Category Archives: Fish & Seafood

smoked salmon deviled eggs for book club

For the last 4 years, I’ve been in a book club with about 5 friends. The members have shifted slightly, with a couple people leaving and returning because of school or other commitments, but the core group has been meeting every few months since spring of 2008. We’ve focused on classic literature for the most part, but have also sprinkled in some sci-fi, current fiction, children’s literature, and will soon add a graphic novel to our list.

I always look forward to our meetings, which combine spirited and sharp but unpretentious discussion of the books with wine, friendly company, and typically some good snacks! Sometimes we meet at a restaurant or café, but more often we meet at someone’s house. The last meeting was at Ian & Michelle’s, and Ian had made profiteroles with caramel sauce; the one before that was at Sarah’s and we had smoky, marinated grilled shrimp and other goodies. See what I mean?

Last weekend it was my turn to host. I wasn’t sure what to make because the meeting was at an odd time of day (1pm); I didn’t know if people would have just eaten lunch, or if I should plan to serve a light lunch. A serendipitous combination of eggs on sale plus a small piece of smoked salmon led me to this combination, a variation on some tuna-stuffed deviled eggs I did last year (those were good, but I have to say these were way better). The eggs were on sale because they were a little older- i.e., perfect for hard-boiling (less fresh eggs are much easier to peel). The salmon was too small a piece to serve on its own, but a perfect size to lend its flavor to the egg filling. Add some crème fraîche, capers and shallot or red onion and you’re in business.

I also put out a salad of equal parts roasted squash and beets dressed with lemon juice, shallots, feta and parsley. Super simple but beautiful to look at, and a great flavor combination, the sharpness of the shallot and lemon balancing the sugar-sweet beets and squash. With a couple other contributions from my guests, it ended up being a nice little spread. Food was noshed, wine and tea were sipped, and art history books were consulted as we tried to find images that corresponded to the culture the book was about (we had read Things Fall Apart, about the Igbo people in Nigeria at the start of colonialism).

Despite some people having “already eaten”, the food got pretty well demolished. I’m just noticing that I’ve gotten through this post without really mentioning just how very awesome the eggs turned out, but suffice it to say that I don’t think I can ever go back to “plain” deviled eggs. With the brunch-y combination of smoked salmon, capers and onion, these would be great as part of a brunch buffet if you wanted to serve eggs without having to keep them hot… I can just taste them with a bloody mary. For those of you who partake in football-spectating, they’d make excellent finger food for a certain upcoming big game. Or, you could always start a book club.

Smoked Salmon Deviled Eggs
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1 dozen large eggs, preferably not super fresh
3-oz piece of hot-smoked salmon
⅓ cup crème fraîche (you could try subbing sour cream or labneh)
juice of half a lemon (or more to taste)
3 Tbs capers, drained
¼ cup chopped red onion or 1 large shallot, minced
salt & pepper to taste

Put the eggs in a pot large enough to hold them in a single layer and add enough water to cover completely. Cover and bring to the boil. When water reaches a rolling boil, turn off heat and let eggs sit in hot water, covered, for 12 minutes. Drain and cover in cold water. You can crack the shells to get them to cool faster. When cool enough to handle, peel, cut in half lengthwise, and gently scoop the yolks into a medium bowl.

Allow yolks to cool to room temperature. Mash well with crème fraîche and lemon juice until no lumps remain (for a really smooth, fluffy texture, use a stick blender). Stir in the onion or shallots and capers. Flake the salmon and fold in; do not overmix. You want the salmon to be incorporated but to retain some texture. Taste and season with salt and pepper- how much salt depends on how salty your capers and salmon are- and additional lemon juice, if needed. Stuff the egg whites with as much filling as they’ll hold (if there’s a little left over, consider it the cook’s treat). If desired, garnish with a little minced fresh parsley or paprika.

