Friday, August 28, 2009

Careless Shepherd Pie

Photos by Cynthia
"A careless shepherd makes an excellent dinner for a wolf."
-Earl Derr Biggers
What is it that is making me crave the warm, satisfying foods of fall and winter all of a sudden, rather than light, cool summer foods? Maybe celebrating 90 days of the 2009 Coastal Humidity Festival is starting to become a little tiresome, and I'm looking forward to a crisp change in the weather.

In any event, as I recently looked in the fridge and thought of what dishes to assemble from all the leftovers, my thoughts kept going to classic comfort foods like pot pies and meatloaf (meatloaf? that sounds good..).

When I saw the extra uncooked ground lamb left from the recent lamb tourtiere I decided on a classic shepherd's pie.

Well, maybe not so classic. Being still fascinated (read: borderline obsessed) with exploring potato galettes, I decided to try using sweet potato galettes for the crust of the pie.
  1. I put a classic mirepoix of chopped onion, carrot and celery into a pan to sweat.
  2. I added some chopped parsnip and a bay leaf (I love parsnip. Don't you?).
  3. When the vegetables were soft and tender I added three chopped garlic cloves and some dried thyme.
  4. After about a minute I added a pound of ground lamb.
  5. As the lamb browned I deglazed the pan with about 1/4 cup of oatmeal stout. Guinness, porter or dark beer would work well here.
  6. I added about 1/4 cup of diced celeriac and fennel, previously roasted for a celery root and fennel chowder.
  7. I added about a cup of leftover stroganoff (sans noodles, of course), and a small handful of frozen baby peas.
  8. After a healthy splash of worcestershire, the seasonings were adjusted.
  9. I dusted the mixture lightly with flour and stirred it in.
  10. I folded in about two tablespoons of heavy cream and let the sauce thicken.
Here is where the shepherd got careless.

I thought about the sweet potato crusts the same way that I have been preparing galettes as a side dish. Essentially I prepared two galettes separately on the stove top, flipping them to brown both sides, and assembling the pie in a pan with the filling in between. It was virtually unmanageable to keep the potato layers stable with all the flipping, and after some time in the oven the top crust was an uneven blend of curling potato chips.

It was Cynthia's suggestion to flip the finished pie in the end, which provided a somewhat presentable finished dish.

When I try this again (and I will try this again), I'll approach the cooking of the galettes like a conventional pie crust: layer the potato coins in the baking pan and pre-cook in the oven. Add the filling, then position the potato slices for the top crust. Bake until top is browned, and then flip the finished pie before serving.

In the end, the wolf did enjoy an excellent dinner.

Fungus Among Us

Photos by Cynthia

We so enjoyed the papardelle that we served with our branzino the other night, that I decided to use those long and wide but whisper-thin egg noodles as the bed for a mushroom stroganoff.

I armed myself with the standard wild mushrooms available at our local market - crimini, shitake and oyster. While originally intended to feature mushrooms only, I decided to add a little, well, beefiness with a couple ounces of slivered sirloin.

The beef strips were quick-seared on high for just a few seconds on each side, then removed from the pan and set aside. With the heat lowered to medium, I poured about two tablespoons of grapeseed oil to the pan.The sliced mushrooms were then added in stages; I wanted different layers of doneness with the mushrooms ranging from lightly cooked and plump to heavily caramelized. The mixture was deglazed with a tablespoon of Cognac three times before being flambeed with about 1/4 cup of the brandy.

After adding two sliced shallots and one crushed garlic clove, a tablespoon of tomato paste was browned in the bottom of the pan. After stirring the tomato paste into the mushroom mixture, I sprinkled sweet paprika and some fresh thyme, poured in about 1/4 cup of chardonnay and blended in about 1/3 cup of creme fraiche. This was allowed to simmer while the pasta was prepared.

Just before taking the noodles off the stove, I added the beef strips and 1/3 cup of sour cream to the mushroom mixture. The noodles were drained and drizzled with porcini-infused olive oil.

Despite the addition of the beef, the mushrooms and papardelle are the true stars of this dish, and could easily make a winning vegetarian offering.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

No Peking

Photo by Cynthia

We loved the delectable photo of the Orange Chicken Tacos at ChiliCheeseFries, and reading about how the recipe originally called for duck reminded me about the pablano crepes we made for our leftover grilled duck.

Inspired by Michael Symon's corn crepes, the ingredient list consists of:
  • half cup flour,
  • half cup milk,
  • 2 eggs,
  • 1 tsp of vegetable oil,
  • pinch of salt, and
  • up to two cups of whatever chopped or kerneled fruit or vegetable you like.
I used fresh corn, poblano and scallion. Put it together into a processor until blended. Pour about 2 oz of the batter into a 10" skillet over medium heat and cook for about a minute on each side.

We had ours Peking style, with shredded duck accompanied by our house barbecue sauce cut with hoisin sauce.

