Saturday, August 12, 2017

Corn-Barley Salad with Tomato Vinaigrette from Food52


Can we talk about the moment that cherry tomatoes are having?  Be prepared to see a few more tomato recipes before the summer is through. Because, sweet jesus (or super sweet 100, if you prefer), this has been a banner year for tomatoes in California, particularly for those of the minuscule kind. What about for you? Are your cherry tomatoes to die for?



What is not always to die for in California is the corn. Being a Midwesterner by upbringing, I have certain standards when it comes to corn, and California corn does not always live up to these sweet-but-not-starchy, full-of-creamy-goodness expectations. 

However, if you can buy the corn in the morning, shuck it in the afternoon, and have it grilled by evening, usually you can do alright, no matter what part of the country you find yourself in.



This salad is one in a long line of recent salads I have been making (prepare to see more), in part because I have been bringing lunch to work. And I need to ensure that I resist the siren sound of cheese-flavored snacks (read Cheetos and Sour Cream and Cheddar Ruffles) that can be found in the admissions office. 

I don't know what it is. I have a humiliating weakness for cheese dust. 

So I have been counteracting it with corn and tomatoes and basil and barley. Or at least this go-round that's what I have been distracting myself with. 



The beans in this salad are pretty nondescript, but I see why they are included. They add a smidge of protein and they bulk up this otherwise starchy salad. 

Other bonuses include (1) doing a quick parboil of the corn with the barley to ensure that the barley has maximum corn infusion; (2) grilling said corn, a step that may feel extraneous, but it makes the salad quite smoky; (3) grating a super ripe tomato to make the dressing cry of summer; (4) topping the salad with basil and chives, thus essentially pushing this salad into the realm of impossibly good. 

But for all the focus on the corn and barley, the title of this salad really is a misnomer. This salad is about the tomatoes. Plain and simple.



So if you can resist eating that entire pint of cherry tomatoes on the way home (and if you cannot, buy two pints), I recommend this summery salad for an August repast. And if you're lucky enough to have leftovers, it's just as good on day two and three as it was on day one.  

Guess you better double the recipe. These tomatoes won't last forever.





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Corn-Barley Salad with Tomato Vinaigrette

Adapted from Mighty Salads and recipe here 

Yield
Serves 4

Ingredients
½ cup dried pearl barley 
3 ears of corn (shucked) 
Olive oil for grilling
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes 
1 cup cooked cannellini, butter bean, or other white beans 
1 tomato, halved 
1½ teaspoons white wine vinegar 
1 large garlic clove 
¼ cup basil cut into ribbons 
1 bunch of chives, thinly sliced 
¼ - ½ cup olive oil

Instructions
1. Heat a grill or grill pan to medium-high heat. Bring a large stockpot of generously salted water to a boil. 

2.  Add the barley to the pot and cook it according to the package directions: Usually in about 1½ cups of water, a generous pinch of salt, and 25 minutes. (See here.)  During the last 5 or 6 minutes of cooking, add the corn. Remove the corn with tongs. Drain the barley (if necessary) and set aside. 

3.  Brush the corn with olive oil and grill until charred on all sides, about 8 minutes. 

4.  Cut the kernels from the corncobs. As you cut the kernels, collect all of the corn milk that drips into a bowl, then use the back of the knife to scrape the remaining corn milk from the cleaned cob. 

5.  Grate the large tomato on the large holes of a box grater over a wide bowl, collecting the juice and pulp. Discard the tomato skins. 

6.  Place the garlic on a cutting board, sprinkle with a couple of generous pinches of salt, and finely chop and smash it into a paste with the side of a chef’s knife. Add the garlic paste to the tomato pulp, as well as a pinch of salt, the red pepper flakes, vinegar, and reserved corn milk. Gradually whisk in enough of the olive oil (¼ - ½ cups) until the vinaigrette is emulsified.

7.   In a serving bowl, combine the barley, corn, cherry tomatoes, beans, basil, and chives. Add the vinaigrette and toss to evenly coat. Drizzle with a little more olive oil and serve.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Gazpacho with Herbed Goat Cheese Toasts wildly adapted from David Lebovitz's My Paris Kitchen


I love a cold soup. Mostly because I love soup, since it is reminiscent of my beloved sauces. I like how a bit of effort pays off in a pot of something delicious that can be extended for a few days, and is usually even better on the last day than the first. I love the hearty warmth of chowder in the winter and the light freshness of a clear broth in summer. And a cold soup in summer is like eating dessert for dinner.

You know, I haven't declared Soup Week in a while. Uh-oh. The husband had best be on high alert. Oh, and if you're interested in Jacques Pepin's version, please see here.



We did not grow up on gazpacho (mostly because it did not come in a box, and my feminist, Midwestern mother was going to spend as little time in the kitchen as necessary, thank you very much). But I don't remember when this divine summer soup came into my life, and I am pleased that it did. 

