Dinner for One: King Crab and Avocado Tian with Antipasto

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

King Crab and Avocado Tian with Antipasto

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

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

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

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

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

Then I layer in the crab meat salad.

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

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

Weeknight Wondermeal: Hake with Olive Tapenade and Arugula Salad

Those of you who follow my blog know that I am a total fish-head this time of year.  If it swims in the ocean, bottom-feeds off the sea-floor, or otherwise spends its life in salt-water, I want it during the summer.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a pretty poor swimmer; maybe if I eat more sea-creatures, I’ll absorb their floating abilities and be able to improve my dog-paddle.  I know, I know – suggesting that ingesting swimming things to make me a better swimmer is as logical as thinking that pears and avocados would taste good together because they have the same silhouette, but they DO taste good together, so…. (I’ll leave you to construct an irrefutable ratiocination for my syllogism).  Anyhoo – after the super-hot, thoroughly humid, and completely unpleasant weather recently (which threatened violent thunderstorms that never came, leaving us without the welcome break from humidity rain usually brings), I wasn’t too hungry either – so a light dinner was in order.  Hake is a nice, flaky white-fish, kind of like cod or haddock, and is perfect for a pan-sear.  Along with some quickly minced olives for a garnish and an easy side salad, this fresh, healthy supper was just right: it took only about 15 minutes to make, used very little heat (only one pan to quickly sear the fish), and cost only $20.  Technically, I made it on the weekend, but it shares all the right characteristics for a Weeknight Wondermeal (cheap, easy, and quick), so I trust you’ll forgive the misnomer…

Hake with Olive Tapenade and Arugula Salad

1 lb fresh hake filet
1 tbs butter
seasoned salt, black pepper
fresh arugula
burrata cheese
fresh basil
EVOO, white balsamic vinegar
4-6 oz mixed olives, the brinier the better

I love this product, even though I have no idea what it really is.  OK – I have an idea: it’s fine sea salt blended with chinese-five spice and some sort of hot pepper, likely schezuan.  But despite the fact that the label is replete with English language errors (they marinated the powder?), it is truly hot and flv. and salty — and it is a really delicious seasoning.  I start by splitting my filet into two roughly equal sized halves (which requires that I cut it lengthwise, since it is thicker at one end – and I need to pieces that will cook in the same amount of time), and dousing them with this salt before dusting them thoroughly with flour.

A glug of EVOO and a pat of butter go into my largest non-stick pan over high heat.  You’ve seen me use this combination before: the EVOO alone can smoke and alter the flavor of the fish, but the butter alone can over-brown.  A mix of the two makes just the right balance of milk-solids to foam and straight oil to sizzle.

See?  Once it’s foaming…

… I gently lay my planks of fish on the froth.  Since these pieces are irregularly shaped, I’ll need to sort of roll them so that they brown on all sides, and I sear for about 3 minutes each time.

Like so.  I’m aiming for a nice golden brown, and for fully-cooked through fish — which takes about 10 minutes total.

Me and my burrata cheese.  I know I am a freak for it, but what can I say?  It’s DELICIOUS!  These three ingredients – tomatoes, basil, and burrata – are the makings of a lovely caprese salad…  …but I had some arugula, too, so I added that to the mix.  Oh – and these are OUR tomatoes, grown in our little garden in the sky, just in case you were wondering.  Their skins are a little thick, but they are wonderfully sweet.  I toss everything together with a little salt and pepper, some EVOO, and some white vinegar.

I honestly don’t know what I did before grocery stores started stocking antipasto bars.  Whole Food has a particularly good selection of olives, and I like to pick and choose some of the sharpest, briniest, and strongest varieties they have.

To remove the pits from those that had ‘em, I smash the olive with the flat of my blade, which sort of cracks them open and allows one to fish out the stone from the center.  Then I chop them all up to make a nice relish sort of thing.

My delicate, flaky fish is blanketed by a healthy sprinkling of salty, flavorful olives – a perfect marriage of mild and strong sensations.  The creamy burrata, peppery arugula, fragrant basil, and sweet tomato salad is a nice compliment.  Since I realized I was hungry nary 20 minutes ago and am now sitting down to dinner, I’m pretty happy with myself.  And the husband?  Why, he’s THRILLED – mostly because it tastes so damn good.

