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.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Margy's Beijing Journal: A Spicy Farewell

For the last meal of her trip, Margy, along with her hosts/culinary tour guides, ate at a place called the Middle-8th, which serves "refined Hunan food."

"Refined" is not how I'd describe that indecent-looking mound of hot peppers; "thrilling" is more like it. Of course, the peppers aren't meant to be eaten. Rather, they're there to produce heat by association, lending just a steady glow rather than outright flames to the fried heads-on shrimp they surround. Margy was generally dazzled by the chile effect in Beijing, saying that the spicy dishes carried the perfect level of heat, a mellow yet persistent tingle that was dialed only one step down from euphoric.

Adding to the pleasant feelings was a refreshing house-made rice wine that Margy described as looking like lemonade. It was served in tall, handleless bamboo pitchers and drunk from glass Mason jars, and Margy just said "I wish I had some now." Me, I'll settle for about 25 of those shrimp.

So there you have it, Margy's Beijing Journal. I hope I get to join her one day should she ever return, but for now I'll just be glad to have her back and to have someone besides myself to cook for.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Margy's Beijing Journal: Korean Detour

After you hit a donkey restaurant, how do you follow that?

In Margy's case, the answer was going to a Korean hole in the wall for some delicious bi bim bob, shredded beef and vegetables mixed into rice. Margy's gang sat at a table that was fitted with an exhaust hose for Korean barbecue, and they had kimchi and a giant scallion pancake before the main course arrived.

That's the server who's mixing the bi bim bob for Margy. How fresh and tasty it looks. One bite... just give me one bite!

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Margy's Beijing Journal: What Have We Here?

Tonight, as Margy was finishing up her workday, her friends/hosts asked a familiar question in a most unfamiliar way. Instead of the usual "What would you like to eat tonight?" or "What are you in the mood for now?" they asked, "Would you like to eat some donkey?"

"Sure..." Margy said, not a little timidly. "Is it good?"

Next thing she knew she was whisked off to what seemed like the outskirts of town, where she and her posse drove down a dirt road and arrived at a building that was hopping with activity and aglow from the neon sign out front (Margy says she saw lots of neon on her trip). The sign was translated for her: "Beijing's #1 Donkey Restaurant."

Now that I think of it, I neglected to ask how many other donkey restaurants there are in Beijing.

The place offered its signature ingredient in an array of preparations, and Margy's party chose donkey patties (top right). She said they were quite good, covered with sesame seeds and filled with juicy red meat. (The big pot holds a mountain of tofu, which was eaten with the sauces, presumably nondonkey all, in front of the pot.) I think she understood that her hang-ups -- if, in fact, she had any; I'm not quite sure -- were purely cultural and that hey, this is where you eat donkey, so gimme some. When I got her text message about this swashbuckling dinner, I said to myself, I married the right girl. Of course, then I said to myself, Wait, I've never eaten donkey.

So send me to China and bring me to Beijing's #1 Donkey Restaurant, and I'll do my part. But you know what they say about donkey: It goes straight to your ass!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Margy's Beijing Journal: Chou Dofu

...or, as it is more commonly known, "stinky tofu" -- tofu that's been marinated in a brine of fermented vegetables.

It's the yummy-looking fried stuff on the plate at left. How innocent it seems -- golden cubes of crispy deep-fried food. Fried anything is good -- how strange could this be?

According to Margy, pretty strange.

A few days ago, after correctly pegging Margy as an adventurous eater, one of her hosts started chatting her up about stinky tofu, asking whether she'd ever had it and beginning to prime her for the experience. Was this a test? After all, Margy had two hosts, and the other one didn't want to have anything to do with the stuff. But Margy was game.

She said she took two bites and knew that fermented tofu wasn't the dish of her dreams (okay, she knew this after the first bite, but she wanted to be sure). The smell and flavor were superstrong and a bit too jarring to be enjoyable. The other American at the table plugged ahead a little longer than Margy before he too gave up.

Luckily there were other, more familiar foods going around, like a whole fish with chili sauce. Margy had lots of whole fish in Beijing, and what could be better? Anyway, the only real reason to object to eating whole fish is that dealing with bones can be a drag, and in general Chinese don't mind dealing with bones. Margy's companions used their chopsticks to make quick work of the task.

While the Beijing gang sipped plum wine and noshed on stinky tofu, I was at Rudy's on 9th Avenue having "rehearsal" with my band, which consisted of drinking beer and eating a lousy but free hot dog, which, now that I think of it, might have also been fermented...