Links of Love

One of the benefits of writing a food blog is that people are always making suggestions. Friends and acquaintances frequently share articles with me, send me ideas and tell me about their favorite restaurants and products. This is how I found out about Popper’s Sausage Kitchen. My co-worker Nathan sent me an email one day that included a product list from an artisanal sausage maker in Dover, New Hampshire. He told me that one of his wife’s co-workers had ordered some of this sausage and that is was delicious. What the heck, I thought, this is an interesting opportunity to try a local product and see what Popper’s Sausage Kitchen is all about.

It turned out to be quite an adventure. John “Popper” Medlin is the aforementioned sausage maker. When he started his culinary training, he discovered that he had a real knack for butchery and charcuterie. After culinary school, John opened his own place, Pepperland Cafe, and started making his own sausage. On day a customer asked John to visit their table and it turned out to be Master Sausage Maker Dick Jacobs, who invited the young chef to the Netherlands to train in the art of sausage making. Today, John makes many different kinds of sausage, hot dogs, pate, bacon and even what he calls “bacon jam”, some using very traditional recipes and some with contemporary twists, sourcing all his ingredients locally and regionally.

But procuring said meaty delicacies is no easy task. When I placed my first order earlier this year, John did not have a storefront, although he is working toward that goal. He sends out a monthly email with a product list, his customers place their orders by email and on the appointed day, they pick up their orders at a predetermined location. His product list is diverse and interesting, including fresh and smoked sausages with flavors like maple bourbon, sweet Italian, poblano cumin and several varieties with fruit. He makes fig and brandy, apricot and ancho, blueberry and tarragon and dried plum sausages. Each month he runs a special and when I placed my first order, the special was Thuringer bratwurst with a pound of homemade spaetzle. My co-worker Nathan also ordered sausage and I agreed to drive out to Dover, about an hour from where I live, and pick up both orders. It was a bizarre enterprise that felt vaguely like some kind of illegal drug deal. The pick-up location was a pub in downtown Dover. I walked in and there was John Popper Medlin sitting at the bar and on the pool table next to him was an enormous cooler. He fished my order out of the cooler; I wrote him a check and scurried off with a huge package of frozen sausage wrapped in butcher paper. I wasn’t sure if I needed to hide it under my coat and I must say, I had a strange conspicuous feeling when I walked out of that pub.

When I got home, I inspected the package. Since I was a new customer, John threw in a pound of his signature smoked brats. I took the Thuringers and spaetzle out and stuck the rest in the freezer. That night, we tasted Popper’s wares for the first time. The meat was the predominant flavor, but we could also taste caraway and other spices that gave the sausage a warm and earthy flavor. The next day, I carried Nathan’s order to work and left it in the freezer for him.

We placed two more orders during the spring and my freezer started filling up with sausage. I devised a plan to hold a sausage tasting and get impartial opinions from a hand-picked panel of discerning tasters. On Labor Day weekend, I fired up the grill and six people sat down to taste a plethora of sausages. I had five varieties to sample, four of them were Poppers sausage. On the grill were Popper’s smoked brats, fig and brandy, smoky the dog and apricot and ancho. On a recent trip to Texas, I’d brought home a package of Meyer’s Smokehouse spicy pork sausage, my favorite from Elgin, Texas. I decided to throw those into the mix to see how the tasters reacted. I served the sausage with potato salad, cole slaw and kraut and I put out buns, but I also asked the tasters to take their first bites plain with no adornment or condiments. This was a blind tasting and the results were as follows:

Two people placed the Meyers Texas sausage at the top of their lists. They liked the spicy and smoky flavor and appreciated the crispy pop of the sausage casing. Two people, including me, picked the smoked brat as their favorite. The pork flavor was front and center, but they had an herby flavor that was delicate and lovely and the smoke was not as assertive as the Texas sausage. Two people liked the smoky hot dog the best and I have to admit, it was a close second for me. On a bun with mustard and kraut, that smoky hot dog was absolute perfection.

The fruit sausages were not as popular. A couple of the tasters had a negative reaction to the seeds and alcohol flavor in the fig and brandy sausage, although a couple others found both the seeds and brandy to be surprisingly pleasant. The apricot and ancho sausage also got mixed reviews, some saying the pieces of apricot were too big and others commenting favorably on the ancho undertone. For all tasters, texture was a factor and they preferred a finer grind of meat. And they also preferred the smoked flavor. All in all, this was a fun experiment and it made me curious about the other products on Popper’s list. We’ll certainly be back for more of those amazing smoky hot dogs. And when John Popper Medlin finally opens his own store, I can stroll proudly down the streets of Dover, New Hampshire brandishing my package of sausage instead of sneaking it under my coat.

