It is safer to talk politics and religion than to refer to your tomato-based pasta topping by the wrong name in New Jersey. There is no Mason-Dixon Line of gravy/sauce demarcation. The terminology is family/tradition based, transcending geography and even ethnicity. The best explanation I have received states that when it is made with meat it is gravy, without meat it is marinara sauce. This definition does not often satisfy the wooden spoon wielding legions on either side of this fracas. For the record, I am in the “sauce” camp. That is what it was called where I grew up in Central Jersey, even by most of the Italian families. More important and contentious than the name debate, is the debate over the proper ingredients and technique that should be used when make sauce/gravy. The following are my views on sauce making Dos and Don’ts.
“Only fresh tomatoes should be used.” This restrictive dogma would only permit us to enjoy sauce for about six weeks of the year. You can, of course, buy bushels of Roma or plum tomatoes during the peak of the growing season and blanch, skin, and can them yourself for use throughout the rest of the year. Those of us who aren’t masochistic overachievers just buy good quality canned tomatoes. I look for the Jersey Fresh label because everyone knows the Garden State is blessed with the best tomato growing soil on earth. Whole peeled canned tomatoes will yield the best textured sauce without having to reach for the can of tomato paste.
“If your tomato sauce is too acidic, add some sugar.” Save the white sugar for your breakfast cereal or cappuccino. There are better ways to balance your sauce than using the evil sweetener of the industrialized world. Grate a carrot into your onions and garlic while sweating them. This will add natural sugars and depth of flavor to your sauce. Add a splash or three of red wine. If you cook like I do, there will be an open bottle close by.
“Tomato sauce has to cook for half a day to be any good.” Types of tomato sauce in Italy are as abundant as beautiful women there. The infamous putanesca sauce is not the oldest in Italy but was created by the oldest profession. Commerce cannot be slowed by long simmering sauces. Pomodoro is a quick fresh sauce that exploits the virtues of fresh tomatoes when they are at their peak.
Every cook and family has their own rules and traditions for the perfect sauce. Some use basil or oregano, some both, others neither. With herbs dried are fine for long simmering sauces. If using fresh, add just before serving so their bouquet and aroma can be appreciated. Watch the video this month for a quick easy pomodoro style sauce that takes advantage of the now abundant local tomatoes which will disappear too soon. I look forward to hearing your feedback on your sauce tips and why I am wrong to call it sauce. Until next month, Buono Appetito.
- 10-12 large Roma tomatoes, cored and chopped
- 5-7 cloves garlic, chopped
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Pinch salt
- 1 bottle red wine — splash for the sauce (the rest to drink while cooking)
- Salt to taste
- Pinch red pepper flakes
- 12-14 large basil leaves, cut chiffonade.
- 1 loaf crusty bread to dip in sauce to check flavor and consistency
- Heat stainless steel or non aluminum pan over medium heat.
- Add half the oil. When you can smell the olive oil aroma, add garlic.
- Sweat stirring often. You want to soften the garlic. Brown garlic is bitter garlic.
- Add pepper flakes, wine and tomatoes. Simmer on low heat 10-15 minutes.
- Taste sauce with chunks of bread. Tear don’t slice. It tastes better that way.
- Puree with immersion blender. Short pulses for a chunky, rustic sauce; longer for a smoother sauce.
- Add basil and remaining olive oil. Toss pasta with sauce.
- Serve with fresh grated parmesan, Grana padano or pecorino Romano cheese.
Sauce making is not an art form. Art relies on inspiration to come to fruition. If diners waited for chefs to be inspired to create sauces, there would be a lot of dry food and hungry patrons. Sauce making is craftsmanship. A craftsman learns to utilize his tools, materials and skills to create a superior product. Art is admired from a distance. The product of a craftsman is utilized and enjoyed by the consumer. Craftsmanship can be learned. So can building great sauces.
The function of a sauce is to elevate and enhance the focal point of a meal. Some sauces are painstakingly built over hours and even days. These sauces are the pinnacle of the saucier craft. They require time and patience, two ingredients often in short supply for the home cook with a hungry family that wants to eat ten minutes ago. Good, even great sauces are within reach of the home cook. The place to begin to learn the craft of sauce making is at the bottom of the pan. The humble pan sauce is quick, easy and delicious.
The key qualities of a sauce are flavor, appearance and texture. The building blocks to achieve these goals are a flavorful liquid, aromatics and a thickening agent. Pan sauces provide the cook with an added flavor tool, deglazing. Searing and roasting proteins creates a caramelized exterior to the product yielding the yum factor which provides the bulk of flavor to the dish. This flavor is also left behind in the pan this can be incorporated into your sauce by deglazing with a liquid. This liquid is often wine or booze but can also be stock or even water. This is then reduced to fortify the flavors and thicken the sauce.
Enough of the theoretical jargon, we will walk through the basic pan sauce. Follow these steps and you can create a multitude of dishes by simply varying the ingredients.
- To make Scallops with a Mushroom-thyme Cream Sauce, dry the protein. Moisture is the enemy of browning.
- Get your pan hot and have all your ingredients close by. This is going to happen fast.
- Add oil to hot pan.
- Sear protein until brown on both sides and remove. Don’t worry about cooking the item thoroughly. It can be finished in the oven or returned to the sauce to finish.
- Add mushrooms, shallots and garlic.
- Move pan or stir to cook items quickly and avoid burning.
- Add sherry or white wine and reduce until most of the liquid is gone.
- Add cream and simmer until the sauce coats the back of a spoon.
- Finish with fresh herbs like thyme or tarragon.
- Add the scallops back in to warm.
- Taste the sauce. Adjust seasonings and serve.
Don’t like scallops? Use shrimp, chicken or veal. Don’t want a heavy cream sauce during swimsuit season? Use stock or even carrot juice. The ingredients can be varied to suit your own tastes, the technique for building the sauce never varies. That is the mark of a good craftsman.
Enjoy this month’s video and recipe for creating a pan sauce. Look forward to hearing about the dishes you create utilizing this template.
Scallops with Sherry-Mushroom Cream Sauce
- 10 large scallops
- 1 cup sliced mushrooms
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 3 Tbsp chopped tarragon
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup cream
- ¼ cup sherry
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Heat large sauté pan over medium high heat.
- Add oil. Let come to temperature.
- Brown scallops 4-5 minutes per side remove.
- Add mushrooms, shallots and garlic. Cook until softened.
- Deglaze with sherry. Reduce liquid by two thirds.
- Add cream. Reduce by half.
- Add tarragon, salt and pepper.
- Add scallops back into sauce. Warm and serve.
The voices have started again. It happens annually. Starting as whisper then progressing to a deafening crescendo that awakens me from my winter food slumber. The steady diet of braises, stews and starches, that carried me through the chilly and damp off-season at the shore, have weighed heavily on my body, soul and palate. From the depths of a beef and burgundy burdened Dutch oven the simmering sauce whispers, “If you grill it they will come.” A Man needs his grill to be complete. Men love to grill. It is deeply encrypted in our DNA right alongside the belching and scratching genes. Give a man an open fire and a pair of tongs and he thinks he is an Iron Chef. It is a shame so many get it wrong. Grilling should never involve lighter fluid or the fire department. If a coroner’s inquest is required to identify your supper you are cremating not grilling.
Grilling is not all about high heat, red meat and syrupy sweet barbecue sauce. Down at the shore we know that seafood and the grill are a perfect union. Most fish and shellfish can be grilled successfully without long preparation or cooking times. Marinades for grilled fish serve a different purpose than for meat. There is no need to tenderize most fish. Overexposure of fish proteins to acidic marinades will actually toughen the product. Shellfish like shrimp and scallops are particularly vulnerable. The main function is to add flavor and fat so the product doesn’t stick to the grill.
The flavor of grilled foods is unique. Charcoal and wood add to that sensation. The aromas stimulate our senses with that mix of fire, smoke and caramelizing proteins. Most anything can be grilled with the right technique – even flaky fish like flounder or tilapia. The French have been cooking food in paper pouches for centuries providing moist flavorful food that steams and creates its own sauce. This technique doesn’t translate well to open grills but American grillers are an innovative bunch and have pragmatically adapted the technique with that icon of industrialization aluminum foil. The foil packet allows us to grill our food and create sauces at the same time.
The versatility of the grill is part of its charm. You can cook low and slow or fast and furious. Most of the flavor is provided by the fire itself. Before convection ovens and microwaves took over our kitchens and lives humanity grilled. As grilling season commences expand your grilling repertoire with seafood. You don’t need to buy special grill pans or baskets don’t turn to Williams and Sonoma. Turn to Reynolds. Listen to the voices. It is time to grill. Enjoy these recipes for Mojo Shrimp and Sweet Chili Fish in Foil.
