A Beet, a Pickle, and a Potato Walk into a Bar . . .

My explorations of Sundays at Moosewood continue, and thank God I’m I nicer person than I was in the early 1990s. In reading through the section on food from the Southern United States, I came across the very sentence that nearly led me heave the book out the window: “I had to redefine Southern cooking in order to present it without meat.”

Therein lies the major shortcoming of the book. If the cuisine I grew up with has been rendered unrecognizable (the author suggests adding Gouda cheese instead of bacon to give Southern dishes their smokey flavor, an idea that’s only slightly better than shoving a fork into your own eyeball), then I can only imagine how they’ve desecrated the cuisines of Africa, India, and China.

But I’m a calmer person now, content to labor along in abject ignorance of other cultures and willing to accept butchered versions of “authentic” dishes if they are edible. Thus I came across the recipe below for Russian salad–which used a miraculous combination of beets, pickles, and potatoes to clear out the entire supply of oddball items left lurking in my refrigerator.

The recipe comes from the section in Sundays at Moosewood on Finnish cuisine. The recipes, focusing on root vegetables, are fascinating, but there’s still a lot of earnest vegetarianism to overcome. The author of this section is a grad-school dropout who adopted some goats from a Finnish farmer, couldn’t bear to kill them, and started rescuing animals at livestock auctions. I sympathize (heck, I still can’t bring myself to eat veal)–but then, there’s the problem with the fish and the need to take advantage of what’s available in local conditions. Never mind that “the Finns do eat a great deal of fish, as is quite natural in such a watery place”; the author writes: “I don’t eat fish myself or recommend it to others, so I’ve not included fish recipes in this chapter.”

I’ll let the reaction of her Finnish neighbors to the smorgasbord Moosewood put on for them sum all this up: “Knowing how nostalgic Finns can be about their traditional foods, it was with some trepidation that we presented our [vegetarian] versions of some age-old dishes. But all was well. Nothing was too far off the mark or else, with the usual quiet steadiness and reserve of the Finnish folk, they didn’t let on.”

If those Finns had been in North Carolina, they’d have been saying, “Bless their hearts” quietly to themselves.

To honor the fishy Finns, I served the Russian Salad with a mackerel recipe adopted from James Beard’s “Mackerel in Escabeche.” It was a great combination of spicy and sweet, hearty and light. In this case, I DO recommend fish to others.

Russian Salad (Venalainensalaatti) (from Sundays at Moosewood, p. 263)

2 c. cooked, diced potatoes (the recipe says to peel; I did not)
2 c. peeled, diced, and cooked carrots
1 c. peeled, diced tart apple
1 c. minced dill pickles (we used Claussen’s)
1/2 c. minced onion
2 c. cooked, peeled, and diced beets

Cooked beets for Russian Salad, from Britt Farms

1 c. sour cream (or 2/3 c. heavy cream)
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice or cider vinegar (we used lemon juice)
Dash of salt, sugar, and freshly ground black pepper

Hard-boiled eggs, sliced

Dressing for Russian Salad

Mix potatoes, carrots, apple, pickles, and onion in large serving bowl. Chill. (I did not.) Combine all the dressing ingredients and chill. (Again, I did not.) Add the beets to the other vegetables just before serving. Fold dressing into salad just before serving. Can also serve dressing on the side or mounded on top of the salad. Decorate with egg slices.

Russian Salad ingredients assembled

Mackerel in Escabeche

3 mackerel steaks, salted and peppered (1 1/2 lb.)
1/4 c. lemon juice (recipe calls for lime)
1/4 c. orange juice
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 tbsp. red pepper flakes
4 small cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp. minced fresh cilantro
White wine

Mackerel awaiting saute

Saute all ingredients except mackerel, cilantro, and wine in large skillet until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.

Vegetables in saute

Add cilantro and mackerel.

Mackerel sauteing, just before covering

Cover and cook for about 2 minutes. Turn fish, cover and continue to cook until mackerel is just done, about 5 more minutes. Check after 1 – 2 minutes, and if sauce begins to dry out, add a few splashes of white wine.

Voila! Finland meets Mexico

In which weight watching again spurs us to new heights

Since last summer’s wine revelation, in which a beautiful piece of trout emerged victorious from its poaching in the world’s worst wine, we’ve continued to make variations on that dish. But our current caloric restrictions posed some new challenges when I went to cook some tilapia we picked up at the Evil Empire (some call it Whole Foods). A recipe with “1/2 stick butter” as its second ingredient would force us to eat celery for the rest of the week, and we had other plans.

But summer vegetables, herbs, and . . . well, chicken stock made from the Rainbow Meadow Farms chicken worked in our favor, and I was able to make a dish that was, truly, just as good as the original. (Really, Rainbow Meadow Farms is not paying me. But if they offered me a free chicken one day, I would not offer any objections.)

