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Culinary serendipity takes many forms, not the least of which is sparking ideas for using small amounts of leftovers. On a recent day, my refrigerator and freezer produced a 7-ounce raw filet of John Dory, 3 ounces of raw shrimp, and 4 ounces of mushrooms.

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With an open container of heavy cream also available, inspiration for dinner was easy: something classically French. Julia Child to the rescue, with her poached fish recipes in the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. From the book’s five major recipes, five variations, and five suggested shellfish garnitures, I chose almost the simplest, Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons.

Scaling down the recipe to serve two instead of six required some adjustments. I also took a few shortcuts for further simplicity, hoping that Julia wouldn’t disapprove. For example, the shrimp for the garnish were to be first boiled for five minutes in a stock made from wine, water, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, tarragon, and peppercorns; then tossed in a pan with butter, seasonings, and wine.

I couldn’t see doing all that for my eight little shrimp. I just boiled them for two minutes in salted water, then sauteed them briefly in butter with minced shallots and thyme. I sliced the mushrooms and also sauteed them in butter for a few minutes.

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The fish filet was to be poached in a 350° oven. I strewed minced shallots in a shallow baking dish; laid in the fish filet topped with salt, pepper, and more shallots; poured in enough wine and water to cover the filet; and dotted butter over all.

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Now I was supposed to bring the dish to a simmer on top of the stove before covering it with a sheet of buttered wax paper and putting it in the oven. But I couldn’t: my only baking dish small enough not to surround the filet with too much liquid couldn’t take a direct flame. So the poaching took quite a bit longer than the recipe expected. I worried a bit, but gentle cooking rarely harms a fish, and eventually a fork could pierce the flesh easily, which meant the fish was done.

At that point I realized I had another problem. The poaching instructions that I’d followed had been in a separate master recipe, which didn’t have mushrooms. When I returned to my Bercy recipe, I saw that I ought to have included the mushrooms in the poaching. Oops! Oh, well – it was a pity that my mushrooms couldn’t exchange flavors with the poaching liquid, but they’d just have to join the dish later.

I gently removed the fish to a plate, poured its liquid into a small pot, and boiled it down to about half a cup’s worth. I stirred in a flour-and-butter paste and then heavy cream. Brought the sauce to a boil, seasoned it with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and folded in the shrimps and mushrooms.

Back into its baking dish went the fish filet, and all the sauce and garnishes over and around it. The recipe also called for more dots of butter, but since the dish had already received almost a stick of butter and half a cup of cream (!), I decided to skip that.
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All this was done in the afternoon. In the evening I sprinkled grated parmigiano (instead of gruyere) over the fish in its sauce and reheated the dish under the broiler. Again, because I couldn’t first reheat it on top of the stove, it took a longer time in the broiler – about 10 minutes to warm it through. It hadn’t browned as much as it should, but I was afraid to overcook the fish, so I took it out and served it.
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It was wonderful – even after my shortcuts and alterations. The John Dory was excellent, as always. The mushrooms had – amazingly, given their short time in the sauce – absorbed all the goodness of fish, shrimp, and cream. The sauce itself was silk and velvet on the tongue, and it tasted like the sweet-salt soul of the sea.

Being something of a partisan of Italian cooking approaches, I hardly ever make classic French dishes any more, but this one reminded me of what I’d been missing. Maybe it’s time to revisit them occasionally.
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Incidentally, Beloved Spouse poured a relatively simple white Burgundy with this dish – a Côte de Nuits Villages – and the combination was delightful.

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With only four days in Naples on our Italian trip earlier this month, there was no way Beloved Spouse and I could eat as many of the region’s foods and culinary specialties as we’d have liked. So we focused on – and feasted on – the many excellent kinds of fresh fish and shellfish available there. The beautiful Bay of Naples may not be the pristine pool it once was, but the local seafood remains spectacular in variety and flavor. Here are the dishes we enjoyed.

