Clambering for Clams

In Oregon we love our clams. In fact, steamers are so abundant here we clam for them year ‘round. Still, we keep the old rule of thumb in mind that shellfish is best eaten in the colder months, or those ending in R. That tends to cover most troublesome issues like spawning, red tides, warm water temperatures, and such.

Clammers are a regular site on the Oregon coast, in all weather—you’ll see us out there lining the beaches, optimistically digging for our dinner.  But living further inland, availability can be tricky and we can’t always pick up and dash to the coast for a fresh supply. Local markets do their best to meet demand, but they must also have contingency plans for when that’s not possible. One option is to bring in fresh meaty Venus clams from as far south as the Mexican Pacific coast.

Steamed clams and zucchini

Such was the case this past week when I thought I’d pick up 2 or 3 dozen fresh clams for an easy dinner. I was excited about trying a new twist on an old favorite steamer clam recipe. It’s a cleaver approach inspired by Lidia Bastianich’s Italian pairing of clams with zucchini.

Well heck, back at the store, there were no Oregon clams. Once again, I am confronted with a Plan B situation. Assured they were very fresh, and they looked quite good, I walked out with fat juicy Venus clams.

Clams and Zucchini Duo

Turns out, clams and zucchini are a brilliant combination. They are both mild, neither likes to be overcooked, and they compliment each other beautifully.  In this case, they take on eye-rolling proportions when the usual garlicky clam nectar is further embellished with sweet leeks and tomatoes. It’s all transformed into a charming meal as the clams and zucchini mingle and develop more character in this hearty broth.

It’s fast and fabulous. Within 20 minutes it’s ready—the clams have popped open and released their brininess into the pot. You could serve smaller portions with drinks. Or, as a lingering meal, ladle it all into wide bowls over crusty grilled bread. It’s lovely followed by a lush salad of blue cheese, apple and caramelized nuts with vanilla balsamic vinaigrette…

Steamed Clams and Zucchini

Inspired by Steamed Clams & Zucchini in Lidia’s Celebrate like an Italian by Lidia Bastianich

Ingredients
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup leeks, halve lengthwise, cut into ¼” slices or ½ onion, slice
3 cloves garlic, mash & mince
¼ tsp each dried oregano & red pepper flakes
1 cup white wine
1 cup crushed diced tomatoes
½ tsp sea salt
2 medium zucchini, cut into 1½”x ¼” strips
2-3 doz. or more butter or steamer clams
Finish:  ½ cup parsley, olive oil for final drizzle, toasted or grilled sliced baguette

Instructions

  1. In a large pot set over medium heat, pour in olive oil. When hot, add leeks and cook to soften @ 2 minutes.
  2. Stir in the garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes to taste; , cover and cook 3 minutes. Add the white wine, cook down briefly; add the tomatoes and set to simmer. Cook 5 minutes reducing slightly to a thick broth and set aside.
  3. When ready to serve, bring vegetables up to a simmer and add the zucchini; cook 2-3 minutes, until softened.  Increase heat to a boil, add the clams and enough fresh water to barely cover.  Add lid, reduce heat slightly, and steam for 5-6 minutes until shells open.  Discard any that remain closed. Ladle into shallow bowls over toasted bread. Sprinkle with parsley, drizzle with more olive oil.  Pass more bread.  Serves 2 or more.

Curds the Word

It was my buddy Keith’s birthday this past Sunday (also Groundhog’s Day & Super Bowl Sunday), so there were plenty of reasons to celebrate. For my part, I made my first batch of homemade cheese curds the day before… and oh, were they good!

Fresh cheese curds

I won’t bore you with the tedious details. Suffice to say, it was a marathon 8-hour procedure which I further complicated by throwing in a sous vide for temperature control, but well worth it. If you happen to be a curd lover, you might want to check out the thorough directions at New England Cheese Making Supply Co.

Mild cheese curds are at their best when eaten fresh, while their prized squeakiness is at its peak (within a day or so of making). Keith got his lovely curds on time and I had enough left for a very tasty riff on a pizza Margherita. I realize I am past due for a [Friday] pizza blog, so here we go!

I was curious to see what the curds would do on the pizza. Would they melt or turn rubbery? I would keep ingredients on the tame side as to not overwhelm the curds. All that was left was to assemble a few ingredients and give it a quick bake in a hot oven.

I started with a pre-baked crust made earlier in the day. To get my quota of garlic in, I opt for a gentle smear of garlic confit. I like to keep a jar of it in the fridge for occasions such as this, as it gives a mellow garlic flavor that blends well but does not dominate. For a substitute, see the recipe for easy alternative.

