Lemony Leek Meatballs

I’m sure you’ve been waiting with bated breath for this post. I’ve made you yearn for it for half the month already! But I didn’t want to announce my intent without something to show for it, and now I finally have a triumphant opening act. Can I get a drumroll? The project I’ve decided on for 2015 is…. meatballs.

Food Blog January 2015-0230Meatballs appear in almost every culture. Albondigas find their way into soup in Hispanic cooking. Chinese meatballs are often steamed or boiled. Keftedes are Greek, kofta or kufteh appear in Middle Eastern dishes. A Swedish version coats very small rounds with a sumptuous gravy and serves them with potatoes and lingonberry jam. The classic American meatball, which is in fact of Italian origin, nestles amidst a mound of well-sauced pasta.

But they aren’t just, as the name suggests, balls of meat. Many meatball recipes combine different types of ground meat to maximize flavor but also adjust fat content. Very lean ground meats, like veal, which some meatball preparations use for its flavor, are often combined with something like pork or fattier beef to ensure tenderness and structural integrity. Bread in some form, whether dry and powdered or fresh, springy crumbs, is a frequent ingredient in a meatball. Though this could be to stretch the meat content (think bread crumbs as “filler” in a crab cake), it also absorbs fat and creates a lighter final product – “light” meatballs are often texturally prized above the dense thickness of a meatloaf, for example.

Food Blog January 2015-0222Most meatball recipes also incorporate some sort of aromatics, and sometimes eggs, to the mixture. This isn’t a mere unflattened hamburger; it’s a creation unto itself, and it needs some backup singers to really make the performance impressive. Onions or garlic, sweated or sautéed before incorporating, are common additions. Herbs, parsley perhaps the most common, are also frequent meatball interlopers.

Food Blog January 2015-0220In deciding on meatballs as my project for the year, I am challenging myself with ratios and with flavor combinations. Ratio-wise, the quantities of meat to bread crumbs to eggs to seasoning must be considered; I want a meatball with good structural integrity – it can’t fall apart during cooking – but I also want something light and springy, not tough and dense. Thus quantities, but also mixing and cooking techniques, must be mastered. As for flavor combinations, this isn’t a dish where you can taste a little at a time. It’s not a slice of roast pork that you can eat with or without the vegetable side. Everything in that little sphere must mingle well. Every ingredient must belong, with nothing extra and nothing missing.

Food Blog January 2015-0221I must admit that I am not a huge fan of the most common meatball incarnation in this country. The planet-sized spheres that arrive, drowning in marinara, balanced uneasily atop a plate of spaghetti, have never thrilled me. But outside that standard, pasta-draped option, I love a good meatball. I hope you do too.

So here’s the challenge: once a month, I will present you a meatball recipe. I have some ideas already, but I’m starting myself out gently with a few recipe adaptations before I strike out into unpracticed territory. And if you have any meatball ideas you’d like to see actualized, let me know in the comments or send me an email! I’ll happily cook something up.

Food Blog January 2015-0225For the opening act, I looked no further than Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi in their stellar cookbook Jerusalem. I love this volume. When I bought it for myself last year, I gave up marking recipes I wanted to try with a post-it note because, let’s face it, that’s just not helpful when you are marking almost every page. But the Lemony Leek Meatballs, curiously filed in the vegetable section, stood out. First of all, as Ottolenghi and Tamimi note, they are packed with a staggering quantity of leeks which, despite the beef that makes up the “meat” component, really do emerge as stars in the dish. Secondly, the sauce, chicken broth spiked with a tremendous dose of lemon juice, sounded so bright and aggressive with flavor that I just wanted to drink a mugful.

Food Blog January 2015-0226I wasn’t disappointed. The meatballs sear up golden and aromatic, and as they simmer in the sauce they soak up its acidity and turn it into something outrageous – an intensely savory lemon caramel coating around fragrant pyramids (mine wouldn’t stay round). The leeks and beef are a stellar combination, and the addition of fresh bread crumbs as well as the gently pulverized leeks keep the meatballs light and fresh, probably why they are classified as an appetizer or starter in Jerusalem.