Detroit food blog bloggers

bangladesh by way of hamtramck: aromatic fish curry

This summer, in between trips to the florist and the seamstress and the hairdresser, I was working on a feature article accompanied by some listings of  Hamtramck’s many ethnic grocery stores and markets. For readers who are unfamiliar with the Detroit area, Hamtramck (and no, I’m not missing a vowel, that is the correct spelling!) is a roughly 2-square-mile city, surrounded on all sides by Detroit and situated pretty much right in the middle of it. Originally settled by Polish immigrants, it is now home to a whole host of ethnic communities, Albanians, Bosnians, Yemenis and Bengalis being the most prevalent these days. Here’s a slideshow of images taken by Marvin on our excursions there:

Coincidentally, I also recently purchased the cookbook At Home with Madhur Jaffrey: Simple, Delectable Dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.  Excited that I had finally obtained some ingredients I hadn’t previously been able to locate (amchoor, asafoetida, curry leaves and more), and in honor of the many Bengali stores I visited, I decided to make not just “Indian food” but a specifically Bengali/ Bangladeshi meal.*

*NB: Bengali is an ethnic designation and Bangladeshi is a regional designation. Some of the recipes were labeled “Bengali” in origin and some were labeled “Bangladeshi”. Bangladesh is made up of 98% Bengalis (so it’s fairly safe to assume a Bangladeshi is Bengali), but Bengalis are found in other regions besides Bangladesh. Got it?

According to Jaffrey, fish is the main animal protein consumed in Bangladesh, whose occupants are fond of eating the many freshwater river fish in the region. I figured this was as good a place as any to start, so I selected a fish curry recipe, and then a dal recipe since they’re so easy and I never feel an Indian meal is complete without one. I wanted one more vegetable dish, and would have chosen something green or crunchy or salad-y for more contrast, but I already had a butternut squash in the house and lo and behold there was a recipe for Bengali squash with mustard oil (another Hamtown purchase). The dal recipe did call for a handful of greens though, so I managed to use up some chard that was threatening to get wilty, and get a little more color in the meal.

I would make all three recipes again, especially in light of how easy they were, but the fish was far and away my favorite. The main flavoring came from curry leaves, which have a wonderful nutty, toasty aroma that you just have to taste or smell to understand how good it is. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a dish in a restaurant which used curry leaves, so it was exciting to be exposed to a totally new flavor. If you ever come across curry leaves, buy some and put them in the freezer in a zip-top bag with the air squeezed out like you would kaffir lime leaves. I lucked out and bought a bag at the Eastern Market this summer for a dollar. The flavor may have been diminished slightly from their time in the freezer (not sure since I’ve never used them fresh), but they were still plenty aromatic.

Can’t wait to delve a little deeper into Bengali cuisine- I still have a few more ingredients I have yet to try out, such as the amchoor (a sour powder made from dried green mangoes) and screw pine (pandan) essence. Let me know in the comments if you’ve tried or used either!

Bangladeshi Fish Curry (adapted from At Home with Madhur Jaffrey)
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According to Jaffrey, in Bangladesh this would be made with a freshwater river fish; she calls for flounder. Any mild-flavored fish will work. Jaffrey also calls for kaffir lime leaves as the “first choice” and curry leaves as a substitute, but the curry leaves are definitely worth trying if you can get your hands on some. As a last resort, use basil.

1-1¼ lbs fillets of mild fish such as flounder
½ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1½ teaspoons crushed or very finely minced garlic
1½ teaspoons micro-planed ginger
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
3 tablespoons mustard oil (substitute 3 Tbs vegetable oil + ½ teaspoon dry mustard powder)
⅓ cup thinly sliced shallots
10 kaffir lime leaves or curry leaves, lightly crushed

Sprinkle the fish on both sides with the salt. Cut into 3-inch pieces and set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the garlic, ginger, paprika, cayenne, turmeric, and mustard powder (if using) with 3 tablespoons water; stir to form a paste.

Heat the oil in a 12″ skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the shallots and fry until lightly browned and softened. Add the spice paste and fry for 1 minute. Add 1 cup water and lime or curry leaves; bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer for a few minutes. If other dishes are not yet ready, remove from heat.

When ready to serve, bring the sauce to a simmer over low heat. Place the fish pieces in the sauce. Cook 1 minute; turn the fish pieces over gently and cook an additional 2-3 minutes depending on thickness, spooning the sauce over the fish as it cooks. Serve immediately.

it’s so easy eating green {les culinettes}

In June, I had the honor of hosting les culinettes, the cooking club I’ve been participating in for the past few months. Back then- a whole month ago!- my schedule was just free enough to accommodate a dinner party, but as the weeks fly by and freelance work* and wedding planning have been ratcheting up, blogging has sadly been relegated to the back burner (non-intended food pun, I swear).
*I’ve been developing and testing recipes for holiday food the last several weeks… strange but fun!

