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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Flaming Squid

Wandering the aisles of Asian markets can be wonderfully bewildering. While most of the items look and feel somewhat familiar, the spice/sauce/paste aisles always blow me away. Just once, I'd love to open everything for a taste test.  A little sampling. A big sampling. A facial, maybe.  With dizzying varieties representing many cultures and countries (most not labeled in English), it can be a crap shoot when browsing for specific items.

The one product I've burned onto my brain and finally have no trouble recognizing  is gochujang, Korean fermented red pepper paste. Seemingly lost in a sea of fermented Asian pastes, chili sauces, fish sauces, curries, and condiments, gochujang  speaks to me. Five simple Korean letters/symbols always pull me in.

Pungent, piquant, spicy, sweet, and savory, gochujang is a Korean fermented red bean paste made from red chili powder, glutinous rice powder, pureed  fermented soybeans and salt. It's used to marinate meats, flavor stews, or as a condiment.

I used it to drench deep fried calamari.

Flaming Squid.
Not a Korean recipe.
Hell, it wasn't even a recipe.
I simply played with a few fun ingredients.

Thankfully, I stumbled across cleaned calamari. No quills. No ink. No mess. There were a few beaks. After snipping the beaks from the tentacles, I sliced the bodies into thin rings and slid the calamari into the refrigerator.

I boiled 1/2 pound of rice vermicelli noodles in heavily salted water for 6 minutes before draining them into a colander and rinsing  them under cold water for several minutes.

After blending 1 cup rice wine vinegar, 1/2 cup soy sauce, 1/2 cup fresh lime juice. 4 teaspoons toasted sesame oil, 1 teaspoon minced ginger, and 1 teaspoon minced garlic, I tossed the rice noodles with the vinaigrette before adding julienned bitter radicchio, holy basil, slivered scallions, and black sesame seeds.

I whisked 3 tablespoons of gochujang with 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons honey, and 1 teaspoon minced garlic.  I set the sauce aside and cranked the deep fryer to 360 degrees.

Typically, I would have flash fried the calamari after dusting it with flour or cornstarch.  I wanted crunch. Big crunch. A crunch that would hold up under the fiery gochujang sauce.

I made a light batter using equal parts water and rice flour. After dredging the calamari rings and tentacles through plain rice flour, I dipped them into the batter, let the excess drip off, and fried them in batches until they were golden brown.  While the calamari bits were still hot, I bathed them in the gochujang sauce before tumbling them over the rice noodles.

The calamari rings and tentacles crackled through the fiery sauce.  Protected by the batter-fried coating, the calamari meat remained juicy and sweet, squirting though the stinging heat of the lip flapping sauce. While the soft noodles balanced the crunch of the hot sticky squid, the lime-soy vinaigrette added  a slight salty acidity that helped tame the flaming heat.

Sweet Heat.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Frog Prince

As kids, my brother and I spent many sultry summer nights frog gigging on the muddy banks of Difficult Creek in rural Western Kentucky.  Armed with a flash light and a Red Ryder BB gun ( our version of gigging), we'd slop through the murky waters of the creek searching for our prey. Fearless hunters. I was in charge of the flashlight.  It was my job to blind them with the light and stun them long enough for my brother to do the dirty deed.

Although we always happily  hauled our creeky catches back to the house, they mysteriously never appeared on our supper table. My grandmother spent a lifetime slaughtering farm animals, but I suspect that frogs were simply too ridiculous for her to fool with.

Fact. Cleaned frog legs are ridiculous looking, creepy,  and a bit off-putting. Like dead GI Joe Dolls stripped of their skins. Weird.  All legs. Cooked frog legs are tasty. Leggy, but delicious.

While I've prepared them a few times at work  to accompany wine tastings, I haven't fooled with frog legs at home because of the funk factor. Recently, I reluctantly snagged 2 pounds of frog legs. I intended to marinate them in buttermilk, double dredge them in seasoned flour, and deep fry them like chicken. Heavily battered and deeply disguised.

That was the plan...until I stumbled across a method that let me dance around the leggy issues. Frenching.

Game on.

Frog Leg Lollipops.
I started with four frog leg saddles. Using sharp kitchen shears, I cut the calves from the thighs and sliced the thighs in half before snipping the hip flexors  from the tops of the thighs.  After cutting away a small portion of the top thigh bone tips, I was able to pull the flesh down, expose the bone, and create fleshy frog pockets to stuff.  Yep.

