SOFT-SHELL CRABS, MORE GOOD FRIENDS and COOKING IN A RESTAURANT

Dinner Diary                                                                                     June 29, 1990

 

 

Fish and shellfish do stick on the grill unless the grill is really hot and has been wiped with oil.  Live and learn.  A good menu for the early summer.  Bonnie and I love soft-shell crabs.  We consider them, like the shad and shad roe, another of the ritual spring time foods.  You can get these beauties from about late spring through the end of spring.  Though you can get them into early summer I find that, at that time, the shells just aren’t as paper-thin as they should be.

 I don’t know that all folks would describe them as ‘beauties’; they look as they should; like crabs.  The crabs are kept in underwater pens at dockside and harvested just after they molt, their shells are paper thin.  If the shells are kinda thick forget it.  It’ll work, but it won’t be at its best.  Clean them up a little, remove the gills, mouth and eyes (I guess you could leave the eyes in ……).  I like to dredge them in a little flour, salt and black pepper, a little cornmeal and some Old Bay Seasoning.  Get a pan nice and hot, put some butter in it and sauté them.  That is truly living.  My Dinner Diary notes are correct.  Not too much butter and don’t let it sit in the pan after you’ve cooked it up – serve immediately.  It takes all of about five minutes to cook these so have them ready to go and don’t start cooking them until you’re ready for them.  There are a million other recipes, just don’t go to chi-chi and lose the flavor of the crab.  Lots of textures and tastes: the crispness of the shell, claws and legs, the chew of the meat and the soft innards.  All edible, all delicious.  Batter dipped and fried – Wow!

William W. Warner’s, “Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and Chesapeake Bay” wonderously describes the whole ‘crab thing’: crabs, crabbing, the bay and its people.  This book was first published in 1976, is still in print and I’ve reread it many times.  Get it and read it – now!  It’ll tell you about draining the pickle.  Oh, and don’t forget the Old Bay Seasoning.  I’m not partial to a lot of pre-blended seasonings, but this is awesome and should be in everyone’s pantry.

Poor Rick and Brenda, old friends and good sports who usually eat everything.  But they didn’t tell me that they don’t like soft-shells.

 

 SOFT-SHELL CRABS AND SARDINES – BEFORE

 

Dinner Diary                                                                         April 13, 1991

 

 

 I did make up for the soft-shell crab faux pas that I visited on Rick and Brenda with this menu.  I cannot emphasize enough that you absolutely have to try to get a copy of Italian Family Cooking by Anne Casale (IFC).  I don’t think that I’ve ever had a recipe from this book turn out badly.  They’re actually pretty simple recipes.  They taste fantastically good.  She was someone that just really knew what she was doing. 

Of course, I couldn’t leave things exactly as they were, Notice that the IFC Chicken Rolls are stuffed with a Spinach and Blue Cheese filling from Bon Apetit and served with a Lemon Caper Sauce from IFC.  In retrospect I’m a little surprised that I rated that combination Very Good., but very good it was.  You will also note that Brenda brought dessert – the Chocolate Orange Torte.  Brenda and Rick are both excellent cooks.  What surprises me here is that I ALLOWED someone else to bring one of the meal courses.  Usually I’m much too much of a control freak to allow that to happen.  Maybe I was mellow; maybe I was tired (I’m choosing this excuse – cheese & crackers being the evidence), maybe I just trusted Brenda because she is as good as she is.  My usual response to an offer to ‘bring something’ is – YES – please bring some wine, “We will be having chicken stuffed with spinach and blue cheese served in a lemon caper sauce.  I think that a Sauvignon Blanc or possibly even a Chianti might work well – thank you.”

Bonnie keeps trying to talk me into holding a ‘pot luck’ dinner at our house where, as you know, everybody would bring a ‘dish’.  That ain’t never goin’ to happen.  I say that fully realizing that I am of the age where I never say never.

  

SOFT-SHELL CRABS, SARDINES AND FIDDLEHEAD FERNS

WITH BLUEFOOT MUSHROOMS

(Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles – fiddleheads have returned!)

 

So, You Want To Cook In A Restaurant?

At one point – unemployed – I was considering enrolling in the cooking school in Philadelphia.  I actually met with the school and was told that they would welcome me.  They prized my real estate development expertise, as the school was planning on expanding.  They also told me that I’d never be a master chef, because I was simply too old.  No matter to me as long as I could be a bona fide chef. 

