Sunday, September 27, 2009

Recipe: New England Clam and Scallop Chowder

Annually there's a big clam chowder festival a short drive from my house in Newport, Rhode Island. For a stretch there I attended every year. It was a lot of fun and it was interesting to see how different restaurants and organizations approached making what they considered a good chowder. There were New England, Manhattan, Bahamian and Seafood styles as well as a few others including a pretty good quahog chili one year.

They offered different categories to compete in, and in the seafood chowder contest one restaurant reigned supreme and that happened to be the restaurant I hung around at and eventually met my wife at. They made a great chowder, no, they made a phenomenal chowder! It was so good and they won this contest so often that eventually they were politely asked to retire from competition to give other establishments a fair shot at the prize.

Ah, what a great restaurant and chowder, but things change. That is why I am going to offer you a short lesson here on economics. The restaurant of which I speak is doing rather poorly these days and I don't think it will be around for long. I'd like to explain why.
You see each restaurant has a geographical location that it serves. This means that on the average you can count on a certain number of people coming into it from a given distance. They call this your "customer base". If the restaurant is doing well and you decide that you want to open another one, you have to open the new one outside the territory of the first. Two good restaurants owned by one entity in one area don't double the custom base, they divide it. Now a restaurant that used to pull in $30,000 on a Friday night divides that lucrative customer base in half (more or less). So in effect you have doubled your cost but not your profits.

Worse yet, suppose you're not clever enough to catch on before the slump begins to show? What do you think you do? Well I guess you open a third and then a fourth restaurant in the same geographical area as the first popular one, because that is what they did. Guess what? The customer base that didn't double when you opened the second restaurant doesn't multiply again. So now you've divided your customer base by four! Your biggest competition becomes YOU and even the areas that don't overlap between the restaurants cannot generate enough new customers or income to cover that kind of expense! Never mind the other new restaurants that are opening around you that you don't own!

This is what happened to my beloved bar and restaurant. It wasn't long after all this that it took on the desperate feel and vibe of one of those places we've all been to: The "Doomed Eatery". They try anything, changing the menu, coupons, anything! They're cutting corners and missing details to save money but it's all moot, the slide has started and they're on their way out.

Some day soon, if a couple of friends can keep a promise, I am going to have that award winning seafood recipe and I'll put it in this cookbook for you. By then I think that restaurant will sadly be gone. That recipe could have saved it, if the owner had put his money and efforts into packing and marketing that seafood chowder to the masses out beyond his regular customer base. Instead they spent all that money and time to do nothing but compete against themselves.

Bummahs huh?

New England Clam & Scallop Chowder

24 ozs Clam juice
1 lb. of potatoes (Russet or Yukon Gold) cubed small
2 Tbs sweet butter
Pork fat back (piece about the size of a pack of gum)
2 cups of finely chopped onions
1-1/4 cups of celery (chopped fine)
2 cloves of garlic (chopped fine)
1 large bay leaf
1/4 cup of all-purpose flour
2.5 lbs of chopped local clams (strain from juice, save juice)
1 lb. bay scallops (strain from juice, save juice)
1-1/4 cups of Half and Half
1 tsp hot sauce
1/2 tsp Saffron threads (mince or crush into a powder after measuring)
Salt and pepper to taste

Add the clam juice and the potatoes to a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until potatoes are just tender. Remove from heat.

In a larger heavy pot, melt the butter and add the fat back and cook until the fat back begins to brown.

Add the onions, celery, garlic and the bay leaf and sauté until the vegetables begin to soften. Slowly add the flour, mixing thoroughly. Things will begin to thicken and paste up. Be careful not to let the flour burn.

Stirring quickly and constantly, slowly add the reserved clam and scallop juice to the vegetable and flour mixture. You're looking for a smooth mix.

Now, add the clam juice and potato mixture. Then add the clams and the scallops, the half and half, hot pepper sauce and the saffron. Simmer chowder for 10-20 minutes to blend flavor. Stir frequently, testing often to adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Serve hot with clam cake/fritters. Always better the second and third day.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Recipe: Panko Chicken with Red Bell Pepper - Peanut Sauce

I would like to tip my hat to my wife for the inspiration for this recipe. While she is not as passionate about cooking as I am, she does turn out her own really good dishes when she feels inclined. One of the areas of cooking where she surpasses me is with the venerable crock pot. She is a crock pot master and I am just a humble student.

