Shrimp cocktail

70s-tastic shrimp cocktail.

One of my distinct childhood memories is of the occasional cocktail parties my parents gave. They didn’t happen often, but when they did, my sister Julie and I would help make the house sparkle and set up the appetizer table in the family room, knowing our reward was nigh.

Of course, Julie and I could not have cared less who was coming over, and once we survived the polite introductions, our work was done. Those nights were an occasion because we were promised a rare and exotic frozen TV dinner, eaten in front of the TV. Anything to keep us occupied and out of the way. We were in heaven.

Party nights were also special for the other uncommon foods in the house. Bags of potato chips with sour cream dip (my sister and I tempting each other with the old ad pitch “Bet you can’t eat just one!” ); tiny sweet gherkins; pitted black olives whose main appeal was as freaky finger coverings; cocktail weenies on toothpicks; and of course my dad’s shrimp cocktail.

“Dad’s Shrimp,” as it came to be known, was a fairly grownup flavor for little kids, but I loved it: unexpectedly piquant, spicy and barely sweet.

The recipe came from a long-ago edition of Sunset magazine, and who knows how close Dad’s version is to the original. I’ve never known him to follow any recipe from start to finish. He might use one for inspiration and to understand the intended flavors, but then he adds a dollop of creative license to make it his own.  And the theater involved — well, it’s amusing to watch. When he’s really having fun, he talks to himself while he bobs and jigs around the kitchen:  “A little of this, and, ah, a little of that … yes. That’s it. Oh, do you know what would be good? I know just the thing.” Though I was not present when he first made this shrimp cocktail, I imagine that’s how it went down. And several years ago when I asked him for the recipe, it was clear that the science of measurement was not something he’d applied to this dish — ever.

Its components seem odd. And when I list the ingredients to curious friends, they respond surprised: “Really? Ketchup? Mustard? Celery?” Yes, really. Good, isn’t it?

I still crave it. That snap of horseradish and tarragon vinegar lend a zesty contrast against chilled poached shrimp and creamy avocado.

Here is the recipe as told by my dad. Mine never quite tastes the same as his, so the liberties he takes with measurements are not perfectly represented here, and every measurement could be followed by an “-ish.” But like a good ’70s cocktail party, it’s still groovy in my book.

Dad’s Shrimp

1/4 cup tarragon vinegar

1 1/2 tablespoon prepared horseradish

1 tablespoon yellow mustard

1 tablespoon ketchup

1 1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 cup canola oil

1/4 white onion

1 stalk celery

Put the ingredients in the Vitamix, and blend to a puree.  (A regular blender works, too, but first mince the celery and onion.)

Pour over 1 1/2 pounds poached shrimp (shelled and deveined) and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours. Serve over avocado slices on individual plates or small bowls. I like making a bed of arugula or spinach under the avocado.

Gadget Geekery: Vitamix

June 12, 2011

Broccoli cheddar soup.

About a month ago, J and I were browsing through a local kitchen store and happened upon the Vitamix blenders. We’d first heard of the Vitamix reading Thomas Keller’s “Ad Hoc at Home” cookbook where it’s used in several recipes. I found it odd at first, then telling, that Keller continually referred to it by its brand name. No instructions were given that required the use of a “blender.” After researching its capabilities, I was impressed. So we wanted to see one in person.

The salespeople at the kitchen store had practically granted the Vitamix deity-like status. The floor model glowed with an imagined golden nimbus as the clerk recounted its otherworldly capabilities: powers through ice like a chain saw, spins with tornado-like force, chews fibrous fruit like a ravenous goat. In fact the Vitamix works with such high-speed intensity that it heats the ingredients in its container, as in makes hot soup out of a frozen smoothie, if you’re not careful. Hot soup in a blender in about five minutes: Sold.

The price was steep as a cliff, but we rationalized the purchase by counting it as our next seven birthday gifts, each. We brought it home, and promptly made, of course, frozen margaritas. Not regular frozen margaritas, though. This version had whole fruit. Peel an orange, peel a lime, drop them in — membranes and all — and blend them up with some silver tequila, Cointreau, ice and a touch of water. The Vitamix made short work of ice cubes and blended the whole fruit to a smooth consistency. Whole-fruit fiber hidden in a frozen cocktail? Brilliant! Make mine a double.

