Grilled Corn and Radish Herb Salad

2016 Food Blog May-0711When Corin Tucker, one of the vocalists of the musical group Sleater Kinney, released her first solo album after the band’s separation in 2006, she described in song how losing the band in some respects meant losing her vision of music and composition as well – she “stood frozen for so long,” and the silence felt like 1,000 years. To me, the song resonates with all kinds of creativity blocks. Every once in a while, when I think about writing here, I feel frozen – not just cold feet, but cold hands and stiff fingers and icicles in my brain – a sensation of writer’s block that extends to my enthusiasm for cooking itself. Broken off from my usual schedule, and with all but one stack of final papers graded and recorded and filed* in hopes students will return in the fall to pick up their work, you would think I would be panting for the kitchen and the refreshing feeling of absolutely zero comma splices or missing thesis statements to worry about.

2016 Food Blog May-06782016 Food Blog May-0679Instead I feel immobilized by a combination of exhaustion, puritan work ethic, and plain old laziness: if I’m not doing schoolwork, I should feel guilty, but I’m too tired to grade anything else. The kitchen, then, becomes a strange zone of misdirected productivity, and the couch and TV are just so friendly…

2016 Food Blog May-06892016 Food Blog May-0696But I should enjoy the sliver of summer I’m allotted (I’m teaching a session of summer school this year), so if I have to force myself, the gateway drug is corn on the cob. Corn speaks summer in ways few other vegetables do. Tomatoes, of course, but they typically show up a little later in the season, at least the massive spurting heirlooms I’m most interested in. Zucchini is a late summer crop – an overload that reminds you the last few weeks are approaching. Corn is sweet and juicy and plays so well with others. Raw, it has a kind of grassy starchiness, and of course the classic boiled or steamed cob works so well with butter and plenty of salt. For the past few years, though, my favorite way to eat corn is from the grill. Rubbed with olive oil, salt, and pepper and roasted all huskless, it blisters and crusts, and the sweetness we’ve bred into those kernels deepens into a toasty richness that reminds me vaguely of popcorn.

2016 Food Blog May-07012016 Food Blog May-0702For this dish, I was after a kind of warm salad, and thought the cold, peppery bite of radishes would work amazingly well with corn, especially doused with assertive lime vinaigrette. Both Food and Wine and Martha Stewart make a jalapeno dressing for this combination. I didn’t want spicy, but I did want to amp flavor, which I did with a bumper crop of added herbs: parsley, dill, chives, even some basil, to play with the flavors of the vegetables and contribute a different kind of sharpness to the dressing. For color and for fun, I added a handful of cherry tomatoes. You could also toss in some baby arugula or chunks of avocado.

2016 Food Blog May-0704We ate this with fish tacos, but it would be equally good with grilled meat of any variety, really, as well as a nice, lighter side salad option at a picnic or barbecue. A crisp white wine, especially with a touch of effervescence, would pair well.

Bring on the summer, then. I’m ready to thaw.

2016 Food Blog May-0721* well, in a carefully shoved stack on the back corner of my desk

2016 Food Blog May-0720

Grilled Corn and Radish Herb Salad
Serves 4-6
4 ears corn on the cob
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
salt and pepper, to taste
juice of 1-2 limes
1-2 teaspoons honey
½ cup mixed chopped soft-stemmed herbs, such as parsley, dill, basil, chives, or cilantro
6-8 large red radishes, tops and tails removed, thinly sliced
4 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved
(1-2 ounces baby arugula, optional)
(1 avocado, cut in cubes, optional)

 

  • Preheat a gas grill or grill pan over medium high heat. While you wait, shuck the corn, removing the husk and as much silk as possible, but leave on the stem, as this will make for easier kernel removal. Rub the ears with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Place on the preheated grill and cook for about 8 minutes total, turning every two minutes or so, until the corn is fully cooked and has a healthy golden brown char.
  • Set the corn aside until it is cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk the lime juice with the honey and the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add in the mixed chopped herbs and whisk well to incorporate.
  • When the corn has cooled enough that it won’t toast your fingers, cut off the kernels by standing up the cob on your cutting board (you can use the stem to hold onto, if you’ve left it attached) and carefully cutting straight down the ear with a sharp knife, sawing the blade back and forth a bit to help loosen the kernels. When you get to the bottom of the ear, rotate the cob a half turn or so and cut again, repeating until you have removed all kernels. Some will be individual and some will come off in big chunks; that’s okay. The variety is nice.
  • Add the corn, the sliced radishes, and the halved cherry tomatoes to the bowl with the dressing and herbs, and toss well to combine and distribute. The herbs will sometimes clump together; be sure to mix well so they – and the dressing – coat the other vegetables evenly. Taste for seasoning and add additional salt and pepper if desired.
  • If you are using arugula and/or avocado, add these as well and toss gently to avoid breaking up these delicate ingredients too much.
  • Serve warm or at room temperature with a grilled main.

