Friday, March 31, 2006

Red-headed Stepchild of Something from Nothing

When I accepted the Something out of Nothing challenge (it sounds like something out of a laundry detergent commercial, doesn't it?), I was determined to make an entire meal, something you would not be embarrassed to serve to three other people of whom you were reasonably fond, for a small amount of money. I posted most of the main course the other day. Since I had purchased a head of garlic to use in both the grits and the black beans, and since green beans were on sale for less than a buck a pound, I was going to round out the main course with green beans made the way I like them: boiled, shocked in cold water, then reheated in a skillet with a splash of olive oil, a minced clove of garlic, and perhaps a half-teaspoon of finely grated ginger. I didn't have time to actually do any of that, of course, but it's a fine way to notionally finish off the plate.

My original idea for dessert was to take peel, core, and thickly slice a few apples, saute them briefly in a couple of tablespoons of butter, then add the juice and zest of one or two blood oranges, and continue to cook until the apples were tender and glazed. I was going to serve that on top of a sweetened yogurt cheese.

It sounds like a pretty good plan to me, and I may have to try it sometime. But at some point during the week, I was having my dinner (which probably means that it was after 10 pm, and V. had reheated something for me), and I reached for the loaf of something that was labeled French bread and which is not something that you'd ever mistake for a Parisian baguette but which nonetheless is usually pretty competent, especially when compared to what you used to get ten years ago when you bought something labeled French bread at the supermarket, and V. told me to slice some whole wheat bread instead because the French bread had dried out because they were only selling it in two packs the day he bought it, so the second loaf had gone a bit stale before he got to it.

And, really, if your partner telling you that the bread is stale isn't the hand of Providence, what is? It was immediately obvious to me that the universe was telling me that it was time to once and for all (no, not split that infinitive; we all know I know how to do that) subdue my bread pudding bogeyman.

Before this week, I had not, in fact, made bread pudding for many years. When I lived in Boston, my roommate R. and I would (very) occasionally go to a restaurant called Saffi's, which was subtitled New Orleans North. It was somewhat beyond our severely limited budgets, but every once in a great while, you need to splurge, and they made a pear-glazed duck that was preternaturally delicious (I'll take discarded Lucky Charms mottoes for $400, Alex!) and a Bourbon bread pudding that was even better. At the time, I tried a couple of times to make my own version of bread pudding, but the results were uniformly disappointing (by which, you understand, I mean that the disappointment was uniform, not that they were disappointing in exactly the same way; I like to think that my failures are as eclectic as anyone's, thanks), and I soon gave up.

Years later, I was watching the Food Network, and someone mentioned that when you make bread pudding, you have to be sure to let the bread soak in the custard mixture for a good while so that it will get thoroughly saturated. Typical: I get the memo, but fifteen years too late. Anyway, ever since I heard that, the notion that I really needed to try again with bread pudding had been wandering about in the far reaches of my fragmented psyche, and when I was presented with the bread, I had only to come up with the pudding. Of course, I still had the apples and the blood oranges and the yogurt, so I decided to incorporate them.

I wrote the recipe in a different format than usual, so to be kind, I'll list the ingredients up front.

6 cups cubed dried bread
1 orange, blood if available
4 T. butter, melted
1 large baking apple
1/3 nutmeg, grated
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom or seven cardamom pods
2 cups milk
2/3 cup sugar
4 eggs

2 cups yogurt
2-3 T. honey

Bread Pudding

Take a stale loaf of bread, preferably something that was once a reasonable approximation of a baguette or a batard, something that was once proud but is now embarrassed to find itself in reduced circumstances, something that has all but lost hope.

With as much kindness as you can muster, slice, dice, and/or crumble the bread into smallish pieces. Assure it that its sacrifice will not be in vain. Place the bread in a bowl. You should have about six cups.

Grab a large and lusty blood orange and remove its zest. Put the zest in with the bread. Set the orange aside. Wrap it in plastic if necessary. You will need to take its juice later.

Take a whole nutmeg and grate about a third of it over the bread mixture.

Melt three or four tablespoons of butter. Pour it over the bread and mix reasonably well.

Peel, core, and chop into large dice a good baking apple. Add it to the bowl.

If you are sure that you will be feeding the pudding to the sort of people who do not automatically object at the sight of currants, add a few tablespoons of them now. Also, count your blessings.

In a blender, combine two cups of milk, four eggs, two-thirds of a cup of granulated sugar, and the contents of seven pods of cardamom. Blend until the cardamom is well ground.

Pour the egg mixture over the bread mixture. Stir well, cover, and refrigerate for at least an hour, or overnight.

Start your sauce. Directions follow the end of the pudding recipe.

When it's time to bake the pudding, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a nine-by-nine baking dish and pack the pudding mixture into it. Bake until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean and it is nicely browned on the top and crusty around the sides of the pan. This will take nearly an hour, especially if you're baking the pudding right out of the refrigerator. You really don't want to underbake this pudding. You don't want to overbake it either, obviously, but I don't think there's much danger of that unless you go on vacation while it's in the oven.

Let the pudding cool for at least fifteen minutes. It's best warm, but you can serve it cool or you can refrigerate it and reheat it, but it's better to just refrigerate the unbaked pudding and bake it just before you're going to want to serve it. Scoop a generous portion of it into a bowl and top with a generous portion of the blood orange yogurt sauce, which you will have completed while the bread pudding was in the oven.

Blood Orange Yogurt Sauce

Line a strainer with paper towels or a coffee filter. Put two cups of yogurt (whole milk yogurt would be best, but lowfat yogurt is okay) in the lined strainer, suspend the strainer over a bowl, and refrigerate overnight. (Pour off the extra liquid unless you have some good use for it. I don't know what that would be, but I'm sure you know what you're doing.)

Put the resulting yogurt cheese in a mixing bowl. Cut your blood orange in half, juice it, and add the juice to the yogurt cheese. Stir well to combine. Add about two tablespoons of honey, and stir that in well. Taste the sauce, and if it needs another tablespoon of honey, add it. Don't go overboard with the honey. You want it to balance the tanginess of the yogurt, not eliminate it.

I only used the blender to make the custard mixture because of the cardamom. I had not intended to put cardamom in the pudding, but my whole nutmegs are stored in a bag inside a container that also contains a bag containing my whole cardamom pods, and when I opened the container, the smell of the cardamom enticed me and would not be denied. There's a reason they call it the queen of spices. If you use ground cardamom instead or if you can grind your own small quantities with a mortar and pestle, you can just add the cardamom to the other dry ingredients and mix up the eggs, milk, and sugar with a whisk.

