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Days of watermelon and roses

frozen watermelon slices

We spent much of August getting my daughter ready for her first year of college in upstate New York, about as far away from Los Angeles as you can get and still be in the lower 48. Last-minute saves in the kitchen this time around included about a quarter of a small watermelon–5 or 6 inch-thick slices that I stuck in the freezer in a bag with the air squeezed out, hoping they wouldn’t be completely awful to use up somehow once we got home. I assumed it would be as hot when we came back as it was before we left, and that frozen watermelon in any form would be just about right.

Of course, today Pasadena is in the 80s and Boston and points north are in the 90s for a massive heatwave. Everything seems a bit topsy-turvy in this country to tell the truth, and as I’ve remarked more pointedly before, has for some time.

But at this moment, a world without Aretha Franklin in it– daring, flashy, cantankerous, exuberant, frank, funky, ambitious and endlessly talented–doesn’t seem right.

I have a treasure of hers that I picked up from the local Goodwill’s vinyl bins a couple of years ago: a red-labeled 45 whose B side was in perfect, untouched, glossy condition–“Prove It,” a number I only realized later that I had heard before, because honestly it was unremarkable even with her singing it.

The A side, on the other hand–scratched, worn down, dusty grooves, battle-hardened, loved to death and beyond, deservedly so. I quickly snatched it up for $1.99 and took it home, protected inside the cover of a hardback. Would it still play, was there any magic left? I stuck it on the turntable, nudged the needle arm over and lowered it as gently as possible.

Even though our speakers are o-l-d and not that great to begin with, the music just leaped out at me. Hearing the classic twang of the guitar intro and Aretha’s intricate runs on Chain of Fools puts shivers up my spine anyway, but this was the real thing. Vinyl, even old scratched vinyl from the ’60s, when I was three or four years old, is so much more evocative than the sound you can get from an mp3 it’s a sin.

Red is always how I’m going to think of Chain of Fools and Aretha Franklin, but looking back, she often chose a light pink for herself–one of her outfits on Soul Train for a live performance of Rock Steady, several of her later appearances too. I’ve never been a big fan of pale pink or Cadillacs, but I still love her exuberance and a song that full of juice and humor.

And that brings me back to the frozen slices of watermelon and what I did with them yesterday.

I knew that once it was frozen, the watermelon would probably have to stay frozen, because thawing it out would almost certainly cause it to collapse into limp mush, and what a shame (although I didn’t actually test that out, I would put good money on it).

snaplock container of watermelon sherbet

You can’t really buy watermelon ice cream or sorbet in this country, not at the supermarket anyhow, and I’ve never actually eaten any, not even as gelato in Italy, where (at least 25 years ago, when the artisanal gelaterie were still making it traditionally instead of from powdered mixes) they had just about everything you could put in gelato form and all the flavors came out really specific and vibrant and fresh.

I wasn’t sure a watermelon ice I could make at home would actually taste good on its own, and I had something a little more offbeat in mind for the flavor since watermelon is kind of subtle. But it’s popular world-wide, from Africa to east Asia as well as throughout the western hemisphere, which gave me a few ideas.

Right before we left for New York I’d interviewed someone who was born in Iran about his father’s legacy, and then while we were traveling I saw David Lebovitz‘s blog post on “booza”–the Lebanese version of Turkish dondurma or “stretchy” ice creams in exotic flavors. So I was thinking maybe rosewater and a pinch of clove with the watermelon. And maybe a dollop of yogurt in there somewhere for body so it wouldn’t be too much like a granità. And maybe…

Well, it could either be good, inedible or just plain strange–and it turned out something between good and a little strange, so I’m counting it as a good rough draft, and we’ll call it unusual, exotic, still a bit subtle but flavorful, specifically watermelon with rose. And pink.

My experimental ices tend to be low in sugar and fat, so the texture is a bit icy, sherbety or snow-cone-y rather than creamy. They’re still refreshing and I try not to let anything be cloying–rosewater can be, so I kept it to a teaspoon for what made about a quart in volume, and I added lemon juice, which helps a lot and keeps it from becoming “soapy.”

I don’t know–maybe this would be better as popsicles or paletas, but I like the snowiness, and the watermelon flesh definitely contributes that delicacy even without an ice cream maker.

And this one was pretty encouraging–cool, smooth, both down to earth and exotic, unexpected. Maybe a little like the Queen herself.

