Archive for the ‘Seafood’Category

A prawn by any other name

Shrimp strip 1
Few things are as quite as confusing as the wonderful array of crustaceans available in southern Spain. When we were in El Puerto de Santa María in February, we photographed some of them at the Romerijo fish market (www.romerijo.com). The same crustacean (per its Latin name) may have two or three different common names, depending on size and where it is caught. The six images here, for example, only show four different species.

Here they are, from left to right, above:
Camarón (Palaemon serratus) is the common rock shrimp (common prawn to the Brits) found in abundance at the mouth of the Río Guadalquivír. When they are small like this, they are comparatively inexpensive. In Andalucía, they are often fried up, shell and all, in a paper-thin omelet called a tortallita de camarones.

Langostino Sanlúcar (Penaeus kerathurus) is not what the French call langoustine or the Italians call scampi. In Spain it’s a large brown prawn with hints of red. Those from Sanlúcar are especially prized because they are sweeter and more tender than langostinos from other waters. They are usually steamed or grilled with olive oil and garlic.

Gamba blanca (Parapenaeus longirostris) is the North African white shrimp, which is often found in the Bay of Cádiz. It’s an especially meaty shrimp and is served in lieu of the carabinero (red prawn, scarlet prawn) fished in a different season.

Shrimp strip 2
Here’s the second group, from left to right, above:

Cigala (Nephrops noreugicus) is the French langoustine or the Italian scampi. It also goes by such monikers as Norway lobster or Dublin Bay prawn. It’s actually a member of the lobster family. In Spain, it’s usually cut in half lengthwise and grilled (a la plancha).

Langostino rayado (Penaeus kerathurus) is the same beast as the langostino Sanlúcar, but barely half the size. These were actually fished off the coast of Mauritania in northwest Africa. At this size they’re often used in baked rice dishes, such as paella de mariscos.

Quisquilla is a name applied, alas, to a couple of different shrimp or prawns. Often it’s the small brown shrimp that is mixed into rice dishes or into soups. Here it is a much bigger version of Palaemon serratus, the camarón and would be served steamed or pan-fried with garlic.

As confusing as the nomenclature may be, they all make terrific eating. At Romerijo, you can order them by weight and have them cooked immediately to eat on the spot. The fish market cum restaurant is located at Plaza de la Herrería, 1 in El Puerto de Santa María. The local telephone is 956-54-12-54.

26

03 2014

Tasty start to PEI International Shellfish Festival

lobster chowder2Mussels, oysters, or lobster? It’s hard to choose among them on Prince Edward Island, the small Canadian province with the massive shellfish harvest. This year I’m getting my fill of all of them as a judge of Garland Canada International Chef Challenge. But before the competitions got started on Friday the 13th, I joined 500 other diners for the Feast and Frolic kickoff dinner at the Charlottetown Festival Grounds. Food Network Canada star (and Islander) chef Michael Smith played emcee, and the students of the Culinary Institute of Canada did the cooking. It was an auspicious beginning.

The moderately deconstructed lobster chowder (above) consisted of a celeriac broth with foraged sea asparagus and green swoops of pureed lovage. A butter-poached claw and half-tail of PEI lobster was perched on a slab of perfect PEI potato (a fingerling cut lengthwise in thirds).

0 - salad servingAs Smith gleefully pointed out, locavore dining has always been the rule on PEI, and to drive it home, the salad course consisted of a big bowl of mixed greens and flowers (nasturtium, violas) and lettuce that each table harvested with scissors from planter centerpieces. Ilona Daniel of the Culinary Institute was at my table, so she mixed the dressing and tossed the salad.

Beef and crabBut the capper of the evening was an unusual surf and turf: braised PEI grassfed beef shortrib with some possibly local (I couldn’t find out) snow crab legs and a side bucket of PEI blue mussels. It was a reminder that even a small island like PEI has a resident beef industry, and that while most of us think of snow crab as a northern Pacific species, Islanders do indeed fish for them in the waters north of the island.

Sea salt brings home taste of Spain

Sal costaWhen we shop for groceries overseas, we like to bring home salt. We never realized how acrid American table salt can be (and how bland kosher salt is) until we started using salt from other places. It’s obvious that gray sea salt from the flats of Brittany or Normandy would have a distinct flavor, and we often use such salts for cooking. But our favorite, hands down, is simple supermarket sea salt from Catalunya, specifically the Sal Costa brand, which sells for less than two euros a kilo. Unfortunately, Spain has succumbed to the American penchant for adulterating food by putting in “healthy” additives, so the finely ground Sal Costa sea salt for table use has added fluoride. Like the iodine in American salt, the additives make the salt bitter. Fortunately, Sal Costa does not mess with its granular salt intended for baking fish. (The recipe is on the package: Pack a whole fish in a kilo of salt. Roast in 425F/220C oven for 30 minutes.) We keep some of the “roasting salt” on the back of the stove to add to pasta water and we fill a couple of salt grinders with it for other cooking and table use. It adds the perfect Spanish coastal flavor to a paella or a tortilla española. For other recipes (in Spanish), see Sal Costa’s own home page: www.salcosta.com.

