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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Food For Thought

I've called the Lexington Seafood Company for weeks inquiring about the arrival and availabilty of seasonal fresh Chesapeake Bay blue crabs.

Last week, Bingo.  The fresh crabs were flown in early Wednesday morning .......and were gone by noon.  Missed opportunity.  My bad.

This week, I called on Tuesday and reserved a dozen blue crabs for a Wednesday pick up.  Yesterday, I stopped by the seafood shop after work and left the store with a plain brown paper bag filled with  Chesapeake Bay blue crabs.  Score.  My car smelled of the ocean as I drove home.  When I got home, I grabbed a cooler from the garage and emptied the crab bag into it. While still entangled with seaweed, the crabs ticked, clicked, and climbed over each other as they tumbled into the cooler.  They were exactly what I expected them to be.

I hadn't expected the flood of sweet sentimentality that washed over me when I saw them.  I haven't seen living fresh Chesapeake Bay blue crabs since the summer days of my youth spent on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia. The mere sight  of them flushed me with memories of my father, family, friends, boyfriends, and girlfriends that shared Eastern Shore experiences with me. It's funny that a bucket of crabs brought back so many images of days filled with crabbing, kite-flying, swimming, eating, drinking, playing, and loving.  A dozen crabs.  A thousand  memories.

When Michael got home, we sat in the parlor drinking wine and reminscing about our joyous times together in Chincoteague on the Eastern Shore. It was sweet fun to remember and reflect. For years, we spent our summers together there.

We eventually exhausted and emptied our memory banks reflecting about our days on the Eastern Shore. It occured to me that I needed to cook the crabs.  The suckers weren't going to cook themselves.  It was dinner, after all, not a therapy session. 

I dragged my huge canning pot from the basement, dusted it off, and placed the canning basket in the bottom of the pot to create lift for the crabs to steam.  I poured 4 bottles of beer along with a bottle of apple cider vinegar into the rechristened crab pot and cranked the flame to high.  When the liquids came to a boil, I carefully placed the fresh crabs into the pot, layering them with sliced lemons, whole scallions, and tons of Old Bay Seasoning. After tossing a final bouquet of fresh scallions over the crabs, I clamped on the lid and let the steam bath rip for 20 minutes.

The boiling crab pot fogged our cold windows with  pungent vinegar, bitter beer, and Old Bay-spiced aromatic steam.  Our house smelled like a beachside Maryland crab shack.

After 20 minutes, I checked the crabs to see if they had turned  bright red. I removed the lid to let the steam escape, drained the liquids, and dumped the entire pot of cooked crabs onto a very large newspaper-lined  pewter tray.  I dropped fresh scallions over the crabs for bite and fresh lemon wedges for acidity.

With wooden mallets and crab forks on deck, we ate our catch with drawn butter, cocktail sauce, hot sauce, and a red wine vinegar-based mignonette sauce.

The crabs were outrageously fresh.  Tearing apart  steamed crabs takes heady diligence. We had it.  We gently cracked the claws with our mallets to reveal  claw meat, pulled the legs from the body to suck leg meat, and carefully peeled the aprons from the undersides, before cracking the bodies in half,  to expose body meat. 

As we ate, sweet crab meat flew through the air.  Butter was everywhere. Lips.  Hair. Cheeks. Spicy Old Bay seasoning got under our fingernails.  Licking.  Slurping.  Sucking.  They were so delightfully messy and fabulous. 

They were exactly as I remembered them as a kid.
Here's something to think about.  What types of food take you back to pleasant places in time? Times when you felt embraced and happy?  Food is a sensory connection.

Think about it...
and enjoy the journey.

