I killed a lobster for this stew. It’s actually not the first time I’ve cooked living seafood in my kitchen–if you count clams and mussels–but it was definitely the first time I’ve looked my dinner in the eye while it was still moving. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Will I be doing it again? Not for a while.
The challenge started when I got the lobster home. It was fairly docile when the fishmonger pulled it from its tank, but by the time I pulled it from the bag it was fully awake and kicking like crazy. I ended up sticking the lobster in the freezer while I boiled the water, since I don’t have enough counter space to temporarily house a live, disgruntled crustacean. Supposedly, freezing renders the lobster unconscious and is thus more humane; I suspect it’s more for the cook’s comfort than the lobster’s, but in any case it worked. I boiled my now-dormant lobster, harvested the meat (covering myself and the countertop in lobster juice in the process), then added the shell and body back to the pot with fresh water and simmered it into a rich lobster stock.
Then I got on with preparing the other ingredients for the New York Times’s Catalan lobster stew. It calls for toasting nuts, soaking chiles, and frying bread, then combining them all in a food processor with lots of other ingredients to make a powerful chile paste. That paste, along with some sauteed onions, became the base of a rich red liquid in which to poach the lobster meat and some bivalves. The result was phenomenally delicious: intensely lobstery, luxurious but not fatty, with a slight spicy heat and lots of nuttiness from the hazelnuts and bread.
But it turns out that lobster murder isn’t necessary for this stew to turn out great. I made the it again a few weeks later with frozen fish stock, shrimp, and clams, and it turned out half as complicated and just as delicious as before. The brawny lobster flavor was missing, but in its place was a broth that felt like a warm, briny hug, with some lovely mix-and-match textures from the seafood. I’d happily make this streamlined version again–not for an everyday meal, but certainly for a special occasion. And maybe, someday, in a bigger kitchen and with plenty of time to spare, I’ll tackle the lobster once again.
Cooking en papillote–in butterfly. It’s a lovely French term for a lovely French technique: wrapping food and flavorings in packets of parchment paper and baking them at high heat for a relatively brief time. The paper is cut into folded shapes like legless butterflies or enormous Valentines, then folded over a mound of raw ingredients and gently crimped around the edges. Then it goes into the oven, where the bits and pieces inside release their juices into fragrant vapor, trapped inside the packet, and delicately steam themselves. The process of cutting and assembling the packets is a bit elaborate, but they steam in a matter of minutes.
Vegetables and poultry take well to this method, I’m told, but every source I look at says the same: en papillote cooking really sings with fish. For sturdy, flaky fillets that can easily go from sashimi to sawdust with a little too much heat, cooking in parchment is a foolproof way to keep them glistening and pearly with juice. Because they’re steaming in their own juices, these fish fillets come out profoundly more flavorful than they went in. Streamlined seasonings stay subtle, not bland; aggressive ingredients get infused into the flesh of the fish.
I tried this for the first time this weekend, for my father’s birthday dinner, with red snapper fillets on a bed of leeks and fennel. I deliberately kept the seasoning simple–lemon, thyme, a splash of wine and a thin ribbon of oil–and was rewarded with a meal that smelled like a restaurant and tasted like the sea. I’ve never been much for mild white fish like snapper, precisely because I thought it had no flavor–but it does, sweet and subtle and easily masked otherwise. The most challenging part of the whole process was gauging doneness; I’m not usually comfortable going on cooking times alone, but in this case it’s more or less required.
I’ve posted an approximate recipe for what I did below, but this is really just a guideline to be traced. Any combination of fish, shellfish, vegetables, aromatics, herbs and spices, stacked together with a gloss of fat and a little extra liquid, will work beautifully in butterfly. Next time I’m thinking maybe salmon, with a puttanesca-type mixture of cherry tomatoes, olives, and capers. Or maybe Asian-style soy-steamed trout. I’ll keep you posted.
I’ve used soy sauce about a thousand and one different ways, but until recently I’d never thought to try poaching things in it. As it turns out, soy sauce mixed with an equal amount of water and spiked with the usual-suspect ingredients–honey, ginger, garlic, chili and scallions–makes a terrific cooking medium for a good piece of fish. Or, in my case, a mushy hunk of frozen salmon that had reached the use-or-toss point.
This might have been one of the best-smelling dishes I’ve ever made.
I kept leaning my head over the pan to get whiffs of soy and spice and ginger and garlic. As the fish poached, the liquid took on some of its meatiness; as a sensory bonus, it also tinted the fish a a soft wood-toned brown. Once the fish was cooked, I was surprised at how subtle the flavors were; the flesh of the fish came through loud and clear, with the poaching liquid lingering quietly in the background. Sam and I ate the salmon on its own, with some of the liquid spooned over the top, but I wished the entire time for a fluffy pile of brown rice to drink up more of the spicy-salty-sweet sauce.
As I said, I used salmon here, but this would be a terrific cooking technique for almost any fish. Mark Bittman recommends a firm-fleshed white fish: you could use striped bass, snapper, halibut, mahi mahi, or tilapia. If you prefer a richer-flavored fish, try catfish, mackerel, swordfish, trout or sablefish (aka black cod).
This is kind of a half post, so I apologize in advance.
I’m headed out on a business trip tonight, and my jaunty little personal laptop is staying home this round. So there will be no blogging until I get back. There are some other reasons I’m holding off on a bigger post–I’ll elaborate the next time I show up here–but for the time being, here’s a recipe to hold you over.
I don’t have a good photo for this one, because I was using my dad’s iPhone camera and I apparently shake like a palsy patient every time I press the shutter button. But the recipe itself is worth sharing. Trout, mild and pale and buttery, gets dredged in seasoned flour and pan-fried until golden, then served with a kicky corn and pepper relish on top. Good, simple, nourishing in a slightly upscale kind of way.
And with that, it’s off to pack.
My brain is fried.
Work is craaaaayzay.
I have to start looking for an apartment soon.
My synapses are slowly fraying. I can hear the “plink! plink!” of connections severing in my head. Just directing my fingers to write words in this text box is exhausting.
So here’s something I made last weekend. It was yummy. You should try it.
Okay, let’s be honest. Valentine’s Day is a marketer’s dream. Red, pink, chocolate, hearts, Cupids with chubby dimpled buttocks–it’s all very sweet, and entirely manufactured. I’ve long been a cynic about Valentine’s Day, far more so than about any of the other Hallmark Holidays. For me, the real magic comes the day after, when chocolate goes on sale.
But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something inherently lovely in the day. Showing loved ones a little extra care and devotion is never a bad thing. And if there has to be a designated calendar day to remind us of that, then so be it. For me, Valentine’s Day is about genuine displays of warmth and affection, whether it be for romantic partners or friends, parents or siblings or children.
And when I want to lavish someone with love, I feed them. (This should come as no surprise to…well, anyone.) To me, it’s the ultimate homemade gift: a special meal of favorite ingredients, prepared by hand and served with care. As The Boyfriend said, “It’s like flowers, but I can eat it.”
Let’s talk about anchovies.
They’re not easy to like. They’re salty, they’re fishy, they’re pungent, and they’re generally not out to make friends. Given the chance, they’ll take over a dish, running roughshod (or rough-finned?) over meeker, milder flavors. A mere mention of the word prompts scrunched noses and pouts. “I don’t really…like anchovies.”
Which is a damn shame, because they’re absolutely delicious when they’re treated right.