Sunday, June 28, 2009

Any Given Sunday Breakfast

I love breakfast.

I don't know exactly when I decided breakfast was a good-every-morning idea; for years, breaking my fast meant one of two things: A) coffee, period. Or B) corned beef hash and poached eggs, home fries, rye toast, and a hangover, all enjoyed in the comfort of my favorite diner.

Somewhere along the line I realized that breakfast could be knocked out at home in very short order, and it was almost always worth the effort. Don't get me wrong. I don't cook breakfast every morning (unless you count toast as cooking). Weekdays it's usually Greek yogurt with some fruit and a bit of cereal for crunch, or maybe an English muffin with peanut butter and a handful of grapes or berries.

On weekends, we enjoy something a little more substantial, often some sort of omelette or scrambled eggs topped with something or other, determined by what's in the fridge. Generally speaking, if you have a bit of cheese and a bit of meat or veggie (or both) you're good to go.

This morning I did scrambled eggs topped with chopped fresh basil and goat cheese. On the side I served grilled Italian sausage, sliced heirloom tomatoes, a sourdough English muffin (me) and corn tortillas (the Man). I also chopped up a fresh orange, tossed it with sliced strawberries, and drizzled it all with cinnamon honey.

Breakfast Sanity Check:

Breakfast becomes cumbersome when you're trying to do 47 things simultaneously in a desperate effort to have everything ready at the same time.

Don't do that. Instead, think it through before you start:
  1. Fruit? Yeah, you can do that first and let it sit on the counter.
  2. Prep the stuff you'll need. (In this case, slice the basil, crumble the goat cheese. Put it aside on a paper towel.)
  3. What on your menu will "hold"? That is, what will be better after it sits a bit? Or at least won't get gross? In this case, it's the the sausage. Indeed, most meat can sit under an aluminum foil tent for 5 - 15 minutes and be just fine, often getting juicer in the process. Yay!
  4. Conscription is good. Who else can you rope into helping? Grab your partner or child or other innocent bystander and have them do something simple like nuking tortillas or making toast.
  5. What needs attention and cooks quickly? A-ha. The eggs. Save them for last.
Now that you have a battle plan, you can be chill while you pull everything together. In most cases, breakfast will take about 15 or 20 minutes to prep and cook. Not bad! And you don't even have to get out of your pajamas. Try that at the diner.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

When Salads Go Bad

Bad salads. They give good salads a bad name. They turn children against vegetables, often for decades. They bring hungry women to tears. They make strong men turn to deep-fried bacon-wrapped cheese-sauced triple-beef burgers on garlic toast. With extra butter. Bad salads ruin lives.

A few candidates for Worst Salad Ever:
  • The Jersey Diner Salad. Flabby lettuce, a mealy pink tomato slice, a single, limp carrot curl, three fancy-sliced radishes, and a half gallon of neon orange dressing.
  • The Ubiquitous 80s Caesar. Remember when this awful pretender first emerged in the 1980s? Its ghastly omnipresence still lingers today. And don't get me started on Caesar spelled Ceasar.
  • Anything on a Field of Anything. X on Field of Baby Greens. Y on a Field of Arugula. Z on a Field of Organic Spinach. I got your Field right here.
  • Salad bars that, as the Man so eloquently describes, "smell like a three-day-old bag of lawn clippings on a hot day."
  • ABC Salads with No Discernible ABC. Nothing says "@#*&%!!" like dropping $15 on lunch and getting a steak salad that consists of a bale of romaine and a chiffon-sheer hint of beef that tips the scales at a slender 22 grams, max. I'm lookin' at you, Mixt Greens.
  • Salads served on a pipin' hot plate, fresh from the dishwasher's Sanitize Cycle.
But the worst salad I've ever encountered, EVER, was on the menu virtually every day at my junior high school. It consisted of iceberg lettuce, apparently marinated for several hours in a mixture of 10 parts motor oil, 1 part white vinegar, and 5 parts salt. It was slopped into - er, served on - on a little paper plate thingie that looked sort of like an inverted coffee filter that had been trimmed down to create a short bowl. Sadly, the plate lacked the absorbency of a coffee filter, so the salad sloshed helplessly from side to side like a kelp bed on an oil slick.

