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Saturday, May 31, 2014


I've pulled countless blue crabs from the murky marsh waters of Swan Cove on Assateague Island. I spent most of my childhood summers vacationing in Chincoteague, a small island on the Eastern Shore that's famous for its annual pony swim benefitting the local fire department. Assateague Island, a barrier island that protects Chincoteague from the Atlantic Ocean, is flanked by the ocean, fresh water marshlands, and salt water marshlands. Rippling alongside the causeway that connects Chincoteage and Assateague, Swan Cove was my summer crabbing paradise. From mid to late summer, we'd spend hours in the intense sun dangling chicken necks into the water to lure the crabs ashore. When we had our limit (a bushel), we'd mosey back to the house to cook and eat them up. Little boy heaven.

While Michael and I still make occasional trips to the Eastern Shore, it's been years since I've gone crabbing. It's not so dreamy without the trappings of childhood, I guess. The next best thing here in landlocked Kentucky is to let The Lexington Seafood Company do the crabbing. It's crab season here in Kentucky and The Lexington Seafood Company makes a concerted effort to have fresh Maryland Blue Crabs flown in once a week. They sell out fast.  Very fast. I missed the first few weeks of crab mania because I was waiting for the softies to arrive. They finally made it to the party. For a couple of months in late spring and early summer, blue crabs molt and shed their shells. During the short period it takes for the new shell to harden, soft shell crabs are entirely edible (except for a few parts). Not only is it crab season here in Kentucky, right now, it's soft shell crab season. Booya.

Soft shell crabs have to be very fresh and alive. They should be eaten soon after they've been cleaned. Because they sell out quickly I ordered and reserved 6 jumbo soft shell crabs from The Lexington Seafood Company. I forgot to request cleaned soft shell crabs. Thinking I'd be cooking a few crabs on different days, I asked to have half of them cleaned while I enthusiastically watched and learned the process. They were alive. Good to know. How hard could it be?

My brief bout of enthusiasm waned a bit as I watched the fishmonger methodically snip off their faces, remove the aprons, and clip out the gills before tidily stacking them into carryout containers while the faceless crabs still fluttered about. "Are you sure the others will stay alive in the refrigerator for a couple of days?", I asked. Hoping to hear him say "Hell no. Let me clean them all. Eat them now. Eat them raw. Eat them in the car before you get home", he simply replied, "Oh sure, they'll last. The refrigerator might slow 'em down a bit, but they'll last." Slow them down a bit? I knew it wasn't going to happen. "Go ahead, clean the rest of them.", I said.

It was my fault. I didn't have to watch. That said, I grabbed my bag of crabs and happily headed to the farmers' market for slaw stuff. Crabs and cole slaw. I was head on for a basic cabbage slaw until Elmwood Stock Farm bok choy and  gorgeous Stonehedge Farm kohlrabi entered the mix. I wasn't expecting those cabbage-like things so soon at the market. Game changer.

Game on.

Sauteed Soft Shell Crabs with Kohlrabi Bok Choy Slaw.
I kept it simple. Normally, I would have pulled out the mandolin and used the julienne attachment to shred the bok choy and kohlrabi. Nope. I peeled the kohlrabi and set it aside. After slicing off the root end of the bok choy, I rinsed the stalks, cut them into 6 inch batons, reserved the leaves, and set them aside. Using the shredder attachment on the food processor, I shredded the kohlrabi lengthwise into fine ribbons and tossed it into a mixing bowl. After trimming a few radishes, I shredded them and added them to the kohlrabi. Because bok choy is too fiberous to shred, I simply julienned it into equal sized lengths and added it to the mix. For color, I julienned a red bell pepper and tossed it with the radishes, kohlrabi, and bok choy.

To counter the richness of the crabs, I wanted a tangy slaw. Sweet tang. Sour tang. I poured 1/3 cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar into a small mason jar before adding 1 heaping tablespoon of sugar, 1 teaspoon of salt, and 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil. I sealed the jar with a lid, gave it a good shake to emulsify the dressing, poured it over the slaw, and slid the slaw into the refrigerator to marinate/macerate while I worked on the crabs.

