Archive for the ‘Seafood’ Category

Due to not spending enough time in the car, which is where I get my radio, I managed to miss the fact that it’s All You Can Eat Week on WHYY’s Fresh Air, with Terry Gross.

I’m not crazy about the feeling of being a couple of beats behind. Like when I’m navigating with the help of my iPhone’s GPS, and the little blue dot on the map is just far enough behind where I actually am on the road that by the time the dot gets to the place where I’m supposed to turn, I’ve already past it. Or several beats: like when my daughter, as a sassy teen, in response to my cliched “Do you think I was born yesterday?” replied (without missing a beat) “No, I think you were born a long time ago.”

I love food because it’s timeless; it doesn’t matter when we were born. Timing does matter with cooking, and one can get anxious about getting that right, but for those of us blessed with food security, a cooking disaster is often hilarious and never the end of the world. On this, The Week After AYCE Week, we still have food and we can still talk about it.

Moreover, with Fresh Air, one can go back and capture the airwaves online and I urge you to listen to some of these, as they’re utterly fascinating and informative. You will learn, for example, why New York Times food writer Mark Bittman leaves steak uncovered in the refrigerator for days, so by the time he’s ready to grill it, it looks disgustingly dried out and crusty — but turns out delicious. (I have a pair of strip steaks getting old in the frig right now.) Also, in Kitchen Science: The Dinner is in the Details, Russ Parsons will tell you why onions make us cry:

In the water in the onion there are these little vacuoles — they’re little pockets of different chemicals. When you cut an onion, all those vacuoles are disrupted, the chemicals empty out, and they begin to combine with each other. You get these chemical reactions. … After the fifth or sixth generation of combining and recombining, the result is a kind of a sulfur gas, and, actually, it’s not clear at this point whether the sulfuric gas goes up your nose or goes directly to the eye. But either way, it irritates you and it makes your eyes tear as a result of that. And the great thing is that the chemical name for those chemicals are lacrimators from the Latin word for tear, lacrima.

So: just a few beats behind AYCE Week and in the spirit of overindulgence, this post is a piled-high buffet of some of my favorite food-related things, including a couple of the Fresh Air interviews, as well as blogs I follow and books I’m reading.

For an appetizer, there’s Sex, Death & Oysters, by Robb Walsh, “a half-shell lover’s world tour.” If the title itself isn’t enough to lure you in, let me just say (though I’m not sure what this means) that Walsh has been called “the Indiana Jones of food writers.” The book records a five-year, worldwide gastronomic exploration of the most beloved and feared of all seafoods.

Two juicy blogs will also serve as apps insofar as food porn gets one going. TasteSpotting is a “community driven visual potluck,” “a photo collection of recipes, cooking, baking, kitchen adventures, food industry and media news” and “the largest online dinner party you’ll ever see.” Similarly, foodgawker is “a photo gallery that allows you to visually search and discover new recipes, techniques and ingredients to inspire your culinary adventures.”

From TasteSpotting, via The Well-Seasoned Cook: Corn, White Bean & Squash Blossom Chowder – An end-of-summer transitional soup infused with musky herbs.

For our main course, an abundance of commentary about food, cooking and eating. That we make such a big deal out of something as basic as eating is reflective both of our civilization–our delight in creating delicious and beautiful things to eat–and the degree to which we are alienated from it. On this latter topic there’s no one better than Michael Pollan. In Defense of Food challenges the nutrient-by-nutrient approach — what Pollan calls nutritionism — and proposes an alternative:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

At a respectful distance on our table is Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Richard Wrangham’s proposes a new theory of human evolution he calls “the cooking hypothesis.” Apes began to morph into humans, and the species Homo erectus emerged some two million years ago, Wrangham argues, because we learned to tame fire and cook — which increases the amount of energy our bodies can get from food, which in turn gives our digestive tract a break from processing raw food and allows our brains to grow.

Interesting, but less fun than loading up one’s plate with Julia Child on France, Fat and Food on the Floor. In this Terry Gross interview, originally broadcast on November 14, 1989, Julia recalls being hooked on French cooking from the very first bite. She made it her life and spent the rest of her career guiding American amateurs like moi through the intricacies of French cuisine.

In the 1960s, you could eat anything you wanted, and of course, people were smoking cigarettes and all kinds of things, and there was no talk about fat and anything like that, and butter and cream were rife. Those were lovely days for gastronomy, I must say.

