give it a rough chop, place it into a clean glass jar, and cover it with vodka…
There are many advantages to being one of those annoying ‘foodies’, the quality of leftovers being among them.
This morning, I woke to the happy realization that although the clock said 8am, through the ideosyncratic nature of the gregorian calendar, which necessitates a little finagling twice each year, and then a major third tweaking every four years in order to keep right with the moon cycle*, I actually slept until 9am… score! Yes – I’m one of those Mayan calendar nuts, but I’m also very big on logic, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that it makes a lot more sense.
I also woke up to sun creeping into my room after a terribly rainy night, as well as an actual day off for Ben and I both. Since planning for Season’s Eatings, Saturdays have been my day to accompany Ben to the still, to work on the lovely desktop there, with its huge monitor, and ample processing speed. Not to mention the joy I get from walking in and greeting the spirits first thing in the morning. Twice now, my friend Matthew’s caught me singing a little made-up song. Matthew needs to make more noise when he walks up behind you is what I always say.
But today is Sunday, and Ben’s and my single day off together. Having made a nice pot of French Roast, and switching on Nigella Lawson, I scoured my neglected pantry for something that might resemble a proper Sunday breakfast for us. In the end, I seared some leftover baked ham from dinner at my mom and dad’s, crisped up some rhubarb crumble muffins I’d baked and frozen this summer, and assembled a fruit plate using clementine wedges and the last crimson seeds of a pomegranate we had been working on for a week. Not too shabby.
Many of you know that I became a homeowner quite recently. With home ownership comes a litany of discoveries – some good (like vintage garden tools tucked away in a loft), some questionable (like a backyard light that turns itself on every night, but that you can’t locate a timer for), and some bad (a neighbor with a penchant for illegal fireworks regardless of the season) You take the good and do what you can to deal with the bad. Along those lines, I thought I was doing the responsible thing by pulling out an overgrown and diseased rhubarb plant that was growing in the weed-ridden bed behind my attached garage last summer. I knew that Helen, the former owner of the house (now deceased) loved rhubarb and shared it with her neighbors, so I had very real pangs of regret. For reasons I can’t explain, I’ve always felt compelled to honor her memory and respect her traditions. Still after summing up the situation, I surmised that a fresh start was in order. I pulled out the old plant, weeded and amended the soil in preparation of bigger and better things. The neighbors would like brussels sprouts, right?
The rhubarb, however, having been a longtime resident of that bed, had absolutely no intention of going along with my plan:
After seeing the brilliant effort it made to the contrary this past spring, I could only nod in agreement.
Still – the inherent conundrum..what on god’s earth do I do with rhubarb? I recall my grandmother, Sadie, cooking down the stalks with sugar to make a warm compote that she served over vanilla ice cream. Charming, for sure, but I don’t find myself craving sweets very often, and if I wanted to ingest those types of calories, i would quickly locate a nearby cheeseburger.
I hated the thought of wasting perfectly good food in season, though..especially when it arrives in such quantity and volunteers itself so willingly. For two months, I made a mission of finding ways to love and appreciate the bounty that is my rhubarb.
As if by some marvelous stroke of culinary serendipity, I found my first inspiration just a few weeks later, having tasted a phenomenal rhubarb chutney and rhubarb and gin cocktail while dining at the home of my friends, Mori and Julie.
Because rhubarb cooks down so nicely, it’s really a no-brainer for chutney. Its somewhat singular flavor lends itself beautifully to whatever you want to throw in. I carmelized a shallot, threw in a bit of orange zest, some apple cider vinegar and enough brown sugar to just cut through the tartness. I added black peppercorns, some sea salt and a bit of fresh rosemary for good measure, and let it all simmer slowly until the rhubarb was soft, and the vinegar was reduced and lost its bite. That afternoon we grilled an herb-rubbed pork tenderloin and had a few of our favorite Portland rocker boys over for cocktails and bocce ball. My friend, Brent, commented that while he dug the tenderloin, after trying it slathered with a little of the chutney, he didn’t want to go back to eating it without it.
Not being able to live by chutney alone, I recalled how much I’d dug the rhubarb gin cocktail that I was served at Mori’s. Rhubarb makes for a tart, jewel-toned syrup that mixes very well with vodka, and also enhances the herbal complexity of a good gin. New Deal Distillery had recently released its Gin # 3 to the public, so not wanting to waste any time in welcoming our ginny new friend into the world, I mixed it with equal parts New Deal Vodka, a few tablespoons of the rhubarb syrup and a fill of San Pellegrino Limonata,because after all, I’m a big fan of the fizzy. I finished the cocktail with a few leaves of lemon balm, and declared it to be summer incarnate. My guess is that the syrup would also be lovely mixed with plain fizzy water, and topped with a few drops of Regan’s Orange Bitters to alter its reality just a bit.
