rises at least an inch above the potatoes. Add 2 tsp kosher salt to the water, and bring water to a boil. Boil the potatoes for about 30 minutes, or until fork tender.
  2. Drain the potatoes.
  3. Grease a large, rimmed baking sheet with a good amount of olive oil. There should be enough so that the oil sloshes just a wee bit when the pan is tilted.
  4. Put the potatoes on the baking sheet, a few inches apart.
  5. With a potato masher, press down on each potato individually to flatten. You don't want pancakes here, you just want a messy, smashed-up-looking potato. The skin will break and be the best part of the potato, so try not to lose any of it in the tines of the masher. Perfection is not the goal.
  6. Drizzle a fair amount of olive oil over each potato. Then, to make sure every glorious inch is covered, use a pastry brush to further oil up the tops of those taters. As a general rule, I use about 1 tsp of oil for each potato (more if the potatoes are larger).
  7. Sprinkle salt over each potato (be very generous with the salt - this is not the time to be shy). I use a pinch per potato.
  8. Depending on your taste, sprinkle just a little finely ground black pepper, and Italian seasoning (or whatever dried herb you prefer) on top of each potato.
  9. Roast the potatoes in a convection oven at 400 degrees (or a regular oven at 450 degrees) for about 30 minutes, until brown and crispy on top. Convection ovens will yield crispier results.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Seafood Angst

I’m feeling no small amount of seafood angst. And what’s up with that anyway? Food is one of my greatest hobbies, and yet it is causing me anxiety again. I’ve learned to simmer down a little bit about food politics, at least where my grocery shopping is concerned. The Farm Bill and its ramifications still push my buttons, and I try to make the best decisions I can, within my geographic and financial limitations, but I no longer flog myself if I break down and buy a banana. This is progress.

But like I said, I’m stressed out about seafood. To be fair, this is a subject that has pained me for years. Seafood is the only ‘meat’ I eat, and I’ve often wondered if I shouldn’t just give it up and go full vegetarian. After all, there have been countless times in my life when I’ve gone months at a time without a bite of fish – for no other reason than I hadn’t craved any. But then I would go to the beach on a vacation and I would eat my weight in shellfish within the first 24 hours. Hey, you try and sit on the balcony of an oceanfront restaurant without ordering the lobster bisque, alright?

It isn’t just the personal decision regarding how far to take my vegetarianism anymore though. I mean, have you read a newspaper lately? Between sustainability issues, the problem of mercury (especially since I have been either pregnant, trying to get pregnant or breastfeeding for the past five years), distrust over Chinese food safety, and the nutritional questions regarding farmed vs. wild, well, I’m so stressed out that I get paralyzed at the fish counter.

Frankly, this is a difficult time to be a food lover. I read everything I can get my hands on about seafood issues, but truly there are so many different concerns to address, I find myself overwhelmed. And so I stand there with my mouth slightly agape, trying to ignore The Big Boy while he counts the lobsters in the tank, and pretending like I don’t see Little Miss Piggy rubbing Cheerios slobber into her hair. I discount the tilapia because it comes from Chile and that causes too much dissonance with my attempts to reduce my food mileage, and I look away from the salmon since its farmed and thus has a compromised texture and nutritional benefit. The tuna steaks are tempting, but didn’t I read something about the sustainability problem? Or was that an article on grouper?

So I close my eyes and rub my temples because I’ve given myself a headache again, and I tell The Big Boy to say goodbye to the lobsters while I try to spit-shine Little Miss Piggy’s head and push the cart to the dairy case where I will almost certainly suffer a breakdown over which organic milk comes from a company owned by Monsanto. But that is an entirely different problem.

I was born 50 years too late. Might it not have been easier Back in The Day? Back when everyone grew their own veggies and was fully accustomed to having access to only the fruits that would grow in their backyard; before eggs came from caged chickens that were fed antibiotics as a matter of course; when a fish dinner resulted from nothing less than a couple of family members with fishing poles?

There are ways to navigate this seafood terrain, of course. I’m dying to read Fish Forever, as is The Carnivore, who actually spent his late teen years on commercial fishing vessels in The Gulf and The Atlantic and whose father is a crabber to this day. Gourmet magazine recently published a Guide to Buying Sustainable Seafood, which meets my angst head-on and gives me some guidelines by which I can hopefully avoid a prescription for Xanax, and there is also a pocket guide put out by the Environmental Defense Fund that I have finally printed out and put into my giant purse-diaper bag-briefcase.

You wanna know the real rub though? I not only don’t like being told what to do, but I feel like a sheep when I blindly follow a list of rules compiled by a political lobby.

Here I am again, closing my eyes and rubbing my temples because I’ve given myself another headache. Ignorance truly would be bliss. Then I could just waste some good old-fashioned natural resources and drive to the nearest food court and order a BK Big Fish without a care in the world beyond which flavor of “milkshake” I should wash it down with.

To make matters worse, I went into full revolt earlier this week and stood at the fish counter with a recipe in hand that called for halibut or red snapper. I had never cooked with either of these fish and the dish itself sounded truly intriguing. I had a warm potato salad with beer and mustard vinaigrette planned for a side dish and, dadgumit, I was really craving fish. I knew Pacific halibut had been deemed acceptable by the fish police, but I was clueless about snapper and I had forgotten to do any research before we left the house that morning to run errands. As it happened, my grocery store was out of halibut and so I pinched my nose and bought the snapper in full ignorance. And then I went to the farm to pick up my weekly CSA box.

I later found out that red snapper is on the “worst choices” list. More dissonance. There’s just nothing quite like eating produce that is locally-grown and purchased directly from a farmer, while on the other side of my plate there squats a fillet of environmental disaster.

Maybe I should try yoga AND Xanax.

Though the snapper was clearly not the best whitefish I could have selected for this particular recipe, the dish turned out delightfully. I love firm fish to begin with, and since spicy food tickles our fancy, we fell in love with the results. It couldn’t be easier really, you rub some dry spices on the fillets, bake them for a short time, and then top the cooked fish with a chipotle-butter mixture. And of course you can vary the amount of chipotle depending upon your own threshold for food that makes your nose burn. Just be sure to use Pacific halibut rather than red snapper. Your conscience will thank you.


SPICED HALIBUT WITH CHIPOTLE BUTTER (2 servings, adapted from Cooking Light)
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/8 tsp finely ground black pepper
  • 2 (6-oz) halibut fillets
  • 1 Tbs melted butter
  • 1 or 2 canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, minced (these have quite a kick, so err on the cautious side if you're a wuss)
  1. Educate yourself about fish.
  2. Combine cumin, paprika, salt and pepper in a small bowl.
  3. Rub spice mixture into the fillets.
  4. Transfer the fillets to a baking sheet coated with cooking spray.
  5. Bake fish at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, until fish flakes easily when prodded with a fork.
  6. In a small bowl, stir together the butter and the chiles.
  7. Brush the chipotle butter mixture onto the cooked fillets and serve immediately.