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July, 2009 | Manolo's Food Blog
Archive - July, 2009

Fish fry

For the past two weeks Mr. Henry has been on the road and in the swamp. He has eaten blueberries in Maine, black raspberries in Massachusetts, corn in upstate New York, and fried soft shell crab in Florida.

Soft shell crab in Florida? Who knew?

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Step aside, Maryland. In the Stygian waters of the vast St. John’s River estuary the blue crab is molting.

Although shrimp is caught locally in Jacksonville, in summer it can be soft and lacking flavor. Catfish filet is local as well, and surprisingly good if you don’t mind a few inevitable bones. Soft shell crab, however, is clearly the best local catch.

At Clark’s Fish Camp on Julington Creek, a fry house in the swamp, New York Robert went for the full, bona fide Southern experience by ordering the Swamp Fest Platter, a mixed fry of conch, mako shark, frog legs, catfish, squid, and gator tail.

It’s all good, it’s all fried, and every platter comes with hush puppies.

The insistent flavor of breading browned in corn oil nearly overwhelmed the light scallopy taste of conch, but gator tail survived the fryer with flavor intact. Yes, it does taste rather like chicken, but with chewier texture and, to Mr. Henry’s palate, a brighter and more interesting flavor. (With more than one million in Florida, the alligator is no longer endangered.)

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Mr. Henry stopped Robert from ordering the frightful Swamp Cocktail, a boozy brew of vodka, rum, blue Curacao, triple sec, orange juice, sour, and “a splash of Pepsi.” Hooooooo doggies!

There  was no need to prove manhood here, however. Local tap water is daring enough.

A stroll along the boat dock revealed several large red-eared slider turtles on the surface of the black water as well as a small alligator toying with a floating wedge of cocktail lemon.

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More daunting than the swamp critters or the hundred or more stuffed animals on the walls, however, at the bar a group of ladies in Gator regalia jiggling iced after-dinner drinks snagged Robert in a flirty conversation that, but for the prudent intervention of Mr. Henry, might have culminated in more bona fides than he reckoned for.

Keeping abreast of trends

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Years ago duck was only available either in fancy restaurants or as a whole bird you ordered ahead of time from the butcher. Today most butchers carry vacuum sealed duck breast such as those prepared by D’Artagnan.

Unlike chicken or turkey, duck can be eaten rare. Like other fowl, its fats are found chiefly in the skin, but even after the skin is removed duck meat maintains the best of its flavor.

Indeed, duck is the perfect summer entrée – intense, toothsome, flavorful, but not terribly fatty.

Slice the breast over a salad of mixed greens with a side of string beans and new potatoes. Balsamic vinegar goes very well, or spiced marmalades. If you don’t mind firing the oven for a bit, try roasting diced potatoes, carrots, beets, zucchini, or anything else in the market. Let cool, mix with chopped green salad, and toss with a vinaigrette. Pair with a burgundy.

At the dZong house Mary served duck breast with sautéed swiss chard, mache salad, and roasted rhubarb (with ginger and stock), all fresh from the garden. As an appetizer sautéed with a shallot were crostini of black trumpet chanterelles collected in the Catskills woods.

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Duck half breast comes with one side skinned. A thick layer of fat covers the other side, and this layer becomes your friend in the pan or under the grill. Pan sautéing is the easiest for this household because the Henry range has a fan that ventilates outdoors.

Eight minutes with the fat side down yields a dark brown layer of pure flavor. Be sure to score the fat beforehand so that more of it touches the skillet surface. When you turn to brown the meat side you may find your pan too deep in fat. Mr. Henry likes to skim along the way and save the fat for frying potatoes.paro-dzong.jpg

Now your pan is perfectly hot, its surface covered in duck fat, the finest of frying oils. Brown the meat for a few minutes more, or finish in the oven if you prefer. Remove and let rest a good ten minutes. Mr. Henry prefers the texture of duck breast at room temperature.

The whole affair is incredibly quick, easy and painless. It’s no wonder restaurant menus are dotted with duck breast preparations.

Pickles

On the Fourth of July pickles get to be serious business.pickles.jpg

Fourth of July is the one day of the year when pickles are prominently featured among menu items, one day when pickles are not just eaten but lingered over, examined, discussed, and debated.

Is sugar appropriate in the brining liquid? Is garlic an obligation of faith or a detour from the true path? And what about pickled artichokes, cauliflower, onions, carrots, or odd Japanese vegetables like gobo (burdock root), lotus root, or seaweed?

Yesterday David reported confidently that the secret ingredient in Murray’s Sturgeon Shop’s tuna salad is a splash of pickle juice.

(Mr. Henry hopes he has not revealed one of Murray’s closely held proprietary secrets inadvertently landing himself in a legal pickle. Mr. Henry, you see, is not represented by counsel, nor does he wish to contest a court action from an injured party. The above was revealed in innocence, Murray, as part of a think piece about pickles and America on the Fourth of July. Have a heart, Murray, can’t you? It could all just be rumor, anyway.)

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Like all true pickle eaters, Mrs. Henry holds strong opinions on the subject. At Recipe, a new restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue, Mrs. Henry thought the pickled artichoke had sat too long. Its crunch was gone.

When Mrs. Henry pickles, she pickles for a day or two, not more. Her pickled cabbage becomes a military exercise for mastication muscles and back molars as well as a sharp, crisp cleansing for the tongue.

Mr. Henry’s favorite pickling liquid is sushi vinegar, a sugared vinegar required for proper sushi rice. Every so often in a sauce pan over a mild flame she dissolves ¾ cup of sugar into a bottle of white vinegar. The apartment smells pickley for hours.

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Although Mr. Henry has been instructed repeatedly to leave that bottle alone, he confesses to using its contents with regularity. Add a splash of cold sushi vinegar to freshly sliced salted cucumbers and instantly you get a pickle to rival any vegetable or condiment.

It may not be what Americans remember as traditional, but it’s better than those squishy green things in the bottle.