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Sunday, October 16, 2016

A different sort of pepper sauce


Often, I want the flavor of a pepper sauce without the vinegar/fermented taste of Tabasco, Texas Pete, Louisiana, Franks, etc or the heat of a Mexican sauce like El Yucateca (which is my favorite hot pepper sauce), and not a sauce made from dried or roasted peppers. I love those in the right combination, but some times, I want a less hot or acidic taste. I want the fresh, green flavor, enhanced by making a sauce. I have come up with a wine and fresh pepper sauce:
Take the peppers of your choice... cubanelles. anaheim, poblano, wax, banana, peperoncini, cherry, bell, baby bell.... anything from sweet to a bit hot. Remove the seeds and stems.
Toss them in a blender or food processor or along with a few cloves of garlic, onions, scallions or shallots, a good handful of parsley, salt and pepper to taste. Add to this about a half cup of white wine. If you use chardonnay, or another low acid white, add a splash of lemon or lime juice. If you use a wine with sparkling acidity like a good sauvignon blanc, you may skip it. A sweeter wine needs some lime juice and some zest.
Tailor it to your taste. I love this stuff. I find myself adding it to stewed tomatoes, topping baked or roasted chicken and pork... with beans... as a rub for red meats. It is particularly good with mutton and game. Sometimes I mix in some mustard, I have also mixed it into a cream sauce, along with some pureed red leaf lettuce and served over pasta. Generally, just all around good stuff.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Mussels



I just returned from a remarkably unsuccessful surf fishing trip.  It was just before a hurricane and the fish were just not biting.  The only "keepers" I caught, I did so with my cast net while catching minnows for bait.  I continued to fish every high tide, because the simple act of surf fishing is enjoyable - the sand, the water, the sea birds, the indescribable beauty of the shore... but, at low tide I visited a little tidal creek.  I caught blue crabs down there but mainly, I gathered shellfish.  I ate my fill of raw oysters daily, just shucking them and slurping them down while standing in the mud.  I gathered beautiful, sweet, meaty clams and buckets full of mussels.

The clams went into a simple chowder - onions and celery sweated down in butter until translucent, bacon, whole milk and half and half, potatoes, salt and pepper.

The Mussels were the star of the table.  I found them along the edges, in huge colonies clinging to the aquatic grasses and reeds.  I could have literally filled my pickup truck bed with them with very little effort.  I harvested several dozen large mussels... 4-6 inches long.  Back at the house, I washed the mud off and scrubbed them with a stiff brush until all the mud was gone.  The shell is shiny, silvery mother of pearl just under the surface.  Mussels have a"beard", the fibers with which they attach themselves to other surfaces or each other.  When fresh, these can be pulled off by strong hands. Otherwise, a pair of needle nose pliers does the job.



Steaming is the best method for cooking mussels.  I picked up a half bushel of tomatoes from a local farm on the way down and had cooked a gallon of the riper ones down the night before.  I sweated down finely chopped onions and celery tops/leaves in butter and added two cups of tomatoes in a stockpot. Mussels are full of slaty brine, so no salt was needed.  I tossed in some black pepper and a glass of white wine.  Once this came to the boil,  filled the pot with the cleaned and tightly closed mussels.  I put the lid on and waited 10 minutes.  When I opened the pot, all of the mussels had opened.  I removed the pot from the heat, and left the lid on while it cooled.

The only (temporarily due to what they eat) poisonous mussels in America grow on the west coast.  However, it was still very warm weather with lots of warm water being pumped in by the approaching storm... and this was a heavily populated area... so, just to be sure there was no chance of bacterial contamination, I used a two stage cooking method.  After the mussels cooled, I removed them from their shells, and returned them to the cooking liquid.  This, I simmered for a few minutes before serving.

With a slotted spoon, I heaped mussels and tomatoes over white rice and enjoyed a wonderful meal.  In fact, I ate the entire mess of mussels in just two meals,  Their savory/sweet/rich/meaty/briny taste, that is like a combination of an oyster and a clam went so well with both white and red wine that I had quite a feast with a few ginger snaps for dessert.

I was left with nearly a gallon of broth from all of the mussels and vegetables.  I strained it and used this to make several more meals.  Each day, I would serve a ladle full of the broth over buttered rice along with whatever I caught.  A few blue crabs boiled in the broth until their claws dropped, picked and dusted with creole seasonings were jaw droopingly good.  A few shrimp prepared the same way were well worth sore shoulders from tossing the cast net and the many bug bites suffered in their capture.   The few fish I caught were poached in the broth and their flavors enhanced but not compromised.  Each batch of seafood cooked in the broth added complexity, but the flavor of the mussels remained.

Fishing is fishing.... it is always worthwhile, but it is not always catching.  Shellfish, bivalves, mollusks and crustaceans are often more easily harvested and never disappoint when fresh.  Hours spent with my dog watching the sea and the sea birds (there were lots of pelicans around and I even saw a bald eagle steal a fish from a sea gull!), drinking wine and eating the freshest of seafoods are good for the soul... even when the fish don't bite nearly as much as the "no see ums", mosquitoes and sand flies.