I am not sure that the bread pudding I made was really the bread pudding I've been dreaming of all these years. Don't get me wrong: if you serve this to anyone, he or she will be very happy, and it's miles ahead of where my first, long-ago forays into the bread pudding universe were, and I'm pretty happy with it. But mine could, perhaps, have used a bit more time in the oven. It also could have used slightly more butter, but I already compensated for that shortage when I wrote up the recipe. It maybe could have used another cup of bread or a bread that was a bit more substantial to begin with, but I'm not really sure about that, and, in any case, I'm quibbling. It was yummy.

The sauce, on the other hand, requires no improvement whatsoever. It is so simple and so good that I really can't think how I ever got along without it, and it goes splendidly with the bread pudding. I suspect, though I didn't test the hypothesis, that if there are no blood oranges available, you can get a very nice sauce with a regular orange. And you can use it on all sorts of other things. Like maybe some nice sauteed apples.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Something from Nothing 1

So you're coming up on the end of the month, and funds are in short supply, and you've got some friends coming over for dinner, and you want to serve them something that demonstrates that you care about them and about food, but you have to stay within a tight budget. Or maybe you have just come to the conclusion that our typical consumptive (cough, cough) eating habits are not friendly to Mother Earth, and you need to find a way to eat and/or entertain that doesn't cry out "conspicuous consumption!" for all to hear. Or maybe, just maybe, one of your favorite bloggers has issued a call for a "one time only" (Oh as if! You just know that if you contribute it's just going to encourage her, and the next time out, she's going to come up with her nothing out of something event, wherein you will be challenged to spend the largest possible amount of money with the least possible to show for it, in which case, I implore you to consider sending me a duck press: you'll be out a couple grand, and I promise to give you nothing whatsoever in return!) food event, and you want to participate.

With any of these motivations, a young (and, let's face it, not young) man's thoughts turn to beans. Black beans, to be specific. I'm a big fan of all kinds of legumes: I love the lentil (and, not to complain -- much -- but let's face it: Lindy's muhjadarrah recipe is already the ne plus ultra of cooking on a tiny budget; it's really a little unfair of her to set us a challenge when she's already killed the category); the split pea and I are tight; and I'll happily chow down on any number of bean varieties. But the black bean is simultaneously hearty and elegant. It's chic without being precious. It's black, people, and there's a reason why everything else wants to be the new black.

Besides, you can get a pound of black beans for seventy-five cents, and it'll easily feed six people.

I had originally planned to walk into the supermarket with ten bucks and walk out with enough for a meal for four or six people. Starter, main course, dessert. Or main course, with sides, and dessert. But there's always something. In this case, it was the hamhocks. At the first store I visited (near church) there weren't any. When I got to a store that I knew would have them, they were only sold in packs of two, and the lightest two-pack was still in the neighborhood of three dollars. This would still have left me within my budget if I hadn't been determined to get a dessert and if I'd had some idea what I really wanted to make for dessert. I was thinking of baked apples, but apples are not really all that inexpensive at the moment. Anyway, I think that I ended up spending between twelve and thirteen dollars for almost everything. I decided that I could go with the spices and the olive oil that were already in the pantry. (I was only using a little bit of olive oil, anyway, and if there are any starving college students out there who think that I should really have had to buy all new spices for this challenge, then I will happily shut you up by sending you a pepper mill loaded with peppercorns. Actually, that sounds like a good charity: Pepper for Pupils. I must remember to look into that; it pains me to see people trying to cook without freshly ground pepper.) And given what I did buy, for another two dollars, I could have made the same meal a second time.

I got a bit off track with dessert, so I'll have to save that for another post, but for my main course, I decided to go with black beans on a fried round of grits. The black beans are cooked with a hamhock, crushed tomatoes, and some spices. The grits are flavored with garlic and cheese and then left to firm up in an empty can. Cutting rounds of solidified grits from a can with a piece of thread is about as much fun as anyone should ever expect to have in the kitchen. It takes playing with your food to a whole nother level. The black beans are started on the stove but finished in the oven. I believe that redfox first suggested this technique to me, but I also believe that she said she got it from some place like egullet. I wish I remembered for sure, but the point is that someone else invented it, and I'm a little bitter that I didn't think of it myself, not that I would let that keep me from using it.

In addition to being a dish that is almost embarrassingly inexpensive, it's something that you have to make large parts of in advance. You could start it the morning of the evening you want to serve it, but it's a lot easier to make both the beans and the cylinder of grits a day or more in advance and then finish it when you're ready to eat. It all keeps and reheats very well.

Black Beans after the Style of the Mesopotamians*

For the black beans:

1 pound dry black beans
1 hamhock
7 cups water
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 t. cumin
1/2 t. red pepper flakes

For the grits:

1 cup quick-cooking (not instant) grits
4 cups water
1 T. olive oil
1/2 t. salt
1/2 clove garlic, minced
4 ounces extra sharp cheddar, grated

Additional olive oil, for baking or frying.

Make the beans:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees

In a large (4-quart) ovenproof saucepan, combine the first eight ingredients. Stir, cover, and bring to a simmer. Put the whole shebang into the oven and cook for ninety minutes. Check the beans. If they're not done, cook them until they are.

Remove and discard the bay leaf. Remove the hamhock, discard the bones and fat, coarsely chop the meat, and return it to the pan. Stir again, taste, and correct seasoning with the salt and pepper. Set aside.

Make the grits:

Grease a clean, empty can. Line the bottom with a round of greased parchment paper.

Put the water in a saucepan. Add the garlic, salt, and olive oil, and bring to a boil. Add the grits in a slow stream, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and simmer for five minutes. Stir in the cheese and correct the seasoning. Pour the grits into the can, cover, and refrigerate.


Reheat the beans. Either put a nonstick skillet or griddle over a medium flame or preheat your oven to 400 degrees and oil a baking sheet. Slide the grits cylinder partway out of the can, until the amount outside the can is the thickness that you want your sliced disk-o-grits to be. Take a piece of thread and slide it under the grits, then pull it up through the grits, holding it against the opening of the can to get an even cut. Brush both sides of the disk lightly with olive oil.

Put all of the disks either on your frying pan/griddle or on the baking sheet. If you are frying them, fry for about eight minutes (they will be brown but not be very dark) then flip and fry the other side for another eight minutes. If you are baking them, put the baking sheet in the oven for ten minutes, then flip and cook for another ten minutes.

Put a browned grits round on each plate, top with a mound of black beans. Garnish if you like.

This dish, in addition to being cheap, is extremely filling. The baking/frying times for the grits rounds are highly approximate. You should adjust the flame and the times depending on how thick you make your slices. If the slices are thick, there is nothing fragile about them, but you still want to flip them as few times as possible so that you don't lose bits off the disk, even though you're just going to cover the disks with black beans and no one would know anyway. I used a 28-ounce (I think) crushed tomato can to mold my grits, but you could use a coffee can and have a wider disk and just cut it thinner. Or you could use two soup cans and give each person two or three smaller disks.

