Posts tagged “Salad

Wine-Poached Sea Scallops with a Coconut-Cucumber-Basil Broth and the Art of Failure

Wine-poached sea scallops with a coconut milk-cucumber-basil broth and shaved golden beets, baby fennel, breakfast radishes, charred scallions.

Wine-poached sea scallops with a coconut milk-cucumber-basil broth and shaved golden beets, baby fennel, breakfast radishes, and charred scallions. For the broth, I brought 1 1/2 cups of unsweetened coconut milk to a boil with 2 tbsp of sugar. Once boiling, I turned off the heat and steeped the leaves from one bunch of basil for 30 minutes. I removed the leaves and blended the broth with a peeled cucumber and shallot in the food processor. It was put through a mesh strainer and seasoned with kosher salt and white pepper. The broth is served chilled. I cleaned four sea scallops and sliced each one horizontally into four discs. They were poached in Gewürtztraminer with pink peppercorns. One radish, a golden beet, and two baby fennel bulbs were shaved. Four scallions were charred on a grill pan and sliced. This makes four appetizer portions.

In cooking, I often take inspiration from failure. This was the case for a recent dinner I made in celebration and thanks for my brother being in town to show his documentary film and to meet with my students. The menu that I composed arose from my love of reacting to what looks fresh at the market and also my obsession with transforming previous debacles into successes. The culprit this time was a terrible dish of pan-seared sea scallops with a lifeless rutabaga purée that I cooked for Holly and myself a few weeks ago. Why rutabagas? It was a whim. Unfortunately, the purée was seriously lacking in flavor and its texture was off. The scallops were prepared fine, but I realized that I only ever seem to pan-sear them and line them up on a plate with some sauce. The way I used them was a failure of imagination. Deciding to cook a meal for my brother gave me the opportunity to get revenge on those culinary flops.

I have a friend who gives a kind of motivational lecture about writing poetry in which he insists that you have to permit yourself to fail spectacularly in order to create poems that have vitality and urgency. Of course this is for the drafting process, where you perform the work of risk and error that will eventually lead to the finished poem. It’s a hard analogy to make with cooking if we take a single meal as the comparison. When I screw up a meal, I may be able to adjust and salvage as I go along, but if not, the meal’s a bust. The “drafts” I create in cooking are those previous meals with all their successes and disasters that eventually inform new dishes, new menus. It’s important for me to have these trials and errors, and not only because repetition helps in training for technique. They are also essential to developing your palate and culinary repertoire.

Marinated mushroom and tomato salad with baby romaine lettuce, beet greens, and a white Balsamic vinaigrette. The mushrooms are hen of the woods that have been blanched in salted, boiling water and marinated with sherry vinegar, olive oil, kosher salt, cracked black pepper, coriander seeds, fennel fronds, and thyme.

Marinated mushroom and tomato salad with baby romaine lettuce, beet greens, and a white Balsamic vinaigrette. The mushrooms are hen of the woods that have been blanched in salted, boiling water and marinated with sherry vinegar, olive oil, kosher salt, cracked black pepper, coriander seeds, fennel fronds, and thyme. The meal started with this salad.

 

Maybe the analogy here is closer to what I heard another poet say recently about his creative process. He said that he likes to think of writing poems as something similar to the “Danger Room” of the X-Men comics. You’ve got to treat a draft as a place where you can safely practice your powers without the fear that you’ll irrevocably ruin the world around you. I wouldn’t recommend approaching every meal in this way, but it is important for me to have those in-between meals, those experiments and spectacular failures that end in exciting transformations.

My desire for a new way of preparing scallops led to poaching, although I have to admit that a crudo crossed my mind first. The rutabaga purée became a rutabaga-celery root-bleu cheese purée. Definitely an improvement.

A thick French-cut pork chop with a blood orange-apple-cranberry chutney; sunflower sprout coleslaw; and a rutabaga-celery root-bleu cheese purée.

A thick French-cut pork chop with a blood orange-apple-cranberry chutney; sunflower sprout coleslaw; and a rutabaga-celery root-bleu cheese purée. This dish was served as the main course.

 

The meal ended with this berry crostata.

The meal ended with this berry crostata.

