Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Red pepper mole

I have bad news. You know that story that you always hear about why mole is called mole? The one about the toreador who was in the middle of a bullfight when the object of his affection, upon receiving the handkerchief that she had dropped onto the horns of a raging bull and that had been retrieved with equally breathtaking amounts of danger and elan, passed him a piece of chicken that was smothered in a rich, clay-colored sauce redolent of peppers, spices, tomatoes, and chocolate, causing the toreador to stop in his tracks, and say "mmmmmmmm" until the shrieking of the crowd brought home to him the fact that the horns of the still-raging-and-now- even-more-pissed-off-than-usual bull were mere inches from his tight, shiny pants, whereupon the toreador moved rapidly (but in a carefree manner, and without ceasing the audible appreciation of his food) to the side just enough to elude the bull and fling up his cape, thereby eliciting an enthusiastic "olé!" from the crowd? That story?

Apparently apocryphal.

As you cannot help but have surmised, discovering the somewhat questionable veracity of the generally accepted etymology of mole left me devastated. The only means worth considering for restoring my bruised spirits was to make a nice mole of my own. "Mole" means, I believe, nothing more or less than sauce, so it doesn't really mean a lot to say that you want to make a mole, but when most people say "mole" (without "guaca") they mean something slightly more specific. Recipes for this type of sauce abound, and my very favorite is in a cookbook that I own but can't always find. It was written by one of the two women who wrote the Silver Palate cookbooks, and it was published not long after they feuded about something or other and went their separate ways. It has many, many ingredients and is proportionately delicious, though for obvious reasons, it's not as good if you can't make it because you can't find the book.

But no matter. I knew the types of ingredients that were in my favorite mole recipe, and I figured that if I had peppers and onions and tomatoes and nuts and fruit and spices and chocolate, I'd probably come up with something tasty. The main innovation I wanted to test had to do with the initial cookbook. In the no-longer-a-Silver-Palate-chef's book, a small amount of oil was used to successively fry a great many ingredients. I reasoned that I could more easily chop all the ingredients, toss them in a bowl with some olive oil, and then roast them all together in the oven.

And this method turns out to work just fine. I'm not sure that my specific ingredients were really ideal (I think that using both a banana and the prunes was not necessarily inspired, though either of them alone would have been just fine), but when I was done adjusting the seasoning, I had a mole that I liked, and when I went a few steps farther by making a batch of my turkey meatballs and then cooking them slowly in the mole, I had something that I would happily eat for lunch every day this week (as, indeed, I am doing). I will probably make some minor adjustments before I make another batch, but since this batch gave me ten cups of sauce and since two cups of mole are plenty to sauce six lunch-sized servings of meatballs, it may be a while before I get around to making more.

Red Pepper Mole

4 sweet red peppers, roughly chopped
1 large white onion, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, halved
1 ounce pine nuts
1 ounce almonds
10-12 prunes, halved
1 banana, sliced
2 T. olive oil
1 t. salt
1.5 cups tomato puree
1 quart chicken broth
1/2 t. cayenne pepper
3 t. ground ancho chile
2 t. smoked sweet paprika
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, chopped
3 corn tortillas, torn
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Combine the first seven ingredients in a bowl. Add the olive oil and salt and toss well to coat. Transfer to a large baking dish and bake for approximately forty minutes.

Transfer the roasted vegetables to a large pot, and add the tomato puree, chicken broth, and spices. Puree with a stick blender. Simmer for about half an hour, and add the chocolate and tortillas. Simmer for another fifteen minutes and use the stick blender again. Correct seasoning.

How thick you want your mole will depend on both your personal taste and on what you'll be serving it with. I ended up with something pretty thick, but I'm eating the mole and meatballs without anything else, so thicker is better. You could easily put the whole thing over some spaghetti to give an amusing reinterpretation of spaghetti with meatballs, and then you'd probably want a thinner sauce. Just add more broth.

You can use the mole to sauce a lot of different things, but when I first made it and tasted it, it really seemed to lack something that would best be provided by meat, and it was much better after the meatballs than before, so if I were going to use it on something else, I would likely swap out some of the chicken broth for beef broth.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


I suspect that many of you will be entirely unfamiliar with spoonbread. In fact, until I made some for myself this past weekend, I had only ever had spoonbread made by three people: my mother, my mother's mother, and my mother's sister. I believe that spoonbread is relatively common in southern cooking, but it is clearly not nearly so well known as its famous cousin cornbread or even its slightly less famous cousin, the cornstick.

