Dinner for One: King Crab and Avocado Tian with Antipasto

Clayton’s working tonight, so it’s all Lolita time.  Although he’s a great consumer – as in he eats what I make without (much) complaining – there are dishes I prepare for myself that I don’t seem to ever make for him.  I don’t know why; there’s no real reason or rhyme, frankly – it’s just the way it is.  Tonight’s meal began with the leftovers from some huge-ass king crab legs we enjoyed for last night’s dinner, and a couple of odds and ends I picked up today at Trader Joe’s.  The result? An elegant but simple salad of nutty avocado and tender sweet crab meat, accompanied by an easy antipasti: a light but rich supper as delicious as it is beautiful.

King Crab and Avocado Tian with Antipasto

1 ripe avocado
1/3 lb fresh picked cooked crab meat
juice from 1 lemon
1 tbs mayonnaise
1 handful maché (lamb’s lettuce)
1 boll burrata cheese
2 slices prosciutto di parma, split and rolled into 4 tiny cigars
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper, balsamic vinegar

Whole Foods had a special on King crab legs this weekend – something I’ve had a hankering for for a while now.  We bought 2 pounds, not realizing just how much meat these bad boys were going to yield.  I think we’ve established that we’ve never actually had King crab legs prior to these — likely only snow crab clusters — since neither of us can remember ever seeing such huge unbroken chunks of leg and knuckle meat before.  And it was so dense and packed that the discarded shells weighed next to nothing; we easily ‘harvested’ 30 oz of succulent pink deliciousness.  After gorging ourselves on not much more than crab and butter, we had about 1/2 lb leftover.

I pull my crab meat into nice sized hunks, and mix it with a little mayo and several teaspoons of lemon juice, along with some salt and pepper.  I just want the mayo to bind the crab – not make it gooey; I also just want the lemon juice to cancel out the egginess (eggyiness? eggyness?)  of the mayo – not make it lemony; and I just want the salt and pepper to brighten the salad – not overpower it.  The idea is crab and nothing but that which is needed to ‘hold it together’ for the sake of shaping the tian.

Speaking of which — here is how I’m shaping this “tian” – my stacked, formed salad of crab meat and avocado.  I’m not sure why it’s called a tian — in fact, although I see several examples of this term being used in this context online, traditionally a tian in French cooking is something completely different – either more like a vegetable tart, or an earthenware cooking device.  But when I envisioned this dish, it was as a perfectly shaped cylindrical layered salad.  And when I order a perfectly shaped cylindrical layered dish in a restaurant, it’s usually called a tian on the menu.  Hence my usage of the term.  Anyway, using my kitchen shears, I cut the ends off of a beer can to make a perfect form.  It would have been better to use a soup can, but all the cans I have in the house are designed to stack, so my can opener won’t work on their bottom sides.  (I figured this out only after dumping the contents of several cans of soup.)  Using a beer can just meant I had to be careful not to cut my fingers on the sharp edges.

I start by pressing my avocado, which I’ve blended with a dash of lemon juice, some salt, pepper, and EVOO, into a more-or-less flat 1″ thick layer on the bottom of my can.

Then I layer in the crab meat salad.

I vary carefully slide the can up and off the filling so it maintains its shape, pressing down on the crab meat to keep the filling on the plate.  Oiling the can a bit beforehand helped.

A basic antipasto of rolled prosciutto di parma, burrata cheese, capers, EVOO, and balsamic vinegar, along with some EVOO and lemon juice dressed maché, add extra dimensions to this already sophisticated presentation.  Crab and avocado, although not meant to co-exist in nature, seem destined for each other’s company on the plate: the sweet, tender sinews of crab absorb the buttery texture of the stone fruit’s green goodness, creating a harmonious marriage on the palate unrivaled in the realm of simple pleasures.  Along with a cold glass of sparkling rosé, this delectable dinner is truly a treat – tonight, for one, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it for your sweetie whenever the mood strikes you…

Weeknight Wondermeal: Chicken Piccata, Simple Pasta, and EVOO Roasted Asparagus

Lolita has to admit to recent failures in the kitchen. A tough turkey breast; a failed carbonara (including a re-cook!); and although I can’t remember the specifics, I recall 3 temper tantrums in the kitchen since I last blogged, which means I screwed the pooch on something else, too.  So tonight I decided to go super basic, and I whipped together this here chicken piccata, comingled with buttered pasta tubes and crisp-headed, silken bodied roasted asparagus spears.  Quick, heartwarming, and delicious.  Looks like maybe Lolita’s got her mojo back.

Chicken Piccata, Simple Pasta, and EVOO Roasted Asparagus

3/4 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 stick butter, divided
4 tbs flour
1/2 package pasta (these are super-long tubes of macaroni)
1 lemon
2 tbs salted capers, rinsed
1/4 cup white wine
parmigiano reggiano cheese
1 lb fresh asparagus stalks
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup minced scallions
sea salt, cracked black pepper

I love asparagus.  I don’t love it’s resultant smell – but when I see perfectly erect, richly green, thin and supple stalks of fresh spears, I can’t help myself.

