MORE DINNER DIARIES AND REVISITING AN OLD DINNER DIARY DISH

Dinner Diaries                                   December 20, 1986

 

This is getting closer to ‘right’ menu-wise.  Maybe, a very light cheese on the fettucini and the asparagus with a little olive oil/butter/lemon juice rather than a hollandaise sauce.  But hey, that’s hindsight.  What did we have for dessert?  Bonnie and I shared a lot of meals with Chris and Mark.  Chris, was a good cook and never hesitated, as a few folks do, to cook us dinner.  Mark and I worked together as Architects a long, long time ago. 

The Bluefish in Papilotte – kinda’ easy and a great dinner.  And for those of you out there that don’t like Bluefish because, “it’s too fishy”, go eat Tilapia.  Tilapia doesn’t taste TOO FISHY.  As a matter of taste it doesn’t taste TOO much of anything.  Many of you love it; I will pray for your salvation.  You could be eating air and it would taste the same (that statement does not refer to the scent at various exits on the New Jersey Turnpike).  Why on earth would you eat something that had no flavor?  Really, someone explain this to me, please.   

I would rather you eat farm raised salmon than Tilapia – not really, but I’m trying to put Tilapia in perspective.  At least the salmon has some flavor – even if farm-raised salmon is artificially colored.  Really, artificially colored.  Not too long ago I had a hankering for fish for dinner, but couldn’t get to Nassau Street Seafood.  So, I picked up what looked to be an OK salmon fillet from the local grocery store.  The label on the paper that wrapped the fish gave the weight and price and also the phrase ‘artificially colored’.  I turned to the fish counter person and said, “This salmon is artificially colored?”  They replied, “Yes, but it’s OK because it’s colored with beta-carotene.”  I gave the farm-raised salmon back and went looking for something else to cook for dinner.  I don’t care what the food is colored with.  If you’ve got to add color to my food to make it look edible, interesting or like something that it’s not then I’m not interested.  Save your pennies, because in some cases it does cost more than the fake stuff, and buy food that’s ‘real’.

Two Old Friends Reunite

In several of the Dinner Diary entries, including the one above, Bluefish en Papillote Nicoise is the entrée.  My recollection of this dish is that it was very good; easy to make, nice presentation and good flavors.  It had been a long time since I’d last made this dish.  I wondered if it was as good as I remembered or if I was remembering it viewed through an empty glass of wine, or two.  In making this recipe I had the same trepidations that I would have in reconnecting with someone who had once been your best friend, but whom you hadn’t seen or been in contact with for several years.  WOULD THEY STILL LIKE ME?  WOULD I STILL LIKE THEM?  Would this bluefish dish be as easy to make as I remembered?  Would the memory of a nice presentation remain true after all those years?  Would it be as flavorful as my taste buds remembered?  Only one way to find out – make the dish again.  And so I did.  

My friend, Bluefish en Papillote Nicoise, and I gave each other a big hug, there were a few joyous tears and we began talking.  The reconnection was so complete and instantaneous that it was as if we had last seen each other but yesterday.  This is an easy, good-presentation, flavorful dish.  The recipe and my notes are shown below. 

  Bluefish En Papillote Nicoise                                  Bon Appetit, June 1983 

For a delicious summertime variation use foil for the papillotes and grill the packets on the barbecue. 

6 servings 

Ingredients

2 tablespoons (1/4 stick butter)

1 ½ pounds tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

½ cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

1 large clove garlic crushed and minced

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel

Salt and freshly ground black pepper 

2 pounds 6 ounces of bluefish, boned, belly trimmed and discarded and fish divided into six, 6-ounce portions

6 anchovy fillets (optional)

Garnish – lemon slices and flat leaf parsley 

Preparation 

–         Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a small skillet over high heat.

–         Add tomatoes and cook until liquid evaporates and tomatoes thicken into a sauce like consistency, about 20 minutes, stirring frequently; tomatoes should measure about ¾ cup.  Pour tomatoes onto plate and cool completely. 

–         Cream ½ cup butter in a large bowl until fluffy.  Gradually beat in tomatoes.  Stir in basil, garlic and lemon peel.  Season generously with salt and pepper.  Divided tomato butter into 6 equal portions (can be prepared 1 day ahead and refrigerated).

–         Fold 15 inch wide piece of parchment or foil in half.  Trace half-heart shape (or a circle) starting at the folded end; heart should be 11 ½ inches long and 8 inches wide at the widest part.  Cut out the heart.  Repeat 5 more times and unfold the hearts.  Oil inside of each leaving a 1 inch border all the way around.  Center one portion of fish on one side of the heart.  Top with one portion of tomato butter, then 1 anchovy.  Fold other side over top and seal edges tightly (use a paperclip if necessary).  Papillotes can be prepared 6 hours ahead to this point and refrigerated. 

–         Preheat oven to 400°F.  Arrange papillotes on 2 baking sheets.  Bake 15 minutes.  Switch pans to opposite oven racks and continue baking 10 minutes.

–         Remove bluefish and tomato butter sauce and garnish.  Serve immediately.  Guest may wish to remove their serving from the parchment – it adds drama.

 Dave’s Notes 

–         This is an easy recipe.  When you break it down what you’re doing is making seasoned tomato butter, putting the bluefish with the tomato butter and anchovy in parchment, the fish will be steamed as it cooks in the oven and as it cooks it will absorb the tomato butter/anchovy flavors.  That’s it.  However, the presentation is above the every day.

–         If you’re doing this on the grill you need to use aluminum foil or risk the papilotte catching on fire.  As interesting as that vision may be it will not produce dinner.  Always use the parchment in the oven – it looks nice.  You can also seal the parchment edges by brushing them with a beaten egg – looks much nicer than a paper clip.

–         I hate the thought of discarding the belly fat and skin (lessons learned from Chef Barry).  I’d suggest sautéing in a pan until really crisped, chop them, add them to cream fraiche, thinned with just a bit of cream and seasoned with chopped scallions and a bit of anchovy.

–         In my opinion the anchovies are not optional.  They add a distinct layer of flavor.  Try to get the anchovy packed in brine (Lucy’s Ravioli) rather than those horrid things that they sell in the super market.

–         If you drain the tomatoes before cooking them with the butter you can reserve the liquid and use it to thin the crème fraiche dip, rather than thinning with cream, add it to stock or broth or just mix it with a shot of good vodka and throw it down.  Additionally, the tomatoes will thicken up more quickly.

–         This is nice tomato butter.  You can use it to season crostini, as a butter to pan sauté various foods, mixed with that old crème fraiche or mascarpone for a dip or use it on the table as a seasoned butter.  Season it as you will.  Just makes sure that it all makes sense and taste, taste and taste again as you’re making it.

The Bluefish en Papillote Hot from the Oven

 

Cut off one of the tips of the parchment and slit the bag up the middle.

Lots of juices and don’t disturb the tomato when you slit the parchment.

Bluefish en Papillote Nicoise

Campanelle with herbs and green peppers

Avocado and Clementine with cumin-honey vinaigrette  

 

I’ll probably get sued by Bon Appetit for using this recipe without permission.  However, long ago a very wise man taught me that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.  I looked on the Epicurean web-site and they no longer have this recipe.  My defense in court will be that they don’t care about it.

The article from the June 1983 issue is titled, ‘Easy Seafood Favorites’.  This particular article contained recipes from Odette Bery who, at the time, owned a restaurant on Beacon Hill in Boston named ‘Another Season’.  I don’t believe that the restaurant is still around.  However, her cookbook, ‘Another Season Cookbook’ is still available.  If the cookbook contains recipes the likes of which are in the Bon Appetit article it may well be worth picking up.  Other recipes contained in the article were: Cod Caribbean, Sole Quenelles with Shrimp and Paprika Beurre Blanc, Squid Verde and Trout Verona.  I regret that I’ve never met Odette and I regret that I never had the pleasure of a meal at ‘Another Season’.  But we’ll always have Bluefish en Papillote Nicoise.

Looking at many of the recipes that I used in the 1980’s I think that period of time was one of our countrys culinary highpoints.  Yes, I think that our current culinary period has raised the bar again, but the 1980’s were a time of a lot of experimentation.  Cooks began to use new ingredients, think about combinations of foodstuffs in different ways and come up with brand spanking new dishes at an ever increasing pace.  No, not all of it worked, but nothing was out of bounds, you at least gave it a shot and that’s the way to learn.  The cake on the cover of the June 1983 edition of Bon Appetit being one example of, in my opinion, a dish that didn’t work.  Maybe it just looked like it didn’t work.  If it’s me tell me, but I think that’s one God ugly cake.  Maybe it has phenomenal flavor.  I mean I’ve been wrong about things before; my first wife, watery tomato sauce and several inedible dishes that I made.

 

Dinner Diary                                                     January 2, 1987

 

Another menu indicating restraint!  Why?  Does it offer proof that I was not compelled by my insecurity to provide WAY TOO MUCH FOOD in every instance?  Restraint be damned! 

OK, the cheese and crackers are on the boring side and what the hell is carrots and potatoes?  Nowadays I’d make it into sort of a “hash”.  Carrots, potatoes, shallots, maybe some celery or better yet, celery root (we’ll get to my root vegetable gratins that I was making WAY before anyone else).  I love cooking venison.  Nicely braised in this case, just don’t cook it too long.  I often season venison with juniper berries.  The shallots, mushrooms and watercress are a nice stuffing.  I, myself, don’t hunt.  I see absolutely nothing wrong with it but I just never got around to doing it.  I am absolutely certain that we have to hunt deer simply because there are too many of them if for no other reason, though it’s certainly a better situation to kill for the food rather than killing simply because of overabundance and to correct an “error”.   Another instance of where we screwed it up by eliminating the predators and providing them with perfect places to live (we’ve had fawns “parked” under our decks at the house).  So, if you’re hunting for food God bless ya and give me a call.

