Posts filed under ‘seafood’

Making things up: Menus as inspiration

Seared tuna and watermelon saladOur little farmers’ market is getting more sophisticated by the month. One of the latest, and most welcomed additions: Brandywine Fisheries, a family fishing operation out of Charleston, trucking caught-the-day-before fish inland to satisfy my seafood cravings when I can’t make it to the coast.

Yesterday, they had whole albacore tuna loins for $7 a pound, which is an astonishingly good price. Could I resist? No, I could not.

Ever since my trip to New Orleans last fall, I’ve been day-dreaming about the fabulous meal I had at The Green Goddess – and all the  enticing things on their menu that I didn’t have a chance to try.  One, in particular, keeps coming back to haunt me: a dish of seared tuna and diced watermelon, of all things, called Tumblin’ Dice.  Now, I don’t have access to the more esoteric ingredients – fennel pollen, for instance. But the basic concept, pairing warm, barely cooked tuna with cool watermelon, sounded like a fantastic high-summer meal.

Having acquired the tuna, I hit the supermarket and picked up a small, sweet seedless watermelon. After pondering flavor combinations, I came up with this. Call it a Pacific Rim tribute to a great New Orleans restaurant.

Seared Tuna and Watermelon Salad

(Inspired by The Green Goddess)


  • Fresh (or shipboard-frozen and thawed) tuna loin
  • 1/2 cup lime juice
  • 2 Tbsp sesame oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp fresh ginger, minced
  • dried hot chili peppers, crushed (I used two fiery little Thai chiles)
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 Tbsp sesame seeds.
  • Seedless watermelon,  rind removed, cut into cubes*
  • Sea salt
  • Tender greens of your choice (I used baby lettuce and chives from my garden)
  • Pickled sushi ginger
  • Wasabi mayonnaise (mix prepared wasabi into store-bought mayonnaise at a strength that suits your tastes).


In a large resealable bag, combine lime juice, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, chiles and black pepper. Add the tuna loin, seal bag and turn several times to coat the fish with the marinade. Marinate in the refrigerator for an hour or more.

When dinner time rolls around, prepare watermelon by cutting it in inch-thick slices, removing rind and cutting the slices into cubes. Place melon cubes in the fridge (or freezer!) while you prepare the fish.

Remove tuna from refrigerator and drain off marinade. Sprinkle sesame seeds in a plate, and roll the tuna loin in the to coat well.

Heat a large, heavy skillet on high until a drop of water sprinkled onto the surface sizzles and dances.

Using tongs, place the tuna in the skillet (you may want to cut it in half to make it fit) and sear each side for about a minute, if you like your fish, as I do, cooked on the outside but pink and rare-to-raw inside. Feel free to cook it longer if you prefer, although it won’t be as luscious.

When fish is cooked to your taste, transfer to a cutting board. Remove melon cubes from freezer and pile on plates. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Cut inch-thick slices off the tuna, and  arrange atop the melon, garnish with greens. Serve *now*, with wasabi mayo and pickled ginger.

Depending on the size of the fish, a whole tuna loin can easily serve 4-6 people. If you wind up with leftovers, as I do, the best bet is to wrap it in foil, pop it in a 350F oven and let it cook through (it should only take 15-20 minutes), then refrigerate. Me, I’m going to be taking fabulous tuna sandwiches and fresh watermelon cubes to work for lunch this week. (-:

Quick links:

July 31, 2011 at 5:41 pm Leave a comment

Bringing home the flavor

Shrimp EtouffeeI just got back from a trip to New Orleans – my first, and long overdue. I was there for a conference, and much of my four days there was taken up with meetings – but the organizers were smart enough to leave us free in the evenings, so I was able to do what I love best when traveling: Sample the local food.

“Sample” is an understatement, actually. I ate like an eating fool.

Seafood, of course. Oil spill be damned, I ate shrimp and blue crabs and oysters in multiple preparations. I ate traditional food, and modern takes on traditional flavors, and to be honest, the only bad meal I had was the lone conference dinner, and conference meals are just like that. You try preparing food for 300, all at the same time, and tell me if you’re able to get the chicken to be anything but rubbery.

I dined at a some of the  tourist favorites – oysters at  Deanie’s, which has the ambience of a big 50s diner and starts you off with a complimentary bowl of plain boiled red potatoes, and barbecue shrimp at  Desire, a seafood bistro and bar on Bourbon Street. I had a muffaleta at the Central Grocery, and cafe au lait with beignets at Cafe du Monde.

