Crab and Shrimp Balls

I realize that when most people think of a meatball, fish is not what immediately springs to mind. Ground, seasoned meat, bound with egg and sometimes bread, and fried and braised in sauce seems to work for land animals better than those more oceanically-inclined. But I think this is a mistake. After all, what is a fish cake, really, besides a flattened meatball? And crab cakes are such wonderful, beautiful things that, now that summer is upon us, the beach child in me wants to eat all the time (seriously. Lunch and dinner are obvious, but the idea of eggs benedict with a fat, tender crab cake instead of an English muffin fills me with longing). So when it occurred to me that, really, a crab cake was only different from a meatball in shape and mindset, I knew immediately I needed to change both.

Food blog June 2015-1059The meatball I imagined had to be aggressively herby, bright with citrus zest, and obviously needed to be shallow fried, not braised in sauce. And since N. would not be partaking due to his distaste for shellfish (nobody’s perfect…), I realized I could add shrimp to up the succulence factor even more, and these crab and shrimp balls were born.

Food blog June 2015-1035You have a few choices when it comes to crab. There’s no sense in harvesting it yourself for this dish – it’s too much work, and the pre-cracked and pasteurized options are perfectly fine. What you really have to decide is whether to blow your budget on lump or jumbo lump meat, which comes in large, sweet pieces from the muscles connected to the crab’s swimming legs, or whether to go for more affordable claw meat. I tend to think the claw meat has a stronger flavor, and since I was going to pulse it up and mix it with herbs anyway (and because I’m cheap), I went with a package of claw meat and was quite pleased with the taste.

Food blog June 2015-1042As for the shrimp, you want raw, because it will keep the meatball together a bit better, and there’s nothing so unpleasant as rubbery, overcooked shrimp. If you can find it deveined, then all you’ll have to do is pull the shell and tail off before dropping it into the food processor. If you do end up with shrimp that still have the shell and vein, this how-to from the kitchn gives a pretty clear set of instructions for how to do the prep yourself.

Food blog June 2015-1043Feel free to mix up the herbs to your liking, though I’d include at least one onion-y component. I toyed with the idea of adding a teaspoon or two of excruciatingly finely diced jalapenos, but since I was planning to have this with a spicy salad (more on that next week!), I opted to leave the meatballs themselves heat-free. I do think, though, a bit of fire in these would be lovely, especially if you plan to dunk them into a cooling or fatty sauce of some sort.

Food blog June 2015-1052Obviously I loved these. I’m a sucker for shellfish in almost any application, and coated in bread crumbs and fried = me rendered completely helpless. Adding citrus zest instead of juice (to control the moisture content of the meatballs) proved to be a particularly good move; it broke up what could have become a monotonous flavor and kept the meatballs feeling bright and light, despite being fried. The panko formed a perfect tight, crisp crust to protect the interior, keeping it hot and relatively ungreasy.

Food blog June 2015-1056Hearkening back to my childhood when, more often than not, I ordered the fried seafood appetizer platter as my entrée, I ate these meatballs as my main course, accompanied by a banh-mi-inspired salad I’ll tell you more about next week. But they would clearly excel (and go a bit further) as appetizers as well.

Food blog June 2015-1064Note: you’ll notice that there is panko in the meatballs themselves as well as coating them. I thought about leaving the interior breadcrumb-free, but the resulting mixture was so delicate I feared they would just collapse. Adding this bit of starch and allowing them to chill for 45 minutes before cooking eliminated this risk of disintegration.

 

Crab and Shrimp Balls
Makes 16 (serves two as an entrée, 4 as an appetizer)
6 ounces crab meat (claw meat is fine, but blow the bank on lump or jumbo lump if you prefer)
8 ounces raw shrimp, preferably peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
2 teaspoons lemon zest, lime zest, or a combination
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 egg
1 ½ cups panko breadcrumbs, divided
1 cup vegetable oil, to fry

 

