Truffled Lobster Macaroni and Cheese with Panko, Pancetta, and Chive Crust

DSCN5234 When it comes to cooking, I’m a creature of whim.  I often ask Clayton what he wants for dinner, but unless he says something that *I* actually want, too, I rather flippantly dismiss it.  Considering the quality of the items I generally produce, however, he has little room to complain.  But today’s suggestion –  in his simple terms, “a mac n’ cheese; you know, something warm” – actually did resonate with me, and my mind clicked into gear and rattled quickly through its catalog of flavors until settling quite quickly on a combination of lobster, and unctuousness, and crunch, and cream, and a dash of green.  Hence: tonight’s silky sweet truffled macaroni and cheese, studded with tender poached lobster meat, and crispy on top with crumbled pancetta and bread crumbs and chives.  And, since I could, I served it up in two searing hot iron skillets, which kept the sauce bubbling hot from bite one to bite last.  As the days grow shorter and the air cooler outside here in New England, so does the appetite reach for comfort food that warms from within.  This fit the bill just right.

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Truffled Lobster Macaroni and Cheese with Panko, Pancetta, and Chive Crust

meat from 1 1/4lb lobster, just barely poached (about 1 cup)
6-8 slices thinly sliced pancetta
2 cups (uncooked) elbow macaroni
1 tbs butter
1/2 tsp minced garlic
2 cups cream
1/2 lb white American cheese
1 tbs white truffle pate
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup snipped chives

DSCN5223Poaching a lobster is easy: just chuck your bug in a large enough bowl or pan, then pour boiling water over it.  Let it sit for a few minutes, then remove from the bath.  Twist off the arms and claws, and chuck them back into the water while you remove the tail and leg meat with shears.  Then cut the claws and arm meat out, setting all the sweet quivering pinkness into a bowl before throwing into the fridge until you’re ready for it.

DSCN5226In a large skillet, pan-fry the pancetta until it is brown and crispy, removing the slices to a paper plate when they’re done to drain.

DSCN5227Wipe the pan pit with a paper towel, and set it back over medium-high heat.  Chuck your breadcrumbs in, and toss them over the heat until they’ve turned golden brown.  Set aside, off the heat.

DSCN5228After cooking the elbow noodles in a deep saucepan according to the package directions, return the drained pan to the heat, melt the butter, then add the cream and cheese – which can be cubed or shredded.  A big fat helping of crushed black pepper is a good idea too.  Whisk constantly, until the cheese is fully melted and the sauce is smooth and creamy.

DSCN5229I was given this little pot ‘o gold by a good friend for my birthday back in August, and I’ve had the pleasure of using it a few times.  All one needs is a tablespoon of this super concentrated umame bliss to infuse any dish with the essence of truffle.

DSCN5230Add the drained, cooked noodles to the sauce, stir well. and then heap a  spoonful of mushroom caviar into the mix and stir well some more.  Fold in the the lobster meat, which should be cut into small bites, and split the pasta into two cast iron skillets.  Crumble the pancetta over the top, the sprinkle the breadcrumbs over that, before smattering the dish with snipped chives and throwing in a 350° oven for 10 minutes.

DSCN5231When the edges are bubbling, it’s ready.

DSCN5233Succulent, buttery lobster… rich, hearty truffle… creamy white percolating cheese sauce, and tender al dente noodles, encrusted with crisp unctuous Italian bacon, toasted crunchy breadcrumbs, and the sweet snap of snipped chives.  Clayton didn’t expect anything this good when he thought about mac & cheese this morning, but he’s damn happy this is what he ended up tucking into tonight.  He’s smiling sweetly right now, washing the dishes while I type, already nostalgic for the deliciousness that just filled his being with pasta and cheese.  I’ve made lobster mac before, but this one, so far, has been my best.

Monkfish, Roasted Broccoli, Vidalia Onion Wedges, Bleu Cheese Bacon Cream Sauce

DSCN5080I wanted to eat healthy, so I bought some fish.  But then I bathed it in sauce made from heavy cream cut with butter, bacon, and rich bleu cheese.  Contradiction: meet Lolita’s kitchen.

Who cares?  Tonight I decided to screw healthy and embrace HEAVENLY!!!! (In my mind, I hear boychoirs singing; timpani pulsating; swells of orchestral drama.)  A buttery, sharpcreamy, unctuous pork-bit-laden white sauce enrobes tender-but-toothsome pan-seared poor-man’s-lobsterfish and is accompanied by crunchy caramelized broccoli bites — resulting in a super-sin-fulfilling supper, one my hard-working and intensely studying (for his nursing degree) husband richly deserves, especially between a long day on the clock and a long night of hitting the books.   Warm, rich, and delicious: what else does one need as a digestif to prepare the body for future rounds of intellectual consumption?

