Friday, April 24, 2009

Fresh Air

Lunchtime. How many of you eat lunch at your desk? Me too, sometimes. My phone will ring, I will stop eating to answer it, and twenty minutes later, I will hang up and look at my sad, half-eaten tupperware of salad under the white glare of fluorescent lights and feel overcome with discontent, knowing that the phone will ring again before I finish.

About a month ago, I decided to do something about it.

Nearly every day for the last month, I have eaten lunch in my car. This is more fun than it sounds. My parking lot is an open-air lot with spaces under some shady trees. The temperatures here in South Florida have stayed in the low 80's, even at noon, so every day, I get in my car, put in the key so that the battery comes on, turn on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and roll down the windows. If my cell phone rings, it is usually someone I'm willing to speak to with my mouth full. If it is not, I won't answer.

Lately, I have noticed other office workers taking refuge in their cars at lunchtime, too. Our parking lot is starting to feel like a drive-in theater around noon, without the carside service or the big screen. We have a line of cars with their windows down, filled with people eating, reading books, chatting on cellphones, and listening to music. One of my colleagues admitted that she took a nap in the backseat of her car last week.

I love these stolen moments of personal time. They may not last much longer, with the summer approaching and my need for air conditioning increasing. Sooner or later, I will have to decide whether I can, in good conscience, actually sit in my car with the engine running while I eat. Sadly, the answer is probably no. I'll have to figure out another way to enjoy my lunch and Fresh Air. I bet that I can squeeze in another two weeks, though, before it really gets hot. Maybe three weeks. Or four.

Curried Chicken-Coconut Soup
Adapted from this recipe at Epicurious.com

This recipe can be made ahead of time. Just stop right before adding the spinach and refrigerate until you are ready to finish. Heat the soup over medium heat until simmering, then add the greens and finish the recipe.

3 cups low-salt chicken broth
1 13.5-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
3/4 cup chopped green onions
2 1/2 tablespoons mild curry powder, such as Garam Masala
1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh lemongrass (from about 3 stalks)
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
4 raw chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch by 1-inch cubes
2 cups baby spinach leaves, loosely packed
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Lime wedges

In a medium saucepan, combine the chicken broth, coconut milk, green onions, curry powder, lemongrass, and ginger. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, then reduce the heat to medium and add the chicken. Simmer, partially covered, for 8-10 minutes, until the chicken is firm and opaque.

Turn off the heat, then add the spinach leaves and cilantro and cover for 1-2 minutes, until the spinach leaves have wilted. Add the lime juice and serve immediately, garnishing with lime wedges.

Serves: 4

Monday, April 20, 2009

Green Mango Salad

The first time I ate mango, I swore that I would never eat it again. As a fifth-grader, my tastes were specific (I only eat salami sub sandwiches from New York Sub on Asbury Street) and somewhat limited (I will not eat fried things, mayonnaise or salsa of any kind). Somehow, my father got his hands on a ripe mango and he and my mother dug into the fruit, exclaiming at its color and sweetness, recalling how people would sell piles of the fruit next to the roadsides during mango season in Hawaii in the early 1970's.

Watching this, I was curious, but cautious. Already the knife had sliced open the rind. Already I could smell an exotic aroma.

Tasting the mango, I was repulsed. It was not sweet like a strawberry. It was cloying and gave me a headache. No more, I thought.

Tastes, or at least preferences, change. My first week in Florida happened to fall right at the end of mango season. My mother-in-law had paper bags of the ripe fruit on her kitchen counter, brought to her by her cleaner Lenieve, whose friends had trees bowing with fruit in their backyards. I ate the mango and enjoyed it. The sweetness no longer registered as cloying. The Florida mango's yellow flesh was pleasantly soft, with an almost floral taste. Since that week, I've eaten tons of the fruit.