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Holy Pilgrimage to the BBQ Shrine

The world of barbeque encompasses a huge variety of flavors and techniques. There’s Brazilian barbeque, known as churrascaria, where prime cuts of beef and other delectable morsels are cooked and served on long skewers. There’s Char Siu, the chinese version, featuring pelts of tender, juicy pork cooked over an open fire until they’re dark mahogany with a sweet and spicy crust on the outside. There’s Korean barbeque, the DIY method where you cook your beef short ribs over a small charcoal or gas grill right at your table. All over the American south and southwest, styles and methods of barbeque have been morphing and localizing for centuries, since early man slapped his first slab of buffalo meat over an open fire. However, for me Texas barbeque is where it’s at and nobody quite nails it like The Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas. The Salt Lick started by process of elimination in 1967. Thurman Roberts was tired of life on the road with a bridge construction company and longed to spend more time at home with his family. He and his wife made a list of the 54 things they could do to stay in their beloved Driftwood and selling barbeque was #14 on the list. Thurman had been wowing friends and family with his slow-cooked meats for years, now was his chance to show the world. He and his sons built a brick barbeque pit in the middle of Nowhere, Texas and the Salt Lick was born. Today, The Salt Lick not only serves succulent brisket, turkey, sausage and pork ribs to thousands of diners every day at three different locations, they also cater, hold special events and weddings, sell their sauces and t-shirts…….heck, their original Driftwood location even has a winery now.

For Texas barbeque mavens, The Salt Lick is a religious experience, a sacred journey to nourish our souls with smoked meats anointed with the ethereal smoke of the live oak tree and a touch of tangy barbeque sauce. When you walk in the door, the first thing you see is the pit, bejeweled with dark roasted brisket and racks of ribs slowly cooking on the grate and plump pork sausages hanging above, dripping with otherworldly juices. The way its built actually resembles a shrine, as if these folks have a direct pipeline to barbeque heaven. To worship at the Salt Lick is to take a step closer to nirvana.

The Salt Lick offers an all-you-can-eat option, with all the meats and sides served family style and you eat until you keel over in a meat coma. For those of us with normal appetites, there are three and four meat plates with potato salad, coleslaw, beans and the traditional condiments of white bread, pickles and onions. I chose ribs, sausage and beef brisket. They actually ask you if you want your brisket lean or not so lean and you know what I ordered, right? The brisket was melting with a thin ribbon of fat through it. I took my first bite and had to stop in mid chew as my soul began to rise from my body. The rib was perfectly smoked and because they use live oak wood, the smokey flavor lightly caressed the back of my pallet. The sausage was mild and lovely and the sides simple and delicious. Unlike most Texas barbeque spots, The Salt Lick lightly dresses the plate with their signature sauce. It’s a tangy, mustard based sauce with richness and depth of flavor and it adds a high note to the fatty meat. It’s the perfect complement. And what’s a plate of barbeque without a tall, cold glass of iced tea?

Maybe its the Texas hill country landscape with its gentle, treeless slopes rolling joyfully across the horizon. Maybe its the rustic wooden beams, the rough-hewn decor and the welcoming atmosphere. Maybe its the flavors and aromas of really well cooked barbeque. Whatever the magic combination of circumstances is, call it divine inspiration if you will, I walked out of the Salt Lick feeling invigorated with a new spring in my step. According to Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen, barbqcue makes old ones feel young, barbeque makes everybody someone. If you’re feeling puny, you don’t know what to do, let your feet hit the street, find a good place to eat, treat yourself to some meat, get some barbeque. Robert, I could not agree more.


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My Duck Runneth Over

When it comes to managing the household budget, there are three luxuries I consistently choose to spend money on: a monthly massage, quality hair-care products and high end groceries. When my husband and I began planning our life together, I warned him about my love of expensive food items. Other women spend money on shoes, clothes or home furnishings. My vice is gourmet foods. For many years, I lived in Dallas and there was no shortage of gourmet grocery stores and specialty shops. If I wanted imported capers packed in sea salt, Meyer lemons or hatch chilies, I didn’t have to travel far to find them. Celebrated purveyors such as Central Market and Whole Foods were a stone’s throw from my neighborhood. But since moving to rural New Hampshire some years ago, I’ve found it challenging to find the kinds of gourmet shops I’m used to. There are a few nice places in the region, but they are not convenient to where I live. Every couple of months, I drive an hour to Lebanon to shop at the Lebanon Co-op, which has an amazing selection of excellent foods and wine. And I’ve made friends with a few local producers and farmers, which helps.

For the past few years, friends have told me about a gourmet market in Portsmouth, which is also about an hour away. I’ve been very curious about this place. I recently had occasion to be in that area and I found it – Philbrick’s Fresh Market. When I walked in the door, I felt at home. And as I started to make my way through the store, I knew I’d found my new favorite haunt for the gourmet foods I love. I tried not to go too crazy, but there were some things I just could not walk away from. I bought a couple of fresh porcini mushrooms. I bought a slice of Bucheron, which is a goat cheese formed into a log with a rind, somewhat like brie. I bought a box of my favorite salt – Maldon flaky crystals. Philbricks has an impressive meat and seafood section. Their fish was amazingly fresh and beautiful, so I bought a piece of black cod, also called sablefish, and a magnificent filet of sockeye salmon that’d been swimming around only a couple days before. When I approached the meat counter, I almost swooned with delight as I saw three different grades of beef, some grass fed, some grain finished and some dry aged. I ended up with a couple of perfect looking lamb sirloin steaks. But the most exquisite item I came home with that day was a couple of duck breasts. Ahhhh…duck. Nothing is quite as decadent as a perfectly seared duck breast with crispy skin and pink, juicy interior. That was the inspiration I needed. The service at Philbricks was amazing and the lovely gentleman at the fish counter gave me a cooler and some freezer packs to keep my perishables cold on my drive back to Concord. I floated home in a daze.