What to do with the little duck that's left? Maybe duckburger sliders...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mean Greens

Photo by Cynthia

Tonight's dinner was actually inspired by two leftovers. We had the beet greens from the recent attempt at the beet galette, and we still had some of Cynthia's Jade Soup.

First, though, are the simple, seared halibut steaks seasoned with salt, pepper and smoked paprika. They are topped with a chiffonade of quick-sauteed beet greens that are goosed with a touch of citrus.

I sometimes add a bit of a crushed vitamin C tablet if I want to add some citrus acid with out making everything taste like lemon or lime. I have read that citric acid is sometimes sold in the kosher section as "sour salt," but I have yet to find it. I just started using "Fruit Fresh," which is a mixture of citric and ascorbic acid, sold with the canning products. It works well, but has some additives. Use sparingly; a little goes a long way.

I poured some of Cynthia's lima and green bean soup into a blender with some mint, basil, parsley and olive oil. On the plate it was paired with a sauce of pureed roasted red and yellow peppers.

On the side was an amuse-bouche of celery root-fennel chowder. Diced celeriac and fennel were roasted for about thirty minutes, then simmered in a blend of beef and chicken stock, strained, and served with a kiss of lemon.

The surprise, though, was the beet greens; tender and pungent, but not bitter, they have a unique taste all their own.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Photo by Cynthia

Branzino, aka European and Mediterranean seabass, is a beautiful, succulent fish. It was simple as can be to grill whole. Purchased cleaned and scaled from our fishmonger, I had only to clip the sharp pectoral and dorsal fins, rinse and dry, and rub the fish with salt and pepper. It was grilled on medium high heat for 5 minutes on each side.

We plated it on pappardelle which had been dressed in muscado vinegar and porcini-infused olive oil, and topped with a pan-cooked relish of diced tomatoes, olives, artichoke hearts, cherry peppers and pepperoncini.

When the fish was served, after removing the head and tail, the skin easily pulled away. The top half of the flesh needed to be very carefully sliced and pulled from the bones. After that maneuver, the skeleton was gently but painlessly pulled from the remaining half.

We did encounter a couple of pin bones as we ate, but they were easy to detect and remove. And it was worth it. The fish is buttery and delicious.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Beet Goes On

Photos by Cynthia

Continuing my fascination with vegetable galettes, I tried a version with orange baby beets. The thinly sliced beet coins were quite small, and with the shrinkage that occurred during the cooking, they didn't hold together as a pancake. But they had brilliant layered yellow colors, including a saffron-like tinge around the edges and were delectably crisp and caramelized. It was really more of a roast beet hash. They were topped with rings of shallots, grilled bay scallops and avocado.

The beets accompanied a pan-seared salmon filet, lacquered with the plum sauce from our recent grilled duck, set atop grilled zucchini planks.

All in all, a dish of glowing sunset color, just right for the end of the day.

Puff Piece

Photos by Cynthia

We were invited to a birthday party tonight and wanted to bring something festive.

Several years ago on the original Japanese Iron Chef, I watched a challenger make what was his signature meat pie. I don't have any memory of what went into it, only it's distinctive shell: a warm, sunburst pastry crust. Last night I attempted a replica for a lamb tourtiere.

An onion and about a half of a pound of shitake mushrooms were slowly caramelized in a large pan. A pound of ground lamb and one link of Mexican chorizo were added to the pan and browned.. The mixture was seasoned with salt, pepper, freshly ground cumin seeds and some garam masala. I added some extra roasted garlic cloves that Cynthia prepared for her sumptuous tomato pie. (If we all ask hard enough, Cynthia may be coaxed into writing her own post about her creative spin on tomato pie).

After the meat was browned, some julienned sun-dried tomatoes and chopped artichoke hearts went into the pan with some fresh thyme, chopped mint, parsley, and cilantro.

Meanwhile, two sheets of puff pastry were laid out and gently rolled. In our small hot kitchen and humid climate, keeping dough at the right temperature is tricky. I had the top and bottom crusts on different pans that when in and out of the refrigerator to keep them from getting too warm and sticky.

When the filing was ready and slightly cooled, I pressed it into a shallow soup bowl that I used as a mold and positioned the mound of filling in the center of the bottom crust. The top crust was then laid over the the filling and bottom crust, tucked tight around the edge of the filling mound.

Using a large mixing bowl as a template, I placed the bowl over the pie and cut a circle in both crusts, leaving a margin of about two inches outside the mound. I the cut slits in the margin, folding both layers of crust into triangles to form the rays of the sun.

After cutting vents into the top of the mound, the pie went into a 400º oven. I was sharing the oven with Cynthia's tomato pie, so mine was on the top rack. It was done in about 25 minutes.

The puff pastry has a mind of it's own and some of the triangle rays morphed into odd proportions, and in hindsight, I would have liked to have brushed an egg wash on the crust for a sunny glow.

