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The Condemned Woman's Last Meal...Well Sort of...

One of the favorite kitchen mind games, cooks and those who frequent cooking and eating forah play is "What would you eat for your last meal?" I invariably come up with a menu that includes grape tomatoes or other fancy tomatoes (not necessarily super ripe ones, just good ones) and bleu or gorgonzola cheese dressing, among other dishes. I'm not sure why I include this dish. it always crops up.

Planning a real life last meal is a different matter, and it did not include tomatoes. The heirloom tomatoes are not in yet, and it was a Shabbos meal which means the ingredients had to survive a week in the fridge and have good make-ahead cred. Also, I was not headed to Georgia's famous gurney in Jackson. In fact, I was a free woman heading for the poor house, not an inmate of the Death House. Still, I reasoned, this would be my last Shabbos before unemployment or hard times. I wanted to make it GOOD! Hence, it was time to pull out all the stops.

I knew what I wanted for a main dish, zipper pea salad made with either rice or pasta. I hadn't had rice salad in a cat's age, so that was what I would make and it would include jicama root and zante currents, and a fresh Anaheim chile. The last batch of English peas had had undeveloped peas in it. For the price of English peas, I expect perfection. Zipper peas are easy to shuck and also fine tasting, and I have yet to enjoy fresh field peas which are in themselves the food of the gods.

But it was the side dish of this Shabbos repast that would truely shine. I had seen the chioggia beets for sale in Your DeKalb Farmers Market for two weeks, and I knew if I wanted two dollar and change a pound beets (I have all ready goteen past the sticker shock on golden beets which I serve as an esteemed delicacy.) it was pretty much now or never, given my impending lay off.

Still, it would be a shame to enjoy this delicacy alone. In a fit of impulse I called my friend, Kim. My other friend with whom I might share food, hates beets. That is something I will never understand, since beets are a fine, sweet, colorful vegetable. Their tops are delicious, and their roots even better. They are never zero, and always hero in my kitchen.

I got Kim's answering machine and gave her a heads up and told her I would be glad to by an extra pound or so of chioggia beets and give her some either blanched or made into marinated sliced beets. Think of those wonderful stripes. I'm a sucker for stripes.

Kim did not call me back. She is, after all, the mother of a four year old. I went to the market. I looked forward to buying those chioggia beets. I pulled up to the amazing, root vegetable bins toward the back of the market, and picked up a chioggia beet, and it was soft. So were most of the others. The red beets were not that much better, but I could find some decently hard ones. They were also only .79 a pound, the same as carrots. Red beets (sold without tops) are a very reasonably priced vegetable. They, like all beets are also easy to prepare. Yes, your hands and the cutting board gets stained, but all that comes off with soap and water. Otherwise, the peel, cut, and grate, more easily than carrots.

It also turned out that Kim and her husband and daughter "don't eat beets." Such a shame, since I think they make a great side dish for a last meal. Now, that I've either got you psyched or disgusted (I don't understand it, but there are people out there who do not hold beets in supremely high esteem.), you want the recipe I made last night. OK, here it is.

Beet and Mango Salad

It has a few exotic ingredients. Beets sold without tops are an Atlanta delicacy and a big city delicacy. Most stores sell bunch beets. Don't use them for this recipe unless you have plans for the tops. Also, bunch beets are expensive, so you don't get enough beets for this recipe. There are recipes for bunch beets, but this is not one of them. This recipe is set up for the "just the root" beets that you buy by the pound.

The other exotic ingredient is McCormick's Lemon Pepper Perfect Pinch. You can get it in any supermarket with a decent spice department (They don't all have this) and it is good in many kinds of salads. My kitchen is set up for making deli salads so I keep the spices and pickled and dried foods on hand.Let's go with the recipe.

You will need...

3 lb red beets (See above. I promise a good bunch beet recipe soon.)
Water for blanching (Plenty and it will go down the sink when you are done.)
1 large mango (or two medium ones. Tommy's are fine. These do not have to be the fanciest mangoes, just ripe.)
1/3 of a jar of capers (Believe it or not this is NOT an exotic ingredient and you can use the rest in lots of other salads or dishes. They taste like very salty, little pickles)
1/4 - 1/3 of a jar of Marzetta rosemary and onion mild pepper rings (Yes, this is what I used. We have them in Atlanta. Some Krogers carry them. If you can't find these, any mild banana peppers will do.)
2 tblsp vegetable oil (You don't need olive oil. You have enough other seasonings.)
Salt to taste (a bit more than you think, but not a whole lot.)
McCormic Perfect Pinch Lemon Pepper to taste (Secret Ingredient)
A dollop of country style dijon mustard (or other spicey mustard)
Lemon juice to make four ounces (Your grandma used this in salads or should have.)

