Saturday, October 25, 2008

Seafood Pasta New England Style

So this time for our get together in Rhode Island I wanted to cook lamb. I really like lamb. It’s fun and easy to cook. Plus you can get really creative with the sides for lamb. So lamb was the plan. That is, right up until I talked to Rick about it. Turns out his wife Patti doesn’t like lamb. Hmmm. OK fair enough. I am cooking at his house after all. It’s not like I can just invite them NEXT time. And I eat out more times in a week than many do in a couple of months so my lamb opportunities are vast.

Then Rick asked me if I knew how to do a seafood pasta. The images of little lamb rib racks laid out in perfect French presentation were replaced by visions of shellfish opening atop a briny seafood rich pasta. Sold. Done. Lamb? What lamb? Let’s do some seafood.

I haven’t made a seafood pasta in years. Like most fantastic pasta dishes, it ain’t rocket science. When I make pasta dishes that are original, I think of 4 things: What is the star? What is the base? What are the accompanying players? What is the pasta? All of these factors have to work together of your dish may not be what you were hoping for. Let’s dig in to this idea.

The Star. Sometimes the pasta itself can be a star like in an Aglio-Olio (pasta with garlic and oil) or in a gnocchi. In this case, obviously it’s seafood. But what kind and how much? I knew this could vary so I left the final choice up to what looked fresh at the market. I chose shrimp, scallops, cod, mussels, clams and blue crab (lump and backfin).

The Base. I batted this around a bit. Creamy, alfredo-ey is one thought and not a terrible one either. I just thought that was a bit heavy and concealing for the delicateness of the Star. Cioppino style can be great for seafood with fantastic wine-tomato broth and amazingly bright depth. While I like that idea, I just made a bolognaise a few days earlier and I just wasn’t feeling it. So I settled on a garlicky clam juice and white wine broth and decided to give the accompanying players a speaking role. This was designed specifically for using chunks of bread to sop up the juice. A splash of cream at the end provided a perfect touch of richness without being even remotely heavy.

Accompanying players. For us, it was red bell pepper, spinach, green onion, parsley and fresh cherry tomatoes. With the broth and seafood being intentionally light, I wanted a bit of brightness both in color and flavor. And while I wasn’t feeling a heavy tomato-ey broth, I definitely loved the undertones my tomato addition provided. The pepper added a lovely sweetness and the onion, parsley and spinach balanced bright flavor.

Pasta. Well since I’ve clearly established that pasta is not the star of this dish, I need a great compliment from it. I tend to prefer pastas that do a good job of holding liquids. Here we will be combining everything at the end so the pasta won’t have real time to bathe in this concoction, so I chose orecchiette. This roundish ear shaped pasta will do a nice job of collecting broth like a cup in the rain.

Until now, all of this has been in my head and unexecuted so I went for it. Wow. Just like the Tampa Bay Ray’s hits in their victory over the Boston Red Sox in the recent championship series, this dish was out of the park. (OK I had to throw that zinger to my New England friends. Look what Rick’s son did to my Ray’s cap). I could not have been more excited about a pasta dish.

So for those of you that want to make a great seafood pasta, just follow the above guidelines and don’t worry about the ingredients so much. It’s really simple and start to finish I’d say maybe 30 minutes. That includes the tedium of chopping and cleaning along the way. Do pay attention to the cooking times for the shrimp and scallops though. They can get rubbery if overcooked so I seared the scallops separately and added at the end. The raw shrimp cook in about 3 minutes so I threw those in just before done as well.

On the side I served a bit of toasted seasoned crouton for dipping as well as the pumpkins I had experimented with in the last post.

They went over well too. All in all, another great night. We’re doing it again in 2 week at Michele’s house. Her kitchen is new to me so I’ll get to learn my way around yet again. We keep changing venues so that everyone gets their turn at hosting or perhaps once I’ve been in their kitchen for a night or 2, that’s all they can take. Either way, the food is yummy.

