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Best 99 Things I Ate All Year

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A Model Lemon
Muffing It
Family Therapy

August 20, 2007 Home Model Meal?
No, an Odd Lemon


Next time, strain the juice While working behind the scenes to spruce this site up and provide you, my surprisingly loyal reader, with the rich technological bounty you so deserve - RSS feeds, trackbacks, the sweet affordance of leaving a comment or two in this virtual space - I am nonetheless overwhelemed by guilt.
I am sorry not to have posted anything for several months. And so I offer in recompense, not just a few novel recipes, but an entirely new category of word game that I hope you will find amusing; especially when half in the bag with drink, sorrow, or the tedium of modern life.
It's the latter that inspired this particular amusement, and I can testify that if you're looking for tedium, the Connecticut Turnpike on a rainy Sunday provides a peerless backdrop. I was on it a few weeks ago with my wife and son, hoping to get to Philadelphia at some point, when we were caught in an epic storm that choked the whole thing off like a thrombosed artery.
One wet patch brought down all four lanes, forcing everyone traveling west to detour through quaint Darien, and giving me the opportunity to show off my liberal arts education: "Hey, we're 'silent, upon a peak in Darien' - name it and claim it!" I said, at the appropriate point. But there were no takers; not even my son, who recently won a computer memory stick for reading 'Ozymandias' out loud at a spoken poetry competition.
"It's Keats, dammit," I had to explain. "Something about reading Homer. Or maybe it's Shelley, in which case you should know it, Cam, since you just read 'Ozymandias.'"
"There was a traveler in an ancient land," my son obediently observed, but that was as far as he got � and about as far as we went, too, since, upon re-entering the turnpike, we immediately ran into another delay caused by a swamp-sized puddle in New Rochelle that squeezed everyone down to one lane.
We were caught in a conga line of traffic for about two hours, with nothing to listen to but the rain and the radio, and nothing to see but other cars. One of them carried two small boats on a cartop rack.
"Those kayaks could come in handy," I pointed out. "If we could just find one more."
"Kayak reads the same forward and back," my son commented. "It's a palindrome."
"Very handy word," I said. "I'm a kayak, am I?"
"Go hang a salami, I'm a lasagna hog," my son responded.
"No way!" I exclaimed, admiringly.
"Way," my son said. "It's my favorite palindrome." And he repeated it once or twice more for me, slowly.
"Outstanding," I acknowledged. "OK, did you know the first words ever spoken were a palindrome � 'Madam, I'm Adam?'"
"No. That's pretty good."
"And so was the response, which was either, just, 'Eve,' or else, 'Sir, I'm Iris.'"
"Excellent," my son nodded.
Over the next ten minutes we went through all the common palindromes any of us could remember, e.g.: "Race car, "Able was I ere I saw Elba," "Dammit, I'm mad," and a handful more. Inevitably, there was a long silence filled with fruitless mental searching and the plash of steady rain.
We were boxed in by cars in every direction for what turned out to be real miles. There was not much to look at besides our neighbors. To my right, a dull green car was piloted by an elderly man who simply stared, unmoving, at the long line of red tail lights stretched ahead, his expression as glazed as his windshield. His license plate was an old one from Tennessee, the Volunteer State.
It looked like we would never move again.
"Senile Tennesseans eat lentils," I said.
My wife and son laughed. "That is not a palindrome," my son quickly insisted.
"No, but it should be."
There was another drenched silence. After a long pause my son leaned forward from the back seat and said, with appropriately clear enunciation, "Ada cured a barracuda."
"That should definitely be a palindrome," I laughed. Then, after a bit:
"Ronda gored an organ donor."
"A baby rabbit bit an Arab rabbi."
"I'm an alpine meal plan? No, salami."
And so on, until the traffic cleared, and the saturating sense of oppression that made all these phrases seem incredibly warped and funny dried up along with the road. We moved on in personal but companionable silence, accompanied only by satellite radio, and the occasional swish of the wipers.
Back home after our travels, my new batch of preserved lemons was finally ready. I usually make these at some point in the summer, but I'd had a particular craving since reading Claudia Roden's excellent new cookbook, Arabesque. In fact, Roden's recipes had created such slavering desire that, besides going out and buying a large bag of small, firm, organic lemons to put up in the traditional manner, which needs about three weeks to cure in a strong brine, I also made a super-quick batch which, according to her instructions, would be ready in a day or two.
This latter involved boiling the lemons briefly in heavily salted water, then packing them in oil for a few days. The results were said to approximate the limpid texture of the uncooked variety � instant preserved lemons, without the wait, the big glass jug, or the scary sight of lemons sitting out on the counter at room temperature, for weeks at a time (they do sometimes get a little white mold on top if you don't regularly agitate the jar).
In fact, the pseudo-preserved lemons worked out a lot like our pseudo-palindromes - not only much easier to create, but in their own way, more amusing and versatile than the originals. Scored and left whole as they lolled in the bubbling brine, then cooled and defleshed with a spoon, the speed-treated lemons were ready to use right away in my book, even if Roden's suggested a few day's rest.
And so, disinclined to wait, I diced up a heaping tablespoon to renovate some couscous tabouleh that had spent a few days in the fridge. The texture was already soft enough to go almost unnoticed in the salad, at least next to the diced raw red onion and chickpeas, but added a sharp, lemony aroma and bitter tang that helped the dish, and me, forget its long wait under wraps.
The remaining lemon peel quarters, denuded of their pith and stored in oil in the pantry, did become even silkier in a few days time. Lacking the al dente toothiness of the uncooked product, which was still aging slowly on my countertop, the boiled-in-brine lemons were perhaps a bit more versatile. Diced fine, they made a quick and lively garnish for curried lentils, and slid easily into a topping for broiled cod, mixed with parsley and buttered breadcrumbs.
A few days later, when asked to bring a salad to a pot luck buffet, I concocted a Chopped Salad with Rosemary Ham and Preserved Lemon, using diced romaine and small cubes of creamy mozzarella mixed in with fragrant squares of ham sautéed crisply in olive oil. It was a good complement to the melange of other dishes, and a little mysterious - the kind of thing you tasted, then tried to figure out.
By the time the traditional product had completed its long, puckering, soak, the remains of the blitzkrieg version had made its way to the fridge, where I thought they might keep better, or at least keep from falling apart, as they became increasingly soft over time. It eventually then became possible to do a taste test: the cooked, oil-soaked lemons vs. the traditional brined variety, competing head-to-head.
The result? Well, context is everything. Tasted next to each other, the brine-cured lemons had tang, crunch, saltiness, a bitter afterburn and an intense, lemony aroma all distinct in one bite, like tiny crenellations. By contrast, the boiled skins seemed pallid, worn-out and homogenized. Prematurely aged, the speed-treated lemons were now prematurely senile.
I made a deliciously aggressive dish of Curried Ground beef with Tahini and Preserved Lemons to celebrate the new arrivals. It was clear that the right moment for the pseudo-preserved lemons, like the pseudo-palindromes, had come and gone. Their new best place was in the compost heap, from whence they could only return in the most roundabout way, unless - yet again - a new craving in the absence of the real thing emerged. And so, perhaps - I'll yearn for mellowed lemons yearly?


