Lockdown Hash

DSCN4852It has been one hell of a week here in Boston.  Bombings set off on Monday, our noble Marathon violently marred, death and dismemberment brought home to children and other innocents, and terror injected into our Beantown lifeblood like intravenous drugs designed to heighten anxiety and stress.  Last night and all of today has been all about police action, high emergency, and triage; one cop has been killed, others are seriously injured, shootouts have exploded and explosions have been hurled, and there has been an unprecedented complete and total lockdown of 6 different communities — including mine — within our fair borders.  We have been held captive all week in a true siege perilous, literally and figuratively: this most ancient seat of our young nation is undeniably under attack.   I worry about my neighbors, I worry about my Harvard kids, I worry about my friends.  I worry about this boy, this fresh-faced, nice looking, by-all-accounts good boy who is hiding among us somewhere… waiting, maybe?  Planning, maybe?  Or scared and alone and hurt?  I can’t not care; he looks so much like he could be one of my students.  My little haven, my home, is 5 blocks away in one direction from the merciless fatal shooting of MIT policeman Sean Collier, and 5 blocks away in another direction from the merciful release of the carjacking victim which the news is, at this time (6:57pm EST), still surprisingly silent about.  Needless to say, Clayton and I have stayed safely indoors, and totally glued to the TV, waiting until our beloved neighborhood is safe again.

Luckily, we had a dozen eggs and a handful of random items in the fridge to make both lunch and dinner, since we’ve been locked indoors and all stores are closed anyway.  But after an onion & bacon omelet with cheddar grits for breakfast, I wanted something a little more vegetable for dinner.  My pantry isn’t fully stocked, but I do try to keep some basics on hand, like canned beans and tomatoes and stock and stuff.  I found a few carrots in the fridge, some just-about-to-turn-rubbery small colored potatoes, I had 1/2 an onion, and bacon is always welcome more than once a day anyway – so I came up with this skillet:  Potato bacon hash, carrot studded tomato sauce, with baked egg, melted farmhouse cheddar, and garlic Texas toast for dipping.  Super hot, *really* comforting, and served in a cast-iron skillet heavy enough to use as a weapon to beat back terrorists: just what we needed to feel safe and satisfied after a surreal day.

DSCN4831

Lockdown Hash

8-10 small potatoes (these are purple, red, and creamer)
1 can peeled tomatoes
1/2 onion, diced
1 cup diced carrots
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup red wine
1/2 cup EVOO
4 sliced bacon
4 tbs butter
2 eggs
4 thick slices of toast
garlic powder, sea salt, cracked black pepper, crushed red pepper, oregano

DSCN4832I start by dicing my onion, carrot…

DSCN4833… and garlic.

DSCN4835I throw them in a hot pan with a glug of EVOO to sauteDSCN4836I add a dash of salt, pepper, and oregano, and cook on medium heat until just translucent — about 4 minutes.

DSCN4834I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: San Marzano canned tomatoes are the best.  I crack me a can.

DSCN4837And dump all the contents into the pan with the aromatics.

DSCN4838Then I add my wine and about 1/2 cup of EVOO.

DSCN4840I set the heat on low, cover the pan, and let my sauce cook for about 30 minutes until thickened.  At some point, since I’m anxious watching the news unfold, I end up breaking down the tomatoes into smaller pieces.  Meaning, I just sort of stand there stabbing at them with my wooden spatula, splattering my clothes since my eyes are riveted on the TV.  After the 30 minutes, I remove the lid and let the liquid start to boil off, to make a nice, thick, chunky sauce.

DSCN4841On one of my back burners, I boiled my potatoes in salted water for about 15  minutes, or until I was able to pierce them easily with a knife.  I drained and cooled them, and have now cut them into small pieces.

DSCN4842I get my two small skillets nice and hot on my burners, and I fry off two slices of chopped bacon in each.  I add a LOT of cracked black pepper to each pan, too – just ‘cuz.

