Posts Tagged ‘Salted’

If you are going to try cooking without a net (or written recipe), now is the time to do it.  Or at least now is the time to do it in the parts of the world where it is summer and there is abundant, fresh, local produce to be had.

Marketing departments want you to believe that summer is almost over so that you will stock up on school supplies and buy new fall (or even winter) wardrobes, but there are still almost seven weeks of official summer left.  Seven weeks!  And the end of summer actually means the height of harvest for some crops.

One of my favorite summer dishes is the delectably simple insalata caprese: layers of ripe tomato, fresh mozzarella, and leaves of fresh basil drizzled with a little something — usually balsamic vinegar and olive oil, but I tend to just go with Kalamata olive oil and skip the vinegar, but each to his own.  I slice the tomatoes, grind just a little bit of high quality salt over the slices, and let them sit for a few minutes before I add the basil and mozzarella.  Tomatoes *love* salt, but just a touch.  Fresh, ripe tomatoes are delicious on their own, it’s true, but a hint of salt really opens up the flavor without making them taste salty.  (Reading Salted by Mark Bitterman opened up a world of salt possibilities.  It’s amazing how varied one little compound can be.)

I wasn’t quite organized enough to make the mozzarella myself, so I bought it at the grocery store, but the basil and tomatoes came from local farmers.  As I was eating, all I could think was “When real food tastes this good, why did I ever eat processed junk?”  Sure, the industrial food is convenient, and I am quite certain that it is specifically designed to be addictive, but I also believe that real, fresh food (even if it is not necessarily local — I do love avocados, which definitely don’t grow around here) has the power to break that addiction.

But I digress.

This past weekend it was finally cool enough to do some canning, so on Saturday I stopped at a roadside stand selling pickling cucumbers, and yesterday I made pickles.  I had a good handful of fresh dill left over, and I bought a bulb of fennel at a farmers’ market, so I decided to try an improvisational version of what I refer to as “green soup.”  “Official” green soup is actually split pea, fennel, and spinach soup from Vegetarian Times.  I didn’t have split peas or spinach, but I had a bunch of frozen summer squash I have been wanting to use up, so the recipe went something like this:

2 small leeks, halved, rinsed, and sliced crosswise, about 1 cup, maybe a little less
2 large cloves of garlic, chopped
10 or so grinds each of salt and pepper
1 medium bulb of fennel, leafy fronds removed, but stalks included, 1 – 1 1/2 cups
4 containers mixed frozen summer squash, probably 5 or 6 cups
The handful of fresh dill left over from making pickles, chopped
Some other miscellaneous seasonings I thought would be a good idea – Sunny Paris and Pasta Sprinkle
Enough homemade turkey stock to cover the lot, somewhere in the vicinity of 4 to 6 cups

I used to be obsessed with measurements, but the more that I cook, the more I learn that it is about proportions and balancing flavors — not to mention adjusting to taste.

I sauteed the leeks and garlic in a little olive oil for a few minutes over medium heat, adding the salt and pepper along the way.  The fennel went in next, and a few minutes later the squash.  I heated the turkey stock to a simmer before adding it to the pot along with the dill and other seasonings.  Then I brought everything to a boil and lowered to a simmer.  After about 30 minutes of simmering, I pureed the whole batch with the fabulous immersion blender and let it simmer another 30 minutes or so.

At the risk of sounding synesthetic, it *tastes* green — fresh and summery and bright and naturally sweet.

After dinner last night, I have just enough to cover lunches for the entire week, and I think that I will try a different sort of topping or additive each day and see what happens.  Last night — a few dabs of sour cream.  Today – magic cheese.  Tomorrow — perhaps a squirt of citrus or some fresh tomatoes.  From there — who knows?

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For some reason this article irritated me.  For several reasons, actually.  I thought about ranting against each point, but instead I have decided to wish the author inexpensive gadgets, extra long battery life and a stable high speed internet connection so that she never need consult another paper cookbook again.

Me, I love cookbooks.  I love the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook I inherited from my grandmother.  I love the old, battered, much used paperback edition of The Joy of Cooking which sits on the shelf next to a shiny, less stained hardcover copy of the 75th edition of the same book.  I love my well used copy of The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.  I love the newer acquisitions such as How to Eat Supper and Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet.