 

cup of watermelon rosewater sherbet

Watermelon Rosewater Sherbet

makes about 1 quart

  • 1-1 1/4 pounds (500ish grams) watermelon slices without rind or seeds, sliced and frozen all the way
  • 3-4 T sugar or to taste
  • squeeze of lemon juice and/or pinch of citric acid, sparingly, just to taste
  • 3-4 T nonfat milk-and-cultures only Greek yogurt
  • 1/2-1 c. skim milk, just as needed
  • 1 t. rosewater
  • pinch of ground cloves, optional–this was the part I’m not sure I’d repeat; it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t quite ideal either in combination with the watermelon, the rosewater and the tartness. So probably leave it out.

Microwave the frozen watermelon slices 30 seconds on an open plate, just enough to thaw a tiny bit so you can cut them into inch-or-so chunks for the blender or food processor and not break the blade. Add the lemon juice or citric acid, the sugar, the yogurt and rosewater (and pinch of clove? leave it out?) and a splash of milk, pulse to start it blending. Pour just enough extra milk through the processor spout to create a smooth thick icy milkshake-like blend, then pour the mixture into a 2.5 quart snaplock container with a lid and still-freeze, stirring briefly with a whisk after half an hour and returning it to the freezer.

If you want an actual sorbet with no dairy, make a simple syrup by boiling equal amounts of water and sugar for a few minutes to dissolve and thicken slightly, cool it to room temperature and blend it with the frozen watermelon and flavorings, leaving out the yogurt and milk and regular sugar. The usual sorbet proportions are about 3/4 cup of sugar (so about 3/4 c sugar, 3/4 c water, boiled up to a syrup and cooled) for a quart of finished sorbet. I find that a bit much sweet-wise and not as refreshing but it will deliver the kind of standard texture and cohesiveness you get in commercial sorbets.

Saving summer

Between the continuous stream of political, humanitarian, economic and diplomatic firestorms set by the Trump administration and the actual forest fires here, it’s been a long, hard, hot summer in California and much more stressful than summer should be. I water cautiously, keep moving forward, and try to keep my family healthy and myself from letting it take over.

I’m also looking for an effective civil rights and humanitarian aid group to contribute to–the Southern Poverty Law Center is one; there are also several mothers’ groups raising funds for legal representation for immigrants separated from their children. As I discovered last year during hurricanes Harvey and Maria, making donations for humanitarian aid is an important way to help yourself as well–it’s something concrete you can do that will actually make a difference, and it makes you feel less overwhelmed and powerless as an individual.

Whenever I step back from the newspapers for a bit, though, I look around me and see the brighter side. I consider that my daughter has finished high school with both honors and friends, and for a change doesn’t have summer homework. She’s working in a job she loves, is learning to drive and is nearly on her way to college, which we are all looking forward to. She’s ready and I’m proud of her (although I’m still not quite ready to see Ladybird).

I’m working for a community book festival this fall that promises some fun and challenging authors, I have some interesting new freelance assignments, and my first e-book project is nearly ready for publication. And I’ve started experimenting again in the kitchen–something I really didn’t have the time or concentration for during graduation and its immediate aftermath.

The heat wave is a big factor in my cooking; Pasadena tends to get over 90 F most days of summer (and plenty of times from September to April too), and the past few weeks have seen temperatures in the 100s midday. So the freezer and microwave are essentials in my book. So is eating or preserving enough of the bounty of summer produce while it’s at its best to keep it from going to waste even in the fridge. Because I always tend to go overboard at the greengrocer’s–last year or the year before it was nectarines (this year too). This year it’s plums, strawberries, any other berries I can get at a good price.

Instant Frozen Yogurt

Most berries are good if you just wash and freeze them while they’re still in decent shape. Mix three or so ounces of frozen blueberries or blackberries with a 4-ounce/half-cup dollop of plain nonfat Greek yogurt and a teaspoon of sugar in a small plastic cup or snaplock container (the plastic is a better insulator than ceramic cups or glass) and you have nearly instant all-real and nicely purple frogurt–the small berries get the yogurt freezing the right way, right in the cup, within about 30 seconds as you stir.

But what if the berries are going a bit ugly and soft–like strawberries?

