Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Posts Tagged ‘simple’

Cooking simple dishes

Posted by shannonclark on December 10, 2007

For lunch today I had a salad which I prepared at home. Everything in the salad I purchased at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market this past Saturday, all directly from the farmers and everything was local and organic. I started with a base of mixed greens, then added some baby potatoes which I boiled until tender (checked with a fork) and then cut in half. I then sliced a few small purple onions – not the type which are bulb shaped but a variety that is closer to what people call “green onions”. To top off the salad I had a piece of duck confit which I had purchased from a local charcuterie at the market. I finished the duck confit by heating it until crisp in a cast iron pan on my stove top, I then shredded it and gave the shredded pieces a few minutes to crisp up even further.

For the dressing I took an old small jar (which had once held artichoke hearts) and added balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and some dried basil. I then close the top and shook the dressing until it stayed on the sides of the jar (I typically use about 1 part olive oil for every 1 part vinegar and add olive oil as needed to get the right texture).

And I finished by tossing the salad so that every piece of lettuce and potatoes was dressed.

Very simple, but also very satisfying, quick to make and extremely tasty. If I had had something else to go with it, also more than enough for two people. All for a total cost of about $10 or less.

Last night I was at a friend’s dinner party down the Peninsula, the party was a BBQ so there was plenty of meat dishes but as I looked over what was on the menu I noticed we didn’t have many vegetables at all (okay, no vegetables at all actually). So I asked if I could make something with ingredients he had around his kitchen – and he said “sure”.

So I made a couple of quick dishes.

First, a very, very simple dish of mashed potatoes. He had a couple of pounds of baby red potatoes, I simply put them into two large pots on the stove in water so all the potatoes were covered and let them cook on a medium temperature until tender.  As the potatoes cooked I diced up a medium yellow onion into fine cubes and sauteed the onions in extra virgin olive oil. I added some pre-chopped garlic to the onions near the very end and I only lightly turned the onions, just enough to avoid burning.

When the potatoes were finished I mostly drained them and dumped them into a large glass bowl. Some of the water they had boiled with stayed which was fine. I then added a half of a stick of butter, salt and fresh pepper. I let the butter melt a bit and started smashing the potatoes. I then added the onions and garlic and finished mashing.

Since he did not have a large fork or a potato masher I used two table knives to slice the potatoes (skins and all) going at various angles to end up with well mashed potatoes, this is where having cooked the potatoes correctly and fully really paid off.

As I was mashing the potatoes I had a second dish cooking as well, while I was waiting for the other parts to finish I had thinly sliced a couple of zucchinis. I sliced them into very thin (a couple of mm) circles and then sauteed them in the same pan as I had sauteed the onions, adding just a bit more olive oil back to them. I also lightly salted them and ground a little bit of fresh black pepper on them.

I sauteed them until they were mostly tender and the thinest pieces were almost translucent. I served this dish in a simple, shallow white bowl.

Neither dish lasted very long at all at the party – they were both long eaten before any of the BBQ meats were ready.

So I also made a simple dressing to go with some salad greens someone had brought. For the dressing I found a large old jar w/lid. Added balsamic, extra virgin olive oil, salt, fresh pepper, some dried basil and a couple of spoonfuls of brown mustard. Again, I closed the lid and shook until the dressing stuck to the sides. The up and down shaking emulsifies the oil and vinegar – more simply and quickly than any other technique I had seen or tried.

So that was my simple cooking for the past few days – nothing very complicated – but also apparently from the compliments I got appreciated.

My philosophy of cooking is to start with the best ingredients I can get and to then do about the bare minimum needed to them to bring out their flavors. I try to use fresh, local, seasonal ingredients as much as possible (for which I love living in California) and at least when cooking at home I also care a great deal about the freshness and quality of the spices, olive oils, vinegars and the like which I use while cooking. Most of my spices are from The Spice House in Chicago which is, by far, my favorite place to buy spices – and one of the things I most miss from my old neighborhood in Chicago (I lived just a block away from their Chicago store and could run down the street to get just about any spice I might ever need).