Mostly because I love tomatoes. So much that, should I ever find myself with the option of one crop on a deserted island, I would choose tomatoes. Sure, there may be more nutritionally complete crops, but I stand by my selection. But I digress.

I am always looking for new recipes, because I like to try out other people's palates, but I find that I almost always end up reverting to my own.



I cracked open David Lebovitz's My Paris Kitchen  (a lovely cookbook if ever there was one), and I had the best intentions as I began procuring tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers. However, as I was chopping, I tweaked this. And then when it came to add garlic, I tweaked that. As I started listing all of the changes I made to this delightful Gazpacho, you might say that I have no business linking it to the master chef here.  And perhaps I do not. 

But admittedly, his recipe inspired me to make my own quite delicious chilled tomato soup, so I should certainly give him all the props he deserves. Plus, he serves his with cheese. And second to tomatoes, I love cheese.



So here are the changes, in case you want to make David Lebovitz's gazpacho.
  • I added an additional ½ red bell pepper to the tomatoes early on in the blender and pureed it up.
  • I removed all traces of garlic from the soup. But I did use 1 clove on the toasts.
  • I substituted ½ a shallot for 1 red onion.
  • I added ½ tablespoon vinegar (he called for 1½ and I used 2 tablespoons. I like vinegar as much as I don't like garlic).
  • I removed the tablespoon of vodka, not because I am a teetotaler, but because we were out.
  • He peels and seeds the tomatoes. I don't have time for that.
  • I substituted farmers cheese for the goat cheese. Definitely serve with toasts smothered in herb cheese, no matter your cheese choice, on the side.
  • Not a change, but a revelation: Smoked paprika is transcendent in Gazpacho. Don't tweak this.
And below, you will find what I actually made. And not even for Soup Week.





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Gazpacho with Herbed Goat Cheese Toasts

Adapted from David Lebovitz's My Paris Kitchen 

Yield
Serves 4

Ingredients
1 slice firm, white country-style bread, crusts removed
3 pounds ripe tomatoes, cut in half
1 red bell pepper, seeded, cut in half
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and finely diced
½ shallot, peeled and finely diced
¼ cup olive oil
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
2½ tsp kosher salt
½ tsp piment d'Espelette or smoked paprika or chile powder
freshly ground black pepper
16 baguette slices, about ⅓-inch thick
olive oil
1 clove of garlic, peeled and cut in half
2 cups fresh goat cheese, ricotta, or farmers cheese
1 Tbsp chopped herbs (basil, mint, chervil, chives, or dill or a mixture of herbs)

Instructions
1. To Make the Gazpacho: In a small bowl, soak the bread in cold water for 1 minute, drain, and press some of the water out of the bread. 

2..  Working in batches, pulse the tomatoes and one of the red pepper halves in the bowl of a good processor or blender with the bread, until they're almost liquefied, but still have a few chunky bits barely visible.

3. Finely dice the other half of the red pepper. Mix the pureed tomatoes, bread and pepper in a large bowl with the cucumber, shallot, remaining pepper. Stir int he olive oil, vinegar, salt, and piment d'Espelette. Season with salt and pepper. Taste and add additional salt if necessary. Chill thoroughly.

4.  To Make the Toasts: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the baguette slices on a baking sheet and brush the tops lightly with olive oi. Bake for 5-8 minutes, until the toasts are light brown. Remove from the oven and, when cool enough, rub generously with the cut side of the garlic clove.

5.  With a fork, mix the cheese in a small bowl with the herbs, 1 teaspoon of olive oil, and some salt until it is smooth. Smear a tablespoon of the cheese mixture onto each toast.

6.  Divide the soup among six chilled bowls and serve the toasts alongside.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Cobb Salad with Hard-Boiled Egg Dressing from Food52


Do you really need a recipe for this salad? Not really. Do you sometimes need a nudge to eat better for yourself than you have been? Probably. Or at least I know I sometimes do. Consider this your nudge.



This Cobb Salad from the fine folks at Food52 claims to be a rebellious kiss off to the more traditional Cobb Salad. And sure, perhaps it is. Normally a classic Cobb Salad would have tomatoes, chicken (or turkey), bacon, and iceberg lettuce. So, I suppose this is a nice riff on the Cobb Salad, wherein the beets stand in for all things meat based, olives make a briny appearance, and the dressing has eggs blended right into it, rather than just having your hard-boiled eggs scattered across the top of your shredded lettuce and cubed chicken. 



Bonus:  The beets get their own vinegar infusion during the steaming process. So while they are not truly pickled beets (a favorite around these here parts), they have a little zing to them. Which I always appreciate. And I love me some rich and creamy blue cheese. Especially next to the zingy and sweet beets and the salty olives. And don't look too closely at the pictures, because then you will see that I am not a huge fan of lettuce--Bibb, iceberg, romaine, or otherwise. A salad, in my book, should be more topping than leaf.



