Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Maine Shrimp Season Is Here: Squeeeee!

Listen up, New Englanders! It's finally here! The long wait is over, because once per year, we get the happy news that Maine shrimp season has begun! 
Maine shrimp
This year the wait has been particularly long, as warm waters have depleted Maine shrimp populations, thereby cutting back the shrimp catch quota for fisherman seeking these pink, lovely morsels of crustacean goodness. But we received word a little over a week ago that the season was open and started visiting our local fish market, a wonderful little shop down by the water in Beverly called Rowand Seafood Market. Unfortunately, on the first visit, the good man at the counter let us know that they had sold out early on the day that the shrimp had arrived, and unfortunately while they were expecting another supply the next day, demand was so high that it was best to call before heading down. Day after day, I called, and there were no shrimp to be had. And finally today, I picked up the phone again, receiving the happy news that a large shipment had come in during the morning and they were available for purchase. The Bigger Half, who stays more local to the North Shore than myself, went down as soon as he was able, only to see that the pan that should have been chock full of tiny little shrimps was down to about only a pound and a half. Signed, sealed, delivered, "Hey buddy, I'll take the rest of your Maine shrimp." He relayed the news that the package was in hand, and I darted out of work at 4:59 like my pants were on fire. 
A pound and a half goes quickly
Now, you might say to yourself, what the hell is the big deal? Maine is famous for lobsters, which have been certainly more affordable recently than in the past, and are undeniably a scrumptious delicacy. But don't be a sap and miss out. Maine shrimp are, as previously stated, only available for a short period of time each year. They are supremely local, and absolutely fresh: never frozen, only given about a day before they reach the fish market and then your eager taste buds. They're affordable, and yes, they are shrimp, but they hold such a special flavor that is unique to the frigid waters of Maine, so sweet, and a touch briny, not to mention the livery, buttery and fatty substances that permeate the liquid of the head, that there is nothing really that you can compare them to.  They're quick to cook (and believe me, Jesus weeps if you overcook them to mush), and they're a social eating experience, as you fight with fellow seafood lovers over a pile of rosy morsels, peeling, and licking each finger after every bite, because you don't know how long they're going to be around, and gosh darn it, the anticipation nearly killed you this time around...
How to cook? We go with two ways, for a little diversity of flavor and a slight bit of textural fun.
Maine shrimp ceviche
Simple Ceviche: Remove the shrimp heads, and peel the shell off of the tail. Throw your raw tail meat into a little bowl or vessel. We went with about ten "big" shrimps for this dish. Give a good squeeze of half a lemon, and maybe a half tablespoon splash of olive oil. A crack of black pepper, and a similar amount of flaky salt. Give everything a mix, and let marinate for about five minutes until the translucent flesh on the outside turns a tad more white, an effect of the acid from the lemon juice cooking the shrimp. 
After marinating a bit in
lemon juice and olive oil
These citrus-cooked suckers go fast. The first flavor that hits is the sourness of the lemon juice, quickly rounded out by the luscious fat of this nearly raw shrimp. A succulent blast of ocean mist hits your taste buds as you begin to chew, which and before you know it, the flesh has simply melted away. The flavor is  cleaner and sweeter and more tender than the sweetest hardshell lobster, which on its best day is still more rubbery than the jewels that you just consumed. 
Steaming hot shrimp boil
Shrimp Boil: Get a pot of water going on the stove. Add a generous handful of salt, ten cracks of pepper, a few dashes Johnny's Seafood Seasoning, and few dashes of Aleppo pepper. Bring everything to a boil, and dump in about a pound of the Maine shrimp, heads and shells on. (You'll peel as you eat, which is really part of the experience.) Now, this is important. You want to boil these guys for one minute. You boil them for two minutes, I'm not your friend anymore. You boil for one minute, turn off the stove, strain your shrimp in a colander. They're going to cook for a few more minutes on their own after you strain them, but I swear to Jesus, you let them boil for two minutes, you're wasting your time, and all them shrimp babies. They turn mushy. Not rubbery like if you overcook lobsters. They turn to mush, and then it's all over. You have a very specific sweet spot to hit with the cooking time... ::sigh:: I'll let Apollo 13 do my talking for me: "The re-entry corridor is in fact so narrow, that if this basketball were the Earth, and this softball were the Moon, and the two were placed fourteen feet apart, the crew would have to hit a target no thicker than this piece of paper."Get it? Got it? Good.
Peeling the shrimp
Anyway, if you don't overcook your shrimp, you're certainly in for a treat. Steaming hot shrimp, each just waiting to be peeled. Pick up one, twist to remove the head, and gently suck out all that livery, buttery juice from the head capsule. Enjoying the shrimp head juice is a huge part of the experience, so please don't miss out. After finished, discard, and turn to the body. Peel away the shell from the tail. In my opinion, due to the flavor you've already taken care to add to the boiling liquid (also, feel free to add some Old Bay to that seasoning, I just didn't have any on hand), you don't really need any dipping sauce. You can pop these little shrimp tails in your mouth and taste even more sweetness than with the ceviche version. The tender, but this time more cooked through flesh, is just salty and briny enough to remind you where they're from, but by the time you've had a moment to think about the intricate harmony of flavors of these sweet pink shrimp, the bite has melted away, and it's time to repeat the consumption process of buttery, minerally head to sweet, delicate tail meat. So fun. So delicious. So worth the wait. 
Delicate, sweet, local
Sooo... what are you waiting for? Start hollerin' at your fish guy, and get there early when he says that the shrimp are in, because they are going fast, and they won't be around for another year once they're gone.  Maine shrimp are a truly delicious, local crustacean and an experience not to be missed if you have the opportunity to try them during the cold winters here in New England. 

