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…

Seafood Sunday! Steamed Crab Legs and Shrimp with Molten Parmesan Polenta


Most of the time, when I want shellfish, I want it as simply prepared as possible, since it tastes so damn good just the way it is.  Shrimp and crab legs in particular (and lobster, of course) are best, in Lolita’s world, when they’ve been steamed or boiled, and then served with melted butter.  I’ve had them made in myriad other ways, too, and enjoyed it – but if I see “boiled shrimp” on a menu, I go gaga.  They can be expensive, though, and here in Boston they cost $2-$2.25 *each* when purchased at a raw bar.  That’s why I make them myself; at even $16/lb for the large 16/20 count shrimp (that means there are between 16-20 shrimp per pound), I’m saving a ton of money — which means I can buy and eat more shrimp!  On Sunday, during a foray south to the sleepy little metropolis that is New Bedford, MA, to visit their thrilling whaling museum, we foraged through the industrial waterfront area seeking a seafood market that sold to the public.  Boy oh boy, did we find one!  The perfectly plump shrimp and long, shapely snow crab legs you see above were so sparkling fresh, that they needed very little by way of accouterments other than a simple beer and spice infused steambath- but Lolita whipped together a fun and flavorful parmesan polenta overflowing with a creamy cheese sauce anyway, just to add a little starch to this swimmingly spectacular meal of fruits from the sea.

Steamed Crab Legs and Shrimp with Molten Parmesan Polenta

1lb snow crab legs
1lb 12/15 count tiger shrimp
2 cans/bottles of beer
whole peppercorns, fresh cracked pepper, juniper berries, sea salt, bay leaves
2 cups polenta
heavy cream
grated parmesan cheese
nutmeg
1 1/2 sticks butter
truffle salt

New Bedford is a rather economically depressed little town, which is sad, considering its rich history.  I betcha not many people outside of Massachusetts are really hip to it, unless they’ve been lucky enough to read Moby Dick. It’s an American masterpiece for a reason; for those of you who’ve never tried, or have tried and failed, to read the novel, I encourage you to READ MELVILLE.  I realize that, as a lifelong student and lover of literature, I’m hard-wired to read where many fear to tread, but Melville’s voice is one every person on the planet should hear in their own heads as they absorb the words off his pages.  Moby Dick may be a whale of a book, but it is a work of incredible beauty and of almost divine grace, a story which captures the motion and passions of the sea, and harnesses it for its readers to ride to dizzying heights and soulful depths.

Fleet Fisheries Fisherman’s Market might have been one of Melville’s favorite places to shop for seafood, if he weren’t at sea himself (and dead and buried these past 120 years).  Their storefront, hidden in the back of their warehouse with an unobtrusive signpost pointing the way to an unassuming single door leading in, was like the TARDIS – I expected a small counter and a cramped cooler with a couple of fish in it, and instead I was greeted by a huge white space chock full of iced shelves bursting with tons of fish in various states of deshabille - whole to gutted to filleted to cooked.  And the prices!  $14/lb for  12/15 count shrimp! (Those are usually $21-$25/lb at Whole Foods.)  $8.99 for snow crab legs!  Shut the front door!  Less than $30 later, Clayton and I had the makings of a killer seafood feast.  It may be worth the hour and a half drive down there to shop again…


Just look at that plump, beautiful shrimp.  We got about 20 from our 1.25 lb, so Clayton and I were pleased as punch.


Now those are some legs, baby!  Two clusters, each with five legs and one handsome claw.  These are, of course, not harvested anywhere near the Massachusetts coastline — they come from much farther up north, as anyone who watches “Deadliest Catch” knows — but given the major seaport that New Bedford still represents, they can bring them in in bulk and pass the savings on to voracious leg-lovers like me.

Nothing goes better with shellfish than beer.  I’ve been drinking this Session Black Lager lately with gusto, and El Claytonious has been enjoying the ubiquitous, and local, Narragansett tallboys.  I used one of each in my boil.  Why?  Because we each only had two beers left, and the day was early, and we were too lazy to head to the store for more.  I don’t recommend using a port or stout or barley wine or anything too heavy for a beer boil, but lagers do provide a surprisingly good flavor base.  It’s not the alcohol, it’s the hops and malt that infuse the tender meat inside these exoskeletons with flavah.  I pop both open and dump them in my pasta boiler/steamer pot.

I also add about 1 quart of water, some peppercorns, juniper berries, bay leaves, and a healthy amount of salt.  All this gets set over the burner and brought to a boil – which takes a little while (considering how much liquid there is, and how cold my beers were).

Shrimp and grits are standard house fare at Lolita’s, but I try to shake it up from time to time with some polenta – grits’ less ground-up cousin.  2 cups of corn meal whisked into 3 cups of boiling salted water gets me started, and I cover this and reduce the heat to low so everything can simmer and thicken.

