A Weekend With the Boys

Well I know it’s been a while, but Spiceboy is back with a new adventure and a new menu to share.

One of my very favorite times of year is Labor Day weekend, when the boys and I take off for the north shores of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. It’s time for a few relaxing days of laying on the beach, shopping, chatting, eating good food – and indulging in some boardwalk-style junkfood while we’re at it!

As thanks for the invitation from my dear friends Mac and Christopher, I make it a point to prepare a meal for everyone.

When at the ocean, what could be more apt than to take advantage of all the fresh seafood? This year, I designed a 3-course tasting menu of small plates, built around a few staples I brought with me: Carnaroli rice for risotto, real stone-ground grits, and of course a handful of spice jars tucked into my knife bag.

Course one: I had in mind oysters, simply broiled with ginger-lime butter. This dish was more of a method than a recipe. With my able sous chef Victor D., we simply eyeballed the ingredients and went by taste, mixing lime juice, pepper, garlic butter, and finely minced ginger. We then topped each oyster on the half shell with a generous dollop of the concoction. (I got a lot of practice with my oyster knife , shucking all 16 oysters myself – I must say, I’m getting a little better at this!) When broiling oysters in the oven, I find that 10 or 11 minutes at 425 works pretty well. You want to barely cook them, and just see those edges begin to curl. The citrus and butter mixed delightfully with the oyster’s natural liquor and created a lovely sauce that draped the prize, as you can see:

(Pictures are by Mac M, by the way. His came out better than mine.)

Course two was a twist on the classic shrimp and grits. I made buttery ancho chile grits with sauteed shrimp and a fried green tomatillo. This was supposed to be a fried green tomato, but the market didn’t have any. Oh well, sometimes we have to improvise.  The grits incorporated a heaping tablespoon of pure ancho chile powder, and the shrimp carried a subtle dusting of my personal New Mexico chile blend, to continue the spicy theme. As an added texture, the tomatillo, first soaked in cream (because we had no buttermilk), was breaded with corn-flake crumbs (because we had no breadcrumbs) for some nice crunch. The tartness of the tomatillo played nicely with the slight sweetness of the corn-flake. Improvisation worked out this time – I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Course three was my version of surf and turf: sweet corn risotto with soft shell crab, and sirloin steak slices. Soft shell crabs may look intimidating, but they saute up so simply, and they have incredible flavor and texture. I have a couple of hints to share with you. When I make my sweet corn risotto, I slice the kernels from the cob, then simmer the cobs in the stock I’m using for the risotto as I complete the dish. By doing so, the “milk” that the cob exudes will give off more corn flavor, and make for a richer-tasting dish. Victor and I sauteed the crabs carefully until they were just cooked. We cut up the crab bodies into bite-sized pieces and stirred them into the risotto, which allowed their flavorful, buttery juices to carry throughout. The crunchy legs and claws were used for garnish.

In all, I think the boys were pretty satisfied, and though I wouldn’t say my invitation for next year is in the bag, I think my chances are pretty good. Do you think?

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Holiday Reflections

Ah, holiday-time with the family!

Thank God we got that crap over with, huh?

Now that Passive-AgressionFest 2010 is behind us, we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief and reflect upon the precious few things that went smoothly this holiday season.

If you ask me, the holidays are the perfect time for two things – 1. Hiding liquor in the garage so Mother won’t find out how much we are secretly drinking; and 2. Developing new recipes to delight and amaze our loved ones!

This year I wanted a new and exciting starter for our Christmas dinner, so I dreamed up this soup. It’s got flavors of old and new, a little comforting and a little exotic all at once.

Parsnip-Ginger Soup with Pomegranate Molasses
Serves 4

Preheat oven to 350. Arrange on a baking sheet:

  • ¾ pound parsnips (about 4), peeled and cut into uniform pieces
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled

Toss with:

  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • Kosher Salt
  • Ground white pepper
  • 1 tsp white sugar

Roast at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, or until soft.
Meanwhile, saute over medium heat:

  • 1 small, chopped shallot, in
  • 2 Tbsp butter

Add parsnip-garlic mixture, along with

  • 2 Tbsp grated fresh ginger

Saute for a few minutes, then add:

  • 2 Cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 Cup half and half
  • 1 Tbsp maple syrup

Simmer over medium-low heat for 30 minutes and puree with a hand blender. Thin with additional stock or cream if necessary to reach desired consistency. Taste for seasoning and add salt and white pepper if necessary. Garnish each serving with 1-2 teaspoons of:

  • Pomegranate molasses*

*Pomegranate molasses is available at international markets, or you can easily make it yourself by boiling down pomegranate juice – such as Pom brand – until it becomes a thick, sweet syrup.

~

Year after year, the holidays have been marked by two consistent things – 1. The disappointing realization that your brother is probably never going to divorce that fat bitch; and 2. Equally disappointing cranberry sauce.

We hate the stuff that slops out of a can, but the homemade stuff, though better, still leaves something to be desired. It’s either too sweet or too tart, too chunky or too smooth… The additional spices are too much, too little, or just wrong. At long last, I am thrilled to announce that I have found the perfect recipe, at least according to me. I am even more thrilled to say it only calls for 3 ingredients. I can’t exactly tell you where it came from, except to say my sister’s girlfriend Cat found it online somewhere. Here it is:

Baked Cranberry Sauce with Apple Brandy
Serves a crowd as a condiment. Must be made the day before serving.

4 Cups Cranberries
2 Cups White Sugar
1/3 Cup Applejack (Apple Brandy)

Preheat oven to 300⁰. Mix all ingredients in a baking dish. Bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours (stirring occasionally after the first half hour) until cooked through and the cranberries look jewel-like. Let cool completely, then refrigerate overnight before serving.At first, the texture is slightly gummy, but don’t be concerned. After chilling overnight, the texture mellows and the cranberries transform into perfectly tender little sparkly bites of magic, and their true flavor really shines through.

~

If you’re looking for a festive appetizer when you’re surrounded by hordes of family members, why not wrap a small wheel of brie with some delightful accompaniments? If, that is, you’re not too busy wrapping yourself up with feelings of self-pity and isolation.