2 Cabot St
Beverly, MA

Monday, January 21, 2013

Biscuits: Reloaded

Mission Biscuits: Playtime is Over
Pastry blender and cast iron skillet
are necessary for success
Over a year ago, I had the brilliant idea that I would try my hand at making biscuits and serving them at Thanksgiving for a family that is well versed in the ways of the South. The first trial, I thought went well. The biscuits tasted like biscuits... at least to this New England vixen. The verdict from the Bigger Half? "These are too dense to be Southern biscuits." I was crushed. I put away the flour and resigned myself to the fact that I would never be able to make a respectable biscuit.
Butter worked into dry ingredients
with pastry blender
Good intentions and fine ideas and worthwhile food ventures with me gnaw and poke until I surrender  to the need to again bust out the rolling pin, even after suffering ego set backs. I'm not giving up on the biscuits, and today I think we made some headway. 
Cutting out the biscuits
I used the same recipe that initially inspired me back in 2011. But there were three key differences:
Into the oven
First, last time I used a regular run of the mill frying pan to house my biscuits as they ventured into the oven. This time, I'm going in with the real deal, a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Second, last time I broke apart the butter into the flour with a couple of forks. This time, I went in with a pastry blender, specially designed to properly break apart the butter into pea-sized pieces without over working the butter and flour. Third, and this is purely an accident, this time when looking in the fridge, I didn't have any half and half or buttermilk. I did, however, have heavy cream and whole milk. So I split the ingredient of 3/4 of a cup of buttermilk or half and half into 1/2 cup of milk and a 1/4 cup of heavy cream. I'm not sure how close the fat content actually comes to what the recipe recommends with half and half or buttermilk, but the result was pretty darn good.
Golden brown biscuits
So, all the ingredients worked together with the pastry blender, the dough pounded, and the biscuits cut, into the cast iron skillet and into a 450 degree oven, we waited eagerly for 15 minutes. When they emerged, they were notably puffier than my previous attempt. The tops had darkened into that classic Norman Rockwell golden brown. On pulling them apart, the insides were light and airy, all that butter having dissipated into the bready centers of each biscuit, leaving delightful teeny, tiny air pockets just big enough to absorb an additional smear of butter and a dab of local honey. These were steamy, fluffy, delightful, and buttery biscuits with a delicate outer crunch and just a touch of love. I may not be from the South, but I can definitely appreciate a good biscuit, and if there's anyone who's a little home sick, I'll have a batch of biscuits ready for you.

A step in the right direction,
biscuits with butter and honey

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon granulated sugar, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold (1 stick)
1/2 cup of whole milk
1/4 cup of heavy cream

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Supper Time is Fancy Time: Potato Galette