And I had what qualifies as one of the best meals of my life at the tiny Green Goddess, tucked away in an alley between Bienville and Conti streets: a sophisticated modern take on crayfish with risotto and mustard greens, followed by a small but utterly decadent dessert of three green dates, roasted in vanilla essence and stuffed with a mousse of “humane” foie gras.

And I came home hungry for more. The flavors of New Orleans really speak to me: spicy, rich, savory, complex, with influences of France and Spain and the Caribbean and Africa.

So why not try New Orleans recipes with northwestern ingredients? After all, our seafood is not so very different from theirs; they have blue crab, we have Dungenness; they have Gulf shrimp, we have Pacific shrimp. Their oysters are a different breed than ours, but we have do oysters, and they’re tasty things.

Oh, Internet, how I love you. A quick Google turned up Emeril LaGasse’s recipe for shrimp etouffee, which is basically shrimp stewed in a roux-based sauce flavored with the Holy Trinity (onion. celery, green pepper), tomato and plenty of cayenne, served over rice. The hardest part about it is making the brown roux, and that’s not actually hard, it just requires constant stirring of the fat-and-flour mixture until it’s nut-brown. I even had a bag of shrimp shells I’ve been hoarding in the freezer, waiting for the occasion to make a seafood stock.

And so I did.

See the photo, above.

Here’s the recipe. Other than using local seafood and vegetables, I followed it to the letter.

It’s very, very good. I have enough leftovers for days. And if my limited experience is any test, it tastes just like New Orleans.

October 23, 2010 at 8:31 pm 1 comment

Hot weather food

Sesame crusted albacoreThe temperature here hit somewhere between 100 and 102 today, depending on which weather site you believe. All I know is it was hot enough to keep me indoors all day, half wishing I hadn’t set that lovely piece of Pacific albacore to thaw in the fridge last night, because I could just as easily have dined on salad and fresh blueberries.

But thawed it was. I’d originally planned to grill it, but by dinner time it was still too hot to mess with charcoal. So I chose a recipe that requires no thought, virtually no prep and under five minutes at the stove.

If you’ve never tried tuna rare, you should. Tender and meaty, hot on the outside and meltingly warm at the core, it’s absolutely delicious. The trick is getting the best possible tuna, and that’s not hard to do in Oregon. Albacore season runs from April through October, and modern fishing practices include shipboard freezing that results in fish that’s “fresher” than much of what’s sold as fresh in the supermarket.

If you’re worried about mercury in tuna, troll-caught albacore is a good choice. Troll-caught fisher are much smaller – and younger – than the large fish that typically go into canned tuna, and thus have had less time to absorb mercury; tests have shown that troll-caught fish are low in this toxic compound.

Pan-seared, sesame-crusted tuna


  • Thick albacore or ahi tuna steaks, fresh or thawed
  • 2 Tbsp oil
  • Juice of 1/2 lime
  • 1 Tbps black sesame seeds
  • 1 Tbps white sesame seeds


Place the tuna steaks in a plastic bag with 1 Tbsp oil and the lime juice; seal bag and turn several times to coat the fish.

Mix sesame seeds in a shallow bowl or saucer

Heat the remaining 1 Tbsp oil in a skillet or grill pan over medium heat.

Remove tuna from bag and press into the sesame seeds, covering all sides

Cook in skillet for a scant 2 minutes per side. Fish will be rare and pink in the middle; you can cook it longer if you prefer your fish done through, but it won’t be as good.

Serve with a dollop of wasabi mayonnaise and a light salad. Mine was a mix of locally grown lettuce and arugula topped with heirloom tomatoes and sliced, grilled miniature eggplants from my garden, dressed with nothing more than a little sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Fantastic, and almost effortless.

August 14, 2010 at 7:03 pm Leave a comment

I seem to be the laziest food-blogger in the world

Panko and parmesan-crusted mahi-mahiStill cooking. Still eating. Loving the advancing growing season, and the increasing variety of local foodstuffs available from the farmers’ market, various farmstands and the wonderful Corvallis Local Foods online ordering site. My garden, rebuilt from scratch to move food production to the only south-facing, full-sun bed I have,  is going gangbusters – and my sense of smell is even starting to come back, gradually, nearly a year after it abruptly vanished.

What I’ve not been doing is blogging. Too lazy, too busy, take your pick.

But a good friend just started her own very special food blog, and put me in her blogroll, and that’s motivation enough to sit down on a hot summer night while waiting for dinner to come out of the oven and do a little writing and recipe-sharing.

