Friday, March 23, 2012

On The Dire Implications of Mismatched Dishware

Open the kitchen cupboards of a young singleton and you will most likely find jumbled stacks of mismatched plates, bowls, and mugs. These are individual pieces inherited from friends who have moved away, garage sales, previous roommates, forgetful party guests, and thrift stores with great kitsch selections.

When I open own my own cupboards and see an array that looks mostly like this, I wonder where and when people do get matching dishware. My sister, recently engaged, informs me that wedding registries are commonly used to collect an entire set of bone-white china. Well great, I think to myself. Weddings! My single self throws her arms up in defeat.

I do, though, love the histories behind my uncoordinated collection. The mugs that I know transform into the best vessels for drinking wine after all the wine glasses have inevitably broken; the serving platters originally from Egypt, gifted to me one morning at work by the elderly regular customer whose wife was making him clean house; the gnome mug found in a box left on the curb. Each unique piece has a meaning to it, so then why do I also get so much satisfaction out of a consistent, matching set?

The only matching dishware I own is a small stack of dinner plates and bowls, gleaned from dusty  boxes found in my parents' basement. They are beautiful in a rustic sort of way: speckled off-white surrounded by a light brown non-glazed brim, many of which are quite chipped. When I have a meal with these matching bowls and plates, I feel like my life is just a bit more put together. Dishes that actually come from the same place and have managed to stick together make me forget that I've lived in eight different apartments in three different countries in the last six years. A meal with matching dishware implies the fact of being settled, a status that I treasure admittedly because it is a grass that is always greener.

Aside from their implications of adulthood, matching dishes are important to the hungry singleton's joy of living because they are the bones to a purposefully composed meal. Purposeful plates, as I've stated before with my ode to garnishes and presentation, are key to bringing joy and intention to the act of eating. When we eat alone, it's all too easy to merely shove away some newspapers to make a clearing on the table just big enough to fit a bowl and a beverage. But if we feed ourselves as if we were feeding company, the whole table gets cleared, maybe even lovingly adorned with a place mat or tablecloth, and we create a place setting for one. To elaborate on the terminology: a setting tells us where and when. A thoughtfully selected group of dinnerware really announces that the here and now is mealtime, all our other worries and to-do lists be damned. Welcome, such a table says, it's dinner time.

Of course, I'm not one to be didactic about your dishes actually matching. If you really love the way that your tin camping plate looks next to the modern uniformity of a bowl from Ikea, then by all means. And if you do opt for matching, then as a single person you have it quite easy: you really only need one matching set!

Let's not forsake table setting, even if it is just set for one. Start with a plate you love, top it with food you love, then fill your belly with love.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Okra, The Sequel

My last post crescendo-ed with a bit of a disappointment. "Yee-haw kitchen experimentation!" I proclaimed, only to chicken out at the last minute when it came to actually attempting both of two new preparations for one new ingredient.

Now, however, I am back with a kitchen smelling of vinegar and spices. Yes, pickled okra finally had its due. Fried and crispy bites of that strange looking pod would not be the last my kitchen saw of okra.

But again, baby steps. Today's was just a refrigerator pickle, one that does not entail boiling canning tongs and listening for the "pop" of a sealed lid. This jar of pickled okra won't have a prolonged shelf life, but that's fine by me because these pickles won't be lasting very long anyway.

Boil a large jar to sanitize, and keep the jar warm until you're ready to fill it. (Even though these are refrigerator pickles, a little extra sanitation doesn't hurt). In a small pot, combine 2 cups vinegar (I used mostly cider vinegar with a touch of red wine vinegar), one cup water, 2 tablespoons salt, and whatever pickling spices you choose. I threw in a few big pinches of red pepper flakes, a generous palm-full of coriander seeds, a few allspice berries, some black peppercorns, and a tablespoon or so of black mustard seeds. Bring this brine up to a boil. Fill the sanitized jar with 1 pound (that's a little over 2 cups worth) of whole okra pods, throw in 4 peeled cloves of garlic, then slowly pour in the brine. Let the jar sit uncovered until it's cooled, then cover and throw it in the fridge.

In the most sunshine-y weather you can summon, bring these to a picnic and impress your friends. Or lounge on a park bench with your two new best friends: a good book and a jar of pickles.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Okrah WinFry

Today I entered unchartered kitchen territory. For an afternoon snack, I made (and gobbled up immediately) a small batch of fried okra.* I donned my apron and oven mitts like I was Ripley, and deep frying and okra were some nasty aliens that I just had to destroy. Though the supporting characters were humbly positioned as a cast iron pan and a vegetable, this was going to be an adventure, I decided. One of the best parts of cooking for one is that you have free reign for experimentation. If what you've dreamt up is lacking in execution, at least you're the only one having to eat your mistakes. No one will ever know that at one point you thought it was a good idea to combine buckwheat groats with worchestershire sauce and chickpeas.
*Now you can reread this post's title and groan to yourself that I've just made the worst food pun ever.
Voluptuous lady okras

Back to okra: Such a cooking and eating experiment originated a week prior, when on an impulse, I picked up a bag of fresh okra pods I saw at the market. Getting home with my green and finger-shaped loot, I quickly searched the internet for okra recipes. Two distinct possibilities caught my eye: pickling and frying. Both of which elicit just the tiniest bit of fear to even my love-of-cooking self. Frying, well, just involves so much OIL, and so much potential for said oil to splash and sputter and burn skin that's simply had the bad fortune to be exposed. And with pickling, an equally high potential for splashing hot liquids. Oh, and botulism. All this danger for a vegetable that itself is notorious for producing an unappetizing stringy slime. But I was on a mission to have an adventure, so I figured, why not tackle all these unknowns and fears in one fell swoop?