We ate the dish so fast that I was able to photograph only this sad leftover piece with its pitiful scraps of the pepper and onion–a symbol of the fleeting pleasures our ephemeral existence provides.

Louise was hopeful that some of those fleeting pleasures would fall across her path, and did her best to encourage mishaps by standing underfoot during much of the cooking process.

Realizing that even her best efforts were doomed to failure, however, she conceded defeat and went to pursue other pleasures by beating up Cleo.

Tilapia with Pepper and Onions (serves 2; 8 – 9 points each)

1 lb. tilapia fillets
2 tsp. olive oil
1 yellow pepper, cut into thin strips 2 – 3″ long
1 large sweet onion, halved, sliced thin
1 medium clove garlic, minced
1/4 – 1/2 cup chicken broth (homemade is best; otherwise use low sodium)
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
3 – 4 tbsp. fresh oregano, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

Generously salt and pepper tilapia fillets. Heat oil in large skillet over medium high heat. Add onions and saute until translucent. Add pepper and saute for 2-3 minutes, adding a little broth if ingredients get too brown. Add garlic and stir. Add enough broth to cover bottom of skillet. Salt to taste. Cover and cook for 10 minutes or so, until vegetables are tender.

Remove lid and lay tilapia over top of vegetables. Add remaining broth, if needed, and wine. Sprinkle herbs on top of fish. Cover and cook for five minutes or until fish is just cooked. Remove lid and put fish on serving plates. Turn heat to high and cook vegetables, uncovered, just a few minutes more, until liquid has somewhat evaporated. Add vegetables to plates. Leave skillet on high heat and reduce remaining liquid until somewhat thickened. Pour over fish and serve.

In Honor of Weight Watchers, We Present Fish Salad and Roasted Broccoli

Part I: Weight Watching

We’ve given up. We went to Weight Watchers yesterday.

It’s a sad day for the house that loves guanciale, and butter, and pasta, and roasting a chicken just so we can eat the skin. But we really have no choice. I am 7 pounds over what is considered a maximum healthy weight for my height, and Fred–well, he’s a little more than that.

Our mission now will be to create dishes that will keep us within our daily points allowance but won’t completely compromise our food integrity. This means none of the glue-like substances that some marketers try to pass off as food, like fat-free cream cheese and mayonnaise. I don’t think we can take that. But we can certainly eat a heck of a lot more vegetables, and probably much smaller portions of the things we love.

I am also delighted to report that a Bloody Mary is only 3 points, but just 2 if you use only a splash of tomato juice.

Tonight, we cooked the last of the guanciale in a pasta dish. We just ate less of it and more of the broccoli I fixed to go with it. A colleague offered the following preparation for the broccoli, which turned out to be quite good.

Roasted Broccoli

Cut up two heads of broccoli. Toss in 1 1/2 tbsp. olive oil and salt it to within an inch of its life. Roast in a shallow pan at 400 degrees until just beginning to brown, about 10 – 15 minutes.

“It’s just like popcorn,” my co-worker told me, and it’s pretty darn close.

II. And Then There’s the Fish Salad

I have also been meaning to talk about the spectacular fish salad I created last week with some leftover broiled triggerfish. Unfortunately its next iteration will probably have to wait until after the Weight Watchers project is over, or until I have not eaten for several days.

This is a great way to use leftover broiled, poached, or grilled fish. Since you don’t have to re-heat it, you don’t risk the overcooking that usually renders leftover fish dry and nearly inedible.

The recipe would work well with any white fish that you typically cook through rather than serve rare. If you have a leftover piece that is rare (like salmon or tuna), you might want to broil or poach it for a minute or two before making the salad.

Fish Salad (makes about 2 cups)

1 piece cooked fish (about 4 oz.), bones removed if necessary, chopped fine
2 – 3 carrots, peeled and minced
2- 3 stalks celery, minced
1 small sweet onion (Vidalia or other mild variety), minced
1/2 cup peas, cooked until just tender, drained (pour cold water over peas to stop cooking)
1/2 cup mayonnaise, or more to taste
Salt to taste

Mix all ingredients together in bowl. Serve with crackers or with a sandwich. Don’t count the Weight Watchers points.

World’s Worst Wine–and Great Fish

In March 2007, Julia Moskin reported in the New York Times that cheap wine worked just as well as expensive wine in recipes where the wine is cooked. Last night, I put this theory to the test with what is easily the World’s Worst White Wine, pictured below.

Fred received this as a gift from a Hungarian acquaintance about two years ago. It tastes like a cross between apple cider vinegar and Blue Nun Riesling. It has been sitting in our refrigerator, opened and unloved, for approximately a year.

(Please don’t ask me why I kept it. I can’t explain it. It’s the same impulse that causes me to save soap from hotel showers while I spend $30 for a bowl of cereal and coffee in the restaurant.)