Typically, I fry soft shell crabs for the crunch factor. Didn't happen. I took an easier and gentler approach. Seriously, it was so simple. I placed a large cast iron skillet over a medium high flame before adding equal amounts of unsalted butter and canola oil. While the skillet heated up, I mixed 1 1/2 cups flour with 2 heaping tablespoons of Old Bay Seasoning. When the butter started to sizzle in the oil, I dredged the crabs with the seasoned flour, placed them top side down in the skillet, and sauteed them for 2 1/2 minutes before turning them to cook for an additional 2 1/2 minutes. When the shells turned red beneath the browned flour dusting, I pulled them from the heat, drained them on paper towels, and stacked the crabs onto a large platter lined with Elmwood Stock Farm red leaf lettuce. I filled small coffee cups with the kohlrabi bok choy slaw, scattered sliced lemons over the crabs, and finished with Stonehedge Farm fresh spring pea shoots.

It's difficult to eat and moan at the same time.  I've had my share of crabs over the years. Steamed. Baked. Stuffed. Fried. Casseroled. Ceviched. Raw. In my crab world, I've only eaten fried soft shell crabs. Deep fried. Throw that ball and chain out the window. Don't get me wrong, I love them fried. Crunchy. Sweet. Classic. That said, a light saute took them into another realm. Without the intense heat of a deep fryer, they didn't have a chance to overcook. With a slight crisp bite from the flour-dusted soft shells, the barely cooked sweet meat remained incredibly tender and moist. Each lemon-splashed bite popped, squirted, and dripped through my fingers. It felt familiar. Smelling and tasting like the sea, the softies transported this Kentucky boy back to Swan Cove and paradise.



Wednesday, May 14, 2014


Michael and I took a short jaunt to New York City a couple of years ago as a precursor to a bigger jaunt. We planned to spend a few quiet days in town before boarding a ship for a week long stay in Bermuda. Well, our low key layover quickly morphed into a gluttonous romp through the streets of Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy, Chelsea, and the East Village. After three raucous days, our rampage wound down and we found ourselves at The Odeon in Tribeca. Glitzed out in neon with understated Art Deco trappings, The Odeon (with its classic brassier menu) was a perfect refuge from our food storm. We arrived for lunch/brunch before they actually opened. The doors were unlocked, so we bellied up to the bar and ordered cocktails. While the entire simple menu made my heart sing,  the Country Frisee Salad sold me. Fourme d'Ambert cheese, lardon, croutons, bacon vinaigrette. Then, add poached farm fresh egg. Classic Lyonnaise bistro frisee salad. Happily moaning and groaning (literally) I made a fool of myself eating that salad. Warm bacon dressing. Warm oozing egg yolk. Salty lardons. Crisp croutons. Tangy vinaigrette. The stuff of dreams. Really.

I've made frisee salads with poached eggs a few times since that particular Odeon day. It's not difficult to throw together. It's a salad, for Pete's sake. It's just that frisee can be hard to find. While most chicory greens seem to be readily available ( albeit expensive), frisee is typically a hit or miss variety. What gives? When I want it, I can't find frisee. When I  happen upon it, it's not on my radar. Because of that conondrum, my dreamy salad rests in limbo. Not on the radar. Not even a single blip. That logic changed when I stumbled across bags filled with something that looked like strange frisee from Stonehedge Farm at the farmers' market. That something turned out to be feathery Scarlet and Emerald Frilled Mustard Greens. Mind blown. They were absolutely gorgeous and peculiar. After asking a few questions, I learned that frilled mustard greens lend themselves beautifully to quick sautes or stir fries.  That said, because they're incredibly delicate and tender, young frilled mustard greens are perfect for salads. Game on.

Scarlet and Emerald Mustard Green Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing, Crouton, and Poached Egg. 
Sure, it was a salad. While simple, the symphony of flavors and textures needed to be constructed carefully. After all, I didn't want to muck up an unexpected  riff on my dream salad. I found it easier to simply mise en place each component one at a time.

After separating the tangled greens, I washed them thoroughly, patted them dry, trimmed a few of the rough stems, wrapped them a clean dish cloth, and slid them into the refrigerator to chill. Funny, when wet, the greens looked and felt like ocean swept seaweed. Weird and beautiful.

