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: Artful Eating

Another pleasure of travel—of getting out of my familiar paths and habits—is discovering not only new things to eat but new ways of preparing and presenting foods I might have known all along. Whether there’s some entirely unforeseen ingredient or the known ones are combined in a completely unfamiliar way or plated more exotically or beautifully than I’ve seen before, it’s all, well, food for thought. And a danged fine way to assuage the hunger pangs brought on by wandering and exploring in new territory.

The time we spent in Europe in July was yet another happy example of this truism. So much so that I’ll just give you a few tantalizing shots for your contemplation and not go further. You’ll be wanting to dash off for lunch before I have any time to go on further anyhow, don’t you know.Photos: Artful Eating (Series) 2014-08-05.2.artful-eating 2014-08-05.3.artful-eating 2014-08-05.4.artful-eating 2014-08-05.5.artful-eating 2014-08-05.6.artful-eating 2014-08-05.7.artful-eating 2014-08-05.8.artful-eating

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: 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.

photo

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: Some Things Never Change. And Why Should They, Eh!

It’s unclear where the phrase ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ originated (though it can easily be believed attributable to Texans before its wider popularization), but the precept is in my mind particularly apropos when it comes to foods and eateries that reach a particular stage of development that makes them Classic. Every town seems to have a diner, joint, cafe or pub that has essentially congealed into a certain form and is revered to the point that its regulars and even unattached fans will gladly rally in defense of its remaining unchanged forever. Where else would we go?photoGreatness is not essential, but being the paradigm of whatever it might be that the place or food represents gradually becomes codified as something very nearly sacred. The comfort in being able to revisit one of these places any time and find the familiar favorite food, drink, decor and ohyespeople, people is pretty much a saving grace in the midst of a dull or dark spot in life, whether it’s been a bad day or a bad decade–or just a time when you’re hungering for something more than just calories.photoMe, I’ve got a passel of favorites from all of the phases and places my life has crossed thus far, and doubtless I’ll find new ones as long as I do live. That speaks less to my personal obsession with food, good food, lots of food and equal amounts of fun and atmosphere than it does to the wide availability of tremendous cooks, distinctive and colorful rooms, buildings and locales, and fantastically personalized recipes for nearly everything imaginable. The fundamental dish, drink, dining space or clientele need not be genuinely unique or even world-class (not that that hurts!)–it’s about the combination of them and the way that the parts all strike one on the occasion that lures her back. And then back again.photoAll I should really say on the occasion of such fond reminiscences is that if you don’t already have favorite spots that you’ve visited often enough for the people running them to recognize you, exchange information about life outside the eatery, and then bring your order with all of its weird customized combinations and/or deletions without batting an eye, you had better get moving and find one or ten.photoAnd further, I should say Thank You, Tea Leaf and Harbor Lights [here, if you read the critic’s linked review of the recent renovation and its early results, is living proof of my thesis, should you be interested], Ranchman’s and Miko Sushi, Anglea’s and Mi Ranchito and 42nd Street Cafe & Bistro [an example of a place that has kept a fantastic balance between changing over time and maintaining high quality food and great people]; Thank You, Dave and Hallie, Francisco and Tony, Blaine and Cheri, Teresita and Allessio and Abuelita and all of you other wondrous souls who have been keeping the rest of us contented and coming back over all these years. Yeah, you too, you people over there in England (ohhh, that fabulous Chinese hole-in-the-wall with Sizzling Lamb, and the suave Indian place across from the V&A) and Sweden (I’m looking at you guys making us shrimp pizzas in the wood fired oven in the Stockholm train station and the people creating amazing steak frites with cognac and green peppercorn sauce in Gamlastan) and Panama (Italian salmon pasta in Central America? Oh, yes! Oh, boy!) and so many, many more. Thank You.

Foodie Tuesday: Pizza & Beer

photoOurs is a household that both embodies and defies sex stereotypes. I am a female homemaker whose male partner is the sole income producer for us both. I wear dresses at least come of the time, and aside from academic gowns I’ve never known him to wear one. Though he has great legs and would look pretty cute in any old frock he threw on, I’m quite sure. It’s really not his style, all the same. He can get all misty over a sad movie just as well as I can, but he’s a pants-wearing guy. In food terms, we’re generally fairly well set into the expected tastes of our respective sexes. I like a frou-frou salad with baby lettuces, goat cheese in an almond crumb crust, fresh figs and mint-basil mandarin vinaigrette. My guy is mighty fond of meat and potatoes.

On the other hand, the second time this man who tends to avoid onions and garlic, sour cream and frou-frou salads–whose supertaster status leads to overwhelming visitations from sour or bitter hints in foods that to most others are relatively benign–asked me out to eat, it was for delicately crafted, raw fish and wasabi and pickled ginger filled sushi. And though hops make ‘manly’ beer unpalatable to my beloved, another loved one of mine taught me to appreciate a good beer, and I learned that it was a dandy companion to another famously male-craved food, pizza, and that together they could make this female pretty happy.

So when the opportunity for a really fine piece of pizza is not just sustenance but a great treat, I’m happy to dig in and eat. Especially if the pizza is one that doesn’t have a bunch of bitter or sour or Weird toppings, but rather the much-loved supreme deliciousness of good pepperoni and cheese and a slick of only a well-balanced ripe tomato sauce, the way my excellent spouse likes it best, so I can share it with him. And if I can wash down my tasty pizza with a good beer, then I will happily raise my glass in memory of Granny, who taught me to appreciate that the old-time stereotypical American image of men enjoying their beer and pizza in estrogen-free splendor was far from exclusive. And in memory of Gramps, whose sole-wage-earner retirement money paid for the beer and pizza Granny the homemaker bought for us while I was out with Gramps’s sons and grandsons, my uncles and cousins, practicing the ‘manly’ arts of working in construction as he had done for years before us. Keeping tradition and breaking with tradition. There’s always room in a good family, or a good stomach, for both.photoAll of this being said, with the help of my perspicacious, pizza-loving spouse and some research he’d read, I’ve recently discovered that avoiding wheat, of all things, seems to greatly reduce the hot flashes that have been the bane of my middle-aged existence since well before I was middle-aged. What to do? Wheat is the basis of the traditional pizza crust. Not to mention a key ingredient in lots of tasty beers. What!!! Is the universe spinning out of control???

Fear not, my good friends. I am finding that where there’s a hankering, there’s a way. Besides the existence of a number of flour mixes and recipes for them that substitute quite neatly and directly–and generally must more tastefully than in gluten-free days of yore–for wheat flour, I am also learning that there is an ever-expanding universe of alternatives for those who are forbidden wheat, whether by choice as in my case or perforce as in the lives and kitchens of celiacs, allergy sufferers and others who must avoid the offending grain. Stay tuned for the experiments that are sure to follow: rice and potato and nut crusts, vegetable stand-ins and stunt doubles, and more. Meanwhile, I will not shy away from a cold beer, just check to be sure that it’s a wheat-free variety. And of course there’s always a nice cold cider or lemonade or iced tea, or perhaps a fresh and icy strawberry-cucumber mojito, as they also make quite the dandy accompaniments to a slice of pizza, gluten-free or not, don’t you know. I’m quite certain Granny would approve.photo

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