Sunday, December 26, 2010

Recipe/Technique: New England Seafood Chowder

As anyone who grew up in New England, especially near the coast, can tell you, a chowder is a milk soup. It’s thin. It becomes thicker as you cook it only by dint of potato starch and evaporation.

Somewhere along the line, some restaurateur figured out that flour was cheaper than milk and seafood, and thus was born the stand-your-spoon-up-in-it sludge that now passes for ‘chowdah.’ It isn’t. Please. Leave the flour, cornstarch, arrowroot, agar, or other thickening agents out. Chowder is a milk soup. It’s thin.

But just because chowdah is a milk soup doesn’t mean that milk has to be the only liquid in the pot! So, hey, ‘gear up’ as Jethro might say and let’s build a half gallon of not-quite-classic seafood chowdah.

Here’s what you’ll need:

1 small to medium yellow onion
1 rib celery
1 carrot
2 (or so) potatoes
lean salt pork, cut into 1/8” dice (maybe ¼ to 1/3 cup, 3 or maybe 4 slices, err on the extra side – you can always store extras for use in other things)
2 cups chicken stock
1 – 2 cups vegetable stock
1/3 to ½ cup sherry (cream, dry, whatever’s cheap and on hand)
½ gallon milk
( ½ cup or more cream or half & half, optional)
butter and/or olive oil
seafood (what you got . . . clams, scallops, shrimp, white fish, red fish, crab, lobster, calamari – but only if you quick-cook it properly and then chop it before putting it into the chowdah!)
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley or 1 Tbsp. dried flakes (curly parsley, not cilantro)
salt and Tellicherry (maybe a few flakes of dried red pepper flakes – you know,
pizza pepper)

Here’s how you do it:

Start with the salt pork. Cut it up into tiny little cubes and toss it into your chowdah pot over medium heat. Put a teaspoon of olive oil in the pan if it’s prone to sticking add a few (1/3 tsp?) flakes of red pepper, and stir everything around to coat the pork.

Seafood Chowdah Salt Pork

As soon as the pork begins to sizzle and spit, turn the heat down to low and slow. You want to render the fat while you brown the ‘cracklins’ and you do not want to create any nitrosamines in the process.

While your cracklins become perfect, prepare a classic mirepoix – onions, carrot, and celery, chopped fine but not quite minced. Use about 1/3 of each vegetable for the mirepoix. Cut the rest of each into soup-sized chunks and save it to add later.

When the pork is rendered and browned, remove it to a plate and drain it on a paper towel (or brown bag or . . .). Crank the heat back up under the pot and cook the mirepoix. OK, OK, if your cardiologist is watching or your pork was particularly generous, you can drain out some of the pork fat before you cook the mirepoix. Or if you want to introduce some extra special flavor into your soup, drain some of the pork fat but replace it with an equal amount of butter. Whatever your fat choice(s), cook the mirepoix for at least 5 minutes over pretty good heat, stirring constantly. You want the heat to bring out the flavors of the veggies, but you don’t want anything to brown. So keep it movin’! After 5 minutes, add the parsley and then turn the heat back down to that low and slow spot. Continue to ‘stew’ the mirepoix for another 12-15 minutes. This stage is to thoroughly tenderize the veggies.

Seafood Chowdah Mirepoix

In this case, I had a ‘broken’ potato, so rather than keep it damp until later, I just tossed it in with the mirepoix here.

When the veggies are totally tender, crank the heat back up to medium, count to 23 (or wait for some indication that the heat is back) and pour in a goodly slug or two of sherry. You can use white wine if you prefer, but I like the woodsy richness that the sherry imparts. Let it bubble and sizzle until the volume of sherry is reduced by at least half; then pour in one cup of chicken stock.

Seafood Chowdah Sherry

Allow the pot to come up to a serious simmer and let it cook until the chicken stock is reduced by at least half.

