Corn and crab chowder

I realize, now that summer has fully reared its head and you probably have a fan pointed at you while you read this, that soup is likely not high on your “most wanted” list, particularly not a thick soup – verging into chowder territory – intended to be served hot, possibly with fresh, warm bread on the side. But I owed you a soup for June (yeah, moving. What can I say?), and corn was fresh and sweet and on sale, and this batch of soup was really. really. good. Maybe file it away for a cool weekend on the coast, or a last harvest end-of-summer reminder. Or maybe just sweat.

I think it’s easier for me than for other sorts of writers to answer that perennial “where do you get your ideas?” question, since my answer is “from everything I eat!” and “from most of the television I watch!” This soup has its foundations in two other steaming bowls: the corn chowder in a bread bowl from the French Market at Disneyland, and a now-unfortunately-defunct grocery store treasure: the “Cravin’ Crab and Corn Chowder” from the little soup kiosk at Safeway, a delightfully sinus clearing spicy bowl my mom used to stock in multiples. This one combines an old Dorie Greenspan recipe from Bon Appetit magazine and one of Kenji Lopez-Alt’s from Serious Eats, then hangs around my brain long enough to pick up some ideas gleaned from various food television shows, resulting in a substantial soup rich with corn flavor, studded with sweet, starchy kernels and plenty of crab meat, topped with a fresh salad of more corn – raw this time – more crab, mixed with enough herbs and lime juice to give it kick, that can either sit atop the soup for occasional sampling, or be stirred in last minute. It could easily take wafers of jalapeño or fresno chili, in both the soup and the topping, and it is as completely at home in a hollowed out boule of sourdough as it is in a gleaming white soup bowl.

The attraction of Greenspan’s recipe was the extra step of cooking the corncobs – devoid of their plump, shiny kernels – in the milk that becomes the “broth” of the soup as a method of injecting extra corn flavor. Lopez-Alt does this too, but uses broth instead of milk and steeps rather than boils. When you strip kernels off of a cob, there is usually a good bit left behind – both the bases of the kernels and the corn “milk” that they release when cut into. Extracting that flavor along with some spices in the same way you might, for example, steep shrimp shells or even tea, ensures a more flavorful liquid base.

I wanted mine really packed with corn, and determined that despite earlier considerations about swirls of heavy cream, or miniscule cubes of potato, all this really needed besides the seasoned base was onion, celery, a bit of butter, and some water to thin it without masking the flavor of the corn. This meant that the soup itself might be on the thin side, so I followed my Lopez-Alt’s idea of pureeing a quarter of the finished product to add thickness. This, along with a little bit of flour cooked down with the vegetables, led to a perfect consistency: not so thin that it would seep into our bread bowls, but not so thick that it was more like spoonfuls of sauce than of soup.

The coup de grace of the cold corn and crab salad on top was a surprise to N., but we both really liked it. You can leave it just atop the bowl, so your spoon can dig out bits of it and control the quantities in each bite, or you can stir it in, so you end up with different textures of corn and a little additional herby kick that remains fresh, since it is only warmed by the residual heat of your bowlful, rather than being actually cooked for any length of time. You could use jumbo lump crab if you’re fancy, but I went with claw meat because I was being cheap economical, and we were both satisfied with the flavor.*

If you are doing bread bowls as serving vessels, may I make the following suggestion? Before serving, spray the hollowed insides of the bowls with a little olive oil spray and brown them under the broiler for a few minutes. I know, more heat in your already-too-hot-summer-kitchen, but it helps them hold up against the onslaught of liquid and contributes a lovely toasty flavor. If you really want to treat yourself, once you’ve sliced off the “lids” of each bowl (reserving the interiors for bread crumbs! Maybe for this!), slather them with soft butter and sprinkle on a little salt and some finely chopped mixed herbs, and settle them under the broiler for a minute or two as well. The butter sizzles and browns and the herbs char just a little bit, and you have a kind of giant soup crouton, far more interesting and certainly more indulgent than oyster crackers, with only a little bit of extra effort.

I know this puts me behind in our soup calendar, but next month I am going to try to catch up, and finally give you what the season requires: cold summer soups. Like last week’s salmon, these will cook early in the day, if at all, then slowly deepen and meld in flavor as they hang out in the fridge, waiting to cool you down at dinnertime. But next week, as we careen frantically into August, I vote we pause just a moment for dessert.

*another idea that would, perhaps, give you the most bang for your buck in terms of price and impression, would be to use 4 ounces of claw meat to stir into the soup, and 4 ounces of jumbo lump for the salad on top.

