Monday, July 30, 2007

Tartar, Lord of Sauces

I have big news, people: tonight, completely by accident, I made an EXACT replica of Zip's Tartar Sauce.

Whenever I make my semi-annual trek back to Spokane, I always make sure to go to Zip's at least once, so I can get my tartar sauce fix. Sometimes I stop at the Zip's location in Ritzville on my way into town, just so to order a large fry, a couple small containers of that precious mayonnaise-based sauce, and possibly one of their many burgers, that all have names like "The Boss" and "the Salad Burger" (when I was a kid, I always expected that one to be a salad on a bun, but no - it's just a regular old hamburger with lettuce and tomato.) But it's the tartar that keeps me coming back. A few of the Zip's locations sell the tartar in 12 ounce soda cups to appease frenzied tartar fans like myself.

And no, I don't drink the tartar straight out of the cup - I learned my lesson in moderation a long time ago. My parents would occasionally take my whining little sister and I to one of the million Spokane Zip's locations. One hot summer day when I was 10 or so, I went a little crazy with the tartar sauce and managed to suck down at least 20 servings before my mother could notice and tell me to knock it off. Unfortunately for yours truly, the zitty 15 year-olds working behind the counter must have forgotten to swap out jugs at the condiment bar, because I spent the next day puking my guts out. Spoiled tartar puke.

And yet - I still wanted more. It's that good.

When I really like a particular food, I always want to figure out how to make it myself, because I like the idea of having it available 24-7. I don't like waiting 180 days to get my Zip's fix. So I've tried replicating the recipe countless times, based on what I guess is probably in it. I've detected small pieces of onion a few times, and some specks of what looks to be pepper, so I always include these ingredients. Once I even overheard an cashier explaining what goes into making the sauce, but a screaming child drowned out almost all of his words except "pickle juice." So I've been making mediocre mayo and pickle juice concoctions ever since. For a while I thought I got close by adding grated onion juice. I've tried to make up for my failures by spicing things up with capers, lemon, dill, chives, and so on. Still, the flavor was just not right.

So tonight, I was in a hurry, so I put some light mayo in a bowl, absentmindedly (and accidentally) poured in a ton more kosher pickle juice than usual. Then in a fit of laziness I added some garlic powder, onion powder and pepper, stirred it up and LO! Trumpets sounded, the clouds opened overhead and a beam of heavenly light shone down upon the bowl, while wing-ed angels sang in chorus. Zip's elusive tartar sauce sat on the counter before me. It took 32 years for me to stumble upon the secret. It really is the pickle juice that makes the tartar!

And now I never have to go back to Spokane ever again. The icing on the proverbial Scripture Cake. Although I probably will, because of annoying things like family and guilt.

PS - for those who care (Lisa I'm talking to you) I found this for sale on Amazon. WOO HOO!

Edit: Never mind about the mac and cheese. Despite the picture of canned macaroni, the description states it "comes in a microwaveable cup." After doing some more research, I've determined that the brand of canned macaroni I'm searching for is Franco-American and it has been discontinued. Damn you, Con Agra!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


I've been working 50 hour weeks lately, so I haven't had as much time as I'd like to obsess over food. I have been trying to make foods from scratch using local ingredients though, and managed to make farmer's cheese the other night, and it turned out really freaking delicious:

and here's a fuzzy shot of my very first potato plant harvest... fingerlings!

On Saturday, I made chicken and dumplings for the first time ever, using leftover chicken from a Kookoolan Farms chicken I bought at the Hillsdale Farmer's maket.

It was good, although I'm still undecided about whether or not I'm a fan of dumplings. Gummy, wet dough is not particularly appetizing. But it was much more interesting than making chicken noodle soup, which I can't even think about without shuddering.

I'm also making red wine vinegar from scratch. The jar is sitting in my cupboard, I hope to have vinegar in the next few months. Or maybe just a jar full of of mold. I can't wait to find out.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Nothing to see here, move along

So no, I didn't take any pictures of my fancy Mexican dinner. When you're trying to get everything on the table before it gets cold, it's hard to remember to whip out a camera and take pretty pictures.

I've been spending an exorbitant amount of time lately pondering the meaning of "local" foods. "Local" is the new (well, the last few years) buzzword in the land of food blogs/magazines, but I still can't decide what my personal stance is on the topic. I really do try to buy local when possible, but I also buy my organic (or, if I'm feeling especially cheap, non-organic) tomatoes from Mexico in the winter. Even the highest quality canned tomatoes are produced hundreds (or more likely, thousands) of miles away. Should I stop this practice of buying produce out of season? Probably. Should I make a concerted effort to buy all my meats and dairy product from local sources? Well, of course - duh. All of that seems obvious enough.

