Sunday, January 23, 2011

The bite on my tongue, the story in my mouth

Oh, I love seasonings. It's a bad habit, really, I pick up spices whenever I'm in a shop with ingredients new to me, regardless of whether or not I know what they are or how to use them. I'll close my eyes and luxuriate in the scent of a new blend, the texture on my tongue. I'll imagine how I can use it. Sometimes I'll take the time to look it up, but honestly more often than not I plunge ahead and try it. Often it works. Occasionally it leads to a spectacular failure.

When I moved into my current home, I first unpacked my books. Then I unpacked my spices, stacking them and organizing them. Soon my kitchen smelled right, the spice cabinet a chamber of mysteries, unlabeled bottled and bags clustered with store bought tins. The organization quickly fell into a tumble, the most frequently used items eclipsing the others, but I still venture into the cabinet, reach towards the back and find treasure.

Every time I open the spice cabinet I imagine I'm an explorer, a trader on the spice routes, the scent of pepper and nutmeg, cinnamon and grains of paradise mingling with camel and blowing sand. I look at the fortune therein and remember that it once was not only for flavor but for life, as so many of these seasonings were medicinal. The scent suggests possibility to me and reminds me to be grateful for these tastes and textures. I don't have to pay a dowry in salt, I instead use it to season my food. Pepper is a pleasant bite on my tongue, not a cure-all for what ails me.

Every bottle contains a story. Where I found the seasoning. How my mother taught me to use it. The scent of the places I long to visit. The fairy tale where it becomes more valuable than gold. The blood spilled to bring this flavor to the new world. The belief that this taste would bring your true love home. Each time I open a container I become more than a home cook, I am blending together the ingredients that build the world.

What are your favorite spices? Where do they take you? Do you dream in cumin?

(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Scallops in a sake reduction

A few days ago I picked up some lovely bay scallops at Whole Foods. I wanted to honor their loveliness, all creamy smooth and shining, and I had lemongrass in the fridge, so I did some digging for some kind of recipe that combined scallops and lemongrass. I found a recipe from Caprial and John's Kitchen, a cooking school and catering firm in Oregon, but I didn't have quite the right ingredients in the house. I improvised. Boy, did it turn out well. I am grateful to Caprial and John for sharing the recipe that inspired me.

If you've not used lemongrass before, try this tip. Bend the entire stalk. Cut it at the point where it bends, the same way you would asparagus. Cur off the botton quarter inch or so and peel off the outer layer. Smell it, close your eyes and savor the incongruity of the finest lemon you've ever sniffed from a woody stalk. Imagine it growing. Be grateful. Now take the flat of your knife and whack the stalk a few times until it cracks a bit; this softens the fibers and releases more of the aroma. Chop the stalk into thin slices and set aside for use.

Place 1c sake (cheap is fine), 4 cloves garlic, 2 chopped stalks lemongrass and about 2t grated ginger in a saucepan. Simmer until about 1/4 of liquid is left. Add 2 cups fish stock (you could sub in chicken stock) and 1/2 of a bird chile you've seeded. This is important. If you leave the seeds in the whole thing will be terribly hot. Sinner again until you have about 1 cup left. Whisk in 2T melted butter, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer,  then add 1/4t fish sauce. Taste and decide if you want to add a little more, then strain the whole thing and set the liquid aside. Keep it warm. Discard or compost the solids.

Sear about a pound of scallops in a heavy pan, coated with a little oil. Season then with a bit of salt and fresh pepper. Don't overcook them, break one open after a minute or two and see if the inside is just creamy, not transparent. If so, it's done.

Plate the scallops (I put them on a bed of baby spinach) pour some of the sauce on top. Close your eyes. Enjoy.

(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer