Archive for the ‘fish and seafood’ Category

The Winter Kitchen: Pipian Verde


My recent Mexican cooking binge began with darker richer flavors but a spell of warmer weather got me thinking about pipian verde, which is complex but fresher and more spring-like in flavor. I became determined to develop a paste for it so that I could have it on short notice.  Pipian verde is a highly variable sauce based on herbs and thickened with ground seeds, often pumpkin seeds. It’s simpler than the more complicated mole verde but can be surprisingly similar to it. When I first ate it in Oaxaca more than a decade ago it had a flavor that I have not come across before, and which I later identified as hoja santa. This is a fascinating large perennial which grows well in warmer parts of our country, and in fact I noticed it growing wild near San Antonio, but my mountain area is too cold for it. The dried leaves are readily available but are a pale shadow of the taste of the fresh leaves, which resembles authentic sarsaparilla. Ebay came to the rescue, and I found a seller who sent me eight of the large leaves impeccably wrapped up in damp paper towels so that they arrived in perfect condition. There are as many pipian verde recipes as there are cooks in Mexico, so I can’t say that yours has to contain the special leaf, just that mine does. I also think that fresh epazote is necessary, and it’s available at my local Mexican grocery. Again, don’t use dried.
This makes a lot of seasoning paste. It’s concentrated and will be diluted in the final dish. It freezes well. You’ll need a blender.

My ingredients (study some recipes online and your ingredients may vary):

5 fresh poblano peppers

2 fresh jalapeño chiles, only if your poblanos are mild or you love fire

1 cup raw pumpkin seeds

9 medium-sized tomatillos

1 medium onion, peeled and sliced

5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

stems (just cut the washed bunch in half vertically) of one bunch cilantro, chopped

1 cup steamed spinach or other mild greens (I used foraged lambsquarters)

1 fresh hoja santa  leaf about 8” long

1 bunch fresh epazote, about 1/2 cup chopped

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 cup home-rendered lard or avocado oil

Roast the poblanos (and jalapeños if using) under the broiler, turning frequently, until blistered all over.

Use tongs to transfer into a plastic bag, wrap in towels, let “sweat” for about 20 minutes, then peel off the skins, remove and discard stems, veins, and seeds, and set the peeled flesh aside.

The tomatillos can be roasted under the broiler until cooked through (requires close attention) or cooked in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, turning frequently, until they have a few dark spots. Then add enough water to prevent burning and cook until soft. Set aside.

Toast the raw pumpkin seeds in a heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring continuously, until they swell and darken a bit but don’t let them brown, which ruins the flavor. As soon as they’re ready, pour them out of the hot skillet into a bowl to cool.

Chop up the various fresh leaves and stems into small pieces, crumble the oregano a bit, chop the steamed spinach or similar if not already chopped.

Put the cooled pumpkin seeds in the blender and blend to the fine-crumbs stage but don’t let them turn to butter. Add all other ingredients except the lard or oil and blend, adding a little water if needed to keep the blades turning. I like to keep some texture in mine.

Now, the final step that makes everything meld. Heat a large saucepan or a wok with the lard (more authentic) or oil (more readily obtainable) over high heat and pour in the seasoning paste to “sear.” Careful, it spatters furiously. Cook over high heat, stirring and scraping constantly, for a few minutes until the entire potful is boiling hard. Turn off the heat and (cautiously) taste and add salt to taste. Let cool, and package in suitably sized containers for refrigeration or freezing.

Now it can be used to sauce pork, chicken, or fish, diluting to the right consistency with good broth appropriate to the meat or seafood and adjusting the salt as needed. Roasted salted pumpkin seeds and/or some fresh cilantro leaves make a good garnish.  It’s great in a soft taco or sope  with a slice of fresh panela cheese and a crumbling of the far more intense cotija cheese on top.  My favorite use for it is shown at the top of this post: pan-grill some very good shrimp with salt and garlic, add a cup of pipian paste and 1/2 cup of shrimp broth per pound of shrimp and cook briefly until the sauce comes together, adjust seasoning as needed but keep the sauce very thick, and serve with an endless supply of good hot fresh tortillas.


For lunch in 10 minutes, use pipian verde paste diluted half and half with broth, bring to a boil to thicken, and adjust seasoning. Heat tortillas. Scramble two or three eggs with a little salt to taste until fairly firm. Cover a plate with the sauce, heap the eggs in the middle, sprinkle with chopped cilantro and a handful of roasted salted pumpkin seeds (darker squash seeds here,) and add a red dash of salsa macha. Eat with soft tortillas. Yum.