Beyond a stew, I don't think I'd be able to coerce much good from a crock pot. Not so with my wife. She has produced all manner of wonderful things from crock pots. From tasty dishes like the one the recipe below finds its roots in, to delightfully gooey and delicious chocolate desserts. There are no clinkers in her cadre of crock pot cookery creations! So, unlike many homes in which the crock pot either collects dust or is relegated to warming cocktail weenies or beans at parties, our crock pot sees regular use.

Recently, she created a version of a Thai dish she found in one of her crock pot cook books. It was of course delicious and pretty authentic tasting. I loved the rich, satay-like peanut sauce and at some point mid-dinner, after my compliments and comments regarding its various delicious aspects I got the idea to take elements of the recipe in a different direction. My idea was a Japanese and Thai fusion of sorts.

Chicken Katsu is a popular dish in my house. Easy-to-prepare and loved by all. So, I just thought I'd bend my wife's dish a little bit by preparing my version of the sauce from it with katsu-style fried chicken dish along with steamed Jasmine rice (or noodles like my wife's recipe). The resulting dish is rich and delicious and will certainly find its way on our dinner table again.

NOTE: If you are on a low sodium diet, you may want to prepare this recipe using low-sodium options where you can.

Panko Chicken with Red Bell Pepper - Peanut Sauce

4 boneless breast of chicken
2 red bell peppers (one cut in 2" slices, one cut into a 1/4" dice)
2 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup of smooth peanut butter
4 cloves garlic (chopped)
1-1/2 tsp Thai red curry paste
2-1/2 tsp corn starch dissolved in 1/4 cup of water
Peanut oil for frying
1 cup of flour
2 eggs
1 TBS milk
Panko bread crumbs
3 Green onions (cut into 2" pieces
3/4 cups peanuts (chopped)
3/4 cups cilantro (chopped)

Trim the boneless chicken breast and flatten to 1/2" with the flat side of a meat tenderizer. Season with salt and pepper and set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.

In a sauce pan combine the chicken broth, soy sauce, peanut butter, garlic, red curry paste and sliced red bell pepper. Place over medium heat and bring to a low simmer. Whisk frequently until the peanut butter is dissolved and sauce is smooth. Set to a very low simmer and cover pan while you prepare the other ingredients. Stir occasionally.

Prepare the Jasmine rice the normal way. While it cooks prepare the other ingredients.

Place the peanut oil in a deep frying pan and bring to frying temperature.

Place the flour in a plate, beat the eggs with the milk in a wide shallow bowl and place the panko flakes in a plate. Dredge each chicken breast in flour (removing excess), then dip it in the egg wash (draining excess), then coat well with panko flakes. Fry each breast in the peanut oil until golden brown on each side and cooked through. Place on draining rack.

When done frying the chicken remove the cover from the sauce pan. Raise the heat to a simmer and slowly drizzle in the cornstarch and water mixture while constantly stirring until the sauce thickens well. Add the green onions to the sauce and continue stirring for 1-2 minutes being careful not to scorch the sauce. Remove from heat.

Plate with a bed of rice with the panko chicken breast on top. Cover the rice and chicken with a generous portion of the red bell pepper-peanut sauce and garnish heavily with the chopped peanuts, cilantro and the diced red bell pepper. Serve immediately.

If you'd like it a little spicy, add some sriracha or some chopped red chilis.

Enjoy this recipe with an ice cold Thai beer!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Recipe: Pork Loin Marsala

As I was preparing this dish last night and transcribing the final version of the recipe, I came to a surprising realization: In my house, we go through a lot of alcohol just for cooking purposes.

For instance, this recipe calls for 3 cups of Marsala wine. That is quite a bit of wine (but worth it!), and we tend to keep two big bottles handy. We also keep big bottles of Port wine for a couple of pork recipes we cook frequently. Then of course there's Penne à la vodka which doesn't earn a name like that for nothing! In fact it's the ONLY reason we keep vodka in the house.

This list goes on and on. Bailey's Irish Cream for French toast, Chinese wine for Chinese sauces. Two kinds of sake for teriyaki and tonkatsu sauce. Cognac for steak diane, as well as regular and cherry brandies for a variety of flambés. Portuguese cachaca for Azorean chourico bombeiro and surely more that doesn't readily come to mind. That's just the specialty stuff. I couldn't even calculate how many bottles of white or red wine we go through a year for marinades, deglazing and sauce building!