You could also, of course, do the same thing with polenta, but, as much as I love polenta, I grew up with grits, and I appreciate the, well, grittier texture.

I actually only used six cups of water when I made my beans. They solidify quite a bit upon resting, and I would have been better off to have added another cup or two of water. They were still very good, but I would have preferred a slightly more liquid texture.

It would be no trouble at all to double this recipe to feed a crowd, provided you have a big enough ovenproof saucepan. A small stockpot would work nicely. I actually did double the grits portion of the recipe, but the girls and I ate half for dinner, so the recipe is a reflection of what was left for the grits disks.

*I have no idea from which corner of my fevered brain I pulled this title, but I'm pretty sure that you can't prove that the Mesopotamians didn't eat their black beans this way. They were a terribly chic people, you know.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Coconut Custard

Today was meant to be a busy cooking day. I was all set to be ambitious in attacking Lindy's Something out of Nothing challenge, and I had gotten so far, after having dropped A. off at church, as the supermarket, where I was determined to walk out with the ingredients for a main course, side dish, and dessert, all for less than ten dollars. Alas, I could not find a hamhock. Normally, the absence of hamhocks does not strike me as an insurmountable tragedy, but I was already in a poor mood because of the length and difficulty of the past week at work, and I had something of a headache, likely from the same cause, so I decided that the moment was not right for me to bring in a meal on a tight budget.

Anyway, when I got home, I still felt like cooking something, and I had been wanting to try to perfect my coconut custard, and I still had three jars of Failed Coconut Jam, so I got right to it. I was somewhat more careful this time around, and I used more coconut. It's really more like coconut bound with custard than a custard flavored with coconut, but I like it lots.

This is a somewhat difficult recipe for anyone else to replicate because it requires not only a jar of Failed Coconut Jam, but the coconut solids that are left over from making coconut milk/cream. I suspect that you could make something similar with toasted unsweetened coconut, coconut milk, sugar, eggs, vanilla, and rum, but I don't know for sure. Anyway, here's what I made.

Coconut Custard

1/2 pint coconut jam
2 cups dried coconut
3 eggs
1.5 cups milk
1 t. vanilla
1 T. rum

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter six custard cups.

Put the jam in the microwave on the defrost setting for about a minute to loosen it up. Dump it in a bowl, then stir in the coconut. Add the eggs and whisk until everything is well combined.

Scald the milk and beat it slowly into the coconut mixture. Add the vanilla and rum and stir well.

Fill the custard cups to about half an inch short of the top. Put them in a baking pan. Put them in the oven and carefully pour very hot water into the pan so that it reaches as high as the custard is in the cups.

Bake for 35 minutes, or until the custard is set around the edge but still slightly loose in the middle. Remove from the oven and let sit on the counter until the cups are cool enough to handle. Remove them from the water, cover, and refrigerate. Or eat warm.

I used 2% milk, but you could use whatever you had on hand if you had the other ingredients, which, of course, you don't. I scalded my milk by microwaving it for ninety seconds on high. You can use anywhere from one to two cups of coconut. I like mine with the larger amount, but if you like plain baked custard, you might like less.

I only have two more half-pint jars of the Failed Coconut Jam, so I suppose that I can only make this recipe two more times. After that, I'd have to go through the whole coconut jam process again just so I could make this custard, and I have to believe that there's an easier way. I might, though, go halfway through the process to wind up with coconut milk/cream and dried coconut and use the liquid for a curry or a soup or for an overly sweet tropical drink and then just find a way to make custard with the dried coconut and canned coconut milk. I like the dried coconut a lot, and it would be good to have a supply on hand to put into a cake.

Monday, March 20, 2006

How Not To Jam

There is, of course, a fine line between bravery and insanity, but I have never been one to toe lines, fine or otherwise. Discretion may be the better part of valor, but not in my kitchen. I mention this because over the weekend, armed with little more than desire and a very short list of ingredients, I set out to make myself some coconut jam. I got the idea from lindy over at Toast, of course. She received a jar of some sort of caramelized coconut curd from an Eastern acquaintance, and she made it sound very good and even harder to find. The coconut jam was a commercial product, and she had no idea how to make it. The only clues were the ingredients (fresh coconut milk and sugar) and her description of the taste.

It was the description of the taste that got me going, because she made it sound very like a coconut-flavored version of that caramel sauce that you make by submerging a can of sweetened condensed milk in a pan of simmering water for several hours. I did some searching online and didn't come up with any similar recipes (I did find one that involved a lot of eggs, and I didn't really want to use that, though I did figure that if my attempt failed miserably, I could at least mix the result with eggs and make a nice custard pie), but I once made that caramel sauce out of sweetened condensed milk, and I reasoned that if I could first make the equivalent of sweetened condensed milk with coconut milk, I could then put it in a jar and simmer it for several hours and have the desired result. I was and am aware that there is no reason to think that coconut milk can be treated the same way as cow's milk, but why should I let a little thing like logic stop me?

And, for that matter, why should I let a little thing like a near total lack of experience making preserves deter me? Sure, I don't really know how to make jam, but there are recipes, and I can follow them, right? The facts that there are no recipes for the exact thing I'm making and that I really don't like following recipes were mere details. The fact that I generally lack the patience for preserve making might have been of more concern to me had I been thinking clearly, as might the fact that I have even less time and patience at this time of year than at any other. But fatigue, in addition to reducing patience, reduces the ability to think clearly, so I'm inclined to forgive myself for the occasional flight of culinary fancy. After all, sometimes they work out very well.

And sometimes they don't.

I did do some research, especially into how to make fresh coconut milk. God forbid that when I'm trying a new preparation, and one with no reasonable expectation of success, that I should make it easier on myself by just picking up a few cans of coconut milk. After all, the first ingredient on the jar was fresh coconut milk. I could tell from the outset that, especially given my current time limitations, this was going to be a two-day (or, more accurately, two-evening) preparation. One day to make the coconut milk and a second to make the jam. So on Friday night, I stopped on my way home at one of the local markets and picked up two coconuts of decent size.

A fresh coconut is a very seductive thing, but it usually turns on you. It is clearly the incubus of the tropical fruit universe. The seduction has to do with something very succulent trapped within such a foreboding exterior. Plus, it sloshes when you shake it, and how cool is that? That's why kids love the whole coconuts. The sloshing. That, and the fact that they can force their parents to do all the dirty work, and they can just eat what's eventually extracted.

That said, my coconuts were fairly well behaved and gave me rather less grief than is usual and expected. The eyes were soft enough that I could puncture them with a skewer, and then I followed up with a Phillips head screwdriver to make the holes larger. I understand that the preferred way to puncture the eyes is with a power drill, but I couldn't be bothered. Anyway. Once I had three holes of decent size in each of the coconuts, I inverted them over bowls to catch their juices. Then, when they were empty, I stuck them in a 325 degree oven for twelve minutes. While they were heating, I filtered the coconut water. I had about a cup and a half.