Food for thought.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Coq Au Vin

The pleasures of the table---that lovely old-fashioned
phrase---depict food as an art form, as a delightful part
of civilized life.  In spite of food fads, fitness programs,
and health concerns, we must never lose sight of a
beautifully conceived meal.
                                    -Julia Child
                                     The Way To Cook, 1989

The first cookbook Michael gave me was Julia Child's,  The Way To Cook.  Published in 1989, claims have been made that she considered it her best work. Known mostly for Mastering The Art Of French Cooking,   The Way To Cook is one of Julia Child's other cookbooks and is designed around the concept that certain  foods have the same cooking methods.  In each chapter, she groups those foods with that in mind and every chapter is filled with master recipes from which other recipes are based on.

The Way To Cook has been my go-to cookbook for over 20 years.  I adore it.  It's worn and tattered.  Many  pages stick together from spilled ingredients and frustrated tears.  Most pages are stained with red wine or ingredients I've battled with over the years..  I've used it a lot.

I always refer to it when making coq au vin, rooster in red wine. Back in the day, the long red-wine braise was used to break down and tenderize tough old cock meat.  Nowadays, it's used to tenderize and flavor chicken or capon. For chicken braises, the master recipe in The Way To Cook is Ragout of Chicken in Red Wine, a fairly straighforward recipe for brasied chicken in red wine. Coq au vin takes it to another level.
Last night brought a cool and chilly return of winter.  A long aromatic braise seemed like the perfect remedy to beat the chill.  I pulled Julia's cookbook from the top kitchen shelf and placed it on the kitchen counter.  It was bookmarked with a straw to page 142,  Coq Au Vin.  Kismet.

Coq au vin is hard to mess up.  I've made it hundreds of times.  Languid brasies are soothing to the soul and forgiving to  forgetful cooks.  Although I've adapted and tweaked her recipe for coq au vin over the years, I always pull out The Way To Cook when I make it.  Kitchen crutch or kitchen companion?  Both, I guess.  Last night, Julia Child's cookbook kept me company as I dove head first into yet another batch of coq au vin.

After rendering blanched bacon in a dutch oven until crisp, I removed the bacon and browned chicken thighs and halved chicken breasts in the remaining fat.  When the chicken was well browned, I deglazed the pot with brandy and ignited it with a match.  Fun.  I had a lid handy to smother the flames because I've been known to add too much brandy, resulting in ridiculous flame heights.

After the flames died down, I added a 3/4 bottle of Francis Coppola Cabernet Sauvignon, 3 ounces of tomato paste, bay leaves, fresh thyme, salt, pepper, and enough chicken stock to barely cover the ingredients.  I brought it a boil, reduced it to a simmer, covered the pot, and slid it  into a pre-heated 350 degree oven to braise.

Julia Child's recipe calls for braising the chicken on top of the stove for 20 minutes.  I braised mine in the oven much much longer. After 45 minutes, I pulled the chicken out of the oven and added fresh minced parsley along with the remaining  cabernet sauvignon before sliding  it back into the oven to finish braising for an additional 45 minutes. 

The second braise gave me plenty of time to prepare the garnishes.  Traditionally, coq au vin is garnished with  sauteed pearl onions and button mushrooms. I opted for  flat cipollini onions and earthy shitake mushrooms because they simply looked better.
After trimming the stems from the mushrooms and blanching the onions to remove the skins, I sauteed them in equal parts olive oil and butter until they were deeply caramelized.  I sprinkled them with fresh parsley and set them aside.

Thankfully, the prep left plenty of time for wine.

When it was time to eat, I carefully removed the chicken to a side dish  and thickened the sauce by whisking in a  beurre manie ( a butter and flour paste) until it was thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. After adding the mushrooms, onions, and chicken to the sauce, I gently re-heated it to warm everything through.

I served the coq au vin in large bowls over penne pasta  finished with tons of minced curly leaf parsley.

The chicken totally benefited from the long braise.  While remaining intact on the bones, the chicken thighs and breasts were meltingly tender, burgundy stained, and completely infused with deeply concentrated red wine flavor. Every morsel of meat was enrobed with heavenly tannic acidity from the reduced wine, allowing a soft mouthfeel with strong  backbone.  Bold and soft.