The next day was Saturday and I spent the early hours of the day dreaming up a recipe for those duck breasts. I made a quick trip to the local supermarket for some last minute staples. When I got home and flipped on the TV, there was an episode of The French Chef and I found some added inspiration from the great Julia Child. She was making a puff pastry stuffed with spinach, mushroom and ham. Luckily, I’d picked up a bunch of rainbow chard at the store. In that moment, I devised a final menu.

2 medium sized duck breasts
1 cup of chicken broth
1/4 cup of Cointreau or another fruit flavored liqueur
1 orange
1 tbsp of grated ginger
2 tbsps of honey (orange blossom honey is perfect, but any honey will do)
Fresh thyme

1 bunch of rainbow chard (plain green chard is also good)
1/2 medium onion
2 slices of bacon
3 fresh porcini mushrooms (these are hard to come by, use creminis if necessary)
1/2 a granny smith apple
2 cloves of chopped garlic
1 tbsp crème fraiche, sour cream or Greek yogurt
1 tube of prepared crescent rolls (actually, philo dough would’ve been perfect)

5 small Yukon gold potatoes

For a meal like this, it’s important to prep everything before any cooking begins. I started by thoroughly drying the duck breasts, scoring the fat in a cross-hatch pattern and seasoning them with salt, pepper and a light dusting of garam masala, which is a sweet and fragrant Indian spice. A tiny bit goes a long way. I washed the chard and separated the stems from the leaves. The stems take longer to cook, so it’s important to cook them separately. I cleaned the dirt of the mushrooms with a damp cloth. I sliced the potatoes into quarters lengthwise. I chopped the onion. I cubed the bacon. I diced the apple. I zested the orange, then cut the peel off and took out the sections. The technique is called “supreming.” I squeezed all the juice out of the orange remains into the bowl with the orange sections and set it all aside. I turned the oven on to 375. Once all the prep work was done, I was ready to start cooking.

I put a medium sauté pan on high heat for the duck breasts and when the pan was screaming hot, I placed the duck skin side down to render. While the duck was searing, I rendered the bacon in a large skillet until it was crispy, then removed the crispy bits from the bacon fat and sautéed the porcini mushrooms on high heat until they browned. I took the mushrooms out of the pan, set them aside and threw in the onions and chard stems. When they just started to get slightly cooked, I threw in the diced apple and garlic. At this point, the duck skin was rendered and crispy, so I turned them over for a quick browning on the other side, then took them out of their pan, put them into a pie plate and put it in the oven briefly to finish cooking. I poured the duck fat into another pan, placed it over high heat, added the potatoes, some salt and pepper and covered it.

Now, the onions and chard stems were cooked, so I chopped the leaves and added them to the pan, along with salt and pepper. When cooking any greens, they’ll appear to be overflowing out of the pan, but remember that they will wilt significantly as they cook. Just stir them around and they’ll start to break down very quickly. Once the greens were wilted, I added the mushrooms back in and stirred in the crème fraiche. It was just enough to add a slightly creamy element, but not enough to make the whole thing runny. If you’re using yogurt, make sure you have the thick, Greek yogurt or strain the water from whatever yogurt you’re using. You want this mixture to be tight.

At this point, I removed the duck from the oven. It had only been in there for a few minutes, but I didn’t want it to overcook. Unlike chicken, duck breast should really be served pink inside. It’s better to have it underdone than overdone. I set the duck aside and shook the potatoes around in the pan. They were getting nicely browned in that duck fat. Yum.

With the duck resting the potatoes browning, I was able to make the chard-filled pastry packets without distractions. I unrolled the prepared crescent rolls and made rectangles by pinching two triangular pieces together. This stuff is pretty pliable and easy to manipulate. The tube had a total of 6 triangular pieces, so I ended up with 3 rectangles of pastry. I put heaping spoonfuls of the chard stuffing on one end of each rectangle, folded over the other end and sealed the seams. I put them in the oven for about 15 minutes to bake.

Now it was time for the sauce. I brought the same pan in which I browned the duck back to a front burner and turned the heat up high. Since I’d poured the fat off to cook the potatoes, the pan was left with caramelized duck juices stuck to the bottom. Once the pan had heated up, I threw the ginger in there to quickly sauté. And I deglazed the pan with the Cointreau and chicken broth. I added the juice from the orange, which was about 1/4 of a cup, and the honey and, of course, a little salt and pepper. I wanted this to reduce down to a thick, syrupy consistency. While the sauce was reducing, I turned the potatoes again. They were dark brown and crispy, exactly how I wanted them. I uncovered them and turned off the heat to allow them to stay crispy while everything else finished cooking.

When the pastry was dark brown, I took these little packets out of the oven. This experiment looked like it worked! But, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The sauce had reduced by a half, and was forming a syrup, so I added the orange zest, orange segments and chopped thyme and turned off the heat. Everything was done; it was time to serve this masterpiece.

