Raincheck

So…. here’s what happened.

I had all the plans in the world to make us something: a kale-based “Caesar” salad that subs out the croutons for well-seasoned cubes of tempeh. It’s tasty, it’s on the light side, it’s relatively easy, but I just wasn’t excited about it. I confessed this to N., who said, “or we could order Eureka,” which is a restaurant just around the corner (or two) from us with a perfectly crispy, perfectly spicy chicken sandwich I’m quickly becoming obsessed with, and suddenly the plans for salad – wait, what salad?

So then I thought okay, I’ll just snap a few pictures of my perfect chicken sandwich to show you, so at least you get some tasty content, right?

And then I ate it. And remembered when the plate was empty that I’d intended to record my dinner.

So… next week?

Labor Day Grill

Happy Labor Day, and thank you unions!

I don’t have a recipe to share with you – as was the case a few weeks ago, the recent heat in our area meant we didn’t cook so much as throw anything that could be grilled in that general direction.

The ubiquity of grilling and barbecues at Labor Day weekend parties (at least in other years – if you’re having a party this year, it involves masks and social distancing, right?!) got me wondering: why do we celebrate this holiday, first signed into law by Grover Cleveland in 1894 (as a response, by the way, to a huge strike of railway manufacturers, workers, and their union demanding better treatment – this article explains a bit more, including work we have left to do!), with grilled and picnic foods?

The most straightforward answer seems to be that our method of celebrating has little to do with the holiday’s origins – we don’t think much about labor on Labor Day (aside from perhaps being happy we aren’t doing any), nor that many people who labor away don’t get any break on this day intended to celebrate workers. Our celebrations, beer and burgers and potato salad with or without mayo, center around a final gasp of summer glory before the inevitable slide into fall temperatures, which, I guess, are real in some places…

It’s interesting that this tradition of barbecue, used on a day intended to celebrate the people – the work force – is also such a people’s cooking method, by which I mean its origins are multiple and in many ways quite humble. I’ve alluded previously to the African diasporic origins of barbecue; meat can be slow cooked over a fire while the labor force – Black slaves, in this case – works all day.

But indigenous American and Caribbean groups also used this low-and-slow method of cooking meat over a flame, and as the method spread, brought north and west by colonizing and colonized groups, adaptations were inevitable. The British added basting for moisture, painting the meat with sauce while it cooked. German and French immigrants contributed to the mustard-based sauce popular in parts of South Carolina.

And grilling meat over a fire is hardly just an American practice. Kebabs figure in Indian, Pakistani, Arab, and Turkish foodways. Though we usually think horizontally when we grill or barbecue, gyros and al pastor, itself developed from the shawarma of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico (right? I had no idea! Consider this a plug for David Chang’s Netflix show Ugly Delicious, though be warned: the language is not exactly G-rated), tend toward the vertical: a tall spit standing between floor and ceiling from which slowly rotating meat is carved. And then there’s Nigerian suya or mixed grill, spicy with cayenne, earthy with ground peanuts. And of course there are so, so many more.

All of these origin stories, these food traditions and adaptations, have become part of the American story with all its tangles and troubles, as have the people who imagined, cooked, and ate them, contributing their ideas, their labor, and their traditions. So in some senses, far from just a final excuse to cook over flames while summer fades, grilling on Labor Day seems like just the right way to celebrate.

More-than-just-a-salt-rim

To date, I have three out-standing margarita memories. To be clear, that’s not memories of outstanding margaritas, necessarily. Just three memories, standing out in my mind, of margaritas.

One is a blended cranberry margarita from the now long-defunct Chevy’s in Beaverton, Oregon. N and our friend J and I ended up there one evening on the way home from Christmas shopping in Portland. Power was out through half the city as a result of wind storms, and while we drove half-lost through the winter darkness, J fell asleep in the backseat clutching a thermos of tepid coffee. He’d been up all the night before with some friends and a new date, the woman he’s now been married to for almost a decade. None of this relates to that margarita, of course, but it was frosty and tart and crunchy with ice crystals, and I was at once smitten and sad that it was only a seasonal special.

Another is a straightforward affair of tequila, lime juice, and simple syrup made in my kitchen a few years ago by our friend I. He’s a bit highbrow of a purist about his booze, so he supplied the good stuff, and no triple sec to be seen. He also brought the best citrus juicer I’ve ever seen, and though I don’t remember the drink itself beyond that it was tasty, I remember the sink being full of lime skins, bright green and juiced almost dry.