Peel the beets. Use a carrot peeler. Cut off the gross ends and cut out any gross spots. Beets bleed, but this cleans up with soap and water. Cut the beets into small pieces. Put the pieces in a big bowl or other keeping container.

Heat a great big pot of water on the stove. You need plenty of water, a very big pot. Beets need to be blanched so they can absorb the dressing. Blanching is easy and nearly fool proof. You can do it ahead of time, and it only requires your attention for about ten minutes, start to finish. If you make a mistake, your vegetables will either be slightly raw (not bad for most vegetables) or lightly cooked (not bad either.) This is why it is fool proof.

There are fancy ways to blanch involving ice baths, but none of that is really necessary. You still have a good product even if you don't do this perfectly. To blanch vegetables, make sure your kitch sink is empty. You are going to have to have a place to put freshly blanched vegetables. Also make sure your kitchen drain is working and not set to shut.

Heat the water to a fierce and crazy boil. Dump the beets in the boiling water and make sure it is boiling again (Lots of steam, a glowing red burner on an electric stove). Put the cover on the blanch pot. Now put a colander in the sink. Beets take four to five minutes to blanch. Wait it out. Do not leave the kitchen. At the four or five minute mark, turn off the burner, put on pot holders or oven mits, and open the blanch pot. Carry the still steaming pot to the sink, and dump the vegetables into a waiting colander. You can hose them with cold water if your sink has a hose. When they are not quite so hot, put the colander on to a small bowl, and remove it from the sink. You can cool blanched vegetables on the table top but in the fridge is better (faster). This is not really to stop the cooking which more or less stops by itself (Yes the vegetables do cook a bit more in the colander, but so what.) but to make the vegetables cool enough for you to comfortably handle. Getting burned by steaming hot beets is not fun!

Some people wash out the blanch pot while the beets or other vegetables cool. This is a very good idea for obvious reasons.

Now score and peel your mango over a plate. You can scrape the flesh off the peel with your teeth if you like. It is very sweet. Mangoes ripen from the outside in for some reason. Mangoes also bleed which is why you use a plate to catch the juice. It's going in the salad. Cut the mango away from its seed. The flesh that can't come off the seed is another cook's treat. Cut up the mango flesh and put the chunks of mango and all the juice that dripped on to the plate in a big bowl.

Put the mangoes and banana peppers into the same big bowl. Add the cooled (somewhat), blanched beet pieces.

Add salt and Perfect Pinch to a graduated measuring cup. Add the mustard and lemon juice. Stir. Taste. Adjust seasonings. Add 2 tblsp of oil. Stir. Dress and toss your salad and put it away. This one definitely tastes better if it stands overnight.

Notes: You can substitute or supplement beets with carrots or cauliflower. All of these go in the blanch pot and they all will turn pink if you use red beets. So it goes. Yellow (golden) beets are another possible substitute, but they are three times the price of their red cousins, and are sometimes sold as bunch beets (see above). As a practical matter, golden beets end up in different sort of dishes, often paired with carrots, rutabega, or chayotes. in Atlanta golden beets almost never come with tops.

Eileen H. Kramer -- June 21, 2012

Not a Disaster at All!

Sunday night I wanted soup. I had soaked kidney beans, and they were cooking. I had located a can of tomato puree. I had bought string beans and celery root. I was going to make my own, grownup, deluxe version of vegetarian vegetable soup and serve it over pasta, but not just any pasta, orichettes, also called ears or hats. These are chewy morsels that have the flavor and texture of gnocchi, potato and flour dumplings that are never kosher. One day when I have a ton of time on my hands, I will learn to make gnocchi, but my record with dumplings is a total misadventure. My dumplings are chemical weapons. Orichettes are half way to dumpling hoood, and that is good enough for me.

Well I hated the water for the pasta and dumped in the whole box!. The box was sixteen ounces. I always make pasta in eight ounce (four serving) batches. What was I going to do with eight servings? One of the reasons I have been able to lose weight is that I can eat pasta. One of the reasons I continue to enjoy pasta is strict portion control. What was I going to do with all that extra pasta?

My mind raced. I thought of freezing it, but that was a waste of some very good orichettes. It might ruin their texture, and any oen who cooks their pasta in a separate pan from their soup, wants a nice texture. Then it hit. I was short of bread so why not take some sort of pasta salad for lunch? There was just one problem. I needed both protein and vegetables for a main dish pasta salad, and like Dave Ramsay's budget, my kitchen runs on a kind of zero based system. Every item purchased has a name and distination. Put another way, there was no lunch entree planned, and to make one on the fly meant stealing from other entrees and side dishes. Fortunately, I horde food, and I'm willing to be creative.

