Archive for the ‘Fish and Seafood’ Category

A Little Mardi Gras in New England

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Nan Parati in Mardi Gras Regalia (Courtesy of Nan Parati)

Western Massachusetts has a lot of character—and characters.

One of the characters who have given our hilltowns a lot of character in recent years is Nan Parati. Originally from New Orleans, the artist-turned-storekeeper lives in Ashfield, where she is the proprietor of Elmer’s Store.

She was visiting a friend in Ashfield in August 2005.

“I was heading back to New Orleans,” she told me recently, “when a friend of mine called from New Orleans and said, ‘Hey, we’re about to get a big hurricane. Maybe wait until after the weekend to come back. Everyone’s evacuating.’

“So I came back to wait out the hurricane, which turned out to be Katrina, which took out my house and my studio and I said, ‘I reckon I live in Massachusetts now!’

“I had some investment money from a house I had just sold in North Carolina and used that to build Elmer’s instead of going back to rebuild in New Orleans. (I had just spent 25 years building a design business in NO and decided I didn’t want to start that all over again—I wanted to do something new!)”

Elmer’s is a general store, as it has been since 1937, but under Nan’s direction it has become a restaurant, a gallery for artists and local products, and a hub for musical events—particularly those highlighting Louisiana music.

This weekend Elmer’s is hosting its first annual Winklepicker Festival. (If you want to know what a Winklepicker is in this context, just visit its web site!) The festival’s theme, for this year at any rate, is Mardi Gras. After all, this signature holiday of Nan’s native state falls next week.

The festival will feature lots of Louisiana-style music, a gospel brunch, a kids’ music camp, and Cajun and Creole cooking classes given by Nan’s New Orleans chum Michelle Nugent.

“Since I’m from New Orleans, people ALWAYS ask me about Louisiana cooking,” Nan told me. She met Chef Michelle Nugent two decades ago at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. A passionate advocate for Louisiana food, Michelle is the food coordinator for this annual April event; Nan creates the festival’s signs and serves as art co-coordinator.

I called Michelle Nugent to interview her for one of our local papers. She told me she was enthusiastic about coming to New England. “I lived in Massachusetts when I was a little bitty girl,” said the chef. “I love snow!”

She plans to offer three classes. Friday’s session will present a classic Creole dinner party, from Oysters Rockefeller to Bananas Foster. Saturday’s class will focus on a classic New Orleans-style brunch. On Sunday Michelle will explore Cajun Country cuisine.

Michelle noted that she isn’t sure what to expect in terms of an audience for her classes. “It might just be people who go to the festival to hear the music and come on a whim,” she said. “I’ve traveled enough around the country to know that people are fascinated with New Orleans and fascinated with our foodways.”

Chef Michelle (Courtesy of Michelle Nugent)

She explained that the classes are structured to help people learn more about the different types of food in Louisiana. “It seems to me that when I talk to people that aren’t from New Orleans they’re often confused about what’s Cajun, what’s Creole, what’s authentic, what’s nouvelle. And they think everything’s too hot, which isn’t usually the case.”

I asked her to elaborate a bit on the origins of Creole versus Cajun cuisine.

“Creole comes from the Spanish criollo, which means ‘born here in this place,’” she said. “In New Orleans after the Native Americans we had French and then Spanish and then French and then Spanish. And then New Orleans was a large port city and of course we had Africans come over with the slave trade, but we also had a lot of free people of color from what is now Haiti.

“So Creole could really mean a little bit of everything. It was encouraged for the French aristocrats to take Black mistresses. So we got pretty mixed up pretty fast!

“The Creole food has French aristocratic traditions and some traditions from Africa such as okra and then the use of hot pepper and things like that, which is not nearly as severe as people think it is.”

In contrast, she explained, the Cajuns were the Acadians—French refugees from Canada, with a little German blood mixed in for good measure. Michelle described their cuisine as “more countrified food.”

“It reflects the fact that these people make their living off the land with fish and shrimp and crawfish and rice,” she said.

Asked what she likes to make and eat on a daily basis, Michelle thought for a minute. “At home I just ‘pot cook,’” she noted. “I love to pot cook whether it’s beans and rice or gumbo. I find that things like that, especially gumbo, always taste better the next day. I will break my rule for these classes, but normally I make gumbo the day before and put it in the refrigerator overnight.”

It was a little harder for Michelle to identify her favorite Louisiana food in general.

