Saturday, March 18, 2017

A (Non-Traditional) New England Clam Chowder

I am back.  It has been several months since I have posted anything on this blog.  I have been cooking, although not as much as I would like or with the experimentation that fuels this blog.  The problem is that I have not been writing blog posts, because things have been very busy around here.

Still, the recipes mull around in the back of my mind.  One such recipe is this New England Clam Chowder.  I made this chowder for the Savage Boleks Super Bowl Party, as the dish representing New England.   

Indeed, clam chowder is a quintessential dish in New England.  The history of the dish can be traced back to at least the 1700s, but it rose to prominence in the region in the early part of the 19th century.  The chowder gained a wider audience when it was described by Herman Melville in the classic, Moby Dick.  Melville described clam chowder served by Trys Pot, a chowder house in Nantucket, Massachusetts.  Melville wrote in some rather tasty terms:

However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained.  Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me.  It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. 

Fast forward one hundred and sixty six years and you find myself getting ready to make a big pot of New England Clam Chowder for my family and friends.  While I have made clam chowder in the past, this dish represents my best effort to date. And, after much thought, I think there are two reasons for that.

First, I decided to alter the recipe in one major way.  The original recipe, which I got from Bon Appetit called for cherrystone clams, which would be chopped into "bite size pieces."  I bought littleneck clams, which are smaller than cherrystone clams (you get about 7-10 littleneck clams per pound, while you get 6 to 9 cherrystone clams per pound).  Given they were smaller, I decided not to chop the clams.  This left small, whole clams in the chowder.  Something that I think would be reminiscent of, albeit slightly larger than, the "hazel nut" sized clams described by Herman Melville.

Second, I decided to use hickory smoked bacon, rather than just plain old bacon. This choice goes against convention.  Traditional clam chowders are made with salt pork, which is not smoked.  Most restaurants substitute un-smoked bacon.  The rationale behind the use of un-smoked bacon is that one wants to enjoy the brininess of the clams, which could get lost with smoked bacon.  Given I decided to keep the clams whole, rather than chop them into pieces, I decided to take a risk and use smoked bacon.  I think the risk paid off, because it added another layer of flavor to the chowder.

In the end, I think my family and friends enjoyed this chowder.  I certainly liked this chowder a lot.  So much that the thought of writing this blog post persevered even through the most busiest of times.  There are other posts like this one, although they will have to wait for another day.

Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit
Serves many


10 pounds of littleneck clams, scrubbed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
8 ounces bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 celery stalks, minced
1 large onion, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
6 cups clam juice (or reserved broth from steaming clams)
2 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 cups heavy cream
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
Flat leaf parsley, chopped
Oyster crackers

1.  Steam the clams.  Bring clams and 4 cups of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat.  Cook until clams just open, 8 to 10 minutes (discard any that do not open).  using a large slotted spoon, transfer clams to a large rimmed baking sheet; set broth aside.  Let clams cool slightly, pull meat from shells and discard the shells.  

2.  Make the base.  Melt butter in a large heavy pot over medium heat.  Add bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until fat is rendered and bacon begins to brown, about 8 minutes.  Add celery, onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent, about 10 minutes.  Add reserved broth (or 6 cups of clam juice), potatoes, thyme and bay leaf.  Bring chowder base to a simmer.  Cook until potatoes are tender, about 20 to 25 minutes.  

3.  Add cornstarch slurry.  Stir cornstarch and 2 tablespoons of water in a small bowl to form a slurry.  Stir slurry into chowder base.  Return to a boil to thicken.

4.  Finish the dish.  Remove base from heat.  Discard bay leaf.  Stir in reserve clams and cream  Season with salt (if needed, because the brininess of clams varies) and pepper.  Divide chowder among bowls and garnish with the parsley and serve with oyster crackers.


