Saturday, August 30, 2008

eat the raw oysters. leave the tuna.

"We can go out for dinner, or I can cook."
"Can we go out for seafood?"
"Sure."
"Yay. I want oysters."
"Oysters? When did you start eating oysters?"
"Years ago."

Every once in a while, Lucille surprises me. She's visiting me in Boston for the week, escaping orientation week at her school. Of course, some things stay the same: we're going out to eat, and she's choosing the place.

So. Raw oysters.

I'll be honest. Despite my fondness for all kinds of sashimi, it has been a seriously long time since I last ate raw oysters. Come to think of it, it's been quite a while since I ate oysters, period.

I know of just one place in Boston where I'd feel comfortable eating raw oysters. It may not be trendy, but I know Legal Seafoods has a solid reputation, and I can trust that the oysters will be fresh.

The Legal Seafoods in the Prudential Center looks busy and pretty full when we arrive for dinner.

We haven't made a reservation, and for a moment, I worry that we're going to be in for a long wait. The hostess says that a party of two is no problem, however, and seats us immediately.

Our server is quick to bring menus and iced water, and we settle in to figure out what we're going to eat.

Lucille decides that we'll split a dozen Prince Edward Island oysters as our starter. She'll have something called the "Everything Tuna" as a main course. I settle on the "crab cake combo" - a crab cake with grilled shrimp and scallops on the side.

"So how did you develop this taste for raw oysters? I thought the last time we ate oysters was at Prunier's. And those were grilled and topped with cheese."
"I went to buffets with Mum when you weren't at home."

That would explain it. Well, she's braver than I am. After two summers as a kitchen apprentice, I've become a lot warier of buffets.

Our server returns, bearing a platter of crushed ice with the oysters and various condiments neatly arranged on top. Lucille selects an oyster, gives it a squeeze of lemon, loosens it from its shell with her fork, and slurps it up in one quick movement.

"Yum. These are good."

Well. Moment of truth. I pick up an oyster and do as Lucille does.

I'm pleasantly surprised - the Prince Edward Island oyster is much milder than the Pacific oysters I ate as a child. It has a sweet, creamy quality, and the brine is light and flavorful.

I try my next oyster with cocktail sauce, and the one after that with shallot vinegar. I decide that they taste best with just lemon. Lucille agrees.

The oysters give us high hopes for our main courses, which arrive shortly after the oyster platter is cleared. My crab cake combo is exactly as described: crab cake, shrimp, and scallops, with a bit of green salad on the side. Lucille's tuna comes with spinach, rice, and some sort of sauce. We ready our forks, and tuck in.

Okay. Not off to such a good start. The crab cake appears to be made up of "fresh lump crabmeat," but it tastes like breadcrumbs. Buttery breadcrumbs with a touch of mustard, and not much else.

Fortunately, the "combo" part of the "crab cake combo" is vastly better. The shrimp are juicy and flavorful, and - I am happy to note - taste of nothing but shrimp. But it's the scallops that really steal the show - plump and sweet and perfectly grilled, with just a dab of butter for seasoning. I'm sorry that there are only four of them, because I could easily polish off an entire plateful.

I notice that Lucille has eaten just a few bites of her tuna, and is tentatively touching her fork to the unidentified sauce.

"How's the tuna?"
"It's... a bit weird."

Lucille cuts off a chunk and deposits it on my plate. I notice that the crust on the tuna seems remarkably busy: sesame seeds, poppy seeds, bits of garlic, and bits of onion.

Then the penny drops. "Everything tuna." As in "everything bagel."

The idea seems a little gimmicky, but not too great a stretch from your average sesame-crusted tuna. I pop the chunk in my mouth and start chewing.

Oh. Oh dear. The fish appears to be fresh and of good quality, but the crust completely overwhelms it. The net effect is that of an everything bagel with an odd texture and a vaguely fishy aftertaste. Maybe the theory had merit, but it doesn't work in practice.

I look at Lucille, who has her sauce-dipped fork in her mouth, and is making a face.

"I see what you mean. What's the sauce?"
"I don't know. It's weird too."

I dip my fork in the sauce, which is white and has chopped vegetable bits of some sort. Some sort of hollandaise, maybe?

I bring the fork to my mouth. Apparently not.

"It's cucumber raita. Like the sauce you get with curry."
"Oh. Really weird."

I have to agree. I would guess that Legal Seafoods isn't going to win any awards for culinary innovation. They seem to do best when they keep it simple.