While I subsist more and more on vegetables (and berries!) at this time of year – because how can I resist when the markets are full of fresh, beautiful produce – I’ve also been eating a lot of fish lately, thanks to a small fisherman-owned business out of the Coast Range town of Toledo, Island Wild Foods. They’ve started selling sustainably harvested, flash-frozen-at-sea fish caught in the tropical Pacific off Hawaii through Corvallis Local Foods, and while it may not quite qualify as “locally grown,” it’s still a relatively  local business, and the fish is sublime. (I also bring fish back often when I visit the coast, either bought off the boat or from the fabulous Local Ocean Seafoods in Newport, which really deserves its own post one of these days).

There are lots of great ways to prepare good fish; one of my favorites is to bake it the way my mother used to, with a flavorful topping that adds a little flavor while keeping the fish moist and tender. Those of you who are mayonnaise-phobes may cringe, but this is a terrific way to prepare almost any variety of fish, as long as it’s not too delicate.

That’s how I’m doing it tonight, with a lovely piece of pomfret, aka monchong, a fish whose meaty texture reminds me of good wild tuna, but with a lighter flavor. (The photo above was taken a couple of weeks ago, while my sugar-pod peas were still producing like crazy, and served with a simple mango-avocado salsa dressed with lime and chili and some Israeli couscous with wild morels. The peas are done now, and I’m having the fish tonight with a cabbage and raw-beet coleslaw.)

Mom’s Baked Fish


  • One or more portions of firm-fleshed fish, such as ahi tuna, salmon, pomfret or halibut  (I’m using steaks about 3/4 inch thick)
  • Olive oil
  • For each serving of fish, mix together:
    • 1 tsp real mayonnaise
    • A squeeze of lemon juice
    • 1 tsp parmesan (grate it fresh if you can) plus a little extra to sprinkle on top
  • Lemon, sliced paper thin
  • Sweet onions, ditto
  • Panko bread crumbs
  • Freshly ground pepper


Preheat oven to 350F. Drizzle (or wipe)  a little olive oil into a heat-proof baking dish and arrange the fish pieces so they don’t touch.

Mix together the mayonnaise, lemon juice and parmesan.

Lay thin slices of lemon and onion on top of the fish. As if frosting a cupcake, spread the mayonnaise mixture on top to completely cover.

Sprinkle on some panko crumbs and a little more parmesan, and a touch of black pepper.

Bake for 20 minutes or so, until the fish is cooked through ( test it with a fork) and the topping is lightly browned.

Serve hot, with something cool and crunchy on the side and perhaps a nice pinot gris or sauvignon blanc.

July 7, 2010 at 7:55 pm 1 comment

It’s been far too long

Crab cakes!… since I posted anything here. But the season of local food is ramping up, and this was so very, very good that I need to share.

Scott Penter was back at the Albany Farmers’ Market yesterday with his traveling chiller and a load of fresh-caught Dungeness crab. After getting his feet wet, so to speak, at last summer’s market, he opened a small business called – aptly enough – Seafood Outlet, off Highway 34 east of Corvallis. It’s evidently been successful enough to make this young fisherman-entrepreneur commit to continuing to try to sell his products inland, because he’s branched out to the Corvallis Farmers’ Market this season, too.

After stopping by to chat with him, I couldn’t leave without buying a crab; he fished me out a nice, vigorous 3-pounder, to the slightly squeamish delight oif a couple of kids who were watching (they were fascinated by the crab once it was bagged up, but ran squealing when Scott tried to show them another up close).

The first best thing to do with Dungeness crab, in my opinion, is just kill it, cook it and eat it, with a little lemon butter for dipping, some good bread to mop up the buttery juices and maybe a nice crisp white wine. That’s just what I did last night, but I could only manage half the crab.

The rest went in the fridge, and tonight I pulled it out, picked all the meat from the shell, and made a batch of tender, crispy  cakes, using a recipe that guarantees you’ll taste more crab than “cake.”

Crispy crab cakes


  • 2 large eggs
  • a handful of fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp finely minced lemon zest
  • 1 pound cooked Dungeness crab meat, carefully picked from the shell to avoid fragments
  • 1 cup Panko crumbs, divided in half
  • Neutral-flavored  oil and butter for frying
  • Wasabi mayonnaise (optional: Just stir a teaspoon or so of prepared wasabi into a couple of tablespoons of mayonnaise) or aioli.
  • Method:

    In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a fork. Blend in the parsley, Worcestershire sauce, dry mustard, lemon juice and lemon zest until well combined. Gently fold in the crabmeat and mix well, then add 1/2 cup of Panko crumbs and fold just until mixed. The mixture will be pretty wet.

    Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat.