 


Vocabularies of Obsession/Vocabularies of Habit

When I was over halfway through writing the poems for my first book, I had the opportunity to participate in a reading, and I chose a selection of what I considered at the time to be my best—or at least favorite—work. A mentor of mine was in the crowd, and afterwards when everyone was hanging out and complimenting the readers, as happens at those things, he had some nice words to say to me, and then mischievously added, “a very avian reading.” Um, so it turns out I wrote a lot about birds.

Obsession can be a form of concentration, a way to find possibilities for what you already have at hand. The leftover rhubarb from the Valentine's Day salad and some strawberries I had bought for the occasion but never used taunted me to make a dessert. I'm not ready for pie, but a free-form, rustic, and forgiving tart that is the crostata was a great place to begin. Googling landed me on this super easy and tasty eggless crostata recipe from  the blog EGGS ON SUNDAY.

Obsession can be a form of concentration, a way to find possibilities for what you already have at hand. The leftover rhubarb from the Valentine’s Day salad and some strawberries I had bought for the occasion but never used provoked me to make a dessert. I’m not ready for pie, but a free-form, rustic, and forgiving tart that is the crostata was a great place to begin. Googling landed me on this super easy and tasty eggless crostata recipe from the blog EGGS ON SUNDAY

I’m sure on some level I was aware of it, but I wasn’t painfully aware of it until that moment. I didn’t—and don’t—regret the flocks, the bevies, the congresses and murders and murmurations of birds populating those poems. I needed them at the time. Which is another way of saying they were an obsession. They had become for me a way of talking about some of the themes of that book. Birds were a vocabulary I adopted (and, yes, perhaps a rather conventional or at least traditional one) to express the transactions between an interior life and the external world, for the challenge of trying to capture a present tense that is always winging into the next present moment, for the anxiety over this here mortal coil, and the nostalgia for something transcendent. And in my aesthetics at the time—a kind of meditative poem that makes excursions into a representational report of the world around its lyric speakers—those birds made perfect sense. Yet, once I was aware of that reliance, I had to make the decision to keep trying to perfect and rejuvenate that vocabulary or to move on if I felt it was merely habit at that point. I moved on.

To put things into perspective, here’s a little obsessive inventory. In The Currency, the word “bird” or bird-related terms, including species names and words like “feather” and “wing,” appear twenty-eight times. In my new manuscript, which is nearing its final stages before publication, such words only appear fifteen times, and eight of those occur in a single poem, the most recent one I’ve written for the book. The words “bird” and “birds” were used thirteen times in writing The Currency, but in the five years since I finished it, I’ve called on those words only four times for Pax Americana. Part of this shift was a conscious reaction against complacency, but it’s more complicated than that. With new obsessions, I needed to find new symbols in order to communicate.

This another take on a watercress salad, but unlike the Valentine's Day version, this one has peeled baby heirloom tomatoes, with edamame, avocado, toasted and salted pumpkin seeds, and a pumpkin oil and sherry vinaigrette. It is served over fried firm tofu. The technique for peeling the tomatoes comes from the Momofuku cookbook. It's really easy. Cut an X in the tomato skin on the non-steam end. Prepare a pot of boiling water and an ice bath. Drop the tomatoes in batches into the boiling water for ten seconds and then transfer them to the ice bath. The peels will slip right off. David Chang has a recipe for serving these tomatoes with fresh tofu that partly inspired this dish.

Repetition is the mother of obsession. This is another take on a watercress salad, but unlike the Valentine’s Day version, this one has peeled baby heirloom tomatoes, with edamame, avocado, toasted and salted pumpkin seeds, and a pumpkin oil and sherry vinaigrette. It is served over fried firm tofu. The technique for peeling the tomatoes comes from the Momofuku cookbook. It’s really easy. Cut an X in the tomato skins on the non-stem ends. Prepare a pot of boiling water and an ice bath. Drop the tomatoes in batches into the boiling water for ten seconds and then transfer them to the ice bath. The peels will slip right off. David Chang has a recipe for serving these tomatoes with fresh tofu that partly inspired this dish.