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Monkfish, Roasted Broccoli, Vidalia Onion Wedges, Bleu Cheese Bacon Cream Sauce

1lb monkfish
3-4 slices bacon
1-2lb broccoli
1/4lb nice, sticky, quality bleu cheese
1 Vidalia onion
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper, spices, flour
1 cup vegetable/canola oil
1 tsp sugar
2 tbs butter
1 cup heavy cream

DSCN5064I start with the broccoli, because it takes a while to roast — like 30 minutes at least on 350° F.  I cut it into florets, spread it on a baking sheet, generously douse it with EVOO, sprinkle it with sea salt and cracked black pepper, and finally…

DSCN5065… I very loosely scatter about a teaspoon of granulated white sugar over the broccoli crowns.  Why?  Because it makes magic! A touch of sugar + salt + oil + heat = crunchy but tender, toasted-tipped, uber-broccoli-flavored broccoli.  Just trust me — try it — and you will believe.  I shove the baking sheet into the oven and roast everything for the next 30-40 minutes.

DSCN5067While the broccoli roasts, I fry my bacon.

DSCN5068Vidalia onions are super-sweet.  You can eat them like apples – really! (Although you may not want to hook up with anyone right afterwards without a visit from Uncle Listerine.)  I saw them at the market, bought one, and had sliced it up for frying before I even really knew what I was doing.

DSCN5069I threw some flour and this seasoned salt I bought in Chinatown who-knows-when into a ziplock bag….

DSCN5070… then threw the onions into the bag, and shook ‘em up real good to coat.

DSCN5072I added about a cup of vegetable oil to the bacon grease I’d reserved in the pan, heated it it sizzling over medium high heat, and then shook my onions free of flour before chucking them into the fat. Because they are fairly thick (I cut wedges about 1/2″ thick), they contain a lot of water, so they take some time to fry — about 10 minutes, with me constantly turning them to cook them evenly.

DSCN5073When they are crunchy on the outside and tenderhot on the inside, they’re ready.  So, you get to taste test until they’re right.  It’s a hard life (and, as it turns out, this is mostly just a garnish).

DSCN5074The monkfish I cut into roughly 4 equal planks, then I toss them in salted flour.

DSCN5075I get my butter and a glug of EVOO hot in the same pan from whence I fried my onions, only I’ve wiped it out first.  I think monkfish looks like something HR Giger would dream up – but he would probably include in his twisted vision their deliciousness.  It is truly one of the sea’s ugly suckling ducklings.  (Read: it tastes good, but looks beastly – alive or filleted.)  But regardless of their off-putting appearance, I saute them in the hot fat, spooning the butteroil over the exposed surfaces while the undersides deeply pan-sear.  I flip them each time the underedge crisps to golden (so about 4-6 times, every 2-3 minutes).

DSCN5076Once the fish has cooked mostly through (about 10 minutes total), I add my heavy cream and bacon, which I’ve roughly chopped.

DSCN5078I then crumble some of my bleu cheese into the baconcream, which I let simmer until completely melted, messing impatiently with it every once-in-a-I’m-ready-to-eat-now! while.

DSCN5079If you are on a diet, don’t eat this.  But if you need to pamper yourself with rich sumptuousness, go for it.  I did.  Tender, buttery fish, creamy bleu cheese sauce, crunchy broccoli and sweet fried onions – a symphony of tastes and textures. We ate.  Lustily.  And Clayton is currently – after indulging in this soul-strengthening heartfilling repast – conquering micro-bio with determination, vigor, and intelligence.  Tomorrow, maybe I’ll make a salad.  Today: WE DINED.  You should, too.

Sous Vide Veal Tenderloin, Honey Roasted Carrots, Potato Crisps, Gorgonzola Cream, Demi-Glaze, Gremolata

DSCN4576The reason why we omnivores like veal is because of how tender it is.  Yes, the little critters are confined to a very small pen which keeps them from moving around a lot, which keeps their flesh meltingly soft by preventing the development of tougher muscles, which many people think is sad (or atrocious, depending upon your ilk).  I have no such scruples: I am gluttonous for foie gras; I revel in veal; I love lobsters boiled live; hell, I’d enjoy an ortolon if I ever got the chance to eat one.  If you consider me inhumane because of my eating habits, I certainly respect your opinion… but I’ll likely not invite you over for dinner when I’m pulling out all the stops.

All this is just preamble, though.  I bring up the tenderness of veal for one reason: to say that it’s even MORE tender when cooked sous vide.  Although not a particularly old technique, sealing foods in air-tight bags and cooking them in a water-bath set to the temperature at which the food should be served  is optimal for several purposes: by cooking the food in this manner, there is no risk of over-cooking, and there is no drying out of the surface layers of proteins by virtue of the much higher heat needed to bring the internal temp to the right degree; something magical with collagens and proteins and cellular stuff happens at a lower heat held for a long time — tissues turn to gelatin, and juices stay locked in place; and meats need only a quick browning on a hot pan at the last minute before service. But sous vide cookery generally requires the purchase of a prohibitively expensive and very space-consuming piece of equipment, since since money and space are two things I don’t have, I thought I’d have to struggle with maintaining the temperature in a saucepan on my stove, which I’ve done successfully once before, but which took lots of time standing by the stove stirring and adjusting the water with flame and ice (figuratively speaking).  Tonight’s technique was MUCH EASIER.  And the results?  Veal so perfectly cooked and tender I could cut it with a sharp glance.  Doused with demi-glaze, served with  potato crisps draped with gorgonzola cream, honey roasted carrots, and a snappy Meyer lemon gremolata, dinner transported me to Nirvana with each and every sweet sweet bite.