Food Blog January 2015-0228I’ve made a few changes from the original, a dicey business with beloved traditional recipes like many of these, but they are minor. Rather than steaming the leeks, I’ve sautéed them gently in a mixture of butter and olive oil for extra flavor. To keep with my project theme, I’ve maintained the ball shape, rather than flattening them into patties as Ottolenghi and Tamimi direct. Finally, as I’ve noted below, I increased the number of meatballs – rather than 8, as in the original recipe, I’ve done 12, and really you could easily make 16 from the same amount of mixture.

Food Blog January 2015-0236Forewarning: this is a lengthy process. Like, if you are really on top of your game and quick on the prep and ready to multitask, “lengthy” means about two hours. The leeks must be cooked down first, which takes a good 20 minutes, and then cooled. The meat mixture, once it’s formed into balls, must be chilled for a full half hour to ensure that they stay together in the pan. After searing, the meatballs simmer in the rich, tart broth for another half hour, and then must cool a bit, as they taste better just warm or at room temperature than scaldingly hot out of the pan. All this means you are looking at almost two hours of prep and cooking time – not onerous, particularly because half an hour of that is just cooling your heels while your meatballs do the same, but worth noting before you charge in hoping to have dinner on the table in the blink of an eye.

Serving suggestions: tuck them into warm pita or naan with the yogurt and perhaps a few slices of cucumber, or sit them on a bed of fragrant couscous shot through with toasted nuts and green onions, or maybe some finely chopped dried apricots. Add a sprinkle of good, tart feta to the top for some extra zing.

Lemony Leek Meatballs
adapted from Jerusalem
serves 2-3 as an entree, 4-6 as part of an appetizer plate
NOTE! Takes the better part of 2 hours
6 large trimmed leeks, root end and dark green portion removed
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
9 ounces ground beef (just over ½ a pound)
scant 1 cup bread crumbs (1-2 slices)
2 large eggs
1¼ cups chicken stock
⅓ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
⅓ cup greek yogurt
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
  • Slice the trimmed leeks in half lengthwise to form long half-cylinders. Rinse well, being sure the water gets in between the layers, where dirt can be hidden. Shake off and slice across into ¾ inch slices.
  • Heat 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and ½ teaspoon salt, and clamp on the lid. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes, until the leeks are completely tender but not browned.
  • Drain leeks in a colander, pushing them against the sides with the flat of a wooden spoon to press out some of the water. Leave to cool, then squeeze out any residual water with a clean kitchen towel.
  • Dump leeks into a food processor and pulse a few times until well chopped, but not mush. Place them in a large bowl with the ground beef, bread crumbs, eggs, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of black pepper, and use your fingertips to gently combine the ingredients into a homogenous mix. Try not to overwork. The final mixture will be quite soft.
  • Gently form the mix into 12-16 equal balls and refrigerate 30 minutes (this gives the bread crumbs some time to absorb some of the fat and liquid in the mixture, and helps these delicate, soft meatballs stay together).
  • Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat in the same large skillet (wipe it out first if there is leek detritus lingering). Gingerly add the meatballs, being sure they don’t touch, and sear until golden-brown on all sides (2-3 minutes for each side); you can do this in batches if necessary.
  • Now, pour on the chicken stock – it should come about halfway up the sides of the meatballs; maybe a bit higher. Add the lemon juice and remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then pop on the lid, turn the heat down to medium or medium-low, and simmer gently for 30 minutes.
  • After 30 minutes, remove the lid and cook for a few more minutes, if necessary, until almost all the liquid in the pan has evaporated. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside to cool.
  • Serve the meatballs just warm or at room temperature, with a dollop of the yogurt and a sprinkle of parsley.

Guacamole Steak Salad

Food Blog August 2014-0352I remember it so clearly: the day my perspective on salads was enunciated aloud. It wasn’t by me. I’d had mixed, un-uttered feelings about salads for years, but it wasn’t until the year after I’d graduated from college, as I watched one of my roommates adding spinach, and then sliced tomatoes, and then garbanzo beans, and then hunks of cheese, and one or two (or five) other ingredients to a big red bowl – one of those bowls with the spout on one side for easy pouring, and a rubber bottom so it wouldn’t slide around the counter – and she looked up at me watching and said “I like my salads with a lot of stuff in them.”

