Articles in Fish
Visiting the island of Maui in Hawaii was a last-minute lark. With no plan greater than mindlessly combing the beach, the only sensory experience I sought was that warm island wind my partner affectionately describes as “delicious.” But culinary curiosity won out, and within 24 hours I was combing local markets for all those indigenous ingredients you can’t get anywhere else. Luckily for me, a postage stamp-sized, extraordinary fish market was within walking distance. That’s where I was introduced to poke, the “hang loose” version of sushi.
Poke (pronounced PO-keh) is the Hawaiian way of dressing perfectly fresh, bite-sized chunks of ahi, or yellowfin, tuna with a few simple yet sometimes exotic ingredients. Longtime locals I spoke to recalled poke becoming popular in the 1970s and ’80s. While the dish may not have a long culinary history, islanders are quite addicted to the stuff.
Local flavors enhance freshness of poke
In its simplest form, poke begins with tuna tossed with slivers of sweet Maui onion and finely chopped green onion tops. The fun begins when the tuna salad is then made to order by selecting from a variety of ingredients, including chopped limu koha (fresh red seaweed), inamona (roasted, crushed kukui nut), Aloha Shoyu (local soy sauce), sesame oil and ground fresh red chili paste.
Every grocery store worth its Hawaiian red salt is judged first by the poke it keeps. After visiting a few different markets, it was clear that having the winning reputation for the best poke concoctions on the island was a big source of competition and pride. Poke masters don’t easily give up their secret combinations. At the best of them, long lines form at the poke counter for the quintessential local lunch favorite — poke piled high atop a scoop of steaming white rice.
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Some real digging was required to score the limu koha and inamona. Not typically stocked on grocery store shelves, it took a bit of cajoling with the poke master at Foodland Farms in Lahaina before I wrangled a little bit of these precious staples. You can substitute another authentically Hawaiian nut, the macadamia, for the inamona, but you’d be missing out on the deep, slightly salty, not as sweet finish. Finely chopped and roasted Brazil nuts might be a closer substitute, although not truly local.
Over a week of experimentation, I discovered it’s easy to overpower fresh ahi tuna, blanketing some of its natural sweetness with too much spice. I came to favor poke that celebrated the silky texture and subtle flavor of the catch of the day when seasoned with a light hand. But poke is very personal. Spicy poke is a top seller at many markets. Fresh jalapeno chilies and avocado are popular additions. Even kimchi made an appearance in a version I tasted.
To make this recipe in a true Hawaiian way, don’t worry too much about following it to the letter. Just “hang loose” if you can’t find that red seaweed or the kukui nut and invent your own personal poke favorite.
1 pound fresh ahi, or yellowfin, tuna, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 Maui onion, slivered
1 bunch green onion tops, chopped
½ cup limu kohu (red seaweed)
1 tablespoon inamona (roasted kukui nut), finely chopped
1 tablespoon ground fresh red chili paste
1 teaspoon ONO Hawaiian Seasoning*
⅓ cup soy sauce
¼ cup sesame oil
Gently combine all the ingredients together in a bowl, chill and marinate for at least 30 minutes or longer. As an appetizer, plate it up on its own or with thin savory crackers. For a light lunch, serve the poke accompanied by simple white rice.
* ONO Hawaiian Seasoning can be found in most island markets and online. To substitute, use coarse salt seasoned with cracked pepper, fresh minced ginger, fresh minced garlic, crushed dried chilies, cayenne and ground dried chilies.
Top photo: Some of the poke options at Foodland Farms in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
These days it’s unfashionable to disparage pork belly in any form, but when it comes to chowder recipes I am firmly anti-bacon. Clam, corn, salmon, no matter the variety, too many chowders are marred by flotsam of limp lardons in this creamy stew.
My stance stems from a New England upbringing in an opinionated food-loving family where we routinely taste test chowders while dining out and debate their merits. Is it too thick? Are there enough clams? Too much potato? We rarely agree 100% except on one point: Any chowder is ruined by the overbearing wood-smoked flavor from excessive bacon.
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How did we go so far astray from the original? Long ago, every good Yankee cook depended on salt pork, fat trimmings from hogs preserved, or cured, in salt. This multi-purpose cooking fat flavored thrifty dishes with hints of meat. Bacon took its place. The trouble is that bacon goes one step further, cold smoking the salt-cured pork belly over wood chips to produce a distinctive, versatile and notably addictive foodstuff. These days, conventional wisdom says everything’s better with bacon, right down to dessert. I’m not immune to its allure, but enough is enough: Put more bacon anywhere but in my chowder.
What about the bacon?
Clearly, the chowder I’m speaking of is New England clam chowder, the most popular of the three varieties — the other two being tomatoey Manhattan and brothy Rhode Island. The version that migrated all the way from Cape Cod to Cape Kiwanda in Oregon lost something in translation. Or rather, the favorite Friday soup du jour gained too much of a good thing. Think about your last bowl of chowder: What taste stood out from all the ingredients in the bowl?