Sous Vide Veal Tenderloin, Honey Roasted Carrots, Potato Crisps, Gorgonzola Cream, Demi-Glaze, Gremolata

1lb veal tenderloin, trimmed
4 tbs butter
1 tbs dried tarragon leaves
1 small bunch slender carrots
3 tbs EVOO
3 tbs honey
1 large russet potato
3 oz gorgonzola cheese
1/4 cup cream
1 Meyer lemon
4 tbs minced parsley
2 cloves garlic, minced
sea salt, cracked black pepper, dried oregano, dried rosemary
1 package Classic Demi-Glaze Gold

DSCN4551Instead of a set-up shot, showing all my ingredients, I shall instead show you the star of tonight’s show: my Igloo cooler.  Based upon Serious Eats’ brilliant life hack article, I now know I don’t need to buy a ridiculously expensive piece of equipment to sous vide – all I need is a $20 cooler.  Y’see, not only do these babies keep things cool, they keep things HOT, too.  For anything that can be cooked sous vide in less than 5 hours and in less than 160° water (these are my approximations), a nice, tight sealing cooler will do the trick.

DSCN4554I start by rinsing, then patting dry, my veal tenderloin.  After rubbing it down with salt and pepper, I put a few pats of butter on the meat, along with the tarragon…

DSCN4555… before wrapping it tightly in plastic.

DSCN4556The whole package then gets set inside a large freezer zipper bag, and using a straw, I get as much air out of it as possible.  I zipped the bag up as close to the straw as I could before I started sucking like a Hoover vacuum cleaner, then I even slightly zipped across the straw while sliding it out of the bag so that as little air as possible would leach back into the bag before it was sealed completely.  SeriousEats points out that one can also submerge as much of the bag as possible in water before sealing to push out all the air, but every time I’ve tried that I’ve always spilled a little water into the bag – and I didn’t want to get my meat wet.  This worked fine.

DSCN4558I thought I would have to use a kettle to get my water hot enough, but my kitchen faucet delivers water at close to 160° – so I actually had to add a little cold water to get my temp to a little over 142° F. I then filled up my largest, heaviest measuring vessel with hot water, too, so it would submerge – which I used to anchor my bag of meat which still wanted to float.  I shut the cooler, and walked away for 90 minutes.

DSCN4559Meanwhile, I used my mandoline set at the thickest setting to slice my russet potato into substantial chips.

DSCN4560I placed them in a single layer on top of a baking paper lined cookie sheet, and then brushed them with EVOO before sprinkling some salt, pepper, rosemary, and oregano on them.

DSCN4561I also trimmed the greens off my carrots, peeled them, and spread them across a ceramic baking dish.

DSCN4562Someone gave me this lovely raw honey, which is very potent and delicious.

DSCN4563The carrots get doused in EVOO, salt, pepper, and honey, and then both they and the potatoes get placed into a 400° oven for about 30 minutes.  At the halfway point, I flip the potatoes and roll over the carrots for even cooking.

DSCN4564Gremolata is one of those condiments that isn’t used as often as it should be.  The traditional mixture of minced parsley and garlic with grated lemon zest adds snap and freshness to tons of preparations, and it goes particularly well with rich meats.

DSCN4565A little salt, pepper, lemon juice, and EVOO gets added to the veg, and all is mixed well.

DSCN4566Ahhhh – gorgonzola.  DSCN4569I melt a tbs of butter in a saucepan, add my cream, and then my gorgonzola to make a cheese sauce.  On another eye, I prepare the demi-glaze with only a few ounces of water (I want a nice, rich drizzle of flavor, and not a gravy) and a dash of minced garlic.

DSCN4568My 90 minutes have passed, and I eagerly reach into my Igloo to see how my veal tenderloin looks.  And it looks MARVELOUS.  It is perfectly cooked to a lovely medium rare – but it admittedly looks a little flaccid and unappetizing all greyish like that….

DSCN4570… which is why I’ve got an oiled, cast iron skillet smoking on one burner.  I sear my tenderloin on all sides, propping up the narrow edges (which make my meat want to roll over) by clipping the tongs in the ‘closed’ position and resting them flat against the edge of the pan.  I sear for about 1 minute all the way ’round – so 6 minutes total.  I’m looking for the Malliard reaction, which is a fancy way of saying I want to brown the outside of this tender morsel.

DSCN4571Perfect.

DSCN4575Just the extreme edges are tantalizingly browned, and the insides are exactly medium rare throughout.

DSCN4577The explosion of flavors on my plate just blew me away.  The sweet carrots, crispy potatoes and sharp, creamy gorgonzola sauce, the rich, garlicky demi-glaze offset by the fresh, green gremolata, and the oh-so-silky-and-tender-and-delicious veal medallions.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to prepare veal any other way, and now I can’t wait to try the same technique with strip steaks and filet mignon, and even eggs for perfect Benedicts.  But now – I EAT!

