Birthday on the Half Shell

Am I mean to insist that Himself shuck his own oysters on his birthday? Nah! He was tickled to learn how to do it.

Himself’s birthday was this past week. It was bright and sunny in Seattle and surprisingly cold, given the abundance of sunshine that day. We bundled up, slathered sunscreen over all uncovered skin and headed to Discovery Park to enjoy some fresh air, exercise and new scenery—including stunning views of Puget Sound, home to all manner of seafood.

Hood Canal oysters: those gnarly shells are the product of the oysters’ mad fight against wild currents.

Chowder certainly would have been in order on such a brisk day, but instead we opted for oysters on the half shell. On the way home we stopped at Seattle Fish Company and picked up two dozen Hood Canal oysters from just west of Seattle, along the inland edge of the Olympic Peninsula. With the outdoor temps in the 30s there was no need to refrigerate them. We ripped open the bag so they could breath and parked them on the back porch while we prepared for our oysterfest.

My first purchase in this remarkably fair city was an oyster knife, and I’m embarrassed to say that it has remained unused until now. I’ve pried open a few bivalves over the years, but usually when I want oysters on the half shell, I just go to one of my favorite restaurants that offer them and chow down. But why? Live oysters are inexpensive—depending on where you buy them—and easy to prepare on the half shell. You can make whatever accompaniments you want to go with them, invite some friends over and with very little prep, have a sumptuous, impromptu party.

Rather than hog the oysters, we decided to invite over a few friends and show them how to handle an oyster knife. Most people are amazed to find out how easy it is to shuck an oyster. And grateful! I’m glad to liberate my oyster-loving pals from the tyranny of those spendy-spendy platters.

Erik shows off a lovely morsel.

 

  

Tod gets the hang of this shucking thing pretty quickly.                                                             Down the hatch!

 

If you’d like to try your hand at it, Chef Steps presents a great method for shucking oysters that’s quick and easy and doesn’t even require a special oyster knife!

We enjoyed ours with a simple mignonette—one cup of champagne vinegar and a finely minced shallot stirred together and parked in the fridge for a half hour before time—some cocktail sauce, horseradish and lemon wedges. Crisp white wine and bubbly cava from Spain both paired well with the oysters. We had fun taking turns with the oyster knife and in between, eating, drinking and enjoying great conversation. And of course teasing Himself about his advancing age.

A few days later we decided we wanted more oysters and more variety. I picked up four of each of an array of Pacific Northwest oysters from Metropolitan Market. This way we could sample two each. My notes (*** = my personal favs):

Fanny Bay: large & meaty. Sweet, so not my fav. (opened easily)

***Hama Hama: briny. Tastes very much of the sea. Yes! (opened easily)

***Penn Cove: nice, clean taste—good balance between sweet & briny. (shell is really flakey & crumbly; a bit of a mess but worth the trouble).

Kusshi: sweet little thangs, but they put up a bit of a fight to open.

We had them with txakolina from the Basque region of Spain. It’s a crisp, clean, lightly effervescent white wine, so if you don’t know whether you’d prefer white wine or bubbly with your oysters, txakolina covers both bases.

Himself and I agreed that setting up our own personal tasting was a great way to explore a food we didn’t have a lot of familiarity with. And we know next time we go out for oysters which ones to order—and which ones to skip in favor of trying new and different ones.

As for condiments, I’ve decided that for the most part I’d rather have no more than a bare squeeze of lemon or perhaps a sprinkling of mignonette. Oysters have such a delicate flavored that it’s easily masked. If it’s not my favorite oyster, then maybe I’ll add cocktail sauce and horseradish and focus on enjoying its texture.

What’s next?

I love a moister oyster—they’re so good raw and swimming in the brine in their shells that I’m hard pressed to want to cook them. But I should. And I will, at least for the experience.

In the meantime, here’s a sophisticated take on the old standard oyster shooter idea, one that brings out the best qualities of the two components. It’s the Oyster Luge, concocted by Bowmore Scotch ambassador Johnnie “The Scot” Mundell. We had it at the now-closed (sad face) Tipple and Brine in Los Angeles.

Cheers!

Give it a try! Just follow the instructions in the photo.

 

One last photo I didn’t know where to include: an oyster with a freeloading barnacle!
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My Year of (Mostly) Pacific Northwest Seafood

Steadying my nerves in a mad display of seafood delights in Barcelona’s Boqueria

Seems like most people’s New Year’s resolutions tend toward things like losing weight, learning Italian or taking up jewelry making. All worthy pursuits to be sure, but being the contrarian that I am, I’ve decided to proclaim 2017 My Year of (Mostly) Pacific Northwest Seafood.