I thought so.
What’s the solution? Old-fashioned as it seems, salt pork is still sold and you could hunt down a cube to use for your next pot of chowder. But it’s not really worth it when bacon’s easier to find than a decent bar of soap. Instead, try cutting four strips of bacon one-half-inch wide and cook them in a wide 4-quart or larger pot over medium-low heat until all the fat is rendered and you’re left with pools of golden fat and extra-crispy bacon bits. Use a slotted spoon to remove all the cooked bacon and set it aside to drain on paper towels.
Now, you have a smoky pork-infused essence to make your chowder base, and a side of tempting snacks. I try to reserve them for a spinach salad to serve with the finished chowder. However, even I’ll admit the bacon by-product is a wonderful, crunchy garnish for topping a steaming bowl of chowder.
The makings of great chowder recipes
Dedicated as I am to my East Coast roots, I’ll eat chowder in the middle of a sweltering July day. But for most people, the cold and rainy shoulder season seems the most fitting time to indulge in bottomless bowls of this warming, wintery white soup. Using an all-purpose base (see recipe), I make a satisfying chowder out of anything from canned clams to last summer’s frozen corn to a single leftover salmon filet. A quick and hearty midweek meal for my family, it’s also a surprising hit at potlucks.
Serve the chowder in wide bowls to allow plenty of surface area for oyster crackers. Because when it comes to those little ridged crackers, you can’t have too many. That’s something I believe all chowder lovers, native born or not, can agree on wholeheartedly.
All-Purpose New England-Style Chowder
There are two basic ways to obtain rendered bacon fat:
1. Cook bacon strips cut into narrow pieces in a wide pot or over medium-low heat until all of the fat melts and the lean meat begins to brown.
2. Reserve and cool the fat from frying or baking strips of bacon from a weekend breakfast and store in the refrigerator where it will keep, arguably, indefinitely.
2 tablespoons rendered bacon fat, salt pork or butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
2 pounds Russet potatoes (about 3 large), peeled and diced ½ inch
1 teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 cups clam juice or vegetable broth
2 cups heavy cream or half and half
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1½-2½ cups milk
1-3 cups (8-16 ounces) of drained canned clams, frozen corn, cooked and flaked salmon or other fish, or baby shrimp
1. Heat the bacon fat in a wide, heavy-bottomed pot, 4 quarts or larger, over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook until it turns translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the potatoes, salt and pepper and stir to coat the potatoes in fat. Add the clam juice, bring it to a simmer and cook uncovered until the potatoes are tender to the bite, about 12 minutes.
2. Scoop out 1½ cups of the potatoes and purée in a blender with the cream until very smooth. Stir the cream mixture back into the pot with the thyme. This makes a very thick soup base that you can prepare 1-2 days in advance and even freeze.
3. Add the milk to thin to the chowder to your desired consistency and rewarm the pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, just until it is steaming but does not fully simmer. Add the clams or the other ingredients of your choice to flavor the chowder, using as much as little as you like or have on hand. Stir until heated through and taste for salt and pepper before serving.
Top photo: All-purpose New England-style chowder. Credit: Lynne Curry
The hot-sour-salty-sweet flavor combinations that dominate in Bangkok and central Thailand and in the Isaan region bordering Laos in the country’s east, make scant appearance up north. Northern Thai food is instead — in the words of northerners themselves — kem-kon (concentrated, intense) and rot-jat (strongly flavored). In your face: spicy, salty and sometimes bitter.
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Ingredients such as odiferous bplaa raa (literally “rotten fish”), a long-fermented fish condiment that northerners use more often than regular fish sauce, and tua nao, fermented soy beans that are mashed and shaped into disks or small bricks before being dried in the sun, lend the cuisine a jolt of umami and an elusive earthiness. Fresh and dried chilies are ubiquitous. Depth and complexity come from a range of dried spices more often associated with Malay or Indian foods (cloves, cinnamon, coriander seed, nutmeg and cumin); black, white and long peppers; and a regional variety of prickly ash (more commonly known as Sichuan peppercorn). Smokiness comes from the barbecue, ingredients such as green chilies, shallots, tomatoes and garlic are often grilled before they’re added to a dish.
Northerners prefer khao niaow, or sticky rice, over non-glutinous rice. At the table they use one hand to turn knobs of warm rice into small patties by pressing and shaping the grains between their palm and the tips of the fingers. Then they use the rice as Middle Easterners and northern Africans would bread, to carry bits of food and the cooking juices and liquids of stews and soups from plate or bowl to mouth.
Nam priks bask in the hot stuff
The northern Thai cook’s touchstones are dips known as nam prik (“chili water” is the literal translation), small bowls of concentrated flavor that pair beautifully with the fresh herbs (mint, various basils and cilantro among others) and blanched and uncooked vegetables (fresh and leafy greens such as Chinese mustard and various lettuces, and cucumbers, tart cherry tomatoes and winter squash) that are always presented alongside.
