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.

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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.

Roasted Game Hens, Brussels Sprouts, Tiny Potatoes, Bacon Hollandaise, Poached Egg

DSCN4633Besides being a full time college administrator and a part-time blogger, I also help teach writing intensive classes in English Literature at Harvard, and this semester we are studying Darwin’s theory of evolution (in terms of the impact On the Origin of Species had on the 19th century novel).  Perhaps that fact, along with a small plate of sprouts I enjoyed at Michael Schlow’s new joint, The Sinclair, the other night, inspired this chicken/egg creation: a partially de-boned Cornish game hen served with roasted Brussels sprouts and tiny wee potatoes, topped with fried onions, bacon hollandaise sauce, and a poached egg.  This was NOT an easy dinner to prepare!  De-boning the hens still takes me a while, making hollandaise sauce while poaching eggs requires a Doctor Octopus-like physiology, and there were a lot of little component parts that had to be executed all at the same time in order to serve everything hot together.  But, dear reader, was it worth it!  My tender, juicy hen covered in the runny golden goodness of cousin yolks paired with the earthy herbaceousness of caramelized baby cabbages, white potatoes, and flash fried onions was the perfect offering for a chilly, windy, and wet late winter’s dinner.

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Roasted Game Hens, Brussels Sprouts, Tiny Potatoes, Bacon Hollandaise, Poached Egg

2 game hens, breast and back bones removed
2 small whole sweet onions, peeled, trimmed, and boiled in water until tender
20-3o Brussels sprouts
10-20 tiny white potatoes
4 slices bacon
1/2 cup diced white onion
4 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
1 1/2 sticks butter
EVOO
flour, sea salt, cracked black pepper, white wine vinegar

DSCN4622I’ve presented de-boned game hens once before on this blog (check it out here), when I went into great detail about how to remove the back bones and breast bones of these little beasties – but today I didn’t have the time to take all the pictures.  There are some good tutorials on YouTube, too – which I refer to each time I go through this procedure.  I’m still not as efficient as it as I’d like (read: it takes me a long time, and I cuss like a sailor throughout the whole process), but the results have been wonderful each time.  By removing these portions of the skeleton, you are making these otherwise difficult to eat birdies a breeze!  The only bones left are in the legs and wings, but one can carve right through the body of the bird with a delicate knife to gather up rich, whole mouthfuls of succulent, juicy chicken.  However, once those bones are removed, you are left with a rather deflated critter, so I like to give it back some shape by stuffing something yummy and roundish back into the chest cavity.  In this case I did so with tiny sweet boiled onions, which I’d peeled and trimmed (leaving them whole by keeping just the butt of the bulb intact) and cooked until easily pierced with a fork.  Then I trussed up the birds with some twine so they’d maintain their shape.  After rubbing them down with salt and pepper, I set them aside until I was ready for them.

DSCN4624I neglected to add these important components of the meal to my set-up shot, so here’s a little something for you now.  I only need about a 1/2 cup of diced onion, and I fry the slices of bacon until crispy.  Oh, and when I said tiny potatoes, I meant TINY — these bad boys are about the circumference of my thumb, and no more than a knuckle long.  And I’ve got baby hands, people.

DSCN4625These I partially peel…

DSCN4623… and the sprouts I trim and halve, keeping the really small ones whole.

DSCN4628I’m able to spread both veggies out on the same baking sheet – which is good since they’ll take about the same amount of time to cook.  They’ve all been doused in EVOO, salt, and pepper, and the sprouts I lay cut-side down.

DSCN4629The trick to a meal this complex is having everything ready to go at the same time.  On my back right burner, I’ve got a water bath set up to double-boil my hollandaise sauce, which starts with a stick of butter melting in the small bowl resting on my tongs. On the right I have a large pot with several inches of water set to a simmer to poach my eggs.  The front burner has my largest fry-pan, a couple glugs of EVOO, and some more butter which I heated to a foaming mass before gently placing my birds within.  I meant to put them both breast side up at first, but their floppy, skeleton-less anatomy confused me, so one’s face up and the other is face down.  No harm done.