“Hmm,” she mused. “Probably boiled crabs. I eat them plain. Some people eat them with saltines or cocktail sauce. I loved all boiled seafood, but crabs are my favorite.”

She sighed.

“And then there’s nothing better than an oyster po’ boy.”

Since I had only met Michelle over the phone, I asked Nan to describe her to me.

“Michelle … is wild, determined, strong, serious about what she does, fun to work with on my part and fun to stand back and watch when vendors [at the New Orleans Jazz Fest] sneak out of line,” enthused Nan.

“She loves a good time, she’s extremely smart and talented, has great taste in clothes and belt-buckles, is a wonderful, wonderful cook—and I am looking forward to spending a week with her up here!

“It’s always fun to me when New Orleanians come up here to visit because if you put New Orleans on one end of a stick and were trying to figure out where Ashfield went on that stick in relation to New Orleans, you’d have to go all the way to the very opposite end of that stick to find Ashfield. They couldn’t be further apart in way of life!”

If you’d like to enroll in this weekend’s cooking classes, call Elmer’s Store at 413-628-4003. For those who can’t make it to Ashfield Michelle has given me her recipe for a classic Louisiana dish. I made it for my family recently, and we adored it.

Modern Times Shrimp Etouffée
Courtesy of Michelle Nugent

Michelle Nugent uses the words “modern times” because, she notes, “local lore suggests that the original Acadian settlers would not have had flour or tomatoes when they first arrived in Southwest Louisiana.” She adds, “You may also substitute crawfish tails or chicken for the shrimp.”

Ingredients:

6 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
2 cups chopped yellow onions
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped bell pepper (Michelle likes red for its sweetness)
4 to 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 bay leaves (fresh if possible)
2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves picked off the stem
2-1/2 to 3-1/2 cups shrimp stock (see recipe below)
1 cup tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped (optional)
1-1/2 to 2 pounds fresh shrimp, peeled (save the shells for the stock recipe)
Worcestershire sauce to taste
kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste (I used 1-1/2 teaspoons salt, 8 twists of the pepper grinder, and about 1/4 teaspoon cayenne)
liquid pepper sauce (Michelle prefers Crystal®, but I used what I had in the house; I put in only 7 drops so it wouldn’t overwhelm my diners)
lemon juice to taste (I used the juice of half a large lemon)
1 bunch whole scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
hot, cooked white rice

Instructions:

In a large heavy saucepan or cast-iron skillet heat 4 tablespoons of the butter over medium high heat and whisk in the flour. Cook this roux, stirring frequently, until it is the color of peanut butter. This is the trickiest part of the recipe since one has to watch and stir A LOT to keep the roux from burning.

Add the onions to the roux; they will darken the roux a bit further as the sugars caramelize. Stir in the celery and peppers and cook until the vegetables start to soften, about 5 minutes. Again, stir to keep everything from burning.

Add the garlic, bay leaves, and thyme. Whisk in 2-1/2 cups stock and the tomatoes if desired, and bring the mixture just to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer, and add more shrimp stock if the stew looks too thick. (Be careful: I added a bit too much, and the final product was a little wet although delicious.)

Add Worcestershire sauce, salt, peppers, and pepper sauce to taste. Cook for 30 minutes uncovered, stirring occasionally.

Add the shrimp to the stew and cook for 5 minutes longer. Add lemon juice to taste. Adjust other seasonings to taste. Stir in half of the scallions and the parsley and cook for 5 more minutes or until the shrimp is just cooked through and flavors have melded.

Finish by gently stirring in the last bit of cold butter for richness and shine. Serve with hot cooked rice. Garnish with the reserved scallions (and a little more parsley if you like), and put a bottle of pepper sauce on the table for individual adjustment.

Serves 4 to 6.

Shrimp Stock

Ingredients:

the heads and shells from 1 to 2 pounds fresh shrimp
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 tablespoons brandy
1 carrot, chopped
1 yellow onion with peel, roughly chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1-1/2 quarts water
1 to 2 bay leaves
1 sprig fresh thyme
a few whole peppercorns

Instructions:

Heat the butter over a medium-high flame in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the shrimp shells and sauté until they start to brown; then add the tomato paste and the vegetables and sauté until brown. Carefully add the brandy and then add the water and the seasonings. Bring the liquid to a boil and then simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.

Strain the stock, discarding the solids, and set it aside to cool.

Oysters of Elegance

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

oysters of el web

 
I was thrilled to find oysters a couple of days ago in the meat case at A.L. Avery & Son, my local general store.
 
