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.

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.

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

Brussels Sprouts, the easy way

Once again, yesterday I was reminded why I like brussels sprouts, especially on a day like Thanksgiving. As a fall vegetable they really work, they have lots of flavor and I love their green addition, but I’m disappointed when they turn out bitter and either undercooked and hard, or overcooked and mushy.

Bacon is always a solution, its smokiness can mask some of that off flavor, and roasting sprouts is an interesting compromise. That is, until the oven is taken over by turkey and other sides and sprouts get shifted down in priority.

So, here’s my solution. I’ve discovered that brussels sprouts cook in a flash in the microwave, and when an everyday balsamic vinegar is pulled into the equation, things really shift. The sweet-sour action tends to balance out any potential bitterness, and used judiciously, balsamic vinegar adds dimension and is hardly detectable.

I dribble on a dash of balsamic when precooking the halved brussels sprouts for 2 to 3 minutes in the microwave—before all the madness begins. Then, it’s a simple matter of quickly reheating them with the precooked smoky bacon and perhaps a bit of onion, plus another dribble of balsamic for re-enforcement. Give it a taste before serving and add another dribble, if so inclined.

It’s that easy and so tasty.

Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Balsamic

Ingredients
1-pound brussels sprouts, trim and cut in half lengthwise
3 slices pepper bacon, cut into strips
½ small red onion, peel and slice
1 Tbsp olive oil, divided
½ tsp each salt and pepper
2-3 tsp balsamic vinegar, to taste

Instructions

  1. Ahead, cook bacon in microwave between toweling until crisp, about 2 minutes total. In microwaveable bowl, toss onion with 1 tsp oil and heat in microwave until it softens and begins to color, 2 minutes. Set aside.
  2. Toss the brussels sprouts with remaining olive oil, salt and pepper, and 1 teaspoon balsamic. Microwave 2-3 minutes uncovered. Set aside until needed.
  3. To finish, reheat the sprouts with 1 additional teaspoon balsamic, the bacon and onion on top in microwave, 1-2 minutes. Drizzle lightly with balsamic vinegar to taste, toss and serve. Serves 4.

Embarrassment of Riches

I’m embarrassed to admit I have sorrel growing in my garden that I have barely touched. I planted it early in the year, and I’ve been reluctant to harvest much.  It is so utterly beautiful, I’ve been content to gaze on their bright green, red-etched leaves rather than eat them.

Turns out sorrel is a perennial herb that grows well in the Pacific Northwest. It is related to rhubarb (of course) and buckwheat (brilliant!). Sorrel is well known for its sour qualities and apparently, my particular red-veined variety is regarded as milder than most (indeed!).

Even though my tiny garden is pretty much done for the season, sorrel’s hearty leaves continue to grow like crazy. Armed with increased incentive, I have taken to clipping the leaves for salad.  Apparently, they can become tough, but I’ve yet to experience that issue. Thus far, the leaves are crisper than spinach with a pleasing tartness.

Fall Sorrel Salad

Here’s a rundown on a recent salad featuring the beauteous sorrel with other seasonal greens. I began with a juicy Honey Crisp apple thinking its residual sweetness would offset any lurking bitterness. To complement the apple I went with trusty Oregon Blue cheese—its robust, creaminess was an awesome match.

I brought it all together with a bold sweet-tart Balsamic-Vanilla Dressing laced with nutmeg, and finished  it with a sprinkling of caramelized walnuts. Oh, yes, let’s not forget freshly ground mixed peppercorns, the  crowning touch.

Fall Sorrel Salad

Ingredients
8 – 10 ounces, combination of sorrel and seasonal greens
1 fresh apple such as Honey Crisp
½ cup crumbled Oregon blue cheese, Danish blue, or Maytag
½ cup caramelized nuts
freshly ground mixed peppercorns
Balsamic Vanilla Dressing
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
salt and plenty of fresh ground pepper
¾ cup oil blend, (such as ¼ cup olive oil, ¼ cup vegetable oil, and ¼ cup walnut oil)

Instructions

  1. For dressing: place all through salt and pepper in cruet or jar and shake; add oil and shake well. Adjust seasoning.
  2. To prepare apple ahead: wash and dry, quarter and remove core, and leave skin on. Cut into 1/4″ width slices. Dip in 1 tsp lemon juice and 1 cup water, drain and cover with paper toweling.
  3. Wash, dry and trim greens, place in bowl and chill.
  4. To serve, toss the greens lightly with dressing, scatter with remaining items and serve. Pass additional dressing.    Serves 2-4