But heck, we were late to the party as it was.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Duck and Cover

Photos by Cynthia

After days of torrential rain the monsoons let up and I could finally fire up the grill for the duck I had waiting patiently in the fridge.

I'm still experimenting with how best to get smoke from the new gas grill. The old, beloved grill - a generous gift from my brother - was a hybrid: it was a three-burner gas grill with an adjustable basket above the burners for holding charcoal and/or wood chunks and chips. As a gas grill it never got very hot but it would light the coals in record time, and as a slow-roaster or smoker it could keep relatively consistent heat over hours of cooking.

That old favorite, alas, endured one monsoon too many. After replacing many internal parts, proving the adage that rust never sleeps, all the innards eventually collapsed into a rusty heap, and to my dismay I discovered that the grill model was discontinued.

Overall I prefer grilling over chunk charcoal, and we maintain a classic Weber kettle, but there is no beating the convenience of flipping on the gas for quickly searing a steak, or the ease in maintaining a constant low temperature for hours on end.

With nothing remotely like it in our price range, we considered getting a cheap "disposable" gas grill and a low-end smoker,but that just seemed like bad economics. We settled on a modest but reasonably well-made, straight forward gas grill.

I'm still exploring the best way to inject smoke into the cooking equation. With past grills I have had bad luck with foil logs and cast-iron smoker boxes to hold wood chips. Either they just never got hot enough to produce much smoke, or they turned into little infernos that flared up and, even when set up for indirect cooking, could char the meat and upset the cooking temperature. I usually ended up just throwing wood chunks or chips right onto the burner. It usually works well (depending on the burner) but the resulting acidic ashes greatly shorten the life of the grill.

In my current set up, the grill has three burners covered with angles steel deflector plates. I've removed the deflectors from the two left burners and placed a cast-iron smoker box balanced right on top of those two burners. filled with a big chunk of hickory and some soaked cherry wood chips, the box gets enough heat to generate decent smoke.

Here we have our patient duck perched on a beer-can stand (minus the can). The duck has been rinsed inside and out, pat dried. The skin has been pierced all over (being careful not to puncture the flesh) and rubbed all over with sea salt, ground ginger and garam masala. The duck is positioned over the third burner on the right, with the smoker box on the right burners.

The two left burners will be turned on about 3/4 high. The right burner will not be used unless you want a re-enactment of the Pillar of Fire.

Close the cover and walk away. If your grill cover has a reliable thermometer, check the temperature periodically and adjust to maintain between 300 and 350 degrees. Rotate the duck 180º every 45 minutes.

Two and a half hours later, it looked like this:

It smelled unbelievable.

We served it with ginger rice and a make-shift plum sauce.

The plum sauce was made from halved red and black plums with skin left on and simmered in water with ground ginger and honey. When the plums were soft the mixture was pureed with a hand blender and strained back into the pot to reduce. We adjusted seasonings right before serving.

The plum sauce was lackluster.

But the duck was worth waiting for.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Couched Potato

Photo by Cynthia

Several weeks ago I was reading an old Harold McGee article about how pots and pans deliver heat to food and then release the food when we want it to. He made several dozen potato galettes to test the properties of different pans.

I had never made a galette, and a couple of days later as I was figuring out how to incorporate a lone sweet potato into a dish with kingklip filets, I remembered McGee lovingly describing his flat, layered potato cakes cooked to gentle crispiness in his cast-iron skillet, and how he would slide it out of the pan onto an inverted pot lid for flipping back into the skillet.

Thus inspired, I cut paper-thin slices of the sweet potato, layering them - slightly overlapped - in a heated 10" pan with a little grape seed oil and butter. They were topped with salt, pepper, thyme, shaved red onion and sliced mushrooms.

After about ten minutes on medium-high heat, the galette was ready to flip. I, however, was not ready to try flipping; I was afraid of disturbing the mushrooms on top, so I gave it a few minutes under the broiler which worked quite well.

I have since successfully flipped an onion-and-mushroom-topped galette, using the classic technique of sliding the cake onto a pot lid, inverting the pan onto the lid, flipping them over together and removing the lid. I've found, however, that a topping like mushrooms keeps the top potato layer from contacting the pan surface, preventing it from browning correctly. In cases like that, the broiler probably does work best.

Since then I have used regular white potatoes and parsnips. The picture above features Yukon golds. Any root vegetable could work well.

Next, I think I'm going to try beets.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Medical Tourist

A recent edition of the New York Time Series "Well" featured a story called "The Medical Tourist." It featured a young woman who has moved to New York City and is living there solely for her cancer treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering.

This hit home for us not just because we also spent some time at Sloan-Kettering, but because it put a name to our activities as a family as we traveled the country seeking treatment for Henry.

We were Medical Tourists: visiting, sometimes residing in locales away from home for medical reasons.

Our medical tourism took us to Savannah, Memphis, Durham NC, and New York City.

