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Archive for the ‘Seafood’ Category

We celebrated Independence Day this year by having good friends over for an American dinner. This was a bit of a menu challenge, since my palate, my pantry, and my parties mostly tend toward Italian and French. But I dug into my recipe collection and came up with an all-American lineup, while Tom dug into his wine storage for American wines.

We started modestly in the living room with aperitifs of Gruet brut, a champagne-method sparkling wine from New Mexico, with cocktail peanuts, cheese straws, and pickled herring to nibble on. I made the cheese straws with New York State cheddar, and the little tidbits of herring in mustard sauce were from Russ & Daughters on Houston Street, one of Manhattan’s many noted immigrant success stories.
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At table, our first course was a New Orleans favorite, Crabmeat Maison as served in Galatoire’s restaurant. I’ve written here before about making this luscious preparation for Atlantic blue-claw crabmeat. This day it paired beautifully with a 2016 Chenin Blanc from Paumanok Vineyards on Long Island.
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From there we moved to a rolled rib roast of beautifully rare beef, sourced from Ottomanelli’s of Bleecker Street, one more noted Manhattan immigrant success. This delicious centerpiece was accompanied by picnic-style vegetables: first-of-the-summer corn on the cob, new potato salad (I’ve written here about this too), a colorful heirloom tomato salad; and an ever-reliable three-bean salad, with black beans, kidneys, and chickpeas. The corn, potatoes, and tomatoes were from local farmers at my greenmarket. Our wine was a fine 2010 Petite sirah from California’s Ridge Vineyards.
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Even our cheese board held only US cheeses: Leonora, a goat; Harbison, a soft-ripening cow; Grayson, another cow; and one called Simply Sheep. All but the Grayson were new to us, and all were very good. With them we drank another excellent Ridge wine: 2010 Geyserville. (Tom has written about all these wines in his blog.)
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We concluded with small strawberry shortcakes, that quintessentially American summer dessert. Again, I’ve written about this classic recipe from the American Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series. They were local strawberries, of course. This particular batch came out quite messy looking, but they tasted perfectly good.
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All that definitely made a Glorious Fourth dinner. For the final aspect of the patriotic theme, our evening’s music program was also all-American. The guests arrived to the tune of John Philip Sousa marches, and when they were all played, we listened to quiet jazz by Teddy Wilson, who, in Tom’s opinion, probably has the lightest touch of any jazz pianist ever.

Expressing patriotism is a tricky business these days, but culinary patriotism can win all available hearts, minds, and stomachs.

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During the week in Venice that Tom and I are just back from, we indulged in so much seafood that we could almost feel gills beginning to form on our necks. Most fish and shellfish from the Adriatic Sea and the Venetian lagoon are so unlike anything we get at home that every meal was an adventure. Here are highlights.

 

Antipasti at Giorgione

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Friends who live part of every year in Venice took us to this simple family-run trattoria in their neighborhood. We started with granseola, a kind of spider crab, and cicale di mare, mantis shrimp. Both were simply boiled, chilled, and dressed with olive oil and lemon. Neither flavor resembles those of our blue claw crabs or shrimps of any size, but both were delicious.
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Main courses at
Al Covo

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This is a handsome, chef-owned, Slow Food member restaurant with a mission to “research, appreciate, defend and propose” the products of the territory around the Venetian lagoon. We ate there with our Venetian friends also, who patronize it often.
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My main course, above, was breaded and fried sarde “de alba” (“dawn” sardines: a name for fish caught first thing in the morning and cooked that same day) and canoce (another local name for mantis shrimp).
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These are the two halves of Tom’s main course, a fritto misto dell’Adriatico. It was served that way, in sequence, apparently so that none of the fried things would get cold. They were sole (smaller and sweeter than any variety we get here), anchovies, scallops, squid, shrimp, monkfish, polenta, and several vegetables. Enough food for a hungry boy scout troop..