DSCN4843Once my bacon is nice and crisp, and all the fat has rendered and is sizzling, I split my potato pieces evenly between the two pans, laying them in a single layer across the surface, to let them sear for a couple minutes.  After they’ve crisped on the hot edge, I stir gently to flip, and sear again.  I do this for about 8 minutes, stirring every once in a while so that the pulpy cuts of potato can crisp and brown against the iron heat.

DSCN4845When the home fries/hash browned potatoes are perfectly crisped, I push them to one side of each pan.

DSCN4846On the other side, I layer my nicely thickened chunky tomato sauce.  Sort of a yin-yang thing.

DSCN4847I’ve shaved several nice thin sheets of cheddar off the block, which I layer on top of my potatoes and tomatoes.

DSCN4848And in a well between them all, I crack a single egg.  My oven is preheated to 400 degrees, and I throw the pans onto the bottom most shelf, and let them bake for about 7 minutes — until the egg whites have just set, and the cheese is melted and bubbling.

DSCN4851Since I started writing this post 20 minutes ago, there has been another volley of gunshots, and the media is hopeful that that heralds a resolution to today’s drama.  There hasn’t been any movement in hours; but now something seems to be happening.  This blog is as much to show off my cooking as it is to remind me of my life, like a diary; each meal brings me back to a moment in my past in ways no other experience can do.  Tonight’s meal was heartwarming, comforting, true homestyle, delicious, and filling — as many of my meals have been; but, given the historic events unfurling within hearing distance of my humble little condo, I doubt I could ever forget it, even if I hadn’t written it down.  But I felt a need to share – and if I could have made this for every one of my local peeps, waiting like me for news that the suspect has been caught, and that all is safe (more or less) – I would have.  These pictures, and this insignificant story, are my small way of sharing.

Stay safe, my dear readers.  Lolita out.

Crab Cakes Benedict

Even though “crab” is the first word in tonight’s plat du jour, the real star of any Benedict is EGG.  If you are like me, you have only an 80% success rate cracking eggs without breaking the yolk;  to whit, tonight I went through about a dozen eggs in the service of this meal – only 9 of which actually made it to table, in one way or the other.  But boy oh boy was it worth it!  The number of ingredients in this meal is relatively low, but the effort is high – very very high.  This is not an easy meal to execute – especially if you make everything from scratch.  I realized at the last moment that I really needed at least 6 hands to make everything come out hot together, so I had to pull the husbandman in as a pinch flipper/whisker.  For once, his incessant “Is there anything I can do to help?” query (which I always flatly refuse, totalitarian that I am) met with a begrudging “Yes.”  Clayton found himself flipping the crab cakes, and whisking the latter end of the sauce – which he did quite to my exact instructions…which I barked, admittedly, rather frenetically, in the heat of the moment as it were.  But when he and I both released our streaming golden egg yolks over our crispy crab-filled patties, and bathed our sweet-tender shellfish sinews with lemony yellow Hollandaise ooze, and entrapped sensational deliciousness between speared forkfuls of hot-toasted buttered muffins, I had to admit each mouthful was worth having to ask for a hand, and he had to admit each bite was worth my unnecessarily, and undeserved, rancorous tone of voice.

Crab Cakes Benedict

1 lb king crab legs
1 can beer
1 cup panko breadcrumbs, divided
1 tsp Grey Poupon mustard
2 tbs mayonnaise
5 whole eggs, 4 egg yolks
1 cup minced green onion, divided
paprika, sea salt, cracked black pepper
3 tbs fresh lemon juice
1 stick + 2 tbs melted butter
2 tbs EVOO
2 English muffins
white vinegar

Whole Foods was still running their $14/lb special on king crab legs, so I had to buy me at least one more pound before they went back up in price.  I am fascinated by this creature, not only because of its deliciousness, but because of how much work it takes to get to that deliciousness.  These spiny legs with their sharp claws were a challenge to hold, but worth the effort considering how succulent their flesh was.