I will have to acknowledge that this obscurity may not be entirely undeserved. I must further acknowledge that when my mother put spoonbread on the table, my father was pretty much the only person who was delighted by its appearance. To me it always tasted wet, somehow. Exactly why this should be so I cannot explain to you: I haven't had spoonbread made by anyone in perhaps twenty-five years, and while I considered calling my mother to ask her how she made/makes her spoonbread, I decided not to. In part because she probably doesn't use a recipe, but also in part because I was afraid that she might make it for me again the next time I visit her and my father. I suspect that Mom's spoonbread is something that my adult palate would find pleasing, but I'd just as soon not take the chance.

My initial batch of spoonbread didn't really start out with that destination in mind. I just wanted something warm, filling, cornbread based, and within my dietary parameters. Since cornmeal, eggs, and skim milk are all unlimited foods, I figured that I could mix those up with water, some spices, a small amount of oil, and perhaps some cut corn, and get something that would make a decent breakfast. I was really thinking of something more like a corn-based equivalent of porridge. But when I was done, it occurred to me that I'd basically recreated (a leaner version of) spoonbread.

My first batch was made entirely on the stovetop, and it was much better than I thought it had any right to be, given the very small amount of fat. My mother always baked her spoonbread, and that's how I did my second batch. You can make it either way. If you do it entirely on the stove, then you will have a much more solid texture. Bake it, and you get something like a soft baked custard in texture. I'd happily eat a lot of either version. In fact, I have.

My mother's spoonbread (like my grandmother's and my aunt's) was very plain fare. I believe she used white corn meal, water, milk, butter, salt, eggs, and probably nothing else. As is my general practice, when I cut down on the fat in a recipe, I compensate with additional flavors, so the flavor of my spoonbread is nothing at all like Mom's.

Although I am aware that there are many, many options for people who want to spice up their food, I have lately been restricting my spicy palette to ground black pepper and a troika of reds: ground ancho chiles, ground cayenne pepper, and smoked sweet paprika. I find that by using these three spices in varying proportions, I can almost always get something that's just what I want when I want something spicy. (I am not, however, advocating that you do the same. Just last weekend, I heard a brief interview with Rick Bayless where he talked about a large food market in Mexico City and about how one of the stalls had thirty-seven different varieties of dried chiles. It made my mouth water. V., in fact, will be going to Mexico City for a week right after tax season. He's attending a conference there, and I could go with him if I wanted, but I am not sure that I'd feel safe there, and he'd be in meetings most of the day. Of course, that would give me most of the day to count varieties of chile peppers in the markets, but I think that I will instead opt for something less adventurous and more secure. Alas.) I used all three of them in the spoonbread.

I am not kidding you when I say that the tiny amount of oil in this recipe seemed fine to me and that I did not at all miss the fat. At the same time, if you wanted to ramp up the recipe with a couple of tablespoons of butter or bacon fat, then no one would blame you. Neither would blame attach to the addition of some nice, sharp cheddar, though, again, I didn't miss it.


2 cups water
1/8 t. cayenne pepper
1/4 t. garlic powder
1/2 t. ancho chile powder
1 t. smoked paprika
2 t. salt
Black pepper to taste
1 cup cornmeal
2 t. olive oil
1 cup cold liquid*
2 eggs
1-2 cups corn

Grease an 8x8 baking pan

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a decent sized saucepan, bring the water to a boil. When it is nearly there, add the seasonings and stir. Slowly whisk in the cornmeal, to avoid lumps. Whisk in the olive oil and whisk over heat for another two minutes. The mixture will be very thick. Remove from heat and whisk in the cold liquid. Whisk in the eggs until well incorporated. Fold in the corn kernels.

Turn the mixture into the greased baking pan and bake until brown and crackly on top, about 35 minutes. The spoonbread will still quiver when it's done.

Serve straight up, or with hot sauce or salsa.

*Most spoonbread recipes call for cold milk. I have used cold water and cold (fat-free) buttermilk, and they both work just fine.

If you want to do the whole deal on top of the stove, just return to the heat when you've whisked in the eggs and return to the flame until well cooked, then fold in the corn. This method will save you about thirty minutes. I used semi-defrosted frozen corn, and there was plenty of heat to finish defrosting and cooking the corn. I prefer the recipe with the larger amount of corn, but it is fine with the smaller amount.