 

Dinner at Ai Barbicani

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On our first visit to Venice, many years ago, we had two very pleasant dinners at this little restaurant in the city’s medieval section. We were delighted this year to find it still in business, warm, charming, and even better than we remembered. They presented us with welcoming glasses of Prosecco and good-night glasses of grappa.
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We each had this most unusual antipasto of marinated raw seafood. There were shrimps in raspberry sauce; anchovies in vinegar and currants; thin, thin strips of cuttlefish mantle, and nuggets of monkfish. Fascinating flavors and textures, very attractively presented.
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Then we had an extravaganza of mixed grilled seafood: There were two big sweet-fleshed scampi, two even bigger mazzancolle (king prawns), a large sole, a small salmon steak, and chunks of coda di rospo (the ubiquitous monkfish), all perfectly grilled and amazingly fresh and moist. Even the platter on which they were served was almost a work of art.
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Dinner at Osteria da Fiore

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This entire trip to Venice was a gift to ourselves for our 50th wedding anniversary, and on the day itself we dined luxuriously at this Michelin one-starred restaurant. It had what for us is an ideal combination of elegant French ambience and service with the best of lightly modernized traditional Venetian cooking. We adored it.

Our first courses were spaghetti with tartufi di mare (Venus clams) and agnolotti filled with fresh peas in a sauce of astice (spiny lobster) with fresh ginger – the latter a particularly intriguing exotic note.
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Small soft-shell crabs from the Venetian lagoon – moleche in Italian, moeche in Veneziano – are available only briefly in spring and fall. Delighted to find we were there just before the end of the season, we both chose them for our main course. Perfectly deep-fried, they were the best dish we ate in the entire trip.
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We also had our best wine of the trip at Fiore, which Tom talks about in his blog. All in all, a great celebratory trip and a wonderful meal for an important anniversary.

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Last week Tom and I were in France, cruising the Rhône on the 110-meter MS Camargue. Starting from Lyon, we traveled up the river to Mâcon, then down to Avignon and Arles, and back again to Lyon. It was an interesting trip, though the weather was unseasonably chilly and the notorious Mistral wind blew strongly much of the time. Those conditions encouraged hearty appetites, which the ship’s chef was only too ready to indulge.

There were three or four courses at both lunch and dinner, with modest wines of the region generously poured at no cost and a short list of better wines for purchase. (Tom has written about the wines on his blog.) Here are some of the meals we enjoyed.
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Cured ham.  Baked chicken rolls, potato croquettes, broccoli.  Crepes with orange sorbet.

That chicken should be our first dinner was an auspicious start for me, the poultry lover. Not so much for Tom, but he admitted it was a very flavorful bird.

 

Mozzarella and tomato. Red mullet fillet, spelt risotto, asparagus tips. Cafe Liegeois.

I’ve rarely eaten mullet and never, to my recollection, tasted spelt before. This dish made me want to look for more of both. The sauce was particularly good too.

 

Fresh pea soup. Pork tenderloin with duchesse potatoes, green beans. Cabosse.

St. Germain: a velvety purée of the freshest green peas. A cabosse is a mold of chocolate in the shape of a cacao bean. This one was filled with chocolate mousse.

 

Salade lyonnaise. Roasted rabbit, gnocchi, carrots. Lemon tart.

A poached egg (barely visible here) makes a marvelous dressing for Lyon’s signature entrée salad. The rabbit was one of the best I’ve ever had.

 

At the end of the cruise Tom and I spent three more days on our own in Lyon. That city is a gastronome’s paradise, and we’d carefully chosen the restaurants where we wanted to eat: no modern, elegant, Michelin-starred establishments but the deeply traditional brasseries and bouchons beloved by the Lyonnais. I’ll devote my next post to those dinners.

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The other day I idly pulled out my copy of Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking. I’ve had the book ever since it appeared in 1978 but have rarely used it in recent years. Turning pages, I found many recipes I’d completely forgotten about.

Now, I yield to nobody in my reverence for Marcella – “the first name in Italian cooking,” as she was billed in her early days – but this, her second book, is not in my opinion equal to her first. There she stayed mainly in her comfort zone of Bolognese and Emilia-Romagna cooking, but here she broadens out to other Italian regions. I feel that her southern Italian recipes, especially, don’t reflect the sure hand she had with the dishes of her native region.