 

Corn and Crab Chowder
Serves 4-6
35-45 minutes
4 ears corn, husks and stems removed
3 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped white onion (about 1 small onion)
scant ¼ cup chopped celery (about 2 ribs)
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup water
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
1 tablespoon finely chopped dill
1 teaspoon lime zest
1-2 teaspoons lime juice
Optional: wafer-thin slices of jalapeño or fresno chili
8 ounces crab pieces, picked through for shell or cartilage fragments. I used claw meat, but you could use jumbo lump instead, or even a combination of the two as noted above: claw meat to stir into the soup, jumbo lump to serve on top
salt and pepper to taste
Bread bowls to serve, if desired

 

  • In a pot, bring the milk to a bare simmer. While you wait for it to heat, remove the corn kernels from the cobs by standing each ear on end, holding the remains of the stem tightly, and cutting straight down close to the cob with a sharp knife, rotating the cob between each cut. When the milk just reaches a simmer, add the stripped cobs, the coriander, the bay leaf, and the thyme sprigs. Turn off the heat and cover the pot, leaving it to steep while you prep and cook the vegetables, or for at least 20 minutes.
  • In a large skillet, heat the 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat, then add the onion and celery with a pinch of salt and sweat them until translucent and tender. Add all but ½ cup of the corn kernels (reserve that final ½ cup for the corn and crab salad on top), stir to combine, and cook another 5-7 minutes until the corn is just tender. Once the vegetables are all tender and sweet, sprinkle on the 2 tablespoons of flour and stir or whisk to distribute it evenly.
  • Strain the cobs and whole spices out of the milk they’ve been steeping in. Add the milk to the vegetable mixture a little at a time, stirring or whisking as you do so. (I found I wanted to cook the soup in the pot, not the skillet, so I poured the milk into the same 4-cup measuring cup I’d used to add it in the first place, scraped all the vegetables into the pot, then slowly poured the milk back in. Adding liquid to solids rather than vice versa minimizes the chances of flour clumps.) Stir in the 1 cup water as well and bring the whole thing to a simmer. Turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 minutes with the lid off, stirring occasionally to prevent a heavy skin from forming on the top.
  • While the soup cooks, make the corn and crab salad. In a small bowl, combine the reserved ½ cup of kernels with the chopped chives, dill, lime zest, lime juice, and slices of chili, if using. Add about 4 ounces of the crab meat and gently stir to combine the salad. I didn’t think it needed salt or pepper, but you might, so season according to your palate.
  • Once the soup has simmered for 10 minutes, remove about ¼ of it and puree it until fairly smooth using a handheld or standard blender (be very, very careful when blending hot liquid, as it can “explode” out the top of your machine). Add the puree back into the soup along with the remaining 4 ounces of crab meat and stir to combine and distribute. Heat through, if needed. Taste for seasoning; we found we wanted a little salt and plenty of black pepper.
  • To serve, ladle the soup into your desired serving vessel – either a standard bowl or a hollowed out and lightly toasted bread bowl (see suggestions for toasting in the post above the recipe) – then mound up a few tablespoons of the crab and corn salad right on top. Garnish with a final sprig of dill or length of chive, if desired.

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Roasted Brussels and Mushrooms with Goat Cheese Polenta and Red Wine Sauce

food-blog-february-2017-0351It’s funny, isn’t it, how when we have more time, we usually wind up with less time? I went into this weekend knowing, between my schedule this semester and Monday’s holiday, that I had four days before I had to go back to campus. Four days is a lot following the first week of the term, when there aren’t any papers to grade yet and the readings are short. I planned to clean the house, I planned to bake, I planned to get ahead editing photos for this little space, and I definitely wanted to work on a project working with web sources that I’ll introduce to my students a few months from now. Guess how many of those things I’ve done, and how many linger until today, the very last day it’s possible to accomplish any of them?

food-blog-february-2017-0326Sticking to a plan is hard, especially when you have time. That’s the challenge. It’s a challenge whether you’re thinking about cleaning out the garage, registering voters, writing a paper, or making a multi-component dinner. Here I wanted a play of textures and flavors that all come together perfectly in the finished dish – the soft mellow creaminess of polenta topped with nutty roasted vegetables, just frizzled on the edges, topped with a tangy sauce of red wine, well-reduced, sharp with onion and deep with herbs.

food-blog-february-2017-0338I had this all planned out so I could start early and have plenty of time to play with photography, make the polenta extra creamy, and do some multi-tasking while the cooking took place, so of course I ended up rushing, and dinner was a good half hour later than I’d intended. But you, I’m sure, will stick to your plan, and have it all ready to ladle together within an hour.

food-blog-february-2017-0343Though I’ll admit I’m not thrilled with the photos in this entry (I was rushing and didn’t take enough time to get the lighting I wanted), the dish itself was delicious, and turned out almost exactly how I’d hoped. In future iterations I would strain the onions out of the wine sauce before serving, but in the moment I found I just couldn’t be bothered: bellies needed to be fed, after all.

food-blog-february-2017-0342A bowl of polenta is such a comforting prospect when it is damp out, especially when it is enriched with milk and finished with creamy chevre, as I’ve done here. The meaty roasted mushrooms and toasty sprouts, some soft, some with crisp, almost burnt outer leaves, made perfect sense, and stood up to the pleasant acidity of the sauce. Here’s to making sense, then, and planning, and standing up when needed. Here’s to doing what we can with our time.