But rather than lament my absence here, I’d prefer to reflect on what was a beautiful balmy spring eve with good friends and great food. Our theme was “green”, in honor of fresh green vegetables finally being in the markets. Seems funny to think of it now, with temps in the 90s all week, but in mid-June we were just starting to see peas, asparagus and the like. Several people did use spring vegetables in their dishes, but the menu was surprisingly diverse, with others interpreting the “green” theme more loosely.

I had gotten up at 7am that day to get the house in order; in addition to cleaning, I wanted to hang a few pictures and curtains (nothing like company to get you motivated to do things around the house… I should entertain every weekend, I’d be so productive!). I was a machine all day, with just enough time to start getting my dishes ready as the dinner hour approached. Fortunately the theme wasn’t the only thing that was loosely interpreted, as most of the ladies arrived about 45 minutes after the appointed time, giving me a welcome opportunity to chill in the kitchen with a glass of wine and prep my food a bit more leisurely.

We decided to break up the meal into courses and eat the first round outdoors- it was one of those warm evenings with the barest of breezes, that elusive weather we long for in the depths of winter’s chill and summer’s scorch. The food was sublime, in every way a worthy match for the splendid weather. For appetizers, we had pea pesto and pea hummus on crostini made by Meghan, and a gorgeous grass-green fava purée topped with feta and kalamata olives that Abigail made with favas from her garden. The favas, which we spread on Zingerman’s baguette (only the best!), had the most amazing velvety texture that I was obsessed with, and a little spicy kick.

Also served in the first half of dinner were pieces of flank steak with an uber-garlicky, emerald green chimichurri that Sarah made, and a shrimp dish in a light citrus sauce with basil and capers brought by Amy that I had to force myself to stop eating so I’d have room for the remaining two courses. She had gotten the shrimp at an Asian grocer and they were huge and tasty; their heads lent flavor to the sauce, as well as providing some mid-meal entertainment.

As it got dark, we headed inside as the mosquitoes started to make themselves known and spoil an otherwise lovely setting. Marvin had cleared off our little patio (the previous owners had seen fit to use it as storage for a large pile of logs for the fireplace), and set up a table for us as well as some string lights to lend a bit of ambiance. Thanks hon!

There was a short respite from eating while the ladies chatted in the kitchen and I prepared my dish, mussels in a simplified coconut green curry sauce. We ate those with gusto while waiting for the pasta water to boil for the final course of the evening, Molly’s homemade spinach pasta with peas and asparagus. The pasta had a wonderful chewy al dente texture and Molly shared that she uses a bit of spelt flour in her recipe (note to self for future pasta making endeavors). A salad of cucumber and avocado with lemon, probably the easiest salad in my repertoire and so refreshing in hot weather, accompanied. I put cucumber slices in our ice water, too- a nice change from the usual citrus. (And what can I say, I’m a sucker for a theme!)

Our designated dessert-maker Jess was out sick so we missed out on her green tea desserts (those in Detroit can sample her wares here though), but we were all plenty sated by the end of the meal. It being Friday, some of the ladies had worked that day and we petered out a bit earlier than our usual midnight-ish, but between the food, the company and the perfect temperatures I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Greatly anticipating our next gathering chez Abigail to fête the venerable summer tomato!

Mussels in a Quick Green Curry
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I threw this together on the fly because I had some kaffir lime leaves to use up. Technically the summer months are not supposed to be a good time for mussels, but the ones I purchased were fine. If you’re unfamiliar with purchasing, storing or cleaning mussels, this article is very helpful. This sauce could be used to simmer a pound of shrimp or scallops as well if you don’t want to wait for mussel season again. To make it a meal, just add some rice and a grated carrot or cucumber salad.

2 lbs mussels, washed and debearded
1 large shallot lobe, minced
1 medium garlic clove, minced
6-8 fresh kaffir lime leaves
½ tsp brown sugar
1 cup coconut milk
2-3 serrano peppers or similar green chiles, de-seeded and minced (more if you want it spicy)
a dash or two of fish sauce
about 1 Tbs neutral vegetable oil
a couple Tbs each chopped cilantro, basil and/or mint for garnish (cilantro is essential; the basil and mint are nice touches if you have them. If not using one of the herbs, increase the others proportionately.)