A surprise birthday breakfast at my parent’s home a few months later gave me the perfect opportunity to expand my rhubarb repertoire even further. When my younger sister expressed an interest in making crepes, I offered to make a number of fillings, among them being a compote of rhubarb cooked down with fresh strawberries and infused with cinnamon and star anise. I finished the compote with a splash of locally made tangerine liqueur, and it made for very nice crepes, alone, or topped with fresh marscapone. Although I’m not a huge dessert fan, it’s nice to have a few impressive dessert-related tricks up one’s sleeve. This compote would incorporate beautifully into a whole plethora of other desserts – as a topping for a simple lemon pound cake, folded into creme anglaise, or, as grandma Sadie would have it, on top of a humble dish of vanilla ice cream.
As the summer drew to a close, the rhubarb continued to come in full force – stalk upon ruby stalk requiring a weekly harvest until I could barely keep up. Friends stopped pretending to be excited when I offered it, and I’d given up as much freezer space as I was willing to, so I decided to do the obvious and tried my hand at a makeshift rhubarb crisp. I stewed chunks of rhubarb with cinnamon, brown sugar and vanilla, and topped it with a crumbly mixture of butter, brown sugar and toasted chopped walnuts. Taste – fabulous – otherwordly, in fact. Appearance? Brown mush. My boyfriend wouldn’t even try it, and I was too embarrassed to give the pan I made for the neighbors to them. I could just picture the exchange “Here…I made you something” as I hand them a pan of something that might have been burped up by my garbage disposal. Fine. Being PR-minded, I understand that packaging is everything. I quickly folded my delicious but homely crisp into cinnamony muffin batter alternated with fresh rhubarb chunks, poured it into tins, topped it with with cinnamon sugar, and baked. Perfect. I gave some away, and stuck some in the freezer. Parents dropping in unexpectedly? I can throw on a pot of coffee and crisp these up for about 7 minutes in a warm oven. Poof. Done.
By early Autumn, Mark Bittman came to my rescue. He wrote about a savory sauce that calls for rhubarb and saffron, to be used with pan-fried red snapper. Yes, please. I took his basic idea and changed it according to my own liking and what i had on hand. My sauce incorporated rhubarb, shallots, orange zest, saffron and a tiny bit of chili pepper. Mark used fish, but I’m more of a shrimp girl, so I made skewers, threw a few on the grill with some sea salt and a squeeze of orange juice, and served them with the sauce. The sauce was smoky with a slight heat, sweet and savory and tart. I like it. I like it a lot. I would also like to use it for dipping panko breaded shrimp, so I think I’ll freeze some…given that shrimp doesn’t become a memory due to recent events in the Gulf. Remind me that we need to talk about the large shrimp farm operations that were threatening to put the small family operations there out of their life long businesses there well before the BP disaster. I’m not terribly psychic, but I have a pretty good idea of who’s going to come up with the short end of the stick and who’s going to gain in the post-spill world. Sigh.
Oh, yeah. We were talking about rhubarb.
So – in summation, yes. I finally get rhubarb, and since its well into October and mine doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon, I’m going to continue to look for new ways to appreciate, enjoy and share it (ha – one stalk per trick or treater?). I know that its former mom, Helen would be happy, and I know my grandma, Sadie would approve.
With the near-constant flood of fabulous young things entering Portland’s golden restaurant scene, we’ve all been guilty of letting some long withstanding treasures fade from our memories. To be fair, it sometimes falls on the establishment itself for resting on its laurels – an almost unforgivable transgression at a time when local culinary stars are many, but the pool of disposable dollars, while not shrinking, is still nowhere near where it was prior to the unpleasantness of the recent housing/insurance/collapse/bailout/bank heist…(oh god… are my liberal nutjob leanings showing again? )
When it comes to places to eat breakfast, it can happen pretty easily. After all, there are only so many Sundays in a week… and even fewer Sundays where one can sleep in, throw on something only slightly better than pajama bottoms, and head out to a favorite haunt to linger over a well-crafted brunch. Competition is fierce in this town for good breakfast spots, and its easy to get lost in the shuffle.
