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: Not the Raw Prawn

It should be noted that while I prefer my prawns cooked in various ways, I would trust a sushi master to feed me uncooked ones without (as my Oz friend and colleague John taught me in grad school would be a less kindly gesture) either giving me or coming the proverbial ‘raw prawn‘. Old-school colloquialisms aside, it can be a great kindness to feed me well prepared prawns in a number of guises, as they’re not only tasty protein sources but well respected in a number of the world’s great cuisines. I’ve had the good fortune to live and/or vacation in a few places noted for particular kinds of prawns and shrimp, and when they’re ‘done up right’ I would be hard pressed to resist them as a top choice for eating.

In their compact and sturdy form they do lend themselves to skewering and grilling or to the great dive-in-and-get-messy kind of eating in a traditional Shrimp Boil or rekefest (the classic Cajun and Norwegian shrimp-eating parties, respectively), and I’ve certainly been served spectacular ones whole in dreamlike paellas, gumbos, cioppinos and other dishes. No complaints here! But when it comes to fixing things myself, I’m more inclined to think my fellow diners might like to be as lazy as I am, given the chance, and prefer most often to peel and devein shrimp and prawns before using them in my cooking. There’s no reason not to use the shells then and there for cooking up in a great batch of broth, of course, so I don’t see the necessity of wasting them, but I love to be able to eat meals unencumbered by the slowing process of dressing out the food unless it’s really a necessary part of the experience. Once the critters are cleaned, the meal prep is just as easy anyway, and if broth is on hand as a result, it’s the perfect base for an enriched soup or sauce in the bargain.

So what do I use these splendid shellfish for, finally? Nearly anything is good with such a sweet, clean taste and firm yet delicate texture. Shrimp puree, as I’ve mentioned before, is a fantastic binder for fish cakes because they don’t dull down the flavor like a starch binder (flour or crumbs, typically) would do, and though I haven’t tested it yet I’m certain it’d make a grand seafood soup or sauce thickener as well. But beautiful prawns deserve respect, too, in their unadulterated-yet-naked form, so they feature in a wide variety of dishes chez moi in addition to the aforementioned international classic presentations.

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Butter Prawns—my style—in Basmati.

Curries probably top the list hereabouts, mainly because both members of the household are fans of curry in a wide range of styles. Many classic Indian and Indian-influenced sauces and dishes, in fact, lend themselves beautifully to showcasing shrimp: butter sauce, mainly seen on American plates napping chicken, is one marvelous option, as are Tandoori-spiced grilling on a skewer, prawns biryani, and prawns simply seared in ghee and garam masala and served with fragrant rice.

Italian cooks, too, have given us a multitude of glorious ways to honor the delicious beauty of these shellfish, not least of all in a beautiful marinara sauce over pasta. If you want any advice or inspiration whatsoever regarding Italian cookery, you can’t do better than to visit my friend Chicago John over at his blog From the Bartolini Kitchens, and you can do your own happy swimming through all of his shrimp- and prawn-related dishes with a quick search there. But despite my reverence for John’s glorious and historically rich cookery, I have been known to dabble in my own variants at times, and think I didn’t do too much harm to the image of the Real Thing. One example of this would be when I make my version of prawns Fra Diavolo, which according to Signore Mario Batali is Italian-American anyway, so I have no compunction about further stretching the idea. For mine, I make a sauce of tomato passata with shallots, a splash of a nice, intense red wine if I’ve got one open, a squeeze of lemon juice, a good grind of black pepper, oregano, basil, and a hit of red pepper flakes, varying the amounts to the tastes of my fellow diners, and finally, warm the prawns in the sauce just until they’re pink and curling like a charming devil’s tail.Fra Diavolo can be a friendly little devil.You who love shellfish equally will know that I could go on rhapsodizing about them and the many ways in which to dress them up and swallow them down, but for now I think that that should be the end of this tale.

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

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: *Arroz* by Any Other Name

It is conceivable that by now you have figured out that I am mightily fond of Mexican, Tex-Mex, Mexican American and Mexican influenced foods and flavors. Having grown up in rich farm country where the migrant workers not only settled eventually but brought a veritable second-town of family and friends to join them over time, I was blessed to be fed by a number of eateries in our area run by the fantastic chefs all trained by one little lady in their hometown. By rights, she should have a whole county in Western Washington named after her at the very least, though I might suggest a shrine as more appropriate, because thanks to her a whole lot of us have faithfully eaten exceedingly well on both roots food from her teachings and wonderful inventions and innovations based on them.

Having moved to Texas might even be considered a logical next culinary or at least dietary step in my lifelong love of La Cocina Mexicana.

