Foodie Tuesday: And now for something not entirely different!

Did you think that I would never, ever be done talking about lobster and lobster rolls? You might be right. A summer with trips to both the American northeast and Nova Scotia would be woefully incomplete for me, despite all of its charms and treasures, if it weren’t also a fully loaded lobster pilgrimage. So even though I made quite the pig of myself eating as many lobster rolls as I could lay hands upon while dashing through Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania, I had no compunction about keeping my eyes—and jaws—open for further lobster attractions on reaching Halifax.

This being my first visit to the Canadian Maritimes, I didn’t know for certain what to expect in this regard, although I was confident there would be some place I could get a bit of fresh Canadian (Atlantic) lobster. What I didn’t in the least expect was that it would be at the local outpost, right next door to our hotel, of a continent-wide and not especially high-end fast food submarine sandwich chain. That’s right: fresh lobster salad at SubWay. I’m just gonna go on record as saying that I have a new dash of respect for SubWay.

I like sandwiches and eat them reasonably often, but SubWay had fallen very low on the roster of places I opted to find my fix when I wasn’t making my own sammies. There are, in addition to any number of bistros and soup-and-sandwich specialty shops and cafes nearly everywhere in the western world these days, plenty of competing sandwich chains and most of them, in my opinion, more reliable for fresh ingredients and those, not as heavily processed as what I was getting for a while at SubWay stores. If this apparently annual offering of lobster salad (lobster meat with a minimum of mayonnaise binding it) ever moved close to where I was living, I would have to change my stance entirely, at least during the lobster event.

This is not to say that their sandwich would supplant, or even fully competes with, the lobster rolls that became objects not only of admiration but outright obsession at such places as Neptune in Boston—this, boosted, admittedly, by the house’s swell hand-cut fries—and Libby’s in Brunswick—my current chief heartthrob of lobster roll-dom, on the strength of a butter-toasted bun, options for cold-with-mayo or hot-with-melted-butter, and most importantly, the unsurpassable fresh and sweet perfection and massive quantity of lobster meat—these will not be usurped in the lobster roll pantheon by a mere sub shop lobster salad sandwich. But I owe the corporate sandwich emporium sincere admiration and kudos for giving an affordable and eminently edible, credible lobster sandwich. Not anyone’s run of the mill SubWay offering, that.

And if the chiller is refilled by the next lunchtime when I’m near enough to do it, I’ll buy it again. Because, as I’ve said before: Lobster.Photo: Lobster Again

Foodie Tuesday: Lobsterama 2015

Digital illo from a photo: Lobsterama Nobody who knows I just spent two weeks in the northeastern states would have the slightest difficulty, if asked, figuring out what one of my main goals during the entirety of the visit would be: eat as much great lobster as I can find and afford. So yeah, that’s what I did. I don’t eat all-lobster-all-the-time, because it would be bordering on the criminal to ignore the great Italian food in north Boston or the regional favorites in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania (all of which we either spent time in or passed through on our road trip last week), never mind to skip all of the other fabulous fresh seafoods on offer. Fish and chips, sushi, New England clam chowder, grilled or roasted or sautéed or fried what-have-you. Fabulous, all, when beautifully made by experienced locals.

But lobster. Lobstah, as New Englanders tend to pronounce it. Heaven on earth, I say.

In the Northeast, perhaps the most signatory, elegantly simple, and delicious preparation of lobster is the lobster roll. It’s a sandwich. The standard definition of this is a split-top bun, hotdog style, filled with chunks of lobster meat. The commonest way to prepare and serve this is to either mix the meat with mayonnaise into a lobster “salad” to fill the bun or serve it otherwise entirely plain and put melted butter on it, either mixed in ahead or served on the side. Supremely uncomplicated, perfectly delectable.Photo: Lobsterama 2

Some restaurants and clam shacks serve this in any number of decorated and variably seasoned ways, the most familiar of which might involve some chopped celery and/or snipped fresh herbs, Old Bay Seasoning, minced onion, lettuce leaves, or some few other well-intended adulterations. Some vary the bread ever so slightly, toasting or butter-grilling its sides, or using something other than the typical soft white bread bun. But not many dare monkey substantially with the daringly exposed combination that is so beloved. One does not defy the gods of tradition with impunity, especially when the tradition involves something like lobster that in its pure form is so delicate and easily overwhelmed by fuss.

