Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Of Bloody Oranges & Pithy Pomelos

Bloody Oranges.

It wasn't very long ago that I discovered that many varieties of citrus fruits actually grow best in the winter.  I found that shocking, having always associated orange juice and bright lemons and limes with the warmth of the summer and sunny Florida.  In a way this paradoxical reality - I do believe citrus actually does taste better when it's warm outside - is a little bit of a winter miracle.  You're holed up deep within the doldrums of a cold, snowy winter, thoughts of heavy gravies and roasts relentlessly dancing inside your head, when out of nowhere every beautiful variation of juicy citrus fruit suddenly appears in your local grocery store.  The idea of it used to bother me, really.  I couldn't figure out what could be wintery about citrus besides maybe throwing them into a giant vat of mulled wine, but that didn't seem to do them justice either.

At a certain point I finally found a recipe that tempted me into giving the abundance of winter citrus a place at home (outside of simply forcing myself to shiver while I ate cold grapefruit on a January morning): the Homesick Texan's "grapefruit brulee."   The idea of a semi-warm, slightly sweeter version of the morning grapefruit really, really appealed to me.

From there, I remembered a salad that had struck me back when I first tasted it - at my sister-in-law's rehearsal dinner in December of 2006 - but which I'd forgotten about since then: a simple grapefruit and fennel salad, which was served with a roast ham.  What a great combination.  And I'd never even noticed the "coldness" of the salad because I enjoyed it so much.

Then the other week I was at the gym reading the December 2012 issue of Sunset (a wonderful magazine that proclaims to expound upon "how to live in the west) when I came upon an article about winter and citrus fruits.  The editor pointed out, rather smartly, that these days we take citrus for granted as a readily available near-commodity.  We can get oranges, lemons, limes at any time of the year thanks to the wonders of mass-farming and global-transportation.  But, she proudly pondered, her father actually remembered (and told her about) a time when an orange in California was very much a Christmas miracle.
How amazing.

* * *

So lately I've been having a celebration of sorts myself - one that involves me buying large quantities of the many citrus fruits we have out there available to us in Colorado at this blustery time of year.  And I've settled on a favorite salad recipe for them, which I'll share.  But first, here are my favorite citrus fruits in list form:

Of Bloody Oranges & Pithy Pomelos
the many citruses I love

5. Pomelos:
Looks: I first had a pomelo on my honeymoon in Thailand.  I used to drop a couple of delicious segments into my ritual morning-pomelo-mimosa (I live a horrifically difficult life, don't I?).  These fruits are yellow on the outside but can also be green or a light orange.  They are a pain to peel and unwieldy in their immense size (the largest citrus, in fact).  If nothing else, they are impressive to look at next to the comparatively puny navel oranges and mandarins.

Likes: Despite the awkwardness of a Pomelo, there is something infinitely satisfying about the enlarged segments, made up of also rather enlarged fruit juice sacs (called vesicles, apparently).  They're like a milder, sweeter grapefruit - on steroids.  The grandfather of grapefruits, actually.  The other day Roman and I devoured one in its magnificent unadulterated form in under five minutes. Good thing it only took half an hour to peel.

4. Blood Oranges
Looks: I should have known my mummy-and-skeleton-obsessed son would love blood oranges before he even tried them.  I first had a blood orange when I moved to Italy and I remember being a little shocked and a little excited when I saw the dark red juices and bright orange colors burst forth from that fruit.  They look like normal navel oranges but on occasion they have a reddish blush across one side of the peel.  And when you cut into them, one end is much bloodier in color than the other, which is almost like an orange-yellow-red rainbow in a cross-segment.  Amazingly - nay, bloody beautiful.

Likes: I don't find the flavor of a blood orange amazingly different from that of a regular orange (some say it contains a hint of raspberry), but to me the wow-factor of the appearance and the name (variations include the exotic: Moro, Sanguinelli and Tarocco) makes the difference in price worthwhile.
They are only available for part of the year, and that itself makes them a special occasion.  Roman was thrilled to have one in his lunch, cut into bright, bloody, fully-peeled segments.  When I picked him up his teacher told me he'd eaten all his oranges.  And he said, "But it wasn't just an orange.  It was a blood orange, Ms. Cavanaugh."  I was proud.
More on blood oranges from my beloved Melrose&Morgan.

