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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Clam Sauce: Red Or White?

I typically make Linguini Alle Vongole, pasta with  white clam sauce. The white wine, garlic, and red pepper flake infused sauce accentuates the clams and linguini without masking their beautiful flavors. My pantry is usually always  stocked with ingredients for white clam sauce.  Last night, I had imported San Marzano tomatoes in the cupboard and thought I'd take the white sauce version one step further with Linguinu Alle Vongole con Pomadora, pasta with red clam sauce.  The method for the red sauce is actually an extension of the white sauce method and is very simple.

I purchased fresh Littleneck clams from a local seafood source and let them rest on a bed of ice until bath time.  I sliced green peppers, Vidalia onions, and garlic to reserve while I prepped the lemons, fresh basil, fresh oregano, and fresh parsley.  Mise en place.

After heating a large saute pan until screaming hot, I added a few butter pats with a few tablespoons of olive oil (butter for the flavor, olive oil for the smoking point).  When the end of a wooden spoon sizzled when touched into the combined fats, I tossed in the peppers and onions to soften and caramelize.  Once they had wilted, I  added 5 cloves of thinly slliced garlc to toast without burning. The nose knows.  Once the aromatics were soft and tender, I deglazed the pan with a cup of white wine  and fish stock. When the stock had reduced by half, I added  sweet San Marzano tomatoes,  fresh basil leaves, fresh oregano, salt, and pepper. Partially covered, I let the sauce simmer for an hour while I enjoed a few glasses of wine.

After an hour, the sauce had thickened and reduced to almost a pulp consistency.  Not wanting to waste any of the tomato left in the can, I swirled a bit more stock in the can, releasing the stuck-to-side-of-the-can tomatoes, and added it to the sauce to loosen .  I let it come back to a simmer, tossed in two dozen clams, covered the pan, and let the clams steam open.

I boiled linguini in heavily salted water until al dente and mounded the wide strands in large pasta bowls.  Using tongs, I plucked the clams out of the sauce and placed them around the pasta.  I  poured the steaming sauce over the clams, squeezed fresh lemon over the sauce, and sprinkled unsliced  individual parsley, basil, and oregano leaves over everything.  A dusting of fleur de sel for crunch and flavor finished it off.  With no artisinal bread in stock, simple toasted and buttered Baby Bunny sliced white bread had to do for a sopper.

The  sauce had an enormous layered  depth of flavor!  The usual white wine and garlic white  sauce was transforrmed by the sweet acidity of the tomatoes.  The fresh basil and oregano infused the sauce with  subtle anise notes while the juice released from an army of clams gave it briny mineral undertones. Drinkable.

The clams were sweet, tender and plump. Perfect vehicles for such an assertive sauce as thier juicy mouth pops sweetened the tomato brine. The cheap white bread side sopper turned into savoury summer bread pudding when swiped into the swimming sauce and the linguini was cheek smacking slurpable.  Wonderful drippy and  messy  finger food with face painting!  What could be better?

Steamed hot napkins for clean up, maybe.

So, red or white clam sauce?  Both are good,
but red has both.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Humble Gardener

I am a very humble gardener. My successes are always balanced out with great failures...but I persevere. I've always loved flowers, hanging ferns, and window boxes bursting with color.We purchased this house several years ago and before we even moved in, I was out digging and tilling the sparse back garden.  I had two tons of dry stacking stone shipped from North Carolina to build raised beds and filled the beds with ninety-five 40 pound bags of Barky Beaver top soil.  Underneath the soil I buried 80 feet of soaker hose.  Against the advice of every gardening book, I then filled the garden to the brim with perennials, spring bulbs, evergreen shrubs, flowering bushes, summer bulbs, and statuary. On the back deck I would have an occasional tomato plant and a huge pot of herbs.  I was totally impressed with myself.
The garden is now too full.  Plants actually do fill in over time, it turns out. The experts were right.  It is  overflowing,  beautiful, and full.  Fine with me. 

