Saturday, January 30, 2010

Smelts in Your Mouth

Smelts! was the subject line of the email I received from my brother-in-law Dave. Since early January, he'd had a standing order for two pounds of smelts at Saunders Fish Market in Portsmouth. Now, our ship had come in, so to speak.

According to the guys at Saunders, not only had the smelts just arrived that morning, but they'd still been swimming in Great Bay the day before. As the locals tell it, smelt fishing in Great Bay is quite an adventure. First, you've got to wait for the ice to form in order for the fishing to even be possible. Then, because Great Bay is a tidal estuary, you can find yourself riding the ice as it goes up and down with the tide. At high tide, you can be as much as 7 feet above the bottom; at low, you can be sitting right on the mud.

We'd first had smelts last year, when our friend Garen Heller, the farmer who provides Garen's greens to Seacoast-area restaurants and farmers' markets, brought some as a "hostess" gift to one of our dinner parties. We watched as he dredged them in flour and cornmeal, and then fried them up in our Tefal deep fryer. While smelts are an oily, briney fish, like sardines, if they are cooked soon after they leave the water, they taste light and sweet. These did, and we decided that smelts should be part of our winter feasting every year.

When Dave picked up our smelts, they were cleaned, gutted, and ready to go. While smelts can also be baked or pan fried, we wanted that incomparable combination of crisp and sweet than can only deep frying can give.  We dipped them in corn flour seasoned with a healthy amount of Aleppo pepper to add some zip.  When the fish were ready for frying, we set up the Tefal on the front porch. (The weather was quite mild, and that way we wouldn't have that fried-food smell in the house all weekend.) Meanwhile, Robin and I prepared some homemade tartar sauce.

Dave waited until the oil reach 375 degrees. Then he fried the smelts until they were just golden brown -- about 5 to 7 minutes. When they were all cooked, we dived in. If the fish are small enough, you can eat the whole thing. Ours were a little too big for that, but it was easy to remove the bones. Ahh, and the taste -- melt-in-your-mouth good. We gave a nod of thanks to fish and fishermen and promptly ate them all!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Stew-pendously Vegetarian

It was the last day of the 1999, back when everyone's biggest fear was of something called Y2K. Our dear friends Jon and Jessie had decided that we had to usher in the 21st century on Potato Island in Plum Island Sound, which, as my brother-in-law Dave puts it, is a place still tettering on the brink of the 19th.

To get there, you must go by boat at high tide or by foot at low. As ice in the creek made a boat ride impossible, we set off on a 45-minute hike across the frozen marshes, with backpacks full of warm clothes and the fixings for dinner, an elegant vegetable stew from a recipe by Gordon Hammersley of Hammersley's Bistro, one of our favorite Boston restaurants. (To keep our packs light, we had taken the precaution of burying the evening's alcoholic libations in a do-it-yourself wine cellar under the house during our fall close-up visit.)

The stew was magnificent, the champagne well chilled, and our elation at watching the lights in Newbury, Rowley, and Ipswich continue to shine after midnight was unsurpassed. Flash forward a decade, and blessed with a bounty of vegetables from our winter CSA, we decided it would be most appropriate to enjoy that Hammersley stew on yet another January weekend.

In reality, there are two recipes for this stew. The first was published in the January 1997 issue of Food and Wine in an article called Sunday Night Stews. Hammersley later updated it for his book Bistro Cooking at Home. We use a combination of the two, picking and choosing the ingredients that add the richest flavor, including the homemade mushroom stock. So if you want to serve a flavorful stew that will go nicely with a fire in the fireplace and a robust red wine-- and you've got vegetarian guests coming -- this is the dish to serve. The mouthwatering cheddar-garlic crumble crust will inspire oohs. The tasty root vegetable stew, with its rich mushroom gravy, will earn ahhs. Best of all, no one will miss the meat.

Gordon Hammersley's Winter Vegetable Stew With Cheddar-Garlic Crumble Crust
adapted from Food and Wine and Bistro Cooking At Home
Serves 6

For the stew
About 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
About 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 medium carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 celery root (about 1 pound), peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 butternut squash (about 1 1/2 pounds), peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 acorn squash (about 1 1/2 pounds), peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 parsnip--peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 rutabaga -- peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
5 medium Portobello mushrooms (about 1 pound), stems reserved for broth, caps cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons tomato paste
3 cups mushroom stock (see recipe belowNote: In a pinch, you can use low-sodium chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water.  
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon marjoram

For the cheddar garlic crumble crust
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons unsalted butter stick, cut into small cubes and well chilled
1 to 1 1/3 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
Pinch of coarsely ground pepper
1 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
(NOTE: If you like you can sprinkle some chives into the dough -- that's what we did!)

