Thursday, December 18, 2008

An arctic blast and the soup that nobody ate

Remember the fresh herbs of last week? They've been hidden under a blanket of snow for the past five days. No more bahn mi until summer most likely.

We get just enough snow for it to be amazing each time, for us to gawk like tourists at snowflakes—snowflakes! Actually falling! From the sky!

But after slip sliding out of my driveway, blatantly disregarding the "chains required" signs, desperate to make it to my final on Monday, I can see how it could get old. Honestly, what's the point of snow if you don't get a snow day? Frozen pipes, a yard coated in ice, snowplowed slush run through with mud—I'm glad we only get this a couple times a year.

As it is, snowy days are the perfect excuse to make cookies, break our cocktails-on-weekends-only rule, and indulge in soup and sandwiches after work. If only my family liked the soup as much as I did...

My husband hates smooth soup. (He also hates parsley, spaghetti, anything with celery in it. I say that's the weirdest thing I've ever heard. He says that because I hate shrimp and lobster, my opinion is completely invalid.)

I can see the soup thing, sort of. I don't like to eat pureed foods as a main dish. No smoothies for breakfast, puddings for snacks. But as the side to a crunchy grilled ham and cheese sandwich, I think a bit of roasted butternut squash soup and cilantro pesto is perfect.

Too bad I'm outnumbered. Tonight's tally was bowls of soup served, 3; empty bowls at the end of dinner, 1. Sigh.

W. says that if it was chunky, it would be great; I say that all that chopping would make the endeavor just not worth it. The whole point of the soup is that it's easy. He says that anything that produces smooth soup is pointless anyway. And I say something unprintable.

I'll let you judge for yourself.

Butternut squash soup

1 butternut, cut into large chunks (like into quarters)
1 apple, cored and quartered
1 onion, peeled and quartered
2 garlic cloves, peeled

Toss the veggies (EDITED TO ADD: and apple) with olive oil, salt, and pepper and roast in a 375-degree oven until dark, dark, brown on the tips. Remove peel from squash. Coarsely process veggies in the food processor. (This can be done ahead and kept in the refrigerator. This is what I did so I had an easy, quick weeknight meal on tap.)

Put puree in saucepan with equal parts chicken broth and water, enough to thin the puree to your desired consistency. Bring to a boil and simmer gently about 10 minutes to blend flavors.

I like this soup with a dab of cilantro pesto made with cilantro (stems and all), walnuts, cotija cheese, a small splash of apple cider vinegar, salt, pepper, and olive oil—all blended in the food processor until smooth. It's also good with bacon, croutons, and fried sage or a bit of curry powder.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I can't decide

...whether our makeshift Christmas tree is clever or just a bit pitiful. But the baby is so delighted by her handprint ornaments and the fairy lights, it makes us feel like Christmas superstars.

I have a lot to say about being a parent, not all of it idyllic. But honestly, I think it's worth it just for the reminder of how amazing the world can be.

A string of lights, a potted plant, paper hands sprinkled with glitter. Beautiful.

A cheap advent calendar stuffed with so-so chocolate, a misshapen snowball cookie, a handmade fleece blanket. Magical.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Bahn mi

Again with the winter evening photos, I know...

I chopped all our herbs down a couple weeks ago, anticipating the first frost. I cut everything but a couple small leaves clinging to the thick stumps of basil, sage, oregano, marjoram. I froze pesto and hung the rest to dry. And since then it's been freakishly warm in Northern California. No frost, no rain. My plants burst into green again. To celebrate, we made improvised bahn mi sandwiches with our herbal bounty.

The traditional has some sort of pate and is stuffed into a French-style baguette. Ours had mayo, hot Italian sausages, and were stuffed into ciabatta rolls. But it's a sandwich--you are practically required to mess with the formula. These are versatile and easily made vegetarian, but for me, nuoc cham, shredded carrots, daikon radish, cilantro, and mint are non-negotiable.
Sort of bahn mi

rolls or small baguettes
protein (sausages, roast pork, baked tofu, or whatever)
shredded carrots
shredded daikon radish
sprigs of cilantro, mint, and/or basil
other additions: thinly sliced cucumber, pate, pickled jalepenos, etc. etc.

Toast rolls lightly, split in half, and spread sides with a bit of mayo. Pile bottom piece of roll with ingredients, spoon nuoc cham over everything, clamp down the top, and eat.