There’s nearly no point in trying for homemade strawberry frogurt or ice cream unless you really personally like it. Sorbet, I can definitely see, but for my money, strawberry ice cream is generally an insultingly pale pink, not terribly fresh, and tastes duller than plain vanilla. It would be a lot better to stick some actual fresh strawberries or a not-too-sweet fresh strawberry purée on the side of some good-quality plain vanilla because you’d have a real contrast between two actual flavors, not one mediocre pink in-between.

Well, what about jam?

Strawberries are one of my favorite fruits—fresh and raw or else frozen, unsweetened. But I actively dislike most strawberry jam—the cooked, oversweetened blandness bears no resemblance to the fresh, tart wild-tasting fruit I love.

Commercial strawberry jam is not only unbearably sticky-sweet and gluey but the fruit itself, when you encounter it, is usually a slimy dull gray lumpette with five o’clock shadow, something to pick out cautiously rather than savor. It’s not the best of the fruit to start with, and it’s now overcooked and showing it.

But there are still some really heavenly strawberries out there going overripe on the market produce shelves, and I had about half a pound left just a little too long in my fridge after a party. I discovered by fooling around that strawberry jam or at least compote that still tastes like strawberries is  possible to do at home if you microwave it lightly instead of cooking it to death. And I even liked it.

 

microwave fresh strawberry jam

 

Could I keep the tartness intact? Could I keep it lightly cooked enough to still taste fresh and like strawberries to me? Could I keep it from being slimy?

Based on a few of my other impromptu microwave fruit spreads (peach, plum, apricot, kumquat) and fruit-rescue attempts (faux sour cherry, nectarine sorbet) I decided I’d give it a quick try in the microwave Continue reading

Waste not: food documentaries, recycled

“Wasted” is an upcoming Huntington Library event that costs nearly $100 for members. They’ll be showing the 2017 Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored food waste/ecoresponsibility documentary of the same name (featuring executive producer Anthony Bourdain, with Dan Barber of Blue Hill, Danny Bowien, Mario Batali and various other chefly friends, though none of those guys are slated to show up in person at the event). Plus local/LA top chefs demonstrating gourmet-ish fun things to do with the parts of vegetables and herbs we normally throw away. A lot of them seem to involve cocktails.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on why that rang hollow, or at least kind of shallow. Much as I love the Huntington, I’m not going to be blowing a hundred bucks any day soon just to screen a Netflix doc from last year at a posh drinks event. I’m not a hipster, I’m barely capable of a glass of wine, so hard drinks are out, and my kid is heading off to college on the other coast in the fall, so I’m feeling poor-ish in anticipation.  But I was kind of curious to see what was in the film.

I went online and then to my local film-heavy libraries (this is the LA metro area) to see if I could screen Wasted in full for free. I tend to be crabby and skeptical of anything glib, or as Bourdain puts it, “smug.” But I was prepared to find something worthwhile in it–I enjoyed Kitchen Confidential when it came out. As much as I pick on him for gonzo style, I have liked various of Bourdain’s interviews and essays since for their attempt at consciousness-raising on life and food availability issues in other countries.

The issues raised in the movie itself are pretty serious: America discards about 40 percent of its total food production, 160-plus billion dollars a year worth, into landfills (and generating a lot of methane gas through anaerobic breakdown, which apparently doesn’t occur if you compost properly). At the same time, nearly 1/7th of the people in this country have food insecurity–they go hungry. And the causes aren’t even buying a head of broccoli with best intentions and letting it sit in the vegetable bin for too long. They’re mostly issues of transportation cost, supermarket dumping past the sell-by dates, fear of lawsuits if the food’s donated instead, and imperfect-looking produce. It’s a national shame. Shots of poverty around the world, a claim, possibly justified, linking our waste of grain products in America and Europe to shortages in India and elsewhere, literally taking food out of their mouths. So far, picturesque and righteously thought-provoking.

The film’s positive side also starts out promisingly enough: a Greek yogurt processing plant in Tennessee diverts the excess whey, which is full of sugars, to a fermentation vat where it produces methane gas in a closed-loop system. The methane generated powers the entire production line. Clever, frugal, reasonably clean energy, at least in this controlled context, keeps some of the waste out of the municipal wastewater, and it’s about Greek yogurt.

Leftover and discarded sandwich bread–an awful lot of it, primarily end pieces from loaves used in sandwich-packaging factories–is being reclaimed and used creatively in the UK as the base grain for “Toast” ale and a similar beer (perhaps the same brand?) is now available in the US at Whole Foods stores (of course). We quickly sense a theme here.