Saturday, November 5, 2016

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Lebanon

It has been a few months since the last chapter of my personal culinary challenge, Around the World in 80 Dishes.  That last challenge was to make a main course from Pakistan.  I chose to make Karahi Gosht, which is a spicy lamb curry dish that could often be found in markets and street stalls.   While my challenge is to make main courses, I have always been intrigued by street food, which, for many, serves as a main course, whether for lunch or dinner.

So, my next challenge takes me to the country of Lebanon, where I will make a main course that could easily be served on the street and markets.  The main course is Shish Taouk (or Shish Tawook) This dish is common throughout the Middle East, although it is more because the preparation is common: marinating chicken cubes in yogurt and spices, followed by cooking the chicken over a fire.  While this dish can be found in many countries, including Turkey and Syria, I thought it would be a good way to introduce myself to Lebanese food.

The history of Lebanese culinary traditions is an ancient one, with many of the dishes being traced back to the Roman era and even the Phoenician civilization.  While they have their own unique origins, those culinary traditions also incorporate spices and cooking methods from the Turks, whose Ottoman Empire ruled over the lands that would eventually become Lebanon from 1516 to 1918, as well as the French who controlled the area until 1946. 

As with any country, dishes vary by region.  Lebanon has the coastal regions along the Mediterranean Sea, along with the fertile Bekaa Valley.  The fertile areas, which could support crop production, comprise only about 30% of Lebanon.  Yet, farmers are able to produce a wide range of fruits and vegetables, which serve as the basis of dishes served across the country, including its capital, Beirut, which was once known as the "Paris of the Middle East."  The capital was, and continues to be, a sort-of crossroads, one that has for centuries brought spices and dishes to a very small and very complex country.  


For this challenge, I am drawing from the Turkish influence over Lebanese cuisine.  Skewers of chicken, marinated in yogurt and spices and grilled over spices draws inspiration from the Turks.  Indeed, the name Shish Taouk comes from Şiş,which is Old Turkic for "skewer" and Takagu, which is Old Turkic for "chicken."  Yet, these tasty skewers of grilled chicken are served in restaurants and food stalls not only in Beirut, but in cities throughout the country. 

Recipe adapted from The Spice Kit
Serves 4

Ingredients (for the chicken):
2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken
4 wooden skewers, soaked in water

Ingredients (for the marinade):
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons of olive oil
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
2 tablespoons of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon baharat
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon oregano

Ingredients (for the sauce):
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup cucumber, peeled, seeded, diced
1/4 teaspoon garlic, minced
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon fresh mint
1/4 teaspoon salt

1.  Marinate the chicken.  In a large bowl, combine marinade ingredients and mix smooth.  Add chicken and evenly coat the pieces.  Cover and refrigerate 4-8 hours

2.  Prepare the grill.  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit or an outdoor grill to medium high heat and lightly oil the grate. 

3.  Grill the chicken. Thread chicken on skewers and grill 4 to 5 minutes each side or bake 7 minutes each side until chicken is done. 


And, if you have Shish Taouk in one of those Lebanese restaurants or from one of those street stalls, that tasty chicken will most likely be served with a garlic paste sauce known as toum, hummus and tabouleh.  For this challenge, I decided to make a side of Lebanese tabbouleh. This side is a salad made from tomatoes, parsley, garlic, mint and onions   The dish originated in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon, and it spread from there.  As the story goes, the dish was mocked by some as simply a means to "scrimp" on meat. This critique was easily solved by serving the salad with some meat, like Shish Taouk.  

Recipe from NYT Cooking
Serves 4-6

1/4 cup fine bulgur wheat
1 small garlic clove, minced (optional)
Juice of 2 large lemons, to taste
3 cups chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/2 pound ripe tomatoes, very finely chopped
1 bunch scallions, finely chopped
Salt, preferably Kosher salt, to taste
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1.  Prepare the dish.  Place the bulgur in a bowl, and cover with water, by 1/2 inch.  Soak for 20 minutes, until slightly softened.  Drain through a cheesecloth-lined strainer, and press the bulghur against the strainer to squeeze out excess water.  Transfer to a large bowl and toss with the garlic, lemon juice, parsley, mint, tomatoes, scallions and salt.  Leave at room temperature or in the refrigerator for two to three hours, so that the bulgur can continue to absorb liquid and swell.