This is a fine weeknight meal, especially if you steam up these beets the night before and just have them hanging out in your refrigerator. You might as well do that with the hard- (or soft-) boiled eggs, just to cut down on cooking time. You don't need a recipe, per se, but you still need dinner on a Tuesday night. Why not this little twist?




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Cobb Salad with Hard-Boiled Egg Dressing

Adapted from Mighty Salads and recipe here 

Yield
Serves 4

Ingredients
¼ cup white wine vinegar 
Kosher salt 
4 large red beets, scrubbed well, trimmed, and halved (I didn't halve them. Everything turned out okay)
1 large head Bibb lettuce, torn into large pieces
⅓ cup loosely packed fresh tarragon, dill or chives, coarsely chopped 
4 hard-cooked eggs, quartered 
1 large avocado, thinly sliced 
⅓ cup Niçoise or Kalamata olives, pitted 
½ cup crumbled blue cheese 

Dressing: 
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 
1 hard-boiled egg plus 1 hard-boiled yolk 
Grated zest of 1 lemon 
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice 
1 tablespoon capers 
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard 
Kosher salt 
Red pepper flakes 

Instructions
1. In a large saucepan, bring 2 inches of water, the vinegar and a good bit of kosher salt to a boil over high heat. Put the beets in a steamer basket and set the basket over the boiling water. Cover, lower heat to medium and steam until the beets are tender when pierced with a knife, about 20-30 minutes (depending on the size of your beets and whether or not you remembered to halve them). Let cool, then peel and cut into bite-size pieces. 

2.  To make the dressing, blend all of the dressing ingredients together until smooth and emulsified (stand or immersion blender are both fine). Add salt and red pepper flakes to taste. 

3.  On a large platter or wide bowl, toss together the lettuce and half the herbs. Add enough dressing to lightly coat the leaves, and toss again. Arrange the beets, eggs, avocado, olives and cheese on top.  To be traditional, you should put the toppings in rows. Scatter the remaining herbs. (You can also toss everything together.) Serve with the remaining dressing on the side.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Cherry Tomato Crostini with Herbed Goat Cheese


Let me apologize by saying that you will have to turn on your oven for this recipe. So start early in the morning. Or really late at night. Because, people, it has been hot out there.

But once you do, once you fire up that oven and roast these tomatoes, once you layer them atop a thick lashing of homemade yogurt cheese mixed with fresh herbs... I promise, this is worth any hot kitchen. Especially if you roast a lot of tomatoes so that you can make this simple, light meal for dinner, and then have it again for breakfast, and if you plan it just right, for lunch again, too.




As you may know, I am a fan of David Lebovitz. He's a great chef, of course, but on top of that, he's a great writer. He's been blogging for years, long before it was trendy to be a food blogger, and his book The Sweet Life in Paris is the go-to gift for any foodie who is actually traveling to Paris or just wants to do so via arm chair. So it's no surprise that I am cracking open his lovely cookbook, My Paris Kitchen




Before we go any further, let's talk about two important things with this recipe: the cheese and the tomatoes.

Cheese:
You may ask, does this really qualify as cheese?  It's just highly strained yogurt, you claim. Oh, but it is so much more. This is labneh, a super-tangy and super-easy cheese that takes a few hours or overnight to make. Labneh preserves all of the zingy sourness of yogurt but removes the whey, resulting in a smooth, velvety cheese. You also get to control how thick it is. The longer you strain it, the thicker it is. Be sure to salt your yogurt well, which helps mellow the cheese a bit, and if you have some left over labneh, may I recommend dousing it in olive oil and a pinch of za'atar.  And then I recommend eating it with a spoon. Or pita, if you're fancy.



Tomatoes:
Roasted tomatoes are a reminder of why these are fruits. With just enough caramelization, they become these sweet, umami bombs of flavor. They're absolutely irresistible. I am going to admit, I made some changes to the original recipe here. I am not a huge garlic fan (blasphemy, I know, but it's because of a garlic tart the husband made. Another blogpost, another story), so I just eliminated them altogether. If you want to re-add them, by all means, do so. Just keep an eye on them and on your oven. Finally, give your tomatoes a stir about halfway through. And maybe even again with 10 minutes left.



So, here you go. While the recipe does require an oven, with plenty of leftover roasted tomatoes, this is a simple tartine to make any time of day, either as a light dinner (maybe with a salad?) or as an appetizer.  Or as breakfast. Or a snack.

And it's perfect for hot summer days when the cherry tomatoes are divine. Which ours are out here in California right now. (I even found some for 89 cents a pound at the Bowl, a grocery store that even has its own Wikipedia page.) 

So I am totally celebrating the cherry tomato. And even roasting them when it's hot out. I am that committed.