For the mushroom stock (Makes four cups)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 pounds white mushrooms, finely chopped
Reserved Portobello mushroom stems, brushed clean
1/2 Spanish onion, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
2 cups dry white wine
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup dried mushrooms, such as porcini or shiitake ( 1/2 ounce)
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon herbes de Provence or thyme

1. Make mushroom stock (The broth can be made ahead and refrigerated for up to 4 days.)
In a large nonreactive saucepan, heat the vegetable oil over moderately high heat. Add the white mushrooms, Portobello stems, onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until the mushrooms release their liquid, about 5 minutes. Add the wine, soy sauce, dried mushrooms, salt, herbes de Provence and 6 cups of water and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to moderate and simmer until the liquid is reduced to about 4 cups, about 1 hour. Pour the broth through a fine strainer into a heatproof bowl. Strain again, leaving any particles at the bottom of the bowl.

2. Preheat the oven to 400°. In a large saute pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter and 1 tablespoon of the oil over moderately high heat. Add the onion and carrots and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned all over, about 10 minutes; transfer to a large casselrole (13" x 9") or a small roasting pan.

3. Add another tablespoon each of butter and oil to the skillet. Add the celery root and butternut squash, and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned all over, about 10 minutes; transfer to the roasting pan. Repeat the cooking process using another tablespoon each of butter and oil and the remaining vegetables, except for the mushrooms. Add the remaining tablespoon each of butter and oil. Add the Portobellos and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and browned all over, about 6 minutes; add the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes then transfer everything to the roasting pan and stir to mix.

4.Increase the heat to high and add the wine, tomato paste and broth or water to the saute pan. Bring to a boil, scraping up the browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Pour the liquid over the vegetables. Season with salt and pepper and add the marjoram. Cover with foil and bake until the vegetables are just tender, about 30 minutes. Increase the oven temperature to 450° and cook, uncovered, for 5 minutes longer.

5.Meanwhile, make the cheddar-garlic crumble crust: In a medium bowl, sift the flour, salt, and baking powder together. Using a pastry cutter or 2 knives, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal., garlic, and pepper.  Add the cream, garlic, and pepper. Stir in the cheese and mix lightly with a wooden spoon until the dough just holds together. Cover and set aside.

6.Using a large spoon, dollop the surface of the vegetables with ping-pong ball-sized dots of the cheddar crumble crust. The top of the casserole should look like the surface of the moon; bumps and craters are ideal.  Return the casserole to the oven and bake uncovered until the topping is cooked and browned, about 25 minutes.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Oooo La La

It's a Sunday in early January, and despite a cloudless sky, the temperature is struggling to get out of the teens. That's when I'm glad I'm one of those people who's lucky enough to have a couple of quarts of homemade beef stock sitting in my freezer. Which is key, because I'm about to engage in one of the most pleasant and sastisfying ways to spend a late Sunday morning -- standing by the stove, slowly stirring a big cast-iron pan full of simmering onions, while reading a particularly interesting edition of The New York Times Book Review. (Am I one of the few women over 30 who still hasn't read Eat, Pray, Love?)

The onions, which I am seeking to turn a rich caramel color without burning them, will be combined with the aforementioned homemade beef stock to make that bistro classic, French onion soup.

Ironically, the inspiration for this soup was neither the big, beautiful onions that came with last week's CSA, nor the beef stock that my sister Robin had patiently made last fall using bones from the black angus cattle that the Wee Bit Farms people are raising in Maine. Instead, it was the last third of an old loaf of Me and Ollie's wonderful asiago cheese bread. "This would be perfect for French onion soup," I had remarked to my sister and brother-in-law earlier in the weekend. Now, here we were, making it happen.
 I like the recipe from Gordon Hammersley's Bistro Cooking at Home
because it's simple and straightforward -- and because he suggests supplementing the stock with a little dry sherry or port, which adds an extra depth of flavor and helps deglaze the pan. I also like his suggestion to add some minced garlic and olive oil to the toasted bread slices that top the soup before adding the cheese and broiling.

Hammersley, who owns Hammersey's Bistro, one of my favorite Boston restaurants, also says you can make the soup with chicken stock. As you only need 5 cups of stock for this recipe, you could actually take some prepared chicken stock -- the best you can find, preferrably low sodium -- and simmer it for 45 minutes or so with a bay leaf, carrot, onion, and celery -- maybe even a chicken wings or thigh for added flavor and proceed from there.

Whatever stock you use, the key lies in browning the onions until they turn dark and sweet, then broiling the bread and cheese topping till it's bubbly and brown. What else can I say other than c'est magnifique!

Onion Soup Au Gratin
Bistro Cooking at Home
Gordon Hammersley with Joanne McAllister Smart

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 medium onions, thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
(I like to add 1 tablespoon or so of flour to the onions to thicken the broth a bit.)
1/2 cup dry sherry or port
5 cups chicken broth or beef stock
1 baquette
2 small garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon olive oil
6 ounces Gruyère cheese, shredded

1. Melt the butter in a wide soup pot over medium heat. Add the onions, season them with a little salt and pepper, and cook them over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions slowly brown. This will take 30 to 45 minutes; the longer the onions cook and the lower the heat, the darker and sweeter they become. (Hammersley suggests if you want to hurry things along, you can sprinkle the onions with about 1/2 teaspoon of sugar as they cook. I say, just bring along something to read.) (As the onions darken, I like to add a little flour -- maybe up to a tablespoon, just the thicken the broth.)

