SHRIMP ETOUFFEE

I’d like to tell you a story about New Orleans, if you don’t mind.  But I have a few newsy things to share first:

shrimp etouffee | Blue Jean Gourmet

Recipe Index—I’m so pleased to announce a new feature on the site—a recipe index, where every recipe ever posted is listed, linked to, and divided by category.  My hope is that this will make finding specific recipes or just browsing for something that sounds good to eat much easier!  You can jump to the index from any page on this site by clicking the link in the site’s header  (Many, many thanks to my friend and computer geek Greg—he of sriracha recipe fame—for his help in making this happen.)

Contest—Reader and fellow blogger Jennifer generously nominated Blue Jean Gourmet in the category Best Recipe Blog for The Kitchn’s Homie awards.   I’m honored to be included on such a fine list of blogs, and I would be honored to have your vote!  Click here and scroll down to find Blue Jean Gourmet.

Now, back to the story.  It’s longer than the ones I usually tell here; I’m hoping you won’t mind.

It was a mild, late-December day and Jill and I were sitting on tall stools in a perfectly unmemorable French Quarter bar, behind a rough-hewn, open-air wood counter that faced out into the street.  We were drinking beer at 10 a.m., because that’s what you do when you’re in New Orleans (see also: swamp boat and cemetery tours, the best oysters of my life, good music everywhere, and practically unrivaled people watching opportunities).

That was the day Jill told me about Bruno.

When Jill and I met, we both very quickly became certain that we wanted to be in each other’s lives forever.  Though people often assume that our other differences—age, race, religion, etc.—must have been difficult to work through, they weren’t.  The sticking point for us was children.

Jill is nineteen years older than me, and by the time I came along, she had already made the decision for herself not to have children.  Kids were not part of her life plan, but they were a non-negotiable part of mine.

At the same time, I was young (so young) and in no rush to start a family.  So we proceeded to build our relationship and let the issue be.  “All I can promise you,” Jill told me, “is that I can open myself to having my feelings changed on this.  I promise to stay open.”  She didn’t know exactly what that meant, and neither did I, but I trusted her, and we had time.

shrimp etouffee | Blue Jean Gourmet

There were moments when I worried—despaired, really—that I would have to leave Jill in order to be a parent.  I respected her feelings and the fact that she didn’t want to walk into parenting with anything less than a full commitment; nor did I want to parent with someone who was less than fully committed.  But I didn’t want to parent with anyone else but her.  And I didn’t know how (or if) we would work this difference out.

Enter Bruno.

One morning, just a few weeks before our trip to New Orleans, Jill had opened up the paper at the kitchen table and read a story about AIDS orphans in Africa.  This was around the time that Oprah was doing a lot of work opening schools around the subcontinent and drawing attention to the plight of millions of children who had lost their parents, even all of their adult relatives, to AIDS.

Along with the newspaper story was a picture of a young boy—an orphan—maybe two or three years old, clinging to the white legs of an aid worker whose torso & face were not visible in the shot. All of the boy’s relatives had died.  He had no one.

In that moment, and in her re-telling of it in a bar in New Orleans, Jill began to cry—to sob.  Were this a story about me, such a detail would not be worth noting, but Jill is not a crier.  But this photograph got to her, touched her deeply.

If I, a privileged white woman living in the richest, freest nation in the history of the earth, she thought, can’t stand up and be a parent to this child, who can?

Her heart was cracked wide open.

For several days, without telling anyone, Jill worked to track down the photographer who had taken the picture, in order to track down Bruno.  She was fully prepared to fly to Uganda and adopt him.

I listened to this story, twirling my half-full pint glass, not wanting to interrupt, the street before us still quiet for the time being.  I wasn’t sure exactly what I was hearing, but I did not want to interrupt, the moment already growing significant, taking on weight.

In doing her research, Jill had discovered that inter-country adoption from Uganda to the U.S. was (at the time) incredibly difficult to pull off; only sixteen total were finalized that year.  The process involved long-term residence in Uganda and was barely even feasible for straight, married couples, let alone us.  Still moved to act, Jill had instead found and pledged financial support to an African orphanage.  And she pledged something else, to me, that day in the French Quarter.

“Let’s adopt,” she said.  “We can’t be Bruno’s parents, but we can provide a good home for another child who needs one.”

After that day, we began a very different conversation about having children—no longer dancing delicately around the topic, but moving ever-closer to one vision as we planned, asked questions, and anticipated.  To this day, I remain grateful for Jill’s willingness to be open, and humbled by the power that lives have to twist shape.

Now we are proud parents to this beautiful one.  He may have been born in Texas, but as far as I’m concerned, he was conceived in New Orleans.