There were plenty of pickles and olives, so no pasta salad of mine would be all macaroni. The protein was also not hard. There was a fairly full jar of Kroger Honey Flavor peanut butter on my table. Well, peanut butter dressing exists. Check any peanut butter manufacturer's web site for recipes and you will see it. Mine is a minder version. OK, you want to see the recipe. This may sound weird, but it came out positively fantastic. In a few weeks, I may duplicate this for a Shabbos entree. Why not? It was that good.

Peanut Butter, Pickle, and Olive Pasta Salad

This salad does not have any fresh ingredients. Feel free to substitue fresh bell peppers or mild chilis for some or all of the canned pickes. You can also substitue raisins or craisins for the zante currents, and you can include grated or blanched carrot. Radishes would work well too and you can use black olives instead of green ones. And of course you can substitue another chewy pasta shape for orichettes since they are not easy to get. If you are not using honey flavored peanut butter, you may want to go a bit easy on the salt. There is hidden salt in this recipe, and some sugar. The taste is sweet and sour.

The two really exotic ingredients that don't have substitues are raw cider vinegar and Spike Seasoning. Regular cider vinegar does not taste as good. You can get raw cider vinegar in any health food store. I use it a lot as a souring agent for salads. I have a kitchen that is set up to make deli salads. Spike Seasoning is a mixture of roasted brewer's yeast and spices. You can buy it in any health food store. It is addictive. It adds an umami, savory meaty flavor, to dishes. OK, let's go...

You will need...

8 oz cooked orichettes (or other chewy pasta shape)
One third of a jar of Mount Olive Sweet Salad Peppers (You can substitute other sweet pickles and supplement with regular roasted pappers which is what I did.)
1 can Lindsay Natural Green Olives (You can substitue regular black olives or Lindsay Natural Ripe Olives. Spanish olives are probably too salty.)
3 fist fulls of zante currants (In the orange box. You can substitue raisins or other chopped dried fruit)

2 Tblsp honey flavored peanut butter (Or regular...You may need to add more sweet ingredients if you are using a less sweet product)
A tiny amount of oil (This is to help get the peanut butter off the measuring spoon)
Salt to taste (You do need some but not a lot)
Ginger powder to taste (Secret Ingredient do not substitute)
Spike Seasoning to taste (Secret Ingredient do not substitute)
Raw cider vinegar (No substitutes) to make 4oz of dressing

Combine the cooked pasta with the pickles, olives, and currants in a large bowl or other container.

Coat table spoon size measuring spoon with oil. Measure out two table spoons of peanut butter into a graduated measuring cup. Add salt, ginger powder, and Spike. Whip with a fork to make it lighter and easier to stir. Taste a tiny bit. Adjust seasonings. Add enough raw cider vinegar to make four ounces of dressing. Stir. Taste. Adjust seasonings again.

Dress and toss the salad. Yield: four moderate servings. I've been eating this for lunch and it is fantastic. I just had to share.

Eileen H. Kramer -- June 14, 2012

Hoarding Confessions

This article floats without context, and I'm not fixing it. There's a hole in this entire blog, and I guess it's going to follow me into this section too. I can't say why I'm stressed, but when I'm stressed, I hoard food. I probably also impulse buy, but I can rationalize that. I can even rationalize the hoarding. My pantry looked kind of empty. I had a good reason to stock up, but when I saw all those bottles and cans of goodies lined up on the check out counter in Kroger last night, I knew what was going on.

I never knew it was weird. I thought every one with sense stocked up. I was sure they did this when the traveled, and then.... one day I walked into work and said proudly: "I have food for the trip!" I had just taken the bus down from Sangertown, and had shopped in Slop 'n Save (now called Hannafords. It was never really Slop 'n Save. It was Shop 'n Save, but you know what happens to names. Oh really everyone doesn't do it?. Come on!) and walked over the bridge to work and...I proudly showed off my load. I was going to Danville Illinois with the boyfriend the next day. The boyfriend is now an ex but no matter.

My colleagues boggled at my load of rye vita, dried fruit, nuts, and other goodies. I learned that everyone did not stock up for a trip. I reasoned we could get late. There could be no restaurants. Everyone does not stock up for trips. They do not display their hoards in hotel rooms and offer selected parts of them to roommates and visitors. They do not put a huge wicker picnick basket, a curbside refugee, on the back seat of boyfriend's car and announce the need for a supermarket stop to refill the basket because it must NEVER be empty. They do not feel pangs of disappointment when boyfriend must have restaurant food even when the hoard is for both of us. They just don't.