This is not the sort of dish that improves with age. You want to consume it soon after it's made.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Those of you who watch Top Chef will know exactly where the idea for a spicy popcorn came from: i.e., from the dish that Sam created to represent wrath in the seven deadly sins challenge. There is even a recipe for that dish on the Bravo website, but the recipe treats the popcorn as a mere garnish. Worse, it just tells you to pop some corn in some canola oil and entirely neglects the seasoning that Sam put on it and that made the judges rave.

Popcorn is the ideal snack food if you're dieting. In fact, on the Weight Watchers Core plan, 94% fat free microwave popcorn is one of the permitted, unlimited snack foods. And I will confess that there have been times at work (these times will, alas, become more frequent as busy season waxes full) where I have resorted to that option. While it is certainly possible to see (especially if you squint) microwave popcorn as a necessary evil, however, you run into a brick wall if you try to justify it on any grounds other than dire necessity. And perhaps on the grounds that if you go to the supermarket, you will be absolutely inundated with options for creating a series of controlled explosions inside your microwave, but you might have difficulty finding any good popcorn that you can prepare on top of the stove. If you look carefully, however, you can probably find a jar of Orville Reddenbacher, and while I'm sure there are better popcorns (and if you have a favorite, I'd be ever so grateful if you leave a comment or send me an email to let me know what it is and where I can procure some), OR has consistently popped well for me over the years.

I am not one to pass judgment on anyone's culinary practices or kitchen equipment (note that I wrote that last phrase with a straight face: just how long I can keep that up remains an open question), but I do not think that the food appliance industry served us well by creating the hot air popper. When I was a youngster (my mother's family would say "young'un"), my mother popped corn using her pressure cooker. She covered it with the lid from another saucepan, making it, in effect, the heaviest saucepan she owned. Mom would melt some shortening in the bottom of the pot, pour in some store-brand popcorn from a plastic bag, cover the pot, and cook it, shaking frequently, until as much of it as she thought was going to pop had popped. Then she'd pour it out into a bowl and add salt and, sometimes, butter.

When I was a little older, dedicated popcorn poppers were common. These were essentially hot plates with a cooking surface (often nonstick) and a cover, and they did the same thing as my mother did with her pressure cooker, but at a controlled temperature and without the shaking. They may have been among the most pointless (though essentially harmless) appliances ever created, and if anyone was sorry to see them go, it was only because they were chased out by the hot air poppers, which were equally pointless -- but not quite so harmless.

It really does not require a great deal of fat to make good popcorn, but popcorn prepared without any fat at all is doomed to an eternity of flavorlessness (there was, in fact, a Greek myth illustrating this exact lesson, but it was ruthlessly suppressed by Big Popcorn shortly after the end of the Napoleonic wars) no matter how hard you work to compensate (if you go to a Weight Watchers meeting, you will hear people talk about using cooking spray on their air-popped popcorn; when this happens, smile, nod, and escape at your earliest opportunity). The problem with fat-free popcorn popping is that in the absence of fat, salt will not cling to the popped corn. (There are also textural problems with air-popped popcorn, but the lack of flavor will suffice here.) I have not used a hot air popper in many years, but if memory serves, the popper had a place to put butter so that the hot air would melt the butter, and the butter would fall down onto the little chute leading from the popping chamber to the bowl. The theory was that the popped corn would hit the chute and the butter and that the final product would then be saved. It didn't work. You could, of course, rescue your popcorn by pouring melted butter over the finished product and tossing it well to coat: enough butter and salt will rescue almost anything. (Really, try it some time with a bowl of chopped haggis and see if the haggis isn't much improved. Not that there was any direction for the haggis to go but up. I shouldn't say that: I've never had haggis, and the lead singer from Franz Ferdinand claims that it's entirely edible [Scotland: come for the tartan, stay for the haggis!], and I'm sure it can't be much worse than, say, chitterlings. And if you decide to rescue a bowl of chitterlings by pouring butter and salt over them, I don't want to hear about it, ok?) But if you are so desperate to be chewing something that you're willing to eat air-popped popcorn, I suggest sugarless gum. The only time I have ever found a hot air popper truly useful was when I was in college, and we wanted to fill a friend's room up with popcorn. Word to the wise: to do so takes a long time and a lot of popcorn. If you can't convince one of the freshmen to carry out the prank for you, then filling the room to a depth of three inches or so completely makes the statement you wanted to make: any more is just punishing yourself. Indeed, if you're going to put large quantities of popped corn in a friend's room, you want to avoid something popped in fat so as to avoid attracting vermin. (Vermin and haggis in one paragraph! Is it even possible for this blog to get any better?)