Barry has been a substantial influence and cheerleader regarding my cooking.  He, at the time, held the position of Executive Chef at a highly regarded restaurant in Northern New Jersey.  I’m still trying to replicate his salmon flavored with lavender – a fantastic dish.  I talked with Barry about my thinking of going to cooking school and he had an idea.  He was both gracious and wise enough to say, “Come cook with me in the restaurant for a couple of weeks to see what this is about.  It might help you decide.”  HOW GREAT WAS THAT – I WAS GOING TO COOK IN A REAL RESTAURANT!  HOW FREAKIN’ COOL WAS THIS!!!!  I knew that after a few weeks in the restaurant kitchen I’d be ready for my television show on The Food Network – really, some of the ‘cooks’ on that channel had only spent a couple of weeks in front of a stove, it’s obvious. 

It’s always pretty damn funny when the dream meets reality, “Hello Mr. Dream, I’m Mr. Reality”.  Then Mr. Reality punches Mr. Dream right in the nose ….. and then kicks him in the family jewels just so Mr. Dream is sure to remember this event.  Before you think too much more about that television show why don’t you just spend another hour or so scouring the oven (still pretty damn hot) and the burners (likewise).  And then go in to the walk in freezer and do an inventory.  But before any of those just reach with your bare hand into the oven set at 500° to turn that venison loin.

 I didn’t have a clue as to what it was going to be like.  I thought that I’d be working hard, but I did not think that I was going to become a slave.  I did not think that I’d be cutting pounds and pounds of carrots into a nice julienne.  I did not think that my hands would become numb from the ice water that I was washing the romaine lettuce in.  I did not think that the flesh from the palm of my hand would remain attached to the red hot skillet handle that I grabbed.  I did not think that I would arrive at the kitchen at 10:00 in the morning and leave it at midnight or later.     Barry was amused by my efforts, but continued to encourage me to ‘hang in there’ and he was right – I loved it. 

This will not be an Anthony Bourdain exposé.  The staff was friendly and treated me well (letting me snitch a waffle fry or two from the customers plate before it went out) I did not encounter illicit sex or an excess of drugs or alcohol.  I find the word ‘excess’ to be pretty ambiguous and open to personal interpretation.   Actually the staff treated me well after they saw that I had some knife skills and was willing to be subservient to every single one of them.  I did learn that being a chef, being a chef who actually cares about doing his work well, is the damn hardest, most tiring job on earth – working from 10:00 in the morning till past midnight, no going out to pick up the dry cleaning, no surfing the web between phone calls.

I did get to wear honest to goodness ‘chef clothes’, that cool jacket and the pants.  I was a kid on Christmas morning.  But wow was the kitchen hot.  The prep room was in the basement and, while nowhere near a hell hole, it was the basement.  I used to have an office with windows looking out onto grass, trees and the sky.  One day I was sneezing, feeling a cold coming on and asked if there was a way in which they’d prefer that I sneeze so as not to ‘affect’ the food.  I was told, “bend over and sneeze low”.

 I did learn to bone a duck – after 8 or 10 tries – without having it look like some absolutely unrecognizable piece of road kill. 

I did learn that it takes a long time to clean up the stove at the end of service – the clean up beginning about 10:30 PM.  I would come home from the day, kiss the sleeping Bonnie, make a drink, sit on the couch in front of the television (it didn’t matter what was on) and fall asleep. 

I loved the family meals cooked by various members of the staff, when, at about 4:00 in the afternoon all of us would sit down together to eat before the onslaught of dinner.  I remember the rosemary chicken in particular.  I don’t know why, but that one dish in particular sticks in my mind. 

I am thrilled and proud to say that my knife skills were not derided (the duck being the exception to that – a mess for which I was thoroughly derided up-side my head), I managed not to drop or spill too much food on the floor, I did not overly salt anything, I did not incur the wrath of the service staff – in short – I did not make a pain in the ass fool of myself. 

I did learn, actually it was indelibly imprinted on my psyche by the volume and fury of Barry’s voice, that one, “DOES NOT THROW AWAY ANY FOODSTUFFS!!!!”

