Tapas for beginners

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When you can’t go to Barcelona for Father’s Day, this is the next best thing.

Inspired by a visit to a brand-new Mexican place in Charlottesville, The Bebedero, and especially the meandering, flamenco-style guitar music playing there, we wanted the meal for last week’s holiday to be a gift that honored everything good about relaxation. Something that hearkened to a culture known for siesta and abstract architecture and amor.

(Bear with me: I realize that Mexican and Spanish cultures are totally unique from one another, but the music led from point A to point B. And you can’t really argue with music.)

Vibe solidly in mind, some online research led me to the refreshing and beautiful blog Salt and Wind. If you want to armchair travel through gorgeous pictures of food, recipes inspired by stories, and globally-minded articles, my goodness but this is the place to go.

Using a recipe of theirs, as well as a few from ever-faithful Saveur, this first venture into tapas was an enthusiastically received success. Which may or may not have been due to the whole adult-children-serving-and-honoring-their-parents thing, but even if it was, just couple that with some really savory wine sauce and crispy prosciutto and you’ll understand. Results may vary, but should equal something close to a moment’s happiness.

The recipes were as follows:

Gazpacho andaluz

Albóndigas en salsa

Crispy black lentils with asparagus, Jamon Serrano, and crème fraiche mustard sauce (not the sexiest name, but make it, and I promise the sauce will change your tune)

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Morals to this story:

Take simple ingredients and put love into their preparation.

Share your creativity: that’s a real gift.

And never say no to juicy, home-grown tomatoes when you find them. Otherwise you will be missing out on a very fine sandwich. And that is just a crime.

(At least, that’s what my father would say.)

I’ll drink to that: on consumption, Port wine, and brownies

In the wake of holiday revelry, the impendingness of Mardi Gras, and some really stellar gifted Port (thanks Tara!), drinks and drinking have been on my brain. More specifically, the American relationship with alcohol – how historically vexed and fascinating it has been.

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wine: for drinking, for eating, for staring out windows in winter

From Big Beer to craft breweries, from local to well-sourced to biodynamic wines, this is definitely an area and industry always in flux. An interesting recent phenomenon is the fact that, during the recession, it was one of the few markets that stayed strong – and grew. For someone who has spent the last few years in and out of regular work, this is not hard to understand. When finances are tight, and you have to be extremely choosy about indulgences, a bottle of wine is one that you can share with a few friends any old time.

But this brings me back to the fraught relationship with alcohol we Americans have tended towards – that is, from a collective perspective, as I do know many people who have healthy relationships with what they drink. It strikes me as similar to our odd national eating disorder, wherein we’re obsessed with health and/or eating, which seems to make us unhealthier. So my question is: is this trend is a “bad” thing? Or even something to joke about being “bad”? That seems to be such a Puritanical relic sometimes, the word “bad,” but I’m curious: are we drinking more and harder during tough times, or are we truly seeking togetherness because work is lacking, and we suddenly have realized that true community is the most important thing?

Alcohol consumption gets to be so different in other countries: the standards, for one, are unique. So are the amounts consumed. And there doesn’t seem to be so much baggage. I’ve not yet got to the bottom of why (has anyone? if you have, let me know). But since, here, we’ve got to reckon with the ghosts of addiction and binges, I suppose that means that, if this is the indulgence you hang onto, perhaps it’s wise to ask yourself why. Just in case. Just like with anything.

That’s what I’ve been trying to do, still being among the jobless, and for me – as for many – it does swing back around to togetherness. And to flavor, of course.

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I have never been a big drinker in terms of volume (too much of a lightweight, alas), but the taste aspect fascinates me after having worked closely with wine and food. The variations are endless; the pairings, innovative and fun. One of my favorite jobs was at a Charlottesville winery with rustically inspired energy, where I first was privy to adventurous and unique wine and food pairings.

(It was also the first place I ever had olives. A life without olives??)

So, disappointingly, I can’t offer any new information* on wine and beer, although I do love the supposed heart-health benefits. That’s something I’ll go ahead and trust.

But I’m up for achieving harmony in all things, especially when it comes to food and drink, so let’s add to the love with a recipe for port wine brownies. To be enjoyed with or without port, depending on your preference (and family history, and financial state). Salute!

Port brownies with dried cherries

adapted from Curly Girl Kitchen’s recipe

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ingredients:

  • 1/4 c dried cherries
  • 3 tbsp Port
  • 2 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped (baking bar or chunks; regular chocolate chips are too finicky)
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 c sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
  • 1/2 c all-purpose flour
  • pinch salt

(note: Curly Girl includes a ganache; I did not, but check the link if you want to try it)

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a small baking dish (5×5 or 6×6) with nonstick spray or butter.

On the stove in a small pan, heat the Port with the dried cherries mixed in.  Bring to a simmer, then immediately remove from heat, cover, and let sit for 10 minutes.

While the cherries are set aside, in a double boiler over medium heat, combine the chopped chocolate and butter, stirring the chocolate and butter as they melt. (Alternatively you can do this step in the microwave, combining the 2 ingredients in a bowl and stirring every 15 seconds or so.)