These vegetables and dips are usually served as part of a full meal, but in a non-Thai setting they work well as finger foods to go with drinks (and are a relatively virtuous alternative to chips and dips — although pork rinds, a beloved snack in pork-obsessed northern Thailand, often make an appearance). The dips can also be eaten together as a light meal.
Minced Pork and Tomato Dip (Nam Prik Ong)
This mild nam prik has a flavor and texture reminiscent of Bologna-style ragu. Leftovers are wonderful tossed with wide rice noodles and a handful of scallion greens chopped with Thai basil.
Nam prik ong is usually eaten with pork rinds (rice crackers work well, too) and with blanched, rather than raw, vegetables. Chunks of peeled winter squash (kabocha, butternut, etc.) are a must. Try also wedges of round green cabbage, cauliflower, long beans, carrots and Chinese greens like baby bok choy and gai lan (Chinese broccoli), their leaves squeezed dry.
7 dried red chilies
3 shallots, roughly chopped (about 2 ounces)
2 teaspoons Thai or Malaysian shrimp paste
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
5 plump cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 tablespoons ground pork
2 cups roughly chopped tomatoes
½ cup chicken or pork broth
Fish sauce, to taste
1. Toast the chilies in a dry skillet over medium heat until darkened but not burned. Allow to cool and place in a mortar or the bowl of a blender.
2. Add the shallots, garlic and shrimp paste to the chilies and pound or blend to a rough paste (if using blender, add up to 1 tablespoon water to aid processing).
3. Heat a small skillet (preferably non-stick) over medium heat and add the oil. Swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the garlic and sauté until it begins to change color. Add the chile-shallot-shrimp paste mixture and cook, stirring, until the raw smell of the shrimp paste dissipates, about 3 minutes.
4. Add the chopped pork and, breaking it up with a fork, cook just until the pink color disappears.
5. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until they begin to break up, about 2 minutes. Add the broth, lower the heat to medium-low, and let the mixture simmer until the broth is nearly evaporated, leaving a paste of medium thickness.
6. Taste and adjust for salt, if necessary, with fish sauce, adding ¼ teaspoon at a time.
7. Transfer the nam prik to a bowl, let cool, and serve at room temperature with a generous platter of vegetables for dipping.
Roasted Eggplant and Green Chili Dip (Dtam makhya)
This dip, though not a nam prik in name, is certainly one in spirit. It’s often eaten with fresh mint and pork rinds. It’s also wonderful shmeared over a warm soft corn tortilla to roll around grilled or roasted pork, mint and cilantro.
2 large long Asian eggplant (about 500 grams)
5-7 long green chilies
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 red shallots, roughly chopped
½ teaspoon Bplaa raa (often available in southeast Asia markets, in jars labeled “pickled mud fish”) or fish sauce
Pinch of sugar
Salt to taste
Fish sauce, to taste
½ teaspoon cooking oil
1. Grill, broil, roast (at about 350 F) or cook the eggplants and chilies directly over a gas flame until soft and browned all over. Let cool, then peel and chop together, by hand or in a food processor, to a very rough puree. Set aside in a mortar.
2. Add garlic, shallots, bplaa raa, and sugar and briefly pound with a pestle to mix. Taste for salt and add fish sauce, if necessary, ½ teaspoon at a time.
3. Heat the oil in a nonstick pan over medium-high heat, then add the eggplant mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until its color deepens slightly, about 2-3 minutes. Do not let the eggplant brown.
4. Transfer to a bowl and servewarm or at room temperature.
Red-Eye Smoked Fish and Chili Dip (Nam prik dta daeng)
Dta daeng means “red eyes,” which is what you might have after eating this super-spicy dip. Smoked mackerel is a fine substitute for the smoked river fish sold in northern Thai markets; feel free to experiment with hot-smoked salmon or any other smoked fish. Traditionally the smoked fish, shallots and garlic would be grilled, but these days northern Thai cooks are happy to use the microwave. The number of chilies called for results in an authentically fiery dish. Reduce by up to two-thirds for a much milder dip; you could also remove the seeds.
Serve this dip with any combination of fresh Asian long beans (or green beans), sliced cucumber, napa cabbage and Chinese mustard leaves, wing beans, and herbs such as mint, Thai or purple basil, sawtooth herb and Vietnamese mint. Leftovers are great stirred into scrambled eggs.
4 ounces smoked mackerel, bones removed
5 unpeeled shallots
8 unpeeled garlic cloves
25 whole Thai dried red chilies, stemmed
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 tablespoon Thai or Malaysian shrimp paste
½ teaspoon cooking oil
½ cup water
1. Remove any skin from the fish. Cut the fish into chunks and microwave until its moisture is rendered and it has begun to crisp, about 3-5 minutes depending on the size of the chunks and the fattiness of the fish. Set aside to cool.