My garden philosophy has shifted and changed over the years.  I still love growing flowers and watching them change and evolve during the growing season.  Growing things to harvest and  eat has  consumed me. We have limited space and odd light patterns, but that hasn't stopped me. I want to grow food on our land.  Our urban downtown land. Within reason, of course.  No corn fields, pumpkin patches, or winding melon vines. I do what I can;  and without room in the perennial garden, I have resorted to container gardening.  I am  not an  urban gardener, by any means.  I could not park my PT Cruiser by the side of the road with the latch up and sell produce.  Hardly.  For a long time I couldn't even grow a proper tomato. 

Last spring I was inspired by an article written by  Chef Dave in AceWeekly about starting vegetables and herbs from seed.  Seemed like the perfect way to quell the late winter wishful garden dolldrums. It was a total miracle.  I was stunned and amazed. We had cucumbers, jalapenos, green bell peppers, and tomatoes. I put up 75 quart and pint jars of pickles, relishes, chutneys, salsas, and juices. I was a canning madman!  All from the containers on our deck!  It was garden hysteria.  Obsessed and crazed.
Funny, the more you grow and eat what you grow, the more you want to grow to eat.. Ha! There is something to be said for container vegetable gardening.  The soil  can be manipulated and the water can be easily controlled.  When the light source changes throughout the course of the season, pots can be moved around to adjust to it.  In my case, it made perfect sense.

This year was and is no different.  Peet pots were everywhere in late March, domed with their plastic imitation glasshouses until sprouting.  They seemd so delicate and frail as they poked up through the airy peet. The tomato seedlings didn't quite survive my haphazard watering spells as well as the herbs and pepper plants. Michael ordered a slew of heirloom tomato plants to compensate.  A big slew. Principe Burghese, Pink Oxheart, Abraham Lincoln, and Sunset Red Horizon stand in tow with the standard  Big Boy plants.  We usually have three tomato plants with cages.  This year, we have nineteen! 

The peppers and herbs were hardened outside for a while before planting. When it was safely past the last frost date, I sewed cucumber seeds directly into containers and nestled them alongside the flowers with supports to vine up and through.  One is tucked into a bed of daylilies and is winding its way around an ornamental garden cage. The corner of the garage has a pot filled with cucumber vines climbing up through a cage onto a double hung cheap trellis I nailed to the side of the garage. As they blossom, form, and grow, the supports make for easy harvesting.  They will dangle and beg to be picked.
The peppers and tomatoes are producing and the herbs flourishing.  All in containers lined up side by side or tucked into available space.

We used to sit on the deck and look lovingly out onto our flowering back forty.  The tomato plants have totally obscured any view as they grow taller up into the sky and wrap around each other for support.

A samll sacrifice for the bounty to come.

Urban gardeners? Nope.

Just trying to grow a few things and live off the fat of our little piece of land.

With joy.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The First Fruits Of Summer

We had a little cookout the other night.  Just the two of us on our back deck.  It was hot with a slight misty rain that  helped cool the air and soften the heat..  It was a routine cookout with barbecued  brined chicken slathered in a molasses based sticky sauce grilled until slightly charred and caramelized. My favorite part of barbecued chicken is the sauce candy that forms on the crisp skin when cooked over flames. Smoky sweetness. The chicken was very moist from the brine and sweet from the molasses-brown sugar based basting mop. A few  fresh pineapple shards thrown onto the grill to char alongside the chicken  provided an interesting sweet and smoky fruit acidity that totally complimented the chicken. 