Seafood Chowdah Salt Pork

Now in case you haven’t noticed, you’ve just created a wondrous, rich flavorful soup/sauce base that you can and should use whenever you make any kind of soup or sauce. The basic steps are the same: cook up a mirepoix (or something similar – replace the carrot with bell peppers and/or add some garlic and/or toss in some herbs and/or . . .), then simmer in liquid(s) to make your flavor base. It’s a classic technique you can use all the time.

Once the liquid in your pot has reduced by half, add the rest of the chicken stock and all of the veggie stock. Bring it up to a good simmer and let it cook for 10 minutes or so.

Seafood Chowdah 2nd Reduction

Then add in the rest of the chopped up vegetables. While they’re getting warm, cube up the potatoes. I always leave the skins on, but you can peel them if you must. Do trim away any nasty bits, and try to get your cube size small enough to allow a piece of potato to share the spoon with something else when you’re eating.

When the pot is bubbling again, toss in the potatoes. Let them cook for at least 15 minutes. Then, sample a bit of broth and half a piece of potato. If you need to add salt, now is the time. And even if no salt is required, now is the time to add a few (4 – 6) grinds of fresh Tellicherry.

At this point, it’s fish time. Whatever you’ve got, toss it in. In general, you can cook the fish in the stock. But for calamari, clams, crab and lobster, pre-cooking is best; that way, you can easily consol the tenderness of the seafood. Once cooked to perfection, all kinds of fish will survive quite nicely in a slow cooked soup. Shrimp, white fish and red fish seem quite happy cooking directly in the chowdah.

Seafood Chowdah Fish

As soon as the fish are in, add the milk (and cream if you are using it). As always, if you think of it, get the milk and cream out long enough in advance to reach room temperature before you pour them in, or don’t. . . But whatever you do, pay attention to your pot! If the milk boils over, and you’re not right there, you’ll likely make friends with your local fire department.

Seafood Chowdah Add Fish

Once the fish and milk are in the pot, add about half the cracklins back to the pot (save some to sprinkle on at the table). Then, it’s time to wait. The chowdah should come to a serious simmer, with some milk curd/crust/solids forming on top. Stir them all back in and lower the heat to a bare simmer and let your chowdah develop for at least an hour.

Seafood Chowdah Cook

After that, well, simply enjoy . . .

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Recipe: Cream of Potato Soup

This is not Vichyssoise. This is a peasant soup - often my favorite kind of almost any dish. Vichyssoise is White (maybe even WHITE); this one is mottled gold with cracklin’s. Vichyssoise is a smooth texture (usually too smooth having had all its textural character processed out of it); this one is definitely lumpy, and you can choose the size of your lumps. Vichyssoise can be served hot or chilled; this one wants to be steaming hot on a cold winter’s day. Serve it with a sandwich for lunch or with a salad for dinner. To the leftovers, add broccoli or green beans or asparagus to create a whole new meal; add seafood - shrimp, crab, lobster, any whitefish - and call it a chowder. Add, well, you think of something, and let us all know how it works!

Here’s what you’ll need.

Potatoes, 2 or more depending on the size of your pot
onion, ½ large
carrot, 1 small
celery, 1 rib
garlic, 2 small cloves
lean salt pork
chicken stock, home made if you’ve got it, from a ‘chicken base’ if you don’t, canned if you have no ‘base,’ or if worst comes to worst, a couple of bullion cubes
cream or Half & Half
crushed red pepper flakes
coarse Kosher salt, but only if you are using home made (unsalted) chicken stock; the others all have plenty of salt for this entire dish
fresh ground nutmeg
crumbled tarragon leaf

Here’s how you do it . . .

Pay special attention to that last ingredient. It’s the secret to all the best soups in the world. Yes, there are a lot of ways to make ‘quick soup.’ You can boil water, add spoon of Miso and make ‘soup’ in 5 minutes. You can heat a pot of chicken stock, toss in cooked leftover rice and chicken, and make ‘soup’ in 10 minutes. But if you really want Soup, you’ll need a goodly portion of patience.

Lean Salt Pork

You’ll need patience right from the beginning of this preparation, and that’s because you can’t rush salt pork cracklin’s. Oh, sure, you can crank the heat, add a little oil and fry your salt pork, but that ain’t cracklin’s. Cracklin’s come from slowly rendering the fat out of the lean salt pork and then slowly crisping the pork in its own fat. Allow at least 45 minutes. An hour is more likely.