    Dump the rest of the Panko into a shallow bowl. Using a couple of large spoons, scoop up the crab mixture and form it into patties; dredge in the Panko. If it falls apart, just press it back together. Slide into the hot oil with a slotted spoon, pressing down to flatten the cakes slightly. You’ll wind up with 6-8 cakes, depending on how large you make them.

    Cook until crisp and brown, turn, repeat to cook the tops.

    Drain on paper towels, and serve with a dollop of wasabi mayo, aioli or just a squeeze of lemon.

    Makes two servings. If, like me, you’re eating alone, save the rest for tomorrow’s lunch!

    I had to have a salad with my crab cakes, because my garden is suddenly producing so much leaf lettuce that I must eat salad daily (poor me!). Since I knew I’d be taking pictures, I framed the crab cakes with the salad, which is so tender and fresh it doesn’t need a dressing at all. Pretty, and delicious.

    Except for the grape tomatoes, the Panko crumbs, the oil and the condiments, everything on my table tonight came from within about 60 miles of home. I like that.

    May 9, 2010 at 8:09 pm Leave a comment

    When I can’t run away to the coast …

    Feisty crab

    Scott Penter gets ready to weigh a crab

    … the next-best thing is having the coast come to me – in the form of impeccably fresh seafood at my local farmers’ market.

    And now it has, in the person of Scott Penter, an entrepreneurial young fisherman from Newport who’s invested in a state-of-the-art traveling seawater tank and chiller in hopes of expanding his market beyond the Newport docks.

    I got a heads-up a couple of weeks ago from market manager Rebecca Landis that Scott had signed on to sell his catch at the Albany farmers’ market. As a passionate pescivore, I got very excited, and was crestfallen last weekend when he didn’t turn up. Communication problem, evidently, because he was there yesterday with his bright blue tank and a big sign proclaiming in red letters: LIVE CRAB.

    Dungeness crab is at the top of my personal favorite seafood list, and Dungeness crab pulled out of the Pacific this morning, loaded into a tank full of chilled sea water and trucked over the Coast Range to what might as well be my front door is a wonderful thing, indeed. Especially this weekend: I’d spent Friday in Newport at a working meeting, and evening commitments drew me back inland long before I was ready to leave. Finding Scott and his rolling Seafood Outlet business at the market Saturday morning was pretty good compensation for not being able to spend the night at the coast.

    So I watched (and shot pictures) as Scott fished a feisty four-pounder out of his tank, weighed it out and accepted my money, to the vast entertainment of a crowd of small children who materialized the minute Mr. Crab emerged from the tank.

    Lively and pissed off

    Meet Mr. Crab

    In minutes, I was on my way home with a fairly irate crab in a sturdy plastic bag, which got deposited immediately in a sinkful of cold water while I put the kettle on to boil.

    If you’re accustomed to buying your crab pre-killed, pre-cooked and served on a platter with a little lemon and a mess of melted butter, the thought of dealing with a live one, with all claws waving and trying to grab you, may be daunting. Me, I learned to kill crustaceans quite literally at my mother’s knee: we lived in Newfoundland when I was barely out of toddlerhood, and some of my earliest memories involve going out with my dad to buy live lobster straight from the fisherman, bringing them home and dumping them in the bathtub (where their scuttling greatly amused me and my little brother) and then watching my mom use long-handled tongs to transfer them into a giant pot of boiling water. Children are ruthless, and any trauma I might have suffered was quickly assuaged by the gustatory joy of eating lobster as the butter dripped down my chin.

    I’ve grown up to be what I think of as an ethical omnivore; part of that includes not merely being aware of where my meat and seafood comes from, but being willing to deal with the bald fact that eating animals inevitably involves (someone) killing them.

    If you don’t know what to do with a live crab, allow me to recommend Catching, Cleaning and Cooking Bay Crabs, a free, downloadable .pdf version of a publication from Oregon Sea Grant, which happens to be my employer. It includes instructions for killing and cleaning the crab before cooking, or (for the squeamish) cooking it first and then cleaning. The former process produces a superior result, in my opinion, and that’s what I did as soon as I got home from the market.

    Nothing fancy

    Crab dinner

    After chilling the cooked crab for a few hours, I hauled out the butter and lemons, some crusty, locally baked Italian bread and a bottle of crisp, fruity Evolution wine from Oregon’s Sokol Blosser winery. A simple salad of baby spinach and arugula from the market with a smidgen of Rogue Creamery Smokey Blue cheese crumbled over it and I had a fabulous hot-weather supper. Half a crab is plenty for me, so I got to repeat (and photograph) the experience for lunch today.