One tubular tuber... and
some buddies
"I'm a 'meat and potatoes' kind of guy."
This statement has always kind of pissed me off. It's supposed to infer that the person making the statement is happy being pretty plain and normal. Did anyone ever stop to think about how the meat and potatoes feel at being dragged into this statement of mediocrity and suck? Everyone knows that meat can be fancy pants... dry aging... special breeds... beef wellington... au poivre, etc., etc. But I've got to stand up today in defense of the potato side of meat and potatoes. Does anyone ever recognize how wonderful and versatile potatoes can be. Sure, they're the heart of hash browns and french fries, but they have and can be so much more. Think baked/stuffed potatoes, latkes, croquettes, German knodels, gnocchi and even Joel Robuchon's famous pommes purée. The possibilities are endless... and so tonight, we're going to go ahead and fancy up this joint with a little potato galette.
Sprinkling bacon on
layers of potato and onion
The recipe we used was easy breezy, so long as you took your time and didn't tear off the flesh of your palms with a nifty torture device known as a mandoline. ::rimshot:: No, seriously, safety first. 
After removing springform
pan ring
We did do two things a touch different from the recipe. First, as prescribed, since there was no duck fat to be found, we substituted bacon fat for duck fat. Second, after giving everything a good toss in liquid joy (code name: fat), we also went ahead and chopped up the bacon that gave forth said fat, and used it to sprinkle in between layers of potato and sliced onion. After stacking everything carefully and removing the springform pan ring, into the oven the galette went for 45 minutes. A quick basting of the top and sides with butter, another five minutes in the oven, and the top came out crispy and glistening. Not going to lie, it's a pretty picture. 
Crispy top, layers of
buttery potato
But nothing can compare to the unctuous, melt away satisfaction that you get from every bite of this elegant, buttery potato cake, complete with crispy top, and divinely crunchy bottom. The center is steamy hot, and the sweet, tangy onions have sweated themselves into translucent glory. Salty hits of bacon bits shine throughout, and the entire galette is rounded out by a subtle scent of caraway, like a fine rye bread. There are layers of texture and flavor, captured through each literal layer of vegetable, emerging with each fork full of something born out of the humble yukon gold potato. 
How you like them pommes? ::rimshot::

I'm a potato. And I'm anything
but ordinary.

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted, divided, plus more for pan
1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds
4 slices bacon
2 tablespoons bacon fat
1 teaspoon (or more) kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds medium Yukon Gold potatoes, unpeeled, cut into 1/8"-thick slices with a mandoline 
1 small sweet onion (such as Maui), very thinly sliced

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Königsberger Klopse

Pre-cooked Königsberger Klopse
I don't know about you, but I love Swedish Meatballs. I love them so much I want to marry them. Every time I think about them, I think of cold winters and skiing and Ikea and muppets... all good things, let me tell you. But, as it turns out, my bigger half, the one I actually did marry, is of German descent, and not all that far removed either. His mom and aunt have praised the flavors of Königsberger Klopse, which I don't know if I'll ever be able to pronounce correctly, but certainly can appreciate as a culinary, home-cooked delicacy. So here we go, kicking it old school because I'm THE old fool. Preparing tender German meatballs, a creamy sauce, and more from scratch, eggy, chewy noodles with the brand new pasta maker is always worth all the effort that is involved. Here's the recipe:

Poaching in the pre-sauce
For the meatballs:
1.5 lbs beef
1 lb pork
2 tablespoons chopped capers
1 2 ounce can of anchovies, chopped
1 1/2 cups of breadcrumbs (stale bread, soak in a bit of milk, then try to squeeze out the liquid)
1 small chopped onion
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper
2 beaten eggs
3 tablespoons of club soda
2 tablespoons of butter
2 dashes of worcestershire sauce

Combine all above ingredients into a large bowl and work them together with your hands until they are the right consistency of a good meatball. 

Adding sour cream and parsley
to the poaching liquid
For the sauce:
2 cans beef broth
1 can water
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
10 black pepper corns
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons of capers
1 lemon
1 cup sour cream
Salt, pepper, parsley

Combine beef broth, water, white wine, apple cider vinegar, peppercorns, bay leaf and capers into a large dutch oven, and heat until simmering. Give meatballs a roll in flour and drop into your liquid concoction, cooking in batches until all are cooked through. 
When the meatballs are cooked, you can move onto finishing your sauce. Add the zest of 1 lemon, juice of 1 lemon, 1 cup of sour cream (first temper with a little bit of the broth and whisk to a creamy consistency) and salt and pepper to taste. Add meatballs back into the sauce, throw on some chopped parsley for a bit of color if desired. 

Makin' noodles!
For the noodles: 
We actually followed the same recipe we had used to make the pasta dough for raviolis. (See: Raviolis with Parmesan Ricotta Filling) This time we used one less egg as the air is not quite as dry and the dough seemed to come together a bit easier. Just another tip, although the recipe calls for all ingredients for the dough to be combined together simultaneously in the stand mixer with a bread dough hook, the dough seems to come together easier into a ball when adding the eggs one by one. 

