Smoked Cod Cakes with Napa Cabbage Slaw

I love fish cakes. There’s some casual thing about them, all getting sand in your shoes and an itchy sunburn on your shoulders, needing Noxzema and iced tea. Their beachiness could be as literal as the fact that cod comes from the ocean (our local chilly brine, the Mighty Pacific), but I love being swept up in the meibutsu of it all, and the seasonality of it, too. Summer begs for straps and hats and big umbrellas, and for crispy-edged cod cakes with tangy-sweet slaw. This is living.

This is a few pounds of Pacific cod, kissed with smoke, heated until fork-flaky. This is handfuls of your garden’s tiny pearly potatoes, skin rubbed off between your gritty fingers and rinsed away in the garden hose, then boiled and smashed with the same fork. This is mineral parsley, sweet pickled onions, cracker crumbs and a warm egg, all married with yet the same fork. Salt and pepper, a blob of Dijon, and into small handfuls you pat-a-cake. Into a pan with a little bacon fat, this is a few aproned moments in front of the stove.

This is a head of Napa cabbage, rended to slivers with a hasty blade. This is a dressing of rice vinegar, lime juice, sesame oil and sugar; it is minced shallots, snipped chives and mint, pretty-please with cherry tomatoes on top.

This is dinner.


Salmon with Akajiso (Red Shiso) Pesto

I hate talking about it, but I’ve been sort of counting my calories the past week or so. I should have started a few months ago, but we’ve only just started to have nice weather. Cloudy days were invented for chicken and dumplings, and we’ve had plenty of both around here. But now, alas, I am taking my young son to swimming lessons every day, and there’s nothing as unforgiving as dappled morning light, glinting cruelly off the water onto a pale, soft tummy. My pale, soft tummy.

My belly used to be as taut as the head of a conga, and then it housed a growing boy. Though I think I have bounced back fairly neatly from childbirth, there’s just a slack, lived-in quality to my skin and my body that will only be exacerbated as I continue to grow into myself.  It’s easier to eat less cheese than to accept a softer version of myself.

This is a nice piece of broiled salmon, a perfect Summer Thing. It is a loose pesto of akajiso, also known as red perilla, or red shiso. Normally, akajiso is used to give umeboshi their signature rosy hue, but it makes a wonderful sauce when pureed with sesame oil and black sesame seeds, shallots, and a dribble of ponzu.

Served with a bowl of steamed rice and a warm salad of lightly sauteed radishes and snow peas, it is a perfectly balanced meal; summery and all that, full of antioxidants and those things that let us pat ourselves on the back. I didn’t even miss the cheese.


Tater Tots Breakfast Casserole

Oh yes I did, and before you give me that look, let me just tell you that tater tots are basically hash browns and are therefore a perfectly acceptable breakfast food. So lower that eyebrow, you.

Besides, this is only one store-bought potato product away from being a perfectly respectable Spanish tortilla. It has all the trappings of a lovely frittata: peppers, mushrooms, onions, eggs; heck, it’s really no different than anything you’d see on a fine brunch menu. I just sauteed the vegetables in a cast iron skillet greased with a little bacon fat, dumped in the cooked tots and three or four beaten eggs, and then whacked the whole thing in the oven for fifteen or so minutes, and then I had the most satisfying brunch, with a slice of toasted rye and some good coffee.

It’s the tater tots, isn’t it. That’s what’s so hard to accept. Well, suit yourself. More for me.



Sweet onion pickles


Just a quickie post this time, because it’s canning season again, and I’m getting busy. My season starts with strawberries and other lovelies from California (mostly just halving and freezing to buy sweet time), but it’s also a great time for pickling the early birds. Since canning season means more al fresco dining, I think a sweet pickled red onion is just the thing.

Farmers’ markets in Portland are purging the last of the vernal goodies, and purple spring onions and sweet brine make swell bedfellows. Rows of rosy pink jars are an instant gratifier on a freshly-dusted pantry shelf.

Here’s what to do: Peel and thinly slice (1/8″ is not too ambitious) two pounds of red onions. While you’re doing all that slicing, get your brine boiling. The brine is two cups apple cider vinegar, a half cup water, one tablespoon kosher salt and 3/4 cup sugar. I add a teaspoon each of white mustard seed, peppercorns and coriander seed, a half teaspoon of celery and caraway seed, plus I add two cloves and a bay leaf to each of the four wide mouth pint jars. Stuff the onion slices in as tightly as possible without crushing them and pour the hot, spiced brine over the top. Wipe the rims and properly and tightly affix the lids, then process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes (starting the timer after the water returns to a boil, natch).