2.  Finish the dish.  Add the olive oil, toss together, taste and adjust seasonings.

*     *     *

In the end, both the Shish Taouk and Tabbouleh recipes are very good and, apart from the time taken to marinate the chicken, very easy to make.  This also represents a slight change in how I will approach future challenges.  In the past, I tried to make complex dishes, with many sides.  That was easy to do when it was just my Angel and me, but with our two little cherubs, finding the time to do such cooking is hard.   This dish represents my 24th challenge, leaving me with 56 to go.  If I am going to finish the overall challenge anytime soon, I will need to do these more than once every few months.  So, until next time (which hopefully will be soon)...


Sunday, October 30, 2016

Crab Bisque

Any blue crab soup that is described as "incomparably rich and delicious" is definitely worth trying.  I found the recipe for this particular blue crab soup in one of the cookbooks, Dishing Up Maryland.  The recipe is Crab Bisque.  It originated with the author's sister-in-law, Eleanor Van Dyke, who served it at her annual Christmas party.

A bisque is a cream-based soup that originated in France. Recipes for this soup first emerged in the 17th century, descending from pottage, a thick soup that was more of a puree. The early recipes involved the use of crustaceans, and, specifically, included pulverized crustacean shells as an ingredient.  The crustaceans used in these recipes were "crayfish," or rock lobsters.  If you want to see what some of those historical recipes look like, you should check out The Food Timeline, which is a great site for learning the history of particular recipes or ingredients.

Since those early recipes, bisque recipes have branched out to include any crustacean, such as lobster, shrimp and crab, as well as shellfish such as oysters or scallops.  I have had lobster bisque many times, and, Clare's father makes a very delicious shrimp bisque.  But, my love for blue crab got me to thinking about a crab bisque.  Such a soup is particularly popular in areas like the Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina, where there is -- relatively speaking -- an abundance of blue crab.

Recently, my beautiful Angel bought a container of fresh jumbo lump crab meat from North Carolina. With that pound of delicious crab meat on hand, I decided to make that "incomparably rich and delicious" soup.  This soup does not fit within the traditional nature of a bisque, as the recipe does not incorporate the use of crab shells.  Nevertheless, it is a very delicious soup and it is one where you could adjust the richness of the soup.  The recipe simply calls for "milk."  This means you can use skim milk, 1%, 2% or whole milk.  Obviously, if you use skim milk, the soup will not be as rich as if you use whole milk.  For this recipe, I decided to use whole milk.  I also altered the recipe in one respect.  The first and second steps call for the use of the sauteed vegetables in a cheesecloth bag.  I decided to let the vegetable bag steep in the soup for an hour or two with the heat low enough to keep the soup warm but not cause it to simmer or boil.  This allowed for the flavors of the vegetables to be drawn into the liquid of the soup.

This recipe lived up to its billing.  The best part of the recipe is not just the richness, but the fact that it is very simple to make.  This simplicity will ensure that it will become part of the "rotation" of dishes that I go to when entertaining guests, much like Ms. Van Dyke.

Recipe from Dishing Up Maryland, pg. 172
Serves 4-6

1 pound Maryland jumbo lump crab meat
4 tablespoons butter
3 celery stalks, diced
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 tablespoons, all purpose flour
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups half and half
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1.  Prepare the crab. Pick through the crabmeat and remove any shells bits and cartilage.  Set aside.

2.  Saute the vegetables.  Melt the butter in a medium saucepan.  Add the celery and the onion and saute over low heat until they are translucent.  Remove the pan from the heat and scoop out the vegetables into the cheesecloth bag and tie the bag to the handle to the pan, so that the bag hangs inside the pan, close to the bottom. 