Ignoring those reservations on this occasion, I was attracted to her Sicilian recipe for Bocconcini di Pesce Spada Fritto – fried swordfish tidbits. In the headnote she says Sicily has the finest swordfish in the world. From my admittedly modest experience in that region, I agree. She also says this preparation keeps swordfish “as moist and tender as it was when it first came out of the sea.” For that, I’d give it a try.

The recipe needs fairly thin slices of the fish. I was able to get my local fish store to butterfly a New-York-standard-sized swordfish steak to yield two more or less ¾-inch thick pieces.
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I cut them into smaller pieces, as directed, and put them into a marinade of olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, salt, and pepper for two hours at room temperature, turning the “tidbits” occasionally.
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Then they had to be patted dry and dipped in egg and flour to be ready for frying.
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Next, I may have made a bad mistake. I had some lightly used frying oil that could handle one more use, so I poured it into a pan and got it hot – without rechecking the recipe’s instruction. Which, I saw when I did look back, called for only ¼ inch of oil. Mine was over an inch deep. Well, I said to myself, this fish is to be fried, not sauteed. Surely it will cook just as well, and probably even faster, this way. So in the pieces went.
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They took quite a bit longer than I expected to develop the indicated light golden crust, and even though I’d carefully shaken off the excess egg and the excess flour, the coating seemed unusually thick and rough.
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To my regret, I can only call this dish mediocre. The swordfish had stayed moist, all right, but the strong flavor of eggy, oily crust was the predominant note on the palate. That, and maybe also the oil in the marinade, seemed to increase, rather than counteract, swordfish’s natural oiliness. Even fresh lemon juice couldn’t redeem it.

Possibly my fish steak wasn’t as fresh as it could have been? I loved all the swordfish I’d eaten in Sicily. Maybe if my fish had been caught in the Straits of Messina, by the local ages-old method, and brought to the table within a day, it would have been a whole different thing. Maybe I ruined it by my inattention to detail in the frying. Or maybe Marcella didn’t entirely succeed in translating the Sicilian dish for the American kitchen. Or possibly all of the above: there are days like that.

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I tried an unusual shrimp dish this week. Most of the time, when I serve shrimp it’s either in a traditional shrimp cocktail – briefly boiled, chilled, and dressed with a spicy ketchup-based sauce – or cooked in a way that uses a lot of fat: frying, sautéeing, or broiling with butter or olive oil. Itself almost pure lean protein, shrimp seems to revel in being bathed in tasty fats.

There’s very little fat in the recipe for shrimp au poivre I found in Joyce Goldstein’s Kitchen Conversations. The premise of the entire book is capitalizing on balancing contrasting flavors. In this recipe the contrasts are shrimp for sweetness, lemon juice and zest for sourness, and garlic and black pepper for heat. Goldstein says her inspiration was steak au poivre, in which the meat is coated with cracked peppercorns, sauteed, and served with a deglazing sauce.

I’ve had mixed success with this book’s recipes, so I was skeptical about whether shrimp could really handle the amount of pepper this one calls for, but interested enough to try it. I scaled down the recipe quantities by a third to provide two portions and assembled the ingredients.
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You see up there two generous teaspoons of coarsely ground Tellicherry pepper. Actually, the recipe called for cracked pepper, but I’ve never enjoyed the sensation of biting into peppercorn chunks, so I took the liberty of making that change.
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Moving right along, I salted the shrimp lightly and seared them quickly in minimal olive oil.

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I took out the shrimp, deglazed the pan with white wine and fish stock; stirred in minced garlic, minced lemon zest, lemon juice, and the pepper; and cooked briskly to reduce the liquid by half.
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Then all there was left to do was return the shrimp to the pan, give them another sprinkle of salt, heat them through, swirl in a little softened butter to smooth out the sauce, and serve.
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It was an almost startling dish. The sauce certainly made a contrast with the sweetness of the shrimp. Tellicherry peppercorns, said to be the richest and sweetest variety, also have a lot of fire, and it was all on display here. I’d say it was even intensified by the lemon juice and zest. The garlic, normally a perceptible presence in any dish, was pretty faint in this one.