In any event, I will keep today’s post simple but say that once again I was influenced by that saintly lady’s culinary offspring when I entered the kitchen to begin dinner prep. I had intended to make something with the big gulf shrimp I had tucked into the freezer, but until it was really dinnertime I wasn’t sure but that I’d repeat the recent quick, hot-weather meal of the previous week, where I simply poached the cleaned shrimp and served them as part of a sort of deconstructed Louis or Cobb salad cousin.photo

Which would’ve been fine.

But, you know, I opened the refrigerator and saw a carton of leftover broth-cooked rice and suddenly I got all faint and dreamy-eyed and (cue theremin music and wavy-screen fantasizing-fade here) thought with longing of one of Our Lady of Mexico‘s disciples’ lovely Arroz con Camarones–that beloved combination of rice and shrimp favored by all of the Latin coastal cultures–this one a favorite version I miss from back in Tacoma.

So this day’s shrimp were coarsely chopped and kept on hand with a finely-slivered slice of leftover ham (to add some bacon-y goodness, and to help clear out the fridge) while I sautéed about a scant cup each of julienned carrots, sliced celery and chunky-cut mushrooms in some flavorful bacon fat just until crisp-tender with a little black pepper and some cumin, added the freshly squeezed juice of one big orange and about a cup of slightly drained crushed tomatoes (I used Muir Glen‘s fire-roasted tomatoes, since I like the flavor spike they add) and cooked the vegetables and sauce until slightly thickened, adding the prepared shrimp and ham just long enough to lightly cook the shrimp through. Served over the warmed rice, and with a dollop of whole yogurt to stand in for the absent crema, it was almost as good as I remembered.photo

I did have to add the hovering Abuelita in imagination to complete the effect.

Foodie Tuesday: Pleasing Paternal Palates

photoFather’s Day 2012 arrived on a date when we were both in the same state as our respective fathers. How about that. So it was our pleasure to gather up both sets of parents and the one sibling in close enough proximity and have a meal together.

I know that you all love food, and most of you love cooking and entertaining, too–especially if it’s for loved ones. You’ve told me so on many a Tuesday, not to mention with many a blog post of your own heralding the glories of your hospitality. I appreciate these wonders more than I can express–and the insufficiency of my words to do so is still mitigated, I think, by your awareness of my good intentions when it comes to these things. But being ‘on the road’ and having no kitchen to call my own, I knew it was the better part of valor to find a good meeting place that would supply the edible, drinkable provisions and let us all sit back and do the eating and drinking unencumbered by such worries.

Since all seven of us in the party are fans of various kinds of seafood, we opted for the Father’s Day Brunch at a local waterfront eatery well known for such stuff and let it go at that. Not a bad choice. Buffets are often a dangerous no-man’s-land of dining, to be sure, but a very popular and well-attended one is virtually guaranteed not to have the infamous nastiness of those foods that crepitate tragically on the serving board until petrification or putrefaction begin to gain ascendance over them and everything gets that creepy sheen of something that may or may not have been prepared using automotive lubricants and plumbers’ tools. Father’s Day is clearly one of the Top Five when it comes to holidays associated with hauling the parental units off to an eatery, because of course even the worst cretins among us know at some level that it’s not very polite to ask Dad to cook up his own celebratory treats and not a lot of us have the time, talent or gumption to do the deed ourselves. So we were not remotely surprised to see our restaurant of choice, and all of those we passed en route to it, jammed and jiggling with crowds of hungry visitors.

The buffet was not particularly unusual or even, probably, more sumptuous than many we’ve seen or heard others describe, but it was certainly lavish enough and varied enough to keep all of us from trying very hard to converse in the noisily crowded dining space, but rather left us making cheerily knowing winks across table at each other while cramming yet another tidbit of roasted or sugary whatsis onto a fork and into our grinning mouths. The weather was far more cooperative than predicted, so we enjoyed sunny views out through the expansive windows straight across the Sound to the big city, gulls parked on the old piling remnants of the piers adjacent to us, scudding clouds that failed to reflect in the increasing chop of the water and a few water taxis and ferries cutting through the chop to zigzag from shore to shore.photoWe ate lox and blackened salmon and hot-smoked salmon, fried shrimps and steamed prawns and seafood chowder, crab legs and crab Benedicts and crab salad; fruit and greens and vegetables and pickled goods. We ate roasted potatoes and hashed and steamed and whipped; roasts of beef and lamb and pork, and sausages and bacon; pasta and bread, muffins and scones. Cakes and pancakes, crepes and rolls, desserts and cheeses and so, so much more. Bloody Marys and coffee and tea and liquid chocolate poured from a fountain over pretty much whatever you might opt to stick under the flow. Fingers included, if I judge correctly by the number of small persons hovering near said fountain. But who’s to blame them? It’s Father’s Day, after all, and without those little scarpers there would be no fathers to celebrate, eh.photo

