New England Clam Chowder

March 24, 2008

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 I adore clam chowder out of all proportion to where I live (sadly, nowhere near New England).   So it came to mind the other day when I was thinking of the foods I would like to have while the last gasps of winter are still blowing across my backyard.  Warm, hearty foods that will be out of rotation once spring and summer arrive with all their bounty and my unair-conditioned kitchen stops beckoning.  

I’ve always considered clam chowder something to order out, not something to make at home.   But the last few restaurant versions I’ve tried have made me long for something better, fresher tasting, less paste-like.  Upon consideration, I decided it was completely doable.  Plus it was an opportunity to play with fresh clams, still in their shells, and use some more of my home-cured bacon.  For my first attempt at clam chowder, the results were stunning (and faster then going out).  Deeply-flavored and creamy, this chowder is studded with red potatoes and chewy bits of clam throughout.

New England Clam Chowder      adapted from The Best New Recipe, serves 2-3

  • 25 littleneck clams, washed and scrubbed clean

bring 2 cups water to a boil in a large stockpot.  add clams and cover.  cook 5 minutes and stir to check that clams have just opened.  if not, recover and steam until they open.  fish the clams out of the pot with a slotted spoon and reserve the steaming liquid.  remove the clam meat from the shells over the reserved liquid to catch any tasty clam drippings.  mince the clam meat roughly and set aside.  pour the reserved clam liquid into a measuring cup, leaving the last couple tablespoons of liquid and any sediment in the bowl.  add water to make 2 1/2 cups.

  •  2 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
  • 1/2 large white onion, chopped medium
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

fry the bacon over medium low heat until crisp.  add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden and softened ~ 5 minutes.  add the flour and stir until lightly colored ~ 1 minute.  add the reserved clam broth, whisking constantly.  

  • 3/4 pound red potatoes, or another waxy variety
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried marjoram

add and simmer until potatoes are tender ~ 10 minutes. 

  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced
  • salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste

add and bring back up to a simmer; remove immediately from the heat.  discard the bay leaf.  serve immediately.

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Shad Roe, Two Ways

March 3, 2008

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Earlier this spring, I decided this year was the year.  The year I was at least going to try it.  I’m normally a pretty adventurous eater, generally willing to try new things.  But I had put off trying shad roe for for a couple of years now and it had become one of my darkest waitressing secrets.  “Oh, the shad roe?”  I’d say brightly.  “It’s excellent here.”  Or so I’d heard.  Then I would wait for the inevitable question, and cringing, try to explain that shad roe were two paired lobes of egg sac of the shad without using the words “egg sac,” which usually make guests wrinkle their noses and shake their heads.  Shad roe eaters are a club of their own and, in my waitressing experience at least, if you don’t already know what it is, chances are you don’t want to.

But, other than the egg sac concept, I loved the idea of shad roe.  It’s intensely seasonal, a harbringer of spring, and local to boot.  Shad run up the East Coast every spring to spawn in fresh water and fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River celebrate their coming with shad bakes and festivals.  The fish itself is flavorful, but quite bony, making it a challenging eat.  The roe itself has been described as rich and “tasting of the sea,” a bit briny. 

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Still slightly apprehensive, I did not want to try the roe at work, scarfing it down as I tried to finish my sidework at the end of the night.  I decided this should be an occasion of sorts and so I talked Chef into letting me bring my shad home to cook myself.  I wrapped them up and carefully brought them home.  At which point R., my (kitchen professional) boyfriend, mentioned that they could be difficult to saute properly, being liable to burst at high temperatures, and casting a bit of doubt on the whole enterprise.   So I began my research, finding that the generally accepted solution to this bursting problem is a light poaching followed by pan searing for color.  I had settled on this method when I came across a recipe from Jasper White’s Cooking from New England via The Spiral Staircase.  Mr. White seemed to have put quite a bit of thought into the preparation of shad roe and anyone who wants to poach food in butter has my heart from the get go.  All this, paired with his cautionary words on popping fat, and I was sold.

 “Shad roe does not take well to any type of intense heat.  It requires gentle cooking.  If you wish to saute shad roe, you must gently poach it first.  It is too delicate to saute from the raw state.  You can . . . then season and dust the roe with flour before slowly browning it in butter or bacon fat.  Be careful of popping, which can throw hot fat far enough to burn the cook.  Over the years, I have tried just about every known method for cooking shad roe.  Still not completely happy, I invented my own method, which pays heed to the most important elements in cooking shad roe: slow cooking and basting.  The trick is to find a saute pan that is just barely big enough to hold the roe.  For one pair weighing about six ounces a six-inch pan with one-inch sides is perfect; for two pairs of that size, a nine-inch pan is about right.  The roe is roasted slowly in this pan with enough sweet butter to almost cover the lobes.  This eliminates basting, and since the dish is started from the cold state and uses a very gentle cooking, it also eliminates poaching.  When the roe is perfectly cooked, it is transferred to a warm plate to rest for just a moment, while you prepare a brown butter from the butter in the pan…  Serve one piece of lobe as an appetizer or two as a main course.  I think the richness of this dish, however, makes it more appropriate as a starter.”