2. When the onions have browned to your liking, add the sherry or port, and the chicken broth or beef stock and 3 cups of water to the pot. (Hammersley suggests adding sherry to the chicken broth and port to the beef, but I added sherry to the beef, as that's what I had.)

3. Stir, scraping up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan, Bring soup to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook for about a half hour to meld the flavors. Taste and season with more salt and pepper, if needed.

4. When ready to serve, heat the broiler. Cut the baguette into slices about 1/8 inch thick. You want enough slices to cover the soup bowls. Put the slices on a baking sheet and toast them lightly under the broiler. Mix the garlic with the olive oil and spread in a thin layer over each toasted bread slice.

5. Set soup bowls (see Note) on the baking sheet. (Careful it may be hot!) Ladle the soup into the bowls. Put a slice or two of the baguette on top of the soup. You want to cover the surface almost entirely without any overlap -- cut the slices to fit if need be. Sprinkle the toast with a handful (about 1 ounce) of Gruyère cheese each. Carefully slide the baking sheet (it will be heavy) into the oven and melt the cheese under the broiler until it just starts to brown in spots, about 2 minutes. Serving immediately, remembering that the bowls are extremely hot.

(NOTE: Hammersley uses crocks specifically made for onion soup. Any relatively wide-mouthed, low-sided soup bowl will work fine, as long as it's overproof. And be sure to put the hot bowls on a plate so as not to ruin your table.)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bites of Bliss

After a couple of days of eating the heavy roasts, stews, and braises that seem to make up our usual Christmas week meals, I find myself yearning for the fresh, spicy tastes of Asian food. For the past couple of years, Robin, Dave, and I have been ringing in the New Year with a feast of assorted buns, wraps, potstickers, and noodle dishes. The one constant is a delicious Vietnamese-inspired salad we found in an unlikely place: Jasper White's Cooking From New England, the classic New England cookbook from the chef whose eponymous Boston eating establishment almost singlehandedly launched that city's vibrant restaurant scene.

The star of the dish is Pandalus borealis, the tiny, sweet, pinkish crustacean that is local to Maine and New Hampshire waters, and is only available fresh in the winter.

When we first discovered Maine shrimp, the season was way too short -- a mere three or four weeks -- which meant we tried to find ways to enjoy them nearly every weekend. (Frozen Pandalus borealis is the source of the amazing fried baby shrimp you can usually find in New England seafood dives come summer.) This year, the season, which began in early December, goes until May, which will greatly increase the pleasure they bring.

Unlike their southern cousins, Maine baby shrimp are very delicate; they can be cooked only briefly, or they become mushy and bland. But when handled carefully, they taste like a kiss of the sea. In the New Hampshire Seacoast area, you can find Maine shrimp at most seafood markets -- some even sell them already peeled, which is very handy, unless you need to make a broth for a chowder or stew. The shrimp are also available at Seacoast Eat Local Winter Markets. In the Boston area, you can frequently find them at Whole Foods. In some places, they are also available at roadside stands.

Nam Tran's Shrimp and Cabbage Salad
Jasper White's Cooking From New England
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer

Ingredients (NOTE: if you are using peeled baby shrimp, you can eliminate the first five ingredients and Step 1 of the Directions. In that case, you will saute the shrimp in a little peanut oil for barely a minute right before you mix the salad.)
1/2 cup of white rice wine vinegar
1 small onion, sliced
cilantro stems
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
2 pounds of Maine shrimp

Cabbage Salad
1 Chinese or Napa cabbage, finely shredded (5 cups)
1 large carrot, cut in paper-thin julienne
1/4 pound Chinese ham or cappicola, cut in thin (1/4 x 1 inch) julienne (When using cappicola, I prefer hot to sweet.)
1 cup cilantro leaves
1/2 cup white rice wine vinegar
1/3 cup peanut oil
2 tablespoons Chinese hot-chili oil
2 tablespoons sugar
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup roasted peanuts, chopped
Fried white shrimp chips for garnish (optional)

1. Combine 3 cups water with 1/2 cup vinegar in a saucepan with the onion, cilantro stems, salt, and peppercorns. Simmer for 5 minutes, then bring to a hard boil. Add the unpeeled shrimp. After exactly one minute, scoop out the shrimp with a wire basket or slotted spoon and spread out on a sheetpan. Peel the shrimp and set aside.
2. Prepare the salad ingredients, but do not mix the salad until about 20 minutes before it is to be served. Then combine the shrimp, cabbage, carrot, ham, cilantro leaves, vinegar, peanut oil, hot chili oil, and sugar; season to taste with salt and pepper. Chill.
3. Right before serving, add the peanuts, check the seasoning and toss once more. Serve on small plates or in shallow glass bowls. Garnish with shrimp chips, if using.
(NOTE: If you have salad left over, drain off the dressing before storing. You can save dressing in a small jar and pour over before re-serving.)