Lucille manages to eat most of her tuna before giving up and pushing the plate away. We decide to get dessert elsewhere.

Much to my surprise, Lucille is smiling as we leave the restaurant.

"I thought you didn't like the tuna."
"I didn't. Not really. But the oysters were really good."

I guess the moral of the story is to take the oysters, and leave the tuna.

Friday, August 29, 2008

the lunch dilemma

It's interview season at law school.

Interview season makes me unhappy for all the reasons you'd expect: I have to wear a suit, I have to make small talk, and I have to answer all a manner of awkward questions about my grades, my ambitions, and my passion for the legal profession.*

It also peeves me for another reason: It's affecting my lunch.

You see, pre-interview food has to be neat. Nothing drippy. Nothing oily. Nothing that could possibly get unsightly stains on dry-clean only fabric. It has to be inoffensive, odor-wise: no garlic, no fish sauce, no curry. And it can't leave little unsightly bits stuck in your teeth.

Which rules out just about everything I eat for lunch on a regular basis.

So what's a stressed, grumpy, and hungry law student to do?

The French have a good answer: fry up a croque-monsieur, an old café standby. A sandwich of ham and gruyere with béchamel sauce, buttered and toasted golden brown, it satisfies all those pre-interview food criteria. It doesn't drip, won't leave any lingering odors, and won't get stuck in your teeth. (It does shed some crumbs, but a big napkin takes care of those.)

It's also very satisfying. Melted cheese and salty ham with creamy béchamel go a long way towards calming pre-interview jitters. They also help with cheering up post-interview blues.

So that's lunch taken care of. Now what am I going to say about my passion for the legal profession?

Croque-Monsieur

If you top this with a fried egg, it becomes a croque-madame.

(Makes one.)

Get a very large apron, and tie it over your dry-clean only suit.

Melt a small knob of butter in a saucepan over low heat. Add a teaspoon of flour, and stir until you have a paste. Add a dash of nutmeg and a splash of milk. Stir until your bechamel thickens up. (It should be on the thick side - you need it spreadable rather than pourable.) Season with salt, and remove from heat.

Take two slices of pain de mie, or other good white sandwich bread, and lay them on a cutting board. Spread one slice with the bechamel sauce. Lay a slice of good-quality ham on top.

Spread the other slice of bread with a dab of grain mustard. Top with a thin slice of gruyere or emmental. Put the two slices of bread together.

Set a frying pan over low heat. Butter the croque-monsieur on one side, and pop it, butter-side down, in the frying pan. Cook for two or three minutes, or until the bread is a nice shade of golden brown. Repeat the process for the other side.

Serve immediately. A green salad on the side helps to cut the richness - but watch out for those bits in your teeth.

*Answers, in order: Mediocre, elsewhere, and I plead the fifth.

Friday, August 22, 2008

when bread goes stale, or dessert for breakfast

I like to eat breakfast. I eat breakfast regularly.* But I like things that are apparently "weird" for breakfast. I have been told on occasion that my breakfast habits are alarming and unnatural.

Oh, I eat my share of toast and eggs and other unremarkable breakfast food.** But I will also happily eat leftover curry or pasta or fried rice. Or dessert.

A lot of desserts make better breakfast than they do dessert, really. If you're going to eat lots of fat and sugar, it probably makes more sense to do it on an empty stomach than on top of a full meal. Bread-and-butter pudding is a good example: it's basically bread and butter and milk and eggs with some sort of sweetener, all of which are perfectly standard breakfast fare.

And if the Clear Flour Bakery is going to insist on selling half-loaves of pain de mie that are too big for one person to finish before they go stale... well, I have to do something to keep the stale bread from going to waste.

And if it's alarming and unnatural, that's fine with me.

Bread-and-Butter Pudding with Cherry Jam

This is traditionally made with raisins, but jam is what I had in the fridge, so jam is what I used.

(Serves one.)

Get out a small baking dish that will hold about two slices of bread. Grease it generously with butter.

Take two slices of stale white bread, butter them, and cut them into cubes. Arrange the cubes, butter-side up, in your baking dish. Dot the cubes with small dollops of cherry jam.

Beat one egg with a generous splash of milk or half-and-half in a bowl, until the mixture is smooth and very pale yellow in color. Pour this mixture into the baking dish from the sides - don't pour it over the top of the bread.

Sprinkle the dish with cinnamon, and allow to sit for fifteen to twenty minutes, so that the bread gets a chance to soak up the egg mixture. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 350F.