I sliced the chard packets in half. The pastry wasn’t quite as crispy as I’d hoped, it had softened a bit. Had I used philo dough, this would have turned out flaky and crisp. I sliced the duck breast on the bias and fanned it out on the plate. I lined the potatoes up along the edge. And I spooned the orange segments and sauce over the duck.

And how did it taste? UNBELIEVABLE!! The slightly bitter chard, pungent porcini mushrooms and tart apples made a brilliant combination inside that pastry. And the sauce kind of soaked into the bottom of the pastry, which was heavenly. The duck was perfectly pink inside and the subtle hint of perfume from the garam masala was an unexpected surprise. The potatoes were deeply browned on the outside and fluffy on the inside. It was a home run. The best quality ingredients always seem to have the power to ignite my culinary creativity. Go out and find some great groceries, get inspired and cook something remarkable. And tell me how it turned out.

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Guide to an Ethnic Kitchen

While flipping channels recently, I stumbled accross a show called “Feed Me Bubbe” and I became tranfixed by this diminutive Jewish grandmother, her outdated but oddly familiar looking kitchen and the traditional recipes she was preparing. Production values aside, Bubbe showed me a glimpse of my own culinary roots. More than any other room in your home, your kitchen is most revealing about your ethnicity. Open someone’s fridge or pantry and you’ll get a pretty good sense of their heritage. Food and cooking is the thread that connects us to our ancestry, recipes are the family heirlooms that get passed down from generation to generation and, unlike pieces of china or crystal, they never get broken, discarded or sold in a garage sale. Food is a lasting legacy and a unique snapshot of our family history.

Most of my ancestors were Eastern Europe Jews and the recipes and dishes I gravitate to were passed down to me by my mother. When you look around my kitchen and see these telltale clues, it’s like finding the trail of breadcrumbs that lead back to my Jewish roots.

A staple in all Hungarian kitchens is paprika. It’s made from a specific variety of dried chili pepper commonly found in Hungary and Spain and you can get either sweet paprika or hot paprika, depending on your taste. I grew up pronouncing it “POP-rick-uh” and many people give me the stink eye when they hear me use that word. The more American pronunciation is “pap-REEK-uh” but that never feels right rolling off my tongue. I honetsly cannot remember a time when I did not have a tin of paprika exactly like this in my kitchen. Sure, there are probably other varieties of paprika that taste better, but the design and colors of this tin say “home” to me. There are dishes I’ve written about here in this blog, like Chicken Paprikash, that are based on this flavorful spice.

I know, this looks bad…believe me, I know. But another standard ingredient in Jewish cooking is rendered chicken fat, also called schmaltz. My mother had a jar of chicken fat in our fridge growing up and so did my grandmother. Ever since leaving home for college, I’ve kept a jar of chicken fat in my fridge. It is incredibly bad for you, so I don’t use it frequently, but some preparations absolutely require it. You really can’t make traditional Jewish chopped liver without it. You can buy schmaltz, but why bother? It’s so easy to make. To make schmaltz, start with a whole chicken. Find all the pockets of fat around the neck area and thighs and remove them. You can also render the fat from the skin. Cut all the skin and pieces of fat into small pieces and place them in a non-stick skillet. Cook them over low heat until the fat melts and you’re left with a pan full of melted, clear chicken fat and tiny, crispy pieces of goodness called gribenes. Those little chicken cracklings were the cooks treat when I was a child and my mother would sprinkle them with salt and share them with me as if they were tiny pieces of edible gold. Let the rendered fat cool slightly, then pour it into a jar and refridgerate it. It’ll keep forever. My best friend still talks about the honor of being granted a jar of chicken fat from my fridge when I moved.

Why is matzo such an exotic thing to everyone other than the people who have to eat it once a year? On a recent trip to visit my friend Craig in North Carolina, he was excited to tell me about the deal he got on a 3-box package of matzo that he planned to serve as crackers. C’mon, really? It’s just flour and water with a little salt. It’s the “bread of afflication”, not a tasty treat. However, no Jewish kitchen is complete without a container of matzo meal, which is basically matzo bread crumbs. Matzo meal is used prodigiously in the Jewish kitchen to bread any kind of fried or sauteed items. It’s used in place of bread crumbs in foods like meatballs and gefilte fish, which is a cold fish cake of sorts. I also keep breadcrumbs and panko crumbs in the house, but somehow I just wouldn’t feel right unless I opened the pantry and saw matzo meal smiling back at me.

These are a few of the standard items I keep in the house that would point to my family background. But periodically, I see something that just tickles my culinary funny bone and I pick it up on a whim. There is usually a picture of someone on the label that looks like an old relative, a familiar name or something that my non-Jewish husband cannot pronounce. For instance, I rencently bought a bottle of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, just because I remember it from my childhood. It actually tastes better than I remember. And on the same isle, I found this box of kosher table salt that I simply couldn’t resist. Can you pronounce this word? I’ll give you a hint. The “ch” sound is not the same as “child” or “chimp”…it’s a phlegmy gurgle that comes from the back of the throat. And this word appropriately means “extended family”. So, to all my mishpacha, far and wide, what’s in your kitchen that tells your family’s story?

