Thursday, February 28, 2008

Still Cooking for Margy

I've obviously been a horribly delinquent blogger. It's been eating away at me. Plus I'm not inventorying our meals properly, which was always a fringe benefit of running CFM -- if I wanted to remember how I'd handled a dish or an ingredient, I could just look it up. That's helpful when you don't really use recipes and tend not to write things down. So the details behind that amazing roux-thickened, herb-flavored sauce I made for a red snapper back in October will keep fading away until I just have to start again from scratch and hope I haven't lost my juju.

Now, let's get caught up a little. We have a trip to rehash before I get back to discussing my own kitchen experiments.

Last September, Margy and I went to Amsterdam and Germany. It was our first visit to Amsterdam and my first visit to Germany (Margy's been there countless times; her mom is German born). Everything we ate in Amsterdam was delicious -- every meal, for each of our five days. We went fancy; we went humble. I had rare lamb chops with fried gnocchi one night (before we went to see the Police at the 50,000-seat Amsterdam ArenA), and the next day, after hanging around the Rembrandt House, I ate the best hot dog I've had in my life. I dressed it with mustard and a zig-zag of curry ketchup and nibbled on it as a brass band floated by on the canal beneath us, a bunch of guys in yellow shirts and red ties, packed so tightly into a little boat that there wasn't room for them to move beyond working their trombone slides.

And of course we ate Dutch pancakes. This is our sweet/savory combo: one with lemon and sugar, which we dressed with a thick molasses-rich syrup, and one with bacon and onion. Just thinking about the aroma of the batter on the griddles in that restaurant is enough to make me book another ticket.

The German food we ate didn't dazzle me the way the Dutch offerings did. We had a few fancy meals that were excellent, but I had my eye more on the everyday foods. Would you believe that I couldn't get myself a bratwurst? I don't know, maybe in its native land bratwurst has become a joke, or a myth. Is it the Salisbury steak of Germany? Not once, but twice, I found a wonderful-sounding item on a menu -- "seven little grilled bratwurst served with potatoes and onions," let's say. I stomped my feet a bit and rubbed my hands together and got ready for snappy sausages. Then I'd hear, "I'm sorry, it isn't available."

The first time this happened I ordered roasted chicken and vegetables instead. I got roasted chicken and vegetables. Not bad. The second time, on our last night in Germany, at an adorable restaurant, sitting on a vine-covered porch overlooking the moonlit Rhine along with Margy's parents, aunt, uncle, and cousins (and their dog), it was harder to take no for an answer. I was confused: "I'm in Germany. Why can't I have a bratwurst?" I listened to Margy's cousin explain that there should be no good reason why a restaurant would run out of bratwurst -- after all, he said, it's vacuum packed and refrigerated and not in danger of spoiling quite like fresh beef would be. I sulked, I pouted. At everyone's suggestion, I ordered a rindswurst. It was okay. It was like a thick-skinned hot dog, only not like an Amsterdam hot dog if you catch my drift.

Looking back, it was in Cologne, on our first night in Germany, where we had what I'd call our most authentic and fun restaurant meal. (It was also in Cologne where I could have had my way with a bratwurst or a currywurst, but at the time I deemed a stand outside the train station to be an inappropriate setting. Wish I could take that one back.) The place was a "small" beer hall, which meant it could hold only about a hundred people or so. We started with pickled herring, which frankly was more of a red herring if you ask me -- it had the perfect balance of flavors and was so wonderfully delicious that it set up, in my mind, expectations that would not be met over the next few days.

Here's Margy's main course from that meal -- curled sausage with potatoes. The creamy white mound at left is the vegetable. It's cream. Sorry -- it's creamed spinach. Doesn't the sausage look lovely? It tasted like breakfast sausage. My entree of pork knuckle (it's meat from the leg, not an actual knuckle), which had the same accompaniments, was tasty but dry.

The atmosphere, however, was great. A big, boisterous table of German men dining after work (presumably) was given its own portable six-liter fountain of Kolsch beer, and I could watch the liquid level fall steadily before my eyes as the guys drew more drinks. Meanwhile, Margy and I were drinking Kolsch as well -- in six-ounce glasses. The poor hardworking waitress, clutching a palette hollowed out with round holes to hold a bunch of tiny glasses, had to run downstairs every time we wanted two more beers. When the check came, Margy and I found we'd drunk nine beers between us.

I don't mean to slag German food. We had a bunch of great lunches -- smoked trout, liverwurst, ham, cheese, brown bread -- and we did enjoy our two fancier dinners, which included a Riesling cream soup with dill and chive dumplings, and perhaps the best mushroom dish I've ever eaten: duck ravioli with chanterelles and peaches. The mushroom flavor (there was a truffle in there somewhere) was utterly clear and pure, and eating the ravioli was one of those times when you're simultaneously rushing and stalling. Margy's parents have seen me ooh and aah over food, but my ravioli rapture might have scared them a little.