Though I usually prefer to keep the kitchen counters clutter-free, the Vitamix earned a permanent home next to the coffee maker. We use the beastly blender daily, whipping up everything from smoothies, salad dressings, mayonnaise, dips, cold soups and even a new version of chile verde. My favorite recipe so far is the hot broccoli and cheddar soup, loosely adapted from the Vitamix cookbook:

1 1/2 c. skim milk
1/2 c. shredded cheddar
2 c. steamed broccoli florets (reserving a few for garnish)
1/3 c. minced onion
1/2 tsp boullion
1/3 c. cooked barley for body

Place all ingredients in the blender in the order listed. With the blender on variable 1, turn it on. Increase speed to variable 10, and set to high. Blend for 5 to 6 minutes, until steam escapes from the lid. Serve with reserved broccoli florets. Presto, hot, creamy soup.

To clean up, fill the container halfway with hot water and a squeeze of dish soap, and run the blender again. Holy molé, the thing cleans itself!

Queue the angels: This is one heavenly appliance.

Greek salad, a Sunday tradition.

It’s part of the Sunday ritual, so deeply ingrained that the weekend hardly feels complete without it. Every weekend, we make our shopping list, and every weekend, the same few ingredients appear: cucumber, tomatoes, red onion, feta, black olives.

After the groceries are put away, and before any other dinner-fixing starts, the chopping commences. Uncomplicated, and delicious in its simplicity,
our Greek salad serves as a side dish on its own, but more commonly I use it to top my chopped lettuce during the week. Every night. Yes, I eat salad every night during the week. I think of it as a calorie bank: I save up calories during the week that I can in turn spend on weekend splurges.

The essential component to our Greek salad is English cucumber, peeled. I find the seeds and skins of traditional cucumbers to be bitter and generally horrible. In fact, for years I detested cucumbers until I realized their problem could be fixed by peeling and seeding them, and I always question restaurants that slice cucumbers on salads without taking these extra steps.

Grape tomatoes are the other important component of the recipe. During the summer, if large, flavorful tomatoes are available, I’ll use them, but grape tomatoes are usually delicious, if a little expensive, year round.

So, peel, quarter and chop the cucumber, add a little salt. Halve the grape tomatoes lengthwise and add to cucumber. Finely mince 1/2 red onion and give the salad a toss. Though I buy pitted kalamata olives, I chop them to detect any lingering pits. In they go. Cube or crumble the feta and pile it in. Season with salt and pepper keeping in mind that the olives and feta add some saltiness. A drizzle of olive oil is the final touch. If I have a lemon, maybe a squeeze of juice, but I don’t go out of my way to buy lemon. Stir it up, and it’s done.

Pork roast and farro, arugula salad.

After our decadent weekend of dining out, Sunday dinner was a welcome break.

Just before we embarked on our afternoon walk, J rubbed pork leg roast with salt, pepper, Italian seasoning and a generous sprinkling of granulated garlic. He first browned it on a hot grill, giving it a nice crust. Then it went into the oven with a can of beer to maintain a bit of moisture. Four hours at 250 degrees yielded flavorful, tender meat (J thought it was overcooked, I thought it was delicious).

To accompany, we improvised a earthy, peppery salad of farro, mushrooms and baby arugula.

1 pound mixed mushrooms (crimini, shiitaki, oyster and enoki) sauteed in leftover soffrito oil  until softened. Cooled.

1 cup farro cooked in 5 cups broth for 50 minutes until al dente. Drained and cooled.

1 package baby arugula. Washed and dried.

Lemon vinaigrette (fresh lemon juice, salt, pepper, pinch of sugar, minced onion, fruity olive oil.)

In a large bowl, I mixed the cooled mushrooms and farro, salting to taste. Then I tossed in baby arugula until there was an even balance, half and half-ish. Spooned on some vinaigrette, then using a veggie peeler, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano into the bowl and tossed. Garnished with more Parm on the plate.

A simple recipe with balanced textures and flavors.  This one’s a keeper.

Farro, arugula, mushrooms, lemon vinaigrette and cheese.

Soffritto, draining.

Onions.

Olive oil.

Tomatoes.