The stars of our cookout were the side dishes. I grilled bacon-wrapped corn until poppingingly tender and slathered them with lime butter, hickory smoked salt, freshly ground pepper, and shreds of reggiano cheese.  The lime zest/juice infused butter gave a bright tartness to the buttery bacon fat kernels and helped cut through  the sweetness and richness of the smoke bathed chicken. As the lime specked butter melted through the corn shafts onto the plate, it mixed with the barbecue sauce creating fantastic sweet and sour flavor pools. The swirled puddles were great for dipping bread, swiping chicken meat, and licking. Uh huh, I licked the plate.  Clean.
I plucked  fresh heirloom tomatoes from one of our tomato plants and halved them. Principe Burghese Heirlooms are small red plum-shaped tomatoes that are quick to ripen. The first fruits of summer that we have patiently watched slowly ripen to bright red. Our lazy hazy backyard barbecue was the ideal time to eat them still warm from the sun. Tiny, tender, plump, juicy, and sweet. Nothing better than just picked fresh tomatoes. Nothing.

Welcome summer!  You may now officially begin.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

For The Love Of Food

I was thinking back and going through cruise vacation photos.  It did not occur to me at the time that I was taking as many photographs of what we ate as I was taking of the Caribbean Sea.  Funny.  In any case, everything was incredible.  The dining rooms had different levels of light and darkness On some nights the seas were very choppy and rough.
The food was always thoughtfully prepared and executed.
A foodie photo journal:

*Shrimp Cocktail: lemon, radish, butter lettuce.  
*Gazpacho: minced cucumber, tomato, pepper tomato ring with gazpacho poured around the bowl.
*Oysters : halfshell, lemon, cocktail sauce, Tobasco.
*Chilled Cucumber Soup: fresh dill, jicama.
*Rigatoni: tomato sauce, fresh tarragon.
*Lobster Bisque: sherry, puff pastry rounds.
*Cucumber-Wrapped Beef Tartar: horseradish ice cream, mint.

*Panko Crusty Fried Prawns: black sesame seed pineapple,, grilled scallion, peanut noodles.
*Barbecued Ribs: creamy slaw, scalloped potato.
*Supreme of Mallard Duck: blackberry demi-glaze, steamed vegetables, pureed butternut squash.
*Pan-Seared Halibut: tomato coulis, sauteed vegetables,yukon gold potato mousse.
*Zucchini Yellow Squash Ribbon-Wrapped Turbot, tomato, creme fraiche, chive, peas, fried harico verts.
*Beef Tenderloin: pave potato, horseradish mousse, glace.
*New Zealand Rack of Lamb: rosemary, mushroom caps of bearnaise, mint demi-glaze, glazed carrots.

*Creme Brulee: fresh strawberry, mint.
*Black Forrest Tiramisu Layered Mousse Cake: shaved chocolate.
*Dark Chocolate Filled Cheesecake: glazed bluberries, mango, strawberry, candied orange peel.
*Fig Cinnamon Cake: butter pecan ice cream, caramel.
*Molten Lava Cake: butter pecan ice cream.
*Trio of Mousses: chocolate, vanilla, butterscotch, chocolate shards.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Dad. Veterans Day.

He was not sentimental or affectionate. He certainly wasn't lavish with his emotions or thoughts.
He was very straightforward,  honest, fair, and  kind.

He was my hero.

Is my hero.

Dad was widowed in 1963, leaving him stuck with two young boys.  In those days, kids were handed off to relatives after the death of their mother.  That was the plan in the autumn of 1963.  My brother was supposed to live with one aunt in up-state New York and I was supposed to be shipped off to Western Kentucky to live with another aunt. We had to leave Arlington, Virginia.

Three weeks after my mother passed away, President Kennedy was assassinated. They're both buried at Arlington National Cemetery. You can see his grave from her grave. Their graves. The death of the president deeply affected my father. He was military. Career Army. Hard core. World War 2. Korean War. Vietnam War. Veteran.

He was shipped  and stationed all over the world.  Kids would have gotten in the way for a single military father.

He kept us.

Fearless and brave, he dragged our little family across the world.  It couldn't have been easy. At all. I didn't even realize that we were different.  We were just us.

He was older than most fathers.  Sometimes, embarrassingly so.