Pizza with Curds and Tomatoes

In rapid succession, it’s layered with sliced onion and spicy pasilla pepper; then a bit of salt and pepper and a sprinkle of fresh rosemary and thyme. Our featured sliced tomatoes and cheese curds get dotted about; if you don’t have curds, use any fresh cheese, such as mozzarella. It’s finished with a light dusting of Asiago or Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil, and popped into a hot oven until the top is bubbly and the crust is golden brown. Once baked, fresh basil is scattered across the top and it’s served.

Final curd outcome: the curds melt slightly, brown on top, and become creamy. Once cooled, they firm up and go back to their original texture, albeit a tad drier. Pretty much what you would expect. No rubbery cheese here!

Pizza with Cheese Curds and Tomatoes

Ingredients
½ recipe pizza dough, or medium purchased
1 Tbsp garlic confit, or 1 Tbsp olive oil heated with 2 cloves garlic, smash
½ onion, slice
½ pasilla or other pepper, slice
salt and pepper
1 tsp fresh rosemary and/or thyme
3 Roma tomatoes, slice
1 cup fresh cheese curds, cut bite-size
½ cup Asiago or Parmesan cheese, grate
2 tsp olive oil
5-6 fresh basil leaves, tear smaller if large

Instructions

  1. Prepare one 9-10” crust. Preheat oven to 425-450°F.
  2. On fresh or pre-baked crust, evenly spread garlic confit over the surface, coating edges.
  3. Add a layer of sliced onion and pepper. Season lightly with salt, fresh ground pepper, and fresh herbs.
  4. Top with sliced tomatoes and dot with fresh cheese curds. Sprinkle with aged Asiago or Parmesan cheese and drizzle the top with olive oil.
  5. Bake 15-20 minutes, until bubbly on top and crust is golden brown. Scatter with fresh basil leaves. Makes 1 medium pizza.

(Dirty-Little-Secret)

I spend a lot of my free time reading cookbooks and checking out online recipes. It’s my form of relaxation. But there are times when all I really want is a familiar, well-tested recipe; one that delivers what I expect.

When I’m thinking ‘casual cake’, here’s a contender. Not only is it always good, it is basic and highly adaptable. I especially like tinkering with this one because it  easily changes with the season—and it loves fresh fruit, too.

At its heart is a well constructed European-style cake that rises high and fills the pan. It uses 3 eggs, which I consider generous, but they are core to its success: they add structure and don’t fade into the background. To control the fat quotient, I tend to use plain yogurt for tenderness and moisture and then fold in a little olive oil on the finish.

While this cake benefits from a good beating to get the eggs and sugar fully integrated, I have taken to forgoing a mixer in lieu of a whisk. You could call it a dump cake, because the dry ingredients are quickly added to the wet. Olive oil is gently folded into the batter and it’s quickly popped into a moderate oven.

That’s it.  Since any additions and flavorings incorporated will become quite apparent, I tend to use a mild olive oil because a bold extra virgin oil can overly dominate. Which brings us to what prompted this cake…

At my market they have been actively promoting beautiful blueberries from Chile.  Of course, I would pause and stare. I’d mentally note that it’s a long way to go for something that grows like crazy in Oregon, and then I would move on.  It’s wrong—on so many levels…

That argument blew up today. They reduced the price of the blueberries, and I buckled. (My dirty-little-secret.) So, today’s cake features two of my favorite things:  blueberries and polenta.

Blueberry Polenta Upside-Down Cake

I’ve gone with a simple upside-down cake that features sweetened blueberries topside and includes a bit of fine polenta in the batter for taste and texture. These two are true partners in crime, and what a color combination!

Since blueberries have an affinity for lemon and nutmeg, they flavor the cake beautifully and bring it all together.  Vanilla ice cream or whipped cream would be worth considering, too.

Blueberry Polenta Upside-Down Cake

Ingredients
Berry Layer
1 tsp butter
1½ cups fresh or frozen blueberries, picked and rinsed
⅓ cup granulated sugar
Dry Ingredients
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup fine polenta or cornmeal
½ tsp each baking powder and baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp nutmeg
Wet Ingredients
3 eggs, room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ cup plain yogurt, room temperature
2 tsp grated lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla
⅓ cup mild olive oil

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Butter a 9″ cake pan and spread the blueberries evenly in the bottom of the pan; sprinkle with sugar and set aside.  On wax paper, blend the flour through nutmeg and set aside.
  3. In mixing bowl, whisk the eggs until light and gradually beat in the sugar.
  4. Add the yogurt, lemon zest, vanilla, and mix.  Stir in the dry ingredients just to incorporate. Fold in the oil; don’t over mix.  Scrape bowl down and spread the batter evenly over the berries.
  5. Bake for 35-40 minutes, rotating to brown evenly, until center springs back when touched.
  6. Cool on rack for 10 minutes. Run a thin knife around the edge of pan to loosen the cake, cover with a serving plate, quickly flip to invert cake onto it and cool.  Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve. Serves 8-10.

