Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Savor the Summer Seashore

Summer is fast approaching, a season that is heartily embraced by those of us fortunate enough to live along the coast here in the northeast.  Boat owners eagerly set out on their first expeditions.  Sun-worshippers make pilgrimages en masse to the shorelines.  Fisherman cast their first lines.  Best of all, it’s shellfish season.  Coastal living means a steady diet of fresh locally caught fish and seafood for four to five months.

As with any developed nation, there are regions within the United States who boast their culinary gems.  Southern states retain bragging rights to fried foods and barbecue fare.  The southwest may produce the best in Mexican delights this side of the border.  Rivalry does reign, however, between Chicago and New York when it comes to the best pizza.  As a New Yorker, I’ll go down fighting to the bitter end for my home state.  Here in the northeast, no food group better defines our specialties than that of seafood.

From appetizer plates of Maryland crab cakes to warming bowls of thick and creamy New England clam chowder, evening ocean side clam bakes to complete Maine lobster dinners and everything in between dominates the epicurean scene from Maryland, New Jersey and New York, across Long Island and all the way up throughout the six New England states. 

Fresh shellfish is even appreciated in the simplest form known as the bucket of steamers.  A great opener to a fish repast, a bucket of mussels, for example, is simply a bucket, pot or large bowl that gets plopped down in the middle of the table.  The vessel is piled high with steamed mussels (this is also made with clams) that have steamed in a pot, often with garlic and butter and perhaps white wine and herbs.  These additional ingredients are all poured, along with the nectar from the mussels or clams, over the shellfish before presented to the table.  A second, empty bowl is also strategically placed on the table to serve as the shell receptacle.  Then diners around the table simply dig in and let the good times roll.

The Maine lobster dinner is simple as well, and it has summer written all over it.  The entrĂ©e consists of a whole cooked lobster, accompanied by steamed mussels, boiled corn on the cob and small potatoes.  In this northern-most state, lobster is the pride of Maine.  On the to-do list of every tourist who sojourns there is to consume at least one of these native crustaceans.

Clam chowder originated in New England as a thick and chunky cream-based soup loaded with clams and potatoes, plus the usual ingredients of celery and onions.  Then New Yorkers had to get their hands in and substituted a tomato-based broth for the thick cream component and dubbed their recreation as Manhattan clam chowder.  Well I guess Long Island felt left out of the conjuring pot, but they took the easy way out in creating their Long Island clam chowder: the soup is merely a combination of Manhattan clam chowder and New England clam chowder – a best of both worlds concept.  As much as I enjoy all three of these incarnations, when it comes to seafood soups I still prefer lobster corn chowder and lobster bisque.  The best lobster bisque I ever ate was at the Carltun Restaurant in Eisenhower Park.  Its texture was the smoothest, silkiest and creamiest, the flavor was the magic of a chef who did not in any way hold back on his use of butter, it was the most blissful ecstasy I have ever experienced in a soup.

For those who love fried foods, restaurant that reigns supreme is called the Lobster Roll, with locations on both of the twin forks of Long Island.  From their fried blowfish “puffers” to their pub style fish & chips to a full compliment of various fried gems of the sea on one platter, their fried fish is superb.  What is a lobster roll anyway, you inner landlubbers ask?  Essentially, a lobster roll is a lobster salad (think tuna salad but swap out the tuna for shredded lobster meat) served in a long roll.

Fine Italian restaurants take full advantage of the fresh shellfish that becomes available.  Remember, Italy is a boot kicking out into the Mediterranean, surrounded on three sides by water, and thus the prevalence of fish and seafood entrees in Italian cooking.  Pastas with pesce, such as succulent shrimps and scallops, whole clams and mussels and rings of calamari, are always a first choice of mine when ordering in any Italian trattoria. 

On that note, here is an easy recipe for linguine with clams.  It is quick and easy enough to generate a weekday meal, yet elegant enough to serve for an occasion meal as well.  Keep a box of linguine, a bottle of white wine reserved for cooking, crushed red pepper flakes in your spice rack and a jar of sun-dried tomatoes on hand and all you’ll need to buy on the way home from your busy day are the clams and some parsley.  Add to the shopping list some fresh Italian bread, the makings for a quick salad and a bottle of Italian pinot grigio and dinner’s ready to prepare.

Linguine with Clams

4 ounces dried linguine
3 dozen fresh little neck clams
1/2 cup chopped onion
4 garlic cloves, minced
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup white wine
1 8-ounce bottle clam juice
½ cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Cook the linguine in a large pot of boiling water until tender.
Rinse off the clams and scrub any particles of sand off of the shells.
In a stockpot, cook the onion in olive oil over medium-high heat until translucent.  Add the garlic and the red pepper flakes, sautee and cook for two minutes.  Add the wine and clam juice and bring to a boil. Continue to boil until reduced by 30%.  Stir in the sun-dried tomatoes.  Place the clams into the pot, cover and continue to boil, steaming the clams, for about 5 minutes or until the clam shells have opened.  Drain the linguine and place into a large serving bowl.  Begin removing the opened clams from the pot and arranging them over the pasta.  Discard any clams that remain closed after another five minutes.  Pour the contents of the pot over the clams and pasta, sprinkle with the parsley and serve.  Makes 2 servings.