The caramelized cipollini onions were sweet and calming, providing respite from the richness of the sauce. I was blown away by the unconventional shitake mushrooms.  They were intensely caramelized, tasting like firm and spongy umami-laced bacon. Fascinating. They stole my bacon-loving heart.  I may never use button mushrooms again. 

The blanket of minced parsley provided a needed fresh grassy finish. More so an ingredient than a garnish, the parsley was key.  The coq au vin simply needed that last blast of freshness.

I know I strayed wildly from
Julia Child's original coq au vin recipe. 
I've strayed  for years, but always keep her beside me in the kitchen whenever I prepare it.

Crutch or companion? 
Lovingly, both.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Fool For Chives

It's supposed to snow tonight.  Really?  I just started my herbs from seed.  They're tucked away in their plastic greenhouse waiting to sprout.  My chives are giving it up out back.  They've  fooled me into thinking it's spring and tricked me into thinking I'm actually growing stuff.

Lately, every night, I'll go out onto to the deck and snip a few chives to garnish whatever we are having for dinner.  They are the lone warriors right now.
I stopped by The Lexington Seafood Company the other day to prepare for meatless Friday.  Although teased by the gorgeous PEI mussels, blood-red yellowfin tuna, and Blue Point Oysters, I entered the market for shrimp.  Big shrimp.  I certainly found them.
The Lexington Seafood Company had 8-12 count collossal shrimp.  They were huge.  I bought 12 for a few millions dollars along with a 1/2 pound of blue crab meat for much less.

Meatless Friday turned into sweet shrimp meat Friday with baked crab-stuffed shrimp bathed with dueling chive sauces.  It was all about the gigantic shrimp, beautiful crab meat, and my current infatuation with chives.  My chives.

I mixed the crab with Old Bay Seasoning, minced green peppers, minced onions, panko bread crumbs, egg yolk, celery seed, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper. After butterflying the shrimp, I wrapped the shrimp meat around dollops of  crab stuffing, sprinkled them with additional panko bread crumbs, and placed them a baking dish.  They looked like huge scorpions readying for battle.

 I'm a lover of sauces.  Baked shrimp of any kind begs for sauce.  If one sauce is good, two is better.  I made a  garlicky lemon butter chive  sauce by simply sauteeing 2 minced garlic cloves in 1 stick of unsalted butter until the garlic was softened, but not browned.  After adding the juices from 2 freshly squeezed lemons, I scattered snipped chives into the sauce and set it aside.
At work, our chef makes a gorgeous chive oil.  Using his method, I blended fresh chives with olive oil until the two emulsified into a vivid verdant chive oil. 

Mise en place.  It was time for wine.

Michael and I cackled in the parlor over several glasses of wine while we shared our weekly battle stories. At some point I pre-heated the oven to 400 degrees.  After drizzling olive oil over the stuffed shrimp, I slid them into the oven to bake.  As a resting bed for the shrimp, I made  white rice with tomatoes and scallions. I brought 2 cups of water to a boil, added 1 cup of long grain rice, 1 diced tomato, and 3 sliced scallions.  I covered the pot, reduced it to a simmer, set the timer for 20 minutes, and poured another glass of wine.

When it was time to eat, I pulled the shrimp from the oven and set them aside to rest.  I scooped a heaping spoonful of rice onto one plate and dropped the plate onto the floor. My bad. Glass was everywhere.  I stood still while Michael cleaned the debris from around my bare feet.  Ha.


I scooped the remaining rice onto our new plates,  nestling the stuffed shrimp parcels around the edges.  After pouring the garlic lemon butter chive sauce over the shrimp and rice, I drizzled everything with chive oil along with a sprinkling of fresh chives to finish.

The shrimp were incredibly sweet, moist, and tender.  The sweet meat snapped when sliced and gave way to the green pepper crunch of the velvety crab stuffing.  The dualing sauces battled each other peacefully.  The bright aggressive chive oil cut through the silken chive butter. As they bled together, they worked together, creating a unified third sauce.  Interesting.  Either sauce on its own would have been a one note wonder, but together they were harmonious, perfectly accenting the stuffed shrimp. Acidic. Buttery. Sweet.  Briny. 

