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Sunday Food Porn: Italian Seafood Spread Edition

Feast your eyes on this!

Italian Seafood Spread from Osteria di Brera in Milan

Italian Seafood Spread from Osteria di Brera in Milan

I’m using this pic as inspiration, as tomorrow I’m hosting a dinner party with an Italian theme. And as readers of this blog know, I am no cook. Hell, after 13 years of living in Chinatown where I can get dim sum for $2 a plate and cooked shrimp for $5 a pound, I’m lucky I can even remember how to turn on the stove. I’ll be attempting a puttanesca sauce, which even a lug like me can get right, and if that fails I’ll be attempting to get my guests drunk on Negronis prior to the main course. Antipasti, puttanesca, chopped salad, and cannoli with perhaps a sorbetto for dessert. And lots and lots of wine. Wish me luck!

The once and future (shrimp and petroleum) queen

First, hello there, Manolophiles. I’m Katie. I love the food. I love the drink. I like to write about it.

And so we’re off.

A recent New York Times article reminded me of a reporting trip I took to New Orleans several years ago. While I was ostensibly in the Big Easy to investigate issues in education, all trips to N’awlins are really at their heart about food. So I ate, and ate, and when I had the weekend off, I rented a car, traveled further into Cajun country and ate some more.

Then, I stumbled across this…

Why, it was the 72nd Annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival!

As a lover of shrimp and a user of petrol, there was no question that I had to stop and partake.

And so, I watched the crowning of the Shrimp and Petroleum Queen.

I ate some shrimp.

I ate some more shrimp. Fried and skewered, this dish featured a more traditional pairing of oil and crustacean.

At the time, the combined celebration of two key Louisiana industries amused and perplexed. Now the troubled feeling in my belly that emerges as I think about the festival is not merely from too much deep fried fun.

But the people of Morgan City, LA, home of the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary this September, are not letting the recent spill stop them. And who am I to judge? Unless, of course, said judging is of the festival’s beauty pageant, in which case, I’m partial to Miss Louisiana Crawfish Queen, who I believe has the experience necessary to wear the Miss Shrimp and Petroleum crown with style.

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.

How do you solve a problem?

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Faced with the problem of choosing the dinner menu yet again, Mr. Henry sallied forth with characteristic boldness.

Although when he entered the grocery store he hadn’t a clue what to buy, like Sister Maria he had confidence in confidence alone.

Sea scallops lay glistening on a bright bed of chipped ice, their silken bodies firm and pink. Inspiration struck.

He recalled a marvelous summer salad of spinach, white beans, scallops, and bacon bits.

Could it be winterized?

Scallops quickly sautéed in bacon fat are a personal favorite. Bacon goes well with spinach. Bacon and spinach go well with white beans – great northern or cannellini. All good, all good, but weren’t these flavors all too mild? A proper dish must have balance. Where was the acid?

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In summer fresh peaches go perfectly in that salad, the whole dressed in white balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Now in winter what fruit would work? Wouldn’t lemon juice be too strong?

The answer was grapefruit, the most underappreciated citrus.

Back home Mr. Henry cut five strips of bacon into bit sizes and fried them to a light crisp. To half a chopped onion in olive oil he added herbs de provence and a splash of white wine (sauvignon blanc). Once the onions softened he added one can of great northern beans (drained) and let the mixture simmer.

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Whole spinach leaves boiled for three or four minutes emerge dark and pliant. Once slightly cooled they can easily be sliced into manageable sizes.

After sautéing the scallops, he deglazed the pan with a little more white wine and added a splash more olive oil.

After mixing everything together and topping with chopped parsley, Mr. Henry sliced grapefruit sections and served them on the plate alongside the rest. The whole preparation took no more than 25 minutes.

A willful Little Henry objected to eating this satisfying ensemble with crusty brown sourdough bread, so an ever indulgent father quickly boiled some fresh pasta.

White balsamic

How hot was it last weekend? It was so hot that Mr. and Mrs. Henry had to trade favors to decide who went out to buy food. Ice cream melted during the walk home from the store. Black cherries which at the store were perfectly firm arrived home warm and soft. To make sure the bay scallops survived the blistering march up Broadway from Citarella, Mrs. Henry, ever the rugged survivor, packed blue ice in her grocery sac before setting out.
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Firing up the oven was out of the question. Some sort of savory salad seemed wanting. Mrs. Henry fried diced bacon and saved a little fat in which she seared the scallops. She tossed white beans (bottled, Italian) with fresh baby spinach in a vinaigrette made with white balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and lemon. Topped with diced mango and bacon bits, the dinner salad was the perfect reprieve from the day’s punishing heat.

Made from sweet trebbiano grape juice, not from wine, white balsamic vinegar is fruity and distinctly less acidic than red vinegar. It won’t overwhelm a mild dish like scallops or potato salad. Its sweetness also obviates the need to add sugar.

Mr. Henry’s delicate constitution presents a different category of challenge. Although he likes the taste of raw garlic, onion, green pepper, and scallion, his stomach responds repeatedly with complaints. If he roasts or braises these thoroughly, he can eat them in small quantities. But what if you want the taste of raw onion?
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Heaving only one or two sighs of exasperation, Mrs. Henry arrived at a neat solution for a potato salad eaten over the infernal weekend.