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I gave my soup the finger

It was a beautiful spring Sunday afternoon. Over coffee that morning, I’d decided to use the three jars of frozen lobster stock I’d made a few months earlier to make seafood soup for dinner. This is one of our favorite dishes. There are so many different directions to take a seafood soup. It can be tomato based or cream based, thin and soupy or thick like a stew, spicy or mild. It’s a blank canvas. My plan was to see what looked good at the market and take it from there.

In New England, we have extraordinary access to fresh, beautiful seafood. When I got to the grocery store in the morning, the folks at the seafood counter were just unloading that day’s delivery. The hake was fresh, so I bought a pound. Hake is a white, meaty fish like cod or pollack, but it has a sweeter, more delicate flavor. Bay scallops were on sale and they looked lovely, I bought half a pound. The shrimp had been previously frozen, but they’d just come in that morning, so I added half a pound to my cart. And finally, I bought a small container of shucked oysters. I already had some cream in the fridge, so I knew what direction I was heading.

For my mirepoix, I decided to experiment with some different ingredients. Rather than white or yellow onion, I opted for leeks. Instead of celery, I went for fennel. And I replaced the carrots with diced butternut squash. As I was chopping the leeks, I nicked the end of my pinky and I thought to myself “better be careful, I just sharpened that knife.” It was a moment of foreboding that I’d regret not paying closer attention to.

I chopped the leeks, fennel and squash and started sautéing them in bacon fat. I added some crushed garlic, sally and peppy, a couple of small, diced potatoes and a couple of quartered and chopped zucchini. When the veggies were starting to get soft, I added a bottle of clam juice, the juice and zest of one lemon, a couple of bay leaves and all the lobster stock. I walked away for a little while to allow my developing creation to come up to the boil.

When I came back half an hour later, the soup was at a rolling boil and all the veggies had gotten soft. I turned the heat down to low, added a bit of heavy cream and started prepping the final ingredients, the seafood and fresh herbs. I shelled the shrimp, made sure the scallops were cleaned of their tough little muscles and cut the hake into one-inch cubes. I minced a big handful of fresh dill and set it aside. I added the hake pieces to the soup and as I was mincing the parsley, it happened.

I felt a strong resistance against my left index fingernail and knew I’d cut myself. I will spare you the gore of what actually happened to my finger, but suffice to say that I’d cut myself badly, worse than any kitchen injury I’ve ever sustained. Before it started bleeding, I whirled over to the sink and stuck it under cold running water. I screamed for my husband Jason to come quickly. And then I freaked out.

Jason got me calmed down enough to sit at the dining room table. But all I could think about was finishing the soup! Through my tears, I directed him to turn the heat off, add the final seafood and the parsley and dill. The soup was done and now I could focus on my finger.

While I applied pressure to stop the bleeding, Jason went on line to do some hasty research. We decided to forego a trip to the emergency room and handle the situation with at-home care. We got a temporary bandage on my finger and he went to the pharmacy to get some extra wound care supplies. While he was gone, I tasted the soup. AMAZING!!!

By the time Jason returned, the bleeding had stopped. We put a respectable bandage on my finger and sat down to dinner. I served the seafood soup with thick slices of toasted brioche drizzled with good olive oil. It was heavenly. I learned a lesson that day about being careful in the kitchen. The next time I’m handling sharp knives, high heat and boiling liquids, I’ll be on my toes….and extra careful with my fingers.

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The marble rye, Hampton tomatoes and a big flat noodle

I was chatting with an old friend on Facebook the other day and she said “I’m having a real Seinfeld lunch, a big salad and a black and white cookie. All that’s missing is the marble rye”. All of a sudden it struck me how much the popular TV show from the 90’s revolved around food!

These four people and the various other characters that floated in and out spent an awful lot of time in Monk’s coffee shop. How many fictional cups of coffee, pieces of pie and tuna sandwiches do you think they consumed over the course of the show?

Think of the iconic food moments from the show: Kramer cooking himself while sunbathing slathered with butter, a junior mint flying into the open belly of a surgical patient, Elaine turning a janitor’s closet into an apartment just so she can order a special kind of fish, George hauling a marble rye up 4 stories on the end of a fishing line, the black & white cookie that brought about the end of Jerry’s no-vomit streak. Hell, an entire episode took place in a Chinese restaurant while Jerry, George and Elaine were waiting for a table.

Many episode titles were inspired by the featured food item. “The Mango” revolved around faked orgasms, George’s inability to gratify his girlfriend and the affect a fresh slice of mango had on his libido. “The Non-fat Yogurt” episode was all about this alleged fat free treat and featured a clip from Rudy Gulliani admitting he was a fan of the stuff. “The Pie” involved a woman who wouldn’t taste a slice of Apple Pie and the vexation it caused. And then there was “The Big Salad”, “The Calzone”, “The Fusilli Jerry”, just to name a few.

