Herb Roasted Leg of Lamb with Minted Garlicky Tzatziki, EVOO Tomatoes, and Honey Broiled Feta

DSCN5258Cooler weather means hotter food in the Fountain household, and something that roasts low and slow and fills a Sunday afternoon with the smell of savory cooking meat makes the cold and rainy all that much better. It’s been a while since I’ve made lamb, and the lovely rolled boneless legs they had on sale at Whole Foods convinced me it was high time I muttoned it up.   Not wanting to go too crazy, I opted for a fairly traditional approach: lots of fresh herbs and garlic, a tzatziki sauce, some pita, and some feta.  But, wanted to at least leave my mark on the meal, I also roasted off some fresh tomatoes and broiled the feta with honey, to impart some complexity and sweetness to the plate.  Gamey, tender, cooling, fragrant, and filling; it tasted good enough to *almost* make up for the Patriot’s loss to Cincinnati.  Almost.

DSCN5235

Herb Roasted Leg of Lamb with Minted Garlicky Tzatziki, EVOO Tomatoes, and Honey Broiled Feta

2lb rolled and tied boneless lamb leg
1 head garlic
1/2 cup fresh rosemary
1/2 cup fresh oregano
fresh mint
sea salt, cracked black pepper
2 carrots
2 celery stalks
2 medium white onions
2 fresh tomatoes on the vine
1 large cucumber
1 cup Greek yogurt
4-6 oz wedge of feta cheese
EVOO
3 tbs clover honey

DSCN5239
I start with my aromatics.  The oregano and rosemary are from my own garden, so I basically cut off a few handfuls of twigs and destemmed them, then I peeled all the skins from my garlic cloves.

DSCN5240I don’t have a food processor, so I just chopped everything up real fine the old-fashioned way; with my chef’s knives.  Once I had a nice mince, I added some salt, pepper, and EVOO to form a paste – which I then packed all over my roast, reserving a tablespoon to the side.

DSCN5241I peeled my carrots, then cut them into big chunks along with my celery and onions.  These I threw into a large stovetop-to-oven roasting pan with a few glugs of EVOO over medium heat to wilt slightly.

DSCN5243I then halved my tomatoes, leaving the stems on – ‘cuz it would be prettier to serve them that way later.

DSCN5245After making a bit of a nest of the cooking veggies, I placed my roast on top, then pushed the tomatoes cut side down around the perimeter of the pot.   I scatter the remaining herb mix over the tomatoes.   After pre-heating the oven to 325°, I set the already simmering pot inside on the middle rack and shut the door.  I let this whole thing cook for 3 hours, basting every once in a while with the juices accumulating at the bottom of the pan.

DSCN5246While the roast roasted, I peeled and de-seeded my cucumber.

DSCN5247After salting and peppering the chopped cucumber well, I set it into a colander placed over a large bowl to drain as much water from it as possible.

DSCN5248Squishing down on the pieces will release a little more liquid.  Sometimes you get a lot, sometimes just a little – but watery tzatziki isn’t much fun, so this step is usually necessary.

DSCN5249Although Greek yogurt is usually already strained, this container had a few ounces of whey floating at the top when I opened it, so I decided to squeeze it through a cheesecloth to get as much liquid out as possible.  Using two pieces, I formed a cross of cheesecloth over my colander…

DSCN5250… then, by gathering up the corners, I was able to squeeze a few more ounces of whey out of the mix.

DSCN5251Now that the cucumbers and yogurt are drained, it’s time to make the sauce.  I mince up about 2 tbs mint, throw in a few tbs of minced onion, a little bit of minced garlic, and some salt and pepper.  This gets added to the cream and cuke, and mixed well.

DSCN5253One can cook a lamb roast to medium rare and serve it bloody, which is delicious, or it can be cooked until it is fully roasted through and falling apart – which was our choice for this meal.  The carrots are tender and sweet, and the tomatoes are deeply roasted, their flavors perfectly concentrated.

sous-vide-duck-breast-with-warm-lentils-feta-and-mushroom-honey-cream_18I actually forgot to take a picture of my feta, but here’s one from an older recipe (a nice one I’d forgotten about, actually) to show you how it’s done.  First, the cheese goes into a nice, oven-proof shallow dish, where it is doused with EVOO and studded with some cracked pepper and a few leaves of oregano.  Into a 400° oven for about 10 minutes it goes, or until the cheese has begun to brown on top.  I then cover it with honey, turn the heat up to broil, and cook the cheese for another 5 minutes or until it is bubbling and gooey and luscious.