Rain Check + Roasted Carrots

Most of the way through a long weekend during which I did nothing, which was not enough, and therefore the weight of the semester starting tomorrow built up castles and piles and walls of things to do, that I just couldn’t start since I’d already put them off too long, I found myself feeling a bit unready, and a bit homesick, and a bit cranky about it all. The moment I decided I could take this week off from recipe writing and photo editing and blog posting, it all suddenly seemed more doable.

So I did.

Except, it’s worth popping in to say, that if you find yourself in possession of a bundle of slim, whiskered, rainbow colored carrots, and you toss those in a concoction of roughly equal parts mango chutney (or apricot jam), dijon mustard, and olive oil, and you spread them out on a cookie sheet and sprinkle them with salt, you can roast them at 400F until they are caramelized on the outside and just tender on the inside (anywhere from 15 minutes for very thin spears to 45 minutes for fat ones), and you can challenge yourself to see how many fit on your fork tines at once, and you can fight over the last almost-charred morsel, and your evening suddenly has a lovely chance of being bright.

Almond Raisin Roasted Cauliflower

2015 Blog September-0517This week, Los Angeles finally had some mercy on us and allowed the temperatures to drop just a bit. My building at work turned off the air conditioning in our offices. I didn’t change into shorts immediately upon getting home. In fact, I actually – and you might be shocked here, so get ready for it – I actually put on a sweatshirt and wore it quite comfortably for several hours. I dug my bedroom slippers out from the dust-bunny-laden corner of the closet and slid grateful, almost chilly, feet into their old embrace.

2015 Blog September-0501Of course, since this relief might not last very long, I did the only sensible thing I could, which was to buy a head of cauliflower and shove it into a high-temperature oven. Cauliflower and I were never friends in childhood, but Mark Bittman changed all that for me by offering a high-heat roast, rather than a steam or a boil, as the plan of attack. In fact at this point, I think N. and I would happily eat a tray of roasted broccoli and cauliflower three or four nights a week, without much to accompany them.

2015 Blog September-0502On occasion, though, a bit of accompaniment is nice. Though my typical procedure is just salt, pepper, and plenty of olive oil, I wanted to give the cauliflower some friends to play with as it bronzed slowly over the flames. The vegetable itself has such a mild flavor that it can easily go in a sweet or a savory direction, and I decided I wanted to play with these borders. Adopting a vaguely Mediterranean direction, after the first blast of roasting I scattered a handful each of golden raisins and sliced almonds over the cauliflower. Back it went just long enough for the florets to brown and the almonds to toast, but not quite long enough to burn the nuts or the delicate raisins. On the contrary, the raisins plump up a bit as they suck in some of the oil and moisture released from the cauliflower. A quick shower of chopped parsley as the tray leaves the oven, and the dish is ready.

2015 Blog September-0506The flavors here are perfect, and it’s hard to describe perfection, but my unexpected favorite thing about this dish was the play of textures. The cauliflower gains an almost-crisp crust on its exterior, but the inside is meltingly soft in an entirely pleasant way. The raisins don’t stay plump for long after exiting the oven, but they provide a subtle chewiness I enjoy, and the almonds are a perfect crunch.

2015 Blog September-0509I usually try to give you pairing suggestions, and while I think this would be good with everything from turkey to lamb, I feel no shame in admitting that, since I was dining solo, I just ate the whole tray and called it a night.

