Sunday, October 29, 2006
I've never had a deep-fried Mars bar, but I know I would like it. Because I would like a deep-fried anything, as pretty much all of us would. Tasty, crispy, golden armor just has that magic.
Fried shrimp are a particular favorite around here. I leave deep-frying to the pros (and those who keep buckets of cooking oil laying around the house) and choose to focus on the kind of frying that happens in a quarter inch of peanut oil. I've said it before, but the difference between frying in peanut oil and, say, canola oil is stunning. Peanut oil has a higher smoke point and can cook food hotter and therefore faster, which is the name of the game.
Anyway, I had a leek in the fridge, so I thought I'd try frying it after the shrimp were done. Best idea I've had all week. I sliced the leek lengthwise into very thin strips, and then I dredged the strips in flour and tossed them in the red-hot, full-of-panko-shrapnel pan. For a little while, not much was happening besides a bit of bubbling. But I moved the stuff around with a pair of tongs, and after a minute it began to brown. Seconds after that, it was done, and I had a brittle little tangle of fried leeks that only needed a sprinkle of salt. Margy looked at me like I'd been keeping some terrible yet wonderful secret from her all these years.
Oh, and just for kicks I repeated the process with a thin-sliced jalapeño. Yowza!
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
There's a guy at the ShopRite fish counter who kind of looks like a fisherman. He's the only one I trust back there, and today he told me to try the silverbrite salmon, which was on sale. When I buy seafood, I'm not necessarily looking for a bargain, and I can be suspicious of cut-rate items. But again, I trust this leather-hatted chap. So I bit.
The silverbrite was pinker and paler than bright-orange farmed salmon, and the last time I'd bought it, its flavor was a little strong for my liking. This time, though, as my pal said it would be, it was much better. I dusted it with barbecue rub, broiled it, and served it with a big "autumn power medley" of roasted potatoes with garlic and roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta. Sprinkled with lotsa lemon, the salmon made a great dinner. But the side dishes, with their fall flavors and alternating tender and crispy bits, were the best part.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
I swear I didn't plan it this way, but tonight's turkey keema was a very fitting meal in terms of marking the anniversary of CFM. Keema may be, after all, the dish we've eaten the most over the last 365 days. (Either that, or hamburgers... or maybe bad takeout pizza -- I'll have to check.) This one was particularly fiery, thanks to a potent red jalapeño from the farmers' market. And though any bean will seemingly do and it's fun to sample a variety over time, chickpeas always turn out to be an inspired choice.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Monday, October 16, 2006
Living in the Jersey suburbs, it's just a given that good fish isn't so easy to track down. But it's out there.
Today Margy and I found the elusive Asian market that had been relayed to us as Capital. Its actual name: Captain Fresh.
Judging from the seafood counter, that name is accurate. The place had everything, from snails to clams to finfish to eels, and it all looked pristine. I chose a fat red snapper and asked for it to be filleted. The fishmonger did a beautiful job, working slowly and methodically. I noticed that the man at the sink next to him was cleaning dozens and dozens of small fish, as a piscine mountain grew on the nearby counter.
Our fillets were packed up and wrapped. "Want the head?" the fish guy asked. I hadn't thought about it -- I don't have whole fish filleted that often, and when I do, no one never asks. "Sure, I'll take it," I said, and suddenly I was picturing a sauce in my mind. Margy looked at me and smiled.
I cannot rave about the freshness of this snapper enthusiastically enough. I could have served it as sashimi. You know how the experts always say that very fresh fish has practically no aroma, just a subtle perfume of the sea? This snapper was the very embodiment of that idea. Unwrapping it, I was met with firm but tender flesh, gorgeous unblemished skin, and the hint of an ocean breeze. I hadn't bought this little guy at ShopRite.
I took the head and bones, along with onion, carrot, and parsley, and made a very small amount of stock, which by itself was quite tasty. Then I sautéed the fillets and made a sauce with the stock and some herbs, wine, and heavy cream. Meanwhile, I was roasting potatoes with garlic. On another tray, I roasted some amazing purple-veined beans (I want to say the farmers' market called them lingerie beans, but forgive me if I'm unconsciously merging a few fantasies here) with pancetta.
I don't want to brag, but just in terms of my excitement over the high quality of the ingredients and the fact that everything came together perfectly without any hitches, I would put this dinner in my all-time stove-manning top ten.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
We'd had a long week, so we decided to treat ourselves to a nice Sunday dinner. My mother had really talked up the site of her latest birthday dinner, Pierre's, to Margy (who was in Maine at the time and missed it), so Margy lobbied for that. I capitulated immediately.
Well, my second meal at Pierre's was almost as good as the first, but with a few bumps in the road, starting with our server being wholly incapable of answering even basic questions about the menu and the wine list.