- 2 lbs shrimp
- 3 heads garlic, peeled
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1 1/2 cups sour orange juice
- (In a pinch, use two parts orange to one part lime juice)
- 1 cup minced onion
- 1 tablespoon fresh oregano
- 1 bunch cilantro
- 1 bunch scallions chopped
- 1 cup Spanish olive oil
- Mix all ingredients in blender until smooth. (This is garlicky. If you are having a romantic evening or if you are a vampire, it is ok to back off on the garlic. Many Cubans have told me that my version needs more garlic.)
- Toss 2 lbs of peeled and deveined shrimp with just enough marinade to coat.
- Marinate 20 minutes then grill over medium heat.
- Serve with black beans and rice.
- Use reserved marinade as a dipping sauce.
- This marinade also works well with chicken wings.
Sweet Chili Fish in Foil
- 4 7×9 pieces aluminum foil
- 4 fish fillets one-half inch thick (salmon, sword fish, even tilapia* will work)
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 8 lime slices
- 4 cloves garlic
- ½ cup thai sweet chili sauce
- 2 tsps minced ginger
- 8 mint leaves
- Salt and pepper
- Lightly oil the shiny side of the foil.
- Place fillets skin side down.
- Arrange 2 lime slices and 2 mint leaves on top of each fillet.
- Whisk together remaining ingredients.
- Fold up sides and ends of foil then pour coconut milk mixture over shrimp. Foil to form tight seal.
- Place on grill over medium heat. Shut lid of grill.
- Drink beer/wine/cocktail check in 12-15 minutes. (With thinner fish, adjust the cooking time.)
- Serve with steamed jasmine rice or cous-cous.
I never understand why some foods are more popular than others. Mussels are the black sheep of the shellfish world. Inexpensive to buy and simple to prepare, mussels are shunned by the public more readily than an Amish teenager with body piercings and a sports car. Lacking the sex appeal of oysters and not as boldly flavored as clams, mussels need some muscle in the P.R. department.
No shucking required. Mussels, unlike oysters and clams, don’t exact a blood sacrifice on behalf of the kitchen staff. Cleaning mussels only requires the ability to yank the “beard” which doesn’t take a whole lot of effort. There is no strenuous activity needed on the part of the diner in eating mussels, unlike crab or lobster and they pair well with beer or wine.
The best quality mussels come from cold water sources. The black shell varietal that hail from Prince Edward Island and are marketed by the brand name PEI mussels are my personal favorites. This Canadian province harvests some amazing seafood. The line grown mussels are a shining example of sustainable aquaculture. Mussels are also high in protein and low in fat in cholesterol in comparison to other shellfish. As a chef this makes me feel better about adding cream and butter to my mussel dishes.
All a cook needs to make a tasty mussel dish is a deep sauté pan with a tight fitting lid. Armed with these tools, mussels can be transformed into a vast array of dishes by utilizing the same basic technique and varying the aromatic ingredients you choose to add. The mussels will steam releasing their nectar gleaned from the sea laying the foundation for your sauce.
Heat your pan over high heat, and then choose your sautéing fat. Most of the time I opt for olive oil, rendered bacon however is always a close second. Next you are going to add your vegetables, onions, leeks, shallots, carrots, fennel or a combination of all the above. Lower the heat slightly. The goal is to draw out the flavors from the vegetables to accent your sauce. Now it is time for seasoning. Garlic, red pepper flakes, thyme, mustard, red or green curry paste. Sweat these aromatics out and let the flavors fill the air. Toss in your clean mussels and some liquid, such as beer, wine, coconut milk or your favorite red sauce. Cover and wait. Luckily you won’t have to wait long since the aromas will have you salivating.
After about 8-10 minutes, peek to see if all the shells have opened relinquishing their treasures. At this stage a finishing technique such as whipping in chunks of whole butter or splashes of heavy cream can be applied for those who crave rich and decadent flavors. For some extra panache, squeeze a fresh lemon and add chopped fresh herbs into the sauce. Ladle the mussels and sauce into bowls, slice some crusty bread to sop up the sauce and enjoy. Watch the video for a basic mussel preparation. I look forward to hearing about your variations and experimentations. Until next month, Bon Appétit.
Mussels in Wine Sauce
- 2 lbs Prince Edward Island (PEI) mussels, scrubbed
- 1 onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 cup white wine
- 3 tomatoes diced
- 1 bunch scallions diced
- 3 Tbsp. butter
- Kosher Salt and pepper
- Heat large sauté pan over medium heat. Add oil. Sweat onions over medium heat 2-3 minutes.
- Add garlic, tomatoes and mussels.
- Add wine. Cover. Steam 7-8 minutes.
- Add scallions and parsley.
- Whisk in butter season and serve.
