Friday, August 30, 2013

Hot weather? No problem!

Spanish food charms me--not only for its sophistication and rich flavor profiles, but also because of the variety of small plates and sensory experiences that tapas provide.  Perfect for warmer weather, when lighter appetites mean grazing instead of full-out guerilla dining (as Vindaloo is prone to do), tapas bring your palate a kaleidoscope of deliciousness and the feeling that you've been well-fed. 

Some of my favorites: rich, dense tortilla espanola with romesco sauce; rustic bread rubbed with fresh garlic and toasted with a lavish drizzling of rich, extra-virgin olive oil, then rubbed with fresh, ripe tomato halves; olives stuffed with anchovies and garlic and then gently pan-fried; tender pieces of pork bathed in a marinade of extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, cumin and smoked paprika; and nutty Manchego cheese, membrillo and/or pasta de guayaba with fresh mint leaves (what I like to call M y M y M).

M y M y M

But in August, when it's really hot in central Texas, I love cold Spanish soup.  Gazpacho?  Sure, but I love Sopa de Ajo Blanco even more.  Creamy and rich from extra-virgin olive oil and almonds, this soup relies on the simplest of ingredients and gets its impact from fresh garlic and sherry vinegar.

Traditionally served with green grapes, my version of this soup is elevated and modernized with a rustic salsa of fresh green grapes, scallions, watercress, toasted garlic and toasted almonds.  Fresh, authentic Spanish flavors meld into a delightful afternoon pick-me-up or an elegant appetizer for guests.  It doesn't hurt that it's beautiful to look at as well.

Serve this soup in an elegant parfait glasses or rocks glasses, or even mugs with the grape salsa alongside.  It pairs beautifully with a budget-friendly Torrontes such as La Vuelta, or for a really elegant glass of wine, Alta Vista Torrontes PremiumAsk your local Wine Guy at Spec's to help you find a great wine to enjoy for more hot-weather sipping.

White Garlic Soup (Sopa de Ajo Blanco)

     Chill this soup well and garnish with smoked paprika if you wish.  An anchovy garnish is authentic and tasty.

1/2 cup blanched, peeled almonds or slivered almonds
3-4 slices stale bread from a baguette or other rustic loaf
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled
4 cups water
5 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
3-4 Tbs. sherry vinegar (or to taste)
1 tsp. kosher salt, or to taste
smoked paprika to garnish, if desired
anchovy fillets to garnish, if desired
1.)  Trim crusts from bread slices and place in a bowl with 1-2 cups cold water.
2.)  Meanwhile, place garlic and almonds into a food processor or blender. Blend on pulse until smooth.
3.)  Remove bread from water with slotted spoon and squeeze out excess water.
4.)  Add bread and 1 tsp. salt to processor or blender; pulse to blend. 
5.)  With motor running, slowly drizzle olive oil, then vinegar, and finally the water into the work bowl. 
6.)  Taste and adjust for salt, vinegar and oil.  
7.)  Strain through a sieve into a container or bowl (I use a large plastic pitcher with a tight-fitting lid), pressing as much as possible through the sieve.
8.)  Chill at least 2-3 hours or up to 24 hours.  Serve in chilled bowls or glasses, garnishing as desired with smoked paprika and/or anchovies.  Serves 4 to 12, depending on the course.

Green Grape Salsa

     It's traditional to serve fresh green grapes alongside Sopa de Ajo Blanco, but I think this salsa is lovely, either eaten along with, or added to the soup.

2 cups green grapes, washed well and chopped with a very sharp knife
2 scallions, sliced thinly
2 Tbs. chopped watercress
1/2 tsp. dried minced garlic (such as Penzey's), toasted carefully in a dry skillet until golden
a drizzle of local honey
juice of 1/2 lemon
kosher salt, to taste
2 Tbs. marcona almonds, chopped and toasted in a dry skillet (or use sliced almonds, toasted the same way)

Combine grapes, scallions, water all ingredients except marcona almonds and chill briefly.  Portion out in small servings to be eaten alongside the above soup recipe.  Garnish portions evenly with chopped or sliced almonds just before serving.  Makes about 1 3/4 cups.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Apparently, I've been doing it all wrong

This week, we heard an audio clip on NPR's Morning Editiona belated birthday message from Julia Child, who shared with us that she liked giving her chickens a good wash before cooking them because she thought it was safer.  My grandmother and entire female lineage thought it was safer.  I thought it was safer too.