Thank goodness I hung on to it. Last night I took a risk and poached some beautiful trout in the contents of our underappreciated friend. The result was tender, flaky fish in a light, balanced, sauce, with no trace of either vinegar or Blue Nun. Even better, we got to drink more of  the expensive bottle we received as a wedding gift.

Look at how our dear old companion, the longtime tenant of our refrigerator, hovers proudly over his creation:

Poached Fish in White Wine 2007 2

(Don’t tell him that I think a big part of the success was the fresh-squeezed lemon juice).

Here is the recipe. My new motto: Cook with crappy wine!

Trout Poached in White Wine and Herbs (serves 4)

4 large trout filets
1/2 stick butter
2 onions, thinly sliced and divided into rings
2 tbsp. snipped fresh chives
2 tbsp. parsley (I cheated and used dried)
4 bay leaves
2 tsp. whole black peppercorns
3/4 cup white wine (really, any kind will do!!)
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

Melt butter on low heat in large skillet. Turn heat to medium, add 1/2 of onions and saute until translucent. Put trout filets over onions (they can overlap a little). Generously salt filets. Place remaining onion, chives, parsley, and peppercorns over fish. Bury bay leaves between filets. Mix together wine and lemon juice and pour over fish. Add enough water to cover. Bring to boil, uncovered, then reduce heat to medium low. Continue to simmer, covered, until fish is just cooked–check after 5 minutes and continue checking every 1-2 minutes.

Here is a photo of the trout happily sauteing in the pan:

Poached Fish in White Wine 2007

We served this with a salad of baby greens and raw kale. It’s very quick and a nice side for the fish. This amount would make a small side salad for 4 people–increase amounts if you would like more.


1/4 c. olive oil
1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. brown mustard
1/4 tsp. salt

Whisk together dressing ingredients. Pour over:

2 cups baby greens
2 cups raw kale, stems removed, torn into bite-sized pieces

Top with:
1/2 c. fresh grated Parmesan

Toss, salt to taste, and serve.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, BLUE FISH (And Lard)

Despite the cold that FRED GAVE ME no matter what he says to the contrary, I did manage to make some fish yesterday. We bought some blue fish at the farmer’s market–just seconds ago, I learned that they are cannibals, so even vegetarians don’t have to feel guilty about eating them.

Unfortunately I really don’t have a particularly original or interesting way to cook them, but they were good. The filets are small–two per adult are a pretty good serving.

6 blue fish filets (1 lb.)
1/2 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
Hot pepper to taste (I used 1 diced cherry pepper)

Mix lemon juice, garlic, and hot pepper. Salt and pepper filets on both sides. Put filets, skin side down, on jelly roll pan. (I always called this a “cookie sheet” until someone told me a cookie sheet technically did not have sides). Pour lemon juice mix over filets and let sit for 15 minutes. Put oven rack on top shelf. Turn broiler on high. Cook fish for 5-6 minutes or until just cooked through.

I think you can cook any fish this way and life will be good.

Oh–and the lard. You can also put melt two tbsp. of lard in the bottom of a large pot, add about 1/2 cup water, 1 lb. fresh asparagus, and salt and cook on high heat until the asparaus is steamed. Unfortunately this is not vegetarian except that it involves a vegetable.

But a note to my vegetarian friend: Sesame oil and garlic will give you the same smoky feeling as bacon. It’s not a substitute, but I’ve found it to be a satisfying alternative.

Tasty Trout

Sunday at the Farmer’s Market we saw a local chef buying trout. So being clever we got some too.

I am discovering that I don’t like fish pan-seared in oil, after a recent trout incident I did not bother to report because the fish was not very good. Instead I turned to the Great Broiler (Fred). Though he doesn’t really cook, his innate love of meat and his Southern upbringing seem give him a sixth sense about how to broil and fry things.

We salted and peppered the filets and marinated them for about 15 minutes in two gigantic cloves of garlic (minced), the juice of two lemons, and about a teaspoon of dill. We broiled on high for 2 minutes on the skin side and 3 on the side with skin. They were fabulous. Thank God for that chef.

Next time, though, I may just leave the skin side up the whole time to make it even crispier and tastier.

A Quickie

My first effort at polenta (Italian grits–my apologies to my Italian friends) was last night. Can’t believe I’ve never made it before, but here’s the recipe.

Shrimp and Tomato Polenta

Saute in 2 – 3 tsp. olive oil:

1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped

Add and saute on low heat for a minute or so:

1 finely chopped cherry pepper or other hot pepper to taste. (Tip: Do NOT try eating cherry pepper seeds on their own, or if you do, do not allow seeds to touch your lips. If you do, add an additional 15-20 minutes to your cooking time to allow you to run water over your mouth, drink buttermilk, and try various other remedies to stop the pain.)
4 – 5 cloves garlic, minced

Add salt, pepper, and chopped fresh oregano and basil, neither of which I had but which would have been good. I had to settled for dried, tasteless parsley that I should just throw out.

