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Wednesday, August 14, 2013


So, I picked up 2 pounds of fresh baby steamer clams for a pot of lusty clam chowder. It didn't happen. Thinking I had everything on hand, I only bought clams. Period. Nothing else. Oh, well. I chalked it up to my knack for distraction and took an opposing route.

Clam Salad with Nam Pla  Prik. Clams. Fish sauce. Chilies.
A simple (lazy) Thai inspired non-chowder.
During most of my kitchen antics, I rarely decant the huge bottle of Three Crabs fish sauce securely fastened (trust me)  to the bottom shelf of the refrigerator door. It seems that when I do pop the top, the pungent funk of fermented anchovies unleashes a primal call to the neighborhood cats. It's strong stuff.

Undeterred by the call of the wild, I mixed 1 tablespoon of palm sugar with 1/4 cup warm water.  When the sugar dissolved, I added 3 tablespoons fish sauce, 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, and 2 thinly sliced garlic cloves. In lieu of fresh Thai chilies (prik), I stained the dressing with a fat squirt of Sriracha chili sauce. After sliding the dressing aside to infuse the flavors, I sliced market radishes into half-moons  before slivering a small carrot, cucumber, red bell pepper, tomato, and purple candy onion into delicate bite-sized pieces.

I warmed a large cast iron skillet over a medium high flame, added 1 tablespoon of butter and a drizzle of olive oil. When the butter started to foam, I tossed minced garlic into the skillet. Just before the garlic browned, I hit the skillet with 1 cup of white wine, tumbled the clams into the garlic bath, covered the skillet, and let the clams steam until they opened, about 5 minutes.

While the clams were still warm, I dropped them onto a bed of baby arugula, purple basil, and orange mint. After scattering the vegetables over the top, I drizzled everything with the nam pla prik, purposely filling each clam shell to the brim.

Unconventional and unexpected.

Sure, the plump little steamers packed a sweet briny punch, the vegetables added crunch, and the greens provided an herbal fresh leafy bed for the salad. Blah. Blah. Blah. Anything could have been in that bowl.  It was all about the aromatic lip-burning nam pla prik.  Stinging heat. Sour lime. Stinky sauce. Biting garlic. Palm sugar. Balance. Talk about a sensory overload.  When combined, the marriage morphed the disparate ingredients into a slurpable salty, spicy, garlicky, sweet, and sour umami bomb.

With the last clam dispatched, I pushed the other stuff to the side and drank the dressing.

Every last potent drop.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013


It seems that every summer I become infatuated with something new and different from our farmers' market. It's not like I don't get around. Things simply pop up and totally surprise me. This season, I'm totally smitten with ground cherries from Stonehedge Farm.

So, what are ground cherries? Tucked inside papery lantern-like husks, ground cherries aren't cherries at all. Confused? Join the club.  Because they're in the same physalis genus as tomatillos and in the same family as tomatoes, they  have the characteristics of both fruits. Also known as husk tomatoes, strawberry tomatoes, or dwarf cape gooseberries, ground cherries are tiny nightshades that are understandably misunderstood.

Captivated by their dried husks, I tried one and was hooked. With subtle hints of pineapple, strawberry, and vanilla (some say butterscotch), ground cherries have a tomato/grape texture. Firm. Juicy. Sweet. Tart. Fabulous. Draped in culinary ambiguity, ground cherries can be used in either sweet or savory preparations. Packed with pectin, they're often used in pies, jams, chutneys, and jellies. They don't always have to go that route. Eaten raw, their mild sweet acidity pops in salads and salsas. Yep.

I used my latest haul of market ground cherries to explore their savory side.

Sea Bass and Ground Cherries en Papillote with a Saffron White Wine Sauce.

Mise en Place.
Small effort, big payoff.
I warmed 1/2 cup of dry white wine over a medium flame. When the wine hit a gentle ripple, I added a pinch of saffron and pulled it from the heat to allow the saffron to bloom.

While the saffron steeped in the wine, I thinly sliced 2 small Madison County red bliss potatoes , julienned 1 small carrot, slivered 1/2 shallot, halved a few red candy grape tomatoes,  frenched (sliced on an extreme bias) 10 Casey County tenderette green beans, and julienned 1/4 red bell pepper.  After slipping 2 cups of ground cherries from their delicate husks, I halved them and set them aside.

The sea bass in waiting? Two gorgeous certified sustainable center cut fresh sea bass fillets that I snagged from the Lexington Seafood Company.

En Papillote. In parchment. Although just about anything can be cooked in parchment paper, the method works beautifully with fish and vegetables. It doesn't have to be fussy. After filling the parchment paper with ingredients, simply seal the edges securely to trap the steam while they bake. They can be folded like a gift or crimped and sealed from the top. I lean toward the heart-shaped method because I believe it produces a tighter seal. However they're crimped or sealed, cooking en papillote makes for easy clean up. The total package.

Using kitchen shears, I cut 2 sheets of parchment paper into two 15" x 24" rectangles, folded them half lengthwise, and cut half-hearts using the folded sides as a guide. When opened, I had two large paper hearts. Kitchen arts and crafts.

After drizzling Oliva Bella olive oil onto the right side of the heart, I layered the potatoes, red peppers, carrots, shallots, tomatoes, and pats of butter onto the middle portion of the parchment paper. I nestled the sea bass fillets on top of the vegetables and scattered the ground cherries over the fillets before drizzling them with the saffron-infused white wine.

I pulled the other side of the parchment paper over the filling and sealed the packets.  Starting at the deep part of the rounded heart, I formed very tight pleats on sharp diagonals for a tight seal and finished by twisting the pointed end under the package.

Signed, sealed, and almost delivered.

After a much needed wine break, I brushed the tops of the parchment parcels with vegetable oil, placed them onto a sheet pan, and slid them into a 400 degree oven to steam/bake for 20 minutes. I let the puffed packages rest for 5 minutes before snipping them open to release the steam.  To echo the flavor profile of the cooked vegetables, I finished with blanched green beans, whole raw ground cherries, shallots, and fresh dill.

Wow. The golden sea bass filets were so ridiculously tender that one quiet exhale caused them to flake into slippery soft shards. Sweet meat. While the underlying vegetables added texture to the vibrant white-fleshed fish, the ground cherries melted into the fruity olive oil and wine to create a buttery tart/sweet sauce that balanced the subtle floral undertones of the saffron. Light. Rich. Crazy.

Sea bass and ground cherries.
With a paper trail.

Edible origami.