Also, I found that, especially in Cologne but in other town centers that we walked through as well, there is a bewitching meaty aroma wafting through the German air. It's the scent of great pieces of pork set a-roasting. It had me transfixed, and it tempted me to track it down. I chased it, I floated after it, but I couldn't see it -- I couldn't be sure exactly where it led. It angers me still that I can't eat that aroma, even though I cannot quite remember the aroma itself. Madness, take me now! I vow to return, and to find the place where I can satisfy my hunger. Maybe the joint will serve bratwurst.

Monday, July 02, 2007


Our garden gets a little more ambitious every year.

Last summer, we had three cherry tomato plants, a bunch of cucumbers, hot peppers that weren't even close to being hot, lots of herbs, and a crop of long beans that yielded a serving for Margy and me about three times.

This time around, we've got one grape tomato and one beefsteak tomato plant, more cukes, jalapeños that might actually hold a little heat (if they'd just mature already), oodles of pole beans (green, yellow, and purple), arugula and mixed baby greens (wonderful but now succumbing to the burgeoning summer sizzle), and again many different herbs.

And beets. Some of which are now ready. The leaves and stalks have been gorgeous -- that deep red-purple color that there's no point in calling anything else but beet red. Once the bulbs poked out of the soil and showed themselves as relatively plump and ready to be eaten, it was time to go.

Of course, one of these plants (we have three) offers only a few small beets, so that's all I had to work with today. Using a recipe from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, I cubed the beets and roasted them with olive oil and salt and pepper until they just began to caramelize. As I removed them from the oven, I popped a piece in my mouth. Sweet and earthy. Ready to become a salad. I dressed them with oil, vinegar, and fennel seeds and let them steep awhile.

Margy shaved some farmers'-market fennel ("What do you do with the tops?" said the woman who sold me the fennel, just as I was wondering myself) on the mandoline, almost shaving her palm along with it. What is it about that device? Me, I basically refuse to touch it, even though I'd love to put it to use. It terrifies me.

Bottom line: Beets plus fennel in three forms -- bulb, fronds, seeds -- equals deliciousness. Just be sure to eat a sweet salad like this along with something salty or sour, or else you'll think you've skipped dinner and gone right for (an admittedly very healthy) dessert.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Crab Month Ends on a High Note

I really should have called my dad.

Earlier, as I set out for ShopRite, I told Margy: If they still have soft-shell crabs, I'm getting some. It's the end of June; time is running out.

And what do you know, there they were, languishing in short stacks behind the glass. "Are they alive?" I asked.

"Some of them," said the fish guy, rooting around the crab bin. "But they're fresh -- they just came in today. Oh, look, that one's alive."

"I'll take four."

He knows that if something isn't up to par, then I don't need it that day. He found me four good plumpies.

Now I had to think about frying. For what was surely our last fling of SSC season, it was fry or bust. The first three times, I went with the grill, which was great, but I've regretted not breaking out the peanut oil. Sputter and pop all you want, crabs -- you're taking a hot bath.

In a way, frying was only the beginning, because my overarching scheme was to make soft-shell crab po' boys. I'd never had one, though an oyster po' boy I ate once at a place that used to be on 1st Street at 1st Avenue in NYC was until today my favorite sandwich ever.

The idea of a soft-shell crab po' boy just seemed too good to be true. It reminded me of reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a kid and poring over passages that mentioned the delectable-seeming but hopelessly exotic Turkish delight. This is just a fantasy food, I'd think while I drooled on my OshKosh dungarees.

But somehow I knew soft-shell crab po' boys existed, and I knew how I wanted to make my version. (And I'm still traumatized by the fact that real Turkish delight isn't as good as C.S. Lewis made it sound, though the deconstructed version at Zaytinya in Washington, DC, might be even better.)

While Margy broke out the mandoline to julienne carrot, zucchini, and apple for a slaw, I started with a recent Mark Bittman recipe from the Times for the basic frying method, which was fantastic. I dipped the crabs in a mixture of egg and milk, then dredged them in a 50-50 blend of flour and cornmeal and slipped them into a hot quarter-inch of oil. Good things started to happen.

To make the sandwiches, I broiled split foot-long rolls (coming just a second within having mine go up in flames) and layered them with chipotle mayo, baby red leaf from our garden, sliced pickles, and slivered red onion. On each roll went a crab and a half. That meant there was even a whole crispy, golden-brown crustacean left over for Pops, had I had the foresight to tip him off. What a lousy son.

After Margy wisely decided that one enormous sandwich was enough for her, I ate the fourth crab with a knife and fork and my fingers, drizzling it now and then with lemon juice. I saved a crunchy claw for last.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Greatest Sunday

Our farmers' market is open.