I wonder what chefs did during prohibition?

This is a great recipe. For the best results you'll want to use fresh pork and pay careful attention to how you build your sauce. The objective is too create a nice silky sauce that clings to the pasta. If it seems watery, simmer on!

Pork Loin Marsala

4 Pork loin cutlets (cut 3/4 to 1" thick)
1/2 cup of flour plus 2 TBS
1/4 cup olive oil
3 TBS sweet butter
8 oz. Portobello mushrooms chopped coarse
3 cups Marsala wine
1 8 oz. can of tomato sauce
2 medium tomatoes diced (the redder, the riper, the better)
1 lb. dried pasta (your favorite)
Salt and pepper to taste.

Start the water for your choice of pasta. While you are preparing the pork cutlets and sauce, time your pasta to be ready just as your sauce is finishing.

Season the pork cutlets with salt and pepper, dredge/dust the cutlets heavily in flour and set aside.

In a large dutch oven set on medium-high to high heat add the olive oil and butter. When the butter melts sauté the mushrooms until they are half-cooked. Remove the mushrooms from the pan with a slotted spoon. Be sure to save the butter, oil and mushrooms behind in the pan. It's okay to add more olive oil if necessary.

Sear all the cutlets at once in the reserved oil and butter mix. Don't worry about browning them, you just want a good sear on both sides of all the cutlets to lock in the juices and keep the pork moist and tender.

Once the cutlets are seared, add two cups of the Marsala wine and tomato sauce to them (don't mix). Bring to a simmer and then lower the heat until the mix is barely bubbling. Cover the pan and braise the cutlets for 20 minutes. FOR OPTIMUM TENDERNESS, BE SURE THE MIX DOESN'T BREAK INTO A SIMMER! You'll have to readjust the heat a few minutes after you cover the pan. Do not lift the lid more than absolutely necessary.

After the 20 minutes is up carefully remove the cutlets and set them aside in a covered bowl to keep them warm.

Add the chopped tomatoes to the Marsala mix and raise the heat to cook down the tomatoes and thicken slightly. Stir frequently. Lower the heat if necessary.

Whisk the 2 TBS of flour into the remaining 1 cup of Marsala wine. Add that mix to the Marsala mix stirring constantly as the sauce thickens.

Once the sauce thickens, reintroduce the mushrooms to the mix. Stir well, letting the mushrooms reheat and cook a little (about 3 minutes).

Taste the sauce and adjust for seasoning.

Reintroduce the pork cutlets. Gently stir in to coat with sauce and warm (about 1 minute).

Plate pasta, top with a pork cutlet and a generous amount of the Marsala mix over the cutlet and pasta.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Recipe: It-Doesn't-Necessarily-Have-To-Be-Sunday, Sunday Gravy

There's no bones about it, I found my cooking passion by making my own Italian food at home. It's not a recent thing either. It started when I was a teenager when I would "dress up" jarred sauces (often with chourcio - NATURALLY!), and it continued right on into my very first "from scratch" dinner recipes and it still goes on today.

I may cook all kinds of authentic world food for my family these days, but there's no world food I feel more comfortable preparing than Italian. It's one of the world cuisines I'm quite comfortable improvising with. Give me anything, as long as you include a few basic Italian ingredients, and I'm going to feel safe cooking something good for you. My cook's confidence is in Italian and to a lesser degree, Thai and Native American cuisine.

Which makes it kind of weird that I didn't have a proper, personal "Sunday Gravy" recipe after all these years. Anyone familiar with Italian cooking or gangster films (real ones not that Hip-Hop nonsense) knows what Sunday Gravy is. For those of you who don't know, allow me to direct you to Italian cookbooks and gangster films to find out. I'm not in a typing mood today.

Anyway, I never found a Sunday Gravy recipe that I really liked all that much. Everyone who is Italian or knows Italians or who cooks Italian is always going to crow about their Sunday Gravy or their friend's Sunday Gravy or their mom's Sunday Gravy or their aunt's or grandmother's Sunday Gravy and how it is the best in the world.

Well, as with most food, they are all right of course. The food you like best is the best in the world - to you! So up until a few days ago, I never had a Sunday Gravy that I could crow to the world about being the best. Then I flipped through the September 2009 issue of Esquire Magazine and I got an inkling.

