Stalking the Waiter

Riffing on foods, flavors and methods, that would be telling.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Weekend Herb Blogging #21 - Sicilian oregano

This not so great photo is of some Sicilian oregano which has naturalized itself. That's really a polite way of saying the darn stuff has gone wild. These plants have a history, in that my mother got cuttings from a friend whose grandmother brought them over from Italy with her like a hundred years or so ago. They're supposed to be different from the usual oregano you buy in nurseries here, and it does look a bit different.

Oregano is used extensively in both Italian and Latin American cooking, probably because it goes so well with tomatoes. One of my favorite dishes using oregano is a Vera Cruz-style tomato sauce with olives. The classic dish is made with red snapper, but I also use it with chicken (thighs are best). The leftover sauce is heavenly, and makes a nice meal over rice, with a small salad.

Vera Cruz-style Tomato Sauce

This recipe is supposed to have originated in Vera Cruz, Mexico. Can't prove it by me, but it is one of the most wonderful tomato concoctions I've ever tasted. I am not a fan of cooked tomatoes, so that's saying something. Also, it has two of my favorite things in it - capers and olives.

The fish used should be white fleshed and flake when cooked (red snapper, tilapia, butterfish) - nothing dense like tuna or swordfish. I also use this with chicken thighs. These directions rely on canned and dried ingredients, but use fresh if you have them.

  • 2 cans Readi-cut tomatoes or other stewed tomatoes
  • 2 Tbsp. dried onion flakes
  • 2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 3 Tbsp. capers
  • 1/2 cup (or more) green, pimento-stuffed olives
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry
  1. Pour the tomatoes into a skillet or sauce pan over medium heat.
  2. When the tomatoes start to simmer (just below a boil), add the remaining ingredients.
  3. Heat through until you smell the alchohol starting to evaporate.
If you're using this with fish, when the sauce is warmed pour it into a casserole dish and scoot the fish in. Bake at 350F degrees for 20 minutes.

For the chicken, remove the skins from chicken thighs (save them!*) and brown them in an ovenproof pan. When they are browned on both sides but not cooked through, add the sauce ingredients. Cook briefly on the stove so the sauce is heated, then put the whole thing into the oven. Bake at 350F degrees for 30 minutes.

* If you're not afraid of a little saturated fat, these chicken (or turkey or duck etc.) skins have some flavorful uses. You must cook them very slowly, until they have rendered most of their fat. I season the skins lightly on both sides - seasoning depending what I'm in the mood for - then cook them using a bacon press to keep them flat in the pan. If not held down, they will curl into little balls and not give up their fat or come out crispy and delicious.

When you're finished, you'll have some lovely, slightly seasoned chicken fat and some very crispy chicken skin. Break the skin up like crisp-fried bacon and use it in salads, on baked potatoes, and so on, as you would bacon bits. It has much less fat than bacon, none of the chemicals, and tastes great.

Pour off the chicken fat and keep it in the refrigerator or freezer in a closed container. If the container is only partially filled, press a sheet of plastic wrap over the fat to prevent ice crystallization. This lovely, pale golden chicken fat makes the best fried potatoes you've ever had, except, possibly, if you've had ones done with duck fat.

For this week's roundup of herb blogging posts, visit Kalyn's Kitchen. Lots of nice pics, good info and yummy recipes.

Weekend Cat Blogging #38

Yesterday, while LouLou I were wandering around the back forty looking for something to photograph for Weekend Herb Blogging - well, I was looking, LouLou was just along for the stroll - the sound of rushing water caught our attention. LouLou was very curious but smart enough not to fall into the drainage ditch, which was full and fast-running after all the recent rains we've had recently.

I chose this pic because it shows one of her more unusual features. ;+)

Click on over to EatStuff to visit Clare and her very flexible kitty, Kiri, and see the roundup of all the Weekend Cat Bloggers.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

New Stuff in Old Places

Since I haven't been able to do any real food blogging for a while, I went through some more of my old columns and found a couple recipes to add to old posts. I've added a recipe for lightly pickled veggies to the WHB-Wild Bay post, and a recipe for using lemon balm to the WHB-Lemon Balm post, albeit only as a garnish, but this one has a pic!

I'm also finishing up a post or two that has been languishing as a draft. I've finished the one on making dried cheddar for using on daintly, crispy, little cheese toasts for a tea party. A lof of noodling around, but so worth it.