------

Cherry Tomato Crostini with Herbed Goat Cheese

Adapted from My Paris Kitchen

Yield
Serves 4

Ingredients
Herbed Fresh Cheese 
2 cups whole milk yogurt (goat or cow)
1 generous tablespoon very finely minced mixed fresh herbs (be sure to include chives, as well as an assortment that could include thyme, sage, basil, or flat-leaf parsley) 
1 teaspoon minced shallots 
¼ teaspoon minced garlic 
¾ teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt (or more, if you want it a little saltier)
Generous pinch of cayenne pepper 

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes 
1½ pounds cherry tomatoes, stemmed and halved 
3 tablespoons olive oil 
Handful of fresh herbs (any combination of whatever you have on hand, including chives, rosemary, thyme, basil or sage) 
Sea salt or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 

Toasts 
4 thick slices bread, such as ciabatta or sourdough
Olive oil 
1 clove garlic, peeled 
A few leaves of fresh basil, sage, or flat-leaf parsley, to garnish

Instructions
1. To make the herbed cheese: line a mesh strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth or muslin and set it over a bowl. Scrape the yogurt into the lined strainer and refrigerate the yogurt for 24 hours. Put the strained, thickened yogurt into a bowl and mix in the herbs, shallots, garlic, salt, and cayenne pepper. Refrigerate until ready to use. 

2. To roast the tomatoes: preheat the oven to 350ºF . Combine the cherry tomatoes, olive oil, and herbs in a baking dish or pan that will hold them all in a snug single layer. Season with salt and pepper, mix well, and spread them out in a single layer. 

3.  Roast the tomatoes in the oven for about 45 minutes, stirring once or perhaps twice during baking, until they’re wilted and their juices are starting to concentrate—and perhaps brown a bit—in the bottom of the baking dish or pan. (The baking time will depend on the material of the baking dish and type of cherry tomatoes used.) Ideally, you want the tomatoes to juice, and for the juices to thicken and concentrate. 

4.  Scrape the tomatoes and any juices into a bowl and let cool to room temperature. They can sit up to 8 hours, and improve the longer they sit. (I have also refrigerated them and used the leftovers. Just pop 'em in the microwave for 30 seconds to get 'em nice and juicy again.)

5. To make the toasts: Evenly brush the bread with olive oil. Place them on a baking sheet in a preheated 350ºF oven or a toaster oven and toast for about 5 minutes, until light golden brown. Remove and when just cool enough to handle, rub the slices generously with the garlic clove. Let cool to room temperature. 

6.  To serve: thickly smear each piece of bread with the fresh herbed cheese. Set each one on a plate. Spoon the tomatoes and their juices onto the slices of bread. Coarsely chop any remaining herbs for the garnish, and scatter them over the top of each portion.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Lamb Kebabs with Georgian Adzhika


Is it too hot to cook inside? It sure was this Sunday in the Bay Area. Smoking hot. Of course, there are two answers to hot weather: grilling and gazpacho. We did both. (Gazpacho found here to come later, I promise.)  



This little lamb skewer comes from none other than my favorite person, Diana Henry--this time from her cookbook, A Change of Appetite. (Want to read a great review of this book?  See here.  While Alex Guarnaschelli says she loves the book, she finds that it's culinary whirlwind tour a little discombobulating and she's not sure what she would turn to this book for. I do. I turn to it whenever I want something light and fresh and filling without weighing me down. And that happens throughout the year--be it on a hot summer day or after enjoying too many holiday treats come January. I know exactly why I come to this particular Diana Henry book.)



So the husband fired up the grill and made some lamb, which was simple enough. Shockingly simple, indeed. And I hoisted out the blender to mix up this Adzhika relish/salsa from Georgia (the country, not the state) on the side. My only regret is that I did not make even more of this sauce. While this recipe made plenty, and we had a good deal of it leftover, I found myself mixing it in with everything over the next few days. Tuna and bean salad? Okay. Yogurt with tomatoes? Sounds fine to me. Should we grill up some more meat? I'd top that too, but it appears I have eaten all of the Adzhika and need to make more. 

Want to learn a little more?  Here are two links, one describing it as a salsa and another as a hot pepper relish. Is it no surprise then that I love it? A sauce? To go on morsels? Hush, say no more.



Adzhika is hot--or as hot as you want to make it, given you get to control how much of the chile you put in. But it is complex. The dill and cinnamon and celery are unexpected, at least for this palate, but the heat of the chile next to the cilantro brings me right back home to a more familiar salsa. However, upon some searching, this may be much more Adzhika "inspired" than Adzhika replication. Some adzhikas have no celery or cilantro and some purists claim that they should be only chiles, salt, and very specific herbs (coriander, dill, blue fenugreek, garlic). I guess I need to get on a search for true adzhika. 

In the meantime, I definitely am going to layer this sauce on the gaminess of lamb for a big, bold flavor. Perfect for a hot summer afternoon with a side of rice to help cool your mouth after this palate cleanser. I am so on board with this salsa. At least until I can find some true adzhika. 

And I suspect I would be on board with that, too.