Image credit: Ollie Bright Art

My friend Susie Q, thought it was safer to wash and in addition, would completely disinfect her kitchen with the appropriate sprays and gloves while wearing a Tyvek suit.  OK, I'm stretching it a little here, but you get the picture.  She hated germs, especially icky chicken germs.

But we've been doing it all wrong, says Drexel University food safety researcher Jennifer Quinlan, agreeing with other food safety experts who say that washing increases the chances that you'll spread the foodborne pathogens that are on your bird all over the rest of your kitchen too.  Some studies suggest that bacteria can fly up to 3 feet away from where your meat is rinsed, even though you can't necessarily see it (Source: NPR's The Salt, "Julia Child Was Wrong).  This, sadly, reminds me of the wisdom of placing your toothbrush far enough away from the commode to avoid, er, contamination from flying germs.

So, could the instructions about not washing your chicken be correct?  Let me ask you this:  how far is your toothbrush from the commode?

I've waffled on the issue of wash/don't wash chicken for a while, trying to get a leg up on my compulsion to make everything clean and to have enough pluck to balance common sense with science.  If I could just stuff my neuroses and make a decision, everything else would be gravy.  But my conclusion remains thin-skinned, about as firm as a boneless chicken breast and has about as much weight as a dumpling.  Thinking about it too much just makes me feel fried, and more than once, I've realized the wrong decision about washing my chicken could land me in the soup. 

So, next time I'm all in a stew about whether to wash my chicken or not, I think I'll just wing it.  Thank heavens I've still got a little backbone.

And maybe one day, I'll see you in the ER.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Coconut milk and confessions

I can't tell you how I came to love coconut milk; I can only tell you how much I love it in everything I can possibly cook with it.  Coconut panna cotta with lime curd was my most recent incarnation when I found this fabulous recipe from Food52.  I subbed butter for the oil in the lime curd portion of the recipe because I wanted a depth and softness that oil wouldn't bring. 

I have a confession: the results stunned me, and I'm not easily stunned.  The combination of creamy coconut and tangy lime curd is a lively counterpoint of flavors.  And yes, it really does look like Jell-O 1-2-3.  Accompanied by a flute of good-quality prosecco, this panna cotta is a charmer.

Another confession: being a semi-hoarder, I always have at least 6 cans of coconut milk in my pantry.  I have no brand loyalty, I just buy it whenever I get the urge.  I'm especially susceptible to large displays of coconut milk in Asian grocery stores.  And I suppose that makes confession number 3. 

One of the brands I often buy.  Photo credit: Google Images

Why do I love coconut milk so much?  It's silky, creamy and enriches everything it touches.  Its flavor profile swings both ways.  No, you degenerates, not in a Masters and Johnson way, in a sweet-savory way.  Coconut milk is wonderful in soups, curries, sauces, baked goods, desserts, ice cream, drinks, smoothies and all manner of things.  It's a great substitute for dairy ingredients like milk and cream, and its slightly nutty, mild flavor and rich texture give body and substance to finished dishes.  It's a staple among those who prefer vegan and Paleo eating plans and a long-time staple among Asian cultures.

The benefits of using coconut milk are several; find them here; and find more than you probably need to know about your new crush here.  Although there are some drawbacks to consuming large quantities of canned coconut milk (or canned anything), I reached the conclusion long ago that there are drawbacks to eating and drinking just about everything anymore and that a person could drive themselves insane thinking about it too much.  Trust me, I've been there and back.  I've also concluded that there are just as many drawbacks to breathing.  Yet another confession: I secretly really like breathing, as well as the eating and drinking that comes along with it. 

If memory serves, there was an episode of The Galloping Gourmet years ago I watched in which Graham Kerr said something like this: "Everyone dies of something.  I want to die of lemon-butter sauce."  Likewise, I want to die of coconut milk.

Want some more ideas for how foodies like to use coconut milk?  I asked my fellow food bloggers to send me some of their favorite recipes and since they're a lively, gregarious and cooperative group, they immediately complied. 

Here's the list, sweet and savory:

From Allison Stevens of Prep DishRaspberry-Pineapple Popsicles

From Jane Ko of A Taste of KoKoVanilla Coconut Panna Cotta

From Jessica Alberthal of Bake Me AwaySpicy Purple and Sweet Potato Gratin with Coconut Milk

From Emily Teachout of A Time to KaleCoconut Milk + Quinoa = Winner

From Maggie Perkins of From Maggie's FarmLemon-Scented Coconut Milk Panna Cotta

May your tastebuds dance!