Here’s some additional counting: in The Currency, there are eighteen references to visual art. In Pax Americana, there are four. The Currency alludes to three films (and I mean “films” with all its pretentious baggage). Pax Americana alludes to or directly names seven “movies,” seven television shows (with multiple nods to Joss Whedon, Alias, and HBO series), news casts, and a YouTube video. Writing (in the form of poems, letters, philosophical and biographical texts, etc.) comes up sixteen times in The Currency, but there are forty-four references in Pax Americana (including a Wikipedia entry). It appears that I’m still using poetry as an interpretive act, but I seem more interested in how we organize our lives into language than I am in finding those meanings in the tableaux of paintings. I also find I’m reaching towards a larger range of experience.

Obsessions are often the working out of an idea, and they last until the vitality of that search settles into habit. An obsession in a poem can also be the way a poem is made. Every poem is an expression of what a poem can be. Eventually, you might just be writing a poem because, well, that is how you know a poem is made. If you’re honest with yourself as a poet, you’ll ask why you’re making a poem the way you are. When you stop being able to answer that question compellingly, it is probably time to look elsewhere for a new set of images, symbols, and structures, so a new vocabulary.

Peeling Tomatoes

Peeling Tomatoes

Peeling Cherub tomatoes for a ragout.

Peeling Tomatoes

 

I’ve been thinking about cooking lately in these same terms. It’s as if the dishes I’m cooking and the ingredients and methods I’m using are a vocabulary for me to express what a dish can and should be.  The notion of “should be” is an ever-evolving one. What seems necessary today won’t necessarily be so tomorrow. Sometimes I land on a preparation or flavor that I enjoy so much or that has a potential that has eluded me, and so I obsessively use it. Experimenting. Tweaking. Until it becomes a routine. Just a tired iteration. There was a time when what signified a side dish was a pile of roasted carrots and parsnips. Then, there was the age of the Brussels sprouts. For a while, purées of English peas cropped up regularly. For the past three weeks, I can’t stop making ginger scallion noodles. Besides, it would be a shame to let these leftover ingredients in the fridge go to waste.

Obsessions in cooking, along with their leftovers, can attract new discoveries, like a planet accruing satellites. The vegetables remaining from Valentine’s dinner sent me off to Nippan Daido Japanese Market in west Houston. They also encouraged me to try my hand at making a dessert. Thanks to the Eggs on Sunday blog, that dessert attempt was a success, and I now have something in my repertoire to complete an entire meal, from first course to last.

My trip to Nippan Daido to explore further the Japanese ingredients I've been using resulted in this dish. After using the fried tofu for the watercress salad, which was my first time frying tofu, I tried it again. I made a version of the citrus-soy-ginger glaze I used on the pork belly, but added sesame oil and seeds. The broth here is bacon dashi with dried shiitakes and red miso I've been steadily depleting.

My trip to Nippan Daido to explore further the Japanese ingredients I’ve been using resulted in this dish. After making the fried tofu for the watercress salad, which was my first time frying tofu, I tried it again. I contrived a version of the citrus-soy-ginger glaze I used on the pork belly, but added sesame oil and seeds and used fresh ginger. The broth here is bacon dashi with dried shiitakes and the red miso I’ve been steadily depleting.

At Nippan Daido, I purchased some enoki and beech mushrooms that I planned to use in a batch of ginger scallion noodles. I also got some sake, which I decided to use in a braising liquid for some beef short ribs. The marinade for the short ribs I got from the JUST ONE COOKBOOK blog, which seemed appealing because it calls for gochujang, and I just happened to have some of that tasty, spicy Korean chili paste in the fridge. I marinated the ribs for over a day, then browned them off in a dutch over with some pork belly fat. (I'm going to be so sad when this liquid gold is gone.) I made a braising liquid of sake, chicken stock, soy sauce, and sliced yellow onion. I cooked the ribs at 315 °F for two and a half hours, basting with the braising liquid every half hour. When the ribs were done, I removed the bone, tough membrane, and most of the excess fat, and then glazed them with a mixture of gochujang, brown sugar, and kosher salt in a 475 °F oven.

