Monday, July 27, 2009

Pan-fried Flounder with Ginger & Sweet Soy Sauce

Flounder is a flatfish (as opposed to regular fish known as a roundfish) from the same family as sole, turbot and halibut. It is a white fish, similar in taste (mild) and texture to haddock. For this dish, I pan-fried the flounder fillets by first coating the fish in seasoned flour and dropping them onto a hot skillet. Be careful to handle the fillets delicately as they will tear on you easily. If some of them are too large to handle, try cutting them into manageable pieces before pan-frying.

Once all the pieces have been fried, set them aside for now. Using the same skillet that was used to fry the fish, pour away some of the oil and add in some finely julienned fresh ginger, garlic and shallots. As these ingredients brown up a little, deglaze the pan with a tablespoon of rice wine vinegar. Make sure to scrub the pan with your ladle so as to get all the yummy pieces of fish that was left behind from frying. Add 1 TBP of sweet soy sauce or Indonesian kicap manis and some water and bring the pan to a simmer. Reduce the sauce a little, taste and season appropriately with salt and pepper.

Finally, put the fish fillets onto a plate and pour the sauce over them, making sure the shallots, garlic and ginger pieces are placed prominently on top. To garnish, chop up a stalk of scallions and one red radish and sprinkle them onto the plate.

Crab Cakes

Crab cakes is a popular appetizer that first surfaced around the Chesapeake Bay area, particularly in the state of Maryland, thus the name, Maryland crab cakes. It consists of fresh crab meat, traditionally blue crab, which is native to Chesapeake Bay, onions, mayonnaise, breadcrumbs and eggs. It can be sautéed, baked or deep-fried. In the Pacific Northwest, Dungeness crab meat is utilized instead of the blue crab.

About the only type of crab meat that is available in my area is pasteurized and comes in cans or pouches. A more expensive version of crab meat is lump meat, which is harvested from the crab's body and is kept whole (hence the lump designation) and is the sweetest part of the crustacean. This is usually reserved for cocktail servings and can be expensive. For crab cakes, it is OK to use regular claw and shredded crab meat.

For my version, I mix the crab meat with parsley, scallion, white onions (all chopped fine), Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, lemon juice, breadcrumbs, eggs (beaten) and salt and pepper. The eggs are used to bind the mixture together. Use your hand to shape the mixture into individual cakes (the size is all up to you: small for appetizers and bigger ones to serve as a sandwich). After shaping, coat them with breadcrumbs thoroughly. The mix should be moist enough for the breadcrumbs to adhere to easily. Then it is time to go into the fryer. Deep-frying these puppies shouldn't take more than 90 seconds each. They should be fried to slightly less than a shade of golden brown as they will continue cooking even after they have been removed from the oil. As for a sauce to go with the crab cakes, I prefer a mustard seed and sour cream or roasted red pepper sauce.

Clam Chowdah & Salad

Sometimes you just don't feel like having a full fledged dinner entrée and a bowl of hearty soup and a light tossed salad would generally suffice. So here is an excellent dinner idea. I made New England Clam Chowder (or Chowdah; this is New England after all) and a simple mixed salad tossed in a wasabi, soy and ginger vinaigrette.

First, the soup. It may sound a little intimidating but New England Clam Chowder is not a hard soup to make at all. Here's what you need: whole and chopped clams, bacon, potato, celery, onion, garlic, black pepper, fresh dill and thyme, butter, flour, light cream and clam base (or clam juice). Start off by rendering the chopped bacon to release the fat. Gosh, the smell of bacon sizzling on a pan is simply unmistakable and just so appetizing. For those who are trying to watch their weight and might be turned off by the use of bacon, simply leave this step off. Now, pour the fat off and let's sweat the onions and garlic until it starts to turn slightly brown. Add in the other vegetables, small diced celery and potato and cook for a few minutes. At this time, throw in a stick butter and let it melt. Add about a cup of flour and cook until the flour and butter combination turns slight brown. Now you can add the clams and the clam base. I used canned clams but if you can get fresh ones, so much the better. If you are using base, add about two cups of water to dilute the concentrate. No dilution is necessary if clam juice (2 bottles) is used. In fact you would have to reduce down the clam juice in order to intensify the clam flavor.

For the final step, pour in about a quart and a half of light cream (the amount depends on how thick you like your soup to be) together with finely chopped dill and thyme. Bring the pot to a simmer and add black pepper before serving and garnish with a sprig of dill. The addition of the light cream is your final step before serving. If you intend to keep a portion of what you've made for later, scoop it out and freeze it. Only add cream to the amount that you intend to serve.

As for the salad, it is pretty simple. I used lettuce, julienned carrots, thinly sliced radish, red onions, cucumber and garlic croutons. As you can see, nothing fancy. Just lightly toss it in your vinaigrette of choice and you are good to go.