In fact, Wasted’s approach to a dirty and complicated topic is surprisingly clean-hands compared with most other films and books that address food waste and hunger.

The live coverage and interviews are shot in-studio, in the restaurants, in the high-level, high-tech, high-ideals startups. A lot of footage is devoted to what great, cool and innovative things you can do for high-end, gourmet niche products if you’re creative with vegetable trimmings and give the less-familiar “garbage” fish a fancy Latin name and a place on your menu alongside the tuna steaks and branzino.

The global poverty and waste discussions you expect to give the film its depth are nearly all voice-overs (mostly Bourdain’s) with statistics, animations, and quick flashes of exotic scenery for illustration. These are things you don’t notice right away, perhaps not until afterward. But this divide starts to explain why I felt such a disconnect between the supposed message and the actual focal points of the film. Continue reading

Take two on pears

pear almond torte

When pears are good, at the peak of ripeness and aromaticity, they’re very very good, and biting into one will see the juice roll down your chin. When they’re not at their peak, or even when they’re frankly over the hill, you can still use them to advantage.

Slightly underripe pears slice thin and stay crisp in salads or on a cheese platter, something like jicama or underripe watermelon. They’re just barely sweet, not unctuous enough to upset the balance with a sharp vinaigrette or an aged cheese.

Ripe pears can substitute well in a variety of desserts for either apples (when still firm) or bananas (when very ripe, or even overripe and getting mushy).

And they lend a note of European sophistication to many desserts (and salads, and even main dishes) thanks to a dry aromatic twist to their sweetness–not exactly bitterness, more like something that plays well with the bitter notes of almonds, hazelnuts, bittersweet chocolate and dry red wine. These are flavors that don’t mesh as well with most apples due to their more overt sweetness and higher acidity, and probably not so well with bananas either due to the novocaine factor. (Although I’ve never actually tried to pair bananas with cabernet, I can just imagine it. Not promising.)

So even if you’re not a big fan of raw pears, the occasional bargain bag may be worth considering for desserts. If you can get them organic at a decent price, do, because pears are on the “dirty dozen” list for absorbing pesticides. Trader Joe’s sells bags of 6-8 small to medium (3.5-4 oz.) organic pears for about $3 at this writing. But what if, as happens occasionally, the child who insisted she wanted them instead of apples yet again has eaten two, and the rest have sat neglected in the fridge for long enough to turn?

Overripe pears don’t look very nice on the outside and may have gone bland and/or brown, but they’ve still got what it takes if you peel them and cut away actual bad spots. If they’re only a little overripe and still flavorful, use them for a sorbet or microwave them for a minute or so to turn them “micro-poached.” If they’re really soft and going brown, peel and core them, remove all the brown bits and then mash or blend them as you would ripe bananas to give body and moisture to a cake or torte.

Here are two easy microwaveable desserts that use ripe to overripe pears and are Passover-worthy but can work anytime.

microwaved pear with chocolate

Micro-Poached Pears with Chocolate

This one’s very fast and impromptu–make just one pear or a few at a time and add a little time just as needed.

It can be hard to find chocolate that’s labeled kosher for Passover. Depending on your level of observance, consult the Orthodox Union’s Passover Guide, which changes year to year but  lists brands with kosher certification or acceptability even without a mark. If you eat kitniyot (beans, legumes, corn and peas, some spices, seeds and nuts) you can probably eat most chocolate that contains soy lecithin and vanilla. If not, look for the specially marked Elite chocolate bars that are kosher certified for Passover–for the Orthodox Union in the US, it’s the regular OU symbol (a capital U in a circle) but with a capital P superscript at the right. Other kosher certification at the Orthodox level is most likely to be the Hebrew letter kaf and/or a paragraph of Hebrew text naming the certifying rabbinical authority and location, sometimes with a circular seal containing the text (usually this is if it’s an Israeli product). There may be other certified or acceptable chocolates made with vanilla beans rather than extract (or without vanilla at all) and without lecithin–some of the high-end organic brands, for example.

  • Ripe to very ripe pears
  • Dark chocolate, your preference for cocoa percentage, brand, etc.
  • optional: turbinado or regular granulated sugar, cinnamon, powdered ginger etc. for sprinkling (check the OU site if you need to; regular granulated sugar is certified as-is but brown sugars aren’t always, and ground spices need to be certified for Passover)

Wash the pears, split in half and trim out the seed core and stem threads.