Roasted Brussels and Mushrooms with Goat Cheese Polenta and Red Wine Sauce
Serves 4
45-55 minutes
For polenta:
4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup milk
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup polenta
2 tablespoons butter
4 ounces goat cheese
For wine sauce:
4 tablespoons butter, divided
½ cup finely diced red onion
2 cups dry red wine
3 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
2 2-3 inch sprigs fresh thyme
2 teaspoons honey
2 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste
For vegetables:
2 lbs untrimmed, or 1- 1½ lbs trimmed brussels sprouts
1 lb crimini mushrooms
½ cup olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper

 

  • Though I’ve divided up the ingredient lists by parts of the dish, in the procedure that follows I go back and forth, showing you where to switch between components, so it can all be ready at the same time.
  • Preheat oven to 425F and line two baking sheets with aluminum foil. Start 4 cups broth and 1 cup milk + ¾ tsp salt in a medium saucepan. While you wait for the milk and broth to boil, prep the vegetables. First, finely dice the onion. Crush the garlic, but don’t worry about the papery skins. Stem, wipe, and quarter the mushrooms. Trim the brussels (stem off, outer manky leaves off), halve (or quarter if quite large).
  • When broth/milk barely reaches a boil, add the polenta slowly, whisking the whole time. Continue whisking slowly, intermittently, until the mixture noticeably thickens. Then pop the lid on, lower the heat, and let it simmer, whisking every 3-4 minutes or so (be careful: it will bubble and spit!), until it is very thick and soft; 30-40 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, as soon as you’ve added the polenta to the pot, start the wine sauce. Put two tablespoons of the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. When it has melted, add the onions and turn down to medium low. Add a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender but not browned, about 10 minutes. While you’re waiting, finish up your vegetable prep if needed.
  • With the onions tender and slightly translucent, add the red wine, the crushed garlic cloves, the bay leaf, the thyme sprigs, and the 2 teaspoons honey. Stir briefly to distribute, then turn the heat up to medium high and let it boil until it is reduced to about ⅔ cup.
  • While the wine works, drop all of the prepped mushrooms into a large bowl and toss them with ¼ cup olive oil, ½ teaspoon pepper, and ¾ teaspoon salt. When well combined, scrape them onto one of the prepared baking sheets. Now do the same with the brussels sprouts, dumping them into the bowl and tossing with the remaining ¼ cup olive oil, ½ teaspoon pepper, and ¾ teaspoon salt before spreading them out on the other baking sheet. Load both sheet pans into a middle rack of the preheated oven and roast for 20 minutes. Toss with a spatula, assess, and if you want them browner (I frequently do), pop them back into the oven for another 10 minutes.
  • When the wine mixture has reduced, add 2 cups of chicken or vegetable broth, return to a boil, and reduce to about 1 cup. Remove the thyme, the bay leaf, and the garlic cloves, strain out the onions if you want a smooth sauce, then stir or whisk in the final 2 tablespoons butter just before serving.
  • When the polenta is thick, tender, and pulling away a bit from the sides of the pot when you stir it, whisk in a final 2 tablespoons butter, crumble in the goat cheese, and taste and adjust for seasoning. Hold it over very low heat if you need time for the other components to finish cooking.
  • To serve, ladle a thick puddle of polenta in the middle of a plate or shallow bowl. Top with a mixture of brussels sprouts and mushrooms, and then spoon some of the sauce directly over the vegetables, and some around the outer edge of the polenta. Serve hot.

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Grilled Zucchini and Corn Salad

2016 Food Blog June-0899As you can no doubt discern from the dead giveaway of two grilled corn dishes in three weeks, I’m itching for summer. Southern California has dipped into its customary “June gloom,” a period of several weeks that I adore, because the marine layer keeps my morning cool enough for a comfortable dog walk, for a bit of gardening, sometimes even for a (gasp) sweater while I sip a cup of tea. And this would, under normal circumstances, be a satisfying start to summer.

2016 Food Blog June-0877But for the first time in a few years, I’m teaching a summer course. It only lasts six weeks, and so far they are engaged and have made me think new things about some of the stories we’ve read – always a wonderful thing for an English professor. Yet still, upon arriving home this past Thursday afternoon, the end of my initial week with the class, I realized I had to go back on Monday, when all I wanted was grilled food and maybe a beer on the back porch, and certainly not to craft a lecture on Frankenstein.

2016 Food Blog June-0884Since only two of these desires can be realized (Frankenstein must be attended to, whether I want to or not), I decided the grilled food should be as summery as possible. Some weeks ago I attempted a warm vegetable salad like this: corn and zucchini sautéed at high temperature and then doused with a sharp shower of lime, but the vegetables were disappointingly wilted. What they needed for the dish I’d envisioned was the grill.