As we look back on the unbelievable last two years we had with Henry, amidst all the horror, anguish and pain, we also can see that we filled those days with activity, adventure, and fun.

Driven by Henry's sense of wonder and joy of life, we took every opportunity to explore, play, and savour whatever unique activities a community had to offer.

Henry said it best. We were on a plane headed for Memphis to begin treatments at St. Jude. As the plane lifted off he declared: "The adventure begins!"

The adventure really began in Savannah. Since it is an hour's drive from us, Savannah was more of a commute, but with two of Henry's three surgeries performed there and about one hundred daily round trips for chemo, radiation, and various sundry treatments, we spent a lot of time in that unique city. At first, our impulse was to get in and out as soon as possible, but after a while we took the time to enjoy a bit of what Savannah had to offer.

Henry liked to spend time on River Street, a charming, if touristy, row of historic buildings facing the Savannah river. We dined at many of the pub-like restaurants that have "grog" or "boar's head" as part of their name. Henry loved the old-timey sweet shops that dapple the brick and cobblestone street.

We took advantage of an after-dark carriage ride, winding through old Savannah. Henry tested the willing driver on her knowledge of all the ghost stories of this most-haunted of American cities.

Henry's favorite restaurant was the Pirate House, a truly fascinating building made up of old structures from different periods that merged together over time with a network of mysterious tunnels below. He was enthralled by more ghost stories and always enjoyed a "cocktail" served in a mug shaped like a pirate's boot.

When our treatment plan took us to St. Jude, Henry had to deal with brain surgery, physical, occupational and speech therapies, radiation therapy, and classes to maintain his schoolwork. Henry and Mama had to reside in Memphis for over two months, with Dad commuting back and forth from his job to join them whenever possible. Henry and Mama were stranded at the Ronald McDonald house without a car, so when Dad came we would rent a car and take in as much of Memphis as time (and stamina) would allow.

We spent some time at the Peabody Hotel, whose famous ducks swim in the lobby by day, and led by the Duck Master in a ritual duck parade to the elevator for their night's rest on the roof. Henry was one of the guest duck masters.

We visited the Memphis Zoo several times. We visited the National Ornamental Metal Museum, which includes displays of wonderful metal sculptures as well as working studios and classes.

We visited the National Civil Rights Museum which occupies the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Of course we visited Graceland. We were joined by cousin Penton's family.

We watched the barges slowly float under the bridge on the Mississippi River.

And there was the food.

Henry had always been a picky eater with a small appetite, but that dramatically changed. While it is true that his treatments often included steroids which spiked his hunger, it is also true that as he grew older, he became more adventurous and became willing, sometimes eager, to try almost anything. And after months of hospital cafeteria dining, I believe that our whole family drew literal and figurative strength and nurturing through our search for interesting, satisfying, and fun food.

We explored Argentinian influenced Churrascaro at Texas De Brazil. We sampled ribs and fried pickles at BB King's on Beale Street. Henry enjoyed crepes from a street vendor. We had lobster pizza from Spindini's wood-burning oven. We enjoyed Lolo's, The Rendezvous, Paulette's, Felicia Suzanne's, the Flying Fish, Corky's, Bigfoot's Cafe, and Automatic Slim's.

Henry developed a surprising love of Sushi. His favorite sushi place in Memphis was Bluefin, a chic and trendy hangout where Henry tried several times to order the sea urchin which was on the menu but always sold out.

Without a doubt our favorite place in Memphis is McEwan's. Henry agreed with their claim of having the best mac 'n' cheese in the world. They introduced us to soba noodles, and featured an award-winning banana cream pie, as well as Alex Hailey's family recipe for black-eyed pea cake. They treated us like royalty, and one of the waitresses became pen pals with Henry.

When Henry recurred, he entered a clinical trial at Duke University Hospital in Durham, NC. This experimental chemo treatment involved sporadic trips to Durham for about a week every month or so over the course of about five months. Durham is a sleepy little town compared to Memphis and Savannah, but we found some treasures.

The Museum of Life + Science has some wonderful interactive exhibits as well as the Magic Wing Butterfly House.We also drove a couple of hours to take Henry to Carowinds amusement park.

When it came to food, there was a burgeoning restaurant scene blossoming on Ninth Street, fueled by the recently closed George's Garage. Our favorite is Vin Rouge, a classic bistro with delectable sweetbreads, a hearty cassoulet, and perfectly cooked seafood. We also enjoyed upscale Greek food at Pappas Grill, breakfast at Elmo's Diner, and Tex-Mex at the Blue Corn Cafe.

During one of our stays we ate a Texas Roadhouse right next to our hotel. Henry noticed all of the photos on the wall honoring those who managed to consume the Big Larry: a two pound beef sirloin. Henry swore that on a future trip I was to take on the Big Larry. So, on our last visit to Durham, when we found that Henry was unceremoniously dropped from the clinical trial, I took on the Big Larry.