Foodie Tuesday: All about the Ingredients

photoI’ve said it before, and lots of food experts smarter than I am have said it lots of times before I ever did: good food preparation starts with good ingredients. No amount of genius and skill will make a great meal out of so-so ingredients, let alone out of bad ones. And me, I have a modicum of smarts and very modest, though for a lazy goof-off like me, surprisingly patient skills. So yeah, I can get the job done, as long as I have some excellent ingredients in hand.

photoStarting with salt. One of the most indispensable of delights in the entire pantheon of foods and culinary assets from its first discovery, good salt in just the right quantity is the First Rule of Yumminess in many, many a dish. But, hang on, salt should still often be the last ingredient applied. Tricky, no?

photoThe meal, however, if it’s with fun guests on hand and stretching a little over the course of the day or evening, well that should begin with a little taste of something nice. For the other day’s dinner guests, who were indeed a whole lot of fun, the starters were simple enough, and already on hand: the crackers I made (and posted) last week, the olives I’d previously bathed in sherry and olive oil, and smoked almonds, plus a few chilled prawns with dill-enhanced cocktail sauce. A fresh, cold batch of light Sangría:

Blushing Sangría

Two 750 ml. bottles dry rosé (I used a nice dry Pinot Noir rosé by Toad Hollow), plus 1 bottle of sweet white wine (I used a bottle of Moscato), 1/4 cup of Amaretto, 1/4 cup of Himbeergeist, 1/2 pint of fresh raspberries, 6 small or 3 large fresh peaches, 1 teaspoon rose-water, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/4-1/2 cup of light agave syrup or raw honey. Stir gently and chill thoroughly before serving.

The peaches I bought were an unexpected mix of half overripe and half underripe fruits, so I peeled and sliced the underripe pieces into the Sangría, where I’d already immersed the raspberries, and the too-ripe ones I pitted; I put the mushy peaches and all of the skins from both kinds into the blender with a bunch of the liquid ingredients, blended them all thoroughly and sieved the pulp into the Sangría, so I still got all of the mileage of flavor and color from the peaches, if a little less sliced fruit. In the end, it was plenty drinkable, so all was well in our pre-prandial world.photo

photoThe meal needed vegetable balance, of course, so I kept the ingredients to a fair minimum again and the flavors simple. Why mess with good contents? A mix of heirloom tomatoes and red cherry tomatoes made a simple but flavorful topping for romaine lettuce with a couple of simple salad dressing choices. Sweet corn, freshly pared off of the cob, was gently and quickly warmed in butter. And some delicate asparagus was steamed with a little soy sauce, a little plain rice vinegar, a very small dash of toasted sesame oil and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.

photoThe main dish, which I’ve undoubtedly mentioned in previous posts, was our old favorite household standby of Smoked Salmon Pasta. Not even a true recipe, really. Dearest John, I did not hand-craft my pasta. Yes, I bought refrigerated fresh fettuccine. Would that I’d had you supervising the party, not to mention in charge of the pasta-making, this element would indeed have been more, erm, elemental. Not to worry. Some day I shall reform. Meanwhile, a decent store-bought fresh fettuccine is not such a bad thing when dressed up just a leetle bit with smoked salmon cream. Simmer about a pint of heavy cream until it thickens to a nice sauce thickness, add about 1/4 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg and 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, 1 cup of broken up [hot smoked] alder smoked wild salmon, and a good splash of lemon juice. Toss gently with the freshly cooked and drained pasta and serve.photoThere are only two main high-quality ingredients needed to complete a pretty good party with all the rest of this, then. Dessert, naturally, should be offered–a bit of sweetness to follow all the preceding, and stretch as far into the evening as can be managed by all. But most significantly, the last essential ingredient of the gathering is, well, the gathering. The good company. We had that. Good enough company to want to stretch out the evening. So there was just a touch of dessert. Fresh strawberries and, you guessed it, chocolate.

photoI never said I was original in my menu planning. But I am really good at putting myself in excellent company, and that’s always what the party is all about. There you go: my real culinary talent is cooking up a right magical blend of outstanding people and enjoying the delights that result from the combination. Too bad there’s no cookbook out there that teaches that–no, wait–every good cookbook in the world gives guidance for just this art. As these good books teach us, choose your excellent ingredients wisely, food or company, and you will brew up a marvelous party.