I've been a bit stuck with my writing for the last, oh, couple of years - for reasons I'll get into in another post (real soon) - but in the meantime, my creativity has found other outlets, primarily cooking.
So I've decided to include the occasional food post here
A few notes about the way I cook...I improvise a lot. I take risks. I experiment. I play. When I tell you I can't give you a recipe, it's true. Not only do I rarely know how much I used of any ingredient, I often don't remember every ingredient I used. When I want to try a new dish, I research and find about a dozen recipes. I see what they have in common, and what items and amounts vary - and go from there. I also have enough experience to have a very good idea of how certain flavors will play together, or how changing the amounts of ingredients will effect the texture.
Recently I did a brisket, slow cooked for about 18 hours. Yes, that's right, 18 hours. Brisket is tricky - and the only way to really get it tender is to use a whole one (around 10-12 pounds), with the fat cap on (yes, that's just what it sounds like - a good inch or more of fat on the top of the whole thing) and cook it as slowly as you can manage while keeping it as moist as possible (the fat cap helps with this.) I made a rub that I liked, and thankfully have some left over so I'll use it again: salt, black pepper, smoked hot paprika, sweet paprika, dry mustard, cumin, cinnamon (and maybe some other things I've forgotten).
But the thing I was most happy with was the sauce. It was a Dr. Pepper Citrus BBQ. Where I got that notion, I'm not sure. I saw a recipe for a mop sauce (that is, a thin BBQ sauce you mop onto the meat while it cooks) that used root beer, and Dr. Pepper just has a little more complex flavor - so I thought I'd try it. I added the juice of a couple of oranges, some of the dry rub seasoning, a fair amount of liquid smoke (pecan), a little cider vinegar, a little ketchup, and some honey. I simmered it, letting it cook down a bit - and when it was time to baste, I took some of the drippings out of the pan and mixed them into the sauce before using it to baste. The resulting sauce was complex, a little smoky, a little tangy (without being too vinegary - which shuts down the taste buds), a little sweet (but not cloying.) I have no idea if I can repeat that sauce, but I'll definitely play with it again. I'd like to try a thicker version with more citrus on some chicken.
Last night my sister and I shared a Lamb and Apricot tagine. I made something similar a couple of months ago, using dried apricots. This time I used fresh, and you'd never even realize they were the same dish. I used lamb neck this time, too, which is much leaner (and way cheaper) than the shanks I used last time, so the flavor was more mild, not as gamey. If you're going to stew the meat, then a cut like neck is fine - the meat falls off the bone, is tender, the marrow contributes to the dish, and if you have dogs they will appreciate it.
I'd started the tagine over a week ago - because I'd picked up the lamb, not realizing how long the brisket would last us - and had it in a container in the fridge. I wasn't sure if it'd still be good, but when I pried open the top and got a bright whiff of fresh apricot - I knew it was all good. (A cold fridge and air-tight container makes a huge difference.)
For those who aren't familiar with the term: a tagine is a stew, traditionally cooked in a ceramic pot with a high conical top. the word actually describes the vessel, but is applied to the dishes made in it as well. It's designed to cook on a low fire, and works best in a modern kitchen on a stove top. The high cone captures the moisture, allows it to condensate, and drip back into the food. Moroccan tagines are generally made with a cheap cut of meat (often lamb or chicken), a few veggies, some fruit and maybe honey - plus a complex blend of spices.
I'm in love with the Moroccan spice blend Ras el Hanout. Like curry, there are as many variations as there are cooks - and some of the ingredients often used in Morocco are illegal here (like Spanish Fly) - but it's still a wonderous thing. The one I bought from World Market includes not only "warm" aromatic spices like cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, black pepper and ginger, but rosebuds and lavender. My mother used to refer to cooking as alchemy, and all I need to do open the container and smell this in order to believe there's some kind of magic here.
So - this tagine, I threw together the following: lamb neck, ras el hanout, salt, the juice of a lemon plus the rind, a little honey, red wine, a couple handfuls of baby carrots, and a can of diced tomatoes. I used some mint I'd grown, but I have no talent for gardening and the mint somehow managed to have almost no flavor - so it had no noticeable impact in the dish. (Last time I made the tagine, with dried apricots and lamb shank, the mint played beautifully off of the tomatoes.) When it was all done, I felt like it still needed something - so when I re-heated it last night, I added garbanzos and more ras el hanout and red wine.
This dish was a real joy. The brightness of the apricots and tomatoes balanced the heaviness of the lamb, and the spices wafted off of it, filling the room with the smell.
Good food, especially when I am involved in it from conception, to production, to consumption, to be transported to a realm of pure sensuality.
Right now, I've let my weight climb up alarmingly, and my sister's having health problems related to her weight and diet - so most of my posts on cooking will focus on healthy foods. Whole grains, small amounts of processed carbohydrates, lots of legumes and beans, lots of veggies and fruits, and lean meats of all kinds. I'll be using these posts as a way to keep myself excited about cooking healthy, and remembering that tea-smoked salmon with a wasabi vinaigrette can be as sensual and fulfilling as brisket burnt ends.