On Snacking (and Sichuan Peppercorn Popcorn)

I am a snacker. I have spent years of my life wishing it were otherwise. I have set rules about how often I can snack and what I can snack on–once an afternoon, only after 7:00; celery, green apples, nuts. But, honestly, I love snacks. And, not celery. I devour boxes of crackers; I try not to let chips in the house. And, since this post is turning into a bit of a confessional, I really, really love anything covered in fake powdered cheese.

As with most things, I blame my parents. As two busy people who valued family dinners and extremely fine cooking, my parents long, long ago embraced a European–bordering on Argentinian–meal schedule. “It’s only civilized,” they say. Projected dinner time falls somewhere between 9:00 and 10:00 in their house. And, my mother, phenomenal cook that she is, has never gotten a meal on the table until at least half-an-hour after her goal.

Eating this late, even if you push lunch back, requires snacking. So, as a child, I got very good at it. But, since it was the early ’90s and the powers that be had yet to develop a plethora of organic snacking options, “healthy” snacking consisted of a lot of “baked” versions of generally fried snacks. Baked not fried bugles were a favorite. For years, my family stocked an early form of “healthy” cheese doodles that resembled nothing so much as packaging foam. But, since none of these things were very good, it seemed that we were often the only people buying them. Eventually, they would disappear from the shelves of our grocery store. One favorite after another, gone.

I blame the sudden disappearance of so many favorite snacks for giving me snack commitment issues. These days, I will discover a new cracker, puffed chip, or crunchy veggie, devour it happily for months, and then, just like that, it seems like something is missing. I jump ship, onto the next thing.

For the last few months, after years of feeling kind of eh about popcorn, I have been on a real bender. After moving from the fake cheese stuff to the lightly salted variety, it became embarrassing to be buying what I knew I could easily make at home. So I bought some kernels.

As they popped, I had a revaluation. I had just returned from Chicago with bags full of new spices. I didn’t have powdered cheese, but I did have sichuan peppercorns and dried orange peel. This popcorn had all kinds of potential.

I experimented with a bunch of spice combinations in my first few popcorn batches, but I’ve settled on two favorites: Sichuan Peppercorn Popcorn and Orange-Thyme Butter Popcorn. The former gives your regularly salted popcorn a kick along with hints of floral citrus. The latter tastes like movie popcorn grown up. Neither takes more than 10 minutes to make if you have the ingredients on hand.

I’ll probably move on in a few months, but until I do, Sichuan Peppercorn Popcorn will help me make it to dinner time, whenever that is.

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These aren’t really recipes so much as suggested spice combinations. Pop the popcorn as you usually do–I generally pop about half a cup of kernels at a time and then have enough or a few days. Here are some excellent popping instructions if you need them: http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/perfect_popcorn/

For Sichuan Peppercorn Popcorn: While your kernels pop combine about a teaspoon of salt with 5 or 6 peppercorns in a mortar and pestle and mash together. Toss with popcorn a little bit at a time until salted and spiced to taste. 

For Orange-Thyme Butter Popcorn: While your kernels pop, melt a tablespoon of butter in the microwave. Stir in a large pinch of thyme and a small pinch of dried orange peel. Pour butter mixture over popcorn and toss lightly to coat popcorn–again, I do this a little at a time until I think my popcorn is sufficiently flavorful. Any leftover butter is delicious on almost everything. 

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New York

A few weeks ago–at the end of my last day of commuting in to New York City for the year–I dashed to Grand Central eager to get home, finish packing, and fly to Austin for yet another research trip. In the station, I ran to the bathroom and grabbed a drink of water so I missed the first train I was aiming for and got on one that left ten minutes later.

An hour later the train stopped. Yep, I was behind (thankfully) the train that crashed. I have never felt so lucky to have insisted on a drink of water. Grateful though I was to not be in the crash itself, the saga of actually getting home seemed a fitting end to a hectic year.

Once Noah picked me up, we paused to get dinner at what turned out to be an excellent Mexican restaurant in East Norwalk. My strongest memory of the meal is the debate we had about who deserved a drink more. The true highlight for me, however, was the Mexican bakery next door where we bought a pastry stuffed with rice pudding. Who knew such a thing was possible?

Here I am, discombobulatedly eating said pastry.

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Anyway, I tell you all of this not just because I like to whine, and not just because I think we all should know that you can stuff pastries with rice pudding (!), but by way of another public service announcement: I’m done with commuting for the year. We have relocated/returned to New York (albeit 120 blocks or so South) for the summer. I could not be happier to be back.

