My last post was about a book I found at a small, independent book store in Vermont. It’s called “1001 Foods to Die For”. This week I went through the book and figured out what, among its pages, I had already eaten. Discounting foods that I have eaten but don’t remember the taste or texture, that amounted to 427 items, so my goal this week was to decide on 10 foods I was going to try new or revisit.
The 10 items were: scrambled eggs (a Julia Child recipe which is VERY different from my usual), raclette and quark cheeses (both new), tandoori chicken (revisit), Indian lentil soup (new), bhaji (Indian fritters)(revisit), blini with caviar (new), Devils on horseback (new), and eggs two ways: sunnyside up and over easy (both revisits).
I have to start with the scrambled eggs. For a long time – years – I have had egg issues. Plainly put, runny eggs gross me out. I suspected at some point in my youth I was forced to eat something that was not cooked properly, and that had such an impact on me that I just decided that runny egg yolks and soft eggs were disgusting. I realize that this was an incredibly limited view of the venerable egg, so I wanted to give them another shot. Enter Julia Child.
Julia made scrambled eggs using a completely different method than I was used to. My normal procedure was to get a non-stick fry pan pretty dang hot, spray with Pam, toss in some beaten eggs and fry until set. Julia’s method starts with a cold pan and slowly heats the eggs, adding butter at the very end, resulting in a creamy, velvety egg dish that is diametrically opposed to mine in both texture and flavor. I was a little hesitant to start with a cold pan, because I thought the eggs would stick, but they didn’t, which surprised me no end. Serving them up with some rustic toast, I sat down to try them. They looked good, and smelled good. I put the first forkful in my mouth and almost gagged. They were soft! Not at all the firm scrambled eggs I am used to. I had to look hard at them to make sure they were fully cooked, which they were. I tried again, and managed to get both eggs down ONLY if I put them on toast and didn’t look directly at them, so the soft texture was masked by the crunchiness of the toast. It sort of worked. At least I didn’t barf. I realized, however, that change of this nature is not instant. More work was needed.
- 8 eggs
- salt & freshly ground pepper
- 4 tsp. water
- 2 T butter, for cooking
- 2 T softened butter or whipping cream
- parsley (optional)
- Beat the eggs in a bowl with the seasonings and water for 20 – 30 seconds, to blend the yolks with the whites. Smear the bottom and sides of the cooking pan with butter. Pour in the eggs and set over moderately low heat. Stir slowly and continuously, reaching all over the bottom of the pan. Nothing will seem to happen for 2-3 minutes as the eggs gradually heat. Suddenly they will begin to thicken into a custard. Stir rapidly, moving the pan off and on the heat, until the eggs have almost thickened to the consistency that you want. Remove from the heat, and they will continue to thicken slightly.
- Just as soon as they are the correct consistency, stir in the remaining softened butter or cream (I used butter), which will stop the cooking. Season to taste, and serve. Serves 4.
Adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
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The same day as my first egg attempt, I went to a local store that has a fabulous cheese department and picked up raclette and quark cheeses. I brought these and a wedge of duck and goose liver pate to my friend Tee’s house and we had a leisurely lunch. She made a focaccia bread and flan, put out some olives and we sat and chatted for a few hours. My idea of the perfect lunch! The raclette cheese has a nutty flavor not unlike Emmenthaler. Is this cheese “to die for”? Mmm – probably not. It’s good, to be sure, but not to die for.
Quark cheese was a surprise to me. It has a texture similar to ricotta and a flavor like plain yogurt. It is very simple. We spread it on the onion/rosemary focaccia that Tee made and it was absolutely delicious. I would like to try to make it into a filling for cannoli. It is completely unremarkable on its own, working as a chameleon ingredient that ingratiates itself with anything it is paired with. To die for? Mmmm – probably not.
The big surprise of that meal was the pate covered in aspic. By placing slivers of the aspic on the hot bread, it melted into a sexy, unctuous liquid that was DIVINE mixed with the fresh rosemary and caramelized onions on the focaccia. Best part of the meal!
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The next day my husband and I dropped our daughter off at college. We went out to lunch at an Indian restaurant (for a “last supper” of sorts), and had one of the best Indian meals I’ve had in a long time. Even though it was a buffet, there was a wide variety of food offered, and I took a teeny bit of almost everything. The items that were in the book were tandoori chicken, lentil soup, naan and bhaji (vegetable fritters). I discounted the naan because I’ve had that a billion times and it’s a fixture in my mind. Nothing new to explore there.
Tandoori chicken. Ah, tandoori chicken.
This one dish is sort of the bastard child of the Indian repertoire. You know it’s related to all that other delicious Indian food, because it LOOKS similar. Its bright red exterior looks exotic, as though it has been dyed by the same pigments that color the brilliant sari fabrics of India. However, tandoori chicken is usually a gross disappointment, because it is cooked far beyond reason, usually resulting in a chalky, pasty blob that only vaguely resembles chicken. This was an incredibly pleasant surprise. The chicken was tender and moist. It was dark meat, to be sure, and had the gentle flavor of warm spices mixed with the subtle tang of yogurt and lemon juice. It was the first time I have EVER had tandoori chicken and wanted more. So, of course I had it. It is a wonderful thing to learn that a dish you thought was crap, an embarrassment to an entire culture’s cuisine can, in fact, be sublime and wonderful. The truth is, it’s very hard to cook lean meats in a tandoor oven, because a temperature only a few degrees too hot can ruin even the best cut.