Barry, “Dave, where are the stems from the herbs that you’re cutting up?”

Dave, “I threw them in the garbage.”

B.’ “You did what?”

D., “I threw them in the garbage.”

B., “Why?”

D, “They were the stems.  They were garbage right? (my voice began to quiver a  bit here).”

B., “You think that the stems are garbage!  You don’t think that I can use them to flavor sauces and stocks!  You think that they’re FREE!”

D., “Um, um, um, um.”

B., “Don’t you EVER throw anything in the garbage unless I tell you its garbage!”

D., “Um, um, um, OK.  I’m really sorry (I was not near tears, no matter what Barry says).”

B., “Good.  You’re working well.”

So, a lesson learned that I’ve carried with me since that day – use all the parts, use your imagination.  The only downside to this is that our refrigerator has, at times, contained more than its share of ‘science experiments’.  Barry has also imparted this golden nugget of timeless wisdom in response to my asking him how long I should cook something, “How long do you cook it?  You cook it until it’s done.” 

Despite my errors over those few short weeks Barry and I managed to stay friends, maybe even better friends.  I loved being there and cooking, but realized that I may not have what it takes to do this full time – though I’d sure like to give it another shot.  One of the toughest jobs on earth.

I recently reread Bill Buford’s ‘Heat’, his journey from being a home cook to an accomplished chef.  It’s always nice to receive affirmation of your experiences, ideas and ideals from someone else and in Buford’s book I’ve received this affirmation. The experiences, ideas and ideals being the wonder, joy and obsession of a person truly loves cooking.  I envy him for having taken it farther than I have.  Like so many things, for some of us, once cooking gets its hooks into you there’s no turning back, no getting off. You just hang on and go with it.  You’re addicted.  And in this case, that’s a good thing.

 

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SHAD, A GOOD DINNER MENU AND HOW DO YOU DRESS A PHEASANT?

Diner Diary                                                                April 11, 1992

 

I believe that this recipe came from the New York Times.  Bonnie and I love shad and shad roe and this recipe is a good one to highlight those superb foodstuffs.  We especially love shad when it’s prepared with a minimum of fuss – flour dredged and pan fried with a little lemon juice. Cook the roe with bacon.  There are a many good recipes for shad, some simple, some complex, all that I’ve tasted good – there ain’t no hiding the taste of this fish.  The New York Times recipe, as I’ve written, took a while to prepare, but it was well worth the effort.   

The shad presents itself honestly and without guile. While many think it uninteresting or unattractive in the way that it looks, I find its large scales to be quite beautiful; the color of burnished nickel with an edge of iridescent blue.    It has bones, it tastes like an oily fish and it smells like fish.  Givens and attributes that many folks don’t like – good, more for me.  This shad, Alosa Sapidissima (its quite beautiful species name), the star of John McPhee’s wonderful, ‘The Founding Fish’, migrates back up the rivers to spawn in the springtime.  It can be full of annoying bones, but if it’s ‘done’ right, it isn’t.  The flesh is full of flavor, but it is oily and you want to counter that, to greater or lesser degrees, with an acid flavor: the lemon juice, tomatoes or even a splash of vinaigrette.  It is heaven on earth when it’s smoked.  The roe is nutty with burst in the mouth eggs different than caviar, but a sac full of eggs just the same.  We used to really enjoy this with a side dish of morels, shallots and fiddlehead ferns, but it’s getting harder to find the ferns.  Something about ‘potential’ cancer if it’s not cooked correctly and you eat 15 pounds of it at a sitting, 4 days a week.   

Shad has become a ‘ritual food’ for Bonnie and me, a celebration of a particular season and time. It heralds the arrival of spring.   

Our town is bordered by the Delaware River.   As with many rivers, the Delaware was once so polluted that fish, including the shad, couldn’t survive in its waters.  Unbelievably, it has been restored to a virtually pristine condition at our location and the shad have returned. 

 The rebirth of the river and the attendant return of the shad brought about a festival in our town celebrating the fish and the river in which it swims.   The celebration is a nice little street fair complete with a Shad Queen, tours of the town brewery (which used to include a great pig roast until the health department and their ridiculous regulations shut it down), a shad poster auction, demonstrations of historic shad fishing (a net pulled in by a group of men and women – if you stepped back two hundred years the scene would look the same) and of course shad cuisine. 