And let’s not forget about those unmistakable personalities whose presence triggers an immediate food memory, like the Soup Nazi. To this day, when I make a pot of soup, a gruff voice in the back of my psyche echoes his famous line “NO SOUP FOR YOU!” I can’t think about Izzy Mandlebaum, played by Lloyd Bridges, without thinking about Magic Pan crepes, rolled by hand. Kenny Roger inspires a memory of roast chicken, not The Gambler.

George Costanza flew too high on wings of pastrami. He also flew half way across the country to eat too many shrimp and use his “jerk store” line on an obnoxious co-worker. Mr. Pitt started a trend by eating his candy bar with a knife and fork. Jerry uncovered the source of fleas in his apartment by finding a Chunky wrapper under his couch cushion. And the list goes on.

In the episode entitled “The Comeback”, Kramer develops a fear of falling into a coma and decides he wants to die with dignity. While crafting his living will with Elaine by his side, the attorney Shellbach, played by Ben Stein, lays out various health scenarios for which the proverbial plug would be pulled. He says “You can eat, but machines do everything else”. An expression of approval comes across Kramer’s face and he says “Well, I could still go to the coffee shop.” I think that says it all.

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Lobster? Again?

Yes, lobster again. I live in New England where lobsters practically jump out of the water into your lobster pot. Not really, but they are plentiful, relatively inexpensive and quite delicious. So, when in Rome, as they say….

I’ve got the classic New England lobster boil down. We have the right equipment, the right implements of destruction, we even have little butter warming contraptions with tea lights underneath to keep your butter hot while you’re working your way through a two-pounder. However, there is an unavoidable culinary conundrum here in regards to seasonal products. Lobsters are cheap in the winter when their preferred sides of fresh corn on the cob and ripe tomatoes are out of season. What to do, what to do? I’ve made lots of lobster and seafood stews and have experimented with herbed, broiled and stuffed lobsters. This time I thought I’d try out a different lobster recipe that would allow me to stretch a little. Lobster pie.

We’ve seen it on menus and have ordered several variations of seafood pies at local restaurants. But none have ever really met my expectations for deliciousness. I knew I needed a couple of pounds of lobster meat and in my culinary imagination, the pie has a mashed potato crust and a slightly creamy sauce in which the lobster meat is gently swaddled. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

I bought three small lobsters, totaling about 4 1/2 pounds, which I knew would yield a couple pounds of meat. I bought Yukon gold potatoes, a bunch of parsley and some mushrooms. I also bought a bottle of sparking wine. And I bought two enormous artichokes, which I thought would make really nice accompaniments to this lobster pie.

I started with the lobsters, lightly steaming them in a couple inches of water with lemon, cloves and spices for about 8 minutes. This is half the normal cooking time for whole steamed lobsters. Since the lobster meat would be baked once it was covered with mashed potatoes, I didn’t want it to be overcooked and rubbery. I let them cool for about 15 minutes before I cleaned out all the meat from the tails and claws. I picked through the bodies a little bit as there can be quite a lot of meat in a large lobster. These were small and not very meaty, but it was still worth the effort. All the lobster shells went into a stock pot with an onion, a small carrot and some celery tops. As it was boiling down, I used some of this lobster broth for the sauce.

I set the lobster meat aside and started working on the sauce. I sautéed the sliced mushrooms in butter with some crushed garlic until they were soft and fragrant, then added a heaping teaspoon of flour, which I stirred into the melted butter, cooking briefly, to make a roux. I spooned in some of the lobster broth and a squeeze of lemon juice and cooked it together until it was thick, about 5 minutes. Then I added a small bit of cream, just a couple of tablespoons, and my sauce was done. In hindsight, deglazing the pan with a bit of port or sherry would have added a sweetness and luxuriousness to the sauce that would have made this lobster pie exquisite. I let the sauce cool while I prepared the topping. I steamed the potatoes in the microwave, which allows them to cook without taking on water as they do when they are boiled. Once they were cooked through, I riced them and added some milk, butter and a bit of sour cream. I left them rather stiff, the better to shape them into a crust.

For the final preparation, I stirred the sauce and lobster together, added some fresh chopped parsley, spread the mixture into small baking dishes and covered with a thick layer of mashed potatoes. I sprinkled the top with breadcrumbs and dotted them with butter. The lobster pies went into a 375 degree oven for about 20 minutes, until they were bubbling. The top was slightly browned and the soft texture of the lobster and potatoes made the perfect marriage. Damn, this was a scrumptious dish and I learned a lot for next time. Lobster? Again? You betcha!!

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Inspiration from the Garden and the Sea

Meet the fish at PacificO.

I got inspired to prepare a little fine dining. I just got back from a vacation in Maui and the last meal we had was at Pacific’O. This is one of the best restaurants on the island featuring local ingredients and local seafood. I had a dish of opakapaka, which is a local pink snapper, paired with diver sea scallops. It was served with mashed potatoes and wilted local greens. I must say that it was just perfect. We spent much of our vacation in timeshare condos and one of the things I was looking forward to was preparing a few meals of local fish and produce, as dining out is rather expensive. We found a farmers market just down the street from the condo as well as a fish market that offered fresh caught opakapaka. In the Condo I didn’t have my pantry arsenal around me and had to keep it simple. I simply pan roasted the fish in olive oil and butter, salt and pepper and finished it with a squeeze of lime juice. The greens were simply prepared as well — wilted with a little bit of garlic. It is amazing how good simply prepared fresh food can be.