You’ll need a half cup of the above cranberry sauce for this recipe:

Baked Brie with Caramel Pears and Cranberries

Preheat oven to 425⁰. Thaw according to package directions:

  • 1 sheet of frozen puff pastry

Simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat:

  • 1 Bartlett pear, peeled, cored, and sliced
  • 2 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • Salt
  • black pepper
  • dash of cinnamon
  • dash of nutmeg

Simmer until pears are slightly soft and butter and sugar have melted into caramel. Set aside the pear mixture to cool.

On a small wheel of brie, spread:

  • 1/2 Cup whole-berry cranberry sauce (see recipe above)

Top cranberry sauce with the caramel pears. Wrap the brie with the sheet of puff pastry, sealing pastry underneath. Seal the pastry with egg wash (1 egg beaten with 1 Tbsp water), cutting off any extra pastry. Use any extra pastry to cut out festive shapes to decorate the top of the brie if you like, as pictured. Brush the top with egg was and bake at 425⁰ until golden, about 20 – 30 minutes. (Note: The photo is the brie before baking).

~

So until next year, here we are, with a handful of holiday memories, a few new resentments, a couple of new recipes for the ‘ol recipe box, some crappy gifts, a couple of store credits, a new blog post, and about five pounds to lose.

What can one say? It’s tradition.

SpiceBoy’s 2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how my blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Fresher than ever.

(Whatever the hell that means.)

Crunching the numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. My blog was viewed about 1,600 times in 2010. That’s about 4 full 747s.

 

In 2010, there were 21 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 214 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 134mb. That’s about 4 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was November 6th with 83 views. The most popular post that day was Vittles. (That was my post about camping).

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, healthfitnesstherapy.com, michael-jackson-secret-exposed.xpac.info, statistics.bestproceed.com, and en.wordpress.com.

(Michael Jackson secret exposed? What the hell is that about?)

Some visitors came searching, mostly for trader joe’s sweet chili sauce, dc spice boy, inas crunchy noodle, melting ice cream cone, and pho 75.

(Ina’s crunchy noodle? Huh?)

 

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Vittles November 2010
1 comment

2

SpiceBoy’s Take 5 July 2010

3

About SpiceBoy June 2010


4

Strip Mall Saigon July 2010

5

The Perfect Taco August 2010

 

 

 

Pretty cool for my first year of blogging. Check back soon for more fun stuff from SpiceBoy, including fun holiday recipes and more! See you soon.

 

Carry Me, Ohio

“Why, oh why, oh why, oh —
Why did I ever leave Ohio?
Why did I wander to find what lies yonder
When life was so cozy ay home?”

– “Ohio” From the Broadway musical Wonderful Town

I’ve been to many states in the Union, but up until very recently, I had never set foot in the great state of Ohio. I have to say, it had always struck me as kind of nondescript, in a shapeless, midwestern kind of way. Boy, was I wrong. There’s a lot going on in the land of the Buckeye Tree.

I had been invited to Columbus to speak at a conference in November, and in a surprise twist, a last-minute work-related trip had me rushing to Cincinnati in October. Two visits to Ohio in two months had me wrapped up in a crash course in Buckeye culture. Who knew?

Let’s start with the food, shall we? Undoubtedly the most distinctive thing about Cincinnati food culture is its chili. Cincinnati chili is characterized by a thin sauce with signature flavors of cinnamon, cloves and allspice, and an absence of hot chile peppers (though you can top the chili with hot sauce if you wish). The whole affair is served over spaghetti and  topped with a mountain of shredded cheddar. Oyster crackers on the side for fun. It’s a unique dish, like no other chili you’ve tasted. I sampled the offerings at two of the popular Cincinnati chains: Skyline and Gold Star.

~~~~

I was lucky enough to have a cadre of lovely ladies to show me the ins and outs of Cincinnati chili culture: Linda J., Lisa M., and Nicole D., all of whom shared their opinions and thoughts on the best way to enjoy this signature dish. It’s served with or without onions, with some combination of onions and beans or both, or neither, or just over a hot dog (with or without mustard). Simple, huh? The lingo for understanding these combos starts with “one-way” and works up to “five-way.” A one-way is JUST spaghetti and chili. A five-way is spaghetti, chili, shredded cheese, diced onions, and beans. It can take a little getting used to, and I was happy to have some help, especially from such pleasant dining companions. Being new at all this, I decided to go whole hog and try the five way. In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say.

While Cincinnati’s landscape is a bit hilly, owing to its proximity to the Appalachian Mountains (the sudden view of the city as you drive in from the Kentucky side is absolutely stunning), Columbus has more of that flatness we come to expect of a Midwestern city, as well as cleanliness and lots of friendly folks. Ohio has a rich food history, and the shining star on top of it may be the humble hamburger. Dave Thomas opened the very first Wendy’s right in Columbus, and now it’s the third-largest international hamburger chain. Some reports even claim that the hamburger itself was invented in Canton, OH.

In Columbus, my friend and colleague, the gorgeous Lisa M., took time to show me around a bit during our downtime between work obligations. My favorite part of our visit together may have been when she offered to show me pictures of her home – and then proceeded to pull out a MAGAZINE! (She wasn’t bragging, I was asking about her house.) As much as you want to hate someone who is beautiful and successful with a great husband who cooks Italian, wonderful children and a perfect home, Lisa is simply too nice and humble to despise. AND she went out of her way to be charming, helpful and hospitable during my visit, showing me her lovely city with pride and charisma.

Since Lisa has two young ones at home, she likes to dine at more upscale places (i.e., NOT Bob Evans) when the kids aren’t around – can you blame her? So she took me to the lovely Lindey’s (http://www.lindeys.com/) in the quaint German Village neighborhood, known for its charming cottages and cobblestone streets and sidewalks. This was a perfect choice for a fancy lunch – steaks and seafood, white tablecloths, impeccable service, and farm-fresh vegetables. We both started with a soup (Lisa had the lobster bisque and I enjoyed the delicious sausage and shrimp gumbo special), and we each rounded out our lunch with an egg dish.

 

While You’re There: For my evening out, Lisa had another perfect recommendation – Martini

445 N High St
Columbus, Ohio
43215
http://www.martinimodernitalian.com/

Owned by local Cameron Mitchell who worked his way up from busboy to superstar restauranteur, Martini does modern Italian just right. I ate at the bar and made a meal of two appetizers. First I devoured the fresh mozzarella (in a way that only a business traveler dining alone is allowed to do). Get this — they actually make the mozzarella to order, in-house, as needed. Can you imagine? It was so incredibly fresh, simply dusted with cracked black pepper and sea salt, served alongside  crispy crostini, basil pesto, and oven-roasted tomatoes. What could be more simple and perfect than that? I followed up with a nice cold plate of beef carpaccio, topped with a drizzle of bleu cheese crema and a crispy square of polenta.