21

08 2013

What to buy in a Cajun grocery store

grocery2 Usually Pat and I write about buying specialty foods in overseas grocery stores, but Cajun cooking stands so far apart from most other American regional food that the grocers have developed lines of goods we can rarely find anywhere else.

The pickled tabasco peppers, gumbo file powder, and various hot pepper sauces shown above are cases in point. In fact, I was once told by a northern grocer that file powder was illegal. (Not true, but it is allegedly mildly carcinogenic. If you eat three pounds at a time, you might develop a tumor in 20 years.) Needless to say, file powder can be hard to find up here in the chilly north.

grocery1 The ingredients immediately above are even more local. Dried shrimp might be a worldwide commodity, but Louisiana dried shrimp has a distinctive flavor of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s great in a shrimp cream sauce or a soup. The garlic sauce from Poche’s is an essential ingredient in some quarters for dousing boiled crawfish tails. The instant roux mix, while not so different from Wondra flour, makes a great tan roux.

grocery3 The last item is a latecomer, at least to legitimate grocery stores. At 100 proof, this colored corn likker has the requisite kick to be called moonshine — minus the chemicals to make you go blind.

What to eat at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival

Cindy Harris of Houston TXWhen it comes to the food vendors at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, the food isn’t all crawfish, but to quote a good friend’s catch phrase, it’s all good. Well, most of it. I’d been given a big buildup from a couple of locals about Cajun pistols or pistolettes, which are buns stuffed with seafood and cheese and then deep-fried. As someone said, “they musta changed the recipe.”

Bon Creole Cindy Harris from Houston, Texas (above) opted for Giant Shrimp on a Stick from the same vendor selling Gator on a Stick (“tender and delicious”). In fairness, I tried the alligator on a stick and found it more tender than most alligator I’ve tried. And, no, it doesn’t taste like chicken. It tastes like alligator.

Food on a stick always does well at outdoor gatherings where few people can get a place to sit. In addition to the shrimp and gator, one vendor had the venerable corn dog (hot dog on a stick dipped in cornmeal batter and deep fried). More popular than all the meat on wooden sticks were the original meat on a stick: both frog’s legs (deep fried) and turkey legs (grilled over charcoal).

Boiled crawfish Having sampled many of the offerings, I will venture the opinion that the best tasting and probably healthiest options were some of the classics: crawfish etouffée on rice, jambalya, and seafood gumbo. (As the T-shirt says, “All creatures great and small taste better in gumbo.”) But this being the Crawfish Festival, my vote goes to the plates of boiled crawfish. (Watch for a future post on the technique for peeling boiled crawfish.)

Commencement Day at Crawfish College

Cap and gown
Crawfish you lookin' at me By the end of a short work week in and around Breaux Bridge, we the matriculated have been inculcated with the full flush of gracious community, the can’t-help-but-smile chords of a pounding accordion and fiddles, and the feisty spirit of the crawfish (right), which seems to flourish no matter what the world might do to beat him down. (This might be the secret of keeping a French Acadian spirit alive and well in exile from its original homeland. Like the crawfish, they took to the rich swamps and became Cajuns.) So we at the College reached our graduation day as part of the opening ceremonies, where we were presented with cap, gown, and diploma (above).

As the bands began to tune up for the one-of-a-kind Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, I had the pleasure of meeting Helen and Pete Rago (below) of Covington, Louisiana. They have been coming to the festival longer than anyone can count (Pete admits to being 88, Helen is forever young). No one can even come close to matching their costumes. To honor them this year (they have been Grand Marshals at least once), they were presented with the original painting from which the 2013 festival poster was made. Rock on, Helen and Pete. P1040472

04

05 2013

Trapping deepwater crawfish in the Atchafalaya

Jody Meche with crawfish Jody Meche is a third or fourth generation fisherman who maintains about 1,000 crawfish traps in the Atchafalaya Basin. He also happens to be a member of the Henderson Town Council and a board member of the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion & Research Board. So even if he can clown around with a grimace as he shows off a prize crawfish (above), he has the bona fides to be taken seriously on the subject of crawfish. And he’s not modest — not even a little bit. “My crawfish are the best tasting crawfish in the world,” he proclaims.