March 18, 2007 Home Muffing It


Just 510 calories, and a tasty D+ in nutritionRecipe number 99, which is the maximum number I want to present on this site at one time, combines two great New England traditions: muffins from Dunkin' Donuts, and bay shrimp from the Gulf of Maine.
It's a big deal around here among foodies when the tiny fresh shrimp from the Gulf of Maine start landing in the city of Portland. A mysterious Mainiac known as Johnny D catalogues the particulars for the New England regional forum on the eGullet site, and the rest of us wait our turn to see how many come south or west.
Portland, Maine isn't too far for me to go to buy shrimp if I'm in the mood - actually, neither is Alaska - but this year's short and relatively poor harvest season snuck by without a trip, so I made do with frozen shelled shrimp from last year's catch.
Our local fish emporium, captained by a short, dark, no-nonsense woman known (to me, anyway) as Seafood Annie, was selling them for $6.50 a pound, same price as last year. I figure it was like getting a year's worth of electricity for free, and the shrimp were fine. They have an unusually tender, crumbly texture, and actually firm up a bit when frozen.
We ate a lot of these in one of my favorite appetizer concoctions - chili-pickled shrimp tostaditas - but I also wanted to enjoy the annual windfall in a shrimp cake entrée, even if the main ingredient (no pun intended) was from last year. This normally means using crumbs made from stale french loaves and/or the more traditional pilot biscuits, but I thought the sweet, crumbly shrimp might go well with crumbs made from toasted corn bread. And, just as I was driving around thinking these thoughts, a Dunkin' Donuts hove into view.
I knew Dudo's stocked a reasonably crumbly and quite tasty, if also quite sweet and quite fattening, corn muffin version, so I picked up just one for my pound of Maine Shrimp, and used cracker crumbs for the remaining bulk. The results were better than I had any reason to expect. The cakes were deliciously moist (no doubt from all the hydrogenated vegetable oil, but what's one corn muffin split four ways?) and not at all too sweet in the end, with a good, golden color and a satisfying, stuffing-like texture.
If you are aghast at the presence of store-bought commercial products in the rarefied, scratch-only atmosphere of this particular site, please understand that Dunkin' Donuts, though owned for a time by the French, began its life in Quincy, Mass. Given the loyalty of New Englanders, it's products are treated with the same bemused reverence afforded to all examples of Mom's home cooking, even if it does deserve its D+ in nutrition from calorie-count dot com. Eat up and smile, or try it with corn bread, instead.
Final note: unusually careful readers of this site may have noiced my plans to focus on meals that require just seven or fewer main ingredients, can be made in one single pot in less than an hour, and will feed from two to four discriminating grownups or unusually large and savvy kids (of which I have two).
I thought a good landmark for starting this new adventure would be when I reached 99 recipes, at which point I'd change the name of the thread accordingly (see above). This thread is NOT ENDING, but it might become more occasional as I embark on the new Project 24X7X1 thread, which will also take advantage of more typical blog features like comments and RSS feeds. I'm working on this now and I'll see you there as soon as I can.