  • Check your crab and shrimp carefully and remove any lingering shell bits or cartilage, then deposit the meat in the belly of your food processor. Add the herbs, the citrus zest, the salt and pepper, the egg, and ½ cup of panko breadcrumbs. Pulse three or four times for two seconds each, until the herbs are well integrated and the crab and shrimp are broken down a bit. You don’t want a paste, but you do want small pieces that will cling together.
  • Pour the remaining 1 cup of panko breadcrumbs into a pie plate or other wide dish with sides and spread them out into an even layer. With moistened hands, scoop rounded tablespoons of crab and shrimp mixture, lightly roll them into balls (they will be quite tender), and roll them in the panko until completely coated. Repeat until you have used up all the crab and shrimp mixture, then refrigerate the coated meatballs for 45 minutes to allow them to firm up a bit.
  • After 45 minutes, remove meatballs from the refrigerator and set them aside while you heat the 1 cup of vegetable oil in a 10 inch skillet. When the oil is shimmering, or when a spare piece of panko you drop in sizzles and small bubbles are released all around it, it’s time to add the meatballs. Place 8 meatballs in the oil carefully, keeping them separate from one another, and cook over medium or medium-high for 2-3 minutes on each side, until they are uniformly crisp and golden (I know, I realize that meat“ball” suggests an absence of sides, but I usually end up with a semi-round object that needs two or three turns to completely immerse).
  • As the meatballs finish cooking, remove them to a paper-towel-lined plate and repeat with the remaining 8 meatballs. They will stay hot inside for 5-10 minutes, but you can place the finished ones in a warm oven while their compatriots cook, just to be sure.
  • Serve immediately, with a remoulade or tartar sauce, fries, or a side salad.

With or Without You

The organizer of the group I went to Senior Prom with booked us seats at Splashes, a restaurant in a Laguna Beach hotel. When we arrived, all dressed up and feeling ever so fancy, four of our party of six were surprised and distressed to discover that a restaurant called Splashes primarily served seafood.  I was delighted.  Lobster ravioli?  Yes, please!

While the majority of our party waited for their chicken and steak dishes to be prepared, my date received the first course he’d ordered: a caprese salad with balsamic dressing.  It arrived – beautifully arranged slices of bright tomato, quivering mozzarella, crisp basil leaves – and he squinted at it with confusion.  “This is not a salad,” he said.  “There’s no lettuce!”  He ate it – we all did – and thought it was good, but maintained his stance.  To be a salad, a collection of ingredients must include lettuce.  No room for experimentation there.

We were in high school, and it was only the very beginning of the new millennium.  What did we know about creative vegetable assemblages like caprese or tabbouleh or panzanella?  We were babies.  But I will say: though I recognize these popular, now fairly well known varieties of salad as such, in this project Bittman has taught me so much about what a salad can be and how widely the boundaries of its definition can be stretched.  Not a single entry, in fact, on the Salads portion of the project list, includes lettuce.  How pedestrian – how expected – that would be.

“76. Grate apples (red are nice; leave skin on), radish and celery.  Roast pistachios and chop.  Dress all with olive oil, shallots, grainy mustard, red wine vinegar and a pinch of sugar.”

This sounded like an interesting and delicious combination, but like the tomatillo and jicama combination a few weeks ago, it didn’t sound like something you could dig into a big bowl of.  I decided, therefore, to make it more like a condiment, which gave me an excellent excuse to roast a chicken.  Imagine: a steaming, crisp skinned chicken thigh topped with cool, crisp shreds of apple and peppery radish.  Like the lobster ravioli of yore, yes please!

Here’s what I used:

1 large apple (I had a honeycrisp – one of my favorite kinds)

2 stalks celery

4 small radishes

½ cup pistachios, roasted and chopped

Dressing:

2 TB olive oil

1 TB red wine vinegar

1-2 tsp sugar (depends on your taste, the sweetness of your apple, and the sharpness of your radishes)

½ TB whole grain mustard

I eliminated the shallots because, despite their lauded mildness, neither N. nor I find the flavor of raw onions particularly appealing.

During the last twenty minutes or so of the chicken’s stay in the oven, I clattered the pistachios into a small cake pan and put them on the bottom rack so they could toast.  They needed about ten minutes at 350F, and emerged browned and nutty smelling (isn’t that a silly way of describing the aroma of a nut?  Of course it was nutty smelling!  What else could it be?).  I set them aside so they could cool before being chopped and deposited into the salad mixture.

While things were roasting and toasting, I grated up the stars of the salad.  The apple became little ribbons, the radishes paper-thin shreds, and the celery turned into a pile of almost-mush.  But I decided that was okay – celery is such an assertive texture that less of its fibrous aggressiveness would actually be a benefit.

