Jude’s culinary journey

Monkey business

By JUDE WATERSTON
Posted 3/24/22

It is tiring and time-consuming to think about food as much as I do. My obsession is not intentional. Harping on the subject is partly due to my being afflicted with “monkey mind.” …

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Jude’s culinary journey

Monkey business

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It is tiring and time-consuming to think about food as much as I do. My obsession is not intentional. Harping on the subject is partly due to my being afflicted with “monkey mind.” According to Buddhist principles, monkey mind is a restless and unsettled mind which concentrates on more than one thought at a time. Picture a handful of monkeys in your brain, running around, poking each other, jumping up and down excitedly, chattering all at once. And all they’re clamoring about is food and cooking, with an occasional unrelated thought thrown in.

I might be watching the “PBS News Hour,” or reading before bed, when I am interrupted by a shopping list forming in my head for a visit to ShopRite the following day. Or a reminder pops up that I’ve been planning on making puff-pastry appetizers stuffed with two different fillings that have been sitting in Ziplock baggies in the freezer for a week. One filling is the sweet, spicy and tangy ground-meat mixture called picadillo, and the other is something called mushroom duxelles—a concoction of minced shallots and cremini mushrooms cooked down with white wine or sherry, plus fresh thyme, producing a heady, earthy mixture to top crisp crostini, fold into an omelet, or toss with warm pasta noodles. The “monkey” reminds me I must defrost the fillings and that the puff pastry must also sit out for 40 minutes prior to rolling and cutting it into squares or circles.

Sometimes I actually cook in my head. I am lying in bed waiting to fall asleep and, while I do so, I picture my hands stuffing thinly sliced black truffles under the skin of a rock Cornish game hen or slicing that hen in half, butterfly fashion, and smearing its skin with extra-virgin olive oil, Dijon mustard, and a mixture of minced fresh garlic and herbs. Or I might be painting the edges of those puff pastry rounds with a bit of beaten egg, which acts like glue to seal them. I crimp all around with a fork and poke a few holes in each pastry to let steam escape, then finish with an egg wash on top so they will shine and brown nicely.

Whenever Janet and I send out an invitation to have an intimate gathering of two to four friends, Janet writes the date on her calendar and gives it no more thought. I, on the other hand, steady myself for the onslaught of a half dozen monkeys I imagine outfitted in diminutive floral bib aprons while others don tall, stiff chef’s toques and tiny checkered trousers. The monkeys chatter away as I develop the menu and make a shopping list of ingredients I’ll need to purchase. Then they’ll debate the contents of another list indicating the dishes that will be served, so I can check items off as I prepare them the day of the gathering. To ease the strain of cooking all day long I like to add some elements that compliment what I’ve made and take no work on my part. Spruce, the gourmet shop in Callicoon, sells silky, fresh white anchovies, which taste ever so slightly like lightly pickled herring; mixed olives; and an oozing brie or a crumbling aged cheese like an Italian Grana Padano.

We recently had a couple of friends over for cocktails. Earlier in the day I made (among other offerings) small, crisp wonton-wrapper cups in a mini-muffin tin. Easy to do and few things look as interesting as these crunchy vessels for any kind of filling that enters your (monkey) mind. They remain crisp for days in an airtight container and can be reheated with hot fillings or simply filled with cold or room temperature delights. On this evening, using a tiny demitasse spoon, I scooped fresh guacamole into half the wonton shells. I added a dab of bottled tomato salsa and garnished each with finely minced cilantro. The remainder of the cups were filled with a piece of smoked salmon, topped with a smidgen of Calkins’ soft mixed-herb cheese (or you might use cream cheese) topped with snipped chives.

I skipped reading before bed that night. I was exhausted. I closed my eyes and breathed slowly and deeply. Eventually, I fell asleep, but not before picturing a handful of monkeys clapping their paws over my achievement, then settling down one atop of the other, still and quiet for the time.

Wonton cups, ready for filling.
Wonton cups, ready for filling.

Wonton Appetizer Cups

Square wonton wrappers must be trimmed (about a half-inch) on two sides to make them smaller, or you can cut them into rounds. Either will work. If you can find round wonton or dumpling wrappers in an Asian store, all the better. Pick them up fresh if possible, or if you can only get them frozen, defrost the package and repackage (wrapped tightly in plastic wrap) and freeze them in bunches of a dozen or so each in freezer-weight reclosable bags. Defrost before using.  

12 to 24 wonton wrappers, fresh or defrosted, if frozen

Fillings of your choosing

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a mini-muffin tin, spray the cups with oil or use a piece of paper towel or a brush to oil each cup. Place one wonton into each cup, pressing down to form a flat-based cup. There will be some inevitable folds, but the cups will still be usable.

Spray the wontons lightly with oil. Bake, watching closely so they don’t burn, for about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on your oven. The wontons should brown nicely. Let them cool completely. They can be used when cooled or stored in a reclosable bag or airtight container. For hot fillings, preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place filled cups (topped with shredded cheese if it seems right) on a sheet pan and heat until hot, about 5 to 8 minutes or so.

Wonton cups can be filled with such things as crab or shrimp salad, minced and sautéed mushrooms, cheeses, guacamole, fresh salsas, or any number of concoctions. They can be eaten when filled or placed back in the oven for the fillings to warm and, if using, the cheese to melt.

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