Some foods are just easier to work with than others. The flavors and textures are so perfectly created by nature that the chef’s main job is to not screw it up. The oyster is a prime example –delicate in texture yet brimming with the saltiness of the sea and an earthy mineral flavor. The oyster needs little adornment, save for lemon, hot sauce and horseradish. Still chefs with our arrogance and conceit, part of our charm, think we can improve upon nature. With experience and seasoning in the kitchen, the good chefs learn to restrain this impulse and let good ingredients shine. Sometimes simple can be more powerful than an arsenal of spices and heavy handed techniques.
Oyster Stew is one such dish. I first experienced this nectar of the ocean in my grandmother’s kitchen. Her cooking was peppered with the simplicity and frugality of someone who had lived through the Great Depression and wartime rationing. In a saucepan that had aged less gracefully than its master, she would methodically render the ends of bacon. The center pieces were always saved for the breakfast table. After draining some, but not all the fat, into the always present can on the counter, she would add the onion. Here I would be reminded to gently let it soften being sure not to let it brown. As the kitchen filled with scents of smoky bacon and sweet onion, the oysters would appear. Plump and freshly procured from Gaskin’s market the whole pint, liquor and all, would hit the pan with a sizzle. The next step was executed with perfect precision only when the edges of the oyster had begun to retreat and curl would the cream be added. As the pot started to bubble, salt and pepper would be added. The finishing touch was butter, from the cupboard never the icebox, the golden gobs would slowly melt into the creamy foam.
Pronounced perfect, she would ladle it into a bowl and serve it to her best friend, my grandfather. A smile of anticipation appeared as quickly as the bag of Trenton Oyster Crackers. These round hard biscuits seemed inedible on their own but my grandfather would crush two together in his hand and let the broken pieces fall into the stew, then he would savor every spoonful.
When I was finally allowed to partake of this dish, the flavor was ethereal. Straightforward and with no nonsense or adornment much like the woman who made it. Enjoy my re-creation of this simple dish. Until next month, Bon Appétit.
(Yields 2 man-sized portions)
- 6 slices bacon, diced
- ½ pint oysters with liquor
- ½ an onion, minced
- 1 pint cream
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 Tbsp butter
- In sauce pan render bacon at medium heat.
- Add onions. Cook until softened.
- Add oysters and liquor. Cook until oyster edges curl.
- Add cream. Bring to boil. Reduce to simmer.
- Season with salt and pepper
- Dot stew with butter. Let melt. Serve immediately.
The Pacific Northwest has their salmon. New England has their lobster. In the Mid-Atlantic States we tend to be a little crabby. For the truly crabby, only Blue Claw Crabs will do. Don’t waste your breath talking Dungeness, King or Stone. In these parts we know what we want and it is Blue Claw Crabs. Steamed and tossed on a picnic table garnished with cases of beer and sweet corn, swimming in cream and vegetables in a soup or methodically manipulated into a patty, we enjoy our Blue Crabs. The last variation may be the most popular. Making a great crab cake is a badge of honor that chefs and cooks wear proudly. Sadly, many crab cakes miss the boat on achieving greatness. What makes a superior crab cake?
In my, not so humble, opinion, the key to success is honoring the main ingredient. Too many chefs contaminate their cakes with ingredients that mask the delicate flavor of crabmeat rather than enhance. Green and red peppers are an abomination. Green peppers add a bitterness that disrupts the palate. Red peppers can be used in a sauce or relish with the crab cake, but need to be put in their place. They are a supporting player not the star. Scallions and chopped parsley are okay adding contrast without overpowering. Mince or chop secondary ingredients finely, the only large chunks you want in a crab cake are the sweet nuggets of jumbo lump crabmeat. That leads to the next key to success, mixing.
When buying crabmeat – the bigger the lumps of crab, the bigger the flavor and the bigger the hit to your wallet. The most common and unforgivable crustacean crime is turning jumbo lumps into crab sawdust. Fold your binding ingredients GENTLY into the crabmeat. Use your hands carefully turning the crab into the liquid mixture as you pour. The binding ingredient should be added next. This ingredient has only one function: to hold the jewels of crab in place. Many chefs over think this step and try to add a kitschy item like pretzels or potato chips as a binder. Keep it simple. I prefer panko bread crumbs for their neutral flavor. Crustless bread cubes will also do the job and blend into the background leaving the crab flavor at center stage. Mix your binder into the liquid ingredients and let sit for a few minutes for the best results. When adding seasonings, remember less is more. Some crab cakes have sent me into an old bay induced coma. This spice mixture should be used sparingly.
I prefer to griddle or pan fry my crab cakes since they aren’t cloaked in breadcrumbs as opposed to deep frying.