DSCN5257A little EVOO dressed arugula, some warm pita, and a drizzle of pan sauce compliments my unctuous herbaceous mutton, my minty cucumber cream, and my richly roasted vegetables.  Clayton and I make little sandwiches by taking shreds of meat, dollops of yogurt, bits of steaming tomatoes, and scoops of quivering honey’d feta and stuffing them into pita before stuffing them into our salivating maws.  As the wind whips outside and the rain beats against the skylight, we enjoy the warmth spreading through our tummies with each delicious bite.  Now that winter’s almost here, the days of salads and seafood a waning, but I’m not minding that one bit if my dinners get to be this good for the next few months.  I’ll just have to make sure I keep ‘em coming.

Lockdown Hash

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

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

DSCN4831

Lockdown Hash

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

DSCN4832I start by dicing my onion, carrot…

DSCN4833… and garlic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe, my dear readers.  Lolita out.

Braised Short Rib Matzohdilla

DSCN4796I get my inspiration from all sorts of places.  Since the husbandman and I are on the cheap these days, I usually peruse the menus of Boston’s finer restaurants, looking for what they’re serving which I can replicate at home. But that’s my high-brow approach; sometimes, it’s better to be influenced by popular culture.  For example:  Chickenhawk’s Chicken and Beans, one of my most popular posts, was inspired by this ditty on the new Looney Tunes show.  Tonight’s meal crawled into my imagination thanks to Sean and Gus from USA’s Psych; a silly show, to be sure, but one that makes me laugh every time I watch it.  On their 100th episode, Sean – with his customary wit – celebrates a verbal mashup of Yiddish and Spanish by coining the term “Matzohdilla”, which Gus thinks “sounds delicious”.  So did I, dear readers – so did I.  The concept of a quesadilla made with matzohs instead of tortillas just lit me on fire!  My mind immediately conjured a delectable vision of crusty pressed unleavened flat-grilled crackers stuffed with gooey cheese and savory meat, served Mexican style with some guac and sour cream for garnish.  I ran pell-mell to Whole Foods to make my dream a reality.

DSCN4772

Braised Shortrib Matzohdilla

1lb boneless short ribs
1 can diced tomatoes with green chiles
1 qt beef broth
3 slices bacon
1 can black beans
1 bottle dark beer
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 lb cheddar cheese
6oz cream cheese
1 avocado
1 small red onion
3-4 tablespoons minced cilantro
4-5 tablespoons diced tomatoes
4 matzohs
sour cream
garlic powder, red chile powder, ground cumin, black pepper, sea salt, smoked paprika, onion powder, EVOO

DSCN4775My original idea was to make carnitas for this meal, but I figured I was already slapping kosher in the face with the inclusion of cheese and cream cheese in my recipe; pork would just be cruelly insensitive.  (Of course, I ended up using bacon in my beans (see below), but bacon doesn’t count, right?)  Instead, I chose some lovely beef short ribs; I rubbed them down with a nice healthy blend of my dry spices (salt, pepper, cumin, garlic & onion powder, paprika, chile powder), and dusted them with flour before searing them thoroughly in hot EVOO in a large pan deep enough to submerge them in braising liquids.

DSCN4777After they’ve been browned on each side and all the edges, I dump my tomatoes and 1/2 my minced garlic into the pan…

DSCN4778…before adding my broth.  These babies floated a bit, but they eventually sunk to the bottom.  I throw a lid on top, lower my heat to a bare simmer, and let these braise for about 90 minutes…

DSCN4779b… or until I can easily shred the meat with a fork – like so.  Um: YUM!

DSCN4780Apparently, I can’t avoid pork.  I tried – I really did.  But before I even knew my auto-pilot had kicked in, I’d done gone and fried up a few slices to include in my beans.  What can I say?  I’m a degenerate.

DSCN4781After my bacon crisped, I dumped in my beans and a few scoopfuls of the braising liquid from the shortribs, and my bottle of beer.  I let these simmer on medium heat until most of the liquid had burned off, then I mash up everything with a fork to give them a nice, spreadable texture.

DSCN4788Time to break out the matzohs!  I spread cream cheese on each cracker, then layer them with meat, beans, and cheese before carefully pressing them together.

DSCN4789Like so!

DSCN4790I get my largest, non-stick skillet set to medium, and I brush it down thoroughly with a little EVOO.