Jody Meche dumps crawfish trapHe spent a half day on the Atchafalaya showing some of us in Crawfish College just how deepwater wild fishing is done. Meche fishes a much larger trap than the pond fishermen. His traps stretch 4-5 feet long, which allows the crawfish to crawl to the surface for a sip of air now and then while the trap rests on the bottom.

The landscape where Meche fishes is phenomenally beautiful and productive swamp within the basin. It could be even more productive, he points out, if the powers that be would use the basin for the purpose created by the Army Corps of Engineers – as flood relief. On Thursday morning, there was more than a 20-foot differential between the height of the Mississippi where it can be let into the basin (33, almost 34 feet) and the height of the basin water itself (under 13 and a half feet). To Meche it makes no sense for people all up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to deal with flood water when the river could be lowered by bleeding out some of the water into the Atchafalaya. Another 5-6 feet would restore the basin to its natural heights readily visible as water lines on the embankments.

Jody in the swamp More water would mean a smoother flow and better oxygenation in the basin. It would, in effect, cover up the channeling effects of the spoil banks left behind by oil and gas exploration and pipeline construction. It would also mean bigger and more crawfish. Of course, it would also make the whole basin into an undisputable navigable waterway. That could call into legal question a number of land claims currently providing outside investors with lucrative oil and gas royalties that would otherwise revert to the state. This is all according to some legal views. And litigation runs by Napoleonic code in Louisiana.

Jody's catch in a boilStill, Jody and his nephew Casey Bodoin, running a sister boat, quickly gather two big sacks of crawfish — around 70 pounds. They will make a mighty fine boil come evening. The Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival is about to begin and on the eve of the festivities, all the volunteers who make it happen have a party and picnic on the fairgrounds. We students of Crawfish College are privileged to join, and our crawfish from the trip with Jody Meche are part of the feast. Here Byron Blanchard dumps the just boiled crawfish into a cooler as his son sprinkles them with “swamp dust” – a spice blend that includes salt, paprika, and just a bit of cayenne pepper.

03

05 2013

Crawfish 101 – pond fishing and processing

Crawfish Clay's pond To begin understanding crawfish, it’s worth starting with the culture and harvest. A lot of the Cajun country crawfish business involves growing them in ”ponds” – really flooded depressions fed with bayou water and held in place with an earthen levee. We went to visit Mike Clay’s pond, where he’s been growing and (after a fashion) breeding crawfish since 1985. Shown above is Mike’s pond, with crawfisherman Robbie Guidry getting ready to make a harvest.

Crawfish Mike ClayIncidentally, Mike, shown here, is also the 2013 Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival king. Crawfish from his pond have also won the festival’s crawfish races for the last dozen years or so. From every haul, Mike selects a few fast movers for training, which is why he has crawfish crawling around on his rubber gloves, as shown below. Crawfish Mike's racers

Crawfishing is deceptively simple. A crawfish trap is a funnel-shaped wire mesh basket into which the fisherman throws bait – in this case half a small fish. Like lobsters, crawfish are scavengers and they will crawl into the trap to feed on the bait, only to find they can’t crawl out. On Clay’s pond the traps are set on twin posts. The fisherman places a trap on a blank post, then hauls the trap on the adjacent post and dumps the crawfish either into buckets or a sorting table. Here’s a photo of Robbie holding up a trap with a few dozen crawfish inside. Crawfish Robbie pulls trap

It’s a monotonous task, but the crawfish pile up quickly. On the sorting table they are cleaned of debris (including the fish bones from the bait) and scooted into sacks that end up weighing 35-40 pounds. The sacks are then covered with wet burlap to keep the crawfish cool through evaporation.

Once they are delivered to a processor, that operation will wash the crawfish with clean fresh water before boiling them for a carefully controlled time and then chilling the cooked crustaceans. Here at CJ Seafood, they then peel the chilled crawfish and package the tail meat in vacuum bags for sale. Like the fishing, peeling is monotonous, but the crawfish peelers who do it work swiftly. For what it’s worth, the staff at CJ Seafood pack about 16,000 pounds (that’s eight tons) of crawfish meat a day. Crawfish peeling

02

05 2013

Tonging for wild oysters in Apalachicola Bay

I met Kendall Schoelles around dawn at 14.2 miles west of the John Gorrie Memorial Bridge on Route 30A. (That’s how they measure distances in Apalachicola, Florida.) We drove his pickup down a packed dirt path to a marshland dock, where we boarded Schoelles’ shallow-draft oyster boat. We were headed for the oystering grant that’s been in his family since the late 19th century. The Schoelles family grant used to be 1,100 acres; after government takings, it’s down to 158. That’s enough to keep Kendall and his brother harvesting enough oysters to make a living. Most Apalachicola oystermen, like those pictured above, have to make do with the public bars.