Heat the oil (enough to thinly coat the pan) in the widest and shallowest pan you have that has a lid. Add the shallot, garlic and all but 1 Tbs of the peppers and sauté over medium heat until the shallot becomes translucent. Add the coconut milk, sugar  and lime leaves. Cook at a very gentle simmer for about 20-30 minutes to infuse the flavors, stirring occasionally. If the sauce gets too thick, add a splash of water, or cover the pan to prevent further evaporation. After the sauce has cooked down, season with fish sauce to desired level of saltiness.

Raise the heat to medium high and add the cleaned mussels to the pan. Cover the pan and cook, shaking the pan a few times to allow more even cooking. The mussels are done as soon as they have all opened. (There may be a few stragglers that don’t open; these should be discarded.) Sprinkle the fresh herbs and remaining chiles on top of the dish and serve immediately in shallow bowls with some of the sauce spooned over.

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer or 2-4 as a main course.

kale salad with lemon feta dressing, and an accidental smoked trout {charcutepalooza}

I may be accused of chutzpah for labeling this post “Charcutepalooza”, but so be it. Last month’s posting deadline (April 15) breezed past without fanfare like I wish this cold, rainy spring weather would, and although I had the hot-smoking challenge in the back of my mind all month, I had no specific plan as to how or when to execute it. So when my friend Todd invited a few of us over and said he was firing up his smoker, right after Molly and I had just bought a whole fresh lake trout (scored at Eastern Market for $1.99 a pound!), it seemed like kismet.

Because the trout was going to be in the fridge for a few days before the get-together, I salted and sugared it (no measuring, I just threw on what I thought was an appropriate amount). I had already used my share of the steaks, which I braised in a Thai red curry coconut milk concoction, so I had my half of the fillet left to smoke. Molly went the opposite route, saving her steaks for the smoker. Despite my lackadaisical approach, I did attempt to create a pellicle by  placing the uncovered fish on a rack in the fridge the morning of the party. (I mention this as a pathetic bit of evidence that I actually sort of “did” the challenge…)

I was requested to bring a vegetable side dish, so I decided to give raw kale salad a try. It’s something I’ve been reading all about on various blogs and wanted to try for a while, but they always call for lacinato or “dinosaur” kale which I can’t easily find around here. I decided to make up a recipe using regular (curly) kale instead and see how it came out. The verdict? According to the other guests, it was great. I was totally satisfied with the flavor, but I think texturally it could have been improved upon slightly by chopping the kale a little finer, almost like tabbouleh. A mezzaluna would have come in handy for this task, but I don’t have one currently. Another item for the wedding registry!

Apparently we were supposed to be there 2 hours before we actually got there (I recalled the email mentioning 7pm but apparently this was the sit-down-to-eat time, not the arrival time…. damn ADD) but fortunately we showed up just as the burgers were coming off the smoker and people were getting ready to dig in. Our host presented us each with a Cuba Libre (translation: rum & coke with a lime) and we loaded our plates and headed out to what Todd fondly refers to as “the magical front porch” to eat. It was a bit chilly, but the great food, drink and company distracted us enough from the cold.

After dinner, we moved the party out back where the fish was still smoking and a fire was roaring. I figured the trout would be a snack for those later-on beer munchies, but then Evan busted out a phenomenal lemon gelato with something like 20 egg yolks, so understandably no one was much interested in fish at that point. (I’m suspecting, and hoping, that those who stayed past us drinking had a go at it later). I of course had to at least sample some for posterity’s sake. The fillet was light and delicate, with just a thin darker layer where the smoke had adhered. The steaks, which had been on longer, had a fuller, meatier and more intense smoke flavor. Both were incredibly moist and delicious. I’m kind of kicking myself that I didn’t steal a small piece to take home to put on a morning bagel, but our hosts had been generous so I wanted to leave it for them. A good reason to actually attempt the hot smoking challenge on my own at some point (or, a reason to put a smoker on our registry!) . I do have a souvenir, though- my coat still smells like smoked fish.

