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Archive for the ‘Seafood’ Category

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I just spent a week of bright sunny days cruising the wild, scenic, unspoiled river Loire on the MS Loire Princesse. This handsome paddle-wheel barge-type ship is French-owned, and its 90 passengers were about 60% French, 20% Spanish, and 20% British and Antipodean. Tom and I were the only Americans.

We’d been greatly looking forward to the food on the voyage. As this was a moderately priced cruise, providing good value but not extravagance, only a single three-course menu was available for each lunch and dinner. There was no particular emphasis on the cuisine of the Loire Valley. That was a bit disappointing for us, but the cooking was generally good. Every day several pleasant, simple wines were liberally poured at no cost, and there was a small list of better wines for purchase. (Tom’s blog will have more to say about the wines.)
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Lunches

The lunches onboard were far larger than what we’re used to. A few times we’d have been just as happy with only a sandwich or a hamburger. But the chef prepared these menus, and we were on vacation, so we had to try them, didn’t we? Somehow, we managed to get through midday meals like these. (Wine helped, and often a little nap too.)
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Fresh pickled herring, roast veal with chanterelles, tortoni
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Mozzarella and tomato salad, filet of pork with duchesse potatoes, tiramisu
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Black Forest ham, hake filet grenobloise, raspberry cake

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Dinners

Dinners were equally elaborate and varied, with occasionally a small fourth course included. The chef had a real talent with meat and potatoes but offered few fresh seasonal vegetables other than salad greens.
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Duck terrine with sauce gribiche, stuffed filet of chicken with tagliatelle, raspberry torte
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Veal-filled beggar’s purse pasta with cream sauce, confit duck leg, crepes suzette
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Scallop salad, duck breast with port sauce, baked apple on brioche French toast

 

 

Cappuccino of cèpes, vegetables à la grecque, blanquette de veau à l’ancienne, peach melba

 

A word of explanation about the “cappuccino” just above. That’s what it looked like, but it was actually a trompe l’oeil creation: a rich soup of wild mushrooms topped with a veil of cream and a sprinkle of minced mushrooms as faux cinnamon. Quite a delicious frivolity.

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Overall, the cruise’s food was a little too elaborated, too heavily decorated, for our taste. Rather than the panoply of flavors present in most dishes, we’d have preferred having the simple quality of the main ingredients left to shine forth on their own. Also, we really regretted the dearth of local specialties. To be in the Loire Valley and not be offered rillettes or beurre blanc seemed wrong! Likewise, to be in the agricultural heart of France in mid-June and be fed carrots and brussels sprouts. But many individual dishes were excellent.  For instance, the herring in the first lunch above was as sparkling, fresh, and delicious as any I’ve ever had. The many mushroom varieties the chef seemed to love using tasted fine indeed, and he had the best hand with pasta of any French cook we’ve encountered.

After the cruise, we had a few days in the Touraine and the Orléanais on our own, where we took the opportunity to make up some of the deficit of regional dishes – e.g., fabulous white asparagus. And I’ve purchased a little French book of recipes of the châteaux of the Loire, to encourage myself to make them at home.

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One evening in Paris long, long ago, I dined at the Michelin-three-star restaurant Le Grand Véfour. Owner-chef Raymond Oliver was then producing the apotheosis of classic French cuisine, and my meal was a purely blissful experience. This week I made an elaborate dish of that era from Oliver’s cookbook La Cuisine. I’ve had the book for a long time, and its glamour photo of Toast de Crevettes à la Rothschild had always attracted me.

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Now, with still some of the ugly-but-good shrimp I wrote about last week, it seemed like the perfect time to try the recipe, since its shrimp are invisible within their bread case and underneath their sauce.

So I defrosted half a pound of them. It looked like a lot for only two people, but that’s what half the recipe called for.
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The first task was to carve two cases from thick slices of sandwich bread (Joy of Cooking’s ever-reliable White Bread Plus) and fry them in butter until golden.

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Next was to shell the shrimp and “crush the shells in a mortar and pestle until they are almost a paste.” Easy for him to say! Restaurants obviously use kitchen slaveys and hefty professional equipment for such things. In my small mortar and pestle, the shells just slithered around, staying totally intact. So on to the mini food processor, which after much whirling at least broke the shells into fragments. I’d have to live with that.