2016 Food Blog June-08892016 Food Blog June-0890If you haven’t already investigated the trio that is corn, zucchini, and lime, I suggest you do so immediately. Zucchini is such a mild, grassy, vegetal taste, so a hit of acid wakes it up and makes it interesting again. It plays well with corn, which carries its own grassiness along with the starchy sweetness that we so prize. Both benefit tremendously from the savory char of a grill – that taste of fire we seem to cling to particularly as the weather warms outside. Michael Pollan has speculated that there’s something about the process of cooking – of submitting food to heat and to flame – that truly awakens our humanness. Grilling – that barely tamed version of fire as a cooking medium – is perfect for summer dishes, then, because it echoes the looser, easier, perhaps even more primal feel of the season. Besides, aside from, I don’t know, cheesecake or ice cream, I can think of few foods that don’t become better when cooked on an oiled grate over a bright flame.

2016 Food Blog June-0887But in case you aren’t in love already with the summery ease and boost of flavor the grill imparts, dousing the still-warm veg in a dressing of lime, honey, and cilantro makes a sprightly side dish that needs only the crunch of toasted pumpkin seeds and the squeaky saltiness of crumbled cotija to complete it.

2016 Food Blog June-0892Because he’s nursing the same summer bug I am, N. wanted steak, so in addition to the vegetables he grilled a piece of sirloin flap.* As I played with presentation ideas, I realized the now-flexible planks of zucchini with their glorious char marks could be artfully arranged on a long platter, and the steak could be sliced thinly across the grain and draped over top, and I could have something that looked, well, like it came from somewhere a bit fancier than my backyard.

2016 Food Blog June-0903By the same token, though, the salad could simply be piled high on a plate, dusted with cheese and pumpkin seeds, and served alongside anything grilled, or perhaps spiced potatoes, or even wedged inside a tortilla as a quite respectable base for a vegetable taco.

2016 Food Blog June-0910* You should make this, too. I didn’t document it with any kind of precision, but I marinated the steak overnight in some dark beer, crushed garlic and coriander, and a bit of red pepper flake, then N grilled it for something like 3 minutes per side over the cooler side of the grill (ours has some hot spots), and rested it wrapped in aluminum foil for about five minutes to produce an incredibly tender, flavorful main course.

 

 

Grilled Zucchini and Corn Salad with Lime Vinaigrette
Serves 2-4 as a side dish
3 ears corn on the cob, husk and silk removed
4 medium zucchini, stem and flower ends removed
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon salt, divided
½ teaspoon pepper, divided
¼ cup pumpkin seeds
¼ cup lime juice from 1-2 limes
1 tablespoon honey
¼ cup chopped cilantro
¼ cup crumbled cotija cheese

 

  • Preheat a gas grill or a grill pan to high heat. While it warms, rub the corn with 2 tablespoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Grill the ears of corn over direct high heat for about 8 minutes, turning every minute or two, until the kernels are cooked and all sides are lightly charred. Remove and set aside until cool enough to handle.
  • While the corn cooks, prepare the zucchini: slice from stem to flower end into ¼ inch planks. In a large bowl, toss with remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Lay out on grates or pan, being careful to keep them in a single layer, reserving any leftover oil in the bowl. Grill until cooked through and nicely marked, 2-3 minutes per side. Remove and set aside.
  • While vegetables are grilling, toast pumpkin seeds and mix dressing. Scatter pumpkin seeds in a small baking tray and cook in a 300F oven for 10-15 minutes. Seeds will take about 10 minutes if the oven is preheated, and more like 15 minutes if you forgot that whole preheating part. When they are browned and starting to crackle, take them out and set them aside.
  • To make the dressing, combine the lime juice, honey, and chopped cilantro in the bowl with the reserved olive oil from tossing the zucchini. Whisk well to combine.
  • When the corn is cool enough to handle, cut off the kernels by standing up the cob on your cutting board (you can use the stem to hold onto, if you’ve left it attached) and carefully cutting straight down the ear with a sharp knife, sawing the blade back and forth a bit to help loosen the kernels. When you get to the bottom of the ear, rotate the cob a half turn or so and cut again, repeating until you have removed all kernels. Some will be individual and some will come off in big chunks; that’s okay. The variety is nice.
  • Add the corn kernels and the grilled zucchini planks to the bowl with the dressing and toss to combine. To serve, either keep the vegetables in the bowl and offer the pumpkin seeds and cotija cheese for individual diners to add to their own portions, or arrange the vegetables on a square or long rectangular platter and sprinkle the seeds and cheese over the top.

