Archive for the ‘fish and seafood’ Category

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.

A Mushroomy Meal

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Sometimes it just comes together. The Universe hands you one. I walked into my local wonderful co-op this morning to get a lemon and they had a little basket of exquisite local porcinis, which a gatherer further north found after our recent major rainstorm. They were actually affordable (more or less.) I nabbed the whole pound and went home thinking that it was a shame to cook them on a blistering August day, but I planned to eat them anyway. Then it turned dark and cloudy and cool this evening. Perfect! I pulled some sablefish out of the freezer.
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I sliced the porcinis in half lengthwise, then cut a “steak” out of each half that was nearly half an inch thick. I salted the mushroom steaks, and also the ends of caps and stems left over. I sprinkled the thawed fish liberally with salt and added some blackening seasonings to help it stand up to the assertive mushrooms. I chopped a clove of garlic and got some chicken glacé out of the freezer. You can buy glacé de poulet for about $6 for a quarter cup from http://www.olivenation.com, or you can make and freeze your own. Chicken glacé with fish? Hell yes. I learned this when tasting shrimp dishes in Mexico, which often have some chicken bullion concentrate added. It keeps the plate as a whole from getting too fishy, and makes a bridge between fish or seafood and some side dishes that wouldn’t usually go with it.
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Everything happens very fast from here on. Preheat the oven to 275 and put your fish in it. The fish can spend anywhere between 15 and 20 minutes in the oven without harm while you sear the mushroom steaks as long as your oven is accurately regulated at 275. Heat your biggest skillet over high heat with the hood fan sucking air furiously. Put a hefty glug of good olive oil in the hot skillet and lay the porcini steaks in one layer. When well seared on one side, turn them and sear the other side. Remove to warmed plates putting the mushroom steaks on one side of each plate, add some more olive oil, and sear the remaining bits of porcini. When seared, add the chopped garlic and toss about furiously for maybe 30 seconds, then add the chicken glacé and a glug of good white wine, maybe a shot glass full. Boil hard until it thickens, salt to taste, and remove to a bowl. Wipe out the skillet very quickly, reheat over high heat, put in more olive oil, and sear the fish pieces quickly on each side. They should have been in the low oven about 15 minutes, and should be done when seared, but check and cook another minute if needed. Plate them across from the mushroom steaks and pour the mushroom sauce down the middle.

Eat with gratitude and a light but flavorful red wine. Give thanks for the rain and the edibles that appear behind it.
If you can’t get porcinis or they are the usual obscene price, you can use fresh shitake caps cut in half (all stem removed. Really.) Or use portobellos but use a spoon to scrape out the gills, which turn a nasty black-muck color in the pan.
So far my efforts to grow edible mushrooms outdoors haven’t come to much, but I’ll keep trying, and I’ll reward our local foragers whenever I can afford to.
Incidentally, if two people eating a pound of porcinis sounds gluttonous to you, well, uh, no kidding. All I can say in our defense is that we eat basically one meal a day, plus snacks. And I think that wretched excess is a wonderful thing when practiced in moderation😉

A Quick Summer Lunch, and more on fried grape leaves

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Since writing about frying grape leaves crisp in the Crazy Salad post, I have become more and more interested in the range of flavors and textures produced by frying and toasting leaves. Grape leaves remain my favorites, because of the exquisite lemony-sorrel burst that follows the delicate crunch.
Before you try cooking your leaves, please read the part of the Crazy Salad post that deals with selection of leaves. The short version is : chew up a piece of leaf from the exact vine that you are thinking of cooking. If it chews easily, proceed. If you are left chewing what feels like a bit of wet paper between your teeth, rethink or find another vine. That fibrous quality will not go away when cooked in any fashion. I have liked the leaves of my wine grape vines best.
This is an easy and quick impromptu lunch or light dinner, vaguely Greek in its inspiration. Here I used a garnish of fried grape leaves and capers to add tang and herbaceous pizazz to a nice piece of black cod fillet. For each person eating, you need a 4-5 oz piece of Alaskan black cod fillet or salmon fillet, a handful of capers in salt, 5-6 fair-sized grape leaves, a clove of garlic, a small handful of lightly toasted pine nuts, a quarter of a lemon, salt, and 1-2 glugs of good olive oil.
Prep: Rinse the capers of loose salt, soak them in cold water for about 20 minutes, drain, and squeeze them dry one handful at a time. Rinse the grape leaves, shake them dry, snip the stem away, and stack them up for quick slicing. Slice them crosswise into strips about 1/4 inch wide. Salt the fish pieces, not too heavily because the capers will still be quite salty. Chop the garlic.
Cook: Heat a good nonstick skillet that can easily accommodate the fish pieces over medium heat. When it is hot, pour in 2 good glugs of olive oil. I would guess that this is about 2 tablespoons or a little less. Throw in one strip of grape leaf, and if it sizzles and changes color and crisps in several seconds but doesn’t burn, you are good to go. Otherwise, fiddle with the heat and try again. When the heat is right, toss in the grape leaf strips and stir-fry rapidly until they have all changed color and crisped and there are browned but not blackened spots. Scoop them out onto a paper towel to drain. Check crispness. Limp leaves will not give the right effect. Set them aside.
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Wipe out the pan quickly, heat it again, put in the same amount of olive oil again, and add the chopped garlic and the capers. Sauté until the garlic is cooked but not browned at all and the capers have darkened a bit. You aren’t going for crisp this time because it would burn the garlic. When the garlic looks cooked, squeeze in the lemon juice and add the pine nuts. Cook a couple of minutes more and pour out into a bowl.
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Reheat the pan, add a touch more olive oil, and put the fish fillets in skinless side down and cook over medium-high heat until they color an attractive gold in spots. Now turn skin side down and cook to your preferred degree of doneness. Personally, I like salmon medium-rare but black cod cooked until it flakes. Plate the fish, put the caper mixture over the top of each, and finally top with lavish drifts of fried grape leaves.
This is a good healthy dish for ketogenic and low-carb dieters and Paleo dieters, as well as for everyone else.