So, if you've got a minute, check them out.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Weekend Herb Blogging #20 - Lemon Balm

Here's some lemon balm that's naturalized itself. It was a nice little green surprise as I was walking around with my camera today. Being a member of the mint family, lemon balm will spread like crazy if you don't keep it contained. But, since the garden here has been neglected for years, there are only a few isolated clumps left.

I used to have a mint bed in the garden, and it all spread, as expected. But after so many years, I find that only the lemon balm remains. If you've never seen/smelt it, it has a very lemony scent, with a hint of grassiness. It's nice in iced tea, as you might add a sprig of mint. Or you can make a tea from a good size bundle of the leaves. Mix some into butter for a lemony compound butter to use in tea sandwiches for a little different flavor.

Try chopping a few leaves in a salad, or use a chiffonade in the water when poaching fish or, even, chicken. It's a pretty versatile herb, since there are so many places where a little lemon is a good addition. You can even use it in potpourris or other room scenting applications.

Here's a simple recipe using lemon balm as an edible garnish. And I even have a pic! Sorry it's so out of season.
Apricots, Chevre and Honey
This is so simple and so delicious. Just halve an apricot for each serving, put a scoop of chevre beside it, and drizzle a little honey over it. Garnish with either lemon balm or a flavored mint, and that's it! It’s both colorful and exotic with the very different tastes and texture of the ingredients.

For this week's roundup of herb blogging posts, visit Kalyn's Kitchen. Lots of nice pics, good info and yummy recipes.

Weekend Cat Blogging #37

Wary after last week's battle to defend her territory, LouLou starts her patrol from the battlements.

After her first cautious peek, she takes a better look, checking the ground below her for interlopers.

Now, downstairs, behind the castle gates, she again proceeds with caution.

Uh oh, she's spotted me. Do you think she'll let me pass???
As you can see, LouLou's boo-boo from last week's fracas is nearly healed. I hope it will be the last of her war wounds.

For all the skinny on the cute kitties this week, be sure to visit Clare and Kiri for the wrap up on Weekend Cat Blogging.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Four x Eight Meme

Or, maybe, in my case, seven. Mrs. D, over at BellyTimber, has tagged me for this meme. I knew it was only a matter of time. ;+)

Four Jobs I've Had in My Life:
  1. Medical Writer
  2. Intelligence Analyst
  3. Teacher in a hotel and restaurant program
  4. Writer
Four Movies I Could (and I do) Watch Over and Over:
  1. Bringing Up Baby
  2. Most of the Thin Man films
  3. Most of the Pink Panther films
  4. Movies that make me laugh
Yeah, call me shallow, but I like movies that make me laugh myself sick. I haven't seen much in years that would do it. Maybe something with Owen Wilson, though. Hmmm. Could be.

Four Places I've Lived:
  1. San Francisco
  2. Baltimore
  3. Tucson
  4. Sanapanoma
Four TV Shows I Love to Watch: I'll have to pass on this one. I don't watch television enough to even know what's good.

Four Places I Have Been on Vacation:
  1. London
  2. New York
  3. New Orleans
  4. York, PA
I should also confess that I haven't been anywhere at all in years.

Four Websites I Visit Daily:

  1. He Wrote/She Wrote
  2. Kinja (don't have to play blog favorites that way :G:)
  3. Google
  4. IMDB
Yeah, I know, it's pitiful, but that is my life, searching for information and a little gossip.

Four of My Favorite Foods:
  1. Popeye's Fried Chicken
  2. Fresh baked bread
  3. A nice, dense chocolate cake with whipped cream on top, lots and lots of whipped cream
  4. Pasta with garlic, olive oil and curly parsley
Four Places I Would Rather Be Right Now:
  1. Port Townsend, WA
  2. Leeds, UK
  3. Someplace sunny and luxurious, with a beach, where people would wait on me hand and foot.
  4. Or, failing that, Carmel. Yeah, I know, cold and damp and people with attitude, but still.
I think everyone I know has already done this meme, so no tagging. You lucky bastards. :G:

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Trader Joe's Meme, and a stealth cheese sandwich

I saw this on Albion Cooks, a new food blog by a Brit lady in the SF Bay Area. I'm definitely up for this one. I've been a fan of TJ's for about 15 years, since I was living on the East Coast and only coming home for visits.

