Foodie Tuesday: Must be the Mermaid in Me

 

photoWhen I was growing up, I didn’t really have a sense of what a treat it was to eat fish. Mom prepared it beautifully, and it was special that most of our trout and salmon dinners were thanks to her father’s fishing skill and generosity, but the very fact that we got it for free must have seemed to my childish way of thinking simply an indicator that some money was being saved in the household grocery budget, surely a good thing but not a culinary indicator of quality per se. It didn’t take me awfully long, however, to realize that fish, especially salmon, was actually extremely tasty, versatile as an ingredient, and so enjoyable that its flavor significantly outweighed its (still unknown to me) mighty nutritional profile in making me seek it out for dinner, lunch, breakfast, snacks and more. Before I was in school I was a confirmed fan of salmon, that beautiful blushing fish, and had discovered a little something of how bountiful and lovely in general the larder of the sea really was.photoNowadays, I happily eat vast quantities of many kinds of seafood whenever I can lay hands and teeth on a fresh supply. Grilled salmon with (of course!) lashings of rich Hollandaise, salmon burgers, smoked salmon and cream cheese on thinly sliced pumpernickel, kulebiaka, hearty yet delicate salmon bouillabaisse, salmon and avocado salad: heaven. Crab quiche, grilled Tillamook cheddar sandwiches crammed with Dungeness crab, crab Louis, crab tacos, crab fried rice, fried soft-shell crabs? Divine. I moved up; I moved on. I never moved away again from loving rivers full, lakes full, an ocean-full, of good food. Calamari and 42nd Street Cafe’s clam chowder and chilled giant prawns with simple horseradish sauce (or just a squeeze of lemon). Slabs of roasted halibut, exquisitely artful sushi, sole Amandine, trout in browned butter, seared rare tuna, shrimp Toast Skagen, simple yet elegant sushi, and lobster bisque with cream and cognac.photoYou may think there’s something fishy about my obsession with all of this, but the truth is I just love good seafood. It doesn’t take a whale of an imagination to understand why.photo

Foodie Tuesday: Pilgrimages

photoSince I have made it clear that I spend much of my travel time and energy on eating and/or thinking about eating (just as I do at home, but more exotically, if you will), then the clear corollary is that I am inclined to travel toward, and for, specific foods and eateries. Returning to my home turf is clearly a time when this is bound to take on a significance and intensity of the grandest proportions. Needless to say, it would be impossible to revisit every place we love to eat in one trip, let alone a fairly brief holiday, but we are dedicated enough to the love of good food to make our best efforts in the attempt.

Spud Fish & Chips is a local landmark institution that predates even my existence by, say, half a length, and its place in my personal registry of notables was confirmed very early not only because it’s a great place to get very tasty, freshly made cod and chips for which people have long been accustomed to queue up around the block and down the street, but one of its four (I think) branches happens to be located about two doors down from where my grandparents had their apartment when I was small. The cod (or halibut or salmon or shrimp, if that’s your preference) is hot, moist and sweet and coated with a lovely, crispy golden jacket that holds the fillets neatly together whilst they are being gently paddled through a bit of sweet tartar sauce or drizzled with malt vinegar en route to their demolition. The fries are unevenly hand-cut so that one gets the meaty, mealy, potato-y big fries and the medium, slightly more greasy ones and the thin, crisp ones all together for fine textural variety.

From the first bite of cod, I was transported immediately to the days when my parents would pile us four girls into the car and head to Grandma and Grandpa’s and at some point we would essay right across the street to Alki Beach (the nicest and most popular tidal beach in Seattle), play until we were sufficiently caked with sand and maybe had had a quick stop to pay homage to the Ice Cream Cone Lady, a 3-meter mini of the Statue of Liberty that stands almost directly across from the apartment on the beach whom I so named for my obvious assumption about that strangely compelling object she lifted in her hand while she hugged what I guess I must have thought was the menu to her bronze breast. After these exertions we would inevitably get hungry for the aforementioned fish and chips, preferably followed by our own ice cream, and that was the heavenly point of the whole outing. Besides Grandma and Grandpa, of course.

photoAnother luscious luxury I crave after too long away from it is the New England style clam chowder at 42nd Street Cafe in Seaview, Washington. In our earlier married years either my husband and I had a whole lot more free time on our hands or (more likely) were willing to cram more into the available time, so we went as often as we could manage for a three- or four-day weekend on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula. It’s quite touristy, especially in the summer high season, because of the marvelous beaches, the excellent boardwalk, the fantastic biking and walking paths that range all over the peninsula, the usual silly shops, the fairly constant wind that makes it a prime place for kite flyers, and the regularly held classic car shows. Among other enticements. Primarily, though, it’s a place to go and relish the ocean–and, yes indeedy, to eat. For a pretty small set of towns and off-season residents, the peninsula offers a goodly range of fine eating, and we have favorite places and foods to show for it.