Meatless Friday.  Sweet shrimp meat. 
Chive party. 
 "...walking on broken glass"

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Un-Fried Chicken...Lent

My father did everything he could to take care of my brother and me when he retired from the army.  Because we always had nannies before he retired, when they were gone his learning curve, as a single parent, was very steep.  Fast and steep.  It was the 60's.  Who had the time or the energy to raise kids alone back then, especially an army Major.

His cooking repertoire was limited. That being said, he embraced anything new that would make his time in the kitchen easier.  We had to eat.  He had to feed us.  That was the rule.

He had a way with Boston Baked Beans that I'll always remember. He could whip up a mean batch of them in his new-fangled pressure cooker back in the day. Tss-tss, tss-tss, tss-tss hissed  through the house for hours on Boston Baked Beans day.  It was worth the noise and wait.  They were sticky, dry, sweet, and savory.  We ate them with brown bread. 

He made killer cheese stuffed hamburgers, long before  any juicy lucy burger fame exploded out of Minnesota.  When bitten into, molten cheese would ooze from the overcooked hamburgers, spilling onto our chins and plates.  They were messy and great fun, as a kid.

He could be adventrous in the kitchen, but  he relied mostly on convenience food to feed us. Back in the 60's those foods were targeted toward  high-heeled June Cleaver stereotypes. Although my father certainly didn't fit that mold, he gobbled up the notion of it. We certainly had our share of Swanson and Banquet TV dinners. Every morning started with cold Pop-Tarts or Kellogg's Variety Pack individually wax-paper lined cereal boxes.  Eat and toss.  Convenient.

My father must have thought he struck gold  when Kraft introduced Shake 'n Bake in 1965. It became his go-to cooking method in between our regular rotation of TV dinners.  I loved his Shake 'n Bake chicken....and I didn't have to help.  I loved everything about it.  He  only used chicken thighs, and when cooked perfectly, I could pry the skin off my chicken thigh in one piece like a skin helmet.  Once off, I could fill the crackling helmet with instant mashed potatoes or peas and swallow it whole.  If he baked the chicken long enough, there was always fantastic crud stuck to the bottom of the baking dish that I'd scrape up with a spoon and eat.  Oh my.

It's the third week of Lent.  I never dreamed that giving up deep fried food would be this hard.  I needed crunch.  Greasy crunch. Simulated fried crunch. Shake 'n Bake crunch.

I made it last night.  I know, it's low brow and skanky.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, there are thousands of  "oven fried chicken" recipes out there.  Fancy ones, even.  Last night, Shake 'n Bake was an homage to my father and his efforts to feed us in the best way he knew and the time. Besides, I needed un-fried fried chicken.

I moistened the chicken with water, shook it in the bag with the coating mix, and baked it at 400 degrees for 45 minutes. I tarted up the coating mix with a few fresh thyme leaves as an homage to Keller. Ha. I couldn't help myself.

While the chicken baked, I brought a bit of civility into the mix with an adaptation of Lidia Matticchio Bastianich's braised celery, onions, black olives, and tomatoes from her cookbook,  Lidia Cooks From The Heart Of Italy.

I sliced 5 celery stalks into batons, sliced  1/2 green pepper into strips, smashed 3 garlic cloves and quartered a small tomato.  After heating oil in a dutch oven until smoking, I tossed the vegetables into the pot to cook and caramelize.  Once they browned on the edges, I added 1/2 cup black kalamata olives and 1/2 cup quartered artichoke hearts before deglazing the pot with tomato water,  a combination of 3 tablespoons tomato paste and 2 cups hot water.  I brought the braising liquid to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, covered the pot, and let it ripple for an hour until the tomato broth reduced to a glaze.

I plated the chicken next to whipped potatoes alongside the braised celery. A sprinkling of fresh celery leaves, thyme, and chives finished it off.
It wasn't the most beautiful plate of food. It didn't have to be. It took me back
to an innocent time and felt like fried chicken...and that may have been all I needed to know.