When finished, take the cherries-and-Port mixture, and puree in a food processor, or mash in a small bowl.

Then, in a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk or beat the Port mixture, melted chocolate and butter, cocoa powder, egg, sugar, and vanilla, until smooth and combined.  Add the salt and flour, stirring in with a spoon or rubber spatula, scraping the sides all the while.

Spread your batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the center is set. (Check occasionally since every oven is different.)

Let the brownies cool for about 30 minutes before cutting into them.

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so fudgy. so perfect

Recipe yields a small batch of 8-10 brownies; easily doubles to fit a regular 9×13 pan!

*For further thoughts on this topic, I love this article from Forbes. Highly recommended read! > Are You Drinking Too Much? The Myth of Moderation

On seasons and soup

They say that for everything, there is a season. During this particular one, I’ve got a strange ongoing challenge that I don’t get to wield any control over. It’s humbling, too, because it’s something I’ve poked fun at many times, or labeled “boring” (because usually it is). This topic is – what else? – weather. Weather and seasons.

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Before I left the Left Coast, a friend commented that it was too bad I was leaving when I was. It was late October. I went blank for a moment, a little confused. “Why?” I asked. “Were you planning something fun that I’ll miss?” “No,” she said. “Just because it’s going to be so cold.”

Cold. The real four-letter word.

I was a little dismissive of that, at first, since, la-de-da, there’s more to life than weather. Like Sleater-Kinney’s glorious “No Cities to Love” says, “it’s not the cities, it’s the people we love.” I.e. not the weather, because weather is just weather. It’s different everywhere, sure, but it’s still the last-resort cocktail party topic of yore. Everywhere I’ve ever been in the U.S., they say that if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. Everywhere. (Except California, come to think of it.)

So: weather is weather. That’s true enough. And yet here I am, feeling weird that I remain unadjusted to the admittedly mild temps. Each evening I realize that there was a certain lack of shivering I came to take for granted in Orange County. Y’all have it good there – really good. Now, a fifty-degree day gives me goosebumps; it’s, dare I say, borderline embarrassing. It feels like a huge weakness, actually – say, if we had some kind of apocalypse and lost all internal heating or sources of flame.

(Not that we turn the heat on here, so maybe it’d actually be okay. Who knows.)

I find this interesting not in a “typical-girl-is-always-cold” way, because that is truly boring, but in a seasonal way. That is, as it turns out, I did miss the seasons of the Mid-Atlantic – the autumn reds and golds and the barren winters and the whipping breezes of spring. SoCal has its own versions of seasons, sure (June gloom, anyone?). But it’s fair to say that it’s not quite the same. Which can be an excellent thing for those who live there (beach in November!).

That said, when you give up seasonal variation, you also give up – however temporarily – a certain adaptability. You can prepare with layers. You can adopt a never-say-die mindset. But other than that, you just gotta hold out hope that one day, it will return and you will be tough again, no longer a sunshiny marshmallow subject to the whims of the Pacific, but a stone-cold badass Katniss Everdeen in the face of the harshest of winters.

In the meantime, during this season (see what I did there?), what else can you do to stave off the chill?

Taking the meat from the squash

The answer, of course, is make soup. And not just any soup: one that is an ode to the West Coast and a blogger I find endlessly inspiring. This is an adapted version of a butternut squash soup from this lovely Orangette post – fitting, too, since her writing here is so beautifully dedicated to San Francisco and Seattle.

My changes were slight: since I was out of apple cider, I omitted it and upped the stock content, then added coconut milk towards the end of the simmering process. The result was a thick, almost-bisque with a whipped consistency and beautiful harmony of spices.

Apple & butternut squash soup

adapted from Orangette

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ingredients:

¼ cup olive oil
one 1.5-lb butternut squash, peeled, seeded & cut into 2-inch cubes
two small apples (I used Gala as in the original recipe), peeled, cored, & cut into 1-inch cubes
one medium onion, chopped
½ tsp each of cardamom, curry powder, and ginger
3 or 4 cups vegetable stock (can also use chicken, per the original)
½ cup coconut milk
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Warm the olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the squash, apples, and onion and stir to cover with oil.

Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions soften and become translucent. Then, stir in the spices, maybe adding a pinch of salt and pepper. Continue to cook until the onion’s edges are browned and the squash has started to soften.

Add the stock. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then lower the temperature. Continue to simmer – uncovered or partially covered – for 25 to 35 minutes, so the liquid reduces. Add half of the coconut milk at the end of the reduction time.

Remove the soup from heat and gradually – two batches, probably – add to a food processor or blender. (Keep your batches small so to avoid a hot explosion.) Puree the mixture until it is smooth and silky, without chunks. It should be more of a whipped cream texture than an applesauce one.

Return the soup to the stockpot and add the rest of the coconut milk as you warm it back up. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately (and with roasted squash seeds if you can!).

serves 3-4

Photo credit in this post goes to my lovely sister Rachel!