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.
This week I lost a tooth, which always puts me in a maudlin state of mind wherein I obsessively contemplate the nature of mortality, and I’ve been thinking the best way to be memorialized would be to have a food named after me. Here are some examples I can think of:
The sandwich (Earl of Sandwich)
John Wayne candy bar (John Wayne)
Oysters Rockefeller (John D. Rockefeller)
Fettuccine Alfredo (Alfredo di Lelio)
Eggs Benedict (no idea, but it has to be someone)
Frangelico (Fra Angelico, duh)
Cherry Garcia ice cream (Jerry Garcia)
Earl Grey tea (some British prime minister)
Margarita cocktail (Rita Hayworth. Real name Margarita Cansino)
Melba toast (Dame Nellie Melba)
Pavlova (Anna Pavlova)
General Tso’s chicken (also has to be someone, right?)
Dongpo pork (Su Dongpo)
"I want Dong Po!" ... too obscure? I love 'Kickboxer'.
Dongpo pork is a new favourite recipe of mine. It is Chinese cuisine at its finest – simultaneously elaborate and simple. The ingredients are few but the pork must be boiled, reboiled, simmered in a sauce, fried, boiled again, then steamed. Why is it named after the poet Su Dongpo? No one knows. Almost certainly he didn’t invent it (who could imagine a poet going to all that work?). As Lin Hsiang puts it in Chinese Gastronomy, this dish is “…named after Su Tungpo, the poet, for unknown reasons. Perhaps it is just because he would have liked it.” And I bet he would have. When you are done, the pork is so tender the fat can be eaten with chopsticks.
1 lb pork belly
1 tea bag (Lapsang Souchong for preference)
4 spring onions
About an inch of fresh ginger, slivered
1 head broccoli
1 cup water
8 cloves garlic, smashed
5 slices ginger
1 tablespoon peppercorns
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon sugar
Boil a pot of water and toss in the pork. When it comes back to the boil, drain the pork, clean the pot (go on, do it), put the pork back in and cover with cold water. Bring back to the boil. Boil 30 minutes. Fish out the pork, keep the water.
Heat up another saucepan with all the sauce ingredients. Add the pork and simmer for a few minutes, until nicely coloured. Remove the pork and reserve the sauce.
Heat up some oil in a saucepan (or wok). Fry the pork on all sides until well browned and the skin is crispy. While this is happening, steep the tea bag in boiling water for a minute or so, then toss the water and keep the tea bag.
Place the pork in the saucepan of water again, and add the tea bag. Simmer 30 more minutes.
Cut the spring onions in half, and use them to make a lattice at the bottom of your bamboo steamer. Place the pork on top of this, then steam for 2 hours. You will need to top up the water a few times.
Don't forget to cover the steamer... unlike this pic
Cut the broccoli into florets and place in the steamer for the final 5 minutes of cooking time.
Place the pork and broccoli on a serving dish, reheat the sauce (thicken with cornflour if you like) and pour over the pork. Garnish with the slivers of ginger.
It’s a long process, no doubt, but there’s only one life to eat, enjoy, and enjoy eating. As the poet himself put it:
Shui Lung Yin by Su Dongpo
Drinking through the night at East Slope,
still drunk on waking-up,
I return home around midnight.
My house-boy snores like thunder,
no answer to my knock.
Leaning on my stick, listening to the river,
I wish this body belonged to someone else.
When can I escape this turmoil?
In the deep night, with the wind still, the sea calm;
I’ll find a boat and drift away,
to spend my final years afloat,
trusting to the river and the sea.
Virgil, my fry bread guide, got a deer this year and I got a piece of it. Two jars of canned venison, in fact. Until a couple of weeks ago I had no idea you could keep venison in a jar, but there it is. Life is a learning experience. Here’s what I did with it:
Hungarian Cabbage Rolls (with Canned Venison)
1 lb canned venison, finely chopped
1 cup uncooked rice
1 green cabbage
1 can sauerkraut
2 small cans tomato juice
The quantities here are a tad approximate, but this is a very forgiving recipe. First, cut out the core of the cabbage with a sharp knife. Boil the cabbage for about 10 minutes, prodding it aimlessly until the leaves start to come apart. Drain it and let cool.
In a bowl, mix the chopped venison, the rice, and enough salt and pepper. Take a leaf of boiled cabbage and put a few spoons of venison mixture on it.
Tuck in the sides and roll up. Easy!
Layer the bottom of a heavy pan with sauerkraut. Place the rolls on top of this.
Cover with sauerkraut and add tomato juice (and water) to cover. Sprinkle with sugar. Simmer for about two hours. Eat with good company and cheap wine.