 Food52 is an industrial-strength blog that calls itself “a social hub for people who love food.” Creators Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubs provide scads of wonderful, searchable recipes as well as video tutorials on such things as how to make almond butter. (You put roasted almonds in the food processor, push the button and let them clatter around in the bowl until you think the motor is going to break. The nuts turn into a fine, pebbly sand–but not buttery–and you begin to wonder. Keep going and in another minute or two, like magic, the oils in the nuts will give up their resistance and the whole thing will turn into almond butter.) Food52 teasers:

We want to share our AYCE buffet with friends, of course, so let us join Last Night’s Dinner, another favorite blog though very different in tone and approach. LND is “a blog about what we’re eating. The focus is on dinners, which are mostly cooked at home.” Written by Jennifer Hess, it’s very personal and down to earth, with lovely close-up photos wrapped around stories not just about what she and her husband had for dinner last night but why she chose that meal, what happened when she went shopping for the ingredients, or grew them in her garden, and what their soon-to-be-born son will think of his first taste of spring peas. Reading LND like having a very creative, articulate next door neighbor with a lot to teach and the generosity to let you witness her young life unfolding.

Ready for dessert? Here’s my own rendering of Ancho Chili-Cinnamon Chocolate Bark, which I found one hungry afternoon on Food52. And here, from foodgawker via Verses from my Kitchen: A shortcrust pastry shell filled with custard and seasonal fruits.

Sigh. I’m ready to relax with a good book: this will be our cheese course. In Eat, Memory, Amanda Hessler (of the New York Times and Food52) has assembled the food-inspired recollections of several leading playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, poets and journalists. Tom Perrotta explains how his long list of food aversions almost landed him in an East German prison. And poet Billy Collins muses over his relationship with a fish he once ate.

What’s your story?

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Tapas is the inspired crossing of an abundant pile of appetizers (when those appetizers are miniature savory jewels) with the Chinese food tradition of sharing everything on the table. If there’s anyone out there who doesn’t share their tapas, I don’t want to know you. I love tapas because it spares me the agony of choosing just one thing on the menu–of which, though it might be delightful, I could grow weary after 27 bites–and trades up to 2-bite morsels of many varied and wonderful things. Shrimp? Veggies? Lamb? Squid? Pork belly? Figs? Yes, please.

The word “tapas” comes from the Spanish tapar, meaning to cover, and legend has it that King Alfonso XIII, stopping at a beachside Andalusian watering hole, was served a glass of wine covered with a slice of ham to keep out the sand. He liked it so much that he ordered the second glass “with the cover.” Maybe, or maybe restauranteurs discovered that a few tasty morsels covered the taste of mediocre wine. In any event, it is always a good idea to munch on a few things between glasses, or, as in my non-drinking case, to munch on a few things whenever.

Bill and I recently took a little jaunt to Charlottesville, Virginia, home of UVA, Monticello and the Dave Matthews Band, the latter having spread a bit of its fortune around on local restaurants. We ate well from the start, dining our first night at a pleasantly hip and aptly named tapas place called Mas (it means “more”) in the Belmont neighborhood southeast of downtown. The menu is a solid one-pager, packed with almost 50 tapa (in meagerly leaded 8-point type, my only complaint) that one checks off and hands to the waiter, like at a sushi bar.

So we checked, and here I’m going to give it to you straight from the menu, because there’s nothing, really nothing, more to say. We checked gambas a la parilla (jumbo Gulf shrimp grilled Catalan stye with aioli and grey sea salt;

porktopus (house-made chickpea roll of smoked pork belly, grilled octopus, pickled cabbage, sauce of insanity–that’s what it says–and baby greens); datil con tocino (applewood-smoked bacon wrapped date-liciousness: molten, mostly crispy melted parcels of joy, joy, joy); boquerones (scrumptious Mediterranean white anchovies marinated with lemon, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh herbs); etcetera. There were more–steak, cheeses–but I was too delirious to remember.

I did come away with an imprint of an idea for a sauce to make at home. Not quite sure if it’s 100% authentic, but it’s tasty enough that I don’t care.