The hot brine takes the edge off the onions, and though the natural sweetness of the onions is enhanced, these pickles do not cloy. I boorishly ate half a jar of these with country pâté on a bagel, I admit it. My new favorite lunch is a cheese and sweet onion pickle sandwich on rye, but these are also wonderful on a hot dog or a steak taco. They pair well with salmon and rosé, and not just aesthetically. They are pretty in pink, and a perfect way to kick off any canning season.


Dutch Baby

Dutch babies are a signature dish of one old Portland institution, the Original Pancake House. When you order one, they bring it out all puffed up on the plate, sprinkled with powdered sugar and with a little carousel of toppings: whipped butter, lemon wedges and more powdered sugar. It’s like getting the sizzling platter of fajitas or the bubbling hotpot: the fanfare is a little embarrassing, but you know it will be worth it.

I was eight years old the first time I made one. It was late on a Saturday morning, and my dad was watching television in the living room, getting a solid start on the day’s drinking. I was left to my own devices, and without my mom home to stop me from endangering myself in the kitchen, I started perusing her cookbooks. I loved flipping through my mom’s tattered old copy of Joy of Cooking, and since I already had a repertoire of recipes for mud pies seasoned with sprinkles of dried morning glory leaves, I knew I was ready to move on to greater tasks than peeling potatoes or opening cans of olives. I found the only breakfast recipe that could be made from our meager food bank ingredients, listed as German pancakes.

I whisked together 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup milk (made from the powdered stuff in the donation box), 1/4 cup sugar and two eggs. I melted 4 tablespoons of margarine (we didn’t have butter)  in my mom’s old cast iron skillet and poured in the batter, cooking on the stove for one, undisturbed minute and then baking in a 425° oven for 13 minutes.

I watched carefully through the oven’s window as my little creation baked, and when the timer dinged, I put on my mom’s oversized oven mitts and pulled it out. It was a sight —  puffed and golden; immense beyond my wildest dreams. I proudly plated my beauty, sprinkled on a few drops of ReaLemon and some powdered sugar, and presented it to my father.

He didn’t believe that I had cooked it all by myself. I doubt he even realized I’d been in the kitchen. I don’t know if he ever figured out where it came from. I stood and stared at him as he devoured my handiwork in four or five bites, his eyes glued to the television the entire time. When he was finished, he handed me the empty plate without a word. After that, I spared myself the trouble and just ate them myself.

Dutch babies are just the thing when you have a craving for pancakes, but standing at the stove for thirty minutes just isn’t in the stars. They’re tender, sweet and eggy like a more substantial crepe, and are similarly adaptable to savory applications (mushrooms, herbs and cheese come to mind). And they’re fast and easy enough for an unsupervised child to make.


Yankee Succotash


Yes, spring is here in Portland, but hanging-on cloudy days have me clamoring for earth tones.  I’ve always preferred muted earth tones and rich jewel tones, and even though I should be eating piles of sweet green pea tendrils and fennel bulbs, I don’t mind the bruise of burgundy from my cellar’s last beets.

My fat of choice these days is either butter or lard, depending; this succotash of corn, edamame, green peppers and beets called for warm bacon fat and a sprinkle of homemade Pinot Noir vinegar. Homemade vinegar (from the old French vinaigre, meaning “sour wine”) is as simple as leaving the cork off an old bottle and screening out the fruit flies. If I’m not crazy about something I’ve opened, I let it run its course and invite the aigre to the vin.

Here’s what to do: spoon some of the bacon fat from that big jar you keep by the stove into a hot cast iron skillet. Saute a bit of diced onion until glossy and fragrant. Toss in some diced peppers, cubed roasted beets, frozen corn and edamame. Favas would be nice, too, if you could stand to blanch and peel enough (I couldn’t). Add a pinch of salt and pepper, and a bit of fresh thyme. When everything’s warmed through and al dente, add another little blob of bacon fat and a few dribs of red wine vinegar (homemade or not) to dress it.

This melange of textures and varying levels of sweetness is, like its southern cousin, a perfect partner to a pork chop, say, or a warm wedge of buttered cornbread drizzled with wildflower honey. I ate mine with chicken andouille and a crispy grit cake topped with melted sharp cheddar.

Suffer-free succotash, perfect for any season.


Mochi Milk Bread French Toast with Strawberry-Lemon Compote

I know I write a lot about breakfast. Can’t help it. It is, after all, the most important meal of the day, and Portland has such a cultish breakfast and brunch culture (and let’s face it; brunch is just breakfast with alcohol). It might just be that we are humble, foul-weather folk who will eat anything that tastes good with coffee. Best not to analyze it too closely, I guess.