DSCN4791I very carefully lay my matzohdilla in the pan, pressing down gingerly to flatten.  I made two of these – one for me, and one for El Husbandious; I sort of snapped one, but I am happy to say they stayed together pretty well, enough so that none of the filling leached out.  As the matzohs heated in the oil, they became slightly pliable – but without losing their crunch!

DSCN4792The trick to an excellent grilled cheese anything is time.  The heat should be set at a relatively low level, or else the outside can burn before the inside melts.  With constant gentle pressure, it took about 5 minutes on each side for these babies to cook up, and for all the cheddar cheese inside to melt and ooze.  Since I only had one pan large enough, I had to make these in shifts; I placed the cooked one on a sheet in a low oven to stay warm while I grilled up the other one.

DSCN4793See how nice?  All my cheese is gooey and ready, and the matzohdilla is born!

DSCN4793aIn a separate bowl, I whip up a quick guacamole: mashed avocado, diced tomato, diced red onion, minced garlic and cilantro, paprika, salt, pepper, and chile powder.  Mix that all up, and you’re good to go.

DSCN4795My cultural mash-up is complete!  I can’t really express how good this was: the matzohs stayed crispy and crackly, but they didn’t fall apart or crumble under the pressure of my teeth; the cream cheese/cheddar cheese blend was rich and creamy, with the cheese stretching from bite to bite like a most excellent pizza; the savory beans and tender, shredded meat were hot, flavorful, and delicious.  I admit, Clayton and I rather laughed our way through the whole meal.  It was freaking amazing, but I’d never seen or heard anything quite like it before (and I searched the internet for recipes – to no avail!), and it just seemed so silly to have been inspired by a cast-off quote from a TV show.  But, in this case, silly was super-delicious.  I wonder what other mash-ups I can come up with?  Chicken Tikka Chow Fun?  Caribbean Cassoulet?  Pad Thai Pizza?  Suggestions are welcome!

Weeknight Wondermeal: Pork Chops Pizzaiola

dscn4743It’s been a while since I’ve posted a good Weeknight Wondermeal, which I characterize as having very few ingredients (less than $20 worth) and very little effort or time.  Y’see, I work at Harvard with a slew of excellent undergrads, and as they go off into the real world clutching their diplomas and dreaming of a future wealthy with either success or fulfillment (hopefully both), they need a little help transitioning.  And this is a dinner I expect any of my Harvard kids to be able to execute.  Hell, if they can do a Western blot, they should be able to figure out how to braise a pork chop in tomato sauce and boil water for pasta.  Once they do, they’ll be able to feed their bodies as much as they’ve fed their minds.

DSCN4731

Pork Chops Pizzaiola

2 6-8 ounce center cut pork chops (about 1/2″ thick)
2-3 tbs flour
1 medium/large white onion
1 can diced tomatoes in juice
8oz button or baby bella mushrooms
1 qt beef or chicken stock
4 slices provolone cheese
1 cup pasta
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
4 tbs butter, divided
sea salt, cracked black pepper, garlic powder, EVOO

DSCN4732Start by rinsing and patting dry your pork chops, before sprinkling them generously with salt and pepper.  Dust them with flour, too.

DSCN4735Get a large skillet nice and hot, and add 2 tbs butter and a glug of EVOO to the pan.  Place your pork chops on the sizzling surface and sear for about 4 minutes.

DSCN4736Flip your chops, and sear on the other side for another couple minutes until nicely golden brown.

DSCN4737After peeling and dicing your onion, and washing all the dirt from your mushrooms, chuck all that into the pan, too.  Mix around a bit to heat through.

DSCN4738Add the tomatoes…

DSCN4739… then add the broth.  Your chops should be just submerged under the broth.  Get everything to a nice simmer, then chuck the whole pan into a 350° oven to bake for 45 minutes.  (This is a little long for a Weeknight Wondermeal, but considering how little effort is required to make this dinner, I figure it still qualifies.)

DSCN4741After said time, your chops should be practically falling off the bone, the tomato sauce should be nicely reduced, and your mushrooms should be plump and pregnant with juiciness.  Lay 2 slices of provolone cheese over each chop, then throw the pan back in the oven for about 5-10 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbly.

DSCN4742This dish goes with pasta, rice, or mashed potatoes.  I like it best with pasta.  These shells have been cooked to just al dente, then tossed with butter, a little parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper.

DSCN4745Juicy, tender, unctuously delicious pork chops draped with ooey-gooey smoked cheese, and served with its sauce over pasta.  A dash of parsley to add color to the plate will make you look all fancy-pants, too.  Serve this with some crusty bread for sopping, and you’ve got a dinner worth that Harvard degree!