The “La Poire Daphne”, as I recall, is a chocolate coated poached pear.  The cored center of the pear “hiding” a seasoned whipped cream or a sweetened and seasoned mascarpone.  Very nice.   I’ll have to revisit that recipe. 

Mark and Barbara are friends of ours and were often dinner partners before they moved far away.  Mark liked to cook, not as much as I do, but he was a good cook and I always enjoyed his meals. Barbara a friend of Bonnie’s from library days past.  Barbara, who worked for a short time in an upscale food store.  I remember her telling me that she was appalled, grossed out, by the fact that the salads were literally ‘hand tossed’.  Gloves on, hands deep in the salad, tossing it.  I remember thinking then that you should never be afraid to touch food with your hands.  Your going to ingest it and you don’t want to touch it with your hands?  Sometimes hands are the best kitchen tool around.   

Old friends sometimes move on.  New friends enter the picture.  The cooking and the Dinner Diaries continue.  It’s always nice to have a few constants.

 

If you cook enough you get to the point where you don’t use recipes or cookbooks for many of the dishes that you cook.  The venison is a one of those dishes.  Though this was a leg, which I truly enjoy, a loin cut would work too.  Slice the loin properly and you can stuff it; make it and roll it like a jelly roll.  Sear it in a good heavy pan with a cover, add the wine, cover and cook it until the juices are still bloody.  If ya ain’t got some blood flowing when you cook venison, or any other meat, it’s over done.  Believe me I know.  This is maybe 10 minutes or less to sear it and another 10 or 20 minutes in the covered pan with the heat low.  Those times?  Depends on the size of the meat.  Could be less.  Take the meat out, keep it warm and deglaze the pan with some more wine.  Make a sauce or just reduce it and use as is.  I’ve got to get me a hunting license. 

“La Poire Daphne”  Hmmmmm.  I wonder where that issue of Bon Appetit is?

Next Week:  The Cassoulet Dinner Diaries and Ground Hog Juice 

GOD IN HEAVEN! DAVE MAKES A WATERY TOMATO SAUCE!

EXTRA!  EXTRA!

DAVE MAKES WATERY TOMATO SAUCE!

WORLD IN SHOCK!

CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATION RUMORED!

 

It’s true.  Last night I made what I consider to be a tomato sauce that was ‘watery’.  I was looking for ‘thinish’ I was not looking to have tomato water in the bottom of the plate.  I felt the ghost of my Dad as a vapor behind me; ready to chastise me for the watery sauce and urging me to throw it at the wall in rage.  While I did not throw it at the wall, or yell at Bonnie for an error that she had absolutely nothing to do with, I was very disappointed in the sauce that I had produced.  I did go a bit crazier than the situation merited; gnashing of teeth, rending of garments and cutting of hair.  I do not like to make mistakes and I certainly do not like to make mistakes twice.  I’m compelled to tell you this tale so that you know the reality of the chef that I am – less than perfect.   

As with so many things I had started out with the best of intentions.  Those intentions being mussels in a red sauce served over pasta.  At our house blue mussels (Mytilus edulis Linnaeus – that’s what book learnin can do for ya) hold an honored place on the pantheon of foods.  They are inexpensive, tasty and extremely versatile as a menu component.  I’ve placed them in sauces, stuffed other seafood with them, fried them, used them in soups, stews and chowders and eaten them all on their lonesome.   

 

 A NICE BOWL OF BLUE MUSSELS AWAITING THEIR DEMISE

 

Blue mussels can be found from the southern artic down to North Carolina and the Mediterranean.  They are also cultivated, aqua-farmed, and that’s where most of ours come from these days.  As with any shellfish the appearance and flavor vary with the location where the mussel is raised.  So some are larger, some are smaller, most are that beautiful blue-black color and some have a tinge of brown.  Mussels weren’t served at our kitchen table when I was a kid.  That’s a little surprising since Dad did like shellfish.  I’ll attribute it to the presumption that while shrimp and ‘clams on the half shell’ may have been acceptable to 1950’s America mussels were considered ‘foreign’, a little too exotic and racy.  That whole French thing.  The cultures of the Mediterranean have enjoyed these as a culinary staple for eons, but it took a while to get to that Polish Roman Catholic kid from central Connecticut.

So, back to the watery tomato sauce.  I know how it happened.  It happened because I didn’t follow my own rules.  All that I had to do to turn this around would have been to let the tomatoes, whole peeled, drain rather than just squeezing them in my hands into small pieces over the cooking pan.  The result – too much liquid.  I could have simmered it for a long time and gotten rid of some of the liquid, but I made the second mistake of being rushed for time.  The third mistake was miscalculating how much liquid the mussels would release as they cooked in the tomato sauce.  Again, reserve the liquid and add it as you need it.