3. Navel Oranges
Looks: Despite its deceivingly common facade, the navel orange is just so much fun.  It's better than the common orange (usually Valencia oranges in these parts) because it's easier to peel and less juicy - both factors in a less-messy experience if you're the type that peels oranges by hand.  It is also characterized by the funny belly-button looking growth at the top which is actually like a mini-baby-orange growing at the top of the big orange.  I like to call that growth, much to Matt's horror, "the brain-child."  Something about it reminds me of Krang from the Ninja Turtles.  Don't ask me why that's appealing, but it is.  Call it a bit of whimsy to your orange-y snack, if you will.

When you're looking for a delicious, sweet-and-not-bitter-orange-experience, for me the Navel orange is the way to go.  If you peel it by hand you also get to eat the brain child.  But I usually just cut it into fully-peeled segments (no pith or membrane) for myself or Roman.  It is accompanied perfectly by some Tajin chile & lime seasoning powder (available at Walmart), for a Mexican twist.

2. Grapefruit
Looks: To me there's nothing quite like the pinky-orange color of a Ruby Red grapefruit.  You can get grapefruits that are yellow too, but they don't appeal to me in the least.  I like the bring salmony-coraly pink ones that make you feel like they're at the peak of ripeness.  And I love to eat them with a serrated grapefruit spoon.  We only have one in our drawer right now, which may soon prove problematic as Roman has become quite the grapefruit fiend.

Likes: Growing up in Texas, the Ruby Red grapefruit was ubiquitous, and yet - revered.  It's so pretty.  This bright red grapefruit is the Texas state fruit and is the only grapefruit to ever have a patent awarded to it.  I won't lie, there is some pride associated with eating it for me.  Though, really, in the end I have to admit that sometimes I just really want something bitter.  Like a nice Campari Portofino, or a mean Negroni, or a...grapefruit.  And really that's the main reason I love grapefruits.  They bring a new dimension to citrus - a certain je ne sais quoi that the average orange just doesn't have.  They stand up to strong flavors - precisely why they pair so nicely with fennel and pistachios in the salad I'll share below.

1. Lemons & Limes
Looks:  We all obviously know what lemons and limes look like so I won't get into that.  I will say that I prefer regular-sized limes to key limes (unless I'm at a Mexican taco stand) and that my life changed when I first tried southern Italian lemons.  My biggest complaint with regards to these common citrus fruits is that most people do not know how to choose them in a supermarket.  Nothing irks me more than a dry lime or a lemon that is so hard and whose skin is so thick that you can't get more than two drops of juice out of it. 
When choosing lemons and limes there are two things to look for: thin skin and soft, supple flesh.  If they feel squishy, they have lots of juice.  If the skin is thin, you will be able to get all that juice out.  Oh, and when chopping or slicing them for guests to use with a meal (calamari, for example), please do us a favor and don't provide thin, round slivers: either hand out halves or quarters, but nothing less.

I simply cannot pretend to like any citrus better than I like lemons and limes.  It's odd to me that I've actually never dedicated an entire post on my blog to them because they are one of the few ingredients that are always (and I mean always) on hand in my kitchen.  It kills me that in Portland I had to pay up to $0.65 per lemon for a while, but now that I'm back in the southwest I've found my wonderful Mercado where, at one point in the year, I got limes for 20/$1.00.  I used to eat limes every single night.  My favorite drink of all-time is homemade limeade (or lemonade).  While that's not such a habit anymore, I can honestly say that I truly believe all food tastes better with a squirt (or twenty) of lemon or lime juice on it.

Honorable Mentions: Meyer Lemons & Yuzus
I have a limited experience with Meyer lemons and the Japanese lime-like fruit Yuzu.  Apart from making an ill-fated batch of homemade limoncello back in 2005 (which Matt threw out due to a random fit of paranoia regarding botulism), I've never made anything with Meyer lemons again.  I've never consciously tried Yuzu but I see it all the time.  I think maybe I need to make this Shaker Lemon Pie (better, I hope, than the one pictured below which we ate at the actual Shaker Village in Kentucky) with the Meyers and - if I can ever find them - some Yuzus.

*  *  *

Winter Citrus & Fennel Salad with Pistachios
Serves 4 as a side dish

1 large ruby red grapefruit
2 blood oranges
2 navel oranges
1 lime (optional)
1/2 bulb of fennel, sliced thinly with a mandoline, or by hand
2 Tbsp roughly chopped pistachios
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar

Slice all the citrus fruits by first peeling and then segmenting them so there is no pith or membrane left behind.  For contrast you can also slice a few of them into rounds once you've peeled them, but this is optional.  Add the sliced fennel.