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Grilled Corn and Radish Herb Salad

2016 Food Blog May-0711When Corin Tucker, one of the vocalists of the musical group Sleater Kinney, released her first solo album after the band’s separation in 2006, she described in song how losing the band in some respects meant losing her vision of music and composition as well – she “stood frozen for so long,” and the silence felt like 1,000 years. To me, the song resonates with all kinds of creativity blocks. Every once in a while, when I think about writing here, I feel frozen – not just cold feet, but cold hands and stiff fingers and icicles in my brain – a sensation of writer’s block that extends to my enthusiasm for cooking itself. Broken off from my usual schedule, and with all but one stack of final papers graded and recorded and filed* in hopes students will return in the fall to pick up their work, you would think I would be panting for the kitchen and the refreshing feeling of absolutely zero comma splices or missing thesis statements to worry about.

2016 Food Blog May-06782016 Food Blog May-0679Instead I feel immobilized by a combination of exhaustion, puritan work ethic, and plain old laziness: if I’m not doing schoolwork, I should feel guilty, but I’m too tired to grade anything else. The kitchen, then, becomes a strange zone of misdirected productivity, and the couch and TV are just so friendly…

2016 Food Blog May-06892016 Food Blog May-0696But I should enjoy the sliver of summer I’m allotted (I’m teaching a session of summer school this year), so if I have to force myself, the gateway drug is corn on the cob. Corn speaks summer in ways few other vegetables do. Tomatoes, of course, but they typically show up a little later in the season, at least the massive spurting heirlooms I’m most interested in. Zucchini is a late summer crop – an overload that reminds you the last few weeks are approaching. Corn is sweet and juicy and plays so well with others. Raw, it has a kind of grassy starchiness, and of course the classic boiled or steamed cob works so well with butter and plenty of salt. For the past few years, though, my favorite way to eat corn is from the grill. Rubbed with olive oil, salt, and pepper and roasted all huskless, it blisters and crusts, and the sweetness we’ve bred into those kernels deepens into a toasty richness that reminds me vaguely of popcorn.

2016 Food Blog May-07012016 Food Blog May-0702For this dish, I was after a kind of warm salad, and thought the cold, peppery bite of radishes would work amazingly well with corn, especially doused with assertive lime vinaigrette. Both Food and Wine and Martha Stewart make a jalapeno dressing for this combination. I didn’t want spicy, but I did want to amp flavor, which I did with a bumper crop of added herbs: parsley, dill, chives, even some basil, to play with the flavors of the vegetables and contribute a different kind of sharpness to the dressing. For color and for fun, I added a handful of cherry tomatoes. You could also toss in some baby arugula or chunks of avocado.

2016 Food Blog May-0704We ate this with fish tacos, but it would be equally good with grilled meat of any variety, really, as well as a nice, lighter side salad option at a picnic or barbecue. A crisp white wine, especially with a touch of effervescence, would pair well.

Bring on the summer, then. I’m ready to thaw.

2016 Food Blog May-0721* well, in a carefully shoved stack on the back corner of my desk

2016 Food Blog May-0720

Grilled Corn and Radish Herb Salad
Serves 4-6
4 ears corn on the cob
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
salt and pepper, to taste
juice of 1-2 limes
1-2 teaspoons honey
½ cup mixed chopped soft-stemmed herbs, such as parsley, dill, basil, chives, or cilantro
6-8 large red radishes, tops and tails removed, thinly sliced
4 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved
(1-2 ounces baby arugula, optional)
(1 avocado, cut in cubes, optional)

 

  • Preheat a gas grill or grill pan over medium high heat. While you wait, shuck the corn, removing the husk and as much silk as possible, but leave on the stem, as this will make for easier kernel removal. Rub the ears with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Place on the preheated grill and cook for about 8 minutes total, turning every two minutes or so, until the corn is fully cooked and has a healthy golden brown char.
  • Set the corn aside until it is cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk the lime juice with the honey and the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add in the mixed chopped herbs and whisk well to incorporate.
  • When the corn has cooled enough that it won’t toast your fingers, cut off the kernels by standing up the cob on your cutting board (you can use the stem to hold onto, if you’ve left it attached) and carefully cutting straight down the ear with a sharp knife, sawing the blade back and forth a bit to help loosen the kernels. When you get to the bottom of the ear, rotate the cob a half turn or so and cut again, repeating until you have removed all kernels. Some will be individual and some will come off in big chunks; that’s okay. The variety is nice.
  • Add the corn, the sliced radishes, and the halved cherry tomatoes to the bowl with the dressing and herbs, and toss well to combine and distribute. The herbs will sometimes clump together; be sure to mix well so they – and the dressing – coat the other vegetables evenly. Taste for seasoning and add additional salt and pepper if desired.
  • If you are using arugula and/or avocado, add these as well and toss gently to avoid breaking up these delicate ingredients too much.
  • Serve warm or at room temperature with a grilled main.