About those tortillas: in general I stick to a low carbohydrate diet, but when in a Mexican phase I don’t. Simple as that. Without rice, beans, and the endlessly creative uses of masa, it isn’t real Mexican food as far as I’m concerned. So I watch my portion sizes, eat one main meal a day and some light snacks, and try not to stay in a Mexican phase for too long. But it’s worth it.

Low-Carb Gumbo, and Further Notes on Cauliflower Rice

Whenever I write about Louisiana food, I find myself eager to convey something of the spirit of the place,  and part of the spirit is that there aren’t really many culinary rules. Louisiana cooks are famously adaptable. I have been sternly informed, by people who didn’t grow up there, of various rules such as:

“ NEVER use file’ powder and okra in the same gumbo. It’s one or the other.” Except that it’s actually rather common to use some of each, depending on what else is in the gumbo.

“NEVER use garlic powder.” Except that Louisiana cooks commonly use both fresh and powdered garlic together, getting different flavor facets of the same seasoning.

“NEVER make a roux with butter. It isn’t authentic .” Except that I never knew a Louisiana cook who used anything else.   Cooks who liked really dark black roux might use vegetable oil, but that was not all that common.

“NEVER put anything but butter and black pepper in barbecued shrimp. It isn’t authentic.”  Except that I never knew a Cajun cook who could resist tampering, and everybody has his or her own recipe with a lot of ingredients that aren’t necessarily known to science.

And so on. So let’s forget all that. In the Louisiana that I knew and loved, the only thing that really mattered was whether food tasted good and pleased and nourished people.

With that in mind, I’m going to urge you to get a good Louisiana cookbook if you want to make gumbo,   and then if you want to bristle about authenticity, you can argue with that author and not with me.  Anything by John Besh is good. (Yes, I know about the sex scandal, but it doesn’t alter the fact that the guy could really, really cook.)  Lagasse’s “Louisiana Real and Rustic” is great. And if you really want to go in for the cooking that I grew up with, get an old copy of “River Road Recipes” or “Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen.” And remember that in Louisiana, gumbo is a wonderfully flexible vehicle for using all kinds of meats. If you don’t have shrimp, don’t use shrimp. If you don’t have andouille and tasso, use something else. You can make it work and end up with something wonderfully warming and tasty.   Remember that this started as the dish of backwoods  hunter-gatherers, and wild game of most kinds fits into it really nicely. And if someone happens to give you some alligator or possum  meat, well, you have found a good vehicle for it.

In the spirit of the wonderfully flexible Cajun omnivory, what I am going to talk about here is the fact that I like to keep my diet very low in carbohydrates, but I still want gumbo.  So I adapt. The meats, vegetables, broth, and seasonings are no problem. So the two areas of carbohydrate that you have to look at are the roux and the rice.

To make a low-carb roux,  I think that the best results come from Trim Healthy Mama baking mix,  which is available on Amazon.  It’s a combination of many different low-carb baking ingredients and they work well together in this context. It’s expensive but you don’t use much.   It won’t thicken the gumbo as much as a roux made with flour, but you can easily compensate for that with a little extra okra or file’. I like to make the roux in the oven if I don’t have time to devote exclusively to watching it, because it is easy and pretty foolproof.  Heat the oven to 350, in a small dish thoroughly combine 8 tablespoons of butter and 8 tablespoons of the baking mix, and put it in the oven. Total time will be about an hour and a half or a little less. In the beginning, you don’t have to stir very often, and toward the end you have to take it out and stir it thoroughly and frequently.  How dark to make a roux  is a matter of personal taste, and they vary from almost blonde to almost black.

This is a blonde roux. Way too bland for me.

This is more like it.

And here, where some of the floury particles are very dark brown but the whole roux does not yet taste at all burnt, is where I like it. But you can keep going if you prefer.

You can hold the roux in the refrigerator or freeze it until ready to proceed. You will be combining it with a sautéed vegetable mixture called the mirepoix and adding broth, seasonings, and meat.  When it comes to seasoning, remember that most Louisiana cooks have a bottle of Paul Prudhomme seafood seasoning tucked away somewhere, and it is awfully good in gumbo. Mine was based on ham and shrimp because that’s what I had left over from other meals. It was thickened with okra.