Cubed Lean Salt Pork

So take a slice or two of your salt pork (you do always keep a hunk in the freezer, don’t you?) and cut it up into little cubelets. These are about ¼” cubes, which works well for this particular salt pork. Others may want to be a little larger, or a little smaller, depending on how they cook up. You want them to be crispy and crunchy, but not tooth-breaking boulders or BBs.

Render the Lean Salt Pork

Toss the pork into a skillet, and set it over very low heat. Add patience. After 15 minutes, toss the pork around a bit. After 10 more minutes, toss some more. And every 5 minutes from now until your patience runs out, toss them some more. When they’re ‘done’ to your satisfaction, carefully scoop them onto a paper towel to drain, making sure to keep all the rendered fat in the skillet.

Stock Base

Now, while the pork renders, you can prep everything else, short of actually cutting the potatoes - you don’t want to have to keep them wet for an hour or two; that would make them end up mushy in the soup. So get your stock out. In this case, I used about enough chicken base to make two cups of rich stock.

The Veggies

Then, get your veggies out. You’ll use a little bit of each for the soup’s base and then the rest will go in after the base has developed for a while.

Mirepoix and Friends

Here we have a classic mirepoix for the soup’s base - onion, carrot and celery, plus one of the garlic cloves chopped finely. The other veggies will go in later.

Red Pepper Flakes

Before you start cooking the mirepoix, toss about ¼ tsp. of crushed red pepper flakes into the rendered pork fat and let them start to cook.

Mirepoix into the Skillet

Then cook the mirepoix - hold the garlic. Crank the heat a bit when you first toss the mirepoix in so that it starts to cook immediately - not a hectic sauté, but maybe a jumpin’ simmer. Stir everything around from time to time and after about 5 minutes, toss in the garlic. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes or so.

Mirepoix into the Soup Pot

When the mirepoix is soft and tender, carefully spatulate it into your soup pot, once again being careful to leave as much of the fat as possible in the skillet.

Add Stock to Soup Base

Now add about ½ cup of your chicken stock to the mirepoix in the soup pot and bring it to a serious simmer. This is your soup base. And, yes, more patience is required. Cook gently (a few bubbles, no froth) for at least 20 minutes; 30 would be better.

Potato for base

While that’s cooking, cut up a potato. I like little cubes, maybe 3/8” on a side. But whether you want them large or small, always take a thin slice off each side of the potato and mince it up to toss into your burgeoning soup base.

Potato in Skillet

Toss your potato cubes into the skillet and sauté for about 8 - 10 minutes. Now, I used a baby skillet for my small batch of soup, so I did each potato separately. If you’re making a gallon or three, you can cook 2 or 3 potatoes at a time (though extend the cooking time to 15 minutes or so). When the (final) potato is about half done, toss in the minced-up second clove of garlic. You want the garlic to flavor the potato, but not to get browned. At the same time, add a dozen grinds or so of fresh Tellicherry black pepper.

Rest of Veggies

While the potato sautés, cut up the rest of the veggies into soup-size bites. Please note that the ½ onion there did not go into the soup; it was saved for another day. Only the remainder of the ½ onion that was used for the mirepoix went into the soup.

Veggies in Skillet

When the potatoes are done, toss them in the soup pot and add the rest of the stock. Then toss the last of the veggies into the skillet and sauté them for 5 - 8 minutes or so, just to the point where they begin to get tender. Then, into the soup pot with ‘em.

All in the Soup Pot

Now add another portion of patience. Cook the soup covered for at least 30 minutes. While it’s cooking, you can add some crushed tarragon leaves - no more than 1/3 tsp, and a few grates of fresh nutmeg (8 - 10 scrapes). If all you have is ground nutmeg, I’d say skip it. The flavor the nutmeg adds is very subtle, but with the off-the-shelf ground type, you run the risk of the flavor being bitter rather than nutty sweet.