3.  Add the milk.  Return the pan to the heat and add the flour, mustard, salt and pepper, stirring until blended.  Add the half and half the milk and stir constantly until thickened.

4.  Add the crabmeat.  Add the crabmeat and cook over low heat for 15 to 20 minutes.  Remove the vegetable bad and sprinkle the bisque with parsley before serving. 


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Curried Coconut Borscht

I have previously professed my hatred for broccoli.  However, there is something that I hate much more than broccoli ... beets.  Writing that last sentence, especially those five letters, b-e-e-t-s, just gave me the shivers.  My extreme dislike for beets is principally because of the taste.  I have just never been able to bring myself around to even accepting the flavor of beets.

It is not like I haven't tried.  Back in college, I studied abroad for a semester in Prague.  During our break, the class went to Moscow for the week.  We stayed at a college dormitory that had a cafeteria, where we had breakfast, lunch and dinner. Despite the passage of time, there is one thing that I clearly remember.  Every dinner began with with a bowl of borscht.  A bowl of thin, Communist-red broth.  That broth had the strong taste of beets.  It did not have any actual beets in it.  The absence of visible beets was a relief for me, as I grabbed the shaker filled with generic black pepper.  I would add a thin layer of the black and white pepper on the top of the red sheen of a soup.  It was the only way that I could eat borscht.

While it is not on my list of favorite dishes, borscht is a popular dish in Eastern European countries, including Poland, Belarus, Lithuania and Russia.  The dish originated with a sour soup made with pickled stems, leaves and umbels of the hogweed plant.  Over time, the recipe evolved from the hogweed to beet roots.  Other ingredients, such as cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes and tomatoes were added to the dish.  The various ingredients could be chopped and added to the dish for presentation.  Alternatively, they could be pureed into the relatively thin soup that I ate day after day during my stay in Moscow.

By now, you may be asking yourself, why I am droning on about beets and borscht.  As it turns out, it is the Community Supported Agriculture or CSA time of year.  One of our weekly CSA shipments included a couple red beets.  Given my beet repertoire is as thin as the soup I know, I decided that I would try my hand at making the soup that I can barely eat.  I found a recipe for a curried coconut borscht, which made the beet soup seem more palatable.  I thought that the coconut milk could round out the tartness of the beets, while the curry powder could help to offset that taste that is so off-putting to me. The recipe also allowed me to use some other ingredients from my CSA, such as a sweet potato (in place of the potatoes called for in the recipe) and a few carrots.

I will be honest, I ate the broth.  It was good.  I also ate the carrots and the sweet potatoes.  But, I could not bring myself to eat the diced beets.  I tried, but I could not eat the beets.  Don't let my distaste for beets stop you from making this recipe, because, if you like beets, this soup is definitely worth a try. 

Recipe adapted from Fresh and Natural Foods
Serves 2

1 tablespoon of coconut oil (or vegetable oil)
1 bunch of scallions
1 shallot or 1/2 onion, sliced
1 cup of red beets, cut into large dice
1 cup of carrots, sliced on the diagonal
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4  jalapeno pepper, minced
3/4 tablespoon of mild curry powder or garam masala
1 tablespoon of dried ginger or 1 teaspon of fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
1 cup of potatoes, diced
1/2 can of light coconut milk
1 cup of vegetable stock or water
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 lime juiced
1 tablespoon of arrowroot (dissolved in 1 tablespoon of water)

1. Saute the vegetables.  Add the oil to a large saucepan over medium heat  Add scallions, beets shallot (or onion), carrots and saute until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic, jalapeno, ginger, curry powder (or garam masalam), turmeric, and saute until the spices are fragrant, about 2 minutes.  Add the potatoes, coconut milk, stock (or water) and brnig to a boil

2.  Boil the borscht.  Lower to a simmer and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.  Add lime juice, cilantro and arrowroot and cook until soup thickens slightly.  Serve hot.