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Preparing for a simple, local Thanksgiving

Posted by shannonclark on November 21, 2007

I love to cook. Not so much just for myself, but for others – friends old and new. My family was all about shared meals, growing up we ate at least dinner together as a family almost every single night (my father traveled a lot but my mom, sister and I would always eat dinner together). Not “eat dinner together in front of the TV” as is the case for so many families today, but an actual multiple course, family style meal usually around our small kitchen table. Nothing too fancy, but almost always a salad and/or side of vegetables, some form of starch and a main course.

And around this table we talked about our days – my sister and I about our school work and activities, my father and mother about their work – problems they were working on, ideas they had had. During these conversations the discussion was never just one sided – it was always a discussion with even my sister and I being asked for our opinions, thoughts and ideas.

It is a bit hard to explain – and perhaps (okay almost certainly) not a typical family conversational style. We were (and are) a family of intellectuals. My father was a tenured college professor – but then left that soon after my sister was born (I’m the oldest, she’s 3 years younger) and joined industry. However he retains much of the air of a college professor – he’s published a ton of journal articles (more in fact than many professors) and a couple of text books and technical books. My mom had a long career as an independent computer consultant and programmer, she also taught computer science at some local colleges as we grew up (I learned flowcharting by doing the homework she assigned her classes – this was in the 1980’s keep in mind)  I should note that while my father has a PhD (Chemical Engineering – and yes, he is very much the engineer – albeit one who also can very seriously write quite well) my mom “just” has a college degree, she did some graduate work but never got a graduate degree, instead she started working as a computer programmer right out of college. She hadn’t studied CS in college (but then in the mid-1960’s not many people did) but she worked on a great number of interesting projects. Wrote the systems for a major railroad to manage and track their trains (before I was born in the early 1970’s) and most of the system to run a university around the time I was born in the mid-1970’s).

Often our family dinners and the conversations they started would last for hours.

So, as a result, I love to cook – and I love to have people gather around my table. However while I was living in Chicago I lived in a very small, fairly cramped 1 bedroom apartment – I had a few dinner parties but only a very few. Then when I first moved here to the Bay Area we had nearly no furniture in the apartment in Berkeley.

However that is no longer the case – in my current apartment in Noe Valley I have a dining table which was custom made for me – a 7′ birdseye, curly redwood table with matching 7′ long benches made from a locally harvested redwood (which was either condemned or fell due to natural causes). The wood was air dried by the mill from which I purchased it for a year before they made it into the table for me. A truly magnificent table. Plus I have a desk from a different redwood which I can add to extend the table to nearly 12′ – giving me a table (and in a room large enough) where I can easily have 13-14 people for dinner.

So later this week I will be cooking a simple, local Thanksgiving dinner. My personal style of cooking is very much local and seasonal. I buy ingredients which are fresh and for the most part seasonal and then prepare them with generally simple preparations to bring out their flavors – trying to use only the best possible spices and other items (olive oils etc).

For Thursday here is my current planned menu (there is probably still room for a few more, if you are reading this and in the bay area, contact me, I’d love to meet you):

A 16 1/2 lb free range, Willie Bird heritage turkey. Probably simply prepared with sea salt & pepper, stuffed and roasted for 4+ hours (basting it frequently as needed). I may add a few additional spices to the rub.

Stuffing of fresh Acme sourdough cubed with sauteed onions and organic celery w/a light amount of spices.

(an additional side dish of stuffing prepared outside of the bird w/vegetable broth for any vegetarian guests)

fresh, simple cranberry sauce (water, sugar, cranberries)

roasted seasonal vegetables – local yams, parsnips, turnips, carrots roasted with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt

roasted halved Brussells Sprouts w/light asian chili dressing (Thai chilies & rice vinegar)

made from scratch pumpkin pie (roasted myself pumpkins, made from scratch pie crust)

And that may be it – I might add some additional dishes and I’ll be prepared to make a main course for any vegetarians who join us for dinner. I might also make from from scratch current scones. And I plan on having a variety of great teas and locally roasted coffee to serve with dessert.

But that’s the main menu. Very simple (almost too simple perhaps) dishes with only a few ingredients in each, almost everything from farms less than 100 miles from San Francisco or made fresh here in the city.

I know that many people make very elaborate dishes for the holidays – stuffings with meat, nuts and more. But to my tastes what says a special occasion for me is very simple dishes done just right – with ingredients that are full of flavor.

And, of course, we’ll save the complicated stuff for the conversations!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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