Anyway, if you want to pop corn, then what you really need is some decent popping corn, some good fat, some seasonings, and a heavy saucepan with a lid that fits well. It is an amazingly simple process. You put your fat in the bottom of the pan, you place the pan over medium-high heat, you add three kernels of popcorn, and you plop the lid on. When the first two kernels have popped, you wait an additional ten seconds, or until the third kernel pops, whichever is sooner. Then you pour in the rest of your corn, shake well to coat it with oil, and put it back on the heat. Continue shaking occasionally until the corn begins to pop, and then shake more frequently. If you can crack the lid on the corn while it's popping without letting any fly out of the pot, then you'll release some steam and the popped corn will be crispier.

The time it takes for individual kernels of corn to pop should be normally distributed around a mean. In other words, the popping will start slowly, then pick up, and finally taper off. A corn that pops well is one that, in addition to having few dud kernels, has a relatively small standard deviation in the popping time so that almost all of the kernels will have popped before the corn begins to burn.

In any case, when the popping begins to taper off, wait until you have two or three seconds with no pops at all, and then take the pan off the heat and let it sit covered for another fifteen seconds or so. Remove the lid and pour the popped corn into a large bowl. Give the corn a few seconds to allow steam to escape, then add your seasonings, and toss well to coat.

And then eat it. The proper way to eat popcorn is with a soup spoon, though very few people are aware of this fact. Manners experts generally won't even tell you about the soup spoon rule because it's an embarrassment to their profession. Contemporary proper manners continue to be governed by provisions of the Treaty of Languedoc, which was ratified in 1827. At the time, few people of property consumed popcorn, but many people consumed asparagus. Asparagus (prior to the Great Vegetable Shift of the 1850s) was an even more delectable vegetable then than it is now. The proper way to eat it was with a knife and fork, but it prompted such gluttony (and delight) that the noblemen of the day were very much desirous of eating it with their fingers. In order to make a compromise possible, the Manualists had to give something up so that the Utensilists could save face. Accordingly, they offered up popcorn, which they didn't like very much anyway, the moving picture still being nearly a century off. Bottom line: asparagus with the fingers, popcorn with a soup spoon.

As you might imagine, however, the whole business is something of a sore sport for the Languedocians, a people renowned mainly for their shyness about acknowledging their national origins. So while it is now technically impolite to eat popcorn with your hands, it's really the only way to go. You never know when you might be in the presence of a son (or daughter) of Languedoc, and, believe me, you don't ever want to piss a Languedocian off.

What you use to season your popcorn is entirely up to you, of course. When I visited France as a senior in high school, the French sprinkled granulated sugar on the corn after it was popped. Salt and butter have been traditional in the U.S., of course. When I was in college, it was a special treat to catch a movie at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square in part because they still put real butter on popcorn that they had just popped themselves. I am told by a reliable source that they still do that. But nowadays, it's fairly common to see popcorn flavored with grated Parmesan, and of course, there are those giant cans of popcorn that have three different flavors, and God only knows what flavors those have. I don't think anyone ever actually eats that popcorn. You take it to work and leave it in the break room, and, after a decent interval has passed, someone dumps the popcorn down the gargage disposal and takes the giant pail home for another use.

Anyway. Pouring butter on my popcorn, alas, is not consistent with my diet, and in any case, I wanted to make something similar to what I assume Sam made. So I created my own popcorn seasoning.

Popcorn Seasoning

3 T. kosher salt
2 t. ground ancho chile
2 t. smoked sweet paprika
2 t. cocoa powder
1 t. ground cumin
1 t. ground cayenne pepper

Combine the salt and ground chile in your spice grinder, and grind until fine. Put in a jar, add the other ingredients, and shake well.

Excepting the anchos, the other spices generally come very finely ground. The kosher salt is coarse, of course (Willllburrrrrrrr!), and you really want very fine salt for your popcorn, so if you grind the salt and the anchos together, you solve all your problems.