Put both these dishes together and voila! a simple and light meal, using easy-to-find ingredients. The chowdah may take a little prep time but believe me, it is worth the effort. In fact, you can make a whole gallon and have it with your meals for the next few days. Saves you both time and effort to put together a new dish.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

New Hampshire, the White Mountains, North Conway, Story Land and Thai Food

Summer is here in New England (finally!). After a considerably wet month of June (and part of July as well) with temperatures averaging a lower-than-normal 70+ degrees Fahrenheit, we are finally experiencing a run of sunny days with warmer temperatures. Even the seasonal humidity is slowly creeping up to the slightly uncomfortable level. Well, summer months usually mean that it is time to take that vacation trip. Lately, with all-round bad news on the economic front, the current trend is to vacation on a budget, usually at a location closer to home. This year, we are following that mantra, taking a family vacation trip to the neighboring state of New Hampshire, specifically to the scenic White Mountains area where the popular children's theme park, Story Land is located.

This is our second trip to Story Land, having been there once before maybe four years ago. The kids are much older now and this might be their last trip there as the various rides are proving to be quite kiddish for even the youngest one. Nonetheless, we enjoyed ourselves all the same.

Well the reason for this post is not to talk about Story Land but rather to talk about the food we had there. As North Conway and its surrounding areas have quite a number of tourist attractions, there is simply no shortage of places to dine. Of course, there are the usual franchise places like Friendly's, Applebees, Pizza Hut, etc. Then there are also the smaller local restaurants. So, we were really spoilt for choices. Would you be surprised if I said that we had Thai? Yes, Thai food smack in the middle of North Conway, NH. And you know what, it was really good.

The restaurant is called Thai Nakonping (no website) and it features some authentic Thai dishes as well as some Americanized Thai fare. Apart from the usual Thai noodle and rice dishes, there is also a hamburger and hot dog menu for the kids, which might be helpful for parents who might want to try food that their children might not be familiar with. Our kids are more familiar with Asian food, so they shared a big plate of pineapple fried rice with shrimp. My wife had Pad Thai (her favorite) and I tried the spicy basil garlic soft-shell crab served with jasmine rice. We were blown away! The food was really excellent, very tasty and full of Thai flavors. I asked for my dish to be extra spicy and the chef complied (not knock-your-socks-off spicy but hot enough to get my sweat glands working a little).

The next evening, after a full day at Story Land, we went around North Conway looking for places to have dinner. Everywhere we went (mainly the franchise places), there were long lines of families waiting to be seated. If there is one thing I hate the most, it is having to wait in line to sit down for dinner. After being informed that it might be a 40-minute wait at the Ninety-Nine, we made our way back to, you guessed it, Thai Nakonping! It is a small restaurant, maybe 20-30 tables and there were already several tables having their dinners. We walked in and the friendly waiter from the night before, recognized us and showed us to the same table we occupied before. And the best thing is, no lines and the food is excellent. The kids shared the house fried rice with chicken while my wife had Pad Thai yet again (yes, she loved it). Again, the food did not disappoint and we had a great meal without having to wait in line.

So if you are ever in the North Conway neighborhood, be sure to check out Thai Nakonping restaurant. It boasts of authentic Thai flavors, reasonable prices and a friendly atmosphere. Would definitely go back there again if we ever make our way up to the White Mountains area in the near future.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Yummy Birthday Treats!

Today is my wife's birthday and I treated her to a nice dinner meal which I planned and prepared over the course of the day. While the dinner went well, the day really did not start off very well for me. Got involved in a small fender-bender with another car that accidentally backed up into mine when I was dropping my daughter off at her gymnastics school. Fortunately, no one was hurt and we exchanged our insurance information and I got on with the rest of my day. Got to my local supermarket and bought all the necessary ingredients for my dinner "extravaganza," including a Carvel ice-cream cake.

So here are my plans: I mapped out 4 items on the menu tonight. First is a lobster dish, which was specially requested by my wife. I decided to go simple with this one by boiling the lobster but notch it up with a nice savory creamy sauce. The second item on the menu is a baked spinach and lump crab-stuffed flounder with roasted red pepper sauce. The third item, which is more like a small appetizer, is shrimp fritters and finally, I wrapped my wife's favorite vegetable, fresh asparagus in phyllo sheets and baked them.