Garlic.

Salt.

Whenever J and I make a meal, you can bet that, in most cases, at least four of the five ingredients above are featured in some way or another. But in one of our newest refrigerator staples, they are the stars.

Helloooo, soffritto, you sweet, jammy medley.

We had our first encounter with soffritto over the holidays last year, following the recipe from Thomas Keller’s “Ad Hoc at Home” cookbook in the ever-engaging “lifesavers” section. His is a simple recipe, really: Finely dice onions (3 cups) and combine in a large pan with olive oil (1 cup, though I sometimes us a bit more so there is more to save) and a bit of salt. Bring the oil just to a boil, then reduce the heat and place the pan on a heat diffuser. Simmer for 2 1/2 hours.

Cue the tomatoes. Keller gives instructions for halving one pound plum tomatoes lengthwise, and grating the flesh on a box grater until only the skin is left in your hand. I did this once. But in December in the Northwest, plum tomatoes are pretty anemic. And while the process of hand-grating tomatoes is not difficult, I feel it’s not entirely necessary when a box of good-quality Italian crushed tomatoes is a fine shortcut. Add the tomatoes (1 cup or so) to the onion/olive oil stew, give a  stir and simmer for another 2 1/2 hours. Low, slow.

Remove the pan from the heat, add one or two (Two! No, three!) minced garlic cloves and let the mixture cool on the stove. Use a fine-mesh sieve to drain off the extra olive oil, reserving it for the next batch of soffritto (Keller’s advice), or for sauteeing vegetables (our advice). Either way, refrigerate the oil, refrigerate the soffritto. Enjoy.

How to enjoy? I eat my fair share of quesadillas, and this mellow-sweet, onion-y condiment is a luxurious topping. It’s also delicious on frittata, fish or pasta.

Or, by the spoonful.
(I would never do that.)

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Bacon bourbon jam

The first day of daylight savings was a windy, rainy one, but it’s 6:45pm, the clouds have broken, the sun is still out. We can’t complain. Especially since we spent the day cooking the most amazing meal: pork ribs slow braised in Coca-Cola, soy sauce and apple cider vinegar; collard greens with bacon and sausage and a new member of our immediate family, bourbon bacon jam. Hello, dear. Sit down, you’re just in time for dinner.

I first heard the ingenious words “bacon” and “jam” together when season 6 “Top Chef” contestant Kevin Gillespie made it during a quickfire. Since that brilliant moment, I knew I’d make it at some point. With tonight’s menu, the time was ripe.

I followed the recipe on the blog evilshennanigans.com with minimal deviation. I started by barely crisping bacon in a cast-iron skillet. Reserving a bit of bacon fat, I added one very large sweet onion (sliced) and bit of brown sugar, and caramelized until the onions took on a deep golden brown color. In went the spices: cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, chipotle powder and sweet paprika. I added a bit more bourbon than the recipe called for, and caramelized the onions for at least ten minutes after the spices went in — that’s it. After a good two hours on the stove and a quick spin in the food processor, the sticky sweet, salty, spicy jam was ready. The result was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever tasted. Our favorite bite so far: a slice of apple, a piece of blue cheese and a dollop of the jam.

Pork au Coke

March 13, 2011

Pork au Coke

The star of this evening’s meal was a J production. He felt like cooking a barbecue-style Southern meal, and the rib recipe was improvised. First, he marinated pork ribs in a dry  “Memphis rib rub” (in a tin) and a half  cup of kalbi marinade overnight.

Next day, in a large cast iron pan, J caramelized red onions and green cabbage (salt and pepper to taste) in oil till golden. Then he added an 8 oz bottle of Coca-Cola, half a cup of apple cider vinegar, two tablespoons soy sauce, one teaspoon of red pepper flakes and good squeeze of sriracha.

Simmer, simmer, simmer.

Meanwhile, he seared the ribs on a hot grill, then braised ribs in sauce for about four hours. Low and slow.

He removed ribs. Let ’em rest in a warm oven while the sauce reduced until it was a rich, brown cola color. (About an hour.)

Ribs went back into the sauce for a bath. The result: fork tender, tangy, spicy, slightly sweet deliciousness. We served it up with greens and mac and cheese.

This recipe, it’s a keeper.