DSCN4630“The lost art of the arroser.”  I had the pleasure of discovering this term in print just when I needed to find it – since I engaged in said art when preparing tonight’s dinner.  This refers to the technique of spooning hot fat oven the up-side of a protein searing in a pan, so it can gently cook on both sides at the same time.  I’ve seen this on Iron Chef and other cooking shows, and I’ve mimicked it to great effect in the past, but I’ve never known what it was called.  Thanks, New York Times.  Anyway, given that it takes two hands – one to tilt the pan, the other to spoon the butteroil – I couldn’t take a good shot of me in action, but suffice to say that as my birds sizzled, I basted them continually with hot golden deliciousness for about 5 minutes of sear time before flipping them.

DSCN4631Damn they look good.  I do the same technique for the flip side of each bird before I get them both settled, breast side down (so they’re resting on their “elbows”, so to speak).  This is crunch time: it will take 25 minutes for the sprouts, potatoes, and chickens to roast off in a 350° oven.  The pan with the veggies goes on the bottom rack – which is closest to the heat source in my oven – and the chickens go in their pan onto the top shelf to finish baking through.  I now have 20 or so minutes to get everything else done before I need to plate.

DSCN4626First, I toss my onions in flour, salt, and pepper before…

DSCN4627… frying them in some oil until crispy and brown.

DSCN4632Now it’s egg time.  The trick to making both hollandaise sauce and poached eggs is to have everything ready in advance.  Water should be at a low simmer for both preparations; the back, smaller burner for the sauce, and the front larger burger for the eggs.  Given that I was under pressure to get everything out on time, I didn’t take pictures of each process, but for the hollandaise sauce you can check out this previous posting, which goes into great detail, and for the poached eggs I actually followed Kenji’s most recently posted procedure from Serious Eats.  The eggs only take about 4 minutes to poach, and the hollandaise takes about 10 minutes from start to finish.  After the 10 minutes prep it took to get everything ready, by the time my sauce and eggs are ready, it is just about on the minute I need to pull out my chicken and veg from the oven.

DSCN4634The roasted sprouts and potatoes form the bed for this little baby chicken, while the oozing yellow yolk and sauce act as its blanket, with a little scattering of fried onion bits for contrast.  After cutting the trussing strings, I am able to disengage a leg from the bird with the gentlest of tugs – which, of course, I do daintily with my pinky finger extended in polite form.  But once the succulent, tender, and steaming meat makes it to my tongue, all bets are off, and I throw down my silverware and just start sopping and supping with complete abandon.  The richness of the sauce and yolk are offset by the salty bacon and deeply caramelized sprouts, and the potatoes add just the right amount of starch to the plate.  This was a dinner that was lovely to look at, but even better to eat.

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.

Pan Seared Skate Wing, Molten Cheddar Grits, Wilted Spinach, and Spring Onion Hollandaise

Oh hai Spring!  It’s March in New England but my windows have been open for days, and today I rode through Brighton in a tank-top, getting some much needed sun on my oh-so-pale shoulders. This false spring, as Hemingway called it, is so alluring that I fight against the voices that whisper “global warming” and just bask in the day while I have it.  Of course, with the forecast heralding sunny low 70’s all week, it looks like we’ll be having it at least until next weekend.  To welcome the warm breezes and clear skies, I purchased two angelic skate wings at New Bedford’s seafood mecca, Fisherman’s Market. I draped them in a silky snappy golden hollandaise, and served them with some spinach and grits extraordinaire.  Light fish, rich sauce, cheesy starch, and good greens — what more could a girl want on a perfect Sunday night?

Pan Seared Skate Wing, Molten Cheddar Grits, Wilted Spinach, and Spring Onion Hollandaise

2 skinned, boned, cleaned fresh-smelling skate wings
flour, for dredging
1/2 cup grits
1 1/2 cup water
4 1″ cubes cheddar cheese
2 sticks butter, divided
1 lb fresh spinach leaves
4 egg yolks
juice of 1/2 a lemon
sea salt, black pepper, EVOO
1 large spring onion
(ignore the caperberries in the picture — I ended up not using them)

Good grits require a 1 to 3 ratio: 1/2 cup grits + 1 1/2 cups water = perfection.  While I bring my water, salted, to a boil, I liberally butter up two 6oz ramekins and measure out my grits.

After 10 minutes or so, stirred occasionally, set covered over low heat, with a tablespoon of butter – and they’re perfect.

