The Riffing Range

 

spencer-imbrock-JAHdPHMoaEA-unsplash

Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash

To riff (v) –  to perform, deliver, or make use of a riff.

Riff (n) – an ostinato phrase (as in jazz) typically supporting a solo improvisation. 

You know those recipes that you go to when you can’t even manage an internet search for “Easy dinners” and your cookbooks seem to be judging you? Those dishes that you always seem to have most of the ingredients for, but even if you don’t, there are some easy and accessible substitutions that will bring you close to your target? These recipes exist within what I call the riffing range. Recipes within this range have some common characteristics:

  1. They are relatively simple (usually 5 main ingredients or fewer, not counting seasonings).
  2. They take 30 minutes or less
  3. They don’t require any specialized skills or equipment.

So basically an ideal situation for when you just can’t even.

Riffing Range Recipes:

  • Pasta Puttanesca
  • Burritos as discussed on the blog here
  • Salad (obvious but one that must be mentioned as we are currently in the throws of summer produce season).

IMG_3645

Pasta Puttanesca is one of these recipes because I always have some sort of noodle product and cheese, as well as garlic and  a version of canned tomato (whole peeled, crushed, cubed and even puree will do). From there you just need an herb (parsley is traditional but basil holds its own), an olive (again, kalamata is traditional but green pimento stuffed, oil cured or even black olives are great). Capers provide a nice zing but are not 100% necessary and finally, anchovies or even sardines or tuna in a pinch. Hungry Ginger recipe here and a sardine version here. You could even go crazy if you have some eggplant on hand and ricotta salata and turn it into Pasta alla Norma.

During these strange times when going to the grocery store can feel perilous, it is comforting to have these types of recipes in your culinary tool belt and ready faster than it takes for Uber Eats to deliver a lukewarm burrito. 

I encourage you to try riffing in the kitchen. It is a  great way to practice with flavors and get comfortable cooking without a recipe. Best scenario, you will discover a new go-to recipe, worst scenario you will have used up some ingredients that may have been lingering in your pantry for too long anyway. 

Seasonal Spotlight: Asparagus Part 2

As much as I love Asparagus, it is not something that I have ever really considered growing. This Spring, however, an old acquaintance from college posted some pictures of a few beautiful spears of asparagus that he had grown, mentioning in the post that he had a bumper crop after two years of careful tending. He grew them from seed and watered them persistently at first but, once established, they don’t really need much watering. They require dedicated beds because they develop a pretty extensive root systems and they need well drained soil, so he tilled sand into the beds. The whole process seems pretty intense but it sounds like, if you are willing to put some elbow grease into it, you can get a lot of bang for your buck. With 35 mature plants, he said that he is able to harvest about 14 spears 1-2 times per week. Wow! Having recently spent $23 on asparagus, I found that pretty appealing. 

While I may not be starting asparagus production this year, I can still enjoy the season’s bounty by cooking with it in a variety of ways. So far on the blog I have discussed the salty, saucy way:

IMG_3857

But there are also more subtle treatments that let the asparagus’ sweetness shine through even more. The other weekend, I made an asparagus soup. The recipe is found in Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson and was super simple and quick (30 min or less). It was almost a little too simple in my opinion so I gussied it up with lemon juice, which really complimented the brightness of the asparagus, and some goat cheese which, swirled into the soup to finish, added a nice savory note. It is a great soup for spring/summer because it is amazing both hot and cold and keeps for several days, so you can make it ahead and have a very elegant lunch without trying too hard.

Asparagus Soup, from Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories

Serves: 4 

INGREDIENTS:
1/2 cup butter
4 small leeks, white parts only, trimmed and chopped
3 cups water
1 potato, peeled and chopped
salt and pepper
1 lb fresh asparagus, peeled and trimmed
1 cup heavy cream

INSTRUCTIONS:
Melt butter and stew leeks until soft.

Add water and potato and season with salt and pepper. Cook for 15 minutes.

Chop the asparagus and add to the soup. Boil rapidly for 5 minutes.

Blend Thoroughly and pass through a china cap or medium/fine sieve.

Add cream and check seasoning.

Serve Hot or cold.

Source: Roast Chicken and Other Stories by Simon Hopkinson, 1994 (p. 13)

To close out my Asparagus triad, I made a lovely almost pasta salad with orzo, just steamed asparagus, olives, sliced bell pepper, Feta, and a lemony dressing. Courtesy of our friends at PCC, this was a perfect accompaniment to our Sunday Roast chicken.

IMG-6734

Seasonal Spotlight: Asparagus Part 1

Asparagus post-1

Photo by Miti on Unsplash

Without restaurants being open declaring their seasonal specials and leisurely grocery store trips, it’s easy to forget the culinary seasonality that is Spring’s gift. Morel mushrooms with their craggy domes and earthy aroma, crisp sweet peas, and of course asparagus. 

