Friday, June 28, 2013

Odds and Ends, Part 1

I’m also not sure how one concentrates ham, but apparently it’s very pleasing to the pig.

One of the most archetypal double-edged swords of the information age is the ubiquitous cell phone camera[i]. It’s a fantastic tool for all those “I wish I had a camera” times, but the darker side is that utterly navel-gazing, life documentation obsession we’ve all developed[ii]. As much as I may mock the “Hey look at what I had for dinner” Instagram crowd, I know I am firmly and hypocritically entrenched in the shallower end of their pool. I often find myself taking a picture knowing in the back of my head that it’s going straight-to-blog[iii]. When in Rome….

Not every picture is part of a theme or can be easily grouped, so I’m usually left with a bunch of orphan shots or small groupings that range from the scenic to the surreal. This first of three posts is focusing on food. Here in no particular order are some bits of the last year or so:

I swear it's
One of my friends grows peppers of all sorts. This is his seedling grow setup. It’s pretty intense.

Massive Mole
Torta Blue cheese-cilantro
For several years we have done a 5k in Houston with some friends. The primary reason for doing so is an annual trip to Mexico’s Deli, for massive Tortas and amazing blue cheese-cilantro soup. NO calories are lost that day.

no Putting on el
The Hispanic foods section at the local Kroger has a wide section of not-quite brand name clones.

I’d never eaten cactus before. It’s actually pretty tasty.

Not really
The “e” makes all the difference. And if this isn’t meat or soy….what is it>

No, Stress b
Stress be complex? No, Stress be Simple. Women be complex.

Ahh the British food aisle. The only place where “spotted dick” and “treacle” are not a cause for medical alarm.

When we were kids, there was just Captain Crunch. Then they got crunch berries mixed in. Now it’s just berries? Damn it, kids don’t know how easy they have it. You had to earn those early crunch berries with the severe mouth lacerations of the actual cereal.

One of the best things to happen to chocolate next to one of the worst.

Why would I want a taste of trash?

This is a bar of chocolate that comes with a strip of licorice on it. I bought this chocolate in Iceland in 2011. It got lost in my bag, and I just found it a month ago, two years later. When I opened it, it was still 100% fresh. I blame the unholy alliance of the chocolate and licorice.

A harvest from our meager garden

2013-05-04 19.41.19
Fixing for homemade Pho, some of which are homegrown

[i] Most people discovered this in the 90s. I finally got a “modern” cell phone in 2010. Amazingly enough, I don’t cry over all the plates of food I haven’t photographed in restaurants in the mean time.
[ii] The combination of cell cameras and social media is a positive feedback loop. At some point we’ll simply upload 24 hours of straight camera footage each day.
[iii] Though it does lead into a larger question about this camera-rich era. An exponentially larger base of photographers are taking an exponentially larger number of pictures, but only a fraction of them are getting printed like traditional film pictures. I remember looking through my parents film albums, and my own, but how often do we go back and look at our everyday pictures on hard drives?  It feels like we’re taking them more, but enjoying them less. As if the taking is the point, and the result is secondary. At least with the blog, as navel-gazing as it is, they are being put toward a purpose other than contributing to the massive digital “tail” we all accumulate and drag through our lives these days. 

Gastronomic interlude: Red Curry Mahi Mahi

Red Curry Mahi Mahi

As usual, I found myself needing to cook something, facing a mishmash of seemingly unrelated ingredients in the fridge, and completely without a plan. Some lesser men would turn to “recipes”,  “instructions”, or “fear”. I returned, undaunted once again, to that deep, dark well of experimentation[i].

I’d been at a restaurant that had some sort of curried fish dish[ii], and thought it was an interesting idea. Since I had Mahi Mahi[iii] ready to go, and an array of curry bases[iv], I thought I’d give it a shot. At this point my sole[v]  connection to an actual recipe was the knowledge that somewhere, at some time, the words “curry” and “fish” had been in close approximation[vi].