At Nippan Daido, I purchased some enoki and beech mushrooms that I planned to use in a batch of ginger scallion noodles. I also got some sake, which I decided to use in a braising liquid for some beef short ribs. The marinade for the short ribs I got from the JUST ONE COOKBOOK blog, which seemed appealing because it calls for gochujang, and I just happened to have some of that tasty, spicy Korean chili paste in the fridge. I marinated the ribs for over a day, then browned them off in a dutch oven with some pork belly fat. (I’m going to be so sad when this liquid gold is gone.) I made a braising liquid of sake, chicken stock, soy sauce, and sliced yellow onion. I cooked the ribs at 315 °F for two and a half hours, basting with the braising liquid every half hour. When the ribs were done, I removed the bone, tough membrane, and most of the excess fat, and then glazed them with a mixture of gochujang, brown sugar, and kosher salt in a 475 °F oven.

Because I just can't leave things alone, I transformed the leftover short ribs into this dish the next night. I already had everything I needed except a few vegetables, and these ready-to-used fresh purple hull peas caught my eye at the grocery store. I immediately thought of a ragout, so I picked up some mustard greens and the above pictured Cherub tomatoes. The ragout is composed of one bunched of sliced scallions sautéed in some of that pork belly fat, the purple hull peas, the peeled Cherub tomatoes, a cup of chicken stock, two tbsp tomato paste, and some leftover pan juices I separated from the fat after cooking the short ribs. Once the peas began to soften up, I added the chopped mustard greens with their thick ribs removed. I seasoned with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper.

Because I just can’t leave things alone, I transformed the leftover short ribs into this dish the next night. I already had everything I needed except a few vegetables, and these ready-to-use, fresh purple hull peas caught my eye at the grocery store. I immediately thought of a ragout, so I picked up some mustard greens and the above pictured Cherub tomatoes. The ragout is composed of one bunch of sliced scallions sautéed in some of that pork belly fat, the purple hull peas, the peeled Cherub tomatoes, a cup of chicken stock, two tbsp tomato paste, and some leftover pan juices that I had separated from the fat after cooking the short ribs. Once the peas began to soften up, I added the chopped mustard greens with their thick ribs removed. I seasoned with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper. While the ragout was cooking, and before I reheated the short ribs in the oven, I decided to do the ribs two ways. I envisioned a kind of deconstructed ragout with shredded short rib on the side and then a whole rib next to that. I needed something to accompany the whole rib, and I was lucky enough to have a large white potato in the fridge and a can of chickpeas in the pantry. I took up the challenge to be resourceful. I cooked the potatoes in water, a tbsp of butter, a hunk of fresh ginger cut into three pieces, and a sliced garlic clove. When the potatoes were nearly done, I added the drained chickpeas. I strained once finished, removed two of the three ginger bits, and then blended the mixture with a little milk and butter. The result was a little too much of a gluttonous paste, so I added a dollop of sour cream and a spoon of chèvre to give it something it was lacking. The plate was a little bland looking, and I brightened it up with a julienne of pickled beets and some kimchi I bought at Nippan Daido.

So I had all of this leftover ragout and potato-chickpea purée, but no more short ribs, and the Oscars were on, and we had to eat something, so I cooked off some bacon, sautéed some chopped yellow onion in the bacon fat along with halved Brussels sprouts, and then added the leftover ragout. I served this concoction over the reheated potato-chickpea purée, along with the bacon and some chopped snow peas.

So I had all of this leftover ragout and potato-chickpea purée, but no more short ribs, and the Oscars were on, and we had to eat something, so I cooked off some bacon, sautéed some chopped yellow onion in the bacon fat along with halved Brussels sprouts, and then added the leftover ragout. I served this concoction over the reheated potato-chickpea purée, which was surprisingly better the next day, along with the bacon and some chopped snow peas.


Valentine’s Day Dinner

Watercress salad with cucumber, daikon, radish, edamame, pickled rhubarb, bacon, and a sherry vinaigrette, with avocado cream and tomato-rhubard hearts.

Watercress salad with cucumber, daikon, radish, edamame, pickled rhubarb, bacon, and a sherry vinaigrette, with avocado cream and tomato-rhubard hearts. The idea is to blend the two sides while eating to create balance between acidity and richness.