    If you shop the Albany market, check Scott’s tank next weekend. He also sells albacore tuna he caught and had canned by one of our region’s specialty canners; ask him, and he can probably tell you where he caught the fish, how much it weighed and for all I know, what the weather was like. That’s one of the joys of buying locally: You’re not only getting great fresh food, but you can learn about it from the people who produced it. It puts us closer to the food chain, and may even make us more mindful about what we eat.

    I know I was mindful of that crab. I even thanked him for feeding me before I turned him into dinner.

    May 31, 2009 at 2:01 pm Leave a comment

    Crab season

    Dungeness crab ...

    Dungeness crab pasta in saffron cream sauce

    The local farmers’ market may be closed till spring, but that doesn’t mean the end of locally harvested food. Here in the Willamette Valley, we’re just a hop over the Coast Range from the Pacific Ocean, where December marks the start of Dungeness crab season.

    Say what you like about the scary-big Alaskan King crab, or the cute little crabs of the Atlantic coast: to my taste, nothing beats Dungeness crab for briny-sweet crab goodness.

    Before the season’s over, I’ll make it to the coast to pick some up at my favorite crab stand, The Crab Pot, just south of the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport, where the catch is mere hours from boat to boiling pot. For now, I’m satisfied to buy them at the local supermarket, cooked and iced and ready to eat.

    And inexpensive. With crab selling for under $5 a pound, little wonder that it’s something of a holiday tradition here. Lots of Oregonians feature crab cocktail as a prelude to Christmas dinner. Me, I prefer to enjoy it alone, simply prepared and lightly sauced. I’ve been known to spread newspaper on the dining table, tie a dish towel around my neck and sit down with a whole crab, some melted butter, a cut-up lemon and my indispensible crab-cracker and not get up from the table till all that’s left are the shell fragments.

    But crab is also suited for more elegant fare, as long as the treatment is simple enough to let its flavor shine through. Served over pasta, for instance, with a delicate cream sauce scented with saffron, which has a real affinity for seafood. (I’ve been growing my own saffron crocuses for four years now, and each fall my neighbors can see me squatting by the front garden bed, carefully plucking the three red stigmas from each little crocus as it blooms. Like most bulbs, saffron crocuses naturalize easily, so every year my harvest grows; after drying, I wound up with roughly four tablespoons of saffron this year; at market prices, this stuff is worth more than its weight in gold.)

    Dungeness crab pasta in saffron cream sauce


    • Meat from one fresh, cooked Dungeness crab, carefully picked over to remove shell fragments. (If you don’t know how to clean and pick crab, search YouTube for “crab cleaning” – you’ll find several great how-to videos).
    • 1 Tbsp butter
    • 2 cloves garlic
    • 2 Tbsp chopped mild onion or shallots
    • A pinch of real saffron threads
    • 1/4 cup dry white wine
    • 1 Tbsp cognac (optional)
    • 1/2 cup heavy cream
    • 1 tsp lemon zest, minced
    • 1 Tbsp creme fraiche (optional)
    • 1 Tbsp fresh Italian parsley, minced
    • salt, fresh-ground pepper to taste
    • Spaghetti, linguini or angel-hair pasta


    In a small skillet over medium melt the butter; add garlic and onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent.

    While the onion and garlic are cooking, sprinkle the saffron threads onto the wine (saffron is water-soluble, and letting it soak in liquid for a few minutes will release more of the flavor and color).

    Put pasta on to boil according to package instructions. When done, drain and return to pot.

    When onion and garlic are soft and fragrant, add cognac; raise heat and cook, stirring, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the saffron and wine, reduce heat back to medium and cook until reduced by half.

    Stir in the cream, creme fraiche and lemon zest and simmer until the sauce is reduced enough to coat a wooden spoon (2-4 minutes). Stir in the crab to coat throughly; heat gently until warmed. Taste before adding salt – you may not need it.

    Plate the pasta and cover with a generous helping of crab and sauce. Sprinkle with parsley and black pepper.

    Serves two, but also makes great leftovers.

    December 10, 2008 at 10:01 pm Leave a comment

    Summer stir-fry

    Stir-fried shrimp and summer vegetables

    Shrimp, globe zucchini, green beans

    Stir-fry is a fall-back meal for many Americans: Slice up some vegetables and maybe some meat, throw it in a wok or skillet, douse it with “stir-fry sauce” (sometimes from a bottle) and, hey, instant food.

    Lately I’ve been reminded that authentic Chinese or Japanese stir-fry, while not much more complex than that, uses specific cooking techniques that can result in amazingly fresh-tasting dishes that retain the flavors of each ingredient while marrying them with just the slightest amount of subtle, savory sauce.