We moved to Seattle almost a full year ago—Himself and I and our cats arrived on a sunny mid-January afternoon in a sparkling gust of mist and snow. I had the best of intentions to plunge right into the seafood of our new region. Himself and I had a couple of cooking dates, playing with the salmon and tuna we picked up at the farmers’ market and turning out some fine dishes. But except for eating plenty of seafood in restaurants all over the city, that’s been about it. It’s been rare that I’ve bought and cooked seafood this past year.

Few of my seafood-loving friends understand this, but my journey to seafood comes with a lot of baggage, certainly more than I can fit under the seat in front of me or in the overhead compartment.

Growing up in the rural South, far from salt water, I thought that be it trout or bream, crappie or catfish, whatever was pulled out of local ponds and rivers was seafood. Most “seafood” I had in those years was wretched—all heavily breaded and deep-fried in oil of questionable integrity. All cooked in the same murky vats in which chicken, onion rings, French fries and hushpuppies were fried. In oil that likely was unchanged since the Eisenhower years. Fish with none of the bones removed.

In spite of my culinary school training I continue to hold seafood at a distance.

Oddly, during my 18+ years in Los Angeles I just never cozied up to seafood in spite of my proximity to the ocean. (LA is strangely not a seafaring city. Except for surfing, sunbathing and paying dearly for a view of the sun setting on the Pacific, most Angelenos pay scant attention to the sea.)

But I’m in a place now where it doesn’t take a lot of money to see the water. And seeing the water, in addition to lowering my blood pressure and satisfying my need for a beautiful view, is a constant reminder that below that lovely blue surface is a world of dining options. Options that I should revel in and explore.

I figure that laying it out here in front of everyone will keep me accountable. If too much time goes by and there’s no posting about my latest seafood foray, I know at least one of you will say, “Hey, girlfriend! Time to go fishing!”

Today is Himself’s birthday, and we’ve set our sights on delving into oysters on the halfshell. We’ll uncork the bubbly, bring out the oyster knives and pop open some fresh oysters to enjoy.

Now it’s time to go make the mignonette!

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In Praise of Pectin-Free Jam

plyms

not any ol’ plums…damson plums

I had no idea there was a plum tree in our yard until Himself came in and said, “Hey, we have plums out back!”

I’m not usually so inattentive to the things growing around me, but we’ve only been in this house for a few months now, and for the past two of them I’ve been recuperating from a badly sprained ankle. Our yard is especially bumpy and uneven and not the best place to set one’s weight on a beleaguered appendage. The last time I’d been in the backyard there was no sign at all that we’d soon be the proud possessors of enough plums to relieve every sluggish digestive tract in Seattle.

It turns out we have ourselves a damson plum tree. I remember when I was a kid my grandmother talking about the damson plums she’d enjoyed as a child, but I was never curious enough to ask her for more detail. (The same can be said for so very many things, to my great regret.)

When I saw our plums, I wondered. They certainly don’t look like the ones I find at the grocery. These are smaller and slightly oblong, sort of like fat purple footballs. Slightly astringent in taste, and even when they’re super ripe they’re not terribly juicy. So I looked them up online, and sure enough, they’re damsons. And they’re ready for the picking. The eating. The preserving.

I made chutney from the first picking, because chutney is such a delightful free-for-all. You can throw just about anything in there and it will turn out fine, as long as you like the things you put into it. And I froze a few pounds to use at some unspecified time down the road when the tree’s bounty is but a tasty summer memory warming the dark months of winter.

But looming before me was the task of jam making. I wanted homemade jam, oh yes I did. I just didn’t want to use pectin.

It’s a fairly modern practice, relying on store-bought pectin to encourage jams to set up. But I don’t like the unnatural thickness it inflicts on them. And as someone who bristles at following rules, especially when it comes to combining flavors in the kitchen, I resent the strict instructions that come with pectin.

“Ignore these rules at your peril!” they insinuate. “Deviate one jot and sugar will turn to salt, hens will lay rocks, and trees will hurl their fruit at you, just like in The Wizard of Oz.” Or some such. That’s the subtext I pick up, but perhaps I’m being overly sensitive.

So I set out to find advice on making pectin-free jam, something that would allow for creativity and personal preference.