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Lamb Kebabs with Georgian Adzhika

Adapted from Diana Henry's A Change of Appetite

Yield
4 Servings

Ingredients
1¼ cubed leg of lamb
¼ cup olive oil
1½  tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice
2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 garlic cloves, crushed
4 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 celery stick, coarsely chopped
3-4 red chiles, chopped (seeded if you would prefer a milder sauce)
1 red bell pepper, chopped
½ cup dill leaves
½ cup cilantro leaves
3½ Tbsp red wine vinegar
¼ cup olive oil

Instructions
1. Trim the lamb of any fat or sinew. Mix the olive oil through the 2 garlic cloves, crushed, together in a bowl. Put the lamb in the spice mixture. Turn the meat over in the marinade, cover with plastic warp, and put in the refrigerator to marinate for 2-24 hours. Turn the meat over every so often. Soak six bamboo skewers in water for at least 30 minutes.

2.  To make the adzhika, put the garlic in a food processor and blend. Add the celery, chiles, and bell pepper and pulse-blend to a salsa-like mixture. Add the herbs and pulse about 3 times. You don't want a puree--just a rough mix. Scrape into a bowl, add salt, vinegar and olive oil.

3.  Thread the lamb cubes onto the skewers and season with salt. Cook on a grill pan or a grill, until golden brown, turning them regularly. Keep these a bit rare in the middle, so these need about 7 minutes total. Serve with the adzhika. (We clearly also added some rice and wild rice--see pictures.)

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Ginger-Chicken Meatballs in Broth with Greens


We have been away--I have gone back to Illinois and then the husband and I went up to Mt. Shasta to see a volcano and to hike around. But we still need to eat.  

Is it Tuesday? (Okay, truth here, it's Saturday, but this dish will do anytime during the week.) Do you, too, need something to eat? Are you willing to put in 30 minutes? Do you need a revelation in broth? Well here's the little soup for you, no matter if you're traveling or hanging out at home.



The meatballs are a snap. As many of you know, I am huge fan of Diana Henry, in part because she takes ordinary ingredients and whips them into fine flavor combinations. More importantly, though, she does so without a lot of fuss and fanfare. Just make a meatball. Then put it in a broth. 

But before you do that, why don't you make your broth a little more flavorful? Don't have time? 

Let's not talk nonsense.



All you need is 10 minutes, some ginger and some chiles. If you have homemade broth, this is going to be divine. If all you have is store bought, well, trust me on this one--infusing it with some aromatics will boost this little soup. And, well, we all need a little boost from time to time. Why not now?

So let's get to it. We all have to eat, and whether we're going fully homemade or just upping the ante on what is in our pantry, Diana Henry is to the rescue, as usual.  Let's have some soup together.






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Ginger-Chicken Meatballs in Broth with Greens

Adapted from Diana Henry's A Bird in Hand

Yield
4 Servings

Ingredients
1 lb ground chicken
2 garlic cloves, minced
1½ Tbsp soy sauce
1-inch piece ginger root (¾-inch finely minced, plus 2 slices, about ¼-inch thick)
4 scallions, sliced, divided
salt and pepper
5 cups chicken stock
1 chile (red or green), halved, seeded, and minced, divided
2 Tbsp olive, peanut, or sesame oil
4 small heads of bok choy (feel free to substitute spinach and add more than you think)
juice of 1 lime

Instructions
1. Using your hands, mix together the chicken, garlic, soy sauce, ¾-inch finely minced ginger, and half of the scallions. Season with salt and pepper. Wet your hands and shape the mixture into small balls, each about the size of a walnut. If you have time to chill, these will be easier to work with. Set them on a baking sheet, and put in the fridge for 30 minutes or the freezer for 15.

2.  Bring the chicken stock to a boil. Add the ginger slices and half the chile. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat--this is just to flavor the broth with the ginger.

3.  Heat the oil in a sauté pan and cook the meatballs, rolling them over to ensure that they brown all over--you may need to do this in 2 batches. It should take about 10  minutes per batch. Transfer to a plate using a slotted spoon.

4.  Add the stock to the pan and bring to a boil, scraping the base of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen any browned bits. Reduce the heat, return the meatballs to the pan, and bring to a simmer and cook for about 3 minutes. Add the greens (and then add a little bit more than you think you should) and the rest of the chile and cook for another 3 minutes. The meatballs should be cooked through and the greens should be tender. Discard the ginger slices. Add the lime juice and remaining scallions. Serve with more chile, if you like.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Fire-Roasted Trout with Grilled Figs in Huck Out West // Cook Your Books


In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food. And it turns out that these entries are a sort of long-form blog-post. So settle in. This sixth installment is a book published this year.

No doubt, I feel a kinship to Mark Twain. The summer of 1984, I went to Hannibal, Missouri, with my family. One hundred miles north of St. Louis, Hannibal boasts being the boyhood home to Mark Twain and the inspiration for Tom Sawyer's spelunking adventures and picket fence white washing and for Huck Finn's hogshead barrel sleeping. It was also the site of numerous family and school trips. But one trip stands out in particular.



