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.

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.

Sweet ‘N Soy Seared Tuna with Broiled Cana de Cabra and Ginger Dressed Greens

It has been some couple of weeks – as in, chock full o’ unfamiliar happenings.  Since Clayton and I are nothing if not creatures of habit, said happenings have really thrown us into disarray.  But my arm has healed and is fully functional again, the particular challenges of study card week (my Harvard peeps feel me)  are over, and Clayton is home from his knee surgery – convalescing on the couch, but home, and happy, and hungry for my cooking.  A proper shout out to the folks at New England Baptist Hospital is due: thanks for taking such excellent care of my man!  He has done nothing but rave about your care, your kindness, and your customer service, and he’s an easier patient now as a result.  Danke, dear friends, danke…

But while Clayton is strapped to the sofa and drugged up on dilaudid, my dinners are going to need to be lighter to compensate for his inactivity and loss of appetite.  So it’s salads or soups, one bowl meals or single skillet suppers, tinier portions and fatter-freer flavors.  Hence tonight’s supper: tiles of tender tuna steeped in classic Asian flavors like soy, ginger, garlic, and sesame, all sweetened with honey and reduced to a rich glaze, atop a bed of gingered greens, and accompanied with a seared slice of gamey goat cheese.  Punchy and piquant; the perfect balance of raw and roasted; a harmony of salad and sea and cream.

Sweet ‘N Soy Seared Tuna with Broiled Cana de Cabra and Ginger Dressed Greens

3/4 fresh yellowfin tuna, at least 1″ thick
soy sauce
sesame oil
1 1″ knob ginger, peeled and grated – about 2 tbs
2 gloves garlic, peeled and grated – about 2 tbs
1 stalk lemongrass, tenderized and chopped finely – about 1 tbs
5-6 leaves fresh mint
1 small bunch scallions, chopped
1 Meyer lemon, juiced
fresh spring lettuce mix
1 bunch radishes
2 1″ thick slices of cana de cabra
sea salt, cracked black pepper, EVOO, white vinegar

I start with my marinade, which has equal amounts honey, sesame oil, soy sauce, and water, along with 1/2 of each of my grated ginger and garlic.

This I whisk together, making sure all the honey is dissolved.

I should really work with lemongrass more often – it’s yummy.   But its tough fibers and woody stalks are a little intimidating, until I beat the crap out of it with the flat edge of my chef’s knife to separate the sweet pith from the spitting pffflat! A quick, vigorous chop up the length of the spine and the gentle flavor of this hard grass is deposited on the surface of my board like the shorn shreddings of an already short beard.

I’ve trimmed my lovely loin of tuna into one perfect rectangle, and one sort of weird shaped piece.  The first I’ll use for my main presentation – since presentation is half the enjoyment – the scrap for filler. I place my fishes into my marinade, spoon the deliciousness over every surface, then toss everything in 1/2 of my lemongrass before setting the bowl aside so it can all soak in.  I let this stew for 15-20 minutes, while I prepare everything else.

I love radishes.  Clayton didn’t like them when we first met, but when I first prepared this perfect simple radish salad for him, he was converted.  I slice them very very thinly, using my mandoline, then toss them in 1/2 EVOO, 1/2 super-cold water, 1 tsp white vinegar, a *very*generous* serving of sea salt and a hearty pinch or two of cracked black pepper. As this marinates – the radishes will soften and mellow, while the dressing absorbs the sharp from the radish, and the salt peppers it all up right.  8-10 minutes sitting in the fridge and this sliced beautiful is ready to enjoy.

At this point, I also chop up my scallions, throwing a bunch into my radishes, a bunch into my fish bowl (which I toss again, for good measure), reserving a few tablespoons for garnish.

In a large bowl, I toss my spring greens with a handful of washed, rinsed, and roughly torn mint leaves.  With the rest of my soy sauce, sesame oil, honey, ginger, garlic, and lemongrass  – plus a few splashes of water and the juice from 1/2 my lemon, I whisk together the salad dressing, which I then toss with my greans.

