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Monday, August 30, 2010

Will Travel for Lobster

Andrew and I returned last night from a ten day "road trip" up the northeast coast, with stops in Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. We obviously did a lot of driving (about 2,500 miles all in). Before we left, I brooded over our driving itinerary, searching for shortcuts, stops we could possibly take out, anything to cut back on all that driving. But, as it turns out, the driving ended up being one of my most favorite parts of the trip. Once we got past Portland, Maine, we never once hit traffic and we mainly traveled on beautiful coastal roads.

Another highlight and focus of the trip was, of course, the food. We did have some killer fish n' chips, but for the most part we dined on fresh shellfish. Oysters, clams, mussels and of course, lobster. We did run into a few overcooked lobsters and a few "meh" oysters, but for the most part, we were not disappointed. And it was always fresh. Sometimes extraordinarily fresh. One of our favorite meals was at Carr's Oyster Bar in the tiny little fishing town of Stanley Bridge, Prince Edward Island. We sat outside on the deck overlooking the harbor and indulged in a lunch consisting of PEI mussels steamed in white wine and garlic (Andrew proclaimed them the best mussels he's ever had) and local oysters on the half shell (I proclaimed them the best raw oysters I've ever had). And when I say local, I mean the oysters were picked that morning from a spot in the harbor 200 yards from where we were sitting. Not bad, huh?

Another culinary highlight of the trip was in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. Upon discovering that our room at the lovely Harris Hatch Inn had a kitchenette and a private patio overlooking a garden, we made the quick decision to cook dinner and enjoy it al fresco. We took a walk into town and found a fish market on the water where we picked up a couple of local lobsters and steamers. On the way back we stopped by the town grocery store and picked up a few other things to make the meal complete. Since we didn't want to buy much more than we were going to use that night (we couldn't take anything with us), we took a minimalist approach. The meal was extremely simple and straightforward but wonderful none the less. And I can take almost no credit for its deliciousness, the outcome was almost solely dependent of the quality of the ingredients.

Our St. Andrews Simple Supper


2 lbs soft shelled steamer clams
pat of butter or splash of olive oil
a couple of garlic cloves, sliced
1/2 bottle of beer or 1/2 cup white white

bay leaf if you have 'em (we didn't)
1/2 stick melted butter
lemon wedges

Heat the butter or olive oil in a pot and saute the garlic until fragrant. Add in the optional bay leaf, beer or white wine, and a few cups of water (no need to measure or be precise-- we're on vacation!) and bring to a boil. Add the clams, cover and steam until the clams have opened (it should take about 5-10 minutes). Serve with melted butter and lemon wedges.

Steamed Lobster
2 1 1/2 lb lobsters
a few tablespoons salt
1/2 stick butter
a few lemon wedges

Bring a large pot of water and salt to a boil. Add the lobsters and cook for about 14 minutes (you want to figure 10 minutes for a 1 lb lobster and 2 minutes extra for every additional 1/4 lb). Serve with melted butter and the lemon wedges.

Garlicky String Beans
The grocery store we visited was carrying local New Brunswick string beans, which we thought would be a nice veggie component to the meal.

1/3 lb string beans, trimmed
2 tablespoons butter
a few garlic cloves, minced
salt & pepper to taste

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch the string beans for 2-3 minutes (they should still be crisp). Drain the beans and run under cold water to stop the cooking process. Heat the butter in a skillet and saute the garlic until just fragrant. Add the sting beans and cook for another minute or so until they are heated. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Quick & Easy Orzo Salad
1/2 c. orzo
2 tablespoons butter
a couple of garlic cloves, minced
1/2 c. white wine
fresh herbs, chopped (we used basil)
salt & pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add the orzo and cook until al dente (reserving 1 cup of the starchy cooking liquid before draining). In the meantime, heat the butter in a large skillet and saute the garlic until fragrant. Add the white wine and reduce by 3/4. Add the cooked orzo, fresh herbs and some of the reserved pasta water if it looks a little dry (just be sure to add only a splash at a time). Season to taste with salt and pepper.

As you've probably already guessed, grated parmesan cheese would be fantastic on this pasta dish. We didn't use it because the store only had big chunks of parm (and we di
dn't even have a grater for that matter), but if you've got it, use it!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Stewed Spicy Eggplant

The other day I began reading "Forever" by Pete Hamill. The fictional book begins by telling the story of a young boy growing up in Ireland in the 1700's. Each night, the boy and his parents would gather together around the hearth in the center of their home and share a stewed meal that was lovingly prepared by the boy's mother.