For the entire play by play (Another Baseball reference, get it?) here is the recipe as I recall it from 35,000 ft.

Seafood Pasta (easily serves 10)

16 oz orecchiette pasta
2-3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
8-10 large sea scallops
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
½ cup green onion, chopped
1 bottle clam juice (6 oz)
1 cup white wine
3 cloves garlic, chopped
4-6 oz cod fillet, cut into bite size pieces
1 cup prepared clams in their juice
½ cup each of backfin and jumbo lump crabmeat
12 mussels, cleaned and debearded
3 cups bagged raw spinach
12 large shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails on
¼ cup heavy cream
¼ cup fresh grated parsley
Fresh grated parmesan cheese for sprinkling (optional due to the general aversion to using cheese with seafood but I like it a lot)

In a large stockpot bring about 10 cups of well salted water to a boil. Add the orecchiette. I don’t mention draining it till the end but please keep an eye on it and don’t overcook. Remove from the heat and drain when al dente. I also like to season pasta separately with a touch of salt, pepper and olive oil no matter what the dish. An Emeril trick, I admit.

Season the scallops with salt and pepper. In a large sauté pan over medium high heat add the olive oil. We want it to be almost smoking. Sauté the scallops for about 3 minutes per side to get a nice brown crust. Remove and set aside.

Add a touch more oil and the red peppers and tomatoes. Sauté for 3 minutes until peppers are just soft then add the garlic and green onion. Allow the garlic to become fragrant (a minute or 2) then add the white wine and clam juice. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce by half then add the cod, clams and crab. Now add the mussels and spinach and cover for about a minute. The mussels will open and the spinach will wilt. Uncover and add the shrimp and cream. Cook another 3 minutes. Check your seasoning and resalt and pepper if needed.

Drain the Pasta and place in a large serving bowl. Top with the seafood mixture, scallops that were reserved and parsley. Serve with a crusty bread for sopping broth and parmesan for topping. I provide a non slotted spoon for something like this so that the liquid is part of the serving.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Stuffed Pumpkins

October is a special month. While it closes my favorite season (summer, of course), it is a month full of festivals, activities and a change in our pallet’s desires. We go from bright and light summer foods to more hearty and comforting winter nourishment. Also with the Tampa Bay Rays heading into the World Series, October has taken on a very new and special meaning. A week or two ago I wrote that the fall weather was creeping its way into my psyche and I was actually beginning to enjoy it. I also wrote that the gourd was on my mind. Well folks all of the above has inspired the most original dish I have ever made. In the past week, I have made 2 versions of this and today I will homogenize the 2 into what I think is the perfect combination.

So I was lying in bed last week just about to doze off when this thought crept into my head. It woke me. I was a little bleary but woke to ponder. I stumbled over to the computer to see if it was as original as I thought. Alas, I was not the first to pen the concept (in fact there were many) but my twist appeared to have a uniqueness that gave me pride. Now it just had to taste good.

It all starts with the pumpkin. It has to be right. Those cute little mini pumpkins that I have seen at the market in the past month are the centerpiece. I wanted them to be the vessel for some type of culinary masterpiece. That is the unoriginal part. A Google search will show you quite a few versions (even though I swear I thought I invented it). I perused sweet and savory versions but I never saw the one that has awoken me. This was good news. Off to the market.

Ingredients gathered we are set. If you recall the blue cheese and mushrooms from the last post’s steak, well that was the base for this filling. I basically fill the little gourd with my original concoction and bake them. Man the gooey, bubbly center of these pumpkins is rich and wonderful. Tangy cheese mixed with the mushrooms and sweet pumpkin flesh permeate your senses and it really was more than I could hope for. Here you go. Hope you enjoy. This would be a fantastic thing to serve for the upcoming holiday meal. Plus the prep time is only about 20 minutes.