Weeknight Wondermeal: Super Simple Savory Chicken and Rice

The vegetables from the farm are almost ready for my table, so right now I’ve been using up a lot of the canned goods I have in the pantry until the weather decides to stop vacillating between crappy and beautiful to stick with “warm enough to eat outside all the time”.  I’ve also been super-busy, planning a few pig-roasts and cook-outs for my peeps in the next week or so – which takes a lot of bandwidth.  And I just returned from a kick-ass weekend in Chicago with my best friends and their beautiful daughters; thanks Nyssa-Lynn, Michelle, Jordan, and Delaney for giving me one of the best vacations evah!  But throughout all this, I’ve been feeling a wee bit guilty about not posting in a while, so even though tonight’s meal wasn’t particularly complex or gourmet, it was a quick & simple one-pan dinner easy enough for anyone to make.  Now that my Harvard undergrads are spending the summer here working in labs without the benefit of open dining halls to feed them, I feel it’s one of Lolita’s responsibilities to give them a few recipe options to choose from.  Come on, kids – you’re all wicked smart Harvard students.  If you can do a Western blot, you can make chicken and rice….

Super Simple Savory Chicken and Rice

2 bone-in, skin-on chicken leg/thigh quarters
2 cups short grain rice (arborio or sushi rice works great)
3 stalks celery
2 carrots
1 small white onion
4-5 cloves garlic
1 can diced tomatoes with juice
1 can diced green chiles
1 cup dry white wine
1 qt chicken broth
8-10 small ciliegine (cherry-sized) mozzarella
sea salt, cracked black pepper, dried parsley (for garnish)

After rinsing and patting dry my chicken quarters, I sprinkle them with salt and pepper and sear the skin in a few glugs of hot EVOO in a deep pan large enough to hold the whole meal.

Here’s my mise-en-place – which in this case is a basic mirepoix of chopped celery, carrots, and onion.  I also chop up my garlic cloves.

Once the chicken is nicely browned on both sides, I move it to a plate to rest for a minute while I sweat my aromatics over medium heat for about 4 minutes.

Once my veggies have slightly softened, I add my dry rice, which I stir around really well, making sure to toast each grain nicely in the pan.

Like so!

First, I add my cup o’ vino, stirring everything well until most of the liquid evaporates.

Then I add my canned tomatoes (with their juice) and my can of green chiles (for heat).  I mix this together well, introducing all the flavors to each other.

Finally, I add my quart of chicken stock – which covers the rice entirely, and lay my chicken gams on top.

This I cover.  (See my skylight in the reflection there?  It is the only natural light I get in my kitchen, which is why my pictures are sometimes wonky-colored…)

Then the whole pan, lid and all, goes into my oven (which apparently needs to be dusted) on 400 for about 20 minutes.  This will slow bake the rice, absorbing all the liquid, and finish cooking my chicken legs through.

After said 20 minutes, most of the stock has baked off, my rice is nice and fluffy, and my chicken is oozing clear savory liquid.

I remove the cover, raise the heat in the oven to broil, and dot my dish with little balls of pure white milky fresh mozzarella cheese.  Back into the oven the pan goes – for about another 8 minutes, or until the cheese has melted so much it’s practically toasted.

Like so!

After a long day on the farm for Clayton, a dinner like this is exactly the sort of thing he craves.  Succulent, savory chicken and flavorful, vegetable studded rice.  It is steaming hot, packed with goodness, and damn delicious if I do say so myself.  And there is always plenty of rice leftover.  How can you beat that?

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!

Tea-Smoked Scallops with Panzanella

This recipe is the result of several weeks of brain stewing.  You know the kind — where one dreams up an idea, and then thinks about it constantly, shaping it and sculpting it, falling to sleep with it, all before finally making it so.  Tea-smoking is something I’ve only done once before, and that time with duck legs, but I reckon’d it would be a delightful preparation technique with my favorite bi-valve.  Luckily, or unluckily as the case may be, I spent a little bundle on some peach black tea at Tealuxe in Harvard Square recently, which once brewed I found I perfectly hated.  Too much vanilla  – and I even asked if there were vanilla notes in the tea, and the scruffy dude behind the counter was all like, “Uh, no, it’s *peach* tea lady. D’uh.”  So based on his dubious recommendation, I bought it, brewed it, hated it, and then needed to find something else to do with it since I didn’t want to drink it anymore.  I also have wanted to make panzanella for a while as well, which I’ve also only made once before – so it was high time I did it again.  I imagined the sweet, slightly smokey flavor of the firm scallops would be perfectly offset by the sharp, fresh, verdant flavors of a tempting bread salad – and holy hell was I right!