Broth and Stock



There are some things so ubiquitous in my daily cooking that I rarely give them the attention I should.  Perhaps chief among these are broths and stocks.  A good cook wastes nothing.  In my family tradition of cooking, all scraps of meat, vegetables, fish, bones, etc were utilized.  A good deal of kitchen scraps were used to feed pets and livestock.... it is strange for me to think that most dogs now days eat only store bought dog food -our dogs on the farm, lived long and healthy lives eating "dog bread" (leftover cornbread or stale biscuits) soaked in gravy, meat scraps from the kitchen and plenty of cut offs from butchering livestock and game.  The choice bits though (and plenty of not so choice bits) fed the family and enriched countless dishes by being utilized for broths and stocks.

Generally speaking the difference between broth and stock is that broth is made with meat and stock is made with bones. However, this is not a hard and fast rule.  It is more useful to consider meat the base of broth and bones the base of stock.  Fish should also be used and you could consider a fish broth as being made with the flesh of the fish and/or the liquid from clams and mussels, while a fish stock would be made with the bones or shrimp shells, etc. However, you may boil fish heads for a wonderfully flavorful broth that also contains bones.  The same is true of chicken or ham broth made with meat still on the bones - when this is done, the joins release some collagen, which gives the broth a wonderfully rich mouth feel and more nutrition.  When it comes to vegetable broths and stocks, the distinctions are less clear, as both are just boiled vegetables.  Not being a vegetarian though, I rarely, if ever, make a pure vegetable broth or stock - I just toss the vegies in with the meat and/or bones.

To make broth, cut whatever meat you like into bite sized chunks put them in a pot of cold water.  Add to that any vegetables you like, if you wish.  You can brown the meat first (I usually do), or not. You can cook the vegetables first, or not. You can use scraps of meat left over from roasts, hams, poultry or fish.  You can use whatever you have and whatever you like. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let it simmer slowly for several hours, skimming off excess fat occasionally.   It is generally best to make individual broths of chicken (or other poultry), beef (or other red meats), pork and fish.  That way, when you need a cup of fish broth for a recipe, you have it on hand and if you want chicken soup, you already have the broth on hand and need only add a few ingredients to have the wonderful, home made soup that costs very little and is far tastier and better for you than anything from a can.

To make stock, take the bones or shells of whatever critter you have recently cooked and place them on a sheet pan.  Chop up any root vegetables you have on hand and the cut offs of onions, celery, etc.  Put them on the the pan ad drizzle with a little oil and salt.  Roast everything in the oven at around 300-350 degrees until the bones and vegetables are brown. Let the bones cool and then crack them (if you wish).  Put everything in a pot with cold water and cook just as described above for broth.  Stock is much richer than broth and you will likely add smaller amounts to many dishes.  Stocks are a must have ingredient in gravies, soups and sauces, or can be eaten just like soup.  Many people believe that a bowl of stock is among the most nutritious foods on earth.

I really cannot imagine cooking without broth or stock, even on fishing trips.  When I'm at the coast, I keep a pot of shellfish and fish stock going all the time.  I toss the shrimp shells, crab shells, fish bones, etc in, along with an onion studded with cloves and a bay leaf, and some black pepper.  If I want to make a nice soup, all I do is boil a few fish heads in some stock, with some celery and usually a dash or four of Tony Chachere's, a bit of white wine and/or milk.  Most early fishing mornings, a cup of fish stock is my breakfast - stick some jerky in my pocket for lunch and I'm set for most of the day. 

You can refrigerate freeze broth and stock if you can't use them fast enough.  I usually freeze mine in gallon ziplock bags, but some people fill ice trays with them so they can have pre measured amounts. Ideally though, they should be kept out, on the back of the stove and added to daily with fresh scraps.  I have been moving around too much the past few years to keep one going, but I usually have a pot of ham bone stock on the back burner to cook my beans in, and a pot of chicken stock for soups and sauces.  Real French Onion Soup is my favorite. 

Broths and stocks can and should be kept going for generations, handed down like sour dough starters to ensure a heritage of fine cooking! This brings up the final and very important point and the question of whether or not to salt your broths and stocks.  Most chefs would likely say that you should not salt broth or stock, so that it is easier to use as an ingredient.  Using unsalted ingredients makes it easier to control he amount of salt in a dish.  However, I do salt mine.  I live in the South, where it is hot in the summer.  I find that salted broths and stocks keep better without refrigeration, because salt inhibits bacterial growth.  That said, it is okay if they "sour" a bit, so long as you do not let them spoil; this can add a slightly fermented richness tot he flavor.  That must be to your own taste and discretion, though.  If you decide to make and maintain your broths and stocks in the traditional manner of keeping a pot on the back of the stove, simply bring it to a boil for a few minutes daily to prevent spoilage.

The only thing I would caution against adding to your broths is “pot likker” left over from cooking beans or greens.  The flavor is too strong and would dominate the broth.  Instead, add some broth or stock to your pot likker and make a delicious soup.

As I write this, a hurricane is just making landfall.  The rains are coming down and the wind is picking up.  I will likely lose power soon.  It is a great comfort to know that I have several days worth of nutritious food already prepared, simply because I utilize my food scraps in the form of broth and stock. 


Stay safe, well fed and unreconstructed, ya’ll!