Chopped challenge: halibut, bacon ends, vodka, kale

2016 Food Blog February-0360One of my favorite games to play with N. when we are out, about in the world, is a riff on my favorite television show: Chopped (another favorite is noting a couple and trying to determine the status of their relationship based on their clothing and body language, and sometimes, how we think their evening will conclude. We are, clearly, lovely people). Specifically, he will tell me whether I’m to build an appetizer, an entrée, or a dessert, and will then list four random ingredients. Unlike the show, where the contestants have a mere half hour to create a meal that incorporates all four, I simply have to describe the dish I would make.

2016 Food Blog February-0350I love this game. Like this year’s blog project, it gives me a chance to stretch my imagination; it’s like a trivia game, except instead of just knowing the answer, I get to invent it. Last fall we were waiting in line somewhere and N. gave me the following as an entrée round basket of mystery ingredients: halibut, bacon ends, vodka, and kale. “Easy,” I said, and rattled off my entry: diced bits of bacon, rendered until crisp. Halibut cooked in the bacon fat with just a little bit of brown sugar. Bright kale sautéed until just wilted, then tossed with the crisp diced bacon, all balanced over a puddle of rich, creamy polenta and crowned with a few spoonfuls of some kind of vodka cream sauce.

2016 Food Blog February-0354Typically, after the presentation of a meal idea, we discuss briefly and move on. This one, though, sounded so good that I decided I should actually make it. As this process usually goes, I then spent the next few months thinking about it, gradually adding layers and complications, and ultimately being influenced by the show itself for several of the components (notable the kale: in one episode a contestant slices kale across the grain into a fluffy pile of thin confetti before sautéing and salting so aggressively that judge Alex Guarnaschelli, on whom I have a relentless lady-crush, admiringly declares it somehow like a potato chip in addictive deliciousness).

2016 Food Blog February-0355The dish I ended up making doesn’t deviate much from the original plan. I did indeed render the bacon, though I reserved some of the fat for the halibut and used most of it to cook the kale. In addition to bacon and salt, the kale also got a drink of vinegar to enhance the potato chip comparison. The halibut remained as envisioned: salt, pepper, a light sprinkle of brown sugar (at the suggestion of a bed and breakfast owner during a family vacation in Alaska when I was in high school), and a light sear until the center is just cooked, pearly and opaque. The polenta, which is fast joining mashed potatoes as a favorite starch option, ended up with some corn kernels thrown in, which is an easy but stupendous addition I insist you try. The vodka got flamed in some brown butter, then whisked with a bit of lemon juice and mustard to create a rich, barely emulsified sauce that tasted perfect on everything. I knew I was in love when, after only a few bites, I was already texting my sister to tell her about it.

2016 Food Blog February-0364This is one of those dishes that is complicated only because it has multiple components, and you want them to be done at the same time. Therefore, though I’ve divided up the ingredient lists per element (polenta, kale, fish, sauce), in the procedure I’ve indicated when to switch back and forth between pans.

2016 Food Blog February-0360

Brown sugar halibut with creamy corn polenta, salt and vinegar bacon kale, and vodka brown butter sauce
Serves 2
30-40 minutes, but you must be quite organized
For polenta:
3 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 cup whole milk
½ cup fresh or frozen, defrosted corn kernels
¾ cup polenta
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
For kale:
3 slices bacon or bacon ends, diced (about ½ cup)
3 garlic cloves, peeled and cut into very thin slices/slivers
2 bunches kale, washed well and patted or spun dry
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
¾ teaspoon salt
For sauce:
4 tablespoons butter
¼ cup vodka
zest of one small lemon (1-2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt to taste
For halibut:
2 6-ounce boneless, skinless halibut filets
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon bacon fat (from kale preparation)

 