Nuoc cham

juice of one big lime or two small limes
1/2 t. crushed red pepper
2 T. fish sauce
1 1/2 T. sugar (preferable a darker "natural" sugar)
1 minced garlic clove

Soak the red pepper in lime juice for a couple minutes, then add the rest of the ingredients. This is usually made with shreds of carrots floating in the sauce, but since I use shredded carrots in my bahn mi, I don't bother. Nuoc cham keeps about a week in the fridge.

Leftover shredded veggies, herbs, protein, and nuoc cham can be tossed with rice noodles and lettuce for a fresh tasting salad the next day.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Goat leg steaks, unexpectedly yummy

Portrait of a Taco in a Dark Room

Can I gush more about our CSA? Cute farmer, sure, but even more importantly, fantastic meat and real enthusiasm for sustainable, local, and healthy ways of eating.

We got a packet of goat leg steaks a couple months ago. I'll admit to some trepidation. I thought I'd have to dress them up with some elaborate preparation involving dried chiles and long roasting or showcase them with a flash grilling.

But finals are looming and energy is short. And to make things even more fun, our up-all-night baby is being subjected to a last-ditch survival attempt at night weaning and really, really pissed about it. Easy meals to soothe our frantic selves this week.

So, a weeknight evening, while we had cocktails and I finished "Wuthering Heights" for my book club, goat leg steaks went into a pan with a freezer bag of green salsa* and cooked a couple hours. The next night, the meat was shredded and served in corn tortillas with pinto beans (Crockpot-ed while we were at work) and local brown rice (the frozen brown rice at Tr. Joes is awesome in a pinch--three minutes in the microwave), crumbled cotija and Turkeytail salad greens.

W. had six. The baby's mantra was "more...try more...try...more."

Goat? Nothing to be afraid of.

*I should have written about this over the summer, when we could still get fresh tomatillos at the farmers' market, but it seemed too facile, too shortcut-y, too not a recipe. But husked and rinsed tomatillos, pieces of white onion, garlic cloves, jalepeno chiles, cilantro (stems and all), and salt, blitzed in the food processor or blender and packed into freezer bags or containers. No sauteeing, no fuss. We pull out bags all winter to make chile verde meats--chicken, pork, now goat--for tacos and burritos. The meat cooks into shreds, the sauce thickens enough to hold it all together. Easy peasy and saves you tons of money all winter long.

If you haven't stocked the freezer ahead, you could use a good-quality jarred green salsa and a little broth to braise your meat and be nearly as happy.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cheap eats?

Holy eight-dollar-burrito, Batman! Nothing like a little So. Cal. financial reality check to send us screaming northward again...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Food memories

When it comes to Thanksgiving, I can be kind of, well, eh. Food and family, I know—what's not to love? Well, food and family.

Turkey and mashed potatoes just don't get me going. I think I'm one of the few people who comes home from Thanksgiving a few pounds lighter. (Christmas, now, that's a different story--one that starts with pork and ends with cheese and doesn't consider yams a moral imperative.)

I'm happy to be home, where the air is sharp and the knives sharper, with the baby sleeping off her vacation and me watching the blue jays take over the bird feeder.

Because I went back to my childhood home for Thanksgiving maybe, my thoughts were on the memories of food, the ghosts of meals past. I went to my favorite sandwich shop, the Great Central Hoagie Company, after, as is only right, a morning of doing this:

And the fries were finger-scorching hot, ribbed with potato peel, and piled into a double layered brown paper bag, just like I remembered. The turkey hoagie had more cheese and meat than I like, and an insipid slice of tomato under the finely shredded lettuce, but it was perfectly balanced with those pulled out just like I remembered. The peperoncinis were twisted into white paper, and we rushed to gobble our sandwiches before the olive oil dressing turned the buns to mush, just like I remembered.

But something was off. In my memory of those sandwiches, eaten over and over again in my old Volvo while watching the winter waves, the olive oil was studded with flakes of oregano, not the powdery bits in my sandwich of last week. The peppers were spicier, the fries more crispy outside and softer inside. The bread wasn't blandly white. It was an unexpected perfection passed through the window of a run-down stand on an unlikely corner.

And yet, sort of like I pretended to believe in Santa Claus even after I was much too old, I pretended that sandwich was that magical hoagie of high school, of college, of road trips, of sea salty skin and sunburns. Hoping that maybe, if I pretended hard enough, it would be so.

And you know what? The more I think about it, the better it tasted.