Photo: Lobsterama 3

The height of northeastern innovation: serve a lobster roll on a *round* bun instead of the traditional split-top hotdog bun. Whoa! What’s *next*???

This year’s first lobster roll stop was at a venerable institution which shall remain nameless, where in times past I had revered the lobster roll as one of the area’s best, and a hidden gem at that, because the house is mainly known for and devoted to quite other culinary traditions. It used to be a butter-grilled roll that, albeit the standard split-top bun, was slathered somewhat liberally in salted butter before being put on the griddle, and then the lobster meat served with nothing more than a small amount of very simple mayo or a splash of melted butter, and if I recall, a nice wedge of lemon on the side. Absolutely ideal, in my view. But new ownership and a new lead cook always like to offer the New and Improved, which is seldom really either, and so it was in this instance, a lobster roll whose newer identity was of a sandwich with chunks of lobster in it, hardly the pristine joy of times past. Ah, well. The meat was reasonably fresh and sweet, and certainly the chance to find a lobster sandwich of any sort under about $30 (USD) in north Texas is not only limited but possibly, ludicrous.

Photo: Lobsterama 4

Slaw on the side, fries rather than chips? Getting a little racy, aren’t we. A bit of green *in* the sandwich? My, what slippery slope is this!

After that, it was hit-and-miss hunting time, and the variations, while slim, kept the pursuit interesting. Another commonality when one’s lobster-rolling along is that most are served with french fries, or even more likely, potato chips/crisps, and a drink. Not more. A few places widen their scope to include slaw of some sort or perhaps even a green salad; corn on the cob; some kind of slow-cooked beans. Picnic fare, primarily. You might see hot sauce or ketchup or malt vinegar or other condiments on offer, and the drinks might be any number of things, though probably something equally picnic-friendly like iced tea, sodas, lemonade, or beer is the most popular. None of these is unwelcome, to me, but again, I don’t see any special need for any of them either. There’s a perfectly good reason that the tradition stands firm. Excellence. It’s all in the execution.

Photo: Lobsterama 5

Next thing you know, somebody’s serving *plantain* fries (kinda hard, if you ask me, and not especially flavorful—maybe a shot of that Old Bay Seasoning would’ve come in handy there—but kudos for trying) and smoked Spanish paprika in the sandwich mayonnaise. Pretty soon we’ll be seeing cats and dogs living together and the dish running away with the spoon!

And when anyone gets that down pat, there’s no faulting the grandness of the invention. We found lobster happiness in several popular and highly touted locations along our short road trip route, both in towns and seaside, in shabby old rustic sheds and in white-tablecloth establishments. We found slight disappointments in a few, too, though nothing drastic. If we saw something less than enticing in the lobster rolls being served up before ours, we could always opt for any of the other treats I mentioned earlier, and we certainly did, in large quantities. We even discovered one of the currently trendy spots favored for its semi-puritanical goodness, right on the cover of the Sunday supplement.

As usual, of course, the satisfaction of the find was greatest when we listened to a few locals mention in a sidelong way a place that is a genuine jewel disguised as the neighborhood convenience store, truly convenient in that it lay about five minutes by car from one of our rented places. Driving by there, you wouldn’t guess that at the picnic tables by the parking lot, let alone at those tiny tables and chairs squeezed in the back corner of the store by the shelves of motor oil and snack packets and aspirin, you can have what we found to be the freshest, least in need of further elaboration, lobster rolls we’ve had yet. But boy, did we—and that, three days in a row.