    The stir-fry I made tonight is not my own; I owe it directly to Steamy Kitchen, a terrific “modern Asian” foodblog. The techniques she uses are classic, the flavors bright and fresh, and the presentation downright gorgeous.

    Shrimp and Zucchini Stirfry with Crispy Basil

    I won’t repeat the recipe here, except to say that I used my wok for the whole thing, flash-frying the basil in a couple of inches of peanut oil, then turning the burner off and letting it cool down before draining most of the oil (now pale green and scented with basil) into a container for later use. I also had some green beans I wanted to use up, so I cut them in two-inch lengths, steamed them in the microwave (in a Pyrex dish with a few drops of water, covered with plastic wrap) till crisp-tender, then tossed them with a little hoisin sauce, and added them to the stir fry at the same time the shrimp was returned to the pan.

    Two things about that recipe that bear noting: The shrimp, marinated in the slightest amount of cornstarch, sesame oil and salt, are cooked briefly first on one side, then the other, rather than tossed around in the wok as many stir-fry ingredients are.  Second, the sauce – soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar – is also made in a very small quantity. Less really is more here; dumping in lots of sauce results in a dish that’s steamed and soupy, while using less than a tablespoon, as in this recipe, coats the shrimp and vegetables with just a gloss of flavor, and leaves them crisp and fresh.

    Globe zucchini, chiles, and green beans came from the farmers’ market; basil and garlic came from my own garden.

    August 17, 2008 at 7:35 pm Leave a comment

    How it really works

    shrimp and asparagusFoodbloggers sometimes leave the impression that every meal involves planning, shopping, research and recipes. I can’t speak for the rest, but that’s not how it usually works at my house.

    Rather, a typical evening meal happens something like this:

    • Get home from work. Feed the cats. Water the garden. Check my e-mail and phone messages. Get distracted uploading photos to Flickr. Realize that my stomach is growling.
    • Wander into the kitchen. Open the refrigerator and stand there staring at the contents. Wonder why I have so many condiments, and how I acquired three half-empty bottles of club soda .
    • Discover something potentially tasty. Think, “Hm, what could I do with that?”
    • Start improvising. Taste. Improvise some more.
    • Declare it dinner. Eat.

    All of which is to apologize for the fact that a lot of my favorite meals don’t come from, or produce, recipes – they come from inspiration, and keeping good ingredients on hand. Which means either keeping notes as I go (and who does that?), or trying to reconstruct the dish after the fact, and explains why I often use such technical terms as “a handful of this” or “a glug of that.” In short, I cook pretty much like my mother and grandmother did, except that I’m lucky enough to have a much wider range of ingredients at my disposal.

    Last night I was inspired to put together what turned out to be an absolutely delicious pasta dish using local vegetables, herbs from my garden and one of my favorite regional cheeses. I would love to give you a detailed recipe, but I don’t have one. So I’ll tell you what I did, and encourage you to try your own improvisation. Like much of what I cook, this dish could spin off in several different directions, depending on your tastes, your dietary requirements and what’s in your own refrigerator. Frankly, about the only thing you could do to mess it up would be to overcook or overseason.