I took the coconuts out of the oven (I had them on a half-sheet pan) and I wrapped one of them in a kitchen towel, put it on my pastry marble, and began bashing it with my marble rolling pin (my hammer, you understand, being in the same place as my power drill, which is to say down in the basement, aka not in the kitchen). If you treat your coconuts in this way, you will want to bash them into six or eight pieces so that it will be relatively easy to separate the flesh from the shell, without having to use a knife much. If you get a piece of flesh that is especially recalcitrant (and, after all that bashing, who can really blame it?), then the tip of a paring knife will usually convince it that it has better things to do than hang out with a coconut shell.

In doing all this, your coconut flesh will pick up some of the shell material, so once you have liberated the flesh of both coconuts, you will want to put them in a colander and rinse them well.

If my research sources are to be believed, commercial coconut cream is made by directly pressing the flesh of a coconut. As you might imagine, such a process would require a press of unusual strength, and I have nothing like that in my kitchen. This situation naturally makes me most extremely resentful of a universe that is so unjust that it would leave me without my own duck press. A duck press, you may not be shocked to read, is what one uses to make pressed duck. It is a large contraption made of thick, strong brass. It looks like nothing so much as a poorly designed medieval torture device. You put a duck carcass inside the duck press, and then you turn a giant brass wheel which forces a large brass plate down onto the carcass. In the face of this massive pressure, the juices flee the carcass and come out through a small spout, whence they are made into a sauce in which is poached the pieces of duck that were removed from the carcass before the carcass was pressed. I saw Julia Child do this many years ago on the TV. I have never been able to entirely convince myself that the whole thing was not some elaborate ruse, but if it is, it certainly extends far beyond the bounds of Julia Child's kitchen. You can, in fact, order a duck press online for the low, low price of $1,995. This may seem like a lot of money, but consider that a) you can actually find it online for under $1,500; b) you'll certainly be the only person on your block in possession of a duck press; and c) as status symbols go, it's a lot cheaper than a Hummer.

These excellent reasons notwithstanding, I do not own a duck press, and they are sufficiently uncommon that I could not even find one on Ebay. I did not go so far as to check craigslist, but I doubt that I would have had any better luck there. Anyway, I'm pretty sure that V. would not be amused to see a duck press taking up space in the kitchen, but if you happen to have a spare one that you're not using and you feel like loaning it to me, I can probably hide it in the garage.

Since I didn't feel like relying on the kindness of readers, however, I went ahead and made the coconut milk/cream with what I had on hand. Most recipes tell you to shred the coconut flesh and then steep it in hot water, but I couldn't see why that would be any better than cutting it into relatively small pieces and then putting it in the blender with hot water.

I will say that, while later steps in the process went somewhat awry, I did get very nice coconut milk and coconut cream from my process. It is not difficult, but it does take a while, and it's well suited to an evening when you feel like reading a book or watching TV and taking occasional breaks to mind your coconut.

Two medium coconuts should give you about two pounds of coconut flesh. I ate some of mine while I was bashing and so forth, so I ended up with about thirty-one ounces, which I ate down to thirty ounces. You should check the coconut for any bad spots. I found a couple of spots that smelled somewhat fermented to me, and I trimmed off the brown outer flesh in those spots, but otherwise, I left it on. More flavor, I figured.

Anyway, the recipe:

Coconut Milk/Cream

30 ounces coconut flesh, cut into small chunks
liquid drained from the coconut, well strained
additional water to make about 6.5 cups in total

Heat your coconut liquid and water until it is too hot to touch comfortably, but not to the simmer or boil. Put about a cup of it in your blender, then add about a third of the coconut pieces. Add another cup or so of the hot liquid, then blend until the coconut is cut up very fine.

Let the mixture steep until it is lukewarm, then strain it well.

Repeat the process twice more, or until all the coconut is used up. Put the strained liquid in pitchers or other containers, cover, and refrigerate.

Because of the consistency of coconut, it is not uncommon for a piece of it to get wedged around one of the blades of your blender. If this happens, you will know because the blender will be blending at a very reduced speed. Turn the blender off, dump everything in a bowl, free up the blade, put everything back in the blender, and blend again. I had to do this once each with the first and third batches. You could probably avoid this problem by cutting your pieces fine than I did or by crating them coarsely first, but I think I did less work overall by taking an extra minute to free the blender blades. If you started with the hot water and added the coconut gradually while the blender was running, you might also avoid the stuck-blade problem.

Depending on the size of your blender, it may take you more or fewer batches to fully use up the coconut. You may also have to use a bit more or less water to make the whole thing blendable. Obviously, you don't want it too wet or your coconut milk/cream will be weak.

I strained my coconut slurry with a French press coffee maker. It worked very well indeed, getting a very high percentage of the liquid out of the slurry. I reserved the coconut solids and put them all on a half-sheet pan and into a slow oven. I had them at 300 degrees for about an hour, stirring occasionally, and then at 325 for another twenty minutes. Then I turned off the oven and let them sit overnight. In the morning, I put the solids in a plastic bag. I wasn't sure that they'd be good for much, but I was very happy to have them later.

I have read that after the coconut flesh is pressed to give up its cream, the remaining solids are steeped in hot water to produce coconut milk. You would expect such a process to give a liquid with a significantly lower percentage of fat. The liquid that I had started to separate almost immediately, with the fat rising to the top. It continued to separate under refrigeration.

When all was said and done, I had about a cup and a third of coconut cream, and a liter of what I considered coconut milk, but which might really be something else. In either case, they were both delicious. The coconut cream is of a consistency that is something like whipped cream, only more liquid.

I would, at this point, have been well advised to either add some pineapple, sugar, and rum to my coconut liquid or to have used it all to make a nice curry or perhaps some coconut rice pudding. But awash in the heady success of having made really good coconut milk/cream/whatever the first time, I decided to forge ahead with the coconut jam.

Additional research indicated that the commercial manufacture of sweetened condensed milk involves the removal of sixty percent of the water from the milk. It is then cooked with sugar and canned. The final product has between forty and forty-five percent sugar. So I says to myself, "No problem. Separate the coconut cream from the other liquid, reduce the other liquid by half, add a bunch of sugar, add the cream back, cook it all some more, put it in canning jars, and boil it until it screams for mercy.