Make the dressing by mixing the oil, vinegar and some salt and pepper in a bowl until the oil is emulsified.  Add to the salad and toss lightly.  Adjust the seasoning and then sprinkle the pistachios over the top.  Serve cold or at room temperature.

*For a variation add some butter lettuce or arugula.  If you're bold, add a sliced avocado. Also, it's nice with a tsp of dijon mustard in the dressing, but personally, I prefer it without.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Culinary Synesthesia: Lobster Tails & Radicchio

Pan fried Lobster tails and Radicchio with oyster mushrooms, grape tomatoes and white rice.

I have to share something I ate last night that kind of blew me away.  It encapsulates the great affinity I have for certain foods because it includes some of the foods I have come to intensely love, but once intensely hated (or, worse, was completely ignorant of).  It is also unique in that all the foods on the plate hold strong emotional ties for me, harkening me back to my days of studying Romance languages and the random but fateful encounter I had with Proust's A Remembrance of Things Past.

I was a sophomore in college set on a Romance Language degree track.  My French teacher, whose name I don't and could never recall, brought up the concept of Proust's Madeleine.  With it, she introduced the idea of Synesthesia - the thought that a smell, sensation or taste can emotionally transport you to a specific time or memory in the past.  The whole notion thoroughly intrigued me and stayed with me, leaving lingering and permanent curiosities about what my own "Madeleines" might be.  Surely for some they are experiences - like riding with the top down in a convertible, smelling someone's perfume, or sleeping with an old blanket.  But surely also, mine must be culinary as I make so much of my emotional attachment to food.

So many foods we eat and love or hate are a question of attachment and relation.  They invoke either distaste and bitterness (literally near-gagging), negative memories (being forced to eat your Brussels sprouts as a child), or a sudden transport back to happy times.  Without expecting it, last night, this plate temporarily became my Proustian Madeleine.  Not that I could eat it every day, nor that it's my favorite dish in the world, but that all its components have meaning, are linked to vivid memories that hold keys to who I am.

It all started with a plate of white rice.  Matt was going to be at a company dinner (no doubt dining on the many-splendid delicacies offered at The Oxford, here in Denver).  I was sick of eating leftovers at home and decided to splurge and buy myself two petite Lobster tails.  From there, I let this recipe and my refrigerator and its shockingly inspired contents guide the way...

*  *  *
Culinary Synesthesia: Lobster & Radicchio
Some of the things I love, and some I loved to hate - until I loved them, of course :)

Ingredient 1: Half a head of Radicchio
The first time I ever tried radicchio was in 1998 in a picturesque Friulian village, at a small bar called - of all the unromantic things in the world! - "Mickey Mouse."  I didn't have much spending money but on occasion I did treat myself to what was one of the few good, edible things at Mickey Mouse (besides their patatine con salsa rossa, of course): An Italian Insalatona.

While I erroneously labored, for quite some time, under the impression that the word was spelled "insalatonna," with the "tonn[o]" at the end referring to the prerequisite tuna fish that the salad at Mickey Mouse was comprised of, I eventually realized that the "tona" part actually denotes an augmentative suffix at the end of certain Italian words.  And in this case, it differentiated this salad as something one would have as a "main course" rather than just a side salad due to its larger size.

The salad was, of course, amazing.  In and of itself it reminded me of a million things: 

- tuna fish in salad recalled my mother's love of tuna salad and my thankfulness that, unlike hers, this one did not contain raw celery (one of my few nemeses) 

- a hard-boiled egg recalled early years spent at my grandmother's house boiling eggs and eating them together

- loose corn kernels brought to mind a simple farmhouse salad I once ate at a dairy in the country in Denmark after a beautiful bike ride

-the simple red-wine-vinegar-and-olive-oil dressing inspired me, as this was one of the first times I'd ever mixed my own vinaigrette, and a lifelong affair officially commenced 

- the "mesclun" that comprised the "meat" of the salad reminded me of my father, who, as a chef, often used to bring mesclun home for us to eat, inspiring unmeasured amounts of awe in me to the tune of - how can we literally be eating leaves?!  The idea of it - of foraging, of food as a part of nature, not just something at a supermarket, seemed too amazing to be true, and never left my mind thereafter.

But also in that amazing salad was a strange reddish purple lettuce, something I'd never tried before, something that went beyond the often euphemized (and often by the British, actually) "pepperiness" of Arugula, or the soft bitterness of Frisee.  It was Radicchio.  And when I took that first bite of it, I absolutely, positively, vehemently hated it.  

I felt wronged.  How could this beautiful salad be sullied by that nasty, unnecessary purple thing?  I diligently went through and picked it all out every time I ever had an insalatona after that.