Photo: Lobsterama 7

When experiencing famous regional classics like lobster roll, one might be compelled to try some other regional specialities alongside. Like the unique Grandma Utz’s Handcooked Potato Chips, fried in 100% lard (yep, porky tasting) and a can of Moxie soda, a gentian root flavored carbonated beverage that lives up to its catchphrase of being Distinctively Different, though I can’t vouch (yet, at least) for its characterization as Nerve Tonic. Unless you count the fact that I’m widely considered to have a ‘lot of nerve’. Never mind the unusual accoutrements: the lobster roll at Libby’s is easily king of all I’ve had so far.

We’d’ve stayed the whole two weeks there (possibly just sleeping under the stock shelves) if we had known. The store owner’s lobsterman husband standing and cracking the just-caught, freshly cooked magnificence just a meter away from the service counter where we were ordering was the clearest possible <angels singing> moment of knowing that when we got our enormous lobster rolls we would be deliriously happy. And yes, we were. Even the “Small” (normal hotdog-sized) roll was jammed with huge chunks of sweet, sweet fresh lobster just faintly kissed with mayo (Days One and Two) or melted butter (Day Three, and the favorite, by a lobster’s antenna). The Medium and Large rolls were, well, too much of a good thing, but not so much so that we didn’t attempt them as well. As one should, because, well…  Lobster. Amen.

Photo: Lobsterama 8

Large enough to engulf the plate, but can one *really* have too much of perfection?

Foodie Tuesday: Swim for It

If left to my own devices to raise or, more difficult yet, forage and hunt for all of my food, I’d soon enough be a non-meatatarian. I haven’t the patience or the skill for any sort of animal husbandry, nor the remotest chance of outsmarting anything sentient in order to catch it. But despite my pitiful showing as a junior fisherman alongside Gramps in days of yore, I think I could pull myself together enough to learn how to fish and forage the sea enough to keep my love of seafoods at least occasionally treated. Good protein, too.
Photo: Salmon Champagne Evening

Sometimes I am happy enough to have a rather plain fried, roasted, baked, steamed, raw, or poached piece of fish. When it’s pristinely, spankingly fresh and sweet, fish should probably not be made too fancy. Why mask perfection? At most, a dash of fresh herbs or a little zip of some lovely masala ought to be plenty of interest to vary the day’s meals. Even I have been known to identify and safely pick and consume wild sorrel, which is an excellent companion to fish in modest amounts. And of course, there’s nothing friendlier with a piece of salmon than citrus or ginger root or plain black pepper, if the foraging can extend as far as a grocery store. One thing I do think well worth the [negligible] fuss if I’m preparing salmon with its skin is to sear it, lightly salted, in butter or a high smoke-point oil before I cover its pan to finish cooking it through on cooktop or in the oven, because crispy salmon skin is delicious and its crunch a wildly beautiful complement to the velvety tenderness of the flesh. Once my palate was introduced to this marvel, I wondered how I had managed to enjoy salmon so much, so often, without having known what I’d been missing. Salty, slightly fat, salmon-flavored, and crispy? How could I not love it!
Photo: See Food

Of course, there are innumerable other outstanding ways to enjoy and indulge in seafood, if one does happen to have access to plenty of other ingredients. Seafood fried rice is one very flexible, quick to fix, and reliably delectable way to enjoy such things. Salmon in bite sized pieces, for one seafood treat, goes quite well with the contrasting grains of rice, lovely with rich that’s been cooked in either broth or coconut water or milk and filled with a delicate confetti of diced celery, carrots, onions, bell peppers, or peas, whether shelled or in sugar snap or snow pea form. But as you can see in the accompanying photo, I enjoy, along with salmon or other kinds of fish, those admirable insect imitators the crustaceans. Hardly anything, sea-based or otherwise, is more enticing in fried rice than crab (naturally, I vote for Dungeness first, every time), lobster, langoustines, or shrimps of various sizes. I would guess that some tiny, tender clams might be more than acceptable in this sort of dish as well, but truthfully, I doubt I’ll ever get quite that far, as long as any of the usual suspects are available. Never say never.

