Thursday, March 26, 2015

Picture This

It had been a while since I’d had anyone over. I’d been busy with this and that and not cooking much and had all sorts of ingredients crying to get used in my over-crowded fridge. I mention this because in thinking what to cook for some friends the other night I had the goal of using freezer items and emptying containers jammed inside the shelves. This was to be a meal based on what was on hand rather than a dreamed up menu. Until an hour before company arrived I wasn’t exactly sure how the parts would fall in place.

I had a small piece of gravlax I’d prepared the week before so I served it with an assortment of crackers from multiple open boxes I’m diligently emptying, leftovers from various catered events. A lot of food passes through my kitchen. I give a lot away. Often I feel my life is a race to use the things that have come my way as opposed to being a series of conscious choices. Along with the gravlax I put out Genoa salami from a job last month and some blistered shishito peppers bought the week before when I’d spied them in the market heralding Spring. 

The main course was spicy lamb meatballs (the meat had been frozen since I’d made dumplings for Chinese New Year.) Black rice (extra from Christmas eve) flecked with toasted coconut (leftover from a beef Rendang made weeks earlier) and sautéed wild mushrooms. Quickly stir fried baby bok choy and snow peas contrasted with the dark rice, mushrooms and meatballs and as we sat at the candlelit table I felt proud and excited to see a plate with such an unusual palate.

The next course exploded with color. A medley of sliced Cara Cara oranges, pink grapefruit, Minneola tangelos, Meyer lemons and blood oranges topped with finely sliced purple shallots was paired with another platter of paper thin rounds of carrots, Chiogga beets, red radishes, and white and green daikon sprinkled with seaweed flakes, black sesame, demerara sugar and rice wine vinegar. Creamy goat cheese served with dried dates, figs, pears and cherries followed. Then from the freezer, a flourless chocolate cake (an extra from a catered birthday party) with cinnamon allspice ice cream.

Each course was very simply prepared yet the whole was totally unique and tasty. All the various flavors complimented yet remained distinct. The number of courses surprised, especially on a weekday evening, especially with this group of friends who all enjoy food but are not cooking professionals. 

The vision of the deep inky purple the back rice turns during cooking, the caramelized browns of roasted meat and the startling earthy blacks of wild mushrooms took me by surprise, and grows mythic even as the sense memory fades. There are no photographs, and my guess is my guests were wowed by the colorful salads and barely noted the quirky array of earth tones on the plain white plate.

Quick hand-held iPhone “plate-ies” like selfies, are touristic “I was here” declarations that only hint at the more complex stories anchored by everything outside the frame. I don’t much like them. They are like memos for memory, flippantly emailed then quickly trashed. I don’t much like the tightly composed pictures of a dish that accompanies most magazine articles, cookbooks and blogs either, as these pictures seem inextricable from commerce. Unlike portraits of people which at least engage a viewer in an emotional exchange of seeing and being seen, food portraits, apart from instructional value, are more like fashion photos. They work to elicit desire; for the food, the accouterments or the lifestyle. Some are beautiful of course, and sometimes looking at these pictures I get hungry and feel inspired to try my hand making a similar dish, but just as likely I feel pangs of envy and become critical of the life I lead or the one being offered.

I’m trying to understand what moved me seeing piles of dark food on a plain plate at a weekday supper with friends. The reference to fecund nature? An association with chocolate? Defiance against rule of thumb for a well balanced plate? Was it in relation to the other dishes colors? It was some combination, and also a private moment; my pleasure pulling off a meal with ease, clearing out my fridge, having the luxury to spend an afternoon in the kitchen as it is salve for other stresses. And that last minute stroke of adding rice to the menu born of compulsive fear there wouldn’t be enough when there always is too much.

A picture that might capture the plate would include hands washing rice in water dyed purple by the grains. The hands fluid back and forth motion half listening to the running water. The arc of sunlight crossing the kitchen counter fading well before dusk because of the particulars of the windows and the angle of the street. The interlude before a thought occurs to flip on the light. Wondering if Andrew will have his cane, regret that Ginny and Arthur won’t come, weren’t even invited because Arthur is ill and it is too much being cheerful. Worry the lamb is too fatty or has freezer burn. The thrill of Sichuan pepper. Black Trumpet mushrooms.

A picture is worth a thousand words or is a flimsy voucher for an accumulation of moments half rooted in memory. Either way, a picture wouldn’t have captured that particular meal, nor would making it again another time, and that is in part what keeps it glorious—cooking is new every time.

Spicy Lamb Meatballs 
(measurements are approximate, meatballs are forgiving)
yield: around a dozen 2” meatballs

1 # ground lamb
1 cup shredded par-boiled carrot (I par-boiled to ensure the carrot softens in the same time the meatballs cook.)
2 slices wheat bread, crusts removed, torn up and soaked in 1/2 c. milk 
1 egg
1/2 c. each minced scallions and cilantro
2” piece of ginger, peeled and minced
2  1” pieces of turmeric, peeled and minced
heaping teaspoon each: white pepper, ground Sichuan peppercorns, five spice powder, 
and dried ginger
a good dash each: Chinese chili oil, soy sauce, bourbon (or whatever booze is in your cupboard, bourbon is smokey, that’s why I like it)
salt to taste
1 cup chicken broth mixed with 2 T. soy sauce

Combine par-boiled carrots ginger, turmeric, scallions and cilantro, and pulse in a Cusinart 
leaving very small chunks. 
Soak bread in milk, mashing into a thick paste (to make GF—use 1/4 c. cooked rice instead of bread. To make dairy free—use broth instead of milk.)
Combine all of the ingredients except the chicken broth, mixing with your hands until well blended.
Form into balls, determining the size by your preference. (I make 2” balls.)

Sear meatballs in a glug of vegetable oil, turning gently with two spoons to brown all sides. Transfer the browned balls to a baking pan. Pour chicken broth over and bake at 325 until cooked through.  Serve with Thai black rice and sautéed wild mushrooms.  

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