Instructed to buy one souvenir, I lingered over plastic trinkets and snow globes and novelty spoons, I am sure. But something in me wanted more. I wanted something grown up, because I was feeling grown up. I was about to turn ten and I felt the weight of a full decade upon me. So I browsed the bookshop, tracing hard cover spines with my whole palms, and I settled on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I still have this copy. The inside cover of the book boasts my name, the date (7-6-84), "Hannibal, Missouri" (in a handwriting that is distinctively mine still) and my name written again (with more flourishes this time) on a fancy bookplate depicting a unicorn rearing up, its hind legs perched atop the earth, a rainbow snaking through the celestial spheres, and a twinkling crescent moon. I was almost ten, and Mark Twain certainly would have been hometown proud.



Since then, I have taught this book many, many times, and it frustrates, delights, disgusts, and challenges me. It is the book of my youth, my adulthood. Hemingway even claimed that "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn." So it came as no surprise that I snapped up Robert Coover's Huck Out West earlier this year, and tore through it.

In Coover's postmodernist extension of Huck, we find Huck exactly where we should--the wild west of Kansas, Texas, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Montana during and after the Civil War.  Indeed, Huck lit out as promised for the "territories" with Tom and Jim, in order to join the Pony Express. Given that the Pony Express won't take Jim, Tom sells him off to a slaveholding Cherokee tribe. And then uses the money to buy riding boots. Of course.

And so Coover gets this world right. Tom, ever amoral, commands Jim's fate once again and Huck, ever the innocent abroad, records it all. However, Tom departs soon (headed east to study law in order to control the sivilized world when he can and rekindle whatever romance there was with the wealthy Becky Thatcher), and we find Huck alone, scouting for General Custer, bedding down in Deadwood Gulch, riding shotgun on coaches, wrangling horses on a Chisholm Trail cattle drive, and suffering an almost hanging for a trumped-up murder charge. 



Given my project of cooking my books, I had plenty of food to choose from, including roasted horse meat (22), post-wedding beer with jelly and donuts (36), bread and coffee (54), buffalo jerky (113), corn bread and wild pig sausages (182), thin, brothy soup (211), Becky-Thatcher-offered butterscotch cookies (252), dried corn and desecrated fruit (284), and plenty of whiskey. Plenty of whiskey. Huck did not fall far from Pap's tree. He just knows how to hold his liquor better.

However, I chose fish (trout to be exact when crappie is called for, but I know you're willing to go along with me, right). A grilled fish on the frontier, pulled straight from the river and roasted over an open fire (with a rather long pull of whiskey), well, this just seems like the perfect meal for one out west in search of their very own Edenic paradise away from the ever-encroaching, swindling, "sivilizing" forces of the east, right? And so it is for Huck, who has come to see the simple processes of fishing and cooking as the act of making a home. He says, "When I rode Ne Tongo [his horse] into the little hid-away cluster of unpainted broke-down shanties and raggedy tents at the edge of Deadwood Gulch, nigh to cricks too fast and shallow for rafting, but prime for fishing--there was even a patch of sweetly clovered meadow beside the crick for Tongo to graze on--I knowed I was home. A place I could take my boots off all day long" (3-4). A bit of a dangerous place with a shallow but fast current. No more constraints of footwear. Just sweet clover and a prime creek and your munching horse.



And Huck goes on about this paradise (and I am going to quote a little more extensively here because this is almost homily):
I opened the smoke flap in the tepee and started up the fire, and then took my pole down to the crick to catch us some supper. Dusk's half-light is always prime for fishing. Hardly before I'd begun I had me a handsome black crappie close to a forearm long to go with the half-dozen panfish on my morning trotlines, some of them still snapping their tails about in a kind of tragic greeting when I hauled them up. I know it don't make them happy, but it seems only fair for us fellow creturs to give up our bodies to others' appetites. I don't want to get et by mountain lions, but I won't hold it against them" (15).
There is a sense of ritual without pomp: the preparation of a fire, the knowledge of the land and its best times for fishing, a fortuitous capture. There is recognition of community with his fellow creturs. He cleans the fish, and he smokes from a carved stone pipe given to him by the Lakota people. "It was what I had for good luck when the world was mostly throwing bad luck at me. It was such moments as made me feel I'd finally come to the right place. Plenty grub and an easy life, ain't no bad thing.... (15) He recognizes it won't last, that at the next moment he could be mountain-lion dinner, but he relishes this time for what it is and when it is. And this time won't last (and he says as much, "At the same time, I misdoubted it would last" (15))--not in the novel, not in American history--so he urges us to relish these little moments of peace, even if they are singular and stolen, while we can.