It was harder than I thought it would be.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute in New York was our Hail-Mary: a clinical trial utilizing a radioactive isotope injected applied into the cranial-spinal fluid that was to directly attack the tumor. With the qualifying test, a test dose, and the first real treatment dose, we made three week-long trips to Manhattan, usually staying at the Ronald McDonald house on the upper east side.

On May 6, 2008, Henry celebrated his 12th birthday during that first trip, and we made the most of it. What he wanted more than anything was to visit the Nintendo Center, and that became the centerpiece of all our visits to New York. He tried out new games for the Nintendo wii and DS, and always left the store with new action figures, tee shirts and hats.

On that birthday we lunched at the Hard Rock Cafe and feasted on sushi that night at Haru.

On subsequent visits, we rode the giant ferris wheel at Toys "R" Us, and spent an afternoon at the Museum of Natural History. We dined at LeSteak Bistro and Les Halles Brasserie. We had a luscious panna cotta at Petaluma and Henry loved the grilled cheese sandwich at the Irish pub Finnegan's Wake. We searched, with no success, for the best New York Style pizza.

The warmest times were had at Cafe Luka, a family operation that treated Henry as one of their own, and at Finestra, a cozy little Italian cafe where we were befriended by the talented guitarist who performed there. He played lovely classical and flamenco inspired pieces, as well as a welcome Beatles medley.

We left New York in mid June, heavy with the knowledge that the trial treatment could not stop the progression of Henry's tumors. In July we tried an experimental drug that he could take at home. By August that, too, was discontinued.

On September 29, 2008, the adventure ended.

It is impossible to look back on those two years without reliving the horror, the pain and despair we all felt. But we also can remember the many, many wonderful, joyous times we had together. Buoyed by Henry's hope, faith and spirit, we all lived life to its fullest.

Especially Henry, who lived a lifetime.

Cross Posted from Henry's Blog

Friday, August 14, 2009

Surf 'n' Turf Kabobs

Photo by Cynthia

We get fresh, plump, local heads-on shrimp here on the Carolina coast, so we cook a lot of shrimp.

Shrimp scampi. Shrimp curry. Barbecue Shrimp (cue Forrest Gump)...

Sometimes simplest is best.

On this day we skewered the shrimp with medallions of fresh tuna and beef sirloin, lightly seasoned with salt, pepper and kiss of some ground chilis. We put kabobs of fingerling potatoes and pearl onions on the grill's cooling rack for about twenty minutes before searing the surf 'n' turf kabobs for a couple of minutes on each side.

We accompanied the shrimp with a cocktail sauce of ketchup, sweet chili paste, wasabi paste, lemon juice and worcestershire. The tuna and beef were swathed in an amalgam of leftover sauces: a beef braising liquid, homemade barbecue sauce and Korean-inspired chili sauce.

We devoured the kabobs with red lettuce leaves that also served as a salad dressed in a lemon vinaigrette.

Bubba Gump never had it so good.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Come Together

Photo by Cynthia

Tonight we were going to go on a little date. The plan was to dine out at our favorite outdoor bistro by the marina then go to a concert by one of those Beatle tribute bands.

We love the Beatles. I saw the last official concert by the Beatles at Candlestick Park in 1966. From way up in the bleachers, my sister and I watched the tiny figures on the bandstand that was perched on second base . You couldn't hear the music for the screaming. They played eleven songs and were gone in less than 30 minutes.

It was great.

Anyway, tonight as Cynthia and I prepared to go, a large line of thunderstorms appeared moving our way. While a near-daily occurrence in our humid summers, the forecast put a wet blanket on our plans for patio dining. We decided to throw together a makeshift supper from what was in the fridge.

Last night Cynthia made Cool Jade Soup, a lima and green bean soup from Epicurious, topped with an intense herb oil. Since we still had some of my parsnip vicchysoise from a couple of days ago, we thought to combine them into a joint effort.

Pouring the two soups into the same bowl at the same time, we were delighted to find that they poured evenly divided at the center, despite the two soups having very different consistencies.

Dotted with the sensuous herbal oil, the two soups complimented each other very well. The bean soup and herb oil gave some depth to the sweeter parsnip blend, and the parsnips lightened up the savory limas and green beans.

Served with a couple of BLAT sandwiches, it was a cool but comforting supper on a warm, wet evening.

Rain...I don't mind...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Photos by Cynthia

It took almost all summer, but we finally got some good tomatoes.

The local supermarket tomatoes are a joke, and we don't have a real farmer's market nearby. The few roadside stands we do have are a bit hit-and-miss, especially when it comes to tomatoes.

So, when Cynthia came home with a bag of luscious beafsteak beauties, that signaled one thing: BLT.

If not my favorite sandwich, the BLT is certainly in my top three. It certainly is a great way to enjoy the full flavor of a raw ripe tomato. And it proves the time-worn but true cliche that everything is better with bacon.