I stuffed the dismantled frog pockets with leftover cold goat cheese risotto, dredged them in flour, dipped them in egg wash, rolled them through herb-flecked bread crumbs, and slid them into the refrigerator.

Fresh Corn Flan.
Jacked up corn pudding. After husking three ears of gorgeous Madison County Corn, I simmered the cobs in buttered water for 5 minutes, pulled them from the heat to cool, and sliced the kernels from the cobs before scraping out the spattering cob milk with the back of my knife.

I tossed the corn into a blender with salt, pepper, onion powder, and a cup of half and half.  After blending the corn into a smooth puree, I strained it through a fine sieve, smashed the corn juice through the sieve, discarded the solids, and poured the creamed corn essence into a mixing bowl.  I whisked the corn cream with two beaten eggs, filled four 4 ounce ramekins with the mix, and baked them in a steaming water bath for 40 minutes at 350 degrees.  When the flans were set, I pulled them from the oven, cooled them on a wire rack, and slid them into the refrigerator.

I cranked the deep fryer to 360 degrees and fried the frog pops until they were golden brown.  After draining them on paper towels, I nestled them onto pools of pureed roasted red bell peppers, garnished with slender bud-topped chives.  I inverted the jiggly chilled corn flans next to the frog pops, topping them with simple mache salads tossed in a light lemon vinaigrette.

The frog pops were approachable, interesting, and easy to eat. One bite wonders. No legginess. With slight hints of juicy meat, they tasted like gussied up cheese-filled fried risotto balls. Arancini with attitude.  Crunchy. Creamy. Cool.  The smoky sweet earthiness of the soft pepper puree balanced the tangy crunch of the goat cheese risotto..

While the frog pops were fantastic, the fresh corn flans were killer. Tempered by the slight acidity of the mache salads, the flans exuded the pure essence of summer corn. Silky. Light.  Corn pillows.

Kiss the frog and marry a prince.

Or eat him.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Purple Daze

There they were.  Gently tucked into an old cardboard box. Tiny baby eggplants, glistening and squirming under the hot morning sun. Dazed by their cheek-pinching cuteness, those petite purple aubergines charmed me into buying a few handfuls.

Bamboozled by a box of adorable baby eggplants.  Damn.

So, here's the deal. Slightly larger than my fingers and thumbs, they were  almost too tiny to cook.  What could I possible do with them? Fried fingerling eggplant parmesan? Small 4 ounce ramekins of baked  moussaka? Sauteed ratatouille for two?  I toyed with the notion of roasting them for a baba ghanoush amuse bouche.


Agrodolce is a sweet and sour sauce in Italian cuisine.
"Agro" (sour) and "Dolce" (sweet).

Caponata is a classic Sicilian dish that embraces the balance between  the harmonious opposites of agrodolce.

Caponata. "...a spread made of eggplants, celery, and tomatoes, sliced and fried in olive oil and flavored with capers and olives. The dish is served cold."


With a nod to Gastronmique and the many variations of caponata, I threw together a riff on the classic Sicilian dish.

It was quick, simple, and very forgiving.

Because the eggplants were small, I sliced them into rings (3 cups) before frying them in 1 cup of shimmering olive oil until they softened and were golden brown, about 10 minutes. After scooping them out with a slotted spoon, I tossed the caramelized rings into a bowl and set them aside. While the oil was still screaming hot, I sauteed a diced candy onion with 2 ribs of diced celery.

When the onions were beautifully caramelized, I deglazed the pan with 2 diced juicy  ripe garden tomatoes and let it rip until until the tomatoes thickened into a loose paste before adding 1/2 cup red wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons sugar, 1/2 cup golden raisins, 1/2 cup drained capers, 1 cup chopped green olives, salt, and cracked pepper.

After simmering the sauce for 15 minutes, I pulled the mix from the heat, tossed it with the reserved fried eggplant, added 1/2 cup slivered fresh basil, and slid the caponata into the refrigerator to chill.

Nestled atop crisp ciabatta crostinis, the soft caponata dripped with tart capers, briny olives, plumped golden raisins, sweet tomatoes, and earthy eggplants. While the sour and sweet agrodolce quietly napped the velvety caponata, perky fresh pea shoots popped, adding tiny bits of freshness.

Purple daze.