2015 Blog September-0511

Almond Raisin Roasted Cauliflower
Serves 2-3 as a side, 1 as a main
45-50 minutes, mostly unattended
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 medium head of cauliflower
generous ⅓ cup golden raisins
generous ⅓ cup sliced untoasted almonds
¼ cup roughly chopped fresh parsley

 

  • Preheat the oven to 450F with a foil-lined 9×13 inch baking tray inside. We want to preheat the cooking surface as well as the oven to start the cooking process immediately.
  • While the oven heats, whisk together the olive oil, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Cut the cauliflower into medium florets (a large bite-size) and toss in the seasoned oil for even coating.
  • Carefully remove the preheated baking tray from the oven and dump on the oiled florets, arranging them in a single layer. Return to the oven and roast for 20 minutes, during which time you can assemble and prep the remaining ingredients.
  • After 20 minutes, take the tray out of the oven and, using tongs, flip over the florets. Yes, each one. Yes, it’s tedious, but it will make for a better end product. Push them back into the oven and roast for another 10 minutes.
  • Remove the tray from the oven again and scatter the raisins and then the almonds over the cauliflower. This protects the raisins a bit and ensures the almonds toast nicely. Back into the oven once more for a final 10 minutes, then remove, scatter with chopped parsley, and serve hot or warm.

 

 

Spiced Fried Coconut Rice and Plantains

2015 Blog September-0542As I’m sure will come as no surprise to you, I’ve always been very interested in food in books. But not food books, so to speak, just food that appears in stories. The kind I like is not food that is instrumental to or driving the story; not food that makes the plot twist and turn. I’m more fond of food that is incidental. Food that brings characters together and lets them pause for a moment. Food that, perhaps, the author got too carried away with describing (I’m looking at you, Brian Jacques).

2015 Blog September-0524The inspiration for this dish is something I’ve thought about and forgotten about on and off since I was in my early teens. Roald Dahl, easily my first author crush, has been on my bookshelf since I was five or six years old. But it wasn’t until I was in middle school that I discovered his two autobiographical books Boy and Going Solo. In the latter, as he relates his time as an RAF pilot, he describes a dish cooked for him by a local Sergeant outside of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania:

There was a 44-gallon drum of drinking water in one of the trucks and everyone helped himself. Then the Sergeant made a fire out of sticks and began cooking supper for his men. He was making rice in an enormous pot, and while the rice was boiling he took from the truck a great stem of bananas and started snapping them off the stem one by one and peeling them and slicing them up and dropping the slices into the pot of rice . . . It was absolutely delicious. The rice was unhusked and brown and the grains did not stick together. The slices of banana were hot and sweet and in some way they oiled the rice, as butter would. It was the best rice dish I had ever tasted and I ate it all and felt good and forgot about the Germans. (Dahl 60-61)

I had never been particularly drawn to brown rice or to bananas, but the description of the way the bananas made the rice buttery and slick appealed deeply to me.

2015 Blog September-0532Here, I’ve taken the Sergeant’s basic ingredients and added a bit of my own flair. Impatient, I used white rice rather than brown, but chose basmati to echo the idea that the grains remained separate. A recent return of plantains to my grocery store determined the “banana” component, and since I can’t bring myself to cook plantains any other way besides frying them in thick slices, then smashing them down and frying again in an homage to tostones, I decided the bananas in my version would end up layered atop the rice, not cooked with it.

2015 Blog September-0522Since simple rice and bananas, though it sounded comforting and fulfilling in theory, might end up a bit boring in execution, I decided to cook the rice in coconut milk and then stir-fry it with some spices. This would take care of the “oiled” component from Dahl’s dinner that might otherwise go missing. A sprinkle of cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice would finish the dish.

2015 Blog September-0529Though my final dish was quite different from Dahl’s, my reaction was similar. I ate it all, I felt good, and I could see why Dahl told the Sergeant “You should open a restaurant and become rich” when he finished his plate (61). The plantains, though sweet by nature, teeter in the savory realm with a generous pinch of salt and a spare dusting of cayenne pepper. The rice recalls sweetness with the coconut milk and cinnamon, but a dose of coriander and a bay leaf hold it back from the edge of becoming a dessert rice dish.

2015 Blog September-0537A note about my plantains: though I’ve called this an “homage to tostones,” my results are only loosely similar. Real tostones use green plantains, cut thin slices, and after frying, smashing, and frying again, the resulting golden-brown coins are crisp and flat and something like the love child of bananas and potato chips. My fried plantains use a yellow plantain – not yet tremendously soft, but certainly not the hard, starchy green variety most commonly used for the dish. I shallow fry rather than deep-frying the slices, but the process of frying lightly to cook through, then smashing, then frying again to achieve a bronzed exterior remains the same. Be sure to salt them when they are hot to keep them savory.