Today, ours were supercharged with a simple chili mayo (some ancho and smoked paprika powders stirred in) and grilled sliced avocado. Presented with romaine and raw bok choy leaves on toasted whole grain sourdough, it was a modest update to a classic.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Between Morocco and a Hard Place

Photos by Cynthia

My typical approach to prepare for a meal is to stop at the store, find what looks good/interesting/new/fresh/on sale, mentally run through the home pantry, sketch out the menu, fill in the blanks, make the purchase, rush home, pull out every pot and pan in the house, turn every burner up to high, sear, flip, caramelize, reduce, pour, plate, serve, eat, leave the kitchen looking like the fire-bombing of Dresden, and start wondering what to eat next.

Slow cooking is Cynthia's territory.

We both love the savory phenomenon that can only be achieved after hours of meticulous planning and execution of a multi-layered and transforming low-and-slow cooking technique.

Cynthia has a natural affinity for it, for nurturing the dish through its revealing steps, and the patience to let the dish decide when it's ready.

Last November I gave her a beautiful terra cotta tagine from Morocco. She rewarded me with a beautiful citrus chicken tagine perfumed with hand-blended spices. We looked forward to many tasty Moroccan treats.

Some days later, cruising the Google, we found some postings warning about high lead content in most of the glazed terra cotta tagines made in Morocco. There had been no warnings or details about the glazed finish of Cynthia's tagine and the website offered no information, so we emailed the company asking about lead content in their tagines.

No reply.

After a series of unanswered emails, I sent a not-so-veiled threat that further unresponsiveness on their part would cause me to unleash my internet fury, denouncing their company on any appropriate websites.

In less than 24 hours we got this email:

Our tagines are inspected at the port of arrival by the FDA and US Customs. If lead is found in the tagines, I believe their policy is that the tagines are destroyed and not allowed to be released. We have since changed companies from which we purchase tagines. Our newest shipment (due to arrive soon) comes with certification from the manufacturer that it is lead-free. This is a large, reputable manufacturer and we believe it is of the best quality to be found in Morocco. This allows both ourselves and our customers worry-free transactions with our tagines. If you are worried about the lead content from our old manufacturer, we welcome your returned tagine (please drop a note with your name so that we may trace the order) and we will ship you a new one.

We have our spam filters set to high to remove the thousands of pieces of junk email that we receive daily - in order that we may respond to our customers in a more efficient, speedy manner. Sometimes real emails inadvertently get caught in the filter and are deleted without our response. If that has been the case of your earlier emails, we apologize for the inconvenience and unnecessary worry this has caused you.

[Our Company] guarantees our products. If ever you have questions, please don’t hesitate to call us directly. Our toll-free number is ***-***-****.

Warm regards,

Funny how their spam filter let my threatening email through...

Anyway, all is forgiven; we're boxing up the old one and looking forward to the shiny, new, certified-lead-free replacement to arrive.

While were waiting, I decided to try a non-tagine dish from the beautiful cookbook Moroccan Modern by Hassan M'souli. The dish doesn't really require slow cooking (the fowl simmers for only 30 minutes) but with the preparations, the marinade, the accompanying risotto and sauce, the meal took over four hours from start to finish.

I uncharacteristically followed the recipe somewhat faithfully. The original recipe is for squab, but not being under the elevated train with a .22, we opted for chicken thighs. I was also fresh out of orange blossom water, and while Cynthia makes beautiful preserved lemons, she is overdue for making a new batch, which takes at least 2 weeks.

I substituted a pinch of sugar with slices of 1/2 of a lemon. The dish, however, really needs the preserved lemon.

Charmoula Marinade:
  • 1 tbsp dried chili
  • 1 tbsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp chopped ginger
  • 1/2 tsp saffron threads
  • 2 diced onions 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp toasted cumin seeds, ground
  • 4 diced garlic cloves
  • small handful each of chopped parsley and cilantro
  • 1/2 preserved lemon
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • sat and pepper
Mix all ingredients and let set for half an hour. Add the chicken and marinate for at least two hours.

To cook the chicken, heat peanut oil in a large pot. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and brown on both sides. Add about two cups of water, a cinnamon stick, and 4 whole cloves. Simmer for about a half hour.

When the chicken is cooked, remove it and keep in a warm oven. Strain the cooking liquid into a saucepan containing three tablespoons of butter, 1 to 2 tablespoons of toasted poppy seeds, a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, 1/2 cup of sugar and 8 - 10 oz of dried apricots.. Heat to bubbly and reduce until syrupy.

The chicken is served over saffron risotto cakes. For our meal tonite, I didn't take the time to chill and set the risotto, so I couldn't cut it into cakes. I served it as a conventional mound with the chicken piled unceremoniously on top.

To make the risotto cakes, add 1 1/2 cups of arborio rice to a pot containing one grated onion and 8 cloves of crushed garlic that have been sauteed with two seeded and diced tomatoes. Pour in 1/2 of 4 cups of chicken broth, add 1 tsp of saffron and stir constantly until the rice is sticky (about 15 - 20 minutes).