  • Take a bunch of dried chili peppers (I used some from Lorna’s 2010 garden), seed them and soak in warm water for at least an hour.
  • Blitz the peppers in a food processor with olive oil (EVOO), garlic, tomato paste and almond meal. I would have used fresh tomatoes if it were later in the season, or even canned if I’d had some, but the paste worked fine. As for the almonds, again, it’s what I had. The Spanish use a lot of ground hazelnuts in sauces, and on more ambitious days I have roasted the little darlings, rubbed their jackets off with a tea towel, and pulverized them to smithereens, but since I had a bag of almond meal in the freezer–laid in for just such an occasion–it was the obvious choice.
  • Thin with the pepper water and salt to taste with fine sea salt. Sprinkle in some smoked Spanish paprika and/or chipotle if you want a deeper burn. Delicious with everything.
There were other, equally fabulous meals in Charlottesville: Zo Ca Lo (“center of town”), where Bill swooned over the grilled salmon with green chile and goat cheese cous cous and a smoked pico and cascabel cream. My seared duck breast with chipotle port compote was pretty amazing too, especially since the duck was shockingly and delectably rare. And there was Maya (can it possibly mean “the power by which the universe becomes manifest”?), which deserves it’s own post, not to mention The White Spot, ditto. Did I mention that, while in Charlottesville, we had bacon at four consecutive meals?
Back to tapas and another place where the universe becomes manifest: the Centro Tapas Bar in Baltimore. We celebrated our 24th anniversary there with our daughter on the way home. The light was better than at Mas, and hence the pictures. Behold, for example, the arepa, a neat stack of corn masa, pulled oxtail meat, avocado and fried egg. We actually got two of these, they were so good.

It was here, my friends, where we were also served the pork belly with hominy and agave-chile sauce pictured at the beginning of this post. A couple of lamb meatballs (albondigas) were subtracted from that plate before I could snag a photo. The espinacas–spinach with chickpeas, dates and pine nut butter–was sauteed with such finesse that it seemed to gain in dignity on the plate, if you see what I mean.

It was our anniversary, and just past father’s day, so there was nothing for it but to have dessert as well. Make that two: quesillo–a thick coconut flan with burnt caramel, and cinco leches (rather fancier than it was good)–almond cake soaked in coconut-infused condensed milk, with sea salt dulche de leche, whipped cream, some very pretty splotches of red jam, and a biscuity rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge. 

¡Que aproveche! I’m two weeks into Spanish 101.

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We were casting about the other day for a new place to celebrate a special occasion. Truth be told (and to hell with modesty), we have better food at home than most local restaurants can offer, and at less expense. I get cranky if at the end of an evening we’ve spent the equivalent of our waitress’ entire night’s earnings on mediocre food. What I do appreciate are restaurants that serve dishes that surprise me, with tastes I don’t regularly experience and ingredients that aren’t yet in my cupboard. Friday afternoon tamales at El Puente, for example. Or Hong Thanh, with their Bo Sot Toi (sauteed filet minon with garlic and pepper sauce over watercress) and Goi Cai Xanh (mustard green salad with shrimp). Since I don’t have my own hearth fired oven, I also love to sit with Bill at the chef’s table at Judy’s on Cherry, noshing on her delectable hearth-fired-crunchy-chewy-oven-baked bread.

The occasion–Bill’s birthday–was worthy of a stretch, so we looked farther afield than usual, scrolling through menus online at various places in Philadelphia. I couldn’t help noticing that certain restaurants featured a type of salmon by name. Every once in a while, you run into a menu that names the baby greens, preciously announcing that they came from Mr. McGregor’s secret garden on Nantucket, or some such nonsense. Or it might give the nationality, if you will, like “New Zealand lamb” or “Maryland crab cakes.” But not a name; not in my circles, at any rate. Except for Loch Duart salmon.

Salmon was my entree of choice until I learned that I could buy this stuff right here at Go Fish! in West Reading. I like to broil it, pulling it out while it’s still on the rare side. Or not. Loch Duart salmon makes exquisite sashimi.

First, Keith scales the mighty fish.

Here’s the deal with salmon: it’s endangered in the wild, so most Atlantic salmon sold commercially is farm raised. In 1999, salmon farming exceeded, weight-wise, the world’s entire wild catch, and has done so every subsequent year.

The problem with fish farming (aka aquaculture) is that most aquaculture systems result in ecological destruction. Each pound of farmed salmon requires about three pounds of wild fish as fishmeal, for a net loss of marine resources. And since farmed salmon are typically kept in crowded net pens where they are prone to disease, most fish farmers use pesticides and antibiotics that eventually end up in the environment.