Reading this story reminded me of the importance and meaning associated with sharing a homemade meal with loved ones and thus was inspired to create a comforting and homey meal that Andrew and I could enjoy together. I had a gorgeous, huge eggplant in my refrigerator (that, due to my excitement to start making this dish, I forgot to photograph before I diced it up!) that I thought would be perfect to use in a vegetarian stew.

Besides being an approachable and comforting meal, stews are also appealing because they usually are fine to simmer away relatively unattended, allowing the cook time to relax and spend time with their family or guests before the meal is served.

I usually associate stews with a winter food, but for this dish I used light and fresh ingredients that taste rich only because of the low and slow cooking process. The
eggplant and Great Northern beans created a rich and meaty-tasting stew, that in fact is completely vegetarian. And, to make this a vegan dish, simply leave out the anchovy paste.

Stewed Spicy Eggplant

1 1/2 lbs eggplant
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
5 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 tablespoon tomato paste
squeeze of anchovy paste (leave out to make vegan)
1 pound fresh tomatoes, diced
3/4 cup dry red wine
1 15 oz. can Great Northern or Cannellini beans, rinsed
1/2 cup olives, pitted & chopped

1/4 cup parsley, chopped
salt & pepper to taste

Dice the eggplant into 1" cubes, sprinkle with salt and place in a colander. Let sit for about an hour and then rinse (this process, which reduces the eggplant's bitterness is called "degorging").

Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Saute the onion until tender (about 5 minutes). Add the garlic and crushed red pepper and cook for another minute, or until the garlic becomes fragrant. Add in the tomato paste and anchovy paste and stir to combine.

Add in the cubed eggplant and tomatoes. Turn up the heat to medium-high and deglaze the pan using the red wine. Simmer until the wine is reduced by half (about 5 minutes). Lower the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the eggplant is tender.

During the last 10 minutes, stir in the beans, olives and half of the parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

To serve, spoon into bowls, top with the remaining parsley and serve with crusty, fresh bread.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fusilli with Green Beans, Ricotta & Caramelized Onions

Here is another straightforward, easy to make summer pasta dish. The only component that requires a somewhat lengthy preparation are the caramelized onions. But once you get the onions caramelizing, the rest of the dish comes together in a flash, making it a popular week night dinner for us.

A little earlier in the growing season I used fresh peas in this dish, but when I made it this week I used fresh, sweet green beans. Green beans, which are in season/widely available/delicious right now, are an excellent source of
vitamin C, vitamin K and magnesium and a good source of vitamin A and dietary fiber. I used fresh green beans in here not only to up the nutritional content, but also provide a crisp, crunchy textural element.

Caramelized onions add such a wonderful component to so many different dishes (I also served them this week over a seared strip steak from a small farm in upstate NY), and this pasta dish is no exception. They may at first seem lik
e an unusual ingredient for a pasta dish, but, trust me, they really elevate this dish from somewhat simple to beautifully complex. The richly sweet onions are a wonderful compliment to the other subtle, fresh flavors.

Just make sure to give the onions plenty of time to gradually soften and caramelize (no cutting corners by raising the heat to shorten the cooking time, it just doesn't have the same effect!). Whenever I'm caramelizing onions, I get them chopped and on the heat right when I get back from work. They just need a few minutes of monitoring to make sure they aren't browning or cooking too quickly, and then they can pretty much be left alone (save for the very occasional stir). Turn off the heat when they are done and they're be all ready for you when you're assembling the rest of the dish.

Whole Wheat Fusilli with Green Beans, Ricotta & Caramelized O

1/2 pound whole wheat fusilli, or other short-cut pasta

1 large onion
2 tablespoons olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
8 ounces ricotta cheese

pinch of salt
zest from 1/2 lemon
1/4 lb green beans
1/4 cup fresh basil, shredded
salt & pepper to taste

Caramelize Onions:
Halve onions through the root end and slice crosswise into thin half-moo
n slices. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a heavy bottomed pan. Add the onions and stir to coat them with oil. Let the onions cook, stirring frequently, until they become transparent and are starting to soften (about 10 minutes). Next, lower the heat to medium-low and cook the onions for about 30-60 minutes longer, until they are golden brown and sweet. You'll want to stir them every so often to ensure they are not burning, but at the same time letting them stick a little bit to the bottom of the pan (this will help the browning process). If at any point they look like they are on the verge of burning, lower the heat and add a little more oil.

Once the onions are sufficiently caramelized, add the minced garlic and crushed red pepper and cook for a few more minutes until the garlic is softened and fragrant. Turn off heat.

Prepare the rest of the dish:
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil and add pasta. While pasta is cooking, combine the ricotta and lemon zest in a bowl and add salt to taste. Drop the green beans into the water with the pasta during the last 2 minutes of cooking. Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the starchy, salty pasta water.