Raw Kale Salad with Lemon Feta Dressing
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Most of the kale salads I’ve seen on the interwebs are variations on Melissa Clark’s recipe and call for pecorino and lacinato kale…  I had feta and regular kale on hand so I developed this recipe instead. Featuring feta, lemon and oregano, the flavors are more Greek than Italian, and the copious but light dressing works well with the curly kale. The salad holds up beautifully for days without wilting, so it’s a great make-ahead dish.

2 bunches kale
1 cup olive oil
1/4 to 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (3-4 lemons)
2 oz. plus 4 oz. feta in brine
2 garlic cloves, crushed and roughly chopped
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp sugar
salt
optional: cherry or grape tomatoes or strips of red or yellow bell pepper

Notes:
Using the full 1/3 cup lemon juice makes what I consider a pleasantly tart dressing. If you are less of an acid-head than me, feel free to start with 1/4 cup; you can always add more.

Directions:
In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, oregano,  pepper flakes, sugar and a couple pinches of salt.

Cut the tough stems away from the kale leaves and discard; roughly chop or tear the leaves and wash and dry in a salad spinner. Finely chop the kale (think tabbouleh or a little coarser) and place in a bowl large enough to toss the salad.

Put the olive oil, garlic and 2 ounces of feta in a blender and process until smooth. Add the lemon juice mixture and process again until fully combined. Taste for balance, adding more lemon juice or an additional pinch of salt or sugar if necessary.

Toss about 3/4 of the dressing with the salad and assess the results, adding the remaining dressing to your taste. Crumble the remaining 4 oz feta on top. If desired, garnish with additional vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, etc.

pinot and pan sauces and cooking for two

One of the biggest adjustments for me with this new cohabitation thing has been figuring out dinnertime. Suffice it to say that the food of my bachelorette days just doesn’t cut it when it comes to feeding a hungry guy (wait, you mean dudes aren’t down with scrambled eggs or a “big salad” and three bites of reheated lunch leftovers for dinner every night?!).  So my new challenge in the kitchen is to come up with meals that are satisfying for the male half  of the household but not too taxing after a day’s work*. That, and planning ahead enough to have certain ingredients on hand so as to minimize after-work errand-running that cuts into my cooking time.

*I should note that said dude does cook for me every now and again and that my being the one to make dinner is more a control freak issue on my end than him “expecting” me to do it!

That said, there’s a part of me that chafes at the thought of the fast-n-easy Rachel Ray-style school of cooking. I’d rather spend all Sunday in the kitchen making a huge pot of stew or something else we can reheat a couple times through the week. I’m fine with making the occasional quickie meal (pasta puttanesca or weeknight omelettes are favorites), but sometimes I want something a little snazzier; plus, someone complains if they feel too protein (ahem, *meat*)-deprived for too many days in a row.

Having splurged recently on some nicer-than-usual wines at Western Market, I decided to try a recipe I’ve had my eye on for a while, a braised salmon in Pinot Noir from Molly Stevens’ excellent book All About Braising. Folks, I’ve sung the praises of this book and its recipes many times before, and if you haven’t yet picked it up I would highly recommend it! Although the recipe required some slicing, dicing and infusing, it was really easy and I was able to do the prep work while the side dishes (a Wehani rice and some Puy lentils) cooked. All in all I’d say the meal took a little over an hour, not too much effort considering the fantastic results.

I wasn’t sure if my skillet handle was ovenproof so I decided to do the braise on the stovetop. The salmon came out a tiny bit on the dry side (my fault, not the recipe’s), but paired with the flavorful sauce, it was still very good eats. The red rice and lentils were the perfect earthy accompaniments to the mushroom and bacon-laced wine sauce.

I was inspired a few nights later to pan-sear some venison tenderloin and make a similar pan sauce of shallots, mushrooms and wine. It’s a shame that Marvin wasn’t home to enjoy it with me; he was in NYC for his first gallery show (nice, right?) so I had the tenderloin all to myself. I would’ve waited to make the dish for us both, but due to a freezer debacle (cough*dontbuykenmore*cough) I was trying to use things up before they spoiled. I salted the meat, seared it in clarified butter to medium, then let it rest while I cooked shallots in the butter and deglazed it with red wine. The mushrooms were cooked in a separate pan while the meat was cooking, and added at the end. I ate it with the lentils and rice left over from the salmon dinner and it was nothing short of spectacular. Next year I’m begging my dad for more tenderloin! Also, I want to try one of these venison tenderloin recipes from Hank Shaw’s blog when I have the time/ inclination to get slightly fancier.