This weekend, I found this green mango salad recipe in this month's Food and Wine Magazine. Unlike ripe mangoes, green (or unripe) mangoes have a tangy, vegetable crunch. The mangoes must be unripe to give the salad its intended tartness and crispness. If you have mangoes at your grocery store and can tolerate a little jalapeno, I suggest that you give this a try.

Green Mango Salad
Adapted from this Doris Esther Ayola Orozco recipe at Food and Wine

2 large, unripe mangoes (they should be hard and green), peeled and cut into 2 x 1/2-inch sticks
1/2 large, sweet onion, sliced lengthwise into thin half-moon strips
1/2 jalapeno, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a bowl, toss all of the ingredients together. Serve immediately, or cover with plastic wrap and chill for up to an hour before serving.

Serves: 4

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Peddler

Living near the ocean has its attractions, not least of which is the abundance of fresh seafood. As I've mentioned previously, I do not like to fish. Not a fan of the heat, the tipping boat, or the flopping, dying fish. That said, I love to eat fish and shellfish, so my husband and I go to The Fish Peddler East, a fish store near our house.

The Fish Peddler East is a long, narrow room containing a long, narrow row of cases and a swarm of staffers in t-shirts behind them. They have everything local (pompano), semi-local (Key West pink shrimp and Turks and Caicos conch), and far, far away (Scottish salmon). I love the frenetic atmosphere and the fact that they always slip a lemon or a lime into your bag after you pay.

Recently, the rock shrimp caught our eyes. Steve and I decided that we were in the mood for something Cajun, so I made a rock shrimp etouffe.

Etouffe is one of my favorite Cajun dishes and usually it is made with crawfish. A good recipe usually involves frightening amounts of butter and cream, but I discovered a recipe by Marcelle Bienvenu that called for a reasonable--sane, even--amount of butter and no cream. It is so flavorful, you won't miss the cream, or the crawfish.

Rock Shrimp Etouffe
Adapted from this recipe at Epicurious.com

1 pound peeled and cleaned rock shrimp (if you have crawfish tails, though, use 'em!)
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped red onion
1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/2 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup water
Salt and cayenne pepper, to taste
1/8 cup chopped fresh parsley

Heat a large saucepan over medium heat, then add the butter, allowing it to melt. When the butter starts to foam, add the onions, bell peppers, and celery and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are soft and golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the rock shrimp and cook 2-3 minutes, until the shrimp begin to turn pink, about 2-3 minutes.

As the shrimp are cooking, whisk the cornstarch into the water until well blended. Add to the shrimp mixture. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens, another 2 minutes. Season with salt and cayenne.

Serve immediately over steamed rice. Garnish with a sprinkling of parsley.

Serves: 4

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Ever After

That was a good weekend. I am very sorry to see it go.

Easter weekend has been one of my favorites for quite some time now. Even now, as someone who is not quite a church-goer, I enjoy it.

First, I can't quite explain this, but I have never seen a rainy or snowy Easter Sunday. Therefore, Easter, in my mind, is invariably sunny, dewy, and not too cool. Yesterday lived up to my expectations: it was a flawless South Florida day, the kind that attracts zillions of tourists to the beach. With the sun high overhead and the temperature in the eighties, I sat in my backyard and read the article about Kris Kristofferson in Rolling Stone. Finishing that, I moved on to The Maltese Falcon, which I have been carrying around in my purse all week, sneaking bits at lunch and before meetings. The sun put me into a torpor, from which I revived only by drinking some iced green tea.

Steve and I started our day with brunch at Michy's in Miami. We had the first reservation of the morning, and surprised Michelle Bernstein when we walked in. I say "surprised" because she came to our table during our meal to say hello and apologize for her appearance when we arrived (I hadn't noticed anything amiss, starstruck and geeky as I felt when I recognized her). We had eggs benedict over brioche and churrasco y huevos under one of the many Capiz-shell chandeliers and I thought to myself that I would like my house to look like the interior of Michy's: orange and navy and white, with tropical print upholstery. My house is actually kind of beige, which shows you the influence that key lime tarts with sunflower seed crusts can have on one's outlook.