    Pasta with shrimp, asparagus and smoked blue cheese: An improvisation

    1. I usually have a bag of quick-peel shrimp in the freezer, in whatever size is the best price at the supermarket. They’re practically a staple. Last night’s dinner started with pouring a quantity of shrimp into a colander, setting that in a bowl in my kitchen sink and filling it with cold water to thaw the shrimp, a process which took no more than 15 minutes or so – just long enough for me to water the garden.
    2. Once the shrimp were thawed, I peeled them, set some water to boil for pasta, and got out my small skillet, which is the perfect size for one serving of pasta topping; it went on the burner with a little olive oil.
    3. While the oil heated, I chopped a bit of sweet onion and a couple of cloves of garlic; those went into the skillet at medium heat. Practically everything I cook that isn’t dessert starts with “chop some onion and garlic.”
    4. The fridge revealed a half-dozen spears of asparagus left from last weekend’s farmers’ market run. Shrimp and asparagus go great together, so I snapped off the woody ends (and tucked them into my freezer bag of veggie trimmings for stock) and cut the spears in inch-long pieces.
    5. Also in stock: An unopened wedge of Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue Cheese, one of those “ooh, must try this!” finds from the supermarket. Rogue makes terrific blue cheeses at its creamery down in Central Point (a great side trip if you’re heading down to Medford or Ashland), and I was delighted to discover that Ray’s Market in North Albany currently has three or four varieties (including a lovely Chipotle Cheddar) in stock. I hope they plan to keep the brand in stock.
    6. Brain starts working, inspired by tastebuds: Asparagus … shrimp … smoked blue cheese. Oh, yeah, baby. The water was boiling, so in went the pasta – just good old spaghetti, although I could have chosen rotini, flat egg noodles or Japanese soba; I tend to keep a lot of noodles on hand.
    7. Once the onion and garlic had begun to soften, I tossed the asparagus and shrimp – both of which benefit from quick cooking – into the pan. Some liquid seemed required, so I opened a bottle of Elk Cove Pinot Gris, poured a splash into the pan, filled my glass and let things simmer a while.
    8. I’d pinched some herbs to stimulate branching while I was watering the garden earlier. No point wasting those tender, aromatic bits, so I minced thyme, oregano, Italian parsley and a couple of tiny basil leaves, and tossed them into the mix.
    9. It took less than five minutes for the shrimp to turn a delicate, opaque pink and the asparagus to reach that vivid-green stage that signals crisp-tender. Time to lower the heat waaaaaaay down to continue reducing the liquid, and add some of that blue cheese, crumbled. I thought about adding a spoonful or two of creme fraiche*, but that seemed excessive. A quick taste (blow on the spoon!) confimred that no further seasoning was required.
    10. In less than a minute of stirring and tossing, the cheese had begun to melt and merge with the pan liquids, so I took the skillet off the heat, plated some pasta and spooned the sauce over it.
    11. One final inspiration: Walnuts. I love the combination of blue cheese and walnuts, so I grabbed a small handful from the bulk bag I keep with baking supplies, broke them with my fingers and scattered them on top of the dish.

    Holy cow, that was good. And with a pretty good ratio of local-to-not-local ingredients, too:

    • Local: Asparagus, onion, garlic, cheese, herbs, wine. OK, the cheese and wine aren’t local-local, but I’m willing to stretch the boundaries of “local” to encompass Oregon-made food produced within a few hours’ drive.
    • Not local: Shrimp, pasta, olive oil. And everything but the oil could be local, if shrimp is in season and you make your own pasta. For that matter, you could omit the shrimp and increase the asparagus and have a perfectly satisfying vegetarian meal.

    * You know about creme fraiche, don’t you? If you don’t, you should. Milder than sour cream, plus a distinctive, almost nutty flavor, it’s great for saucing dishes because its high butterfat content prevents curdling. It’s also lovely dolloped onto fresh fruit or a scone, floated on top of home-made soups or used any way you might use sour cream or whipped cream. Not easy to find here in the Valley, it sometimes turns up as a specialty item in a supermarket cheese section – I last found it at Safeway, but they don’t stock it regularly.

    However, you can extend the life of a single small container by using some of it to grow your own. Just warm a cup or so of heavy cream in a small saucepan (don’t let it boil), let it cool to body temperature, stir in a big spoonful of creme fraiche and pour the mixture into a glass jar with a good lid – a canning jar works great. Let it sit at room temperature for a few hours until the cream has thickened (I drape a clean dishcloth over the top to keep out stray environmental yeasts, which can spoil the culture) then lid and refrigerate. Creme fraiche keeps for a couple of weeks, and you can keep culturing more from each batch. You can also use buttermilk as a culture-starter, but I find the resulting flavor a bit sharper and less delicate.

    June 25, 2008 at 10:03 am Leave a comment

    Keeping it local in the larder

    I was out of town last weekend and missed the farmers’ market: How was I going to meet my weekly Eat Local Challenge goal? All I had left from the previous week’s market were a couple of bulbs of kohlrabi (a good keeper, fortunately), and that didn’t sound like much of a dinner.

    Luckily, my pantry (and the big old freezer in my basement) usually contains a good supply of canned, bottled, frozen and dried foods of local origin. Jams and jellies, of course (but a person can only eat so much apple butter, as tasty as it is), but also dried fruits and wild mushrooms, frozen meat, locally produced sausages – and seafood.

    OK, the coast is an hour and a half’s drive away, but I still consider it local, especially at the height of the fishing season. There’s no fish fresher than the fish you can buy right off the docks in Newport, for instance, headed and gutted (and if you sweet-talk the fisherman, sliced into filets or steaks) and packed in a cooler full of ice for the drive home.

    But thanks to a growing number of entrepreneurial fisherfolk, some seasonal seafood is also available canned: Pacific albacore, brined or smoked, salmon (yes, even with this season’s harvest restrictions, some varieties of Pacific salmon are available) – and Dungeness crab.