The best part?  I still had my skin helmet
and crud on the bottom of the baking dish.

Monday, March 21, 2011

And So It Begins...

Winters' fury has finally given way to spring.

A couple of days ago I went out back to sweep off the deck and noticed my chives had bounced back from our miserable winter.  The were sprouting through ugly leftover autumn leaves and dead weeds I had neglected to remove during last years garden clean-up. They were beautiful wisps in the gentle breeze. The beginning.

At brunch yesterday, while sipping bloody marys and mimosas, I mentioned my chive discovery to a dear friend. As it turned out, her garden chives were also sprouting. Had we been comic book characters at that moment, thought bubbles would have drifted over our heads whispering, "It might be time to plant our herbs and tomatoes!".  We share a wonderful comaraderie when it comes to growing herbs and tomatoes. In fact, our friendship actually began over  basil...or the lack of basil. We've been growing, sharing, and eating our harvests since that day.

Late last night she posted " - Spring!! Seeds are in the cold box. #Caprese! ".

 I was totally inspired. 

Baby steps. 
Today I started with herbs;  parsley, dill, thyme, oregano, and basil.  The seeds were so tiny when planted, they fell into the peat and disappeared. 

It's hard to believe they'll grow into anything.  It's not hard to anticipate the utter joy they'll bring down the road when they grace caprese salads, garnish soups, or become bouquet garnis for long braised dishes.  Last summer, I even deep-fried them into herbal stained-glass crackling finishes for buttered fresh corn. 

Herbs are the kitchen garden workhorses. 

I'm happy I finally planted mine
and thankful for the inspiration from our garden faerie princess.

So, it begins and  now we wait.   

Good things come to those who do.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Where There's Smoke...

Fire.  The ultimate cooking weapon.  The moment I spotted  flanken cut beef short ribs at the latino supermarket the other day, I knew I would grill Kalbi or Galbi (Korean beef short ribs)  over open flames. I've always wanted to cook kalbi at home, but have never run across flanken cut short ribs until my recent trek through Super Marcado Aguascalientes market.   Unlike traditional English cut short ribs, flanken cut ribs are sliced across the bone into very thin strips, allowing a very quick cooking time.

The night before I  grilled  the ribs, I marinated them in a combination of 1 1/2 cup soy sauce, 3/4 cups white sugar, 1/2 cup  honey 1/4 cup sesame oil, 5 pressed garlic cloves, 1/2 cup grated onion, a splash of rice wine vinegar, and  1/2 cup of sprite.  Typically, a grated asian pear or kiwi is added.  I didn't have either, so I used sprite for acidic sweetness. Easy.

The following night, before lighting the coals, I sliced a few scallions for garnish, plucked a handful of broccoli florets from a head of broccoli, and pulled leftover asian carryout sticky rice from the freezer to thaw.

That little effort left plenty of time for basketball bracket building along with a few glasses of wine. 

Michael usually starts the fires when we grill.  He knows what he's doing when it comes to flaming things, but I insisted on starting the coals.  Against his advice to use only 1/2 bag of charcoal, I dumped the entire bag into grill before igniting it into a raging inferno.

We had fire.  Thankfully, we still have our house.

While I waited the for the flames to burn down into glowing coals,  I sauteed the broccoli florets in olive oil until they were gently cooked  and re-heated the leftover rice.
After carefully placing the short ribs on the grill, I cooked them quickly for 3 minutes on each side and pulled them off to rest.

It was quick. Boom. Finished.

I think kalbi is traditionally plated with the long strips of grilled meat lying flat, but I chose to wrap the rib strips around the rice, forming meat bowls. I nestled the broccoli florets next to the ribs, sprinkled the beef bowls with scallions, and filled ramekins with ponzu sauce for dipping.