Have you had an awful salad? Tell me!

Meanwhile, guidelines for a good salad:
  • Clean, dark, leafy greens - or a mix of green and red
  • Good tomatoes, or no tomatoes
  • Radishes, or cukes, or something with crunch
  • A sprinkle of crumbled cheese (gorgonzola, feta, something with a kick)
  • Olives (mmmm, calamatas)
  • Nuts (dry roasted almonds, or toasted pignolis)
  • Just a drizzle of dressing - whisk together olive oil, vinegar (or lemon juice) salt and pepper. You'll need a tablespoonful or less per two cups of salad.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Lousy Monday? Try Lobster.

It's tough to stay in a bad mood when you come home from work and get a face full of martinis, followed by grilled lobster.

Martinis have a bad rap as a daunting cocktail to prepare and serve. As a former bartender, let me assure you it doesn't have to be that way. I keep a pair of martini glasses in the freezer, along with a bottle of gin and and a bottle of vodka. I also keep a bottle of vermouth and jar of queen olives in the fridge. When it's martini time, I pull out the glasses and drop in an olive (or three). I use the cap of the vermouth bottle as a measure: half a capful into each glass. Top it with the vodka (me) or gin (the Man). Presto: Martinis in under three minutes, no shaker required.

Now, about dinner.

Lobster tails are quick and easy on the grill (and extra-tasty when they're on sale for $7.99 each). Preheat the grill to high for about 10 minutes. While it heats up, use a pair of kitchen shears (or whatever crappy scissors are handy) to cut away the membrane on the underside of the tail. Drizzle the exposed meat with a little olive oil. Poke a skewer lengthwise through the tail to keep it from curling up as it cooks.

At this point, pull together your side: yellow tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil (one of my summer standards). Top a slice of tomato with a chunk of mozz wrapped in basil. Drizzle with a little olive oil and a teeny-tiny bit of balsamic vinegar. Grind a little salt and pepper over the top. Serve with chunks of Italian bread, or in a pinch (as in tonight) a handful of quality crackers. One of my pantry staples is Trader Joe's Pita Bite Crackers -- highly recommended.

Back to the lobster. Lay the tails on the grill, shell-side down, for about 4 minutes. Turn them over and grill for another 3 - 4 minutes. (This is assuming the tails are about 5-6 ounces. Adjust your time if you have much larger or smaller tails.) Pull the tails off the grill, tent with foil, and let them stand for 2 or 3 minutes. Plate with a pot of melted butter, or sliced lemon, or both.

Happy Monday!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dads Will Grill Anything

Happy Father's Day!

In honor of Dads who grill anything, anywhere, anytime, a short post. I cranked up the grill this morning at 9:00. Daring!

I grilled some polenta (which did not look anywhere as nice as the photo to the left) and served it alongside an omelette stuffed with last night's grilled peppers, onions, and Italian sausage. Fresh pineapple and coffee to finish.

Grilling polenta is easy but takes much longer over the heat than you would think. Cut precooked polenta (the kind that comes in a tube) into 1/2" thick slices. Brush them lightly with olive oil and season with garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Cook over a high grill for a ridiculously long time - about ten minutes each side.

My work here is done.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Breakfast of Champignons

Saturday morning breakfast requirements: can be executed while still partially asleep; goes well with coffee; doesn't require anything exotic; quick clean-up. Ergo, scrambled eggs on toasted baguette with mushrooms, bacon, and cheddar.
  • Cooking spray (olive oil version, if you have it)
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 cup egg whites-in-a-carton (or four eggs, whipped with a whisk)
  • 2 cups mushrooms, sliced or roughly chopped
  • 1 ounce (about 1/4 cup) grated cheddar
  • 4 slices turkey bacon (or regular, if you're a purist), chopped into 1/4 pieces
  • 2, 6" lengths of baguette, cut in half lengthwise (or whatever bread you have laying around the house)
Note: This sounds vastly more complicated than it is. The whole process, including prep, should take maybe 15 minutes, less if you can press an assistant into service. Good luck with that if your assistant is a teenage boy and you want to serve breakfast before 2pm.

