Clam diggers on the Pacific coast
Every year during the clam tides, diggers flock to the clam beds near Ocean Shores, Washington, to dig their limit of 15 tender, succulent razor clams. The determination of these people is admirable because there can’t be a much more miserable thing to do at 2am than stand in freezing water and rain getting covered in mud up to your armpits. Of course the prize is arguably great – razor clams are delicious. But this display of obsession has surprised me in the past because there isn’t that much you can do with clams, that I know of, other than deep fry them into clam strips or make clam chowder, neither of which hold a world title for most sophisticated dish.
It’s also hard to find a ‘master’ recipe for clam chowder. Perhaps because there really isn’t that much to it no great chef has troubled to put their name to a recipe. All recipes are essentially the same – fry some onions, add some stock and potatoes, simmer, add chopped clams. Simmer again and eat. To this there are countless variations of preference. Add cream or don’t. Add some herbs. Add garlic. If you are in Manhattan, add tomatoes. I even saw a recipe that required the soup be thickened with instant mashed potato flakes. When my wife decided the time had come to make some truly great clam chowder, I wondered if there was any way to really elevate the dish and make it worthy of exhaustion and hypothermia. My theory: soffritto.
Soffritto is a mirepoix of finely chopped vegetables which forms the basis of soups, stews and sauces in Tuscan cuisine. This was more like it – a bit of research into mirepoix revealed a delightful wealth of argument and invective through the ages, a bit like when I tried to track down an authentic recipe for gravlax. Soffritto, the Tuscan version, contains carrots, celery and onion in a 1:1:2 ratio, and is not to be confused with the Spanish sofrito (tomatoes, onions, garlic, green bell pepper), Portuguese refogado (onions, garlic, tomatoes), Dutch soepgroente (leek, carrot, celeraic) or the Cajun ‘holy trinity’ (onion, celery, green bell pepper). As you can see, these are all variants on the same idea. Mince some aromatics, saute them. However, get the region wrong, and you are no longer considered a real chef. This tiny first step of humble vegetables is what lets you know you are doing authentic Tuscan (Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Cajun) cookery.
I picked Tuscan. I mostly did this because nobody adds carrots to clam chowder, and I can never resist the opportunity to do something wrong.
The recipe… well, my wife did all the rest, because she was searching for “a certain flavour idea” as she put it. This is what she says when she knows what she wants to taste in her imagination, and she sets about inventing it. She doesn’t seem to need a recipe to do it, which baffles me. But from what I observed, here is what she did for her simply spectacular, worthy of the rain-and-mud razor clam chowder:
Leslie’s Clam Chowder (for two)
1 carrot, peeled
1 celery stalk
Mince the vegetables into very fine dice – take your time. In a heavy, cast iron pot, heat a splash of olive oil over medium heat. Add the aromatics and saute gently for a long time until they are thoroughly softened, but don’t let them burn. (Incidentally, I read recently that the reason celery is essential in soup bases is not because of its inherent flavour, but because it contains a compound that accentuates the taste of other flavours, a bit like the way MSG works. I wondered.) Pretty soon you will be a soffritto convert – the kitchen will fill with amazing smells, and the little toasty bits of vegetables taste delicious off a wooden spoon. Now for the real fire!
Chowder, stage one
2 rashers bacon
4 small red potatoes
1 (8 oz) bottle clam juice
2 cups chicken stock
Dice the bacon and crisp it up nicely in a frypan. Reserve the bacon and add the drippings to your softened soffritto. Peel and dice three of the potatoes. To the soffritto, add the clam juice, chicken stock and potatoes. Simmer until the potatoes are well and truly soft, then mash them in the pot. You may want to add more stock if it is getting too thick. Dice the last potato (unpeeled) and add it to the pot, along with 1 tablespoon of the reserved bacon.
Chowder, stage two
1/2 tablespoon hot paprika
1 teaspoon red chilli flakes
1 tablespoon sherry
1/2 cup cream
1/2 lb lovely, lovely razor clams, cleaned and diced
cilantro, to garnish
Add the paprika and chilli flakes and simmer until the last potato is soft (again, feel free to add more liquid if necessary). Add the sherry and cream. Add the clams and reserved bacon and simmer 15 minutes. Taste, add more cream if desired. Serve with a sprinkling of cilantro and crackers for dipping.