Good chefs know when to let the ingredients speak for themselves. Creativity in crab cakes is best saved for sauces and accompaniments. With crabmeat costing close to $25 a pound, I want my crab cakes to taste like sweet east coast Blue Claw Crab.
Enjoy my award-winning crab cake recipe and video (not award winning, but helpful and informative all the same) Until next month, Bon Appétit.
Persnickety Chef’s Award-winning Crab Cake Recipe
- 1 pound jumbo lump crab
- 1 bunch scallions, minced
- 2 Tbsp minced parsley
- 1 tsp Old Bay Seasoning
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup mayo
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs
- Salt, pepper
- 2 Tbsp whole grain mustard
- Mix all ingredients gently.
- Let mixture rest 30 minutes.
- Pan fry by heating sauté pan. Add oil to lightly coat pan. Cook 4-5 minutes per side.
Me and my food: A love story
I will admit that I have little tolerance for fussy eaters. I don’t dislike them, I just don’t understand them. I have been cooking for over 30 years, but I have loved food as far back as I can remember. There are very few foods I don’t like. However, for the record, broccoli is a foul, vile weed that was put on the earth to punish our palates. After three decades in the kitchen, I still get excited by the smells, flavors and textures of food. I am not talking about expensive Michelin star meals. Though preparation is important I am talking about the ingredients. Finding the nuances of flavor and texture of each ingredient and maximizing their attributes to seduce the diner is the soul of good cooking.
The recent culinary trends of farm-to-table, organic and slow foods are all, at their core, about embracing the ingredients. During the summer in South Jersey we embrace our corn, tomatoes, zucchini and even our lima beans. We can and should do this year round. Finding a superior ingredient doesn’t mean taking to the woods and foraging for your food. Quite often the ingredient is right in front of our eyes. I pass signs for farm-fresh eggs daily. Although they look like most other eggs on the outside, the treasure within is priceless. The yolks burst forth like a flaming orange orb and the flavor is as intense as the color. Eggs are a great place to start when learning to appreciate the ingredients. They can be a component in cooking or baking or they can be the star. A farm-fresh egg lightly scrambled with toast made from freshly baked bread slathered with real butter, jam or jelly that tastes of fruit from nature not a laboratory is a better way to start the day than a pre-made, heat-lamp-baked breakfast sandwich. Americans think that the French cook better than us. That really isn’t true. It is just that they appreciate the food and ingredients more. In the next few months this column will focus on how to celebrate, prepare and enjoy commonly available foods. Start with these recipes for Spinach-Feta Omelet and Poached Eggs with Chicken and Cheddar Hash.
Until next month, Bon Appétit.
- 3 eggs
- 1 Tbsp milk
- Pinch salt and pepper
- 2 cups spinach
- 4 Tbsp butter
- 3 Tbsp feta, crumbled
- Pinch nutmeg
- In sauté pan, melt 2 Tbsp butter till foamy.
- Add spinach, lightly wilt over medium heat. Season with salt pepper and nutmeg. Reserve
- In bowl, whisk eggs with milk and salt and pepper.
- Heat omelet pan. Add butter over medium high heat.
- Add egg mixture. Stir eggs moving pan constantly as eggs coagulate.
- Smooth out until set.
- Flip omelet. Fill with spinach and feta. Fold and serve.
Poached Eggs with Chicken and Cheddar Hash
Chicken and Cheddar Hash
- 2 cups leftover cooked chicken, diced
- 2 red pepper, diced
- 3 scallions, diced
- ½ onion, diced
- 2 potatoes, diced
- 2 Tbsp parsley
- Pinch paprika
- 3 oz shredded cheddar
- 2 Tbsp butter
- In cast iron skillet, heat butter.
- Sauté onions and peppers until softened.
- Turn heat up to medium high. Add potatoes and cook 8 minutes until brown and crispy.
- Add chicken, scallion and parsley. Mix well.
- Season with salt pepper and paprika.
- Mix well. Reduce heat to low.
- Cover with cheddar.
- Put lid on pan and cook 3 minutes or until cheese melts.
- Top with poached eggs
- Heat 1 quart water with pinch salt and 1 Tbsp white vinegar. Bring to simmer, stirring counter clockwise.
- Crack two eggs into water. Poach 3 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon drain. Place on hash.