This is also the time to make a cracklin' choice. I like to add mine in at this point so they add to the overall flavor of the soup. Some prefer to wait until the dairy goes in and add them then. Others will wait until the soup is served and use the cracklin's as a garnish. The choice is yours . . .


Finally, it’s time to add the dairy. Start with 1 cup of milk (your choice as to whole or other, but please, not skim!). When that has warmed up in the pot, add a cup of cream or Half & Half. Stir that in and cook slowly, for another 30 minutes.

boiling is a nono

Be sure to keep an eye on the pot until the soup gets up to its cooking temperature. You do want it to come just to a boil, but not to boil at all after that - just to simmer, bubbly gentle.

Soup’s Ready

And when those final 30 minutes of patience have expired, well, then it’s soup. Enjoy!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Tip/Technique: Vegetable Stock

Vegetable stock is an incredibly versatile liquid that adds flavor, character and depth to almost anything. If you have to put liquid into something to cook it, consider using some veggie stock. Soups, stews, sauces of every sort, gravies, marinades, basting fluids, braising liquids, poaching liquids, let your imagination flow. Cook your rice in it, your pasta, even your potatoes; how about dumplings, spatzle, good grief, boil your home made bagels in it!

‘Course that means you’ll need gallons of the stuff. No worries. Here’s how you do it.

Veggie Stock start

At least once a month, save up your fresh vegetable scraps for a week (or so). Use those thin little bags you put your produce in at the grocery store to hold the scraps and keep it in the produce drawer in your refrigerator. If you’re careful to squeeze all the air out, then hold it closed and give the bag a spin to twist it tight, you can pull the open end over the sealed end, give it a shake and, voila, airtight sealed storage.

Now a week works for me. The scraps stay ‘fresh,’ the filled bag still fits in the produce drawer (with room for some actual produce, as well), and I end up with just enough scrap to fill my 3qt. saucepan. If you’re cooking for a crowd or just for yourself, you’ll have to figure out whether to save up for a shorter period or to make a smaller quantity of stock. The important part of the equation is: don’t let the scraps spoil.

Veggie Stock bag full

What to save? Whatever you’ve got. Keep the trimmed ends of carrots, squashes, green beans, celery; the stalks from asparagus, broccoli, leafy greens; trimmings from lettuces, cabbages, Brussels sprouts; the ends and peels from red onions, yellow onions, shallots, cucumbers. . . And so on . . .

It may be easier to list what not to keep. No potato parts. No tomato parts. No seeds or membranes from bell peppers parts (or other peppers, either). No peels from waxed vegetables such as rutabagas or cucumbers. No fruits, nuts or garlic parts. I’m sure I’m forgetting (or have never thought of) dozens of others, but hopefully, you get the idea.

Veggie Stock pot

When your bag is full, dump it all into your saucepan. Push it down if need be to make it all fit and then fill the pot with water. No salt. No pepper. No nothing. Just pure plain water. And, as mentioned in other posts from time to time, if you live in a ‘water challenged’ area where you can taste the ‘water treatments,’ consider using bottled water for your stock.

Veggie Stock pot high heat

Then simply put it on to heat. Start on high, but keep an eye on the pot (if you don’t already know how long it takes your pot that size, full of water, to come to a boil, now’s a good time to learn; watch the clock!)

Veggie Stock boiling

As the pot nears a boil, take the cover off. You want the pot to reach a pretty full boil, but don’t want to let it boil over.

Veggie Stock simmer

After it’s reached as much of a boil as you can manage without spilling over, put the cover back on, but leave it ajar, and turn the heat down to a serious simmer. Come back and check in 5 – 10 minutes. Still simmering? Not spitting over? Then you can leave it alone for 30 – 45 minutes. When you check back then, add some more water to bring the level back up near the top of the pot. And let it cook for another hour. More water; another hour.

Veggie Stock reduce

Now you’ve got a good stock going. So pull the pot lid back a ways and leave it to simmer for a while more. Let the volume of liquid reduce to at least ¾ of the pot, maybe a little more. You want the vegetable scraps to give up all their value, but don’t want to let them start to dry out. When the liquid is down to near the top of the veggies, it’s time to strain.