2. Place garlic cloves on plate, cover with microwave-safe plastic wrap, and microwave till very soft, 2-3 minutes. Repeat with the shallots, which will take 4-5 minutes. Set aside to cool, then peel.
3. Toast the chilies in a skillet over medium heat until they darken, stirring constantly so they don’t burn. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
4. Pound the fish and chilies in a mortar or chop in a food processor to rough puree. Add the shallots and garlic and pound or process to a paste.
5. Place a (preferably nonstick) skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, heat for a few seconds, and then add the tomatoes and the shrimp paste. Cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add the water and continue to cook, stirring and mashing the tomatoes with the back of your spatula or spoon, until the moisture has almost evaporated, about 3 more minutes.
6. Add the chile-shallot-garlic-fish paste and cook, stirring, until the ammonia smell of the shrimp paste has dissipated and the combination paste has started to darken and take on an oily sheen, 4-5 minutes. There should be no moisture left in the pan.
7. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Serve at room temperature.
Top photo: Nam prik ong, a northern Thai style “dip” made of tomato and ground pork often served with pork rinds (bowl left). Credit: David Hagerman
It is said that a wise person rides the tide of the seasons, and takes the changes in stride, admiring the beauty of each in turn. Clearly I’m not yet wise. Foraging is my greatest passion, the thing that makes my heart squeeze in rapture. However, in the Central Rockies, where I live, growing seasons can be maddeningly short. I’m able to pick plants in appreciable quantities only from May to October, if the weather cooperates. For the rest of the year, when the ground is a frayed quilt of forlorn browns and filmy whites, my off-season foraging desires go largely unfulfilled.
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This situation is made infinitely worse in the age of the Internet. If I lived in relative isolation in this place, I might be able to appreciate the quiet of my foraging off-season. But every time I power up my computer, I’m bombarded by images from foragers in more temperate zones. My fellow wildcrafters in California are picking lush greens and budding plants. Foraging buddies in Australia are enjoying fruits of all colors. My friend in Israel regularly returns home from foraging trips with enough food to cover her kitchen table. And here I am, trapped by the skim-milk skies of winter, growing increasingly despondent.
Oh sure, there are things I could pick, even when it has been freezing for months. But snipping tips from conifers, scraping at bark, rattling crusty old amaranth for seeds, and freeing roots from the frozen clay soil with a pick ax can hold my attention only for so long.
None of those things compares to the glamour of plucking a mushroom from the ground, or filling a basket with verdant new leaves.
Nordic winter inspiration
Luckily, something has come along this year that has broken my funk, and kept me from pouting. In his restaurant, Fäviken, chef Magnus Nilsson employs a creative process to create the highly localized menu.
Some have scoffed at Nilsson’s recipes, such as “Monkfish gilled slowly over burning birch coals, a leaf of kale steamed so briefly that it is dying on the plate, green juniper and alcohol vinegar,” going so far as to call them pretentious. I don’t see pretentiousness here. I see a glimpse into the mind of an innovator who is generous with his accounts of how he arrives at his final dishes.
I consider myself a creative cook, but Nilsson is performing kitchen magic that rattles even my imagination. He relies on everything from employing unusual curing techniques, to using odd foraged items such as lichens, to aging vinegar in a burnt-out tree stump. And he’s doing it all year long in Sweden, a place like my own home that suffers real winters.
Nilsson’s is the kind of U-turn thinking that I find incredibly inspiring, and it has shaken the way I’m looking at what is available to forage and cook, even in deep winter.
In several recipes, Nilsson utilizes brown, decaying leaves in his cooking. He cooks root vegetables in a nest of leaves, so that the diner can have the experience of plucking roots fresh from the garden.
He also uses leaves from the forest floor to make delicate infusions to serve with both meats and vegetables.
Perhaps not everyone can appreciate the excitement I felt upon seeing rotting leaves being used in a recipe. But it was a technique that I was itching to try, and I wasted no time in experimenting with it. An infusion of decaying leaves smells exactly like taking a walk in the woods on a damp autumn day, and it tastes rather like tea, with a pleasant mild bitterness. It makes the perfect complement to the quiet, earthy flavors of the snow season. In this recipe, I’ve used it along with freshly caught mountain trout, root vegetables, and a wild green called mallow.
5 to 6 big handfuls of decaying leaves from the forest floor
4 trout fillets (reserving the skin if you fillet them yourself)
½ teaspoon ground sumac (or a few drops of lemon juice)
Olive oil, as needed
4 cups boiling water
½ pound various root vegetables (such as burdock, parsnip, carrot), cut into matchsticks
12 mallow leaves (or parsley)
Rice flour (or cornstarch)
1. Place the leaves in a large bowl. Pour the boiling water over them, cover, and leave them to brew like a tea.
2. Season the trout fillets with salt, pepper, and sumac, then roll each up into a bundle.
3. Place the trout rolls onto a lightly greased baking sheet, and brush each roll with a small amount of oil. Bake the trout in a 350 F oven until a thermometer stuck into the center of the rolls reads 145 F, approximately 15 minutes.
