Posts Tagged ‘Improvisational cooking’

A Hundred Kinds of Chimichurri

I love chimichurri, the ground herb table sauce of Argentina, but I am by no means faithful to the Argentinian version. If you have an active garden, spring offers the first of infinite variations of chimichurri to accent any grilled meat or poultry. These savory herbal sauces also dress up baked and roasted foods, and are a great way to perk up hard-boiled or fried eggs. People who don’t have to stay low-carb may like them drizzled on bread or rice. Vegetarians will like chimichurri on roasted vegetables, and for that matter ardent carnivores would love it on roasted carrots, broccoli, and other meaty veggies. I can imagine it freshening and enlivening roasted or grilled oyster mushrooms.

The basic necessary ingredients are olive oil, garlic, an acid, salt, herbs, and embellishments. Variables are the herbs, the texture, and the embellishments and degree of heat, if any.

So here’s a menu for infinite improvisation:

Oil: I say very good olive oil is a necessity. If you choose to fool around with other oils, feel free. Plan on between a half cup and one cup.

Garlic: green in spring, mature cloves later on. 2-3 large stalks of green garlic or 3-4 cloves of mature garlic.

Acid: vinegar is traditional but lemon juice is delicious with the more delicate spring versions. Consider wine vinegar or sherry vinegar.  Plan on about 2 tablespoons and have extra available to add if needed. Please, don’t use sweet caramelized ersatz “balsamic” vinegars. Yech.

Salt: “Plenty” is the important concept here. Some chimichurris that seem like failures come alive when enough salty element is added. Remember, this is a seasoning sauce, not a main dish.Your salt element may be sea salt, but a good dab of anchovy paste or a glut of the salty-lemony fermented liquid from preserved lemons may attract you.

Herbs: parsley is traditional and great, but don’t feel bound. Cilantro is a great alternative for the “bulk” herb, of which you’ll need a bunch (from the store) or a large handful (from the garden.) Oregano, sweet marjoram, summer savory, thyme, and lemon thyme are great options for the subsidiary herb, of which a small chopped handful (combined if using multiple herbs) is plenty. Combos are potentially wonderful. I don’t recommend tarragon for this sauce, but feel free to prove me wrong, and I think rosemary should be limited to a chopped teaspoon or two if used at all. Some mint is a possibility if used judiciously. Sage is difficult to use and, in my view, not a good possibility.But suit yourself, as long as you are pursuing a coherent taste-vision. Wander your garden, be seducible, and work it out later.

Embellishments: Heat is an important possibility. Hot sauce, harissa, and ground dried chiles can all work wonders, and fresh chopped jalapeños (seeded or not per your preference for fire) can do real magic. Anchovy fillets mashed can add a savor and tang that are the making of rich meats like roasted  lamb or goat. Preserved lemon peel, finely chopped, is highly nontraditional but extraordinary in the right circumstances. A pinch  of toasted cumin seeds, finely ground, can give an earthy, sweaty, quintessentially masculine note that makes a simple grilled steak or chop memorable.

Texture: can be anywhere from medium-fine grind to as coarse as a chopped salad. It all depends on your mood and your main dish.

Procedure:

Chop your garlic coarsely or slice finely crosswise if using green garlic and put in a large mortar or small food processor; I invariably use my little stoveside Mini-prep. Chop or pound to desired degree. Add herbs, salt,  and embellishments and process only until you like the texture. Add the acid and salt, process briefly, and work in the oil. Now taste, and think. If you are sure it didn’t work, think about how to rebalance and save it. Sorry to harp, but insufficient salty element is a common fault. Increase the salt, anchovy paste, or preserved lemon juice, or add a bit of the latter two if you didn’t use them before. If overly salty or acid, add more oil to smooth it out.  If bland, add a little more acid. If just not that interesting, consider stirring in more chopped herb or some heat.

This sauce can be refrigerated overnight and may be even better the next day, although cilantro-based versions tend to lose freshness and pizazz and are best consumed on sight.