The overall effect was weird at first, but as we ate along, it grew on me. Not, I’m sorry to say, on Tom, for whom the dish simply never came together. Despite being a major shrimp lover, I doubt I’ll make this recipe again – but I can imagine enjoying the dish if it were served to me some time in the future.

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At a mid-autumn dinner at Manhatta, Danny Meyer’s newest New York City restaurant, I had a luscious lobster quenelle – the first I’d ever tasted. Its rich flavors stayed on my mind’s palate for weeks afterward. I just had to try making it at home.

Now, quenelles are not in my skill set. I’d only once made fish quenelles, many years ago, when I acquired my first food processor (the device that took the fantastically complex work out of making them), and all I recall now is that it still seemed like too fussy a dish to pursue. But quenelles with lobster – that’s surely worth another effort! Off to the fish market I went and picked up a good-looking pair of lobster tails.
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The first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking devotes six pages to quenelles, and Julia Child is very encouraging about them. She says they now “take literally minutes and have stepped out of the never-never-land of ultra fancy food into the everyday life of the average home cook.”

Julia, I adore you, but if you were still here among us, I’d tell you that that is an exaggeration.

The first step in the master recipe is to make a pâte à choux. No problem there: I’ve made puff paste for both savory (gougères) and sweet (profiteroles) dishes. I melted butter, salt, pepper, and nutmeg in boiling water; dumped in flour and beat ferociously; off heat, beat in an egg and an extra egg white; then set the entire pot in a bowl of ice water to thoroughly chill the paste.
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Next was to prepare the quenelle mixture. My bespoke knife man obligingly cracked open the lobster tails, extracted the meat, and cut it into one-inch chunks.
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The chilled lobster meat, the choux paste, and some heavy cream went into the food processor.
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If the mixture looked stiff after giving it a very thorough whirling, Julia said to blend in more cream – as much as it would take, which would keep the finished quenelles’ texture light and delicate. Well, it did look pretty stiff . . .
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. . . but I was warned against using too much cream, because the mixture had to be able to hold its shape on a spoon. Mercifully, Julia set up a test for that: Scoop out a bit of the paste, drop it into simmering water, poach it, and taste.
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Next instruction: “Process in more cream if you think it can be absorbed – but better too little than too much!” Worry worry worry. It took three more additions of cream and three more poachings to keep the test pieces from feeling rubbery in the mouth. (As you may have noticed, those Julian minutes were adding up.)

Finally ready to form and poach the quenelles, I filled a roasting pan with three inches of water and brought it to a simmer. Now the idea was to work rapidly, using two wet dessert spoons, to shape the batter into smooth ovals and drop them into the water. Here’s how that process worked for me.
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Pitiful! The batter wouldn’t smooth, it stuck to the wet spoons, and by the time the pieces hit the water, they had knobs and pimples all over. But after about 25 minutes they all duly came to the surface of the water, floated around, allowed themselves to be turned over a few times, and eventually swelled reasonably well.
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I must say it’s hard to understand how my half recipe’s worth of batter, which was supposed to make about 8 quenelles, turned out to make 24. I intended them to be a main course for 3 people, and it was clear we’d never be able to eat that many at a sitting. I selected the 18 least misshapen little lumps, set them in a dish, and left it covered in the refrigerator overnight. (Packaged up the rest separately.)
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Next day came the sauce making. The chopped up lobster shells went into a broth made from a fish bouillon cube and simmered together lengthily to make a concentrated stock. I cooked butter and flour together, beat in equal parts of boiling stock, milk, and white wine to make a very thick sauce, and thinned it out somewhat with heavy cream (cream and butter being the universal solvents of classic French cuisine).
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Finally came the assembly: Spread a thin layer of sauce in a buttered gratin dish, arrange the quenelles in it, pour the rest of the sauce over them, sprinkle on grated gruyere, and add – what else? – dots of butter. At dinner time the dish baked for 15 minutes in a very hot oven.
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It came out looking a bit messy but with an enticing seafood aroma. We could tell the quenelles were going to be very rich, so I put only three on each plate to start.
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They were marvelous! Light, fluffy, melting in the mouth, tasting intensely of lobster, with the sauce a perfect companion. So rich that none of us could eat more than three.