Sure, pectin-free jam isn’t going to have that stand-a-spoon-in-it thickness of commercially prepared jam or jam made with commercially prepared pectin, but I’m willing to trade that for a fuller, more nuanced flavor. We only think jam should be that thick because it’s all we’ve ever eaten, right? Rather than let it flow delicately over a piece of toast, we think we have to lay it on with a trowel and the firm touch of a mason building a cathedral. But sampling pectin-free jam brings the same sort of delightful epiphany that occurs when you make your first batch of aioli after a lifetime of eating store-bought mayonnaise.

“Where have you BEEN all my life, you wondrous bite of deliciousness?!” we think, even if we don’t say it out loud. Because most of us don’t talk to our food. Or if we do we don’t admit it.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I decided to find someone who had already done all the work, gone through the trial and error and figured everything out. I found that someone on the Northwest Edible Life blog, researched and written with great deftness and insight by Chef Erica. She has an understanding of preserves that, in my opinion, borders on the mystic. Well she’s demystified the process for the rest of us, and I’m happy to share her instructions for making pectin-free jam.

She not only tells you how to do it, but she provides the lowdown on how to tweak it to your liking so, as she says, your jam doesn’t taste just like what everyone else makes. She even has a nifty little Signature Jam Flavor Maker Chart to show you what flavors go together naturally, so you can add in spices and other flavorings and create a jam that is uniquely yours.

The results of my first round of jam-making using the damson plums and her method as my guide yielded the best jam I’ve ever tasted!

Yes, the house is hot from jam making in summer. Yes, it costs more to make it, what with the product (if you don’t have a tree, a garden or a generous neighbor), the jars and assorted bits and bobs and ingredients. And the gas or electricity it takes to cook down a trove of fresh fruit into a few tiny jars.

toast

But in the dead of winter, when you open one of those jars and smear some of that bright, flavorful jam over a warm slice of toast or a piece of pound cake, you’re going to be so very happy that you spent the time, money and effort and created something special. A jam that is uniquely yours.

happy residue

happy, happy residue…
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No Hopping With Knives

knives & crutchesSigh. Here’s the view from my chair at the table. Knives in the background and crutches in the foreground. If you are using one, you’d best not be using the other.

A few days ago I wiped out on the walkway in front of our house. The doctor says “bad sprain.” The doctor says “stay off that foot for at least a week.”

Carol says, well, mostly things that shouldn’t be spelled out here.

Himself is to be commended for all he has done. Our usual divide-and-conquer chores have fallen squarely on his shoulders, feeding us both, cleaning the house and kitchen (and cat litter). Doing laundry. Shopping. Feeding cats and catering to their demands. And most of all, catering to mine. Is anyone actually a good patient? A patient patient? Certainly not moi.

It’s amazing how much you take for granted in your everyday life, doing this and that with nary a thought. But once you’re hobbled, even temporarily, suddenly the tiniest thing that needs doing needs someone else doing it for you.

He bought us a whole roasted chicken, and we laid siege to it while it was warm and then picked the rest off the bones for cutting up for future meals to put on salad, on nachos, on whatever. Nothing that requires too much prep. The bones are in the freezer for stock making when I’m back on my feet.

Was that the best roast chicken ever? No. But it was pretty good, and it was there when we needed it. And that’s enough.

To stand on one foot and lean against the counter while cutting vegetables would be dangerously stupid. Hopping across the kitchen on one foot with that knife in hand to wash it would be even more dangerously stupid.

No running with scissors, and no hopping with knives. No matter how self sufficient we are—or think we are—there are times when we need to let someone else help us out.

Thanks Andy, for all your help, and more importantly, for ignoring my crutchy crankiness. You’re a champ!

I love you!

xo

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Churnin’

While I’ve previously devoted this blog primarily to regional and international cuisines—and will continue to do so—I have a collection of essays in various stages of completion that I want to begin sharing in this space, food-related essays on my growing up days in the rural South. I love traveling and sampling the cuisines of the world, but at heart I’m still a Tennessee farm girl.

Churnin’

In my credulous preschool days the Beatles just wanted to hold my hand. That was about as racy as the radio ever got then. But before the Top 40 concept reached the hinterlands of rural, churchgoing Tennessee, you never could tell what sort of risqué business might ooze into your world on the airwaves. While it was nothing on a par with today’s no-holds-barred lyrics that could make a porn star blush, it was enough to stoke the imagination of a child brimming with more questions than the adults were willing to answer.

Once when I was about five, my momma and I were shopping in the general store just down the road from our farm when a chipper voice on its tinny speaker instructed:

“Keep on churnin’ till the butter come…

Keep on pumpin’ make the butter flow.

Wipe off the paddle and churn some more.”

