Archive for July 2010

Beautiful Buttersticks

July 31, 2010

Have you made the acquaintance of butterstick squash?  Well here you go, meet them in all their glowing golden glory.  For my money it’s the most delicious of all yellow squashes, succulent, firm, sweet, and an all-round team player on your summer table.

In addition to their stunning beauty they have a subtly alluring flavor, one that makes you want to forsake whatever else is on your plate and just stuff yourself with squash.  Lots of people think summer squash is boring and watery,  I think “insipid” is the technical term, but not these babies.  They’re dreamy, if you’re the kind of person that dreams about vegetables.  And if not, they might just get you started.

They’re perfect when sliced thickly and sautéed in butter with a bit of sweet onion or shallot, but after you’ve eaten them that way for five or six meals in a row, because really you just can’t get enough of them, here’s a sweet little recipe you can try.

I got this long ago from my mother-in-law Margaret, who I think got it from an Atlanta restaurant sometime long before that.  It’s an old-fashioned Southern treat that everybody loves.  Double this recipe if you know what’s good for you.

Aunt Fanny’s Squash Casserole

1 lb yellow squash, simmered until tender, and drained
3 T finely chopped onion
3 T cracker crumbs (saltines are good)
1 egg
1/3 cup melted butter, divided use
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper

Preheat oven to 375°.  Place the cooked squash with all of the other ingredients except 2 T melted butter into the food processor and whiz until smooth.  Place this mixture in a buttered casserole dish and drizzle the top with the reserved melted butter.  Bake for 40 minutes.

That’s all there is to it, a deceptively simple recipe that tastes like your very own Aunt Fanny whipped it up for you herself.  While I wish I had an Aunt Fanny right about now,  I do have those beautiful buttersticks and this lovely recipe, so I’m good to go.  Luckily it’s only a few hours until dinner time.

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Adieu Petite Zazou

July 24, 2010

It’s a sad thing for a beautiful little French cat to travel all the way to the New World, only to end up disappearing into its wildness.  But Zazou was always a bit wild, even in her native France.  She was a French kitten through and through, and they’re often less tame, less gentrified, than their American cousins.  She was tough and chic and knew her own mind, une chatte française.

We’d hoped that Beppo would tame her, and would teach her how to be a calm and home-loving American cat.  But what happened instead is that when we got back to America, Beppo became instantly afraid to go outside, whereas we could barely keep Zazou indoors, no matter how we tried.  Here there are coyotes, owls, eagles. Beppo might have a genetic memory of that, being a cat of the NorthWest.  But Zazou had no more idea of a coyote than an armadillo.  She probably understood strikes and croissants in a way that Beppo never could, but coyotes?  Not a bit.

Zazou weighed barely six pounds, although she was the feistiest little bit of baggage imaginable.  She started refusing to stay in at night, then she’d be gone for one or two days at a stretch.  Then, finally, she disappeared.  She’s  been gone for a week, and it would have been her second birthday right about now.  I’d open a can of the most expensive cat food if she’d only come back for the party, but she hasn’t.

I like to think of her snuggled safely on our bed, having a little bath and a long nap.  But the truth is that Zazou didn’t want that domesticity.  If we tried to keep her in at night she made our lives so miserable that finally we took to saying “Okay little Zazie-zou, if you want to go out and be eaten by coyotes, well, that’s your fate.”  And the last time we saw her she was bounding joyfully up a very tall tree in the gathering twilight.

The night here belongs to the coyotes and owls.  They’re hungry.  You can’t blame them.  Of course, maybe she found another home somewhere, but I don’t think so.  I think she was true to her nature, wild to the very end, succumbing to the rigors of the wild west like so many other European immigrants before her.  Adieu, Zazou.  You were a tough little cookie, sweet and funny and independent, we got you to keep Beppo company but you found your own fate.  That’s the way the cookie crumbles, and now Beppo is alone again.

Party Animals

July 18, 2010

An amazing thing happened at our house yesterday.  This is the third time it’s occurred, over the past six years, and it’s gotten better each time.  Practice makes perfect, they say, and I can’t help but agree.