We moved back to the States in 1968.  Arlington, VA was where everything began and ended. The fifth grade at Zachary Taylor Elementary School was excruciating. I was an outsider, mired for months in the dreary brown section of my SRA Reading Lab folder. It seemed pointless to prolong the agony, so I stopped going to school. I'd get dressed, throw my house key around my neck, and bounce off to school. He thought I was going to school. Hardly.  I spent my school hours playing inside the dark sewers of Arlington. The dimly lit concrete cylinders were my underground passageways to adventure. I was truant from school for weeks before anyone noticed. Although disappointed, he fixed my mess.  Summer school.

On the last day of summer school, he arrived wearing his full Dress Blues. I could hear his draped medals jingle as he walked through the hallways. His starched blue pant legs scraped against each other like course sandpaper as he entered my classroom.  He looked like a knight, smiling in smart blue. Taller than I had remembered in the morning before school, he was there to pick me up.  Me.  He held out his gigantic hand in front of everyone, grasped my little fingers, and took me home. It was one of the proudest moments in my life.

He lived the rest of his life just like that day.  Tall.  Proud.  Handsome. Awesome.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Food Orgy; Mussel Beach

Michael has been out of town on business for a few  days. Although I don't relish the thought of cooking for myself and dining alone, I do enjoy plunging myself into a self indulgent food orgy when he is gone.  We have widely different  tastes  in food, so when he is away I get to eat everything I crave.

The cravings usually involve seafood and are always spice driven. I have posted on mussels before during  Lent and the seemingly endless weeks of meatless Fridays.  The batch I made for both of us during Lent was very tame and quite straightforward.

Not this time around. Nope. Nada.  I adore mussels.  Any preperation.  Any sauce.  Anytime.

I drove to Charlies Fresh Seafood shop after work to secure fresh mussels.  While waiting  for the mussels to be bagged, iced, and tallied, I ordered Jalapeno Hush Puppies from the restaurant side of the shop, home of "the Biggest Fish Sandwich" in town. On the way home with my shellfish nestled on ice, I ate hot spiced hush puppies from my lap with squirts of carryout commercial tarter sauce drizzled over the top.  Messy, but oh so good.  Hot sweet fried corn puppies with specks of jalapeno popping through. The tang of fake tart tarter sauce  soothed my tongue. My drive home amuse bouche.

The food orgy was on.
Whetted and wanting more, I dove right  into dinner prep.
Mise en Place.
I pulled out the big guns for the sweet plump mussels.  While they rested in the refrigerator on ice, I thinly sliced Vidalia onions, jalapenos, garlic, roma tomatoes, and green peppers as aromatics.  Once the vegetables sauteed until caralmelized and tender, I added Korean red chile paste, Chinese black bean sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, fish stock, and white wine.  After the sauce reduced and simmered, I threw in  rice noodles ( lazily uncooked) and torn cilantro.  Once the sauce came back to a boil, I scattered the mussels in the pot, sealed the lid, and let them steam open  The aroma was killer.
When all the mussels had opened with shell arms reaching out, I dumped the entire pot into a very large serving bowl and squeezed several fresh limes over the top to brighten the sauce.  I added a splash of rice wine vinegar, ponzu soy, and  fresh minced cilantro to finish.

The huge bowl of sauce covered steamed mussels was all mine. Draped in my Heddy Lamar silk pajamas, I sat down in front of the television and devoured it. I learned as a kid to eat mussels with my fingers, using the empty part of the shell as a spoon to scoop the meat from the other shell side.  The ideal utensil. One swift scoop, lick, slurp, and the shell was clean. Plenty more. One after another. The mussel zone. Scoop and suck. Over and over with noodles slapping and sticking to my cheeks.  Some of them were thick with sauce.  Some wrapped with rice noodles and peppers. Some were left empty when the mussel meat fell  into the sauce, making perfect sauce spoons. Each one plump, briny, and sweet, cutting through the blazing fire of the sauce.  Firey hot. Aromatically spicy.  My hair follicles tingled from the heat. My nose ran. The fresh lime juice and rice wine vinegar balanced the rich tomato soy chili paste sauce, cooling it a bit. Just a bit. It was perfect.
They were perfect. I was happy.
I was happy and covered with all of it.  I couldn't and didn't stop eating until they were gone.  I drank the remaining sauce from the bowl and used a slice of skanky plain white Baby Bunny bread to wipe the bowl clean.

