Thursday, February 28, 2008

Maryland Crab Cakes...

Just got back from Baltimore after a fun-filled 2 day excursion at John's Hopkins (more on that later). Only my second visit to Baltimore, the first didn't count as I was there in ?1996 or so at an BoSox/Oriole game. Interesting city, Baltimore. It has a small feel, not unlike San Francisco with tons of stuff...but tons of shady areas and tons of bums. Everywhere you went, it seemed like you were on the edge of "the hood", and you were. Weird place. With that said, as always, I wanted to at least get the most out of Baltimore, from a culinary standpoint, that one could get during a 2 day Hopkins evaluation.

The first night was a complete bust. Jennifer's step-brother lives about an hour outside of town and is nowhere near a foodie. He and his wife picked us up from the airport and took us to some seafood shack that had overpriced and over-greasy seafood. Felt like I was at a $25/plate version of Long John Silver's, except the food was not as good as Long John's...Luckily we were able to ditch the family for the final day and a half.

Day 2: Morning was comprised with some Starbuck's, a trip to a vascular surgeon at Hopkins and a CT angio for Jennifer...Fun! We got out of there around 2:30 hungry and ready for a break. After consulting some of the more affluent appearing locals, they suggested we check out an area of Baltimore on the Chesapeake called Fell's Point. By the time we arrived on foot, it was after 3PM and all the upscale appearing restaurants had closed their lunch we settled on a place called "Shuckers"...not a chain, but very well could have been. We order crab cakes and a seafood sampler and some beers. I didn't expect much, but these crab cakes were the best I have ever eaten. This includes ones eaten at Commander's Palace and Alex Patout's in NOLA. All lump meat, minimal binder, perfect sear...delicious! A nice surprise was the seafood sampler: steamed clams, mussels, shrimp, snow-crab legs (doesn't fit, but GOOOOD). Everything tasted wonderfully fresh and smelled only of the sea. After our lunch, Jen and I agreed that shrimp is the most over-rated food of the sea and it's a shame it's the only thing we can get in Augusta that doesn't taste like mullet...

What to do next? Jen had heard of an Italian bakery in Baltimore's Little Italy called Vaccaro's. There we ordered some latte's and what else, a sampler platter. Came with 2 canolis, 2 cream puffs, a pignoli, a sliced almond, and an amaretto cookie. This was a mistake...everything was delicious, but very filling and the sugar rush wiped me out for a few hours. You live and you learn. You can order this stuff on-line...the pignoli cookies are probably worth the purchase.

After the afternoon defilement, we hobbled over to Barnes & Noble to check out the dreaded "Zagat Guide" to "guide" us towards our dinner. After little debate, we knew we would have more seafood and the #1 rated place was again in Fell's Point, called "The Black Olive"

Advertised as a premiere Greek restaurant that is "proud to serve the freshest fish, filleted table side, from all over the world", the Black Olive was described in Gourmet magazine as "A rare dining something conceived of in heaven." We had no choice but to eat for ourselves. The restaurant was very quaint, but with tables far enough apart to not crowd. The building seemed ancient and the ambience was that of a wine-cellar (not a bad thing). The waiter was above average, and our service began with a "fish tour". After garnering our interest in seafood as opposed to the other Greek food on the menu, we were taken to the kitchen to see the fishes. The fish were laid across a long counter topped with ice...what a yummy selection indeed. All fish had been flown in that morning, with most coming directly from the Mediterranean. After some debate, we decided we would have a very large branzino (striped sea bass) and olive wrapped sardines...and off the menu, crabcakes, of course...The fish came very simply prepared- grilled, filleted tableside and served with lemon butter sauce on the side. The only accompaniment was grilled cauliflower buds (seems weird doesn't it). It was a wonderful meal and makes me want to move to the coast, any coast. Mercury levels be damned! I even loved the sardines- never had fresh ones, only canned nasty ass crap, now I know what all the hub-ub was about. The crabcake was good, all jumbo lump, no filler, some Greek olive oil aioli held it together, but wasn't as good as the one we had at "Shuckers..."

Day3: Another morning at Hopkins. Saw cardiologist, geneticist, and CT surgeon. Great news, not! They want Jen to have her aortic root replaced, soon...cripes. With this sort of news, we had only one thing to do before we got on the more crab cakes. Taking another hint from Zagat's, we went to Lexington Market to a mom and pop place called Faidley's. We order jumbo lump crab cake platter. The crab cakes were about softball sized and as were the others can order these as well for a nominal shipping fee...the crab isn't cheap either.