4. While the trout is baking, boil the root vegetable matchsticks in salted water just until they become tender, 1 to 3 minutes. Drain the vegetables, and set them aside.
5. Strain the leaves out of the tea, and discard them. Do not salt the leaf tea.
6. Dust the mallow leaves (or parsley) with a little rice flour (or cornstarch), then briefly pan-fry them in a little oil until they go crispy. If you’ve filleted your own trout, fry pieces of the fish skin at the same time. The fried mallow leaves and fish skin add a crunchy contrast to the finished dish.
7. To assemble the dish, place the baked trout roll in the bottom of a shallow bowl. Scatter the root vegetable matchsticks around the fish, then gently ladle a cup of the leaf broth over the fish and vegetables. Garnish with the crispy fried mallow leaves and fish skin.
Mountain trout with root vegetables and mallow greens. Credit: Wendy Petty
Sometimes luck is in the pantry. On New Year’s Day, good friends from distant parts phoned to say they’d be in town unexpectedly. Could they come for lunch? They’d bring a bottle of wine left over from celebrations the night before. But, with nothing open except the local 7-Eleven, what on earth would we eat?
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But a determined search yielded treasures. Fortunately I found in the pantry cupboard a package of little fagioli del Purgatorio, purgatory beans. Gustiamo.com imports them from Umbria in Italy, and they’re so tiny they need almost no soaking at all. I set them in a small bowl, poured boiling water over and let them sit for an hour or so while I rummaged for something appropriate to add to them. There were the scallops, of course, but only three-quarters of a pound, plenty for two, not really enough for four.
Frozen treasure when there’s nothing to eat
But way in the back of the freezer was a half-pound bag of sweet little Maine shrimp, left over from the last harvest a year ago.
And I can almost always drum up an onion or a leek, a piece of celery, a carrot or two and inevitably several cloves of garlic. So the beans got drained and steamed until tender, with a clove of garlic, several sprigs of thyme from the winter garden, and a dollop of new olive oil, then lightly crushed and mixed with the vegetables, including half a red pepper I managed to rescue from a terminal state, all chopped and sautéed in olive oil to bring out their sweet flavors. Then it was time for the shrimp, by now somewhat softened
. Turned into the warm beans, they immediately loosened up and released their briny aromas without any further cooking at all.
The dish was evolving but definitely lacking something — a hint of acid perhaps? Lemon juice helped, but then I found the most fortuitous serendipity in a package I’d only just received — sun-dried California tomatoes, cut in julienne strips. Put up by Mooney Farms in Chico, Calif., they’re marketed as Bella Sun Luci. They provided the very zing that the beans had been lacking — a good thing, I think, to keep on the pantry shelf for just such an occasion.
In praise of the wok
By now, things were starting to look better, but lunch was less than an hour away. The scallops got seared in the wok in olive oil. (I have an ongoing argument about olive oil in the wok with wok star Grace Young, author of “The Breath of a Wok.” I’m all for it. She’s just as firmly against it.) And let me add a word in praise of that incredible kitchen vessel — nothing at all, in my experience, beats a wok for frying. The way it concentrates and focuses the heat, the frying medium (olive oil or not, depending on your taste), and the subject of the exercise, whether scallops or tofu or onions and ginger, is quite incredible. More and more often these days, I find myself turning to my old wok, bought in Hong Kong many decades ago and still a faithful companion in the kitchen.
Those scallops for example: They had no need for any dredging in flour or cornstarch. Thoroughly dried with paper towels and dropped into oil so hot it was just starting to break out a wisp of smoke, they seared almost instantly into crisp golden-brown disks that were crusty on the outside, tender within. So I spread the shrimp and bean mix in a fairly deep gratin dish, first dribbling oil over the bottom, then nestled the browned scallops in wherever they would fit, and topped the whole with toasted breadcrumbs, a fresh grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and another dribble of olive oil backward and forward over the top. Into a very hot oven it all went, just long enough to produce a gratin, a bubbling crust on the surface, and there I was, ready for unexpected guests.
Who, in the end, called and said they actually had misjudged the distance and the threat of snow and wouldn’t be coming after all. Tant pis pour eux, we invited in the neighbors and ate to our hearts’ (or our bellies’) content. A good way to start off a new year.
Gratin of What I Found in the Pantry
The best shrimp to use are small Maine shrimp. If you must use larger shrimp, buy wild ones if you can. They will have been frozen, but they still have much nicer flavor than farmed shrimp, which are unfortunately quite ubiquitous.