The simple explanation of this tradition is that a group of us get together to make sausage and smoked meats.  Yesterday that meant that we made merguez, boudin blanc, roasted poblano sausage, bread and cheese sausage, bacon, Canadian bacon, tasso ham, duck ham, smoked chicken, and pastrami. Everyone made 10-15 pounds of their chosen meat, enough to send home a nice portion with each person, so that now we all have fridges and freezers stuffed with homemade charcuterie.  And of course there were myriad nibble foods consumed during the all-day cooking extravaganza, and salads and desserts with dinner, and countless bottles of wine consumed, but for once I didn’t take any pictures of all that.  Because, if you can believe this, for me it really wasn’t about the food.

Yesterday, it was all about the people.  Our friends, knowing that we’re facing hard times, gathered around us in a warm embrace.

They cooked and cleaned like pros all day long, washing mountains of dishes,

even getting down on hands and knees to wipe up the inevitable spills caused by having 8-10 people in our small kitchen at any one time.

They kept our glasses full and our hearts fuller, letting us bask in the warmth of their friendship as we sun-worshipped like the summer-starved Northerners we all are.

They supervised three smokers running all at once, a task that requires a lot of multi-tasking as well as a certain amount of beer consumption,

without setting the forest or the deck on fire, and while getting each meat done to perfection.

They were brave enough to get in the hot tub in just underwear if they’d forgotten their suits

and showed overwhelming generosity in making sure that everyone had whatever would make them happy.

Some made their deservedly famous and always appreciated signature dishes

and some leapt bravely into foods none of us had ever tasted or imagined, which is saying quite a lot, with this bunch.

They kept it light, everyone seeming to know that in difficult times good spirits are the best medicine,

and that laughter among old friends can chase away the darkest of thoughts.

They did all the heavy lifting, so that Shel had nothing to do but be a guest at his own party

and they were always ready with a hug and a comforting word.

How could you not love a group of folks that do all that and clean up after themselves too?  Although they may not look it, they’re a wild and crazy bunch, people who are expert at having a good time, people who love to cook and eat and drink and party.

But yesterday I saw something new in these old friends.  They way they pitched in, worked hard, made the party happen, carried chairs and tables and then set them for dinner, brought eight different kinds of rosé for one of the first warm summer days, scolded each other about wearing sunscreen, set up a meat slicing and bagging station to share out all the great food we’d created, tidied everything up at the end of the evening, washed and washed and washed some more dishes, and left us with a full fridge and not a bit of mess.

And in between all that there was always someone with Shel, talking and laughing, telling stories, just being there for him.  For us.  How could you not love people like that?  I don’t even try.  I surrender.  I totally love you guys, and I thank you for a beautiful day.

Drink Me

July 10, 2010

Bai ji” I said to the Chinese doctor timidly.  She was a small, elderly woman, charmingly dressed in  a short sleeved shirt, with long cutoff sleeves of another fabric safety-pinned to the short sleeves underneath.  “Bai ji, to stop bleeding.” “Bai ji?” she repeated, “is that Chinese name or American name?”  And so it went, back and forth for a few moments, until finally, triumphantly, she said “oh, bai ji!”  It sounded ever so slightly different the way she said it, but although it had seemed that my pronunciation was good enough, clearly it was lacking in something essential.  She went and got me a packet of bai ji, and sure enough, it looked just like what I had seen online, when I was searching for herbs that might stop Shel’s bleeding.

And then she said, with audible disappointment,  “but only one thing, only one,” by which I understood that she wanted to mix several things together.  The result is as you see it.  There’s bai ji in there, alright, along with a dozen or more other plants, twigs, stems, pods, and grasses, none of which I can name or pronounce correctly, but all of which are now simmering slowly in a large pot on the stove, ready for Shel to drink later this evening.

Because Western medicine isn’t helping us here.  The radiation treatments were supposed to stop Shel’s bleeding.  It’s a tumor that’s bleeding, and it’s deep inside his throat, and I have a terror that although it’s merely seeping now, at some moment the faucet will really get turned on and I won’t be able to do anything about it and disaster will ensue.

