Monday, July 22, 2013

Picture Perfect?

“It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.”  
                            - MFK Fischer, from The Art of Eating.

Ms. Fischer's prose is beautiful and wise, but rather than comment further on such a fitting introduction, today we'll allow the photo to triumph over the written word. 

Grilled Prawns

Mussels in Chile, Feta and Wine

Tomato and Onion Salad with House Viniagrette and Anchovies 

This picture is a recipe. There's a grilled prawn - (olive oil, salt, pepper.) There's a sliced heirloom tomato, an anchovy, parsley, and vinaigrette. (Oil, garlic, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar.) 

I will, however, wordily explain the mussels: There were five pounds of them, brought by our two esteemed Sunday Dinner guests. After they were debearded I started the broth base -  eyeing the heaping pile of shellfish and estimating how many ingredients I'd need to start simmering in a gigantic skillet. I probably sautéed 6 cloves of garlic, 1/4 cup chopped onion, 1/4 cup chopped tomato, 2 diced up, roasted poblano chiles, a few threads of saffron, and lots of fresh oregano. You can't have too many fresh herbs. After those flavors started melting into each other, I made sure the heat was high and splashed white wine in the pan. It evaporates: you can keep adding more to reduce and intensify the flavor. I poured in a final 1/4 cup, and in went the mussels, covered with a lid and heat turned up to high. It took about 8 minutes for all of them to open up and cook. I started transferring the fully opened mussels to a bowl, until there were no more in the skillet. 3/4 cup of feta was crumbled into the broth and whisked around, simmering until half melted. The whole pan of broth was then dumped into the bowl of mussels. My advice - add salt to your broth base very sparingly. Because the feta and the mussels have salt, I might advise waiting to add salt until tasting the final product. (In other words, don't be like me and accidentally over-salt.) Serve with grilled or toasted bread. 

Our esteemed guests were Doug and Cassandra, a delightful Canadian couple with fun filled and wacky senses of humor. Doug is a professional photographer. He breezed through four headshots in the half-hour leading up to dinner, and one family portrait in the 15 minutes after dessert. 

In which we are all portrayed as perfect models of refinement, and do not smile too widely. 

Now wait - just when you're starting to despair that Sunday Dinner is a cloyingly idyllic food fest of love, rainbows, and pretty pictures...stop. All is not as it seems. The mussels might be so overly salty, you'd find them inedible. The conversation may wax romantic, but just as often turns sensational, ugly, or inappropriate. 

Doug's Story: A cautionary tale of embarrassment and survival

"One fateful day in 1989, Doug found himself in tropical paradise to photograph a swimsuit spread. That's the life, 500 swimsuits to choose from...until the poor model tripped on a rock while frollicking across the beach and ripped her toenail out. So, Doug put on a tank top, gym shorts and neon green rubber Crocs and headed to the golf course, where they barely let him in, being thus attired. He started drinking at each beerhut between holes, and found himself a little rubberlegged by the 9th. By the 14th, he asked the caddie to play for him, while he drank more beer. At this point he was extremely sunburned, and had given away his RayBans as a tip for the caddie. He stumbled back to the resort, where he drank some more and fell into the pool. His whole body was still aflame with sunburn, though, so he frantically ran out into the ocean, where he trampled on a bed of sea urchins, which lodged 21 spikes in his feet. Of course, he didn't feel anything until the morning, when his feet were the size of beach balls. At the hospital, they admonished that if only he had peed on his feet, the damage wouldn't have been nearly as horrific. He finished the photoshoot hungover, blistered red, and barely able to stand. For six months he walked as if he was stepping on broken glass, until the 21 urchin spikes hit against his footbones and finally dissolved."

"Ah, yes," we all nodded: "there come times in life when it's necessary to pee on one's feet."