Hand-cut Pappardelle with Garlic Cream and Lobster

This marks my second lobster recipe in a row, although I was surprised it wasn’t more, considering that it’s lobster-season and I’ve been practically swallowing them whole for a few weeks now.  I could Benjamin Buford Blue you (lobster salad, lobster tacos, lobster lasagna, lobster risotto, lobster fritters, lobster cerviche, etc….), but suffice to say I’ve been experimenting with these sea-bugs and have loved every bite.  Today’s offering is a delicious pasta dish, made with hand-crafted and cut spinach noodles, a garlic and parmigiano infused cream, and succulent, tender, juicy, sweet lobster meat.

Hand-cut Pappardelle with Garlic Cream and Lobster

2 1lb fresh, live lobsters
1/4 cup white vinegar
2 cloves crushed garlic
4 tbs butter
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano cheese
3 sheets hand-rolled, fresh spinach pasta
sea salt, cracked black pepper, snipped chives for garnish

Tough lobster is shameful, and adding lobster meat to a pasta can over-cook it lickety split, so one must par-cook fresh lobsters to get properly prepared meat for any dish that requires further cooking it in a sauce or something.  I’ve par-cooked lobsters a few times before, but here’s the skinny: throw your alive and kicking lobsters in a large, empty pot, and bring a gallon or so of water with some vinegar to a heady boil.  Pour the boiled water over the lobsters, comfort them with words of sympathy until they stop moving (read: die), and let them soak for about 5 minutes. (For another, more detailed description, check out one of my past postings.) Remove the lobsters from the water, then cut the meat out of the tail, claws, and knuckles while they’re still hot.

Viola!  Perfectly par-boiled lobster meat.  I leave the knuckle meat and claws whole, and I split the tail right up the middle (removing the vein). I put this in the fridge to chill down and stop cooking.

Living in Boston means shopping for fine groceries in the North End, and I ain’t one to fly in the face of that sort of foodie imperative.  The sheer multitude of fine Italian restaurants and shops is dizzying, although until relatively recently there were no real fresh pasta makers selling to the retail market.  Enter DePasquale’s Handmade Pasta, a perfect little shop right on Congress Street – facing the Haymarket through the Rose Kennedy Parkway – that sells fine cheeses, charcuterie, some imported grocery items and, of course, their own pasta.  I was in the mood for a lasagna the other day, and although the pictures didn’t turn out as good as the meal did (which is why I didn’t post it), I had several sheets of their absolutely delicious spinach pasta left, which I decided to cut into thick strips, called pappardelle – AKA wide fettucini noodles.

This is a pretty simple recipe: what keeps it from being a Weeknight Wondermeal is that most people can’t get their hands on lobster and fresh pasta as easily as we city-dwellers can.  But, as you can see from the list of ingredients, it’s not too complicated.  The sauce starts easily: 2 or 3 tablespoons of freshly minced garlic (do *not* use that crap suspended in oil purchased at the grocery store – it’s horrible!) and lotsa butter.

I melt the butter and, when it’s frothy, I add the minced garlic and simmer gently on low heat until fragrant but NOT browned.

I strain the garlic and butter solids from the pan, leaving only lovely clarified garlic-infused deliciousness.

Into this I whisk my heavy cream, which I bring to a roiling boil over medium heat.

Finally, I add my lobster meat and most of my fresh grated cheese (which I forgot to take a picture of), stirring everything together well until the sauce thickens and the lobster is fully cooked and heated through.

Earlier, I brought my pasta to a boil for 3 minutes in a large pot of salted water.  After the lobster is heated through, I pick it out of the sauce and set it aside, keeping it warm, so I can toss my cooked and drained pappardelle in the cream sauce.  (If I leave the lobster in, it will all sink to the bottom when I try to plate my dish…)

Succulent, buttery, delicate and sweet lobster meat atop a steaming platter of perfectly al dente spinach pasta doused in a rich, flavorful, creamy cheese sauce.  A sprinkle of parmigiano, chives, salt and pepper round out the dish, and a glass of crisp white wine completes the meal.  O, if only lobster season was year ’round!  Thank God it’s not, or else my perpetually-6-months-pregnant profile would probably make it to full term.

Homemade Hard Tacos with Popcorn Shrimp and Poblano Queso Cream

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now: I LOVE MEXICAN FOOD.  I guess I should specify it as “Mexican-inspired”, since I’ve never been to Mexico and can’t say with authority that any food identified as South of the Border I’ve ever eaten has been particularly authentic — but my homage still remains.  I just can’t get enough of the warm/cool, meaty/vegetable, cheesy/healthy, crunchy/chewy, soul-satisfying stuff that I think of as Mexican – like tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas, guacamole, salsa… the list goes on.  Now I am completely aware of the fact that hard tacos like the ones pictured above are in no way authentic, but one shouldn’t trample on Speedy Gonzales just because he’s a caricature, right?   Or let me put it this way: remember the “You think this has nothing to do with you” monologue Meryl so scathingly purrs in The Devil Wears Prada?  Where she points out to the still frumpy Anne Hathaway that the ‘blue’ sweater she wears is actually a distant low-rent cousin of a cerulean gown Oscar De La Renta debuted years earlier, that had been re-imagined and re-designed and re-marketed so often that it barely resembled its lofty parentage?  So – what has this to do with my tacos?  They’re the Casual Corner clearance bin progeny of the haute cuisine belonging to the same country that produced Freida Kahlo, Carlos Fuentes, and Diego Rivera.  But some of my favorite clothes come from the clearance bin, and I betcha a shiny nickel Freida, Carlos, and Diego would dig these fried popcorn shrimp hard tacos with fresh pico, marinated avocado slices, and homemade queso blanco sauce.  And so would Meryl – just ‘cuz she’s classy that way…