Let me start with the lobster dish. This is the season for soft-shell lobsters and I purchased 3 of them for $4.99/pound, which came up to just under $20. Soft-shells appear when lobsters molt, or outgrow their current hard shell and grow a new one. The new shell starts off soft but hardens over time. For lobsters of equivalent sizes, soft-shells usually have less meat. As the name suggests, the shells easily crack open and no additional tools are needed except for your hands. I wanted to make a sauce with lobster stock, so the minute I got home, I got the stock going in a pot containing the lobsters bodies, tomatoes, sherry, worcestershire sauce, onions, carrots, celery and bay leaves, bringing it to boil and then simmering it for 2-3 hours to extract the maximum flavor out of the ingredients. To make the sauce, I started out with a roux (cooking the same amount of butter and flour makes this thickening agent) and then I added the strained lobster stock, which came to a saucy consistency. Then I added some dry sherry and cream and continue simmering the sauce. Finally, I added fresh squeezed lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. The lemon juice adds a little hint of freshness and acidity to the heavy sauce. Finally, I garnished the sauce with some finely chopped scallions (chives are an acceptable substitute as well), which, like the lemon juice, acts to lighten up the sauce. As for the lobster meat, just boil them in a pot for 15-20 minutes and they should be ready to go. Shucking these soft-shells is as easy as peeling shrimp shells.

For the next big component of the meal, we need flounder fillets, spinach and lump crab meat, as well as some breadcrumbs. First, sauté some shallots and garlic with the washed spinach leaves, season with salt and pepper and allow it to cool down. After letting the spinach cool down, fold the crab meat into the spinach together with some bread crumbs. If you've seasoned the spinach well, there is no further need to season the new mixture anymore as the crab meat by itself is naturally sweet. Lay out a flounder fillet flat and scoop a spoonful of the crab-spinach mix onto it and roll. Repeat for however many fillets of the fish you have on hand and put them in a casserole dish. Brush the rolled fillets with some butter and top each one with some breadcrumbs for some texture. As for the sauce, puree some roasted red pepper together with some parsley, onions and garlic. Transfer the puree to a pot, add worcestershire sauce and start heating it up. Season appropriately with salt and your sauce is ready.

For the vegetable, I used phyllo sheets to wrap stalks of asparagus (oiled and seasoned) and baked them in the oven. Another component that you see in the picture above is the shrimp fritters. Using the standard recipe for fritters (flour, eggs, milk, butter, salt, baking powder), I deep-fried shrimp coated in the batter. And that's it. Nothing complicated about these dishes, just maybe some extra prep time.

Monday, July 13, 2009

4th of July Getaway to Kittery, ME

Over the 4th of July weekend, my wife and I traveled to Kittery, Maine for a one-night getaway. This small yet beautiful coastal town in Maine, which overlooks yet another scenic tourist destination, Portsmouth, NH across the mouth of the Piscataqua River, is about an hour's drive from our home, perfect for a short weekend trip. We made reservations for our one-night accommodation at a local bed & breakfast called Portsmouth Inn and Spa. This is a nice quaint 5-room inn that overlooks the Piscataqua River and is just a stone's throw away from Portsmouth (walk across the historic Memorial Bridge and you are there!). Of the five total rooms at the inn, three were already booked and we chose a room called Alice, the smallest one located up in the attic, which has a window overlooking the scenic river (the left-most window on the roof in the picture below).

The inn also offers full spa treatments and we chose to have a duet Swedish massage. We arrived on Sunday, July the 5th and immediately scooted over to the spa next door (the small house on the left) for our massages before our 4 o'clock check-in. And I gotta say, the massage felt so good that we were both hoping that it would never end! But end it did and we were greeted by our friendly host with some fresh-baked cookies and coffee and were promptly checked-in. The inn itself and our room is very neat and clean, just like how you would want your own home to be. And that was how it felt, like coming back to your own home where you can just kick off your shoes and relax, leaving all the stress of everyday life behind, if only for just a day and a night.

After settling down, we now we have to think about where to have dinner. And in both Portsmouth and Kittery, there is certainly no shortage of quality restaurants waiting to serve you. Before arriving, I had done some research and decided that the menu at Anneke Jans in Kittery was the most promising. Having worked at a New England seafood restaurant, I was not about to have more of the same and believe me, in this part of the world, the vast array of New England-style seafood restaurants dominate. Hello! Maine lobsters and Bob's Clam Hut, anyone? So, in choosing Anneke Jans, I was going for more of the variety and style of food than anything else. Anneke Jans bills itself as a neighborhood bistro style restaurant and had received numerous positive praises in reviews from area magazines and newspapers.

Arriving at the restaurant, we were surprised to see how small it was. Located on a secluded corner of a one-way street, Anneke Jans probably has less than 40 seats and the crowded quarters is not something I look forward to when I go out to dine. Especially, when my arm was brushing up against another patron's seated on the table next to us. Really, that place was tiny. It has a bar and like the restaurant I worked at, an open kitchen, where customers can watch the chefs cook their meals. Our server was friendly enough but she did not offer any further explanation about the various menu items or any recommendations. Not a good start but I already know what I wanted to eat.