Sandy beaches are nice…

As much as I love winter soups and stews, this week I reached my limit.

It wasn’t all that evident until I dashed out of the rain and into the market for a few staples, wrapped in a fleece jacket and wool scarf. Straight ahead in the produce section, I came to a screeching stop in front of a large display of fresh mangoes.

I was not prepared for this.

My imagination immediately transformed this sight into a sandy beach lined with palm trees. I felt a warm tropical breeze envelope me… and there was a colorful bowl of fresh mango salsa.

mango salsa

No, this was not hot flashes…

Before I knew it, my cart not only held mangoes, there were limes, peppers, onions and cilantro. Down the aisle at the meat counter, they were featuring pork tenderloins. I’ll have that, thank you. Into the cart it went. This would need a quick and easy marinade; I’d go with a basic sesame-soy blend. Whatever else I needed, was immaterial. I was done.

Back at home, the pork was marinating in no time. I dusted off my old tropical salsa recipe and quickly pulled it together. Although mango is my favorite, I’ve made this with all sorts of fruit, including papaya and peach. Fresh pineapple is a good addition if the fruit is not real ripe.

This refreshing salsa goes with just about anything (I was even considering cereal at one point), from grilled fish to pork or chicken—and any sort of fried food.

The marinade is one I had been working on for Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwiches, so that will likely still happen. It has a bit of sweetness to help with the caramelization process. I dropped the marinated pork into a hot pan for a quick sear and finished it in a medium hot oven.

The tenderloin barely made it out of the oven before I was wolfing it down with the lovely mango salsa. Ah yes, I was back on that sandy beach with tropical breezes wafting through the palm trees. So nice…

Tropical Salsa

Ingredients
2 large ripe mangoes, peel 1/2″ dice
½ red pepper, seed and dice
½ jalapeno, seed and dice
¼ cup green onions, chop
¼ cup red onion, dice
juice of ½ lime
2 Tbsp cilantro or 1/2 tsp thyme, mince
pinch salt and sugar, to taste

Instructions
Combine all and chill 2 hours or up to a day ahead. Adjust to taste with lime juice or sugar. Makes about 2 cups

Go Ducks Gumbo

Today the Oregon Ducks are back at the Rose Bowl playing the Wisconsin Badgers. Since it is also New Year’s we are feasting on bowls of Gumbo with Black-eyed Peas (here). The gumbo is rich and hearty with sausage and/or ham. To liven it up, I’m including an insane topping, Brussels Sprout Leaves with Bacon Vinaigrette.

Black-eyed Peas Gumbo topped with Brussels Sprout Leaves & Bacon Vinaigrette

I stumbled upon both ideas in The Nimble Cook, a resourceful book by Ronna Welsh. Her beautiful cookbook is packed with clever solutions for transforming little used or often ignored food into treasured ingredients. It doesn’t take long before her perspective becomes infectious and you begin to view excess and waste far differently.

It had not occurred to me to separate the leaves from the sprouts’ core, but it makes total sense when you are merely removing the larger top layer for a fast 1-minute sear. That’s it. The rest of the brussels sprouts can be cut up and included or saved for another meal. Since I was looking for a small amount for lively garnish, this suited my needs. Besides, I love the idea of the fresh sprout leaves and bright bacon vinaigrette mingling with the black-eyed peas.

Ronna likes to work with concepts that keep her ideas simple and frequently don’t require recipes. The bacon vinaigrette is so simple it hardly needs a recipe. I ended up searing about 3 cups of cut-up leaves, for 1 minute in a drizzle of hot bacon fat. I added a spoonful of the vinaigrette to the skillet to heat and coat the leaves and that was it.

The leaves remain bright green for several hours. Here’s my version of Ronna’s brilliant ideas.

Brussels Sprout Leaves with Bacon Vinaigrette

Inspired by The Nimble Cook by Ronna Welsh

Ingredients
3 slices thick smoked bacon, or ⅓ cup crisp bacon, 1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp bacon fat
1 clove garlic, peel, flatten
3 cups brussels sprout leaves, cut and torn bite size, from @ 12 individual brussels sprouts
Bacon Vinaigrette
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tsp whole-grain mustard
2 Tbsp olive oil
pinch salt
1 Tbsp bacon fat

Instructions

  1. Cut up the bacon and cook until crisp, separately reserve the bacon bits and fat.
  2. To make the vinaigrette: combine the vinegar and mustard, whisk in olive oil and salt until thick. Whisk in the warm bacon fat until well combined and thick. Set aside
  3. In a wide skillet over medium, heat 1 tsp bacon fat. Add the garlic clove and increase heat to high. Toss the garlic, when aromatic remove it.
  4. Add the leaves, toss to coat and sear for 1 minute. Add a spoonful of vinaigrette and remove pan from heat. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Will remain green for several hours. Combine the crisp bacon with the leaves and serve. Makes 1 generous cup.