Then came what is always the most elaborate part of a classic French recipe, making the sauce. I softened chopped carrot, onion, and shallot in butter, added the shell shrapnel, and cooked it for a few minutes.
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Into the pot I stirred tomato paste, white wine, fish broth, parsley, bay leaf, and thyme. It all simmered covered for 20 minutes, after which it had to be strained. That was a tough job, given my too, too solid shells. It might have been easier if I’d had a chinoise, but I don’t. I managed it with about 15 minutes of mashing the stuff around in my finest-mesh sieve.
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After returning the sauce to a pot I was supposed to reduce it to ⅜ cup. I didn’t. It was hardly more than that already, and nicely thick. I just left it there while I briefly sauteed the shrimp in (of course) butter and then added them to the sauce and simmered for another minute.
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I pulled the shrimp out of the pot, scraping as much of the sauce off them as I could, and put them in the prepared bread cases. As I’d expected, there wasn’t enough room to fit them all in, so I just left some on the side. Then I stirred cream and cognac into the sauce, brought it to a boil, and, off heat, dissolved yet more softened butter in it.

At last we were closing in on consumption time. I topped the shrimp toasts with the finished sauce – of which there was just about enough – and sprinkled on grated Gruyere, omitting the recipe’s final extravagance of a big slice of black truffle.
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I browned them quickly under the broiler and served. Of course they looked nothing like the picture in the book. Frankly, I don’t see how anyone could have achieved that appearance by following the recipe’s instructions.
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So how were they? Bite for bite, utterly delicious – but almost excruciatingly rich and heavy. Aside from the whole shrimp, which seemed more like a garnish than a principal ingredient, there wasn’t a fresh, noncomposed flavor in the dish. It was the classic, complex, Paris restaurant food of Oliver’s bygone era, but it’s not the way we eat today, or would want to, more than once in a very long while.

Still, making the dish was an intriguing culinary experience, a tour de force of nostalgia and digestion!

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Every spring and fall Tom and I make short trips to Cape May, NJ, a hotspot for finding migratory birds. Perched where Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, Cape May also boasts excellent fish and shellfish. While there, we indulge liberally in that seafood, and often bring some home from the harborside fish market. One of its specialties is fresh, never-frozen shrimp from North Carolina or Florida. Costing half what shrimp does in Manhattan, and tasting twice as good, a few pounds of them are a regular treat for us. Even when frozen at home, as they have to be, they’re very fine shrimp.

A bit disturbingly, the first 10 ounces I took out from our latest batch to cook for dinner were an unattractive color when looked at closely.

Raw shrimp are normally white with pinkish shells. The brownish, yellowish tinge on these made them look as if they were beginning to rot. Even when shelled, the flesh was darkish and dingy.

But they smelled fresh and felt properly firm. To be on the safe side I decided to make them in a slightly spicy preparation, and just for aesthetics, one that wouldn’t call attention to that color.

My ever-obliging knife man sliced up a nice mess of vegetables for me – two cups of onions and two cups of mixed Bell and poblano peppers.

I softened the peppers and onions in olive oil; sprinkled on salt, pepper, and mild New Mexican chili powder; stirred in about ⅓ cup of pureed tomato; covered and cooked it all together for 10 minutes, until the veg were tender. The pan then sat at the back of the stove until called for.

 

As you can see, that mixture vaguely replicated the color tones of my ugly shrimp. So when I reheated it, added the shrimp, and stirred them about until they were just opaque, you really couldn’t tell whether their shade was natural or due to the tomato and chili powder.

Served on a bed of plain boiled rice, the dish was very good. It had a modest touch of warmth from the spicing, and the shrimp were sweet, fresh, and just as flavorful as ever. I’d used basmati rice, because that happened to be the only long-grain rice I had on hand. It and the shrimp didn’t have much to say to each other, but it strongly bonded with the peppers and onions. The shrimp also adored the vegetables, and vice versa. A very successful simple improvisation.

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There were Maine shrimp in my fish market last week! They’d been gone for three years, since commercial shrimp fishing in the Gulf of Maine was closed down after a disastrous 2013 season. The moratorium is still in effect, but thanks to an increase in the amounts shrimpers may take for scientific sampling purposes – and then sell – this year, small quantities of these delicious little critters are getting to our area. Hooray!
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maine-shrimp-in-shell

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These bright red shrimps are really tiny. That’s half a pound of them, raw in their shells. Most often I just drop them in boiling water for one minute, then cool, shell, chill, and serve them with a homemade cocktail sauce. They make a lovely shrimp cocktail. This time I was going to use them in a pasta dish, so I shelled them raw. Stripped of their long heads, shells, tails, legs, feelers, and roe, they came to a mere 3½ ounces. Wish I’d bought more!
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maine-shrimp-shelled

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Even though the shrimps were going to combine with pasta, I wanted to keep everything simple: Maine shrimps should shine through their accompaniments. So I chose for the sauce of my pasta dish a basic agli’e olio (It’s not spelled that way, I know; but in this Neapolitan-American household, it’s pronounced that way), the making of which is Beloved Spouse’s specialty. So while our spaghetti was cooking, he minced some cloves of garlic, seethed them in olive oil without allowing them to color, and tossed in chopped parsley, salt, and a pinch of crushed red pepper.
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aglie-olio

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Moments before the spaghetti was done we added the shrimp to the saucepan and stirred them around until they just lost their translucence, about two minutes. All that remained to be done was drain the pasta, put it in bowls, and dress it with the shrimp and sauce.
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pasta-and-shrimp

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So simple, and so scrumptious! Delicate as Maine shrimp are, their sweetness and succulence contribute immensely to any dish they’re invited into. I hope there’ll be enough of them for me to invite into several more meals this winter, before their very short season is over.