2015 Blog September-0538

Spiced Fried Coconut Rice and Plantains
Serves 2
About 1½ hours (1 hour of resting time)
1 cup long-grain rice, such as jasmine or basmati
2 cups coconut milk (not coconut cream) (you could also use water, or vegetable or chicken broth)
¼ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon black pepper
1 dried bay leaf
3 tablespoons coconut oil (you could also use vegetable oil)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon coriander
1 large yellow plantain (it should have minimal black streaks and feel medium firm)
3 tablespoons coconut oil (you could also use vegetable oil)
salt for sprinkling
cayenne pepper for sprinkling
2-3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
squeeze of lime juice

 

  • In a medium pot, stir together the rice, coconut milk, salt, and pepper. Add the bay leaf and bring to a boil. Stir once, reduce heat, and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until coconut milk is absorbed and rice is tender. Let sit with the lid on for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork and let cool for about 1 hour. This helps the grains stay separate and not get gummy when fried.
  • While rice is cooling, prepare and cook the plantain. Peel the plantain and cut it into ½ inch slices. Heat 3 tablespoons coconut oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the plantain slices in a single layer and fry until soft: 1-2 minutes per side. Remove to a paper towel lined plate or cutting board.
  • Place another layer of paper towels on top of the lightly fried plantain slices. Using a potato masher or a wide spatula, gently flatten the plantain slices to around ¼ inch thick. Turn up the heat under the skillet to medium-high and return the flattened slices to the oil. They may stick a bit to the paper towel: be gentle but firm as you peel them away!
  • Fry the plantain slices again in the hot coconut oil until a crisp golden crust forms – about 2 minutes. Flip and fry again for another 2 minutes, or until golden on both sides. Remove to a fresh layer of paper towels and immediately sprinkle with salt and cayenne pepper.
  • Turn the heat down to medium and spoon in the remaining 3 tablespoons coconut oil. Add the cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander and let them sizzle for 30-45 seconds, just until their aromas start to mingle. Then, remove the bay leaf from the cooled rice and dump the rice in all at once.
  • Mix frantically to incorporate the spices, then let the rice sit undisturbed for 3-4 minutes to pick up a bit of a crust. Flip around with a spatula and fry another 2-3 minutes for even toasting.
  • To serve, mound about a cup of rice in the center of a shallow bowl. Layer half the slices of plantain on top, then sprinkle with chopped cilantro and squeeze on a few drops of lime juice. Repeat for the second diner, and serve immediately.

Spicy Carrot and Radish Herb Salad

Food blog June 2015-1064It’s dangerously easy to throw some greens into a bowl and crunch through them, but I think this is the kind of preparation that makes people think about salads as boring to make and to eat. With summer in gear and a series of weddings and reunions to attend within the next month or two, I find myself brainstorming salads creative and intriguing enough to hold my interest, so I can more easily convince myself to make choices that keep me responsible healthy fitting into my summer wardrobe. The easiest way of making a salad more exciting, it seems to me (besides just loading it up with cheese and some crisped pork product), is to take ingredients not usually used in a salad and jamming them in there anyway, lettuce be damned. For me, this generally takes the form of whatever dish I’ve been craving, transformed into something you can add an acidic vinaigrette and maybe a few crumbles of cheese to, toasting up a hunk of bread, and calling it dinner.

Food blog June 2015-1028This particular salad has two geneses. Lately I’ve been craving banh mi, with all its freshness and brightness, but I haven’t wanted to go through the whole production of making all the ingredients myself (which I’d insist upon, because I’m such a responsible foodie stubborn). Rather, I convinced myself, I wanted a salad inspired by a banh mi sandwich. What this meant was a collection of fresh and pickled vegetables, with some brightness from soft green herbs and some heat from jalapeño slices. I dithered over the pickled part, reluctant to devote multiple days to preparing for a simple salad, until I remembered a grain salad my friend S. exalted about a few years ago featuring lightly pickled carrot slices, along with some jalapeño and mint. Wheels turned.