The sauce tasted very good.  That’s a zinger isn’t it?  More watery than I had wanted, actually I hadn’t wanted watery at all, but it had a good flavor.  It was seasoned with a little shallots and garlic sautéed in olive oil, salt, just enough Cayenne Pepper for some heat, bay leaf and fresh thyme and the liquor from the mussels as they cooked.  So a lesson relearned.  Not the last lesson to be relearned, which leaves me wondering what the next one will be.  Let’s hope that it’s as harmless as another watery sauce.

DAVE’S WATERY TOMATO SAUCE

 

The Mother Of All Paella Pans

The Italian Market in Philly is wonderful not only for the fact that it offers so many wonderful foods, but also because of the kitchen supply store that’s located in its midst – Fante’s Kitchen Wares Shop. The store has everything that you’d ever want or need in your culinary world.  Walking in the door the first time was one of those unexpected pleasures, the surprise present.  Despite the fact that the store has been around a long time I didn’t have the culinary chops at the time to be aware of its presence.  In finding it I just got lucky.  It’s gotten a little upscale from when I first poked my head in the door and was certain that I had found cooking ware heaven, but it still has everything.  Fante’s first opened its doors in 1906.  It remained in the Fante family until 1981.  How’s that for a family hanging together?  The family retired from the store passing ownership to the general manager – the proverbial tree did not let the apple go very far.  I’ve bought, or wanted to buy, larding needles, varieties of coffee makers, barware, dozens of different pastry and basting brushes ranging from boar bristle to silicone to barbecue sauce mops – I’ve got to stop here or go on forever – I’ll stop here.  No, wait, one more.  How many places can you find a Malloreddus Pasta Board?  What’s it used for you ask?  It’s used for making Sardinian malloreddus, a pasta that looks like small gnocchi, but is made only with semolina flour, water  and sometimes saffron.  I’ve got to try that.  This is one of those stores of which it can truly be said, “If we don’t have it you don’t need it.”  But my favorite buy is an aluminum paella pan. 

We’re not talking just a paella pan here.  Actually, we’re not talking about a paella pan in the true sense of the word.  The normal paella pan is about 16 inches or so in diameter and about an inch and one half deep.  My pan is a paella pan on steroids.  We’re talking here about the MOTHER of all paella pans.  A pan that’s 20 inches in diameter and 4 inches deep!  We’re talking 2 burners on the stove top!  This pan has held paella for twenty or so friends and neighbors.  Pounds of rice, quarts of chicken stock, several cut up chickens, dozens of mussels, clams and shrimp and several links of chorizo or Linguica.  The pan easily swallows pounds of beans and good tomatoes, bags of onions, many cloves of garlic, a slab of bacon, sides of beef and/or pork (sometimes I grill the meat and shred it into the dish, sometimes it’s just ground) so as to yield the most mouthwatering of chili con carne .

For breakfast frittatas it has consumed dozens of eggs, pounds of cheeses, a heavenly host of chopped onions and red and green peppers, sometimes links of sausages and sometimes slabs of bacon and sometimes both of these together.  Get the pan good and hot in the oven (425°F hot, hot, hot – turn the heat down to 375°F after a few minutes), the butter nutty brown and smoking swirled all over the pan surface.  Pour in the ingredients from that huge bowl that you’ve mixed them in.  Close the oven door and begin to breathe again, wonder awaits those with patience.

 

The Mother of All Paella Pans

 

When I saw it hanging on the wall in the store it was love at first sight.  I had to buy this pan.  My God, the amount of food that I could put into this!  The number of people that I could feed from it!  Bonnie was with me and we hadn’t been a couple all that long of a time.  Knowing me for the short time that she had she didn’t fully comprehend what a store, and a pan, like this did to me.  She saw that my lusty gaze was riveted to this pan and the slightest bit of drool was leaking from one corner of my mouth.  She knew me well enough to know that, at that moment, nothing else existed in my world but that pan.   I could sense her backing away from me, slowly as one would from a crazed beast or an insane person.   Needless to say, but just to confirm, I bought the pan.

On the ride home she sat tight to the passenger door, hand just resting on the door handle, her eyes on me for the whole ride, ready to jump from a moving car in an instant, waiting for the pan lust to abate and hoping that I wasn’t going to drive down any unmarked urban side streets to do her in and cut up her body so that it fit in the pan.  Silly girl, I like a much thicker pan when I’m cooking meat, a good roasting pan.

This pan is my equivalent of the biblical ‘loaves and fishes’ – whatever dish is prepared in this wonder of a paella pan there is always enough; a seemingly limitless amount, to feed all of those wonderful people that partake.  I’m still working on the water to wine thing.  I need to find the mother of all wine carafes.  Another trip to Fante’s.