~~~

Extra credit: No trip to Columbus could be complete without a trip to North Market, a great indoor marketplace in the trendy Short North area. Vendors sell everything from fresh vegetable to cookware to sausages to crafts. You could easily spend a day (and a fortune) poking around and shopping. I had a few favorite vendors, including the hearty Polish eatery Hania’s Olde World Cuisine, where I noshed on a few made-from-scratch pierogi, which were tender and delicious, slick with melted butter (below left) and served up by friendly owner Hubert. I even got a hat for my roommate Scotty to show his Polish pride!

~~

 

Back in the northwest corner, you can’t miss North Market Spices, where I had a great chat with owner Ben Walters’s Mom, and picked up some hard-to-find powdered green chile. (What a nice surprise – I’ve never even seen it outside of New Mexico!) Ben’s Mom had some great information and suggestions. This place is the real deal if you’re a spice aficionado like myself. I highly suggest you check them out of you’re there, and you can even become a fan on Facebook, like I did: http://www.facebook.com/NorthMarketSpices.

You won’t be surprised to learn that another one of my favorite vendors was CaJohn’s Flavor and Fire, a salsa and hot sauce company that grows their own hot chile peppers right there in Ohio. Owner Sue told me all about how they partnered with my alma mater, the University of New Mexico, to figure out how to grow the famed Naga Jolokia pepper (the hottest chile pepper known to man) on Ohio soil. I tried so many samples (including their creative Pumpkin Pie salsa) my mouth was ablaze in the best possible sense, and I just had to take a bottle of their Jolokia hot sauce home to DC. You can visit them at http://www.cajohns.com/ – I know I will.