In summary, Baltimore is a neat city with some really good seafood. However, the place is shady, and for a "border" state, the folks are pretty damn rude. Furthermore, it was cold as balls...and that's what I like about the South.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Anyone ever cooked with a pressure cooker? My grandmother had a brand new one in her closet that she refuses to use b/c she prefers her old, potentially blow the ceiling off the kitchen model (she's well into her 80's and doesn't trust new-fangled gadgets). Nevertheless, she sent the pressure-cooker with me to Augusta.

Being a fan of the braise and the slow-cooked meats, I was wondering if I could use the pressure cooker to make such a meal on a weeknight in an hour or so. First I tested the cooker by making some mashed potatoes...took all of 6 minutes for about 4 lbs to be fork tender...I liked it was on to the meat. Not wanting to ruin short-ribs or any cut of pork, I decided to try a pot roast. I wanted an italian flair, so for my "braising" liquid I used a can of San Marzano tomato crushed by hand with the juices, a cup of Chianti, and a cup of chicken stock that I had soaked 1/2 oz dried porcini. Also had a sauteed onion and 2 ribs of celery in there for good measure. After that mixture had reduced a bit, I added about 4 lb 2 in cubed pot roast (browned in a separate pan while mixture reduced). Then it was time for the pressure part. I lowered the meat into the sauce, clamped on the lid and waited for the magic...I surmised 45 minutes should do the trick. After 20 minutes, I realized I had made a mistake. The kitchen began to smell of burnt sauce which I knew was scorching...I did not waiver however and waited the full 45 minutes before releasing the pressure. I took out the meat, which was damn near perfect. Falling apart, moist, juicy, delicious. The problem was about a 2 inch pile of burnt crap in the bottom of the cooker (I've been trying for 2 days to scrape off the bottom). I poured the unburnt portion of the sauce into another sauce pan and pureed with a stick blender. I served this concoction with simple roast potatoes, carrots, and garlic. It was good, but I fear I ruined the cooker. Wondering how to avoid the scorch???

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Simple Elegance

It's not often that a mere 5 or 6 ingredients can translate into existential gastronomic beauty but, a good provencale sauce may do the trick. This past weekend, a Sunday evening dinner party was sprung upon me with about a two hour notice. The question becomes,'what can I do with the shit in the refrigerator and not use the Kraft Mac and Cheese?'
After quick perusal, it became obvious, a provencale sauce with the perfect pasta (always on hand) would do the trick. In order to mix it up a bit, I decided to make the sauce with the tuna as a steak placed on top of the dish, cooked to preference.
Olive Oil
Garlic Cloves, many
Capers, I used about 2/3rds of one of those medium-sized containers from a specialty store (i think they are a pint)
Chopped Black Olives, pitted-kalamata (we had a large container in the fridge)- same size container, all of them chopped
Roma or cherry tomatoes, crushed/chopped-about one to one and a half quarts
Chopped parsley, about two or three ounces
Salt/Pepper to taste
Tuna Steaks, one per person, or more
Appropriate pasta: I prefer the Fusilli/Gamelli/multiple ridges and crooks over strings

The dish:
Water on the boil with a touch of salt. Put in the pasta.
Immediately start with olive oil and massive quantities of sliced/minced garlic-I used 10 cloves. Medium heat cooking of the garlic until it starts to brown.
Dump the tomatoes, capers, chopped olives into the mix and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until the tomatoes are breaking up just a bit.

While the sauce cooks, throw the tuna steaks in a pan at medium high heat with olive oil and a bit of salt/pepper and cook two to three minutes per side- make sure the pan is hot enough to sear/brown the outside without burning-and it should all come together at the same time.
Throw the sauce into the pasta (drained) and mix. Add to bowl/plate, add parsley-place the tuna on top, and serve.

Remember, no parma with the seafoods.

I served the dish with a 2001 Cote du Rhone Villages. Just soft enough in age to be medium to light bodied with the right amount of earthiness to off-set the sea.

There you have it boys, my first post.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Whadjou call me, boy?

Since there is some single malt scotch discussion on here (by me only, thus far) I thought it was pertinent to have a discussion about the pronunciation of some of the distilleries. Granted, it's Gaelic, and even though my family apparently is Welsh (go figure, it sounded more like a lion and tiger tamer from Munchen, but even his last name is Williams), I'm no expert. I've heard the word Glenmorangie pronounced 3 different ways, Caol Ila about 4 or 5, and you don't even want to know about Bruichladdich or Bunnahabhain.
Luckily, someone has put all this information on the web, like everything else. Hard to know about the authenticity, like everything else. But given how creepy these dudes sound making these recordings.... A story like that, 's gotta be true Jerry, 's gotta be!
Enjoy it.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A couple of stews, just for you (and whoever else wants to eat them)

Although we did have one day of warmer weather, it appears that snow is settling into our vicinity here in the next couple days. When better to eat some nice, slowly braised meat? Here's a couple that we did this weekend, unfortunately I don't have many pictures, but I'll work on some for you.