Valentine’s can be an awkward day to be a poet. It shouldn’t be. It should be a day of gratitude since it is one of the main times when the culture comes looking for poets, seeking out those lapidary phrases to commemorate important sentiments. Poets have been insecure about this role for what seems like always, but definitely English-language poetry has been afflicted since the beginning. Just consider Sir Philip Sidney’s defensive blast against poetry’s haters in his sixteenth-century Defence of Poësy: “yet thus much curse I must send you in the behalf of all poets, that while you live, you live in love, and never get favour, for lacking skill of a sonnet, and when you die, your memory die from the earth, for want of an epitaph.” There’s something revealing in the overselling of his poetic returns, and I’m sure if Sidney produced on demand as an inscription for a Valentine’s Day card his sonnet 31 (“With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies!”) or sonnet 45 (“Stella oft sees the very face of woe”), which are two of my favorites from his Astrophil and Stella sequence, there would be a severe case of buyer’s remorse. The problem is those sonnets aren’t really occasional verses. Occasional verse is good for weddings and graduations and inaugurations and Valentine’s Day cards, because in each of those instances the event is more important than the words. They’re times of action, not reflection. They require expressions that are unequivocal and un-conflicted. If you have to clear your throat while giving a wedding toast, you’re kind of a jerk. Just say something nice, and sit back down so the good time can keep on going. That’s what everyone is there for. I can’t think of a good love poem that doesn’t clear its throat in some way. And that’s a good thing. One of my go to love poems is William Meredith’s “Crossing Over,” a poem full of honest doubt and an honest insistence on affection despite it all, with a nod toward a larger historical-social milieu to put that affection into perspective for good measure. I have actually read this poem at weddings, but I imagine everyone just pretending not to hear the complicated parts.

I finally have a steamer again!

I finally have a steamer again!

Littleneck clams with red miso broth, mustard greens, peas, and scallions.

Littleneck clams with red miso broth, mustard greens, peas, and scallions. The broth is kombu, dried shiitakes, water, mirin, soy sauce, and red miso paste. 

 Where poetry has failed me for occasions needing commemoration (birthdays, anniversaries, holidays), cooking has served just fine. It has provided the right amount of ritual and ceremony to acknowledge the importance and has expressed sentiment unambiguously. And it’s a gesture I can believe in (unlike a bad poem) or don’t have to practice selective attention to enjoy.

Through trial and error, I’ve learned to streamline the menus for these celebratory meals. After all, you need to be sharing in the moment, not just cooking in the background. One way I’ve done this is by planning dishes I can prep in advance and that I can finish cooking and assemble quickly.

Beef filet topped with bacon, shiitakes, and pecorino; red miso glazed potatoes; and peas with watercress.

 Beef filet topped with bacon, shiitakes, and   pecorino; red miso glazed potatoes; and peas with  watercress. I pan-seared the filets and then finished them in the oven with the topping. The shiitakes are from the miso broth. While the filets were resting after cooking, I added the peas and watercress to the hot pan, along with a dash of chicken stock, scooping up the pan juices while not turning the peas to mush. The potatoes are Yukon Golds, and the glaze is miso paste and amber agave syrup.

Valentine’s Day this year, I also decided to let certain ingredients appear across the meal to give it a sense of transformation and cohesion. I knew I wanted to do something that would be striking visually, and I got into my head an image of hearts, like what might come with a reduction on a dessert. It’s a little cheesy and gimmicky, but that is the spirit of the day, no? That thinking led me to rhubarb. I diced some of the rhubarb and added sugar, a little water, and some cherry tomatoes that were halved and marinated with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, a chopped garlic clove, and salt and pepper. I broke all of that down on the stove and then blended it with a hand blender. The hearts would be created by making a sphere and then running a toothpick from one edge straight through and out the opposite side. I needed a base to hold and contrast these hearts, so I decided on the avocado cream, which is just a ripe avocado, a pinch of kosher salt, and a dollop of sour cream to smooth it out. The hand blender was used for this as well. I also quickly pickled some of the rhubarb with sugar, kosher salt, and a splash of rice wine vinegar.

Dessert was ice cream with homemade chocolate chip and walnut cookies with pink sea salt. No decent pictures came out, but that’s okay. I can only take partial credit for the dessert.