This nubbin’ of lovin’ is cana de cabra, a goat (“cabra”) milk cheese log (“cana”) with a striated bloomy ring ripening inwards through two more textures of cream.  It’s all the best of a chevre, a double creme brie, and a weird cheese wafer, in one cylindrical package.

Lolita’s crappy oven doesn’t have a bottom broiler, so getting what I want to sear close enough to the top coils to truly broil requires some jerry-rigging.  I’ve learned that turning over a typical Pyrex loaf pan (or any other 2″ deep pan) allows me to raise my cook surface high enough off my top rack to transform it into the salamander I want it to be.  I line my pan with foil, which I sort of fold upwards around the edge to make a bit of a catch pan (since my cheese might melt and slump), and set it with my oven, set to broil.

At the same moment, I throw my fish into my pre-superheated non-stick pan.  I sear it for about 1 minute…

… on each side, including the narrow edges — all the way ’round.  I want a cold, raw center, but perfectly seared edges cooked to at least 1/4 way in.  The marinade on the tuna caramelizes and crisps — this is good.  It’s flavah, baby!

After my tuna is cooked to my whims and desires (about 8 minutes all together), I remove it to my cutting board to settle for a few minutes, while I add the marinade to my hot pan to reduce.  With a swirl every every few moments, it does so quite nicely, making the perfect glaze to finish my plate.

Oh, and after about 6-8 minutes, my cheese is SO READY to be plated.  Look at how perfectly caramelized it is!

A full-flavored nest of ginger-soy dressed tender greens, a tight mound of mellowed radish, red-bellied, totally tanned savory seared tuna, and a creamy, melty, goaty puck of cheese, drizzled with a rich glaze.  Light–fresh–sweet–nutty–milky–and straight from the sea.  With his leg outstretched on the couch, and his plate on his lap, Clayton dove into this delight with more gusto than a man 72 hours after surgery should have – which makes me happy.  Now he’s happy inside, and healing outside, and I got to enjoy a damn delicious dinner, too!  Lolita’s lighter side is gets to enjoy the sun for a few weeks.  While my husband gets better, so shall I.

The Shiznet Cheezit Baked Flounder with Farm Fresh Garden Salad

I’ve been second guessing myself lately.  In the face of other home chefs I’ve met, what I see other bloggers do in their kitchens, what’s been on the covers of magazines and on the menus of fine restaurants, and what folks’ve been whipping up on the myriad cooking competitions I watch on TV, I’m thinking that my cooking has become too pedestrian lately.  It’s not been haute couture.  It’s not been “gourmet”. It’s not been particularly inspired, or overwhelmingly challenging, or slavishly time-consuming. I haven’t suffered, or bled, or burned, or cried over deflated souffles.  At least — these are the self-deprecating remarks that have been echoing inside the caverns of my brain recently.  And I don’t like them.  Because, frankly, this blog is about what Lolita eats, and this is what I’ve been eating — and enjoying, dammit! — all summer long.  Why should I feel guilty about freshly picked vegetables, locally sourced meats and seafood, and cooking al fresco on my little electric grill to save energy and escape the stifling indoor heat?  Why should I spend more money than I can afford on ingredients to compete with the black truffles and sharks’ fins and lobes of foie gras I see on cooking shows?  Why should I eschew deliciousness if it isn’t hoity-toity?  I shouldn’t!  And I won’t!  So I’m taking my second guesses and I’m throwing them in the compost pile, where they can fester for themselves before they eventually disintegrate into the earth, and I’m going uber-pedestrian today with this little gem: a slap-yo-mammy fantastic combination of farmer’s market flounder and fruit, with some Star Market crushed Cheezits for a buttery topping.  Cheezits, you say?  Like, those little square crackers in the big red box?  Clayton loves ’em for his lunches, and so, having these one hand — the Swiss cheese variety, no less, oooh la la! — I subbed them for the more suburban-traditional Ritz Cracker topping with an outstanding result!  Sharp and savory crunchy crackers coating a buttery, flaky, so-fresh-they’re practically still wiggling flounder filets served with a sumptuous salad overflowing with tender sweet berries, plump tart tomatoes, and creamy North End mozzarella cheese.  There’s nothing like a light, ultra-quick, and super simple dinner of fish and salad to get your motor running.  Hoity-toity be hanged — this was the shiznet!