For starters, we went with Bangs Island mussels with bacon, shallots, white wine, cream and for a dollar more, Great Hill blue cheese crumble. It was excellent and I was impressed. The mussels are fresh and the creamy sauce is so savory and delicious, I could almost drink it up! What a great start and I couldn't wait for our entrées. I chose a striped bass with lobster, potatoes, pearl onions, wild mushrooms and lobster foam while my wife had seared duck breast with wild rice pancake, grilled asparagus and blueberry glaze.

They both sounded great on paper and we couldn't wait to try them. Our meals arrived and immediately, my heart sank. For $25, my plate had two small pieces of pan-fried striper laid on top of a 3 or 4 shredded pieces of lobster meat, a child's handful of pearl onions, peas, potatoes and several slivers of mushrooms. And the promised lobster foam? Well, let me ask ya, what foam? Instead of a frothy and savory whipped cream-like foam, all I could see was a watery mess pooled on the base of my plate. To make matters worse, the "foam" tasted very much like it looked, watery and devoid of any flavor worth writing about. My wife's duck dish fared a little better although not by much. Hers was $27 and all she got for it was a single duck breast which was nicely cooked and flavorful. However, the wild rice pancake was forgettable and the asparagus was over-grilled and limp. The blueberry glaze was OK but really nothing to write home about.

As for desserts, they were more like an afterthought when the menu was conceived and really not worth mentioning. Nothing exciting, just the usual line-up of cheesecakes, créme brulée, etc. The bill came up to just over $100 for the two of us and we left the restaurant feeling slightly ripped off. Seriously, I could have made any of our entrées taste much better at less than half the cost. C'est la vie......

Dinner was a disappointment but the rest of our stay was memorable. It so happened that due to the crappy rainy weather we were having the two weeks prior to our arrival, the 4th of July fireworks was postponed to the night that we arrived. And the best part is, we got to watch the sensational fireworks display right from our room window! No need for bug sprays or blankets.

The next morning, breakfast was served promptly at 8:30 am. There were five other guests staying at the inn and we all had breakfast together. Three of the guests were returnees, having stayed at the inn several times before and they were really treated like family. The meal started with a nice strawberry and granola parfait and ended with eggs florentine served with a humongous croissant over some flavored jam, orange juice and coffee.

Overall, we had a great time with just a little bump during dinner. We would definitely come back again and maybe next time, spend more time exploring the town of Portsmouth, which we didn't have time to do this time around.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Garlic Shrimp With Strawberry & Chipotle Sauce

In a previous blog post titled The Accidental Chef, I talked about how fun it was to be spontaneous in the kitchen. No, no, not spontaneous like breaking into song for no reason (duh!) but more like not planning ahead as to what to cook and just go with what you have in your refrigerator at that particular moment. This exercise is sure to get your creative juices flowing as you try to mate different ingredients together that you would not normally do.

So yesterday was a tiring day for me, having just returned from a short trip to Kittery, Maine (more about that in my next blog posting). It was close to 6 o'clock in the evening, I was tired and I had to come up with something for dinner. Perusing through the contents of my fridge, I was stumped because there really isn't much of anything left. I had some strawberries that were too sour to eat fresh by itself, some carrots, scallions, onions, garlic and really, not much of anything else. The freezer was a little more encouraging. I had some shrimp (with the head on), chicken (plenty of that) plus a couple of pieces of pork. At that point in time, the chicken and pork would take too long to thaw, so the logical choice was to go with the shrimp.

Now that I've settled on the protein, I still have to come up with a sauce or something to go with the shrimp. Looking into my pantry, I spied a can of chipotle and something clicked in my head--a strawberry chipotle sauce. I've never made the sauce before but it's been on my to-cook list for a while. Now is as good a time to try it, right? So here we go!

First, clean the strawberries and puree them in a blender. Add the chipotle (how much depends on how much heat you are looking for), rice wine vinegar (or cider vinegar), a bit of sugar, salt and pepper. Heat up a saucepan and sweat some chopped onions and garlic. Add in the puree and cook for 5 minutes or so. Taste and adjust the seasoning as desired.

Now, in another pan, cook the shrimp together with some minced garlic. As this is a garlic shrimp dish, add enough garlic to produce a pungent garlic smell. Bam! I chose to use shrimp with the head on to extract the most flavor. As the shrimp is halfway cooked, pour in the sauce. In time, you will notice that the taste of the sauce will change dramatically as the shrimp cooks. A more savory taste gets added to the tartness of the strawberries and the heat from the chipotle. Finally, before serving, add scallions and some fresh chopped cilantro.