Thursday, December 29, 2005

The last supper - before we take off for Hong Kong!!!

In 36 hours, we’ll be on a plane heading to Hong Kong!! I have been in a vacation mood since Christmas and could hardly wait to get strapped in to my seat. A lot of chores still remain to be done prior to take off, the least of which is to use up all the perishables in the fridge. A quick survey this morning revealed a few bunches of thyme and dill, less than a quarter carton of buttermilk, a bit of evaporated milk, four smallish potatoes, a lemon, and a box of cherry tomatoes. It turned out that I had all the ingredients for making the famous buttermilk mashed potatoes from the Zuni Café Cookbook, which I had read about over Christmas. The cherry tomatoes, I could roast with the thyme for a second side. All that was missing was a main course that could make use of the dill and lemon.

Since I thought it’d be unwise to try two new dishes on a week night, I spent a few minutes looking through my collection of tried and true online recipes before stepping out from work. Roast salmon with dill stood out immediately. I had made the salmon for one of the first dinners J and I had at our loft. It was one of the best salmon dishes that ever came out of my kitchen. The recipe called for a lemon and is even scaled for 2, which means no leftovers. It couldn’t have been more perfect for the last supper.

The entire meal took less than an hour to pull together and that even included the time it took to drive to whole foods to procure the salmon. J absolutely loved it and commented on the salmon’s tenderness quite a few times, which is truly rare since he is not at all one to pay close attention to the food. I will definitely make this again, maybe for company. Only a scoop of the mashed potatoes remained at the end of the meal and I am sure that will be gone before J leaves for work tomorrow.

Roast Salmon with Dill – Modified from a David Lieberman recipe
Serves 2

2 (6-7 ounce) salmon fillets, about 1 ½ inches thick
Handful of fresh dill sprigs
1 lemon
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Lay the salmon skin side down in a baking dish and make sure to leave a bit of room between the fillets. Season the salmon with salt and pepper. I used coarse sea salt for a bit of crunchiness as not all the granules dissolve during the roasting. Cover the fillets with the dill sprigs and squeeze the lemon over the whole thing.

Roast for about 15-20 minutes until the thickest part of the salmon is just cooked through.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Tender to the bone

I am tempted to declare lamb shank the most perfect food for a winter dinner party. Nested on top of a pile of buttered Moroccan couscous, the glistening shanks stopped conversations and drew lustful stares when they were brought to the table at the little Christmas party J and I threw a week ago.

I was glad that the glamour shot had been taken in the kitchen as we wasted no time in claiming our respective bones. I also secretly congratulated myself for making the wise decision to provide each person with his or her own shank. We are definitely not generous enough to share these beauties. Thanks to inspirations from Nigel Slater, one of my most admired food writers of all time, I garnered major praise with minimum effort.

The shanks had absorbed the better part of the bottle of Zin in which they were marinated and then slowly braised. The two whole heads of garlic, which accompanied the shanks during the two hour braising, had turned into a delicious mush that spread easily atop toasted farmhouse bread. The best part of it all is that this showstopper came together in the oven while I enjoyed a few glasses of champagne with the guests.

Lamb Shank Braise –Inspired by a Nigel Slater recipe in Appetite

Lamb shanks – 6
Olive oil – just enough to cover the bottom of your roasting pan
Flour – a little for dusting
Onions – 6 medium red or golden
Carrots – 3 large. Add this if you love the richness that carrots acquire when braised with red meats.

For the marinade:
A bottle of red wine – I used a Zin for its fruitiness
Sherry vinegar – about 4 T
Garlic – 2 whole heads, cut horizontally
Thyme – a small bunch
Bay leaves – 3 or 4
Black peppercorns – 9 or 10
Juniper berries – a small handful, crushed. Add this if you have juniper berries on hand or enjoy the extra fragrance. These berries are used to make Gin.
Salt for rubbing on the shanks - I didn’t do this, but after reading the Zuni Café cookbook, I intend to try the pre-salting method on meats from now on.

Marinade the lamb shanks for a few hours. You could do this overnight. I didn’t because J and I were out too late the night before. I believe this would further imbue the meat with flavor and perhaps shorten the cooking time.

Preheat the oven to 400◦F. While the oven is heating up, dust the shanks with flour and brown them in a roasting pan on the stovetop. Make sure there is enough oil in the pan to cover the bottom of the pan and be sure not to crowd the shanks.

While the shanks are browning, peel and roughly chop the onions and carrots. When the shanks are browned on all sides, remove them to a plate and cook the onions and carrots in the remaining oil in the roasting pan. You may need to add a bit more oil if you add carrots. Stir the onions and carrots now and again to stop them from burning, but not so regularly that they are discouraged from caramelizing.

When the onions and carrots are soft and golden, after about twenty minutes, put in the garlic and herbs from the marinade and reintroduce the shanks. Cover the roasting pan with foil and place in the oven.

The braising time may be between 1 ½ to 2 ½ hours depending on your schedule. Just make sure not all the braising liquid evaporates so you will have a base for a sauce. The sauce could be pulled together as easily as adding salt and pepper to the braising liquid and reducing it to the right consistency. If you don’t have enough liquid, you could also add a bit of stock to reach the desired consistency. You may pour the sauce over the shanks before serving or allow the guests to help themselves. I found the shanks tasty enough on their own without any additional embellishments.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Introducing the nibbler

According to an unverified Internet dictionary, a nibbler is one who, with small, but repeated bites, wears away targeted food stuff bit by bit. Anyone who has seen me attack a bowlful of ice cream would no doubt agree that I qualify to be featured in any photo accompanying the above definition. This is not to say that I eat minimally. When hungry, I could happily nibble through a full rack of ribs to the astonishment of those who judge me by my size. I choose to nibble simply because it enables me to savor a favorite food longer, to taste the various components of a dish more strategically, and to allow time for a dish's flavors to become registered in memory.

To live to nibble is to structure an existence around the daily meals, not as chores or routines, but as adventures that tickle the most basic pleasures. The fact that these adventures also sustain life seems almost too good to be true. I have no demand that these adventures be of a specific kind. I love a simple breakfast of toasted bread as much as a winter cassoulet cooked for hours on the stove. The only thing that irks me is an unloved meal, a meal where the food is carelessly thrown together and wolfed down merely in observance of a daily ritual. It's amazing to me that there are people out there with the mental strength to survive such loveless experiences multiple times a day.

I don't claim to be a good cook or a foodie with a discerning palate. I strive only to love the preparation, the acquisition, and the consumption of my daily sustenance, and all the while being grateful for all those things in my life that have made this love possible.

- the nibbler