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Crudo

The word crudo means raw. Appetizer plates of raw fish are very popular in Italy. This one consisted of tender, paper-thin slices of baby octopus and salmon, lightly dressed with olive oil, lemon, and salt, and served on a bed of wild arugula. The interplay of the succulent octopus, the silky salmon, and the mildly bitter arugula was superb.
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Impepata di cozze

Years ago we knew cozze impepata as Neapolitan street food. Sidewalk vendors tended huge drums of boiling salt water heavily flavored with black pepper. They’d suspend a big bunch of mussels over the drum in a perforated dipper, pour water over them until they opened, and dump them onto a paper plate to be eaten with the hands. In this day’s restaurant dish, the mussels were steamed in their own broth, with garlic and oil as well as pepper. Each way, the glory of the simple preparation depends on very fresh, sweet, wild-harvested shellfish. And lots of pepper.

 

Spaghetti alle vongole veraci

This version of spaghetti with clam sauce, from the harborside restaurant La Bersagliera, may be my absolute, all-time, life-long favorite dish of pasta. I order it every time I’m there. Those tiny two-tube clams, the vongole veraci, have more luscious flavor and more intense sweetness here than in any other place and any part of Italy that I’ve ever had them. There’s not much else to the dish – olive oil, parsley, garlic, salt, and a touch of hot pepper – but either the clams from this locality or the way this kitchen handles them produces something purely magical.

 

Scialatelli con frutta di mare

Here are those marvelous mussels and clams again, in another kind of presentation. Scialatelli are fresh egg pasta, cut into a shape like thickish spaghetti but with a softer texture and milder flavor.  The lightly cooked pomodorini – cherry tomatoes – added a bright touch of sweet vegetable acidity to the rich shellfish flavors.

 

Mezze paccheri con coccio

It’s a Naples tradition to serve large tubes of paccheri pasta in a sauce made with chunks of the fish locally called coccio. It’s a kind of gurnard: a big-headed, bottom-feeding fish with large side fins like wings, a relative of our Atlantic sea robins. In America, sea robins are usually considered trash fish, but that whole family can be quite delicious, as Neapolitans know.  Another piscine relative is France’s rascasse, considered indispensable to bouillabaisse.

 

Frittura di paranza

The heap of small fishes on this plate included anchovies, tiny mullets and whiting, and possibly a sardine or two. Each was thinly coated in a tasty batter and fried to a perfect crunchiness. Lemon juice and salt brought out the best in them. Absolutely fresh fish and a really good hand at the fryer are what make this dish: It’s not “fishy” at all.

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Grigliata di calamari e gamberi

The big grilled squid mantle you see here was very tender, meat-sweet, and quite rich, its flavor heightened by exposure to the flame. The two shrimp were also excellent; I’d have been glad of a few more of them. The little mixed salad alongside made a nice contrast of texture and flavors.

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Spigoletta al forno in sale

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A spigola is a European sea bass, which can be a very large fish. Our smaller spigoletta probably weighed about two pounds when whole. Baked to perfection in a salt crust, it was a splendid fish: moist, rich, sweet, tender. (I know: I keep using the same words to describe these dishes. That’s because they were all like that – utterly delicious examples of their kind.)
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Looking at these dishes all together, it’s obvious that there’s nothing exotic or complicated in their preparation or presentation. Given the right ingredients, they’d all be easy to turn out from an American home kitchen. But oh, those ingredients! It’s nearly impossible to get fish and shellfish so fresh, so fine, and so flavorful here. The opportunity to indulge in them would, all by itself, have made my trip to Naples worthwhile.

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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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While the dishes named in the title above are linked by “and,” I hasten to assure you they weren’t eaten together. I made them as appetizers for two of Beloved Spouse’s culinary specialties, which he’d made within a short span of days: Louisiana shrimp remoulade to eat before gumbo and Mexican melted cheese before chili.