The Shiznet Cheezit Baked Flounder with Farm Fresh Garden Salad

1 lb fresh flounder filets
1 cup Cheezit crackers (this is the Swiss Cheese variety, but I venture to guess they’ll all work)
3 tbs butter
green leaf lettuce
golden and ruby raspberries
tiny tomatoes
red onion
fresh mozzarella
the juice of 1 lemon
sea salt and cracked black pepper

This meal was so easy to make I barely had enough images to shoot for pedagogical purposes, but I snapped some nonetheless.  I started by putting my Cheezits into a zipper bag before I pounded them with the flat of a large spoon.

The result is a coarse breadcrumb, already salted and perfectly crunchy.

WARNING!  The next image is grody.  Grody, but instructional…

The delicate pink little figure eight you see here is called Phocanema decipiens — commonly known as nemotodes, or the cod, or round, worm.  It’s a tiny wee parasite that enjoys living in the flesh or stomachs of white fish, and it’s pretty dang common.  It’s got a real interesting lifestyle, and if you want to know more, here’s a good description of how this bugger found it’s way into my kitchen.  The average supermarket consumer doesn’t see them – or really know about them – in their cod or flounder or hake because these buggers die off when fish is frozen, which most of it is before coming to market.  Even the “fresh” fish sold at Whole Foods was frozen before it got to their glistening displays, although it was likely frozen at sea during the haul and brought to market within a few short days of the catch.  But for fish sold fresh off the boat, yanked right out of the water, never frozen and delivered same day, by folks like my new old friends Carolyn and Chris Manning at Fresh Fish and Lobster (from whence I purchased my filets, at the Harvard University Farmer’s Market), one or two of these little wigglers is par for the course.  This guy was inching across my cutting board searching for escape when I saw him, squealed like a frightened child, and then snatched him up with my paper towel. But before I threw him in the trash, it occurred to me that you, dear readers, might not be aware of this arc on the cycle of sea-life – despite how unnerving it is to know about.  So I opened my paper wad and took focus while I watched him wriggle and coil – still *very* much alive.  But cooking fish well will kill off these guys; you don’t really want one setting up shop in your innards (which they can, albeit rarely, do).  OK – ’nuff gross stuff.  Let’s get back to the yummy.

I’ve patted dry my fish filets and laid them out in a single layer in a large oblong pyrex baking dish greased up with butter.  They get sprinkled with salt and pepper before I blanket them with pulverized snack crackers.

 I’ve melted my butter, and I now pour it over the crackers and fish as evenly as possible.  My oven has been preheated to 400°, and I slide my dish – uncovered – into its maw to bake for 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile – I assemble my simple, but elegant, salad.   These golden and ruby raspberries are from a Concord farm nearby, the lettuce and onion from Busa Farms, the tomatoes from our roof-deck garden, and the mozz from The Cheese Shop in the North End.  We’re talking super-fresh, totally organic, completely locally sourced, and ma-and-pa business purchased.  A squeeze of lemon juice and a dousing of EVOO is all the salad needs.

After about 15 minutes, my cracker-crumb crust has toasted perfectly, and my fish is fully cooked and sizzling on bottom.  NICE.  Using two flat spatulas side by side, so that the fish don’t break in half (and since I don’t have a super-large fish spatula), I gently lift each filet and place them on my plates.  There’s two for each of us.

