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.”
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.