Meanwhile, back at the fried rice, I am still an old Occidental renegade when I make it, cooking it much too slowly for a wok-master’s taste and throwing in whatever I have on hand and am in the mood to eat, from the aforementioned vegetable ingredients, crisply sautéed, to seasonings like Tamari or soy sauce, citrus juice, fresh or candied or pickled ginger or ginger syrup (or all four, as I am an unregenerate ginger fiend), honey, shallots, and/or chile pepper flakes. All of these cook in gently, over low heat, while I’m stirring in an egg to scramble into shreds, and then letting the rice slowly develop a good crust amid copious lashings of fat—coconut oil, avocado oil, ghee, whatever I have on hand. All of this, until I can’t quite wait any longer. Must keep that seafood delicate and fresh. Until I can devour it, anyway.

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!

If It’s Wednesday, This Must be Foodie Tuesday Deja Vu

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Why, yes, if you are a fresh berry. Those sweet little nuggets of juicy goodness are the very epitome of summertime’s joys, and the longer we can extend the berry adventure by means of preserved, frozen or baked goods, the merrier. I’ve already rhapsodized about my mother’s justly famed raspberry pie (the mystic quality of her ethereal pie crusts a deservedly notable part of the equation, in the interest of full disclosure), and she made many a jar of equally brilliant raspberry jam over her wildly productive years of canning and preserving. I will never be her equal in either of these arts.photo

I do, however, have enough fondness for some berries that I will gladly binge on them while their season lasts, and far beyond, in whatever forms are available, because I can practically feel the vitamins rushing into my cells when I do, and more importantly, because they taste so fabulous and are such great utility players on Team Food. On their own, they are magnificent and refreshing. In salads, a divine break from any leanings toward excess of greens. Think, for example, of a marvelous mix of butter lettuce, Romaine, toasted sliced almonds, shavings of fine Reggiano cheese and a generous handful of raspberries all happily commingling with a light creamy fresh thyme dressing. Transcendent! Fruit salad melanges practically insist on having a handful of berries gracing them when the season is right. And I’m told by those who eat blueberries that no berry surpasses them for muffin or pancake making. Me, I’ll gladly stick with Swedish pancakes piled up with whipped cream and fresh strawberries when it comes to the breakfast berry-ations. And of course there are endless possibilities in the universe of fruit smoothies when it comes to berries, whether you’re in the camp that must strain out the seeds or among those who appreciate the fiber therein.

And don’t get me started about desserts! The natural affinity fruit has for sweet foods is showcased wonderfully in so many after-dinner or coffee-time treats that a mere post could hardly suffice to even skim the list. But some goodies do come immediately to mind: strawberries dipped in chocolate; cloudberry cream, as I learned to love it when prepared in the seconds-long fresh season by my brother-in-law’s late mother; blackberry tapioca pudding. Pies, tarts, and crumbles, oh my. A heap of berries and a gentle sluicing of vanilla custard atop a slice of toasted pound cake. Honestly, few ways to go awry.

Still, the berry, with its pristine, bright, zingy flavor, and the hints of sweetness underlying it, makes a superb foil for savory dishes too, not least of all meats and seafoods. One of those ways to slip berry-liciousness into the main dish is to pool any of the multitude of possible berry-enhanced sauces and purees under, over or alongside a portion of entrée. I’m fond of Beurres Rouges ou Blancs made with wine, butter and berries cooked down to dense, flavorful stupendousness. Hard to argue with, say, a blackberry-Cabernet sauce served with lamb or duck, and I can only imagine that a dry, red-fruity Rosé would pair gracefully in such a sauce with raspberries or, dare I say it, salmonberries, to accompany a roasted filet of salmon or breast of pheasant or grilled chicken. Champagne Beurre Blanc is hard to resist with shellfish; why not top that with roasted strawberries and a quick grind of black pepper?

As you can see, what happens when I get the mere image of a berry into my tiny brain is that it plants the seeds for extensive food fantasizing. And that is hardly a bad thing, my friends. Bury me in berries. I could do much worse.

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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 . . . .