Homemade Hard Tacos with Popcorn Shrimp and Poblano Queso Cream

1 medium poblano pepper
1 ripe avocado
2 ripe roma tomatoes
1 small red onion
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch scallions
1 lime
3/4 lb small Maine shrimp (about 50 count)
2 eggs
Panko breadcrumbs (about 2 cups)
1/2 lb white american cheese
1 tbs butter
1 cup milk (divided)
1 can black beans
1/2 cup cooked, smoked meat (bacon will work, or some BBQ leftovers like I used)
12 small corn tortillas
oil for frying (about 1 quart )
sea salt, cracked black pepper, onion and garlic powder, paprika, ground cumin, cayenne pepper, ground chili, EVOO
sour cream

I didn’t take a set up shot for this meal because, well, I sort of threw it together at random, so I didn’t know exactly what was going into it until I started making it.  But I did buy this poblano pepper — the least spicy variety of hot pepper usually available on the market — with the vague thought of roasting it for some reason.  To do so, I rolled it in some EVOO, dusted it with some some salt and pepper, and threw it into a 400 degree oven (turning it every so often) until all the skin is blackened, more or less.  If I had a gas stove, I’d just burn it directly with the flames, but alas – I ain’t got nothin’ fancy like that.

See?  It took about 12-15 minutes total.  Now I throw it into a paper bag for a few minutes, which will loosen the tough, papery outer skin, and make it easier to remove.

Like so.  Sometimes I have to scrape off the skin with the dull edge of my chef’s knife, but today my fingers did the trick.  I pull the seeds out, chop up this baby, and set it aside to use it later.  (At this point, I had not yet decided where….)

Oh, and I decide to save the oil it cooked in, too — since it’s so redolent of spicy roasted pepper.  I figure I could use it later — like bacon drippings.

Next up – my avocado.  I have several friends who don’t like this blissful, buttery, bastion of vegetal delight.  You know who you are, people — yes, I’m looking at you.  It’s my mission to change their minds, as I did El Claytonioushusbandman, who initially thought of it only in terms of guacamole, which to him looked like baby sh!t.  Since he didn’t like baby sh!t, he didn’t like avocados.  That sort of free-association has always irked me, so I quashed it like the bug up my a$$ it was by adding avocado so regularly, and so prominently, to so many dinners that he finally had to try it.  Now, he LOVES it.  I aim to convert my other friends, too, so BE. WARE.  Anyway, instead of making a guac today, I merely sliced this perfect specimen of gradated greenness and marinated it in some very fine EVOO, sea salt, black pepper, mined red onion, and leaves of cilantro.  My thought was that I’d add a slice, instead of a dollop, of avo to each taco.

By the way, I got those minced onions and cilantro leaves from the batch of veggies I prepped: they, along with my diced scallion, diced salted and peppered tomatos, and a rolled-till-softer-and-juicier lime would be the rest of the fresh on my plate.

Black beans are my favorite, even though it took a while for me to get back into the bean swing of things.  My grandmother, rest her soul, lived with us while I was growing up, and she made pinto beans ALL THE TIME.  Like, daily.  I kid you not. After eating them dutifully as a child and tween and teenager, I began to fear that that if you peeled back my skin, you’d see mashed brown, sofrito flavored beanstuff instead of human tissue, so I patently rejected them for years and years after I started cooking for myself, in an effort to purge them from my being. Clayton loved beans, so – as it should be in a good marriage – he did for me and beans what I did for him and avocados: he made me try them again.  Of course, I had to cook them myself, but his incessant request for a nice rice and bean dish guilted me into making them for us one night, which I did with black beans and absolutely no sofrito whatsoever.  Since then, I’ve found I do like beans if I prepare them with the flavors I like, which, in this case, means MEAT.  This sexy nub of smoked pork belly hails from Chef Tiffany Faison’s new Boston joint Sweet Cheeks Q, a rocking new BBQ  dive in the Fenway area.  I went several weeks ago with some fantastic friends (you know who you are, you crazy kids!), and after stuffing as much deliciousness into my gullet as possible, I froze the leftover meat for just this reason.  I fished out the bag when I knew I was making beans, defrosted this tidbit in warm water in my sick (it was fully cooked, and I was going to cook it again, so I wasn’t worried about this usually unsafe shortcut), and brought it into play.

And here comes that leftover poblano roasting oil — it served as a flavored EVOO which, along with chunks of the pork belly and some of my chopped onions and scallions, formed the base of this dish.  Once the onions are softened and the fat fragrant…

… in went the beans and about a half bottle of my beer.  I set this on medium, and let it simmer and reduce for about 10-15 minutes.