Lay the halves face up on a dish or plate that can go in the microwave. Place a square of chocolate on each half about where the core was.

Microwave 1-2 minutes per pear, just until the chocolate starts to melt and bubble and the pears are tender. Sprinkle with turbinado or other sugar and spices as desired before or after microwaving.

Eat with a knife and fork–add blackberries or a dollop of yogurt on the side if you want. Let it cool a little before digging in–I’m never that good and the roof of my mouth sometimes suffers for it.

Making the best of bad pears

The second recipe is yesterday’s riff on the Banana Ginger Almond Torte (from the I can haz cake?! Passover breakfast menu scheme…) crossed with my lightened-up version of Nigella Lawson’s “Damp Apple Almond Cake.”

five overripe pearstrimmed pears

Only, obviously, I had 5 small way-overripe pears to deal with. Brownish to quite brown on the outsides. But good enough inside to yield about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of pear once they were trimmed. And the result was seriously delicious.

pear almond torte slice

Continue reading

Passover mid-week: what’s for lunch?

With the best will in the world, there is only so much matzah anyone really wants to eat in a day. Even whole wheat. Yes, it’s crunchy. No, you don’t have to run the toaster oven. Yes, you should eat something else, and not just macaroons or gefilte fish from a jar. Or more hard-boiled eggs. Yeesh. Something lighter, please.

Salad

If you can get tomatoes of worth yet (it’s been a pretty long winter across much of the US), cut up some tomatoes and cucumbers, some red bell pepper, splash a bit of olive oil and vinegar on, maybe some Greek yogurt, some dill or basil, a bit of scallion and some feta or an olive, If good salad veg is scant but you can get cabbage, shred it and toss with some fresh or dried dill, thyme or oregano, maybe mint, oil and vinegar, a bit of lemon juice if you’ve got it, a couple of Greek-style olives. Or make a mix of oranges–slice them and serve with vinaigrette and lettuce or chopped cabbage, maybe a scallion and an olive or so, to brighten the last of winter and the first of spring.

Microwave melts and other vegetable and cheese combos

My standard eggplant microwave “melt” combo, with peppers and/or artichoke hearts and mozzarella/feta sandwiched between two slices of microwave-steamed eggplant. Salsa or shakshouka or even plain tomato sauce if you’ve got it, but jazz it up with hot pepper flakes and/or smoked paprika, or if you don’t have sauce then at least some hot pepper flakes, paprika, and basil or oregano–something.

Fish

Tuna salad is pretty classic, obviously, even though if you keep kosher it means scouting out kosher-for-Passover mayonnaise, making your own, or using plain yogurt instead (my current preference; my experience making mayo from scratch is more vast than I care to admit, and I don’t even like the stuff).

But if you have leftover cooked fish, especially tilapia or salmon, or you’re willing to cook a pound of it specifically for a batch of quick fake-smoked-whitefish-style fish spread, go ahead and microwave it a couple of minutes until cooked through, then drain off the liquid and mix with fat-free plain (!!!) Greek yogurt (add cautiously by spoonfuls so you don’t get too much and make it gloppy), plus or minus tehina if you eat it at Passover and like it, plus some lemon juice and grated or finely chopped onion or scallion, a bit of garlic and dill, and either a couple of drops of liquid smoke or a good dash of smoked paprika, with salt just to taste at the very end. Let it chill and it’ll solidify a bit overnight in the fridge. Good again with Greek olives and some salad (and okay, a little–but only a little–matzah). If you’re going for a meat meal and want to keep it nondairy, do a little more lemon juice and some olive oil as the binder and leave out the yogurt.

Fake-smoked tilapia salad on matzah

Fish Salad Rellenos?

But you can take it further, as I discovered. I’ve never actually loved gefilte fish, and even though Joan Nathan swears that fresh homemade gefilte fish is much better, I have chosen all these years not to believe her because it’s a big to-do and an even bigger mess, plus all the matzah meal and eggs mixed in–it’s basically a fish meatloaf full of stretchers. No. In my book, if you can get real fish, you should eat real fish as a main course and treat it with respect.

Leftovers, maybe, if you don’t just want to eat them straight–but not with yet more matzah and eggs. For crying out loud.

And all leftovers have to be good enough to eat on their own merits. Whatever you do to them should improve them or at least not degrade them.