I just want to leave you with this: If you’re cooking meat in a skillet and not making a pan sauce, it’s like leaving money on the table. Any crusty bits that remain contain so much flavor and it only takes minutes to create a sauce that will have you scraping your plate. I also like to make pan sauce from chicken drippings that remain after roasting a chicken in a cast iron skillet. Red or white wine can be used, just use whatever you’re drinking. For red meat, cognac or brandy can be used instead of wine; just boil the sauce enough to get rid of any harsh boozy flavor. If you salt your meat, you shouldn’t need to salt your sauce, but taste and see. A couple turns of black pepper is de rigeur as well.

Salmon Braised in Pinot Noir with Bacon & Mushrooms (adapted from All About Braising by Molly Stevens)
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Notes: I scaled the recipe down to serve two, but this version serves four. If making for two, halve the salmon quantity and reduce the other ingredients by about 1/3.

4 wild-caught salmon filets, skin-on, each about 6 oz and about 1 ½ inches thick
4 ounces mushrooms, regular button or a mix
5 slices bacon (about 4 oz), cut into ½-inch strips
1 leek, white and light green parts only, washed and chopped
1 carrot, peeled and diced small
1 small shallot, chopped
2 cups light, earthy red wine such as Pinot Noir or a cru Beaujolais (not Beaujolais Nouveau) (yes I know that’s bossy but you’ll thank me)
3 sprigs fresh thyme, each about 2-3 inches
2 Tbs unsalted butter
2 Tbs chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper

Examine the salmon to see if it contains any pinbones by running your finger down the center. If you feel any small bones, remove them with a tweezer or needle-nose pliers. Season the filets with salt and a little pepper and set aside.

Brush any dirt from the mushrooms (I like to just peel them by gently pulling the outer layer off, just don’t wash them with water). Trim the bottoms of the mushrooms and separate the caps from the stems. Thinly slice the caps and set aside. Dice the stems and reserve separately from the caps.

Preheat the oven to 375°.

Prepare the braising liquid: Select a skillet just large enough to hold the salmon filets in a single layer (12-13 inches diameter). Add half the bacon to the cold skillet and cook over medium heat until it cooks through and renders much of its fat; do not allow to crisp. Increase the heat slightly, adding the leek, carrot, shallot and mushroom stems and sauté until the vegetables are soft and just beginning to brown. Add 1 cup of the wine and the thyme and bring to a rapid simmer until the wine is reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining 1 cup wine and simmer an additional 5 minutes.

While the sauce is cooking, fry the remaining bacon in a medium skillet until crisp; remove with a slotted spoon and place on paper towel to drain. Discard most of the bacon grease and add 1 Tbs butter, swirling off the heat to make sure it doesn’t burn. Add the mushrooms and sauté over medium high heat until the mushrooms have thrown off their liquid and become golden.  Remove from pan and set aside. You will reuse this skillet to finish the sauce. so just leave it on the stove, no need to wash it.

When the sauce base has cooked, add the salmon, skin side down. Cover tightly with foil and/or a lid, and place in the oven. After 15 minutes, check the salmon by discreetly slicing into the thickest part of a filet; if you see just a bare hint of dark pink, it’s done (it will continue cooking as it rests).

Remove the salmon to a plate and cover with foil. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer into the medium skillet, pressing down with a spoon to obtain as much liquid as possible. Bring to a rapid simmer for 2 minutes and reduce to a gentle simmer, whisking in the remaining 1 Tbs butter.Add the reserved bacon and mushrooms and the parsley. Taste for salt and pepper, adding if needed.

Plate the salmon and top it with the sauce; serve immediately.

achieving wok hay

Ever since reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper last year, I’ve been hankering to get into more authentic Chinese cooking. I realize “authenticity” is subjective and can be cause for debate, but in the broad sense I mean food that would actually be prepared in a Chinese home, rather than  dishes that were created Stateside and appear on every Chinese take-out menu from Dubuque to Des Moines.