Thing is, I hate waiting for breakfast. Absolutely hate it with a searing napalm passion. My favorite breakfast joints in town were discovered because of my impatience; I’ll gladly pay a little extra for the fact that we never have to wait for a table at Sub Rosa, and I love Denny’s-esque Tabor Hill Cafe just as much for the same reason (and despite their insistence on providing only depressingly peaked, generic hot sauce in lieu of Tabasco).

Or…

I can make breakfast at home. It’s so easy, that unless I’m feeling particularly lazy or like a princess, there’s not a lot of reason to leave the house for it. Especially when I had the foresight to buy a loaf of mochi milk bread from An Xuyen (located in my neighborhood, but they’re also a supplier to Uwajimaya). Mochi milk bread is basically the Vietnamese take on brioche, made with the addition of mochi flour for extra tenderness and sweetness.

I made a basic custard of egg and whole milk, added a bit of sugar, a couple scratches of nutmeg and a drop of homemade bourbon vanilla, then plunked in thick slices to sponge it up. I browned them on both sides and then put them in the oven to cook the custard through and let the sides get a bit toasty. Meanwhile, I made a quick compote by warming sliced strawberries with some of the Meyer lemon marmalade that I canned a couple months ago. Just like that, lickety-split, and you’re patting down your apron.

A sprinkle of powdered sugar is all you need to make this quick-fix breakfast look like something worth dropping an easy $10 on, yet you didn’t even have to get dressed. Add some slices of bacon or sausages on another small side plate for added effect. Oh, and add a mimosa (or two), why don’t you, and make it brunch.
Leaving the house is so overrated.

Foodbuzz 24×24—Preparing An Epic D&D Feast


Nerds are not especially known for their good health. When thinking of the classic nerd archetypes, most of us easily picture an overweight, acne-ridden basement dweller or a gaunt, bespectacled rail in a black trench coat. And it’s no wonder—based on my research (and common convention), today’s nerd subsists primarily on a diet of highly processed convenience foods. Hot Pockets, Cup O’ Noodle, Mountain Dew − none of these are known to be nutritional power houses. How, then, can a nerd sustain the energy needed to vanquish a horde of kobolds? Introducing Nerd for Nerd: a line of healthy, homemade convenience-type foods that take all day to make, and only minutes to eat!

Okay, all joking aside, my husband and the four members of his Dungeons & Dragons game (4th Edition, for those keeping track) have been playing together for over a year and had approached the end of their game. Usually when they all come over to play a little D&D, I mock them by playing King Crimson records and laughing mercilessly at their attempts to RP at my kitchen table. But this time, I wanted to send these intrepid rogues and warlocks off in style, and decided to prepare for them a feast fit for a Level 43 Elder Xorn. I put on my robe and wizard hat, then cast Lvl. 6 Symbol of Persuasion to trick Foodbuzz into footing the bill. I rolled a twenty. Critical.

I asked around, and confirmed my hunch that the foods on which I used to love to gorge as an eleven year old nerdling (I played Legend of Zelda, and then Shadowgate during my brief goth days) are still canon. I created a celebratory feast of the utmost quality, based on the dorkfodder of yore:

***

Hot Pockets with homemade Italian pork sausage, buffalo mozzarella and organic, heirloom tomato sauce

Cup o’ Noodles: tonkotsu ramen with hazelnut-finished pork belly and soft-boiled egg, served in a paper cup

Homemade Doritos with extra sharp Wisconsin cheddar

Pop Tarts made from home-canned organic strawberry preserves

Cocktail: Mountain “Do” (homemade Meyer limoncello with lime-grapefruit syrup and soda)

***

My first run at the pizza pocket was not exactly right. The fillings were delicious, but something was a bit…off. Then it dawned on me: I had essentially made a tray of small stromboli, erroneously using a risen dough instead of pastry. The subsequent attempt was spot-on: flaky crust (using a basic pate brisee recipe) stuffed with a smear of home-canned heirloom tomatoes, a thick slice of buffalo mozzarella, and Italian sausage made from Tails & Trotters pork (this pork for which I wax poetic on a fairly regular basis is raised locally and finished on hazelnuts, and every part of it tastes amazing). In my 5lb mortar and pestle I crushed a few cloves of garlic, a couple teaspoons of fennel seed, a spoonful of peppercorn, a few fat pinches of kosher salt and a good spoonful of hot chile flake. I stirred this paste into the ground meat and whirred it together in the food processor to thoroughly combine (and to refine the texture of the ground pork). Then I browned the sausage, cast Lvl. 6 Bigby’s Forceful Rolling Pin (rolled a 12—success!) to roll out the dough and added the sausage to the pastries. I sprinkled on a little cheddar to achieve that lovely browned filagree, and they were perfect. The guys didn’t miss the processed cheese one bit. By the way, you could totally make a bunch of these and freeze them yourself to have a stash of healthier snacks for lazy times. I am thinking of making a bunch of the cheddar-broccoli ones for later.