The third is just this January, a month so long ago it feels like years. N. and I were on our way home from a visit to my aunt and uncle in Florida, in the Denver airport, and I was coming down with a cold. (Visit? What is that? Airport? How did we even dare?) As we exited our plane in Denver, I saw two people walk past carrying gigantic taco salads, the kind that are served in a perfectly crisp, slightly greasy, deep-fried flour tortilla, and suddenly that was all I wanted in the whole world. With the help of a few airport staff we found the place they were from, and I knew I was getting a taco salad and a margarita for dinner: the idea of a citrus kick and, I joked, a little antiseptic from the tequila, would surely help “cure” me. It didn’t, of course, but it was a blissful half hour during which I was too busy stuffing my face to feel my symptoms.

All this to say, during the past month or so I’ve been on a margarita kick. I’ve been pretty low-brow about it, using bottled margarita mix from the store, and adding some extra lime juice, and sometimes orange juice, to make it more interesting with minimal effort. Instead of the traditional tequila, I bought myself a bottle of mezcal, which is made from agave and often has a distinctive smoky flavor.* My first mix-up, salt assiduously applied to the rim of my glass for “authenticity,” was good, but missing something: the smokiness of the mezcal I had seemed to call for heat in the drink. Ah, I thought, this needs some spice in with that salt. A few experiments later, I had it perfect. Five major tastes are represented: sweet from some raw sugar, sour from the lime juice that sticks the crystals to the glass, salty from, well, salt, and both bitter and spicy from a few shakes of smoked chili powder I happened to have in the spice cupboard.** It’s that, rather than the margarita itself, that I’m serving up for you today.

This is a non-recipe type of recipe, which is to say, I’m supplying some quantities here but you might want to adjust them depending on what you like best. The actual beverage I’m pouring into this glass is a mixture of mezcal, bottled margarita mix, a squeeze of juice from an orange and an entire lime, stowed in the freezer for a few hours to get slushy.

* When I first tried it, I thought mezcal was a type of tequila, but in fact it’s the other way around. All agave-derived alcohols are mezcals, but some mezcals, based on where they are produced, how they are distilled, and what type of agave they come from, are classified as tequila. See here and here for more.

 

** No, spicy is not usually categorized as one of the five tastes. That honor belongs to umami. But I think spicy is a definitive taste on its own that doesn’t necessarily intersect with one of the others. So for my purposes, I’m allotting it space.

Enough for 2-3 cocktail glasses,
depending on diameter (mine is about 3 inches across):
1½ teaspoons raw sugar
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
½ teaspoon smoked chili powder (or just your favorite chili powder)
zest of one lime
small wedge of lime, to wet the lip of the glass

 

  • On a small plate or the dry, clean lid of a container about an inch wider in diameter than your cocktail glass, combine the sugar, salt, chili powder, and lime zest.
  • Holding the glass upside down, run the wedge of lime around the lip so it is evenly wet, but not dripping.
  • Before the lime juice dries, lightly tamp or spin it through the dry mixture until the lip of the glass is evenly coated.
  • Carefully pour in your cocktail, and enjoy.

 

Dog Days

They’re here.* The “dog days” of summer. As a kid, I thought, probably like most people, that this referred to a hot time of the year when dogs panted a lot. It didn’t occur to me to question why we would name a time of year after dog tongues; dogs were, after all, the best animals in the whole world.

It turns out “dog days” has nothing to do with terrestrial canines at all. Instead, they are the period during which Sirius, the Dog Star, rises just before the sun and can be seen in the same region of the sky. For the ancient Hellenic peoples, they were a time of foreboding – fevers, crop damage, war – all of this could happen under the nose, if you will, of Canis Major.

Foreboding, coincidentally enough, is the feeling I get when I think about cooking right now. For the past week I’ve strategized not what might be photogenic and delicious to share with you, but what I could make that would a.) use our grill as the only heat source, or b.) not involve cooking at all. So in lieu of an actual recipe, here are just a few shots of things I’ve cooked – or not, as the case may be – in the past few months. Just to tide us over.

 

Pink Champagne cake I made for newly married friends.

 

Allium “bouquet”

 

Cold, Thai-inspired tofu “salad”

* Actually, the Farmer’s Almanac claims the “dog days” fall between July 3 and August 11 each year, but since seasons mean next to nothing in Southern California – a place in which summer weather stretches until November, that strange thing called “fall” doesn’t truly exist but “June Gloom” is a season all its own – and stars, dog or otherwise, are everywhere, I think it’s fair to extend the range a bit.