Apalachicola Bay oysters are the pride of the Gulf of Mexico – plump, sweet, and salty. It’s the last place in North America where wild oysters are harvested by hand by oystermen in small wooden boats. It’s back-breaking work, not unlike the small-boat lobstering I used to do in Maine, and I felt honored that Schoelles let me come along to participate, if only peripherally, in this vanishing way of life. Food doesn’t get any more locavore than shellfish from a town’s front-yard bay.

Apalachicola Bay is a unique environment on the Gulf of Mexico, created by an extensive barrier island system at the mouth of the Apalachicola River, which drains much of Georgia and the Florida panhandle. The plankton-rich mix of salt and fresh water creates optimal conditions for oysters. Apalachicola bivalves have always been the premium Gulf Coast oysters, so prized that oysters from elsewhere in the Gulf were sent here for packing so they would be shipped out in crates stamped ”Apalachicola.”

Schoelles revved the engine and we sped through the weeds into flatwater, unable to see more than a few feet in the fog. I asked how he found his lease under such conditions. ”Mostly, I just know,” he told me. ”I’ve been coming here most of my life.” Schoelles has never fished more than two months anywhere else but on his lease. He paused for effect, ”Of course, the last four or five years I use GPS.”

We anchored on a bar and Schoelles got down his tongs, which resemble two garden rakes connected together like a pair of scissors. The fog was starting to lift, and I could see that loons ringed the boat because tonging stirs up the small fish that they like to eat. The chicks were diving feet from the gunwales while the adults kept their distance. Both herring and laughing gulls had keen eyes on the boat.

Tonging is intensely hard work – reaching down to the bars, closing the rakes, and hauling the catch to the surface. Schoelles did it methodically, moving the boat a few feet every few minutes, until we had a huge heap of oysters and other sea life on the deck. With the sun trying to peek through the fog behind him, he seemed to glow beatifically.

Then we sat down for the grunt work. Because Apalachicola Bay oysters are wild, not farmed, they grow in clumps with a slew of other organisms – mussels, clams, sea cucumbers, giant algae, and other creatures I couldn’t possibly name. The oysters have to be separated from all these other objects – mostly by banging on the junctions with a steel culling iron without cracking the shell. All the small oysters must be tossed back to grow. Schoelles held out whelks and starfish to take ashore to die because both are oyster predators.

The cracked oysters (it’s easy to smash a shell by accident) became bird food for the gulls that follow the boat. One laughing gull has been coming to Schoelles’ boat every morning for two years. How does he know it’s the same gull? He doesn’t – not for sure – but the two seem to have an understanding.

The birds of Apalachicola eat well – but then so do the people. For more on where to enjoy the nutty, buttery flavor of Apalachicola Bay oysters, see my profile of three restaurants in the October 28 Boston Globe: “Where to eat oysters in Apalachicola.”

10

11 2012

Everyday squid in Basque country

Those of us who aren’t Basque have a hard time imagining just how well they eat. Good food and a love of cooking seem to be central to the culture. When we sat down with Elena and Juan Marí Arzak for the Robb Report story about the seasonal special dish of angulas (see the Dec. 21, 2011 post), they emphasized that love of good food was a Basque birthright that extends to every meal–not just special occasions.

That certainly seems to be true. When we later met professional guide Ana Intxausti Gardeki, she took us to the San Sebastian market and told us all about the various kinds of fish available. (She had worked for a seafood broker before changing careers.) She even gave us a recipe for calamari that she makes at home. It’s a Basque home cooking standard that even superchef Martín Berasategui serves in his restaurants. Ana calls it “Chipirones encebollados,” or “calamari with onions.”

CHIPIRONES ENCEBOLLADOS

Serves 4

Ingredients
4 tablespoons of olive oil, divided
8 spring onions, sliced (shallots will also do)
1 cayenne pepper, crumbled
2 cloves of garlic, minced
32 whole squid, cleaned and cut into tentacles and rings (about 2 lb.)
brandy or Armagnac
1/2 cup of dry white wine
salt to taste

Directions

1. In a sauce pan, mix 2 tablespoons olive oil, onion, cayenne, garlic, and a pinch of salt. Set heat on lowest setting and cover pan. Cook very slowly until the onion becomes golden brown, about 90 minutes.

2. Set a large sauté pan over strong flame and add remaining olive oil. When is it hot, add squid and sauté quickly, about 2 minutes. Add a splash of brandy and set it afire, turning pan to deglaze. Do not crowd the pan. Cook squid in 3 or 4 bunches if necessary. Pour the calamari and any remaining liquid into the onion.

3. Add white wine to the pan of squid and onions. Simmer for 30 minutes. Season with salt before serving.

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17

01 2012