    Last winter, I splurged on a case of crab canned by my friend and former Oregon Sea Grant colleague Ginny Goblirsch and her fisherman husband Herb under their Oregon’s Choice label, which they sell on line and from select Newport markets. One of the things I appreciate about Herb and Ginny is that they’re committed to sustainable fishing practices; their albacore is caught with hook-and-line, a method certified as eco-friendly by the Marine Stewardship Council. The other seafood they can is caught by similarly sustainable methods, and when they decided to begin canning their own products, they worked closely with OSU seafood specialists to come up with production methods that follow “best practices” for both quality and safety.

    The big canneries that used to dot the Oregon coast are pretty much history, but the boutique seafood canners who’ve emerged in recent years represent a real, local-food treasure. While much of their output gets sold in gift shops or shipped outside the region, there’s nothing to keep us from trying it, too, if we can get hold of it before the tourists do. The price may be premium, but so is the quality.

    Most of that case of crab got used up last winter, in crab bisques, crab dip for holiday pot-lucks and crab salad. But I still have a few cans left, and when I happened on them tonight while foraging for dinner ideas, crab cakes came to mind.

    Crab cakes can be an iffy thing; I’ve had way too many that were all cake and not much crab, like greasy wads of vaguely crab-flavored fried dough. Through trial and error – and tips from a couple of excellent restaurant chefs – I came up with a recipe that’s both easy and light, crisp, moist and very, very crab-by. They’re astonishingly good when made with fresh crab meat, but between you and me, when Dungeness crabs are in season I rarely bother making anything elaborate from them – I just boil them and eat them, armed with a nutcracker, a bowl of melted butter and a lot of napkins. Picking crabs to produce enough meat for a recipe is just too darned time-consuming when you could be eating crab.

    So I let people like Ginny and Herb do the hard work, and I get to enjoy the results. And boy, did I enjoy tonight’s crab cakes, served with an improvised Asian-style slaw of kohlrabi I’d bought at the market the week before.

    Dungeness crab cakesLight and Crispy Crab Cakes

    (This recipe uses one can of crab to make four modest crab cakes – more than enough for one person, or a light meal or appetizer for two. You can easily scale it up to make more).


    • 1 Tbsp minced fresh Italian parsley; other fresh herbs, added sparingly, can be lovely, too.
    • 1/2 tsp dry mustard
    • 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
    • 1 large egg, beaten
    • 1 Tbsp real mayonnaise (do not, under pain of banishment from my blog, tell me that you used Miracle Whip or “lite” mayonnaise. Seriously.)
    • 1 tsp fresh lemon juice
    • 1 6 oz. can Dungeness crab meat
    • 1/4 cup Panko (Japanese bread crumbs), or other light, dry bread crumbs, plus extra for coating
    • Salt and pepper if you want it. I never do.
    • Equal parts butter and oil (I use canola) for frying


    In a bowl, combine parsley, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, egg, mayonnaise and lemon juice and stir until well-blended. Lightly fold in the crab meat and bread crumbs until just mixed – try not to break up the crab too much.

    Heat butter and oil in a skillet until fragrant and sizzling.

    Spread extra bread crumbs on a plate. Using a large spoon, scoop up a fourth of the crab mixture (it will be quite wet) and press first one side, then the other into the crumbs. Transfer to hot skillet, flattening a bit to shape. Repeat to make four cakes.

    Sautee until golden brown, turning once (3-4 minutes per side). Drain on paper towels and serve while still hot. No condiments required, although a dollop of mayonnaise with prepared wasabi mixed in can be tasty if you like that sort of thing.

    Asian-style Kohlrabi slaw

    (I don’t actually measure the ingredients for salad dressings – I work by the proportions-and-glugs method. This is my best estimation; feel free to taste and experiment)

    • 1-2 kohlrabi, peeled, sliced and coarsely julienned
    • Pickled sushi ginger, minced
    • 1 Tbsp rice vinegar. If you have seasoned sushi vinegar, use that and omit the following two ingredients)
    • 1 tsp Mirin (sweet Japanese cooking wine) OR 1/2 tsp sugar
    • 1/4 tsp salt
    • 1/2 tsp sesame oil
    • Black sesame seeds


    Mix the kohlrabi and pickled ginger. Whisk together the vinegar, Mirin (or sugar), salt and sesame oil and toss with the vegetables. Sprinkle with black sesame seeds. This is even better when it’s sat overnight in the refrigerator.

    June 11, 2008 at 9:17 pm 1 comment

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