 

Dinner Diary                                      January 1, 1987

 

Happy New Year!  Another “nice and simple” little dinner, probably put together at the last minute for an unexpected visit from Bonnie’s old housemate and friend Eleanor (Eleanor of the impossibly long gorgeous legs, wild Stevie Nicks hair and a brain rivaling Einstein’s). Eleanor whose name I misspelled in the diary entry.   

OK, so the APPLE stuffed pork and the cabbage and APPLES are redundant.  Maybe I had a surplus of apples.  And yes, the rice should not have been rice, but should have been small roasted potatoes or spaetzle, even buttered egg noodles.  Cabbage and apples are always good – braise the cabbage (red or green), use a nice  wine for the braising with good chicken stock,  add the apples, a little brown sugar, a little cider vinegar, some toasted caraway seed, taste, maybe (what maybe – use the butter!) and finish it with a little butter – always gooood.  Poor pork these days.  Unless you purchase it from a local farm, like Ely’s, that raises it properly – not a factory farm – you’re going to get a meat that has very little fat and thus very little flavor.  A cut like a loin is easy enough to overcook, especially so when it has no fat.  My advice to you is to hunt around a bit.  Chances are good that there’s a local farm that you can get to that has real meat that’s worth cooking.  As for the rest of the meal where is it?  Where were the appetizers, where’s the salad and where the hell is the dessert?  Come on, Dave!  This sloppiness is unacceptable.  And what pork cut was this?   

Except for the fact that Eleanor was such a good friend of Bonnie’s, I’m a little surprised to see her with us on New Years Day.  Bonnie and I have gone through several iterations of the first day of the New Year that ranged from full bore parties to just the two of us – we prefer just the two of us.   

There were several years where about 8 or 10 of us would gather at our neighbors’ house for New Years Eve.  Lots of good food (are you beginning to detect a pattern with any event or incident that I’m involved with?), guitars, one or two bottles of wine.  Musical entertainment was provided by that renowned band, ‘The Bull Run Road Boys and Wasp Women From Outer Space’.     We would have talent contests.  One of us relearned playing the trombone, another could make a knot in a cherry stem – while inside his mouth, another could do Mark Spitz (you don’t know that name?) swimming impressions using one of those two handled wine bottle openers, and others were simply dumbfounded that they were sitting there watching these things when they could be watching Dick Clark.  Yes, Dick Clark solo, not with that little kid by his side.  May old acquaintance be forgot?  Never.     

 

Next Week:  More Dinner Diaries and Revisiting Some Old Dinner Diary Recipes

THE DINNER DIARIES OF 1986 CONTINUE, THE BEST CAKE IN THE WORLD, GOOD FRIENDS, SEA URCHINS AND BABY OCTOPUS

Dinner Diary                                      April 26, 1986 

 

 Croutons?  Free standing Croutons?  I honestly don’t know what the croutons are doing there but the rest of the meal is good.  “I. F. C.” is Casale’s Italian Family Cooking – great cookbook, we’ve discussed it before.  The Frog/Commissary recipe, “Chocolate Mousse Cake with Grand Marnier Custard Sauce” is so good that it will, “make women moan with pleasure and desire and men happy and able to oblige them – or visa versa.”  That quote is attributable to me.      

As I’ve previously written, I had the pleasure of living in Philadelphia in the late 1970’s.  Yes, it was a little rough around the edges those days in comparison to today.  But the restaurant renaissance had begun.    So many good restaurants, soft shell crab sandwiches for lunch in Rittenhouse Square and produce and flower stands that seemed to be located on every corner.  Day old flowers cheap and dinner veggies on the walk home from work.  Among the many wonderful restaurants springing up during that time was The Frog (upscale) and The Commissary (ah um – commissary/cafeteria with wonderful food not a cafeteria by a million miles).  Both of these birthed by the legendary Steven Poses.  The Frog served food the likes of which I had never had before: crab and Brie in Phyllo, chicken in romaine with lime hot sauce, roast duck breasts with raspberry vinegar sauce and mango.  The Commissary was a cafeteria unlike any other: caviar, sushi and the best carrot cake in the entire universe.  I ate at The Commissary much more often than The Frog, but that was not a hardship.  What I remember forever from these hallowed culinary halls is THE CAKE – CHOCOLATE MOUSSE CAKE WITH GRAND MARNIER CUSTARD SAUCE.  They both served THE CAKE.  To make this cake is to take on a PROJECT.  To serve this cake is to become a LEGEND.   Sometimes you get lucky.  The cookbook, ‘The Frog, Commissary Cookbook’, with the cake recipe, is still in print. 