Classically, lardons are small matchstick-cut pieces of bacon or larding fat cut from a slab of pork belly. Fail. I used my last bits of pork belly in a mess of long simmered country style green beans. I had bacon. Ordinary run-of-the-mill bacon. I sliced 8 pieces of  center cut bacon into 1/4 inch strips and dropped them into a cold cast iron skillet before cranking the heat to medium high. I wanted to render as much fat as possible to crisp the bacon and have enough residual fat for the vinaigrette. When the bacon was fully cooked and crisp, I scooped it onto paper towels to drain,  reserved 5 tablespoons of the fat in the skillet, pulled it from the heat, and set it aside.

While fabulous, croutons (plural) can be fussy. They burn. They cook unevenly. They make me crazy. That said, I kept the notion of croutons by making large croutons for the crunch factor. Egged on by my frilled mustard greens moment at the farmers' market, I bopped over to Blue Moon Farm and snagged a loaf of Sunrise Bakery Sourdough bread. I sliced thin pieces of the wonderfully dense sourdough bread on the bias, brushed both sides with olive oil, grilled them until they were a bit charred, and set them aside.

Poached Eggs.
Heaven knows, egg poaching can be daunting. I've tried every trick in the book. Michael gave me an egg poacher several years ago. At the time, I used it a lot because it was handy and useful.  In my egg world, there was something about that egg-poaching wonder that never jelled with me. The eggs came out perfectly every time, but they were tiny and a little too perfect. Perfectly perfect. Perfect little round uniformly poached eggs that had no verve. I always wanted poached eggs with attitude and spirit, so I gave up on the poacher and tried every other method. Ring molds. Cups. Large spoons. Ladles. I gave up on those, too. Back to basics.

I brought 4 cups of water to a simmer in a wide sauce pan, about 4 inches deep. When the water started to ripple, I added a splash of vinegar and 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. Fresh eggs were key. Fresh egg simply poach better than supermarket eggs. After swirling the salt and vinegar into the simmering water, I cracked 3 (allowing for a mishap) Dutch Creek Farm eggs into individual ramekins before gently sliding them into the water. I used a large slotted spoon to coax the egg whites around the yolks to hold their shape while they steeped in the bubbling water. After 1 1/2 minutes, I carefully scooped the eggs onto a clean dish towel to drain and  gently patted them dry.

I warmed the reserved bacon fat over a medium flame and added 2 tablespoons of minced shallots. After sweating the shallots until they softened, I deglazed the skillet with 3 tablespoons of sherry vinegar and added 2 heaping tablespoons of sharp Maille dijon mustard. Within seconds, the vinaigrette emulsified. I pulled it from the heat and tossed the vinaigrette with the reserved bacon and chilled frilled mustard greens.

I tumbled the dressed greens over sourdough croutons, nestled the poached eggs into the frilly greens, and drizzled the eggs with extra virgin extra olive oil before finishing with snipped  flowering chives from my garden.

Hello revamped frisee salad. Back on the radar.

I knew it would be love at first bite the moment the warm yolk spilled from my jiggly egg, gurgled, and oozed through the greens before puddling into the vinaigrette. While the smoky tang of the warm dijon bacon dressing slightly wilted the lacy mustard greens, it also downplayed their inherent spiciness and cut through the richness of the farm fresh egg. I tried to be civil. It didn't last  long. When most of the greens were gone, I swiped the drenched crouton through the creamy yolk-infused vinaigrette and ate it with my bare hands. No apologies.

No frills.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Chivo Guisado

It's almost impossible to island hop in the Caribbean and not bump into some variation of goat stew. Because it's everywhere, I've tasted quite a few. While most Caribbean goat stews are curry based, a few concoctions  take a different spin. Goat Water is a beloved stew found on the islands of St Kitts & Nevis. Fortified with a stock made of goat's heads, it's loaded with goat meat,  breadfruit, paw paws, and tomatoes. Several years ago, lazily perched under a palm tree on a pristine beach in Nevis, I shared a bowl of goat water with a hungry wild horse. As much as I loved that bowl of goat water stew, the horse got the last few precious drops. Unfazed by the experience, we both reveled in its gelatinous fabulousness. That said, I'm particularly partial to Dominican Goat stew. Chivo guisado picante is a tomato based stew that utilizes a sour orange marinade to tenderize the meat before it's caramelized in a mysterious Trinidadian-style  browning sauce. I love sour orange and adore a sticky browning. Combined, they make my heart sing.