I have to bend my crab legs at eat joint in order to fit them into my steamer basket in my largest pot, but they just make it.

I steam them for about 5 minutes with the contents of a can of beer and some water added to increase the volume to about 3 cups of liquid total.

Using my kitchen shears to get into each shell, I carefully remove as much meat as I can from the legs and knuckles — all the way up to their very sharp tips, which I managed to pull out entirely unbroken.  My pound of legs yields about 3/4 lb of meat.

Here I have 1/2 of my chopped green onion, my mustard, mayo, one whole egg, 1/2 cup of panko breadcrumbs, some salt, pepper, and about a 1/2 tsp of paprika.  I mix this all together, then add about 1/2 pound of crab meat (reserving some for my dinner tomorrow – why not?), and toss lightly together until just blended.  The mixture is wet, which is good…

… because I’m going to make the patties by rolling loosely packed handfuls of mixture in another layer of panko.  I have to work gingerly, since there is so much crabmeat here the cakes don’t really want to stick together, but the outer breadcrumbs will help them retain their shape.  I make 4 patties, about 1/4lb each, put them on a paper plate and then throw them in the freezer for about 20 minutes to help them set even more.

Eggs.  One has already been used in the crab cake mix, and the rest of these will be my Hollandaise sauce and my poached eggs.

Before I start cracking those babies, I get everything else ready to go.  I need to melt my stick of butter for the sauce, I need to set up poaching liquid for the eggs, a double-boiler for the sauce, and a pan for the crab cakes.  Since I don’t have fancy crap, I jerry-rig stuff, using my metal tongs and a small metal bowl to melt the butter over the 4 cups of water + 1 tbs white vinegar I’m bringing to a boil for the poaching, and a small saucepan 1/2 filled with water to bring to a simmer under a way-too-large metal bowl to make the Hollandaise.

I also fish out these egg-poachers I purchased a while back.  When I make only 1 poached egg at a time, I just create a vortex in the saucepan by whisking the simmering water into a funnel, into which I drop my egg; making 4 poached eggs won’t work that way, especially since I don’t have any real way to hold the eggs once they’re cooked without either cooling them down too much or them continuing to cook.  As it is, I still have to make these in shifts — so the poaching is the last thing I’m going to do.  These aren’t perfect, but they do the job.  I spray each down with Pam, which will help the eggs slide into the water when I want them to.  But I’m getting ahead of myself here…

First, I carefully separate 4 of my eggs, discarding the whites and trapping the yolks in the large bowl I’m using as a double-boiler.  I add my lemon juice to the pan before whisking everything together and placing it over the simmering water in my small saucepan.  It’s imperative the hot water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl, or the eggs might scramble; if they do, adding a little bit of hot water and whisking vigorously will usually smoothen the emulsion back out.

Like so.  While I whisk, I add my melted stick of butter in a steady, fine stream, adding more water as needed to keep the sauce the right consistency.  It takes about 10 minutes of constant whisking to make this sauce – which will thicken upon standing.  (For a more in-depth look at how to make a Hollandaise sauce, check out this posting.)

Meanwhile, I’ve melted 1 tbs butter with my EVOO in my non-stick pan, and have gently placed my half-frozen crab cake patties into the hot fat.  They sizzle temptingly, and after about 5 minutes they are the perfect golden brown for flipping.

Another 5 minutes or so on the other side and they’re ready to go.  (I’m still whisking while this is happening, BTW.)

At the same time, I get my poached eggs started, first by floating them whole (with unbroken yolks) in their little green vessels in my barely simmering (never boiling) water, just long enough to see the whites start to congeal.  When the edges are just white, I tip a little hot water into each vessel to help capture some form, before I tilt the vessels over one at a time, dumping the eggs into the vinegar’d water to poach through completely.  Once I see the whites completely congealed, but the yolks are still *very* runny  — about 2 minutes — I fish each egg out with a slotted spoon.