I fill each ramekin halfway, drop a couple nuggets of a nice raw milk cheddar on top…

…. then fill to the brim with the rest of the hot grits.  These will get set into a 350 degree oven for 8-10 minutes, right before serving, to puff up and bake.

I think I’ve mentioned before how much Clayton and I love animation, cartoons, and comic books.  So we couldn’t resist getting Puss In Boots on demand recently, and we laughed our heads off.  I loved the texture of Humpty’s skin/shell — the perfect representation of an egg’s unique spherical smooth bitty bumped roundness.  My camera doesn’t get as close as I want it to; I need to upgrade.  Anyway, I need the nuclei of four of these babies.

Like so.  (I’m terrible at cracking eggs.  I never get whole yolks, and I never miss getting shell. Sigh.)  I squeeze half a lemon into the bowl and whisk very very well.

Along with a stick of melted butter, whisked over a double boiler, my lemon-juiced eggs froth and firm and double in volume.  I add tablespoons of hot water if it gets thick, and more melted better until I have it…

… just right.  Frothy and rich, I add some chopped spring onion greens, salt and pepper, and set aside until service.

The final – and easiest – component of this meal is the skate wing.  Skate is a type of stingray, a creature of which I have nightmares (as I do of most aquatic life – a mild phobia), but in which I do like to indulge when I see it.  One has to be careful with skate — it can stink of ammonia, so be sure to smell it before buying it (the fishmonger should be happy to hold a filet up to your nose).  I’ve made it before when ammonia permeated the flesh so thoroughly that I had to scrap the whole thing.  But when it’s right, it is a beautiful, delicate, and delicious fish.  All I do is sprinkle both sides with salt and ground pepper, and dredge it in flour.

A couple tablespoons of butter, and a few glugs of EVOO go into my largest non-stick fry pan, set over high heat until it froths.  (At this point, I put my two ramekins of grits into my preheated oven to bake.  They’ll need about 10 minutes – just enough time to finish the fish and spinach.

Both filets lay like angel’s wings, sizzling the second they hit my hot fats.  I recently purchased a crescent shaped spatula, which I flattened against the center of each piece when it began to buckle in off the heat.  About 4 minutes on this side…

…before flipping each to reveal perfectly toasted golden brown deliciousness.  Cook for another 4-5 minutes before moving to warm plates, reserving the leftover grease.

I press my washed spinach leaves into the pan, and turn them over a few times with tongs until they are completely wilted.  I salt and pepper them liberally.

My fish is plated, my spinach is ready, and my little bundles of cheddar and corn are popping out of their dishes.  They’re hard to flip (because they’re hot and slick), but flip them I do.

My plate is a study in swirls: the striated flesh of my skate wing shoulders a swathe of oniony rich thick fluffy golden butter cream, and a coiled nest of wilted greens, and a locus of corn grits with a sharp melting center.  In the light of the setting spring sun, Clayton and I each tuck our napkins under our chins and poise our forks above our dinners.  With a smiling look at each other, and a deep sigh — the kind only the satisfaction of spring can bring – we eat.  And we eat well, dear readers — very, very well.

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!

Weeknight Wondermeal: Stuffed Roasted Pork Chops with Gorgonzola Cauliflower Mash

I really haven’t intended to do this pork chop series, but my wee freezer is chockablock full of fantastic meats from Blood Farm, and I can’t seem to get enough of their super-savory swine.  Their bacon is to die for, but these chops – laden with tender white meat, rich dark (white) meat, and enveloped with tasty fat  – are to kill for.  And they are HUGE — like 12-14oz each!  With only an apple, an onion, and a few pantry items, I compliment this beautiful bone by stuffing it with a fantastic tilling, resting it on a bed of mashed cauliflower enriched with gorgonzola cheese (yup – leftover from my last pork chop supper), and draping it with a simple cream pan sauce.  At only about $15 worth of ingredients and an hour’s work, I assembled a meal as elegant as anything Boston’s best restaurants could produce, while still being as homey and comfortable as Granny’s pork chops and apple sauce.  Thanks to The Crepes of Wrath for the inspiration for the stuffing!