Fennel in the Garden and Kitchen; a Nose-to-Tail Herb

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Fennel carries the true taste of summer. I love fennel and always have it around, and my favorite form, the only variety that I keep these days, is the subtly metallic bronze fennel. If you want fennel bulbs you will have to grow a bulbing type, but my interest is in other parts of the plant so the bronze suits all my purposes.
The first pleasure it offers is aesthetic: this is a lovely plant to have around. The color isn’t really bronze but a soft coppery-purple, and when hung with drops from a summer rain it is nothing short of breathtaking, in a quiet way. When dry, it is furry like a cat until the stalks form, and a little later the umbels of tiny yellow-green blooms look surprisingly pretty against the darker background. It would pass muster as a front yard edible in the most exacting neighborhood.
Second, it is beautifully aromatic. I brush my hand down a frond every time I pass it to inhale the anise-y scent.
Third, it’s delicious. I can’t understand why so few people eat their bronze fennel. I admit that my main use of it is to chew up a frond while weeding or doing other garden tasks. The resiny rush is succeeded by a taste of intense sweetness and herbal licorice. I realized years ago, when going through a Greek cookbook binge, that fennel and not dill is a primary seasoning herb for horta, the greens mixture that forms a part of so many Cretan meals and snacks. A generous handful of chopped fennel fronds, sautéed with other aromatics, gives the right flavor to a batch of greens mixture. Chopped fronds are also an essential part of fish marinades and rubs, in my view, and can be delicious on chicken. A little dab of herb salad, made from chopped bronze fennel and chives or garlic chives and dressed with a very good vinaigrette, is good as a seasoning garnish alongside fish or chicken. Chopped fennel fronds are lovely in mayonnaise to sit atop grilled salmon, or yo dress cold fish salad. When grilling fish, consider putting the larger stems of fennel across the grill to make aromatic smoke. I love a small handful of chopped fronds in salads. This is a nose-to-tail herb, since besides using the leaves and stalks you can collect the pollen if you have enough plants (fennel pollen is a common aromatic seasoning in Tuscany,) and the seeds can also be collected for culinary use. One cookbook writer said that she made an anise-flavored pesto from blanched bronze fennel fronds, and that sounds delicious too, although I haven’t tried it yet. On days when I’ve worked late in the garden and the late sunset finds me hot and dirty and with a poor appetite from the heat, I can throw together smoked salmon crostinis with fennel:

Cut a few diagonal slices off a good baguette or, if you are ketogenic, cut a few thin slices of ketogenic coconut bread. Toast them, spread with green mayo Or your own favorite tarragon-seasoned mayonnaise, put on one thick or two thin slices of smoked wild-caught sockeye salmon, smear with some mascarpone or creme fraiche, and top each with a couple of generous pinches of  chopped fennel. It takes five minutes, it’s cool and soothing, and yum.

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Incidentally, I remember reading somewhere long ago that fennel stalks coated with tallow were burned to summon good witches, and mullein stalks were used the same way to summon bad witches, unless maybe it was the other way around. So if you want to try it, you’ll need to get straight which is which. But I can say from experience that a couple of dried fennel stalks tossed on a dying fire in the fall give a lovely aromatic end to the evening that doesn’t summon anything but contentment and sleep.
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