Friday, April 12, 2013

National Grilled Cheese Day!

A gustidude blog salute to that king of sandwiches, the most satisfying of the genre, the grilled cheese. Today, April 12th, is not only National Grilled Cheese Day, but April is National Grilled Cheese Month.

It's a simple concept: bread, cheese, and heat (and some lubrication if it's going to be heated on a flat surface). According to the culinary eggheads, the Romans invented the grilled cheese sandwich; conceivable since they had both bread and cheese, and also had heat and lube. Those same eggheads claim that it came to America in the 1920's, when cheap processed cheese and sliced white bread became common. My guess is that as soon as cheese made it's appearance on American shores, and that was most likely via the Spanish, some crude form of grilled cheese was going on. I don't know who actually invented it, but I do know it's one of the most satisfying comfort foods ever invented.

My favorite grilled cheese sandwich involves some ciabatta bread, one side of which is slathered with a nice garlicky aioli, while the other side gets a schmear of brown mustard. Into the middle go thin slices of mellow white cheddar, gooey and nutty fontina cheese, oozing mozzarella, robust aged provolone,  and a light grating of salty parmesan.  I like the cheese to be somewhere around one fourth to one third of the total mass. Ideally there is some softened sweet cream butter to schmear on the outside of the bread, and a seasoned skillet
sitting over a  burner with medium heat. A light coating of olive oil to lube the skillet, and the buttered sandwich goes on. Of course, if you happen to have access to a panini press, you could always use that.

As it cooks you sit and carefully watch for signs of cheesy ooze at the middle of the sandwich, and resist the temptation to lift it up to see if the bottom slice of bread is tuning to golden brown; to do it too early upsets the cheese gods. When it is finally time to turn, you have to be very careful that you don't cause slidification, the loss of friction between the bread and the cheese filling. If that happens, you can get spillage of the cheese ooze beyond the borders of the bread edge, which reduces the thickness of the filling, harming the ratio of crusty toasted buttery bread to the molten filling.

Once it's safely flipped, the second side always cooks faster, and you're only moments away from grilled gooey bliss. Some like to slice it, which I think encourages too much spillage from the middle. I even like to let it sit just a bit so the cheese cools and relaxes a tad, ensuring that less side ooze occurs with that first bite.

There's  only one problem with a grilled cheese, especially a good grilled cheese. As soon as you finish it, you want another one. So the question becomes, should I make two at once? Well, yes, you should.

Mick Vann ©

Monday, April 8, 2013

Easter Ham at Rancho Winslow

Nancy "Gramaw" Barnes, in full Easter disco mode

Every Easter Sunday for the last decade or so I have had a permanent invite to the Easter Dinner held at Rancho Winslow. It’s usually a festive affair, with the Thanksgiving and Christmas crowd present: the grandmaws, Nancy and Avelin, Robert “Empty Leg” Abraham, CBoy and Princess Di (“The Martha Stewart of Manchaca”), assorted spawn and subspawn (you know who you are), and present this year, same as last year, Jules. Di had just suffered through a grueling St. Patty’s Boiled Dinner extravaganza a week or so before, so the decision was made to keep it “low key”. There was one caveat: Diane demanded that I help her make something she referred to as “bunny rolls”.

Early prototype of bunny roll....this one more closely resembles a planaria

Instead of working at the nursery I bopped over to the ranch to help Di get everything ready. She had already made a marinated salad of broccoli and cauliflower, mushrooms, red onions, black olives, and who knows what other treats. I got the ham out and criss-
crossed some cuts on the surface, and then threw together a glaze of apricot jam, brown mustard, thyme, paprika, roasted garlic, and rum. We fired up the oven and popped that bad boy in there for a few hours; as it cooks and browns the slashed rectangles open up, which makes a perfect perch for the glaze to hang out while sunning under the broiler. Di had whipped up some horseradish-sour cream sauce for the ham, and we also had some leftover glaze to go on it.

Baked, criss-crossed, and glazed Easter ham

Di had peeled and diced a couple of big butternut squash, so I par-boiled those and then did likewise with some fresh spinach. I sautéed a bunch of onions in butter, using the oniony butter to lube the baking pan, and then we mixed it all together in a casserole with some walnuts, a few breadcrumbs, some yard eggs, parsley and thyme, and some parmesan, topped it with cheese and baked it off. We had a boatload of green beans that I was going to sauté, but decided that we didn’t need it. Enough was enough.

Butternut squash, walnut, spinach
, and parmesan casserole

Di and I checked out a vague Youtube video on how to take a frozen crescent roll and transform it into a rabbit (er, bunny), then we did a test batch. Other than my bunny butts being WAY too big, and the ears a little long, and the bodies being too stretched out (Di said they looked “sleepy”), they came out just fine; definitely rabbitlike enough for a subspawn to recognize. Jules took over the actual dinner bunny formation process, and made some very bunnyrific bunnies out of crescent rolls. 

A few of them fell sideways, and looked like they were napping, or had been fed a Roofie; Jules said they were just a little tired. I couldn’t resist the urge to make a couple of them into jackalopes, and Di insisted that a few be Cyclops bunnies (you form the eyes, or in this case, the EYE, with a wet toothpick). After a cruise in the sauna, they emerged golden brown and delicious, ready to be slathered with golden sweet butter.