Take for instance this morning… (and I say morning loosely, because it was 12:30 when I woke up)…the last thing I remembered last night was watching an old episode of Weeds while indulging in a slice of leftover chocolate birthday cake from Bakery Bar, frosted in rich butter cream, decorated with fondant, which Ben had extricated from the freezer. As enjoyable as it was, I doubt it was worth the incredible sugar hangovers we woke up with. We needed some breakfast-related TLC and we needed it stat.. but where to go? We pondered our options – the J&M? (consistently wonderful, but a little further than we wished to venture in our compromised state), Slappy Cakes? (cute name and a bar featuring local booze, but really – if we had the wherewithal to make our own pancakes, we wouldn’t be going out.) Veritable Quandary? (too likely I’d run into an acquaintance). We decided to head down Hawthorne Blvd and take our chances.
Our first stop was Jam on Hawthorne. I’d had misgivings after having eaten there once and feeling that it was terribly expensive for terribly mediocre food, but we both noted that it had been getting decent reviews on Yelp and CitySearch as of late, and decided to give it a shot. We put our name on the list for a table, but after checking an uninspired specials board, not being able to find a clean coffee mug at the self-serve coffee station, and feeling gladly out of place among the windbreaker and athletic sandal-wearing ‘i’m an elitist jerk but i used to go to phish shows in the 90′s so its ok’ crowd, we took our name off the list and headed up the street to an old favorite, the Bread and Ink Cafe. (side note: It’s ok to be elitist, for heaven’s sake, but you should at least be open about it and carry a goddamned Prada bag, for chrissakes. What is this sh%t about showing up for brunch in tevas?!?)
To me, the hallmark of a great breakfast spot is the ability to execute the basics flawlessly….and to make one feel well-cared for at a time of day when they may not be up to taking care of themselves. At the Bread and Ink, these virtues are achieved by way of tender and fluffy buttermilk pancakes, a hot cup of robust coffee, topped off as if by magic, generous portions of perfectly crispy/chewy bacon, a house-baked baguette, and perfectly roasted herbed potatoes. The ambience – airy, spacious and comfortable – draws an interesting mix – from walk of shamers to the well-dressed silver set. Servers range from tattoed with well-kept rocker mullets to dapper older gentlemen..from goth to npr… but regardless of who brought what or did what for us, the service was singularly helpful, friendly, efficient. Great service, amazing food, cool people, and I dig it. This is the Portland weekend breakfast experience at its best. Bread and Ink…my sincerest thanks. You are getting bumped up to the top of my list.
Today is Sunday. It is also raining. I’ve just paid my bills and come to the conclusion that my footloose and fancy free manner of spending is not going to cut it over the next two weeks. I need to be mindful of what comes in and leaves my checking account, which for me means avoiding extravagant purchases at the farmer’s market, and cooking at home rather than going out to eat for lunch and dinner. In a great stroke of luck, this time happens to find me with a fairly well-stocked larder. It’s very fortunate, and this week, I’m putting it to use.
My friend, Mori, a very skilled cook and always a welcome guest in my home brought me a lovely gift of dried chanterelles that he and his partner, Julie had foraged themselves a few weeks earlier. Mori and Julie are worthy of their own blog post, and thanks to an amazing Indian feast and a lovely rhubarb and gin cocktail, you’ll be hearing more about them in a later post.
Long story short, I have an amibitious plan to satiate my foodist cravings by making good use of the dried chanterelles, as well as some of the other random items I have on hand: big, meaty country-style pork ribs, a bag of basmati rice, some lovely shallots and leeks and I got at the farmer’s market yesterday ($6 total), a big bag of rolled oats, some avocados, and some cara cara oranges. In all of this, I also need to develop a recipe that incorporates spirits for a cooking class I’m working on. Here is my plan:
A little overly ambitious? Yes. But so what? Even if I only get through half of this list, it’s going to be great.
Stay tuned, and wish me luck!….
i recently experienced a curious turn of what i can only refer to as culinary serendipity….
just as i marveled at the early spring resurrection of a rhubarb plant i’d thought i pulled out last summer, and wondered what in the world to do with it, i received a last-minute dinner invitation care of my friend Mori. Mori’s amazing feast of Indian food just so happened to feature a tart and refreshing rhubarb chutney, as well as a rhubarb and gin cocktail that knocked my socks off. quite the coincidence.
how i ‘ve wanted to write my first real blog entry about that cocktail…and i still might, but i’d like to wait until i can use my own rhubarb to make the cocktail, since my story is just as much about the amazing will of that plant as anything else….plus, waiting for my own rhubarb means that i’m enjoying local produce in its season – something I aspire to, but don’t always find the easiest thing to pull off in these last few months where root vegetables and coarse, leafy greens are the norm. meh – kale. will I be able to wait that long? stay tuned.