Hawaiian Chilli Pepper Water
8 small hot red peppers (Hawaiian, ideally, but birdseye will do), chopped
2 slices ginger
1 clove garlic, smashed
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
about 2 cups hot water
Sterilize a pint jar. Place in it the peppers, ginger, garlic, vinegar and salt. Add the hot water, seal the jar, and let mellow a few days in the refrigerator before straining out and using. Slop it on anything you like – rice, pasta, meat, salad – to add a touch of Tabasco-like zing.
Chilli pepper water is a ubiquitous Hawaiian condiment which I think pretty well expresses the Hawaiian attitude to food. The word grinds refers to the kind of food you eat everyday, with relish, until you are bursting-full. The most famous grind is loco moco, two scoops of white rice (always medium grain), topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg, and gravy… which you should then feel free to slosh chilli pepper water over. Local variations abound, such as this dish we encountered in Hilo – katsu moco, rice topped with Japanese tonkatsu-style pork and fried eggs. Once you eat of this dish you will forget the days you were hungry.
I’m not so much into the diner-style eats, honestly, though they have their place. Mostly this is because I am embarrassed I can never finish a red-blooded-male-size portion. Also, I’m a grazer. I like to nibble on this and that through the day. The best Hawaiian nibble, which I have posted about here, is spam musubi. Again, medium grain white rice, topped with a slice of spam which has been lightly fried in soy sauce, then wrapped in nori. Sometimes other condiments are added, such as the famous Japanese pickled plums ume. Or a little fish roe. Or a sprinkling of furikake. Again, the local variations are endless. They are good. I want some right now.
Making spam musubi and onigiri rice balls
Another indigenous food is kulua pork, which is pig that is roasted whole underground in a stone pit. Served with cabbage and the ubiquitous scoops of rice, it is salty, savoury, smoky, succulent and satisfying.
Hawaii is fortunate enough to have a strong Japanese influence, even more so than Seattle. Hawaii is also fortunate enough to have a million available species of fish, which of all people the Japanese know how to deal with. In Hawaii they put fish to the best of all possible uses, served raw as poke (I’ve previously mentioned poke here). There are even more versions of poke than there are of loco moco or spam musubi. Any creature that swims the watery deep, it seems, can be turned into raw fish salad, lightly seasoned with shoyu, sesame oil, seaweed and chilli. Ahi tuna is the classic fish of choice but you can also get octopus, sea snails, squid, crab, you name it. Poke is so ubiquitous in Hawaii that pretty much any corner store sells it by the pound and with a couple of pairs of disposable chopsticks you have a wonderful grazing lunch for two.
Poke counter at the supermarket
Among other things we have the Japanese in Hawaii to thank for is the tonkatsu-wich. Tonkatzu is pork which has been breaded in panko breadcrumbs and fried, then sliced and served with shredded raw cabbage and tonkatsu sauce, which is often apple-based. Tonkatsu is, historically speaking, already a fusion food. It is an example of yōshoku, the Japanized versions of the Western foods which were suddenly available in Japan after the Meiji restoration. In Hawaii they take the cultural confusion a step further by placing the breaded pork between two slices of white bread. Served with tsukemono (pickled vegetables), ground sesame seeds and a variety of sauces, this is less trashy than it sounds, and very, very delicious.
In Waikiki we visited a fantastic udon noodle restaurant. It was so popular the line usually doubled about the block, which was a bit odd for a place that really only served one dish. But their udon were fantastic, made before your eyes, thick as nightcrawlers and served with a few simple choices of garnish. Despite the line we went back, just to be amazed again that something so simple could be so good. I think I must try mastering the art of udon making.
Simply prepared udon at Marukame Udon, Waikiki
I could go on, and on. I haven’t even mentioned the most famous Hawaiian dish of all, poi, which is steamed and mashed taro root, and which a local we met advised us, if offered it, to smile politely and take a tiny taste so as not to offend anyone. I could rant about the sushi. Or the Portuguese influenced longaniza sausage. Or the dragonfruits and longans and lilikoi (passionfruit), my most favourite of all fruits.
Maybe next time.
For years I ate oatmeal with bananas every day for breakfast. But one must not get caught up in the rut of repetition. One must try new things, explore new avenues, conquer new experiences. And so at some point I switched over to eating my oats with raisins.