Dinner began with an hors d'oeuvre tasting plate that was rather wonderful in all its Frenchness and included an endless array of goodies: celery root salad, lentil salad, ratatouille, cured salmon, red cabbage, country pâté, cornichons, beets, and a nice dried sausage. It was a great way to start things off and would have made a perfect lunch with just a good chunk of bread.
For her entree, Margy had duck breast with yams, Brussels sprouts, and sour cherry sauce. The flavor was excellent, but I must say the duck was overcooked by a pretty wide margin. This brought forth a bit of a dilemma, as we're not send-it-back'ers, and so Margy chose not to ask for a portion that was cooked more correctly, even though she would have been well within her right to do so. In fact, I'm guessing that whoever plated the duck knew there was around a 50-50 shot that it would be sent back and just decided to roll the dice and hope that the recipient either liked well-done duck, didn't know any better, or just didn't want to be bothered with sending it back.
That latter category is us. Who can be bothered? If the thing had been inedible, I'd like to think we'd have returned it. But I had a nice hot skate wing in front of me, and if Margy had asked for a new piece of duck, the timing of our meal would have been off the rails completely, and who wants that? Again, the duck was delicious, so she just forged ahead. My skate wing was also terrific, crispy around the edges and tender in the middle -- pretty much like the duck should have been. It was served with capers, napa cabbage, and an "olive oil emulsion" that seemed a hell of a lot like mayonnaise. But hey, at least it was good mayonnaise (I'm not normally a fan).
Desserts are definitely Pierre's blind spot. When I went with my parents, we had run-of-the-mill profiteroles that left much to be desired. Tonight Margy and I had a slice of plum tart, which was better than the profiteroles but still seemed a little tired and had zero visual pizzazz. The dessert-cart presentation surely doesn't help. Who wants to see their food paraded around the room for hours -- up and back, there it goes again -- only to be unceremoniously sliced into a portion and shoved their way? It's not like the cart is being replenished all that often. In our case, all the desserts were there and there to stay.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
For a while, as we favored meat sauce made with sausage, meatballs, pork ribs, and the occasional veal shank, ragu played second fiddle in our house.
But now it's back.
And what a sweet reunion it was. As my mom always says, of many different treats, "It's so good when you haven't had it for a while." I don't even remember when I made this ragu (I could probably check), but it was right there in the freezer when we needed it.
What I do remember is that I used ground pork and ground beef, where sometimes I just use beef. As I always say, pork makes everything more fun. Yes, hamburgers are high on my list of favorite foods, and my love affair with steak is having something of a renaissance, but if you made me choose just one meat, pork, in all its fatty, luscious, crisp-skinned, other-white-meat, cure-me-or-eat-me-fresh versatility, would sway me every time. Margy too.
So I'm thinking pork was the secret weapon here. Isn't it always?
Friday, October 13, 2006
It's come to the point where there are no more surprises at the ShopRite fish counter (not good ones, anyway). Going in, I know that the only reliable
Today as I approached the seafood stand I knew I'd be making salmon teriyaki. But, really, there's nothing wrong with that. The sweet-salty-boozy sauce is always welcome around here.
I served the salmon with cucumbers and miso-sesame paste, plus some grated daikon that I dressed with lime juice and togarashi pepper. It was my first time bringing daikon into the house -- I found it at the farmers' market -- but it won't be the last. I was surprised, and pleased, by how spicy it was on its own, which make me realize that in restaurants I've always eaten it in combination with other things. I look forward to exploring more ways to deal with this intriguing white radish.
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Margy and I like a simple hamburger, but sometimes we'll trick one out a bit. As the burgers cooked, I grilled onions and chilies in a knife-slashed foil packet, which is nothing new, but tonight I added some of our cherry tomatoes for a change of pace. They lent a bit of tang to the fiery condiment (I used a superhot red jalapeño from the farmers' market).
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
How did I blow it with our Thai basil plant? Let us count the ways.
Way back in May, when we were poking around a nursery in Vermont, I was beside myself with excitement to find a tiny Thai basil plant sitting in an obscure corner of the greenhouse. We brought it home and I kept it inside until the weather heated up a bit (basil hates the cold), and then Margy potted it and set it outside. All summer I tended to it lovingly, making sure to prune the flowers and to give it enough sun and water. It thrived.
And then I hardly ever used it.
And now it's dying.
And I'm angry with myself.
Don't get me wrong -- it was occasionally put to good use, lending its herbal, aniselike perfume to the occasional stir-fry or curry. But I didn't make enough Thai or Thai-inspired dishes to properly exploit the exotic little bush growing in our back yard.