I live in warm–sometimes way too warm–territory near Los Angeles, so the Armenian and Latino corner greengrocers always have good veg for cheap. Both are into peppers of varying shapes, sizes, colors and burn factor, a plus in my book. Passover can really use a hit of ta’am (flavor) and some vegetabalia to go with it.

A bag of Hungarian peppers–pale green, mostly-mild, thin-walled, good for quick-pickling–was going for 50 cents a pound this week, and they’re long like Anaheims but nice and boxy at the stem end, not flat, so they’re easy to core and stuff without parcooking first. Fill them with the fish salad, I discovered, and you can microwave them a couple of minutes on an open plate or in a snaplock container with a lid until the peppers are cooked just to tenderness on both sides. I sliced one of them crosswise into inch-thick pieces and got this:

salmon-stuffed peppers

A decorative sprinkle of smoked paprika over it and not only was it good for a hot lunch, it would also be a quick and pretty southwestern take on gefilte fish as an appetizer, one or two slices per person, without all the traditional filler or grating and boiling and carp in the bathtub and so on, but with some actual flavor and freshness.

B’te’avon (bon appétit, mangia bene, eat nice) and Chag Sameach (happy Passover)!

A Microwaveable Passover, 5778 (2018) edition

Spinach matzah balls in the microwave

No matter how many times I vow I’m not going to work too hard this year, I always end up cleaning the fridge some time in the small hours the night before Passover, swearing creatively to get all the vegetable bins and shelving back in the way they came out. Between packing out the unkasherable dishes and appliances like the toaster oven, shopping for the week, and kashering the silverware, dishes and pots for Passover, it always ends up about 5 to 6 or so in the evening before I can actually cook.

Passover started Friday night, and it was just us at home this time around for the first seder. So I didn’t have to make a huge menu, which was good. Because I did have to kasher the kitchen–starting after a 3-hour stint at the DMV (my third this month) to help my kid finally get her learner’s permit. Type I diabetes throws a monkey wrench into the proceedings and requires extra time, paperwork, and hocking to make sure one office actually sends the other office the fax within your lifetime…so it was a bit on the late side that I actually got to start, and by the time sunset rolled around, I was kind of wiped and ready to skip it. Not a great frame of mind for experimenting in the kitchen, certainly not that night. Although the fridge IS still astonishingly clean and sparkly.

We don’t always get fully past the rush to the enjoyment of the seder, especially those of us who are doing the cooking. But the first bite of parsley dipped in saltwater always signals the start of the holiday for me, and the first bite of matzah tastes like freedom. (The thirty-fifth bite or so, perhaps not so much…)

By now I’ve played around enough to have quite a number of simple Passover-worthy dishes that can be microwaved, some of them start to finish. That can be handy when you’re either short on cooking time after getting home from work on Friday or just short on patience and yet you still want to do a simple–but still nice–small seder. It might even provide a save at least for the side dishes if you’re doing a bigger one.

Some things you can’t help cooking on the stove–hard-boiled eggs for the seder plate and for the table of hungry guests.  And some things like charoset take some hand work to chop if you don’t have a food processor around.

However.

Even if you’re serving something long-cooked like chicken or brisket as a main dish, a couple of easy microwaveable vegetable dishes, appetizers and desserts–even soup–might benefit from not having to compete for stovetop and oven space, particularly if a heat wave is headed your way. And microwaving reaps big benefits for reheating or supplementing leftovers quickly during the next several days if you keep kosher for Passover, or even if you don’t.

Vegetabalia

Fresh vegetables really matter for Passover. Salad, yes. It’s spring, after all (even though my mother said they were expecting another snowfall this week in Boston). And also cooked greens. I’m a big believer in microwaving them lightly and last-minute wherever possible, so that they’re just-cooked, fresh-tasting and still green when you serve them–at least, if they’re supposed to be green.

microwaved asparagus with a poached egg

Lightly-microwaved asparagus stays green even the next day. It’s good either cold or reheated with light vinaigrette and a poached egg (regular or microwaved) and some basil or other spring herbs.

Asparagus is traditional, and as long as you don’t abuse it the way my mother [probably] still does, by boiling the regulation seven minutes, shocking in ice water, and then letting it sit around in the cold water for ages until the stalks start shredding into floaty olive-green kelp-like bits, because she’s too busy with the soup, and dinner’s not for another whole hour…..skip all that and microwave the stalks instead for 2-3 minutes and you can be a winner.