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Blackened Planked Salmon

If someone were to ask, "what is your favorite way to prepare salmon," then I would probably answer grilling it on a cedar plank.  The use of wood planks to grill food goes back a very, very long time, originating with the Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.  Women would then tack the salmon to long slabs of wood, usually alder or cedar, or they would tie the fish to the planks using vines.  Those wooden slabs were then placed over a fire and the salmon was allowed to cook slowly, absorbing the flavors of the wood and smoke.

That traditional practice may still be performed in some Native Americans in the northwest; however, in my case, the use of planks involves a cookie-cutter piece of cedar wood that gets soaked in water for more than an hour, fitted with a piece of salmon  and then placed on top of a fire or in a grill.  After about fifteen minutes or so, the plank is removed from the fire, the fish is removed from the plank and dinner is served.  The whole process seems far less idyllic than the process used by Native Americans.

Indeed, I am no stranger to using cedar planks.  I've made several salmon dishes in this manner.   I've made a traditional plank salmon (well, as traditional as traditional can get).  I've also made something fancier with planks and salmon, namely, the Imperial Salmon, a plank salmon with a crab imperial.   However, this time, I was looking for a different way to make planked salmon.  It got me to thinking and it did not take me long to think of something new.

As much as I am a fan of using smoke to impart flavors into meats, I am also a fan of blackening spices.  This recipe combines both ... blackened planked salmon.  It is a bayou meets the northwest thing, a combination of two sets of regional flavors that works in many different, but delicious ways.  To put it simply, it is the right combination of spice and smoke that can appeal to someone who, like myself, loves barbecue.

A Chef Bolek Original
Serves 2

Ingredients (for the salmon):
2 six ounce fillets of salmon
1 cedar plank

Ingredients (for the blackening spice mix):
1/2 tablespoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1.  Prepare the spice mix.  In a bowl, mix all of the spice mix Generously rub the mixture on both sides of the salmon.  Cover the fish and let rest for one half hour.

2.  Prepare the salmon for the grill.  Preheat a grill on medium.  Brush the cedar plank on both sides with three tablespoons of oil.  Place the salmon on the plank and cover evenly with the onion slices.  The onions do not just add flavor, they protect the fish from burning while it cooks. So make sure that the onions cover both the tops and the sides of the fish.  Drizzle some oil over the onions.

3.  Grill the salmon. The grill should be hot enough to ignite the plank when you place the plank in the grill.  Let the plank burn around the fish.  Once the plank has burned, cover the grill.  Continue to grill the salmon until medium rare, or 130 degrees Fahrenheit, which should take about ten minutes. 


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Leg of Lamb Barbacoa

It all began with the Taino, who were the native inhabitants of the West Indies.  They took their meat, marinated it with herbs and spices, and then cooked it over an open fire.  The Taino called their cooking "barabicu," which translates into sacred pit.  

Enter the Portuguese, Spanish and English.  As explorers made their way through the West Indies, they encountered the Taino and their way of cooking.  The Spanish brought that cooking method to what is now known as Mexico, where it took root and ultimately became barbacoa.

True barbacoa involves the slow roasting of meat over a fire, usually in a pit lined with leaves from the agave plant.  The meat would be served with one of the many moles or salsas that are well known in Mexican cuisine. 

I have always wanted to make barbacoa.  However, there were some obstacles.  First, my beautiful wife would not look very kindly upon myself digging a pit in the backyard to cook meat over a flame.  Second, even if I took the time to dig that pit, I don't have any agave leaves to line that pit in order to cook the meat.  Third, even if I had dug a pit and lined it with agave leaves, I probably would have been too tired to cook and would have went to Chipotle to get barbacoa soft tacos. (Interestingly, I have never had barbacoa at Chipotle; instead, I rather have the carnitas.)

In any event, I have always wanted to make barbacoa.  Rather than dig a pit, I decided to use my smoker.  I have also wanted to smoke some lamb.  Given the multitude of lamb barbacoa recipes, this provided the perfect opportunity to check off a couple of things on my "to do" list. 