When I make popcorn, I use one tablespoon of olive oil for 1/3 cup of corn. This amount is nicely handled by my Calphalon 3.5-quart Windsor saucepan. It is certainly legitimate to use more oil for reasons of flavor, but the corn pops perfectly well with the single tablespoon. A lot of people will tell you to use canola oil to pop corn, and I'm sure it gets the job done, but if I'm only using a tablespoon of fat, I want to use a fat with real flavor. In searching around the net to see what other people had done with popcorn, I found someone who popped his corn in bacon fat. I must track this person down and see whether he needs a disciple.

One teaspoon of my seasoning adequately flavors what 1/3 cup of unpopped popcorn expands into. When you pour the popped corn into your bowl, let it rest for a moment to give off steam, then sprinkle the seasoning over the top of the popcorn and toss it as well as you can. You will not get a perfectly even coating, and that's just fine. When you taste the popcorn, think twice before adding additional seasoning. It will seem bland at first, but the flavors build, and by the time you reach the bottom of the bowl, your mouth will be tingling.

[I apologize for the lack of a picture. I made two batches of popcorn to make sure that I had the mix of seasonings that I wanted, and while I tried to stop eating for long enough to fetch a camera, I failed. I'll try to make amends later.]

Monday, January 15, 2007


Consider the meatball. Like its much larger cousin, the meatloaf, it appears in many different forms in many different cultures. Also, like the meatloaf, its quality is highly variable, so it must sometimes be approached with trepidation. Fortunately, the meatball is usually small, so it represents a much smaller investment than does a slice of meatloaf. If you don't like your meatloaf, there isn't a lot that you can do about it, short of faking a case of appendicitis or summoning the family pets. Sadly, not all families keep pets near the dining table (leaving one to wonder whether perhaps they don't care more about their pets than they do about their guests, though the supposed reasons of health and manners provide a convenient and incontrovertible cover), and you can really only fake appendicitis once. Like other things that you can only do once, it is obviously difficult to know exactly when you're facing the optimal time for using the appendicitis excuse. Obviously, you don't want to run into an even worse piece of meatloaf (and pets who are either nonexistent or have learned better than to be present when meatloaf is served) a couple of months after you've pretended to have your appendix out. Contrariwise, too many people have reached the ends of their days cursing the fact that they needn't have choked down that piece of meatloaf back in 1956. Given the state of hospital food, one might suppose that terminal patients who had not hitherto used the appendicitis excuse might not lack for opportunities to use it in their personal end times, but faking appendicitis in the hospital fails on two counts: the nurses will likely be able to tell that you're faking it, and there's always the chance that they might decide to open you up just in case.

Anyway. I have made a good many meatballs in my time. I have rarely used a recipe, and they have always been pretty good, so I don't know what other people do to soil the meatball's reputation, though I suspect that it has something to do with the addition of excessive fillers, a misstep which has also doomed many a meatloaf.

In the past, I've often used a mixture of ground beef and ground pork (or ground beef and sausage) to make meatballs, but I'm rather tediously on this diet, so I wanted to find the perfect meatball to meet my current dietary restraints.

And, frankly, I'm still looking, because the meatballs I made this past weekend are a shade on the bland side. I'm still posting the recipe, however, because the meatballs were still good: tasty and not at all dry. Also, I think that it will be pretty easy to make them significantly better the next time around by the addition of extra seasonings. Mostly more salt, but probably also some cooked onion and an increased amount of both mustard and smoked paprika. Also perhaps some chopped spinach and some herbs. And maybe some grated ginger. (Perhaps you begin to see why in my kitchen the food precedes the recipe, rather than vice versa.) Still, it's good to have a baseline, though it might take me two weeks to get through this batch to have an opportunity to make another. Fortunately, they are still very good after freezing.

I will freely admit that in making this recipe, I used rolled oats rather than bread crumbs entirely because, on the core plan, the former is unrestricted and the latter isn't, but I think the rolled oats perform the same function here and do it well. I also really don't feel like I'm missing much by using ground turkey instead of a fattier ground meat, though I may certainly be deluding myself and/or my tastes may have adjusted to a lengthy period of fat restriction. If you want to use the high test ingredients, then have at it.