  • Start with the polenta, since it takes the longest: combine the chicken broth, milk, and corn kernels in a medium pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the polenta, the salt, and the pepper, then whisk constantly until the mixture starts to thicken. At first it will seem like there is not nearly enough polenta; keep whisking. Once the mixture has thickened to a loose pudding consistency and is threatening to bubble, clap on the lid and turn the heat down to medium-low or low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until it is creamy and thick, and the polenta granules are tender, 15-20 minutes. Just before serving, add the 2 tablespoons butter and gently stir in until well combined. If the polenta is ready before the rest of the meal, hold it over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the other components are ready.
  • As soon as you put the lid on the polenta, place the diced bacon in a large skillet and heat over medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp, then remove to a paper towel with a slotted spoon to drain. Reserve 3 tablespoons of the fat and discard the rest.
  • While the bacon is cooking, prepare the garlic and kale: cut the peeled garlic cloves into very thin slivers. Gather the washed and dried kale in a stack and, using a very sharp knife, slice the kale “against the grain” (perpendicular to the stem) into very thin slices. You are looking for the effect of shredded cabbage or kale confetti. Continue to slice down until the stems thicken – about halfway down the leaf. Reserve the remaining stem and leaf segments for pesto or kale chips.
  • Pour two tablespoons of the reserved bacon fat back into the large skillet and heat over medium until it is shimmering. Add the garlic slivers and toast them until they are just starting to brown, about 45 seconds. Immediately add the kale all at once and cook 2-3 minutes, tossing occasionally, until it is bright green and barely wilted. Add the vinegar, salt, and reserved bacon pieces; toss to combine. Remove from heat and set aside until just before serving.
  • To make the sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan. It will foam up, then the foam will clear, and the butter will start to take on a toasted color. At this point, remove the saucepan from the heat and add the vodka. Once the alcohol is added, put the pan back on the heat. If you’re feeling brave, light a stick lighter and ignite the surface of the mixture; it will flame up just for a few seconds. Swirl the pan and the flame will go out, then simmer for 1-2 minutes to burn off a little more of the alcohol flavor. Add the lemon zest, lemon juice, and mustard and whisk to combine. Lower the heat as low as it will go, just to keep the sauce warm, and whisk occasionally to keep it emulsified.
  • The last step is the halibut. In a medium skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil with the remaining 1 tablespoon reserved bacon fat over medium high heat. While the fat warms, season the halibut with salt, pepper, and brown sugar on both sides. When the fat in the pan is shimmering, carefully add the halibut filets. Cook, undisturbed, for two minutes, then carefully flip using tongs and/or a thin, flexible spatula, lower the heat to medium, and cook 3 minutes more until the fish is pearly-white in the center and flakes easily.
  • As soon as you flip the halibut filets, put all the other components of the meal back over medium-low heat, just to warm through until the fish is ready.
  • To plate, spoon a generous puddle of polenta in the center of a plate or a shallow bowl. Use tongs to add a generous pile of kale in the center. Balance the fish at an angle with one end on the pile of kale and the other in the polenta, then spoon the sauce over the fish; it will be thin, so it will spill into the kale and polenta. Serve immediately.

Guacamole Steak Salad

Food Blog August 2014-0352I remember it so clearly: the day my perspective on salads was enunciated aloud. It wasn’t by me. I’d had mixed, un-uttered feelings about salads for years, but it wasn’t until the year after I’d graduated from college, as I watched one of my roommates adding spinach, and then sliced tomatoes, and then garbanzo beans, and then hunks of cheese, and one or two (or five) other ingredients to a big red bowl – one of those bowls with the spout on one side for easy pouring, and a rubber bottom so it wouldn’t slide around the counter – and she looked up at me watching and said “I like my salads with a lot of stuff in them.”

Food Blog August 2014-0331Yes. That was right. That was why the salads my dad liked to pair with pasta – lettuce, a few tomatoes, maybe a sliver of cucumber or three, and the occasional crouton – didn’t seem worth it to me. That was why the house salad at innumerable restaurants was a chore to crunch through rather than a pleasure (I’d rather have had another basket of bread). There was a whole course for that sort of thing? Boring. Bring on the entree.

Food Blog August 2014-0335Food Blog August 2014-0337Food Blog August 2014-0342But salads are – can be! – exciting, if we are mindful of my roommate’s assertion. They just need a lot of stuff in them. And at this time of the summer, when all I want for dinner is a big salad, or something charred and fragrant off the grill, it seems the right moment to combine the two for a salad so stuffed with, well, stuff, that it needs no entree to help it along. It is no side; no first course. It is the main event. And this main event has found its way to our table an embarrassing number of times in the past few months.

Food Blog August 2014-0338Food Blog August 2014-0341Food Blog August 2014-0345I took guacamole as my inspiration, and chunked up all the ingredients necessary there – tomatoes, onion, cilantro, a whisper of jalapeno, if spicy suits you, and of course a mound of buttery, creamy cubes of avocado. Lime and garlic found their way in as part of a dressing, the brisk acidity and bite of raw garlic tempered a bit with a drizzle of honey. Because it’s grilling season, I couldn’t help but add some corn on the cob, grilled whole, then kernels lopped off to find their sweet, charred way into the mix. Since the grill was on anyway, the logical thing to do was to grill up a hunk of flank or skirt steak, liberally rubbed with spices, and slice it thin to lay across the top of all that veg. And then, because why not, a generous crumbling of queso fresco. Deconstructed guacamole. Steak. Corn. Cheese. Stuff.

Food Blog August 2014-0348This sounds like a salad only tangentially. I haven’t even mentioned crisp romaine, or toothsome kale, or fresh, grassy spinach. The thing is, as Mark Bittman taught me, the greens part of the salad is neither the starring role, nor (stay with me here) even necessary! Though I did end up including a greens foundation here (I chose cabbage because it stays crisp, and because it’s the green I like most in tacos – you could easily swap it out for lettuce of any sort, or even spinach if you prefer), the salad is bolstered by it, not overwhelmed with it. Any odd forkful is going to include a mix of vegetables, not a pile of cabbage with the occasional tomato you had to hunt around for.

