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.

Soothing Split Pea Soup

My daughter, Shannon, recently mentioned how much she missed and enjoyed a comforting bowl of creamy split pea soup. I agreed, it reminded me that there is something highly restorative about this soup; it penetrates all the nooks and crannies of my body and fills it with heartwarming goodness.

It’s cold and rainy in Oregon today and waaay past time for a soothing bowl of homemade split pea soup.

Homemade Split Pea Soup

The ham hock and vegetable speckled soup my kids were raised on was inspired by the pea soup we loved at Andersen’s in Buelton, CA.

It takes about 3 hours on the stove top. Seriously, who has that much time anymore? I got to work updating the old recipe, and brought it into the 21st century, thanks to the power of the Instant Pot.

With all my fiddling, the soup was complete in under an hour, including rummaging, prepping, pressure cooking and release time. Under pressure, the soup only takes 25 minutes. While that was happening, I decided to whip up soup toppings for extra protein and interest.

In the fridge I found a small package of garlic chicken sausage which I sliced up and quickly seared. I chopped up and added a few other odds and ends to the skillet: a partially used onion, pasilla and yellow peppers, and fresh rosemary. I grated up a small bowl of rosemary Asiago cheese and stepped away.

When the soup was complete, I pulled out the ham hock and bay leaf and gave it a quick blitz with the immersion blender to bring it all together. The meat from the hock was still smoky and flavorful, so I picked it off the bone and added to the pot.

Split pea soup is notorious for its thickening attributes. If it is cooked on the stove top, it’s a good idea to regularly give it a stir to keep it from sticking and burning on the bottom. Since there is no stirring while cooking under pressure, add more liquid than you think you will need and give it a good stir before sealing the lid. We know the soup will thicken and continue to do so as it cools. It’s a very good thing.

Homemade Split Pea Soup

Ingredients
6 cups water, or more
1 ham hock, or 3 strips smoky bacon, slice
1 onion, chop
1 stalk celery, plus leaves, chop
1 large carrot, chop
1 clove garlic, mince
2 cups dried split peas, rinse
1 bay leaf
½ tsp dried thyme
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper

Instructions

  1. Begin by preheating Instant Pot by placing 4 cups of water in liner of pressure cooker and set to Normal or Medium Sauté.
  2. Meanwhile add all ingredients to pot as prepped. Add remaining 2 cups or water and give a stir. Add lid, seal pot to Hi Pressure, set to 25 minutes.
  3. When complete, turn off and disconnect pot. Allow 10-minute natural release of pressure, then carefully release remaining pressure. Open lid and stir up from bottom.
  4. Remove ham hock and bay leaf. For a more homogeneous soup, give it a quick blast with an immersion blender for 20-30 seconds or longer. Pick ham from bone and add to the pot; adjust seasoning. Serve with grated cheese.

Using stove top: As above, simmer for about 3 hours, stirring occasionally until thick. Serves 6

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.

meatloaf magic

Who doesn’t like meatloaf?  Besides, you just might get lucky and have some left behind for the next day.

Since I prefer the leftovers, I like to begin there. I cook the meatloaf on a baking sheet with sides exposed to the heat, thus ensuring flavors are sealed in and the loaf does not simmer in its own juices.

Coppa topped meatloaf

This rustic treatment produces a solid loaf that slices thin the next day and brings an interior dotted with sautéed green leeks and cremini mushrooms for color, flavor, and texture.  If you prefer, the ground beef could be any combination including part turkey, chicken, and/or pork.

For a quick mix of ingredients I like to get my hands into the action… there’s also an egg for moisture, a dash of Worcestershire, and a handful of either dried or fresh breadcrumbs for binder.  That’s it.

The meat mixture is shaped into an oval on a parchment lined baking sheet and topped with a few slices of coppa ham or prosciutto for interest – rather than ketchup.  It’s the ideal time to throw a few vegetables  onto the pan for roasting without any extra effort.  Here, young carrots, sliced onion, and small red potatoes are tossed with olive oil, rosemary, salt, and pepper and tucked around the loaf.

sheet pan meatloaf

While the meatloaf bakes, give the vegetables an occasional turn for even cooking. Soon the homey scents of meatloaf will fill the air…

Sheet Pan Meatloaf with Roasted Vegetables

Ingredients
Meatloaf
1 Tbsp olive oil
½ leek or onion, slice
½ cup cremini mushrooms, quarter
1 tsp fresh thyme
1½ lean ground beef
1 Tbsp Worcestershire
½ tsp each salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
½ cup breadcrumbs, approximate
4-6 slices coppa or prosciutto ham, to cover top
Vegetables
4-5 red potatoes, halve or quarter
4-6 young whole carrots, scraped
½ onion, sliced
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp fresh rosemary
salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
  2. For meatloaf, sauté the leek and mushrooms in olive oil to soften and release mushroom moisture adding salt, pepper and thyme.  Cool.
  3. To assemble meatloaf, in mixing bowl break up the ground beef. Using hands, mix in the sautéed vegetables, Worcestershire, salt, pepper, and beaten egg.  Add enough breadcrumbs to absorb and bind all.  Shape and mold the mixture on baking sheet into an oval loaf.  Cover top with coppa or prosciutto.
  4. Toss the potatoes, onion, and carrots with olive oil, salt, pepper and part of rosemary.  Arrange around the meatloaf and sprinkle with remaining rosemary.
  5. Bake at 375°F for 1½ hours, turn the vegetables occasionally to cook evenly.  Serves 3-4

Freekeh to the rescue

Mujadara is a delicious mid-Eastern specialty typically made with rice and lentils and topped with caramelized onions. My mouth was watering thinking about this plus spoonfuls of Raita (here), a yogurt topping seasoned with cumin, green onion, cilantro, and such.