Food Blog August 2014-0331Yes. That was right. That was why the salads my dad liked to pair with pasta – lettuce, a few tomatoes, maybe a sliver of cucumber or three, and the occasional crouton – didn’t seem worth it to me. That was why the house salad at innumerable restaurants was a chore to crunch through rather than a pleasure (I’d rather have had another basket of bread). There was a whole course for that sort of thing? Boring. Bring on the entree.

Food Blog August 2014-0335Food Blog August 2014-0337Food Blog August 2014-0342But salads are – can be! – exciting, if we are mindful of my roommate’s assertion. They just need a lot of stuff in them. And at this time of the summer, when all I want for dinner is a big salad, or something charred and fragrant off the grill, it seems the right moment to combine the two for a salad so stuffed with, well, stuff, that it needs no entree to help it along. It is no side; no first course. It is the main event. And this main event has found its way to our table an embarrassing number of times in the past few months.

Food Blog August 2014-0338Food Blog August 2014-0341Food Blog August 2014-0345I took guacamole as my inspiration, and chunked up all the ingredients necessary there – tomatoes, onion, cilantro, a whisper of jalapeno, if spicy suits you, and of course a mound of buttery, creamy cubes of avocado. Lime and garlic found their way in as part of a dressing, the brisk acidity and bite of raw garlic tempered a bit with a drizzle of honey. Because it’s grilling season, I couldn’t help but add some corn on the cob, grilled whole, then kernels lopped off to find their sweet, charred way into the mix. Since the grill was on anyway, the logical thing to do was to grill up a hunk of flank or skirt steak, liberally rubbed with spices, and slice it thin to lay across the top of all that veg. And then, because why not, a generous crumbling of queso fresco. Deconstructed guacamole. Steak. Corn. Cheese. Stuff.

Food Blog August 2014-0348This sounds like a salad only tangentially. I haven’t even mentioned crisp romaine, or toothsome kale, or fresh, grassy spinach. The thing is, as Mark Bittman taught me, the greens part of the salad is neither the starring role, nor (stay with me here) even necessary! Though I did end up including a greens foundation here (I chose cabbage because it stays crisp, and because it’s the green I like most in tacos – you could easily swap it out for lettuce of any sort, or even spinach if you prefer), the salad is bolstered by it, not overwhelmed with it. Any odd forkful is going to include a mix of vegetables, not a pile of cabbage with the occasional tomato you had to hunt around for.

Food Blog August 2014-0351If you’ve got a grill, this salad is executable without even looking at your oven or your stove. It is fresh and light, but still substantial, it carries a pleasant citrus bite but is creamy from the avocado and the cheese, and it makes a big bowlful. The steak is flavorful and slightly spicy; I’ve included my seasoning blend here, but you can use any mixture of spices you like – this is another tasty one. N. and I found ourselves fighting over the last succulent pieces as we went back for seconds. And though the salad stands alone just fine, as noted above, if you simply have to char a few corn tortillas over the grill at the last minute to serve in place of bread or chips on the side, I doubt anyone would argue. Because you, my friend, just won summer.