The picture is what captured my imagination. I saw the photo of all that rich, glistening sauce with all those chunks of meat and well, it got my attention. I sought out the recipe on the following page. There, courtesy of Peter McAndrews (hey! He married an Italian!) I found the recipe and some important words that convinced me to try the recipe. Words like "spare ribs", "bones" and "hours".

That recipe was the basis for my own recipe below. I've made enough significant changes to the original recipe to confidently call this one all mine. (I'm not in the habit of changing recipes just to call them my own. If that were true, you'd see Giada De Laurentiis's Rosemary Roast Pork with Port Wine and Fig sauce in here under a different name! Search recipe out folks because it is FLAWLESS and delicious!).

Anyway, I made changes to suit my taste and preference. The most notable, was starting the whole thing with a onion-hefty mirepoix. Yeah, that's a French word in a classic Italian recipe, but trust me it helps make one hell of a good sauce. I also changed the kinds and amounts of tomatoes, added more garlic and tomato paste, as well as the addition of a pork tenderloin and a little GOOD QUALITY balsamic vinegar. Finally, the fact that your chucking in the World's Best Meatballs doesn't hurt either!

Without further adieu allow me to introduce my NEW, old-family recipe for Sunday Gravy:

It-Doesn't-Necessarily-Have-To-Be-Sunday, Sunday Gravy

1/2 cup olive oil
3 lbs. country-style or southern-style spare ribs
3 lbs. sweet Italian sausage
2 lbs. World's Best Meatballs
1-2 lb. pork tenderloin
3 lbs. large beef bones
4 cups chopped onions
2 cups chopped carrots
2 cups chopped celery
10 cloves garlic chopped
3 6 oz. cans of tomato paste
3 28 oz. cans of whole tomatoes (lightly crush the tomatoes with your hands)
3 28 oz. cans of ground tomatoes
3 large bay leaves
1 TBS turbinado or light brown sugar
1 TBS GOOD QUALITY balsamic vinegar (the syrupy type)
Sea salt to taste

Take a LARGE stock pot. A large one. A BIG stock pot. I mean BIG, like a 14 quart stock pot. Pour in the 1/2 cup of olive oil and coat the bottom and the sides of that stock pot really well. Place the stock pot on medium high heat. When the oil comes up to temperature and is hot and shimmering (not smoking), brown and remove all your meat in this order: spare ribs, Italian sausage, meatballs and tenderloin. Place the browned meat in a covered pan or dish and set aside.

If you need more olive oil at this point feel free to add it. Let it come to temperature and then brown your beef bones on all sides.

When the beef bones are browned, add your onions, carrots and celery and continue to saute until tender and starting to brown slightly. If the oil begins to smoke, lower your heat. You want the onions, carrots and celery to sauté evenly.

Add the chopped garlic and sauté along with the bones, onions, carrots and garlic for about 2-3 minutes. Be sure not to burn the garlic or it will turn bitter!

Add the tomato paste and mix it in well so that it coats the mix and bones. Continue to sauté until the tomato paste darkens. Again, be careful not to burn the mix.

Add the hand crushed whole tomatoes with their juice, the ground tomatoes, the bay leaves, sugar and the balsamic vinegar. Stir all together until it is well blended. Bring it slowly to a lively simmer. Special note: When you are cooking a quantity of sauce like this, it is always wiser to bring it up to temperature SLOWLY to avoid burning the sauce in the bottom of the stock pot.

When the sauce reaches a lively simmer and is an even, slightly thick mix, add your spare ribs and pork tenderloin. Reduce to a medium simmer and allow to continue like this for one hour stirring occasionally.

At the end of the first hour, add the Italian sausage and allow to simmer for another hour. Always be sure the simmer is low to medium to avoid any burning. Stir occasionally.

At the end of the second hour, add the meatballs and continue simmering for another hour. Stir occasionally.

At the end of that hour, you will notice a layer of red oil forming at the top of the sauce. If you're health conscious you can skim off some of this with a ladle. It won't reduce the fat all that much, but it'll give you a false sense of responsibility that will get you past the guilt of eating all this pork and beef fat goodness.

Season with the sea salt to your preference. Stir sauce well.

Remove from heat. Remove all the meat and bones to a separate serving platter and serve the sauce over your favorite pasta perhaps with a sprinkle of your favorite cheese (as long as your favorites are parmesan-reggiano or pecorino romano).

This sauce kicks ass and is the World's Best Sunday Gravy - TO ME, FINALLY!