 If you live in a coastal region and are looking for a couple of fun ideas to try this summer, all to the end of savoring a seafood dinner with a few friends, here are a couple of plans to contemplate.  One is a bit labor intensive, but going in with the right attitude of having fun and a few laughs and having the day’s activity culminate in a reward of freshly caught clams cooked in any manner you desire makes clam digging a unique experience that everyone should try once.  Have everyone attending produce one of their favorite recipes that calls for clams.  Another idea, my preferred of the two because I’m always ready for a party with a fun atmosphere, is the clambake.  Find a beach that will permit the activity, as a campfire for cooking will be required.  Plan an evening for this activity, ask each guest to contribute one shellfish.  Add to that a few other items for the fire, such as corn, some salads to accompany, a few blankets, some music and some beverages and you’ve got a party at which to celebrate your region’s pride, its cherished ingredient in the cooking world, seafood.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Ingredient of the Month: Honey

One of the world’s oldest ingredients, dating back at least 8,000 years, is that thick, sweet, amber culinary gem called honey.  We can thank the honeybees for this fine ingredient, as they work hard to produce our honey from the nectar of flowers.

The bee’s digestion process transforms flower nectar into honey, which they deposit into wax honeycombs inside the beehive.  The honey is then harvested by beekeepers and then passed along for our enjoyment.  Honey is used as a sweetener in baking as well as in some savory recipes such as glazed ham, barbecue sauce, salad dressing and glazed carrots.  It is also added to warm beverages, such as tea, or drizzled over such edibles as biscuits or fruit.  Honey produces naturally occurring yeast.  Fermentation of this yeast is instrumental in the production of mead, or honey wine.  Honey is also used as an adjunct in the production of some craft beers.  The various flavor nuances of different honeys are influenced by the variety of flower nectar that they honeybee consumed.

Honey was harvested in ancient times in various civilizations that include China, Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Mayan region of Mesoamerica.  In addition to culinary use, honey has held symbolic significance in cultural and religious practices.  Honey is believed to be one of the five elixirs of immortality in Hinduism.   In Judaism, honey signifies the new year, or Rosh Hashanah.  Across the spectrum of religions and cultures, honey has been referenced as possessing healing properties for various maladies throughout the ages.  Even today, a piping hot cup of tea sweetened with honey can be soothing to that nagging sore throat.  Advocates of holistic medicine swear by daily consumption of a locally produced honey to deter allergy symptoms.

There are a host of different honey varieties produced around the world.  Honeys that present as a darker hue will yield a stronger flavor.  Most honeys are labeled for the flower from which they were derived.   Clover and orange blossom are the most popular honeys produced in America.  Other honeys that are less widely available include, but are not exclusive to, lavender, sage, thyme and buckwheat.  The liquid form of honey, that is the honey that has been extracted from the honeycomb and filtered, is the most commonly sold form of honey.  Some of these have been pasteurized to prevent crystallization. 

One of the most prized traits of honey that is so appreciated by cooks is its longevity.  Honey can be stored in a sealed jar for up to a year on the shelf of a cool, dry cupboard.  It may be stored in the refrigerator as well, but this will likely result in crystallization.  Remember that old science experiment of creating rock candy by leaving a solution of sugar and water for days on end to do its magical transformation?  This similar process occurs with honey, as honey is comprised of liquid plus various sugars.  Not to worry, if you reach for the honey jar one day and discover a grainy, gooey mass, simply place the opened jar in a microwave on high power for a few seconds and that will dissolve the glucose blob.

With the approach of warmer days when main dish salads are embraced, here is a recipe for a chicken salad platter with a honey-mustard dressing.  This is my version, which does require some deep frying.  However, if you prefer a less labor intensive variation, you could substitute broiled or grilled boneless chicken breasts that have been sliced into strips.  Yes, it will be healthier.  No, it won’t be as good.

Sweet and Spicy Chicken Salad Platter

2 cups flour
2 cups whole milk
3 eggs
3 cups unseasoned breadcrumbs
1½ teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 pound chicken tenders
1½ quarts corn oil

1 ¼ cups mayonnaise
¼ cup honey
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely diced

3 cups shredded romaine lettuce
1 pint cherry tomatoes
8-10 ounces sliced white button mushrooms

Place flour in a large Ziplok baggie.  Whisk the milk and the eggs together in a shallow bowl until well combined.  Whisk together the next six ingredients until well mixed and pour into a second Ziplok baggie.   Place oil in a large deep pot with a deep-frying thermometer and heat on the stove until it reach a temperature of 350 degrees.  In the meantime, place the chicken tenders in the flour filled baggie.  Seal the bag and shake until all surfaces of each tender are coated.  Remove one tender at a time, dip it into the egg mixture and then place into the breadcrumb mixture.  Seal the breadcrumb baggie and toss to coat thoroughly.  Repeat with remaining tenders.  Once the oil has reached the proper temperature and all tenders have been coated, slip them into the hot oil.  Fry until the surfaces are crisp and amber golden brown.  Remove the tenders with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel lined cookie sheet, in a single layer.

Whisk the next five ingredients together until blended.  You can use a mini food processor for this.

Arrange the shredded romaine to cover two large plated.  On one upper quarter of the plate, arrange a pile of the cherry tomatoes.  Arrange the mushrooms on the quarter below the tomatoes.  Arrange the chicken tenders over the remaining half of the plate.  Drizzle entire salad with the honey mustard dressing.  Serves 2.

Note: this is my basic recipe.  I have changed things up once in awhile and I would encourage you to do the same.  You could add another little pile to the salad platter of blanched and chilled green beans, for example, or thinly sliced red onion, strips of colorful bell peppers, anything you like.