The final component of my Benedict is, of course, the English muffin base.  Trader Joe’s has named their muffins after two Victorian British Prime Ministers, Benjamin Disreali and William Gladstone.  I don’t know why, but it makes me love this product all the more! (These guys represent the British Government active during the time of my scholarly research into cholera in 19th century British literature, so they already have a warm place in my heart – mistaken miasmatists that they were.) I split two muffins, toast them, and sprinkle my last tablespoon of melted butter into their nooks and crannies.

On top of each muffin goes a crab cake, and on top of each crab cake goes a perfectly poached egg.  On top of each stack I pour my lemony sauce, and scatter the remaining scallions along with some paprika and black pepper.

It seems that the barest pressure — that of my ravenous glance — is all it takes for the trembling golden yolks to burst from their quivering white confines to pour lasciviously over cake, muffin, and plate.  The cakes are super-crunchy and filled with huge bites of tender, buttery crab meat, and the toasted buttered muffins are the perfect starch to sop up the rich flavors of the sauce.  Crab cakes out in the world are so often disappointing: too much bread, too many ingredients, a harsh overpowering mustard sauce that cancels out the sweet sweet crab meat.  But these were the best I’ve ever had, made even more spectacular by the perfectly complimentary egg yolk and bright silky sauce.  I admit it: I licked my plate.  But so did Clayton.  And, dear reader, if you make this dish — so will you.

Breakfast for Dinner: Prosciutto and Green Onion Omelets with All-American Grits

There is this awesome moment in one of my favorite so-bad-it’s-good big-budget all-star-cast total-flop movies where LL Cool J waxes philosophic about the omelet.  (Here’s a clip.  In some language I really can’t identify.  So it’s surreal for me to watch this, knowing it word for word without *really* understanding what words he’s saying… yet it’s the only example of the scene I can find.) A cook, his perfect omelet recipe is the only legacy he can leave, recorded on a hand-held, leagues under the sea and being hunted by artificially intelligent vengeful super-sharks.  A classic story.

Omelets are, in so many ways, the perfect nutritional vehicle.  They shouldn’t take too long to make, or need too many ingredients to pull together.  They are simple and elegant.  But I can never find one I actually *like*.  Most I find at restaurants – from Waffle House’s to Henrietta’s Table’s, are too fluffy, too big, too browned, and with fillings not in my preferred proportions.  There was this one cook at Annenburg  who always made my omelets just the way I liked them: slender, lightly cooked, scattered with savory filling, and molten with just-enough cheese.  I miss that guy; my new job at Harvard no longer comes with Freshman Dining Hall privileges.  But I can do what he did — I just need a breakfast reason, since I generally don’t eat before noon.

This evening, on the way home, Clayton suggested “Breakfast for dinner!”, and although he had some specific menu dictations which I admittedly automatically tuned out, I did latch hold of the general theme – which I mulled over during my first apres-work beer, sorting through my mental recipe box, considering the contents on my pantry, contemplating the level of compromise husbandman  might be willing to entertain to risk reaping the fruits of my reward.  Eventually, I zoomed into some large eggs, American cheese, stone-ground grits, heady prosciutto di Parma, and fresh scallions lingering on the shelves.  I could work with that.

Prosciutto and Green Onion Omelets with All-American Grits

4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2-3 cleaned whole scallions – greens and whites
1/4 lb (6-8 slices) prosciutto di Parma
1/ 4 lb white American cheese
1/2 cup grits
1/2 stick butter
sea salt, cracked black pepper

I’m not a fan of pan-seared prosciutto; I like it tender and freshly sliced.  This comes from the super-nice Whole Foods in Dedham, and it is as good as it gets.  I roll it into a cigar, and roughly chop it.  I’ll add it to my sheath of eggs to be warmed with steam instead of searing it directly on the surface of the pan.