In the end, I have to say, my visits to Ohio, though short, were packed full of friendly people, great food, and fun surprises. I hope to return!

~~~

“Sorry for
Never going by your door
Never feeling love like that
Anymore

Heal her soul
Carry her, my angel
Ohio”
–  “Carry Me Ohio” by Sun Kil Moon

Spice Boy’s Take 5 – Restaurants

I had the opportunity to do a lot of traveling this summer for both work and play, and for me that meant checking out restaurants in different cities. Here are five favorites that stood out, alphabetically by city:

1. ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA

The Laughing Seed Cafe

http://laughingseed.jackofthewood.com/

40 Wall Street

Asheville, NC 28801

828-252-3445

Describing their concept as “Organic, seasonal, farm-to-table vegetarian cuisine with an international flair,” The Laughing Seed Cafe simply radiates freshness from every dish, and you can tell just by looking at the faces of the diners, from happy families to groups of professionals, that this place is beloved by all. I enjoyed a special of hot and sour soup followed by the shiitake corn cake appetizer (which made a nice meal), and just basked in the comfy, warm atmosphere.

The restaurant’s namesake is the legend of the Laughing Seed from the Indonesian Island of Bouton: “When the seeds of this plant were consumed, the people were intoxicated with laughter and able to communicate with the gods. It is said that this wondrous food satisfied the appetite and created a sense of fullness and well-being which lasted for many days…” Pretty cool huh? I have to say, this place had me under their spell.

While You’re There: Zambra on West Walnut is a creative tapas restaurant sourcing local ingredients and serving them up in interesting ways that will have you wanting to order half the menu. I can’t wait to go back. (Special thanks to Jerry R. from DC and TJ and Mark from Knoxville for the great recommendations for my trip to Asheville!)

Extra Credit: The Asheville City Market is a fun farmer’s market right in the center of town, with the usual fresh produce, as well as cheeses, baked goods, and crafts. I had a great, educational chat with the delightful Andrea, Apprentice Cheesemaker at Spinning Spider Creamery (www.spinningspidercreamery.com/index.htm). Doesn’t she have a beautiful smile? Spinning Spider is an award-winning farmstead goat dairy in nearby Marshall, NC. I sampled several of their outstanding cheeses and even brought some home on ice – it was that good. Standouts for me were the Bailey Mountain Tomme and the Stackhouse.

2. BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA


Dreamland, Bar-B-Que

www.dreamlandbbq.com

For over 50 years, this Alabama outpost has been serving up some of the best Southern barbecue out there. As legend goes, back in ’58 “Big Daddy,” Dreamland’s originator, had narrowed down his entrepreneurial aspirations to either “Mortuary” or “BBQ joint.” After much prayer, God spoke to him one night in a dream (hence the name) and Dreamland was born. Their website boasts “There Ain’t Nothing Like ‘Em Nowhere!” My dear friend and colleague Theresa S. and I enjoyed some heaping portions after a long day on the road, and we had to agree. And don’t worry about becoming addicted – they ship.

By the way, in true Southern fashion, the owners aren’t exactly subtle about reminding you to mind your manners:

Extra Credit: If you happen to traveling that way, a mere two hours away in Scottsboro, AL, is one of the strangest places in the world, The Unclaimed Baggage Center. As the name suggests, this is where unclaimed airline baggage, and all its sundry contents,  goes to die – or be sold.

3. NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA


Acme Oyster House

www.acmeoyster.com/

For a true taste of Gulf oysters, Acme Oyster House serves ’em up just right – chilled and raw on the half shell, crispy fried, or sizzling and swimming in garlic butter. Brant B. and I had some of each – and then started over with another platter of raw. What can I say, we were weak. Be prepared for a line. For the true oyster lover, you can try to join the 15 Dozen Club – let me know how it goes!

While You’re There: Another can’t-miss is Mother’s on Poydras St. They may be known for the best baked ham in the world, but I highly recommend their jambalaya (I might be bragging a little when I say their recipe tastes a little bit like my own), and you certainly can’t go wrong with a po’boy. I tried some of Brant’s “debris” po’boy, which is little bits of roast beef scraps in gravy – pure heaven between chunks of fresh bread!

4. NEW YORK, NEW YORK


Joe’s Shanghai

www.joeshanghairestaurants.com

Chinatown: 9 Pell St

New York, NY 10013

212-233-8888

This is one of my old favorites from way back. Right around the corner from the “bloody elbow” in NYC’s Chinatown, this simple storefront may look unassuming, but what goes on inside is nothing short of miraculous. Joe’s soup dumplings are filled with flavorful meatballs and brimming on the inside with rich, piping hot broth. I had to bring my good friend Tenaz D. on my last trip to NYC to see and taste for herself.

How to eat a soup dumpling: Place the dumpling on a soup spoon; puncture the dumpling with a chopstick; suck out the broth as noisily as possible; eat the dumpling. Fun AND delicious. How bad could that be?

5. PLYMOUTH, MASSACHUSETTS

The All American Diner

http://allamericandiner.biz/

60 Court St.
Plymouth, MA 02360
508-747-4763

Breakfast sandwiches named after classic cars, waitresses rushing past with huge plates of waffles heaped with real whipped cream, giant, fluffy biscuits smothered in sausage gravy… This is what a diner was meant to be. One glance at the menu and I knew I had come to the right place. I enjoyed the green eggs and ham (an omelette with fresh basil pesto and cheese), and my Mom chose a creative take on the classic eggs benedict: the “Brown-eyed Susan” is served on New England brown bread instead of an English muffin, adding just a hint of mollasess-ey sweetness to the whole affair. Genius. This place brings all the old favorites to the table while keeping things interesting with some creative new spins.

While You’re There: Cupcake Charlie’s may have come in second on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” but they’ll always be first place in my heart. They have a beautiful spot on Plymouth Harbor, perfect for grabbing a bench and enjoying a delicious cupcake and a lovely view.

Vittles

I must admit, I love camping, despite the fact that it’s a giant pain in the ass. Hauling all that gear – tent, tarp, cooler, sleeping bag, air mattress… Jeesh! The list goes on and on. But then when you get to the campsite, it’s somehow all worth the work. In the thick of the trees, the air is fresher, the stars shine brighter. You’re surrounded by friends and camaraderie, enjoying cold drinks and laughs around the campfire. You suddenly forget all that sweating and swearing you were doing just a few short hours ago as you were trying to stuff all that gear into the minuscule trunk of your crappy 1990 Volkswagen Cabriolet.

It may astonish you to learn that one of my favorite things about camping is the food. For me, cooking outdoors is a wicked good time. In the great outdoors, without a full kitchen and only having the basics on hand, I find that it’s best to keep it simple. So I wanted to share with you a couple of the simple recipes my camping buddies and I enjoyed.

(Thanks to Christopher D. for the pic of me at the camp stove!)

Spicy Camp Beans