Churn_01I asked her about it because I couldn’t understand why anyone would sing about making what we smeared onto our toast for breakfast.

She grew ashen, pointed across the store and blurted, “Look! There’s a kitten!”

I raced over and began scouring the dry goods section but didn’t see it anywhere. By the time I returned to her side the song was over, and my questions shifted from the significance of those dairy-centric lyrics to the whereabouts of the mysteriously vanished kitten that I failed to find playing amongst the bib overalls and nubby work gloves.

Her diversionary tactics worked for a little while. Then I heard “I Like Bread and Butter” and decided it was my new favorite song after the luster had faded from the not-quite-so-snappy “Jesus Loves Me.” I’d prance around the house singing the sad story of the fellow whose girl feeds him bread and butter, and everything is hunky dory until he comes home early one day and finds her eating chicken and dumplings with another guy.

“Does this mean you can eat chicken and dumplings with your honey but not with anybody else?” I asked as she stirred a generous dollop of bacon drippings into the iron skillet filled with blackening green beans. “Or that it’s okay to eat bread and butter but it’s not okay to eat chicken and dumplings?” She told me I asked too many questions and that I’d understand when I was older. When those responses didn’t satisfy and I pressed the issue, she explained that children who were too inquisitive were in danger of going straight to H-E-double-L.

This made me wonder if there was some moral objection to dumplings that was simply too wicked to discuss. Our family didn’t eat them, and honestly, I wasn’t sure exactly what a dumpling was. There was no one I could turn to for clarification of these finer points of culinary propriety. My momma clearly wasn’t up to the task, and I figured if she couldn’t explain them to me, no one else could either. While my daddy was a farmer, and I’d witnessed plenty of hanky panky going on amongst the hogs and cattle, we never discussed the similarities between what the livestock was doing and what humans might get up to. Were any of those extra parts I saw while they were carrying on “dumplings?”

As concerned as my momma seemed to be about me skipping down the murky path to Aitcheedubulel, wherever that was, I decided this question should remain unasked. Singing about food was inexcusably naughty. Period. But the issue lingered in my mind, and I began looking everywhere, musing over song lyrics and searching for clues to this conundrum. At church I browsed through the hymnal during sermons and was surprised to find that even the hymns we sang at Thanksgiving, the season for conveniently overlooking the sin of gluttony, made only scant and unhelpful mention of food. The holiday table at church groaned from the weight of turkey, dressing, brown-and-serve rolls, countless congealed salads and plenteous desserts. There, as everywhere else, we talked about food, obsessed over it and packed it away in huge quantities.

We just didn’t sing about it.

Then one day a woman’s smoky voice spilled out of our lunchbox-sized, leather-bound transistor radio. “I need a little sugar in my bowl,” she sighed. “I need a little hot dog between my rolls.” I held my tongue until the singer of “All That Meat and No Potatoes” bemoaned that he was “waitin’, palpitatin’.” Picking judiciously through the food references, I focused on the non-food word.

“Momma, what’s ‘palpitatin’?”

“It’s a ten-dollar word for goin’ to the devil,” she snapped, her face crimsoning to the shade of our rooster’s crown, and switched off the radio with such vehemence I thought the knob would break off in her hand.

So proximity alone was enough to get a word barred from discussion. This was a difficult time for a child enamored of words and already stoking her vocabulary for life as a writer.

Finally I started school, with each day beginning and ending on the bus, surrounded by kids of all ages and backgrounds. The worldly high school men sat on the back three rows and snickered about things like “makin’ bacon.” Their obsession with food puzzled me, until finally I began putting the clues together, noting that somehow it involved s-e-x and that this stuff was supposed to be fun. But they clammed up every time they saw me glancing back their way, so I got only, um, snatches of the mystery.

By second grade I decided the playground was the only sensible place to learn what “doing it” was all about, when my worldly, town-dwelling friend Patty promised to explain it to me during recess one day. I counted the miserably slow minutes until we hit the playground.

We hung upside down on the monkey bars in silence for what seemed like forever, when suddenly she heaved herself over, grabbed my shoulders, pressed her lips against my ear and whispered: “A boy pulls down his pants, and a girl pulls down her panties, and he sticks his you-know-what into her you-know-what.” Then she let go of my shoulders, and I swung back into my solitary upside down space, more knowledgeable but feeling cheated.

