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. 

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I was reading Julia and Jacques Cooking At Home yesterday – in bed, I might add.  At five pounds of large-format hardcover, this is not the perfect book to cuddle up with.  I had put down this book for too long though, and glimpsing it on the shelf, I grabbed it on the way upstairs.

I like this cookbook for the back-and-forth bantering exchange between two such amazing chefs.  First, Julia will say “Well, when making such-and such, I like to…”, then on the opposite page, Jacques will say “Julia likes to do it this way, but I prefer…” and come up with a completely different method.  It reminds me that there is always more than one way to do something and do it well. 

My scrambled egg technique (from Jacques) is flawless.  They were, in fact, the first thing I ever cooked for my boyfriend (intimidatingly at the time, a professional cook).

This go around, the book threatening to suffocate me if I fell asleep and the snow falling outside, I was looking for recipes to use some of the beautiful savory bacon I had cured.  Flipping through, I came across a recipe for potato salad that included bacon and had the added advantage of tossing the hot potatoes with cider vinegar, a technique I’d never considered. 

So this morning when I woke up, I wasn’t too suprised that I had a serious jones for some potato salad, even if it wasn’t picnic weather.   It’s one of the first things I can ever remember making, probably in first grade, with some precooked potatoes and illustrated recipe cards.  I might have added too much vinegar then, because ever since, I have been a fan of tart potato salad.  This one completely fits the bill.

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Classic American Potato Salad

     adapted from Julia Child in Jacques and Julia Cooking At Home, serves 2 or 3

  • 1 pound Yukon Gold, or other waxy variety, potatoes
  • 1 teaspoon salt

peel potatoes and slice into 1/2 inch chunks.  put in a saucepan and just cover with water.  add salt.  bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer for 6 to 7 minutes.  check potatoes to make sure they are tender and cooked through.  drain and toss with

  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar

let sit 10 minutes, tossing occasionally, to absorb the vinegar.

  • 1/3 cup red onion, finely chopped
  • 2 slices bacon, crisped and chopped
  • 1-2 tablespoons cornichons (or dill pickles), finely chopped
  • 1 hard-boiled egg, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 1 scallion, finely chopped, including some of the greens

combine and toss gently with potatoes. 

  • 1/3 cup mayonaise
  • 1-2 tablespoons sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
  • salt and fresh-ground pepper, to taste

fold into potato mixture, tasting and correcting for balance.  refrigerate at least an hour to chill and retaste for seasoning and acidity.

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 Looking for a way to highlight some of the bacon I just finished making, but not feeling in the mood for anything too heavy, my thoughts turned to a southern classic – wilted spinach salad.  I always love the premise – bright green spinach, softened slightly with the heat of the warm dressing, contrasting with the snap of crisp bacon and creaminess of a perfectly hard-boiled egg. 

 I think the key is in getting the spinach to wilt and gloss over with the warm bacon grease in the dressing, rather than just coat the leaves and clump up.  Cooled bacon grease = bad mouthfeel. 

 Leafing through an old Cook’s Illustrated, I found a solution.  By tossing the aromatics in the dressing recipe into the hot pan with the drippings from the bacon and building the dressing around them, the dressing is able to retain enough heat when tossed with the cool greens to successfully wilt the spinach.  Think of each bit of onion and garlic as a tiny hot water bottle warming up the greens.

 The results were fabulous.  The bacon was crisp and perfectly salty, ensconced in greens wilted just enough for contrast. 

Wilted Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing

     adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, serves 2

  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • couple of grinds of black pepper
  • pinch of salt

 mix vinegar with sugar, salt & pepper. set aside.

  •  4 slices thick-cut bacon

slice into 1/2 inch lardons.  fry in medium skillet over medium-high heat until crisp ~ 10 minutes.  remove bacon from skillet with slotted spoon.  pour bacon fat into a heatproof bowl. measure 2 tablespoons of the fat back into the pan. 