Set the baking dish in a baking tray, and pour boiling water in so that it comes halfway up. Carefully move the tray to the oven. Bake for fifteen to twenty minutes, or until the pudding is set and golden on top. Remove from oven. Serve warm.

*Okay, semi-regularly. During the semester, sleep is everything, and sometimes it wins out over breakfast.

**But not breakfast cereal. I'm not convinced that breakfast cereal isn't just a cardboard by-product with sugar added.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

the cook's rewards

Today's story begins with a story. Does anyone remember Clever Grethel, from Grimm's Fairy Tales?

No? Well, maybe the name isn't familiar. You may have heard the story before. Read and see:

Grethel is a cook who happens to be a bit of a glutton. She likes her food, and she likes her wine. One day, her master tells her that he has a guest coming to dinner, and that she should roast two chickens for their meal.

So Grethel goes out to the chicken coop, kills two chickens, dresses them, stuffs them with a handful of fresh thyme, and puts them on a spit to roast. Now, Grethel might be a glutton, but she is an excellent cook, and she roasts the chickens to perfection: tender, juicy meat, and crisp brown skin, with lots of rich drippings to be soaked up with crusty bread.


Unfortunately, the guest is late. Grethel's master goes out to look for him, and while he's gone, Grethel notices that a wing on one of the chickens is just a little burnt. Grethel can't resist - the chicken smells too good - so she cuts off the wing, and eats it.


The chicken looks a bit odd with one wing missing, so she cuts off the other, and eats that too. She then looks to see if her master has returned. He hasn't, and it occurs to her that maybe he and his guest have decided to get a bite to eat at the tavern instead. So Grethel pours herself some wine (all that spit-roasting makes a girl thirsty), and eats the rest of that chicken.


Still no sign of her master, or his guest. Grethel decides that they must have changed their plans, so she pours herself some more wine, and has a private feast in the kitchen: the other roast chicken, a few slices of crusty bread, a wedge of cheese, an apple, and maybe a bit of leftover gingerbread. (I did mention that Grethel is a bit of a glutton, didn't I?)


Just as she's polishing off the last crumbs, Grethel's master returns and calls to her to ready the food; the guest is coming right behind him. He checks to see that the table is set, and starts sharpening the big carving knife.


When the guest arrives, Grethel answers the door and hurriedly whispers to him to run away as quickly as he can - her master intends to cut off his ears, and can't he hear the sound of the carving knife being sharpened?


The guest lets out a scream, and runs away as fast as his legs can carry him. Grethel then goes to her master in a huff, and tells him that his guest made off with the two fine chickens she had roasted - right off the platter, without so much as a by-your-leave!


Grethel's master, put out by the thought of the lost chickens, runs off after the guest, carving knife still in hand. "Just one, just one!" he calls, meaning just one chicken. The guest, of course, thinks Grethel's master means just one ear, and runs all the way home as though the hounds of hell were behind him.


Grethel's master presumably returned home and had a rather unsatisfying dinner of bread and cheese. Grethel presumably got away with her bit of mischief.


As for what, if any, ill-effects Grethel may have suffered from her enormous dinner - well, Grimm is silent on the subject.


I always enjoyed Grethel's story as a child, partially because I loved the thought of a private feast, and partially because the wings are my favorite part of a roast chicken. (They have the best meat-to-skin ratio, and I rarely have to fight anyone for them.)

So it was Grethel's story that I thought of when I came across Thomas Keller's recipe for simple roast chicken. As culinary instruction goes, there's not much to it - it really is a wonderfully simple recipe. But it's written in a quiet, almost conspiratorial tone that suggests that it's much better to be in the kitchen, roasting the chicken, than in the dining room, waiting for it to be brought to the table.

I used this recipe to roast a chicken for dinner with Bella and Matt the other day. We carved it up right in the kitchen, and served it with green salad, fresh green beans, and fingerling potatoes. The skin wasn't quite as crisp as I would have liked (I was worried about overcooking), but it did turn out deliciously moist.

And yes, I did get to eat the wings.

(Photos will be up in a day or two, after they've been retrieved from Bella's camera.)

Thomas Keller's Roast Chicken
(From Bouchon, via Epicurious.com)

One 2- to 3-pound farm-raised chicken
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons minced thyme (optional)

Unsalted butter
Dijon mustard

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Rinse the chicken, then dry it very well with paper towels, inside and out. The less it steams, the drier the heat, the better.