With that in mind, I picked up The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young from the library recently. It focuses in on the techniques of wok cooking as a necessary component of Chinese cookery, as opposed to some Asian cookbooks that reassure the cook that it’s fine to just stir fry in a skillet if need be. The way Young describes the use of a wok, it’s practically an ingredient unto itself. Anyone who’s had a well-prepared stir fry can identify the flavor of wok hay, the essence or “breath” of the wok, as Young translates it. It’s that underlying hint of smokiness that you just don’t get unless you cook at extremely high temperatures, and it is simply not possible to accomplish with a Western skillet.

So vital is the selection, care, technique and culture of the wok that Young spends the first 65 pages of her book discussing these topics before any recipes are given. I read most of those pages, but the other night I was feeling eager to dive in so I thought I’d forge ahead and try my hand at one of the recipes, a scallop & asparagus stir fry. Apart from one misstep at the very beginning (minced garlic that turned black within seconds of being added to the uber-hot wok), the recipe was a breeze. Best of all, when I tasted the dish, there it was- the slight “grilled” flavor of wok hay! It felt like a revelation. I served it with a very non-authentic but delicious variation of my favorite carrot and avocado salad, where I subbed in ginger, hot chili paste, rice vinegar and a touch of soy sauce for the French vinaigrette.

Even if you only make the occasional stir fry, I would highly recommend reading Young’s chapters about wok use and putting her advice into practice. That little bit of knowledge just might have you creating some wok hay of your own, and I’m here to tell you it’s worth whatever small extra effort might be involved. My scallop stir-fry was easily one of the best I’ve made- the scallops seared but juicy; the vegetables crisp-tender; the sauce just a sheer glaze that nicely flavored without drowning the ingredients. I have a feeling the wok is going to be put to use a little more often in our household in the near future.

I can’t summarize Young’s 65 pages for you, of course, but here are a few tips for achieving wok hay in your own kitchen:

  • Use a carbon-steel wok, never nonstick.
  • Have all ingredients close at hand; the process goes lightning fast and there’s no time to realize you forgot a component during cooking.
  • Don’t exceed the amount of ingredients a recipe calls for or add too much to the wok at one time; it brings the temperature down too far and your food will steam instead of sear.

Scallop & Asparagus Stir-Fry (adapted from The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young)
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Notes: The original recipe called for 1 lb of asparagus. I only had about 3/4 lb so I subbed in some snow peas for the remaining 1/4 lb. The important thing is not to go over 1 lb total of vegetables, because it will reduce the wok’s heat too much. The only other change I made was to sprinkle the garlic on top of the scallops when I put them in the wok. When I put the garlic in first, I found that it instantly burned and I had to start over.

1 lb. scallops (if you want to splurge, use fresh dry sea scallops, but I used frozen, thawed bay scallops and they tasted fine)
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed & cut into 2-inch pieces
1 ¼ tsp salt
4 tsp Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
2 ¼ tsp cornstarch
1 ½ tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp ground white pepper
1 Tbs peanut or other  vegetable oil
1 Tbs minced garlic

Put 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan with 1 tsp salt and bring to the boil. Add asparagus. When the water returns to a boil, remove from heat and drain the asparagus; set aside. (If using any snow peas, they do not need to be blanched.)

Rinse the scallops and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Combine in a bowl with the sesame oil, white pepper, 1 ¼ tsp of the cornstarch, 1 tsp of the rice wine and the remaining ¼ tsp of salt; mix well to combine. In another bowl, combine the remaining 1 tsp cornstarch, rice wine, and the oyster sauce with ¼ cup cold water.

Place scallops, asparagus, sauce and garlic within hands’ reach of the stove. Heat a 14″ flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1-2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil. Add the scallops, carefully spreading them in a single layer. Sprinkle the garlic on top. Cook undisturbed for 30 seconds to allow them to brown; then stir-fry with a metal spatula for 30-60 seconds or until scallops are light brown but not cooked through. Add the asparagus. Stir the sauce mixture and add to the wok. Bring to the boil to thicken the sauce and finish cooking the scallops, about 30 seconds.

Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal.

a month of firsts, and an old favorite

I’m sitting in the guest room where Robespierre and Farrow are sequestered, trying to milk the last moments with them before we give them up this week to their new “parents” (due to Marvin’s severe allergies). The house– my new home– is filled with the aroma of chicken roasting on a bed of shallots, herbs and garlic, courtesy of Marvin, who decided to take a turn in the kitchen tonight. Although we signed the paperwork over a month ago, the moving process has been slow, and I was still at the old house this weekend trying to take care of odds and ends and consolidate things to one side in the basement. As of this weekend I’ll have tenants in both flats, and even though I’ve been sleeping here for a couple weeks, that somehow seems to make it official.