The Easter Bunny is also pretty good to me.

For example, this wreath, made by my mother-in-law, Merri, and her sister, Yonna. Those little eggs are made of chocolate. In other words, parts of this wreath are edible, which makes it the best wreath I have ever received. The wreath vines themselves came from Merri's backyard, where they grow along a fence.

Jeff and Merri came over last night for Irish lamb stew and some Easter egg-dying. Merri and I have dyed eggs together for several years, and we hit the jackpot this year with a tie-dye kit. I ate some of these eggs for breakfast this morning and quite enjoyed the sight of pink and green shells piling up on my plate, next to the foils of a few chocolate eggs.

Also, I will be going to work today with blue-tinged fingernails, a subversive touch that makes me happy.

Happy day-after-Easter, everyone!

Monday, April 6, 2009

And Then, The Peacock

On Thursday evening, as I was driving through Victoria Park, a neighborhood in downtown Fort Lauderdale, I encountered a peacock. I was easing to a stop at a four-way intersection when it appeared, eyeing me over its shoulder.

Victoria Park is a neighborhood of oddballs. In my mind, it is a jumble of old and new, groomed lawns and sprawling tropical jungle-yards. There are no curbs along the streets, and few streetlights. The older homes have personality: you'll find yellow and cerulean blue walls, fences with ceramic suns and moons, riotous Bougainvillea in magenta bloom. Next door may be an austere three-story townhouse with massive glass windows and unadorned right-angles. I like driving through Victoria Park. It's like an architectural trip to the zoo. Still, this was the first time I found actual wildlife.

As I came to a stop at the four-way intersection, the peacock paused, his head cocked over his shoulder. It was indeed a showy male bird, not a demure brown peahen. The peacock's funny little crown bobbled for a moment as the bird resumed his strutty walk across the street, ten feet in front of my car. I sat entranced.

Then, off to my right, a flash of red. A boy, no more than nine years old, in a red t-shirt and shorts, came running toward the peacock. No, sprinting. His eyes locked on the bird, he pumped his arms in approved Olympic style, his cheeks bellowing in and out, sprinting toward the peacock.

The peacock lifted its skirt of feathers and trotted away. Bird and boy disappeared around a corner.

I sat at the four-way stop a few moments longer, confounded. Part of me wanted to follow them, to hear the first part of the story, and to hear the last part as well. Clearly, I'd happened upon the middle of the story and I wanted to know more.

They were gone, though, as if they'd never appeared in the intersection.

Something else interesting happened last week: a couple of bloggers sent poems to me in response to this post. This is why I love blogging: the call and response that we share. Thank you to the Greasy Skillet and Foodycat!

Two weeks ago, I promised you a recipe that incorporates preserved lemons. Here it is.

Poulet aux Citrons Confits et Olives
Adapted from this recipe at Epicurious.com

1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onion
5 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
3 tablespoons dried coriander
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or to taste
A pinch of saffron threads, crumbled
1/2 cup olive oil
1 3-pound chicken, rinsed and patted dry
1/4 cup Ni├žoise or other brine-cured black olives, pitted and chopped
1 preserved lemon (small), chopped fine

In a large ovenproof skillet, stir together the onion, the garlic, the ginger, the cinnamon stick, the dried coriander, the parsley, the lemon juice, the saffron, the oil, and 1 cup water, put the chicken on top of the mixture, and season it with salt and pepper.

Bake the chicken, covered, in the middle of a preheated 375°F. oven for 45 minutes (or until it registers 160 degrees on a thermometer), transfer it to a cutting board, and let it stand, covered loosely, for 5 minutes. Cut the chicken into quarters.

Add the olives and the preserved lemon to the sauce in the skillet and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer the sauce for 3 to 5 minutes. Nestle the chicken into the skillet and simmer for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the chicken is just heated through. Discard the cinnamon stick and serve the chicken with a generous helping of sauce.

Serves: 4