Blue Cheese, Mushroom and Pancetta Stuffed Mini Pumpkins

1 slice pancetta, cut 1” thick from deli then cut into small ½” cubes
3 cups blue cheese, crumbled
2 cups sliced mushrooms (I used baby bellas but button would be fine)
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 tsp crushed red peppers (optional and adjust amount as desired)
8 mini pumpkins (about the size of a softball)
8 Cinnamon Sticks
8 Bread slices, cut into circles about the same diameter as the pumpkin opening. I used a rye bread but any dense bread such as sourdough would be fantastic, I think

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a sauté pan over medium-high heat add the pancetta and brown. Stir frequently and remove from heat after about 5 minutes. Drain pancetta on paper towel and set aside.

To prepare the pumpkins, slice the top off (approximately top 3rd of the pumpkin) and scoop out the seeds. These can be reserved for other use if desired. This can be done the day before and refrigerated overnight.

In a mixing bowl, combine the blue cheese, mushrooms, shallots and crushed red peppers. Season mixture with salt and pepper. Stuff each pumpkin with the mixture to the top and place in a baking dish. Add a cinnamon stick to each pumpkin. Bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour. The contents of the pumpkins will reduce. Remove and press the bread into each pumpkin with the cinnamon stick still sticking out the top. Now top with the remaining blue cheese mix. What we’re accomplishing here is an overflow of blue cheese and an extra layer of depth with the bread.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Got the Blues? Try Steak with Blue Cheese!!!

Sometimes it’s just the little things that make a difference. Things like the laughter of a child or the smell of blossoming flowers. You know what I mean right? When your day is just crappy for no particular reason? Like hitting the 300 red lights in rush hour or getting a nasty email at the end of the business day. Well, I’ve had a few of those kind of days lately. But if you are a devoted reader here you know I’m a pretty upbeat guy. Glass half full and all. So as I was getting a bit down, several things happened to wake me back up. I’d like to share them if I can.

You may have noticed I had a short Hiatus recently. Historically I post every 5-6 days. Well I was simply busy. So busy in fact that I was getting a touch melancholy. Then in my email I got this:

This was a co-worker’s dinner in Belgium. Jason has been to a couple of our dinner get togethers in Rhode Island. Since I take pictures of most of the food I present or get in restaurants, Jason took the time to snap the above photo and send it to me. OK that was cool. I felt like I had inspired someone to do something. I think he’s in Italy at the moment and I’m hoping for more photos.

That made me notice that my friends tend to be excited to talk to me about foods. I was walking through the hall at the office and one gal asked me to identify some vegetables she had been given. In the box were dozens of lovely tomatillos. I told her a bit about them and shared I had a recipe on the blog with tomatillos. So she promptly printed in and put it next to the box of tomatillos in the break room for anyone to take. Again, more coolness.

The next little spirit lifter were the emails I received. A couple of folks took the time to shoot me a note that asked if all was OK since I hadn’t written anything in almost 2 weeks. People were checking up on me. OK that’s cool too.

Lastly, I met my mom in Baltimore last weekend and we boarded a plane for Tampa together. We did a touch of Karaoke pubbing on the way home and didn’t get in until about 2 AM. Too fun. The next night there was the Rays vs Red Sox in the hunt for a World Series trip. We went to game 2 which didn’t end until 1:30 AM. For a second night we staggered in after 2 AM (I am way too old for this). I didn’t even throw in that we did the aquarium and the beach too. What a Saturday.

At the game

Great seats

Since Sunday was my birthday, I had 2 goals for the day. Watch football and have some kitchen fun. No good blog post goes without a recipe or restaurant recommendation and this is no different. We grilled. And man did we grill. We were on such a roll for a terrific weekend, this meal was inevitable. OK I’ll share. Take a look.

I mean c’mon. Is your mouth watering just looking at this surf ‘n turf? Mine is. I need a napkin just describing it. Here you see Grilled Rib-eye topped with butter poached lobster and a blue cheese mushroom sauce. While grilling, I used the leftover butter from the lobster to brush the steaks and the scallops. The scallops were simply seasoned and grilled then served over some braised leeks. Lastly were the pan roasted rosemary potatoes. This meal was decadent. But hey, birthdays and holidays are off limits for the richness police so back off.