Be sure to ask for “dry” scallops — scallops that have not been soaked in STP (sodium tri-polyphosphate), a bath that keeps them white. While apparently harmless, STP causes scallops to exude a milky liquid when sautéing and they will never brown properly.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
1 cup small white dried beans, preferably fagioli del Purgatorio
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed with the flat blade of a knife
1 cup mixed chopped vegetables, such as, onion, garlic, celery, red or green pepper, carrot
2 or 3 tablespoons chopped green herbs (e.g., basil, parsley, thyme)
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of chili pepper (optional)
½ to ¾ pound shrimp (see note above)
Juice of half a lemon
¾ pound dry sea scallops
¼ cup dry bread crumbs
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Put the beans in a small bowl and pour boiling water over. Let them sit for about an hour to soften slightly. Then drain and transfer to a saucepan with more water to cover, plus 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and 1 crushed garlic clove. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat and simmer, covered, until tender, about 30 to 40 minutes. Toward the end of the cooking time, add a good pinch of salt to the beans.
2. While the beans are cooking, prepare the vegetables, chopping them all into regular dice. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the vegetables until they are softened and releasing their perfume. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of herbs, a little more salt, and black pepper. Add a pinch of ground chili pepper if you wish.
3. When the beans are done, drain excess water, leaving just a small amount of liquid. Stir in the prepared vegetables.
4. If using Maine shrimp or other small shrimp, stir them into the beans while they’re still hot. If you must use larger shrimp, cut them into half-inch pieces and stir into the beans. Taste the beans and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt and/or pepper, and a spritz of lemon juice.
5. In a sauté pan or a wok, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil. While the oil is heating, slice the scallops in half horizontally and dry them thoroughly with paper towels. As soon as the oil is hot, slide the scallops in and cook quickly, turning once, until the scallops are golden-brown on both sides. You may have to do this in batches.
6. Turn the oven on to 425 F. Have ready an oval gratin dish. Rub a little more olive oil over the bottom of the dish, then spoon the shrimp-bean mixture into the dish. Tuck the browned scallops into the bean mixture so that just their curving tops stick out. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and grated cheese and dribble the remaining olive oil over the top.
7. Transfer to the preheated oven and bake until the top is crisp and bubbly. Remove and serve immediately.
Top photo: Wok. Credit: Flickr / avlxyz
There are foods we remember from our younger days that, if they are not quite comfort food, they certainly evoke pleasant memories. For many people who grew up in the New York City area there was a kind of Italian-American restaurant that we loved. Instead of what we’ve grown to recognize as authentic Italian cuisine, it served up the Italian-American classic recipes, such as scungilli, that keep a special place in our hearts.
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Its name was the name of the family that owned it: Christiano’s or Brancato’s and so forth. The tablecloths were red-checked, the waitresses were quick, sassy and not struggling actors. They were packed and you would wait for a table, the candles were set in old Chianti bottles wrapped in straw and the walls were decorated with Italian kitsch. Dean Martin and “Volare” played in the background and on the tables were dispensers of dried oregano, dried garlic powder, red chile flakes, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. The Parmesan was not imported, I’m sure. Service was nearly instantaneous as hot bread was brought as soon as you sat down.
We remember the food as being terrific. We ordered antipasto. There was no plural. An antipasto was a platter of iceberg lettuce, canned olives, out-of-season tomato slices, wedges of provolone cheese and rolled-up slices of salami.
The Italian-American glory days of spaghetti
There was lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs, of course. There was veal piccata and shrimp scampi. There was no risotto. These were the days before anybody in America knew there was a cuisine from northern Italy. In fact, when northern Italian food first made its entry into the American restaurant scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some of those restaurants advertised themselves with the tag line “no red sauce.” My, how things have changed. Today restaurant-goers know about “a little Tuscan place” and they order carpaccio and tiramisu, two dishes utterly unknown in the Italian-American restaurants of old. Frankly, I miss the spumoni.
Our meals came with garlicky garlic bread that was piping hot and we loved it. Sometimes we ordered pizza, but never as a first course. One dish my mom and I were quite fond of was spaghetti with scungilli. She remembered it from her childhood growing up in Manhattan because her Italian father would make it in the 1920s and ’30s. She remembers liking it but not as much as calamari. She rarely made it at home; it was a dish for the restaurants. The restaurants made it just like her father. Nearly all of these Italian-American restaurants were run by families who traced their origins to southern Italy, especially Sicily, Calabria or the Naples area. But not all these families came from a restaurant tradition or even a tradition of cooking, and so many of them weren’t really very good.
All-American Italian scungilli
Scungilli is usually described as conch, and it can be made with conch, but it is actually whelk or murex, which are mollusks found in the waters around Long Island. I believe it is an Italian-American dish. Although scungilli is an Italian-American corruption of the Neapolitan dialect word, sconciglio, spaghetti with scungilli is not known in Italy. At least scungilli is a word that does not appear in any of my Italian dictionaries nor in any Italian cookbook I own except one.