I am not altogether certain that this plan cannot be made to work, but it didn't really work for me. I'm not sure whether the flaw is in design or execution (or, more likely, both), but I do know some things that I would do differently if I were to try again. First, I'd reduce the coconut milk/water more. I didn't measure the remaining liquid before I mixed it with the coconut cream, and I'm pretty sure that I didn't reduce it by half. It was probably closer to a third. Still, it looked fine, and it continued to look nice and white when I returned it and the coconut cream to the saucepan and started to heat them up. It wasn't until I added the sugar that the whole mess turned tan. I likely also added too much sugar. I used three cups. And maybe I shouldn't have added those two tablespoons of very good rum, but I certainly couldn't think of a good reason not to at the time. And then, I wasn't sure how much to cook it after the sugar had been added. I ended up going to something like 220 degrees, and it took me a good while to get there, since I didn't want to burn it, but at that point, the pan would no longer contain the bubbling mass, and my boiled jars had been waiting for a while, so I went ahead and ladled it into the jelly jars, put the lids and rims on, and put the four half-pints into a boiling water bath.

When the jars went into the boiling water, what I had looked a lot more like coconut syrup than anything else. It did taste very good. It was somewhat overly sweet, but I figured I could just mix other stuff into it to cut the sweetness. It is likely that forty minutes of boiling was somewhat excessive. At that point, I lifted one of the jars out of the water with some tongs and I could tell that I had problems. It had separated. So I took al four jars out of the water and put them on a towel on the countertop. They all sealed (ping!) within a minute. Upon further rest, they separated further, into three distinct layers, of varying shades of beigish gray. Or perhaps grayish beige. In any case, they ended up looking like the flag of a very, very tedious country.

I boiled the jars on Saturday night, and on Sunday afternoon, I opened one up. The top layer had crystallized somewhat. The bottom layer was a clear syrup, and the middle layer was just cloudy. It clearly wasn't what I'd been after, but it still smelled great. Anyway, I decided to make the most of it. I dumped one of the jars into a bowl, mixed it with some eggs, some milk, and a cup of the dried coconut salads, then turned it into a buttered souffle dish and baked it at 325 for forty-five minutes. Delicious. It is, of course, unlikely that you'll find yourself with a jar of unsuccessful coconut jam on your hands, but in case you do, I'll post the coconut pudding recipe once I've made a couple of minor adjustments, mainly having to do with the ratio of eggs and milk to coconut solids.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Prix Fixe

What this country needs (among other things too numerous to mention, even for me) is more and better mid-range dining options. In my area, you can pretty easily score a good meal from one of a number of ethnic cuisines for $15, and there are sufficient options for people who are prepared to spend $60 or more, but we have nothing like what the French have. In Paris, you can't swing a dead cat (they have laws) without hitting a restaurant that will give you a three-course meal, including wine, for under twenty euros, including tax and tip. And that's the capital, people. It is not an inexpensive city by any stretch of the imagination. And the meals you get for that price? Magnifique!

One (or more) of my readers who has more skill, training, or (especially) capital than I have needs to get on this problem tout de suite. What I want to see is an armada of new restaurants where one gets a starter, a main course, a dessert, and a small carafe (let's say 250 ml per person) of the house red or white for $25, including tax and gratuity. (My original proposal was for $20, but I'm not sure it can be done.) That's $20 for the restaurant, $1.00 - 1.50 for the local sales tax, and $3.50 - 4.00 for the server, per diner. And dinner should last for ninety minutes. The French take a lot longer, but I'm making allowances for the fact that we Americans are a people in a hurry, and ninety minutes is already pushing the culinary attention span of many of my compatriots.

I'm sure there's a flaw in my analysis somewhere. Perhaps people who are willing to spend $25 a head for dinner are also willing to spend twice that. Perhaps Americans just don't care that much about good food. Perhaps running a restaurant with good food is inherently more expensive than that, but I doubt it.

Obviously, I know nothing about restaurant management, but at that price, I think what you'd be dealing with would be a starter and a dessert that would require no additional cooking. I'm thinking soups, composed salads, pâtés, and terrines for the starters, and a small selection of desserts. You'd have to plate those courses, and you might have to run a blowtorch across the top of the crême brulée, but a garde manger should be able to handle both of those courses. You'd obviously need a chef and some number of assistants to handle the main courses, but I think that if you offer a limited number (four or five) of main courses based on what's good at that time of the year, you should be able to make it work.

I mean, they do it in France, people! Are we saying the French can do something we can't? Why aren't the Republicans all over this?

Sunday, March 12, 2006

You Mean I'm Supposed To Organize Them?

Lindy has tagged me with a meme. She has very good timing. I'm generally reticent to write a post that doesn't have any recipes in it, and I've had no time to try anything new in the last week, and the meme gives me the opportunity to post without having to wash up afterwards or having to resort to blogging about how I took L. to the used book store at the local library and bought a book about Maryland cooking (it's a Junior League sort of cookbook, except that it was produced by 33rd National Square Dance Convetion, Inc., and I am not making that up) after opening it and seeing that the first recipe was something that was called something very like "Baloney Wedges" (note the charming spelling; one supposes that's what makes it a Maryland recipe) and that involved mixing cream cheese with pickle juice and then spreading it on "baloney," then cutting the slices into wedges, or perhaps you cut the slices into wedges first and then spread on the pickle-juice-augmented cream cheese. I will perhaps not be trying that recipe, though I could hardly be expected to resist buying the cookbook.

Anyway, the meme. In some cases, there will be multiple answers. You can choose whichever you like best.

1. Where do you obtain the recipes you prepare?

A. Every night before I go to bed, I put a 3x5 note card under my pillow, and when I awake, I find that the recipe fairy has paid me a visit and left me a new recipe. If I'm feeling up to making something particularly ambitious, I leave two or more note cards, though, of course, one must exercise caution: one night I accidentally left an entire pack, and that recipe was so complicated that it is unlikely to be finished this decade. The yak still has two more years to marinate, and that's just the third card.

B. These days, I get a lot of my recipes from the Internet, of course. I have a couple of sites that I visit all the time and that I use as gateway sites. I am not the voracious reader of cookbooks and food magazines that I used to be, but I remember a good deal of what I read in the past, and I frequently go back to those sources for something that I've been wanting to make for a while or just for something that I've been wanting to make again. And then there are plenty of times when I see a picture of something or I taste or see something at a restaurant or when someone just mentions an interesting food, and then I set out to recreate it, though in those cases, I often don't have a recipe and will either create something from the whole cloth or look up various similar or component recipes and synthesize them.

2. How often do you cook a new recipe?

A. It varies considerably with the time of year and other circumstances. During tax season, I rarely cook, though when I do, I like to try new recipes, so perhaps three times a month between early February and mid-April. When it's not busy season and when V. is away on business, I try new recipes as often as four or five times a week. When I'm not working obscene hours and V. is around, he does most of the cooking, but I will still try something new about twice a week.