 The odd thing is that only one or two of the food vendors have served shad in the past few years.  Bonnie and I frequent those vendors.  In talking with these vendors the consensus is that people don’t like the fishy taste and don’t want to contend with any bones.  Ya’ get what ya’ pay for and what your efforts earn you.  So the rest of you go eat tilapia – no taste, no bones, no nothing –  just what you deserve.  As for me I’ll take the river and its bounty of shad and shad roe.

 

 SHAD AND SHAD ROE DINNER

                       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

      SHAD FEST POSTERS

 

 

 I treasure the ritual, my rituals, that come with having guests for dinner.  Looking back in the Dinner Diaries for dishes that I may not have used in a while and to find out what I have served these particular guests before; I don’t want to serve the same thing twice. 

I do give heed to the weather.  I don’t want to serve cold lemon chicken if the temperature is in the 30’s nor do I want to serve lamb shanks or cassoulet if the temps are in the 90’s.

As to the dishes themselves I usually prefer them to complement one another rather than contrast. That’s not to say I don’t want a differential, it’s just that I won’t serve Thai food and Italian on the same menu.  Thought is given to the colors, flavors and textures of the food.  I want the colors to be a rich palette, not just a single color. Nor, obviously, do I want the flavors to be the same.  Texture in that is it chewy or melt-in-your-mouth.  Putting together a good menu is art, a practice in composition. 

I prefer to fill my palette with seasonal foodstuffs and I am a locavore to the greatest extent possible.  It just doesn’t make sense food that’s from a thousand miles away and has no flavor (strawberries in December anyone?) if there are alternatives.  I shouldn’t even use the word ‘alternative’.  Use what ya got – it will taste better.  Shopping for the ingredients for dinner is something that I actually enjoy doing.  I’m the guy that’s looking at every lemon and potato, turning them over and over in my hand looking for blemishes,  I ask if there’s a fresh box of rhubarb that came in today because what’s in the bins looks like it’s been there for three weeks.

Then it’s time to decide the order of battle.  Can anything, whole or in part be made the day before? Can the gorgonzola be crumbled the day before?  Got to drain the whole peeled tomatoes the day before (save the tomato water).  Make sure that the meats out of the fridge long enough to come to room temperature.  Everybody tends to hang in the kitchen as I finish sautéing the polenta until it has a nice golden-brown crust.  Oh yea!  Made the polenta the day before, un- molded it and left it in the fridge uncovered the day of so that the exterior would dry a little.  And on, and on.  I’m big on lists.

Perhaps most importantly for me is that I want to serve my guests something that they haven’t had before; whether it’s the celery root soup, the duck breast with corn relish or the braised lamb shanks.  I treasure my guests excitement and surprise as the dishes are placed before them.

This was a good menu, cooked perfectly and with dinner guests that are two of our closest friends –   The perfect combo.  The weather was cooler than normal for this time of year so the lamb shanks were appropriate and, yes, the lamb shanks were from Ely’s.  The medjool dates – they weren’t from Ely’s.

 

How Do You Dress A Pheasant?   Depends On The Weather

I feel very fortunate living in a rural area of New Jersey.  For all of you people out there that think of New Jersey as highways and cities keep thinking that.  I like rural areas because I am, at the very core of my being, a hermit.  My few friends know this and call me a hermit.  My dream when Bonnie and I were looking for our house (I know, you’re saying, “if he’s such a hermit what’s he doing married to someone as wonderful as Bonnie is?”  Easy, I love her.) was that I’d find a house where when you walked up the driveway to get the morning paper, and you saw your neighbor getting his paper, you were too far away from each other to even shout ‘good morning’, you just waved at each other.  Well, I achieved that dream – except now I want 200 acres so that I don’t even see my neighbor.  We have what Bonnie and I term ‘Disney Land’ scenes in the property around the house continuously.  At any single moment in the spring and summer we’re often looking at several bluebirds (which I want to teach to weave a wildflower necklace for Bonnie a la Snow White – or was it Cinderella?), hummingbirds, fawns and red fox kits.