The other part of my inspiration was that the winter greens we had put in the ground prior to leaving for Hawaii had come up and Kim had a pile of fine baby rainbow chard sitting in the colander. I am a big fan of Top Chef and I remember that Tom Coliccio had reprimanded one chef for not using the stems of the chard while another chef had scored big points for only using the stems. With the fabulous meal from Pacific O still reverberating in my brain I went to our local upscale supermarket to see what turned me on. Here is what I came up with:

Wild Sockeye Salmon with Meyer Lemon Butter Sauce and Seared Scallops and Chard Chutney.

This dish is the equal of any meal we had on Maui and easily would set you back $45.00 a plate in the fine dining establishments we visited. It is neither complicated nor beyond the skill of most home cooks and I only used 2 pans to make it. Here is the way I did it.
1. Chard Chutney
Remove the stems from ½ lb of baby chard and cut into a fine dice. Mince 1 large shallot and sauté until soft. Add the zest of 1 meyer lemon and 1 tbsp of rice wine vinegar. I used 1 tbsp of my home made pineapple jalapeno ginger preserve but you can use 1 tsp minced ginger, 1 serrrano pepper and a 2 tbsp of pineapple juice. Reduce until the liquid forms a glaze and reserve.
2. Celery Root Mash
This is easy as pie and one of the things where the microwave actually works better than any other method. Peel one large celery root and one medium Yukon gold potato. Cut into 1 inch dice and put in a covered microwave safe dish and cook for approx 10 minutes on high, stirring after 5 minutes to ensure even cooking. Drain any liquid that remains in the bottom and add 1 tbsp butter and ¼ cup of condensed milk. I use a hand blender or you can put it into the food processor and process until it is smooth. Season with salt, white pepper and a grating of fresh nutmeg.
3. Seared Scallops
In a non stick pan put 1 tbsp olive oil and 1 tbsp butter. Salt and pepper your scallops and cook on medium high until each side is golden brown and has a nice crust.
4. Wild Sockeye Salmon with Meyer Lemon Butter Sauce
Liberally salt two 6 oz portions of salmon with salt, pepper and dill on the non-skin side. Place in a very hot non stick pan skin side down for 3 minutes and flip. The skin should be loose at this point so peel it off and set it aside for further goodness. Sprinkle salt, pepper and dill on the side you removed the skin from and after 3 or 4 minutes flip it back over and give it 2 minutes on the side you removed the skin from. I like good salmon like this medium rare. When you remove the salmon from the pan turn the heat down to medium and put the skin back in and cook it until it is crispy like a cracker.
This makes a yummy garnish. When the skin is removed, put 2 tbsp butter in the pan with 2 tbsp of finely minced shallots. When the shallots are translucent, squeeze the juice from 1 meyer lemon into the pan and cook until the liquid is almost evaporated, about 3 minutes. Pour the sauce over your salmon and wilt your greens.
5. Wilted greens
Throw 1 clove of minced garlic in the pan that you cooked the salmon in and just as it starts to brown, throw in the leaves from the chard and toss. Cover immediately and turn down the heat to med-low for 2 or 3 minutes, just until the greens are wilted and still bright green.
Plating the dish.

If you time it right, the scallops and salmon will be done at the same time. Pile some of your chutney and place the scallops on top. Mound some of the celery root mash and put the salmon on top with the lemon sauce on top of the salmon. Put your greens in the middle and top your salmon with the crispy skin. Imagine yourself sitting in a fine dining establishment with a snooty waiter filling your wine glass just a bit too often in order to run up your wine bill. Then dig into a meal that should have cost you about $30 in groceries if you get the good stuff and a little bit of elbow grease.

Bone Appetite.

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The Salad Of Necessity

I seldom use recipes, except in regards to pickling, canning and baking. These are the areas where chemistry matters. In all other things I have a basic recipe that I follow but almost always just wing it. Don’t get me wrong, I know what proportions to use, what the basic ingredients are and how something is supposed to taste. It’s just that I love the process of discovery when cooking and love to explore variations on a basic theme. I thought I would share a little of this creative process with you on a dish I made Tuesday afternoon to bring with me to a pot luck at my ceramics class. Sorry, no pictures as I am doing this from memory.

So, I need to whip something up for the last Raku class this evening. Last time I did that Orzo salad with the tomatoes from the garden and feta cheese and the leftover steak. That went over really well. Let’s see, I have some of the Oriental Roast Pork leftover from the party Saturday night that I need to use, maybe I can come up with something to go with that. How about another pasta salad? Nah, pasta salad is so over done, but I’ll bet nobody else will bring one. Well, if I call it Thai Noodle Salad with Roast Pork then it won’t be pasta salad, will it. OK I’ll start with the noodles. I have some whole wheat capellini and that can be a good substitute for Thai noodles. So I’ll start with:

½ lb whole wheat capellini (angel hair) pasta, cooked, drained and barely cooled

Now I need some pork and I really want this to be meaty because I know a lot of people will come right from work and won’t have had any diner. I also know that there is at least one vegetarian so I’ll put the meat in at the end and reserve some for the non meat eater.