The cake consists of a small (way too rich tasting for big) springform pan lined with a genoise (eggy cake), filled with a Grand Marnier flavored chocolate mousse, glazed with a Grand Marnier dark chocolate frosting and served in a creamy, luminous, pool of Grand Marnier custard sauce. There is no adequate way to describe this in its full glory.  Think of oranges and chocolate presented in a variety of flavor nuances and a gamut of textures.   Served, it looks like a glistening wedge of midnight lying in the melted summer moon.  You have to make this at least once in your life.  It’s sooooo gooood that you’ll want to roll in it like an animal and, as she says, “It’s A Good Thing”.  

A word about our dinner guests; they were good friends of ours before this dinner and are to this day.  That consistency is appreciated.     

 

Dinner Diary                                      October 26, 1986

 

This Dinner Diary entry is special in that it introduces Barry, an honest to goodness executive chef in a very well regarded restaurant – AND HE ACTUALLY LIKES MY COOKING!  It also introduces his wife, Debbie, and her daughter Sarah.  All, important friends in my small world of friends.  But let’s talk about the menu.  The appetizers are a little much, but I recall that I kept the quantities to a minimum – just a taste.  I honestly hope that the (basil) pesto stuffed mushrooms had more cheese than usual.  The shrooms stuffed with brie and topped with (I hope crumbled) bacon sound good enough to make again, if a little commonplace.  Are two mushroom appetizers too many?  Perhaps the soup’s a little heavy (don’t chop too fine?), could have been wild mushroom in a consommé, a little lighter.  Look David, yes you the writer – ease up on the plethora of mushrooms here.  Perhaps the salad didn’t neeeeeed the salmon.  “Need” is truly an ambiguous word.  The pear sorbet is a nice palette cleanser and terrifically seasonal.  The venison was great, given to me by a hunter friend.  Sarah was of the age that Barry and Debby asked me to refer to it as “meat” rather than venison, deer or Bambi (Barry threatened to smack me if I called it Bambi).  Maybe next time a veggie rather than BOTH squash and wild rice.  And we all know about THE CAKE.  

I hope that I waited a good long while before I served THE CAKE, thus allowing all to find the room in our overstuffed tummies to enjoy it.   

Barry came to us through our friend Debbie – high school sweethearts though they didn’t get together until well after.  Ah, and Debbie’s daughter Sarah.  A child prodigy who, under Barry and Debby’s tutelage, was eating artichoke leaves dipped in melted butter and lemon juice at the age of FOUR.  A red haired wonder of a child who would deport herself with the elegance of a queen – as compared to the usual run of mewling brats.  A child who knows the rules of fine dining in upscale restaurants.     

I am fortunate to find that there are those people in my life that I always, I mean always, manage to have a good time with.  Barry and Debbie are two, there are a few more but not many; actually, more than I realized when I first considered it.  People with whom the conversation is good, you laugh a lot (but not always) and you can talk about where your life is hard right now, where you need help or encouragement or commiseration and get a response that will help you carry on or see things from the proper perspective.  I am one damn lucky guy.  May all of you have this kind of luck.

 

Dessert: Sea Urchins and Baby Octopus

I am blessed to have an absolutely wonderful seafood store near me, Nassau Street Seafood in Princeton.  It’s a narrow little space with the seafood case on one wall; produce on the opposite wall and in baskets on the floor and a wood floored aisle between the two that is barely wide enough for two people abreast.  They’ve been in business for 27 years and I’ve availed myself of their offerings and been thankful that they’ve been there for all of those years.  When Bonnie and I lived in Princeton Borough they were a short walk from our house. 

They have consistently carried the freshest seafood that I’ve found unless I’ve been dockside.  Not only is the seafood fresh, but I can count on them being to obtain, in season such delicacies as: the best shad fillets and roes (I know that you can get these in some supermarkets, but believe me the freshness doesn’t compare), the likes of sea urchins, baby and adult octopus, a variety of oysters and clams and the likes of blood oranges and Meyer’s Lemons.  It is one stop shopping.  The only thing that I haven’t seen them offer is free lobster bodies.

A recent visit to the shop presented me with, among the usual fare, sea urchins and baby octopus.  How can anyone resist that combo?!?!?!

Sea Urchins and Baby Octopus

 

I had to take some home.  I would have taken a lot more if I could have afforded it, but this was good.  Bonnie loves this combo as much as I do so I knew that it would be a great dinner appreciated by the both of us.

The edible part of the sea urchin is the roe, uni when you’re ordering sushi.  This roe is actually the ovaries of the sea urchin.  Hmmm.  Anyway.  The roe would be our dinner appetizer.  Cut off the bottom of the urchin with kitchen shears and scoop the roe out, sprinkle with a little lemon juice and enjoy.  The taste of the roe is both delicate and unique.  A taste of brine and tides, the sea given substance, buttery-creamy.  Sometimes I’ve saved the liquid in the urchins, strained it and used it to finish cooking off pasta, as I did this evening.  The main course this evening was the octopus in a red sauce seasoned with smoky paprika and served over squid ink pasta.