It wasn't until very recently - about a year ago - that I suddenly intellectually decided that my hatred of radicchio was nonsensical.  How could someone who delights in so many bitter things (Campari, Gin, many wines, and some olives, wasabi, among them), truly hate radicchio?  So I bravely purchased some and decided it wasn't actually bad.

About a week ago I suddenly had a craving for radicchio again after watching an episode of Chopped where it was served up to the judges grilled.  I did some research and found an utterly simple and sensational recipe for Roasted Radicchio and my life was changed forever.

Roasted Radicchio (1 head)

Serves 2

Preheat oven to 450F.
Quarter the radicchio, rinse in cold water, shake off most of the water.
Place on a roasting pan.   
Sprinkle with olive oil, salt, pepper and some dried thyme (very little).
Roast for 15 minutes (or until wilted).  
Serve warm or at room temperature, drizzled with good balsamic vinegar or simply lemon juice.
*For a variation, halve and include a few grape tomatoes.

Ingredient 2: 1 Lb of Oyster Mushrooms 
I have sung the praises of mushrooms before (here and here).  They have always been one of my favorite things to eat.  I admit to often sneaking a raw white mushroom at the grocery store as a child.  But I'd never had Oyster mushrooms until I met Matt's grandmother.  She makes them every time we go to her house for breakfast (yes, sauteed mushrooms at breakfast - my kind of meal).  I don't know what it is about the texture, the combination of flavors, but to me they recall a kind of meat - but better.  I had no idea that in the south of Italy, in the mountains of Campania, for generations Matt's ancestors foraged for mushrooms of a similar quality and texture, and that those mushrooms made up a large and delicious part of their everyday food.   
The other night I decided that some sauteed Oyster Mushrooms - in the perfect state of readiness from Whole Foods to me - would pair beautifully with the roasted radicchio I mentioned above. 

Sauteed Oyster Mushrooms
Serves 2

Separate the Oyster mushrooms (half a pound).
Heat olive oil in a pan (3tbsp or so) and perhaps some butter too.
Add the mushrooms once hot.  Add garlic (3 cloves, minced) and pepperoncino (crushed red pepper, to taste).
Sprinkle liberally with salt and black pepper.
Allow to brown on both sides, tossing occasionally.
Once all wilted and browned, serve warm or at room temperature.
Garnish with a juicy lemon.

Ingredient 3: Steamed White Rice (1 cup)
 As a mother I aspire to pass down my love for rice to my son.  I don't buy brown rice (unless it's a wild rice medley, but that's a story for another day) and I don't like it.  If I'm going to have rice I want it white and I want it steamed (unless I want it Mexican style, in which case I go all out with the Saffron or tomato sauce).
 Every week I make a pot of rice with extra to keep in the fridge.  I eat it at breakfast, lunch and dinner some daysIt is warm, soft and filling, and a wonderful receptacle for so many flavors.
 As a child I loved to eat it with soy sauce.  I had it with Sopa de Frijol (bean soup).  It was presented to me at almost every main meal (and often breakfast too).  Last night, my leftover rice was the perfect thing to soak up all the delicious olive oil and sauces that would come with the radicchio, mushrooms, and lobster tails.  I think my full-proof method of making good white rice is worth sharing.

Steamed White Rice 
Heat a pot on high heat and add the uncooked long grain white rice (2 cups).  
Add 4 cups of water.
Cover and allow to boil.
When boiling, reduce heat to simmer and cover.
Cook for 21 minutes. 
Allow to rest for 5-20 minutes on hot stove.

Ingredient 4: Two Petite Lobster Tails
I've written about Lobster at-length before.  It's funny to me that a food I had never really had before the age of 21 has become so closely linked with fond memories for me.  I become nostalgic every time I see lobsters featured in any show or sitting in tanks at restaurants or grocery stores (a rare sight here in Denver).
Yesterday while on a rare visit to the exorbitantly-priced but so appealing Whole Foods in Cherry Creek, I noticed that the petite lobster tails were on sale: two for $12.  Not a bad deal at all.  I snagged two and took them home with visions of succulent crustacean meat dancing inside my head.

After determining that all the previously mentioned iningredients would be part of this ad hoc gourmet dinner, I decided it was too cold to grill the lobster tails like I wanted.  So for the surf part to my already-made turf, I pan-fried the lobster tails (shell-on) in a garlic, crushed red pepper, butter, olive oil and white wine sauce.  I think that's actually enough of a recipe to go on :)  And, as always, I was sadly disappointed with how Lobster tastes when I cook it myself, which only increased the nostalgia for the $4.99/lb days back in the land of Ports.

