Monday, July 30, 2012

UnRecipe: Spread 'Em

Every year I seem to go through a food phase. Last year I was making ice cream once or twice a month, a phase which continues to this day and could now be classified simply as "normal." A few years ago it was discovering the craft cocktail revival, imbibing new things and filling our cabinets with a worrisome amount of liquor, also a thing that I would consider "business as usual" in present times. This year I have to say I'm definitely in a phase of making savory jams and spreads, a behavior that will soon evolve into daily life and seem about as everyday as making morning coffee. Which isn't such a bad thing when you've got a jar of caramelized onion bacon jam at your fingertips.

Jamming with caramelized onions and bacon - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I never jumped on the Canvolution bandwagon, where everyone was preserving and jamming to their Portlandia heart's content, but I totally get it. For all the stuff we grow in our gardens and the surplus of summer's farm fresh goodies, there's no reason to let any of it go to waste when you can properly preserve it like Joan River's Botoxified visage. I just don't have the know-how or equipment to properly seal the things I make, so the best way to describe the keeping savory jams, marmalades is: freeze the extra jars before the mold grows! In the case of an onion jam, it's almost the opposite -- cooking down a mountain of sliced raw onions into sweet, caramelized little mushy-ribbons of flavor is like the equivalent of Spacebags for food. If you have more onions than you know what to do with, you can cook them down to fit into a couple of clean salsa jars, and you are rewarded with one of the best flavors known to mankind.

Onions are magical, much like unicorns and wizards who make bourbon - Photos by Wasabi Prime
On their own, caramelized onions are divine. You don't need anything beyond an f-ton of raw onions sliced thin and a little olive oil to help them cook down until browned and mushy -- but not burned. It needs patience, Grasshopper, low and slow is the way to go. Add salt and pepper to taste and you've got the starting point for French onion soup, a wicked topping for burgers or hot dogs, intense flavor to add to a grilled cheese sandwich, or just mix with your morning eggs. For my super-duper onion jam, I rendered the fat from a few leftover slices of bacon, set them aside, caramelized the onions in the bacon fat and then added the crumbled bacon bits back in towards the end when the onions were mostly done. I even added a splash of bourbon (one for me, one for the jam) for a little extra depth of flavor. The perfect mix of sweet and savory, but with that dark flavor profile of something that has been cooking for a good amount of time, awaiting like a cobra to strike with deliciousness instead of deadly venom. A much better option, wouldn't you agree? What to do with this rainbow of onion-bacon flavor? I slathered it on some bread with melty mozzarella and let the toaster oven work its magic. I also topped a burger with it to make a crazy version of a Locomoco with weird fridge leftovers like cotija and breaded zucchini. Yeah, our fridge is full of all kinds of crazy sometimes.

Onion and bacon jam Locomoco, because that's how we roll - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Admittedly, the bacon and onion jam doesn't last long enough to be threatened with deep freeze storage. But one thing I do end up making quite a bit of during the summer months is pesto. Traditional pesto is usually basil, parsley, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, garlic and olive oil, all blended to make a rich paste that can be used as a spread or a sauce. If the slugs hadn't eaten my basil plants to pitiful nubs, I'd be in much better shape, but pesto can be made with... well, almost anything. In our garden, we have a lemon balm plant/bush/forest that I have often referred to as the Thing That Will Surely Take Over Earth. It started out as a plant about the size of a little flower pot and it's since grown like Mothra, threatening world domination and smackdown date with a giant lizard from Japan. I cut it back liberally on a regular basis, leaving me with handfuls of lemon balm bouquets. I don't keep the stems, they can be a little spiny, but the leaves are tender and big, like giant mint leaves (no surprise, it's a close relation to mint), with a fresh herbaceous flavor of citrus, hence the name. Most of our garden pesto is made up of lemon balm, so it's got a refreshing zing to it, and I usually add a bit of whatever else we have, which could mean chives, oregano, even a little rosemary. I blend everything up with whatever nuts I have on hand (insert boy joke here), usually almonds and sometimes pistachios, which give a very pleasant sweetness to pesto if you haven't already tried this. I'll add Parmesan or Asiago cheese, plenty of garlic, red pepper flakes and a lot of olive oil. I prefer my pesto's consistency to be on the loose side, plus the heavy coating of oil slows down some of the browning of the fresh herbs, especially nice when I have to freeze the extra jars. For this recent batch, I had some fresh lemons whose juice also helps the herbs stay evergreen.

Pesto is Best-o with pasta, of course - Photo by Wasabi Prime
I slathered the pesto over a thinly-pounded steak, which I threw under the broiler for a quick cook on both sides. I also tossed the pesto with some pasta and peas. Aside from the fact the pasta "looked like a spider's nest," as Brock called it, after it was smothered in a heavy sprinkle of cheese, it still tasted divine. No spider's nest pasta for you, Brock! I still had plenty of leftover pesto, and the same application of the onion jam could be used for the pesto: eggs, grilled cheese, burgers, etc. For a while I was just calling it Hulk Pesto, as it was Hulk-Smashingly tasty, and I probably still had the image of Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk in my head from The Avengers.

Even the Hulk could appreciate this green creation - Photos by Wasabi Prime 
The versatility of flavor in a jar, aside from the benefit of using up excess produce and garden herbs, is especially  nice in the summer. You don't want to be sweating over a hot stove when the temperature rises. This robs you of valuable cold beer time. Chilled pesto with a little mayonnaise makes for a simple raw vegetable dip. Grilling meat or vegetables brushed with some pesto adds easy flavor. I'm a longtime fan of toaster oven cooking, mostly because it doesn't generate much heat and a few slices of bread toasted with onion jam and cheese is a perfect lazy summer meal. So all hail savory spreads, jam and pesto. Intense flavor, not a lot of effort and summer-long rewards.

Flavortown, population: my appetite - Photos by Wasabi Prime

1 comment:

  1. I can hardly wait to make the Onion Jam and I'll add a dash of balmasic finish!

    Many thanks!


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