Weeknight Wondermeal: Hamburger Steaks in Rich Mushroom Gravy with Simple Ranch Salad

My oh my.  What to make for dinner?  Sometimes, Lolita despairs.  Sometimes she just can’t think of another thing to make, another tasty thing to eat, another new meal to satisfy her continuous cravings for something simultaneously simpatico and nuevo .  She can’t even be bothered to order something, she’s so tired of being the only “feeder” in the family.  Sometimes she even relentlessly nags her husband to “come up with something on your own, damnit!” , with much foot-stomping, pouting, and black side-glancing, to the point of stupefying him into utter helpless incoherence – which never helps.  What can I say?  Lolita has that gift.

But tonight, thank Gastronomy, skeptical as I was when sullenly surveying the contents of the fridge, suddenly I simulated something I suspected would be both savory and satisfying.  (Blame the wine I’ve been drinking for the inordinate amount of alliteration in this intro.)  We had some hamburgers.  And some fresh mushrooms. And a head of lettuce with a half-full bottle of ranch dressing.  And something struck me.   Before I learned to eat– to really really eat – I enjoyed the suburban chain joints that populated my New Jersey youth.  How could I not?  They are the backbone of Americana.  And Golden Corral’s chopped steak in mushroom gravy, topped with prime pickin’s from their endless salad bar, was an early favorite.  Tonight, I recaptured the sensation using simple, fresh, honest, and not-laden-with-mass-produced-preservatives-reheated-in-steamers ingredients.  And it was better than I remembered…

Hamburger Steaks in Rich Mushroom Gravy with Simple Ranch Salad

2 8oz, 1/2″ thick hamburgers
1 lb sliced white onions
1/2 large red onion (or 1 medium red or white onion)
EVOO, garlic powder
1 shot concentrated demi-glace, like More Than Gourmet’s Demi-Glace Gold
2-3 cups beef stock
1 tbs butter
2 tbs flour
3 cups shredded iceberg lettuce
1 cup diced tiny tomatoes
buttermilk ranch dressing

This is a Weeknight Wondermeal because it is super simple, and doesn’t take a whole lot of time.  I start with a leftover onion – about 1/2 a large red one – which I thickly slice and saute for a moment or two in hot EVOO in my largest non-stick pan.

In go these beautiful au poivre spiced hamburgers from Whole Foods, and my mushrooms.  Any thick-packed burger would have done, but I would have been sure to pepper the hell out of them if they hadn’t been this particular product – just to add the zip and zest this dinner packed. I let sear them on medium-high heat for about 3 minutes, or until I see that a nice brown crust has formed on the bottom of each patty.

I don’t have the  capabilities to make my own demi-glace and store it properly (seriously – I have the world’s worst freezer), so I rely on this product to give me the rich punch of flavor only a truly concentrated roasted stock can provide.  Whenever I see it on sale, I go crazy.

Right before I flip the burgers, I add my beef stock and slide in my concentrated demi-glace.  I let the crusts moisten for a moment before I turn each hamburger steak over.  This way, I wet-seal what will become the outer layer of meat – which will be exposed to the circulating air for the rest of the cooking process.  This sort of trap-cooks each patty with the steam and liquid of the evaporating stock.  It’s a plan, really — sort of inspired by the steamed burgers at Firebrand Saints which have captured my attention.   I blend in the demi-glace gel, drop the heat setting to low, and let simmer for about 30 minutes.

This has been one of my ghetto-kitchen tricks for years.  I have these thin metal nesting bowls, which conduct heat really well – so when I need to melt a tablespoon of butter for dinner and I have something simmering on the stovetop, I jerry-rig myself a crude double-boiler by just setting my clean metal bowl onto the surface of my bubbling stew.  Don’t judge me.  It works.

When the butter is melted, I add my flour…

… and blend well, forming a rudimentary – but effective – roux.

Using tongs, I remove my perfectly steamed (160°) burgers to my plates, and add my roux to the pan, raising the temp to high to bowl down and thicken the gravy.

While my gravy thickens, I toss together the simplest of salads: shaved iceberg lettuce, sliced tiny tomatoes, and some buttermilk ranch dressing.  Yes – it’s Hidden Valley.  I did say this was a Weeknight Wondermeal, didn’t I?

These babies are plump and juicy and pink but fully cooked — bursting with the unctuous, rich, meaty flavors I wanted. Better than my idealized memories of Golden Corral, which have grown better with the years of culinary appreciation I’ve since cultivated.  And that’s what I was aiming for her.   A juicy red fork-tender chopped steak in gravy dinner — not dry, pebbly, sandy, crumbled over-cooked ground beef sodden with oil.  The toothsome mushrooms, hearty sauce, and melting beef was perfectly offset by the cold crisp, and creamy salad – where cool meats warm, and deliciousness is  born.