Now I’ve got some terrific leftovers to look forward to. And I’m very glad to have actually achieved this delicious dish. It was well worth all the time and effort.

But, dear Julia: mere minutes? everyday life? average cook? I don’t think so.

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On the trip to Malta that I wrote about last week, we spent one day on Gozo, the country’s second largest island. More rural than the eponymous main island, Gozo has its own full share of marvels, from megalithic to medieval, as well as lovely rolling hills and excellent traditional food. A highlight of the day for Tom and me was lunch made by the noted Gozo chef George Borg – a lunch made not just for us but partly by us.

This was a fun occasion as well as a delicious one. George is a delightful man and a very talented chef, passionate about Maltese culinary traditions, as well as about wine. When we arrived at his studio kitchen, he had work stations and aprons set out for us; and he started us right off at helping to prepare the antipasto course: his own Gozo-style ftira.
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Now, the ftira we had in Valletta, as I showed last week, was on a thick base of bread, hence fairly heavy for an antipasto. George’s version lightens it by using flaky butter pastry. We were intrigued. The topping we made that day was potatoes, onions, tomatoes, olives, capers, garlic, and anchovies. I thinly sliced potatoes, Tom halved grape tomatoes, and George did the rest.

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While the ftira was baking, we moved on to preparing the next course, which was to be stuffed baked pasta shells. For the filling I mashed several little cheeselets – Malta’s ubiquitous fresh sheep cheese – with grated pecorino, chopped parsley, and black pepper.

Then, in the the most unusual way of treating pasta I’ve ever encountered, George gave Tom and me each a pastry tube filled with the cheese mixture and a pile of pasta shells to be filled with it – raw shells.

 

Once stuffed, the shells went into gratin dishes. George poured on milk to come half way up the pasta, sprinkled the dishes generously with grated pecorino, and put them in the oven to bake with the ftira.

 

Next, George brought out the fish that was to be our main course: fillets of lampuki. This autumn-season specialty is Malta’s favorite fish. Elsewhere, it’s called dorado, dolphin fish, or mahi mahi. But the ones caught here are nothing like the huge, bull-headed, pastel-hued creatures we in the US know as mahi mahi. The lampuki we saw in Malta’s fish markets were small, slender, silvery, white-fleshed fish, with no scales.

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The fillets George cut up were no more than a foot long. He said this was the end of the lampukis’ season, and that was as big as they ever got. To give us an authentic Gozo experience, he cooked them in one of the favorite local ways: just floured, shallow-fried, and served with a tomato sauce.

George’s sauce was based on his own sundried purée of tomatoes. (That is, not a purée of sundried tomatoes but a fresh tomato sauce that he’d made, spread out on trays, and left to thicken in the sunshine – much the way it’s done in Sicily.) He stirred salt, sugar, and capers into the purée, then softened chopped garlic in olive oil in a skillet, added the seasoned puree and a good slosh of water, and set it on the stove to simmer.

 

At last we sat to lunch. Our host had opened two local wines for us to choose from: a Vermentino and a Sangiovese. Naturally we tried both! They were very good. Tom has a blog post on Maltese wines that says more about these two.

 

The ftira was delicious – and quite light, thanks to the crisp, buttery flaky crust. It was hard to resist gobbling it all down, but we knew how much more there was to come.

 

Next came the baked stuffed pasta. The parts of the shells that had been in the milk were soft and fully cooked, while their top edges were firm, brown and crunchy. The milk itself had thickened into a lightly cheese-flavored cream. The mix of textures was a bit disconcerting to us – not the way we’re used to dealing with pasta. It tasted fine, but we still haven’t gotten past our sense of its oddness.

 

 

The lampuki was lovely in its simplicity – quite delicate but very flavorful – and the rich tomato sauce made an ideal complement. We relished every bite of the sweet, firm flesh, whose richness was nicely counterpointed by the acidity and brightness of the sauce.

 

George was eager to give us dessert, but after all those good dishes we couldn’t eat another thing. Tiny cups of espresso and glasses of an excellent grappa made a perfect conclusion to this wonderful meal. As we departed, with compliments on all sides, George gave us a copy of one of his cookbooks. I’m very much looking forward to trying some of his recipes!

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