February 20, 2007 Home Family Therapy


Pillows vs. PodsI do love to cook, but putting fork tracks in three or four pounds of gnocchi doesn't seem like cooking so much as enslavement to an ideal - in this case, the notion that a few treads will give the little boiled pasta cushions more traction in a sauce. If it's just me and mine, I'm happy to chop them directy off a rolled strand into little pillows, and toss them into boiling water without further manipulation.
On the other hand, when you have three or four teenagers present, all raised on the Cooking Channel, and all secretly thinking they know more than you because they've seen Alton Brown a few times ("You know if you roll that lemon on the counter first, you'll get more juice out of it," my middle-school-age nephew told me not long ago, as I cut off a wedge to squeeze into a salad dressing), forming them into a conga line of strand-makers, ball rollers, tiners, boilers and scoopers is a beautiful thing, and builds character.
A recent trio actually had terrific focus, and seemed charmingly convinced that they were participating in both an ancient Roman tradition and a cutting-edge culinary experience, rather than the machinations of a middle-aged Jew with too many sweet potatoes, and the need to feed seven large people without doing any more shopping.
As they worked - and they really were very good, and fast, and hungry - they adopted the faraway nonchalance of those already contemplating how they would present this experience to their friends. "Oh, I made some sweet potato gnocchi with sage with my cousins," I could almost hear them telling themselves. "You have to roll them over a fork to make these little ridges to capture the sauce."
Indeed, ridges are nice, but more, I think, for the notion that each has been touched with a caring human finger than for any extra sauce they would pick up; particularly as we were going to eat them with a very thick and meaty bolognaise.
To test the point I made them again a few days later, refining my original purist's recipe with a couple of egg yolks. I thought the bit of fat would help the dumplings stay together even as I used less flour, resulting in a lighter gnocco, which is the Italian singular word for both 'dumpling' and 'dumbbell.'
I made my first batch by simply cutting the strands into chunks, resulting in tiny cushion shapes, which I left unaltered. Others I palmed into spheres and then rolled off a fork in the classic style, creating arced forms with treads on the outer side. I dumped both kinds into the boiling, salted water, waited until they rose to the surface, gave them a few seconds lolling time, and skimmed them off.
Around this time, my son showed up. "You're making gnocchi," he said with an air of surprise and concern, especially when he saw the plain pillow shapes resting on the thin wooden spatula I use to convey them to the water.
"I changed my recipe a little," I explained, "and I'm testing whether or not it's really important to make the fork marks."
My son looked doubtful and even a little imperious, like a chef watching a customer spoon parmesan over his linguine frutti di mare.
"My theory is, the less you handle them the better, and I think it's true. Try it," I suggested. In fact, the pillow-shaped gnocchi were quite a bit more tender, though I admit the tined examples had a certain muscular, paisano quality. Spooned out of the water to drain on a slotted spoon, they huddled naturally together, like soccer players gearing up for a match.
My son refused even to bother with the taste test. He elbowed me gently away from the pastry slab, took off his coat and grabbed a fork. "I'll put the marks in them," he declared, sending me off to make a salad.
Sometimes, it's not about the food, the recipe, the texture, the taste, or even the tools. Sometimes, it's just about being part of the team.