Kitchen Exhibitionist
The Culinary Quests of a Food Enthusiast Stuck in the Sticks
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
The Crab Feast (& Pasta Pesto Pea Salad)
The Crab Feast (& Pasta Pesto Pea Salad)

Although I often complain about the lack of epicurean excitement in this part of south central Pennsylvania, our proximity to the Chesapeake Bay (Baltimore is about an hour away) provides us with a special treat not available in many other parts of the country……blue crabs! Every summer I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend a couple of crab feasts.

I’ll never forget my very first crab feast over 20 years ago. I was a student in Baltimore at the time, recently relocated from Long Island. My beau-du-jour, a native Baltimorean, invited me to this common local event and I had no idea what to expect.

Outdoor tables were covered with layers of newspaper pages and mysteriously outfitted with a roll of paper towels, some toy-sized wooden mallets, and a couple of table knives. As we waited for the crabs to arrive, we drank beer from large plastic cups which we filled from a huge keg. Then the guests of honor arrived: the crabs! Bushel baskets of hot steamed crabs were casually dumped in piles on the center of each table, perfuming the air with that unique aroma of fresh hot crab and Old Bay seasoning.

I didn’t know how to eat a whole crab so I watched in awe while everyone around me dug in. The table conversation was punctuated by the whacks of mallets, the sound of cracking shells, and murmurs of satisfaction.

When the people seated around me discovered I was a first-time crab eater, they offered plenty of instruction. Surprisingly, each person had their own way of picking the meat from the crabs and argued the merits of his or her technique over that of the others.

Some people went right for the choicest snowy white lumps. Others saved the best for last. There were those who used a mallet and knife to extract the sweet white meat while others shunned such utensils, taking pride in cracking the crabs with their bare hands. Some people cracked, sucked, and retrieved every shred of meat from every part of the crab before moving on to the next crab, while others bypassed the difficult parts, like the small legs, and tossed them into the shell trash pile.

At the time I was working on my Master’s degree in clinical psychology and had been studying the various subjective personality tests that are used to evaluate patients’ psyches, like the Rorschach test, the Thematic Apperception Test, and others. As I sat there watching everyone around me eating their crabs I realized that the way a person cracked and ate crabs could tell a lot about him or her, just like the personality tests I had been learning. Perhaps there was a thesis in there somewhere! That wasn’t the only time I recognized a relationship between gastronomy and psychological theories of human behavior.

But back to the crabs. They were delicious, their pure white meat sweet and delicate, seasoned with the Old Bay spices that were carried from the outside of the shell, to my fingers, to the delectable morsels of crab meat, and to my mouth. The only downside was the amount of effort required to extract the crab’s meat from its shell. It isn’t easy to get fully satisfied on steamed crabs, which is why most crab feasts also include burgers and hot dogs cooked on the grill along with an array of salads and side dishes.

I’ve been to many a crab feast since my first introduction to these sweet briny creatures, and every time, as I watch people cracking and eating their crabs, I think about that thesis I should have written. And each time, I contribute a side dish to the pot-luck buffet table, which lately has been this one I share here.

Pasta Pesto Pea Salad is one of my favorites for such an event. Green-flecked with pesto, spinach, and bright tiny emerald marbles of peas, it really stands out on a buffet table. Its fragrance is intense with the heady aromas of basil, olive oil, and parmesan cheese. One whiff encourages plates to be loaded. Those wonderful flavors, along with the mouth-pleasing texture offered by the combination of two different pasta shapes and the crunch of toasted pine nuts makes this a popular summer side dish to tote to any event, whether it involves crabs or not.

Pasta Pesto Pea Salad
From Barefoot Contessa Parties By Ina Garten
Yield: 12 servings

3/4 pound fusilli pasta
3/4 pound bow-tie pasta
1/4 cup good-quality olive oil
1 1/2 cups pesto (homemade or purchased)
1 10 oz. package frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/4 cups good-quality mayonnaise
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 cups frozen peas, thawed
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Cook fusilli and bow ties separately in a large pot of boiling water for 10 to 12 minutes, until each pasta is al dente. Drain and toss in a bowl with olive oil. Cool to room temperature.

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with steel blade, puree pesto, spinach and lemon juice. Add mayonnaise and continue to puree. Add the pesto mixture to cooled pasta and mix well. Add the Parmesan cheese, peas, pine nuts, salt and pepper. Toss well, season to taste, and serve chilled or at room temperature.

Makes 12 servings.

