Archive for August, 2007

Blackberries in Seattle

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

They’re growing everywhere! Like weeds, except edible and oh, so tasty! It’s incredible. You don’t have to hunt to find them, you don’t need a secret spot, you just need to walk for a couple of minutes in any direction with a bucket in hand. And when you get there, you barely even have to put any effort toward getting them. A quart in ten minutes or less. You just ask the brambles, “could I have some berries, please?” and they gracefully lower their branches of their own accord toward the awaiting mouth of your container and the berries drop gently into it and it’s overflowing before you realize it with the largest, juiciest, sweetest berries around. It’s fantastic!

And yet somehow at Pike’s Market every produce place was selling berries for $3 per half pint.

National Waffle Day: August 24

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

Tomorrow is National Waffle Day! What a great holiday–I’m surprised I’d never heard of it before this year, seeing as I am such a big fan of waffles. The obscure holiday celebrates the anniversary of the first American waffle iron patent.

Cornelius Swarthout of Troy, NY received his patent on August 24, 1869—but that’s not to say that he invented the waffle or even the first waffle iron. Mr. Breakfast has a wonderful history of waffles included on his description of National Waffle Day. And while you’re at it, check out his 10 tips for making perfect waffles, all of which are important points. As far as tip #4 goes (don’t overmix), I feel as if Mr. Breakfast’s description of how to fold the egg whites could use some clarification, so as quoted from my recipe for savory waffles with stir-fried vegetables and mustard sauce, here are better how-to hints for making sure you don’t overmix:

“Fold the batter into the beaten egg whites with a rubber spatula, using a twisting motion with your wrist to bring the contents from the bottom of the bowl up and over to the top. Be careful not to stir the mixture because that will lead to your egg whites deflating, causing a more runny texture to your batter than is ideal. Continue until the batter has uniform consistency.”

So, armed with this new knowledge of waffle-making, get out there and make some waffles. Once you get the egg white beating and folding technique down in the relatively low-key realm of waffledom, you’ll be ready to tackle souffles. I’ll try to make one next week and have my lovely wife take some photographs of the process…

Proper Grip Makes Whisking Easier

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007

I asked my wife to whisk something for me last night as we were making dinner and she complained that she didn’t want to; she didn’t like to whisk. After seeing the way she was holding the whisk, it’s no wonder. She had her wrist turned at a funny angle and her finger pointed down the handle–it looked incredibly awkward.

Hold the whisk like a pencil. It’s much easier. If you don’t believe me, ask my wife–she took my suggestion to heart and her technique was immediately transformed from awkwardness to proficiency.

Marinated Lamb Chops With Mint-Cherry Sauce

Monday, August 20th, 2007

Salt and pepper lamb shoulder chops and lay in a shallow casserole dish large enough to accommodate all chops in a single layer. Wash several sprigs of mint and mince the leaves. Mix with R.W. Knudsen Just Tart Cherry Juice and pour over the meat. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Grill the meat over medium-hot coals until medium-rare. As the meat cooks, pour the marinade into a saucepan and reduce on the stove until it thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon.

This is one of those instances when a recipe is more a way of doing things than a recitation of exact quantities of necessary ingredients. Really, when it comes down to it, unless you’re baking, exact quantities of ingredients aren’t really required—it’s more a matter of knowing the proper techniques and having an idea of what things match well together. Also, it’s important that key ingredients not be substituted. In this case, the recipe calls for R.W. Knudsen Just Tart Cherry Juice. This shouldn’t be replaced with a sugary cherry juice cocktail, or even Knudsen’s Just Black Cherry Juice. The acidity of the Just Tart Cherry Juice is important to achieving the best results.

Harris Grill, RIP

Thursday, August 16th, 2007

The Harris Grill, a Shadyside dining destination well known throughout Pittsburgh for its outdoor patio seating, quirky and extensive menu selections, and its weekly Bacon Night happy hour, perished in flames on Saturday evening, August 11.
The Post-Gazette account of the fire gives few details about the blaze, but according to Tom Mamaux, owner of the nearby Beechwood Garden Center, the fire is believed to have been started by one of the restaurant’s signature tiki torches. The torch was apparently blown over by a strong wind into a trash can that was resting below the restaurant’s wooden fire escape.

Diners and staff at the Harris Grill were unaware of the situation until patrons of the Elbow Room, located across the street from the Harris Grill, came over to let people in the restaurant know that the building was on fire. By that time, the flames had engulfed the fire escape and were working on the roof.

