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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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.

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.