One of the tricks to making a good omelet is having all your ingredients chopped and ready to throw onto the egg, so that it can cook delicately and not risk burning while one futzes with chopping and whatnot.  I split my scallion whites (the solid roots) from the green (hollow tubes), then roughly chop them both.  The whites will be cooked within; the chopped greens scattered fresh atop.

White American cheese has become a guilty pleasure staple in the Fountainhouse.  It melts SO WELL, and adds the right creamy flavor to many preparations.  I admit, though, it was a stretch to use such a pedestrian cheese with such a fine Italian sliced meat – but I frankly had nothing else in the fridge so I figured I’d make it work.  As it turned out, its particular milkiness offered just the right lactic glue for the sweet cured meat and mild scallion snap.

I start my grits before I start my omelets.  They can hold.  1/2 cup grits to 2 cups salted boiling water, set to low,…

… thoroughly stirred, …

… covered, and cooked until all water has evaporated and the grits are thick.  About 10 minutes.

My perfect omelet is made with 2 eggs, not three.  No milk.  No additives to the eggs.  Only eggs – lightly whisked.

Oh.  And butter.  A really healthy pat of butter.  And a non-stick pan, set to medium high to start.  Melt the butter …

… and coat the bottom of the pan entirely with it.  A buttery base is *very* necessary for a Lolitomelet.

Spill your 2 beaten eggs into your hot butter, and swirl to spread across the entire surface of the pan.  Watch for the edges to turn opaque.

Using a plastic spatula, drag those white edges up in a few places, one at a time, flooding those areas with raw egg by tilting the pan, spreading the surface area but keeping the crepe thin.

Reduce the heat to low, allowing the thin omelet to gently cook, until the surface is just barely no longer runny.

Remove the pan from the heat, and sprinkle 1/2 of your chopped prosciutto, scallion whites, and 1/3 your shredded cheese in more-or-less of a line in the center (leaving a wide margin at the edges) of one half of the omelet.  You are aiming for a sealed half-moon huge egg ravioli.

Using that rubber spatula, slide the unladen half of omelet up the side edge of the pan opposite the handle to elevate that ‘flap'; fold it over the meatcheeseonion, lining up the edges to make a nice total package.  You should still be on low heat here — so let it simmer for a moment to melt and warm the filling.

If there was some way I could take my picture and flip my omelet at the same time to give you a real idea of how to do it, I would.  But Lolita’s is a budget-blog, people – and I only have two hands.  To describe: position your omelet with the straight edge perpendicular to the handle, and slide your eggpacket to the very edge of the pan.  Thrust the hand holding the pan firmly and confidently forward a few inches (as if you were stabbing something really stabbable) before quick-yanking-and-stopping back.  Try it; then tell me if it works.  Ideally, your omelet should flip  completely over.  It works for me 99% of the time.  The rest of the time: scrambled surprise!

Gently simmer on medium low until fully cooked and all the cheese is melted — about 3 more minutes.  Slide the omelet off the pan onto a plate, cover it, then do the whole thing again for the second omelet.  It will stay warm the 8 minutes the next plate needs to make.  Meanwhile, the grits should be perfectly thickened and cooked, so a pat of butter, some salt, pepper, and the remaining 1/3 American cheese stirred into the pan will finish the dish.

A delicate, wafer-thin, buttery omelet filled with savory salted Italian pork, creamy cheese, and sweet scallions, topped with thick, hearty, rich cheese grits and a smattering of fresh green onions.  So easy, and although not fancy, certainly not Denny’s, either.  And all pulled together from the pantry and tossed together in barely a half hour.  Clayton is thrilled (easy date), and I’m not unhappy either. After all, he got what he wanted, and I did it my way.  And that’s the equation for a happy marriage.  That, and “happy wife = happy life”.  I leave it to you to determine which holds sway as the ultimate rule…