I still do love bananas, though. But there’s always been the issue with them going bad so quickly. The only possibility I’ve heard of for overripe bananas is banana bread (admittedly, I have not researched the subject, and surely there are many uses). But banana bread is a project, and when you’re being too lazy to eat your damn bananas, the chances of making bread out of them is no doubt diminished.
So, on Facebook I mentioned that I was eating bananas for dinner. We had a bunch that was on the edge of becoming overripe, and I was feeling lazy about preparing a proper meal for myself. It seemed a perfect idea… for the first few bananas. Ah well. Sometimes in reality, what was thought of as brilliant idea, is really just a weird dinner.
Fortunately, Matt mentioned on my FB post about “banana ice cream.” I was intrigued, especially since:
- the ONLY ingredient is bananas (what the?)
- I’ve cut dairy out of my diet, and so I have limited “ice cream” options
- the ONLY ingredient is bananas (no, seriously, WHAT THE?!!)
So, I tried it. The ingredients? Bananas. Seriously. Just peel them, cut them into pieces (inch or less), and freeze them for a couple hours. Then put them in a food processor.
The immediate result was very soft and creamy, but after putting the “ice cream” in the freezer overnight, it became a perfect ice cream texture. It has not gotten overly hard like ice-cream does. And it’s naturally sweet, so, although I may try adding maple syrup or sugar to future batches — I feel no dying need to.
It’s a good day to like bananas. A good day for monkey-kind.
I’m ready to return to making pies and curling up with a new television show and soup and boozy tea. I’m excited to get back together with people to eat food and share libations and in general keep warm. Ready for fall.
September hadn’t even begun yet when I made this vegetable pie, for example:
Farmland Vegetable Pie, with Nouveau Carré
Delicious, and the cornmeal crust rolled out and baked up like a dream. Matt and I ate thick slabs of it while we sipped Nouveau Carrés as truly modern gentlemen do.
Stir 1.5 oz tequila with .75 oz Lillet Blanc, .25 oz of Benedictine and 3 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters with ice and strained into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.
* * * * *
A month or so ago there was the Bacon-Off at work. . . here are the Gummy Apple Bacon Strips I made, which earned me the trophy!
This was my fourth batch, the result of experimenting with various types of gelatin (I tried sheet gelatin for the first time, and even agar. The final recipe was a mixture of reduced apple juice, lemon juice, smoked brown sugar, unflavored Knox gelatin and bacon syrup by Torani.
Lately I also find myself drawn to creating cozy weekend brunches. Here’s the beginning of a peach and blueberry compote for Sunday pancakes for me and my boyfriend.
You know what else is good? A good beverage. I’ve been reading Imbibe! and enjoying the possibilities of imagining get-togethers of friends around a boozy punch bowl, hot and spicy snacks and a general mirth while the first cold rain of Seattle fall falls in constant drizzle throughout the evening.
Here’s a good pale colored drink that’s best for these last summer days: Mix equal parts gin, green chartreuse, Maraschino liqueur and lime juice in a shaker with ice and strain into a chilled glass; it really is The Last Word.
31st century (for 4 tequila drinkers)
4 ½ oz lime juice
8 oz Sparkle Donkey double distilled Silver Tequila
6 oz Crème de Cacao
2 droppers of Thai chili tincture*
¾ oz simple syrup
Small handful of mint leaves
Muddle mint in the bottom of shaker. Add ice then rest of ingredients. Shake and strain into 4 chilled absinthe-rinsed coupe glasses.
My girlfriend Sheena came over the other day with a couple bottles of Sparkle Donkey tequila (The World’s Best Tequila™), distributed by Black Rock Spirits, where she works, and we endeavored to determine their best qualities by finding a couple of cocktails to try from the PDT Cocktail Book. We made the East Village Athletic Club Cocktail with Reposado (golden) Sparkle Donkey tequila, lemon juice, chartreuse and Grand Marnier, which was delicious, but made us more ready to try another cocktail. We turned next to the 21st century cocktail, whose name is actually a riff on the gin-based 20th century cocktail, named after the 20th Century Limited luxury train that traveled between New York City and Chicago from 1902 to 1967. This was accomplished by shaking Sparkle Donkey silver tequila, crème de cacao and lemon juice and pouring into an absinthe-rinsed glass.