Snaplock containers that are about the same size as the amount of vegetable you’re microwaving make it easy to prep ahead and store raw trimmed, washed asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts or other greens in the fridge, ready to nuke and go. When you’re ready for them, just add a drizzle of water, maybe a quarter-inch, to the container, put the lid back on, shake once or twice over the sink (in case of drips), and microwave them 2-3 minutes for a pound–you can let them sit a minute or so afterward and they’ll continue to steam. If you’re doing 2 pounds in one container, double the time, but stop and stir gently halfway through so the less-cooked ones on the bottom get moved to the top, and keep an eye on it the last minute or so–that is, stop the microwave again and check with a fork for doneness–so you don’t overcook.

Once the vegetables are just fork-tender and still green, drain them carefully and either serve right away or take the lid off and lay it back on loosely with an  air gap–you can probably get away with letting it sit this way for 10 minutes or so without it cooling too much, and the veg will stay green. But obviously, it’s best to serve it fairly quickly.

Vegetables you plan to roast or pan-brown can get a very quick head start in the microwave before tossing quickly with olive oil, garlic and rosemary in a frying pan or, if you’ve already got it going anyway, the oven. The precooking definitely cuts down the browning time. Brussels sprouts, fresh fennel, new potatoes, carrots, and red squashes are easy to microwave with just a bit of water in the bottom of a covered container to help steam them quickly.

Not-Chicken Soups

Microwaveable not-chicken soups, good for a vegetarian, vegan, or fish dinner,  can be made ahead in a couple of minutes (well, 5 to 15, including prep time) and reheated. They’re also good to have on hand if you’re doing a big meat dinner with the standard chicken soup in a stock pot but you also have a few vegetarian guests.

vegetables for microwaveable not-chicken soup

Basic not-chicken soup (about 2 1/2 quarts or 8-10 servings)

  • 3-4 full-sized carrots
  • medium or large onion
  • 4 long stalks of celery
  • drizzle/spoonful of olive oil
  • fat clove of garlic, minced, mashed or grated
  • handful of fresh dill or 1-2 T dry
  • 12-20 black peppercorns
  • lemon juice and salt to taste at the table

Fill up a 2.5 quart microwaveable bowl or container nearly to the top with chopped (bite-size pieces) vegetables. Stir in a spoonful of olive oil, and microwave-wilt the veg for 5 minutes on HIGH with the lid on. Add a fat minced or grated clove of garlic, a handful of dill and a few black peppercorns, plus water to cover and reheat another 5-6 minutes or until steaming hot, then let it sit with the lid on. Your soup will be pretty flavorful after letting it steep half an hour, if possibly a bit sweet (just one of those leftover mongo onions from last week’s “gifting” weighed a full pound on average). A squeeze of lemon and a dash of salt–not Campbell’s or Lipton’s level salting, salt-shaker-at-the-diner’s-discretion salting–and a grinding of pepper will work it out.

Pan-browned not-chicken soup

The pan-browned minimal carrot-onion soup is a little more hands-on, but very convincing and full-bodied. The basic setup is the same as for plain, but after wilting, pan brown the veg in a nonstick frying pan until you see actual browning, about 10 minutes. Add a grated or minced fat clove of garlic, a sprig of thyme, and a splash of white wine, and cook it down to dry. Put the veg back in the microwave container, swirl a bit of water around the empty pan to pick up the browning (i.e., deglaze), add it to the veg, fill the container up to the top with water, and microwave 5-6 minutes to heat, then let it steep.

My current version (since I was gifted with celery as well last week) includes a couple of chopped stalks of celery with again, a very large onion. I also added in a bit of dill plus–chop ’em if you’ve got ’em–one or two finely-diced shiitake mushrooms, fresh or dried and soaked in half a cup of hot water,  for added not-chicken potency.

diced shiitake mushrooms

A squeeze of lemon and a dash of salt and fresh ground pepper at the table makes it even better than actual chicken soup. And you never have to skim any scum.

If you want to surprise people, go with bok choy broth but skip the soy sauce (contains wheat) and add extra shiitakes and fresh brown mushrooms, plus scallions, garlic and ginger. Use apple cider vinegar. We think sesame oil is fine for Passover but a lot of people don’t; it’s okay even without it.

Whatever soup you offer, keep the vegetables in. I never really understand the appeal of throwing out good veg just to have a 1950s-style “clear consommé”.