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Tom makes terrific oyster and sausage okra gumbos, one version of which I’ve written admiringly about here. For his latest rendition, it fell to me to prepare a worthy, but not overwhelming, first course. I chose a shrimp remoulade recipe from the Junior League of New Orleans’ Plantation Cookbook. The only shrimp remoulade I’d ever made before was a very elaborate version from Galatoire’s restaurant. This one was simpler: its remoulade sauce has only 9 ingredients, compared to Galatoire’s 12.

All the ingredients went into my mini food processor, which quickly converted chopped onion, chopped scallion, pressed garlic, grainy mustard, olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, cayenne, and paprika into a nubbly sauce. That went into the refrigerator overnight to integrate and develop its flavors. The next evening, to precede our gumbo, I arranged cold boiled shrimp on beds of shredded lettuce and topped them with the sauce.
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The remoulade wasn’t bad, and it complemented the shrimp well enough, but to our taste it wasn’t truly great, either. It was very acidic. That may be my fault, because the recipe called for tarragon vinegar and what I had was my own wine vinegar, which is very concentrated. I probably should have used less of it, or thinned it a little with water. Also, there was a lot more mustard in the mix, compared to Galatoire’s version, where the sharpness of the mustard is tempered by tomato puree and ketchup. So unless and until our palates want a really pungent shrimp remoulade, I guess I’ll revert to Galatoire’s version.

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A few days later, Tom made his Santa Maria Pinquito chili. He’s always tinkering with the details of his recipe, but he always uses those small, flavorful pinquito beans that we get from Rancho Gordo. And since he’s constitutionally incapable of making a small quantity of chili, we had to invite a few chili-loving friends to come and share it with us.

I’d planned to have guacamole and chips with aperitifs in the living room, so I needed something small to serve at the table before bringing on the main attraction. I turned to Rick Bayless’s Authentic Mexican cookbook for his queso fundido con rajas y chorizo, which I’d made successfully before. A dish of melted cheese with strips of roasted poblano pepper and crumbled chorizo is fairly hefty for an appetizer, but I made only very small portions.

Working alongside the chili chef in the kitchen, I made my advance preparations for the cheese dish. I roasted, peeled, seeded, and sliced a poblano chili into strips, which I sauteed along with some sliced onion. Next I peeled, chopped, and separately sauteed Mexican chorizo. And I cut Monterey Jack cheese into ½ inch cubes.

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Near serving time I put a pan of small, empty gratin dishes in a 375° oven. When they were hot, I spread the cheese cubes in them and returned them to the oven for five minutes, until the cheese was just bubbling. I took out the pan, strewed the pepper-onion mixture and the chorizo on the cheese, and put the pan back into oven for a final five minutes.
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Served with warm flour tortillas for scooping up the melted mixture, the queso fundido was a big hit with everyone. The combination of cheese, sausage, and vegetable flavors somehow made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. I must make this simple, satisfying dish more often!
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I always thought of shrimp sandwiches as using cold, mayonnaise-based shrimp salad. Now I’ve discovered a different kind of shrimp sandwich – warm, spicy, saucy, and good! The recipe, from Richard Sandoval’s New Latin Flavors, is called Tortas con Camarones al Ajillo, or Garlic Shrimp Tortas. One further reason I liked it was that most of the ingredients are things I keep in the kitchen or can get easily, so no special shopping was required.

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I did change a few things when I made the recipe. First, it calls for just “crusty rolls,” which could be anything: French, kaiser, ciabatta, etc. I wanted to have true Mexican torta rolls. Online research told me there are two varieties, called telera and bolillo, which seem to be identical except for the way the tops are slashed. I found a nice recipe for them on the King Arthur Flour website and baked a small batch, using the easier bolillo slash.

 

The next day I was ready to make the tortas for lunch. For two sandwiches, the recipe calls for ¾ pound of shrimp. That sounded like too much for the size of my rolls, so I used only ½ pound. I peeled them, sprinkled on salt and pepper, and let them sit while I started their sauce. (Cook’s confession: I never bother to devein shrimp unless the veins are grossly unsightly.)