The Cup O’ Noodles was the winner of the day. The day prior, I meditated to regain my mana before casting Lvl. 8 Broth of the Infinite (I rolled a 20—a critical hit!). I slow-simmered a pot of smoked pork neck bones from the German deli with the chine (backbone) off the whole loin I bought awhile back (I had carved the loin into Flinstonian chops, saving the extra fat for later lard and sausage-making, and the chine for stock-making). The chine was roasted until sufficient Maillard had been achieved, then tossed into the stock pot with the mirepoix and bouquet garnis. On game day, I reserved about half this stock for later use, but then slow-braised a pork belly (also T&T) in the stock, to which I added a 4″ piece of kombu, a few pinches of bonito flakes, a few big spoonfuls of red miso, a splash of sake, mirin and shoyu. I tossed in a couple of corn cobs from the freezer to add a bit of sweetness to the broth. When the pork belly was tender (about three hours later), I pulled it out (removing the cobs and kombu as well) and skimmed off as much of the fat as I could from the broth.

I filled each cup with cooked kansui noodles (the thin, yellowish noodles typically used in ramen), then filled each cup with the tonkotsu-miso broth and topped them with a 2″ cube of pork belly, a half a boiled egg (cooked medium-soft) and a strip of nori. I sprinkled a bit of togarashi on mine for extra spice. This broth was so richly savory (kombu is full of glutamic acid—a natural source of umami), unctuous and full of nutritious probiotics that I gave a sippy cup of it to Zephyr and he couldn’t have been happier. I reserved and froze all the remaining broth for future soups and sauces.

I really wanted to make homemade Cheetos, and I even made the dough and fried a few. I cast Lvl. 3 Interposing Cheesesnack (rolled a 4—failure!) but they turned out kind of terrible and not even close to the right puffy-crunchy texture. They more closely resembled stale, fried cornbread crumbs. So I made the executive decision to substitute a Dorito-esque cheese-flavored tortilla chip. It was confirmed by an expert witness (my husband) that these are more or less interchangeable foods. So I fried some corn tortillas cut into triangles (I didn’t make these from scratch—I was feeling too defeated by masa doughs at this point) and then tossed them in the cheese powder. The cheese powder was made by combining extra sharp cheddar (melted with a tiny bit of water to make a runny sauce) with tapioca powder and then dehydrating the paste in a slow oven (170° for an hour). This resultant crumble was whizzed up in a coffee grinder to an even powder, and then seasoned with achiote (ground annato seed) and sweet paprika for color, plus a little nutritional yeast and onion powder for added flavor. It tasted pretty close, and left orange goo on the fingers, just like the original, though I had a bit of trouble getting the cheese to evenly coat the chips.

The homemade Pop Tarts were claimed to be the most like the original (this was considered a compliment). I didn’t want the pastry to get soggy, so I cooked down about a cup of homemade strawberry preserves with an extra spoonful of sugar and a few drops of jasmine essence until it had thickened to the consistency of Marmite. I cut out rectangles of pie dough (the same pate brisee as used for the pizza pockets) and brushed them with a little beaten egg, then smeared one side with the jam. Then I placed the partner rectangles on top, cast Lvl. 6 Pastry’s Lucubration (rolled a 12—success, barely!) and sealed the edges with a fork. I brushed each pastry with icing made of powdered sugar with a little water and vanilla, then poked holes to vent and baked them until they were golden (350º for about 15 minutes). These, too, could be prepared in droves and frozen for later use. Just reheat them in the toaster until warmed through.

My attempt at Mountain Dew was eerily close, even without the addition of such delicious ingredients as brominated vegetable oil and ester of wood rosin. I made a simple syrup of lime and grapefruit peels. I added spinach powder while it was simmering to achieve a more intense green color, cast Lvl. 5 Transmute Plant to Softdrink (rolled a 9—failure!) but it was unfortunately mostly removed during the final filtration. I mixed this with club soda and my homemade Meyer limoncello to achieve that refreshing, nondescript citrusy taste for which Mountain Dew is known. The Dew, my friends, is Done.