Food Blog August 2014-0351If you’ve got a grill, this salad is executable without even looking at your oven or your stove. It is fresh and light, but still substantial, it carries a pleasant citrus bite but is creamy from the avocado and the cheese, and it makes a big bowlful. The steak is flavorful and slightly spicy; I’ve included my seasoning blend here, but you can use any mixture of spices you like – this is another tasty one. N. and I found ourselves fighting over the last succulent pieces as we went back for seconds. And though the salad stands alone just fine, as noted above, if you simply have to char a few corn tortillas over the grill at the last minute to serve in place of bread or chips on the side, I doubt anyone would argue. Because you, my friend, just won summer.

Food Blog August 2014-0354

Guacamole Steak Salad
Serves 4-6
For the steak:
1 pound skirt steak
1 teaspoon salt
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
zest of 1 lime
1 tablespoon olive oil or vegetable oil
For the corn:
2 ears corn, husks and silk removed, stalk end still in place
salt and pepper for sprinkling
a few teaspoons olive oil to drizzle or spray over the corn
For the salad:
8-12 ounces thinly sliced cabbage shreds
16 ounces cherry tomatoes, quartered, OR 4 medium tomatoes, cored and cubed
8-10 green onions, roots removed, thinly sliced
2 avocados, pitted, peeled, and cubed
6 ounces crumbled queso fresco
½ cup packed chopped cilantro, from one bunch
For the dressing:
¼ cup lime juice (estimate 2-3 limes)
2-4 cloves garlic, very finely minced
2 teaspoons honey
⅓ – ½ cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
  • Preheat your grill to high. While it heats, we’ll prep the steak and the corn. Spread the steak out on a flat surface (I just unwrap it and leave it on the butcher paper wrapping it came in to save on dishes). Place the salt, the cayenne, and the other spices in a small bowl and combine with a fork. Add the lime zest and the olive oil and mix again – it will have the consistency of wet sand.
  • Scoop up half the sandy spice mixture you’ve created and rub it over one side of the steak. Be liberal in your application, and don’t be too gentle about it either – really massage it into the surface of the steak. Flip the steak over and repeat the process with the remaining half of the spice mixture, then set the steak aside to drink up some flavor.
  • Now we’ll prep the corn. Remove all husks and silk, but leave the stalk end on – it makes cutting the kernels off later on a bit easier because you have a built-in handle. Coat the corn with a drizzle or a few sprays of olive oil, being sure you get it on all sides of the ear. Sprinkle on salt and pepper as well, again, being sure all sides get seasoned.
  • Place the seasoned corn directly on the grates of the grill, and grill over high, direct heat for about 8 minutes, turning every few minutes. Your goal is to cook it through, and create a beautiful, golden char on all sides.
  • When the corn is done, set it aside to cool. In its place, flop the steak onto the grill and grill over high, direct heat for 5 minutes undisturbed. Flip it over and grill another 5 minutes, again, undisturbed. Remove to a plate or platter, cover with a layer of aluminum foil, and set aside to rest for about 10 minutes. This gives the juices time to redistribute and it allows for a bit of carryover cooking – by the time you slice it up, the steak will be medium to medium-well (skirt steak can be a bit uneven in thickness).
  • While all this grilling and resting is going on, make the rest of the salad. Place the cabbage, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and queso fresco into a large bowl. You can either mix them all together, or arrange the ingredients in rows atop the cabbage like a cobb salad for pretty presentation.
  • To add the corn, stand up one of the grilled ears, which should be cool enough to handle by now, with the stalk sticking up toward you. Hold the stalk firmly and, with a sharp knife, cut straight down the ear, sawing back and forth a bit to help loosen the kernels. As you remove each segment of kernels, rotate the ear a bit to line up a new segment. Add the kernels to the salad. Some will be individual; some will be in big chunks. That’s okay. They will break up as we toss the whole thing.
  • To make the dressing, juice the limes and add the finely minced garlic, and the honey. Combine with a fork or a small whisk. Drizzle in the olive oil, whisking continuously, until the dressing emulsifies. Start with ⅓ cup of oil, then dunk in a chunk of tomato and give the dressing a taste to see what you think. Remember, it will taste stronger straight out of the mixing bowl than it will when you’ve tossed the entire salad with it.
  • Season the dressing to your liking, adding more of the olive oil if it is too acidic for you. Add the avocados to the salad immediately before you add the dressing, to prevent browning.
  • The last step here is to add the meat. Unwrap the steak from its rest and place it on a board or butcher block to slice it. Using a sharp knife, cut thin slices (no more than ¼ inch or so) against the grain at an angle. This will give you lovely tender slices. Drape the slices over the salad, down the center for a pleasing presentation.
  • Serve immediately, with a side of charred corn tortillas, if desired.