Finally, to serve it, you need rice to soak up all the highly seasoned deliciousness.  Cauliflower rice is better than you think it’s going to be as long as you keep one thing in mind: while a cauliflower seems solid, it is mostly liquid. That liquid is your enemy when it comes to getting a decent texture. You have to get it out of there. If you use frozen riced cauliflower, thaw it completely, and then squeeze and wring it in a dish towel. You will be quite surprised how much clear watery liquid comes out.  If you are dealing with fresh riced cauliflower, salt it rather heavily, let it sit for an hour, and then again squeeze and wring it in a clean dish towel. Really go at it and get all that fluid out. Then cook the cauliflower grains with a pat of butter, but no liquid, in a saucepan,  stirring frequently because it burns easily. And salt during the cooking  so that it cooks in, and you are likely to end up adding more salt than you think because cauliflower is pretty bland and absorbs a lot of salt, but taste along the way so that you don’t overdo it, especially if you disgorged the liquid with salt.   I use only the butter and salt as seasoning because my gumbo is already highly seasoned and very spicy. You will need to keep sampling as you cook to get the texture  right. Personally I don’t want it to crunch like a vegetable, but I stop cooking as soon as it is soft and doesn’t crunch so that it doesn’t get mushy.  I grew up among some of the best rice cooks in the world, and no, this does not taste like really good rice, but I also don’t care to gain lost weight back and have diabetes. So this is a small price to pay.

Also bear in mind that while rice swells in the cooking process, cauliflower shrinks. To make sure of generous portions, I recommend having 8 ounces of riced cauliflower per person to start with, maybe even more.  In the Louisiana fashion, you can always put the leftovers into something else.  Pile a cone of cauli rice lavishly in the bowl, pour gumbo all over it but leave the top of the pile sticking out, and eat. Yum yum yum.

About the Fish on Your Plate

One of my firmest health convictions, besides the one about leafy greens, is that fish is good. Here in the desert I won’t be catching my own in any great quantity, so the question is what fish, exactly, is good. My own choice is based on taste and emotion more than reason. I love salmon and admire the way the Alaskan fisheries are managed, so I eat Alaskan salmon. But if you want to be more rational about your fish, please read the great compilation of evidence from Bill Lagakos at the wonderful Calories Proper blog:

http://caloriesproper.com/fish-blog-take-i/

Then make your choice with real information. And my nag for the day is: DON’T OVERCOOK IT. If your salmon is chewy or has a nasty grey layer just under the seared surface, it’s overdone. Sockeye, my own favorite, cooks in nothing flat, usually two minutes each side over a very hot grill or firepit. If the fillet is especially thick, maybe give it an extra minute on the skin side, but no more. If you buy it with the skin on, your dogs get a healthy treat too. Salmon loves assertive seasonings, and I like to brine it in strong salt water for half an hour before cooking. Then serve some leafy greens alongside and you can feel yourself getting healthier. And happier.

Below are some serving ideas that I borrowed from here and there because the photography is better than mine. My own quickie favorite is to take it off the grill, top with a generous pat of seasoned green garlic butter that I keep in the freezer, set it under the broiler just until the butter starts to melt if you didn’t thaw the butter beforehand, and eat with intense gratitude.

I think the beets and citrus shown here should be roasted a good bit longer than the fish, so that you can actually eat them, but it’s a good basic reminder that blood orange is brilliant with salmon.

Grill some nice fat green or Egyptian onions to serve alongside and your health benefits increase.

In a hurry? Take it off the grill and plop it on some dressed leaves and add a slice of lemon. Dinner in 15 minutes, or ten if you pan-roast and don’t take time to heat the grill.

Personally I would use bronze fennel fronds on top, for appearance and for taste and because it grows well in my yard, but if you’re a dill person, go for it. A generous shower of fresh thyme leaves is also a good finish for salmon, and this is one of the places that I love to use orange balsam thyme, which is otherwise difficult to use.

If you’re one of my local readers, the Fishhuggers come to our farmers markets in the summer and sell the salmon that Kenny catches in Alaska, as well as their own superb grass-fat beef and other healthy goodies.

Luxury Dances With Penury

Tonight I ate one of the most extravagant meals I’ve had for a while, and somehow it led me to meditate upon thrift. The main ingredient, two legs of the highest quality Alaskan king crab I’ve come across in years, cost a bomb. But careful orchestration of other ingredients made this all come together in (reasonably) economical style.

Let’s start with the broth. I have written obsessively about the value of good broth, but that won’t stop me from doing it again. When it comes to seafood, it’s essential to remember a few basic things:

1. Seafood broth should be made from seafood, maybe with the addition of some white fish scraps but no salmon or other oily fish and no commercial clam broth. Any avid seafood eater can smell those spurious additions from a long way away.

2. You’re looking for the waste bits of otherwise excellent seafood; shrimp shells, crab shells, shrimp heads, etc. For the clean but intense broth above, I lucked into some lobster carcasses by trading Louisiana seafood stories with the proprietor of a luxury seafood shop. Accept what you are offered with glad thanksgiving.