B. Every other Thursday, at 7:45 pm.

3. How do you store your favorite recipes?

A. Each is written, in Braille, on a live swan.

B. If they aren't in a cookbook, then I generally store them on my blog, or they just don't get stored. I can usually recreate something that I've made before if I didn't write down the recipe. There was a brief time, perhaps eight or ten years ago, when I kept a loose-leaf notebook of good recipes that I'd clipped or copied from somewhere. I may still have it. I hope I do; it has an awfully good recipe for Cornish hen roasted with dried fruit. When I get recipes on note cards, they often just get lost. I do sometimes write directly in cookbooks when I've changed a recipe and it's turned out well, but writing the blog has for the first time really given me an easy way to retain recipes.

C. In a vault, at Gringotts.

4. How large is your "to try" pile? Is it organized? How?

A. 8.5 inches x 11 inches x 6 feet. It's organized alphabetically, by the recipe's third most prevalent ingredient (by weight, of course, not by volume).

B. My pile is entirely notional, except to the extent that I've written down on the blog that I wanted to try something. I am not a very organized person. I prefer not to think about how large the pile is, but it's huge. I am fascinated to see all this discussion about recipe writing and organization, and I hope that I can adopt some of the ideas I'm reading about.

5. What is the oldest recipe in your "to try" file?

A. I intend to try every recipe in The Forme of Cury which was commissioned by Richard II in 1390.

B. Croquembouche. I've been putting it off since I was a teenager.

C. Given the nature of my pile, I could only guess, and I would almost certainly be wrong.

6. Are you going to make everything in the pile?

A. Yes, by next Thursday.

B. Yes, but only if that yak ever finishes marinating.

C. I am more likely to walk on the surface of Neptune than to make everything in my pile.

7. Do you follow a recipe exactly?

A. I try to follow a few recipes almost exactly, especially pastry recipes, and anything that involves cooked sugar, though even then I often stray from the straight and narrow. Otherwise, I believe Julia Child's philosophy: "A recipe is a good idea, not a sacrosanct document."

B. Of course. If you don't, you really, really piss the recipe fairy off.

8. What is one recipe you are scared to try?

A. Anything involving marinated yak.

B. Gravlax. It doesn't seem technically difficult, but I have no faith in my ability to get salmon that's sufficiently fresh for me to feel comfortable making it. I am pretty much without fear when it comes to technique. If it doesn't work out the first time (and it almost always does), you can always make it again.

9. Can we please have that recipe for Baloney Wedges.

A. No!

B. Oh, all right

Baloney Wedges

16 slices baloney
12 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2/3 cup drained sweet pickle relish
1 to 2 tablespoons pickle juice.

Blend the pickle relish and pickle juice into the softened cream cheese.

Spread a slice of baloney with the cream cheese mixture. Top with another slice. Repeat until you have four slices of baloney and three layers in cheese. Wrap and refrigerate. Do the same thing three more times. Chill for at least several hours.

When you are ready to serve, cut each stack into 16 wedges. Lay the wedges on their sides when arranging on the serving platter.

10. Why isn't there a picture of the Baloney Wedges.

They were so good that I ate them all up before I could bring myself to stop long enough to fetch the camera.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Salad for Dinner

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I'm afraid that this is going to be one of those what-I-had-for-dinner posts that some people decry as being to similar to the look-what-my-cute-kitten-did-today posts on cute-kitten blogs. (I don't actually know or read any cute-kitten blogs, but I'm pretty sure that they exist. I have nothing whatsoever against cute-kitten blogs. I agree that kittens are cute. Similarly, I have nothing against cute-puppy blogs, and I agree that puppies are cute. I really don't want to get between the cute-kitten and cute-puppy factions: that sort of thing can only lead to tears, claw marks, and chewed-up slippers. On a different topic, one of the best things about putting your digressions into parentheses is that they sort of don't exist, so that you can go back to your main argument and pretend that you never left it, thus saving yourself yet another "anyway.")

Anyway, I've been making a lot of use of my lime-cilantro vinaigrette. That's partly because it's very good, but more because I made a quart of the stuff, so I really have to make a lot of use of it. There are worse fates (see discussion of getting clawed to death, above), and it's a very versatile dressing, so the other evening, I stopped at Trader Joe's on my way to pick up A., and I picked up some nice salad shrimp, and when I got home, I put eight ounces of the shrimp in a colander and defrosted it with running water, and I made four slices of crisp bacon in the microwave, and I tore a head of romaine into pieces of an appropriate size, and I tossed all of these ingredients together with some of the vinaigrette, and then I ground some salt and pepper on top, and then I got out a block of manchego and a vegetable peeler, and I put some slivers of manchego on the salad, and I tossed it again, and I divided it between two bowls, and we ate it.

As is so often the case with salads, I could have done a lot of other things to it, if I'd been so inclined and had the time and ingredients on hand. I obviously don't have much time to cook these days [whinge deleted], which means that I do a lot of notional cooking. Right this moment, I'm notionally making another four strips of bacon in the microwave, and I'm notionally defrosting a pound of salad shrimp, and I'm notionally defrosting the vinaigrette (vinaigrette separates, you know, and olive oil solidifies upon refrigeration, so you have to take the pitcher out of the refrigerator and microwave it on reheat for forty-five seconds or so and re-emulsify it with your immersion blender; this process is sort of entertaining, but also a bit of a nuisance, though it's much less of a nuisance when it's notional), and I'm notionally crumbling the bacon into fairly small pieces, and I'm notionally mixing the shrimp and bacon with the vinaigrette, and I'm notionally splitting a couple of avocados in half and removing the pits, and then I'm notionally spooning the shrimp salad into the halves. It's notionally delicious.

The actual salad was actually delicious, in spite of the fact that the romaine I had was perhaps not the specimen of romaine that you might choose to serve first to a new race of intelligent beings that was visiting from another solar system (I have a notion that if and when other intelligent life is discovered around the universe, cultures will be judged first on the quality of their salad greens; it is not a comforting thought, really).

In other what-I'm-eating-now news, the vinaigrette on my canned bean salad also solidifies (in little bits) upon refrigeration, but I have discovered that if I pack a container of the salad and another container of muhjadarrah, I can reheat the lentils in the microwave and then mix them with the bean salad. The result is wonderful: it's delicious, and it's just barely warm, so the dressing is liquid and creamy. It's the perfect lunch for the office, especially as it keeps me from having to go out, so I can get even more work done.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

More Canned Goods

Early March tends to bring certain raw and not entirely explicable emotions to the surface for me. I have probably written before about the March fifteenth when I started crying in a Burger King parking lot just because it was a nice day (you can check for yourself: go to google and enter "anapestic 'Burger King' 'hyperemotional git'" and see what comes up). That was the most extreme example, but every year there is at least one instance in March where the combination of many hours of working, few hours of sleeping, the cessation of February's non-work distractions, and the recognition of the ungodly amount of work yet to be done leaves me vulnerable to attack from an unexpected quarter.