The special ingredient for this meal are these super-sweet, perfectly pink, quiveringly fresh tender Maine shrimp.  I fear the season for these baby beauties is already over (and it’s so short — only about a month!), but I’m happy to say I’ve enjoyed them a’plenty this year.  I’ve made garlic scampi, shrimp waldorf salad, shrimp chowder, seafood alfredo… well, several things with ma petite crevette since they appeared at Whole Foods’ fish counter, and I am happy.  But I’ve never fried them before, so this would be something new.  I had to peel them first, which was easy peasy – their little heads fall right off, and you can coax their naked bodies out of their shells with barely a come-hither.

In a medium bowl, I whisked together my eggs, half my milk, garlic powder, onion powder, ground cumin, cayenne pepper, and paprika.

Using the same dry spices as the egg batter, I made some seasoned Panko breadcrumbs, too.

At this point, 1/2 of the liquid in my beans has evaporated, so I add about 1/2 cup short grain rice to the pot, stir once well, then cover so the rice can plump in the beery beany juice.

Right before I fry up my shrimp, I make my taco shells.  I’ve found that the coarser, thicker, and subsequently cheaper small corn tortillas work better than some of the more expensive varieties, and that – unlike previous posts – a deep fry pan isn’t really needed.  Instead, I added an inch or so of oil to my deep wok, and heated it until superhot.  Using tongs and a large flat metal fork, I dipped half each tortilla into the oil, holding it submerged with the fork, then folded the other half into the sizzle quickly catching the already fried half in the clutch the the tongs to finish the shell off.  Each only took about a minute or so.

… yielding me 6 taco shells, which I held on a paper plate and sprinkled liberally with salt.  I cut the other six tortillas into 8ths, and fried them into chips.

My tiny tiny shrimp are marinated for a few minutes in the egg wash, and then tossed with the breadcrumbs before I shake off all the excess breading through a colander onto a paper plate.
After all my shells are fried. I cook my shrimp in batches (about 1/3 at a time, so the oil doesn’t bubble over) — it takes about 5 minutes per batch.
And what, pray tell, ever happened to that roasted poblano pepper? Well, it became the star ingredient in my queso blanco sauce – my absolute favorite guilty pleasure.  Down in Georgia, there was no shortage of Mexican(ish) restaurants that all featured this white cheese dip I could drain out of a straight gallon with a straw.  And I can’t find it ANYWHERE here.  The closest thing is Bukowski’s White Trash Cheese Dip, but even that’s not quite right.  I finally broke down and recreated it for myself, finally succeeding in making it once I realized that simpler was better.  It doesn’t need Monterey Jack cheese, or cheddar, or anything fancy pants – it just needs, at its most basic, white american cheese and milk.  Before I figured this out, you would never have found american cheese in my fridge, mostly because it’s not really cheese but rather a processed amalgamation of ingredients a cook like I usually eschew, but one can’t be a snob all the time.  Besides, I’ve already thrown authenticity out the window, so why not add a little processed deliciousness if it works on the plate?  Here’s how it’s done: melt butter in pan, add some milk, whisk until incorporated and milk starts to boil, add shredded cheese, whisk until blended and smooth, and either add more milk if too thick, or more cheese if too thin.  When the texture is just right, I add my diced green chiles, and try not to break out my suck-up-all-that-cheese straw…

A slice of buttery marinated avocado. A handful of hot, crispy, tender, sweet fried popcorn shrimp. A smattering of snappy tomatoes and fresh herbs.  A healthy drizzle of fragrant and milky cheese sauce.  All layered into a crispy taco shell and served alongside a nest of meaty black beans and rice.  It might not be really Mexican, but that doesn’t stop me from facing southwesterly and making a little bow – because these are delicious!  There is very little heat (you can add some jalapenos to make that happen), but the flavors come together as a perfect synthesis of crunchy and tender and chilled and warm, with the cheese acting as the glue holding the whole mouthful together.  The tacos are light and refreshing, and the beans and rice add substance and just the right amount of stick-to-your-ribness.  ¡Gracias, amigos!  This meal was muy delicioso!

Spicy Pepper-Skin Chicken and Sprouts with Farmstead Cheese Gravy

The Busa farmstand, on Lexington Road, has been my husband’s domain all this year.  From there, he’s brought me most of the vegetables that have been featured in posts of this summer’s past – all sown and grown by his handsome self.  It’s been a successful year… so successful, in fact, that they’re considering expanding their business next, to include bacon from the veritable Blood Farms, perhaps local cheeses, milk, and eggs and fresh, free range chickens, turkeys and capons from Seven Acres Farm in North Reading, Massachusetts.  We’re in sample mode these days, and Farmer Fran brought Clayton and I one of those free range chickens — so fresh kill’t I swear it still had some life in it.  This zaftig beauty’s breasts put Sofia Vergara to shame, and her tender plump thighs were so packed with oozing flavor that I swear I fell in love.  My idea was simple: use the block of farmstead cheese Clayton brought home from Codman Farms the other day, and the Brussels sprouts in the fridge, and the leftover pepperoni from a couple meals ago.  The result: a crispy-skinned, pepperoni-laced roasted chicken, with crispy-edged, pepperoni-topped sprouts, drizzled with a rich creamy cheese sauce.  It was simultaneously pork spicy, chicken juicy, and earthy sweet green, all basking in a blend of drippings, paprika oils, and nutty velvet cream.  So simple, so sinful, so good.