Bunny battalion, ready for baking

Nancy had gotten inspired, and made a batch of chocolate pecan toffee (think Heath bar, but waaay better), and a batch of crunchy peanut brittle. She also “threw together” a fantastic Jack Daniels spice cake with pecans, and a couple of dozen mustardy deviled eggs. On the counter for grazing was a cheese assortment (gouda, fontina, emmenthaler, and cheddar), with an assortment of crackers and garlicky what not. A fruit plate with cantaloupe, grapes, and strawberries, a bowl of salted mixed macadamias and almonds, and a batch of artichoke and spinach dip. I appointed myself the monitor to make sure that people didn’t “ruin their dinner” with the toffee, brittle, and snacks.

The snack slab


Deviled eggs...a must-have for Easter 


Chocolate toffee with pecans

I  repeatedly slathered the ham with glaze so that Robert, a retired veterinarian, could perform the vivisection on the pig leg when it was properly golden. He spent considerable effort trying to sharpen what Rancho Winslow passes for carving tools; something has to be done about the dull cutlery up in that joint. Los cuchillos de Rancho Winslow estan muy pathetico.

Bunny rolls, cuddling in repose

Lines formed and chairs were grabbed and some serious eating commenced, and yes, folks still had room for dessert. There were lots and lots of great food groans and pleas for belly rubs. Easter ham and bunny rolls, what could be finer?

Mick Vann ©  

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Ant Orchid Blooming!

 Schomburgkia (Myrmecophila) tibcinis -- The Trumpet Player's Schomburgkia, Cow Horn Orchid

The common name of the orchid species comes from the local inhabitant’s practice of drying the pseudobulbs to make a crude trumpet. These trumpets are commonly used to call the children home from playing, for meals or bedtime.  The children also dry them out to make toy musical instruments, similar to a musical instrument made from a cow horn, which provides the basis for the other common name, Cow Horn Orchid.

The name for the genus Myrmecophila comes from the word myrmecophile, which refers to the symbiotic relationship with colonies of ants.  The genus has now been changed to fit under the Schomburgkia genus, which is classified with Laelias and Cattleyas. Ant colonies are typically found living inside the large, hollowed-out, banana-shaped pseudobulbs (the bulb-like structure at the base of each leaf). Among plant freaks, these symbiotic plants are called “ant plants”. An opening at the base of each pseudobulb serves as a doorway for the ants, which harvest nectar from the flowers and forage on other plants nearby. The ants associated with Myrmecophila tibicinis pack many of the pseudobulbs with waste debris, which includes dead ants and other insects, detritus, harvested seeds, and soil and sand; think of the depositories as small landfills. The host orchid directly utilizes mineral components of the debris deposited by the ants inside the pseudobulbs. 

The big clump, mounted on cork, about 3 1/2 feet wide by 3 1/2 feet tall

Since the tropical forest canopy is often a nutrient-poor habitat, even a minimal boost of minerals or protein harvested from the waste of the symbiotic ants can have a significant positive effect on the host plant in the wild; with a cultivated plant it is of little concern. Without that internal source nutrient boost, the orchid in the wild must rely on whatever detritus and droppings fall its way, like the rest of its orchid brethren. In return for nectar and shelter, the ants also provide some protection from insect predators that might attack the host plant, and occasionally pollinate the flowers. Myrmecophila tibicinis can grow quite well in the absence of ants, though it’s unusual for a colony of the orchid to be ant-less. The species of ants typically found colonizing the orchid are:
Brachymyrmex sp.
Camponotus planatus, abdominalis, and rectangularis
Crematogaster brevispinosa
Ectatomma tuberlactum
Monomorium ebenium
Paratrechina longicornis
Zacryptocerus maculates

The genus Schomburgkia honors Moritz Richard Schomburgk, a German-born gardener and plant collector who later become the director of the Adelaide Botanic Garden in 1865. Despite Richard being the honoree, it was his older brother Robert Hermann Schomburgk who dragged his little brother along on his second British-sponsored boundary-mapping expedition to British Guiana (1840-1844), and all eight monocots bearing the Schomburgk name are all attributed to Herman and not Richard, and only one of those eight is an orchid (Sobralia elisabethiae). Richard’s big claim to fame was the discovery of the Giant Waterlily, Victoria amazonica, which became a hugely popular plant during the Victorian era.

the smaller clump, cork mounted, about 2 feet wide by 2 feet tall

Schomburgkia (Myrmecophila) tibcinis is a big-scale, warm to hot-growing epiphyte and occasional lithophyte (grows on rocks and ledges) that is found from Southern Mexico, into Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, Venezuela and Colombia in seasonally dry deciduous forests, growing on trunks and larger branches, in bright light to full sun, at lower elevations. Having escaped cultivation, this orchid is now seen growing on palm trunks in Southern Florida. It has 12 to 18” hollow cylindrical pseudobulbs, often with holes at the base.  There are from 2 to 5 apical, elliptic-ovate light green leaves. This orchid typically blooms in March-April. They can be grown with water year-round, but do best with a drying-out period during the cooler months.  They do best mounted on wood or cork (not fern plaques, as fern degrades over time) since they do not like to be disturbed; they root quickly and will anchor securely to whatever they are mounted. They have from an 8 to a 15-foot long bloom spike (which is unusually long), and the fragrant 2 to 3-inch wide flowers open successively, occasionally having a cluster at the end of the spike.   

Synonyms: Bletia tibicinis; Cattleya tibicinis; *Epidendrum tibicinis; Laelia tibicinis; Myrmecophila grandiflora.; Schomburgkia brysiana var intermedia; Schomburgkia grandiflora; Schomburgkia intermedia; Schomburgkia tibicinis; Schomburgkia tibicinis var grandiflora

Zone 12 , Hot

Mick Vann ©