Tonight is the perfect example. I made a Thai-style squid stir-fry, fragrant with shallots and garlic and fish sauce and spicy with hot peppers, and then I garnished it with cilantro and Margy and I sat down to dinner. All day I was thinking Lotsa basil, lotsa basil, but somehow that crucial bit of information slipped my mind while I was laying out ingredients. Three bites into our meal, I shot out of my chair: "Dammit!" I scared the heck out of Margy, who for some reason doesn't appreciate my frantic non-sequitur exclamations. I clued her in to why I was suddenly upset.
It was pouring out, and we had already started eating. I sat back down.
Thirty seconds later I grabbed the kitchen scissors, stepped into my shoes, and went outside to clip some basil, which I then hastily snipped over our plates. I don't have many chances left, and it's going to be a long Thai-basil-less winter. I'm happy to say this last-minute herb application did indeed make all the difference. If only I had thought of it sooner. And more often.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
When Sonny presented us with that head of orange cauliflower a few weeks ago, I already had white cauliflower sitting in the fridge. I'd bought it at the farmers' market but hadn't used it, and it was in danger of expiring. And now its colorful cousin was threatening to upstage it entirely.
But still, I hate wasting food.
So I took the white cauliflower, trimmed a couple of brown spots, and made soup. I threw in about half of the orange cauliflower as well, saving the rest for something where it would retain its shape (which became last Wednesday's pasta dish). The soup was wonderful, and I froze some. We had it for dinner tonight.
Cauliflower has a great rich texture when pureed, which was enhanced by a bit of potato. And I added a chile and some cumin for a hint of curried flavor. I'm not happy about the weather turning so chilly so fast, but at least I'll always have an excuse to make soup.
Monday, October 09, 2006
Yesterday at the farmers' market I bought a bunch of fresh white-and-red-marbled cranberry beans in their pods. Until now I had never dealt with fresh legumes of this sort -- just canned and dried. Well, fresh is definitely more fun.
The only problem was that a big bag of pods doesn't necessarily yield a big bowl of beans, so I found I could have used a few more. But we made do. I put the shelled beans in a pot of boiling water and simmered them for around 40 minutes until they were tender. I drained them and set them aside, and then I grilled some sausages and cut them into thirds. I'd made time for all this, while Margy napped, or else I would have cut some corners someplace. I certainly could have just cooked the sausages on the stove, but I wanted to go the extra mile and get that grilled flavor.
Meanwhile, I made a simple tomato sauce with a little bit of onion and garlic, and I added the beans and sausages. The beans had a rich, creamy texture and an almost nutty taste, and grilling the links lent deep charred flavor to the sauce. This unassuming dish really packed a wallop, and Margy and I just kept on eating.
Sunday, October 08, 2006
Happy birthday to me. Margy and I came up with a grand, blissfully elemental plan to celebrate my special day: We would look at sea creatures, and then we would eat sea creatures.
So we drove down to Camden on this gorgeous afternoon and spent a few hours at the aquarium, gazing at the seahorses, the seals, the sharks, the hippos. Yes, the hippos, Camden's aces in the hole. I'm not sure I'd ever hung out with hippos before, but I think I would remember if I had. Two enormous specimens live at the aquarium, and they're something to behold. You can watch them underwater through what must be very thick glass. The water is beyond murky and you think you'll never be able to see a thing, but then this massive gray blob begins to float by and come into focus, and what do you know -- it's a hippopotamus! Their skin looks like elephant hide, all wrinkled folds, and they seem positively prehistoric. And of course they're very charismatic. One of them played with a huge blue ball -- slowly -- for a few minutes right in front of us. I recommend paying them a visit if you're even in the Camden/Philly area. Tell them Margy and I say hi.
After hanging out with all these fish and the like, we figured it was time to eat some. I had found two good sushi joints in that area months ago, so tonight we made a reservation at Sagami, a great little place that's set, like most Jersey sushi restaurants, on a fast-moving stretch of commercial highway. Once you're inside, though, the setting is very serene and charming, and the kimono-dressed servers make you feel comfortable.
The sushi is simple and fresh, and Sagami makes the greatest fried oysters I've ever had. You can practically see how crunchy they are. They're dressed with tangy tonkatsu sauce, and after the initial crunch they explode with the juicy, creamy, briny essence of oyster. I could have eaten four orders myself, and I wouldn't have even needed a birthday cake. Just stick a candle in an oyster, and let's party.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
I'm really starting to dig compound butters.
Tonight I made chive butter to brush on a grilled steak, and I spread a bit on some Italian bread, which I also grilled. We had an ear of leftover boiled corn in the fridge, and I grilled that too. Had I grilled the salad, it would have been a clean sweep.