Food Blog August 2014-0354

Guacamole Steak Salad
Serves 4-6
For the steak:
1 pound skirt steak
1 teaspoon salt
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
zest of 1 lime
1 tablespoon olive oil or vegetable oil
For the corn:
2 ears corn, husks and silk removed, stalk end still in place
salt and pepper for sprinkling
a few teaspoons olive oil to drizzle or spray over the corn
For the salad:
8-12 ounces thinly sliced cabbage shreds
16 ounces cherry tomatoes, quartered, OR 4 medium tomatoes, cored and cubed
8-10 green onions, roots removed, thinly sliced
2 avocados, pitted, peeled, and cubed
6 ounces crumbled queso fresco
½ cup packed chopped cilantro, from one bunch
For the dressing:
¼ cup lime juice (estimate 2-3 limes)
2-4 cloves garlic, very finely minced
2 teaspoons honey
⅓ – ½ cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
  • Preheat your grill to high. While it heats, we’ll prep the steak and the corn. Spread the steak out on a flat surface (I just unwrap it and leave it on the butcher paper wrapping it came in to save on dishes). Place the salt, the cayenne, and the other spices in a small bowl and combine with a fork. Add the lime zest and the olive oil and mix again – it will have the consistency of wet sand.
  • Scoop up half the sandy spice mixture you’ve created and rub it over one side of the steak. Be liberal in your application, and don’t be too gentle about it either – really massage it into the surface of the steak. Flip the steak over and repeat the process with the remaining half of the spice mixture, then set the steak aside to drink up some flavor.
  • Now we’ll prep the corn. Remove all husks and silk, but leave the stalk end on – it makes cutting the kernels off later on a bit easier because you have a built-in handle. Coat the corn with a drizzle or a few sprays of olive oil, being sure you get it on all sides of the ear. Sprinkle on salt and pepper as well, again, being sure all sides get seasoned.
  • Place the seasoned corn directly on the grates of the grill, and grill over high, direct heat for about 8 minutes, turning every few minutes. Your goal is to cook it through, and create a beautiful, golden char on all sides.
  • When the corn is done, set it aside to cool. In its place, flop the steak onto the grill and grill over high, direct heat for 5 minutes undisturbed. Flip it over and grill another 5 minutes, again, undisturbed. Remove to a plate or platter, cover with a layer of aluminum foil, and set aside to rest for about 10 minutes. This gives the juices time to redistribute and it allows for a bit of carryover cooking – by the time you slice it up, the steak will be medium to medium-well (skirt steak can be a bit uneven in thickness).
  • While all this grilling and resting is going on, make the rest of the salad. Place the cabbage, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and queso fresco into a large bowl. You can either mix them all together, or arrange the ingredients in rows atop the cabbage like a cobb salad for pretty presentation.
  • To add the corn, stand up one of the grilled ears, which should be cool enough to handle by now, with the stalk sticking up toward you. Hold the stalk firmly and, with a sharp knife, cut straight down the ear, sawing back and forth a bit to help loosen the kernels. As you remove each segment of kernels, rotate the ear a bit to line up a new segment. Add the kernels to the salad. Some will be individual; some will be in big chunks. That’s okay. They will break up as we toss the whole thing.
  • To make the dressing, juice the limes and add the finely minced garlic, and the honey. Combine with a fork or a small whisk. Drizzle in the olive oil, whisking continuously, until the dressing emulsifies. Start with ⅓ cup of oil, then dunk in a chunk of tomato and give the dressing a taste to see what you think. Remember, it will taste stronger straight out of the mixing bowl than it will when you’ve tossed the entire salad with it.
  • Season the dressing to your liking, adding more of the olive oil if it is too acidic for you. Add the avocados to the salad immediately before you add the dressing, to prevent browning.
  • The last step here is to add the meat. Unwrap the steak from its rest and place it on a board or butcher block to slice it. Using a sharp knife, cut thin slices (no more than ¼ inch or so) against the grain at an angle. This will give you lovely tender slices. Drape the slices over the salad, down the center for a pleasing presentation.
  • Serve immediately, with a side of charred corn tortillas, if desired.

Starstruck

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, it hasn’t fully sunk in yet that I live in Los Angeles now. Funny little happenstances keep reminding me, and I’m stunned into bemused awareness. This didn’t happen when I lived in Orange County as a teenager. We were far enough from the big city with its food, music and fame scene, and I was distant enough in age to care, or even be aware of, what living near LA could mean.

Now that I’m a bit closer physically and chronologically, what it mostly means to me is food. Yesterday as I sat cloistered in my home office, commenting on what seemed like an endless stream of papers, my phone gave that delightfully insistent buzz that means someone from the outside world has contacted me. It was our friend J., asking if we wanted to go and grab burgers with him and one of his local friends. Dinner out? On a Friday? Meaning I wouldn’t have to tackle the embarrassing state of my kitchen just yet? Not to mention another culinary and – what would be the right word, perhaps libationary? – joyride around our new city? Yes, please.

J. showed up at our house around six and whisked us off to Plan Check Kitchen and Bar, a new-ish little burger and brew style gastropub in the Little Osaka area of West LA, where we would have dinner with him and his friend T. They have a short menu, mostly meat, but with interesting Asian flavor accents – wasabi, yuzu, and dashi creeping up in unexpected places.