Avery’s only stocks oysters between late November and early January, and I make a point of buying these expensive treats at least once during the holiday season.
 
My mother, our neighbor Alice Parker, and I threw them together into a simple New Year’s Eve supper at our home before going off to enjoy music and the company of good friends elsewhere.
 
I am not known for my modesty so I don’t hesitate to mention that Alice and I brought the house down with our rendition of “Santa Baby” and other songs at the Charlemont Inn that evening!
 
But back to oysters: I’m always amazed to recall that oysters remained plentiful and cheap as late as the early 20th century.
 
When my grandmother was a freshman at Mount Holyoke College, she used to walk into the center of town and bring back inexpensive oysters for secret feasts in her dorm. (Eating in one’s room was emphatically NOT allowed at the college in 1908!)
 
In her old age she chuckled as she recalled encountering a faculty member on the main street of town as she returned from an oyster-fetching errand.
 
The professor engaged her in conversation for several minutes. Both the faculty member and young Clara studiously ignored the oyster liquor dripping from the paper bag my grandmother was clutching.
 
Oyster suppers were common occurrences in former days in my hometown of Hawley, Massachusetts, where voters often enjoyed them after Annual Town Meeting in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
 
In a scrapbook from the Civil War era preserved by my late neighbor Ethel White’s family, a newspaper clipping describes an oyster-filled surprise party held for J.G. Longley, one of the town’s “old bachelor citizens.” According to the clipping Mr. Longley returned home from shopping to find
 
to his surprise and consternation that forty or fifty of his neighbors, whom he had never suspected of any ill before had taken possession of his house and were practically converting the old mansion into a saloon for cooking oysters, melting sugar, &c. At first he was somewhat disconcerted, being hardly able to decide whether he was himself or somebody else. He very soon recovered his sense, however, and satisfying himself that their motives were not of an incendiary nature, went in and rendered very efficient aid in disposing of the oysters and other delicacies with which the tables were spread, and joined quite freely in the “laugh and song that floated along” as the wheel of time went round.
 
By the mid-20th century overfishing rendered an oyster feast for 40 to 50 people unaffordable for most Americans. It also did damage to the environment as both oysters and their reefs fulfill important ecological functions.
 
I support the efforts of state and national groups to create new habitats for oysters—and I treasure the few oysters I eat each year!
 
I prepared this year’s ration with a simple recipe supplied by Alice. It came from her mother Mary Parker, known to neighborhood children as Gam. Gam called the dish “Oysters of Elegance.”
 
The recipe definitely dates from the early-to-mid-20th century, using as it does a now underappreciated condiment, chili sauce.
 
The combination of ingredients sounded a bit odd, but it the flavors melded wonderfully, producing a stew-like concoction that was divine sopped up with the homemade bread Alice brought to the supper.
 
I prepared it in a 1-1/2-quart casserole dish, but I think another time I’ll try using individual serving crocks. Alice remembers that Gam served the dish this way.
 
I may also try cutting back on the chili sauce (maybe reducing the quantity to 1 cup) and adding a little more oyster liquor, which I love. Alice says that the measurements she has on paper weren’t exact because her mother didn’t actually measure!
 
It was pretty darn tasty as transcribed below, however.
Here's what the oysters looked like before we sprinkled cheese on top.

Here's what the oysters looked like before we sprinkled cheese on top.

 
Gam’s Oysters of Elegance
 
Ingredients:
 
12 ounces chili sauce
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 pint oysters
1/4 cup oyster liquor
2 tablespoons butter
grated cheddar cheese as needed (we used about 2/3 cup)
 
Instructions:
 
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
 
In the bottom of a small casserole dish (or four crocks) combine the chili sauce and Worcestershire sauce. Sprinkle the chopped onion pieces on top.
 
Arrange the oysters on top of this mixture, and toss on the liquor as well.
 
Dot the top of the oysters with the butter, and sprinkle grated cheese on top so that the oysters are covered (but not blanketed!).
 
Bake the oysters for about 25 minutes, until the cheese browns a bit around the edges. (The crocks should take less time–perhaps 15 minutes or so.)
 
Eat the casserole with spoons. Make sure you have plenty of homemade bread to soak up the yummy sauce.
 
Serves 4.
 
Coming next to In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens: NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS for this blog!
 
ny2web

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Toni’s Salmon Mousse

Monday, August 24th, 2009
Toni in 2005 (Courtesy of Ena Haines)

Toni in 2005 (Courtesy of Ena Haines)

 
After our memorial party for the late Florette Zuelke, Florette’s niece Sue Stone requested that I post the recipe for one specific food that was served that day. She had fallen love with the rich, velvety salmon mousse provided by Betsy Kovacs.
 