Rice, to me, is not a comfort food like pasta or bread. It is something far more fundamental and taken for granted until you don’t have it, like blood. Rice is a hint at the great and profound fact that we must eat to live. When I hear the word “Spam,” on the other hand, I feel like I just watched someone trip off the edge of the sidewalk – simultaneously compassionate and amused. Spam does not even deserve to be rice’s opposite – their relationship is more akin to Superman and helpless victim. However! I should have realised that without the helpless victim, Superman is just a dude in tights wearing his underwear on the outside, and I’ve learned that if you put rice and Spam together you get the way-too-unknown Hawaiian snack known as Spam musubi. You won’t see it in fusion restaurants but musubi are true fusion cuisine, combining both the Japanese and American influences in Hawaii in perfect harmony.
If you’re going to do a dish comprised of just Spam and rice, do it right. Sushi rice is tricky to make perfectly, and, unfortunately, there is no simple recipe. It all depends on what kind of rice you are using. Once you open this particular can of worms you soon understand why in many Japanese restaurants there’s a guy whose sole job is just to prepare the rice. I quote from the brilliant but absurdly named Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji:
“It is difficult to prescribe an exact formula for the size of pot and the amount of water to use in cooking rice because there are so many variables. Assuming that our interest is only in short-grain rice, we still must consider whether it was grown in a flooded paddy or dry field, whether the rice is newly harvested or whether it has already been on the shelf for some time, whether the climate is hot and muggy or desert dry. These are all factors that the rice chef, with a many-year training period, would have no trouble in dealing with.”
Not being a rice chef, I had some trouble dealing with the factors. I used white medium grain Calrose rice from California, which is often considered a good substitute for real Japonica sushi rice. Shizuo Tsuji suggests as a general rule, for rice of Asian origin grown in wet fields, 1 cup of water to 1 cup of washed rice (not dry), and for rice of American or European origin (grown in dry fields), 1 ¾ cups of water to 1 cup of dry rice. Exhausted yet? I followed his directions for American rice and ended up with rice pudding, not at all suitable for sushi. Fortunately, no one was very hungry yet, so I had time to start again:
Rice for Spam Musubi
2 cups medium-grain Calrose rice from California
2 cups water
4 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Wash the rice. This is done by putting the rice in a bowl, covering with cold water and squishing the rice around with your hands until the water turns milky. Do not let the rice stand in the water – when the water is milky, pour it out. Refill the bowl with cold water. Do this for about five minutes, removing the starches, until the water is almost clear. Shizuo Tsuji makes a point of mentioning that later washings should be performed more gently than the first washings, to avoid “bruising” the grains. Sure. Whatever. When done, drain the rice in a sieve and let stand for 30 minutes to an hour. I am convinced this does something, because the rice changes from clear to opaque.
Place the rice in a heavy pot with a tight fitting lid. I used my Le Creuset cast iron casserole. Add the water, cover, and heat over medium heat until the water just starts to boil. Turn the heat to high and let the water get to a vigorous boil. White foam will creep out from under the lid and sizzle on your burner but this is a sign you are doing the right thing. After two minutes, reduce heat to low and simmer for five more minutes. Do not, at any time, take the lid off to see how it is doing.
Turn off the heat and let the rice sit for twenty minutes unmolested.
While this is happening, combine the rice wine vinegar, sugar and salt in a small saucepan and stir over low heat until the sugar and salt dissolve. The quantities of the flavourings vary, traditional sushi rice is quite a bit sweeter, but we don’t like sweet things much. When dissolved, cool the saucepan in an ice bath (just kidding. No I’m not. Well, I did it. Hey, in for a penny, in for a pound, right?).
Now enlist your helper with a bamboo fan (or folded newspaper), lift off the lid on the pot, and sprinkle in the vinegar mixture. While your helper fans like a demon, cut the rice with a wooden spatula and turn it, essentially speed cooling it. This also apparently does something essential to the texture of the rice, I’m not sure what, but 126 million Japanese can’t be wrong, can they?
And there you have it. Perfect sushi rice, unless you are using a different brand than me or the weather is unsual or… anyway, if you want oodles more detail on the subject, I urge you to consult Japanese Cooking, a Simple Art.
Did I mention you will need a musubi mold?
Sorry about that. A musubi mold, exactly the dimensions of a slice of Spam, is used to compress the rice into a lovely brick shape. I don’t have a musubi mold, but I have a lovely 70s era sushi press that served the purpose. I have heard that some musubi fans use the empty Spam can.
Prepared sushi rice
1 can Spam
2 sheets nori
De-can your Spam and slice it into eight even slices. Heat up a frypan and toss in the Spam. When it begins to brown on the underside, pour in a mix of soy sauce and sugar. How much? Well, let’s say about three tablespoons of soy and 1 teaspoon of sugar, but you can mix it up to your own taste. Spam is far more forgiving than rice. The Spam will quickly suck up the soy; turn it off the heat.
Place rice in mold. Squash rice under high pressure until it is a firm brick. Sprinkle the rice brick with furikake and add slice of Spam. Since I was using a long sushi mold, I found it the perfect size to hold four slices of Spam, which I then turned into individual musubi with a sharp knife.
Cut strips of nori, and wrap the musubi up prettily. The nori is essential, it adds a fresh vegetable aroma to the heavily meaty Spam. My word, this is a snack for the gods, believe me.