Hello, 1989! All in all, a successful shoot. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Pork Ribs and Pasta

Normally, my mother Linda is in the habit of sketching out Sunday Dinner somewhat in advance. There may be meat pulled from the freezer, open cookbooks laid out, or a telltale shopping list. This particular Sunday, though, all four McElroy's felt a light and lazy ennui in the air. The future was uncertain. The afternoon was fading away with no dinner prospects in evidence when all of the sudden - the smell of stewing bell peppers whispered from the kitchen. It was an almost wintery aroma that soon mingled with steamy pasta cooking water. Was Linda making starchy Italian comfort food on such a light summer day? This was a change of pace from quinoa salad and trendy, spicy watermelon. There she stood, rubbing a rack of pork ribs with herbs and mildly ruminating - 

"Well, I'm just clearing old things out of the fridge. These peppers need to get used, I'll make them into a sauce, and these pork ribs I bought on sale - I've never actually cooked pork ribs. I bought them thinking Matt could barbecue them, but why do they need barbecue sauce, anyway?...I guess we're having pork ribs and pasta." 

I stared at her with widened eyes. She seemed a little dejected by her lack of a better plan, but I recognized that she was working through another arc of her own genius, stealthily crafting a perfect meal. It occurred to me that stealth is actually a necessary component of craft. Though Linda owned an Italian restaurant for so many years, she doesn't act out the basic models of Italian cooking at home very often. The simplicity of Italian style does pervade her philosophy of food, but her ingredients rarely follow the colors of the flag so precisely as seen below. 

Herbed Pork Ribs, Stewed Pepper (Peperonata) Pasta and Grilled Bread with Pesto

"Linda, you Donna Italiana!!" I repeated several times, upping the drama with operatic pronunciation. Nobody flinched. My family is accustomed to the occasional moments where I lose self possession and start raving like an idiot. 

Linda in black, on the left: She's the sort of Donna Italiana who smirks at the frivolity of too much fashion.

Now, about those Pork Ribs. They were brushed with a mixture of olive oil, salt, pepper, minced garlic, and fresh chopped rosemary and thyme: grilled over a fairly low fire for about one hour. So delicious and fatty, apparently they don't need barbecue sauce!

When fresh pesto is around, you just have to slather it on everything. 

 Somewhere in between pasta and a pasta salad, but solidly Italy.

Peperonata Pasta with Cherry Tomatoes
Linda's creation from July 7, 2013

Thinly slice: 3 red bell peppers (orange or yellow fine, too) 1/2 of a large fennel bulb, 1/2 of a large onion, and 4 or 5 cloves of garlic. In a saucepan, saute all this for a few minutes in olive oil, and then add a 1/2 cup of water and a splash of red wine vinegar. Cover with a lid and simmer on low heat for 45 minutes. 

Gather a big handful of cherry tomatoes, cut them in half. Place in a bowl, salt them and marinate in a few tablespoons of red wine vinegar while the peppers cook. 

Boil 1/2 pound of fusilli or similarly shaped pasta, drain and mix with the warm Pepperonata. Top with the cherry tomatoes and basil leaves. 

Be sure to serve with plenty of Parmesan cheese. A spoonful of fresh pesto really makes the pasta vibrant, if you happen to have it. We brought our pesto home from Ristorante Machiavelli. Here is a basic pesto recipe from Saveur magazine. 

Wild, Italian style gesticulating, "con eccitazione."

Truly a comforting Sunday Dinner, and probably one of my favorite of the year so far.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Summer's Strange Effect