Cortney Higgins and Tom Murphy, who were both dining on the second floor of the restaurant at the time of the blaze, report that evacuation proceeded in an orderly manner. “Everyone was calm and it could have been a whole lot worse,” said Ms. Higgins. Mr. Murphy recalled that they could feel the warmth of the flames as they descended the stairs.

Outside, as firefighters battled the fire, Mr. Murphy and Ms. Higgins report that one of the waitresses was distraught and in tears. Meanwhile, the owner of the establishment tried to put a good face on things, saying that they would re-open for happy hour that evening. The three-alarm fire, however, caused extensive fire and smoke damage to the whole building, and the process of smothering the blaze resulted in extensive water damage. Currently, the gate to the restaurant’s patio is padlocked and it is unclear at this time whether the restaurant will re-open, and if it does, if it will still be at the same location.

For a photo of the fire in progress and a first-hand account of the event, visit Tom Murphy’s web page.

Cooking Off The Cuff

Wednesday, August 15th, 2007

One of my favorite ways to cook is to go at it with barely a plan in mind: pull things out from the refrigerator and figure out how they go together; how to make them into a well-balanced meal. Such was the case tonight as I set out to make dinner for Aurora and me. Wednesday is CSA pick-up day, so we had lots of fresh produce available. Somewhat more importantly, though, we had a fair amount of produce from last week that needed to be used up.

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Happy Birthday, Corduroy Orange!

Friday, August 10th, 2007

It’s hard to believe but today marks one year that I’ve been writing Corduroy Orange. During the past year, I’ve uploaded 210 posts (counting this one) and have received 132,583 page views from 36,417 unique IP addresses; since December, I’ve been averaging more than 10,000 page views a month. It’s a lot more attention than I expected I’d be getting—thank you for reading!

I think the portion of the content that I’m particularly fond of is the knife skills instructional section. I’ve said it hundreds of times, and I’ll say it thousands more: the knife is the most important tool in the kitchen. A good, sharp knife, and the knowledge of how to use it will cut your preparation time for every meal significantly. A good, sharp knife used incorrectly can sever a fingertip. It’s worth your time and attention to learn how to use your knives in a safe and efficient manner.

Not only that, but once you are to the point where you’re cutting your vegetables to consistent sizes, the quality of your cooking will go up as a result, because every piece in your pan will cook at an identical rate, as opposed to the small pieces burning while the larger pieces are still half-raw. So, if you haven’t already looked at it, check out my knife skills table of contents and follow the links for a step-by-step guide to using your knives in the best manner possible. Then, look at my vegetable cookery crib sheet to see what order you should put your well-cut vegetables into the pan so that the vegetables that take the longest to cook get the most time. If you’d like some further assistance learning better knife skills and cooking techniques, private instruction is available in the Pittsburgh area on a limited basis. Email me for more information.

As long as I’m giving plugs for the oldies-but-goodies that are stashed in the site’s vaults, I think it’s also worth mentioning my zucchini muffins, especially as we’re entering the time of year when zucchini abounds. They are the best zucchini muffins I’ve ever eaten. For a special treat, pair them with my sweet caramelized red onion marmalade, which is really quite good. I can see you making a face; it’s the same one my sister made when I told her we’d be having zucchini muffins and red onion marmalade. Know what she did? Asked for thirds. And fourths, if I remember correctly. The cooking technique of caramelizing the onions brings out their natural sweetness, which is then accentuated with the addition of liberal amounts of pure maple syrup and/or honey.

So, thanks for stopping by on occasion to kill some time and learn about cooking. Remember to support your local farmers. If you’re not sure who they are, you can search for them by zip code at www.localharvest.org. Once you’ve found them, call them up, visit them, buy their food… they’ll be glad to meet you and tell you all about what they do. Learn your knife skills! And save the liver!

At Last, Tomatoes!

Thursday, August 9th, 2007

I got my first local tomatoes in my CSA shipment yesterday, accompanied by a healthy bunch of cilantro, some thai basil, and some corn (among other inclusions). As far as I’m concerned, though, those (along with a couple of garden-fresh hot peppers) are the most important parts for today, as I set out to make salsa.

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Grilled Corn—The Easiest Thing To Cook, Ever

Friday, August 3rd, 2007

Lots of instructions that I have read about how to grill corn have you waste your time and effort going through steps like peeling back the husks, removing the silk, replacing the husks, tying the corn shut, and soaking them in water. Or, peeling the corn on the cob entirely and wrapping each cob in foil.