3. Fish and seafood broth should be boiled at a furious boil for 20 minutes, not simmered for longer times. Then cool, drain, and use or freeze.

4. Build up intensity in layers. Boil, drain, cover new ingredients with the broth, and boil and drain again. You can freeze between boiling episodes. The lobster carcasses came my way over a year ago, and made a quart of rich stock. Then I thawed it and used it to boil shrimp shells, cooled it, and froze it again. Finally, it was thawed and used to boil the shells of the king crab. It was loaded with seafood flavor, but had a clean fresh taste because it was never overcooked.

Given a potent base like this, you don’t need much else. The meat of the two crab legs was cut into good-sized chunks. I used four large stout scallions from my garden, sliced crosswise at 1/4″ intervals and  whites kept separate from greens. My garden scallions are huge, and a dozen store-bought scallions would be needed to approximate them.   Other ingredients were butter, a cup of heavy cream, and three egg yolks from my backyard hens.

Sauté the white parts of the scallions in a quarter cup of butter over medium heat with a hefty pinch of salt until they are softened and translucent. Add the green parts, sauté another minute or two, and add a quart of rich seafood broth. Boil hard until reduced by about half, then add the heavy cream and bring to a boil. Taste and check for salt. Reduce heat and lay the chunks of crabmeat in the saucepan and heat through. Lift the crabmeat and some of the scallions in two soup bowls, leaving most of the broth and cream behind.

To make the egg yolk liaison, beat up the three egg yolks in a bowl, add about half a cup of the hot seafood broth from the saucepan slowly to the bowl while whisking rapidly, then pour the yolk mixture slowly into the saucepan while whisking rapidly. Let heat, whisking, just until the broth is steaming and lightly thickened. Taste. Any distinct “egg” flavor should have cooked away, and it should taste of the sea in the creamiest way.  Pour over the crab and scallions in the soup bowls, and finish each bowl with a generous pat of butter. Serve, eat, and marvel at the goodness to be found in the cosmos.

There are ways to make this even more economical. If you are a carb-eater, put a hunk of sourdough baguette in each bowl before spooning in the crab. The bread will be soaked with seafood essence and will provide elevation, so that one crab leg will serve two generously. Boiled salted fingerling potatoes or good cooked rice can be used the same way.

But in the final analysis this is a dish to make when you feel a bit flush and want to serve your love the best. It goes well with a buttery Chardonnay and a brief discussion of how lucky we are to be on the planet.

The best modern book on thrift and grace in cooking is Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal. Read it, and cook on in good heart.

Spring Alliums

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One of the many reasons that I love green garlic and green alliums generally is that they are among the earliest things to come out of the garden, assuming that you planted in early fall. I have plenty of summer veggies in my freezer, but as the days start to lengthen I get ravenously keen for the first real, fresh greens, and by mid-February I’m eating out of the garden again.

For early green alliums, plant some in a block that you can cover with Agribon or other frost blanket material. I like to put a short row of my regular yellow storage onions in this block in September, and each will divide and make four or five superbly sweet green onions in early spring.

Garlic is another must, and my favorite for early green garlic is Chinese Pink, because it is super-early and is eight inches tall and half an inch in diameter by mid-February if frost protection is used. Plant your early block with the cloves about three inches apart each way. When I’m ready for green garlic I pull alternate stalks, and leave the rest 6″ apart to mature for my earliest garlic bulb harvest.

In the case of leeks, there isn’t even any need to replant in fall. Plant extra in spring, cover with frost blanket in late fall, and they will winter over nicely for February eating.

Contrary to much popular advice, I don’t suggest that you even think about cutting the green leaves off and discarding them. They are delicious. They are also the healthiest part of the plant, full of the antioxidant allicin which has multiple health benefits. Do cut them in fine cross-sections, about a quarter inch long, to  eliminate  any possible stringiness  in the leaves.

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I love a good assortment of green alliums chopped up and sautéed in butter with salt to taste until they are succulent and sweet. Keep the heat medium-low and let them cook at least twenty minutes for best flavor. I eat them as a side dish, but they would also be great on slices of crisp baguette, in an omelette, over scrambled eggs or rice,  on a broiled fish fillet, or nearly any other way that you can imagine.

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Two years ago I stuck some garlic cloves in a flower bed planning to harvest them for green garlic, but forgot all about them in spring. After two growing seasons they’ve divided so much that the leaves are as fine as grass. I’ve started harvesting the tops and chopping them finely to use as a fresh seasoning. They have a stronger but cleaner flavor than garlic chives. I love them over egg salad, green salad, broiled or grilled meats, on soup, or anywhere that you might crave a hit of freshness and garlic. They give some distinction to a regular or low-carb pizza.