     I think it's appropriate for any introduction to begin with a discussion of the weather, and hope that you'll agree. After all, weather provides framework for polite conversations and inspiration for the greatest works of literature and music. It also dictates what you'll cook for dinner. 
      The cult phenomenon known as the Seattle Freeze really does exist - simply as a consequence of Seattle's lack of heat. In other regions, people know "the dog days of summer," air conditioning, the smell of hot asphalt, great backyard tomatoes, brown lawns, smog, roaches, mosquitos, fireflies, and night choirs of crickets and cicadas. In the temperate Pacific Northwest, July sun can turn the landscape into a storybook spread of bright rolling hills and shimmering waters, but we escape the dramatic, character building traits of a "real summer." Seattle-ites are acclimated to mild weather. If the temperature rises above 85 degrees, forecasters issue a "severe heat advisory." There are only a handful of summer evenings where one can feel the novelty of sultry night air on the skin or the pricking surprise of a buzzing mosquito. The city's only humidity comes from clean grey rain washing away any accumulated sins - we don't know the thick stagnant drama of summer skies east of the Rockies. I grew to love the more relentless model of summer when I lived in Texas. Flying back to Seattle for a salmon-eating visit one August, I unexpectedly burst into tears as the plane touched down amid the pretty, clear skies, vividly pure evergreens and still snowy mountains. I didn't know I needed the fresh and clean environment to shock my deeply Texan summer-ridden body. 

     This year a blessing of bold summery days has replaced the more typical, pre-4th of July gloom. When it's this early in the summer and I've lost track of the last cloudy day, a Pacific Northwest miracle is taking place. Although there will never be any crickets or cicadas chirping me to sleep, could it be that summer, in some respectable form, has arrived early? A party begins brewing in my mind, and I tap into all that is odd, surprising or pointless. Around my parents house I walk down the street and hear a kid practicing the recorder - the pathetic strains of a snake charmer sounding melodic minor scale, with obsessive repetitions of the augmented 6th to 7th step. On the next block - dutifully played scales from a 12 year old boy's saxophone, which compulsively break out into the hook from Macklemore's Thrift Shop. One more block and I walk past the house Macklemore grew up in. I recall crossing paths on the street with the future rapper and his basketball, back when I was 12. I make notes to myself - "Things to Google: Naval gazing. Arabesque. Linden trees." I read three books in a row by the same author, who becomes a dear new friend. I manage to get horrific sunburn, and find myself writing a blog. Clearly, there's a party in my mind.

And here is a party of a meal. Last Sunday, I believe it hit that sweet and controversial 85 degrees. Matt jumped into Lake Washington before dinner. Dinner was taken fully Al Fresco, to the backyard. 

     There's a small secret in my glass of iced mint tea, shown above. Not being a person who lets a simple pleasure alone, I had to improve it with splashes of rose water and orange blossom water.  I don't suppose you have a bottle of either lying around? They are found at middle eastern grocery stores and sometimes at Whole Foods. I continued to sneak rosewater into other varieties of tea and even ice water this week, but I know that you'd rather hear about Grilled Chicken Under a Brick. Under Two Bricks. I don't suppose you have two bricks lying around? Of course, Linda did. They were already wrapped in foil, waiting patiently in the cellar for their time of service. When you remove the backbone from a chicken and split it open, you are "Spatchcocking" it, yes, that's the term. Placing bricks on top of the chicken produces a crisper skin, reduces cooking time, and yields juicy evenly cooked meat. 

Chicken Under a Brick, Zesty Salad with Pickled Pink Beets and Mama Lil's Peppers, and Corn and Black Bean Quinoa Salad

   When I am in charge of making a salad, it inevitably turns out "Zesty." I throw in pickled this and spicy that with some abandon, and maintain that salad leaves need to be additionally salted, as you would salt meat or season pasta water. Here is a nice trick to change up any standard oil and vinegar salad dressing: whisk in some mayonnaise and mustard until you have a slightly thick and creamy emulsion. It will give any green salad a great zing. 

The colorful quinoa salad

      I promise that we will be sharing some original McElroy recipes of our own invention in the future, but surely I don't need to point out the fact that we live in post-postmodern times. Even the most creative foodies are now doomed to re-cook and re-hash the same old creations. I swear we could have invented this quinoa salad, but the editors of a cooking magazine beat us to it. However, as a great teacher once told me, "Great art is about Unity and Variety." There is always something to keep the same and something to change. In that spirit, please do not follow our version of the recipe below exactly. Should you decide to make it, let your reality of a summer day guide the ingredients and outcome. 