Okay. Preheat the broiler so it cranks up while you cook the eggs and whatnot.

Coat the pan with cooking spray and crank it up to high heat. Throw in the chopped bacon, and fry it until it's nice and crisp, stirring occasionally so it cooks evenly. Scoop it out of the pan and set it aside on a plate. (If you use regular bacon, drain it on a paper towel.)

Lightly wipe out the pan with a paper towel. Re-spray with the cooking spray, dial the heat down to medium, and saute the mushrooms until they're browned in spots and thoroughly cooked (about 5 - 7 minutes). Scoop those out of the pan and let them sit on the plate with the bacon.

Wipe out the pan again, and drop the butter in to melt over medium heat. Pour in the eggs and move them around with a wooden spoon until they firm up. Turn the heat off and ignore them while you do the bread.

Lightly spray (or drizzle) the bread with olive oil. Put the slices on a piece of aluminum foil and toast them under the broiler for maybe 30 seconds (watch carefully so you don't set off the smoke alarm, terrify the cats, piss off the neighbors, and fill the house with the delightful scent of burnt bread).

Pull the bread out of the broiler and top with the eggs and grated cheddar. Put it back under the broiler until the cheese starts to bubble. (Tip: if you want it to get some nice golden-brown bits on top, sprinkle a few grains of dry grated Parmesan on top of the cheddar before you broil it.)

When the cheese is hot and bubbly, take the bread/egg/cheese thingies out of the broiler and put them on two plates. Top with the bacon and mushrooms.

Chow down!

Friday, June 19, 2009

At the other extreme, Costco.

If Jean-Paul Sartre were alive and writing today, the room in No Exit would be Costco. Everyone who works there is dead-eyed and listless. "Delicious pizza here," one food-sample-lady groans. "Try some yogurt today?" another pleads despondently. Employees with forklifts lumber after customers like angry elephants in pursuit of ivory poachers. Cashiers radiate resentful disdain. Receipt checkers eye departing shoppers like human traffickers. I'm pretty sure cheerfulness is a firing offense at Costco.

Yet once a month or so I visit Costco to buy coffee. You can get three pounds of excellent, organic, fair trade beans for about 12 bucks. (This as compared to say, Whole Foods, where you might get half a pound of the same for 12 bucks, not including the cost of therapy required to recover your self-esteem after parking your sensibly-priced car in a lot teeming with German engineering.)

Beyond coffee, I have a short list of staples that I pick up at Costco: olive oil, frozen fish, biscotti, Progresso soups, lunch meat for the Man (I mean really - where else can you get 2 1/2 pounds of turkey breast for $8?), and unsalted peanuts (for squirrels. We all know humans should never eat unsalted nuts). And that's it. I'm kind of a kook about comparison shopping (!) and I find that most of the stuff you can get at Costco you can get cheaper at Target or Walgreens or Trader Joe's or even Safeway or Lucky if you see it on sale. And given that my household consists of me, the Man, and the Boy, we've never really needed 100 pounds of rice. Or twelve, 1.5 liter jugs of one-off vodka. The Boy is not of drinking age, after all.

Those few staples pay off nicely. Here's a simple lunch or light dinner that tastes great, takes about 5 minutes to pull together, and comes in under 400 calories. Lots of iron and vitamin C, a decent helping of protein, and even some calcium. All ingredients available at Costco, god help me.

1 can Progresso Chicken Noodle Soup
2 or 3 handfuls of baby spinach (from a bag)
5 or 6 cherry tomatoes, halved
1 ounce grated sharp cheddar

Throw the tomatoes and spinach in a 2-quart saucepan. Pour the soup over the top. Crank the heat up to high and let it cook, stirring and pushing the spinach into the broth until the spinach has wilted and turned bright green (about 3 - 4 minutes). Pour the soup into a bowl and top it with the grated cheddar and a grind or two of black pepper. Put a handful of pita chips or crackers on the side for crunch. This will serve two people with light appetites (about 200 calories each) or one person who just got home from the gym and is freaking starving (400 calories).