Out of season asparagus is an expensive and rather dingy vegetable in my opinion. In-season, locally grown asparagus, however, is slightly less expensive but miles above the more commercially produced, year-round stuff. It is sweet and bright, tender and crisp. It is great simply steamed or quickly broiled with a squeeze of lemon and some flaky sea salt to finish. It is delicious chopped up in some fluffy scrambled eggs or in a delicate soup. 

Last week’s PCC newsletter naturally featured asparagus and coincided nicely with a grocery delivery order I was putting together. I bit the bullet and ordered 2 pounds and planned out my menu. I would start on Saturday with a preparation featured in one of my favorite cookbooks, Roast Chicken and Other Stories and roll into Sunday afternoon with an asparagus soup from the same book and then, as an accompaniment to our Sunday roast chicken dinner, a bright asparagus and orzo dish from the aforementioned PCC newsletter.

The asparagus arrived…$23 worth, closer to three lbs, but I won’t complain. Then Saturday came and we had a late lunch so I planned for a late light dinner. I browsed the recipe a bit and mentally ran through the steps. It was a bit fussy, as this particular cookbook can be, but I wasn’t too worried. 

The recipe is called Delices D’Argenteuil. According to the cookbook, the Argenteuil region which is outside of Paris is famous for its asparagus. This is a pancake dish that combines the classic flavors of egg, asparagus and ham. The author calls them “pancakes” but it is essentially crepes with asparagus and prosciutto rolled up inside them. And because it is French, covered in hollandaise. Simple enough I thought to myself. Mmmm, yeah, not really.

  1. Pro Tip: When working with milk and eggs and melted butter, make sure that the milk and eggs are close to room temp before you add in the melted butter. If not, the butter will quickly solidify and thwart you as you try to pass your batter through the fine sieve required by the recipe.
  2. It has been an age since I made crepes so it took some doing to get 6 decent ones.
  3. One does not just whip up a hollandaise, as the book casually declares at one point, unless one is a chef or makes it frequently and in that case, one is probably not as healthy as one would hope to be.

I got all my little crepe and asparagus/prosciutto rolls all ready and in the oven, and  then conscripted Andrew who has a much better grasp of the whole emulsified sauces thing than I. I halved the hollandaise recipe because one stick of butter per person seemed a little wrong, especially as it was nearing midnight. We biffed the first attempt but luckily before we added the butter. The second round took nicely and we soon had a beautiful silky sauce. That was spooned over the rolls and broiled so the sauce just melted in and the resulting dish was both sweet (without any added sugar) and savory, from the prosciutto, and fresh with a nice crunch, courtesy of the asparagus. Served with a sparkling Rose cava just before midnight, totally worth the wait.

We went to bed satisfied and even a little triumphant, having done this seasonal treat justice. Next stop, Asparagus soup!

oklahoma-academy-country-store-Hi6yn8RSD8Y-unsplash

Photo by Oklahoma Academy Country Store on Unsplash

 

Mocktails for Lazy People

It’s mid-February and many people may be welcoming this second month of the calendar year for one reason. Hint: It’s not Valentine’s Day (ugh) or the lovely weather (…rain). It’s because Dry January is now in the rear-view. We can all pat ourselves on our backs and feel accomplished that we went one whole month without the sauce. I mean, given the state of the world these days, it feels especially meaningful. I participated in Dry January and felt so good during this time that I decided to continue it on until…whenever. Some days are easier than others and when I think about all the wine in our cellar, liquor in the bar and the wine club we are still members of, I wonder, is it a greater crime to let good alcohol linger or to give my liver a bit of a challenge?

Perhaps I will come to a sort of middle ground at some point. Maybe that’s what getting old is – a meeting of two extremes at a place of mediocrity. Oh joy.

It many ways, being sober and keeping things interesting in the drinks department is more difficult than not. Previously, when I wanted something tasty to drink, I would open a bottle of nice wine, mix an extra dirty martini, or pour an interesting amaro. Googling “Mocktails” reveals a plethora of shrubs, tinctures, exotic juices and purees that one can utilize to concoct delicious libations that tickle your taste buds and do everything that a cocktail does, except lubricate social situations and ruin mornings. I am at my core a Path of Least Resistance person though, and thinking ahead enough to make a shrub or source mango puree is just not really a priority for me right now. So, in the last month, I have discovered some easy mocktail solutions that satisfy me and involve little more than pouring two liquids into a glass and maybe squeezing some citrus if I am feeling motivated.

The Lazy Ginger: Literally just ginger ale or beer and a squeeze of lime 
Make it Fancy:
Add a dash of Angostura Bitters and/or a sprig of mint

morton-xiong-UnU3HZjBWQg-unsplash

Photo by Morton Xiong on Unsplash

The Tardy Tart: Blood Orange San Pellegrino and Unsweetened cranberry juice
Make it Fancy: Add a dash of Orange Bitters

sarah-gualtieri-lAX3fZtTpRk-unsplash

Photo by Sarah-Gualtieri on Unsplash

The Creamsicle: Orange Juice and Vanilla Dry Soda
Make it Fancy: Add a float of unsweetened cranberry juice

The Pickled Ginger: A replacement for my beloved dirty martini – A shot of pickle juice 🙂
Make it Fancy: Serve with a cornichon/cocktail onion/olive garnish

The Languid Bourgeois: Equal parts Lavender and Vanilla Dry Sodas
Make it Fancy: Bitch, a 4-pack of this stuff is like $8. It ALREADY fancy!