Stuffed Roasted Pork Chops with Gorgonzola Cauliflower Mash

2 large bone-in pork chops
1 egg
1 onion
1 head cauliflower
1 large apple (this is a Macoun)
3 slices sandwich bread
3 slices bacon, chopped
3 oz gorgonzola cheese
4 tbs butter (divided)
heavy cream (about 1/2 cup)
sea salt, cracked black pepper, cinnamon, dried savory, dried chives

I start with my stuffing.  My cracked egg is mixed with my bread, which I’ve torn into pieces, my apple, which I’ve seeded and diced (but not peeled), and some sea salt, black pepper, savory, and cinnamon — a dash or so of each.  I blend this well.

Meanwhile, I render my bacon.  When it’s nice and crisp, I reserve the drippings and…

… add the bacon to the stuffing, which I mix well.

I also remove the leaves and stem from my cauliflower, and cut it into smaller florets. These get placed in my bamboo steamer and cooked off until I can pierce them easily with a fork – about 15-20 minutes.

Using my sharp boning knife, I cut three separate pockets into each pork chop: one in the large loin portion, and one in each portion of the tenderloin (on the other side of the T-bone).  Usually, stuffed pork chops are boneless, but I couldn’t pass up the sweet meat closest to the bone – so I decided to super-stuff them by doing so in each large portion of protein.

About a tablespoon of filling fits into each pocket on the tenderloin side…

… with 2-3 tablespoons of filling on the loin side.  I secure each pocket with a couple of toothpicks.  It ain’t pretty, but it works.

I’ve melted two tablespoons of butter and added my bacon drippings to my large non-stick skillet.  When it’s foaming, it’s ready to be ‘chopped’.

I’ve salted and peppered my meaty bones and in they go.  (See my cauliflower peeking out of the steamer in the background?  It wanted to see what all my oohing and aahing was about.)  I let them sear for about 3 minutes…

… before carefully flipping them to sear on the other side.  I have to use my tongs to sort of press the meat onto the surface in places, since the stuffing has made them bulbous and not everything is making contact.  About 4 minutes on this side, and then I throw the whole pan into the oven on 350° for about 10 minutes to finish cooking through. When they’re ready, I remove them to a plate to keep warm and whisk 1/2 of my my heavy cream and about a tablespoon of dried chives to the pan-juices, bringing it to a simmer over high heat until just thickened (about 5 minutes).  I season with salt and pepper, too.

While my sauce is thickening, using my potato masher, I break down my cauliflower.

I add my cream, butter, and gorgonzola cheese to the cauliflower, as well as a little salt and pepper, and mix well until it’s all incorporated and smooth.

Using mashed, cheesy cauliflower instead of potatoes reduces the heaviness of this meal by several orders of magnitude, even if the heavy cream and gorgonzola add back a little of the weight.  My pork chops are perfectly seared, and the stuffing is sweet and savory thanks to the tart apple and thick smoked bacon.  Each bite falls onto my fork with just the gentlest of prodding, and when slathered with mash and gravy, each bite takes me one step closer to a heaven where the hearth is always steadily aflame, where the rugs are always soft underfoot, and where the company always feels like family.  Another triumph for the other white meat – and another scrumptious supper for me!

Apple, Onion, Sausage and Sage Stuffed Baked Pumpkins

Dinner tonight was, in a word: WOW.  It was visually stunning, imaginatively simple, flavorful and hearty, crisp sweet and rich meaty, herbaceous and vegetal and positively porcine.   I’ve been wanting to eat out of a pumpkin for years, and finally had Farmer Clayton and the Busa bounty provide me with two  perfect specimens of gourdeliciousness.  (Admittedly, Clayton’s first attempt yielded pumpkins too small for our purposes, but once I’d Marcel Marceau’d my intentions, the next night he bought two beauties he’d freshly picked from the field, after planting them several months ago.)  The title says it all: Apple, Onion, Sausage and Sage Stuffed Pumpkins — with some heavy cream to spectacularly soupify the savory sweet roasted filling, and some toasted pumpkin seeds to add crunch and spice.  I will dream of this meal until I make it again, and make it for friends or family or lovers or heroes or anyone who deserves to tuck into a steaming sphere of sweetsavorysaltyspicy deliciousness like this.  Perfection – simple perfection.  And SO EASY.  Eating this was like ascending to Asgardian heights of gusterrific euphoria.  If it’s not the same for you, I fear you might be dead…


Apple, Onion, Sausage and Sage Stuffed Baked Pumpkins

2 medium pumpkins (these were each about 4lbs, and the size of a soccer ball)
1 lb sweet Italian sausage
1 bunch fresh sage
2 slices of white bread
1 medium red onion
1 crisp fresh apple (this is a Lincoln Honeycrisp)
2 eggs
sea salt, cracked black pepper
heavy cream (not pictured)

I start by removing the sausage from it’s casings (by flaying them open with my kitchen shears, a technique that always makes Clayton cringe with sympathy — for the sausage) and searing the seasoned meat in my wok.


