My new favorite South American condiment

I suppose that headline begs the question: did I have a previously-reigning favorite South American condiment? The answer is no, unless you count my frequent use of sour cream to top a quesadilla. And I can’t really abandon the geographical modifier, because it might be going too far to say that this topping is my new all-around favorite. So I’ll keep the specifics, and allow this food item to be dethroned by a future spicy, south-of-the-border discovery.

Scene One:
Last weekend we tried a new recipe sourced from another food blogger, the Reluctant Gourmet. His posts containing recipes for Grilled Pork with Chimichurri Sauce and Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Banana and Pineapple had my mouth watering and my hand writing the grocery list. Chimichurri sauce sounded familiar to me, but I’ve definitely never made it. It is apparently a common condiment in Argentina, used to marinate and dress grilled meats and sausages. The RG post describes something about Argentinian families always having it on the table, and when they run out, someone jumps up and makes more, because apparently they just can’t be at the table without it.

I can’t say that I blame them. While making it, I was reminded of making pesto, but you use fresh parsley instead of basil (some recipes call for cilantro, but I’m one of those people who is genetically predisposed to think cilantro tastes just like a bar of soap, so I’ll stick with the parsley), and it calls for a good bit of vinegar. It’s a lot more watery than pesto, too. With no nuts. Actually, I’m now beginning to wonder if it bears any resemblance to pesto at all, but for the fact that its primary ingredient is an herb and I use my food processor to make it.

Anyway, while the Grilled Pork with Chimichurri was a bit disappointing (only because it was too salty… I think the tenderloin we used came pre-salted, and topped with a salted marinade, it was over-the-top), the actual sauce itself was fresh, zippy, kicky, and worthy of another vehicle. So we put the leftovers (obviously, the portion that did not come in contact with raw pork) in the fridge for future experimentation.

Scene Two:
Yesterday I made Brazilian Black Beans, from the Joy of Cooking. This has been a regular on our menu for years. Cheap, delicious, and very versatile. Per usual, on the day I make a batch, we just eat them on top of rice, topped with sour cream, scallions, etc. On a good day, I fry a plantain to serve on the side. I didn’t have a plantain yesterday, and we were out of sour cream (insert gasp), so I found myself staring into my refrigerator, looking for inspiration. My eyes landed on the chimichurri. I drizzled a good couple of tablespoons on top of the beans, and then added a layer of Pickled Red Onions (these must be covered in a future post… don’t knock them until you’ve tried them!) on top of that. Explosive flavor ensued, my heart leaped with suppertime joy.

So as you think about grilling this weekend, be it pork, poultry, or beef, whip up a batch of chimichurri to top it. You will most definitely not be disappointed.

Tofu Curry, inspired by the Box of Produce that Was

Finally, after a month or more of not being able to get our act together enough to order our bi-weekly box of black-market produce, we remembered. Tim brought home a bountiful box of summer fare yesterday, and as per the usual, its contents have informed our menu for the week.

This week brought an abundance of greens (SIX heads of green-leaf lettuce? We eat a lot of salad, but, really — we ended up giving away two heads of our share) and several lovely surprises: strawberries, bing cherries (these are like gold), a mango, a pineapple, avocados. Plus, some granny smith apples and mushrooms. Whenever I end up with both mushrooms AND apples, it’s time for Tofu Curry. It’s become one of our family staples, though one that shows up only once a month or so.

This is a recipe adapted from a classic southern cookbook, given to me by my mother. Written by a truly old-fashioned southern cook, the book defies even its 1982 publication date; recipes begin with phrases such as “cut up a hen” or “have your butcher bone a 6 or 7 lb. leg of lamb.” I admittedly haven’t made many recipes from the book; they tend a bit too much toward the gelatinous. But several years ago I tried out her recipe for chicken curry, and at some later point tried it with tofu. We actually like the tofu better, which is nice because tofu is cheaper and quicker (no pre-cooking involved). This is most certainly not a true Indian curry; it’s an Americanized, almost southern curry — basically a curry-flavored white sauce. But it’s good comfort food, and delicious topped with all the things that are typical of this type of dish: raisins, peanuts, coconut, pineapple, scallions, bacon, etc. The recipe:

Tofu (or chicken) Curry

  • 1/2 yellow onion, minced
  • 1 firm apple, peeled, cored, and diced
  • 3 Tbsp butter
  • 3 Tbsp flour
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • black pepper
  • 2 tsp (or more, to taste) curry powder
  • 3/4 cup whole milk or half-n-half
  • 3/4 cup chicken broth
  • 1/2 lb. mushrooms, sliced
  • 3 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 Tbsp juice from 1 lemon
  • 1 (14-oz) package extra-firm tofu, drained, excess water squeezed out, and diced (or 3 cups cooked, cubed chicken)
  • cooked rice, for serving

In a large saucepan or dutch oven, heat butter over medium heat. When foam subsides, add onions and apples and cook gently until soft, about 5 minutes. Add flour, salt, pepper, and curry powder, and stir, cooking, for about 2 minutes (mixture will be dry; keep stirring and reduce the heat if it starts to brown). Slowly add the milk (or cream) and broth, whisking, and continue to stir until it thickens. Cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile sautée mushrooms in vegetable oil until they start to squeak and release their juices, about 5 minutes. Add to the cooked sauce, along with lemon juice and tofu. Adjust seasonings to taste, adding more salt or lemon juice if necessary. Serve over hot rice, topped with any or all of the following: chopped peanuts, dried coconut, raisins, chopped bananas, scallions, pineapple, diced ripe tomatoes, chopped bacon, and lemon wedges.


Respect the salt

In my opinion, insufficient use of salt is perhaps the single greatest mistake by home cooks.1

Yes, this is a quote from Christopher Kimball, The Man With Whom I Rarely Disagree. When I first read it, I was so utterly glad that he wrote it, because it validated a thought I have had many times.

Salt is a curious thing. Like many things on this earth, it has a good purpose, and even provides necessary nutrients to our bodies; but it can be abused, and become a boisterous, drunken party-ruiner, drawing all attention to itself and pretty much sabotaging the fun of all other parties involved. It is this Overused character that has ruined the reputation of the world’s oldest seasoning. What could have dethroned a mineral that arguably shaped the development of most of the world’s civilizations? Probably a melange of factors, including the late-20th century fear of hypertension and water retention. But since we as a culture seem to enjoy throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, we have decided that salt is something to be avoided, all the while consuming more sugar in a year than most families of a hundred years ago consumed in a lifetime.

But, salt — salt is a friend, one that is ready to be supportive in almost all of our culinary endeavors. It is near magical, how it brightens and enlivens the inherent flavors of everything from a ripe garden tomato to sugar cookies (isn’t it fabulous irony, how salt can make something sweet taste better?). And it really doesn’t take much — just a sprinkle over a sautée pan of onions and garlic; a teaspoon for an entire batch of cookies; a light shower of kosher salt for a whole 3# bird. Different foods react differently to salt, so it’s always best to salt to taste (with the exception of baking, where I usually follow the recipe for the first attempt and adjust for the next one; also difficult for salting meats where you obviously can’t taste it until its done).

Of course, to balance the argument, I should at least address the issue of over-salting. It is easy to do, with nothing more than a heavy hand, and I’ve done it more times than are numerable. I even had the horrible experience of accidentally salting my coffee (back in the days when I drank my coffee sweet) — and let me say, it is a taste that will make your hair stand on end. There are ways to remedy overseasoning — I’ve heard of adding some lemon juice or sugar, but most often it just helps to eat the over-salted food with a bite of something else on your plate. We ate at a Mexican restaurant in Walhalla, South Carolina last week, and I ate what could possibly be the most over-salted meal I’ve ever had. It’s hard to get through and entire plate of hyper-salty food. But we chased it down with a bad margarita and then some delicious ice-cream at a little place on Hwy 11 called Sweet Treats (thanks to Eric and Carly for making us postpone a trip to Lowe’s for that lovely experience), and all was well.

