Archive for December 2009
We wanted to prepare a festive end-of-year feast for Dan’s Aunt Amy, a native New Yorker visiting us here in Charlottesville. I knew Mama Mexico was one of her favorite Manhattan restaurants (she loved their freshly mashed guacamole and complimentary birthday tequila shots, straight to the mouth from the bottle). Sadly, Amy told us her Upper West Side haunt has just closed. But we managed to prepare a Mexican meal to rival the restaurant’s tonight.
To start, Dan made guacamole that’s hard to mess up, if you have ripe yet firm avocados on hand. Amy brought a marvelous, umami-sweet Cabot Creamery Clothbound Cheddar, with a granular, Parmegiano-Reggiano-like texture. I made this Stuffed Dates (with Stilton blue cheese and chopped pecans) recipe we saw in the Washington Post. Dates and cheese are a great appetizer pairing, but here the balsamic vinegar made the stuffing mixture look inappropriately like chopped liver. Still, it tasted good.
For our salad, I adapted the pomegranate-studded one we had made in our Seasons of My Heart cooking class while vacationing in Oaxaca in 2005. The dressing combines pomegranate molasses, fresh grapefruit juice, olive oil, garlic, of course salt and pepper, and I added a drop of my friend’s Weinsteiger Mustard. The salad consists of mixed greens, diced jicama, goat cheese, avocado, sliced radishes and ruby-like pomegranate seeds. Click here for a Baltimore blogger’s fine tutorial on how to de-seed a pomegranate.
For our main course, Debbie baked up some cheesy chicken enchiladas with red sauce. I made my dad’s famous green sauce with shrimp. Click here for his recipe, which I blogged about back in early September, when local peppers and tomatillos were still in season. To serve the dish, pile Spanish rice on a platter and top it with sliced lettuce and roasted or steamed shrimp, then ladle on the salsa verde and garnish with chopped cilantro and possibly sour cream or grated cheese if you wish. Delish! And you don’t need to buy Spanish rice in a box. All you do it fry some minced garlic in canola oil, add your desired white rice amount and sautee, add some saffron (optional), some red salsa, and possibly spices like cumin, Mexican oregano or chile powder, and then chicken broth or dissolved bouillon equal to the amount of water the rice requires to cook. Cover and simmer as directed. It’s that simple. Much more impressive than boring white rice!
Granted East Coast seafood doesn’t usually compare to our abundant Pacific Northwest offerings: orange-red wild salmon, Dungeness crab, mussels, halibut. We even have our own respected local Yaquina Bay oysters there. But I might just prefer those plumper Chesapeake Bay oysters I indulged in while back here in Virginia. I got a mad craving for these luscious, briny mollusks while savoring MFK Fisher’s Consider the Oyster on the plane from Oregon to Baltimore. It’s hard to believe she produced such celebratory prose while facing the imminent death of her true love in war-torn 1941.
Fisher’s musings on the gastronomical pleasures of oysters made me lust for this most sensual of foods. She aptly describes the “three kinds of oyster-eaters: those loose-minded sports who will eat anything, hot, cold, thin, thick, dead or alive, as long as it is oyster; those who will eat them raw and only raw; and those who with equal severity will eat them cooked and no way other.” When it comes to oysters, as with all foods, I’m an omnivore, but I do prefer to slurp the freshest specimens raw. If they aren’t freshly shucked, my dad’s Mexican oysters and now oyster stews are my favorite cooked preparations. And of course I love them fried, if they aren’t too greasy, the batter light and slightly spicy. My grandparents contracted a bad case of hepatitis from some type of raw shellfish, so I try to avoid suspect ones.
Reading Fisher made me want to make a velvety oyster stew, that elegant “supper to sleep on” that I’d hardly eaten before. But there it was calling out to us this week at Mama Zu’s, our favorite no frills-yet-decadent Italian spot. What gave the creamy, smooth broth its piquancy? A pancetta base and crushed red pepper, obviously strained out, the waitress said. I had to recreate it.
Oyster stew recipes are as numerous as clam chowders, varying by region. Despite its simplicity, oyster stew gives the cook plenty of options, Fisher says. How do you assemble your ingredients? Boil the oysters in their own liquor first, and then add the creamy broth? Saute the oysters in butter first, until they furl? My father the chef recommended the latter. I fried up some pancetta, added the oysters and sizzled them with some dried chipotle peppers for a kick. In a separate pot, I boiled the oyster’s liquor, skimmed off the foam, added heavy cream and whole milk (healthy, I know), a pat of butter, celery salt and salt and pepper to taste. Feel free to substitute/add other spices, such as paprika. I simmered this broth and then added the oysters when ready. For a perfect texture you could strain the broth first, but I didn’t care.
Here’s to oysters for the rest of these winter “r” months. In truth, oysters are fine to eat anytime they aren’t diseased, but Fisher explains why oyster farmers have urged us not to consume them in the warm summer months. That’s the only time the ocean waters are warm enough for the oysters to spawn. Hence the rule. Indulge while you can now, comfort yourself now while the fields lie fallow, and then let our “indecisively sexed” friends reproduce in peace. Summer’s bounty will be enough to distract us then.
It’s nice to see your hometown, that southern, Confederate capital city that you’ve always looked down on, grow more diverse, especially when it comes to culinary opportunities. A tiny, whole-in-the-wall Asian market we used to frequent when I was growing up is now a full-fledged, Hong Kong-style supermarket that seems straight out of Elmhurst, Queens. Now my parents visit the store almost weekly, stocking up on anise-flavored purple basil, palm sugar and dried lemongrass, as Dad cooks up all things Thai these days: Ivy Manning’s zebra eggplant and chicken green curry, pad thai, spicy calamari salads. It seems they now eat Thai more nights than not.