Baby Octopus in Tomato Sauce over Squid Ink Pasta

 

The sauce was on the light side; tomatoes of course, a bit of sautéed garlic and shallots, salt and the smoked paprika (I love the subtle heat).  The baby octopus were cleaned (the beak is pretty awesome) with the bodies sliced into strips and the tentacles preserved whole.  Poached in salted water with a bay leaf and black pepper corns until tender (about 40 minutes or so) and added to the sauce.  As I mentioned, the pasta was cooked off with the strained sea urchin liquor.  This was an ‘A’ rated dinner.

Next Week:  Dinner Diaries from 1986 and 1987 and the Mother of All Paella Pans

THE RETURN TO THE DINNER DIARIES

Dinner Diary                                      May 15, 1985 

  

  Dinner with Bonnie’s family.  This menu is not clean and simple; it is heavy handed.  I mean really, pasta with mushrooms AND bacon AND bluefish en papilotte nicoise AND ice cream AND pie for desert?  I do remember the avocado soup – for whatever reason it was pretty tasteless.   I’m embarrassed; this menu really doesn’t work well as a ‘whole’.  The Holistic Approach to the Culinary Arts – it’s a course at the CIA in Hyde Park.  However, I distinctly remember that the ‘Bluefish en Papilotte Nicoise’ was one fine dish.

Yes, the pasta alone could have been the main course.  Always that ‘drawn to excess thing’ for me.  May be like a dog licking his It’s because I can.  The bluefish en papilotte nicoise and pasta with broccoli rabe and a little garlic would have been the way to go. 

 I do love making fresh ice cream – tough to do and get it RIGHT.  RIGHT being smooth, rich, not grainy, good firmness.  I’ve got one of the old Green Mountain wood barreled, hand cranked makers that I use in the summer when friends are over ( of course I make them do the cranking) and a small freezer crank thing that I use in the winter.   

I don’t think that the in-laws have ever understood why I love to cook (they have been, at times in their lives, Spam and paper plate people) – why not something from a package – it’s so much easier! I do have to say this for Bonnie’s family, they having always been willing to take at least a bite of what I’ve made and for that I’m thankful.  And as with all of our friends, all of the folks that have shared my cooking I  try, to greater or lesser degrees to cook for them.  That is; to make dishes that they’re going to want to eat.  Otherwise, what kind of host or friend would I be? I enjoy sea urchin roe, a lot of people don’t. So why serve it to them?  Serve them a dish that might stretch their culinary boundaries or show them how good fresh, local food can be rather than something from a package that’s been sitting on a shelf for four months, that’s great, but to feed a friend something that they want to run from – there’s no point.  In retrospect with this menu I’m a little surprised that I served the blue fish en papilotte nicoise.  I hope that all enjoyed it.     

The men of my, and Bonnie’s, father’s generation very, very, seldom, if ever cooked.  That simply wasn’t one of their responsibilities.  As I’ve written, supposedly my Dad grilled hamburgers and hot dogs and chicken.  Come to recall though – memory break through – dad did have a big old Weber grill and, probably the reason that he grilled very little, was that after every use he would wait for the grill to cool, scoop out and save the briquettes that weren’t fully burned (something that I still do with the hardwood charcoal) and scrub the entire assembly until it looked like new.  This only took about 2 to 3 hours to do.  From my perspective it takes away the fun, kinda puts a damper on your grilling.  Cook it till it’s done – clean it when ya need to.

 

Dinner Diary                                      March 3, 1986

 

Of course I make entries into the Dinner Diaries for just Bonnie and myself.  This is a nice simple meal, maybe a little early for zucchini.  The RAPTURE of braised veal shanks!   Wonderful!  Wonderful!  Braised veal shanks is one of the great recipes of all time.  Though the diary entry doesn’t say, I suspect that the dish was Osso Bucco (B/A = Bon Appetit).  Maybe not; sliced shank or whole shank?   Melt in your mouth meat, incredibly huge flavor.  My favorite recipe for Osso Bucco Milanese is from Craig Claiborne’s The New New York Times Cookbook, Craig Claibourne with Pierre Franey.  Absolutely one of THE best cookbooks going. Craig and Pierre knew cooking and food like few others and I cherish these recipes – even if I found their Avocado Soup bland.  

I’ve got my own recipe for shanks that’s very similar to a million other recipes for veal shanks: a tomato and red wine sauce seasoned with herbs, garlic and a mirepoix (onions, celery, carrots and herbs).  The shanks are dredged in seasoned flour and sauteed in a dutch oven with olive oil and butter until they’ve got some color to them.  Remove the shanks from the pot and deglaze with some red wine, add the tomatoes (can be a chopped whole, sauce or crushed), more red wine, the seasoning and the mirepoix and bring to a boil.  Add the shanks and bake low and slow.  When the luscious meat is just about to fall from the bone remove the shanks and keep them warm.  Strain the sauce and reduce it.  Put the reduced sauce and the shanks back in the pot to heat a little and serve with the sauce over the shanks – heaven.  Double heaven with creamy polenta and broccoli rabe.   As I’m writing this I realize that I like the shanks even better than the Osso Bucco.  Well…… maybe equally. 