Always the trusty sidekick, Michael tagged along while I hit my various markets in search of goat stew stuff. Sure, boneless goat stew meat might have been the logical way to go. More stewy, I guess. I'm a rule breaker. I needed/wanted bones for added flavor. After snagging 2 pounds of gorgeous goat shanks from Quarles Farm at the farmers' market, we stopped by the African Caribbean Market for ripe plantains, pigeon peas, rice, and coconut milk. Game on.

Dominican Goat Stew.
Because sour oranges are kind of difficult to come by outside of the Caribbean, a combination of fresh orange and fresh lime juice was a great
substitute. After squeezing the juice from 2 large oranges and 3 limes, I tossed the combined juices into a large bowl before adding 2 diced cubanella peppers, sliced green onions, and chopped cilantro. For the spice rub, I crumbled 2 tablespoons Mexican oregano into a mortar and added 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. After smashing 2 peeled garlic cloves, I tossed them into the mortar and used a pestle to grind the mix into a rough paste.

When braising shanks of any kind, I really like the meat to pull down and away from the bones, so I simply snipped the tendons at the top of the bones before dropping them into the marinade. After rubbing the spices and marinade into the meat, I covered the bowl with plastic wrap and slid the meat into the refrigerator to soak up the flavor overnight.

The fun part. I like to call it the brown down. I've used the caramelized sugar browning method for Trinidadian chicken several times. It's tricky business. And weird. And amazing.

After scraping most of the herbs off of the goat shanks, I patted them dry and set them aside. With the shanks at room temperature, I slid a large cast iron skillet over a medium high flame and added 3 tablespoon of brown sugar. Patience was key. I wasn't making a caramel sauce. It wasn't supposed to be pretty. I knew I had to take it to the edge. It needed to look almost burnt (or burnished) without
actually burning. Within seconds, the sugar melted and turned golden brown.
Just before it combusted, I carefully nestled the shanks into the molten sugar and browned the pieces on all sides. When the shanks were deeply caramelized, I added the reserved marinade, 10 split grape tomatoes, 2 tablespoons tomato paste, 2 cups chicken stock, cracked black pepper, and 1 whole habanero pepper. I brought the mix to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, sealed the skillet with aluminum foil, clamped a lit over the foil, and slid the stew into a 350 degree oven to braise for 2 1/2 hours.

While the shanks braised away, I sliced 2 large ripe plantains on the bias and fried them in olive oil until they were golden brown. Peas and rice. Rice and peas. Beans and rice. Rice and beans. Like goat stew, the combination is found throughout the Caribbean. Dominican rice with pigeon peas gets jazzed up a bit with the addition of coconut. I sauteed 1/3 cup minced onions in olive oil for 5 minutes.  When the onion softened, I added 1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro, 1/4 teaspoon oregano, and 1 tablespoon tomato paste. Just before the tomato paste caramelized, I added 1 can of drained pigeon peas, 3 cups chicken stock, and 1/2 cup coconut milk. I brought the stock to a boil, added 2 1/2 cups long grain rice, reduced the heat to a simmer, covered the pot, and cooked the rice until it was tender, about 25 minutes.

I pulled the goat shanks from the oven to rest. To perk up the sleepy stew, I scattered julienned yellow peppers and scallions over the shanks before nestling them over heaping spoonfuls of the creamy coconut rice and pigeon peas.

I suppose it could have been stewier. Some folks probably would have added more stock or water to the base. I purposely chose to let it cook down or "fry down" to create a more intense flavor base. Here's the deal. It was ridiculous. Period.  The sultry shards of goat slipped off the bones like wet silk stockings. Tender. Moist. Succulent. Sure, the shanks weren't swimming in sauce. It didn't matter. There was just enough vegetable-studded jus to bathe the shanks, seep into the rich coconut rice, and puddle around the meat. Funny, the intense caramelized browning of the meat didn't bring sweetness into play. At All. It added a subtle smoky depth to the fiery sweet tomato-based stock  that countered the slight tang of the sour orange marinade and tamed mild gaminess of the goat meat. Fabulous.

What trumped everything?
In the end, we had bones to suck. Win.