Beer braised pork and sweet potatoes, adapted from Boulud's Braise

3-4 pound pork shoulder

three red onions

two large sweet potatoes, peeled, rough dice

two bottles of Guinness or equivalent dark beer

one third cup of balsamic vinegar

1 cup of dried cherries, or one can of whole berry cranberry sauce

four cloves of garlic, minced

Brown sugar

5 crushed allspice berries

2 bay leaves


Like everything, start with good meat, season with salt and pepper, and brown well in your 5-6 quart Dutch oven. Drain out all but a couple of tablespoons of the fat, and cook the onions. Granted, this is a bunch of onions, but you'll see later on how they contribute. While you're doing all this, in a medium saucepan, add the two bottles of beer, balsamic vinegar, and a cup of dried cherries. Actually, I didn't have dried cherries, so I used a can of whole berry cranberry sauce. Bring to a boil, reduce by half. Ever made gumbo? Stay tuned, that's next. It's a similar concept to setting up your braising liquid. Add the minced garlic, being careful that you don't burn it. Once this concoction has reduced down to about a third of its original volume, and the onions are translucent, returns a unique to the pot. Add the allspice berries, bay leaves, reduced beer/vinegar/berry, and just enough water to cover the meat. Throw in about half a cup of brown sugar, sealed the Dutch oven with foil and cover. Put in the oven at 300, 275 convection, or slow simmer on the stovetop. Your choice. After an hour, and the sweet potatoes, and let it go another 2-3 hours. Turn the pork a couple of times while you're cooking. Serve with fresh baguette if you have it. I don't really know the inspiration of this dish, but it sounds almost Irish if you asked me. Be prepared, it is a little bit sweet so cut it with a dry wine.

Alton Brown's Shrimp Gumbo

Where do you begin? I hesitated even trying to learn how to make Cajun food, but it seems a natural transition from some French style vittles to nice hearty stews that you might make during the winter season to Gumbo and Etouffee. I also became intrigued after watching one of his shows and seeing how he made things. I think the key to this whole dish is the Roux, and this is not a step to skimp on.

As I see it, the basics of gumbo are reducing a seafood stock with sherry while you work on the roux. I've seen a lot of different ways to make the roux, and I'll give you a couple of different ways I've seen it work.

Basic Roux

equal parts fat and flour. Sounds simple doesn't it? Not so fast. Equal parts by volume? Or equal parts by weight? Depends on who you believe. Alton says to do it by weight, other people say to do it by volume. Next question: Olive oil or butter? Big Kevin in New Orleans says butter, many other people say olive oil. Take your pick. I think the easiest way to do this is to start with 1 cup of flour and add oil until the consistency is that of sour cream or just a little bit thinner. The other thing you can do is add 1 cup of flour to one half cup of oil, and whisk together over medium heat. The other alternative is to bake the roux over 90 minutes. This turns into a nice blonde roux, but doesn't really make it that dark. I say go for the consistency model on the stovetop, and increase the heat so you have little bubbles throughout the whole thing. If it starts to brown too quickly, drop the heat. I prefer to do this (as I do just about everything else) in my oval Dutch oven, but it might work better in a round one, as that might distribute heat from a round eye better. Keep browning the roux until it starts to turn a little to brown. This really does take some practice to get it right because it can easily burn and if you burn it, it ruins the whole dish.

Seafood Stock

Besides the roux, the other reason that gumbo tastes different in New Orleans is because they have fresher seafood to make stock with. Keep in mind, you're making a basic shrimp stock or crab stock by using shells (you know this, right? It's skeletal structure, cartilage, and connective tissue that make good stock. Not meat). If you're going to use shrimp, then you want a pound and a half or two of shrimp in the shells with the heads on. Peel the shrimp, save the heads, throw that into your stockpot. Add 1 cup of sherry (not cooking sherry, real sherry. It's not that much more, and the other stuff is undrinkable), boil, and reduce by half (sound familiar?).


Magically make your roux and stock finish at the same time. Dunno how to tell you to do that. Good luck.

What else?