The condiment, which was made by mixing chopped chives and a drop of lemon juice into softened butter, was delicious and really made a difference. Of course, the steak, a rib-eye, was the star, and I must brag that I cooked it perfectly. Margy grew up spending lots of time in Germany, the land of buttered meat (and, of course, the land of chocolate), so she definitely has carnivorous tendencies. I, on the other hand, have always been a great lover of pork, but for a long time I went entirely without steak. I'm glad to say those days are over. I'm not sure what I was thinking.
Friday, October 06, 2006
Had I realized that I was serving fried chicken on a night when a guy named Kenny Rogers was pitching against my beloved Yankees in the American League Division Series, I might have altered the menu. Baseball is a superstitious sport, after all.
But alas I didn't see the connection, and so Margy and I crunched on our cutlets while watching the Yanks get dominated by a suddenly (some might say suspiciously) commanding Kenny Rogers. Final score: 6-0. I'd say it was the only game all season that Margy watched willingly -- she only likes the playoffs, she says -- and it was a sad spectacle indeed. At least we ate well.
Thursday, October 05, 2006
Tonight was burger night, which is always exciting, but the real thrill was in the accompanying long beans and tomatoes, because we grew them ourselves. I know I've been going on and on about our tomatoes, but it's still a rarity for us to have a vegetable side dish that's entirely our own. Our garden is small and not exactly abundant, and this was only the second or third time since July that I was able to harvest enough long beans to feed us a proper portion.
Next year there will be lots more beans, because they're so vibrant and delicious (and stingy with their yield). Tonight I cut them up and boiled them for only about 90 seconds until crisp-tender, and then I tossed them with roasted tomatoes in olive oil while still warm. The tomato-flavored oil on its own tastes great on green beans, and having some little round tomatoes in there just takes the whole thing over the top. The veggies were fresh and tangy, and they'd only traveled about 30 feet to reach our table. Gets me every time.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
When we had some friends over for our first-day-of-fall feast, our pal Sonny arrived bearing gifts: a couple of neato oblong serving platters (watch for them soon) and a fresh head of orange cauliflower, also known as cheddar cauliflower.
I had never had such cauliflower before, so I was eager to check it out. Apparently it contains many times more beta-carotene than its snowy white counterpart, and I'm all for that.
I figured I'd try to incorporate the stuff into a main course rather than serve it as a side dish, so pasta seemed like a natural vehicle. I followed most of my usual steps for an oil-based sauce: First I crisped up pancetta in a little olive oil and then drained it. Then I sautéed garlic, chilies, and herbs in the leftover fat, added the cauliflower with some wine and water, and let it all cook through, tossing in the cooked pancetta near the end.
The orange -- now yellow -- cauliflower tasted pretty much like white cauliflower, but Margy and I were enchanted by the color. And then there's the beta-carotene, of course. I don't want to say I'm going to bypass white cauliflower from now on (I'd like to think I'm more loyal than that), but look out -- there's a flashier crucifer in town.
Next up: purple.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
The supply of ribs refused to dwindle!
So we continued eating. This time I just covered the ribs and heated them up in the oven, and we ate them with grits like we did the first time around. It would be the last time we'd have them for dinner, but there was still enough pork left for Margy to keep the magic alive for tomorrow's lunch.
$9 worth of country ribs made for seven meals. Not bad.
Monday, October 02, 2006
We figured we'd take a break from the pork ribs and try a few shrimp instead.
I returned to a great Singapore-style chili shrimp recipe that Mark Bittman wrote for the New York Times about a year ago. It has all the good stuff -- garlic, ginger, shallots, chilies, fish sauce, lime juice -- and uses tomato paste to achieve that fiery red color. I wish I could post the recipe, but it's not mine, and that wouldn't be right.
And for the second week in a row I tried a dish I'd just read about in the Times Magazine. Tonight it was lemongrass green beans, which were cooked in a mixture of dried shrimp paste, shallots, ginger, chilies, macadamia nuts (!), and, yes, lemongrass.
Starting with the funky scent of shrimp paste, a scent that I'm growing more and more fond of, believe it or not, our kitchen was filled with aromas that went way beyond the norm around here, which is great. And things got even more fun when it was time to dig in.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
Very early this morning, I practically shot right up out of bed: "I've got it! We'll make tacos!"
Pork tacos are one of Margy's favorite dishes, and my little eureka moment was me realizing how perfectly the braised country ribs would adapt themselves for this purpose. Hours later, as dinner approached, I put my plan into action.
First I made guacamole. Then I shredded the meat from a few ribs with a fork and warmed it up on the stove, adding some canned chipotle in adobo sauce for a bit of spice and a tasty Mexican twinge. Margy grated cheddar, I chopped lettuce, a can of refried beans was opened.
I heated flour tortillas in a dry skillet and then piled everything on. I couldn't resist overloading each and every taco, but we didn't mind a bit -- we came to the table ready to do some work. But still, there's plenty of pork left...