Flaky, buttery, mild fresh fish topped with a Swiss Cheezit crust and baked to perfection; firm lactic mozzarella draped over crisp leaves of lettuce and studded with thumb-sized, supremely sweet, bursting juicy red and golden berries and tiny little grape tomatoes. Both warm and cooling, of the sea and of the land, tonight’s dinner satisfied even the gourmand in me with its freshness and flavor.  I plan to put on the ritz when the weather turns colder and cooking for hours indoors help keep heat in the house, but for now, Ritz’s poor stepcousin the Cheezit is a welcome house-guest, and can come to my dinner table any time.

Farmer’s Market Summer’s Night Salad with Grilled Steak, Burrata, Boston Lettuce, and Blackberries

It’s farmer’s market time here in New England, when the rich, colorful, and plentiful bounty of our local farms and gardens are lovingly displayed in quaint wooden boxes and cartons and coolers under sun-blocking canopies arrayed throughout various well-placed urban spaces all over town.  Harvard has it’s own market on Tuesdays, a really lovely affair parked right in front of the Science Center, with vendors hawking everything from teas to chocolate to baked goods to grass-fed beef to fresh goat cheese to honey to vegetables and seedlings, and everything in between!  My hungry hungry hands clamped onto a thick steak and a knot of cheese to bring home to fashion into some dinner.  Clayton was at the Lexington Farmer’s Market yesterday, where he picked up some lettuce, tomatoes, and a loaf of bread.  And our own garden yielded super-sweet blackberries and a heady supply of flavorful herbs.  With that cornucopia of fresh ingredients at my disposal, I created a delicious dinner of grilled steak, sliced thinly and served with a crisp Boston Bibb lettuce salad topped with homemade herb ranch dressing, blackberries, and burrata cheese.  Orgasmic organica!

Farmer’s Market Summer’s Night Salad with Grilled Steak, Burrata, Boston Lettuce, and Blackberries

1lb grass-fed fresh ribeye steak
1 boll fresh burrata cheese
Boston Bibb lettuce
baby tomatoes
basil, tarragon, rosemary, cilantro, and oregano
white balsamic vinegar
half & half (or milk)
sea salt, black pepper
garlic powder
fennel salt (optional)
arrowroot (for thickening)

Today’s grass-fed ribeye beefsteak hails from Groton’s John Crow Farm.  It was at least an inch thick, beautifully marbled, and tender to the touch.  At $17.99/lb, it was comparably priced to Whole Foods and Savenor’s, and I felt a little happy inside knowing I was supporting a local organic farm directly, sans middleman.

Our garden in the sky is bursting with verdant herbage, and here are just a few snips off each planter: oregano, cilantro, basil, tarragon and rosemary.  These last two flavors will be perfect for my steak, and the rest I’ll use for my homemade ranch dressing.

Since what I want here are the purest and most honest flavors I can get (I want to taste that steak, and not just a bunch of Montreal seasoning or anything), I merely douse my beef with EVOO, a sprinkling of pepper and sea salt, and two washed sprigs each of rosemary and tarragon, which I rather press hard into the meat to make them stick there.

Little Red has been heating up for a while now, and it’s ready to sear off my steak.  I place the beef in the middle of the rack, making sure my herb sprigs stay put on top and underneath the slab of yum.  I lower the lid and walk away for 10 minutes.

I admit it: I love ranch dressing.  There — I’ve said it.  But I didn’t have any in the house, although I did have an almost empty jar of mayo (there was about 3 tablespoons left).  That got me thinking: ranch dressing is usually a mix of mayo, buttermilk, and sour cream with garlic and fresh herbs.  I had the fresh herbs, plenty of garlic powder, and mayo and cream, so I thought I could make a pretty good facsimile of a ranch dressing that would compliment my salad.  I stripped my basil, tarragon, cilantro, and oregano leaves from their stems, chopped all that up really well, chucked it all into my jar (why dirty a bowl?) with a few glugs of half n’ half and about a tablespoon of white balsamic vinegar.  I added some salt, pepper, fennel salt, and garlic powder, then put the lid on and shook the whole thing until everything was well mixed.  I totally eyeballed this, which is why I don’t have measurements here, but I kept tasting as I went until I had the flavor profile I wanted: creamy, with a little tang, and a lot of blended herb flavor. If it is too thin (as mine was, slightly), add a little bit of arrowroot as a thickening agent, shake well again, and then place in the fridge to chill and mix.