We liked the second one better, but when we realized we were out of lemons, we made some modifications. You see, we were expected at a public viewing of Conan the Destroyer** at the park for Friday night fun with friends, so we located an empty bottle and increased the ratios for 5 people (which turned out to be best for 4) and mixed away, adding lime (better), chili tincture for some nice heat, simple syrup to take the edge off, and mint for some herbal complexity. The result is spicy, sour, sweet and effervescent.
It’s always a joyous occasion when one creates a cocktail that’s so pleasantly delicious (which is why I’m sharing it here).
I’m not sure I’ve grown fond of the name or the packaging, truth be told, but I do like the wit and cleverness of SD’s marketing, particularly the vintage magazine ads above, and the absurdist history, poking fun at the idea that the only good tequila has to be one that’s been around since times ancient. The drink’s delicious, the name is silly, and it’s worth a try.
Next, I’m thinking of trying the Nouveau Carré, an agave riff on one of my very favorite cocktails, the rye-based Vieux Carré). (”You’ll Be Without a Carré in the World”? Nah.) or the Conquistador, wherein rum sidles up to the tequila and gets frothy with some egg white. Oh, yeah.
Drink well, love well. Be well, friends.
*I realize you probably don’t have this lying around . . . this was a gift from M&D. Essentially you chop up jalapenos and soak them in vodka until the liquor’s infused with spicy goodness.
**This is the second time I’ve seen this movie this year, and let me tell you, it’s all about Grace Jones for me. Such an original.
Copper & Silver
So if a Moscow Mule & Mint Julep spill into each other, do they become a Mintcow Mulep?
Ahem. Anyway. I’ve been writing copy about the Moscow Mule’s traditional receptacle, the copper mug, and the Mint Julep’s silver tumbler, both created decades ago in the name of marketing, then abandoned after enthusiastic imbibers began stealing the mugs and tumblers. Now they are making a comeback, as the craft cocktail movement continues to pick up speed.
The Moscow Mule’s origin story isn’t all that interesting, your basic successful marketing plan, but it’s one of the best vodka cocktails I know, mainly because the ginger beer gives a nice spiciness to counteract the lime. Can’t wait to make these further into the summer, when it’s hotter.
Which happens to be how I feel about the Mint Julep as well, and its back story is fascinating. Mint leaves muddled into bourbon and chilled with crushed ice and garnished with mint. It’s that simple–one of those things so perfectly balanced that I considered purchasing a Sno-Cone machine to make liquorish mid-summer treats.
The word “julep” is traced as far back to the Middle East, and a rose-flavored water called Julab. When the drink made its way to the Mediterranean, the rose petals were replaced by mint leaves. Americans eventually mispronounced the drink and switched out the water for liquor, and a classic infusion was born. The Derby’s marketing tool of silver tumblers made a great julep even better, the frosted edges of the stainless steel tumbler rim embellish the drink with teeth-chattering cold, then you taste the smooth burn of bourbon and the brisk herbal note of mint. Delicious.
I just finished reading Relish, by Lucy Knisley. It’s delightful.
And now I’m reading Ratio, by Michael Ruhlman, after receiving a copy in a class offered by Sur La Table of a similar name, Ratios Not Recipes. I’ve taken about 5 classes at Sur La Table now, and this one was my favorite. We made crème brûlée, pie crust, shortbread cookies topped with crystalized lemon and dark chocolate drops, and a pâte à choux, which I mixed with goat cheese and chopped basil and dropped in big globs that puffed to the size of hamburger buns. Really good. The cookies were tasty too (I never miss a chance to mix lemon with chocolate) but the pie crust inspired me. I went home and straightaway made a Rhubarb Crostata.
It was delicious.
Speaking of crostata, there’s one on the cover of this month’s Sur La Table catalog. I’ll bet you’ll easily guess which pages I worked on. You should request a copy.
Best thing I saw today was Portion Control by Christopher Boffoli, these wonderful mixtures of miniature people among huge blow-ups of food:
Rock Candy Icefall
….including this awesome photo of Fran’s Grey Salt Caramels, attended to by the Salt Harvesters
M and I are off to San Francisco for a week. So I need to finish up this blog and get back to my research. I’ll leave you with a shot of what I think just might be my first completely successful loaf of bread. I created a sourdough starter over the Memorial Day weekend and made this gorgeous loaf. Perfectly browned crust, soft and tender center: San Francisco Sourdough loaf. I will never forget it.