Spaghetti with Scungilli
You will find scungilli in one of three forms: live in their shell, frozen out of their shell, and canned. Fresh whelk needs to be purged of its impurities. Place in a bowl of cold water and keep changing the water until the last change results in perfectly clear water after 2 hours. This process could take 2 days. Frozen conch meat is frozen fresh and purged, so it, and/or the fresh whelk, needs to be boiled for about 3 hours. Canned scungilli only needs to be heated for 1 minute.
12 whelks (2 to 3 inches long, about 3 pounds) or 1 pound frozen conch meat or two 6-ounce cans scungilli
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil leaves
4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
Salt to taste
4 cups water
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
¾ pound spaghetti
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt, and add the whelks in their shells (or the frozen conch) and cook for 3 hours, replenishing the water when necessary. Remove from the water, drain and detach the small shell-hard “foot” from the opening. Chop or slice and set aside.
2. In a large flameproof casserole, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then cook, stirring constantly, the parsley, basil and garlic for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and salt and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add the scungilli, reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 to 6 hours, replenishing the water if necessary. The final sauce should be a dense sauce. Season with pepper. (If using canned scungilli, cook the tomato sauce for 15 minutes, add the canned scungilli, and cook 2 minutes and serve with the pasta).
3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly then cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer the pasta to the sauté pan and toss until well coated with sauce then serve without cheese.
Top photo: Scungilli. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Risotto de la “Visilia” is a typical Christmas Eve dinner preparation in Venice and is unusual for two reasons: It is not cooked according to the risotto method even though it’s called a risotto, and it combines cheese with fish.
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This risotto dish probably evolved from a simple fish pilaf, one using, perhaps, the small ugly fish of the lagoon called gò, then the eel was added and finally the beans. If you are unable to find eel, which is usually available fresh only around Christmastime, then striped bass, mahimahi, bluefish or mackerel might do to provide the rich taste associated with this dish.
Eel is a traditional food for Christmas Eve in Venice. Grilled eel is popular, and it is said that the doge Andrea Gritti died at age 84 on Dec. 28, 1538, after eating too many grilled eels on Christmas Eve. The glass workers of Murano created a famous dish with eels, bisato scotà, a dish that can’t be replicated because it is prepared by the glass workers who dip the eel into molten glass until it is cooked, then break the glass away to eat it.
The borlotto bean used in this recipe is a kind of kidney bean in the genus Phaseolus with bright stripes of red or pink. Botanists now believe that the bean is a New World migrant. The Phaseolus mentioned by the classical Latin authors Virgil and Columella probably was another leguminous plant of the genus Dolichos, or hyacinth bean. The New World bean appeared in Europe in the 16th century, being first illustrated and described by the artist Hieronymous Tragus and the botanist Leonhard Fuchs (1501-1566) in 1542.
If borlotti are unavailable use pinto, Roman, cranberry (red speckled), or red kidney beans, with pinto being a first choice.
Risotto de la “Visilia”
⅔ cup (about 6 ounces) dried borlotti, pinto or Roman beans, picked over, soaked in water to cover for several hours, and drained
6 tablespoons ( ¾ stick) unsalted butter
1 onion, very finely chopped
1 celery stalk, very finely chopped
1 carrot, scraped and very finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 pound common eel (Anguilla anguilla), skinned and cut into 1-inch pieces (see above for substitutes)
¾ pound firm fish fillets (such as redfish, wolffish, red snapper, goby, whiting, perch, or scup)
6 cups water
Salt to taste
1½ cups short grain rice, such as Arborio
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Put the drained beans in a medium-size saucepan and cover by several inches with lightly salted cold water. Cook the beans over a medium heat until soft but not breaking apart, about 1½ hours, but check before that time. Pass half the beans through a food mill or pulse in short bursts in a food processor in and reserve. Set aside the remaining beans.
2. In a large casserole or heavy saucepan, melt half the butter, then cook the onion, celery, and carrot over a medium heat for 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic, eel, fish, water, and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the fish can flake easily, about 30 minutes (but don’t flake the fish; keep them whole).
3. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer and return 1 quart of it to the casserole or saucepan. Stir in the puréed beans and mix well. Remove the fish and eel from the strainer and reserve, keeping warm, to serve as a second course.
4. Bring the broth to a boil over medium-high heat and add the rice. Cook, uncovered, until the rice is soft, about 20 minutes. Stir in the remaining butter, remaining beans, and the cheese and serve.
Eel sold at the Rialto fish market in Venice. Credit: Clifford A. Wright
Chef Austin Kirzner added a cup of butter to the sauté pan and used his tongs to stir the quickly melting butter together with chopped shallots, garlic, rosemary and Worcestershire sauce. He lifted the pan off the burner letting gas flames jump an inch into the air. He looked deeply into the sauce and decided, “Just a touch more butter.”
After suffering the punishment of Katrina, New Orleans is back. Tourists have returned to the city for good times, good food and good music. Walking around the city, you hear music everywhere — on the street, in parks, bars and nightclubs. In the French Quarter, restaurants and bars line every block.