There’s no need! The corn silks provide all the moisture you need to roast your corn atop hot charcoals, so why remove them and then soak the corn in water? The husks provide all the protection your corn needs not to burn, so why remove them and wrap the corn in foil?  It makes no sense.

Take your fresh, locally grown corn from the bag and place it on the grill above hot coals. Turn it when the outer husk looks charred. The corn is done when it’s been cooked on all sides. Let it cool briefly (several minutes, or until you can handle peeling it without dropping the hot ear of corn), then peel it by pulling down on the silks that are exposed at the top of the ear. They come cleanly away from the corn, leaving no annoying strands behind to get caught in your teeth. It’s the most hassle-free way to cook anything that I know.

Food and Community

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

Have you noticed how food is often more than just nourishment?

It is, of course, always nourishment, and we need it to survive. But were it simply calories and nutrients, we would be like my cat Schlitz, who every morning is excited to hear the sound of food pellets entering his empty dish. Yet even Schlitz enjoys the ritual of a can of tuna, knowing that the smell of it opening signifies the imminence of a special treat: a small dish of the water the fish was packed in. He sits at my feet, meowing loudly and batting at my ankles, saying, “Come on mister, give it here, and I mean now!”

But that’s just an every once in a while thing for him. Whereas for us (and by us, I think I speak for most), there are a million little rituals surrounding our food and how it is obtained, prepared, served, and shared. These rituals are as old as time itself and materialize themselves even in religion, whether in breaking the challah, blessing the communion wafer, or taking the thigh bone of the just-slaughtered beast, wrapping it in fat, and burning it as an offering to Zeus or grey-eyed Athena. People have always thanked God for their food.

That is, in part, because food equals life. But also, food equals friends and family. Feasts are used to mark celebrations; the celebrations themselves are often inseparable from the food that is served. Holidays of all types fit this mold, whether Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, Eid ul-Fitr, or even the serving of cake and ice cream at a birthday party.

My family has some of its own celebrations that are unique to being a Sharrard. One of my favorites was always the summer shish-kabob. My grandfather, who was a professional tinkerer and who also didn’t get dressed in the morning without enacting a private ritual, created huge skewers specifically for the feast, by which I mean that he turned the handles on his lathe, sharpened the rods on his grinder, and built the set of three-foot skewers entirely in his basement workshop.

Our family would spend the morning skewering the lamb, bacon, and vegetables, including my personal favorite—tomatoes straight from our garden. As part of the skewering process, someone would be assigned the tearful task of drilling holes through onions because my grandfather, in his painstaking exactitude, had hit upon this step as the oddly logical, though not quite obvious, solution to the dilemma of how to skewer the bulb without breaking it to pieces.

In the early afternoon, my grandfather would build the fire in the fire pit he had dug to match the size of the skewers. I was quite young when most of the shish-kabobs happened, so I don’t remember the process in exact detail, but by mid-afternoon the flames had subsided and there was a glowing pit of coals ready to roast meat over. The skewers would be trotted out on trays and lined up over the pit and slowly turned and rotated so that no single skewer was over the same part of the fire for any longer than it was over any other. Then, as the meat approached ideal doneness (still pink in the center, moist, and quite flavorful), my favorite portion of the day would begin: standing fireside with a saucepan at the ready to catch the tomatoes as they dropped from the skewers, roasted through. This was a game that was eliminated in later years by making skewers of just tomatoes so that they could be removed when they were cooked, so no one would have to save them from the coals.

This was also the part of the day when everyone would arrive. And by everyone, I mean everyone. That was the whole point of my grandfather having built the skewers—everyone could share in the feasting: family from out of town, friends from church, business associates, my parents’ friends, neighbors. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had been invited to join us on the merit of walking past the house as food was being served.

Being young at the time, I thought that all families had rituals as elaborate as ours. I wasn’t quite right, this ritual being much more elaborate than most, but every family has some sort of pageant that they enact on a regular basis, be it standing around the grill with a beer in hand, waiting for the steaks to char ,or making flapjacks in the kitchen on Saturday mornings. These are the things that make us feel like family. These are the things that make us know we belong and we are loved. These are the ways that food sustains us by more than just its nutrients, but also by building within us a sense of community to which we can aspire.

Photo credit: James Sharrard