Foodie Tuesday: Oh, *Yeah???* Who are YOU Calling a Shrimp?!

Photo: Devil-may-care ShrimpQuite the oxymoron, Jumbo Shrimp. Prawns, perhaps, are better named. Regardless of their size, good, sweet shrimp are no inconsiderable things when it comes to taste. But no matter what I call them—shrimp, prawns, mudbugs, mini-lobsters, or, Shellfish (though, to be sure, they neither have shells in the strict sense nor are they fish) their proper name in my personal lexicon is Delectable. So they appear, disappear, and are invited back to the table time and again chez moi.

My spousal-person, understandably enough, prefers that I keep the decoration of said sea-life to a modest few iterations, rather than going too crazy with innumerable variations on dishes and seasonings he may not fully trust, but he has been known to try a new style or two and adopt them into the canon. For example, I never essayed anything resembling a dish alla Fra Diavolo (Italian food fans will recognize the standard American interpretation of the style as being served with spicy tomato sauce that is indeed devilishly good) until quite recent years, but it’s requested about as often as my also-American interpretation of a good prawn curry. Both of these share top billing around our house with chilled shrimp of whatever size is most freshly available, served with little more than fresh avocado, lemon juice, and salt. Maybe a couple of olives on the side, or the lemon juice amped up with a zip of salsa. No need for much bling; the shrimp’s the thing.Photo: Devilish Tasty, Those

Of course, you do know that I am a meddler. I will fiddle and foozle endlessly with any ingredient that so captures my fancy, and so it is with shrimp and all of their crustacean kin when I’m not in the mood for The Usual. At least many of the best ways of serving shellfish and their ilk are ripe for the tweaking, so I needn’t go so far afield in my experiments that my esteemed fella can’t happily dig into a relatively unsullied meal of whatever form he prefers, so I can roam a little, gastronomically, without losing sight of the guy across the table from me. Shrimp are good that way. Shrimp fried rice, for example, can be sweet, sour, spicy, or salty; Japanese-inflected or Thai-influenced, Chinese-inspired or Polynesian in character, and one way or another, we can doctor the dish at table to suit our individual tastes just fine.Photo: Peas Don't Take My Shrimp Fried Rice

And, since we live in a region that’s rarely cool enough for our comfort during about ten months of the year, shrimp salads are a good, refreshing change of pace from time to time as well. A lovely green salad topped with shrimp is marvelous whether it’s complemented with taco salad ingredients, fried in coconut coating to sit atop a jazzy heap of shredded Napa cabbage and citrus mélange and sprinkled with black sesame seed, or as the star protein in a Cobb salad, deconstructed into neat little arrangements of the classic Cobb ingredients or just piled hither and thither—no matter what the urge, shrimp are a fair bet to fulfill it. So says my pantry (via the best tinned tinies I can find), my fridge (when the season is right) and my freezer (as often as I can lay hands on those swell swimmers that were pulled straight from the ocean into the deep freeze).

And so says my stomach. Amen.Photo: Cobbled-together Cobb

Foodie Tuesday: Yummy Bugs

I am neither an avid gastronomic adventurer of the mad-scientist or TV food show host variety nor a very tough customer when it comes to things creepy, crawly, and wriggly occupying my kitchen, let alone my dinner plate. But since I do love eating a fairly wide variety of foods and I read about them enough to stumble on a few I’m more than willing to try along the way, I find occasion to be reminded that many of the things I do like or love to eat and drink might just be as strange and off-putting to others as their regional special treats or foods, especially those born and developed over generations of poverty, hunger, privation, and desperation can seem to me. Both times and people in them change, and so do our tastes, as a result. If I were to have a time machine, my first inclination might not be to hop in and create world peace, but to dash off to a fortuitous point in history that’d suit my greedy appetites, like perhaps the era when lobster was considered throwaway food to the rich and worthy only of a pauper‘s table.

Because, after all, my Southern countrymen are not wrong in revering a diet full of tasty crayfish, also known as crawfish, crawdads, or among some Southerners, mudbugs. And the latter nomenclature is perfectly apropos: I find crawfish delicious, too, but when I think about it, I’m well aware that crustaceans, some of my very favorite foods, are indeed also arthropods, just like crickets and grasshoppers, I realize that I might be exceedingly silly in my selective squeamishness about eating insects that are popular in many other cultures and cuisines. So much meaning lies in the tiny spaces between name and nation, between  attitudes and recipes and what we’re used to seeing on a plate. Yes, I am very happy I can buy bags of crawfish tails, ready to put into Étouffée or gumbo or perhaps just cleaned and piled on buttered bread with a squeeze of lemon juice and washed down with a cold beer, even though I can look right there in the heap of cooked crawfish and see perfectly clearly that I am about to serve and devour a bag of bugs.

Photo: Crawfish Tails

Calling mudbugs Bugs doesn’t change that they’re highly edible crawfish protein. That little white “smile” in the lower right corner is the thawing tail meat of one such insect of the sea, and a mighty edible one at that.

I’ve told you how obsessed I can be with the very thought of all sorts of magnificent sea treats that have the obvious connection with their land-borne arthropod cousins: classic northeastern lobster rolls, Dungeness crab in virtually any available form, tempura prawns, San Francisco style Cioppino loaded with crustacean charms, Steak Oscar, Vietnamese shrimp rolls. My eyes almost roll back in my head as I swoon the minute I get thinking of such glorious stuff.