The New Year is a time of reflection and anticipation. 2012 was a tough year down at the Jersey Shore with a double whammy of a stagnant economy and a devastating storm. This is nothing new for the shore. It is always tough seeing favorite haunts disappear due to the whims of fate. Growing up on the shore, I have fond memories of eateries that have disappeared from the landscape. I never appreciated the diversity of Jersey Shore cuisine until I moved away. From greasy burger and dog joints to seafood shacks and fine dining, the shore-food scene has always been diverse and eclectic.
My first summer in Colorado was tough. My Pork Roll/Good Hot Dog deficiency suffering was made worse by the news that Max’s on the Jetty had burned down, along with the entire Long Branch amusement pier. The thought of a world without those crisp-skinned Shickhaus franks cooked on a grease-laden flattop left me in despair. Max’s soon rose from the ashes as has Long Branch. Resiliency has always been the strength of the shore and its residents.
Over the years, hurricanes and Nor’easters have battered and bruised the coastline. Sandy has taken some iconic eateries. White House Subs in Atlantic City was closed and has yet to reopen. True, they still have their location in the Taj, but the Arctic Avenue shop is a time capsule of the ups and downs of Atlantic City. The pictures of celebrities which decked the walls, allow you to eat great subs with ghosts. I hope Sinatra’s towel survived and hope this summer to be chowing down on a White House special on bread that can only be found on the east coast.
From Sandy Hook to Cape May, many restaurateurs spent the days after the storm cleaning debris and assessing their desire to start over. I am happy to report two of my favorite Cape May County restaurants will be back in the spring. Claude’s in North Wildwood is an oasis of French cuisine amid the noisy bars in Angelsea. Besides great food, Sophie’s bar serves a Pear Martini, a palate preparing aperitif that sets the stage for what your taste buds are going to enjoy with Claude’s cuisine and Mary’s desserts. Steve Serano and crew will be back at Café Loren in Avalon preparing his modern American fare. His deft touch with seafood and lamb has local foodies glad he has decided to relite the stoves.
I am looking forward to seeing The Jersey Shore reclaim what Sandy stole from us. Food memories are strong and powerful. They help us survive through the winter and bolster the spirits of those who have moved away, but never really left the shore. The Jersey Shore’s poet Bruce Springsteen wrote in his ode to Atlantic City: “Everything dies. Baby, that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies, some day comes back.” Write in and tell us what restaurants you miss and which you hope will be back as the shore reclaims her place along the coast this summer. While you are awaiting your chance to savor Hot Dog Tommy’s dogs, fried Oreos or other favorite Jersey fare, satiate your palate with these classic shore recipes – Clams Casino and Crab Imperial. Until next month, Bon Appétits.
(Makes 2 dozen)
This is my variation of a dish that appears on more menus than ketchup stains
- 2 dozen top necks, steamed to the clams just open
- 2 green peppers, diced
- 1 red pepper, diced
- 1 stick butter
- 1 onion, diced
- 8 strips bacon, diced
- 8 cloves garlic, minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 4 ribs celery, diced
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1 tsp tabasco
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 3 Tbsp parmesan cheese
- ¼ cup panko bread crumbs
- Olive oil drizzle
- Steam clams
- Lightly remove meat, chop and reserve
- In sauté pan, render bacon until brown
- Add butter and sauté peppers, onions celery garlic 2-3 minutes until softened
- Season with salt, pepper, oregano and Tabasco
- Add clams and cook 3 more minutes.
- Generously fill clam shells with mixture.
- Top with bread crumbs, parmesan and drizzle with lemon juice and olive oil.
- Clams can be refrigerated or frozen at this point for later use.
- To serve, preheat oven to 425 degrees
- Cook clams 10 minutes or until topping is brown and bubbling
- 1 lb Jumbo lump Crabmeat
- ½ cup Hellman’s Mayonnaise
- 2 tsp Old Bay Seasoning
- 2 eggs
- Pinch cayenne
- 1 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
- 1 tsp dry mustard
- 3 scallions, chopped
For the topping
- 2 tsp chopped parsley
- 4 Tbsp melted butter
- 2 Tbsp parmesan cheese
- ½ cup panko bread crumbs
- In bowls, gently mix crab, scallions, mayonnaise and seasonings. Be careful not to break up the lumps.
- Divide mixture evenly into 4 6-oz. ramekins.