I finished the meal  with a pint of Ben & Jerry's Peanut Brittle Ice Cream.

Epic food orgy.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Sail Away: Castaway Girl

We have been to the island of St. Thomas USVI eight times.  Each time we go we take something different out of it. Sometimes we go into the town of Charlotte Amalie to shop, eat, and drink.  Sometimes we just walk aound in the blazing heat drinking from street market to street market exploring the city.  On once such jaunt we found out that the famous 99 stone steps that lead up through the Government Hill  District actually lead to nothing.  Zip. Nada. Nowhere.  Not even a bathroom at the top of the stairs.  You get to the top, turn around, and descend amid lizards, fauna, and heat. 
Most of our visits involve some kind of water adventure in and around the beautiful Caribbean waters that surround the island.  And so it was on our last trip to St. Thomas.  We booked a champagne catamaran sail from St. Thomas to the adjacent island of St John for snorkling, beach combing, and rum running.

Because we  had already done this sort of thing before in St. Thomas, we knew extactly what "a short ride to the marina" from the ship and pier to board the catamaran really meant.  It meant cocktails at the harborfront Parrot Cove Bar beforehand.  Seriously.
After leaving the ship, we explored pier-side Havensite Mall, shopped for a friends upcoming birthday, stashed the loot in waterproof plastic bags, and headed straight to Parrot Cove  for Bloody Marys, Screwdrivers, and Rum Runners.  At the appointed time, we climbed into our door-less, rail-less, seatbelt-less jeep for our transportation to the marina on the eastern end of the island.  We knew what to expect.  Others didn't.  Without warning, our jeep was flying up and through the rugged volcanic terraine on  tiny narrow 2-way roads. Steep.  Up , over, around, down, up, and around at very fast speeds with only squeaky honky beeps from our jeep to warn other drivers we were barrelling around corners. The roadway trees ripped hats off of heads as people vainly tried to photograph the beautiful flashing scenery. There were schedules to be kept.
Our jeep slowed to a crawl as we neared the sleepy Pirate Cove Marina on Benne Bay on the other side of the island. It was quiet and serene. We found our way to our vessel for the day,  a sleek 60' catamaran named Castaway Girl.  We all threw our shoes into a large box and climbed aboard.  While everyone else filed into the designated comfy seating area, Michael and I headed straight to the front where mesh nets seemed to hold the boat together.  Front row.  Better views. Better everything.
We slowly weaved our way through the harbor amid fishing and pleasure boats until we hit a clearing and the sails were hoisted.  The eastward winds filled the sails as we made our way through the current cut and out into Pillsbury Sound.  Shallow teal glass water slowly morphed into deep sapphire blue waves as we wafted our way across the Sound. Even the wind was quiet. 

We moored at Trunk Bay to snorkle and swim. A hatchway dropped from the catamaran into the sea for easy access.  Please!  We donned our gear and jumped right off the side of the boat, enveloped by the sea. Cool and warm.  Perfect.We were there for a few hours.  At some point, there was a barbecue on the beach.  We could see it, but we couldn't smell it.  We were out in the water. Sea creatures. Under the water away from everything with sun shading cloud wifts changing the underwater terrain from second to second. It was too good to leave.
We pulled anchor and caught the westward winds back to St. Thomas.  Champagne flowed.  Rum spilled onto the decks. Music blared. Wedges of ripe brie, Dutch Edam cheese, and crustless finger sandwiches on platters lined the counters under the shade of the covered seating area.

We slowly made our way back to the marina riding soft waves along the way.

Moments like that should never end or be forgotten.