The whole affair was like nerd Thanksgiving. After it was all over, I meditated to regain my mana, but rolled a zero. I spent two days toiling over all of these simple treats just to watch them devoured in minutes, and in my exhaustion and barely-reclaimed kitchen I’d have to admit that I’m not sure I’d do it all again. I will say, however, that each item alone feels like a surmountable feat. Even though I have no problem eating any of the crap in its original, preservative-laden form, I do care about what my little boy eats. And when he’s a little nerdling rolling his very own twelve-sided die, I will be that mom embarrassing him with homemade versions of all his favorite junk foods.


Cauliflower-Cheese Pie with Potato Crust


I usually don’t cook from cookbooks, but occasionally one finds oneself with a surfeit of some wintry CSA crucifer like cauliflower, and after gazing at your kitchen shelf, still shockingly covered in dusty quart jars of pickles, decide maybe you’ll try cooking the damn thing for once instead of just stuffing it into a jar of herbed vinegar or curry-brine as a saving throw.

This recipe is from the Moosewood Cookbook. Some readers may be surprised to know that I own this book, or that I was a strict vegetarian for ten years; ten long, thin years. I hadn’t cracked this book in ages, but it was there, full of ideas when I needed it. Unsurprisingly, most of the recipes suggest rendering dinner palatable with the addition of copious amounts of eggs, cheese and garlic. Pretty much any vegetable you have languishing in your fridge can be put into a pie with eggs and cheese and it will be delicious.

In the past few years, though, I have discovered another ingredient that makes any vegetable delicious: bacon. I know, I know. “Bacon has totally jumped the shark,” I say all the time. And it has, on shit like pancakes and ice cream. But before bacon was the sun dried tomatoes of pork products, it was the way my mother and grandmother prepared most vegetables—bacon (or a ham bone, or just some bacon fat) makes everything taste better. Why should a humble cauliflower pie be any exception?


This is a great recipe, though, diced pancetta or no. It’s basically a Spanish tortilla baked in a hashbrown shell. I added a little smoked paprika as a nod. If you do decide to add the pancetta, simply render the dice (I go 1/4″) until a bit crispy and then cook the onions in the lard. Otherwise, just be a boring hippie and use olive oil. It’s still great.


Ukrainian Borscht with Pancetta and Juniper


Many foods are evocative of one’s place of peasant origin, of one’s mother-tongue. When done properly, the mere smell of these foods has the power to bring a grown man to his blubbering knees, felled by memories of hiding shy behind grandma’s apron. Borscht is one such soulful food, instantly wending one to rugged Slavic hinterlands, all ruddy-cheeked and windswept. There are innumerable varieties depending on its maker’s region or family, but mine is really a variation on the standard: beets and cabbage in beef broth with potato, white beans (cannellini in this case) and, specific to the Ukraine, contains fatback (or lard) “pounded with garlic.” I’ve yet to surmise what exactly this means, so I used diced pancetta and bacon fat just to cover all of my bases (my homemade lardo is still curing, else I’d have used it instead). So my recipe is a derivation of the canon recipe, but a little fancier.

While I was headed down this dandy path, I also opted to add diced black trumpet mushrooms left over from last week. Russians love wild mushrooms even more than North American hippies, so this wasn’t terribly out of left field. And in the same neck of the woods, a little crushed juniper berry and caraway seed hearkened me to my own Volga German roots — a nod to the notion that my ancestors could have had their say about this carmine stew and inflected it with hints of the Vaterland, had they not so segregated themselves from Russian influences.


Many recipes I’ve seen call for everything to be boiled separately and then combined toward the end, but this is an inane waste of resources and dish-washing, and doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. Rather, I cut my beets into 1/8″ brunoise to expose maximum surface area (without having to shred them, which I feel subverts their wonderfully dense, rooty texture) and rinsed twice before adding to the simmering beef stock (homemade, of course; with sautéd mirepoi, bay and minced red bell pepper). This removed some of the betacyanins (though obviously, the soup remains the telltale maroon). I did cook the beans separately to avoid toughening them in the salt and acidity of the seasoned, tomato-enriched broth (pressure cooking unsoaked beans for 35 minutes was accomplished while things simmered).

Besides, simmering everything together allows every earth-note to root and meld, and imparts a one-pot simplicity to the soup that is much better aligned with the way your beloved old Baba would’ve done it, if you had one. Eating this with smetana, dill and freshly baked sourdough bread took me back to a special place that doesn’t even really exist — a fabricated memory— though I nonetheless imagined shedding a nostalgic tear and drinking icy vodka to my health.

For a complete recipe and the story of how I came to first learn about borscht at the age of 11, please read my piece Red Threat at The Farmer General.