Delicious Königsberger Klopse
Adding a heavy dose of anchovies and capers to meatballs may sound rather unusual, but both ingredients add salty, tangy, and briny elements to the already succulent, classic flavors that have developed by poaching your ingredients in a savory broth. The meatballs are incredibly tender, melting in your mouth compared to some of the hockey pucks served in crappy hospital cafeterias (not a good time). The sauce is peppery and creamy, and since it has already picked up the flavor of the meatballs themselves as a poaching liquid, there is a continuity of flavor brightened by the final addition of lemon juice. Oh, and let's just call the homemade noodles a perfect chewy starch to soak up the sauce and deliver more hearty flavor from plate to fork to taste buds. If you're looking to prepare a hearty winter dish that is sure to please everybody with a mouth, I would definitely give Königsberger Klopse a try.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Return to Sichuan Gourmet in Billerica

Sichuan Gourmet, Billerica
My favorite Sichuan restaurant in Massachusetts is Sichuan Gourmet in Billerica. We don't get over there all that often due to one "not good enough" reason or another, but when we do, we make sure to try to order wisely from the menu. With that in mind, and with you, fine reader, already being well aware of some of the greatest hits from a prior entry about the same eatery, we've got a few more recommendations for you from this unrealistically delicious and unassuming little restaurant located in a random strip mall in Billerica. My friends, we return to Sichuan Gourmet with three new entries.
Sichuan wontons
Sichuan wonton with spicy chili sauce: Wontons like these don't grow on trees. The delicate, handmade wontons have a tender and stretchy noodle outside, perfectly paired with just the right amount of succulent tender pork meatball on the inside. Each slippery, warm dumpling swims in a mixture of soy, sugar, and spicy chili oil that coats the dumplings with a spicy, sweet, savory kick to awaken your taste buds. 
Fish filets with tofu and black
pepper sauce
Fish filets with tofu and black pepper sauce: This is a generous portion of food, and a good choice if you want something with bold Sichuan flavors, but don't necessarily want to numb your taste buds to the point of no return. Whole fish filets, we believe Tilapia, are lightly breaded and fried together with silken tofu, and smothered in a light sauce speckled with loads of black pepper. While very spicy, the delicate nature of flaky fish is not overwhelmed. The sauce is a touch sweet, and tastes (though it could be my imagination) a tad lemony to round out the harmony of different punches that you would expect at a Sichuan restaurant. The Sichuan peppercorn is front and center in this dish... in other words, giving you what you came here for.
Old Sichuan chicken
Old Sichuan chicken: What a misleading name for something so delicious. While I can't be sure whether "old" refers to the age of the recipe, the age of the dried herbs, or the school of thought... I'm pretty sure it doesn't refer to the age of the bird. All that being said, it was explained to us that a number of herbs and spices are ground up and placed into a dredge for each morsel of meat before the pieces of chicken are fried to reveal a crispy, vibrant red-tinted coating, and a tender, succulent center. The coating is where all the flavor lies. Each piece has a kick, but as the heat melts away, you are left with a downright nutty batter, what must be the product of a heavenly combination of cumin, cayenne, and Sichuan peppercorns. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a touch of cocoa powder in there too, because it does have that delightful earthy flavor at the end. The pile of chicken pieces is served with a little side of shredded cabbage in a sweet soy based sauce similar to that of the wonton dish above. They make for a seriously addictive chicken popping experience.
Well, if you haven't made it to the Sichuan Gourmet in Billerica or one of her sister restaurants, I think you've got a few more reasons to take the plunge. Get going, and whether you're on board with the dan dan noodles, the Sichuan wontons or the unfortunately named old chicken, you're sure to love what you order.

Sichuan Gourmet
502 Boston Road
Billerica, MA 01821

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Chinatown's Egg Puff Lady

Odds are that if keen on adventure and flavor, after a lunch in Chinatown you are stuffed to the gills with delicious savory delicacies. But never ever ever too stuffed for some egg puffs. What are egg puffs you say? Well, they're amazing. Warm, fluffy, crispy, custardy and just about the most delightful snack and walk sweet treat you could think of while being very simple to boot. Where do you get these pull and pop desserts? Well, let me tell you...
The Egg Puff Cart
If on Beach Street walk toward Harrison, and look to your right. On the corner of Beach and Harrison there is a rather odd looking building, with a storefront of knicknacks at first glance, a sign for Cafe de Lulu in the basement, and then a few booths hawking items from cell phones to hot dogs. Walk into this building. There is the knicknack store on your left, but continue to walk into the main space, past the cell phone store and the Asian hog dog stand, past the dumplings and the sushi counter, and you'll arrive at the egg puff cart, complete with pink stripes and smiley chickens.
A single burner and waffle iron
The lady at this cart may be the most innovative and industrious of all the ladies in Chinatown. She's got a single electric burner on her cart, and a strange sort of waffle iron which she fills to just the right level before topping with the second half of the iron. A few minutes of skillful but not showy flipping of the iron to evenly crisp the puffs, and your order is ready. A whole batch of warm egg puffs will set you back $2.75 and it is worth every penny. Paper bag of steaming goodies in hand and a smile from the lady... you're on your way.
An order of fluffy puffs just waiting
for the right person
Now, you may think that this is just a stupid version of waffles. But first off, waffles rule, and you're a fool if you think otherwise. Each little puff has a firm outer crunch, giving way to a steamy, fluffy but custardy textured center. It's all slightly sweet, like the flavor of a wafer cookie, and each time when you find you're through with a single orb of spongy goodness, you just pull off another and enjoy the whole thing all over again. A single serving is more than enough to share, though I'll be the first to admit that I've polished off a full bag by myself on the way back to work thinking that every fatty little calorie was completely worth it.