The combination of honey, sugar, and soy sauce caramelized the ribs into savory sweet beef candy.
They were sticky, gooey, and fabulous finger food.  We had forks for the rice and broccoli, but they were covered in kalbi goo.  We were covered in kalbi goo. I had sauce on my neck and elbows. It was everywhere.... and totally worth it. Although relegated to wallflower status at our sticky beef party, the broccoli florets were perfectly cooked and provided a refreashing respite from the beefy insanity.

I can't wait to make kalbi again.

I won't be lighting the fire for the grill. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Taco Night

Pizza night, soup night, pasta night, and taco night.  We all know the routine of weeknight meals.

Taco night used to be on our regular weeknight meal rotation.  I imagine we replaced it with our weekend lunches at Jalapenos Mexican restaurant.  Because of work and other obligations, we haven't been to Jalapenos for a few weeks, which has caused major taco cravings for both of us.  Last night, we brought taco night back to quell those cravings.  There was a slight problem.  Because of Lent, I couldn't eat fried taco shells.  The answer? Taqueria style soft corn tortilla tacos, which I adore.

Yesterday, after work, I stopped by Super Marcado Aguascalientes to pick up a few things for taco night.  I needed soft corn tortillas, queso fresco, and crema. That was it. 

The latino supermarket was mind boggling. 

Starting in the produce section, I was surprized to find fresh garbanzo beans, fresh espazote, and prickly pears tucked in and around husked/unhusked tomatillos, chayote, tiny limes, nepallitos, habas (broad beans), huge jalapenos, serranos, poblanos, and anaheim chilis.  They were gorgeous.  I walked away with garbanzo beans, prickly pears, and jalapenos stashed in my basket.

After passing tubs of dried yellow and purple corn kernels, I meandered past an array of tortilla presses.  I've purchased two there and have broken both of them.  That's why I was buying corn tortillas and not making them...two broken presses. 

I reached the extensivly stocked meat counter and was quite taken with what I thought were cooked pig's ears.  Buche, it turned out after questioning, were cooked pig's stomachs, which differ  slightly from the honeycombed cow's stomach called tripe.  They looked tasty.  I was tempted to buy one for our tacos, but knew it might have stretched Michael's bounds of culinary maiden's patience.  I nixed the buche.
I was mesmerized by the selection of meats.  Chicken feet were haphazardly piled around livers and chicken breasts.  Stacks of porterhouse steaks were shrink-wrapped and nestled beside flanken cuts of short ribs.  I couldn't pass on the rarely seen flanken cut short ribs.  I bought a pound of them. They were very inexpensive.

The head-on shrimp, tucked between cooked peeled shrimp and headless uncooked shrimp, were beautiful.  They glistened.  I wanted them, but resisted.

I was so transfixed by the meat selection, I tripped over a wooden pallet supporting what appeared to be 10,000 packages of corn tortillas.  Bingo. I pulled myself to my feet while leaving my dignity on the floor, and dropped a small bag of corn tortillas into my basket. 

As I made my way to the check-out counter, I stopped by the small dairy cooler and grabbed a container of crema along with a package of queso fresco.

With a few spontaneous additions, I ended up with everything I entered the market to buy; crema, corn tortillas, and queso fresco. 

Michael cooked the meat filling for our tacos. I minced a purple onion to marinate in fresh lime juice, diced a tomato, crumbled the fresco, and roughly chopped fresh cilantro for toppings.  Nice.  I intended to make a salad with the tart purple fleshed prickly pears, but snacked on them as I prepared the taco toppings. Oops.  My bad.  They were gorgeous, tart, crunchy, and fabulous.

Dinner was a cinch.  I warmed the thin-cut corn tortillas in a cast iron skillet to make them pliable.  After double stacking them taqueria style, I topped them with the seasoned meat,  crumbled fresco cheese, crema,  lime marinaded onions, diced tomatoes, and cilantro.
The soft corn tortillas exploded with corn flavor, adding an extra layer of flavor to the spicy meat, pungent fresco cheese, piquant lime-pickled purple onions, mild creamy crema, and fresh cilantro.

A simple taco night.

A routtine meal.

An adventure.