Note: To toast nuts, spread on a dry baking sheet and place in preheated 325-degree oven 5 to 7 minutes, checking and stirring often to prevent burning. Nuts may also be toasted in skillet over medium heat, 5 to 7 minutes, stirring frequently; or in microwave on high, 2 1/2 to 4 minutes, stirring after 2 minutes.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Summertime Roasted Tomatoes and Onions Platter
Summertime Roasted Tomatoes and Onions Platter

While I’m not a big fan of summer heat and sun (blue-eyed redheads burn easily), I do look forward to summer each year for the goodies this season brings; local berries, garden vegetables, fresh ripe peaches, and best of all, cooking outside on the grill. It is with great pleasure each summer that I uncover my grill and dust it off to ready it for the grilling season.

I usually focus on the main course when grilling so I’m always on the lookout for simple side dishes to complement my grilled centerpieces. I love unusual salads and side dishes that can be prepared in advance and served at room temperature. I really hit the jackpot with this one and I know it will make appearances at many a cookout this year. Its name doesn’t do it justice, but its picture sure does.

Part salad part vegetable side dish, this luscious platter partnered perfectly with grilled loin lamb chops at my Memorial Day cookout. It could also serve as a first course with good crusty bread to mop up the delicious juices. Personally, with some bread and a bottle of wine, I could make an entire meal of it.

The sweet onions, oven roasted until tender and the edges are caramelized golden, just melt in your melt. Made with only onions and olive oil, they are magically transformed and become as sweet as honey. The tomatoes are roasted until their flavor is concentrated and rich. Their acidity nicely balances the sweet onions. The dish is finished with a mound of fresh ricotta cheese, a liberal drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil, a sprinkling of coarse sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a shower of fresh basil confetti.

Roasted Tomatoes and Onions
Adapted From Celebrate! By Sheila Lukins

Yield 8 servings

8 medium sweet onions, peeled and cut into ¼ inch thick slices
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
16 small ripe plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise
1 pound fresh ricotta or goat cheese
Coarse sea salt (like Fleur de Sel)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup slivered fresh basil leaves
Crusty bread for serving

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Arrange the onion slices in one layer on two to four baking sheets and brush both sides of each slice with olive oil.

Place the tomatoes cut side up in one or two small, shallow pans and brush the tops with olive oil.

Roast the onions for 25 – 35 minutes, turning them after 15 minutes. When they are done they will be golden brown. Remove and set aside.

Roast the tomatoes until the centers are soft and the skins are charred, about 25 minutes.

To serve, spoon the ricotta or goat cheese in the center of a large platter. Separate the onion slices into rings and place them in four even piles around the ricotta on the platter. Arrange the tomatoes between the onions. Season the vegetables with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle with any remaining olive oil and sprinkle with the basil.

Serve warm or at room temperature with bread to soak up the juices and oil.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Six Things to Do with the Exotic Condiments in Your Cupboards
Six Things to Do with the Exotic Condiments in Your Cupboards

If you’re like me (and you probably are if you’re reading this blog), your cupboards are loaded with bottles, jars, and cans of unusual and interesting foods that you bought with good intentions but haven’t used yet because you don’t really know what to do with them.

Like the chestnut jam I purchased in Paris and the Amarula jelly I brought back from South Africa because, well, I can’t buy that stuff around here. Then there was the flat round tin of guava paste I picked up in an ethnic grocery store because I recalled it was an ingredient in a recipe I wanted to try, but now I don’t remember what recipe it was. Also monopolizing some shelf space was a giant jar of caponata that was just too good a price to resist. And that gold-capped jar of Ginger Wasabi Sauce was the result of the free taste sample they offered at a gourmet shop, which was so delicious I had to buy it (or maybe I was just really hungry).

My cupboards and refrigerator became so crammed with sauces, chutneys, tapenades, salsas, jams, relishes, and hot sauces, most of them unopened, that I suddenly no longer had room for my regular grocery items. It was time to find some creative uses for these condiments.

Taking inspiration from many sources, and a bit of experimentation, I came up with some simple but delicious ways to use up the contents of those jars and bottles. I hope they help you clean up your cupboards too. Housecleaning never tasted so good.

1. Pour it over a block of cream cheese, add a basket of crackers and call it an appetizer.

This idea works well for both sweet condiments, like jams, and savory ones, such as sauces. It is even better with condiments that are both sweet and savory in the same bite. The Raspberry Chipotle sauce was so good in this application that I quickly polished off the entire jar and then figured out how to make my own (recipe below).