You can use a fairly coarse strainer here; the idea is to remove (most of) the solid matter. The strained liquid will be reduced further and then strained again before storage. So just dump it into a colander or such and collect the liquid. The solids can be thrown out (or onto your compost heap).

Now, back to the pot and onto the stove for the hardest part of this whole thing. Reduce the liquid over medium heat (a bubbly simmer) to about 2 cups or the amount it takes to fill one of your ice cube trays. Most of mine hold about 14 ounces.

Veggie Stock strain

When you’re ready, strain the stock through your finest strainer into a container from which you can pour easily. Then pour the liquid into your ice cube tray. If the tray will sit atop other ice cube trays, be sure to avoid spills and drips – then again, maybe vegiie flavored ice cubes will start a whole new trend . . . And into the freezer.

Veggie Stock frozen

In the morning (or afternoon or evening or. . .), remove the veggie stock cubes from the tray and store them in a ziplock in your freezer. At the concentrations described here, one cube in one cup of water makes one cup of delicious vegetable stock.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Recipe: Chicken with Mustard Sauce

Here’s a wonderful marriage of chicken and mustard. When I’m in a fancy mood, I call it Poulet de Moutarde en Croute, though the ‘in crust’ part is an exaggeration. But if you’re patient enough, you can certainly get a good crunch going! Sadly, this is one of those recipes that I can only cook while Cathy is away. Though I’ve managed to sneak mustard into loads of food that she’s eaten with delight, this one is still a little too up front mustardy for her tastes. But I’ll keep tryin’ . . .

The hardest part of this recipe is realizing at least 3 hours before dinner that this is what you want!

Here’s what you’ll need (per serving):

1 boneless, skinless breast of chicken
¼ - 1/3 tsp. sesame oil
1/3 – ½ tsp. liquid smoke
5 – 10 drops Tabasco Sauce
1/3 – ½ tsp. turmeric
1/3 – ½ tsp. cilantro
2 tsp. prepared mustard (brown or Dijon – not yellow, please . . .)
¼ - 1/3 cup White wine
2 – 3 Tbsp. flour
Tellicherry (fresh ground black pepper)
(veggie medley, whole ‘boiled’ potatoes, or other accompaniments of your choice)

Here’s how you do it:

Gather your ingredients, and start by building your chicken coating, which will also become your sauce.

Poulet de Moutarde ingredients

I included quantities in the ingredients list, but as you may know if you’ve explored this blog, I seldom actually measure anything. So, it’s a pinch of this, a sploosh of that, a shake of the other, and there you go. I start this with the oil, liquid smoke and Tabasco. Give them a whirl with a fork or a whisk, and then add the turmeric and cilantro, and whisk them in, too.

Whisk up everything except the mustard

Now add your mustard and whisk that in.

Poulet de Moutarde coating

Now let this mixture rest for 30 minutes to allow all the flavors to blend and meld completely.

After the half hour rest, rinse your chicken and pat it dry.

Get ready to coat

Give it a goodly grind or five of Tellicherry.

Pepper that chicken!

And slather first one side and then the other with your mustard coating. Depending on how aggressive you like your mustard, you could lightly pierce the chicken with a fork before (or even after) coating, to allow the flavors to reach deeply into the meat. Me, I prefer the physical layers of flavor, with the mustard coat on the outside of the chicken, but hey, you do it your way, please . . .

Poulet de Moutarde coated

Now, rest period again. At least another 30 minutes; an hour, if possible. No, you don’t have to put it in the refrigerator; there’s enough salt and vinegar in the mustard and Tabasco to at least inhibit, if not kill, any Salmonella lingering in your chicken. And since you rinsed it and patted it dry before coating, you got rid of any surface bacteria before you even started. But if you’re truly paranoid about food bugs, go ahead and put it in the fridge; just be sure to leave it for at least an hour; the cold really slows down the uptake of the flavors.