Yes, it’s impossible to remove salt once you’ve gone too far. But for the love of flavor, let’s all agree to gird up our loins, and walk that line of risking apology at the dinner table. We’ll be better cooks for it.

1. Kimball, C. The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook. Little, Brown and Company, 1998. p. xiii.

Pasta Primavera, inspired by the Box of Produce that Wasn’t

Last fall, we started buying produce from a local veggie co-op. Every other Thursday, we call a number that was sent to us in an email with no text other than 10 digits — and an answering machine picks up, and we hear the unintelligible voice of a child, and can only assume he’s telling us to leave a message. We tell the machine that we want one box of produce. The following Monday, at around 5pm, we drive to a church on the east side of town, pay by cash or check a sum of money that varies by the week, but averages around $43, and bring home an overloaded banana box full of organic produce. (Yes, I am thoroughly convinced that, someday, an Athens-Clarke law enforcement sting operation is going to bring the whole thing crashing down.) It’s not all local goods, but it contains a somewhat predictable supply of staples (apples, some citrus, greens, potatoes) and usually a surprise seasonal item or two (berries, avocados, leeks). It’s more produce than we could consume, as a family of four, before it starts to get slimy, so we split the goods with our friends and neighbors, the Sigalises (a.k.a., Party-Throwers-Extraordinare). It’s been a good setup. Well, that is, until the past two produce cycles, when we (ahem… this particular usage of “we” starting with a capital “T” and ending with “im”) forgot to place or pickup the order. (Sorry again, George and Kristin!)

Anyhoo, tonight’s dinner was going to rely heavily on this mystery box. I was quite excited about its arrival, since we missed the last drop-off. I usually rearrange my grocery shopping around the box, so as not to have two 3# bags of onions lying around. Today was delivery day, and I was assuming that since summer is in full bloom, we’d end up with a few plum tomatoes and some zucchini. I also thought green beans would make their ’07 debut, but was fraught with enough uncertainty to buy about a quarter pound today at the store. I had everything prepped — my asparagus and green beans were chopped, my garlic was minced, my stockpot of water was boiling. I was just waiting for my beloved to walk in the door with tomatoes and zucchini, and dinner would be ready in 20 minutes.

Now, Tim had a busy day. We are in the process of buying a house, and will be remodeling the kitchen. Since we will be unloading this investment to a willing buyer in about two years, we want the kitchen to be as high-end as is reasonable within our budget. The kitchen is also quite small. To save space, we decided to go with a counter-depth refrigerator. Tim found a lovely Jenn-Air stainless counter-depth frig today, on Craigslist, and managed to find a truck, a dolly, tie-downs, and manpower to drive to Atlanta this evening and pick up our new appliance. So, when he walked in the door at 5:20, plum-tomato-less, I really couldn’t say a thing. Plus, silence works quite effectively as a tool of passive-aggression.

So, out of the cabinet came a can of diced tomatoes — the zucchini would just have to be AWOL. Flustered from the lack-of-a-box news, I started adding veggies to sauce in a discombobulated order. As if that weren’t enough, the Georgia drought has left my basil looking like an sickly weed, so I was grossly lacking in the fresh herb category, only able to pick about five puny leaves when the recipe requested a quarter cup.

But you know what? When it was all said and done, and on the table, it tasted good. Now THAT is a good recipe.

Last week, when I downloaded the recipe, it was free on the homepage of Cook’s. Of course, now that I look for it to send you to the link, it has moved behind the Iron Curtain of Good Food, into the “members-only” section of the site. Honestly, if you like Pasta Primavera, it’s worth the 14-day free membership to get access. The recipe is here, I think. If not, just search on Cook’s for Pasta Primavera, and choose the first listing.

Tomorrow, we’re off to Asheville for a quick overnight trip. We won’t have time to hit any of our favorite eateries, such as Early Girl, Tupelo Honey, or Heiwa, but we will hear good music and see good friends, and that will be food for our souls.