I used to buy cookbooks because I thought I needed recipes in order to cook, and quite a few of them were pretty much collections of recipes without a lot of pictures or context and narrative.  I have since learned that I do not so much need the recipes themselves as I do the skills which they teach.  One of my long-term hopes and goals is that this self-directed culinary education will help me figure out how to prepare and update the recipes in the family recipe boxes.

If I want to try a new recipe, find out what to do with an unfamiliar ingredient or learn a new skill, however, I look in a cookbook.

I love reading cookbooks written by restaurant chefs — even if the recipes aren’t exactly designed for home cooking — because they include their philosophy and process.  While the results of some of their experimentation don’t appeal to me, they are still educational.  They tell me that I probably wouldn’t like things it would never occur to me to put together, but they also encourage my own mind to think “off menu.”  Sometimes way off menu.

Nor do I read only cookbooks when it comes to learning about food and its preparation.  I read memoirs and books of food writing and even food-centric novels.

Cookbooks can be delightfully specialized, and I am not talking about the latest diet or nutrition craze.  (One of the many joys of living without television reception or cable is that I tend not to hear about such things.)  You can get books such a Bones, Meat, Fat Roots and Salted.  If you want to be more inclusive, there is the Nose to Tail approach.  There are new (or maybe not so new — again, no tv) and different genres — whole foods, raw foods, sushi, miso, tofu.

If cookbooks are on their way out, why are book deals part of the up and coming chef’s road to celebrity?  People want to connect with or associate themselves with these celebrities, and what better way to show your connection than a shelf full of books by Giada or Emeril?  By purchasing all of the other merchandise they endorse, of course — pots, pans, knives, bakeware, and even foodstuffs.

(I will confess to owning several books by Giada and two Martha Stewart enameled cast iron pots, but I actually use the books and the cookware regularly.  Giada has some great recipes which I make often, and those Martha Stewart pots get the job done without the Le Creuset price tag.  In fact, last weekend, I made a modified version of Giada’s basic marinara sauce in the larger of the two Martha pots.)

At the other end of the spectrum, there are cookbooks that aren’t really cookbooks, such as Heston’s Fantastical Feasts and Notes from a Kitchen.  Just today, Too Many Chiefs and Only One Indian caught my eye.  The last two are gorgeous works of art, not only for the food which they feature but also graphic design, typography and photography.  (One of my favorite things about them is that they cannot be had from amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)  A little less extreme but still impressively visually appealing is What Katie Ate, written by a commercial photographer with a passion for food.  She wrote the recipes, cooked the food, and styled and shot all of the photography in the book.

With all of the options offered by computers and other technology these days –digital photography, graphic design, vibrant soy-based inks, non-traditional paper fibers, typefaces, and even page size — the possibilities for creative publications are more numerous than ever.  Why would you want to stare at a digital screen, when you can get a more complete sensory experience by holding one of these fabulous books in your hands and making a new discovery every time you turn a page?  After all, aren’t the best meals the ones which engage all five senses?  So why not start the experience with the recipe source?

It’s not that I do not look for recipes online, but I have gotten away from the ubiquitous cooks.com and allrecipes.com and epicurious.com.  They are too noisy.  Too many choices.  Too many recipes and reviews by people I don’t know.  Instead I read cooking blogs and follow links found in the Twitter feeds of cooks and food writers.  The only time I use recipe focused sites anymore is when I am trying to find a recipe I saw in a magazine and can’t remember which issue.  (If anyone has a way of collecting and organizing recipes from magazines so that they can be easily found and used again in the future, I would love to hear about it.)

These cookbooks and blogs inspire me to not only work on my own cooking but also my writing and photography.  The more I read and the more things I try, the more things I want to learn and the more convinced I become that I can actually cook and write and photograph and have fun doing it.

Finally, there is my most recent discovery: cookbook stores.  Apparently there are loads of them if you just look.  Not only are they independent booksellers, but they are specialized independent booksellers.  (Take that, RAMJAC!!)

Maybe the cookbook publishing business isn’t growing by leaps and bounds.  Maybe it is even shrinking, but constant growth isn’t a sustainable course.  Maybe, as should be with food, there is a trend toward quality and time well spent rather than quantity and speed disguised as efficiency.

Whatever the case, I will keep reading (and buying) cookbooks.

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