And so it was this past weekend that I found myself nearly overcome in the Hispanic foods section of the Shoppers Food Warehouse in Wheaton. I had gone there to buy ingredients for the vinaigrette and the canned bean salad that I wrote about a couple of posts back, and between the produce section and the wall-o-beans that is on the far side of the Hispanic foods section, I came upon a row of jars of foods that were packed alternately in brine and syrup. Some of the foods I recognized, but most were unfamiliar to me. I did not know, for example, that anyone packed hawthorns in syrup, but at least I'm familiar with the tree. Sadly, I did not have my camera with me and I don't remember most of what I saw there (I suppose I can always go back), but I was struck by one particular jar of something called something like "fernalindas." I have no idea what fernalindas are and google fails me utterly (I likely have entirely the wrong spelling), but it seems like the sort of thing I should know. Or at least it seems like the sort of thing I should be able to find out easily. Shouldn't my horizons be sufficiently expansive as to include an intimate acquaintance who can explain the many uses of fernalindas? Shouldn't I have an Hispanic boyfriend (let's say, just to avoid the use of generalization, Raymundo from Project Runway) and shouldn't I be able to just pick up my cell phone and, using the speed dial, say "Raymundo, I'm standing in front of some jars of fernalindas; what say I bring them home and you can show me what to do with them?" to which he, naturally, would reply "Si; the only thing I like better than fernalindas is you," and then I'd say something that would embarrass the stock clerk, but I wouldn't care because I would know that I would soon be enjoying my fernalindas.

This may not have been the exact string of thoughts that went through my head last Friday, and I'm sure that I was far more upset about the lack of sleep and overabundance of work and the scarcity of opportunities to cook (and, no doubt, the fact that V. has been in Sarajevo for nearly three weeks, though that was perhaps just as well at that particular moment, since -- further assuming a complete lack of common sense and discretion that fortunately does not yet exist -- I could not turn to him and say "Why aren't you Raymundo?" which would have made me laugh, but which would probably just have confused him) than I was about the absence of a cute Latin boyfriend, but in any case I was kind of bummed out, and my immediate solution was to buy a large can of tomatillos.

The very first time that I ate at the Austin Grill in Bethesda, the server brought us too small bowls of salsa. The first was a good but forgettable bowl of standard red tomato salsa. The second was a truly splendid green tomatillo salsa which is still listed among the salsas on their menu, but which I have never again been served. now. There are, of course, many other tomatillo salsa recipes available online, but it is a shame that I never wrote that one down.

I'm pretty sure that Austin Grill uses fresh tomatillos when they make their salsa. They probably also add cilantro and perhaps some jalapeno. I pretty much made my tomatillo salsa by draining the can and dumping the drained tomatillos into the blender out of which I had just poured my cilantro-lime vinaigrette. Then I added some garlic, some cilantro and a bit more of the vinaigrette, and I turned the blender on. The result was frankly a bit unattractive (though not, I hasten to add, nearly so unattractive as the picture above; flash, you know), but it was very tasty. More cilantro or perhaps some Italian parsley and a nice fresh jalapeno (or even some thawed frozen spinach) might render it a more marketable shade of green, and a little spice would probably be a very good thing, but the thin, tangy, pea-soup-colored salsa that I got was terrific on tortilla chips. And it's tough to imagine an easier recipe. It's just the sort of thing I need in March. That, and a few extra hours of sleep, but the tomatillo salsa is easier to come by.

Tomatillo Salsa

1 can (28 oz.) whole tomatillos, well drained
1/2 c. cilantro lime vinaigrette
1 clove garlic, chopped
Cilantro, to taste
Salt, to taste

Put the ingredients in a blender. Blend.

Monday, March 06, 2006

No Rest for the Indolent

It would be clearly inaccurate to say that I grew up in a household that did not care about food. But one could say, without undue fear of contradiction, that I grew up in a household where the boundaries were not much pushed. This was not, by any means, always a bad thing. String beans that have been grown in one's own garden and canned (where you will understand that "canned" really means "jarred") in one's own kitchen and then reintroduced to the outside world along with respectable quantities of bacon are the sort of thing of which it is difficult to get too much.

Still, doing things they way they have always been done sometimes does little more than perpetuate bad habits and narrows horizons, and I am certain that when I left home for college, I had no idea that ripe olives came in any other form than those hollow black pellets that one finds in the canned foods section of the supermarket. I was literally unable to stomach such olives as a child (Imagine that you're an olive tree, standing on the same sun-drenched hillside that you've inhabited for the past hundred or more years, and every year you've seen your ripe fruits lovingly harvested then marinated with salt and perhaps some herbs and a good wine vinegar, and you've been fine with that because the fruits of your branches have been truly appreciated, only now the farmer says that he's leased you to some conglomerate, and your beloved fruit is going to end up in a can, perhaps on a supermarket shelf, or perhaps in some industrial kitchen where they'll be sliced and set out at the Pizza Hut salad bar, and, well, how would you feel? You eat cheap canned black olives, you hurt a tree. It's that simple, people!), and you might imagine my sense of wonder and delight upon discovering the increasingly diverse universe of olives that is some small compensation for the myriad insults of adulthood.

And now that I can walk into any of several suburban supermarkets and belly up to the olive bar and shovel delicious olives into little plastic containers until the barkeep cuts me off ("I'm sorry sir, but I think you're through here. Move along to the cashier, please. We don't want a scene. Thank you."), you might think that I have taken my enjoyment of olives about as far as it could go. And, indeed, until relatively recently, I would have agreed with you.

But then I was reading a Hungry Tiger post a while back, and I saw some sort of marinated olives, and it was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes I was intrigued.

It should not surprise you to read that I didn't actually bother to go back and check out her recipe. I'm not even sure that she gave a recipe rather than a process. Marinating olives (note how I smoothly move over to writing about the process as if I've been doing it forever) is more an art than a domestic science, and you can probably put lots of different things in them. I didn't really see the point in doing more to the olives if it wasn't going to involve garlic, but any of the other ingredients are fairly optional. I used what I had around.

Marinated Olives

A container of good ripe olives
1 clove garlic, pureed
1/4 preserved lemon, the unusable part removed, and the rest chopped fine
2 T. cilantro-lime vinaigrette
2 T. lemon juice
1/4 t. red pepper flakes
Fresh ground pepper
Chopped fresh cilantro and/or parsley

Drain the olives and put them back in the container.

Add the garlic, the preserved lemon, and the vinaigrette. Put the lid back on the container and shake well. Refrigerate overnight.

Take the container out of the refrigerator. Taste. Realize that the vinaigrette is a bit of a distraction when the olive oil is cold. Wonder what to do. Cut open a lemon and squeeze it over the olives. Add the red pepper flakes, the chopped herbs, and the ground pepper, to taste. Put the lid back on and shake well. Drain out most of the liquid.