- In separate bowl, mix parsley, cheese, butter and bread crumbs
- Divide mixture evenly over crab
- Mix and bake at 400 degrees for 15-30 minutes
It isn’t her fault. Martha Stewart is not part of a secret anti-Christmas cabal with evil plans to suck the joy out of the Holiday season. She was really trying to help by exporting her provincial Connecticut perfectionism to the rest of the country, and she made it look so easy. Her books and television shows reveal a Christmas tableau that makes a Norman Rockwell painting look like a neurotic mess in comparison. I have personally seen the damage inflicted by those who dared to replicate her repasts. The scene usually involves a suburban housewife hunched over her brand new Kitchenaid mixer filled with limp egg whites that never achieved a stiff peak, a crumpled copy of Martha Stewart Living in one hand, and an empty bottle of single malt clutched in the other. Don’t despair: you don’t need millions stashed away from insider trading to have a fabulous Christmas meal.
Keep it simple. The holiday meal is more about the people around the table than the food on the table. Your family and friends are probably content with the standard dishes and wouldn’t appreciate the Martha-inspired Moroccan-spiced-rubbed truffle-infused Turkey Wellington anyway.
There are ways to elevate your meal without going broke and forcing your family to sneak out to WaWa for a gobbler hoagie. Adding new side dishes and desserts to the meal are a way for the aspiring cook to spread their culinary wings without additional stress. Variations on cranberry sauce are endless and easy to produce. Try adding dried fruit like cherries or figs to your base recipe. Play with a few different flavor profiles by adding balsamic vinegar or hot peppers. The Persnickety Playbook says, “When in doubt, add booze.” Grand Marnier, port, or robust red wine can add flavor and spirit to the basic cranberry sauce.
Mashed potatoes are another side dish that can easily be enhanced. When making your mashed potatoes, add a few more spuds to the pot and divide the batch. Make one traditional and flavor the other half. If you are serving beef, horseradish, cheddar cheese and scallions will enhance the meal. Bacon really does make everything better, including mashed potatoes. Roasted garlic and Locattelli cheese will add a Tuscan accent. Adding mashed parsnips carrots and fresh sage lends farmhouse flair to roasted fowl.
Desserts are not my forte, but I have mastered a few that can be lightly tweaked that many people think I can actually bake. It is amazing how people react when you add a few chunks of quality chocolate to your basic pecan pie recipe. A splash of bourbon or a handful of cranberries and people may call you Julia or Martha by mistake. Bread pudding is another dessert that starts with a good base recipe and lends itself to improvisation. A can of cherries and a handful of chocolate turns the plain into Black Forest bread pudding. Whip some pumpkin into your custard base and some extra spice and cinnamon whip cream and you have suddenly become a culinary genius to your family.
Enjoy your time with family and friends this Christmas. Take inspiration from Martha and the Food Network crowd, but don’t try and compete with their air-brushed images. Instead, add some twists to practiced dishes with these recipes for Mashed Root Vegetables with Sage, Cranberry Cherry Chutney, and Pumpkin Bread Pudding. Bon Appétit, Merry Christmas and a safe happy New Year to all.
Mashed Root Vegetables with Sage
- 6 Yukon gold potatoes peeled and quartered
- 4 parsnips, peeled and cut
- 1 rutabaga, peeled and chunked
- 5 carrots, peeled and chunked
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- 2 sticks butter
- ½ cup sour cream
- 12 sage leaves coarsely chopped
- Put rutabagas and potatoes in pot cover with cold water. Add a pinch of salt. Bring to boil. Reduce to simmer. Cook until fork tender, approximately 25 minutes.
- At same time cook carrots and parsnips in same manner as above.
- Drain all vegetables.
- Mash or whip in butter sage and season with salt and pepper.
- Fold in sour cream.
- Serve hot.
Cranberry Cherry Chutney
- 4 cups cranberries
- 3 shallots, diced
- 1 cup dried cherries, soaked in rum
- 1 orange juice and zest
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- 3 Tbsp cider vinegar
- 1 Tbsp oil
- Pinch salt
- Pinch pepper
- Pinch allspice
- In a stainless steel saucepan, heat oil and sweat shallots until soft.
- Add remaining ingredients. Bring to boil.
- Reduce to simmer.
- Cook until almost dry, about 30 minutes.
- Serve at room temperature with turkey.
Pumpkin Bread Pudding
- 6 cups cubed bread
- 1 cup pumpkin
- 6 eggs, plus 1 yolk
- 2 cups cream
- 1½ cups milk
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- Pinch cloves
- Pinch nutmeg
- 1 Tbsp vanilla
- 2 Tbsp butter
- Heat milk and cream (do not boil).
- Beat sugar and eggs.
- Temper in cream.
- Add pumpkin and spices.
- Toss with bread cubes.
- Let stand 10 minutes.
- Pour into buttered casserole dish.
- Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour in 350-degree.
- Oven cool slightly.