I am sure you can see a pattern start to emerge, so here are a few rules that you can endlessly riff on.

  • Bitters added to anything, even plain fizzy water makes it fancy
  • Mix sweeter sodas with unsweetened juices for a more interesting and balanced flavor profile.
  • Combine fruit juice with soda and feel healthier
  • Dry Sodas, which have very little sugar comparatively, are basically mocktails in bottle form. Nothing else needed really.
  • You can add pretty much any clear liquor like vodka or light rum to these to make them boozy.
  • La Croix has no place here because that shit is the most boring stuff I’ve tasted and if I’m not drinking booze, I’m not going to torture myself with a memory of a lime.

Cheers, friends!

 

 

 

 

Opa! (Boomer): A Dinner Party Reimagined

They say that the dinner party is dead. Something else that Millennials have killed along with golf and casual dining establishments. As a HungryGinger, I will surely not shed a tear when and if places like TGI Fridays and Outback Steakhouse go under, but I take exception to the idea that the dinner party will share their fate. In fact, I believe that, unlike many relics of our baby boomer parent’s lives, the dinner party is adapting to become a new and possibly better expression of itself. Alison Roman is throwing casual get-togethers in her Brooklyn apartment and Instagramming the shit out of it. Hell, she even wrote an entire cookbook around the idea. I’m sold. 

The dinner party does not have to be a three course affair beginning with bruschetta and ending with Baked Alaska (though it certainly could – there are no rules!). It can be a series of small plates, snacks and dips with some fun veggies – watermelon radish anyone? Or it can be a themed potluck where everyone also brings a bottle of wine (and takes a Lyft home). As I have negotiated my way to my mid thirties, the dinner party has become more and more appealing. I long for the structure of a sitdown gathering with friends, but don’t necessarily need to be burdened with the responsibility for several courses. I’m paying into social security that will be bankrupt when I am old, so I should be able to do damn well what I please when it comes to dinner. It is this feeling (and several drunken non-dinner party nights with friends) that gave rise to the first annual Greek Solstice Cook-a-thon.

At times of merriment, a friend (who is Greek) and I, would wax poetic about Greek food. We would discuss the finer points of Avgolemono soup (when IS the best time to add the egg enrichment?) and baklava (so. many. layers.) and tell ourselves that sometime soon, we would have a Greek themed dinner party and he would teach me and our friends his ya-ya’s secrets. Finally, this year, around about the Summer Solstice, we followed through. There were eight people in total which is enough people for a lively gathering but not so many that the party could potentially separate into groups. 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

About a week out, the Greek friend (Stevie) posted some classic recipes that he was thinking of making and we divided the recipes for the mains between the two of us. Other attendees took on appetizers and dessert (which could be made ahead of time) and we picked a dish that everyone could help make the day of – Spanakopita!

IMG-5376

We did a lot of pre-prep so that when we all got together, we weren’t stuck in the kitchen instead of socializing. I also did a signature cocktail that could be mixed ahead of time so that we had something tasty to drink while we cooked.

img_4087

The Grapevine:
4 cups white grapejuice
1 cup vodka
¼ cup lemon juice
2 tsp Grenadine
*Thanks NYT Cooking Community Facebook Group for the recipe!**

img_4088

And a party isn’t a party without some appetizers to go with the drinks (we don’t want to be completely smashed for the meal). My friend Louisa, fellow blogger and foodaphile made a delicious garlic dip made with potatoes and homemade pita chips.

 

img_4097 

Once everyone arrived, we pulled the thawed phyllo dough out from the fridge along with the spanakopita filling I had made the night before (in an 11pm frenzy). Stevie showed us how much filling to use (less than you would think) and how to fold and seal the tiny packages of deliciousness. We took turns filling and folding and filling and folding. Everyone did a round and all improved so that by the end, we were practically pros. Yaya would have been proud! 

 

Then into the oven they went. Additional dishes including chicken rolls, Keftethes or Greek Meatballs, Green bean casserole and baked fish with raisins. And of course a greek salad with crisp cucumbers, olives, feta and tomato. This was a true feast and by the time we got to the baklava (purchased from a local Greek establishment…we aren’t masochists), we were stuffed and everyone got some leftovers to take home. Next time, I will definitely provide To Go containers for everyone so that we don’t have to play tupperware roulette.

 

Overall the experience was great because it was more participatory than a traditional dinner party. I felt less like I was putting on a show (with all the attendant stress) and more like we were a group of merry honorary Greeks – a beautiful amalgamation of old world tradition and modern collaborative spirit. What is sweeter than that?

img_4136

 

 

 

 

 

 

THIS