These really were awfully good, and they were very good even with the cold vinaigrette clinging to them, but they were better with less of it clinging to them. I was worried about the preserved lemon because it's so very salty, but the flavor infused the olives in just the right way. The next time I make these olives, I'll probably skip the vinaigrette and perhaps just reserve some of the brine or add some decent wine vinegar along with the garlic, the preserved lemon, the pepper, and the red pepper flakes. Then I'd let that sit for a few hours (or overnight), drain, add the chopped cilantro and parsley, and serve it that way. But you can put in whatever you like, of course. I suspect that V. would like them made with some chopped anchovies. I'm not especially fond of anchovies, but if I also added some chopped sun-dried tomatoes, then all I'd need would be some penne, some olive oil, and some grated cheese, and I'd have a very nice puttanesca.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Of Colanders and Cans (or The Way We Cook Now)

Well. The few people who might notice this sort of thing will likely have noticed a paucity of posts of late, and if you're a sufficiently regular reader to recogize post paucity, then you probably know why the frequency is down, and the less I say about that the better.

Yesterday evening, which you will note was a Friday evening, I decided to be a full-on slacker and leave the office at 6:45. I know! And I hadn't even gotten into the office that morning until 7:30! I am pretty sure that I heard audible gasps when the cubicle dwellers saw me leave my office, though, of course, that could have been the reaction of a staff person looking through a client's materials and marveling at the audacity of someone who wants to take his goldfish Herbert as a dependent and wrote "applied for" as Herbert's social security number. Oh no you didn't! (For future reference, if you can get the SSA to issue Herbie a number, I still won't let you take him as a dependent, but I can refer you to someone who will.)

Anyway, when I got out of the office last night, I went directly to the grocery store to pick up supplies to cook something. By that time, I would have been happy to cook almost anything, but as it happened I had something relatively specific in mind. Two things, in fact, both of which are Redfox-inspired recipes. They are not Redfox recipes per se insofar as I can be bothered neither to follow a specific recipe nor to actually look one up on her site, except maybe for the preserved lemon recipe, and I've already made that and have a few pints in the pantry. But when I read a recipe on her blog (or, for that matter, on the blog of any of her ancestors or descendants; we accountants call that "constructive ownership"), I get a sense of the ideal that underlies the recipe, and then I interpret that same ideal in my own way. If I were a student of philosophy, I would now probably digress into Plato, but I'm not, and in any case, if we're all just eating shadows projected on a cave, they're certainly tasty shadows. (Yes, I know it's a terribly awkward metaphor, but you try to do better. While you're at it, try to come up with the culinary equivalent for "through a glass darkly." "For now, we eat through a sieve darkly, but then ...." Not so easy, is it?)

Anyway, the first of the recipes that I wanted to try was one that, if memory serves, Redfox adapted from Rachel Ray. I couldn't remember much more than that it was a salad that included beans and corn and that Redfox thought that while she had cooked her own beans and used Trader Joe's frozen roasted corn, she thought that you could certainly get away with canned beans and ordinary frozen corn. As it happened, I knew that there was a bag of TJ's roasted corn in my freezer, so I just needed some canned beans. And whatever else I was going to throw into the salad.

For reasons that I cannot begin to understand, I decided that I'd dress the salad with a cilantro-lime vinaigrette. It then occurred to me that I could find numerous other uses for the same vinaigrette, so I got four limes, thinking that they would give me close to a cup of juice. Alas, the limes were hard and cranky, and the four of them together gave me barely half a cup of juice, even with a lot of the pulp left in and even after ten seconds in the microwave and even with my very efficient citrus reamer. So I had to augment with vinegar, which was probably a good thing in that it keeps me from yet another embarrassingly long digression about vinegar-free vinaigrettes.

I made just about a quart of the vinaigrette, on the theory that I'll have many other uses for it. You can pretty easily halve or quarter the recipe, however. If you make the full quart, you will feel like you are adding an awful lot of olive oil. And you are, but it will be entirely too tangy if you don't and very, very good if you do.

Embrace the greenness.Cilantro Lime Vinaigrette

1/2 cup lime juice
1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 t. dijon mustard
fresh cilantro
3 cups olive oil

Put the first four ingredients in the blender. Blend. Put in half a cup or so of cilantro and a generous pinch of salt followed by a generous grind of pepper. Blend again. With the blender running, add most of the oil in a thin stream. Taste. Remark at how tangy it is. With the blender running, add the rest of the oil. Taste again. Add more salt, pepper, cilantro, and oil as needed.

If you're unsure about the garlic, you can start with one or two cloves before accepting that more garlic is better. Unless you really don't like garlic at all, in which case, this is not the recipe for you. Please accept my condolences.

I wanted a bean salad that was almost embarrassingly easy to make, and that's what I got. You could easily omit the chopped tomato from this salad if you wanted to take laziness to the next level. I bought both some plum tomatoes and some red bell peppers at the market, and at the last minute I decided to go with the tomatoes, but you could just as easily go with diced red peppers. Or diced green peppers, which you can also buy frozen. You could also add all sorts of other ingredients to this salad, but that would sort of be missing the point.

Three little cans of beans are we.You will want to choose beans that you like, of course, and if you can get a variety of sizes and colors, so much the better. If I go to the right supermarket, I have a lot of choices, and it was a close call, but this line-up seemed like a good idea at the time. I feel that I have given this dish the appropriate name, but if you want something a little more marketable, you can certainly be a rebel and call it "Three Bean Salad," which will (amusingly or sadly, depending on your point of view) bring people nearly to the point of apoplexy as they stammer "Where the hell are my yellow wax beans? Where the hell is my sweet vinegar dressing?" To which you may respond, with equal volume, either "Where the hell are my K-1s?" (if you're a harassed tax accountant) or "Where the hell is my chiffon?" (if you're an overly expressive Project Runway contestant; yeah, yeah, I know: gay man who watches Project Runway, oh how stereotypical. Cut me some slack here, people; I have never once watched more than a few minutes of American Idol or even a second of America's Next Overpriced Model; I'm entitled to my guilty pleasures. Go Chloe!)

Canned Salad

3 cans beans
Frozen corn
Cilantro lime vinaigrette
2 plum tomatoes, diced.

Open the cans. Dump them into a colander. Rinse the beans well. Drain them well. Take one of the cans and fill it with frozen corn. Put the drained beans and the frozen corn in a bowl. Add as much vinaigrette as you like. Toss. Add the tomatoes. Toss again.

No, seriously. That's all there is to it. And it's delicious. Take it to your next potluck. Pretend there are secret ingredients that you're not at liberty to discuss. Laugh to yourself as people marvel over your ingenuity. Be kind to your accountant.