Dad wooed us with a coconut-creamy pad Thai the other night with shrimp, chicken and tofu. Then last night, I made refreshing Vietnamese salad rolls for my second time. You just wrap halved cooked shrimp, lettuce, Thai basil, cilantro, mint, cooked cellophane noodles and sliced carrots in those soaked, circular rice-paper sheets, like a mini-burrito. I’m still refining my technique. It’s hard to get the roll to stay closed without tearing the wrap.
It’s also essential to get your peanut dipping sauce for the salad rolls right. I finally found a good one here, in Linda Doeser’s Chinese: The Essence of Asian Cooking, calling for plumy hoisin sauce and a smudge of tomato paste, for just the right sweet, tangy flavor. The Splendid Table’s one above would also work. But here’s Doeser’s recipe.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1-2 red chiles, finely chopped
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1/2 cup water (note: may need more to achieve right saucy consistency)
1 tablespoon smooth peanut butter
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar (I used more viscous Thai palm sugar)
juice of 1 lime
1/2 cup roasted peanuts, ground
Heat the oil in a small saucepan, and fry the garlic, chilies and tomato paste for about 1 minute. Add the water, and bring to a boil, then stir in the peanut butter, hoisin sauce, sugar and lime juice. Mix well. Reduce the heat and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Spoon the sauce into a bowl, add the ground peanuts and cool to room temperature. Serve with the prepared salad rolls, cut in half if you like, but watch for the contents, which tend to spill out.
It’s been wicked cold, windy and usually dry (until today) in Oregon this week. You want to stay huddled under the covers, wear a hat and gloves even in the house when you emerge and eat steamy soup for dinner. So a hearty batch of refreshingly vegetarian soup we cooked up this week. I first made this Wheat Berry Chili recipe from the Ten Rivers Food Web last year. It’s not the most flavorful or unusual chili I’ve ever had, but it’s a great canvas on which I could showcase the locally grown wheat from Stalford Seed Farms and for the first time, locally grown dried beans lovingly raised by the husband-wife team behind Matt-Cyn Farms.
Matt and Cyndie grow a rainbow of 20-plus varieties of heirloom beans, including the Moon Beam chili ones and Kronis Purple kidney shaped ones that I used in the soup. Another secret ingredient: I substituted some spoonfuls of semi-sweet chocolate chips for the cocoa power the soup’s recipe called for. It’s not that far-fetched when you think of spicy chocolate mole sauces and the fact that most chili recipes feature a tiny bit of cocoa. But I can’t claim credit for the idea. I conveniently heard Nigella Lawson talking up such a recipe on NPR. The chips imbued the soup with creamy flavor that remained subtle, not in your face. Things did get a bit too spicy with the addition of jalapeno peppers I didn’t de-seed enough. It’s amazing how much pepper to pepper varies in heat.
I’ll post the simple recipe here tomorrow, as I’m now nodding off to sleep. But considering the warming pleasure of barley-like wheat berries and dried beans, especially if local farms are selling these crops in your area.
First, I apologize to my readers for not blogging more frequently. I’ve snapped the photos and written countless blog posts in my head that will be composed once this term ends. Somehow, amid this hiatus, more than three times as many readers clicked to my blog yesterday. Crazy how this little piece of Internet real estate works.
My greatest cooking adventure of late has been to try my hand at curing pork belly, with the help of Chef Intaba. I know it’s almost cliched for a foodie to jump on the pork train these days, but it’s seems to be the most available local, sustainably-sourced meat these days. Plus, Intaba ordered half a pig she was willing to share (now I also have a rack of spare-ribs in the freezer, to be braised in some sweet Chinese style).
Curing the bacon, with a slather of maple syrup, kosher salt and curing salt, was uncomplicated. It’s ready to cook after a week curing in the fridge, but we finished it off first in Intaba’s smoker. We’ve enjoyed the salty-sweet, if not slightly tough flesh, with eggs and toast and in own Thanksgiving sauerkraut. Oh, and in some the jury’s-still-out chocolate chip-bacon-hazelnut cookies. I hope to finish it up in David Chang’s Fuji Apple Salad: Kimchi, Smoked Jowl & Maple Labne recipe.
Let’s just say the pancetta didn’t go as well. The week-long curing process, with its rosemary-black peppercorn-juniper rub, is the same as with bacon. But while you don’t smoke pancetta, you do hang it to age for an additional two weeks. That’s where the complications come in. Perhaps our basement didn’t stay at the required 60 degrees (now I wish I had cured it in the garage, even if the colder temp meant it took longer). But the skin started to grow a white mold, so I cut it down a few days early. It didn’t smell rotten but something wasn’t quite right. Our too-thick pork belly wasn’t “completely firm but pliable like leather,” as the CHOW recipe recommends. We didn’t trim the fat evenly enough. So the exterior was hard as jerky but parts of the interior meat were still soft. I still cooked a bit up. Now Intaba is smoking the rest to remedy the situation. I’ll make bacon again, any day. But when it comes to pancetta, for now I’ll stick to buying the imported stuff or at least professionally-made stuff. Or at least consult the charcuterie bible before my next attempt.
Speaking of pork, I ordered some smoked ham slices and Italian sausage from red wattle heritage pigs through last week’s test run of Corvallis Local Foods. This brilliant new site is an online farmers market, where you can electronically order produce and meat from a dozen local vendors. Then you get your pre-paid order at a weekly pick-up at a local farm stand (the Brooklane/La Mancha Orchards of Anita Azarenko of OSU: they have the best organic Goldrush apples!). My friend George is heading it up. And busy Amy of Our Home Works markets and develops the software, which started with Eugene Local Foods and is rolling out to other locations, including Santa Cruz. Contact them to get such a local foods online marketplace in your community. And I promise we’ll back off the pork soon.