This is probably a good time to admit that I utterly failed at learning to cook anything from the list of things I pledged to learn to cook after leaving New York. This is not for lack of a lot of experimentation on a lot of artichokes.

Anyway, our new kitchen could fit into one corner of our New Haven kitchen. We lack a dishwasher, but that’s ok because we left the vast majority of our dishes and cooking supplies at home. (I even got shamed out of bringing the ice cream maker…I’m looking at you Robin.) We have been reveling in living within walking distance of so many favorite restaurants this week, so I don’t have a recipe today. Not to worry though, I have, as Noah pointed out last night, filled the tupperware we brought faster than our delivery orders have supplemented our food storage capacity. Despite it’s size, our kitchen will see a lot of cooking this summer.

In the meantime, if you are looking for a recipe, here’s some of what’s filling our tupperware at the moment:

– These roast apricots. (Great on yogurt and oatmeal even if you aren’t a baby.)

– This slaw with broccoli instead of brussels.

With a Microwave and a Knife

America, I am impressed. I’m doing research in Simi Valley, California this week, which is a good place to be impressed by America it turns out, and not just because of landscapes like this:

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Also because of Target. There is not a lot to do or eat in Simi Valley. This isn’t the worst thing since I spent last week gorging myself on Mexican food, ice blendeds, and over-priced salads (OK Los Angeles, you do have your charms).

My hotel room here came fully equipped with a refrigerator and a microwave. So, my first night here, envisioning a week of getting things done while holed up in my hotel room with some vegetables, I headed out to try and get some food and maybe a knife. First, stop Target, where I thought I would get the knife, and then move on to a grocery store to pick up food. Then, I got lost in Target’s grocery aisle and never made it to another store.

Here’s the thing. I left the store with: two bowls of microwavable brown rice, a bag of microwavable beluga lentils, self-steaming microwavable bags of sugar snap peas and broccoli, 4 avocados, 2 tiny packets of nut butter (one peanut, one almond), and a $1 bottle of rice vinegar. I also grabbed some salt and pepper packets from the hotel cafe. Now, I know the amount of packaging involved in all of these purchases is outrageous. And, I’m sure that microwaving everything in plastic on a regular basis is a good way to get some horrible disease. I’m usually a bulk bin shopper; I usually cook my own food because I enjoy the process and have time to do it. All of those disclaimers aside, it is crazy how well you can eat with a microwave and a knife these days.

For dinner last night I had a bowl of brown rice and lentils topped with barely steamed broccoli, fresh avocado (again, fine California, you win), and an “almond dressing” I made by pouring some rice vinegar into a packet of almond butter and shaking. All of it was from Target. P1020479

I don’t know what this says about food politics and the best ways to improve our diets and our waist lines. It still takes time and energy to figure out how to put this stuff together. Microwavable broccoli might be easy to make well, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier to convince a kid to eat. So, fine, food politics not solved. But, people, microwavable beluga lentils! I am impressed.

Things to Learn to Cook Upon Leaving New York

No recipe today. Instead, I bring you blogging as commitment mechanism. Here’s another moving inspired list. (And just to liven things up some old pictures from Italy.)

Things to learn to cook upon leaving New York City:

– Massaman curry with avocados and Thai noodles with duck like the ones from Thai Market. Hell, while I’m at it, maybe I’ll also learn to make their chicken and radish dumplings and their daikon cakes.

I cried when we moved a few blocks out of Thai Market’s delivery zone. Crossing state lines is going to require recreating their menu.

Bettalona’s Carciofi.

Noah and I realized sometime this Spring that we could get these as bar food and skip the rest of the meal. So now we often end our nights around the corner from our apartment, the only people at this random Italian restaurant’s bar. It’s worth it. These artichokes, which they roast in a pizza oven to a fine crisp, are unbelievably delicious.

– Orange-watermelon juice like the one that 88 Orchard used to serve and tragically has stopped serving so I guess it’s time to leave anyway.

– Rice pudding like Kefi’s.

– Congee.

– And, if only, if only, Tia Pol’s Ensalada de Alcachofa.

This is my favorite salad in the entire world. It includes fried artichokes, white asparagus, and a mysteriously amazing dressing. We went to Tia Pol on Sunday night to say goodbye, although we agreed I would probably make us go back every time we returned to New York. When I finished the salad, I told Noah that being in a long-distance relationship with this salad was just not going to be the same.

It might also be nice if I could learn to pastrami Salmon, but I’m trying to be reasonable in my ambitions.

The way I’m looking at all this meat should accurately capture how I look at each of the dishes on my learn-to-make list.

Anyway, hopefully this public record will lead to some cooking experimentation over the next few months, and, if I figure any of these out, I promise there will be a post.