For my next batch I’m thinking I might want to see how Maine shrimp would handle the spicy sauce of Galatoire’s Shrimp Remoulade. And if that works, maybe try giving Galatoire’s Crabmeat Maison a Yankee twist by substituting Maine shrimp for crab. If there’s time enough, we shall see.

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A few days ago, Beloved Spouse and I went shopping for fish for that night’s dinner. With two excellent fish markets nearby, we have many good choices. This day, his eye fell on a display of fresh smelts. He loves them, knows that I don’t, and heroically offered to bypass them. But smelts only appear here occasionally in winter, and this was He Who Must Be Indulged (at least, sometimes). I insisted that we buy them.

smelt-school

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He was content to have the little fishes simply batter-fried, and perfectly willing to do the slightly messy work of heading and gutting them. For my part I dug out the recipe for fish-and-chips batter in the Cooking of the British Isles volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series. This is a fairly elaborate batter, which I chose because it makes a thick but light, stick-to-it-ive coating.

We needed only half a recipe’s worth for our small school of swimmers, so the first thing I had to do was separate out half an egg yolk and half an egg white. The half yolk got mixed into half a cup of flour, along with a tablespoon of milk (it should’ve been beer, but we didn’t have any in the house) and a pinch of salt.

That produced a dense globular mass. Next I was to “stir” into it 1½ tablespoons of milk and the same amount of water and keep stirring until the batter was smooth. No way: I had to whomp it with a whisk and loosen it with additional milk and water, but it finally smoothed. Then I beat my half egg white into stiff peaks and folded it into the batter. It rested on the kitchen counter for a couple of hours.
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three-batters

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At dinnertime the two of us worked together. I dunked the smelts in the batter

dipping

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and he managed the frying, in small batches.

frying

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The batter clung nicely. It made a thin crunchy crust with a gently cushioned interior.
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served

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Even I, the non-smelt-fancier, enjoyed picking up the little beasts by the tail and biting my way into them. You truly can’t notice the bones! Beloved Spouse, who ate 8 to my 5, was in a state of bliss. Here’s what he has to say about the meal:
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I plain and simple loved it. Here in New York, smelts are a strictly seasonal treat, usually coming onto the market in late December and hanging around until early February at the latest, so we have to grab ‘em whenever they appear. Most of them, I gather, are caught in fresh water as they come in from the oceans to spawn, and I’m told that in California smeltophiles can take them from the beaches with hand nets during their run. Californians have all the luck! Smelts are always tasty little devils, with a slightly fishy flavor that falls on the scale as strong for a freshwater fish and mild for a saltwater species. Frying, whether deep or shallow, seems to be the fate they’re born for. Many people insist on drinking beer with smelts, but ours were very happy – as were we – with a Paumanok Vineyards Minimalist Chenin Blanc, which turned a simple fish fry into an elegant dinner.
                                                                            – TM, a.k.a. BS, a.k.a. HWMBI

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I’ve acquired a few new cookbooks. They bring my collection, after its last culling, up to 216 volumes. Between all the new dishes I’m eager to try and all the old favorites I long to go back and make again, I’ll never live long enough to cook everything I want to. But I can try!

fabrizia-lanzaOne very promising new book is Coming Home to Sicily, by Fabrizia Lanza. The author is the daughter of Anna Tasca Lanza, doyenne of the Tasca d’Almerita family’s Regaleali wine estate and creator of its famous cooking school, which Fabrizia now runs. (In 1992, on a food- and wine-writers’ trip, I spent two days at Regaleali, meeting the formidable Marchesa Anna, exploring the estate and the vineyards, observing a cooking demonstration, and eating extraordinary Sicilian country meals. Below are a few photographic mementoes of the occasion.)

It’s a handsome book, with beautiful photography, which makes great reading. Not all the recipes are practical for US cooks, because some call for ingredients that are available mainly from the Sicilian countryside; e.g., Tasca Lanza’s famous sun-dried tomato paste, fresh citrons, green almonds, tuna roe and sperm (!), and many kinds of wild greens and herbs. Not that those recipes are completely impossible: We could make them with the nearest approximations we can get here, but they wouldn’t be at all the same.