OMG, was this unbelievable. Melty, buttery, rich!! Earthy meat and mushrooms paired with hearty scallops. The ribbons of leek were sweet and oniony and the potatoes had a perfect crisp skin. The rosemary perfumed the pallet and everything came together just beyond imagination.

After dinner, there was cake and plenty of good spirits. You can see my dad having a great time too.

Oh boy. OK very quick explanation about the age difference between mom and dad that you can notice in the pics. Let’s see how few words I can squeeze this into. I was adopted. Dad in photos raised me with mom who passed away the month after Olivia was born (4 years ago). I met mom in photos here when I was 30 and we are fast friends. She has never once told me to clean my room. The story is long, grand and in the style of an Oprah show. Perhaps I’ll pen it one day because it is neat. But not now.

Recipe time. We sorta went cowboy style with this and served each person their own steak. While it looked great on the plate, I would be less dramatic next time, debone and slice the meat for presentation. In that case, 2 people per steak would be sufficient. I don’t think any of us finished the whole plate. I will describe the quantities to 2 large Rib-eye steaks and you can decide how many folks they will feed. I have to give a disclaimer too. I don’t really measure so the below quantities are estimates. But they will be very darned close.

Grilled Rib-eye with Butter Poached Lobster and Mushroom Blue Cheese Sauce

For the poached lobster

1 stick butter
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Meat from 2 medium sized lobster tails, coarsely chopped
3 tbsp fresh chopped parsley

Melt the butter gently over medium low heat so as not to brown. Add the garlic and lobster meat and cook until lobster is white throughout, about 4-5 minutes. Do not overcook. Remove the lobster from the butter and toss in the fresh parsley. Season with salt and pepper and reserve the butter for brushing on the steaks as they grill.

For the mushroom and blue cheese sauce

1 tbsp butter
1 cup sliced mushrooms
½ cup white wine
½ cup crumbled blue cheese

In a small sauté pan melt the butter over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Cook until mushrooms are soft stirring frequently. Add the wine and continue cooking until liquid is reduced by half. Add the blue cheese and reduce heat to medium. Once cheese is melted and bubbly, it is done. Turn heat to warm.

For the steaks

2 large (approx 16 oz) bone in rib-eye steaks (sometimes called Delmonico)
Lobster butter for brushing

Prepare your grill in whatever fashion you prepare your grill. For me, I add the charcoal and light about 30 minutes before I put the meat on. I also like my steaks to rest at room temperature for at least an hour before going on the grill. Salt and pepper the steaks and place steaks on hot grill. Cook about 4 minutes per side for medium rare.
Brush butter on steaks during the last minute. Be careful because the butter will cause some flame up.
When done allow the steaks to rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.

To put this dish together, serve a few tablespoons of the lobster and a few tablespoons of the mushroom blue cheese sauce atop each steak.

Grilled Scallops over Braised Leeks

8 large Sea Scallops
4 tablespoons butter divided
¼ cup white wine
1 clove garlic
2 Leeks chopped coarsely (I discard the darkest inch or two)

This is so simple and takes just a short bit of prep. Make sure the leeks are well cleaned. Dirt can fill the crevasses of leeks as they grow. I slice them then soak in cold water for a bit stirring a few times at the beginning. This allows any dirt to settle to the bottom. Scoop out the leeks out of the water, pat dry and they are ready.

In a sauté pan over medium heat, melt the butter and add the leeks. Season with salt and pepper. Once the leeks have “sweated” a bit and are soft, add the wine and reduce till the liquid is just about gone. Maybe 20 minutes. When finished the leeks will be almost spreadable in consistency.

For the scallops, skewer and place on a preheated grill over the hottest part. I placed 2 scallops per skewer. Make sure to oil that spot first because the scallops can tend to stick. You could use a little oil on the scallops if you choose but VERY lightly because dripping oil can flame up the grill. If you are using wooden skewers, soak in water for at least 30 minutes to an hour before grilling.