- Serve warm with ice cream
Fresh herbs are more plentiful to the consumer than they have ever been. I remember a time when herbs resided in a kitchen cabinet. Fresh herbs can now be found in the local store and on the kitchen window sill. The difference between fresh herbs and dried is like looking at a painting of the ocean, versus sitting on the beach and absorbing it with all your senses. Dried herbs enhance food. Fresh herbs awaken the dish. Most fresh herbs bear little resemblance to their dried counterparts. There is a nuance and complexity to fresh herbs that explode onto your taste buds. This contrast is never more evident than in the use of sage. In the dried state, sage has the appearance of dryer lint and a musty flavor that scars taste buds every Thanksgiving, often the only time it emerges from the dark corners of the spice shelf.
Fresh sage has a grayish green hue and furry texture that implies a mystery to the senses. The aroma of sage isn’t fully revealed until you rub the leaves releasing the sweet earthy scents trapped within its pores. Sage was revered by the Romans as a medicinal herb. In the middle ages it was so prized by the Britons that it was enshrined in song as one of the four essential herbs alongside parsley, rosemary and thyme. In cooking it has been widely used for centuries in the Mediterranean providing the jump in Saltimbocca, the Italian classic translates as jump into the mouth, and is essential in sausages and poultry stuffing. The last two are the way most American palates are introduced to the flavor of sage.
Sage offers so much more to the palate than seasoning for dried bread and ground pork. One of my favorite combinations is sage and brown butter with butternut squash or roasted sugar pumpkins. The hazelnut tones of the lightly brown butter are exposed in sharp contrast to the musty sweetness of the aromas and flavors exposed when sage’s essential oil are released. These flavors are bridged by the caramel earth tones of winter squash like butternut, acorn or pumpkin. This symphony for the senses makes a wonderful side dish as a vegetable, or mixed in risotto. The squash can be mashed or pureed and used as a platform for braised or roasted meats. A favorite first course for a fall menu is seared scallops on a pumpkin puree with sage and brown butter.
It is of little wonder that sage has become a synonym for wise and knowledgeable as these are the attributes of the cook who can incorporate the unique qualities of sage into their repertoire. This month discover what ancient cultures knew about sage with these recipes for Saltimbocca, Seared Scallop on Sugar Pumpkin Puree with Sage and Brown Butter and Sage and Butternut Squash Risotto. Until next month, Bon Appétit.
- 4 6-oz. chicken breasts, trimmed
- 4 slices prosciutto
- 8 sage leaves
- 1 lemon, juiced
- 2 Tbsps. marsala wine
- 2 cups chicken broth
- Salt and pepper
- 4 Tbsps. olive oil
- Season chicken with salt and pepper.
- Top each breast with two sage leaves, then top with prosciutto slices.
- Cover with plastic wrap and lightly pound with meat mallet on both sides.
- Heat large sauté pan over medium heat, add olive oil.
- Sauté chicken in oil , prosciutto side down. Sauté 3-5 minutes per side until golden brown remove to platter and keep warm in oven.
- Lower heat on pan and deglaze with marsala. Scrape pan with wooden spoon.
- Add stock and reduce by half.
- Season with lemon juice and pour over chicken.
Scallops over Sugar Pumpkin Puree with Sage and Brown Butter
(Serves 4 – as a first course)
- 1 sugar pumpkin, split and seeded
- 4 u-8 scallops
- 8 -10 sage leaves, thinly julienned
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Salt & white pepper
- 7 Tbsps. unsalted butter
- 2 Tbsps. vegetable oil
- For puree, split and seed pumpkin.
- Roast flesh, side down at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
- Cool slightly. Scrape pumpkins and puree with 3 Tbsps butter, salt and white pepper to taste.
- In sauté pan, heat oil, sear scallops 4 minutes per side.
- Place on plate on top of pumpkin puree.
- In same pan, heat butter over medium heat until it starts to foam and brown immediately.
- Add sage and lemon juice. Spoon lightly over scallops.
Sage and Butternut Squash Risotto
- 2 cups Arborio rice
- 4-6 cups chicken stock
- 2 cups roasted butternut squash puree
- 3 Tbsps chopped sage
- ¼ cup butter
- ¼ cup grated locatelli cheese
- 1 onion, minced
- 3 Tbsps. olive oil
- In deep sauté pan, heat oil on medium-high heat.
- Add onion. Sweat until softened.
- Add rice. Coat with oil and lightly toast.
- Ladle hot stock over rice until it is covered. Stir with wooden spoon until liquid is absorbed. Repeat until rice is al dente.
- Add squash puree. Stir well.
- Incorporate butter, cheese and sage season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.