Aquaculture is also a solution. It can take some of the pressure off wild salmon populations, but it must be done responsibly, in ways that are economically and environmentally sustainable.

The salmon I buy at GoFish! is flown in fresh daily from Loch Duart, Scotland. It is not organic, but it is sustainably raised and, hands down, the most delicious salmon ever. Unlike other fish farms (including many “sustainable” operations), at Loch Duart, each of the company’s nine sea loch sites is fallowed for a complete year in every three. Year-long fallowing with low density stocking gives the fish space to grow; one hopes they’re happy as well. The feeding regimen (no GMO food, growth promoters or antibiotics) mimics the irregular patterns of fish in the natural environment.

Expensive? Yes–$15.99/lb–but worth every penny. King salmon from New Zealand is currently $18.99, but expected to climb to the high $20s by late spring. Incidentally, we ended up going to a Portuguese place in Northern Liberties, the funky, newly hip section of northeast Philly. It was fun to go out. Lots of pork, seafood and potatoes with interesting spice mixtures. I would never order salmon, not when I can get the best there is right here in River City.

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Shopping for mysteries

We moved to Japan when our first child was five months old, in 1989, and it was there, of necessity, I learned to shop for mysteries. Bill was fresh out of graduate school, and I at a seam in my PR career, and we were both of a mind that if someone offers you an opportunity to live in Japan, you take it. We rented our house in Boston, bundled up our baby boy, a car seat and a couple of suitcases full of inappropriate clothes, and flew to Osaka. Pronounced O‘ sä kä by the locals, with a long, round Oh. I did not think to pack cookbooks.

Osaka is the other big city in Japan, with about 2.5 million people, and at the time we lived there it was the second most expensive city in the world. We actually lived in Wakaeiwata, in Higashi-Osaka, which is on the train line and very urban but with small town attributes, such as the lady at the Fuji shop knowing that your Japanese friends dressed you up in kimono because she’s been through your pix. We were the only foreigners many of our neighbors had ever seen, and our son’s blue eyes another first. Our street, which had no name because it didn’t need one, because if you were there you should know, looked like this:

It would be an understatement to say that I was disoriented at first. Bill left for work the day after we arrived (he’s a product designer, and was working for a Japanese bicycle brake manufacturer) and I stared bewildered at the street below from my third floor balcony window. Do not imagine this view from the vantage of a sleek highrise building full of people with excellent haircuts. Likewise not a serene, Zen-like tearoom. Our apartment was indeed empty–which is to say devoid of furniture–and it did have tatami mats in two rooms, but sleek and serene it was not. We’re talking a 500 sq.ft. unit in a cinderblock building, with a waist-high refrigerator and next-door neighbors who nightly vented out into the hall the oily black smoke of burnt fish. Also, I couldn’t read.

We might have starved if it hadn’t been for the Child Who Must Be Fed.

It’s difficult to imagine now, but this was 1989 BI–before the Internet–so in the absence of anyone nearby with whom I shared a language, I was clueless in the realms of shopping and preparing food. Looking for a chicken, I could only find tiny packages of chicken breast strips–not the breast itself but the little sidecars, maybe three of them, priced at a small fortune; and forget beef. The fish were whole, unfamiliar and daunting. The shelves held packages whose contents I couldn’t guess at and whose instructions I couldn’t decipher. I was leaning at the time for parenting guidance on Penelope Leach’s Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five, and in her hilarious British wisdom, Penelope said, “above all, get your child used to eating cheese.” There was no cheese to be had in my new neighborhood. Recommended baby foods were rice, seaweed and teeny tiny fish.

And so I embarked on a shopping methodology I practice to this day: picking up at least one item I do not understand, taking it home and figuring it out. Shopping for mysteries is not a reliable approach to feeding a baby, but it adds adventure, widens one’s horizons and is often amusing. The complete story of how I learned to cook in Japan is material for another post, possibly several. It’s enough for now to introduce the concept and recommend that you rush right out and try it for yourself. At Tung Cheng Grocery, for example, on Chestnut Street in Reading. That’s where I found the gouda-colored slab of sweet rice that turned out so well for Chinese New Year. This week, I found these lovely greens. I still don’t know what they’re called, but braised with garlic and ginger, they’re amazing.

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