2 Tablespoon olive oil or butter

1 small onion, diced

2 links chorizo, sliced

1 large can black beans (drained & rinsed as best you can under the circumstances)

1 jar salsa (I used Trader Joe’s Fire Roasted Tomato Salsa)

Grill Seasoning (or salt & pepper)

A real good splash of whatever liquor Kevin J. hasn’t already drank (About 1/2 cup. I used Jim Beam, but beer will do)

On your camp stove, heat the olive oil in a pot over medium heat. Add the onion and chorizo and saute until the onion is translucent and the chorizo has rendered some nice orange fat, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the beans, salsa, and liquor and stir to combine. Bring to a low boil and simmer for about 10 – 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until it all comes together and looks soupy. If it looks too dry, add some water. Season with grill seasoning (or salt & pepper). Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary. Serve it up!

My buddy Kevin J. made an excellent pork tenderloin as an entree – and he even thought to bring a meat thermometer. Pure win! Brant B. made some delightful grilled zucchini and summer squash and a perfect campfire meal was had by all.

(Here’s me with Mac M. at the bonfire. Come on, aren’t we adorable?)

Few things are as perfect as breakfast on a chilly morning at the campsite. Again, this ain’t the Ritz, so let’s not get too fancy; bacon and eggs will do, and maybe some potatoes if you’re feeling adventurous. I remember once reading that you lose between 2 and 4 pounds a day while camping. I don’t know if this is true. I suspect it might be true if you are doing “real” camping, with lots of hiking and hauling logs and hunting elk and such. The campground I frequent has a few too many amenities (including showers, toilets, a cafe, and even a small dance club) for you to feel like you’re “roughing it.” Anyway, if you try this recipe, you may gain between 2 and 4 pounds a day. Just sayin.

Fat Potatoes

Leftover bacon fat

Butter

1 Green Pepper, seeded & sliced

1 Red Pepper, seeded & sliced

1 Onion, peeled & sliced

6 cloves garlic, sliced

6 baking potatoes, halved and sliced into thin half-moons

14 oz smoked sausage, sliced

Grill seasoning

You should start with your grill pan, slick with leftover bacon fat, on your camp stove over medium heat. Lay out your potatoes, sausage, peppers and onions in a flat layer (you may have to do this in batches). Scatter the garlic over the top and sprinkle with grill seasoning. It’s handy to have foil pans on hand for holding your potatoes and vegetables, and also for serving. You want your potatoes to brown slowly so they cook through and become tender and crispy. For us, this took about 20 minutes. Flip potatoes with a spatula and move them around until they are browned evenly and cooked through. Serve hot with bacon and eggs.

(Btw, check out my buddy Andrew K’s neat old VW camper bus. Isn’t it the coolest?:)

The only problem with camping (aside from the preparation) is that it’s over all too quickly. Before you know it, it’s time to pack all that gear up and haul it all back home. Now if only I could get someone to help me deflate my air mattress…

The Process

Sometimes creating a fantastic dish is a simple thing. But sometimes it’s a process. A recent potluck birthday party inspired such a process, for I knew my dear foodie cohorts Akbar and Hamilton would be in attendance, and any old schlocky potluck staple wouldn’t do. No, sir. This dish would have to impress. And the guest of honor, Mick, was certainly worthy of something spectacular. Indeed, I’d have to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Braised rabbit? No, too rich. Something light and tasty.

Hmmm, let’s see what’s in the fridge? Lemon confit. Flour tortillas. Chile-herb oil made from the balcony garden’s bounty. Lots of cilantro. Green onions. A few red fresno and cayenne peppers from the balcony garden. Ah-ha! An idea was forming. Settle in and let me walk you through it…

I decided on a fantastic fish taco. Why? Several reasons. Finger foods are nice at a potluck. Fish tacos look festive. I had recently bought a nice ceramic tray that would display them in a delightful manner. The stars were aligning. I put up a message on Facebook inquiring as to where the best place to buy fresh fish was. Lo and behold, several friends pointed me in the direction of the Maine Avenue Fish Market here in DC. Rwah? (Insert Scooby Doo ears here.) Why had I never heard of this place? Right on the waterfront, it’s only like seven minutes from where I live, and it’s stocked with the most amazing assortment of fresh fish and shellfish I’ve ever seen!

I know it sounds kind of mundane, but after admiring the incredible abundance of fresh fish, I decided upon cod for the tacos. Cod is a great fish for tacos, because it takes on a marinade well, and it flakes just right, two characteristics that, for me, make it the perfect choice. I couldn’t resist picking up a dozen oysters while I was there (a half dozen from Chincoteague Island and a half dozen labeled “Virginia”). I couldn’t resist! I also had a relatively new oyster knife at home waiting to be broken in. And believe me, when it comes to shucking, I need the practice. And I love love LOVE oysters (you may not be able to tell, but the pic below is a bunch of delicious oyster on ice).

But on to the project at hand. I mentioned a marinade. I decided on a smoky and spicy charmoula, having recently read a recipe in the May ’10 issue of Saveur. From our friends at Wikipedia: “Chermoula or charmoula is a marinade used in Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian cooking. It is usually used to flavor fish or seafood, but it can be used on other meats or vegetables.” Here’s the recipe (I made a couple of additions, which are noted with asterisks):

Charmoula

3/4 Cup extra virgin olive oil

1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 Tbsp fresh lime juice

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp hot smoked paprika

10 sprigs fresh cilantro, chopped

*10 sprigs fresh parsley, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 red fresno chile

1 shallot, halved and thinly sliced

*1 tsp kosher salt

* pinch of saffron

Puree all ingredients in a food processor. Cover and let sit for at least an hour for flavors to blend.

So let’s get started on these tacos, shall we? I used a 5-inch bowl to cut down the tortillas into a finger-food size. I cut the cod into taco-sized chunks and marinated it in the charmoula for thirty minutes at room temperature before sauteeing it in chile oil. Oh right, the chile oil! I had made that a few days prior, using chiles and herbs from the balcony garden.

This was also inspired by the May ’10 Saveur, but here’s my version:

Herb and Chile Oil

1 Cup extra virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, halved

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

2 sprigs fresh thyme

2 sprigs fresh oregano

1 bay leaf

1 fresh cayenne pepper, whole

2 fresh red fresno peppers, sliced into rings

Combine the ingredients in a 1-qt saucepan. Heat over medium heat until an instant-read thermometer reads 200 degrees. Remove from heat and let cool. Oil will keep refrigerated and covered for up to two weeks.