Cheri Walker’s glorious clam chowder is one of the many reasons we’ve faithfully, if not obsessively, returned to 42nd Street for all of these years. She somehow concocted the perfect balance of ingredients for a chowder I’ve never tasted anything close to matching, to the degree that while I won’t give many clam chowders elsewhere the time of day anymore after one look at their floury glue-like consistency and paltry pieces of rubbery clam, I would happily eat Cheri’s clam chowder three meals a day when I can get it. Bacon in it. Yes, you are unsurprised that I think this a superb ingredient in a clam chowder. I am nothing if not predictable. A major attraction of her clam chowder, however, is naturally the large quantities of fresh and tender clam bits therein. Little pieces of potato, the soft crunch of celery. That sort of goodness. But what really sets it apart is the light, savory broth, with just the right juices and herbs interlaced with cream and, I suspect, a tot of sherry or cognac to give the finish such sweetness and depth. In any event, heaven.

photoAnd while we’re on the peninsula, we indulge yet another seafood craving, this at another small-group chain restaurant. Dooger’s doesn’t either sound or look particularly impressive other than being a pleasant-looking middle-of-the-road place frequented by the older set and families with lots of squirmy kids. And it is that. There are people who disdain it for its plainness or complain that it’s predictable and dull. But we two have willingly waited at the no-reservations place as long as perhaps an hour on occasion when the crowds are in town. Why? Crab legs. Dooger’s makes the very ordinary extraordinary, at times. So very worthwhile. What you see on this plate is fairly common fare, mainly: a butter and sour cream loaded baked potato, fried white bread, a little plastic cup of very very simple seafood sauce with a hint of horseradish. All well made in their simple ways, to be fair. We always start with the salad-from-a-bag salads because (a) they go through their salads so fast that it’s always fresh greenery on your plate there and (b) it’s piled up high with the sweetest little lightly briny tiny shrimp your heart could desire. A perfectly refreshing start. Followed by this comfort food pile-up of potato and toast and oooooooooh, Dungeness crab leg pieces. Already cracked open for us lazy diners, and as we generally choose them (though you can order them sautéed in garlic butter, steamed, or Cajun spiced, too), coated with the most delicate dusting of flour and deep fried in a flash to meltingly dainty little bites of sheer Northwest nirvana. Try ’em straight up or with a squeeze of lemon.photoI limited myself to the ‘small’ serving shown here only because I decided I would also succumb to the key lime pie which, you guessed it, is presumably made from the recipe right there on the Nellie and Joe’s juice bottle, but by golly has been a popular recipe for eons for good reason. Still and all, next time: just get more fresh, delectable crab legs. Who really knows when I’ll get to eat as many of them as I want again?

Thankfully, I have in no way limited my foodly fun to these few specialties on this trip any more than I would do so at any other time. There was a scrumptious lunch of grilled Tillamook cheddar cheese sandwich also, happily, jammed with Dungeness crab at the charming diner the Beehive in Montesano, Washington (sensing a theme here, are you?) and accompanied by light, crispy onion rings, and followed by a densely packed pie of tiny wild blackberries with just enough sugar to hold them into proper pie form. There was a delectable pub supper at A Terrible Beauty (right in West Seattle) of beer battered salmon and chips. The ethereal, candy-like Walnut Prawns at Lee’s Chinese, also in West Seattle.photoI could go on, but I’m starting to get hungry as usual amid the Foodie Tuesday tales, so I must bid you adieu for the nonce and grab my cutlery as I trot over to the kitchen in search of . . .

Foodie Tuesday: My Crustacean Crush

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Who are *you* calling a Shrimp??? These here critters are Prawns, ma’am!