For my first venture into the book, I chose to make a simple recipe with easily accessible imgredients: Pesce spada impanato or grilled swordfish steak with breadcrumbs. For me, it was interesting because, first, the raw fish gets 30 minutes of marinating in seasoned olive oil, and second, because it is grilled, not broiled or baked.

I’ve always thought swordfish was so naturally fatty that added oil would be superfluous – which apparently was wrong, and probably why some of my past broiled swordfish steaks have been too dry! This time I found the garlic, salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes that permeated the olive oil definitely enhanced the flavor of the fish.

marinating

Additionally, the moisture of the marinade helped the breadcrumbs coat the swordfish steak evenly. And cooking it on a stove burner in a grill pan (since I don’t have access to an outdoor grill) rather than in the broiler worked perfectly. You could easily see when the bottom half had changed color, meaning the steak was ready to be turned.

grilling

The simply cooked fish was moist and tender, still very fresh tasting, under its crisp coating. All it needed was a squeeze of lemon to make it a pleasure to eat.

 

 

Regaleali, September 1992

regaleali-courtyard

Courtyard

 

Anna Tasca Lanza

Anna Tasca Lanza

 

Cooking demonstration by chef Mario Lo Menso

Cooking demonstration by chef Mario Lo Menso

Incidentally, the person a portion of whose striped shirt you can see in two of the photos is the then-80-year-old Julia Child, whose enthusiastic presence on that trip made it all the more delightful.

 

 

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I was away last week in southern Maine. Beloved Spouse and I rented a cottage near the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, whose forests, marshes, estuaries, and beaches are scattered along 50 miles of the coastline. It was high season for the southbound migration of shorebirds, and we’d hoped to see vast numbers of them during our stay. Alas, we didn’t: There were disappointingly few birds of any kind, though the landscapes and seascapes were quite lovely. Why the birds didn’t appreciate that we can’t imagine. However, we did eat some wonderful seafood, as I’m about to show you.

Or course, there were good chowders: clam, fish, lobster, and mixed seafood. At home we make tomato-based, spicy Manhattan-style chowders, so the New England-style versions were a nice change of pace. Here’s a cup of one of the best we had. It was dense with fresh, tender clams, bathed in extravagant amounts of cream and butter.

clam chowder

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Another excellent appetizer was this bowl of steamers, also sparklingly fresh and briny; served with the traditional clam broth and drawn butter for dunking. From many years back, I remembered the knack of picking up each clam by the neck and grabbing the body with your teeth so it pulls right out of the neck skin, which you then discard.

steamers 2

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We ventured on a few more elaborate starters. Here’s a plate of baby lobster cakes and a dish of mushroom caps stuffed with crabmeat. Actually, they’d both have been better if they’d had somewhat less binder and more crustacean – but they were still pretty good.

appetizers

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Naturally, lobsters were everywhere. Over the week I think we saw more lobsters, both live and cooked, than we saw tourists – and, in Maine in August, that’s saying something! Since neither of us can readily dismember a whole boiled lobster without stabbing ourselves with a pick or a piece of shell or claw, we both happily ate a dish called Lazy Lobster: all the meat of a 1¼-pound lobster, taken out of the shell in large, neat chunks and presented in a pool of lemon butter.

lazy lobster

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Then there were the fried dishes. Clam strips, whole belly clams, oysters – always with good crunchy coatings and sweet tender flesh. Serving sizes were so generous that we never finished the french fries that always came along on the plate

fried things

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Last but not least, there were rolls. For our very first lunch in Maine, enroute to our rented cottage, we stopped at a little restaurant we knew nothing about, and I had the best lobster roll I’ve eaten in my life. It had the whole tail and both large claws of a lobster heaped on a lightly toasted, well flavored, large round roll. Alas, my camera was still packed in the duffle bag, so I couldn’t photograph it. For lunch a few days later, we had crab rolls, served more conventionally on a hot-doggish bun, with a good cole slaw and fried onion nuggets (the small central segments of onion slices whose big rings were used for standard fried onion rings). The crabmeat was finely shredded and dressed with a light tang of malt vinegar. Unusual (or so it semed to us), and very nice.

crab roll

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We probably ate more butter and more fried food during this single week than we usually do in a whole season, but the dreadful fact that neither nutritionists nor dieters nor “healthy eaters” ever want to acknowledge is that, when done well, frying makes all food – but especially ocean-fresh seafood – taste marvelous. So, despite the dearth of birds, our trip to Maine had some powerful consolations.

contentment

 

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