I’ve sometimes used the recipes in Bon Appetit magazine.   I’ve been subscribing to this magazine since the 1960’s, while I lived in Providence, but I do have issues with it.  I find some of the recipes incredibly boring, I swear that some use a condensed cream of mushroom soup (maybe I read that wrong, maybe I read it correctly), and, as evidenced in the Diaries, I consider some of them are very good, verging on greatness, included in my best meals.  Many recipes are good enough that I at least want to try them. Of course, I’m finally at that point where I don’t use recipes as much as I used to – been cooking long enough to remember what to do or how to improvise.  My advice to Bon Appétit is( knowing what my advice is worth) dump the healthy cooking, dump the “cook a meal in 30 second’s and for God’s sake dump the “Celebrity” interview that you’ve added to the last page.  Most of these bimbas and bimbos DON”T COOK. What the hell do these interviews have to do with cooking? 

INTERVIEW: 

DG:  Well Celeb, where are your favorite places to eat?

Celeb: You know, places where there’s food, room for my publicist and the paparazzi.  Sometimes I have the one of my lackeys go to the vending machine for me.

DG:  Did your mother cook for you growing up?

CelebLook, my attorney laid it out in the ground rules – no questions about my mother.  You got that!

DG:  Yea, got that, sorry, I forgot.  So…………  What do you like to eat?

CelebYou know, real earth friendly stuff.  Whatever doesn’t hurt the planet earth and is green.  And it’s gotta be expensive.

DG: We understand that you have a new movie coming out.  Do you eat in it?

Celeb: Yes, I eat an organic peach.

DG:  Do you cook for yourself and family when you get the chance?

Celeb:  You’re funny, ya know.  I mean with all my money do you really think that you’re going to find me in front of a hot stove?

DG: What do you have in your refrigerator right now?

Celeb: Evian, yogurt and A grape.

DG: A grape?

Celeb: You got a problem with that?  I thought that this was supposed to be a ‘puff piece’ and now you’re prying into my personal life.  I gotta lose a few for the next movie, so let’s just leave it at that.

DG: Last question.  If you could invite any three people to dinner who would they be?  What would you serve?

CelebWell I wouldn’t invite anyone that’s a felon because that would be a parole violation for me.  So, I guess that I’d invite the head of the studio, the head of the Grammy Committee and Peter Griffin.  I’d have my chef cook them up some good food – earth friendly and green.  Oh, and expensive.

DG:  I’m sorry but I have to comment.  Peter Griffin is a cartoon character on ‘Family Guy’.  He’s not a real person.

Celeb: Shows what you know about Hollywood.

 

Dessert: The Remains of the Day – Part Deux 

Poor Mr. Ishiguro.  With The Remains of the Day – Part Deux I may have him writhing as if being stuck by unseen needles.  My apologizes to him, but the title is so appropriate; again.

Bonnie and I both grew up eating fried smelts during the Holiday Season – we love to eat them.  Hers were cooked by her father’s mother, mine by my mother.  The taste is wonderfully fishy and the fragrance of their being fried will linger in your home for quite a while.  Smelts are a tiny fish, four inches long or so, and are a species of the salmon family.  In the winter they school at the river mouths of New England and Canada, waiting for warmer weather to head up river and spawn.  My favorite way to cook them is to simply gut them and remove the heads (if your local fishmonger hasn’t already done this), dredge them in flour with salt and black pepper and pan fry them in butter until golden brown (just a few minutes each side).  Ah, wonderful childhood memories.

This year Bonnie and I enjoyed the smelts with an oyster and chopped clam chowder.  Chowders are a cinch to make, just make sure that you’ve got the best ingredients.  Render some bacon (or salt pork) until it’s crispy, remove and reserve the meat.  Sautee chopped onions, diced potatoes and chopped celery in the reserved fat.  Turn the heat low, add the oyster/clam liquor and a little milk and cook covered low until the potatoes are just about done.  Don’t you dare let this boil – it should be barely simmering.  Add milk and or cream, the oysters/chopped clams, enough velouté sauce (made with fish stock or more shellfish liquor) to get the thickness that you like, season (bay leaf, or tarragon, or plain old salt and black pepper) and add the crumbled bacon.  Let it sit on low heat for a few minutes until the flavors marry – enjoy.

Fried Smelts and Oyster and Clam Chowder 

 

Fried Smelts

The Remains of the Day – Part Deux

 

Next Week: The Dinner Diaries of 1986 Continue