The Unplanned Blog

As I sit here on the cusp of a new decade, I’m staring at a blank screen reflecting on the past 10 years.  This blog was in its infancy 10 years ago, a mere experiment.  I considered it more of a journal where it could record my adventures in food and tinker with an alternate form of writing.

Early on, my goal was to post 4 blogs a month… and for the most part I’ve stayed true to that.  There have been times when I could not see the point and had nothing to say, but somehow I found something to write.  It regularly amazes me that we are still at it, 10 years later!

Isn’t that the whole point, though? Oftentimes we don’t have a real plan, we just begin. Then, something drives us; we keep going, and life unfolds in beautiful ways. Culinary Distractions, the unplanned blog, has allowed me the joy of casting my discoveries and words out into the world and releasing them.

I’ve been happy not monetizing and for the most part, remaining add-free. However, in the coming year I suspect there will be positive happenings and changes worth including here.

To all who visit this silly space, thank you for stopping. Thank you for your support and kind words.  They are never expected and pure frosting on the cake!

Here’s a sweet thank you and big New Year wishes.

Grape Clafoutis

Clafoutis is a favorite on this blog and the goofy grape idea has been rattling in my head for some time—it’s fun and really does work!

What a perfect time to share…  Happy New Year!

Grape Clafoutis  

Ingredients
butter for baking dish
3 cups seedless grapes, such as Scarlotta grapes
⅔ cup milk, warm
1 Tbsp butter
3 large eggs, room temperature
⅓ cup sugar
⅓ cup all purpose flour
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp almond extract
½ tsp lemon zest
¼ cup almonds, slivers
1 Tbsp granulated sugar

Instructions

  1. Butter an oven proof shallow 9″ casserole dish, quiche dish, or pie plate.
  2. Warm the milk and the butter together. In a medium bowl, whisk eggs and sugar until frothy, sprinkle in flour, nutmeg, extract, zest, and whisk until smooth. Gradually add warm milk mixture, whisking until well combined. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature.
  3. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350-375°F. Distribute the fruit evenly in the baking dish.  Pour the batter over the fruit. Scatter almonds on top and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until puffed and brown. Rotate dish as needed to brown evenly.
  4. Serve warm or room temperature. If desired dust with confectioners’ sugar; or add a spoonful of ice cream or sweetened whipped cream.  Cover and chill for storage.  Serves 6

Holiday welcome cookies

It’s hard to imagine the holiday season without making some sort of ginger cookie—and I’ve run the field, from simple cookies, to decorated gingerbread figures, and handmade houses. This year I’ve made my favorite basic molasses cookie and packed it with an assortment of ginger:  fresh grated, powdered spice, and candied pieces.

These cookies mix up in one bowl.  So fast to make, with little clean up, I’ve gotten in the habit of stirring them by hand without a mixer.  Another bonus with this cookie is that the dough can be prepared ahead, stored in the fridge, and baked on demand.

loaded ginger cookies

For a soft, chewy cookie, take them out of the oven while soft when pressed and slightly under baked. They will continue to cook. If you prefer a crisper cookie, bake them longer.

I like to bake off a batch for immediate enjoyment and shape the rest of the dough into a cylinder, wrap it well, and chill for later.  It’s incredibly satisfying to slice off rounds and pop a batch in the oven for a quick bake.  When family or friends arrive,  nothing says ‘welcome’ like the spicy scent of freshly baked cookies.

Ginger Cookies

Ingredients
1¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ tsp baking soda
2 tsp powdered ginger
⅛ tsp each salt and cloves
¼ cup crystallized ginger, cut up
⅓ cup butter, room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, well beaten
¼ cup molasses
1 tsp fresh grated ginger
1 tsp mild vinegar
Icing:  ½ cup confectioners’ sugar thinned with 1 Tbsp lemon juice

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with silpat or spray with non-stick spray.
    On wax paper combine flour, baking soda, ginger, salt and cloves.
  2. In mixing bowl, beat butter with a wooden spoon, stir in sugar until well blended and light. Beat in the egg, molasses, grated ginger, and vinegar.
  3. Add the dry ingredients and combine well, it will be thick. Shape dough into 3/4″ balls and roll in granulated sugar if desired. Place on baking sheet 2″ apart for spreading. Bake 15 minutes, until surface begins to crinkle on top, but slightly soft when pressed. Cool on rack.
  4. To ice cookies:  combine confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice to thin. Let icing drip off tines of a fork and drizzle over cookies.  Makes about 2 dozen.