  • 1/4 of a medium red onion, chopped (~1/4 cup)
  • 1 small garlic clove, minced

add onion to pan & saute over medium heat, stirring frequently, until softened ~ 3 minutes.  toss in the garlic, stir 15 seconds.  add cider vinegar mixture & remove pan from heat, scraping the bottom of the pan to get all the good, browned bits.  swirl and quickly toss with  

  • half a bag of baby spinach (~3 oz)

until spinach is slightly wilted.  garnish with bacon and

  • 2 hardboiled eggs, quartered or diced, if desired

 serve before the bacon grease can cool. 

Making Bacon at Home

February 8, 2008

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 My first shot at making bacon seemed much less like cooking to me and more like an exotic collecting expedition.  First I had to come up with pork belly, then curing salts – neither of which was to be found at the local Food Kitty.

 The curing salts were easily enough found online under the name Insta-Cure #1, so I clicked through and impatiently waited for them to arrive on my doorstep.  I have read about the health concerns associated with nitrites, but my sources said they were crucial if I wanted to smoke the meat at low temperatures for any length of time, preventing the dread botulism.  And since I had decided early in the process that I would give smoking the bacon a shot, this seemed necessary. 

 (Apparently it’s not a deal breaker if you finish the bacon in a low oven, though I’m not sure how this would affect the need for the nitrites.  Another experiment for another time.) 

 The pork belly was a little more difficult, with no luck at the local grocery or on a trip to a couple of fancier places in the DC area.  (To be fair, I should have called ahead.)  But I hit pay dirt at an asian grocer, Lotte Plaza, in Ellicott City, MD.  I lunched out in front of a case of pork bellies for a good ten minutes before choosing two perfect pieces.

  At home, I started the process, using the basic cure recipe out of Charcuterie and adding maple syrup to one belly section and fresh ground black pepper to the other.  I adore peppered bacon, but I thought I try out the sweet cure and see how it worked.  This part took a total of ten minutes (including the dithering over the maple syrup and my amazement over how truly pink the pink curing salt really is), and the bellies went into the fridge to cure.

The next week consisted of me peering into the fridge and poking at the bellies to try and ascertain whether anything was actually happening in there.  R. was much better at actually remembering to turn (and occasionally massage) the bellies on a dailyish basis.  But really when it came down to it, flipping them every day or so was all that was required.  Not exactly high-maintenance.

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Finally the week was up.  The bellies seemed to have firmed up upon poking, so I rinsed and dried them and fired up the grill for some smoking.  Full disclosure here – I own a gas grill, not exactly what anyone seemed to be calling for in the how-to-smoke sections of anything I read, but I decided try and see what happened.  I soaked some hickory chips I had been “aging” on my back porch for quite a while in hot water and made a packet for them out of aluminum foil.  I set half of my grill on the lowest setting, put the packet on that side and the bacon on the high rack on the other side, closed the lid and waited for the bacon to come up to 150°F.  Four hours later (and 15 minutes before I had to be at work), the thermometer alarm went off.  The bacon was beautiful and smelled, well, you can imagine, like smoky goodness.

On Becoming a Charcuterista

February 6, 2008

charcuteriecover.jpgI guess it’s appropriate to begin my new identity as Charcuterista with bacon. It’s an enduring love affair I’ve carried on through my life. One of my favorite professors in college, a vegetarian for 25 years, once admitted to me that bacon was the one meat she still craved; I can believe it.

This adoration, coupled with a more general urge to know how foods are made and where they come from, led to my Christmas wish list this year. I stumbled across Charcuterie by Michael Rulhman and Bryan Polcyn in Harvard Books while visiting some friends in Boston over Thanksgiving. Flipping through the pages, I realized that these traditions (something approaching the power of magic in my head thus far) were possible, and not only that, actually doable.

Part of the attraction of charcuterie for me is the utter abandon of it – the sensuousness of a silky, thin slice of prosciutto; the shattering crisp of bacon; the unctuous spicy flavors of sausage. Part of it lies in the opening for creativity, variation, and the ability to make something new and different.

But the most important part I see is the possibility of forming a new relationship with what I am eating. I am not a vegetarian, nor am I terribly interested in becoming one, but I am interested in how what I eat affects others. I feel like charcuterie is a way to make more with less, a way to use parts that might otherwise be wasted, and a way of intensifying meats so I can use less of them.

My first project, of course, had to be bacon.