Add 1/4 – 1/2 c heavy cream or half and half.

Add pureed tomatoes or sauce. Add water until sauce is thinned to your liking.

Add 1 lb. cooked shrimp. Serve over hot polenta, cooked until just soft.

Will try to add more info on polenta later–just wanted to get the recipe written!

Satan’s Computer and Poached Perch

Due to various extenuating circumstances, such as the Satan-possessed technology in our house that was miraculously recovered through the noble efforts of Linksys Wireless and BellSouth Tech Support, staffed by Marvin I-sound-like-the-Paranoid-Android and a very nice man I know only as Charlie, the following post has been delayed until just now. In the interim all hope of calabasa soup was abandoned in favor of dinner out, which consisted of a martini, wine, and some food. Fred’s art show was also put up and looks great. Now he just needs to sell everything in it to make less than a convenience store manager. But we are not bitter.

Moving along . . . .

Fred and I went to the Farmer’s Market yesterday to lay in our supply of vittles for the week. In passing I should add that the Farmer’s Market is not what you think. There are no overall-clad, wizened men in baseball caps sitting outdoors on the backs of their pickup trucks, or farmers of varied national origin sitting in booths behind piles of carrots, corn, and tomatoes. I have yet to see a single farmerly person there. It’s basically a warehouse with vegetables, meat, bread, dairy, wine, and beer, but no household products (toilet paper, dishwashing liquid, hair spray, etc.). The Market’s motto is “Bringing the World of People and Food Together,” and certainly it has brought me in contact with many foods I had never met before.

Friday’s new acquaintance was calabasa, which is a pumpkin-like squash with a green rind from the Caribbean/Mexico. I’m going to make a soup with it with some hot Italian sausage—we’ll see how it goes.

When we got home I scooped the seeds and flesh out of the calabasa (it was already halved), put some olive oil in it, and stuck it in the oven at 350 (which in my oddly slow oven means 400) for what probably should have been about 30 minutes to an hour but which ended up being closer to 3 after Fred and I started watching a Bob Newhart DVD and lost track of time and I started to notice a smell from the kitchen.

Luckily calabasa appears to be quite a hardy or perhaps hard to cook food, so I still don’t know how long you should really allow to prepare it. But after 3 hours in the oven it was soft, with only a little burned juice that had leaked out around the edges, and it tasted pretty good—like pumpkin—so I scooped out the cooked flesh and put it in the fridge for later.

I also washed the flesh off the seeds and roasted them this morning, but that experiment did not end so happily. I have a yummy recipe for spiced nuts and thought it might be good to use the spice mix for the calabasa seeds—oil, cumin, cayenne, sugar, and salt. It seems, though, that to get the oven hot enough to roast the seeds you end up with blackened sugar. Next time I’ll just use salt and olive oil to roast and add the spice mix afterward.

As for last night, we had Poached Perch. The idea came from a very briefly viewed Internet recipe for poaching mackerel. My only memory was that it had garlic and lime juice and that it was vaguely foreign. When I started cooking it last night the garlic and lime juice made me think, “Mexican,” which then led to thoughts of adding chipotle peppers that were mercifully ended by the sudden recollection that GINGER was the big thing involved in the Internet version. So I went Asian with the whole thing. Here’s the recipe:

  1. Saute 1 medium chopped onion in about 1 tbsp olive oil in a large non-iron skillet with a cover
  2. Mince 4 cloves garlic.
  3. Salt and pepper fish in casserole dish. (We had 4 perch filets, but any white fish would do.
  4. Mix in a bowl (oh, lessons learned—do not just start dumping things on the fish but mix first) about ¼ cup fresh lime juice, garlic, red pepper flakes to taste, grated ginger (2 tbsp??—I use the “fresh” grated ginger you get in a jar, not the dried stuff, as if there is some real food snobbery in that), and a few dashes of soy sauce. Make a little more than you think you’ll need and save a teaspoon or so for the salad dressing below.
  5. Put a little water to cover the bottom of the pan (maybe about ¼ inch) and bring to boil. Nestle fish in the bottom, turn to simmer, cover and cook until a knife placed on the fish goes down into the fish without much pressure—maybe 5 – 10 minutes. (I do remember the knife tip from the Internet recipe.)

I served this with a light salad consisting of Boston red lettuce and a dressing consisting of about 2-3 tbsp sesame oil and about a tsp of the above mix. I salted the lettuce after dressing it.

Fred and I were quite happy with this and ate two filets each while watching Bob Newhart.

I’m rightfully disturbed that I am now over 40 and spending Friday nights watching 1970s TV.