Tea-Smoked Scallops with Panzanella

8oz large dry sea scallops (I used about 12 of them)
2 cups black tea
2 cups sugar
Bread, cubed (about 4 cups)
Salad fixins: Cucumber, onion, scallion, tomatoes, red leaf lettuce, green olives, radishes, fresh basil, etc.
1/4lb sharp provolone cheese, diced
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 Meyer lemons
EVOO, sea salt, black pepper

Traditionally, Panzanella is made with only a few simple ingredients: stale bread, onions, EVOO, salt and pepper.  I didn’t have any stale bread,  but I had this lovely loaf of white perfection from Eldo Cake House in Boston’s Chinatown (where you must try their ambrosial Hong Kong tea!) I had purchased on Sunday.  It would do.

In order to approximate the “staleness” I cut about four slices of bread into cubes and chuck them into a hot non-stick skillet with a glug or so of EVOO and a sprinkling of garlic salt.

It takes about 10 minutes of tossing, and I gots me some croutons!  I throw these babies into a large bowl and let them cool.

Meanwhile, I dice my cucumber, quarter my little tomatoes and my tiny little radishes, halve my pimento-stuffed green olives, chop my scallions and onion, rip up a handful of basil, and dice my super-sharp provolone cheese.  All this gets added to the bread in the bowl, then dressed with EVOO, the juice of one of  my Meyer lemons, sea salt and cracked black pepper.  I toss everything very well to coat, and set it aside to marinate.

Scallops, baby.  These ping-pong ball sized beauties come straight from the sea, and they are “dry” – meaning they haven’t been treated with any wet preservatives that will make them rubbery.  After dinner, Clayton and I remarked that the small bay scallops might have worked for this meal, too, but I usually avoid those because they can turn tough so quickly.  Still – it might be worth a try, especially if I ever want to make this as a party offering – which I might, since it was so good.  But I’m getting ahead of myself here….

I’ve lined my wok with two sheets of foil paper and in it I’ve dumped my black tea and my  sugar.  For the purposes of this photograph, they are separate here, but I blended everything thoroughly before turning on the heat.

I set my steam baskets directly over the sugar/tea combo and press firmly down to sort of seal the bottom of the stack by virtue of crimping the foil paper.  After trimming the tough bits from my scallops, I lay them in my baskets, leaving plenty of room for the smoke to circulate.

I wrap the stack of baskets with a damp kitchen towel, and turn the heat on to high.  This will slowly melt the sugar, which will toast the tea leaves, which will start to smoke.  I keep my eye on my contraption, since I want to turn off the heat almost the minute I see any smoke seeping through the towel – which I do after about 10 minutes.  Then I let the baskets sit, covered, for another 10 minutes so that the smoke can truly permeate my mollusks.  Oh, and I open ALL my windows, even though it’s February, because I don’t want the house to fill with smoke.  Poor gimpy Clayton was so cold I had to wrap him in a makeshift Snuggie until dinner-time.

Voila!  When I lift my lid and check my scallops, they have firmed up slightly and clearly show the darkening of the smoke.  See how they are sweating?  I didn’t want to fully cook these through; I just wanted to kiss them with the flavor of sweet peach smoke, so I was *very* happy with this result.

The last step is to sear them in super-hot browned butter, which I do – about 2 minutes on each side.

I layer a few sweet leaves of red lettuce on my plates and serve up a healthy portion on each of my delightful bread salad.  Mmm-mmmm-mmmm!

After whipping up a quick lemon juice/mayo/salt/pepper dressing, which I squirt on my smoked scallops, I am ready to dig in.  The mollusks are fork tender but firm, and their uniquely sinuous flesh is redolent with sugary smoke and crisp-edged with brown butter.  The salad is tangy and filling, and each bread cube is crunchy in all the right places and sodden in all the other right places.  The provolone cheese was a stinky batch, but on the tongue its saltysweetsharpness was the perfect compliment to the peachytasty scallops, while the different bits of crudite in the salad provided a variety of welcome textures.  Light, fairly quick and easy, and absolutely delicious.  I will be making this again – soon!  And I highly recommend you do, too, dear readers.  It’s worth every bite.