Salt and pepper the cavity, then truss the bird. Trussing is not difficult, and if you roast chicken often, it's a good technique to feel comfortable with. When you truss a bird, the wings and legs stay close to the body; the ends of the drumsticks cover the top of the breast and keep it from drying out. Trussing helps the chicken to cook evenly, and it also makes for a more beautiful roasted bird.

Now, salt the chicken — I like to rain the salt over the bird so that it has a nice uniform coating that will result in a crisp, salty, flavorful skin (about 1 tablespoon). When it's cooked, you should still be able to make out the salt baked onto the crisp skin. Season to taste with pepper.

Place the chicken in a sauté pan or roasting pan and, when the oven is up to temperature, put the chicken in the oven. I leave it alone — I don't baste it, I don't add butter; you can if you wish, but I feel this creates steam, which I don't want. Roast it until it's done, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove it from the oven and add the thyme, if using, to the pan. Baste the chicken with the juices and thyme and let it rest for 15 minutes on a cutting board.

Remove the twine. Separate the middle wing joint and eat that immediately. Remove the legs and thighs. I like to take off the backbone and eat one of the oysters, the two succulent morsels of meat embedded here, and give the other to the person I'm cooking with. But I take the chicken butt for myself. I could never understand why my brothers always fought over that triangular tip — until one day I got the crispy, juicy fat myself. These are the cook's rewards. Cut the breast down the middle and serve it on the bone, with one wing joint still attached to each. The preparation is not meant to be superelegant. Slather the meat with fresh butter. Serve with mustard on the side and, if you wish, a simple green salad. You'll start using a knife and fork, but finish with your fingers, because it's so good.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

new beginnings

I'm done with my glimpse of law firm life, and I am once again in Boston. Which means that we're returning to our (ir)regularly scheduled programming.

Well, sort of. My meals for the past three weeks have consisted pretty much of sandwiches and takeaway, so before I start tinkering with recipes and coming up with new crazy ideas, I need to ease my way back into proper cooking. (I also need a few days to stock the fridge so that I actually have something to cook.)

I've started simple: a salad of mixed greens with sardines and onions, a batch of black bean mole, and that chicken and apple risotto I alluded to in my last entry for Novel Food.

Risotto, you see, is an easygoing dish, just the sort of meal to get you back into the kitchen. It's big on patience, but light on technique. As long as you leave the heat low and keep stirring, you'll end up with creamy, luscious results.

I'm sure fine chefs everywhere will have heart attacks at such heresy, but I find that it's an excellent use-up-those-leftovers dish, a sort of Italian answer to fried rice.* After all, risotto is no pedigreed creation. Sure, you can dandy it up with truffles and lobster and other expensive ingredients, but risotto is really just the invention of some unknown peasant in rice country, trying to stretch a handful of something a little further.

Which means that it lends itself very well to taking a leftover bit of chicken, an apple, and few seasonings, and turning it into a whole new dish.

I think it's not a bad beginning. I hope you'll agree.

Chicken and Apple Risotto


You'll need the equivalent of a breast or thigh in shredded leftover chicken for this recipe. If you're lacking leftover chicken, this also works with sausage.

(Serves one for two or three meals. Can be frozen, though the texture of the rice will suffer.)

Pour three or four cups of chicken stock (homemade or storebought) into a small pan. Set the pan on a burner on low heat.

Heat a little olive oil and a small knob of butter in a heavy-bottomed pot over low heat. Add four finely sliced shallots, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent. Season with a sprinkling of fresh or dried thyme.

Add half a cup of arborio or carnaroli rice. Stir until the rice is warmed through.

If you're using leftover roast chicken, now would be the time to add a splash of hard cider. If you're using leftover braised chicken, add a splash of dry white wine. Stir.

When the rice has absorbed the cider or wine, turn the heat up a little and add a ladleful of stock. Stir until it has been absorbed by the rice, then add more. Continue this process (do not stop stirring) until the rice has reached the stage where it is soft enough to bite through, but still fairly hard.

Add your finely shredded leftover chicken. Continue stirring and ladling in stock. If you're starting to run out of stock, dilute it with hot water.

When the rice is almost done (just short of al dente), add one diced apple. I used Granny Smith, but any kind of tart apple will do. Check the seasoning; add salt if necessary. Cook until the rice is done, then turn off the heat. Stir in a generous amount of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Let stand for five minutes, then serve.

Note: You could probably add a dash of curry powder for a different twist, though it's an idea I haven't yet tested. I make no promises about the results.

(The image above is from Wikimedia Commons. Definitely not my work.)

*Within reason. You can get away with putting cold cuts into fried rice, but not into risotto.