Add the remaining stock with a cup of chopped mushrooms and some lime zest. Stir another 5 or ten minutes until creamy.

Add about 3oz of grated parmigiano-reggiano and 5 tbsp butter. Stir until well combined. Pour into a pan about 1 1/2" deep and chill thoroughly.

Before serving, cut into squares and sear in a hot pan until crispy on both sides.

After chilling overnight, the risotto was firmly set and I could cut and sear the cakes. It's worth the time.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Smelts Like Victory

Photo by Cynthia

We frequently find fresh smelts in our local market, and I bought some yesterday. The only other place I regularly found smelts was in a big, bazaar-like fish market in San Jose, California. Besides their fresh fish offered for sale, they prepared a small menu of mostly fried seafood dishes served in the store. Baskets of fried smelts were probably the most popular.

So fried smelts for lunch it is.

dredged in Wondra that was seasoned with salt, pepper, paprika and dried red chilies, The smelts were fried in batches and kept warm in a 250º oven.

They were served with an onion-brussell sprout-potato hash, and a wasabi ketchup with sweet chili paste, lemon juice and a splash of worcestershire sauce.

I love the smell of smelts in the morning...

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Lamb with Caulicous

Photos by Cynthia

Lamb chops can be pretty pricey, but a small chop can be very satisfying so they don't have to make the whole meal prohibitively expensive.

The chops were pretty straightforward. Dredged in the current version of the house espresso rub they were thrown on the hellfire of the grill for about three minutes per side.

As for the rub, every batch has its variants but they all start with the Usual Suspects:
  • one part kosher salt
  • one part ground black pepper
  • one part onion powder
  • two parts garlic salt
For the this version of espresso rub we add:
  • two parts smoked sea salt
  • two parts espresso powder
  • two parts cumin
  • Two parts dried porcini mushrooms ground into dust
  • two parts tubinado sugar
  • one part cocoa powder
  • one part dried thyme
  • one part dehydrated worcestershire sauce
I noticed that several commercial steak and burger rubs contain worcestershire powder. I like worcestershire sauce and really wanted to add that flavor to by arsenal of dry rubs without using the sauce (which would alter the texture of the dry rub crust). The only source I found is PackitGourmet. McCormick has a worcestershire black pepper that will do in a pinch.

One problem with this ingredient is that in our humid south coastal environment, if it's not kept super air-tight, the powder absorbs moisture and cures solid as a brick - worse than the rock-hard brown sugar blocks we always half to bust up.

Anyway, the chops were accompanied by caramelized leeks and brussel sprouts which had some radishes tossed in for the last couple of minutes.

I love sauteed radishes. The cooking tempers their bite and the red color is a welcome contrast to the browns and greens that dominate my dishes.

The second side dish was my take on the newly-trendy cauliflower couscous.

The cauliflower florets were chopped in a food processor into a size resembling small couscous grains. I was going to cook them with a harissa sauce, but when I found we didn't have any, I made my own mock harissa. I chopped three cloves of garlic, a dash of coriander seeds and part of a poblano pepper in the food processor. I blended in some Olive oil, a sprinkle of dried cayenne flakes and a squirt of tomato paste.

The caulicous was sauteed until softened. The mock harissa was stirred in and cooked for about two minutes.

It wasn't couscous with harissa.

But it was good. Really good.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Revenge of the Scotch Bonnet

Photos by Cynthia

I had bought parsnips for some shoestring fries and a parsnip galette and still had three parsnips left over. I thought a nice chilled soup would be refreshing for one of our humid summer evenings, so I ad-libbed a parsnip vichyssoise.
  • the white part of four leaks thin-sliced and sauteed in olive oil with pinch o'salt,
  • the juice of one lemon squeezed into the pot,
  • three thinly sliced parsnips added and softened,
  • more salt and pepper
  • chicken stock added to cover and simmered for 15-20 minutes,
  • about a 1/2 to 3/4 of a pint of heave cream added
  • puree with a stick blender until smooth,
  • heat until bubbly.
At this point, let the soup cool then refrigerate overnight. Before serving stir in some milk or more cream to get the consistency you desire.

I did cheat at this last step and saved a couple of fat calories by using fat free half and half. It maintains the silky texture of the soup although it adds some sweetness. You could add more lemon juice, but instead I added a crushed vitamin C tablet to boost the citric acid without adding more lemon flavor.

The main course was sauteed scallops over soba noodles. I made a quick sauce of seasoned rice vinegar, fish sauce, lime juice, chopped scallion and garlic. Then, emboldened by my trial outing with the scotch bonnet, I chopped up the remaining two-thirds of the fiery fruit, tossed in into the sauce with the bay scallops, and sauteed with chopped baby bok choy and sliced carrot until the scallops were just opaque.