I found a recipe for lamb barbacoa on the Saveur website, which also included a very interesting and delicious tomatillo sauce.  The combination of tomatillos and jalapeno peppers usually results in a good sauce that works well with a wide range of proteins, from beef to lamb, and even chicken or turkey.  In this case, the combination of ingredients made a great salsa that worked very well with the lamb (as well as the steak that I had a few days later).  

One note about this dish.  The Saveur recipe called for the use of lamb shoulder.   Sometimes, I have a hard time finding lamb shoulder at the stores around where I live.  Leg of lamb, however, is plentiful.  I also happen to really like leg of lamb because, if you cook it right, it is amazing.  Even if you overshoot the temperature (which I did a little in this case), the meat can still be tender and juicy. After it was cooked, I chopped the meat for use with soft tacos, as well as sliced some of the leg for lunches at work.

Recipe adapted from Saveur
Serves Many

Ingredients (for the lamb):
1/4 cups distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 dried guajillo or similar chiles, stemmed and seeded
5 garlic cloves, chopped
2 whole cloves
2 whole allspice berries
1/4 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 leg of lamb, about 5 pounds
Freshly ground black pepper

Ingredients (for the tomatillo salsa):
1/4 pound of tomatillos, husked and rinsed
4 cloves of garlic
2 medium yellow onions, quartered
2 jalapeno peppers ,stemmed
1 teaspoon sugar
1 bunch cilantro, stemmed
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Marinate the lamb.  Puree the vinegar, salt, oregano, cinnamon, chiles, garlic, cloves, allspice and onion in a blender.  Season lamb with salt and pepper on a baking sheet and rub all over with the chile puree.  Refrigerate overnight. 

2.  Make the tomatillo salsa. Place the tomatillos, garlic, onions and jalapenos in a four quart saucepan and cover with water by one inch.  Bring to a boil over high heat and cook until slightly soft, about 5 minutes.  Drain vegetables and reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid.  Puree boiled vegetables, reserved liquid, sugar, cilantro, salt and pepper in a blender.  Set aside.

3.  Smoke the lamb.   Prepare the smoker and the fire until the temperature is between 225 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit.  Place the lamb, fat side up in the smoker and add a piece or two of mesquite wood for the smoke.  Cook until a thermometer reads 190 degrees Fahrenheit.  Remove, let rest and then shred the lamb.  Serve with corn tortillas, the tomatillo salsa and other accompaniments.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Linguine with Red Clam Sauce

Recently, my sister and brother-in-law bought me a shellfish grilling grate.  It combines two things that I really love ... shellfish and grilling.  Once I had the grate, I immediately began thinking of different recipes that I could make.  The grate can be used to grill all sorts of shellfish, from mussels, to clams, to oysters.   For me, the appropriate starting point was the grilling of clams.  

I still needed a recipe.  My mind turned to a recipe of pasta with clams.  The Italians would call it spaghetti alla vongole or spaghetti with clams.  I looked at a few recipes, and settled on one from Food & Wine magazine.  The recipe called for the use of packaged clams or for fresh clams that would be steamed with the sauce.  I decided to adapt that recipe by using not only the packaged clams, but also adding a step for grilled clams.  This meant that the recipe would have double the clams, which, like most culinary things, meant it would be twice as good.

The use of grilled clams was truly an inspiration.  Grilling clams is much better than steaming clams.  For one thing, the grilled clams were perfect, just the right texture and sitting in a little bath of clam juice.  Quite a few of those clams never made it to the final dish, because I kept eating them as I prepared the pasta and sauce.  Nevertheless, the process of grilling clams produced a briny, tasty shellfish that elevated this traditional pasta dish into a completely different and much better experience.   

