This meal happened a little while ago (the sage flowers should date it pretty accurately for those of you in these parts). But no matter; it’s still highly seasonally appropriate.
Category: Small Plates
The cooler weather (crystalline and perfect in these parts lately) combined with the explosive home stretch for the garden—the damn peppers always hit their stride right before the frost—can be inspiring to the point of madness, especially when the farmers’ market throws in even more treats like mushrooms and fish. To wit: yesterday, when as a result of all the bounty I thought it would be a good idea to make tapas. You know, six different dishes, in an attempt to duplicate that wonderful restaurant experience of having a table crowded with plates, all boasting varying colors, textures, and tastes that showcase the best of the season. And the nightshade-heavy late summer bounty positively screams Spain.
Today was hot, so dinner needed to be something on the lighter side, but the day was also strenuous; our various exertions of summer camp, rehearsals, and gardening called for serious sustenance. Besides the garden, my sweat-inducing activities included errand running, among which grocery procurement, so I bought two small pieces of fish: tuna and bluefish, thinking to do two different things with them.
I had been planning to make this for days, but never managed to get the ground turkey. Eventually I did, and these shu mai were the happy result. Normally I make them with shrimp and/or scallops, but for whatever reason I wanted turkey. I have learned to listen to my desires, for they are often smarter than I am.
I’m a big fan of kneading roots and the like with salt to wilt and quick-pickle them for salads. It’s a fantastic way to tenderize a raw vegetable that might otherwise be a tad too crunchy for some people, and imparts a lusciously silky texture and bright flavor to beets, carrots, radishes, turnips, fennel, and everything else of that textural ilk. So I had an idea to try it with winter squash, and to incorporate some local “spices” that I have stored in jars for the long winter. And I wanted to see if my wimpy little consumer vacuum sealer would be strong enough to do it without the kneading, the way the pros do it.
When I was in the Bay Area last weekend, I had one free evening that wasn’t taken up hanging out with my cousin and his lovely family and their friends (one of whom is a famous metal drummer with a movie star wife). I spent that evening with Derrick and his lovely wife Melissa, which included a special cameo from Sean without his no doubt lovely husband. I knew the eating was going to be good not only because they quite obviously know their food but because they both separately suggested that we meet at the same place: Contigo, an excellent tapas place in Noe valley.
The slight but meaningful increase in temperature from last week to this–from 40s to 50s, basically–has made a huge impact outside, not least in the form of turning our last two winter storm warnings into plain old rain. All those tentative early shoots have emboldened, and are pushing forth with enthusiasm. It rained again today, and I’ve been leaving the plastic off the hooped salad bed so it can soak up the water. Today I got some asparagus crowns so I can put in another bed parallel to the existing one but outside the garden fence since the deer ignore it. I grabbed a few herbs to stick in the herb garden, and some lavender to go in a bed outside the front garden fence. Once it’s in, all four sides of the garden will have mulched beds or just plain mulch outside them, which should provide an extra measure of protection against the tenacious and ever-encroaching lawn.
While I picked this stuff up, along with less-sexy things like rock phosphate, lime, and green sand to amend the big-ass truck full of compost that’s coming tomorrow, I also hit the fish counter since the store in question has a decent one. Soft-shell crabs are in season, and Milo loves them, so I got three. I also bought a nice Pacific albacore steak, figuring that some tataki would be a nice complement to crispy fried crab.
There’s a perpetual struggle between the ideas one might have for a dish or a meal and the realities that impose themselves on the execution thereof. Time, ingredients, fatigue, kids home from school with a fever–life has a limitless array of obstacles that can undermine our vast ambitions and bring them right back down to everyday dimensions. The trick is to retain some shreds of the original glory of the ideas before they got all sullied by the laws of physics and still get the food on the table with a minimum of delay.
Sometimes when making dinner I have just a little bit of time and the inclination to use it well. This is the sort of food that would normally get the one-plate treatment, but the simple act of approaching and presenting it as a multi-dish meal made it so much more interesting and satisfying than it would have been. Presentation matters, and that intention works to inform the cooking process with more care and attention.