Nothing against ShopRite, but from now until mid-November we're pretty much all about the Jersey produce, grown locally, bought locally, eaten as soon as possible. And it's amazing to see what a difference a few thousand miles makes. Right now, supermarket berries are pretty good. But the ones at the farmers' market? Amazing. Margy and I bought a box of some of the juiciest strawberries we've ever had, and we found blueberries that taste exactly like... blueberries! It's the best.

I also picked up a big box of fava beans, which I had never dealt with before. I got home and read up on the ingredient, and suddenly the big box of beans seemed a lot smaller. First, you shell the beans. Then you blanch and peel them (unless they're very young and tiny, which mine weren't). The usable portion is minuscule. So I drove back to the market.

"Didn't you just get some of these?" said the guy at the stand as I grabbed a second helping. I'm guessing he's never cooked with fava beans.

A while after I got home and went to work on, oh, a hundred pods or so, I stood back from my kitchen table to see a craggy green mountain of empty casings casting a shadow over a small bowl of beans. A while after that, once I'd dropped the beans into boiling water, rinsed them, and slid off their skins, I could fit the foundation of our dinner in the cupped palms of my hands. I allowed myself to eat a single fava bean. It was ultrafresh and delicious.

I boiled about four-fifths of the beans in chicken broth along with more farmers'-market bounty -- garlic scapes and sweet summer onions -- plus oregano and parsley from our garden. Then I puréed this glorious stew and warmed it up on the stove with the rest of the whole beans and served it over spaghetti, garnished with fried garlic and the sliced green tops of the onions.

Summer really is here, and having access to ingredients like these makes those stifling, sticky days a lot easier to handle, and a lot more tasty.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Crab Month Marches (Sideways) On

Another plate of grilled crabs, even simpler still this time. All they had was a dusting of kosher salt and cracked white and black pepper. I also made soy-honey salmon.

I'm starting to feel like I'm torturing my father every time I mention my crabby exploits. He loves dear, sweet, crunchy-meaty soft-shells as much as I do, but my mom, who's the sole cook in their house, claims to be allergic. It's not hard to do the math: Pops hasn't had a crab all year. I keep telling my mom that even supermarkets sell the things now -- she says she's willing to feed my dad as many crabs as he wants, if only she could find some -- but apparently my parents have moved too far away from civilization to have access to such exotic creatures. I gotta have Dad over for dinner.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Crab Month Continues

For this week's installment, I kept the crabs simple but surrounded them with a few little goodies.

Goodie No. 1 is invisible to the eye, but it made its presence known. My parents recently traveled to Italy, the lucky ducks, and, in Amalfi (my ancestral hometown -- one of them, at least), my mom bought Margy and me a big ol' bottle of our beloved limoncello. Of course, Italian flight officials callously snatched it from her before she boarded a plane to Rome. They were supposedly invoking the no-liquids rule, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that the limoncello was not screened for explosive material -- beyond grain alcohol, that is... and we all know what that screening process is like.

So, Mom gave me the next best thing: actual Italian lemons. Big, fat, knobby lemons whose juice is sweet as candy but still carries a lovely tartness. Seems she had offered yummy cookies to their chambermaid and in return was presented with these fresh Amalfitano delights. Five lemons made it home, and I got two of them. The pressure to use them well was enormous.

With the juice of one, I made a poached shrimp dish from a recipe by Marcella Hazan. I boiled unpeeled shrimp in water perfumed with vegetables and a drop of vinegar, then peeled the cooked shrimp and marinated them, still warm, in a two-to-one mixture of good olive oil and (great) lemon juice. I used the same oil-lemon potion to dress purple baby artichokes, which I'd steamed and grilled briefly.

I also grilled the soft-shell crabs, brushed with chive butter that included zest from the Italian lemon. Those legs got nice and crispy!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Crab Month Begins

Yeah, I still cook every now and then.

Especially in May, when soft-shell crab season arrives with a great big crunch and a tasty spurt of crab mustard. Sure, I stopped by the fish counter in late April, just in case, but I was sent away with everything but soft-shells. Then I had no choice but to wait as patiently as I could.

The time finally came, and to kick off this year's soft-shell series I tried grilled teriyaki crabs, along with my stalwart teriyaki bearers, shrimp and salmon. (The stuff is great left over, though the crabs, at least, would never make it beyond this evening.) I didn't want to marinate the crabs and soften their legs and claws, so I just seasoned them with salt and pepper and began brushing on the sauce after they'd crisped up a bit on the grill.

After having my anticipation reach a fever pitch, I admit I felt more relief than joy as Margy, now home safely from Beijing and ready for everything but Americanized Chinese food, and I tucked into our first crabs of '07. But this was just an hors d'oeuvre -- there are many more soft-shells to come before the Fourth of July.