To finish the taco, I made a “salsa” out of candied lemon and chile, again using chiles from the balcony garden. I mentioned that I had some leftover lemon confit in the fridge. Lemon confit is basically fresh lemon slices simmered in simple syrup until they are translucent, or candied. I chopped up a few slices and then sliced some chiles and simmered them in the lemony simple syrup for about ten minutes, until the chile was candied as well. Then I drained the chile and mixed it with the chopped lemon to make a sweet and hot “salsa” to complement to the fish. Clever, huh?

To add some crunch, I julienne sliced some pancetta and crisped it up in a saucepan and then mixed it with some fried capers. After assembling the tacos, I added some final color and crunch by scattering over some fresh cilantro, minced red onion, and sliced green onion. Here’s the result:

Don’t they look festive? Not to brag, but I think they were a hit. here’s the “after” photo:

Oh, a quick confession before I go. Remember those oysters I bought at the seafood market? While the cod was sauteeing, I stood there at the counter and shucked six in a row and downed them right there at the counter. For breakfast. It was only 10 am, so I can’t even call it brunch. It wasn’t easy either. Those suckers from Virginia have tough shells, and they don’t let you in easy! (You shouldn’t read too much into that last statement — or should you?)

There will be more on oysters soon – October is oyster month. But I should mention for those of you that get a bit squeamish at the thought of those slippery little suckers sliding down my throat in all their raw glory: Enjoying oysters is a bit of a process, too. It takes time. I used to date an opera singer in Santa Fe who introduced me to oysters when I was in my early twenties. I tried them, I didn’t particularly like them, but I didn’t dislike them either. Little did I know: the process had started. Over the years I would try them again and again, and then one day it would just hit me: I loved oysters, I craved their brininess, their sweetness, their pure ocean taste. For you, the process may start with oysters Rockafeller, or enjoying a fried oyster here and there, or sampling a raw oyster and shrugging and thinking “I don’t get it.” One day, you’ll be just like me, craving these little buggers and seeking them out. The process has begun.

The Welcome Table

My buddy Eric recently went to stay with another buddy, Brant, and his family for a while until he gets back on his feet. Brant and his co-parents, Julie and Sara, have what you might call an “alternative family.” Here’s Brant with his two beautiful daughters, Dayton, 6 on the right and Saunder, 3:

In the 80’s we learned that “Heather Has Two Mommies.” Well, now it’s two 2010, and Dayton and Saunder have two Mommies, a Daddy, 6 mammalian pets (plus a fish tank), – and now a big ‘ol stranger living in the basement. But my guess is that Eric won’t be a stranger for long.

The family’s household is bustling with activity. They live outside DC in a Maryland townhouse full of fun stuff to stimulate the senses for children and adults alike: bookcases bursting with books and DVDs, lots of toys neatly organized, Julie’s many interesting collections (old cameras, Superman memorabilia, sock monkeys), tons of folk art on the walls, Sara’s piano in the dining room. It’s a colorful and dynamic household; you can see that a lot of learning and activity goes on there all the time. If you visit, you may be welcomed at the door by Luca (above), one of the pet brigade. He talks tough, but really he’s hoping to get to know you well enough so that you’ll scratch his neck.

Added to the menagerie is Eric’s cat Lisha, (the fattest cat I’ve seen outside of the cartoon world), bringing the household’s feline population up to 4. If you’re wondering, the cats and Luca have their differences from time to time, but they all love each other and get along fine, just like the rest of the home’s inhabitants.

Being a thoughtful and lovely person, Brant had the idea to have a special welcome dinner for Eric, and asked for my help in coordinating it. We decided on a Cajun theme. New Orleans has a special special place in the hearts of this family. Julie and Sarah (pictured, right) chose New Orleans as the destination for their first vacation together. They also had a New Orleans theme at their wedding, complete with a zydeco band and Cajun menu. Brant has also taken several trips to New Orleans in his previous job as a conference planner, so he knows the city and the cuisine quite well.

Our menu came together quickly: Po’ boys and gumbo. The gumbo would start with a roux and be flavored with Cajun cooking’s “holy trinity:” bell pepper, celery, and onion. Chicken and smoked sausage would be the stars of the show.

We decided to do some po’ boys with blackened shrimp and some with blackened catfish. Traditionally, po’boys are made with fried seafood, but I had an excess of blackening spice blend on hand (it may not astonish you to learn that SpiceBoy makes his own artisanal spice blends). Our po’ boys would come together thusly:

SpiceBoy’s “Welcome Table” Po’ boys:

Blackened Shrimp or Catfish

Creole mustard

Mayonnaise

Shredded lettuce

Tomato

Pickles

French Bread

I had some trouble finding Creole mustard at the market (Zatarains makes a good one), but after a couple of web searches and a couple of phone calls, I came up with my own last-minute recipe:

SpiceBoy’s Quick-and-Dirty Creole Mustard

1/3 Cup grainy mustard

1 Tbsp molasses

1 Tbsp red wine vinegar

1 small shallot, finely minced

1/2  – 1 tsp Tabasco sauce, to taste

Mix all ingredients in a jar. Let the mustard sit at room temperature for a half hour for the flavors to blend. If the mustard is to thin, add more grainy mustard, a spoonful at a time, to desired consistency (we used one additional spoonful to get it just right). Taste for seasoning and adjust, adding more Tabasco, molasses, or vinegar to taste. Refrigerate any leftovers.

~

Brant is a big believer in the concept of “family of choice.” He says, “I guess my take on the idea of fictive kin… is that family is what you make it. And that a family that you choose and make a commitment to is more valuable than anything else I can imagine. Because it is based upon real love. Not social propriety, not convention or tradition, nor is it based upon arbitrary conditions such as relation. It is about nothing else but love, regard, and commitment. And how could anything be more beautiful than that?”

SpiceBoy agrees!

Because home is wherever you are. And according to Molly, the teacher in Leslea Newman’s groundbreaking 1989 book “Heather Has Two Mommies:” “The most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other.” And when you’re setting up a table to welcome someone into that family, you don’t need a whole lot of fancy stuff. A big pot of gumbo will go a long way.

For the Welcome Table should be a table of plenty: Plenty of parents and plenty of kids. There’s plenty of music on the playlist. Plenty of pets are around- if not at the table, certainly nearby. You’ll find plenty of po’boys heaped on a tray, with Tabasco to pass around. Plenty of gumbo is brimming in the soup pot, and there’s plenty of rice. Don’t forget plenty of napkins! You’ll hear plenty of laughter going on late into the evening. And last but not least, there’s plenty of love. So pull up a chair, a stool, a stepladder, a piano bench, or whatever’s around – we’ll always make room for plenty of friends. You may want to stay a while.

The Perfect Taco

Ahh, the perfect taco. Filled with rich, mouth-watering meat and flavorful salsa, fixins that spill down your face… Napkin? Bah, who needs it! The perfect taco winks at you from across the table and and taunts you. It’s says, Let’s get messy.