Were I making this again, at this point I would deposit the grated vegetation into a sieve for a few minutes to let the juice drip away, giving the dressing a better opportunity to cling and permeate.  My decision to plop everything right into the serving bowl resulted in slight soupiness – the apple and celery in particular gave off copious amounts of juice.

At this point, you should also chop and add your pistachios to the salad.  After all, you paid money for them and babysat them carefully to prevent burning them in the oven.  But I didn’t.  I forgot about them completely as I whisked up the dressing, tossed it with the salad, then stowed the serving dish on the table so I could have room on my kitchen counter to carve the chicken.

Piled atop carefully carved and portioned pieces of chicken, the little condiment salad warmed and released a delicious sweet-tart aroma that completely belied the bland appearance of our plates.  Though up close you could see flecks of red and green and pink in the salad from the skins of the various ingredients, from any distance it looked like pale meat with pale apple shreds on top, next to a pale pile of barley, which I’d cooked pilaf style as a starchy accompaniment.

The flavor was more like the smell than the appearance.  It was sharp and bracing – just sweet enough, but assertively vinegary.  This worked very well with our chicken because the sweet-sour crunch cut through the fatty moistness of the meat.  Halfway through dinner I sprinkled mine with a palm-full of the forgotten pistachios, and I must admit I liked it better nut free.  N., not a pistachio fan, agreed.

 

Despite how good a sport he has been during the years (years!) I’ve been working to accomplish this project, N. doesn’t like all foods.  I recognize that there is a time for experimentation and excited guesswork, but there is also a time to exclude him from the proceedings.  This understanding led to my original decision to make only the items from Bittman’s list that seemed reasonable.  I haven’t set out to cook all 101 sides; there were a few that just didn’t fit our palates.  However, out of my curiosity and tastes, a few items remained on the list that are just not N.’s cup of tea.  The second salad I made this week was one such dish.

“79. Cook chopped pears in a covered saucepan with a tiny bit of water until soft. Puree, but not too fine. In your smallest pan, boil a few tablespoons of balsamic vinegar with a little brown sugar; lower heat and reduce by half. Spoon the pear sauce over endive leaves and finish with toasted sliced almonds and the balsamic reduction.”

To me, this sounded delightful.  To N., it sounded weird.  So on Thursday, when he had to go back to school for an evening engagement, it became my dinner.  It consisted of:

2 TB sliced almonds

2 ripe pears, peeled and chopped into small chunks

1 TB water

3 spears endive

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

1 TB brown sugar

I must admit: I cheated on the balsamic reduction.  The quantities I listed above are falsified.  But they are estimates you might use.  I happened to have a small container of already reduced, already sweetened balsamic vinegar in my refrigerator from a previous night, and this was the perfect excuse to use it up.  I just microwaved it for a few seconds and it loosened right up from a tar to a pourable, molasses-like syrup.

I toasted the almonds in a dry pan over medium heat, tossing them frequently.  You can’t take your eyes off of these slices for very long.  In the space of twenty seconds, they go from perfectly golden to burnt.  How do I know?  How do you think?

I set aside my overly tanned almonds and added the pear chunks and water to my pan.  Bittman didn’t specify whether the pears should be peeled or not, but pears already have that dubious, potentially grainy texture, and I decided the rough and sometimes gritty skin shouldn’t have a part in this salad.  As the pears – naked, cored, and chopped – simmered and softened, I considered the pureeing instruction and rejected it.  If indeed they were still supposed to be chunky, there were other methods than dirtying my food processor or immersion blender.  I had at them with the potato masher.  This broke them into a chunky puree – some texture remained but they were definitely on the road to sauce-hood.  I turned off the heat and set them aside to cool.

All that remained was to cut and arrange the endive and drape these various accoutrements across it.  I spooned, I drizzled, I scattered, and I served.

This was good, and a nice homage to fall, but it almost read like a dessert salad.  Endive has – to my palate at least – little to no discernible taste.  It is crisp and fun to eat because it has such a capable, interesting shape, but it crunches into water in your mouth and tastes like whatever you pair it with.  In this case, it tasted of earthy mild pears and glossy sweet balsamic reduction.  The crunch of the almonds and the crunch of the endive were pleasantly different: one dry, one juicy.  I ended up scooping dressing, pear puree, and almonds into each leaf and eating them out of hand rather than messing around with all that utensil business.  After all, I was seated at a table for one, and Ted Allen on the TV wasn’t going to judge me.  Besides, I was pairing this salad with shrimp (so delicious: toast mustard seeds and red pepper flakes, sear shrimp, deglaze with dry white wine, sprinkle with parsley, serve), and it’s so much easier to just pick them up by the tails.  No fuss.  Only a little mess.  Easily remedied.  Followed up, just to make it extra indulgent, with a little cup of coconut whipped cream, dried blueberries, and the rest of the toasted almonds.