It wasn’t until I began pulling out the lentils and rice that I realized I was completely out of rice! How does that happen?  I debated a run to the store but spotted a bag of cracked freekeh.

cracked freekeh

Well, I reasoned, freekeh is certainly nutritious, it has a lovely nutty flavor and a chewy bite… It might actually be good with lentils.  Why not give it try?

I had the Instant Pot ready to go, so I proceeded pretty much as usual in making mujadara, by first caramelizing the onions and then set them aside. Yum.  I quickly sautéed the aromatics: cumin, allspice, and smoked paprika, added garlic and a dollop of the onions. The freekeh and lentils were tossed in next with water and such, and the pot was set to Hi Pressure for 11 minutes.

Once complete, I decided to let the pot rest with a 7-minute quick release.  I carefully opened the lid, relieved to see that both the lentils and freekeh were cooked. It was a little soupy but it set up as it sat in the pot. I had forgotten to add lemon rind, so I stirred in a spoonful of preserved lemon, which perked it up nicely.

Freekeh and Lentil Mujadara

The very exotic mujadara was ready and waiting when dinner was served 30 minutes later—along with caramelized onions, raita, and more lemon.

I could have stopped there; it needed nothing more. I buckled and added a little tomato for fresh color… and pita bread.

Freekeh & Lentil Mujadara

Ingredients
1 Tbsp butter and 1 tsp olive oil
1 large onion, thin sliced lengthwise
½ tsp cumin, ¼ tsp allspice, ½ tsp hot smoked paprika or to taste
1 clove garlic, mash and sliver
1 cup cracked freekeh
½ cup brown lentils
2½ cups water
½ tsp salt, ¼ tsp pepper
1 bay leaf
1 tsp grated lemon rind or preserved lemon

Instructions

  1. To prepare the caramelized onion, set Instant Pot to Sauté Medium, melt the butter and a drizzle of olive oil. When bubbling, add the sliced onion, a dash of salt and pepper, and stir often with flat a spatula until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Set aside.
  2. Reduce heat to Sauté Low, drizzle in a little olive oil to coat bottom. Add the spices, stirring until aromatic. Stir the garlic into the spice mixture for a minute and then a spoonful of the caramelized onions.
  3. Add the lentils and freekeh, then the water. Increase heat to Sauté High; stir in salt, pepper, bay leaf, and lemon. Seal pot, reset to Hi Pressure for 10-11 minutes. When complete, let stand 7 minutes and carefully release pressure. Open the lid, stir in preserved lemon  if using. It thickens as it sets.
  4. Serve with caramelized onion, fresh lemon, and homemade raita. Serves 4

Slow ‘Fest Fix

As we approach Halloween and the weather gets blustery my appetite naturally shifts to heartier, stew-like meals.  Here’s one that shows up at some point, especially if I haven’t had my Oktoberfest fix.

For this stew we start with some big flavors, all which benefit from a slow cook.  I doubt there is a sausage out there that I don’t love – just throw in a little ground meat, and lace it with plenty of garlic, spices, and salt.  In this case, perhaps begin with a beefy sausage or a good bockwurst. It’s a matter of taste, but here the average kielbasa tends to fight with its mates.

Throw in a few red potatoes and add a really good sauerkraut. If it’s a canned sauerkraut, I usually rinse and drain it. There are some spectacular fermented ones in the market so it’s fun to consider one of them. They usually have so much going on, it’s a shame to rinse it all away, so give it a taste and see what you think.  I opted for a naturally fermented garlic and dill variety and hit mine with a light spray, but retained most of the brine, garlic, and herbs.

All of these characters work off of each other. The potatoes absorb and tame the sauerkraut, the sauerkraut balances the sausage’s richness—and so on. I also added some carrot chunks and sliced fresh cabbage for good measure.  The carrots bring a bit of sweetness and the cabbage isn’t noticeable unless you are looking.  It blends right in with the sauerkraut and gives it a little more structure.

Like crafting a fine wine, all of this requires and little time in the pot to mellow and bring these big flavors together.  If you are impatient, give it a couple of hours in a low oven, on a low simmer on the stove, or mindlessly in a crock pot or slow cooker for up to 6 hours.

Enjoy with a grainy mustard and a good rye or other hearty bread.

Slow Sausage, Sauerkraut & Potatoes

Ingredients
2 tsp olive oil
12-ounce beefy sausage, cut into chunks
½ onion, sliced
½ tsp each caraway seed and crushed peppercorns
1 bay leaf
16-ounce package sauerkraut, rinse and drain if very salty
5 red potatoes, scrub and quarter
2 tsp olive oil
12-ounce beefy sausage, cut into chunks
½ onion, sliced
½ tsp each caraway seed and crushed peppercorns
1 bay leaf
16-ounce package sauerkraut, rinse and drain if very salty
5 red potatoes, scrub and quarter

Instructions

  1. Brown the sausage in the oil on all sides. Add the onion and spices, toss to lightly color.
  2. Add the sauerkraut, then tuck potatoes into the niches in the pot, add up to a cup of water and bring to a simmer.
  3. Set to low slow cook for a minimum of 2 hours, or in crock pot for 6 hours. Adjust seasoning and serve in bowls. Serves 4 or more

Optional: add 2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks with potatoes. Include ¼ head cabbage cut into 2″ strips along with sauerkraut.