Meanwhile, Clayton sacrifices his pumpkin progeny by decapitating them with my chef’s knife.  Well, he did plant the seeds, propagate the vines, raise the pumpkins and then pick them himself – therefore: progeny.  It’s only fitting that he split them open for us to eat, too.  (He also grew the sage and onion, the apple is from a nearby orchard, and the eggs are from Chip-in Farm.)  Resting the gourds on a kitchen rag set on a cutting board (to stabilize them), he uses a rocking motion with my sharp blade to saw the tops off.  It’s OK if they’re not exactly straight – just as long as there is a nice sized, self-contained bowl left over to fill later.


Using a large spoon to scrape, and my shears to snip the sinewy threads, Clayton cleans out both bowls.  I have him save the seeds, ‘cuz I’m planning on using them, too.


In another large bowl, I prepare my filling.  I’ve ripped two slices of bread and a handful of sage into chunks, cut my apple and onion into large bite-sized pieces, and have cracked two eggs into the mix.


My sausage is mostly browned, with just a little pink still in the center.  I’m going to bake this for an hour, so the sausage will cook through – I just don’t want it to dry out, which is why I’m not fully browning it now.


This gets added to the bowl, and mixed in well.  I season with a little salt and pepper, too – just ‘cuz.


Time to stuff.  I’ve rubbed the cavities with EVOO, sprinkled with some salt and pepper, and then I loosely spoon enough filling into each pumpkin bowl to bring it almost level to the top edge.  I place them, with their “lids” on a large foil-lined baking sheet, which I place into a preheated 400° oven for about an hour.


Apparently, Clayton’s mother never made pumpkin seeds, and parsimonious farmer-type that he is, he always wants to save these for planting later.  Hello?  Why should I trade a cup of snack-food now for the potential yield of several hundreds of pounds of pumpkins later?  I mean, really… !  Despite my flawed sense of economy, this time he allows me to do with the seeds what I will, so I pull the threads from them (it’s easiest to do this by putting everything in a bowl of water; the seeds will float to the top, and you can pick them out of any nests of pumpkin strings more easily when they-re wet), then spread them between several lengths of paper towels to dry.


After tossing them with some EVOO, sea salt, and garlic powder, I spread my seeds across another foil-lined baking sheet, then I place them in the oven – stirring occasionally – to toast for about 20 minutes.


At the hour mark, I check my pumpkins, and they are beautiful!  The tines of my testing fork easily slide through the thick orange flesh, and the filling has started to caramelize.  Final step: I add about 1/2 cup of room temperature heavy cream to each bowl, then place the pumpkins back in the oven for a final 20 minutes (while my seeds toast).


At the last minute, I decide to fry a few sage leaves as garnish.  Using an inch of corn oil in my smallest pan, I quickly sizzle a few leaves off, before draining them on paper plates and sprinkling them with sea salt.  Fried sage leaves are delicious and crisp, and they made a nice compliment to the fresh sage already baked off inside the filling.

My pumpkin seeds are crunchy, too – perfectly roasted and sizzling hot.  I eat a few handfuls right when they come out of the oven.  Clayton thinks they’re a little too sinewy and fibrous.  I think he’s loopy.


Piping hot, creamy and crunchy, sweet-tart apple and sharp onion crisp, spicy meaty and earth scented, this cornucopia of fall flavors is a bundle of delicious delight.  We double-fist dive into each amazing orb, using a fork in one hand and a spoon in the other, scraping pumpkin flesh from the sides and scooping savory cream stuffing at the same time.  We can’t stop ourselves; we barely speak; we sup with equal measures of abandon and enthusiasm. It’s headslappingly heartwarming. It’s belt-unbucklingly filling.  It’s epic.  Enjoy!