Food blog June 2015-1033What we have here, then, is a salad that announces its summery freshness through bright, grassy herbs and crunchy cucumber, but still clings to the mild crispness of spring with ribbons of carrots and impossibly thin discs of radish. I find herb salads can get almost medicinal on the tongue, so a handful or two of baby greens tempers the sharpness of the herbs and the pucker of the vegetables after a 2 hour lemon juice bath, and brings this closer to what we usually think of as a salad. You could use any combination of greenery, but lately I’ve been obsessing over the “power to the greens” package from Trader Joe’s – baby chard, kale, and spinach, all tender enough that no stem removal is necessary. Add jalapeños, which I’ve put through the pickling process but you can certainly leave fresh, and you have a salad that pairs happily with almost anything.

Food blog June 2015-1048Serving suggestions: I can see this making a perfect base for grilled steak or salmon, with or without the addition of some tangy crumbles of goat cheese. I risked all to have it as a side for last week’s crab and shrimp balls, and though there’s a certain digestive peril to the fried + spicy pairing, hey, that’s what alka-seltzer is for. You could even force this back to its banh mi inspiration roots and stuff it inside a baguette or maybe a pita, with or without a protein accompaniment. In all cases, I’d recommend something sparkling to drink alongside – maybe a crisp prosecco or a hefeweizen with a thick wedge of citrus, or, if you prefer to go alcohol-free, a frosted glass of ginger beer with lime, for an intriguing contrasting spice.

Food blog June 2015-1062

Spicy Carrot and Radish Herb Salad
Serves 2-3 as a side salad
1 cup carrot ribbons (from 3-4 small carrots)
1 cup thinly sliced radish discs (from 5-6 radishes)
8-10 thin slices of jalapeño cut on the bias
3-6 tablespoons lemon juice (see options below)
2-4 tablespoons olive oil (see options below)
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon capers
⅓ – ½ cup thin slices of seedless cucumber, cut on the bias
¼ cup cilantro leaves plucked from their stems
¼ cup mint leaves, torn if large, plucked from their stems
¼ cup parsley leaves plucked from their stems
2 tablespoons tender, pale green celery leaves, plucked from their stems, optional
1 cup mixed baby greens

 

  • Prepare carrots, radishes, and jalapeño. To make the carrot ribbons, peel carrots, then continue shaving off long pieces with your peeler from one side only. When the carrot gets concave and it’s difficult to make complete ribbons, flip it over and begin the shaving process again. Slice the radishes and jalapeños as thinly as you can or, if you are fancy, use a mandolin slicer (watch your fingers!).
  • For a quite spicy salad: In a large bowl, whisk together 3 tablespoons of lemon juice with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the carrots, radishes, and jalapeños, toss gently to distribute, and allow them to marinate for about 2 hours. They will soften, pickle slightly, and the vegetables and dressing will take on the spice of the jalapeños.
  • After 2 hours and just before serving, add the capers, cucumbers, herb leaves, celery leaves (if using), and mixed baby greens to the bowl and toss lightly to combine. Lift out with clean fingers or tongs, let excess dressing drip off a bit, and position on serving plates.
  • For a moderately spicy salad: In a large bowl, whisk together 3 tablespoons of lemon juice with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the carrots, radishes, and jalapeños and allow them to marinate for about 2 hours. They will soften, pickle slightly, and the vegetables and dressing will take on the spice of the jalapeños.
  • After 2 hours and just before serving, lift the lightly pickled carrots, radishes, and jalapeños out of the bowl and set them aside for a moment on a paper towel. Discard the remaining liquid in the bowl and wipe clean.
  • In the clean bowl, whisk together the remaining 3 tablespoons lemon juice and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the vegetables back in, then gently toss with the capers, cucumbers, herb leaves, celery leaves (if using), and mixed baby greens. Lift out with clean fingers or tongs, let excess dressing drip off a bit, and position on serving plates.
  • For a mildly spicy salad: In a large bowl, whisk together 3 tablespoons of lemon juice with 2 tablespoon of olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the carrots and radishes and toss gently to distribute. In another, smaller bowl, combine the jalapeño slices with 1 tablespoon lemon juice and a bit of salt and pepper. Allow all vegetables to marinate for about 2 hours. They will soften and pickle slightly, but the spice will not infiltrate the carrots and radishes as in the above preparations.
  • After 2 hours and just before serving, add the capers, cucumbers, herb leaves, celery leaves (if using), and mixed baby greens to the bowl with the carrots and radishes and toss lightly to combine. Drain the lightly pickled jalapeños from their lemon juice bath and add them to the salad as well, tossing gently again to combine. Lift out with clean fingers or tongs, let excess dressing drip off a bit, and position on serving plates.
  • Serve immediately – salad left in its dressing wilts quickly and loses its crisp appeal.