N. wouldn’t have liked this dinner.  But that’s okay.  Our coupledom doesn’t require identical food preferences as I once thought it might, and I’m happy to take on all the shrimp and coconut in the world on his behalf, paired with pears and endive or not.  Call it a gift.  And in return, he lets me play with my food: not just eating with my fingers, but trusting me in my experimentation because I know what he likes.  That means when I present him with one of my Frankensteinian creations, he might raise his eyebrows, but he’s willing – and usually happy – to give it a try.  A salad doesn’t need lettuce.  What it needs, I think, are the flavors you like and the contrasting textures that make it an adventure to eat.

Seattle: Day Two

This trip was extra special in the food indulgence area because we opted to stay at a bed and breakfast instead of the usual chain hotel.  At the Villa Heidelberg, our hostess serves what she calls a “hearty breakfast,” which consists of coffee or tea and fruit, followed by a hot dish that changes every day.  As we ate this hot dish the first morning – a croissant stuffed with Canadian bacon, cheddar cheese and sliced, cinnamon dusted apples, then coated in egg and baked until the pastry was even toastier and flakier than before and the apples were just softening – she explained that she has almost run out of room in her kitchen for her cookbook collection.  Other bed and breakfast establishments have five or six standby breakfasts they alternate between or cycle through, but she said that early in her career as innkeeper she got tired of making the same things week in and week out.  She keeps adding and adding to her repertoire, and with a side of maple syrup to absolutely drench this croissant in fantastic sticky decadence, we were well set to begin our adventures.

Despite this incredibly filling start to the day, when thoughts of lunch started to percolate as we strolled through Pike Place, I knew almost immediately what I wanted.  The smells in the marketplace were so good that you’d think it would be hard to decide.  But I knew.

The fish stalls here were impressive, and when I say that the place smelled like fish, I mean this in a positive way.  Even raw, the fish was so fresh and so reminiscent of the salty spray of the Pacific that even N. admitted it smelled good.  It didn’t hurt that the aromas of smoked salmon and fried seafood lingered around us as well, and this became my lunch quest: fried shrimp.

For $7.99, the sardonic but chatty expediter at one stall sold me this beautiful portion of beer battered and fried prawns with French fries.  It was like heaven.  Since N. doesn’t like shellfish, we never eat it at home.  Not only were these fresh, plump, perfectly toothsome prawns, but they were coated in delicious rich batter and fried until they had soaked in just the right amount of grease.  Enough to coat the fingers and shine suggestively in the corners of my mouth.  Not quite enough to weigh me down.  Perfect.  Well, perfect if I’d had a beer on the side.  Maybe a nice wheat beer with a generous lemon wedge.  And bringing the expediter home, where he would become our local bartender.  Then I could call it perfect.

Dinner this night was to be our belated anniversary dinner.  Since I’d just celebrated my birthday, I decided it could do double duty.  We chose Purple, a bistro and wine bar right downtown, and entered the enormous, dimly lit room slowly.  Solid heavy doors and ceiling to floor windows protected a huge spiral staircase winding around a column of shelves packed with bottles.  While I was still gaping at this collection of wine, we were seated and handed a binder full of beverage choices.  Our poor server had to come back three times to get our order, as I, still a bit of a wine novice, was completely intimidated by the gratuitous supply and tremendous number of options.  I selected a nice citrusy Gewürztraminer while N., always the beer man, had an Old Rasputin Stout.  He gave me a sip and I was surprised by its dark smokiness.

With so many wine choices, I was almost dizzy with the rush of having to choose accompanying food.  I get nervous at restaurants when I have a plethora of choices.  Do I opt for something comforting, familiar, guaranteed to be good, or do I branch out and order something that sounds adventurous – a startling mix of flavors that might be outrageously good… or a slight disappointment?  Here, though, I needn’t even have opened the menu; the first special on the front page was too good to pass up: risotto with roasted tomatoes, spinach, and Greek feta.