Turkey Meatballs

2 packages (about 20 ounces each) ground 93/7 turkey
1 cup rolled oats
2 t. smoked paprika
1/2 t. garlic powder
1.5 t. kosher salt
Ground black pepper
1 T. Dijon mustard
1/4 c. capers, drained
A 10-ounce jar of pitted kalamata olives, drained
2 eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Put the ground turkey in a large bowl.

Put the rolled oats in the bowl of your food processor, and process until ground. Add the smoked paprika, garlic powder, salt, and pepper (to taste), and process again. Add the capers and process until finely chopped. Add the olives and process until finely chopped. Add the mustard and eggs and process until well combined.

Pour the whole mess into the bowl with the ground turkey and mix thoroughly.

Using a one-ounce scoop, take a level scoopful of the mixture and roll it into a ball. Place on a half-sheet pan. Continue until all of the mixture has been used.

Bake 40 minutes, or until done.

I believe this will make almost exactly sixty meatballs if you use a one-ounce scoop and make level (rather than rounded or heaping) scoopfuls of your mixture. I can get 54 of these on a half-sheet pan (six rows by nine columns), which leaves enough left over to make something that looks like a hamburger patty. If you aren't using part of your oven for something else, you can crowd your pans left and make it all in two pans. You may thereby reap some additional benefits by not crowding your pan as much as I did, which might allow your meatballs to brown more uniformly. Or you can be smart and use the excess to make test meatballs and adjust your seasoning.

Or you can just start with more salt. The 1.5 teaspoons in the recipe here is what I actually used, rather than what I should have used. You especially want to get the seasoning right on the first try if you're mixing this by hand because your hands will get cold to the point of numbness very quickly, and unless you're wearing gloves, you probably won't be able to mix the meatballs all the way on one try without stopping to warm your mixing hand. Of course, you could halve the entire recipe and save yourself a world of pain, but I wanted to have a lot of meatballs, and I do.

I like these meatballs just as they are, but if you feel that an unadorned meatball is naked and exposed, then go ahead and sauce them. I think if you took a can of beef broth and an equal amount of red wine and cooked them until they were reduced slightly and then whisked in some Dijon mustard and thickened the whole deal with a bit of beurre manié, then you'd probably have something very good, but I haven't actually tried it. Yet.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

How I Spent My Winter Vacation

Lest any of you should worry, let me say right up front that while I was on vacation in South Florida, I did eat well, but I did not eat any of the fauna (or flora) pictured in this post. I believe they are all protected, at least within the Everglades National Park. More to the point, they probably wouldn't have tasted very good, and there were no barbecue pits.

If you have never been fortunate enough to visit the Everglades, I recommend it very highly, provided that you understand up front that it is a place of varied but quiet pleasures. If you want something flashy, then by all means go somewhere else. (I hear, for example, that the Grand Canyon is both large and impressive. I can also recommend, without reservation, the Florida Keys, though I will say that I found Key West itself somewhat overrated and was glad that we'd been forced to take accommodations up nearer Key Largo.)

While you will not find tall mountains or loud waterfalls or geysers that go off at more or less regular intervals in the Everglades, you will find a number of distinct habitats, all of which are fun to explore, provided that you go during the dry season. (We did not run into any mosquitoes, but one hears that they are very annoying in the summer and fall.) The dry season turned out to be a moderate misnomer in our case, as there was a very impressive rainfall on our second day in the park. We were out walking through one of the prairie areas when it hit, and we kept going for another ten minutes before we determined that it wasn't likely to blow over within the next hour, so we spent another half hour walking back to where the car was parked.

Walking in the rain when the temperature is in the low eighties is really very pleasant, but stopping the walk and getting back in the car is really not very pleasant. I did stop back at a restaurant and wring a couple of quarts of water out of my t-shirt, but I was still soaked when I got back in the car.

But our spirits, at least, were not dampened, and when we came back the next day, we were rewarded with a significantly lusher prairie than we'd been walking through the day before. The wildflowers and tree snail you see pictured here are all things that I saw on our last hike (the Everglades, like all of South Florida that I saw, is very flat, making it an ideal hiking spot for those of us with intermittently dodgy knees) through the middle of the park. I saw a great many other wildflowers, but I didn't do such a good job photographing them. I reckon that means I'll have to go back. Quelle dommage.