Trinity: 2 parts onion, 1 part green bell pepper, 1 part celery

Minced garlic 2-3 cloves

Throw this into the mix, soak up that roux. Be careful, though, turn the heat down so you don't burn the roux while you're doing it. Slowly add the stock in a little bit at a time. Add 2 bay leaves, some thyme, a little bit of cayenne pepper, salt, black pepper and bring it a hot simmer. Add 1/2 pound of browned Andouille (or equivalent) sausage. Let it go for about 15 minutes or so. Add the shrimp, 1.5 pounds peeled give or take. Wait until the shrimp are cooked.

Finish the dish with either okra (which you might have added around the time you added the sausage) or gumbo file' (sassafrass powder) for thickening. For file' powder, it's somewhere around 1-2 tbsp that you put in at the end as you're taking it off heat.

The pitfalls for me were several. The first batch added too much sausage, and was a little too meaty that way. It's shrimp gumbo, not sausage gumbo. Also, the sausage can be a little hard to deal with if the lining is touch. Ideally, you want to dice the sausage in quarters. Don't cut it in rounds, or the skin will shrink on it, making it unsightly.

Notice that a lot of the measurements are estimates. I think that's an essential part of making a good stew like this. It may not ever come out the same way twice, and that's part of the mystique. You can use different meats if you want, different stocks will make it different, different liqueurs or fortified wines. I will say that it's a lot different from braising meats, because the meat in this is fast cook stuff, or thrown in to poach in the brew after being browned. You have to babysit this one a little bit more, particularly the roux. Oh, and serve over white rice with baguette on the side. I defer to anyone else's expertise in this, but I thought it was interesting to talk about it. Of course, the Mardi Gras season has passed, but crawfish season is coming.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Superbowl 42; scotch review

Personally, I thought the game was great. I'm not really a Patriots hater, I see the value in making history, and I think their 18-0 run was incredible. I would rather have seen smarts, teamwork, and intelligent scheme beat flash, bling, and high payrolls (insert New York Yankees). But, again, the media pummels you to death with the overhype of how good they are, that there's just no way that NYG could win, and that the game is a formality. Colin Cowherd (whom I normally like) had a show a couple of days ago which was a verbal lingual massage of Tom Brady's ABC (see definition number 7). He kept going on and on about how John Madden said that "this kid is giving me chills" when watching him early in his career. Get real.
I guess it's true: when you laugh, the whole world laughs with you. When you cry, you cry alone. Where's the Patriot/Tom Brady-loving media now? My point is that I don't get a sense that there's any accountability, it's all about hype and ratings build-up.
Even worse, there are almost NO interviews with the losing team. Bellicheck walks off the field before the game is over, then he says that the Giants made more plays than they did, and that they were disappointed. That's it. I guess that's enough. Brady Brady Brady has yet to say a thing as far as I've seen.
Is this not a double standard? So who of the fallen former high and mighty are immune to scrutiny by the media who usually revels in the downfall of celebrity? Is that not what so many media outlets are about? Schmooz with the famous and then kick 'em in the mouth when they're down? Or is this just part of the grander ESPN conspiracy that says that if we criticize the team that had been built up so high by the talking heads, then we're (the media) is having to admit it was wrong all along?
Maybe I'm just missing the point. Maybe it's just as simple as the better team got outplayed on one night, and there's nothing to say. Maybe, then, there was nothing to say before the game, either.

Single malt scotch review
That which you thought was not very good, all of a sudden, it's good again.
My taste in Scotch seems to change every week. Every time I taste Glenmorangie 10, it tastes different. From paint thinner, to sweet and light, vanilla, mild spice, etc.
Case in point: Balvenie SMS. I tried their 12 year double-wood before I really had any knowledge of what it was. Honestly, I didn't like it. Part of that was I was really under the impression that if you didn't like how it tasted neat, then it either wasn't any good, or you didn't have any business drinking it. Then I learned about cutting it over a small splash of water instead of waiting for an ice cube or two to melt. It tasted awesome! At a recent outing, we tried some of the Balvenie 15 year. Man is that stuff good. I think it tastes comparable to many 18 year vintages out there (Farin, are you reading?) for about 2/3 the price.

Balvenie 12 year Double Wood.

Highland single malt, finished in standard oak and then final (I think) finish in sherry casks. This sherrywood imparts a really sweet quality that really comes out with just a touch of water to release it. Not very spicy. Somewhere between 50 and 60 bucks.

Balvenie 15 year.

Highland single malt, much smoother taste than the 12 year, not quite as much oak wood. As sweet, but lighter. I guess it does get better with age. This one goes for about 70-75 bucks a pop.