Fast forward to one week later. A bag of okra sits in the back of my fridge, forgotten and shoved behind a week's ration of prepared steel cut oats. There are far fewer okra pods in the bag than I had remembered picking out with such glee in the market, and many of them have started to turn brown. My kitchen bravado slightly humbled, I opted to cut my losses and forgo the pickling for when I had a fresher quality and larger quantity of okra. So frying it is. That plus okra itself made for a fairly ambitious afternoon snack as it was anyway.

Out came the eggs and flour for dredging and battering. Into the former I threw in a small puddle of milk and a few dashes of hot sauce, and into the latter, some salt and baking powder. Sliced the okra into half inch pieces (amazing how they look like little stars!), tossed these in the egg mixture and then the flour. And next, my greatest fear of all, the oil. Turning on the stove to medium high, I poured about an inch deep of canola oil into my cast iron skillet and then... waited. How would I know when it was hot enough? Apparently really hot oil is the key to non-greasy fried foods, but without a thermometer, how would I know? I ended up sacrificing a small droplet of batter into the oil; when it started to bubble and turn brown, I knew the oil would be hot enough for my little battered okra stars. These I threw in over the course of a few batches, being wary of not crowding the fry pan lest they cool down the oil too much, clump together, or create a massive grease fire. I don't actually know how grease fires start, but I imagined that it could be something as benign as afternoon snack fried vegetable matter. The okra browned so nicely in the oil, and I let them cool over a paper towel to soak up excess oil. Sprinkled with a little more salt, these were absolutely delicious.

NB: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunger... now with illustrations! My dear friend Suzanna Wright, a talented artist, educator, and fellow food lover, has offered up her illustration talents for this blog. After you've delighted in her delightful drawing of sassy okra, check out her art blog here.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Making Friends With Salad

Oh salad, you delicious teeming bowl of freshness. We all know that it gets a bad rap, though. A friend and I used to joke about writing a food blog devoted to salads called Salad's infamy largely stems from the following egregious paraphrase: 

Us single ladies have just got to stay on top of keeping our figures slim, amiright?? Nibble at some lettuce, lest your skin lose its luminance and your biceps grow some waggle!*

*Do I detect a new career for myself? Ladies magazine article writer?

Okay, so it's easy to make fun of the dieting-woman demographic, and I realize that there's probably something problematic about that from a feminist point of view. Though I'll have to admit that it's tempting to see salad as the cure to my singledom: that eating it will make me fabulously attractive and thus have hordes of interesting and attractive men lining up at my doorstep with mix tapes made just for me.

Lest I fall into this food neurosis, I must remind myself of one very important fact: I actually really enjoy eating salads. And I like eating foods I genuinely enjoy more than I like worrying about my general attractiveness. Admittedly, salad makes me feel virtuous, but really only because it makes me feel good. Because salad is usually such a fresh affair, it's a food that feels alive still, containing within it an energy that transports itself to your own tastebuds and nourishment. Borrowing the terminology of raw food enthusiasts and Victorian-era magazine copy, the feeling of vitality pervades my experience of eating salad. Plus, I feel more culinarily satisfied when I make a good salad, simply because it was all the more challenging to do so.

And indeed, us single ladies do have to look good! Well, for ourselves, of course. And it's less about starving ourselves with loveless lettuce than about eating foods that make us feel good and healthy in a way that creates an outer glow. So if you're a single guy or gal, don't eat a salad because you think it's a low-calorie dinner option, but because it's fucking tasty. What better way to exude confidence than to walk around the town knowing how badass you are in the kitchen because you can make even salad taste amazing?

Lately, I've been making a lot of raw kale salads. I find that the extra fibrousness of raw kale makes this an extra substantial salad, and it keeps really well. One bunch of kale composed into a salad, thrown into a giant wooden bowl and covered in the fridge, lasts me all week.

If you've ever tried a kale salad before and were turned off by the exhaustion your jaw felt at chewing the damn thing, then I highly suggest the following method that allows any variety or bunch of kale to be used, not just the tenderest of young leaves you can only find a few weeks a year at the farmers market. Wash, dry, and separate the kale leaves from their stems. (Save these for pesto!) In a large bowl, toss the kale with 1-2 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt. Allow everything to sit for an hour, and the oil and salt will keep the kale company in a happily simple marinade until the kale is slightly wilted and perfectly tender.

Combine with cubes of roasted winter squash, raisins, sunflower seeds, thinly sliced shallots and the juice of a lemon mixed with some dijon vinegar. Good kale salads involve some combination of sweetness, crunch, and a bit of sharpness.

My fridge's current iteration of kale salad has been my favorite so far:


Prepare a bunch of kale according to the basic olive oil and salt marinade method. While the kale is sitting there thinking about its self-improvement, thinly slice half a red onion, cover it in boiling water, and let that sit for 10 minutes. Drain the water and add to the onions a teaspoon each of sugar and salt, a pinch of cinnamon or allspice, the juice of a lemon, and a quick glug of apple cider vinegar. Let the onions rest for a bit until they start to give the beets a run for their money in the pinkest-thing-in-your-dinner competition. Slice up a few beets that you've roasted whole in the oven, as well as half a bulb of fennel sliced as thin and translucent as you can. Throw everything in with the kale and then move on to the vinaigrette: combine the zest and juice of one orange with a teaspoon of dijon mustard, a splash of cider vinegar, some freshly cracked black pepper, and then slowly whisk in a short stream of olive oil (not the normal amount you would for a vinaigrette, because remember, your kale leaves are already quite greased up). Toss with everything else and consume with a heightened sense of virtue and joy.