Leftovers Wraps for One

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After I ate last night’s broccoli side shoots for one, I had several shoots left over, and tonight I pulled them out of the refrigerator for another veggie dinner. I also had last night’s Semi-Korean dipping sauce chilled, a couple of leftover hard-boiled eggs, a handful of roasted peanuts in my snack bag, and a head of romaine lettuce in the garden begging to be used. With the addition of a green onion from the onion row, my meal came together.
First I rinsed the biggest outer leaves of the lettuce quickly and set them in the dish rack to drain. Next, I thinly sliced the white part of the green onion while a small heavy saucepan heated up. I sliced the green parts separately, and chopped the cooked broccoli and eggs roughly. By this time the pot was hot, and I put in 2 tablespoons or so of oil and threw in the onion whites. They sizzled furiously as I stirred for about one minute, then the peanuts went in. After another minute, I added the chopped broccoli and about a quarter cup of the sauce, plus a glug of good soy sauce from the bottle that hangs out by my stove. After about one more minute of stir-frying, I turned the heat to medium, cooked just until the broccoli was hot, and stirred in the green onions. The chopped eggs were tossed in after the pot was removed from the stove. It was plated, wrapped in the romaine leaves a spoonful at a time, drizzled with more of the sauce, and eaten. Prep time and cook time together totaled twenty minutes.
Cooking for yourself is a great time to go improvisational because if something goes wrong you can shrug and, in a worst-case scenario, eat something else. That’s not so bad. And odds are that you will make some delightful discoveries along the way. The more you think through your available ingredients, putting them together on your mental palate, the less likely you are to make awkward combinations. And I want to put in a plug for prepping vegetables and possibly cooking at least some of them as soon as they hit your kitchen, so that you have fodder for really fast, really good meals. I recommend that any aspiring improvisational cook, or for that matter any cook, read Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal. It’s a delightful read and a quick education in skilled use of leftovers.
Incidentally, when you find a sauce that suits you like my sort-of-Korean sauce suits me, make it in larger batches, keep it in the refrigerator, and see how many different ways you can use and enjoy it.

Pleasures of the Garden: Solo Specials

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If you have the habit of solitude, there is no better hobby than gardening, and cooking for one can be a real pleasure too. Today I noticed that the radishes which I plant in my carrot rows ( one radish seed every four inches or so, to break the soil up and offer some shade and shelter for the tiny infant carrots) were ready to pick. Only four were ready, and I’m on my own today, so I began planning my solitary lunch, based on very flavorful (somewhat bitter) greens. I had the four radishes and their tops. I also picked the tops of several infant carrots ( they needed thinning and didn’t yet have any roots to speak of,) two large leaves of spinach, a couple of leaves of arugula, and a few large sprigs of lambs-quarters from the weed patch, to offer a mild cushion for the stronger greens. I also grabbed tender tips of alfalfa and a stalk of green garlic. A still-warm egg from the henhouse completed my outdoor prep.
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Indoors, I washed the radishes and greens, sliced the radishes in half lengthwise, chopped the stalk of green garlic finely, and then chopped all the other greens together more coarsely. In a small skillet, I heated a couple of tablespoons of good olive oil and started sautéing the green garlic. When it started to look a little cooked, the rest of the greens went in. Then I added some salt and cooked over medium-low heat for a little over 15 minutes, until the greens were softened and mellowed but still had plenty of character.

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Meanwhile, I spread the sliced radishes with good grass-fed butter and sprinkled them lavishly with my best fleur de sel. When the greens were ready, I turned them out onto a little warm plate, added some more olive oil to the skillet and quickly fried the egg in it, and added the radish slices that I hadn’t already eaten to the plate.
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Yum. There is absolutely nothing like a fried egg to mellow the flavor of strong bitter greens. And now, filled with bubbling good health, I can go on to an afternoon of further garden chores.
I eat a ketogenic (ultra-low-carb) diet for health and weight reasons, but if bread is still in your kitchen, a couple of slices off a good baguette would add heartiness to this perfect little impromptu meal.
Ah, the witchcraft we perform in our gardens and kitchens when nobody’s looking.