Recipe adapted from Food & Wine
Serves 4

1 bag of little neck clams
1/4 cup olive oil
4 large cloves of garlic, chopped
2/3 cup of dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
Pinch of dried red pepper flakes
3 cups of canned crushed tomatoes in thick puree
     (one 28 ounce can)
1 cup bottled clam juice
1 1/4 teaspoons salt, more, if needed
3/4 pound of chopped clams, drained (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black  pepper
3/4 pound linguine

1.  Grill the clams.  Heat a grill on high heat.  Arrange the clams on the grill rack and place on the grill.  Cook the clams for about 5 to 7 minutes until all clams have opened.

2.  Begin the sauce.  In a large frying pan, heart the oil over moderately low heat.  Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.  Add the wine, thyme and red pepper flakes; bring to a simmer.  Cook until reduced to about 1/3 cup, about 5 minutes.

3.  Continue the sauce.  Add the tomatoes, clam juice and salt.  Raise the heat to moderate and bring to a simmer.  cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 10 minutes.  Add the chopped clams and bring back to a simmer.  Continue simmering until the clams are just done, about 1 minute longer.Stir in the parsley and black pepper.  Taste the sauce for salt, and add more if needed.

4.  Cook the pasta.  Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the linguine until just done, about 12 minutes.  Drain and toss with sauce. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

Steamed Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs

H.L. Mencken once remarked, "there is a saying in Baltimore that crabs may be prepared in fifty ways and that all of them are good."  That saying may very well be true; but there is one preparation that almost all Marylanders will agree is the best: steamed with Old Bay.  And, in order to achieve perfection, one must use blue crabs from the Chesapeake Bay.

My introduction to Chesapeake Bay blue crabs takes me back more than twenty years, when I worked as a steam cook at a local crab house.  I packed pots full of feisty blue crabs, alternating between crabs and Old Bay, and watching the pots dutifully as those green and blue crabs turned to the emblematic reddish-orange.  It was a part-time job, which I worked in the evenings and on weekends during the summer to earn money during college.  The crab house had steam pots on two levels and I had to carry pots up and down stairs.  It was hard work; and, for years, I swore that I hated it.  But, as time goes by, I look back fondly to my time in that kitchen for two reasons.  First, I made a connection with the other cooks, all of whom were from Cameroon and were working that job as an evening/weekend job while they were getting their masters degrees in engineering. Second, that was where my love of cooking and eating blue crabs began.

The blue crab -- also known as Callinectes Sapidus -- is truly a remarkable creature. That Latin name translates as "beautiful savory swimmer," but that hardly describes this crustacean, let alone its importance to the economy and the culture around the Chesapeake Bay.  Since at least the 1600s, if not long before, native Americans, English Colonists and others relied upon the blue crab as an important source of food.  The love for the sweet taste of blue crab meat led to overfishing, stressing populations throughout the bay.  Other environmental and man-made factors further pushed numbers of blue crabs further downward.  However, for nearly 100 years, local and state governments in the Chesapeake region have worked very hard to protect and grow the species, with mixed success. 

These conservation efforts have led to various restrictions when it comes to the commercial and recreational crabbing.  Those restrictions have, in turn, led to less crabs in restaurants and in stores, as well as higher prices.  Personally, I am willing to accept those consequences if it means that this important animal and resource will be around for future generations to enjoy. 

With all of this said, I only have steamed blue crabs every year or two years.   The crab feast usually takes place at a restaurant, which usually carries a very hefty tab at the end of the meal.  Recently, I went "back to my roots" and steamed some crabs.  It was a feast enjoyed by not only myself, but my beautiful Angel and her parents.

There was one obvious question: how to steam the crabs? Back at that crab house, steam pots were prepped using only water.  Once they were blazing hot, crabs were added, one layer at a time.  With each layer of crabs, a healthy amount of Old Bay was sprinkled over the crabs.  Then the next layer of crabs were added to the pot, followed by more Old Bay, and so on and so on.   

