Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Salad Days - Watermelon's Better Than You Thought, Especially With Feta

I remember, back when I was a kid growing up, me and grammy and grampy would sit out on the back porch, grampy having just harvested a big, old 30 pound watermelon. We'd just sit there, them in their rockers, me on the steps, with the sweet juice running down our chins, seeing who could send those pits the farthest, while meanwhile the hogs would gather round, cuz they really loved the rinds and any fruit we might share with 'em.

OK - not really. Grandma and Papa were in a 4th-floor walkup, off Gun Hill Road, in the Bronx. And watermelon was a real treat, if there was any at all (I don't remember any). More likely, it was helzel, or if we were lucky, chicken feet. And Grandma could make a mean potato latke.

And now, it's summer once more, my season of complaining a lot - and cooking as little as possible. So yesterday, when my local grocery store had cut watermelon on sale for a mere 49 cents a pound, I bought a big wedge. Normally, I just bring it home, and keep it in the fridge - it's a good dessert for Sig Eater and me, when we pretend we're trying to be healthy.   

But I wanted to make dinner, and without "cooking," that can be a challenge. Looking around the fridge, in addition to the watermelon, I noticed I had some organic parsley and cucumbers. Some feta. And on the counter some reasonably nice tomatoes. Bingo - salad time...
Watermelon and Feta Salad
Because the watermelon and tomatoes are so nice and juicy, the dressing can be kept to a minimum. A drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil and some fine Spanish dry Oloroso vinegar from Despaña, and we were good to go. Well, we did need something crunchy...
Za'atar Pita Crisps
So I cut a pita bread in half, cut the halves into triangles, brushed them with that olive oil, sprinkled them with za'atar and salt, and baked them in my toaster oven for about 7 minutes. Not a bad dinner, with (almost) no cooking.

Watermelon, Feta, Tomato, Cucumber and Parsley Salad 

All the above ingredients, salt and pepper, olive oil and vinegar.

Make a salad out of them.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Provincetown - The "Outer" Cape and Wellfleet Too

There's an old Woody Allen line, from his stand-up days, which goes something like this:  "I'm a little fair-skinned. When I go to the beach, I don't tan - I stroke." Which pretty much describes how I feel about a day at the beach, or just in the sun.

So, you ask, what the hell am I doing up on the Cape, (excuse me - the outer Cape) in Provincetown, in June? Fortunately, the weather was what some might consider miserable - cold, windy, damp, drizzly - in other words, perfect for me! 

And last year, Rebecca and Sean (hmmm - let's see - Rebecca is Sig Eater's niece, which means she's my niece too. Sean is her husband which means he's our nephew, right?) took their 5 or so years of Brooklyn food experience up to Provincetown, and bore this child (their parents are very proud)...
Pop + Dutch is a general store/sandwich shop, in what used to be, ummmm, a general store and sandwich shop (I think). Lots of sweat labor went into making the place as lovely as it is now. Of course I'm biased, but we tried at least 6 different sandwiches and 2 salads, and I only wish I could get a sandwich as fresh and tasty down here in my neighborhood. Anything that can be prepared in-house is. They roast the beef; the turkey; the chicken for their chicken salad and mighty club sandwich (though it's called a "505" instead of a "212" - when you go in, they'll explain). They bake muffins and biscuits. They bake pies and cookies. They go through dozens of eggs for breakfast sandwiches and egg salad. And if you're a cooking geek, you should know that this gets a big work out...
In addition to the seriously delicious prepared foods, Pop + Dutch carries a bunch of unique grocery products. Duke's mayonnaise. Zapp's potato chips. Mr. Q Cumber soda - which happens to mix very nicely with gin, thank you. Mallo Cups and Whatchamacallits. Wiffle Bats and Balls. Milk, eggs, and fresh produce, too. This year, they are hooking up directly with some farmers, like a CSA kinda thing. Basically, everything you need for a day, week or month in Provincetown. And no bagels!

Go? Of course - it's in the "west end" of Provincetown, a bit away from the insane tourist part of the strip -   you'll be glad you stopped by.

Of course, heading up to Provincetown to visit the mishpucha didn't preclude us from various other endeavors. And since we arrived on a Sunday afternoon, it meant we actually got to spend some time with the kin. During the season, P+D is open daily, and they have no time for anything or anyone. But pre-season, they were closed on Tuesday, and with early-ish closing times on Sunday and Monday, we were able to sample some of Ptown's (and Wellfleet's) finest. 

Our first stop, on the drive up, was at Mac's Seafood On The Pier, in Wellfleet...
Mac's Lunch
The fried scallops, clam chowder and lobster rolls hit the spot after a 6-hour car ride, though I think there's a bit too much mayo in the lobster and oy vey with the lettuce on my lobster roll.