Living in north Texas, I realize we’re only a day’s drive away from the Gulf Coast, and stores and eateries here have generally plentiful provisions of Gulf Coast shrimp, catfish, stone crabs and other delicacies of the region to be sure. But I will admit to occasional bouts of longing for the profligate availability, in our former stomping grounds on the West coast, of those indigenous oceanic treats and northwest native water denizens with whom I grew up. The salmon and steelhead Gramps would bring us fresh from the Skykomish; the Dungeness crab caught that morning in the icy water of Puget Sound or sweet clams dug from the rocky coarse sand beaches of the Pacific Ocean, all right at our doorstep. The Alaskan runs of halibut and Copper River salmon being dashed down the coast from boat to table in a matter of hours. These are the delicacies on which I was weaned and cut my kitchen choppers, so to speak. Gulf Coast treats are a delight of their own kind, but neither should ever, could ever, supplant the other in anyone’s heart and mind and tastebuds.

So I indulge a little when I come across any of that home-reminiscent bounty of the sea and shore when I’m able. But I’m also working my way around the places in my newer home region that seem to proffer the authentic and fresh and well-crafted seafood known and loved by Texans and lake-landers and southerners, to learn more of what’s so great about what’s right here and what can be brought in that brings the oceans with it. Today needed to be a seafood day; either my heart or, at the very least, my tastebuds told me so.

On an ordinary Tuesday, I’m out grocery shopping in the afternoon, because my zookeeper husband, having a short turn-around time between when he gets home from Tuesday morning staff meetings and work at the church in Dallas and when he needs to be back at the university to do his final preparations for choir rehearsal there, has me drive him over and that gives me a convenient time with access to the car for the grocery expedition. Today wasn’t ordinary, though–having sung an extra-rigorous schedule  of rehearsals and performances of Theodora, the Collegium singers had earned a break from today’s usual rehearsal time. Since his schedule today included useful and necessary meetings with at least three or four different parties during the day and a significant reception event in the evening, all in Dallas, and since most of my partner’s administrative and score-study work can be done at or from any of his three current office spaces (school, church and home all having library materials, keyboards, computers and telephones), it’s an all-day Dallas day.

While we could, of course, have brought our lunch, it offered an opportunity for us to go to a place known for its seafood and indulge the whim a bit. So that’s what we did. Truluck’s–where I confess we’ve not yet tried anything not particularly aquatic to eat other than a little salad–seems to me to treat their seafood with respect, and not try to disguise anything second-rate with overworked or over-complicated distractions. So the fresh prawns in the first shot, their “Shrimp Cocktail“, is nothing but five massive prawns cooked, chilled, and served in their own stainless cauldron over billowing dry ice (that looks remarkably like the dish was shipped straight from Cawdor) with a couple of wedges of lemon and a hearty spoonful of brain-clearing horseradish cocktail sauce. It’s entirely possible that anyone wishing to do so could eat this supposed cocktail with some of the house bread and butter and leave fully replete and contented. But one has, after all, passed the display tank in the entrance on the way to one’s table, and the crustaceans there waved their antennae and claws ever so coyly and winsomely . . .

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…with a friendly ‘Howdy Do’ to all and sundry…

. . . so, clearly it would be rude to ignore the invitation and bypass a further dish. The dish of choice: a bowl of the house Lobster Bisque, as creamy and unfussy and redolent of the rosy lobster as one could like, and studded with a few very nice hunks of mild and tender lobster meat lazily rafting around in the foamy pool. The soup is poured into the bowls tableside, over a good dollop of goat cheese, and having that nice bit of mild zing gradually melting into the soup so that it intermittently brightens the mellow, cayenne-tinted warmth of the broth and balances the lovely bit of cognac (or is it sherry?) just barely sweetening the pot–well, it’s all finally melded into a slurry that goes down a treat on top of those recumbent prawns now nestled neatly in one’s happy stomach.

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Creamy and dreamy.

I’m still looking forward to the next time out on the coast and eating Cheri’s inimitable clam chowder (no one else’s anywhere has come close yet) at the 42nd Street Cafe, or wild-caught King salmon straight off its cedar roasting plank, or taking ridiculously big forkfuls of Dungeness crab drenched in melted butter and washing them down with a glass of some nice, crisp, dry Washington Riesling . . .

Of course, there’s all of that seafood beckoning to me from the vast array of countries and cities and restaurants and home kitchens full of good sushi and curries, gravlax and dishes alla Pescatore and, oh, oh, ohhhhh . . . .