April 13, 2008

Springtime Food

With the weather here in California's High Desert at about its peak, we've have a number of goodies recently.

One goodie has been the long and extraordinary poppy season. Entire hillsides are painted golden orange with California's state flower. In addition to the orange poppies, there are swaths of fields with purple lupins and yellow forget-me-nots, and now we have pale yellow daisies coming in all over, too. Not all the green has gone away from the field grasses, either. I grew up here, and I've only rarely seen the desert this colorful.

Our next-door neighbors invited us to a get-together last night. They grilled up bratwurst (fatty pieces of melty, meaty heaven, bratwurst is) and made Korean fried rice and a spicy garden salad. Some friends brought over sweet baked beans and I made my version of German potato salad:

5 lbs red potatoes
2 bunches green onions
powdered garlic
16 oz. apple cider vinegar
4 oz. bacon
black pepper
sea salt
cayenne pepper, dash
1 tsp. mustard seed
1/2 tsp. coriander
1/4 tsp. carraway seed
3-4 cubes chicken bullion

Dice the green onions, reserving the stems. Quarter the potatoes. Boil the potatoes in brine made of sea salt, green onion stems, chicken bullion and some powdered garlic. You can't boil them for too long. Meanwhile, dice and fry up the bacon, crumble it after draining excess fat. Also, grind up mustard seed, coriander, and carraway seed with mortar and pestle into a fine powder. Combine spice mix with more powdered garlic and small amounts of salt and pepper; add to apple cider vinegar along with bacon and diced onions. When potatoes are thoroughly cooked, remove from brine and place in large mixing bowl. Fold vinegar dressing in to potato mixture, allow to sit for about 1 hour. Serve warm.

Most people marvel at the idea that you can have potato salad without mayonnaise. And yes, mayonnaise makes a good binder. But this uses the potatoes themselves to bind it all together; as you fold the dressing into the potatoes, some of the potatoes will crumble into their starchy goodness and absorb the dressing, binding the various pieces of soft, boiled potato together. And if the salad had mayonnaise, that would be a French potato salad, now, wouldn't it?

The Wife prepared peanut butter creme bars. She didn't like how the crust turned out, though, and wouldn't serve them. I don't know exactly the way she did it, but the creme itself was rich and delicious. She combined sweetened condensed milk with peanut butter, along with some sugar and butter. It seemed to take her quite a bit of labor, but she mixed it all together while cold. In the bars, she added peanut butter and chocolate chips (come on, this is my wife we're talking about, there had to be chocolate involved somewhere). The crust was a crumble of peanuts and flour, and the bottom layer of that came out too tough for her liking. But the creme inside was marvelous and I hope she makes it again sometime, maybe this time in a pie. I'm eating some of the creme along with the top layer of the crumble now with a bit of ice cream, and it's really tasty. Yeah, the bottom layer is a little tough but I scooped out the good stuff from the top (she no longer cares about how it looks) so I've got only the good stuff.

I also made margarita shrimp alfredo tonight. As is my wont, I made too much, but this would probably be enough for a dinner for four:

1 lb. 30-40 count shrimp, peeled and deveined
spaghetti or linguine
8 oz. milk
3 tbsp. flour
1 tbsp. butter
6 oz. white cheese (I used farmer's cheese)
lemon zest
black pepper
sea salt
Grand Mariner
2 cloves garlic
cayenne pepper

Rinse shrimp in fresh water and marinate in tequila, a dash of lime juice, garlic, and cayenne pepper for at least 15 minutes. Prepare a bechamel with milk and flour, add garlic, pepper, salt, and lemon zest. Simmer to a near-boil. Add butter and cheese, keep at simmer until ready to serve. Boil pasta until al dente.* Sautée shrimp in its tequila marinade, draining off excess liquid when shrimp are cooked through. Add a dash of Grand Marnier and flambé for 5 seconds or so. Combine pasta, sauce, and shrimp, tossing well.

Very rich, but tasty. If you pick a mild enough cheese, the margarita taste in the shrimp should be apparent. If the cheese sauce seems a bit much, try it with olive oil and let me know how that works out for you (I considered that myself tonight but needed to use the cheese for something).

I don't know what my neighbor put in her green salad (some kind of Korean chili powder, I'm sure) but it was great. It came dressed in a light rice vinegar and the cucumbers were a good cooling contrast to the spice. I've been enjoying that, too. And I like baked beans just fine, and they like me, although I have to admit that The Wife doesn't like me when I like baked beans. So the long days are still a novelty, the baseball season is young and my Dodgers haven't broken my heart yet, the poppies are in bloom, and we're awash in good food. Despite the sorry state of our national politics (and really, even that isn't all that bad) there is yet much right with the world.

* For crying out loud, don't overcook your pasta with this or any other recipe. It gets mushy and loses all its taste. Too many people overcook their pasta, some because they may never had had it properly-cooked. You'll like pasta much better if you pay attention and stir it while it's boiling. Don't TXT YR BFF or watch television while you're cooking pasta. Yes, this means that you'll have to stand over a hot stove. For about ten minutes, which is not too much to endure for good pasta. Salt the water generously and bring it to a roaring boil before adding the pasta. After about five minutes, start taking out small bits of pasta and eating them. Don't throw them up against the wall, that's declassé
. Eat them and yes, they will be quite hot. If it is crunchy, it isn't done enough yet. The first time you take out a piece that feels tender all the way through, that means that all of the pasta is done, so take out of the water right now. Don't rinse your pasta before adding the sauce, either. It makes the pasta cold and with most sauces, lowers adherence and therefore flavor.

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