*  *  *

Voilà : Home, Italy, Mexico and Maine on a plate.

Take that Proust. :)

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Monday, January 7, 2013

A Salt & Pepper Meal for the New Year.

Excuse me for crassly stretching the limits of the metaphor, but this part of January - the New Year, if you will - is a lot like a roast chicken.  The simplest of things and yet, in some ways, the most complex of foods to perfect.  Done badly, it can ruin your appreciation of the roast bird, making it, like other simple pleasures, a basic and ubiquitous bore.  Done well, it can exemplify and even elevate all that simple things can be to life.  It's a blank canvas - all the possibilities that linger before us.  It's clean, straightforward, unadulterated - as of yet.  It's the New Year dreams ahead, made delicious by a little salt and a little pepper.

Perhaps it's just coincidence, perhaps it's the cold weather and the appeal of a hot roast on a winter's Sunday afternoon, but for the past couple of years Matt always seems to ask me to make him a roast chicken right around this time.  And for the past couple of years, I've always made this particular recipe, my go-to-utter-perfection-simple-roast-chicken (courtesy of Thomas Keller, see last year's homage).  For whatever reason, I tend to fight the idea of having a roast chicken when first presented with it - oh what a bore, don't want to bother, why not some nice salmon, blah blah blah.  But I always end up giving in.  And then, as soon as I enter the kitchen with that simplistic, holistic culinary purpose, I'm whisked away by the excitement of making such a downright easy meal that I know will be both utterly simple and utterly delicious.

The reason I love this meal I make is because it tears away all the pretentious over-workedness of many modern recipes.  It's a salt & pepper kind of meal.  All you need is a chicken, an oven, salt & pepper and you're good to go.  Yes, sometimes I embellish the side dishes (for example, this year I added anise seed to the potatoes), but at its core, there's nothing flashy or difficult about this meal in its entirety.  Except for the salad, everything is cooked in cast iron skillets in the same oven.  And it's all ready at the same time, accompanied by a simple white wine (Sauvignon Blanc is my preference).  It makes the day and sets the tone for the rest of January, a month that can either drag on or usher in with joy. 

*  *  *
The house smells like heaven.  You find yourself enthralled in the easy but purposeful sprinkling of coarse salt & pepper over the newly dried chicken skin.  No oil, no butter, just heat, salt & pepper and a chicken.  And 60 minutes later your beautiful chicken is transformed.  You can baste at the end.  You can add the Thyme for a little spice.  But you don't have to - it would be the best chicken you ever had straight out of the oven.

the cook's prize
You've roasted potatoes with lemon slices, you've made a simple salad with lemon juice and oil as dressing and copious amounts of grape tomatoes marinated in fresh garlic and basil.  You've basted the chicken and greedily tried to share the cook's prize with your husband.  The wine is chilled, the table set, and you sit down.  You eat.  You feel full and happy, picking at bits of crunchy skin after already eating your fill.  Everyone is rosy-cheeked and happy - even the three year-old - with more light than dark left in the day (and the chicken).  

And that's when you know: this is what a meal should do.  In all its uncomplicated glory it should unite.  It should spark mutual appreciation and enthusiasm for life among the young and old, sitting together, sharing such a meal, in animated conversation, toasting bravely to life's inevitable joys and travails - the salt and the pepper of our existence.

*  *  *

To serve a family of 4

Preheat oven to 450F / 232C

The Chicken (4-5lbs)
Rinse and Dry thoroughly.

Salt & Pepper copiously (inside).
Truss tightly.
Dry again.
Salt & Pepper copiously (outside).
Bake in cast iron skillet (no oil or butter) for 55-65 minutes.
Baste with own juice, sprinkle thyme lightly and baste again.

The Gravy
Whisk flour slurry into pan juices. Add wine.  Reduce. Skim fat. Salt & Pepper.  Serve.

The Potatoes (4 large)
Peel and chop.
Slice lemon thinly.
Mix potatoes, salt & pepper, lemon, oregano (anise seeds too?) and generous amount of canola oil. 
Bake in separate cast iron skillet next to chicken for 45 minutes, mixing occasionally.
Salt & Pepper.
DONE (at the same time as chicken).

The Salad
Chop grape tomatoes.
Chop garlic (3 cloves).
Chop basil.
Mix with lemon juice and olive oil.
Salt & Pepper.
Add mixed greens and serve.

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