Spicy Pepper-Skin Chicken and Sprouts with Farmstead Cheese Gravy

1 3-4lb fresh chicken
4 cloves garlic, peeled
12 Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
40 slices pepperoni (the spicier and oilier the better)
2 tbs butter
1 tbs flour
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 lb fantastic farmstead cheese — this is like a cross between a swiss and cheddar
paprika, garlic powder, oregano, black pepper, sea salt
EVOO

I’ve used the “stuff-stuff-under-the-skin” technique before — using fresh herbs, or compound butters, or slices of apple, or minced garlic and chopped rosemary — all with great success.  And recently I tried the idea of floating pepperoni slices on top of halved Brussels sprouts to spice and oil them as they roast, resulting in caramelized faces, steamed and flavored interiors, topped with spicy porky crispy chips.  (I heard you could do this over home-roasted nuts, too.  I have purposefully not purchased any nuts to test that, for I am afraid.  Afraid of uncontrollable snack-love.)  Anyway, I thought, well, if them ‘ronis can pepper and sizzle over sprouts, they can certainly do so under a roasting skin.  So, using my fingers and hands, I loosen my bird’s skin from her flesh, and tile a single layer of pepperonis between the membrane and the pink, covering as much real estate as I can across the breasts, in the thighs, and along the sternum.

See?  This takes about 20 slices of meat.

Before I tie my bird’s legs together at the ankles, I trim the excess fat from the cavity and chuck it into a large hot skillet.  I figure, why not use the chicken’s own fat, instead of butter or EVOO, to sear everything?  I render this…

… yielding me about 2 tablespoons of perfectly clear drippings.  I remove the fat chunks from the pan (and, I admit, take a wee nibble of rich yummy cracklin’)…

and then layer my sprouts, cut side down, in a single layer along the outer rim of the hot pan.

I then layer my pepperoni over all my sprouts, trying to make sure all each veg is covered by super-spicy salami.  (Kind of looks like a Christmas wreath, doesn’t it?  Happy Holidays!)

Into the center of this my precious of deliciousness, I place my trussed chicken.  Oh yeah — I’ve inserted a few peeled, crushed cloves of garlic in the cavity, just to scent from within, and I’ve salted, peppered, and EVOO’d the skin generously.  Into a hot 425° this goes.  About 35 minutes later, I temp it at 140°.  I crank the heat up to broil before putting the bird back in the oven for a final 10 minutes to crisp up on the outside.

 Meanwhile, I start my cheese gravy.  This special product hails from Robinson Farm, who supplies their lactic lusciousness to several great locations around Boston.  The Prescott, today’s variety, isn’t one of their regular offerings, but I would describe it as a nutty, sweet, raw-silk textured cross between a cheddar and a swiss cheese.  It was the perfect choice for tonight’s meal — not too aggressive, not too sticky, light and flavorful.

It grates perfectly.  I have to keep slapping away Clayton’s pinching fingers.

I add two tablespoons of butter to a large saute pan, then make a roux by tanning a tablespoon of flour in the hot fat.

I add my heavy cream to the roux and bring to a simmer over medium heat before whisking in the cheese.  When it is smooth, thick, and creamy, I season it with paprika, garlic powder, and oregano (to compliment the likely spices in my pepperoni) and bump it with salt and pepper until it’s just right.

My chicken is PERFECT.  It temps at 160°, and my skin is so crisp it hits hollow when I tap it with my knife tip.  But when I pierce it with my knife tip — oh, that’s the real sexy.  Clear, steaming juices rush out… quivering white meat snuggles within, and a crunchy seam of spice and pepper pork is threaded throughout.  I slice this bird right in half.  What?  We’re HUNGRY!

 This saucy bird has got it all: pep, cream, green, and golden brown skin.  She’s tender and sweet, but still has a spicy edge to her, too.  Her roasted sprout halves and toasted meat slices add savor to the white cheese slather that bathes and bastes her ripe and ready body.

As I dig in with my fork and my daintiest knife (it’s that tender!), the juices from the chicken dribbles into the creamy sauce, depositing puddles of red spicy oil that makes my mouth water.  What a delight!  I wish I had company tonight — ‘cuz this was definitely a company dinner.

Tenderloin Steaks over Truffled Potato Puree with Veronica Romanesco Mornay and Greens

Steak.  Potatoes. Cauliflower.  Three basic ingredients – but tonight’s purchases are superlative ingredients: super fresh, totally unmitigated by pesticides or hormones, and completely locally sourced.  Melt-in-your-mouth fresh filet mignons, simply spiced and pan-seared, over silky truffled potato puree with buttery Veronica mornay, snappy greens two ways, and a rich demi-glace.  Simply delectable.

Our day started early on the Concord Farm.  The sun rose over just-still-green, autumn-crop filled fields, where flocks of geese pecked through the brush looking for their breakfast.