I don’t know what kind of freak doesn’t like a taco, but I’m not sure I’d like to meet him or her.

Tacos are so easy to love because you can personalize them and heap that tortilla full of whatever you like. That’s why homemade tacos are great for a crowd. Recently, we decided to throw a taco party to celebrate my dear friend Scotty’s birthday. I created the picture below for the invitation, taking special care to prominently feature the birthday boy’s face, and to establish an appropriate theme: “Viva el Scotty!”

I sent him the picture in an email one weekday afternoon and asked him what he thought. I was expecting to be showered with accolades for my creativity.

His response? “Don’t you ever work?”

No time to be disappointed, it was time to plan the menu. First, the meats had to be chosen: 1) Pork Carnitas with Fresh Orange and Tequila, 2) Ground Beef with Chipotle, and 3) New Mexico Red Chile Chicken.

Then, a couple of fresh, homemade salsas would be necessary: 1) Traditional Salsa Fresca, and 2) Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa.

And of course, corn and flour tortillas and the fixins: shredded lettuce, farmers market tomatoes, and sour cream. A pot of black beans studded with Mexican chorizo sausage on the side couldn’t hurt.

Any taco party of mine is going to feature two of my very favorite tried-and-true recipes, which (in my opinion) are necessary to make a perfect taco: Pork Carnitas and Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa. Both of these recipes are adapted from The Best American Recipes 2004-2005, and I’ve been making them for years.

What are Carnitas?

From the Epicurious food dictionary: Carnitas  pronounced “kahr-NEE-tahz” is Mexican for “little meats,” this dish is simply small bits or shreds of well browned pork. It’s made from an inexpensive cut of pork that’s simmered in a small amount of water until tender, then finished by cooking the pieces in pork fat until nicely browned all over.

Pork cooked in pork fat? What could possibly go wrong? This recipe is great and it serves a crowd, but it can be easily pared down to feed just a few folks.

Pork Carnitas with Fresh Orange and Tequila

4 lbs pork (boneless country ribs, chops, bone-in chops, or just about whatever is on sale – use your best judgement)

2 cups water, plus more as needed

grated zest of 1 orange plus peeled outer zest of another

juice of 4 oranges (about 1 – 1 1/2 cups)

6 cloves garlic, peeled

2 tsp sea salt

2 tsp black pepper

1/2 cup tequila

Cut the pork into large chunks. Cut off any large chunks of fat and reserve; leave any small pieces of fat on the pork. Combine the pork, reserved fat, 2 cups of water, orange juice, grated and peeled zest, garlic cloves, and salt & pepper in a deep 12-inch skillet. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until pork is tender, about 1 3/4 hours, adding more water as necessary, to keep the meat partially submerged.

Uncover the skillet and boil until the liquid is reduced by 1/2, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tequila and boil, stirring often until all the liquid evaporates and the meat begins to brown and gets crisp, about 15 minutes. This is when the pork starts to get the classic “carnitas” appearance; those chunks of pork fat have rendered and they are now crisping up the meat. Let cool slightly. Discard any loose pieces of fat, and if you used bone-in pork, remove the bones. Tear the meat into strips.

When you are ready to serve, return the meat to the skillet, along with a couple tablespoons of water, over medium-low heat, and rewarm, stirring. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

~

The recipe is also kick-ass made with blood oranges when they’re available. Pork carnitas pair wonderfully with Avocado-tomatillo salsa. Tomatillos look like unripe tomatoes, but they are not; they’re a whole other beast. They’re related to the gooseberry and likewise come in papery husks. In my experience, they’re pretty easy to find in most supermarkets. They have a tangy, fresh flavor.

Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa

Serves a crowd

4 ripe avocados, peeled and chopped

1 dozen tomatillos, husked and chopped

1 poblano pepper, seeded and chopped

1 onion, chopped

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Juice of 1 lime

Sea salt to taste

Mix all ingredients, being careful not to crush up the avocado too much – you want a salsa texture rather than a guacamole. Lightly press plastic wrap over the surface of the salsa so the avocado won’t turn brown. Refrigerate until it’s time to serve. Stir again before serving and taste for seasoning. Add more sea salt, lime, and/or cilantro as desired.

~

My perfect homemade taco requires the following: A warm tortilla (corn preferred, but flour is pictured here), pork carnitas, a squeeze of lime, Colby-jack or manchego cheese, avocado-tomatillo salsa, fresh tomato, and crunchy iceberg lettuce. Mmmm, give me a minute.

I can’t very well write about a quest for the perfect taco without mentioning one of my very favorite restaurants in Washington, DC:

Oyamel Cochina Mexicana

401 7th St NW, 20004

202.628.1005

www.oyamel.com

The concept of Oyamel is Mexico City-style street food, transformed to elegant small plates (called “antojitos” – think Mexican tapas). With celebrity chef José Andrés at the helm, creative touches and attention to detail absolutely abound. Andrés is an esteemed cookbook author who has his own PBS series, Made in Spain. He has also been featured several times on Bravo TV’s Top Chef as a guest judge. With Andrés’ magic at work, the taco is heightened to something artful and fancy, like the below fish taco, “Pescado Mexicano” ($4.00) starring a perfect rectangle of seared white fish, adorned with a rich cilantro pesto. Look how cute:

Speaking of cute and fancy, have a look at my dining companion, Rochelle, whom I recently had the pleasure of introducing to Oyamel. Isn’t she the cutest? Don’t you just want to pick her up and take her home?

Now, the menu at Oyamel offers a lot of variety, but it can be a bit daunting for the first-time diner. If you find yourself scratching your head, I suggest choosing a few tacos for your first visit. You can hardly go wrong, with a multitude of filling choices from stewed chicken to pork carnitas to local goat. More adventurous palates will be delighted to find taco fillings like pork belly, beef tongue, and even sautéed grasshoppers (“chapulines,” a specialty from Oaxaca, Mexico).  Another plus for the budget-minded chow-hound: Three tacos and an iced tea will have you walking out of there for about $15.00, with a full belly and a smile on your face.

If you’re dining midday, you might also opt for the $20.00 lunch special, which includes two antojitos and one taco. It’s a great introduction to a fantastic restaurant. A few things to keep in mind: orders come straight out from the kitchen as they are ready, so your food is hot and fresh, but the downside is that your tacos might arrive a few minutes prior to your dining companion’s. Also, your chips and salsa won’t arrive until after you place your order, and service can sometimes be a little slow and/or scattered, so be patient – it’s worth it.

On subsequent visits (because I wager that you will be back), you’ll delight in sampling the array of antijitos, super-fresh ceviches, ensaladas (salads), and mariscos (seafoods). As a starter, may I highly recommend the “papas al mole,” (pictured) a basket of french fries covered in mole poblano (a complex, mildly spicy sauce flavored with chile, almonds, and chololate), Mexican crema, and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds. It’s a delight!