The boiled buckwheat noodles were dressed in peanut oil and lime juice, then topped with the scallop mixture.

I was just beginning to appreciate the complex fruitiness of the scotch bonnet when the entire front of my seared mouth started screaming bloody murder. I nobly fought the fiery beast for a few more stabs, but ultimately laid down my skewer in defeat.

Cynthia finished her helping in due order. She did admit though, that it was "pretty hot."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Sirius Star Salsa

Photos by Cynthia

Several months ago I saw someone on the teevee make a starfruit salsa. That seemed like a fun idea and I looked for starfruit at my next shopping trip. No starfruit. It's usually found in the major stores around here, so I kept an eye out for it to show up in the next few weeks.

I finally spied some yesterday and snatched it up. The seafood case had red snapper that looked and smelled fresh, and thusly armed, I headed home.

I decided to go vaguely Caribbean. While not attempting anything resembling Jerk, I did decide it was time to chop up a scotch bonnet.

Despite my declared devotion to chili, I am a somewhat wimpy when it comes to truly hot, spicy food. Cynthia, on the other hand, has a constitution of titanium, and her years in Louisiana gave her a special affinity for chiles and peppers. Cooking with her has expanded my taste and tolerance for spicy heat, and so today I am emboldened to take on the Big Kahuna, and create the Sirius Starfruit Salsa.

Sirius means "scorching" in Greek. Get it? I'm so clever...

The pepper that I bought was from a bin labeled "habanero;" I've heard several cooks refer to habeneros and scotch bonnets as the same thing but they are not: they have a slightly different shape and the flavor of the scotch bonnet is part of the distinctive taste of Caribbean cuisine. I am convinced, however, that most supermarkets stock them interchangeably. The habaneros that I found seemed to have more of the tam o'shanter shape of the scotch bonnet, and since that was my only choice anyway, what-the heck.

The starfruit was given a fine dice along with some red onion and tomato. Since the quantity of the salsa was going to be quite small, I was a little paranoid about too much of the hot pepper, so, holding the combustible fruit only by its stem, I sliced off about half, gave it a really fine chop, scooped it up with the blade of my Global and tossed it in.

I was convinced as I chopped some cilantro on the same cutting board that my hands were starting to burn, but that passed.

I splashed in some garlic juice, olive oil, pineapple juice, and a squirt of lime. Into the fridge it went.

The snapper was given a light sprinkling of curry rub and seared skin-side down. After flipping, it was simmered for a couple of minutes in pineapple juice, then removed from the pan and into a warm oven. A little coconut milk was added to the pan and reduced for about three minutes.

The snapper was presented with grilled zucchini and shoe-string parsnip fries, dotted with the pan sauce and topped with the salsa.

All in all, it was a tasty dish: the fries were crisp and sweet, the fish moist with a mild sear, and the salsa was fresh, zesty, and flavorful.

And not very hot.

I guess I took the scotch bonnet a little too siriusly.

(somebody stop me...)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Letters, I Get Letters

Reader SK writes:
"What kind of clams do you harvest locally? And what kind of clams did you pick up at the market? I love to learn regional differences. If you're gonna write this stuff, I need specifics."

(Okay, it's my friend Steve again. No one else reads this dang blog...)

Coquina, jackknife and surf clams are found in our tidal waters. The clams that Richard and I harvested were probably butterfly clams.

Also known as the white sand clam, this species can be buried to a depth of 20 inches. Because they can bury so deep, they have few predators.

None of the local supermarkets or restaurants carry much of the native seafood. The smaller fish mongers tend to have meager supplies of the daily catch. We have good local shrimp, and oysters which can be bought by the bushel.

The clams featured in our dish were little necks from Canada, I think. We also regularly get mahogany clams which have a beautiful golden brown color, but don't actually have much flavor. Steamer clams are starting to appear more often.

Wherever they come from, a day with clams is a good day.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Clam Chowder Nouveau

Photo by Cynthia

We live on the Carolina coastline and our friend and colleague Richard loves to go clamming. I once went with him to share the pleasure of slogging through the skanky mud in two thousand percent humidity, and clawing the elusive clams out of the reeds. After about 90 minutes, and after I had dug myself out of the slime because I headed forward but my hip boots stayed behind, we headed home with about a dozen clams each and wondered if it was worth it.

It was, and I look forward to doing it again.

But not for awhile.

The clams in this dish, however, were not from that day. These market clams beckoned from the cool crushed ice in the seafood aisle and were far more accessible than those locked in the roots of the bulrushes.

The broth was made of softened onions and garlic simmered in olive oil, white wine and diced tomatoes with some bay leaf, fresh basil, oregano, and a teaspoon of seafood demi-glace. The clams were roasted in a dry pan to concentrate their juices, then added to the broth along with jumbo rings of boiled calamarata pasta. Topped with chopped olives and peppers from the market's self-serve olive bar, the briny olive medley is all the salt you need.