I snap off their woody ends, then flay the tough flesh from their roots.

I toss these very simply in EVOO, spread them out over a baking sheet, and sprinkle them with sea salt and cracked black pepper.  Into a 350°F oven they go, for about 20 minutes.

I spent 49¢ more per pound at Whole Foods to get “chicken cutlets”, when I should have just purchased the breasts themselves – considering how poorly butterflied these babies were.  No matter, I carved them into 4 roughly equal tenderloins…

… spread them flat on the counter within a large plastic bag…

… then pounded them all flat, in a cross-hatch pattern, with my sharpening steel.  I have a wooden mallet, but I always reach for my steel for some reason.  And it always tenderizes the hell out of my meat.

I get my largest, non-stick pan all nice and hot on the stovetop, where I melt a pat of butter and swirl of EVOO together until they foam.

I quickly, but thoroughly, dredge my chicken pieces in flour…

... then lay them gently in the pan, making sure not to crowd them together.

They’re like little pink and tan islands in the middle of a golden bubbling sea.

After about 5 minutes, or until there is a nice tan sear, I flip ‘em, cook ‘em for another 5 minutes, then move them to a plate tented with foil to keep warm.  Time to make the pan sauce.

A half cup of dry white wine, the juice of one lemon, 1/2 cup water, and high heat.

I bought this cute little jar of salted capers at the Salumeria in the North End, like, forever ago.  Two perfect tablespoons, which I rinse free of salt…

… before adding them — and a handful of chopped parsley, which I forgot to photograph (whoops!) — to the pan to simmer, flavor, and reduce with the sauce.

When the sauce has reduced, I swirl in a few tablespoons of butter before returning the chicken to the pan.  I let this simmer, flipping the chicken from time to time to coat with the sauce, for a couple minutes.

My asparagus spears have crispy little roasted heads and silky tender meaty stalks.  The chicken falls to pieces at the suggestion of my fork’s edge; its white juiciness is enrobed with satin lemon sauce, and offset by the salty buds of caper berries.  And served with some noodles tossed in butter, grated parmigiano reggiano, and chopped scallions for sopping.  After chucking several bad meals down the garbage chute, it was nice to whip this sweet supper together without even having to think about it, and in less than 30 minutes.  Lolita’s coming back… stay tuned!

Luscious Lobster Lasagna

Lolita loves herself a three-day weekend, and this July 4th provided just that – with perfect weather, no less!  Our little roof deck in the sky proved to be the prime place for this year’s fireworks.  In the past, the 18 story apartment complex a block away from us used to eclipse practically the whole light-show, and all we’d see was an intermittently glowing building with a few stray sparks escaping from the sides from time to time.  But the fire-barge must have moved up the Charles a bit – or the building moved down, which is highly improbable – because last night we could see almost all of the fireworks, and they were *beautiful*!  With the sounds of the Boston Pops and Martina McBride piping through my speakers from the TV indoors, Claytonious husbandius and I had excellent seats – with wine and cigars a’ smokin’ – for our town’s legendary Independence Day celebration.

And what goes best with independence?  Why, lobster, of course!   Historically speaking, before lobster became all haute couture as they is today, they used to be so abundant on the shores of the Northeast colonies that the crustaceans would wash in with the tides, leaving creepy crawly banks of the critters all along the coast.  Back then, it was considered “poverty” food, good enough only for servants and slaves — so the irony of linking lobster with independence isn’t lost on Lolita.  Still, today it rings in at $8.99/lb (for hard-shell 1 1/2lbers at Yankee Lobster off of Fan Pier), and we have it seldom enough that it’s still super-special to me and mine.

Er, except the lobsters we bought for Sunday’s dinner were HUGE, and after eating claws, knuckles, and legs with truffled melted butter and all the side fixin’s, we were so stuffed that we saved our tails for Monday’s dinner.  “Lobster two nights in a row?” said Clayton, “Who do you think we are, the Rockefellers?”  No, thought I, not the Rockefellers — just their well fed neighbors from across the tracks.  That’s where a light but luscious lobster lasagna can be found, served with a quick salad and a glass of crisp white wine, for a delicious dinner al fresco on our nation’s day of Independence.  Yankee Doodle Yummy!