I ordered the Bleuprint Burger, a patty of wagyu beef piled with smoked bleu cheese, brown sugar baked bacon they call, perfectly, “pig candy,” fried onions, roasted garlic steak sauce, and peppercress. My dining mates all got the standard: the Plan Check Burger, featuring a curious substance Plan Check calls “ketchup leather,” and a dashi-infused “Americanized” cheese, which I think meant cheddar mixed with garlic and some fish stock to smooth it out and add extra umami flavor. On the side, the table shared sweet potato fries cooked in beef tallow, served with a sweet peach ketchup, and veggie chips – perfectly crispy wafer thin slices of yam and yucca and who knows what else, paired with a slightly spicy, velvet smooth avocado cream.

Dinner was fantastic. I haven’t had a really good, moist burger cooked at an actual medium (the temperature I requested) in a long time. I drank a tangerine wheat beer with it (the name of the brewery escapes me, but somewhere in California), and it was a nice accompaniment.

While I was away from the table for a moment, somehow the conversation changed from food to, well, food. But virtual food. In fact, televised food. T., through a previous job, knows one of the guys from the company and food truck project Seoul Sausage, currently being featured on The Great Food Truck Race.

“I think they are opening a storefront,” he said, while my eyes bugged out of my head. “It’s just on Mississippi. We should go see if they’re open.”

Bye-bye, burger.  It’s sausage time.

We ambled the blocks along Sawtelle separating us from Mississippi. T. pointed out which restaurants along the way were worth checking out which, as it turns out, is most of them. I tried to make mental notes but I was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of delicious knowledge I was receiving. N. and I will just have to go back. Many times.

We turned the corner onto Mississippi and there, at the end of a short collection of shops, was Seoul Sausage Co. And it was open. Without knowing it, we had stumbled across a secret mini launch they had announced only on their website and on Twitter, and there were all three of the boys behind the counter, and suddenly I was being introduced and ordering one of the flaming fried balls they developed on the show.

I know I should be talking about the food here, but I was so starstruck I couldn’t stop grinning my way around the little space. The guys were, as I had imagined but never even hoped to find out, super friendly and happy to see us – and everyone else who stopped in – and being very properly and apologetically closed-mouthed about the results of the show (the finale is tomorrow – Sunday, at 9pm). N. chatted them up about beer, encouraging them to carry Ninkasi if it ever appeared on their radars. I couldn’t help but mumble something about how I hoped they would/had/did/whatever-it-is-taped-tv-is-so-confusing win before I gave into the beautiful, sizzling-hot fried riceball they handed me.

It was delightful. Delicate rice in the middle mixed with cheese, spices, and who knows what else. Crisp breaded crust around the outside, and a slightly spicy sauce squeezed over the top. It reminded me of the kind of sauce you get on certain spicy sushi rolls, and it paired so nicely with the rice. This is an excellent late night snack, and N. and I assured them we would be back again after their official opening next week. I was halfway through my little after-dinner snack before I remember that, despite my unwise choice to venture out on a Los Angeles food adventure without my camera, I do have a smart phone fully capable of capturing an image.

Flaming fried balls conquered, and me still in some disbelief that we had just been to Seoul Sausage and met the guys in charge (I wanted to know everything but asked nothing: what was Tyler Florence like? Were you getting all those truck stop phone calls at once, or did he call each truck one at a time? What did you think of Nonna’s Kitchenette? Did you win? Did you win? Did you win?) we stepped back out into the night (which we were surprised to learn was still so young – only 8pm yet) and resurfaced at the Formosa Café in West Hollywood to share a round of drinks. I asked for a lemon drop, but the bartender mixed me a vodka daisy instead because he likes the flavor better, and so did I. Vodka daisy with a sugared rim is apparently my new cocktail of choice.

As we belted ourselves into J.’s car again, he asked if we minded swinging by Canter’s delicatessen on Fairfax. He wanted a pastrami sandwich for the road back to Orange County, and of course we obliged. Once inside, I was attracted not to the sandwiches, but to the bakery counter, where my taste buds immediately performed their own version of the honey bee’s waggle dance to communicate a single word: éclair. N. wandered up behind me and asked if I was going to get anything, and as I gazed at the shelves packed with donuts, cookies, babka, danishes, chocolate studded croissants, cheesecakes, a big layer cake with the word “rum” frosted in chocolate across the top, all I could think about was an éclair.