The poor quality here is due to the dim lighting, but I could just as easily claim it was thanks to my hands quivering from delight.  It sounds so simple, and as I looked down at my plate I feared I had been too cautious, but I was wrong.  The blend of flavors was stellar.  The rice was tender and flavorful, the tomatoes had sharp tanginess that matched well with the feta, and the whole thing had that unbelievable magical creaminess risotto gains from twenty minutes of tireless stirring while the rice grains – little sponges that they are – slowly suck in more and more broth.

While my fork danced around my plate, N. enjoyed a more hands-on experience, ordering a gorgonzola and fig pizza, replete with walnuts and rosemary, and a shy sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.  The thick purple slices of fresh fig looked so alien on pizza, as did the hefty chunks of walnut, but the finished product was tasty and intriguing.  In my plans for recreation, I may try making a rosemary foccaccia dough as a base, and then replacing the fresh figs for dried.

Because it was a special occasion, and because our server told us the desserts were “tapas sized,” we decided we had to splurge.  With options like these, there was simply no leaving before we had a sample or two.  We decided to share two desserts: the red velvet cake with lavender cream cheese frosting, and the blackberry cheesecake with blackberry coulis and candied lime zest.  Despite being barely bigger than golf balls, both were triumphant.  The cake was moist and rich, and the lavender sprinkled atop the frosting was an unexpectedly good touch.  It had a sophisticated flavor somehow and a light perfume, making this more than just good cake.

The cheesecake was rich and exceedingly smooth, and I found the perfect balance was a generous dip of blackberry coulis and a sliver of candied zest.  I like a bite of sour citrus with my cheesecake, and without that tart, slightly bitter chew, this perfect little cylinder might have been bland.  As it was, if I were slightly less polite I would have licked my plate.  Hell, I would have licked both plates.

Thanks, Seattle, you were that good. 

Dinner for one

At the beginning of October, N. went to a literary conference in Spearfish, South Dakota.  That’s right, Spearfish.  For almost a week.  Now, I don’t even like eating dinner alone, much less rattling around the empty (all-but-dog) house in the evening and settling into bed by myself (again, aside from the dog who spent each night usurping more of my blankets).  You hear the creaking and settling of an old house much more clearly when something is out of the ordinary.

To assuage my loneliness, of course, I turned to food.  There are several items in this wonderful culinary world that N. doesn’t like.  One of them is shrimp.  I know, I must be crazy for having married him with such a deficiency (another of his dislikes is coconut.  Crazy!), but otherwise he’s pretty perfect.  So in his absence, I ate shrimp.  A recent issue of Cooking Light had a wonderful looking shrimp pasta recipe that I wanted to try out, and with the crustacean hater a full time zone away, this was my opportunity.

Shrimp, pine nuts, a little white wine, basil, and some nutmeg and pepper spiced cream made the sauce, and I tossed spaghetti into it and folded the creamy sauce around the long strands of pasta before adding a generous grating of Parmesan cheese.  Though this sounded like an excellent meal all on its own, I have been making an effort lately to be sure I include some kind of vegetable (or fruit) material in my meals, and a few julienned leaves of basil wasn’t going to cut it on this one.

I turned to tomatoes.  Our sungold cherry tomato plant, with which I’ve been having a serious love affair all summer, provided me with several generous handfuls of tiny, deep orangey-gold spheres of sweet juicy flavor explosions.  I drizzled a little olive oil over them in a small skillet and agitated them in the pan until they started to burst their skins.  Then I added salt, pepper, and two big glugs of balsamic vinegar and let it heat through until barely simmering.  Then I couldn’t stand it anymore, and ate a huge helping of tomatoes and pasta.

It was delicious.  The sauce for the pasta was creamy and luscious, punctuated by bursts of freshness from the basil, and deep, complex buttery nuttiness from the pine nuts and nutmeg.  The tomatoes, meanwhile, were tart and sweet – almost sweet enough to be dessert.  When I went back for a second helping (what can I say, I was all by myself with no one to help me enjoy the feast!), an amazing thing had happened.  Though I had turned off the stove (safety first!), I had left the pan containing the tomatoes on the cooling burner, and there was enough residual heat to begin to reduce the balsamic vinegar.  What remained was a slowly thickening syrup of balsamic and sweet cherry tomato juice, sticky and oozing among the deflating tomatoes.  I couldn’t stand it, I gobbled up the remaining spoonfuls and left the rest of the pasta for another day.

At my house, dinner for one looked like this:

IMG_1796