¡Viva México!

SpiceBoy’s Take 5: Hot Stuff

Hey, Hot Stuff! This “Take 5” is all about the five spicy foods I can’t live without. Boy, it wasn’t easy to list just five, so just take this list as a sampler of the first few things that came to mind. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Tabasco sauce

Everybody’s favorite, it’s the mother of all hot sauces – what list of spicy foods would be complete without old school Tabasco sauce? Produced by the McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, Louisiana since 1868, Tabasco sauce is made from the tabasco pepper and aged in oak barrels for three long years before it’s ready for your scrambled eggs or Bloody Mary. You’ve seen that familiar little bottle your whole life on every other restaurant table, but did you know that Tabasco sauce is now available in a PERSONALIZED GALLON JUG ($44.95) at the online Tabasco country store?

http://countrystore.tabasco.com/prodinfo.asp?number=00061

A GALLON of tabasco sauce?? Come on, can you imagine a cooler gift for the chile-head in your life? I for one would be just THRILLED to find a big ‘ol jug of the Chipotle flavor under my Christmas tree this year (hint!). The chipotle variety Tabasco sauce is smoky and complex, and just perfect in Texas chili or atop huevos rancheros. In addition to the Chipotle and Traditional varieties, Tabasco is now available in even more exciting flavors: Asian Sweet and Spicy, Habanero, Green, and Garlic.

While your taste buds are all atwitter, why not click here to print a 50-cent coupon for Tabasco sauce:

http://www.tabasco.com/specialoffers/

2. Fresh Poblano Peppers

Lately, I’m very excited to see that poblano peppers are becoming a staple in more and more grocery stores and farmers markets all over the place. With their gorgeous, dark emerald skin and moderately spicy flesh, they deserve a place in your kitchen. Poblanos have a mild heat, with a rating of 1,000 – 2,000 on the Scoville Heat Index (as compared to a jalapeño’s 3,5000 – 8,000). They are great on the grill, and I use them in place of green bell peppers on meat skewers or to accompany a London broil. Once you get a sense of their flavor, you’ll love experimenting with them. Try poblanos in this simple, ultra-creamy and spicy soup recipe, one of SpiceBoy’s favorites. As the recipe’s originator says, you can use up to three poblanos in this soup – use one for a “slight kick,” three for a “rowdy taste.”

Creamy Roasted Poblano Soup

Serves 4 – 6

1 large onion, chopped

2 Tbsp unsalted butter

3 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, cut into chunks

Up to 3 poblano peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded, and chopped

1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt (Fage brand yogurt works well)

Salt and pepper

Over medium heat, cook onion in the butter in a saucepan until soft, about 5 minutes.  Add the stock and cream cheese. Stir until the cheese is melted; do not let the soup boil. Cool slightly and add the roasted poblanos; puree the mixture (I use a hand-blender). Add the sour cream or yogurt and heat through but do not boil. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Serve garnished with a lime wedge, pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds), and grated manchego cheese.

(From The Best American Recipes 2004 – 2005, adapted slightly by SpiceBoy)

3. Trader Joe’s Sweet Chili Sauce

Ok, something this bright orange and viscous can’t possibly be good for you, but look at it this way – you’re not drinking the stuff. (At least I hope you’re not!) In a 10.1-ounce bottle for only $1.25, this super sweet and spicy chili sauce is one of the deals of the century, and I find it to be superior to the sauce you get in restaurants. With tiny flakes of red chile pepper suspended in the sweet, vibrant-orange sauce, it packs a real punch of heat – and it’s really fun to look at, too. This chili sauce is fantastic with dumplings, and a tiny dollop is really nice on a cracker with some goat cheese, too!

4. Maesri Curry Paste

In convenient 4-ounce cans, these indispensable curry pastes will have you whipping up dishes that trump your favorite take-out place in no time at all. Available in over ten varieties, I’ve tried a the basics over and over: red (my favorite), green, yellow, panang, and masaman. Touting themselves and “The True Taste of Thailand,” all I can say is these spicy and savory curry pastes impress me as pretty darn authentic. Here’s my recipe for a super-simple red curry that you can have on the table in a flash with just a few ingredients – even leftovers. I use leftover chicken and whatever fresh and frozen vegetables I happen to have on hand:

SpiceBoy’s Easy Red Curry with Chicken

Serves 4

1 boneless, skinless chicken breast, cooked and cubed

2 cups cooked basmati or jasmine rice

2 Tbsp vegetable or peanut oil

1 small onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, sliced

1 – 2 Tbsp Maesri red curry paste (depending on desired heat)

1 14-ounce can coconut Milk

2 Tbsp brown Sugar

1 Tbsp soy sauce

2 Tbsp fish sauce

1 Kaffir lime leaf (optional)

3 cups assorted fresh and/or frozen vegetables (I like frozen peas and green beans, fresh red bell pepper, spinach, carrot and/or zucchini)

Fresh cilantro or basil leaves, for serving (optional)

Heat the oil in a wok and stir fry the onion and fresh vegetables until slightly cooked. Add the garlic and stir-fry for a minute. Stir in the curry paste and toast it up for another minute or so. Stir in the coconut milk, brown sugar, soy sauce, lime leaf and fish sauce, and mix it all together and bring it to a simmer. Simmer for a bit to allow the flavors to blend and the sauce to thicken slightly. At this point, I add any frozen veggies I am using. (NOTE: I always add frozen peas and fresh spinach at the very end, since they only take a minute to cook). Before serving, add in your cooked chicken just to warm through, and taste the sauce for seasoning. Add more soy sauce, fish sauce, or sugar as desired. Remove lime leaf and serve over rice, garnished with basil or cilantro.

Helpful hint: After using a tablespoon or two of the curry paste, you’ll have some leftover. I freeze it in a snack-size ziplock bag. If you’re going to do this, be sure to remove all the air and label it with a marker – the red and yellow look very similar, and can also be confused with leftover chipotle peppers in adobo, which I also freeze this way – welcome to SpiceBoy’s world!

Check out Maesri brand on the web, with tons of products and lots of cool recipes:

www.maesribrand.com

5. Sriracha

Also known as “rooster sauce” (and sometimes “cock sauce” – for the rooster on its label),  Sriracha is a Thai hot sauce named for Si Racha, the central Thailand town in which it is produced. It is sweet, pungent and spicy, made with hot chile peppers, sugar, salt, vinegar, and lots or garlic. You can often see it served as a condiment alongside phở, the Vietnamese soup, as well as Japanese teriyaki, though it is Thai in origin. I find it truly addictive; I love it with Asian style soups (including Chinese won ton soup) and all manner of noodle dishes. Stateside, it has been consistently gaining popularity, appearing in more and more Asian restaurants. It’s versatility knows no bounds. You can find it at the hot sauce bar at the DC-area Mexican franchise California Tortilla, and I once saw it in a pizza parlor. It even has its own fan page on Facebook!