But what about the grey areas? Like what if the milk I'm drinking was produced by a cow that lived only 20 miles away, but the cow was fed with grain that was sprayed with pesticides? What then? Should I stop buying dairy products altogether? But then what if the locally produced tofu and soymilk I buy is made with soybeans that were trucked in from the Midwest? Is that any more acceptable?

I've recently learned that there is no source of hard red wheat (the wheat that is commonly used for breads, pastas, etc) that is grown locally. Hard red wheat does not grow well in the Northwest. So - should I cut bread out of my diet completely, because I know that the wheat that was used to make it was produced at least 500 miles from Portland? Should I buy organic wheat from the closest possible source and make pasta, breads, etc, myself? Or can I buy products that contain non-local wheat from local companies? Or do I cut out wheat completely and start eating a crapload of potatoes instead? And considering that I have a full time job, when am I supposed to find the time do cook/can/grow everything from scratch?

And when I start thinking about all the foods I love that come from far away, tropical locales - like pineapple, or avocados, my head starts to spin. Do I have to say goodbye to tropical fruits forever in order to be a responsible human being? Even plain old sugar - think of all the miles sugar has to travel to get to Oregon. Not to mention the amount of processing that sugar requires before it makes it to my table. Should I try to hunt down a source of organic beet sugar? Or do I only use local, organic honey?

It gets so ridiculously convoluted. There are so many weird food rules - everybody seems to have some ludicrous idea of what is ok to eat and what isn't, and those things are constantly in flux. Junk food, bad. Whole grains, good. Carbs bad, protein good. Protein bad, carbs bad, fat bad, meat bad, soy bad, processed foods bad, calories bad. Bad, bad, bad. I've known people who "can't" eat fruit, or are "allergic" to vegetables. Why do we have to be afraid of everything we put in our mouths, unless it fits into some illogical dietary regime?

I don't have an answer to any of these questions. It's frustrating. Sometimes it seems almost impossible to eat anything without causing irreparable harm to the planet. But food is supposed to be a pleasurable experience, not purgatory. I shouldn't have to feel guilty (or, on the other side of the spectrum - superior) whenever I sit down to eat a meal. Right???

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

It's freaking HOT

The dog days of summary have arrived! 102 degrees yesterday, 98 today. Luckily, I work in an office, so I get an air-conditioned respite for a good portion of the day. But the moment I leave work, I'm enveloped in the sticky heat and all I want to do is go home, open a beer and sit in a cool bath. Or, more likely, I'll just stand in front of the fridge with the freezer door wide open. But I certainly don't want to cook dinner. Last night, I cheated and ordered in Hot Lips pizza. But tonight, I decided to suck it up and make something using my ever-abundant supply of CSA produce. Here's what I ended up making:

It's Zucchini Carpaccio! I've seen it on several different blogs in the past few days (it seems many people have the same "its too hot to cook but I'm hungry" conundrum) and I tinkered with the recipes I found online - my version is made with thin slices of zucchini, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, thyme, Parmesan and Fleur-de-sel. I happened to have new bottles of really good vinegar and olive oil, a big wedge of Parmesan, and fresh thyme from my garden, so there was really no way to screw it up. Still, the combination of these ingredients with the thin slices of fresh zucchini far exceeded my expectations. It even made me grateful for the hot weather. Briefly.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Bubble and Squeak

This little fuzzy fellow is who I found when I googled "Bubble and Squeak." Apparently his owner really likes cabbage and potatoes!

I first saw the recipe for Bubble and Squeak on an episode of what was possibly the best cooking show of all time: Two Fat Ladies. Their recipe calls for melting a large hunk of lard in a pan, and then when the fat is good and hot, they add cooked brussels sprouts and sliced potatoes and fry it until it's caramelized and crunchy. The recipe's unusual name is onomatopoeic - as "bubble and squeak" is supposedly the sound the vegetables make while they're cooking. At the time, I was far less adventurous when it came to food, and I thought the recipe - and the name - was just disgusting. Lard? Brussels sprouts? No, thank you.

Since then, I've become better friends with the Brassica genus, and now I love cabbage in all its forms. Napa and savoy cabbage, brussels sprouts, collard greens, turnips - all delicious! The only thing I'm still leery of is mustard greens. Mustard greens seem a little too "hardcore" of a leafy green for me. But - who knows what the future might bring? Maybe next year mustard greens will be my new best friend.

So anyway, back to my story. This morning I realized I had a half a head of cabbage in the fridge and some lovely little new potatoes that were screaming to be eaten. I had read that brussels sprouts and cabbage were interchangeable in this recipe, so I decided it was high time to give Bubble and Squeak a test run, but with butter and olive oil instead of lard. It didn't make any squeaky sounds while it was cooking, which was a disappointment. But it did look pretty damn good on the plate, with a pork sausage on the side. And it tasted really good, too.