Grill the scallops for 2 minutes per side (depending on the size of the scallop). To serve, Place a small scoop of the braised leeks on the plate and then 2 scallops atop that.

Crispy Red Potatoes with Rosemary

I confess that my mom did the potatoes but I watched and I can tell you how I would do them. So I’m making some of these directions up. Honesty is important.

1 lb small red potatoes (or new potatoes) size = 3-4 bites per potato
2 tbsp butter
3 teaspoons chopped rosemary

Bring a stockpot ½ full of water to a boil. Add the potatoes and boil until almost fork tender throughout but we want them a bit underdone. Drain and let cool for about 15 minutes. Then with a vegetable peeler or paring knife, cut a strip of skin off each potato around the center. So at either pole of the spud you have skin and in the center you have flesh. Think of a striped pool table ball.

Now melt the butter over medium heat and pan roast the potatoes gently. The skin will crisp. I would probably baste the potatoes with the butter along the way. Season with salt and pepper. After about 10-15 minutes add the rosemary and continue to cook another 5 minutes.

Place along side the steak and scallops and enjoy.

I am now in a far better mood!!!!!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Fall (and a Couple of Places to Eat)

OK I get it already. I’m on board. Why I have been so pig-headed over the years is just beyond me. I am 42 years old and for the first time I get it. You see friends, I stepped out into the fall air here in Mystic, Connecticut and saw my breath because it was cold outside. And I liked it. I liked the change from beads of sweat gathering on my brow to the rush of cold air entering my lungs. Now this may not seem like any major epiphany to most of you but to me, this is huge. I have spent most of my life denouncing everything related to cool weather. Aside from enjoying a little snow skiing (which I haven’t done in 20 years), Football season and of course the holidays, fall and winter have been very depressing times in my book. I was always a flip flop and “cut off’s” beachy kinda guy and winter just put a big damper on that for me. Sure the bars and restaurants down on the beach were still open but those clear plastic sheets would come down over the porches enveloping the place like “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble”.

Another part of autumn that was lost on me was this silly “leaves changing colors” thing. Being a Floridian, I hadn’t experienced this. You don’t see bright red or yellow palm frons falling in Tampa. No sir. And doesn’t the color change just signal that you’ll be doing some serious yard raking in just a couple of weeks? YUK. But after experiencing nature’s painting of the landscape, it is difficult not to be drawn in and consumed by it. It produces a warm feeling inside even as the crisp air touches your skin. Perhaps that is the desired effect to help combat the impending bitter months just ahead. Well, over analyzing doesn’t change the fact that I have come to enjoy the look and feel of autumn.

I have had an interesting and overly busy work week up here starting too early and finishing too late but I have been surrounded by some neat folks. Myself and a colleague have been facilitating a class for the global regions of our company (blah, blah, blah) but what that really means is that we have folks from around the world here. We have had a few great meals and I want to share a couple of places with you.

Seafood Crepe Topped with Lobster at S&P Oyster House, Mystic CT

Westerly, Rhode Island (just down the road from Mystic, Connecticut and home to my divisional headquarters) is not a big town. But for a little New England nook, it has a bustling little culture to its own. It reminds me of the town in Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future. Just off the downtown path is a restaurant I frequent called 84 High Street. It is a perfect choice for business dinners because it can accommodate both small and large parties and depending on the day of the week, they have been able to deal with decent sized groups on little to no notice. So on a Monday afternoon we headed from the office and meandered through town to 84 High Street (the name also doubles as the address –no points for originality but no excuse not to find it).

What sets this place apart are the culinary chops of chef/owner Christopher Champagne, who graduated from Johnson and Wales culinary academy. He interned with a few notable folks and has hobnobbed in the James Beard Award circles but his roots remained in Westerly. Opening his own place was a destiny and a touch of serious class in an already artisan town. I take a certain pride in finding this place noteworthy and THEN finding out the chef had a pedigree.