I persuaded Beloved Spouse to stem, seed, and cut up two small dried de árbol chiles, a variety I like very much, while I sliced two cloves of garlic very thin. These went into a large pan along with olive oil and a bay leaf, and sauteed until the garlic began to brown.

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I added the shrimp and cooked very briefly, until they just turned opaque . . .
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. . . and removed them from the pan. Into it I poured in ¾ cup of white wine and 1½ tablespoons of lemon juice and cooked until the liquid had reduced by half. Off heat, I put the shrimp back in and left them there to soak up flavors while I prepared the rest of the ingredients.

The tortas were to receive a garnish of tomato slices and a heap of baby arugula. For several days previously I’d had some halfway-flavorful Mexican tomatoes – winter’s best option – and a big plastic box of wild arugula, both of which I’d been using. Alas, when I reopened the box this time, the arugula had gone slimy. I had to substitute shredded Boston lettuce – a much milder green.

While two split bolillos were toasting lightly, I reheated the shrimp, taking out the pieces of chile and the bay leaf, stirring in a teaspoon of chopped parsley and the grated zest of half a lemon, and dissolving two tablespoons of thinly sliced butter into the sauce for a final enrichment.

At last I could put together the tortas. The bottom half of a roll on a plate; the shrimp heaped on, the sauce poured over, plus tomato slices, lettuce, and the top half of the roll.

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Though a little messy to eat, the tortas were scrumptious. There was an almost symphonic interplay of flavors and textures – nutty sweetness of shrimp, subtle scent of garlic, spicy heat of chiles, bright acidity of wine and lemon, richness of butter, softness of tomato, and crispness of lettuce, all contained by a very tasty roll. I only regret having lost the arugula – it would have made another tangy element. Next time, for sure!

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Here’s the report I promised, last week, on what Tom and I ate on our trip to Honduras. It’s a little disappointing: the meals were abundant and edible, but not thrilling. Most were at the lodge where we stayed, and its restaurant was heavy on choices like Eggs Benedict, French Toast, Fettuccini Alfredo, Caesar Salad, Chicken Cordon Bleu, and Rack of Lamb. Moreover, too often the menu’s reach exceeded the chef’s grasp.

However, we did manage to get some reasonable Latin American dishes. There was this Catracho Breakfast: an omelette with onions, refried beans with cheese and sour cream, sautéed plantains, avocado, and warm tortillas. (Hondurans call themselves “Catrachos.”)

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Huevos Rancheros were attractive, but much too bland for our taste. Otherwise-good Fish Tacos could have used more zip, too. Guess the kitchen was afraid to frighten off the gringos.

two dishes

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On the other hand, this Tortilla Soup was the best I’ve ever eaten. We both started several dinners with it. I couldn’t figure out what exactly was in it, but I’m going to have to try various recipes soon to see if I can recreate those flavors.

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Another extremely good starter, seemingly very simple, was a corn tamale that tasted mostly of sweet fresh corn. I ate it with such enthusiasm I completely forgot about taking a photo of it!

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The Fish of the Day was always good, once we could get the kitchen to just grill it, not serve it blackened, with garlic, or with basil. This one was a sea bass, we were told.

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I approached the Tequila Shrimp with some suspicion, but it was fine too. The shrimp were very fresh, and the sauce very good over rice, though I couldn’t really discern any tequila flavor in it.

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We had one lunch at a beachfront restaurant, where I had an excellent conch salad. You can’t see the conch very well, but there was a lot of it: tender and flavorful, with a light, creamy dressing. Tom’s lunch was a generous plate of grilled fish with a topping of sauteed onions and tomatoes, a mound of rice and black beans, and a raft of fried plantains. With that meal (and with many others, truth to tell) we drank Salva Vida, Honduras’s beer, an icy-cold bottle of which is truly a Life Saver in this tropical climate.

triple pic

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The major gastronomical disappointment of the trip was the almost complete absence of mangoes. We had many fruit plates with papayas, pineapples, and bananas, all more richly flavorful than anything we get in in this country. All along the highways were huge, gorgeous trees just dripping with ripe mangoes; some of the trails we walked were littered with fallen fruits that the birds and other animals had enjoyed, but our lodge just didn’t serve them.