This loaf of bread from Hi-Rise Bread Company, given gratis to my husband at the Lexington Farmer’s Market (thanks, folks!), was so big I could barely fit it into my camera’s viewfinder (without also picking up ugly details of my kitchen in the background which I aim to keep hidden from you, dear readers).

We split the loaf into large slices, and shove plenty o’ butter pats between them, before wrapping the whole loaf in foil paper so we can heat it up on the grill.

Speaking of which, it’s time to check the steak!  Oh baby, it smells amazing, and given the lovely grill marks already charred into the down-side, it’s time to flip my meat so it can sear on the other.  We had to rather place the herb sprigs on the grill face and flip the steak over on top of them, to keep them in place so they’d continue to scent and flavor my meat, but that was easy enough to do, and totally worth it when we finally dug in.

Since the steak is so thick, and since Little Red’s heat maxes out at 375° (read: not as hot as a real fire-fed grill), it will take another 7 minutes or so for this to cook to medium rare.  I put the bread onto the grill so it can warm up and butter melt, then I lower the lid and head inside to make the salad!  (Although it is a beautiful day in Cambridge, it’s HOT AS HELL, so we’re hiding inside tonight.  Our old broken down air-conditioner has suddenly decided to start working again, giving us an option we rarely have.  I expect it will fall through the floor or spontaneously combust or something else equally tragic any day now, but until then Clayton and I are sending our thanks to the gods of Freon and enjoying a cool(ish) indoor experience.)

Clayton picked this head of lettuce and all these perfect little tomatoes at Busa Farms in Concord several hours before they headed to the Farmer’s Market in Lexington.  Talk about farm fresh – these beauties were so much more than the leaves of grass and spheres of flavorless nightshade on sale at the grocery store.  The Boston Bibb required a very good washing, tho – a little more than I gave it, since I admit to tasting a bit of grit when I finally forked my first bite.

Anyone who follows my blog knows I have a perpetual hard-on for burrata cheese, and any time I see it any where, I can’t resist buying it.  This little boll of Fiore Di Nonno hand-made cheese purchased at the Harvard market set me back $6.50 – a good deal more than the $3 for Trader Joe’s double sized offering, my regular go-to burrata.  It is also much more dense, with considerably less filling.  The ingredients are much finer, and the hand-pulled quality of the cheese much more artisanal, and it makes me happy to support this very local company.

I wasn’t as thrilled by the density of the product as I’d hoped; I like my burrata to split open like a cracked soft-boiled egg, whereas this cheese was more like a hard-cooked egg.  But it was quite good, and a perfect compliment to my sweet sweet fresh-from-my-backyard blackberries.  These two items will form a sweet side next to my salad; a dessert course, if you will.

The steak is perfectly cooked, so I yank it off the grill and let it rest for a few minutes before slicing into it so the juiciness will settle and not drain off when the knife pierces the whole.  When it does, I slice this very thinly against the grain.

Fanned out across my plate, just touching my dressed lettuce leaves and flanked by my berries and burrata, my steak surrenders its pink to my lascivious gaze.  The meat is so tender, it falls apart at the sound of my voice whispering dirty words about what I’m going to do it.

Locally harvested, locally grown, organic, fresh, seasonal, and absolutely delicious! Steak salad never tasted so good: the meat is fragrant, beefy, and earthy (by virtue of the rosemary), the dressing is creamy and mild, perfect to cool the meat and coat the salad, the tomatoes have been split and salted, and the berries and cheese bring a sweet balance to the plate.  With hot buttered bread on the side, Clayton and I dive into our dinners happy to have such excellent fare to enjoy from our friendly neighborhood farmer’s markets.