I’ve dealt with some weird foods throughout the history of this blog. Finding and trying weird foods is a hobby of mine – in a new restaurant, I look for the oddest thing on the menu and order it. Sometimes the chef pokes his head out of the kitchen to look at me. On a recent trip through the astoundingly beautiful New Zealand, I found two more that I would like to share with you, one because it is good, and the other strictly for the horror-and-disgust factor. Consider yourself warned.
New Zealanders like whitebait, the immature fry of fish of many species. Every year, in a very limited and strictly enforced season, Kiwis compete for the chance to stand in a river with a net, scooping up shoals of the things as they migrate, rather like we do here in the Pacific Northwest when the salmon are running (except, of course, for a notable size difference in the prey. Whitebait are an inch or two long, and salmon a big enough to dent a car). The classic preparation of whitebait is fried in a “patty” (which is traditionally just a pure egg batter, like an omelet), which is then sometimes placed between two slices of bread. The end result is a fatty, greasy, protein-heavy snack full of tiny little fish, complete with head and guts and little eyes that stare at you as you raise them to your mouth. You can also eat them in more elegant preparations, such as sautéed in white wine, if you’re a tourist. I’d known about the Kiwi craze for whitebait since my young days reading Footrot Flats, so it was a given that I would sample them as soon as I could on my first trip to New Zealand.
Is it special? Is it fresh? Is it neither? Punctuation can be confusing.
First taste of whitebait: “Huh. Okay. It’s just tiny fish.” Second taste: “Okay. They’re not bad.” Third: “Are there any more?” That’s the mark of a true delicacy – initial uncertainty, followed by lifelong devotion. This is absolutely my favourite kind of food.
That was the good one.
Annnnnnd speaking of delicacies, here’s one I absolutely did not expect to see on a menu, ever: muttonbird, a.k.a. sooty shearwater. If you’ve never seen a shearwater, think of a dark brown seagull, which is essentially what they are. Now seagulls flock in great numbers to the rooftops around my apartment building, and sometimes, after being woken once again by their furious arguments at four in the morning, it has occurred to me to wonder how they would taste, had I a rifle handy. I always came to the conclusion that, were seagulls any good to eat, people would already be eating them, as with pigeons and squirrels in other cuisines. But now at last I had a chance to find out!
Muttonbirds are another species with a very limited and strictly enforced hunting season. In this case the strictures go further: muttonbird, or “titi” in the local language, can only be harvested by the Rakiura Maori people and their descendants, and as such is a key part of Southern Maori culture and heritage. How could I pass up a chance at this beast when I saw it on the menu of a fish and chip cart!
Here’s my advice to you: should you ever find yourself in Southern New Zealand, and you see muttonbird on the menu of a fish and chip cart, pass up the chance at it.
Deep fried muttonbird. Do not, under any circumstances, eat.
I pride myself on having an experienced and daring palate, but over the years I have found two foods I absolutely do not like: raw sea urchin, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Muttonbird is exactly like a cross between these two foods. It’s an incredibly fatty and greasy bird that tastes like a tidepool smells. Now when I put it like that it sounds it might be alright, and as these “culture and heritage” meals sometimes tend to be, it must have been better than slow starvation. But I sadly cannot recommend it.
To be fair, deep fried muttonbird from a fish and chip cart may not be the best preparation. A Kiwi friend of mine provided the following recipe from the enigmatic “Maori Cookbook.” (I say enigmatic because this rare paperback, which you can still find on Amazon for $188, contains no author, date or printing info, making it hard for me to credit.)
To Cook Mutton Birds:
Remove the feathers of the mutton bird (if any). The mutton bird may be treated in the same way as wild duck, i.e. roasted with a savoury stuffing of breadcrumbs, or, for a change, apples and onions. Bake for 1 hour. Alternatively, boil it briefly and pour off the water. It is really a matter of taste. If you don’t like the bird’s salty taste, boil it again, or rather simmer it until softish and then grill the bird until brown and sizzling. Garnish with a white sauce made with white wine. Pour it into the sauce as many Stewart Island oysters as it can comfortably accommodate.
That doesn’t sound so bad.
On the subject of this trip to visit the family Downunder, I must include a couple of pictures here from the Mecca of the produce world, Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne. If it’s not at the Queen Vic, it’s not edible (you can’t get muttonbird, for example).
It's so hard to find good kangaroo garlic mettwurst in the States.
Rolling out fresh borek pastry. One of the things I miss most about Australia is the Turkish food.
And just to finish with a recipe, here’s a salad my mother makes.
Quinoa, herb and pomegranate salad
½ vegetable stock cube
75g pine nuts
A small handful chopped mint
A small handful chopped coriander
1 lime, juiced
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Cook the quinoa according to pack instructions and add the vegetable stock cube to the cooking water.
Leave to cool, then break up with a fork.
Meanwhile, toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan until like golden.
Mix the pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, herbs, lime juice and olive oil through the quinoa.