Yet there I was Sunday afternoon riding home with the backpack full of pickles, olives, canned fruit, oil, and catfood. I needed the oil and cat food in the conventional sense, and my pantry just looked so empty. It must never be empty. Trust me on this. It is much better knowing it is full and thinking of all the great dishes I'll make with the hoard. I do eat my hoard. You have to use up th e hoard, so youc an hoard more! What fun is a hoard if you can't replace it in a half way rational way!

Here is where it gets crazy though. I brought home the food. I had a splitting headache. I had been shopping twice, once in the mornign and then to Kroger and Whole Foods. I let the pack off my shoulders. I put down the cloth, shopping bag. I fed the cats. I was beat. Nothing in the bags was perishable. I later removed the windbreaker that I had stuffed in the top of my backpack because the expected rain looked iminent. Other than that, the pack and the shopping bag are still on the couch. I'll unpack them either tonight or tomorrow or whenever I need the backpack again. It doesn't matter that the pantry is empty now. I can fill it.

I don't need anything I bought immediately. Oh I'll need it soon enough, probably tonight for the oil and maybe the olives stuffed with garlic. Yes, I bought olives stuffed with garlic and rosemary and garlic peppers. I thought that all Kroger had quit carrying them, but it's just the crazy Kroger on North Decatur. The Kroger I visited was on Ponce, and I'll use some of the spices tonight, I think, but a pantry is not for immediate consumpation, and neither is a proper hoard.

The pantry is insurance against a snow storm, illness, working late, an ATM being broken, you name it. It's good to open it and know there is stuff that belongs there or know it is full. It is good to think about all the good things in the pantry, mostly roast peppers, canned fruit, and yes cans of Lindsay Natural olives.

If there were ever a real catastrophe, I'd be living on pickles. I even bought pickles before a big snow storm a couple of winters ago, but I did buy kitchen matches too. I wanted pepper hash or well made macaroni salad, and I feared a blackout. I also thought I was in good company. The person ahead of me in line was buying a prepared deli sandwich. I figured he was crazier than I am, but it is just as crazy to stock up on pickles before a storm as it is to buy a sandwich. It was late in the afternoon, getting dark, and this was a very urban Publix. My guess was the sandwich was the gentleman's dinner to eat before the snow, and my macaroni salad or slaw or sardine panazella, was mine to make before the power cut out. Each to their own. I saw no one stocking up on hard core nonperishables. I guess a lot of people are stuck eating pickles or candy should a crisis hit. Let's hope no real crisis hits or we'll all see the folly of our hoards, and I'll put mine away in the pantry soon. I promise.

Eileen H. Kramer -- June 4, 2012

Four Apricots and Twenty Ounces of English Peas

Actually, I think it was a pound and a half of English peas. I remembered all the waste and the small yield with my usual eighteen ounces of butter peas two weeks ago and said: "Fine for a bean and macaroni salad, more English peas are better." \

Wednesday night I shucked the peas. There were plenty, and nearly every pod was full. They were worth the $1.99 a pound I paid for them to the Pea Mafia. Actually, it's the legume mafia. They are the ones who make sure that wax beans and Chinese yard long beans are extra expensive even when they are just as easy to grow as regular snap beans. The same is true for nearly all field peas. Go figure.

Fresh shelly beans and peas though are the sirloin steak or fliet mignon of the vegetable world. The English peas (big peas are English peas south of the Mason Dixon line.) were plump and heavy. Nearly every pod was full of well developed peas. This was quite different than the butter peas where about a third of them were not developed. Either the bees got to the peas or they self pollinate. Colony Collapse Disorder is repsonsible for a lot of half pollinated bean pods.

In five minutes I had the English peas blanched. They were the last ingreditent for green pea and macaroni salad which I made with a big bunch of Chinese celery, bread and butter pickles, blanched carrots, and scallion tops. The time has clearly come for summer food.

Besides English peas, apricots and papayas are the other harbinger of late spring/early summer. Apricost usually come from California. They are not as sweet as ripe peaches, though they are sweet enough. They are not as sweet as dried apricots or apricot preserves, but they don't have extra added or concentrated sugar, and they are sweet enough with their own taste, a good stone fruit taste. They are also dry fleshed. Even when ripe, they are not gooey, and they have taste. I think of them as a comfort food, and I'll pay the going price for as long as they are around.

Eileen H. Kramer -- June 1, 2012