One of the benefits of living in a rural area is that we have several pheasant farms near us.  These pheasant farms raise pheasants to supply to game preserves.  Hey!  You PETA people (we often call you PETAphiles – nuts afflicted with PETAphilia)!  Don’t feel sorry for the pheasants.  We have them on our property and have found them, along with mourning doves, to be among the most stupid birds on the planet.  They will run into the side of your car, they will not move from the road as you drive towards them, they will sit there as our local barn cats walk directly towards them, the pheasant smiling in greeting.  I suspect that pheasant’s brains are at square one on the evolutionary pathway.  I really enjoy eating a properly cooked pheasant – gotta do it right, they have very little fat, so it’s way too easy to end up with a dry, tough and inedible bird.  Since I don’t hunt, I figured that the easiest way to satisfy my craving for a good pheasant would be to call up one of the pheasant farms and see if I could buy some from them.  I did call, they said come on down!  Yippee! Fresh pheasant for dinner tonight. 

By the way, these pheasant farms are not buildings.  They are acres of land covered with netting on the sides and the ‘ceiling’ about 10 or 12 feet high.  So the birds are free range and get to fly around.

I hop in the car, drive up to the office at the farm and announce myself as ready to take home the pheasants.  The proprietor says, “Just wait here and I’ll get your birds for you”, and with that walks down a lane.  He had walked a ways down the lane far enough so that when I saw him returning I wasn’t sure what he was carrying – they seemed to be moving.  Moving?  What the hell is a dead pheasant doing moving?  Those birds couldn’t be moving unless they were alive and since I’ve never actually killed my meal to eat it that can’t be possible (actually I have killed my meal to eat it: lobsters, fish, soft shell crabs, other assorted shellfish and a PETAphile that tasted like Piping Plover – ya gotta know the Cape to appreciate that).

Lordy! Lordy!  It is in fact live pheasants!  What in bloody hell am I going to do with live pheasants?  Pheasant wings were flapping, pheasant sounds were being made, pheasant heads were swiveling around and pheasant eyes were searching for an executioner or a savior.   My face may have had an expression close to the lady in Hatch’s Seafood when I told her what I was going to do with the lobster bodies.  I prefer to think that my face had a bemused and slightly bewildered expression – something like a high fashion model.  The bastard proprietor’s face had a smirk and he was holding back laughter.  Not doing much to hold that laughter back either. 

Me, “Um, Um, Can you dress these for me?” 

Him, “Nope – can’t do that.” 

Me, “You couldn’t this one time?” 

Him, “Nope” 

Me, “I never dressed a game bird before.” 

Him, “Figured that.” 

Me, “So, how do I dress these birds?”

What else could I say?  I did want the pheasants and I most certainly did not want to look like a wimp.  So the proprietor told me how to dress the birds.  For those of you that know how to do this, we know that it’s no big deal.  For those of you that don’t know how to do this, I will spare you the details. 

Actually, I was planning on telling you, but I ran the instructions past Bonnie and she suggested that I should leave it out.  She strongly suggested that I leave it out.  When the proprietor finished his instructions he said, “I’ve got some quail too.  Want any?”  I love quail.  In for a penny in for a pound I said, “That would be great, I’ll take six.”  They’re small, you know.

The birds went into boxes, not altogether willingly, and then into the back of the car and home.  I realize that there is a wide spectrum of ‘sensibilities’ out there so I shall be brief and a bit vague in regards to the events that followed when the birds and I got home.

          I GOT MY TRUSTY MEAT CLEAVER

             WENT TO THE FIREWOOD SPLITTING STUMP

                AND THE DEED WAS DONE

I was thrilled!  Four nicely dressed pheasants and six quail rested in the fridge (I didn’t have a good place to hang them to ‘ripen’ or I would have) awaiting the efforts of my culinary skills.  I couldn’t wait to tell Bonnie, I was so proud of my newly learned skills.  She had known that I was picking the pheasants up but obviously had no idea as to the lengths that I would go to in that regard.  I called her at her office, “Honey, I got 4 pheasants and 6 quail!”  And then I told her ‘the rest of the story’.  There was a really LONG silence and then she said, “You did what!?!?!?”  So I told her again.  Another long silence and then, “I’m not eating any of them.”  What?  I had done a lot of feather plucking that day and I could not believe that she would spurn the fruits of my efforts. To this day I’m still a little mystified as to her refusal to eat the birds (which were very tasty). I guess that she just never figured me for the savage that I really am.