Now that my shellfish boil is roiling, I add my shrimp to the deep pasta pan and lower them into the beerwater.


I then put my crab legs into the shallow steamer basket, fit that on top of the pot (above the shrimp), and then cover.  This only needs about 5 minutes to cook, which is good – since my polenta is almost ready.

It’s nice and stiff, the corn toothsome but no longer hard, and I add a tablespoon of butter and some parmesan cheese.  But it’s too dry for me, and I want something more creamy and flavorful.

At the last moment, I decide to whip up a quick simple parmesan cheese sauce with about a cup of heavy cream set over medium heat to simmer, about 1/2 a cup of grated cheese, and some black pepper, sea salt, and a scratch or two of fresh nutmeg.  I whisk all this together and allow it to thicken slightly.


Our assortment of weapons, and our baths of butter.  I add a few dashes of truffle salt to my butter (because I’m decadent that way), and Clayton starts banging his shellfish forks on the table, demanding his dinner.  (My favorite is the furthest fork, with the wee little tines on one end, and the lobster-clawed, inner-knife-edged cracking/splitting apparatus on the other end.)


To moltenize my polenta, I first dished it up into a buttered 6oz ramekin to set the form – which only took a moment or so.  I then carved out the center of the form, removing a wine-cork sized plug from the middle, into which I poured my parmesan cheese sauce.  The result?  A delicious and fun to eat mountain of sweet/salty corn grits spilling over and out with a creamy river of omygoditsogoodness.  My perfectly boiled shrimp and steaming hot crab legs are redolent of only the best parts of beer, with a little kick and sweetness from the juniper and pepper berries.  The truffle butter bath is the perfect dipping sauce for my firm white thumbs of shrimp, and it dribbles lazily down my chin from the threads of my hard-won crab leg meat.  I should have dashed some chopped parsley or green onions over the plate for presentation purposes, but damn it if I wasn’t too hungry for this meal to waste the time with flair.  Sometimes, it’s the simplest things that make the most wonderful in the mouth.

Red Crab Boss Grits

I admit, I took these pictures, like, a week ago, and I just never posted them.  Since then, I’ve been on the go, and I haven’t had the time to blog.  And I’m unhappy with my camera; I think sticking it into searing hot ovens and dipping it into churling steam-baths over boiling pots and pans and exposing it to splattering hot bacon grease has finally taken its toll on its fragile, bargain basement $150 chassis.

That being said, this repast was a red rock and roll boss crab grits recipe, ala Baby’s Boss Grits: one of our perennial favorites.  And it. Was. Good.

Whole Foods had these babies for $4.99 a pound.  I’d never seen them before, but they were these charming little clusters of crab legs and claws, with moderately easy shells to crack and peel, and plentiful sweet meat inside.  I steamed them, then set them aside, so we could harvest all the pink and white tender thick short threads of succulent meat within them when we were ready to spoon them up with our grits.

I’ve used proscuitto, pancetta, bacon, salami, and even chunks of chorizo in this recipe, but my favorite is one of Whole Foods’ regular offerings: a lovely Jamon imperial.  I tell the lovely lady behind the counter to cut it “pinky-thick”.  That usually equals 1/4 pound.

I dice it into perfect little cubes.

And I slice up some scallions real nice like.

Then, with a little salt and pepper and a hot wok, I sautee my cubes of cured pork until they are nicely browned on each side.

My grits.  I make 4 servings, according to the package directions.  Yankees up here think of grits as some strange breakfast gruel, but I think of it as a perfect base, like risotto, or polenta, or pasta.  This brand is pretty consistently good.  I end up with about 8 oz, cooked, buttered, salted and peppered, and mixed with 1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese, for each of us.

After my pork cubes are seared on each side, I remove them from the pan and set on paper-towels to hold.  I then add 1 cup heavy cream to the pan, and bring to a simmer.  I add 1/2 cup ouzo and some sea salt and pepper, and bring to a low boil to thicken until my spatula holds a smear even after removed from the sauce.

How apropos that the movie du jour was Peter Benchley’s THE CREATURE; and what a moment to catch upon plating my dish.  Again, my camera is on its last legs, so this picture doesn’t do justice to the dinner portrayed: my smooth thick bowl of grits supports a supple slathering of sweet fennel scented cream sauce, spattered with seared pork bits, and mounded with scallions, shredded cheese, and a smattering of paprika.  The crab legs I serve on the side; we crack them, scoop out the sweet fat short threads of succulent meat, and spoon up some corn goodness before introducing the mouthful to our tastebuds.  Warmth.  Wholesome. Complex. Simple. Full-flavored. And fun to eat.  What more could you ask for… for dinner?  That mutant mammalian shark dude snapping on that poor unsuspecting adreneline junkie kid sure wants himself a bite.  I kid you not.

 

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