Restaurants are crowded with diners enjoying café au lait and beignets heavily dusted with powdered sugar at Café du Monde, fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House Restaurant, hog jowls, charcuterie and ham at pork-centric Cochon, Oceana‘s Cajun gumbo and Jambalaya and fresh seafood at Red Fish Grill.
I’ve always wanted to visit New Orleans. Recently I was able to stay for a long weekend. To help me understand the food scene, Kirzner, executive chef at Red Fish Grill, agreed to give me an overview and a cooking demonstration.
Musicians and cooks
“The first thing to understand about the city,” Kirzner explained — and he should know, he’s a fifth-generation New Orleanian — is “in New Orleans, you’re either a cookor a musician. They’re both held in high esteem like doctors.”
Kirzner tells me that New Orleans cooking takes its influences from around the world and from different parts of the state. In the city you’ll find dishes typical of Louisiana where Cajun cooking predominates. “One pot cooking– red beans, étouffée, gumbos and jambalaya — family-style stuff you’d see in a fish camp or at home.” Every part of the state has its way of making these standards.
What sets New Orleans cuisine apart from the rest of the state is the embrace of its French influence, which he sums up as: “It must have butter. It must have cream. We take it to the extreme.”
There will be heads-on shrimp
The dish he demonstrates is a classic: New Orleans BBQ Shrimp. “You have to understand,” he tells me, “it’s not barbecued. Nobody knows how it came to be called that. Lots of restaurants make a version of the dish. Every one is different.”
Some restaurants serve the dish with the shell on as well as the head and tail. That makes for very messy dining.
For Kirzner, even though some of his customers are put off by the shrimp heads, he insists that’s what gives the sauce its distinctive, sweet richness.
In his version, to make the shrimp more diner-friendly, he leaves on the head and tail but strips the shell off the body.
Surprisingly easy to cook in 5 to 10 minutes, the dish should be prepared just before serving. Letting it sit around won’t do anybody any good.
In the restaurant, he flavors the shrimp with Creole seasoning. To illustrate how New Orleans cooking borrows freely from other cuisines, for the cooking demonstration, he used freshly chopped rosemary.
New Orleans Heads-On BBQ Shrimp
With fish and shellfish coming from the Gulf, New Orleans takes pride in the quality of the seafood served at its restaurants.
If you live in an area with fresh shrimp, definitely use them. Frozen shrimp will be OK, but you owe it to yourself to use heads-on shrimp at least once and that may require a trip to an Asian market where they are readily available.
A very large sauté pan is needed so the shrimp don’t sit on top of one another. That creates the best char and caramelization.
Kirzner’s note: This dish is prepared only two servings at a time because increasing the number of shrimp beyond 12 would require increasing the dish’s amount of sauce. Reducing the larger amount of sauce would require more cooking time, resulting in over-cooked shrimp.
12 to 14 raw colossal shrimp, bodies peeled, with heads and tails left on
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons finely chopped, fresh rosemary (or use the same amount of Creole seasoning)
1 teaspoon fresh garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh shallots, minced
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1½ tablespoons freshly ground coarse black pepper
1 to 3 tablespoons light lager beer, like New Orleans Abita beer (water can be substituted)
½ lemon, seeded
¼ pound butter, cold and unsalted (preferably Plugrá or other European-style butter), cut into ½-inch cubes
1. Season the shrimp with kosher salt. Set aside.
2. In a heavy 10-inch stainless-steel sauté pan on high heat, char the rosemary, garlic and shallots.
3. Add the half-peeled, salted shrimp, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper and 1 tablespoon beer (or water)
4. Squeeze the juice from the lemon over the shrimp.
5. Over high heat, cook the shrimp while gently stirring and occasionally turning the shrimp.
6. After about 2 minutes of cooking, the shrimp should start turning pink on both sides, indicating they are nearly half cooked. If the shrimp are the colossal size, add additional 2 tablespoons beer (or water) to the pan; otherwise, don’t add additional liquid. Remove the shrimp.
7. Reduce the heat to medium-high and continue cooking as you gradually add the cold pieces of butter to the pan.
8. Swirl the butter pieces until they are incorporated into the pan juices, the sauce turns light brown and creamy as it simmers. Add back the shrimp and coat with the sauce, turning frequently until the shrimp are just cooked through. This will take about 2 minutes total if the shrimp are extra-large, and about 3 minutes total if they’re colossal. Do not overcook the shrimp.
9. Remove the shrimp to a serving platter. Pour the sauce over the shrimp and carry to the table.
Serving suggestion: Pour the shrimp and sauce into a heated pasta bowl. Serve the shrimp and sauce immediately either with grits, rice or alongside slices of warm, crusty French bread for sopping up the sauce. Chef Kirzner prefers Leidenheimer French Bread.
Red Fish Grill executive chef Austin Kirzner with a dish of his BBQ Shrimp with cheesy grits. Credit: David Latt