Add pasta and beans into the pot with the caramelized onions, and toss with the ricotta lemon zest mixture. Add in some of the reserved pasta water, one splash at a time, if it looks a little thick. Fold in the basil and season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Chilled Spiced Cucumber Yogurt Soup

I'm a big fan of soups. I not only enjoy eating them, but I also enjoy making them. Because you can usually adjust and modify your recipe as you go along, I find it easy to get creative. I almost always end up throwing something in there that I hadn't originally intended on including. Additionally, soups are a great way to use up lots of produce. I know I've said this before but I'll say it again, almost anything can be made into a soup. Vegetable soups, fruit soups, cheese and beer soups, heck, I even pureed bacon into one of the last soups I made (see Amaranth Leaf Soup from July 24, 2010 ). But before I digress much further, let's get back to the soup at hand.

When I picked up the cucumbers at the market, I knew I wanted to make a cold cucumber soup. But I had to jazz it up a little bit. I often find that chilled cucumber soups are a bit, well, flat. They're nice and refreshing, but the lack of pizazz often results in a half eaten bowl of soup.

So I threw the cubanelle pepper in there. And some ground ginger. And a pinch of cayenne pepper. Ok, and a touch of garlic. These additions may seem strange, but that subtle heat and spiciness that these ingredients brought to the table added a much appreciated complexity to the soup that kept me interested and going back for more.

One thing to keep in mind when making this soup, or any chilled soup for that matter, is to adjust the seasoning after it is chilled. The soup will taste slightly different, and therefore will require a slightly different amount of seasoning, when it is very cold, versus room temperature.

Chilled Spiced Cucumber Yogurt Soup

4 cucumbers, peeled, seeded & chopped
1 cubanelle pepper, seeds & ribs removed, chopped
3 scallions (white & light green
parts only), chopped
4 tablespoons fresh mint
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups greek yogurt
1/2 cup sour cream
juice from 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch of cayenne pepper

Place all ingredients in a large bowl and combine. Working in batches, puree in a blender until smooth. Transfer pureed soup into a large bowl and chill in refrigerator until very cold, about 2 hours. Adjust seasoning.

Ladle into bowls and top with an extra dollop of yogurt or sour cream and a little chopped mint, if desired.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Zucchini Parmigiana with Olives & Capers

I know I've already posted several zucchini recipes over the past few weeks, but the zucchini just keeps on coming. And coming. I picked up a CSA (community supported agriculture) delivery last week for my friends that were out of town and guess what came in it? Zucchini.

I decided to try something I've never done before: make a zucchini parmagiana. Yup, like eggplant parmigiana, but with zucchini. I don't think I'm alone when I say that I really enjoy a baked parmigiana. Maybe its the Jersey in me, but, for me, a good parmigiana with a crisp green salad is the ultimate in Italian-American comfort food.

Albeit nontraditional, I decided to throw chopped olives and capers into the parmigiana as well because 1. I love, love, love olives and capers. Can't get enough. 2. Zucchini has a very subtle flavor, so I decided to boost up the tastiness by adding ingredients that have a fuller, more assertive flavor. 3. Why the heck not?

Layer the zucchini, capers and olives with lots of basil, marinara, fresh mozzarella and Parmesan cheese and the result is pretty excellent. I made my own marinara sauce by simmering San Marzano tomatoes and fresh basil with sauteed onion, garlic and crushed red pepper. I think homemade tomato sauce always yields a better outcome, but if you're not feeling up to making your own, use a high-quality jarred variety (Rao's is great).
Just no Ragu if you can help it- it just doesn't measure up. The wonderfulness of this dish is really reliant on the quality of the individual ingredients.

Buon Appetito!

Zucchini Parmigiana with Olives & Capers

2 medium zucchini, sliced lengthwise into 1/4" strips

2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup breadcrumbs

1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
vegetable oil for frying
3 cups marinara sauce

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
12 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced thinly
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
handful Calamata olives, pitted and chopped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly salt zucchini slices and place on paper towels to extract excess water. Let sit 15 minutes.

Set up a little assembly line with 3 stations: the zucchini slices, a shallow bowl with the beaten eggs, and another shallow bowl with the breadcrumbs, salt and pepper. Dip zucchini slices in egg and then coat in breadcrumbs. Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and fry zucchini in batches until crisp and golden brown. Transfer to paper towels to absorb excess oil.

Start assembling the parmigiana by ladling half of the marinara sauce into a 8" x 8" baking dish. Layer half of the fried zucchini on top. Top the zucchini layer with half of the mozzarella, half of the Parmesan and all of the basil, capers and olives. Top with the remaining zucchini. Spoon on the remaining marinara. Top the whole thing off with the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until the top is golden brown and bubbly.