Later, he says, "A river don't make you feel less lonely but it makes you feel there ain't nothing wrong with being lonely" (35). This river, these fish, this frontier without the sivilizing influences makes you feel there ain't nothing wrong with being by yourself, with being with only yourself. Sounds like a home to me.



That said, we were "this close" to making pancakes again. This was almost a post on the reconnection of friends (although ostensibly, it already is). There is a brief reunification with Jim, who makes a cameo appearance as the chuck wagon cook on a trail of missionaries searching for a fountain of youth, quite possibly in Montana, or hoping to join the Mormon trail.  Calling Huck "Huck honey," Jim once again shows a love of Huck that he is perhaps not deserving of, if simply by association with Tom. Recognizing how "dog-hungry" Huck truly is, Jim puts together a stack of flap jacks (69-71). Together they let out unrestrained whoops, embrace deeply, share stories, and tuck into breakfast. However, this, like all other moments, cannot last. Distracted by the flirtations of woman who distracts herself with flirtations, Huck has to leave (and rather quickly) this particular trail ride and his beloved Jim, despite promising Jim he would not leave his side until they find Jim's wife and children. Another promise made. Another promise left unmet.




However, despite Huck's quickness to flight, this is, of course, a book about that companionship where which we can find a sense of home, a sense of connection beyond explanation. 

Throughout much of the book, Huck's closest companion is Eetah, a Lakota Indian and another self-described misfit who was"having about the same trouble with his tribe as I was having with mine" (3). And their bond is strong--in part because Huck loves a story teller, and Eetah tells Huck Coyote and Snake stories, many of which Huck cannot understand but still appreciates. Coyote, that great trickster, has always fascinated and attracted Huck--no wonder, then, that he was and is so enamored of Tom, who enters into the novel at the almost magically perfect moment.



Oh and when he does, Tom lights this novel up. And we hate ourselves for that. Saturnine and amoral, Tom literally comes in hot, guns blazing, sharpshooting a lynching rope from the gallows just as the trap door opens, and thus saving an about-to-be-hanged Huck. But Tom's a gold-hungry imperialist, a murderer of Indians, a dominant and aggressive shaper of stories, a racist, and the consummate adolescent. He has never grown up, despite the oft-mentioned growing bald patch on the back of his head, and it seems unlikely that he ever will. 

Undoubtedly, Tom is titillating in this book; his hyperactive antics drive a novel that is hardly concerned with plot beyond the picaresque, and he brings us narrow escapes and bawdy sex and horrific violence, all seemingly without consequences. And it is an thrilling, if harrowing, comment on our desire for excitement, for stories without endings, or repercussions.



But then there's Huck. A scrappy innocent, uncorrupted in a world that, as Coover himself describes in The New Yorker, is quite worrisome: 
I probably worry more that America today is making me think (or write) differently about late-nineteenth-century America. The story starts at the outbreak of the Civil War and ends with the Deadwood Gold Rush. This era, not the Revolutionary period, was what truly made us who we are. It was an adventurous time, but also one full of greed, virulent hatreds, religious insanity, the slaughter of war and its aftermath, widespread poverty and ignorance, ruthless military and civilian leadership, and huge disparities of wealth. Not a pretty history. But I hoped that Huck’s sympathetic and gently comical voice might make it bearable.
Huck makes us want to see consequences for all of these actions--both personal and historical--that leave the vulnerable at the mercy of charismatic and unscrupulous leaders (Tom or otherwise). And in a world where these consequences don't come often, where stories are strung together with the most tenuous of connections, Coover presents us a world of Huck, Eetah, and Ne Tongo, who are trying to save what is worth saving. This is the world with the ability to sit with your closest friend and fellow misfit and with your loyal companion over some simple fish. 



At other points in the novel Huck interrupts three men frying fish from Huck's trout lines (107), and he cooks fish for breakfast after hiding guns in his tent (138). But more importantly than not, just as the book opens with fish, so it closes with it. This is a ritual. A way to carve these little moments that Coover suggests don't last long but are the ones worth savoring. Otherwise, all we have is Tom commanding this unethical and almost pornographic world. Let's just have some fish by ourselves or with others. Let's just enjoy something caught with our own hands for the time being.

As the story progresses, through a series of Tom-instigated plot points--because Tom stars in his own story without regard to others or concern for the outcome--Huck is in the position to have to save Ne Tongo in order to go with Eetah to "where the war ain't" (291): 
Then I spied a gnarly old miner with a shovel and a pan and a bottle he attended to regular. I went over and told him we was looking for a partner with a shovel, and he was happy to obleege. He says his name was Shadrack and he was from Ohio where he's been a farmer mostly till the grasshoppers et him out. I knowed Tom would a somehow got him to pay for the chance to shovel up the steps in the pit, but I was grateful just to have the shovel, and mostly let Shadrack lay off. Him and Eeteh nodded at each other without saying nothing, and Shadrack went down to the water with his pan to poke around, he didn't find no gold, but he catched a big fish, which he shared with his partners (292). 
Another fish caught, this time not by Huck. Another fish shared one's partners, even if they are not Huck and Eetah. Another community making a connection, deciding whom to include because they are your closest companions, and whom not to. 