Here are my five favorite TJ's discoveries:
  • TJ's housebrand Dijon Mustard. This ain't no Grey Poupon - that guy in the Rolls would probably faint if he got a taste of this. Because it is Zippy, with that capital Z being well-deserved. I love this on sandwiches with hefty hunks of meat - like meatloaf or a thickly sliced ham, or heavy, bland cheeses - like provolone or Monterey Jack*. In either case, sliced cucumber is a great foil for both the heaviness of the filling and the zip of the mustard.
  • Ready to bake pizza dough. It comes in regular, wheat and herb, I believe. The only problem with this is that you need to buy it in a TJ's that has a good turnover. When I lived in San Jose and shopped at the one in Campbell, it was always fresh. In fact, if you didn't get there early enough, it was GONE! Where I am now, it sits for several days and isn't so hot. But still a good, time saving product, under the right circs.
  • These aren't food, but TJ's always has them, and their price is the best: Ricola "breath mints." Originally marketed as Ricola Pearls, they are sugar free. I bought some one time when I was having an allergic reaction to something, that consisted of a horrible, tickly, constant cough. I couldn't bear the thought of sucking on the usual sugar pills we call cough drops, and without one in my mouth, I coughed, incessantly. Whatever you call them, these babies are still my "cough drop" of choice, and only 49 cents a box.
  • Glaceed ginger. They have the crystallized, which is dirt cheap, or they have the moister, more luxurious version at two or three times the price. For baking, I use the cheap. For noshing, I go for the luxury version - wonderful with a handful of almonds and a dollop of softish cheese.
  • Marcel et Henri pates, and all those other charcuterie kinds of things they have at such great prices. Depending on your location, sometimes they have a really hot salame, or a spicy finocchiona, both of which I adore. But my first ever visit to TJ's was for a glom of their M et H pates to take back to Baltimore with me. Heaven.
I'm not going to tag anyone, because I don't know who has access to a TJ's. If you do, and you love their stuff, tag yourself. Let me know so I can see what your faves are.

* 23 Feb - I didn't do a cheese sandwich blog last Thursday, so, this will be my token post. I'll do a real one at some point, or points. Heh.

Weekend Herb Blogging #18 - Weeping Rosemary

It may be only February, but when the day is sunny, the bees are out doing their thing. This is really a better pic of the bee than of the rosemary, but he was photogenic. :G:

This is actually the weeping form of the herb, which has shorter "leaves." I'm not sure what the correct term is for those needle-like things that carry the rosemary essence. I have much more of the regular rosemary, but there wasn't so much flowering and pollinating going on with them.

Rosemary is good for seasoning strongly flavored meats. For example, if you do the thing with roast beef or leg of lamb, where you make a slit and slice in a slice of garlic, you can put a sprig of rosemary in, too, for a really aromatic boost to the flavor.

And, of course, rosemary is used on focaccia, chopped and sprinkled on with a gloss of olive oil, maybe some onion, or salt and pepper, roasted red pepper etc.

Rather than type in a long recipe, or pair of recipes, I'm going to link to Italian Food Forever, my go-to site for Italian recipes. You need to start with a biga*, then the focaccia, itself.

It was a recipe like this that I grew up knowing as pizza. My mom made it with tomato, not sauce, but rubbing verrrry ripe tomato over it and sprinkling on herbs. I imagine, being as my family was Norweigian and German, it was easier to just call it pizza than to try to explain about focaccia. So, I never knew what real pizza was until I was in junior high or high school. :G: So, if you like a hearty pizza, you can use this recipe, too.

For this week's roundup of herb blogging posts, visit Kalyn's Kitchen. Lots of nice pics, good info and yummy recipes.

* From Wikipedia, here's the definition of a biga:
Biga is a type of sourdough starter used in Italian baking. Many popular Italian breads, including ciabatta, are made using a biga...
Also, rosemary :
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis L.) is a woody, perennial herb with fragrant evergreen needle-like leaves that are used in cooking. It is native to the Mediterranean region. It is a member of the mint family Lamiaceae...

WCB#36, LouLou - Warrior Princess

Mistress of all she surveys, LouLou has never been happy with all the animals I feed on the deck. Yesterday, she was outside and saw the big male, who starred in last week's WCB#35, and decided to run him off.

He probably weighs at least 50% more than she does, is male and half her age, but that's never stopped my little Warrior Princess. Even after he backed off, once he saw me, she was still after him. So, she's got her battle scars, but she's probably thinking, "You should see the other guy."

I should have used Fireworks to turn her eyes green. :G:

For more kittie goodness, visit Clare and Kiri at EatStuff for the WCB roundup.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Weekend Cat Blogging #35

Tip-toeing Through
the Kibble
This week I'm introducing one of the feral cats that I feed. I caught him mid blink. He's a big boy, blind in one eye, but he can sure home in on the food. Yes, that's kibble he's standing in. He's a total hog and would eat everything if I'd let him, but I have to make sure the smaller females get a chance at the goodies, too.