 

 

Vegetable pickles, three kinds

Food Blog April 2015-0565Not long ago, I finished Cooked, Michael Pollan’s latest, in which he seeks to elucidate the magic of our kitchens. He looks at the transformative power of each of the four elements when applied to ingredients, and works to understand the connections we draw from and through what we eat as it ceases to be raw materials and becomes food. I couldn’t put it down. I tore through it like a fluffy bedtime novel, as my friend S. probably knew I would when she sent me a copy.

Food Blog April 2015-0548In a number of ways, Pollan’s investigation reminded me of my own scholarly work a few years ago when I was a graduate student. Though I was focused on medieval literature, I was intensely interested in what we could learn about human – and not-so-human – beings by examining the literary depictions of how and what they ate. Dietary habits, I thought, along with sexual practices, might be what determines humanness within this field of literature. Too much, too little, or too weird, and your food habits moved you outside what we think of as human, and into something else.

Food Blog April 2015-0546Unsurprisingly, as anyone who has researched food and its cultural impacts deeply knows, this led me to anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and The Raw and the Cooked, the first volume of his elaborate, complex exploration of human myth and culture. Without getting too academic, I’ll just say that Levi-Strauss thinks a great deal of the development of culture happens as – and as a result of – foodstuffs transforming from raw to cooked. His analogy equates the wild to the raw, and the civilized to the cooked.

Food Blog April 2015-0549Pollan pulls on and plays with this idea, considering that if indeed cooked food represents culture or civilization, then there must be something about the cooking process itself that is civilizing and bridging. The four elements he examines are aligned with four types of cooking methods: fire explores the tradition of barbecue; water looks at stews and braising; air relates his adventures in the magic/science of bread baking; and earth digs into fermentation, the weird, marginally repulsive transformation of fresh food into pickles, or beer, or cheese – food that is prized and yet impacted by earth and death and rot.

Food Blog April 2015-0552This, too, reminded me of my own work (and don’t worry, we’re getting to the recipe part here soon), particularly an article I ran across as I was working on the Chaucer chapter of my dissertation. Subtitled “The Raw, the Cooked, and the Rotten,” the article took on Levi-Strauss’s nature/culture formulation and added a step to accommodate one of the characters in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. If raw food is wild and cooked food is civilized, what happens when that cooked food goes bad? This seemed to equate to my idea of people who had exceeded the limits of humanness through their eating habits, turning food into waste.

Food Blog April 2015-0557But I was looking at food habits from a perspective of too little as well as too much. What about superhuman beings who survived without eating, or whose bodies remained impenetrable, and un-penetrated, by the eventual corruption of food? I hypothesized making this triangle a square: adding preservation as a fourth corner. Suspended in limbo by sealing oneself against the external corruption consumption and digestion can bring, you remain preserved. This is not humanly possible, but it is not considered with disgust in medieval literature. Rather, such individuals hang closer to the divine than to the monstrous or subhuman.

Food Blog April 2015-0551Though this is not quite the four-some Pollan presents, I think fermentation and preservation have some similarities. In being preserved by their “cooking” process, fermented foods and preserved foods are mysterious blends of human and natural magic. Jams and jellies, preserved by being cooked with sugar, are the sweet side of this equation. Pollan opts to explore sauerkraut and cheese and beer. Today, I’m taking on pickles: simple raw, sliced vegetables transformed, “cooked,” and held in briny limbo by vinegar, sometimes sugar, and salt.

Food Blog April 2015-0559When N. and I got serious, we started using pickles as a metaphor for our relationship. In most refrigerators, there is a jar of pickles shoved way in the back, often on the top shelf, getting in the way of the orange juice and the milk and the mayonnaise. When you finally pull that jar out and peer inside, it’s almost never full. There are one or two pickles in there, floating around in the dill-and-peppercorn-laced brine, warty and sour and beautiful. The ubiquity of that pickle jar became our metaphor. As long as there were pickles in our fridge, we would be okay.