None of it has to be especially fancy, either, though I’m still a little iffy about eating the bugs of the aquatic world raw, let alone their turf-tied relatives. Unless and until you convince me you’re a five-star sushi chef or an aboriginal expert in your local insect cuisine, I will still tread lightly around these treats. But a quick roast, simmer, or—often my favorite with the smaller fellows, as it can make even their exoskeletons not just crispy enough to eat but quite delectable as well—deep fry, and suddenly what I was inclined to swat away as a nuisance might have me stalking it with equal vigor. The arthropods themselves don’t often require complicated prep, merely great care in avoiding unintentional eating of the cartilage and other bits that are either too hard to bite or to digest. Steam. Pick apart. Eat.

Photo: Nekkid Prawns

Dry ice certainly adds to the drama, but really, is there much nicer than sweet, sea-fresh, naked prawns?

So I devote more of my attentions to figuring out just which fantastic vehicle I crave for giving full reverence to their tender and fresh attractions, which altar is the one on which I’ll lay their treasure before I eat. Cooked and chilled entirely naked [yes, the seafood, people], with a mere squeeze of lemon or a nip of cocktail sauce to highlight them? Piled high on a grilled cheddar cheese sandwich? Gracing a bracing Louis salad (so wonderfully easy at home)? Or one of the perpetual best and most over-the-top fatteningly satisfying, mac and cheese with name-your-crustacean-favorite?

Last week, the latter was the choice of the day, so that I could serve dinner to a roomful of friends who were all arriving at different times and I could keep the meal mostly warm with all of the comings and goings but it didn’t have to stay sizzling hot. Somehow, macaroni seemed apropos anyhow, for a table with an international crew of diners passing around both dishes and jokes in a variety of languages. I base my macaroni and cheese recipe on the ever-fabulous Amy Sedaris‘s paean to arteriosclerosis, because it’s ridiculously yummy and quite flexible, but also given its flexibility, it’s never exactly her recipe either.

In my house, it means that to my al dente pasta I add equal (large) amounts of Monterey Jack cheese, which I did have on hand; a good sharp cheddar (Tillamook extra sharp white, my go-to choice); a buttery, very mild but also smoked cheese (sometimes smoked Gouda, but smoked fresh mozzarella, this time). Along with the vast quantity of butter and other dairy—mine: 1 part heavy cream, 1 part whole milk yogurt—in the mix, I add several eggs to bind it all a bit better. Then I throw in the seasonings. Amy’s is generally an unseasoned casserole except for salt and pepper; mine has a combination of my perennial favorite, smoked paprika, plus ground mustard, a good grating of fresh nutmeg, and a little cayenne pepper. Once I’ve grated the cheeses, stirred in the eggs, cream, and yogurt and the spices, I spread it all in a big glass casserole dish and sprinkle the top with grated Parmesan cheese and heat it slowly at a low temperature in the oven until the top just begins to brown.

A very handmade dish, since my most effective food processor is a pair of clumsy tools at the ends of my arms. All of that intensive cheese grating, at least, worked off enormous quantities of calories so I wouldn’t have had to worry about the wickedly high number of them in the dish. Of course, mac and cheese is a completely calorie-free entrée, as everybody knows. Just ask any self-respecting insect you happen to find swimming in the residual butter at the edge of your plate. I’d let you test mine for proof if the seven of us hadn’t wiped out the entire quantity in no time flat. Even the bugs couldn’t get there faster.

Photo: Macaronic Bugs

Clockwise from top left: warm mixed crabmeat and crawfish tails, baked macaroni and cheese, smoked Texas sausages cooked in hard cider, green beans, and carrots and celery steamed in white wine and dill.

Foodie Tuesday: I Feel Crabby and that’s Just Fine

I’m having those old crustacean cravings again. It’s a good thing I’ll get a chance to visit some coastal locales this summer to indulge. Will it be time for a cool, refreshing Crab Louis again? Crab mac and cheese? Crab cakes? Crab sushi*? Or the pristine classic of plain, freshly cooked crab with melted butter and a wedge of lemon?

All of the above, if I’m lucky.

Digital painting from a photo: Feeling Crabby

The more, the merrier, when it comes to such things. I love shrimp and lobster too, yes, but crab—particularly Dungeness crab—has my heart. Maybe I feel a little kinship with those crusty crustaceans, if only in name. I certainly have a nostalgic connection, remembering many a delicious crab feast from my younger days as a coastal kid.

Photo: Crab, Chillin'

Perhaps I’ll fix up something that can be eaten hot, cold or room temperature and can be made ahead and chilled and/or reheated, something like:

Crab Noodles

Combine cooked glass noodles or rice noodles, fresh Dungeness crab, chopped fresh sugar snap peas, a handful of finely shredded raw carrots, fine matchsticks of fresh ginger root, and cubes of grilled pineapple. Dress the blend with a mixture of Tamari, lime juice or rice vinegar (the latter unseasoned), honey, and either red pepper flakes or hot chili oil to taste. Sprinkle with some black or toasted white sesame seeds before serving.

PS—Turns out sushi won the race, but I’m not done with the search yet!

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 . . . .