One of these times, if I'm lucky, I'll be able to get some really interesting critter pictures, like the fox on one side of the food and the possum on the other, or the blonde female eating with the possum or the fox. ;+) It's a regular Peaceable Kingdom out there, amazingly. The only fighting that goes on is some hissing between the more aggressive cats.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Hammy, Yammy Goodness

Riffing on Leftover Ham
While my mother was in the hospital earlier this year, I got into the habit of shopping at the nearby Safeway. With all the flooding and road closures, it was one place I was sure of being able to get to. Unfortunately, due to a combination of the holidays and the flooding, they were very low on supplies. In the meat department they had almost nothing - a few roasts and some hams were about it. Ordinarily, I wouldn't buy a huge ham unless I was planning a party. It doesn't freeze well, losing texture dreadfully when you thaw it. But I surrendered because I had no options. (I bought a roast, too.)

Spiral-sliced ham. That had to have been invented by some guy. :G: Sorry, if I've just insulted the whole male gender, but something that gimmicky and, well, counterproductive seems like a kind of guy idea. Think Tim the Toolman Taylor. :G: You can't get a single, intact slice. You have no control over the thickness of the slice. Because there's more surface area accessible to the air, it will spoil more quickly. It's just a really bad idea from a foodie perspective, but I guess it looks cool on a buffet???

Anyway, I'm a few days past desperate for groceries. What can I say? Every time I procrastinate about grocery shopping, when I finally bite the bullet and am ready to head to the store, something happens that I can't go. So, we're out of nearly everything that isn't in a can or a box, but I still have some ham! I'm to the point on the critter where the spiral slicing ended, so I can slice it however I want. Yay.

Here's where riffing is a must. So, ham. Grits/polenta wander through my mind, or should I say flow? I've been craving them for a while but haven't bothered. So, tonight I'm going to make them. Ham and grits. Sounds like a Southern breakfast. But I don't like plain grits. What I love with ham is yams. No fresh ones in the house, though, only canned (for emergencies). Hmmm. What about mixing some canned yams into the grits, making them polenta, IMO? If you can mix pureed root and winter veggies into risotto, then why not into polenta, too?

How to cook the ham? Well, I could cut full slices and pan fry them and make a kind of red eye gravy. Or I could bake what's left and slice it as needed. We'll see how time is going.

Seems like it needs something else. I've got some leftover roasted red peppers. I could julienne them and saute them in a little olive oil with some sliced garlic. That would work if I bake the ham. Or, I guess it would work with the slices as the peppers in the "gravy" I make after frying the ham. Or, to lighten up what could be a very heavy meal, I could do a little salad - if my hearts of Romaine are still useable, and slice the peppers into that. My mouth is starting to water. Either I've come up with the perfect plan, or I'm just getting really hungry. Hmmm. It's 5 PM, and I haven't eaten yet today. Could be a little of both.


Zippy Baked Ham

This will be simple. I'm going to:
  1. rub the ham with a mixture of cayenne and Chinese Five Spice Powder warmed in a little peanut oil (to take the harsh edge off),
  2. tent it with aluminum foil, and bake it at 350 F until it's warmed through.
I'll use the meat thermometer to check the temp. Since this is ham, it won't need to be up to the raw pork mark. I just want it to be pleasantly warmed for eating.

Golden Polenta

This is a 30 minutes or less meal, so, I'm using Quick Grits. Both Albers and Quaker make it, and there are several smaller companies with a similar products on the market. I'm not giving proportions since this is using up leftovers, and you may have more or less than I. Base the amount of polenta you make on the amount of yams you're using, in roughly equal proportions.
  1. Make your instant grits in a pan large enough to comfortably hold the yams, too.
  2. Use canned or leftover yams, mashed or whipped until smooth.
  3. Melt butter in a small dish in the microwave. Add ground coriander*.
  4. Over low/medium heat, combine the whipped yams with the polenta and butter-coriander mixture. Stir, until they are a uniform color and warmed through.

Romaine and Pepper Salad

I ended up baking the ham (did I already say that?), so I sauteed the roasted red peppers in a little of the pan juices and poured them, hot, over my Hearts of Romaine. Sort of like a hot spinach salad. Twas quite tasty.