So the cooking method decided, I was torn between a lemon caper butter that the restaurant relies on or a more traditional approach, one that would let me use some of my home-cured bacon.  I dithered for a while before deciding that it was a sign that shad roe come paired with two lobes and I was meant to try both.  The lemon caper butter approach would use up the butter I had needed to poach the roe and would pair with some grilled bread.  I put R. and his professional background in charge of this while I worked out what to do with the bacon.  Bacon, grits, and roe seemed to be a theme in my readings.  Going along those lines, I would fry up some bacon, build a pan sauce with brandy and serve this roe variation with some of my smoked tomato grits, which are good enough to deserve a post of their own. 

Honestly, after all this build up, the roe seemed almost anticlimactic.  It was good, with a mild flavor and a texture not unlike the grits that I paired them with.  The acidic counterpoint of the lemon and capers paired beautifully with the roe and anything with bacon is yummy in my book.  I would eat roe again, but probably not seek it out, and that’s okay, because now I know what all the fuss is about.   You can send me my shad roe club membership card, because now I’ve tried it. 

Shad Roe, Slowly Roasted in Butter

    adapted from Jasper White’s Cooking from New England

preheat oven to 350 degrees.   

  • 1 pair shad roe lobes, about 6 oz
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

wash shad roe and gently pat dry.  season with salt and pepper.

  • 6-8 tablespoons unsalted butter

place a 6-inch saute pan on medium low heat and melt 6 tablespoons of the butter.  slip the shad roe into the pan, making sure that the melted butter is covering the lobes.  if not, add a bit more.  place the pan into the preheated oven.  check the thickest part of the roe after 12 minutes for firmness.  if still soft, cook a bit longer.  remove to a warm plate. 

Lemon Caper Pan Sauce and Grilled Bread

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pour off part of the melted butter from the pan and reserve to brush grilled bread, leaving behind 3-4 tablespoons.  place over medium heat to brown the butter.  toss in

  • 1 tablespoon salt-cured capers, soaked and dried
  • juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • salt and pepper to taste

swirl to incorporate.

  • 2 slices of baguette, cut on the bias, toasted or grilled, brushed with any melted butter left

Brandied Bacon Pan Sauce

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  • 2 slices of thick-cut bacon  

fry up bacon until crisp.  remove from pan and remove pan from heat.  add

  • 1/3 cup brandy or bourbon

swirl and light with a long kitchen match.  season to taste with salt and fresh ground pepper.  if I tried this again, I would probably add a pinch of flour to the bacon grease to make a thin roux or some heavy cream after the brandy to make a more finished sauce. 

Merguez Sausage

February 24, 2008

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I decided to start my sausage-making attempts with merguez sausage because, not only does it incorporate some of my favorite flavors – spicy and lamby with North-African influences, but you can’t find it around where I live.  It didn’t hurt that I could cheat on grinding the meat as my local butcher, Danny Rohrer, carries ground lamb.  The way I saw it, I was going to attempt to make and stuff the sausage, and learning one step at a time was enough.  

With preground meat, the sausage-making was a snap.  I tossed the spices into my KitchenAid, mixed in the lamb, and incorporated the red wine and water until the mixture had achieved what is called its “primary bind.”  All this means is that the spices and meat have come together in a sticky ball.   I tried to work quickly to keep the meat well-chilled, apparently a key point in sausage-making.  Charcuterie warns often that letting the meat get warm will affect the final texture of the sausage, and recommends chilling between steps of the process.  

So warned, I put the bowl of sausage in the freezer to get cold again and pulled out the sheep intestines, “natural casings”, I had received in the mail earlier in the week.  And this is where things began to get a bit dicey.  You can at this point merely portion your sausage and use it loose in recipes or in patty form, freezing what you will not use in the next day or so.  Or you can attempt to wrangle it into a sheep intestine to form links.  Upon my first whiff of the casings, I will admit to having doubts about the whole process. 

But the book said to soak the casings and so after separating out 3 strands from the salty lump of intertwined casings, I put them in water and walked away for a half hour or so.  Which vastly improved my state of mind.  I came back ready to rinse and rerinse the casings, determined that I could do this.  The smell having dissipated rendered the casings much less scary, kind of slippery and wiggly and amazingly strong for something so thin.  It wasn’t until I started to rinse the insides of the casings that they began to knot up on themselves, which made the process an exercise in patience.  Finally (and more quickly than it seemed, I’m sure), the casings were ready.

I hooked up my KitchenAid food grinder attachment with the sausage stuffer, slid one of the casings up over the tip, and promptly had to call for help.  R. obliging left his accounting homework behind and came to the rescue.  Between the two of us, we wrestled the sausage into the casing, though it was not an easy job.  We have some ideas for the next round (freezing the meat in indivdual balls or tubes that would fit into the feeder tube?), but if anyone has any suggestions on how to sucessfully tame a KitchenAid sausage stuffer, they would be much appreciated.