That was it? I had to hang by my knees until I was lightheaded just to hear that? I had a brother and a raft of boy cousins, so it wasn’t like I’d never caught a glimpse of their equipment when someone had left the bathroom door open. But her account sounded too matter-of-fact, basic “insert Tab A into Slot A” business, and not like the kind of knowledge that needed to be so carefully guarded. And not like any fun at all, certainly not like something you’d want to sing about.

Before I could react the bell rang. We unhooked our knees, turned the requisite flip and dropped to the dusty ground.

“But what about butter?” I called after her as she raced ahead of me to the schoolhouse door. “And potatoes . . . and dumplings?” She stopped in her tracks and looked back at me in bewilderment, her authority dissolving. She was just as baffled as I was.

Further complicating matters were whispered suggestions that sex and babies were somehow connected. One day as I set the table for dinner, a boy called in to “Swap Shop” on the radio and offered to trade his rock-n-roll records for a baby bed. Momma let out a hoot but then sucked it back in, as quick as the cord retreated back into our fancy new Electrolux vacuum cleaner.

So there was a clue. I knew women carried their babies around under their baggy dresses until they got tired of that. Then they pulled the babies out from under their dresses, wrapped them in blankets and carried them around in their arms. But how did they get there in the first place? Did singing about food cause them to get the babies? How was that possible?

Deepening the mystery was the introduction of Better Than Sex Cake. Every upstanding churchwoman and neighbor lady had a recipe for it, but they always whispered its name with a blush and a titter. Being a kid, I had nothing to compare it to. Even my stately grandmother began bringing this cake to church potlucks, and she whispered and tittered with all the rest. I had no appreciation for it simply because it wasn’t chocolate. I’d look at her cake, pale yellow and loaded with crushed pineapple and instant vanilla pudding and topped with canned whipped cream and flaked coconut, and I’d shudder. It was the sum and substance of everything I despised in a dessert, because there were flavor issues. And texture issues. It was supposed to be better than sex, so I held out scant hope that sex would be worth the bother.

No evidence remains to confirm my doubts because at some point these recipes vanished from the collections of both grandmothers. I think all venerable Southern women make a pact so that whenever one of them dies, the others will sneak into her kitchen, ninja style, spirit away her Better Than Sex Cake recipe and destroy it.

What did I learn about sex from all this vagueness, from the tittering and whispering about cake and the pretend kitten spotting? And from all that cryptic music in which the mysteries of food loomed so large?

Not much, but by the time I was in junior high and the boys were embarrassing the girls with their most obnoxious renditions of Robert Plant singing, “Squeeze my lemon ’til the juice runs down my leg,” I realized Led Zeppelin’s take on that old Howlin’ Wolf tune wasn’t about fruit at all. What adults couldn’t accomplish with averted eyes and evasive responses, teenaged boys reeking of Hai Karate and cigarettes could, and I began to appreciate that it’s through music and food that sex finds some of its most imaginative and playful expression. At least it gave us a way to speculate in public about things we otherwise didn’t dare discuss in polite society—and eventually develop our own savory vocabulary as we engaged in the fevered backseat exploration of lemons, potatoes, dumplings and all.

It turned out that churnin’ had nothing to do with dairy products and farm chores. It had everything to do with frosting the cake.

 

Better Than Sex Cake

The list of recipes for Better Than Sex Cake is endless, and like other sensual activities, completely open to interpretation. Essentially the idea is to load one cake with as much decadence as it can bear, and then add some more. While I believe no cake baked from pre-made, packaged ingredients is going to be better than sex, every recipe I’ve ever seen for it contained nothing homemade. So in the spirit of my Better Than Sex Cake-baking forebears, mine is also a combination of store-bought ingredients.

  • 1 box of Betty Crocker Devil’s Food Cake mix, plus the ingredients listed on the box: 1¼ cups of water, ½ cup of vegetable oil and 3 eggs
  • ½ of a 14-oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 small jar of caramel sauce
  • 1 8-oz. container of Cool Whip
  • chocolate chips, as needed
  • peanut butter chips, as needed
  • Butterfinger candy bars, as needed

Bake the cake according to the directions on the box.

Leave it in the pan, and let it cool partially on a wire rack, about 10 minutes.

While it is still warm, poke holes in the cake about an inch apart with the handle of a wooden spoon, and drop a few chocolate and peanut butter chips into each hole.

When the cake has finished cooling, pour the sweetened, condensed milk into the holes. Next pour the caramel topping over the cake and spread to cover. Then top the cake with the whipped topping (use it all!). Sprinkle with enough crushed Butterfingers to completely cover the whipped topping.

If any cake survives the initial assault, cover it tightly with plastic wrap and keep it in the refrigerator.

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