* For a large can of yams, use 3-4 Tbsp. of butter and 2 Tbsp. of ground coriander. Use that as a basic guideline and adjust to fit the amount you're making.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Dried Cheddar - The Great Experiment

I came up with this idea when I was doing a lot of tea parties and preparing to teach a class on doing catered teas. I wanted something that would be light, crispy, and definitely not greasy, so it would fit in well with a nice, ladylike tea spread. There are numerous recipes for cheese toast kinds of things, but they're all pretty heavy and greasy.

Things like boxed Mac and Cheese or Hamburger Helper have powdered cheddar packets, but I was not willing to go there. No. I was pretty sure I'd never find dried cheddar of any quality available retail, so, I decided to make my own. This was one of those experiments that I devised, figuring I'd have to make several stabs at it before I succeeded. But, glory be, it came out right the first time.

Although this project takes time, it's not labor intensive. It has to be done over a period of a day or more, and it's a bit fussy. Basically, you sweat the oil from your chosen cheese, blotting it up with paper towels, until you have a fairly dry cheese. Yeah, tedious, but the end product is soooo good.

Choose a good cheddar (or any other sharp) cheese. The less oily the cheese, the less time it will take to dry. The idea is to end up with a coarse, non-greasy powder that will store well in the fridge without turning rancid or molding.
  1. Preheat the oven to "warm" - the lowest setting.
  2. Grate the cheese.
  3. Line the bottom of a jelly roll pan with paper towel and spread the cheese on it. Give it some room - the more crowded it is, the longer it will take. Depending on how much cheese you're working with, you may have to use more than one pan.
  4. Put the pan in the oven and turn off the heat. You don't want to melt the cheese, just slowly warm it enough so the oil seeps out.
  5. Check every couple hours. Blot the droplets of oil carefully with paper towels. If the cheese, pan and oven are cold, reheat the oven to warm again and turn off.
  6. When the paper towel lining the pan starts to get saturated with oil, carefully dump the cheese into a bowl, reline the pan, and return the cheese to the pan.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6, as needed, until the cheese becomes brittle and doesn't give off any more oil.
  8. At this point, it should have lost most of its oil, but blot it with a paper towel just to be sure. Pour the cheese into a blender or food processor and process to a coarse powder.
Depending on how OC you are (obssessive compulsive, not Orange County), you can buy Melba Toast or other pretoasted thin breads, or you can bake or buy an unsliced Pullman loaf and DIY. If you go for the DIY, you're going to need a good bread knife. What you want is a knife with a finely serrated edge, or you won't get smooth, attractive slices. The Burns Bread Knife is my bread knife of choice. I couldn't get a usable pic, but it has tiny serrations cut into the edge in groups, alternating angles. It cuts any bread, but it's especially good for a bread with a fine crumb that you want to slice thin because those little teeth go right through it without tearing for smooth, perfect slices.
  1. Slice off the crusts, then slice the loaf very thinly - between 1/4 and 1/2" thick, keeping in mind that it is going to shrink as it toasts. If it's too thin, it will be brittle too fragile to be practical.
  2. Cut the bread into shapes, simple triangles or strips are fine.
  3. You can toast them in a toaster or toaster overn, or use the broiler. You want them to get barely golden on both sides.
  4. When they are golden on both sides, remove the rack to the countertop and let them cool. You can stop at this point and pack them away in a sealed container to keep them from getting soggy.
  5. When you're ready for the final steps, very lightly butter each bread shape - put just a little butter on your knife. You should be able to hear the blade scrape across the crunchy surface. This is only done to hold the dried cheddar on the bread until it's toasted.
  6. Sprinkle your dried cheddar over the buttered shapes. Don't overdo it. They only need to be lightly cheesy.
  7. Turn the oven to high (450F) and preheat.
  8. Put a cooling rack into a jellyroll pan, and set the cheese-topped bread shapes out on it. When the oven is preheated, put the pan in and watch until the cheese melts - it won't really melt, but it will combine with the bit of butter and adhere to the toasted bread shapes.
  9. Remove from the heat and let cool.
I usually sliced my Pullman loaf horizontally, which is a pain to do. But it gave me long, thin sheets of bread to cut into shapes. I had an antique silver cracker basket with the ends in the shape of coquille shells. I got a cutter in that shape and used that for my toasts. They looked really cool in the basket. The only problem I found with these was that the tea party guests wouldn't touch any of the sweets until they devoured all the toasts. I thought about making more for subsequent parties, but cheese toasts do not a tea party make, so I kept to a single loaf of bread. However, for a cocktail party, you could probably put out nothing else and have happy guests.