A vacation is really no time to mind a diet, but while I did indulge in a couple of slices of key lime pie (which, frankly, I see no reason to attempt myself if it means relying on bottled juice), I found it very easy to be moderately moderate with my food intake. In part, this is because you can walk for miles and miles in the Everglades without coming upon a single TCBY or McDonald's drive through. But also, what's abundant in South Florida (i.e., good seafood and fresh fruit) is mostly stuff that isn't bad for you.

When I visit almost any other state or country, I love going to the supermarkets. You might expect that supermarkets throughout the U.S. would be relatively uniform, but I find great differences. Since I live in Maryland, the biggest difference tends to be that supermarkets in more enlightened (I should say more culinarily enlightened, because Florida has just elected a fairly moronic closet case as its governor, but let's not go there) states carry a fine selection of wine and beer.

But even leaving aside the easy availability of alcoholic beverages, I found the various incarnations of Publix (would that be Publices?) to be somewhat superior to my neighborhood Giant. (There were, however, certain disturbing similarities; for example, even in Key Largo, the store brand key lime yogurt is green. What's up with that?) I was so pleased with the quality and selection at one of Publix that I was tempted to weep. Ok, I wasn't really tempted to weep, but I thought about being tempted to weep. And maybe that was just because of the huge wine selection, but still.

Anyway. We flew down on New Year's Day. We had to be up at [an hour so early that I dare not mention it] to catch our 7:30 flight at National, and by the time we'd landed, retrieved our luggage, gotten the rental car, and found our way to where we were staying, it was nearly 2 pm, and I was so hungry that I was starting to intimate to V. that if he didn't pull into a restaurant very soon, I was going to have to rip off his arm and eat it. I'm pretty sure that he knows I wouldn't do that if I didn't have a way to make a decent sauce, but he still found a restaurant. I mention the incident mainly because a day later we returned to the same restaurant for dinner, and I was served a thoroughly delicious grilled fillet of snapper with a Caribbean salsa.

Fruit salsas are really nothing new. Neither are they really anything other than a spicy fruit salad, but I hadn't had one on fish before, and I determined to find or create a recipe when I returned home. So I did.

There is, alas, no getting around the fact that this recipe is very much to taste. I started out with what I thought would be a good combination, but it languished on the palate until I added more lime juice, more salt, and about an eighth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper. In my experience, the amount and quality of heat provided by jalapeno peppers is remarkably inconsistent, so you just have to taste what you have when you've mixed everything together and let it sit for a while and then make adjustments.

I was making two dishes at the same time with the limes and jalapenos, so I squeezed the juice out of five limes and put it in a pitcher along with two seeded and roughly chopped jalapenos and then took my stick blender to it. I used about three tablespoons of the resulting mixture on the salsa, and I used the rest to marinate some frozen cooked shrimp that I'd briefly submerged in boiling water and then drained. The original idea was to combine the shrimp and the salsa into a salad, but the smallest shrimp I found at the supermarket still had the tails on them, so my plan didn't really work out. I'll probably try again later with some salad shrimp from Costco.

Anyway, after the initial application of lime and jalapeno and about an hour of room temperature marination, I added the juice of my last lime, the salt, and the cayenne pepper, and the salsa perked up considerably. If you don't like spicy food, there's really no point in making this recipe. Just eat the mango and the pineapple by themselves. If you like mildly spicy food, then drain off the liquid before serving, since most of the heat seems to collect in the juices.
I'll be tiresome for a moment and mention that this recipe is entirely devoid of fat and qualifies as a Weight Watchers core food. I'm not sure that it's really dietetic, if only because I want to eat lots of it. Time was when the spiciness of it would restrict the amount that I'd eat, but time isn't any more.

Mango-Pineapple Salsa

The flesh of 2 mangoes, diced
2 cups diced fresh pineapple
1 red bell pepper, diced
1/4 c. diced red onion
3/4 t. salt
Lime juice
Very finely diced jalapeno
Cayenne pepper
Black pepper
2 T. (packed) finely chopped cilantro

Combine all ingredients. Let sit at room temperature for half an hour, taste, and correct seasoning.

It should be relatively obvious just how malleable this recipe is. Add whatever you like (watermelon, cantaloupe, peaches, olives, garlic, tomatoes, avocados [especially avocados], basil), and serve it with whatever you like (I'm thinking with dark rum, in a tall glass, but pay no attention to me). It's at its very best when it's just been made, but I put several cups away in the frig to take for lunch, and two days after I made it, it's still decidedly yummy.