Wax Currants

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I have written before about clove currants and how I finally learned to leave them on the bush until they sweeten. Right now I’m enjoying wax currants, Ribies cereum. They thrive in the Southwest and don’t require much supplemental water. They are extremely pretty. And oh, they are delicious. From the hard green phase they first turn waxy yellow. At this stage they’re very tart and make a wonderful substitute for lemon juice, with a special tang of their own. A handful tossed over grilled fish or seafood is decorative as well as tasty. Then they get smaller and turn red, and are a sweet, spicy, sprightly fruit for snacking.

I would happily eat them by the bowlful, but here’s the issue: like all our native currants, they are very tedious to pick and clean. Each currant has a “tail” of withered flower that has to be pulled off, and the currant itself has to be pulled off the stem, and it all takes time, especially given the very small size of the fruit. I have read another forager’s suggestion to just leave the tails on, and have tried it, and all I can say is that it’s a lot like adding a handful of very short threads to your bowl of fruit. Tailing them is worth the trouble, to have this fruit at its very best. But most of us have jobs and families, and little time to sit around meditatively topping and tailing currants.

My bushes are young and only one of them is in fruit, so ecstatic snacking in the garden uses them up. But when I have more available, I speculate that juicing them would produce a gorgeous and delicious juice and eliminate the tedium of tailing them. The juice would also be very interesting as a cooking medium. I recall a dish I used to make ( back when I lived where I could get passion flowers to grow,) which involved cooking passion fruit juice with lemon grass and coconut milk, seasoning with salt and pepper, and dropping seared scallops onto a pool of the resulting sauce. The same sauce made with wax currant juice should be just as delicious and even prettier.

The bushes are large, 6-7 feet tall and nearly as wide when mature, and are healthy and not subject to any pests or diseases that I have noticed. They are attractive enough at any time, but when sunlit and covered with their sparkling carnelian fruit, they are beautiful.

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Foraging Your Protein

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Here in the high desert, fishing might seem like an unlikely pastime. But we have world-class trout fishing, and recently I decided to learn to fish. After exactly one month of reading and practice, I had the day commemorated above. Of course this is balanced against several days when I didn’t get anything, which is part of the fun. NATURE DOES NOT EXIST FOR YOUR CONVENIENCE. If you insist on a sure thing, go buy your fish at the store.

For people like me who are learning on their own, here are my recommendations:

  1. First, get a basic book on fishing. Read it. I used Fishing for Dummies, and everything you need to know to get started is in there somewhere. A good book will help you understand what tackle you really need and what can wait.
  2. Study the section on reel types, but if you are new to all this, get a spincast reel for your first reel. They are so very easy to use. I caught all the trout above on a $20 spincast rod and reel. They work.
  3. Get a fishing license. It’s the law. Be sure to go to your local Fish and Game office and get it in person, because if you tell them you’re a beginner, they will load you down with useful advice about where to fish.
  4. Plan to be outdoors in a pretty area, and catching fish is a bonus.
  5. Practice casting in your back yard before you go out to fish.
  6. In popular fishing spots you will usually see lovely grandfatherly people who got there ahead of you. Walk up to them, tell them you’re a beginner, and ask for advice. A few will chase you off and the vast majority will bend over backwards to help you understand how to fish that particular bit of water.
  7. Before you ever catch your first fish, know how to kill a fish humanely and how to gut it, and how to fillet it if that’s your preference, so that you will actually enjoy eating it. The second trout that I caught was cooked without removing the bloodline. Yech. Watch videos on YouTube that show you exactly what to do. Do this BEFORE you ever go fishing. Don’t waste an animal’s life, ever.
  8. Don’t get too fancy too early. Don’t start with fly fishing unless you insist. Bait-fishing is very successful.
  9. Make sure you have butter, lemon, and capers in the house at all times, so that when you are finally successful, you can do your catch proud.
  10. Have fun, and post a picture of your first catch, because you may find out that you have fishing friends you didn’t know about.
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  13. Basic sauce for trout: drain a tablespoon of pickled capers per fish. Chop up a clove of garlic per fish. Have ready a quarter of a lemon per fish. Warm a tablespoon of butter per fish, plus a tablespoon for the pan, in a skillet over medium heat. When it starts to bubble, add the capers and garlic and stir over medium heat until the garlic is slightly browned. Squeeze in the lemon juice,  cook hard for 30 seconds, and drizzle over the filleted cooked fish.