The general intent of the recipe was to come up with a sweetish-but-fiery red curry with some savory character to balance out the bland fish. As usual, I don’t see ingredient volumes in absolute terms[vii], so use your own judgment, even if that judgment is “there is no way in hell I’m trying this.”

Mahi Mahi Which should be pretty obvious.
Orange juice enough to marinade the fish in.
Lime Juice just a dash or two for flavor.
Red Curry Base to taste. I suggest a lot.
Fish Sauce – a dash, though I have no idea why other than it’s always in curries. Call it superstition.
Brown Sugarto taste, if you want. Helps add sweetness to sauce, but may not be necessary.
Stock enough to mix with the oj and curry base. I used vegetable.
OnionsI recommend sweet vidalias or other sweet white onions. Reds are too potent for this.
Yellow Bell Peppers in small strips or half inch squares.
Mandarin Oranges or pineapple chunks. Be aware pineapple will soak up more flavor and not be as sweet.
Rumsmall bit for flavor, coconut rum works well. Larger bit for drinking.
Habanero or Jalapeno – small amount, diced. Not necessary; use sparingly ..especially the habanero. It has a taste that matches the dish well, but more than a little will overpower the flavors. Too much will create a critical mass.

1)   Wantonly ignore the following instructions and do your own thing as your conscience dictates.  

2)  Pat thawed Mahi Mahi dry. Let sit in dish with orange juice and lime juice for a few minutes, but not long enough to ceviche-ize it.

2)  In a large saucepan,  sautee some onion in a little oil. When the onion begins to soften add in some yellow pepper and the mandarins. If you’re using pineapple, wait until step 5 to add.

Red Curry Mahi Mahi

3)   Add the stock, half the rum, the fish sauce, and the orange juice/lime juice marinade from the fish. You want enough to cook the fish, etc in, but not enough to make it a stew. Add in the curry base and brown sugar bit by bit to taste when the liquid is hot. Stop when you’ve added enough, or throw caution to the wind and curry the hell out of it to teach the fish its place.

Red Curry Mahi Mahi
This is about the right amount of base

4)   You’re halfway through; have a beer or other relaxing beverage to celebrate your culinary prowess.

A thing of
Or for the truly daring, handmade pineapple daiquiri in a pineapple.

5)   Seat the fish in the mixture with the onions/peppers/etc. around the outside. Turn once[viii].

Red Curry Mahi Mahi

7)   Serve with fragrant rice.

Red Curry Mahi Mahi meal


[i] A fickle, fickle mistress. Ask my wife about the Valentines day fish with red strawberry sauce and avaocado hearts. Better yet, don’t. I’m sure she’s actively suppressing that. It might be like waking up a sleepwalker.
[ii] Though I hadn’t actually ordered it, which might have helped here…
[iii] There are some fish like Trout that are wonderful served by themselves or with only a little white wine, butter, lemon juice, etc. Mahi Mahi, however, while being a great choice in terms of cost and general sustainability, is more like cod; nicely textured but without a lot of flavor. While this means I don’t often make Mahi Mahi by itself, it makes it a perfect choice for recipes that involve sauces and bold flavors.
[iv] Curry bases are fantastic shortcuts, as much as I’m sure that statement just caused a disturbance in the force for foodies, somewhere. We can all pretend that spending hours recreating a curry base is somehow going to be perceptible in the final product, but honestly, it won’t. Or at least, there is a vast exercise in diminishing returns involved.
[v] No pun intended
[vi] This is actually a better foundation than some of my earlier gastronomic ventures; I was forearmed with the knowledge that, at least in some incarnation, this combination had not actively exploded or brought upon the world the attention of a wrathful elder god.
[vii] To me a recipe is more an idea than a dictate. It should give you an idea of the general shape of the world, but let you loose to do some exploring in that world. This is why I will likely never be asked to write a cookbook. My recipes aren’t scripts, they’re stages.
[viii] Turn the fish, not yourself. Because that would be silly, and cooking is serious business.  