And there they were. On the bottom shelf. Thick, ganache-glossed masterpieces. My eyes were bugging out again, I could feel it. With my new little treasure safely enclosed in a pink bakery box and tucked under my arm, all was right with the world. When I dug in, gentle fork pressure forcing the thick, sweet pastry cream out across my plate, the world was more than right. The dough was tender-crisp, and if I’m honest it may have been moving a bit toward staleness after a day on the shelf, but the flavor of the custard and the ganache more than made up for it. It was a stellar dessert for a starstruck evening.

Food from Fiction Potluck

So what does one do, you might ask, as a newly minted Doctor of Literature, unfettered from the everyday proletariat academic concerns?  Well, one grades, and one line edits, and one revises frantically, and frankly, one feels completely different and not different at all.  The school year isn’t over, even though (as of Tuesday, when I upload my “completed” dissertation to our Graduate School’s website) my degree is.  So my daily duties no longer include anxious preparing for the big day, but they still include student emails and lesson planning and reading.

But because they don’t include anxious preparation and last minute rethinking and nail biting about what the committee will think, these days can also include celebrations.  Last night was one such celebration: a party I’ve wanted to have for several years now.  The style: potluck.  The theme: “Food in Fiction.”  Interpretation: bring a dish inspired by or mentioned in a book.  That’s it.  There are so many vivid options in novel, drama and film, and our guests had only to choose one and recreate it in the material, taste-bud-bearing world.

We had tremendous fun, in brainstorming, in cooking, and in sharing the variety of dishes from books we love.  As I mentioned to one friend who thanked N. and I for the great party on his way out the door, this is a party we had to have before parting ways as many of us graduate this June, because only in this company could we feel so self-congratulatory and so excited about immersing ourselves in something so nerdy.

Here are a few of the dishes we enjoyed.  I suggested to folks that they provide the description of the food in question from its source text so guests would know what they were eating and which world it was taking them to.  We had Victorian sandwiches and High Modernism Stew nestling next to a magical realist chutney and a warm wassail of fantasy.  What wandering, all in one house…

Cucumber sandwiches from Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

Rorschach’s beans from the graphic novel “Watchmen.”

Boeuf en daube from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

A trio of deviled eggs to breathe life into Hemingway’s thoughts on being hard boiled in The Sun Also Rises.

A wonderfully smoky molasses cake inspired by the molasses-drenched dinner scene in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.

Well spiked butterbeer (you drop in a few marshmallows which, as they melt, mimic the foamy head on the beer) from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Not pictured: (more!) deviled eggs, from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, sautéed marinated mushrooms inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, raspberry cordial from L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and a few sourceless delights: meatballs (Cloudy with a chance of, perhaps?), and a bread, cheese, and hard salami platter.  These were justified by their authors with the claims that “surely there must be moments of literary eating that include these items,” which I was quite willing, given their deliciousness, to accept.  And of course, wine.  If we were picky, we could call this an homage to Hemingway, whose characters “get tight” with abandon, or to Carroll’s Alice, who does imbibe from the mysterious bottle demanding she “drink me.”

I made two offerings: a take on the “green as grasshoppers” chutney so adored by Saleem in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and a pork pie stuffed with hard boiled eggs from Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World.  Both turned out extremely well, but I want to talk about the pie first.

Danny the Champion of the World is the story of a boy and his father.  Without giving too much away, I will only say that Danny’s father suffers an injury almost halfway into the book, and when Doc Spencer, the family physician, brings him home from the hospital to the gypsy caravan in which he and Danny live, Doc also brings Danny a package from his wife:

“Very carefully, I now began to unwrap the waxed paper from around the doctor’s present, and when I had finished, I saw before me the most enormous and beautiful pie in the world.  It was covered all over, top, sides, and bottom, with rich golden pastry.  I took a knife from beside the sink and cut out a wedge.  I started to eat it in my fingers, standing up.  It was a cold meat pie.  The meat was pink and tender with no fat or gristle in it, and there were hard-boiled eggs buried like treasures in several different places.  The taste was absolutely fabulous.  When I had finished the first slice, I cut another and ate that, too.  God bless Doctor Spencer, I thought.  And God bless Mrs. Spencer as well” (Dahl 85-86).

Since my first trip through Danny, I salivated over this savory pie Danny enjoys.  And this party was the perfect excuse to attempt my own.