She finely diced a Vidalia onion and let it quickly pickle in salt with a liberal dose of her white balsamic vinegar.

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When combined with hot potatoes the pickled onion wilted, yielding its sharpness without denying its flavor. Celery added crunch. Flat parsley added color. A dab of Dijon mustard, a splash of olive oil, and a tablespoon of sour cream generated a creamy potato salad that looked as if it were made with mayonnaise but tasted lighter and fresher.

As for the soft cherries, she threw them whole into a great pot, added a tablespoon of turbinado sugar and a half cup of sake(!). After bringing them to a boil, she let simmer for half an hour until the cherries were plumped and the sauce caramelized. Cooled they became a delectable dessert and breakfast treat all the more remarkable for their unexpected spiciness – a hint of cinnamon, a suggestion of prune, the possibility of sherry. No one guessed the presence of sake.

Next time Mr. Henry will try stewing fruit in white balsamic. It’s sure to work.

Codfishing

Like The Manolo, Mr. Henry has been traveling, holed up in a Cape Cod rental bungalo without internet access.cod fish

He tried to eat locavore. He made a real mental effort. But as a citizen of the world he believes no neighborhood is truly so far removed from his acquaintance that he cannot partake of its proudest fare. And where, he asks, is the local food exit off Interstate-95?

In the spirit of a summer share, therefore, he would like to offer a few travel tips:

On the highway, don’t drink the iced coffee at Starbuck’s. It’s a guaranteed stomach cramp. Try Newman’s Own Organic at MacDonald’s instead. It’s delicious, neither watery nor burned, and costs half as much as the Starbuck’s one.

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As for eating roadside fast food, just don’t. Pack a picnic you can enjoy at the rest stop. Pretend the sound of roaring cars to be Niagara Falls. (Mrs. Henry added a dollop of sour cream to her chicken salad which rounded out the mouth feel and slightly disguised the mayonnaise — altogether a nice picnic choice.)

Don’t go to Cape Cod for codfish, which in every case will be an anodyne, frozen, white fish filet caught months ago far, far away — the very same filet you might get in Peoria or Topeka.

Don’t eat oysters on the half shell in Wellfleet. They are OK, but the clams are far sweeter, especially the littlenecks.
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If stuck shopping at the local superette, a quick and easy barbecue sauce can be made from three parts ketchup and one part worcestershire sauce. Slather it on AFTER the ribs come off the grill. (Please don’t even pretend you’re going to do a dry rub marinade. Be reasonable. It’s summer. In the morning, dinner always seems to be a long way away.)

Boil your corn until underdone, a mere seven or eight minutes. Let it cool and slice it off the cob. Mixed with chopped tomato, celery and cilantro (or whatever pungent fresh herb you can find). Splash it with oil and vinegar and you will have a marvelous crunchy salad on hand for snacks or for meals.

For the best possible dinner, take Little Henry and posse out to the marshes. Let them loose in the shallows with buckets to dig fresh cherrystone clams, littleneck clams, razor clams, and mussels. (Rubber gloves are a good idea because clam shell edges can be sharp.)

Sautéed in a big fry pan with onion and white wine, each variety will cook at a different rate. Pluck them out when they open so as not to render them rubbery. Reduce your sauce a touch and add a dab of thickener to help it grab hold of the pasta. (Mr. Henry likes heavy cream but sour cream works fine, too.) Serve over linguine with a chilled bottle of Sancerre close at hand.

Summer scallops

knee-high.jpegOn the Fourth of July, the corn was not quite knee-high. Tomatoes were good but not magnificent, not yet the stand-alone dish they will become next month. Garden arugula was bright and not too sharp, happily reminiscent of Italian varietials. Peppers and onions came off the grill with flesh still meaty and toothsome.

Still, although Mr. Henry does not like to complain, the tastes of the weekend were beginning to be a bore. Meat grilled outdoors is all very fine but without a skillful marinade lacks both subtlety and complexity.

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On a lazy Sunday morning at Paul’s country house, however, Mrs. Henry, ever the clever one when given a moment’s free time, created an appetizer of scallops that was the most exciting new taste of the summer. Completed in five minutes, it was beyond compare.

She brushed the broiling pan with olive oil and arranged a quart of sea scallops across its surface. In three minutes they were nicely browned yet still soft to the touch of a finger. [Don’t let them get rubbery. There is no need to cook them solidly throughout. So long as they are warm inside, you’ve done your job.]

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She served them on top of a cool, fresh relish. To a peeled, seeded and diced tomato she added coarsely chopped cilantro leaf, the juice from half a lime, a pinch of salt and — now for the genius — one peeled and diced peach. The flowery aroma of peach married to its tangy tomato cousin created a subtly balanced liqueur, lighter than a wine sauce, which perfectly supported the scallop’s mild sweetness.

The Second Golden Age

Manolo says, the Times of the New York, they are catching onto something that Manolo has recognized for many years now, that the oyster has at last returned!

“We’re in a time comparable to the 1880’s and 90’s now,” said Mark Kurlansky, the author of the recent “The Big Oyster” , who took part in the Seattle conference. “It’s a kind of second Golden Age of the oyster.”

And what is there not to love about the Golden Age of the Oyster?

Look below, even the Belgian chefs agree; good oysters are worth the eating, even 50 meters above the ground.

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