After stocking the farm stand with fresh picked veggies, I zoomed in on these fascinating and beautiful veronica romanesco cauliflower.   Geometry never looked so delicious.

After we finished at the farm stand, Clayton and I headed northwest, driving about 20 miles to the very wealthy country town of West Groton, where the provocatively named Blood Farm has been doing business for over 100 years. One wonders which came first: the family name, or the family business: butchery.

A lovely farm on one side…

… and an unassuming side building…

… inside of which bustle workers in white coats busily butchering beef, pork, lamb, goat, and veal into every cut imaginable.

They have several freezers laden with their wares, but if you don’t want frozen you can get anything cut fresh that you want.  Anything.  The place is kind of a disorganized mess, with very little logical business flow.  The white-coated lady in front of my smiling husband is weighing that dude’s meat cuts – stuff he’d pulled out of the freezer.  She writes the weights on a slip of paper, then walks around to a tiny office, pushing through the people fishing through the freezers, where there is a calculator, and she adds up the total.  No register.  No counter. The place looks more like a storeroom where regular folks really don’t belong than a storefront – but man o’ man are the prices amazing.  More on that later — let’s get to the recipe.

Tenderloin Steaks over Truffled Potato Puree with Veronica Romanesque Alfredo and Greens

2 8oz tenderloin steaks (filet mignon cut)
2 russet potatoes
2 small veronica romanesco heads of cauliflower (these are about 6oz each)
2 large shitake mushrooms
1 bunch watercress several leaves of kale
EVOO
black truffle oil
1 stick butter
1 cup 1/2 & 1/2
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
sea salt, black pepper
1/2 cup concentrated beef stock
1/2 tsp flour

I met a young mathematician the other day; I’d love to serve her these.  We don’t see naturally occurring fractals often — unless we look at frost formations regularly — but these members of the Brassica oleracea species give us the opportunity to EAT MATH.  I mean, look at them!  Technically, all broccolis and cauliflowers are fractals, but these are so regularly shaped in such reducing dimensions…

 … see what I mean?  This little nub is about 1/20th the size of the head, but it is truly an exact replica of the whole, as is each of its nipples, and its nipples nipples. Fascinating.  I trim the outer leaves away from the base, and cut as much of the stem off as I can so that each head will sit upright, but flat.

Then, since I’m steaming these, I cut a cylindrical core out of each head, too — thinking that might help the steam permeate the whole thing more evenly.  I dunno — maybe it was unnecessary, but it did ultimately steam perfectly.  But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

 I set my heads into my bamboo steamer, and get it going.  15 minutes into steaming, I add my two mushrooms to the rack, then cover and steam for another 15 minutes – until the cauliflower is tender.

These steaks are easily an inch thick, and together they weigh in at a little more than a pound.  At an amazing $16.09/lb, and freshly cut from the beast just hours earlier, this may be the best steak I’ve ever purchased.

But the proof will be in the final product, and I don’t want to adulterate my meat with anything too strong, so I very simply salt and pepper the steaks before putting them on my hot non-stick skillet to sear.

For pan-seared steaks, I prefer the flip-once-a-minute technique – as those of you who read my blog know from previous posts (like this and this and this).  For steaks this thick, I lower the heat to medium high, so that they’ll cook more slowly, but still thoroughly, holding in the juices as they redistribute each time I flip the meat.

I watch the progress of the heat by keeping an eye on the cut edge; the redness through the middle thins towards the center as the cooking cooks closer to well.  But we like it medium rare – so I flip these babies about 10 times total (that’s about 5 minutes on each side), until they’ve surrendered the upper and lower outer thirds of their pink.

Using tongs, I sear the remaining cut sides of my two perfect pieces of beef.  Another 3 or 4 minutes total, then I remove them from the pan, tent them with foil, and let them rest.

I neglected to take pictures of me peeling, chopping, boiling in salted water, draining and mashing my potatoes, or mixing that mash with black truffle oil for savor.  I also neglected to take pictures of me roasting off a few kale chips, and adding some concentrated beef stock and some softened butter mashed with flour to the steak pan to make a rich beef sauce. Oh, and I neglected to take pictures of adding some more softened butter mashed with flour to my small skillet, adding half and half, and simmering with parmesan cheese to make a mornay sauce for the cauliflower.  Sorry. I was hungry.

What I didn’t neglect, dear reader, was to dive into this amazing platter of New England’s best farm fresh beef and produce with gusto and abandon.  Using our daintiest knives, we easily shave tender slivers of steak off our loins, sandwiching them between bi-layers of umame flavor – the shitake from above, and the truffled mash below.  Each wee cone of cauliflower bursts with nutty vegetal flavor, and the blanket of salty creamed cheese sauce is the perfect compliment.  A rich, glassy puddle of savory silken beef gravy, some snappy fresh cress and crispy roasted kale add the finishing touches.  The steak is so juicy, so meaty, so fresh and delicious – I’m convinced.  It IS the best steak I’ve ever purchased, and the best steak I’ve ever eaten.  Blood Farm – you’ve made a believer out of me.  See you soon!