I found a perfect (and much prettier) base recipe for my pie in the archives of the blog Married… With Dinner.  Though I followed their basic instructions, I made a few amendments for ease and expense.  The key points are as follows:

Use a springform pan.  That way the pie is tall and regal and can sit magically outside a pie plate all on its own.

Roll the bottom crust out large enough to come almost all the way up the sides of the springform (I used storebought crust and it work out just fine), so you can connect top and bottom more easily.

I squashed together a mixture of ground pork, pork sausage, finely chopped ham from a ham slice, salt, cayenne pepper, ground cloves, and black pepper.  I pressed a thin layer of the meat mixture onto the bottom of the pie crust, then laid six hard boiled eggs in a circle through the middle of the pie (regrettably, with ham-covered hands, I did not get a photo of this).  Then I lightly packed the rest of the meat mixture around and over the eggs and sank a bay leaf deep into the very center of the pie.

A traditional English pork pie has warm pork stock poured into a hole in the crust just after baking, which turns into a thick jelly as the pie cools.  This did not sound particularly delicious to me, though I did like the idea of a rich layer of something atop my pork.  I decided on cheese.  I grated about a cup of sharp cheddar and sprinkled it lightly on top of the meat before draping the top pie crust over it.  I cut a little hole in the center of the crust and sliced some steam vents for additional release before baking.

It’s a long baking process (almost two hours), but you are dealing with raw pork, so the cooking time needs to be sufficient.  When the pie is almost done, Married… With Dinner recommends you carefully release the spring on the pan and brush an egg wash all over the top and sides of the pie.  Fifteen minutes more in the oven and this results in a beautiful, shiny golden glaze all over the pie.  It also, in case you are lazy like me and didn’t brush an egg wash over the top edge of the bottom crust to help the lid adhere, creates an after-the-fact glue to hold base and lid together.

I let my pie cool on the counter for an hour or so, then tented it with aluminum foil and stowed it in the fridge until the party started.  It did, after all, have to be a cold meat pie.

It was fabulous.  The meat was nicely spiced and the ham bits shredded in added some smoky, salty variety.  The hard boiled eggs were, indeed, delightful treasures to find, though I admit to over-boiling them slightly so their yolks were not as bright as they could have been.  Still, this is hardly a complaint.  It was like a meatloaf wrapped in flaky, buttery crust, and the cheese was a nice additional flavor and richness.  I suspect this could have been just as good warm as it was cold, but the pie might not have held together quite as nicely.

My second offering was a cilantro coconut chutney.  Saleem, as Midnight’s Children comes to a close, receives a meal from a blind waitress.  He lists:

“On the thali of victory: samosas, pakoras, rice, dal, puris; and green chutney.  Yes, a little aluminum bowl of chutney, green, my God, green as grasshoppers… and before long a puri was in my hand; and chutney was on the puri; and then I had tasted it, and almost imitated the fainting act of Picture Singh, because it had carried me back to a day when I emerged nine-fingered from a hospital and went into exile at the home of Hanif Aziz, and was given the best chutney in the world… the taste of the chutney was more than just an echo of that long-ago taste – it was the old taste itself, the very same, with the power of bringing back the past as if it had never been away…” (Rushdie 525).

I found a recipe for a coriander chutney replete with tart lemon juice, lip puckering spice from serrano chiles, and bright, bright green cilantro, tempered by shredded coconut.  The recipe called for unsweetened coconut but I, in my haste, having only sweetened, forgot to rinse it to get some of the sugar off before dropping it into my food processor.  As a result, my chutney was lightly sweetened, but no one seemed to mind that, especially when it was spread onto the pakoras I made.

I searched around online and made a master recipe from a combination of ideas for these pakoras.  Mine included:

4 cloves garlic, smashed and finely minced

2 tsp. each:

Garam masala

Turmeric

Chili powder

Salt

2 cups Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free all-purpose flour (pakoras are made with garbanzo bean flour, and though the Bob’s Red Mill mix is a blend including potato starch, it is composed mostly of garbanzo and fava bean flours, so since I had it, I decided a little break from tradition would be okay.  This is literature, after all.  It’s all interpretation anyway!)