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Mystery Spinach

Thursdays are great for me. I have a ukulele class in the morning, and then I roll right down to the Daly City farmers' market. I love this market because it's not in San Francisco, which means everything is cheaper, and there's less chance of being elbowed out of the way for the best basket of mushrooms. The market is held in the Serramonte Mall parking lot, which is a little surreal. I'm sure half the people in the mall have no idea why there are tents set up outside.

Today's market was good: three full rows of vendors with everything from duck sausage to purple yams. The oyster dudes were there, and the fish lady, and chicken guy A (raw) shooting stink eye at chicken guy B (rotisserie). And, of course, all manner of folks with produce and flowers and breads and honey and olives and so on.

Today's haul:
  • Navel oranges (for years I thought this was "naval" as in, anti-scurvy)
  • White nectarines
  • "Ugly" shiitakes - $3 instead of $8 since they're not pretty
  • Cherries, Bing and Rainier
  • Radishes (for salad), onions (for grilling), and yams (for oven fries)
  • Peppers (red, green, yellow, and Poblano)
  • A gorgeous baguette from the grumpy French baker at Brioche. His un-sunny disposition is nicely offset by his amazing bread and croissant.
  • Mystery Leafy Green Vegetable, possibly Indian or Chinese Spinach
So yeah. About this spinach-y thing. It's a lovely variegated dark green and purple, and the leaves do indeed look a lot like spinach. (I'm modeling it in the photo, clutching it to my chest like Miss California with her roses before she got canned by The Donald.)

The guy I bought it from didn't speak English, so he couldn't tell me what it was called. But one of my fellow shoppers said she thought it was called Indian Spinach. Another said, "No, no, no. Chinese!" A third looked dismayed: "This isn't basil? [expletive!] NOW what do I do with it?"

I assumed it was a rhetorical question, so I didn't offer any advice. But what I'm going to do with it is heat some olive oil in a wok, saute five cloves of garlic, toss in the whatever-it-is-spinach with a splash of chicken broth, and let it steam down for three minutes. Then toss it with the olive oil and garlic in the bottom of the wok. Give it a quick grind of sea salt and see how it is.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hooray, Food!

And hooray for my inaugural Eaterrific post. Oh, boy!

I've been issuing food updates to my long-suffering Facebook friends and Twitter followers for a few months now, to the point where people think I do nothing at all except cook, eat, and cruise farmers' markets looking for loose produce.

I really do have a life beyond food: a fab spouse, a darling stepson, a ukulele, three cats, and a writing career. More on this in future posts. For now, since Eaterrific's raison d'ĂȘtre is food, let's get on with it.

The thing is, I really, really love food. And as luck would have it, I'm a pretty good cook. This is due largely to my Dad, who taught me many things about cooking, and my Mum, who taught me many things about eating (such as: what, how much, and when - not to mention which utensil).

I've always been comfortable chucking stuff into a pot and seeing what happens, but over the last two years my husband and I have - dramatic pause - Turned Over a New Leaf. A common affliction in one's 40s, I believe. So these days I still chuck stuff into a pot and see what happens, but it's a better caliber of stuff (same pot, though). This is not to say that I'm a card-carrying Whole Foods Ho - far from it. I'm more of a Trader Joe's Tramp, if it comes to that. But I do believe in eating healthy stuff that tastes terrific.

And I don't think cooking healthy stuff that tastes terrific should be a huge pain in the ass. Rather, it should mainly be quick and easy and not involve a billion pots and pans and food processors and gadgets and steps and taking crap in and out of goddamn ovens and brown this and chill that and blah blah blah until you want to retire weeping in a corner dreaming of cocktails and fried chicken that someone else made.

Sure there are times when it's fun to make some over the top extravaganza, but that is definitely the exception, not the rule. What you'll see here - usually - will be what I found at the market and what I threw together for dinner, along with an ingredient list and a recipe. And I'll talk about ways to simplify cooking at home, and get great results.

I'll get on it tomorrow... right after the farmers' market.