The lentil soup they presented was so tasty I wanted to take some home. It was unlike any I’ve ever had before. I’ve eaten a lot of lentils and other legumes in my life, and this combination of flavors was a surprise. It was earthy and spicy and had a kick of acid at the end, as though vinegar has been floated on top just before service. I made everyone at my table taste it. I don’t know if they liked it, but it was really, really good. What I learned here is that even an old workhorse like lentil soup can surprise you. Never discount a dish you think you’ve tasted before – you might be in for a very pleasant surprise.
The final dish from the book that I tried that afternoon was bhaji, specifically vengaya bhaji. Onion fritters. Shredded onion, flour, chili, cumin, garlic and cilantro rolled in a ball and deep fried. They look like messy little meatballs but are crunchy, satisfying packets of oniony goodness. They can be dipped into any variety of sauces – I chose to eat them plain that day to savor the sweetness of the onions. They were divine!
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Saturday I wanted to try something totally new. I went with Devils on horseback, which is a riff off the oyster version called Angels on horseback. I also decided to make real blini with caviar and sour cream.
The devils could not have been easier. Seeded prunes wrapped in half a slice of bacon, secure it with a toothpick and bake at 450 until crispy, turning at least once, about 15 minutes. That’s the basic recipe. You can throw an almond in the prune, you can do all sorts of variation, but that’s your standard devil. I baked them, took them out, and tasted one. Good, not great. The bacon was crispy, the prunes chewy and dense. However, the concentrated sweetness of the prunes overpowered the saltiness of the bacon. Nothing to die for, to be sure. I decided to try some additional flavors. I topped some with spicy brown mustard, some with hot sauce. Roasted garlic went on a few, soy sauce on a few, and balsamic vinegar on the remaining ones. The roasted garlic and hot sauce did nothing for these poor things. The soy sauce kicked up the saltiness of the bacon, making them a little more balanced. The spicy mustard was really, really good, but the balsamic vinegar gave them an acidic punch that accentuated the sweetness of the prune and contrasted with the fattiness and saltiness of the bacon. I learned an awful lot about combining flavors before I realized that I had eaten 15 prunes at one sitting. That’s a lot of fiber at once. (gulp) No fear, it was all good in the end… 🙂
Blini are interesting little things. Silver dollar sized buckwheat pancakes made with yeast and whipped egg whites to leaven. The finished batter had a texture that was almost mucilaginous. Definitely not your average pancake batter. The pancakes, cooked in unsalted butter, were crispy on the edges and fluffy in the center. An absolutely beautiful example of what a pancake should be. I topped a few of the little cakes with equal parts of sour cream and caviar and popped them in my mouth. Salty, creamy, tangy, crunchy, I can see why these little appetizers are favorites at cocktail parties. They really are delicious!
I have to state here, for the record, that I think caviar is a bizarre food product. When I was a kid, my sisters and I would scoop frog eggs out of the pond near our house. They were smelly, slippery and stuck together, and I’ve always associated the larger caviars with those frog eggs. I don’t quite know why this should bother me – monkeys in the African jungle have been seen devouring clutches of frog eggs, and we’re just slightly more evolved primates. I saw a documentary once on how caviar is processed. I used to think that the fish were “milked” of their roe and then set free. But, in fact, they are anesthetized, slit open, eggs removed and then killed, with their meat sold for food. I suppose I’m philosophically OK with that, as long as the whole animal is used for sustenance. It would be a shame to harvest just the eggs and throw the rest away. The eggs are cleaned, salted and refrigerated, then sold for ridiculous amounts of money because someone said they were fancy food. But I digress… Blini with caviar – delicious, but not good enough to die for…
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Which brings me back to eggs. This week all seems to revolve around eggs.
On Day 4, Monday, I had an urge to try another egg dish. I thought a plain old sunny side up egg would be the ticket. Out came the non-stick frying pan again and in went the egg (one, mind you. I can’t handle two yet). I broke the thicker part of the albumen so it would all cook at the same rate, with no wobbly bits of uncooked white. Blech. Once out of the pan, I took some fig toast and dipped into the yolk. It spilled its thick golden liquid all over my plate. I brought the yolky toast up to my mouth, closed my eyes and bit. My first realization was that it tasted EXACTLY like a hard cooked egg, only it was runny. It was startling to realize that my distaste for runny eggs is a texture issue, not a taste issue. Taste aside, I started to really pay attention to the way the yolk coated the inside of my cheeks and my teeth. Why did this bother me so much? After letting that question sit for a few minutes, it finally clicked. Eating egg yolks reminds me of a horrible experience with boiled okra in college. A huge mouthful of slippery, slimy, green food. Disgusting. I vaguely remember throwing up into a garbage can.
The memory of that okra experience clarified a few things for me. For years I have been hesitant to eat green food that could be considered “slippery”. Avocado and roasted green chiles were things I avoided like the plague, which is too bad, because I cut myself off from a LOT of good food while visiting the Southwestern US. I was especially disgusted if the food I was eating dripped green drips. Blech. I had to put it down and stop eating. For me, it was always a texture thing, but I had transferred the texture discomfort to include taste, thereby ignoring the actual flavor of the food. The problem is, roasted green chiles and avocados taste great! My full circle moment came when I realized the slipperiness and coating properties of egg yolk were very similar to those of okra and that’s why I stopped eating liquid egg yolks. It had nothing to do with any childhood experience, but one much more recent.
The next morning I woke up craving another egg. I made it over easy this time. I scooped up all the yolk with my toast, enjoying the flavor, marveling at the color. Then, due to that realization that eggs are not okra, I even ate the wobbly bits.
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