To celebrate the sausage wrangling, we took the last of the unstuffed sausage and fried it up with potatoes into an impromptu hash.  The spicy red-pepper flavors of the lamb merguez mingling with the crisp potatoes.  Along with eggs sunny-side up, yolks golden and still runny, we sat down to breakfast for dinner, always a comforting reward at the end of a hard job…

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Merguez Sausage

     adapted from Charcuterie, makes quite a bit of sausage

  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons garlic, minced 
  • 3/4 cup roasted red pepper, diced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon spanish paprika
  • 1 tablespoon fresh oregano, minced

combine all above ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment on.  add

  • 3 pounds ground lamb

mix until incorporated and add

  • 1/8 cup dry red wine, chilled
  • 1/8 cup ice water

mix on medium ~ 1 minute until mixture has a uniform and sticky appearance.  place bowl in refrigerator to chill.  portion lamb sausage.  stuff into casings if you dare.  double wrap any sausage you are not going to use within 3 days in cling film and freeze.

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I adore shopping at asian groceries because of the element of suprise, those moments of “what is this?” and “how could I use up this?”.  I always end up with something I haven’t had the chance to cook with before.  Usually I end these trips at home curled up with Asian Ingredients by Bruce Cost, which provides clear explanations, pictures, and recipes of many things I can’t even begin to pronounce.  Wheeling my cart around the produce section, I came across kumquats.  Charmed by the idea of tiny citrus and having no idea what to do with them, I took them home with me. 

This time though I thought of Chez Panisse Fruits, a cookbook I always flip through with good intentions, happily browsing the stylized relief prints and reading the essays before giving up because I live 300 miles from the nearest Meyer lemon.  I rushed home with my kumquats, sure that Alice Waters would approve and I would finally cook something from this beautiful cookbook! 

I was right – Alice had some great ideas for me, from a spring onion kumquat relish to candied kumquat slices.  Apparently, kumquats are the only citrus in that the skin is sweet and the flesh is tart, which sounded perfect for marmalade to me.  The thin skins also mean you don’t have to go through the blanching step that other citrus marmalades require.

Thankfully, I hadn’t bought all that many kumquats, so I didn’t have to feel bad about not actually canning anything, just making a jar to keep in the fridge.  The recipe only calls for two ingredients: kumquats and sugar, though I added some lemon juice for brightness, and couldn’t be any easier.  The results were stunning, a sweet-tart marmalade with an unusual flavor…

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Kumquat Marmalade

     adapted from Chez Panisse Fruits, makes a couple of cups

  • 1/2 pound kumquats
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice

cut off the stem end of the fruit, then split each lengthwise.  slice each half into 1/8-inch moons, removing and discarding the seeds as you slice.  place the kumquats into a small saucepan and just cover with water.  add sugar and bring to a boil over high heat for 15 minutes, skimming off any foam that comes to the top.  reduce heat and continue simmering until the marmalade thickens to the consistency you like.  add the lemon juice and stir. let cool, then put in a pretty jar and refrigerate.

The marmalade came out so well that I decided I needed something to eat it on and with a quickness.  For me, that means biscuits, probably my favorite quickbread.  I used to be intimidated by biscuit-making and, trust me, I had made my share of hockey pucks to prove why.  Two things have revolutionized biscuits for me: powdered buttermilk and a really good recipe.  I stand by them both and I now make darn good biscuits to prove it.  Ones that are pretty enough for a photo shoot, if they last that long…

I discovered the powdered buttermilk when I was packing foods up for my dad to take on a long hiking trip and I haven’t looked back since.  I occasionally buy buttermilk for projects like buttermilk-marinated fried chicken, but it never seemed like I had any around when I needed it for baked goods.  If I did buy it for biscuits, I would use half a cup and then the rest would slowly, despite my best intentions, go bad in the fridge.  Now I can whip up a batch of buttermilk biscuits without running to the store.  Completely worth it, I promise.  Go buy some, toss it in the back of your fridge, and you will be amazed how often it comes in handy. 

The recipe comes from The New Best Recipe from the editors of Cook’s Illustrated, a cookbook I turn to regularly for baking, and produces the best biscuits I have ever made.  Using the food processor, it takes me six minutes flat to get these biscuits in the oven and another ten to bake, which makes them possible for everyday, rather than just special occasions or Sundays.

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Buttermilk Biscuits

     adapted from The New Best Recipe, makes 8 biscuits

adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 450 degrees. line an ungreased baking sheet with a piece of parchment (optional).

  • 1 cup (5 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) plain cake flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons powdered buttermilk

place into the bowl of a food processor, blitz ten seconds to mix dry ingredients.

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 inch cubes

sprinkle the butter cubes evenly over the dry ingredients.  process in twelve 1-second pulses. add

  • 3/4 cup water

process until dough gathers into moist clumps, about eight 1-second pulses.  transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and gather it into a loose ball, being careful not to overmix.  cut the ball into quarters, then split each quarter into eighths.  with floured hands, shape a rough ball of each piece and place on the baking sheet, about a half-inch to an inch apart.  bake for ten minutes, check and put in for a minute or two more if needed to achieve golden biscuit perfection.