You can utilize two condiments at once if you mix a sweet jam or jelly with a spicy sauce. Try Thai sweet chili sauce mixed with a citrusy marmalade, or maybe a peachy or mango jam with a spicy hot sauce.

Salsas of all types are perfect here as well; especially the hotter ones whose spiciness is tempered by the cool cream cheese. You can take this a step further by sprinkling it with shredded cheese and warming it in the microwave for a minute to serve as a warm dip with tortilla chips.

2. Embellish a cheese plate

Many of these types of condiments go amazingly well on a cheese platter. Slices of guava paste, dollops of chutney, or small dishes of any type of mustard are very complementary to most cheeses.

Branston Pickle, a sweet and spicy vegetable relish I encountered in London, is cheddar’s soul mate. I turned a simple cheese plate into an exciting adventure by adding some chopped Mostarda di Cremona from Italy, a chutney-like condiment made from candied fruits in spicy hot, tangy mustard syrup.

3. Make Breakfast Special

On the sweet side – Beyond the obvious use as a spread for toast, most jams, jellies and marmalades are wonderful smeared on pancakes, stirred into yogurt, or swirled into hot oatmeal. Or warm it and thin it with a bit of juice to make syrup for waffles or French toast.

On the savory side - The spicier sauces and salsas add zip to basic scrambled or fried eggs while the chunkier condiments, such as tapenade or caponata, are great omelet fillings.

4. Liven up your lunch sandwich

Add pesto to tuna salad, chutney to chicken salad, or tapenade to egg salad.

Whether your sandwiches start with bread, tortilla wraps, flat bread or pita, first spread them with mayonnaise, cream cheese, or butter into which you’ve blended a bit of hot sauce, exotic mustard or other complementary condiment. The Ginger Wasabi sauce was fantastic on a ham sandwich.

5. On the Barbie

Make a marinade of oil and a spicy hot sauce or salsa to flavor steaks, chicken, pork, seafood or vegetables before grilling.

Use a sweeter sauce or a jam thinned with wine or water to brush on grilled foods for the last few minutes of cooking, to create a shiny, sweet glaze.

Mix tapenade, caponata or other chunky savory mixture with some softened butter and chill. Place a chunk of this seasoned butter on top of hot grilled steaks, chicken breasts or fish fillets right after they come off the grill.

6. Custom Pasta Sauces

Chunky caponata simmered with some plain canned tomato sauce makes a wonderful pasta topper. And when I scraped the remaining contents of a jar Red Pepper Spread with Eggplant and Garlic into some hot rotini, poured in some heavy cream and heated it up, it was fabulous.

Any other ideas out there? Please share in the comments below.

Here is the Raspberry Chipotle Sauce I created to reproduce the one I used up in the delicious cheese spread I mentioned above. My version turned out even better than the commercial product!

Lydia’s Smokin' Raspberry Zinger Cheese Spread

The combination of sweet, hot and smoky is wonderful with the cooling creaminess of the cream cheese.

1 cup seedless raspberry jam
2 whole chipotle peppers from canned chipotles in adobo sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 8 ounce package of cream cheese, room temperature

In a blender or mini-food processor blend raspberry jam and chipotle peppers until smooth. Stir in lime juice. Pour mixture over cream cheese. Serve with buttery crackers.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Quick-Fried Shrimp with Sweet Toasty Garlic
Quick-Fried Shrimp with Sweet Toasty Garlic

The other day someone asked me to name my favorite TV chef. When I replied with my answer I was surprised by her response, “Who?” she asked. “Who is that?” Geez, doesn’t anyone watch PBS anymore? I guess the Food Network has taken over the culinary consciousness of the masses.

I love Rick Bayless of the PBS series on Mexican cookery. Given America’s recent infatuation with television chefs and cooking shows, I’m surprised he isn’t as popular as some of the others. For example, I don’t understand Emeril’s appeal at all. He reminds me of Fred Flintstone, and his lopsided cartoon mouth rarely completes a grammatically proper sentence, which just drives me crazy and distracts me from the great looking food he prepares. And although she is adorable, Rachel Ray’s never-ending exuberance does get a bit wearing.

A true TV food star doesn’t need to resort to screaming out catch-phrases, inane giggling, or showing cleavage to be successful. Rick Bayless’ geeky-cool persona outshines all the Food Network TV stars put together. He is interesting, articulate, and passionate about Mexican cookery and ingredients. I love how he teaches us Mexico’s cuisine in the context of her history, geography, and culture.