Luscious Lobster Lasagna

8oz cooked lobster meat (I used two tails)
1/2 package lasagna noodles
2 tbs butter
1 cup half n’ half
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup finely diced carrots
1/2 cup finely diced celery
2 cups fresh baby spinach
1 cup ricotta cheese
6oz fresh mozzarella cheese
6oz Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 egg
iceberg lettuce, wedged
ranch dressing

Every time I make lasagna, it’s too big.  We have a craptastic freezer, and no microwave anyway, so making stuff to hold and eat days later isn’t feasible for us.  I also had a limited amount of lobster meat, so I decided to make a small loaf-pan’s worth of lasagna — which was just the right amount!  My noodles being the normal size, though, I had to break them up a bit to make them fit into the pyrex dish.  To make it easier to serve, I broke each noodle roughly in half before fitting them into the dish — I thought this would prevent the unfortunate squishing out of all the innards that sometimes happens with a gooey center.  In the long run, it was a good idea.

90° outside means it’s almost 100° in our pad, so cooking indoors is out of the question if we ever want to, er, wear clothing in the house during summer nights.  We’ve always been creative with Little Red, but we’d never boiled water on him before; I’m happy to say that he stepped up the challenge!  Since all I’m doing is cooking off my lasagna noodles so they’ll be easy to handle, I dump about 8 cups of salted water into my pasta boiler and set it, covered, over the preheated coils under Little Red’s grill.

He doesn’t close all the way, but this is close enough for government work.  It takes a while, but after about 30 minutes my water is boiling.  Boo-ya!  That’s one less preparation technique I need to suffer through indoors during the summer.

A glug of EVOO keeps my pasta sheets from sticking together.  I cook them to slightly less than al dente, since they’ll continue to cook when I bake off the casserole later, then I set them aside to hold in cold water until I need them.

These are the ingredients for my filling and sauce – more or less.  (There should be an egg in there, and some spinach – but I forgot to include them in this set-up shot.  Whoops.)

Here are my eggs.  These are so fresh from the farm they still have chicken funk stuck to them, so I have to wash the outsides, then my hands, before I can handle any more food.  Still – they were in a chicken yesterday, and will be in my belly tonight; that’s pretty darn fresh.

Not all my prep can be done outside, at least not while the sun’s setting and the bugs are flying madly about.  So I have to make my bechamel and filling inside – but all’s good, since it doesn’t take too long, and requires only a little heat.  I start by mincing my celery, carrots, and garlic.

I also chiffonade my spinach.  All these veggies will give my lasagna some crunch and texture, as well as simple garden flavors.

In my large skillet, I melt my butter and soften my garlic, before adding about a tablespoon of flour, which I whisk in well to make a roux.  I let this cook for a few moments over medium heat, allowing the roux to darken ever-so slightly.

I next whisk in my half n’ half, continuing to cook over medium heat until the bechamel has begun to thicken.

Some salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg gets added for flavor…

… before the addition of my veggies, which I stir in very well.

This could almost be eaten as a soup – a primavera cream soup.  I allow this to simmer, encouraging the spinach to soften and release its color by continuing to mix well, and I add about 1/4 cup of freshly grated parmagiano reggiano to the mix before removing the pan from the heat.

In a separate bowl, I’ve mixed my ricotta, my fresh mozz (which I’ve torn from little balls into littler balls), my beaten egg, more parm, and some salt and pepper together.

It’s time to layer the lasagna.  I’ve greased up my loaf pan, and I start with a slather of my spinachy bechamel.

Then I lay two noodle halves over the base, stud them with some of my chopped lobster meat, and then I drop two or three healthy dollops of my cheese blend on top, before spooning another slather of spinach sauce over everything.  I repeat this process for about 5 layers.

After topping the lasagna with the last of the bechamel and some more grated parm, I place the whole pan onto Little Red’s grill before closing the lid and walking away for about 30 minutes.

The fireworks may fall in the east, but the western sky right now is a study in light and shadow that easily rivals what we’ll be watching shortly, after the moon is high and the sun has completely sunk past the horizon.

As a complement to the lobster lasagna, I’ve thrown together a super quick salad: wedges of iceberg lettuce and tiny ripe salted tomatoes, topped with capers, ranch dressing and EVOO.  Sometimes it’s the easiest things to make that are the most satisfying.

After 20 minutes or so, I check to see that my lasagna is bubbling hot, and nicely crispy brown on top.  I remove it from the grill and set it to rest, loosely covered, for about 15 minutes before cutting into it (which will help it set).

This white light lobster lasagna has an almost ethereal quality: it’s hot and filling, to be sure, but the tender shellfish chunks and fluffy puffy baked cheese are bright, fresh, buttery and garlicky flavors, offset by wee bits of carrots and celery.  The crunchy salad with the sharp briny capers brings balance to the palate, and each bite is better than the last.  As the night closes in and the Pops warm up for the 1812 Overture, Clayton and I celebrate our freedom by devouring our dinners with gusto.  Happy Independence Day, America!  Here’s hoping that some day soon, we’ll be able to celebrate the freedom and happiness of every man, woman, and child on the planet – regardless of what they look like, where they come from, who they love or what they worship.  World Peace, people – it’s not just for beauty queens.