Ne Tongo is saved, he and Huck race "all the way to the sunset" (296) four pages later, and then Tongo leaves them, this time for good. So in rides Tom again, wearing white (both hat and gloves) and a red bandana tied around his neck, "so he warn't Tom so much as Tom's fancy of Tom" (297), ready to betray Huck (and by extension Eetah and Tongo). Huck, for a moment, holds his ground, knowing that "Tom was hurting and I was sorry, but I was hurting too. And I was worried about Eeteh" (299), whom any of Tom's friends could shoot without worry about retribution or justice. But Eetah's community comes to save Eetah and Huck. Not out of any allegiance to Huck, but out of allegiance to Tongo, who is a "spirit horse. God dog" (301). A friend of Tongo's is a friend of the Lakotas. A community. A set of partners. 

And Huck invites Tom to join him to light out once again. Tom refuses and so Huck goes, leaving Tom behind. One community forged, another abandoned.




Finally, this book opens and closes with fish. Or at least the potential of fish. In a final chapter, as Eetah and Huck light out, no clear territory in mind, just away from Tom and his new moral order of constant worry of betrayal, Eetah tells the story of Coyote's talking "members," of which apparently he has multiple. Huck tells Eetah that he heard Coyote speak directly to him when he was on a wild 4-page ride with Tongo, and Eetah suggests that it was Raven, not Coyote, who spoke to him. Huck is confused, "lost again" (308), he admits, because he doesn't know who or what dismembered body part has been speaking to him. All he knows is that Coyote and his stories are truly Eetah's, not his. He is content enough knowing that there "was a crick down below us in the twilight without no prospectors on it, where we could probably fish up a supper." There they will make camp, drink whiskey, and "muddytate" on trickster tales. And so, it is without a doubt that Huck will make, if only for a moment, another Edenic home or another "right place," over fish, with his true friend--one without malice or motive. 

And so, perhaps, should we.






------

Fire-Roasted Trout with Grilled Figs

"I larded up a frypan and set it on the fire, throwed in some salt and the cleaned fish, and set back to enjoy an evening pipe... It was such moments as made me feel I'd come to the right place. Plenty grub and an easy life, ain't no bad thing..." (Huck Out West 15).

Very liberally adapted from Twenty Dinners

A pretty little dish, this is as easy as can be, and rather economical. Every time we make fish, we say, "We should make fish more often."  You can grill with or without the head (the husband chose to grill without the head). Be careful of bones, but seriously, this is worth a grill-firing-up. The figs are a sweet counterpoint to the unctuous skin. The smoke from the grill is the perfect and only necessary accompaniment to the fish, though the microgreens (or just a salad of mixed lettuces) are a nice touch. Twenty Dinners does a great job here making a perfect backyard Eden. 

Yield
Serves 4

Ingredients
1/2 cup hazelnuts (optional)
12 fresh figs
grapeseed or vegetable oil
4 whole trout (about 1 pound each), cleaned and butterflied (ask your fishmonger to do this for you)
Extra-virgin olive oil
8-12 sprigs fresh thyme
4 bay leaves
salt 
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
A few handfuls greens (or microgreens)
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Salt, pepper, and olive oil for finishing

Instructions

1. Prepare your fire and set up your grill. Allow the fire to get really hot--and the grill to be completely cleaned from the heat of the fire--then wait for it to burn down enough so it's a very hot be of coals.

2.  Toast the nuts: When the fire is ready, set a small saucepan over the grill grate and allow it to heat. Toss the nuts and let them toast, until lightly browned and fragrant. Remove them from the pan and set aside.

3.  Coat the figs with grapeseed oil. Coat the fish with a small amount of olive oil, both on the outside and inside the cavity. Stuff each fish with 2-3 sprigs of thyme, 1 bay leaf, and a pinch of salt; then lightly salt the outside. Arrange the fish and the figs on the grill, leaving enough room to flip the fish over when the time comes. Cook the trout for 3 minutes on the first side, then flip over with a thin spatula and finish for 2 minutes on the other side, or until the fish is just cooked through. While the the fish cooks, return the small saucepan to the grate. Add the balsamic vinegar and let reduce by half. Reserve.

4.  When the fish is done remove it from the grill and let it cool for 3 minutes on a warm plate. Meanwhile, roll the figs around with a spoon so they don't overcook on one side. Remove the figs and toss them in a bowl with the reduced balsamic vinegar while still hot. Set aside.

5.  Once the fish has rested, serve the fish whole, advising them to be aware of errant bones. Make a bed of greens on each plate and top with a few figs. Lay a trout on top of the figs and finish with a generous squeeze of lemon, a sprinkling of salt, the hazelnuts, and some olive oil.