Checking in at the Red Inn, here's the view we enjoyed, right from our gorgeous room, for the next 3 days...
Provincetown Bay
We enjoyed that view and relaxed for a while, while our erstwhile hosts closed up shop. Since their apartment is literally across the street from the Red Inn, we met there for cocktails - gin and Mr. Q Cumbers all around! Looking for a nice, local, relaxed dinner, Rebecca and Sean suggested Devons Food Bar, and we were soon ensconced at the bar, enjoying some nice wines and beers by the glass, bar snacks and a small plates-y dinner. But not just any bar snacks - salt cod fritters, excellent linguica with figs, a fine littleneck clam ceviche, and my favorite - the crispy fried pig ear strips - oh yeah. Then my small-plate main really knocked me out; a butterflied quail, buttermilk basted and deep fried - one of the best versions of this dish I've had in a while.  Everyone else enjoyed their mains as well, though i have no idea what anyone else had. Oh - before we left their apartment, I was able to snap a quick shot...
Pop + Dutch People Sean and Rebecca
The next morning we awoke to a bit of a chill and breeze. But no matter what, Sig Eater was getting in her deck time...
Hanging on the Deck
It got a little sunny and Monday turned out to be perfect for checking out some of the other stuff Ptown is known for: you know - the Cape light, landscape, beaches, wildlife - all that stuff I can take or leave. (It happened to be quite beautiful)...
Race Point Lighthouse
Nature - AKA A Fox
One of the beaches. It's all beaches.
After all that outside stuff for Significant Eater and me, Sean drove us down to Wellfleet for dinner - lobsters - at PJ's Family Restaurant. It's...well...a family restaurant, so buy your beer next door at the gas station, or bring it from home. Bring a flask, too, if you feel like it. Sig Eater went for the clambake, including a pound of steamers...
Clambake Dinner
Bigger lobster
While I opted for the simple 2-pounder, since I've never been a huge steamer fan. Stan, my dear old dad, loved steamers - me, I never really got a taste for those sort of slimy, sort of sandy, sort of like swallowing a mouthful of funky beachwater piss clams. That said, my lobster was perfectly cooked. Thomas Keller can butter poach all the lobster he wants; me - gimme a few people who've been cooking lobster all their lives to prep mine, and I know it'll be okay...juicy, sweet, briny, luscious and messy. As it was. Early lobster-dinner means you get to head back into Ptown in time for a few drinks. And while a few drinks can be had most anywhere in Ptown, for a real, honest-to-goodness cocktail (both my on-menu and off-menu drinks were great), head to the Nor' East Beer Garden, right smack dab in the middle of the action on Commercial St. Oh - one little thing - don't go if it's raining. There's no roof on the place, and they evidently are only open "weather permitting." Fortunately, it was "permitting" the night we went.

Tuesday morning we woke to a slightly different view...
Provincetown Bay Low Tide
Tide's out - which evidently happens 2x a day - but even I remember that from my science class in 5th grade or so. That big, tall thing in the background is called Pilgrim Monument Provincetown Museum.  It's on a a hill. It's like 250 feet up after you get up the hill. You can climb to the top via stairs and ramps. Even on a day when the winds were about 50 mph up there, we did - though I'm still trying to figure out why. Other than the view, I guess...
Provincetown Harbor
There's a fantastic museum at the base of the monument. Both worth an hour or two of your time. So we spent an hour or two of our time there, did a little more sightseeing and ended up back at the Inn for a nice, lazy afternoon looking at the water...
It also gave us time to get ready for the fanciest dinner of our trip, a 7-course tasting menu at Ceraldi, in Wellfleet. Chef Michael Ceraldi's restaurant is basically his ode to the Cape and its ingredients (including, of course, some locally foraged stuff) in the same sorta way that Sean Brock's is to low-country cuisine and its ingredients. It's good. It's raison d'être is good. Chef does his plating right in the middle of the big, comfortable U-shaped bar...
Chef Plates Oyster
We started off with a single smoked Wellfleet oyster, and moved into a fabulous escarole soup with tiny meatballs. Wild milkweed tempura came next, and we were off and running. Lobster and scallop sauced Michael's fine gnocchi, and the halibut course, accompanied by wild rice and local greens, showed a great hand with fish - and that's what a Cape Cod cook should have. Dessert was a textbook perfect panna cotta finished with honey-roasted nuts and rhubarb syrup.  There are some excellent wines to be had by the glass or bottle. If I remember correctly, there are 2 possible pairings, but we chose some stuff on our own. That 7-course meal - $70 (before wine, tip, etc.).