Pandemic Potato Salad

This is a recipe born out of need and change and a series of odd connections. I bought a bag of red potatoes intending to make a gratin, but a sudden upswing in temperature made the idea of roasted anything feel oppressive. Meanwhile, my beautiful heads of romaine lettuce in my garden started to bolt, and my parsley was already flowering. I thought of salad, of course, and then of potato salad, and then of likely ways I could combine them. A potato salad with green beans and parmesan I had in Eugene crept back into my mind, and parmesan reminded me of pesto. Pesto is such a convenient way of using excess greens, even when they are getting bitter, so I wondered if lettuce pesto would be tasty. The garlic and parmesan of pesto along with the lettuce reminded me of Caesar salad, and suddenly I was adding anchovies and mayonnaise and hard-boiled eggs for good measure, and this franken-potato-salad was born.*

This is not one of those “not your average gloopy potato salad” iterations. I must admit, as an ardent mayonnaise lover, I resent those complaints about gloopiness. This one is gloopy. It is unapologetically gloopy. It is a potato salad for mayonnaise aficionados. But I have an important secret when it comes to those “gloopy” mayonnaise based summer salads, whether their bases are potato or pasta: you have to add the dressing while the starch base is still warm. If the potato chunks or noodles are cold, the dressing just weakly sits beneath and around them. If it’s stirred in while they are warm – or even hot – the dressing soaks in. The texture is better, the flavor is better, and you can get the hot part of the process out of the way hours before you intend to serve anything. At least 2 hours in the fridge after everything is combined ensures nicely melded flavors – the anchovy mellows, the garlic relaxes, the lettuce emerges not as a strong presence but as a juicy green background taste we found quite pleasant.

Because I’m me, I couldn’t quite leave well enough alone: since the lettuce and anchovy and parmesan allude to Caesar salad, and since lately we’ve been all about crunch and texture, I wanted to give a nod to the crouton component. A shower of panko crumbs well toasted in olive oil right over the top added crunch, though if you wanted to be a little less excessive, you could probably used well-toasted almonds instead. I’d suggest a rough chop for rubbly texture.

* As I wrote this, I was weirdly reminded of my most recent and ongoing scholarly project, which suffers from organizational stress. A few weeks ago a fellow academic tweeted “How has anybody ever structured a piece of writing? It’s an impossible con, all the things to be said must be said at exactly the same time or none of them will make sense” (Jones). I felt that as I tried to explain the intersecting idea strands for this salad: in my brain, the connections happened nearly instantaneously. Here, which do you mention first? The potato salad with parmesan that reminded me of pesto? The lettuce that evoked Caesar? Words prohibit the all-at-once-ness that feels so natural when we think…

Pandemic Potato Salad
Serves 6-8 as a side, not that you’re having anyone over right now…
2 ½-3 hours, including chilling time
6-8 ounces green beans or haricot verts
10-12 medium red potatoes
4-6 cloves garlic
5-9 anchovy filets (wide range, but adjust according to how much you love anchovies)
zest and juice from 1 lemon
1 head romaine lettuce, core removed, leaves roughly torn
1 cup packed parsley leaves and stems
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and roughly chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Optional: 2 tablespoons olive oil and ½ cup panko breadcrumbs or ½ cup roughly chopped almonds

 