I ordered a pasta dish. Specifically I ordered the Pasta with Shrimp and Peppers. This was quite terrific with a peppery broth and big, meaty shrimp whose sweetness was not lost. Now if adding artichoke hearts and spinach sounds like a busy dish, it is. But it also works just perfectly. The flavors worked exceptionally well together and there was a bit of heat to the dish too.

A Busy but Delicious Shrimp Pasta from 84 High Street

Later in the week, S&P Oyster Company in Mystic was our destination. I have been to this riverfront restaurant before and I don’t recall anything worth writing about. Well perhaps my opinion was hasty. I had a fantastic meal. I kept to the pasta theme but this time with scallops that were monsters. Add the “Anything-with-bacon-in-it-is-a-fantastic-dish” factor and this meal was exceptional. I will add this place back to my list of recommended places in Mystic.

Look at that Scallop. Unbelievable. S&P Oyster House moves up on the list.

The coolness that was in the air early in the week was replaced by a late season low pressure system that kept skies blue and temperatures warm. These were perhaps the last days of shorts and flip flops for the season because it is chilly in New England right now. I know this because I watched the baseball game from Boston on TV tonight (I’m back in Florida). It looked like another fall night. I have several trips up there before the end of the year and I already have a menu planned for another get together (it involves those little mini pumpkins).

So I look forward to seeing my breath and the crispness. Soon that will evolve into blankets of clean white snow that refresh the landscape. The smell of wood burning fireplaces and cinimonny apple drinks are just around the corner and I’m 100% on board.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Dining Impotence- How Sad

A typical meal this week

It was bound to happen. Call it dining impotence. In the 7 months I have been writing this blog I have succeeded in either dining somewhere blogworthy or cooking something to talk about. Eventually that streak, like all streaks, was bound to run out. And it has. Here you can see an exciting meal I enjoyed this week.

I didn’t have a bad week, just a really busy one. I visited Houston, Texas where they are still recovering from Hurricane Ike. A drive through downtown reveals many plywood covered office windows and every person I spoke with had a story. There were still a few people without power as well. There were still plenty of places to get out and see but I left work late every day I just had no energy to go out and about. So I ordered Pizza one night got some Thai take out another (and not particularly good Thai) and had a Jack in the Box super fat calorie burger with extra lard last night. This morning I boarded my plane bound for Tampa and I simply have to get back on the culinary wagon this weekend. For you loyal “Louis Loves Food” readers (both of you), I promise to get on track.

With no fanfare, I will mention a place I enjoy in Houston called Pappadeaux. It’s a chain restaurant found mostly in Texas and a few adjoining states. The theme is Cajun and the décor is cheesy at best but the food is consistently good. I did enjoy a lunch there one day and that was my exciting meal of the week. If you are planning a trip to Houston (or even through Houston since Houston Intercontinental Airport has a Pappadeaux) and a decent Cajun meal is on your mind, this is a good place. Their Gumbo is actually pretty authentic and the shrimp are big and meaty. I feel qualified to judge after living in Louisiana for several years.

Also, my #1 favorite chain restaurant in the country has an outlet in Houston but alas I was unable to go. I highly recommend a visit to Fogo de Chão if you get the chance. It’s a Brazilian Barbeque restaurant where these gaucho dudes cut high end meats from a skewer right to your plate. My mouth waters at the thought. I’ve been to ones in Chicago, Washington DC, Atlanta and Houston and have been thrilled every time.

I know of other more seasoned food bloggers who build up a little writing “bank”, if you will, that they use for the rainy day. That way, if they have dining impotence like me, they have a little repertoire to rely on. I must think ahead and do that. I am very sorry to disappoint that is all I have.

Update: I had a short weekend that involved no evening at home. We had a little catered dinner for Lisa’s birthday Friday, Saturday Olivia and I did Disney on Ice and now Sunday, I’m back on the road. I have some dinner plans this week that will hopefully satiate the food hungry reader.