Bubble and Squeak
1 lb cooked potatoes (any kinds will work) sliced or mashed
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 lb cooked cabbage, roughly chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Heat butter in a 10-inch heavy nonstick skillet over moderately high heat until foam subsides, then add cabbage and potatoes, mashing and stirring them together, while leaving some lumps and pressing to form a cake. Cook, without stirring, until underside is crusty and golden, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

National Fluff Day

It seems like every middle-class American family has a jello salad and/or dessert that they eat around the holidays. In my family, it's layers of jello with cream cheese, mayo and pineapple, simply referred to as "the jello salad." I've heard of other people making something they called "the jello salad", but the recipe is never the same. My great grandmother made it, my mother made it and now I make it whenever I go see my extended family for the holidays. It varies in colors depending on the holiday: raspberry and lime for Xmas, orange and lemon for Thanksgiving, but other than that, it's been exactly the same for at least 50 years. And my ex-boyfriend's family used to clamour for something they lovingly called "Pink Stuff" which was a mix of Cool-whip, jello, assorted canned fruit and cottage cheese. Both of these things were - and are - delicious, even though most of us (ok, maybe just me) won't usually admit it in public.

Yet whenever someone describes their family's holiday jello dish, it always sounds disgusting and just wrong. Mayo in jello? Fruit cocktail? Yuck. And really, jello itself is pretty gross. But still, when you mix all of those things together, I think you usually end up with a dish that is much better than the sum of its parts.

Or maybe I'm just being sentimental.

At any rate, last year I came across a recipe for something called "Raspberry Fluff" in a summer issue of Cooks Country. They have an interesting section on lost recipes where readers can write in requesting old recipes they've lost or never had in the first place, and this fluff recipe was the "found" recipe of the issue. I thought nothing of it, but later I found myself going back to that page over and over again and eventually I decided: I must try fluff.

The recipe contained some of the usual ingredients: cream cheese, a packet of dream whip, pineapple and a box of raspberry jello mixed up in a graham cracker crust. Easy enough. I made it, and it was good. Then I wondered: what could make it better? So I made it again, this time leaving out the jello and replacing it with a packet of gelatin and lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar and water. Instead of canned pineapple I mixed in fresh raspberries. And the second time it was really good. Light and airy, and not overly sweet.

Yesterday, for the 4th, I made fluff again - this time I made a raspberry coulis, and mixed that in with lemon zest/juice to make the fluff bright pink. I topped it with a thin layer of cream cheese & powdered sugar and some raspberries:

I think it turned out really well. Maybe a little too tart from the lemon, but much better than the first batch I made.

So, I've decided to make my new & improved version of Fluff into my own 4th of July holiday tradition. I'm not big on American nationalism, but hey, I'm happy to have an excuse to celebrate average Americans' penchant for gelatinized, airy, sugary desserts. It's now "National Fluff Day" in my book.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Weekend Cookery

I've been working lots of overtime lately. Which means that during the week, by the time I get home and whip up something for dinner, I'm way too tired to blog about it. But, the good thing about OT is that I have plenty of extra $$, which means that I can splurge on whatever damn food I feel like and not feel too guilty afterwards.

Saturday morning, I woke up with a hankering for razor clams. It's razor season, so you'd think I'd be able to find clams for sale at any old store - but of course it can't be that easy! Concordia New Seasons, my trusty local grocery store, had nary a clam. Then I tried Costco, and they didn't have any clams either. Instead I came home with up a brand new knife set (!) and 2 pounds of Copper River Salmon, which we grilled for Saturday night's dinner. It was so good, I forgot about my razor clam itch, momentarily at least.

But I awoke this morning determined to find razor clams somewhere in the Portland Metro area. I called City Market in NW, which houses Newman's Fish Market. And as luck would have it, they DID have razor clams, so I jumped in my car and ran across town to buy a pound. Then as I walked to the register from the fish counter, my grocery basket mysteriously filled itself with: a liter of Sicilian EV olive oil, capers, parsley & cheese sausages and a container of lard from Viande Meats, french butter (they had the brand of butter I obsessed over in Paris, which I've never seen in the US until today) and a rhubarb flavored soda. Quite a haul.

Freshly cleaned razor clams look like crazy aliens:

Here they are tenderizing in buttermilk, pepper, garlic and Tapatio:

and right out of the frying pan, served with homemade tartar and buttermilk coleslaw:

These were the best clam steaks I've ever had, hands down.

When I tallied up what I spent at Costco on knives, salmon and various other sundries, and then add in what I spent at City Market, I've determined that my razor clam craving wound up costing me somewhere in the range of $50 per clam. But it was totally worth it!

Scripture Cake II, electric boogaloo

Holy Christ! Apparently Scripture Cake is a real thing! I was just too ignorant & atheistic to realize it. This particular recipe is nice enough to provide the biblical translation for each ingredient, for the less godly chefs out in internet-land.

And of course, a bible-themed cake recipe is going to make a dry and heavy spice cake. That's no surprise.

Well, I'm off to read "The God Delusion."