By special request, we did get a few tastes, but apparently Hondurans appreciate unripe mangoes – green mangoes, they proudly announced. We just don’t understand that particular preference. Ironically, the juiciest mango we had was in the tiny fruit plate served on the airplane on our way home.  Oh, well – the sidewalk fruit stands in our neighborhood all have mangoes now, so we won’t be totally bereft.

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I’m just back from my birding trip in the Yucatan and haven’t started serious cooking yet. So this week I’ll write about some of the good things I ate there.

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One dish I was particularly looking for was pollo en escabeche, to see how the recipe I’d tried here, just before the trip, would compare. I found this Valladolid specialty in a restaurant in that city. It looked nothing like the one I’d made, and it tasted much, much better than mine.

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The chicken had been cut in strips after its poaching, spice rub, and sautéeing. There were large chunks of sweet onion, strips of pink pickled onion, and one whole large yellow chile xcatique, which was much hotter than the little yellow peppers I’d used. The broth was dark brown, full-flavored, and lightly speckled from the spice paste, with only a hint of the vinegar that had been so strong in mine. I have to admit that mine was only a crude approximation of the real thing. I don’t know whether to blame my recipe, my ingredients, or myself.

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On Thanksgiving Day I had turkey for dinner, semi-traditionalist that I am. Pavo en negro was a far cry, however, from the familiar North American holiday bird. The turkey may have been originally roasted, but then it was shredded and served in a black sauce along with a slice of (also perhaps-roasted) pork loin and a halved hard-boiled egg. From the name I was expecting the sauce to be a thick mole, but it wasn’t. As I’ve since learned from Rick Bayless’s book Authentic Mexican, it’s a Yucatan specialty based on a paste made from chiles burnt black, ground achiote seeds, Mexican oregano, black pepper, cloves, cumin, garlic, and vinegar.

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For all that assertive spicing and almost shocking appearance, the dish was remarkably subtle, and the smooth, flavorful sauce seemed to get even better as it cooled. I wiped up every last bit of it with fresh tortillas.

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One evening Tom and I shared a first course of papadzules. This Yucatan specialty consists of fresh tortillas moistened with a sauce of pumpkin seeds, rolled around a filling of crumbled hard-boiled eggs, and topped with a tomato sauce with a touch of habanero chile. In The Cuisines of Mexico, Diana Kennedy calls it one of the most beautiful of Mexican dishes. Mine, eaten in a very simple restaurant in the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, was not very impressive to look at but was surprisingly delicious.

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That same restaurant gave me another excellent dish: pollo en pibil. Pibil is the word for the Yucatan style of pit barbecuing, though the same effect can be achieved on an indoor stove. My chicken had been marinated in bitter orange juice and spices including achiote (which gives it a rich golden-red color), then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. It was among the best-flavored chicken preparations in this passionate chicken lover’s memory.

pibil

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Just one anticipated culinary pleasure was denied me. I’d been hoping for pulpo – octopus. Just about every menu listed it, but not a single place had any. We were told it was because of high winds following a cold front (from the same storm that caused so much trouble in the Midwest last week), which made it impossible for the fishing boats to bring in any octopi. As a consolation, for dinner on my last night, in Cozumel, I had a combinación de mariscos: grilled shrimp, lobster, and fish, all totally fresh and delicious. Not a bad way to end a trip.

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Here are a few of the other dishes that we ate. Clockwise from upper right, gambas a la plancha, pescado a la veracruzana, cocteil de concha, huevos rancheros, tacos de pescado, menestra.

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