Yesterday at the hospital the young doctor said she had nothing to offer to stop the bleeding, there was nothing she could do about it.  Today at the Chinese herbal medicine store the much older doctor, trained as an oncologist in China she said, assembled five brown paper bags full of herbal litter. Something anti-cancer, three things to stop bleeding, something anti-cough, and possibly other remedies that she didn’t know how to explain to us.  “Very bitter” she said “okay to add sugar.”  Let me add that she just looked at Shel and said “thyroid cancer” which is not at all the obvious thing to say.  And when she heard he’d just finished radiation she asked “first time, or second time?”  Shel and I exchanged glances, because it was the second time and it is thyroid cancer and if she knew all that without being told, then maybe, just maybe, her concoction will work as she said it would.

“Come see me Thursday” she said “tell me how you are, I will adjust medicine.” And so here we are, about to sip a bitter and unknown brew rather than live with the bitter realization that Western medicine is failing us now.  And that realization is one that no amount of sugar can sweeten, and that young doctor didn’t say to come back on Thursday or any day.

Bai ji, you say the bai with a rising inflection, rising like hope.

Awakening To Summer

July 6, 2010

They said it would be summer this week, and they were right.  Opening my eyes to the sun this morning felt surreal, so overcast and dreary have recent mornings been.  Even though we’ve been dressed in sweaters and fleece thus far, in an act of faith I washed all of my white clothes, hoping for a chance to wear them, and hey presto, that seems to have done the trick. It was either that, or this magnificent eggplant dip.  To hedge your summer bets, I suggest both washing all your summer finery, and making this dip the next time you have the grill going.  That ought to do it, summerwise.

Of course, there’s always the chance that fireworks simply banished the gloom gods to wherever it is they go when the sun is pouring down on us

waking the shivering flowers and and inspiring me to rearrange my closet putting all those gauzy white garments front and center.

Or perhaps Anne’s beautiful cheesecake swaddled in Rebecca’s edible summer flowers did the trick.  We’ll never know, but I’m betting that some part of this splendid state of affairs has to do with the eggplant dip.

You’ll want to make this after you finish grilling something serious, when you’re left with glowing embers and no desire to stand over them.  Pop the eggplants on the grill, sit down to dinner, and by the time the embers are cool your eggplant will be done.  To make life easy, tuck them away in the fridge overnight, and the next morning before it gets hot, spend half an hour in the kitchen whipping up this dip.  Later in the day, when you take it out of the fridge all gingery and piqued with cilantro and coriander, you’ll praise the heat and down the dip, refreshed once again by summer’s bounty.

Steve Raichlen’s Trinidadian Eggplant Dip*

2 lbs long slender eggplants
8 cloves garlic, cut in slivers lengthwise
1/2 cup plain whole milk yogurt
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
3 green onions, green and white parts, finely chopped
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp grated fresh ginger
2 T fresh lemon juice
2 T vegetable oil
salt and pepper

Wash and dry the eggplants.  With a small sharp knife, make slits in the eggplant and stuff the garlic slivers into the slits.  Grill them until they are very soft and collapsed-looking, which takes 20-30 minutes depending on how hot your coals are and the diameter of your eggplants. Allow them to cool before proceeding, and if you wish, refrigerate them overnight.

Remove the flesh of the eggplant and the garlic from the peel with the tip of a small spoon.  Place the eggplant flesh and the garlic in a flat bowl and mash them thoroughly with a fork.  Stir in the remaining ingredients and you’re good to go, or you can chill the dip for later in the day.  Makes about 2 1/2 cups of dip.

Raichlen suggests serving this with pita chips, but it’s also good with vegetables, although a bit slippery to pick up, and even as a sauce for leftover grilled chicken.  I don’t know about your 4th, but my guests demolished the ribs while largely ignoring the chicken, so I was very glad to discover that this dip doubles easily as a sauce.  I think it could make an excellent potato salad too, so if you try that, please let me know how you like it.

*from his wonderful book The Barbecue Bible, which no, I am NOT giving away, you’ll have to go get yourself a copy, and you should!