Microwave matzah balls?!

You can, actually, but not the conventional way, at least not in water to cover, mimicking the usual stovetop boiling. I tried it one afternoon last week just to see, using the classic back-of-box recipe just to be sure (I try these things so you don’t have to…). Continue reading

Color and Taste

We have a week and a half before Passover, and I’ve been experimenting a little with the foods I have to use up before then–flours, beans, lentils and spices.

I also–help! got “gifted” an awful lot of leftover vegetabalia from my daughter’s youth group director after last week’s major fundraiser, a huge Harry Potter-themed congregational dinner (Fantastic Feasts and Where to Find Them, still quite a popular title) that brought in nearly 200 diners and was frankly amazing.

bulk sacks of celery and onions

This is just the smaller bag of onions, along with way too much celery…

I managed to donate an entire 25-pound sack of onions to a local food pantry, but got another 10 pounds as a reward, along with two caterer’s packs of organic celery–that’s six full-sized heads–a huge box of organic mesclun that leaked horrible brown liquid in the shopping bag, so I composted it rather than trying to use any.

too much garlic

Worst of all….a 5-pound box of peeled garlic cloves. Which looked well-sealed and fine if ridiculous.

I looked squint-eyed at the youth director, who had such a hopeful wheedling expression on her face:  You like vegetables, you believe in garlic, could you please, please take it? Please?

Oy. By the end of a 10-minute ride home it was definitely reeking up my car. Why? Because the garlic cloves themselves were prepeeled, which always seems like such a bright idea to caterers and those who aspire to buy big. They were also machine-peeled, so some were cut into, hence the reek. And I mean, 5 pounds? I grabbed a modest handful of uncut cloves, rinsed them carefully, stuck them in a baggie and froze them. I had to toss out the rest of the box immediately. In the outside trash bin. Well wrapped.

In using the few cloves I kept, I’ve discovered I’m not wrong–looks really aren’t everything. The garlic itself, fresh or frozen, is impressive in size but very different from the usual small tight heads of garlic I buy for myself–harsher and yet less intense, lacking the warm flavors that make garlic garlic to me. So I’m going back to the real thing, peels and all.

In the meantime, I’ve been practicing my microwave not-chicken soup skills, along with testing the microwaveability of matzah balls–yes, you kind of can, they just won’t be spherical–which means we may all be sick of soup by the actual seder. Oh, no!

And while distracting myself from doing taxes, I’ve been looking for inspiration on another library cookbook binge. I drift by the New Books section and get caught by the new cookbooks with all the pretty colors–purple soup? red and yellow nasturtium blossoms on a salad? Bright green or pink or charcoal-gray (literally, as it turns out, using bamboo charcoal powder) shu mei wrappers?

As with the caterer’s box of garlic, though, looks can be deceiving.

I snatch up the books; I check them out, I lug them home and marvel at all the photographic bravura on my desk. Most of them are unexecutable in my kitchen because I don’t have a stick blender or enough counter space to do the fancy dim sum wraps justice. And some of them feature pork belly or crabmeat or other unkosher items.

Mostly, I look through the ingredients list and wonder mightily if they actually taste as impressive as the colors suggest, or if it’s all just for Instagram-worthy photos.

Love Italian Food (Maddalena Caruso, 2014) is a good case in point. Gorgeous photo of three technicolor puréed soups–cauliflower, broccoli, red cabbage with purple potato. I’m stunned by the purple velouté. But reading through I get cautious and skeptical. I want cream of red cabbage soup to taste amazing if it’s going to be that color and topped with a pale-jade romanesco floret. Caruso says it tastes peppery from the red cabbage; she adds purple potatoes for body and further color, some chicken broth, salt and pepper. She simmers the cabbage only 10 minutes or so before blending–hopefully that keeps it from going sulfurous. It might be good. It might be too subtle for me. I might have expected some lemon for the mild acidity that will keep the cabbage pigments from turning blueish-green. Or basil and garlic pesto. Maybe something smoky–smoked paprika? Or hot peppers and toasted sesame oil? Something.

I nuked a wedge of chopped red cabbage one recent afternoon to test the concept. It wouldn’t really blend smoothly in my food processor, and on its own, the purple mash smelled distinctly sour and a bit dank, lightly cooked as it was. It might combine well with other ingredients, but it wasn’t obvious that it would. Continue reading

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