A Playlist for “Churnin'”

I’m just back from this year’s conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals with a fistful of business cards, loads of notes scribbled during myriad sessions and panels, and the memories of some fine conversations and really good food (thanks, Louisville!). One other thing I returned with that was a profound honor and totally unexpected—the award for Best Food Writing, Personal Essays/Memoir, for “Churnin’.”

At the awards with IACP President Glenn Mack, showing off in our gladrags, champagne in hand… (photo by Timothy P. Valentino)

As I reached the stage to collect my certificate and a kiss on the cheek from hosts Top Chef Carla Hall and Washington Post Food and Dining Editor Joe Yonan, I realized that the microphone was right there in front of me, awaiting whatever I had to say—and that this was something I forgot prepare for. YIKES!

I managed okay, giving a shout-out to the writers of all those naughty blues songs about food that aren’t really about food. Those songs had inspired me to write the winning essay, some with chuckleworthy titles like “Your Biscuits Are Big Enough For Me” and “My Stove’s In Good Condition.” Some made it into the essay, while others provided sublime background music as I wrote.

I’d like to share my *Dirty Dozen with you, all quirky examples of yet another way–and a truly imaginative one—in which to use food.

Enjoy!

*This playlist is on Spotify, but if you don’t have an account, you should be able to find these songs elsewhere on the internet with a little searching:

“Keep On Churnin’ Til the Butter Comes,” by Wynonie Harris

“I Need a Little Sugar In My Bowl,” by Bessie Smith

“All That Meat and No Potatoes,” by Fats Waller

“My Stove’s In Good Condition,” by Lil Johnson

“It Must Be Jelly ‘Cos You Know Jam Don’t Shake, by Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon

“Your Biscuits Are Big Enough For Me,” by Bo Carter

“I Like My Baby’s Pudding,” by Wynonie Harris

“Lean Meat Won’t Fry,” by Memphis Minnie

“Lollypop,” by Hunter & Jenkins

“Sam the Hot Dog Man,” by Lil Johnson

“Banana In Your Fruit Basket,” by Bo Carter

“Coffee Grindin’ Blues,” by Lucille Bogan

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Oysters OFF the Half Shell

po’ boy!

After stuffing myself with an array of raw oysters recently, I decided to turn my attention to their cooking possibilities. But what should I make with them, I wondered. Rockefeller? Bienville? Hangtown fry? A stew or chowder?

Our lovely friend Reg grew up here in Seattle, and she said that when she was a child, one of her favorite meals her mother fixed for her was bottled oysters she’d picked up at the seafood counter, dredged in egg and flour, fried and served with saltines. I loved the simplicity of Reg’s good memory and decided that, flush from the thrill of all those lovely raw oysters we’d enjoyed lately, I’d prepare some this way.

So I tried a simple fry, dredging bottled oysters in egg and a half-and-half combo of flour and cornmeal and frying them in a lightly oiled pan until they were golden, about the color(s) of our marmalade tabby, Cosmo.

Cosmo was kind enough to demonstrate the color to which breaded oysters should be fried.
(Photo courtesy of Traca Savadogo, a.k.a. The Cat Whisperer)

I stirred up a mixture of mayo with some spicy seasoning and slathered it onto split French rolls and piled on the fried oysters with lettuce and tomato and made po’ boys. The sandwiches were okay, but Himself and I concluded that what we tasted was bread, spread, oysters, lettuce and tomato—that is, we tasted the individual ingredients but not a blend of flavors. We might have been better satisfied if we’d dipped the fried oysters into the spicy mayo and skipped the bread and vegetation, because they were overpowered by all that competition.

Which seasoning should you use? Whichever one you like. These were what we had on hand. We settled on the Konriko, along with a dusting of cayenne, some dried thyme and a squeeze of lemon.

A few days later I decided to take another stab at cooking oysters and hit upon an amazing roasted oyster dish. If you decide to make this dish—and you should, because it’s fabulous!—note that the ingredient list doesn’t include the ingredients for the sauce. Be sure when you’re making up your grocery list to read all the way through and take note of those (Himself gallantly dashed out into the chilly Seattle evening to fetch some whipping cream for me.). And prepare the dish according to its basic components—prep the oysters, the spinach topping, the sauce and the cheese. Then it’s a snap to put the components together and bake the dish.

roasted oysters under a bed of bacon & spinach, topped with a creamy sauce

We enjoyed this dish with a mound of baguette slices to scoop up the sauce and soak up the juices. To accompany it we drank pinot gris, from which we’d removed a splash for making the sauce. The flavors meld beautifully in this dish, so this recipe is definitely a keeper.

The first time I recall eating oysters was many years ago at a Thanksgiving feast in New Orleans. The stuffing was filled with fried oysters, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them—there was so much else in the stuffing. And it was my first trip to New Orleans, so I was already overwhelmed and suffering from sensory overload. All these years later, I’m happy to report that I’ve learned a thing or two about how to handle oysters. Himself and I concur that we prefer our oysters raw. But it’s nice to know how to treat them when the heat is on!

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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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