I asked Betsy for the recipe–and she revealed that, appropriately, it came from one of Florette’s cohorts in the glory days of Singing Brook Farm, our summer community in Hawley, Massachusetts.
 
Betsy’s late mother Toni Leitner was charming, energetic (she worked well into her late 80s), bright, and a terrific cook. She gleaned her kitchen skills in one of the legendary culinary capitals of the world, interwar Vienna.
 
In 1965 Toni put together a recipe binder for Betsy. This is one of the binder’s cherished formulas. According to Betsy, Toni would have used the old-fashioned term and called it a receipt.
 
I helped Betsy make the mousse this past weekend–and it couldn’t have been easier. It’s a particularly useful recipe at this time of year because if you use canned salmon (and she generally does) the only cooking involved is boiling a little water.
 
You end up with a cool kitchen–and a dish that evokes the flavor of another remarkable member of a remarkable generation. 
 
Betsy gets ready to add gelatin to the mousse.

Betsy gets ready to add gelatin to the mousse.

 
Ingredients:

  

1/2 cup boiling water

1 envelope gelatin

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tiny onion, sliced

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/4 teaspoon paprika

1 tablespoon dill

1 can (1 pound, or the closest approximation) salmon, well drained

1 cup cream (Toni preferred light, but use whatever you have)

2 or more drops red food coloring

 

for the sauce:

 

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup sour cream or yogurt

lots of chopped dill

 

Instructions:  

The day before you wish to serve the mousse, prepare it. Place the boiling water in a blender. Add the gelatin, lemon juice, and sliced onion. Blend for 40 seconds.
 
Add the mayonnaise, paprika, dill, and salmon. Replace the top of the blender, leaving the removable center piece off. Blend the mixture while gradually adding the cream. Add the food coloring and blend for 5 to 30 seconds more, until the color is dispersed and the mixture has turned a pale salmon color. 

Pour the mixture into an ungreased 4-cup mold. Cover gently and chill overnight. 

While the mold is chilling prepare the sauce by whisking together its ingredients. Chill until needed. 

The next day, gently dip the outside of the mold in hot water to loosen the mousse. Turn it out onto a platter. 
If you are using a ring mold, place 1/3 to 1/2 of the sauce in the middle of the mousse. (If you put too much sauce in the middle, it will overwhelm the mousse and make it collapse.) Place the remainder of the sauce in a bowl.

Serve with small pieces of bread, toast rounds, or crackers. Makes about 2-1/2 cups mousse. 

salmon mousseweb

Spring Break: Key Lime Chicken (Plus!)

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

key-lime-chickenweb1

The main course for my family’s tropical evening was actually something for which I’m not including a recipe because there really isn’t one. We ordered stone crab from the Islamorada Fish Company on the Florida Keys. This is a very expensive treat because the stone crab has to be shipped overnight (I haven’t yet had the heart to look at my credit-card bill) and does nothing to reduce one’s carbon footprint.

 

It does make life festive, however. The Fish Company catches one claw from many different crabs (returning the crabs themselves to the ocean to grow more claws!) and cooks them. When the claws arrive, the home cook’s responsibility is to refrigerate them until eating time, bang on the claws with the provided mallet to loosen the shells, and melt a lot of butter for dipping. 

Michael and David bang on crab claws on the newspaper-covered floor.
Michael and David bang on crab claws on the newspaper-covered floor.

Despite my love of stone crab I wanted to have a recipe for publication so the next evening I prepared a Cuban-inspired key-lime chicken. It’s not quite as devastatingly wonderful as the stone crab, but it’s a lot less expensive.

 

The key-lime juice gives the chicken a summery kick. And it’s hard to find an easier recipe. I adapted it from the web site of Island Grove, a company that makes a variety of key-lime products.

 

Of course, you may not have key lime juice in your pantry. I have found Nellie & Joe’s in a number of grocery stores. You have to buy a 2-cup bottle, but it’s useful for lots of things in addition to this chicken, including the key-lime pie recipe I’ll post shortly. A few drops make a lovely addition to a gin and tonic as well.

 

Don’t try to substitute regular lime juice. Key limes have a subtler, warmer flavor.