While your chicken rests (this time – there’s another rest hour coming later!), scrape any big piles of extra coating from the chicken plate back into the mixing bowl, and add the white wine. Whisk it all up and set it aside. This will become the base for the final mustard sauce.

Poulet de Moutarde sauce starter

Now is also the time to prep your veggies and starch for the meal. Tonight, I did up a medley of cauliflower, broccoli, carrots and onions, which I steamed in a little white wine. (I also put a tiny drizzle of olive oil in the bottom of the pan before I added the veggies.) Add a pinch of Kosher (or other coarse) salt and a few goodly grinds of Tellicherry, and then pour the splash of white wine on top. These will go on the heat about 30 minutes before serve time.

Poulet de Moutarde veg medley

And when I can, I prefer to ‘boil’ my potatoes with the skin on (give them a good scrub under running water, first). Of course, as I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere, boiled potatoes, in my book, should actually be intimidated potatoes. Put them in the pot of water; put the pot over high heat until you just begin to hear some ‘action’; turn the heat to low (salt if you must), and let the tubers evolve into perfectly tender, creamy textured spuds over the next hour or so.

Poulet de Moutarde taters

But before you put heat to potatoes, you’ll need to ‘en croute’ the chicken. And let it rest again.

I always use a strainer to sift my flour onto the chicken for a dish like this. You don’t have to, but if you just shake the unsifted flour, the texture of the final cooked coating will be much ‘thicker’ and lumpier – not necessarily bad things, but not what I prefer for this dish.

Poulet de Moutarde ready to crust

So, strainer in one hand, flour in the other, dump a little flour into the strainer and shake (gently, gently) the strainer across the surface of the chicken until you’ve completely coated the surface of the mustard.

Poulet de Moutarde top coated

Then, gently (hmm, lotsa gentlies in here!), turn the chicken over and coat the other side the same way. Turn the chicken back over, and put another light coat of flour on the top.

Poulet de Moutarde coated

Now let it rest for an hour. Over the hour, the flour will absorb moisture from the mustard coating and create a kind of delicate crust on the surface of the chicken. There will still be loose flour on the outer surface, but the interior will develop some ‘character’, which you’ll find when you eat the chicken.

When you’ve got your chicken resting, put some heat under those potatoes. You’ll be serving dinner in about 70-90 minutes.

So when the final chicken rest period is about done, get your skillet warmed up and put a Tbsp. or two of olive oil in the bottom. Swirl, twirl, shake and, when you’ve got heat, toss in the chicken. Oh, and put your veggies over medium high heat, too.

Poulet de Moutarde cook chicken

As soon as the chicken starts sizzling, turn down the heat and cook for about 10 – 12 minutes. You want the outside to turn a rich dark brown but stop well before burn or blacken. On my stove, that means the 8 o’clock spot on the heat dial; your mileage will be different.

A bit after you turn the heat down under the chicken, do the same under the veggies. You want to get a head of (wine) steam in the pot, but don’t want to let anything burn. After reducing the heat, the veggies will need about 10 – 15 minutes to reach perfection. Then they can come off the heat (still covered) and sit for up to 10 minutes more.

Turn the chicken after 12 minutes and cook the other side for another 10 or so. Once again, you are seeking dark, not burned.

Poulet de Moutarde chicken turned

When the chicken is done, take it out of the pan and let it rest,

Poulet de Moutarde chicken done

while you get your sauce started. Toss the white wine-rinsed left over mustard coating into the hot skillet. Swirl, scrape, and stir to get all the crunchy bits from the pan dissolved into the liquid.

Poulet de Moutarde sauce

Drain in any lingering liquid from the steamed veggies and maybe a splash of two of water from the potatoes. Bring the pan sauce to a boil and let it reduce, reduce, reduce!

Poulet de Moutarde reduce that sauce

Poulet de Moutarde reduce that sauce more

Poulet de Moutarde reduce that sauce still more

When the sauce is right, put potato and vegetables onto the plate, pour the sauce,

Poulet de Moutarde sauce on plate

add the chicken, and enjoy!

Poulet de Moutarde served