1 ½ cups water

½ head cauliflower, diced

¾ large onion, diced

1 small sweet potato, diced

1 quart vegetable oil

Heat the vegetable oil to 375F in a large, sturdy pot.  I used my dutch oven.

While the oil heats, whisk together the dry ingredients and garlic until well combined, then slowly whisk in the water to form a thick, smooth batter.

Add the diced vegetables and stir to combine.

Drop spoonfuls of the batter (ever so carefully!  Watch out for splashes!) into the hot oil and fry for 5-6 minutes, or until the batter is deeply golden and the vegetables inside have magically cooked.

I got to taste one of these.  It was crunchy and starchy and slightly spicy and wholesome and delicious.  It was vegan.  It was gluten-free.  Topped with the chutney it was fresh and springy and spicy and then gone.  By the time I went back to have another, the giant platter I’d made was empty, and only a spoonful or two of chutney remained.  Pride overwhelms disappointment, in moments like these.  My little experiment was so successful it prohibited me from tasting further.  So I had another deviled egg instead.

Full and happy, we fell into bed at midnight with a sinkful of dishes and a fridge-full of leftovers to look forward to.  It’s like reopening a book to your favorite chapter: whose world will I lunch from, dine from, be returned to today?

Vignettes

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a vignette as

An ornamental or decorative design on a blank space in a book or among printed matter, esp. at the beginning or end of a chapter or other division, usually one of small size or occupying a small proportion of the space; spec. any embellishment, illustration, or picture uninclosed in a border, or having the edges shading off into the surrounding paper; a head-piece or tail-piece.

Very well, then.  If you’ll permit me, I present you a few vignettes, accompanied only by a smattering of explanatory text, of the food we’ve been playing with over the past few months, while my dissertation lengthened and my sad little blog slowly became emaciated.  Since this is a season of excess, I’d like to fatten it up a bit.  Here’s a start:

Serving suggestion for French Onion soup: hollow out a sourdough bread bowl, toast the inside, coat with a crust of Parmesan cheese, and flood with soup.  Top with Swiss cheese and broil until the bread crusts and the cheese blisters.  Try not to burn your tongue.

To celebrate, or perhaps provide an epitaph for, our pathetic tomato season this year, I made a roasted green salsa for Halloween.  Tomatillos, which flourished happily, green tomatoes, which did not, jalapeno, onion, garlic, and plenty of cumin.  Roasted, cooled, pulsed together with salt, lime juice, and cilantro.  Tickling and spicy and smoky, and perfect for a rainy Halloween.

Seeking fruit without the healthful feeling, I made crustless “apple pie” one evening with great triumph.  Apples sliced thinly, tossed with a tablespoon or two of flour, butter, and a hefty sprinkling each of sugar and cinnamon, bake in the oven for half an hour.  I left the skin on for color, chew, and nutrients, and we were both delighted with the syrupy excellence they eschewed.  It was not unlike the filling in an apple pie crepe from The Vintage which, if you haven’t visited, you should.  With haste.

Spurred toward the heady, heavy, comforting feel of winter food by this apple pieless dessert, we delved into the season of rich sauces, hearty vegetables, and warm fatty indulgences.  Perhaps yearning for protein in the darkness of November’s cold snap, we opted for a rich beer and beef stew replete with parsnips, carrots, and cup after cup of rich brown mushrooms spilling earthy thickness into the stew.  Whole grain mustard offered intrigue, a whole bottle of Jubelale provided dark yeasty flavor, and a glug of beef broth tied the flavors together.  Good stew meat from Long’s Meat Market (warning: the website has sound) was the clear star, and even the “low quality” stew meat I bought, intended to be cooked long and low to tenderize, was so juicy, so flavorful, and so ridiculously good, that I couldn’t stop myself from gulping down three or four pieces after only searing them crusty brown on all edges.  Lucky for us, I made a full recipe and froze half, so when the celebratory delectability of December ends and the long, cold middle of winter sweeps into Oregon, we will have reserves to bolster us until the sun appears again. 

Fortunately this same reserve will not have to serve this site.  Holidays approach, and with them a break from school, which means a break from dissertating, a break from grading, and a break from relentless reading.  Rather, I intend to poise myself in my kitchen and dart behind and before the camera, mincing, stirring, pouring, focusing, clicking.  And, inevitably, writing.  To you.  Happy December!