 

Ingredients:

 

extra-virgin olive oil as needed
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
salt and pepper to taste
1 onion, cut into rings
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup key-lime juice

 

Instructions:

 

In a large skillet with a cover heat the olive oil. Use it to brown the chicken breasts on both sides, salting and peppering as you cook them. Set aside. Sauté the onion and garlic until they begin to brown; then put them aside with the chicken.

 

Pour the key-lime juice and 1/4 cup water into the pan, and use them to scrape up (gently!) any goopy bits that are sticking to the bottom of the pan. Return the chicken and vegetables to the pan, cover it, and reduce the heat to a simmer.  Simmer the mixture for 20 minutes; then uncover and simmer until the liquid has almost evaporated—about 10 minutes more. Serve over rice.

 

Serves 4.

 

stoneboyweb3

A Hug in a Bowl: Faith’s Tunafish and Noodles

Friday, March 6th, 2009

tncweb

 

Today I have a guest blogger, my friend Faith Montgomery Paul. As kids Faith and I spent summers together at Singing Brook Farm in Hawley, Massachusetts. She’s probably the first person apart from my family I ever cooked with. We made a ton of fudge and cookies to share with our friends as teenagers! Along the way we cooked up a friendship that has lasted for decades.

Faith returns to Hawley every summer with her husband Arnold and her son Ian, one of my all-time favorite kids. We only see each other a few days a year, but we’re in touch by e-mail all the time, and it feels as though we’re still just around the corner. She wrote me a few weeks back and said she was in the mood for tuna-noodle casserole, and I said that sounded like a blog post to me!

When I made the casserole (the photo is of my version; I’m sure Faith’s looks neater!) I didn’t have any canned mushrooms so I sautéed a few fresh ones and popped them in. I also threw a little paprika on top because I just love paprika. And I mixed the salt, pepper, and onion granules into the sauce so they would spread out (sorry, Faith; I just can’t help messing with recipes a teensy bit).

Anyone else who would like to share thoughts and recipes is very welcome to do so; after all, the name of this blog is “In OUR Grandmothers’ Kitchens.”

Meanwhile, here’s Faith……… 
Faith

Faith

Comfort Food

 

Everyone has his or her own definition of comfort food, and I would be hard put to define it conclusively. But I know it when I eat it. It can take the sting out of winter, or heartbreak, or too much STRESS, at least temporarily. It’s warming and sustaining and non-threatening (no exotic ingredients here!). It’s like eating a hug in a bowl. Usually, it’s something that my mother Jane made when we were growing up. Sometimes it involves noodles, sometimes cheese sometimes both!

 

Winter is my prime time for comfort food, because I really don’t like winter very much. Yeah, the snow is nice when everything looks impossibly like a postcard. Yeah, it’s great that my son gets to ski (every Tuesday, all day, with his school — great school — but that’s another story). Yeah, I know we only get the other three seasons because we have winter. I get all that. I still don’t like wearing all these clothes and having my hands cold from November to April. I don’t like days with more darkness than sunshine. Really, I’d just like to eat my weight in chocolate around Thanksgiving (possibly Veterans Day) and then sleep until Memorial Day.

 

So, along about now, when it seems as if winter might not end, I dig into my memories of childhood and produce: tunafish and noodles. Other people might call it tuna noodle casserole, but in my family it’s “tunafish and noodles.” And here’s how my mother made it.

 

Ingredients:

 

about 1/3 of a 1-pound bag of medium-width egg noodles

2 cans tuna packed in water

2 ribs celery, chopped (more if you’re a celery fan)

1 can mushrooms, optional

1 can cream of celery soup

1 soup can of milk

onion powder (about 1/4 teaspoon, or more to taste)

salt and pepper to taste

several slices American cheese

 

Instructions:

 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cook and drain the noodles according to package directions. While they are cooking, drain the tuna and canned mushrooms (if using) and chop the celery. In a 3-quart casserole, combine the drained tuna, drained mushrooms, and celery, making sure to break up the big chunks of tuna. Add the noodles and mix well. Add the cream of celery soup and milk. Mix very well. Sprinkle with onion powder. Taste for seasoning and add more onion powder and/or salt and pepper until it is pleasing. Top the casserole with cheese. Bake, covered, for about 45 minutes. If you like the cheese a little brown, remove the cover near the end. Serves 6 to 8.

 

Note: My mother always puts butter and salt and pepper on the noodles before she puts them in the casserole, but in a nod to my cholesterol level I don’t. I also use one-percent milk, and we don’t notice the difference. Of course, I do put cheese on top, but you have to draw the line somewhere.