In my mind, chef's time at places like Metamorfosi in Rome, Felidia and Del Posto in NYC, and, most importantly, in his mom's kitchen that he grew up in, really serves him well...bringing those experiences to develop his own philosophy and using excellent ingredients and letting them shine. Nice job.

When we got back to the Red Inn, we spent an hour or so enjoying the night time sights from our room...
Provincetown Night
Heading back out of town the next morning, on our way back to the big city, our final stop was at -  you guessed it - Pop + Dutch. After all, we wanted two more sandwiches for the ride home - and the iced coffee was great too!

Pop + Dutch on Facebook

Pop + Dutch Instagram

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Paella - It's Only Rice, Right?

Rice. Many food cultures have their special rice dishes. Others eat rice at literally every meal. There's risotto in Italy. Red beans and rice in New Orleans. Congee in China. Chelo, pilaf and pulao in the Middle East. Sushi rice. Jasmine rice. Red rice and black rice. Thai rice. Sweet rice. Sticky rice. White rice. Brown rice. On and on. And then, in Spain, there's paella.

So, this is a quick post about paella. Specifically, the paella I make at home, the dish I've been trying to master for years. When done well, a thing of beauty - the rice taking on the flavors of the rest of the ingredients, without any one of those flavors overpowering another. Texture is important; gummy or overcooked or undercooked - not good. You also want a bit of socarrat at the bottom of the paella - the wonderful, crusty and crunchy bits that form from cooking paella on an open fire - or, as in my case, on my stove.

So, where to start?  First off, paella is about rice. I've tried a bunch of different rices, all claiming to be "the best" for paella...
Paella rices from Spain
What my experiments have shown me is that the best rice for paella is also the most expensive, coming in at about $15 for a kilo, but hey - you get what you pay for. (Oh, it's the one in the upper left hand corner, Calasaparra Bomba rice). And if you think that's expensive, wait'll you see the price for saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, and that which is necessary in any fine paella.

I also use a traditional paella pan, which can be a pain in the ass, as they're meant to be used over an open fire, or on a specially built paella burner. In my kitchen, there are 2 paella pans - a small one, which is good for 2 or 3 servings (or, for Significant Eater and me), and a larger one, which will easily serve 6. Here's an early attempt, in a 2-serving pan...
Chicken and chorizo paella
Generally, paellas start with a base, called sofrito in Spain. Other than in Catalan areas of Spain, where it's a sofregit, which is like an Italian battuto, which is like a French mirepoix, which is like the holy trinity in New Orleans, which is -   oh, forget it.  You sort of start with sautéing the base, gently and for what can seem like a long time, if you do it right. The base, in this case, is olive oil, tomatoes and onions, with an addition of garlic and maybe some pimenton, which is smoked Spanish paprika. Then you add the liquid, (i.e. stock), which had better be good, otherwise your paella will suck. Unless, of course, you add the rice before you add the stock, into which the saffron has infused (who said this was gonna be easy?!). You'll also add back maybe the chicken, which you've already browned, along with the chorizo, if you're using that, but no one said you have to.

Then it cooks; quickly, at first, and then more slowly, as the liquid reduces. Some people (heathens) and some recipes (meant for heathens), call for cooking paella in the oven, after its initial phase. Bull. It's meant to be cooked over fire. (OK - you can cook it in the oven - it's easier.)  For me, I go the stovetop route, which involves rotating the pan every other minute, so that it's all exposed equally to the heat of the flame. Basically, you're not leaving the kitchen while you're cooking - so make sure your guests already have drinks and other stuff to eat...
Snacks for guests
And make sure you have your booze in the kitchen with you. You probably also want to make sure you've tried your hand at paella a few times before you serve it at a dinner party. But you already knew that - anything you're serving at a dinner party - you should've already tried to prepare once or twice, right? What if it sucks...
Sucky paella - only for me
Paellas can be made from seafood. Or chicken. Or vegetables. Or, I guess, other stuff. But Valencia's traditional paella, called, ummm, paella Valenciana, is made with rabbit, snails, a few kinds of beans, and other stuff. It was a dish prepared by rice farmers, and they used what they found in the fields, hence the rabbit and snails.

So - are you ready to make paella? Are you waiting for a recipe? Well, you're not getting one here - I'm not exactly the Julia Child of paella. I can point you to Despaña, which is where I shop for great Spanish ingredients and cookware. La Tienda's another good resource for the above. To start, you can read a David Rosengarten article in Saveur. And there are plenty of paella cookbooks at Amazon.

Then maybe, just maybe, after you've taken in all the above, bought a paella pan, bought the right rice, saffron, pimenton, etc., and practiced making paella a few times, you can impress your guests - or even just your signifcant other. Because believe me, when done right, paella is one of the world's great rice dishes...
Chicken and seafood paella for 6
¡Buen apetito!