Steaming hot and sweet
Egg Puffs
42 Beach Street
Boston, MA 02111

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Homemade Raviolis with Ricotta Parmesan Filling

Gift that keeps on giving!
Doing the zombie shuffle, I'm back again. Sorry for the silence, but after the brutal apple pie defeat at the face of grandmas, meme's, vovós and the like, I needed a mo'. So without further delay, let's open up the new year with a bang. Santa brought Mama Claus a bitchin new pasta attachment for my Kitchenaid mixer and that can only mean one thing: Adventures in Ravioli-stan.
I've never made raviolis or pasta before, but figure that with a patient hand and a good amount of sitting at home time, anything is possible. Still, to start out, 'tis always safer to keep it simple, stupid, and Epicurious delivered a seemingly easy recipe, which you can take a look at here
Handmade ricotta and parm raviolis
The recipe was fairly straightforward, with the filling ingredients just folded together and stored in the fridge until the appropriate hour. I will say that the bigger half and I tried the pasta dough recipe and found that maybe the air was too dry for the dough to come together using the stand mixer with the dough hook. So, looking to adapt and conquer, one at a time, we added an extra two eggs and a little touch of water... presto... the bits of loose dough came together on the hook and began kneading like a charm. After wrapping in plastic wrap and allowing the dough to rest for about a half hour, it was time to launch the shiny new pasta attachment. The dough was cut into golf ball size pieces, run through the widest setting, folded over, run through again and one more time. Then each piece was given a turn through settings 2, 3, 4, and 5 a few times until nearly paper thin. To make the raviolis, a tablespoon of filling spaced is placed about three inches apart, egg wash brushed between each lump of ricotta goodness, and gingerly we laid a second sheet of the pasta over from left to right, taking extra care to shimmy all air from around the edges of the filling. Each individual ravioli was sliced into their cute little square shapes, and we were in business. It only took about two minutes per generous batch in boiling salted water for the pasta to be ready. 
I should also mention that we chose to make my favorite pasta sauce, a simple tomato sauce (chopped onion, carrot, and celery sauteed for five minutes, add ten cloves of chopped garlic and saute for twenty minutes, add a glass of cheap red wine turn up the heat to medium, let cook for fifteen minutes, turn down to low, dump in two big cans of plum tomatoes,  and a couple cups of chicken stock and let her simmer for the next few hours, salting and peppering near the end... mash up for a chunkier sauce or blend for a smoother, sexier experience). 
Great meal to ring in 2013
Now, I'll not be as daft as to say that this was easy, but every so often you make something that takes time and a good amount of fussiness, sit back and say, "god damn, that was totally worth it." Store-bought raviolis, even the fresh ones that put the extra few dollar hurt on your wallet don't hold a candle to homemade pasta. The firmness, springiness of the actual pasta was a delight to chew and served as a perfect vehicle for a tangy, sweet and savory tomato sauce. The only remaining wonder to behold was a hot and creamy ricotta center to each little parcel of made-from-scratch noodles, revealing with each bite a little more and a little more of the nutty, salty Parmesan. You have a substantial meal with a balance of flavors that are deceivingly fresh, even at the dead of winter. What a treat! Thanks to Pudas Claus for a fabulous Christmas gift...though I'm sure that his fantastic idea was just a touch self-serving. Indubitably, there will be pasta in 2013.
Happy New Year, everybody!

For the ravioli filling:
1 pound fresh ricotta, drained if wet
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest (from about 1/2 a lemon)
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
1 large egg, plus 1 large egg lightly beaten with 2 tablespoons water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the ravioli dough:
3 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
4 large eggs (note: original recipe calls for 2 large eggs, we added more because the dough was not coming together)
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon olive oil (optional)