  • Blanch the green beans in a large pot of boiling salted water. This will take 2-3 minutes for large size beans, or about 90 seconds for skinny little haricot verts. Remove from the pot and douse in cold water to stop them from cooking further. Reserve the salted cooking water. Quarter the potatoes (or if they are gigantic, cut down into large bite-sized pieces) and place them in the same pot. Fill the pot with more water if needed to cover the potatoes, then bring back to a boil over high heat. Turn down to medium and simmer until the potatoes are just tender when pierced with a fork. Drain and set aside while you make the dressing.
  • If you need to grate the cheese, load the belly of your food processor with small chunks of parmesan, then run on high speed until the cheese is adequately broken down. Empty the processor, measure out the required cup of cheese, and set aside to add later.
  • Process the garlic cloves, anchovy filets, and lemon zest and juice together first into a clumpy paste. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the processor, then add about half of the torn lettuce leaves and the parsley and pulse a few times to break them down. When there is enough room in the processor, add the remaining lettuce and parsley and process on high until the mixture is finely chopped.
  • Scrape down the sides of the processor again and add the mayonnaise and reserved parmesan cheese. Process on high speed until well combined. Taste for seasoning; add salt and pepper as needed. It’s important to wait until now to add the salt, since the anchovy, mayonnaise, and cheese are all salty already.
  • Add the still-warm potatoes and the drained green beans to a large bowl. Stir in about ¾ of the dressing until the vegetables are evenly coated. Gently fold in the chopped hard-boiled eggs. Add more dressing, if needed.
  • At first this will probably taste too salty. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours to allow the flavors to mellow and combine. Bring back to room temperature before serving.
  • This is ready to serve as is. But if you like a little excess (or if crunch is important to you), heat the optional 2 TB olive oil in a small skillet, then stir in either ½ cup panko breadcrumbs or ½ cup roughly chopped raw almonds and toast until deeply golden. Sprinkle over the top of the potato salad just before serving.

Watermelon Gin Slushies

As I’m sure is true for many of you, over these past couple of weeks I’ve been discovering hidden treasures (and also “treasures”) in corners of my pantry, fridge, and freezer. One of the latter was a jar of apple butter I don’t want to talk about that I uncovered while cleaning up a spill on the top shelf of my refrigerator. One of the former was a small jar of instant coffee granules that allowed me to experiment with the recent “Dalgona coffee” trend various parts of the internet are extolling. Short story: you need equal parts of each component, it really does whip up like that, and it really is delicious (I’ve heard some people complain that “it still tastes like instant coffee, though.” So it’s only fair, I guess that I confess I’m not a coffee connoisseur). Next time I’m adding in some cocoa powder for a mocha version.

As I’m also sure is true for many of you, I’ve been very careful lately – much more careful than normal – about not letting food go to waste. If it’s in the fridge, it needs to be eaten. Even if I’m tired of it or it wasn’t my favorite. This has led to some creative triumphs – potatoes and lentils cooked with warm Indian-inspired spices, chard from the backyard stirred in to wilt, and topped with a scoop of yogurt and some of the char stems, thinly sliced and pickled – and some creative… well… one-time-only (features) – a pot pie with overly herbed filling and under-salted crust.

Most recently, I combined these two truths in a cocktail: it emptied the remaining few swallows in the bottle of gin I discovered unceremoniously jammed under several bags of almonds at the back of the freezer, and it allowed me to use up some chunks of watermelon from a pre-cut fruit medley N. really wanted but that wasn’t particularly ripe or flavorful.

This is not the most original, or seasonal, or precise of recipes. How’s that for a convincing argument? But honestly, I’m sure the internet has gushed widely about combining watermelon, some sort of alcohol, and ice in a blender and piling it into a tall, frosty glass for a perfect summer afternoon. I did the same (except it’s April, and my watermelon was on the edge). And I’d encourage you to do the same as well! These were bright, they were tasty (at first I wasn’t convinced, but then I realized that even though I knew they were gin and watermelon, I really wanted them to taste like strawberry margarita), and best of all, they are easily adaptable, and offer one small, boozy way to ensure you aren’t letting a single precious (or not-so-precious) item in your well-stocked fridge go unused.

Watermelon Gin Slushies
For 2 small cocktails
About 1 cup frozen watermelon chunks (or other fruit of your choice)
About 1 cup ice cubes
2 shots gin (or other alcohol of your choice)
2 TB simple syrup, or to taste *
juice of half a lime, or to taste
lime wedges, to serve

 

  • Once the watermelon has frozen quite solid, add it, along with everything else except the lime wedges, to a blender. Blend to combine using about 3-second pulses. My blender has a smoothie setting, which does effectively the same thing: short, high-speed pulses until the mixture has become an even-textured, pale pink slush.
  • Taste and adjust quantities of lime juice and sugar syrup to your liking. Blend again briefly to combine if needed, then pour into glasses, garnish with a thin lime wedge, and serve. We had ours with lemon and pepper spiced popcorn and wouldn’t change a thing.

* If you don’t have simple syrup, you can easily make up a batch while the watermelon freezes: just combine equal parts sugar and water in a small pot, bring to a simmer, stir briefly, and when all of the sugar has dissolved and the liquid is clear and just barely thickened, you’re done, and need only cool it down and find a suitable storage container.