Food Blog April 2015-0560As with most Americans, I would wager, the pickles I was accustomed to when I was younger were always cucumber based, and usually dill (though I am a fiend for bread and butter pickles). I had no real sense that other sorts of vegetables could be pickled (aside from beets, thanks to my Nana) until I started frequenting the McMenamins pubs, an Oregon and Southern Washington chain of sorts featuring decent beer, good burgers, and remarkably slow service. Our little graduate crew went often – there were three different locations in the city of Eugene alone. Their hummus platter, ever present on the appetizer menu, came with a variety of vegetables along with triangles of pita, and often the spears of green bean and carrot, and the occasional nub of cauliflower, were pickled. Of course I had little thought of doing this myself until, chasing after an elusive potato salad that included pickled green beans, I started noticing how expensive these various vegetable pickles were in the grocery store. Recreating that potato salad required pickled green beans, dammit, and as a poor graduate student I was both unable and morally opposed to spending $7.99 on a slender little jar.

Food Blog April 2015-0561Fortunately, vegetable pickles are easy and fall within even a humanities graduate student’s budget. Vinegar, sugar, and a healthy shower of salt, heated to a simmer to dissolve the crystals. Jam as many vegetables as you can into a jar, shove in some flavoring agents: bay leaf, mustard seeds, dill, fennel, and pour on the vinegar. Cap, relocate to the fridge, and remember them a few days later when they’ve had a chance to sour up.

Food Blog April 2015-0562Vegetable pickles seem entirely suitable for the season. Fresh, young vegetables are great for pickling, especially while they are still small in size, so the vinegar can penetrate faster. Slender carrots, or plump radishes, or the tiny lanterns of young peppers, are a sign of spring that is often gone too fast. Pickles, though, hold that spring forever, jarred and capped and safe on the top shelf lurking behind the orange juice. Though they are not unaltered – the raw crispness is indeed transformed – in that way too they are like a spring gone by, or perhaps the memories of that spring that remain. It’s not that perfect, warm day anymore, but you remember its brightness – you need only uncap the jar and fish out a crisp briny souvenir.

Food blog April 2015-0616I’ve done three types of pickle here: onion, carrot, and radish. Each is seasoned with a different combination of spices, and because I like to be fancy, I’ve used a different variety of vinegar. The radishes, I must admit, are my favorite. To play on their peppery flavor, I’ve added mustard seeds and a dried chili, but teased them as well with a heaping helping of sugar for the sweet-hot kick.

Food blog April 2015-0634While these are lovely in salads, as part of a cheese or hummus plate, or just bright and sour on a fork, they are dynamite on a sandwich. And as the above photo suggests, it is on a sandwich that they found their sprightly home for us. Specifically, on a banh mi sandwich, that fresh, crisp Vietnamese invention. Even more specifically, on the idea that spawned my whole 2015 project: a banh mi-tball. There are essentially three components to this sandwich. These pickles are the first. Next week we’ll look at the bread (the true banh mi), and in the third and final installment, pork meatballs awash in aromatics, simmered in a miso-spiked broth I wanted to drink all on its own.

But for the moment, let’s just revel in the transformative magic of pickles. You’ll need the week for them to get good and sour before you can properly enjoy the sandwich anyway.
Food blog April 2015-0619

Refrigerator Vegetable Pickles
My jars held 6 ounces (¾ cup), so these measurements are keyed to that.
Carrots:
carrot ribbons from 1 carrot to fill jar (use a vegetable peeler to create long strips)
⅔ cup white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons celery seed
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
Sweet/hot Radishes:
thinly sliced radishes to fill jar
1 small dried chili pepper
scant ⅔ cup rice wine vinegar (unseasoned)
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons sugar (¼ cup)
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
Onions:
thinly sliced red onion to fill jar
1 bay leaf
⅔ cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon fennel seed
  • For each: fill a heat-safe, lidded jar with vegetable slices (add chili or bay leaf, in the radish or onion case, respectively).
  • In a small pot, combine vinegar, salt, sugar, and other spices. Heat over medium-high, stirring occasionally, until liquid reaches a rolling boil and salt and sugar have completely dissolved.
  • Carefully, pour vinegar mixture over vegetables in jar until full. Gently push vegetables into liquid if needed – they will want to float.
  • Close jars tightly and refrigerate until vegetables are pickled to your liking – at least 2-3 days.