Surprisingly, I have been managing to cook a fair amount since the move, I just haven’t had time to photograph or blog about it. We’ve had venison and pork meatballs with pasta sauce from last summer’s tomatoes, a chicken in mustard sauce with goat cheese and leek-stuffed apples, and these Provençale-style mussels that I actually did photograph because it was a paying gig for a recipe column I’ve been writing.

That day we also had our first dinner guest, our friend Jon, who had been helping Marvin move that day. I love all the “firsts” that come not just with moving, but with moving in together- our first night in the new house, first meal cooked on the new stove, first guests, etc. One first that I am particularly eagerly anticipating is the first fire in the fireplace (right now, there are boxes piled in front of it, but I hope to rectify that this weekend). Unlike the vast majority of my peers, I have never shacked up with a significant other, so I was a little anxious about the adjustment, but it seems to be going fairly smoothly so far. (One night at dinner when we did get into a bit of a spat, he gave me a hug afterward and said something like “It’s OK, it wouldn’t be normal if we didn’t have some growing pains”. That’s why I love this man!)

As soon as things are more settled, I really hope to get back into my blogging routine. Going from posting a few times a week to only once or twice a month is seriously bumming me out! Part of it is due to time taken up with some paid writing gigs I’ve gotten lately, which is a good thing, but I miss writing here just for me (and the few of you who visit).   But instead of dwelling on that, can we talk about mussels? I can’t believe I’ve never posted about mussels before, seeing as how they’re one of my favorite quick-but-fancy meals (fancy in terms of being a bit more exotic than my usual weeknight fare, not in terms of difficulty).

This recipe will be old hat for experienced mussel-makers, but I’m hoping to convert a few of you who may have the mistaken assumption that mussels are tricky to make. Au contraire, mon frère– if you can mince shallots and open a bottle of wine, you’re more than halfway there. This article on CHOW is the best one I found to describe the selection, cleaning and storage of mussels for the uninitiated. Personally, I just buy them the day I’m going to use them; the store I buy from (Holiday Market) sells them already cleaned and debearded, so all I have to do is check for any open ones (if they close when you tap them, they’re still alive and you can safely use them). Add a green salad and some bread to soak up the juices and you have a pretty freaking fantastic meal in about 10-15 minutes. Perfect if you’re busy doing other things like, say, unpacking 30 boxes of cookbooks…

Moules à la Provençale (Mussels with Tomatoes and Garlic)
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The following recipe makes enough for two main-dish portions or four appetizer portions. If you want to double the recipe, double the quantity of mussels but only increase the other ingredients by half.

2 lbs. mussels
2-3 large shallots, roughly chopped (about 2/3 c.)
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped (about 2 tbs.)
1 bay leaf
4 tbs. chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes, drained
1 c. dry white wine (I used an inexpensive Vinho Verde, but a Sauvignon Blanc would also work well)
A couple of glugs of olive oil (about 2 tbs.)
Pinch of salt, as needed

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a wide, lidded skillet (alternatively, a Dutch oven or stock pot may be used). Add the shallot and garlic and cook until they just begin to soften. Add the wine and bay leaf and simmer for a couple of minutes to blend the flavors. Add the tomatoes and 3 tablespoons of the parsley. Taste the mixture for salt, adding a pinch or two if needed (may not be necessary if your tomatoes are salted).

When the mixture begins to simmer again, add the cleaned mussels and cover the pan or pot with a lid. You will want to have the rest of your meal ready to go, because the mussels are best eaten as soon as they are cooked. Steam the mussels for about 4 minutes, shaking  the pot occasionally (especially important if your pot is deeper than it is wide and the mussels are stacked on top of each other). Do not overcook or the mussels will become tough.

Spoon the mussels into shallow bowls with some of the cooking liquid and vegetables, then garnish with the reserved parsley. Any mussels that have not opened should be avoided (usually there are only a couple per batch). Serve immediately with crusty bread, a salad and the leftover wine you used for cooking.