Corn and Black Bean Quinoa Salad 
Adapted from Eating Well Magazine

1 can black beans
3 poblano peppers
2/3 cup red quinoa
2 ears shucked corn
olive oil
1/2 of a large red onion, sliced
1/3 cup feta cheese
1 lime
a large tomato or cherry tomatoes
fresh cilantro to taste
1 chopped avocado

Preheat oven broiler on high and broil peppers on a baking sheet, 4 inches from heat source. Turn them frequently until they are charred, 10-14 minutes. If you have a gas range, you can char them directly on the stove flame. Put them in a bowl covered in plastic wrap, leave for 1o minutes and then peel skins, getting rid of the stems and seeds inside. Chop into strips and then cut into small squares. 
Bring plenty of water to a boil and add quinoa - cook until tender, 10 to 14 minutes, then drain well. 
You can boil the corn for three minutes at the same time, then allow to cool before slicing the kernels off. 
Sautee onion in oil until it's nice and brown.
Combine all these things in a bowl and add two or three tablespoons of olive oil, lime juice and salt to taste. Right before serving, fold in chopped tomatoes, avocado and cilantro. Sprinkle the feta cheese on top. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

On Salmon

Salmon is powerful food. Perhaps this power comes from the fish's remarkable life journey from fresh water to salt, and back again via olofactory sense of home, swimming and jumping uphill streams to lay those eggs and rest in peace. Salmon can hold a pleasing hold over the imagination, and from my Pacific Northwest perspective, it is the mythical yet absolutely present family meal. If I'm home in Seattle - Sunday Dinner is there, and if Sunday Dinner is there, it holds a high chance of salmon. We join all the Pacific coast and North Atlantic people in our proximity to the wild pink fish - and around here, it is Chinook or Sockeye. 

As you can see, our salmon normally gets grilled, as do many other Sunday meals. Here is a dinner we called "Grilled Salmon Three Different Ways." Everyone was feeling it a little differently...

#1 - Said salmon with a spicy mayo and spinach and lettuce salad, thrown haphazardly together from fridge to plate.

Salmon Burger with Bacon Jam and Backyard Arugula, with a Chickpea Tabouleh Salad

Layer the plate - Salmon atop Tabouleh

When Tom fled his native Detroit for San Franciso so many years ago, salmon was a new West Coast food that made a big impression, and to this day it is the only food that he enjoys preparing with a formidable enthusiasm. (The only other thing he is passionate about cooking is broccoli.) 

Tom McElroy's Salmon Grilling Tips
1. Buy the best, fattiest wild salmon you can. In the fat lieth the flavor. Season with oilve oil, salt and pepper. Family style means cooking the whole side, rather than filleting into portions.

2. Charcoal, please, not gas. After the coals look mostly coated with ash, flatten them out and you should have a 300-325 degree fire. Flesh side down first, then skin side. If your grill rack is not highly seasoned, make sure to oil it to minimize sticking. The Sockeye here was only one inch thick, thus it took less than 10 minutes total to cook. Cover with grill lid to lock in the flavor.

3. If the belly of the fillet is fairly thin, you can cut it off before the rest of the fish and snack on it.

Appetizer - succulent belly of the beast. 

4. Do not overcook salmon. As you can see here, the middle of the fish may look anxiously pink and raw in the middle, but it is not. As long as the fish has started to flake like this, you don't need to worry about that intensely colored center - it will keep cooking a bit when taken off the grill. Don't be afraid to pry inside and check. 

This is not the last time you will see salmon on Sunday Dinner. In the future we will share recipes for all manners of condiments and sauces for salmon. If you wanted to know what's in my spicy mayo above, shoot me a message. (*hint - it's not your normal chile spice or sauce....) If you didn't know that Bacon Jam existed - click on this link:

It's 6 pm and another Sunday dinner awaits, so I need to run. 

Sweet Salmon dreams to you.