Thursday, June 27, 2013

In the Land of the Hoosiers

Sunset over the
Sunset over the Corn

Both sides of my wife’s family are from Indiana originally. Her parents were reverse pioneers, leaving the farmsteads of home behind to settle in the wilds of Rochester.  We've been back several times to visit both sets of grandparents, who grew up within miles of each other. The first time I had little idea what to expect; my prior mental impression of Indiana was primarily a vast corn field only interrupted by football fields and Republican headquarters. While that’s not wholly untrue, I have really enjoyed our trips there, especially to the grandparents’ farmsteads. Like many rural locales, it shares the same pace and sense of place as where I grew up[i]. Less topography, more corn, but the same faded signs on the sides of buildings, the same frozen parade of gargantuan John Deere contrivances across the local dealer’s yard, the same cozy local diners where the coffee is a valid substitute for diesel fuel, and the same generally congenial people.

And for the record, the whole state isn't covered in corn. There’s some soy too.

I've got
But yeah, a lot of corn.

After years in the urban flatlands of Houston, it’s always a refreshing change of scenery to get to Indiana. I’ve never really blogged about it, so I realized the other day I had accumulated a lot of great pictures and thought I’d share some of my favorites to give just a small taste of the place and its people[ii]. Obviously this is through the eyes of a non-native visitor, so your mileage may vary. Hopefully they convey my fondness for the place and family I have come to know there. It’s amazing how a place I’ve never been can make me homesick by proxy.

Vintage Tractor

Old Cabinet
Old Cabinet Wood

Barn Beams

Flag Day Portrait
On the Porch

Lightning Rod

Grandfather’s Stool

Twin Kiss
Twin Kiss 
(every rural town has an ice cream stand that doubles as a purveyor of local delicacies…in this case, pork tenderloin sandwiches)

Barn in Evening Light
(B&W)Old Window
Barn in Evening Light, Old Window

Indiana Sunset
Indiana Sunset

Grandfather Durr (B&W) 
Grandfather Durr 

Mother and Child (rose
tinted grayscale)
Mother and Daughter

New Old sign (antiqued)
Old Sign

LandscapeRailroad bridge
(B&W)Chief Kokomo
Aerial, Railroad Bridge, Chief Kokomo

Lightning Rod
Lightning Rod (B&W)

Dunham homestead,
Kempton Indiana (Obama ancestry)Hoosier
Dunham Homestead[iii], Hoosier Homestead[iv]

Sherrill’s – Eat Here, Get Gas

Barn Side

LineBower's Crunch
Shed Line, Old Containers

Patterns in the
Patterns in the Wheat[v]

The Throw (playing cornhole[vi])

His Tools

The Euchre
The Euchre Game[vii]

2Kate and the
Heritage, Kate and the Corn

McColginsOld Carnegie style
Library in Sheridan, Indiana
The McColgins, Carnegie Library in Sheridan

Indiana Landscape


[i] Except for the odd choice of white to paint many of the barns instead of the standard issue red.
[ii] Enough so to refrain from Indiana-themed jokes, like Children of the Corn references, or shouting out "Hoosier daddy?"
[iii] The Dunhams are related in some manner or another to President Obama, and their house is right down the way from Kate’s grandparents’ homestead in Sheridan, Indiana. We never did figure out the specific relationship.
[iv] The Durr homestead is part of the historic Hoosier Homestead program, hence the sign.
[v] Shame on me, I have no idea if this is actually wheat, or whether it was sorghum, or some other grain that I have been unacquainted with since childhood.
[vi] Boy was that a moment of confusion when they announced they were going to play cornhole, a term I’d associated with a completely different context.
[vii] One of the best parts of these visits are the epic Euchre games, accompanied by neverending bowls of popcorn. I will admit that, as much as I love the sense of family closeness and interaction, part of my enthusiasm is based on being able to trot out the old joke “Left bower? Right bower? I AM the right bower”.