He takes us by the hand and shows us real Mexican food, not the Tex-Mex imposters we grew up with. These are not the tacos from the fast food chains we know. These dishes are not the predictable variations of tortillas, meat, cheese, and salsa popularized by the ubiquitous faux-Mexican restaurants in America. These are not your mother’s enchiladas.

The cuisine of Bayless’ Mexico is the child of the ancient indigenous populations of Mayans, Aztecs, and others who, many centuries ago, were raped by the conquering Spanish and bore this wonderful old world/new world cuisine. The cuisine of his Mexico is simple, earthy peasant fare elevated to new levels by the European influence.

Rick Bayless makes the cuisine of his Mexico interesting, appetizing, and accessible. He introduces us to chilies in all their many-splendored glories. He makes us wish those mountains of strange dark pastes in the Mexican mercados were available in our hometown. He shares the regional street foods with us until our mouths water. He makes the cuisine of his Mexico ours.

That is why Rick Bayless is my favorite TV chef. Oh, and of course, his recipes are wonderful.

I’ve made his Camarones al Mojo de Ajo (Quick-fried Shrimp with Sweet Toasty Garlic) several times and can declare it as nirvana for shrimp and garlic lovers. The garlic oil, simply olive oil in which bits of garlic are slowly simmered until sweet and tender, is just amazing. The recipe yields more garlic oil than is used in the dish but you’ll be glad to have this leftover elixir to use in other ways.

The first time I made this as an appetizer, my guests and I loved it. Throughout the rest of the meal I kept little saucers of the extra garlic oil on the table for dipping our bread. One of my friends loved the garlic oil so much she asked if she could take some of the leftover oil home with her. I’ve used the leftover oil to sauté steamed broccoli and to flavor plain pasta. The garlic oil is so good I could almost eat it with a spoon!

The shrimp are quickly pan sautéed in the garlic oil so they remain plump and succulent. After cooking, they are showered with the flecks of toasted garlic and bits of chipotle chiles, and sparked with fresh lime juice.

Camarones al Mojo de Ajo
(Quick-fried Shrimp with Sweet Toasty Garlic)
From Mexico-One Plate at a Time by Rick Bayless

Serves 6 generously

3/4 cup peeled whole fresh garlic cloves (about 2 large heads)
1 cup good-quality oil, preferably extra-virgin olive oil
3 limes
2 canned chipotle chiles en adobo, seeded and cut into thin strips
2 pounds (about 48) medium-large shrimp, peeled (leave the tail segment if you wish)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or parsley (optional)

1. Preparing the mojo de ajo.

Either chop the garlic with a sharp knife into 1/8-inch bits or drop the cloves through the feed tube of a running food processor and process until the pieces are roughly 1/8 inch.

You should have about 1/2 cup chopped garlic. Scoop into a small (1-quart) saucepan, measure in the oil (you need it all for even cooking) and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and set over medium-low heat. Stir occasionally as the mixture comes barely to a simmer (there should be just a hint of movement on the surface of the oil). Adjust the heat to the very lowest possible setting to keep the mixture at that very gentle simmer (bubbles will rise in the pot like mineral water) and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is a soft and pale golden (the color of light brown sugar), about 30 minutes. The slower the cooking, the sweeter the garlic.

Squeeze the juice of 1 of the limes into the pan and simmer until most of the juice has evaporated or been absorbed into the garlic, about 5 minutes. Stir in the chiles, then taste the mojo de ajo and add a little more salt if you think it needs it. Keep the pan over low heat, so the garlic will be warm when the shrimp are ready.

Cut the remaining limes into wedges, scoop into a serving bowl and set on the table.

2. The shrimp.

Devein the shrimp if you wish: one by one lay the shrimp on your work surface, make a shallow incision down the back and scrape out the (usually) dark intestinal track; pull or scrape it out and discard.

Set a large (12-inch) nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and spoon in 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil (but not the garlic) from the mojo. Add half of the shrimp to the skillet, sprinkle generously with salt, then stir gently and continuously until the shrimp are just cooked through, 3 or 4 minutes. Stir in the cilantro or parsley if you’re using it.

Scoop the shrimp onto a deep serving platter. Repeat with the remaining half of the shrimp and another 1 1/2 tablespoons of the garlicky oil.

When all of the shrimp are cooked, use a slotted spoon to scoop out the warm bits of garlic and chiles from the pan, and douse them over the shrimp. You may have as much as 1/3 cup of the oil leftover, for which you'll be grateful its wonderful for sauteeing practically anything.

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