1 lb Oriental Roast Pork (pork sirloin roast marinated with garlic, ginger, soy, honey, hot sauce, ground coriander, ground cinnamon, mirin) cut it into thin strips

Excellent, this is going to be really good. Now I need some veggies. What do I have in the house? Celery, nah, no celery in this one but I need something crunchy. How about cabbage? Hell yea, that will be great but I really want this to be about half noodles and half veggies. That way it will be a salad with noodles rather than a noodle salad so I’ll add:

2 cups finely shredded cabbage

That will be nice and crunchy and it is right in the wheelhouse of the whole Thai milieu. Now I need some color and something a little bit sweet. I have a bunch of red bell peppers in the fridge so I’ll add:

½ large red bell pepper cut into thin strips

I also need some more savory elements to this. I have some green onions and it definitely needs an oniony note. So I’ll add:

1 bunch of green onions finely chopped

Good, that is looking better but if it’s going to be a Thai salad I’ll need some pungent herbs and we have some basil and cilantro in the garden so I’ll add:

A big handful of chopped cilantro and basil

Looking good, nice and colorful but it still needs some more veggies. How about carrots?

2 large carrots, shredded

Man, that’s looking great. Now I need a dressing. I can come up with a good Thai dressing. I’ve seen a million of these on the cooking shows. It needs to be very bright and acidic but not too heavy. How about I put it in a jar and shake it up and then pour it over the salad.

3 tbs fresh squeezed lime juice
2 tbs rice vinegar
1 tbs fish sauce
1 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs Killer Delicious Hot Cha Cha (ginger flavored hot pepper sauce or any kind of hot sauce you have around)
¾ cup canola oil

Damn, that is really good. I managed to make my loftover pork roast the star of a really nice dish. It looks great, has great color and texture, is easy to serve and eat in a pot luck setting and is both filling and nutritious. I would even go as far as saying that it is:

Killer Delicious!

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What the heck is a chutney anyway?

My dad used to have this Major Gray’s Chutney that I thought was repulsive as a kid. He would slurp that stuff down, mainly with lamb, but with all kinds of fatty meat. As I later learned, a child’s palate is not fully developed and can’t always appreciate the subtle interplay of seemingly opposing flavors such as sweet and sour. As an avid fan of Top Chef, I have seen many of my favorite competitors making chutneys to great effect and it has spurred my curiosity.

A chutney, stated briefly, is a sweet and sour relish used to preserve fruit or vegetables that originated on the Indian subcontinent. It was brought to England when they conquered, occupied and colonized India, and has become a more popular condiment in today’s hip and trendy food world. Last year we started a garden and, while some of the vegetables produced just enough for us to eat and enjoy, some things like our jalapenos and superchilis went absolutely bananas late in the fall, and we were left to ponder the question of “what the heck are we going to do with this stuff”. That led me to explore different ways to preserve things and put them up for the winter months.

Last year we tried to grow tomatoes and had very little success. (The squirrels might disagree — THEY had a very successful tomato season). This year, we were more determined to experience the unexpurgated joy of homegrown tomatoes, and we planted not only Austin red pear and sweet cherry tomatoes, but some medium-sized beefsteak varieties. While we didn’t get much fruit over the summer, around the beginning of September, the squirrels had their fill, and we got a rather large crop of cherry tomatoes, but the beefsteaks have not gotten enough fall sun to ripen. With an impending freeze, we decided to harvest as much of the green fruit as we could and figure out what to do with them. When we did an online search for “what the heck do you do with green tomatoes”, we saw several recipes for Green Tomato Chutney and being the adventurous sort, I decided to just go for it.

After reviewing several of the recipes, I discovered a few common elements: green tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, onions and raisins. Different people used different kinds of vinegar ranging from plain white to malt varieties. I also noticed that there weren’t a lot of spices involved. Putting myself in a madras frame of mind, I decided to take the basics and just wing my own recipe from what I had around, which is totally in the spirit of a traditional chutney. Here is what I came up with.

2 lbs green tomatoes, cut into 1 inch cubes

2 medium onions, large dice

2 apples peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes (I used Gala)

½ cup currants (we were out of raisins)

3 small jalapenos (everything we cook has peppers in it these days)

2 cups of apple cider vinegar

1 stick cinnamon

1 tbs coriander seeds, crushed

1 tbs ground black pepper

2 tsp dried ginger

2 tbs salt

1 cup brown sugar

Sprinkle two tablespoons of salt over the onions and green tomatoes and set in a container (in the refrigerator?) overnight to leach as much of the juice out as possible. Drain the liquid but don’t rinse the fruit. Put the vinegar, sugar and spices in a large pot and bring to a boil. Add the diced apples, currants and the drained onions and green tomatoes. Simmer on medium low for an hour or two until everything is soft and the liquid is well reduced and has the consistency of a thick syrup. Preserve in jars like you would any kind of jam and enjoy. It is a particularly good counterpoint to rich meats but don’t let it stop you from having a peanut butter and spicy green tomato chutney sandwich on whole wheat toast.

Bone Appetite!

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