Despite having steamed hundreds of crab pots in my time, I still checked the Internet to see how others steamed their blue crabs.  I was quite surprised by what I found.  There were many recipes for "Chesapeake Bay" blue crabs that called for steaming the crustaceans in a mix of water and vinegar or beer and vinegar.  I could see the use of beer (after all, it is used in many other seafood preparations, such as spiced shrimp), but vinegar? I tried to find some explanation for why vinegar was used to steam crab, I could not find any.  To make matters worse, some recipes called for apple cider vinegar, while others called for white distilled vinegar or, in one case, red wine vinegar.  While I  gave a passing thought to using white distilled vinegar, I ultimately decided to forego the ingredient.

As for the use of beer, there was no question that it would go into the steam pot.  The only question was which beer to use.  Many use a basic brew -- like Budweiser (or, if you are from Baltimore, Natural Bohemian a/k/a Natty Bo).  I wanted to use a local brew.  I also decided to follow the chef's rule when it came to using alcohol in recipes: namely, use something you would serve with the dish or that you would drink.  I am not a big fan of Budweiser or Natty Bo.  That left me perusing the alteratives at a local beverage store, I came across Flying Dog's Dead Rising, a summer ale brewed with, of all things, Old Bay.  I thought that would be a good beer to use for the steaming of blue crabs.  After all, the crabs will be steamed with Old Bay, so why not use a beer that was brewed with the spice mixture?

Having Old Bay in the beer and on the crabs was not a concern for me.  The reason goes back to what I learned at while cooking at that crab house. Old Bay has a lot of salt in it, and, the crab house managers wanted a lot of Old Bay on the steamed crabs because it made people buy more beer. When I steam crabs, I do so for myself, my friends and my family.  I am not interested in trying to sell beer to them or, for that matter, encouraging them to drink more beer.  More importantly, while I like the taste of Old Bay, I love the taste of blue crab meat more.  I want to be able to taste the crab first, with a little Old Bay on the background.  Therefore, as I pack a crab pot, I use a fair amount of Old Bay, covering the carapace of the crabs.  However, I make sure that the crabs are not caked with the stuff.  Once the crabs are finished steaming, I also sprinkle a little more Old Bay on the right before they are served.

Finally, a couple of notes about packing steam pots.  First, it is important to have a pair of thick rubber gloves or a long set of tongs.  You do not want to have your fingers caught in the crab's claws or, worse, to be bitten by a crab.  This leads to my next point: never pick up a crab by its front.  As you can see, that is just asking for trouble, especially if you are not using gloves or your tongs are not long enough.  Instead, you should always try to grab the crab from behind,  While you could try grabbing the crab from the abdominal segment 2, there is a chance the crab can get you depending on how far in you grab it. I find the best spot to grab a crab is just above its coxa, which is shown in the diagram above.  If you grab the crab on its body above the coxa and dangle it, the crab is not going to be able to grab you.

Second, and finally, while it is good to pack a fair amount of crabs into the steam pot, it is important not to over-pack the pots.  You want steam to get in between the crabs so that they cook evenly and completely.  Once they are in and ready, close the pot and leave it alone for about 20 to 25 minutes.  Once they have their bright reddish-orange color, they are ready to be eaten!

Serves Many

4 dozen medium blue crabs
Old Bay
2 bottles of beer
3 cups of water

1.  Prepare the steam pot.  Add the beer and water (or, if you must, vinegar) to the steam pot (which is a pot that has a steam tray, i.e., a tray elevated from the bottom of the pot).  Cover the pot and heat it on high heat until steam starts coming out of the edges of the cover.

2.  Pack the pot.  Working as quickly as you can under the circumstances, add the crabs to the pot.  Once you have a layer of crabs, add some Old Bay to the crabs.  Then add the next layer of crabs and then some more Old Bay.  Keep adding crabs and Old Bay until the pot is mostly full, making sure that you do not overpack the pot.

3.  Steam the crabs.  Cover the pot and allow the crabs to steam for about 20 minutes.  Once the crabs are the bright reddish-orange color, then they should be removed from the pot and served immediately.


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