Shiv, January 2013

SHRIMP ETOUFFEE
slightly adapted from Simply Recipes, where you will also find instructions for making your own shrimp stock

I’ve had shrimp stock burning a culinary hole in my freezer for a few months now (the result of many a painstakingly saved shell) and this was one very fine use for it.  This etouffee disappeared quickly; next time, I’m making a double batch so I can throw some in the freezer.

ingredients:

1 ½-2 lb shrimp, peeled & deveined (reserve shells to make stock)
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ + 1 T flour
2 medium onions, medium dice
2 small green bell peppers, medium dice
3-4 stalks celery, medium dice
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ pints shrimp stock
½ T sweet paprika
½ T garlic powder
1 tsp. celery seed
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. ground black pepper
½ tsp. dried thyme
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
salt & hot sauce (such as Tabasco), to taste

garnish with: chopped green onions
serve over: white rice

First, make sure that your shrimp stock is hot and at the ready—I like to keep mine warm in a saucepan on the stove.  You’ll need to add it in a few steps.

Hear this: don’t be intimidated by the roux-making process.  I was, and after some patient coaching from Jill, realized that there was no need.  All a roux requires is patience and persistence.  You can do it!

What’s more, an etouffee doesn’t require the chocolate-dark roux that a gumbo does; you only need to get to caramel-brown for this recipe.   To start, heat vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium for a few minutes.  Add the flour all at once (it will sputter), whisking thoroughly to get rid of any lumps.

Cook the roux, whisking in a figure eight, until it turns medium-brown.  This should take approximately ten minutes.  It should look about like a salted caramel sauce.

Add the trinity (onion, bell pepper, & celery) and jalapeno to the roux, tossing to coat all the vegetables.  Continue to cook over medium heat for another 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for another 1-2 minutes.

Pour the hot stock in slowly, stirring constantly to encourage it to incorporate.  Don’t worry if things look terrible at first—the roux should loosen up after a few minutes.  The idea is to add enough stock to make a thick sauce, which should be between a pint and a pint-and-a-half.  Add the seasonings and salt to taste, then stir in the shrimp.  Cover the pot and turn the heat down to low.

Cook until shrimp are just done (approximately 10 minutes), then remove from heat.  Sprinkle with green onions and serve over white rice, with hot sauce to taste.

STEAMED MUSSELS IN TOMATO BROTH

“Keep it simple, stupid.”  That’s something my boss often says.  She’s the kind of woman who tells it like it is.  She wears red cowboy boots on Fridays.  She is sassy and straightforward and has zero tolerance for bullshit.  It’s pretty awesome, working for her.

Like much of the world’s best advice, the idea of keeping things simple is both really obvious (“Like, duh!” as I would have said as an eighth grader, though the kids aren’t really saying that anymore these days) and really hard.  There’s some mechanism in me that seems to want to make things complicated, just for fun.  For difficulty, or drama, or because I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

I’ve been talking about this very thing with a good friend of mine.  She’s currently seeing someone new, a man who is complimentary of her and kind to her, has been nothing but honest and generous, who sent flowers and then had dinner delivered to her house one night, because she wasn’t feeling well.  Quite simply, he likes her, and he isn’t trying to hide it.

This has lead, of course, to lots of excitement on my friend’s part, but also some moments of questioning: what’s wrong with this guy?  Is there something weird about him?  Maybe this is all too good to be true.

See, I think trick ourselves into thinking that things have to be DIFFICULT in order to have any virtue.  That life has to be a struggle, a slog…that there’s always shit hidden away somewhere, waiting to hit the fan.  Don’t get me wrong—sometimes life is hard, and sometimes those uphill battles end up being the most rewarding.  But that doesn’t mean that things can’t also be wonderfully simple and easy and GOOD.  Without us messing them up by trying to complicate them, you know?

Which brings me to mussels.  I had never made mussels before July, and I totally thought they were going to be tricky and persnickety and difficult, but they were so the opposite.  Mussels are dead-simple!  They’re easy!  They’re delicious.

Seriously.  You make a broth, starting with butter and tomatoes and garlic, plus some white wine.  You can throw in some other stuff—sausage or herbs or spicy peppers—or you can just keep it plain and, you know, simple.

While your broth is getting all broth-y, you take the mussels out of the fridge and rinse them really well, pulling the “beards” (a.k.a. tough, fibrous protrusions) off of any that have ‘em, discarding any shells that have already opened.

Once your sauce is simmering, plop! go the mussels into the sauce and on goes the lid.  Toast up some good bread while you wait.  Once it toasts, rub a garlic clove over the surface.  Once you do that, slather on some butter.  You’re done.

Open the lid and check on your mussels, who be all opened up and ready to be slurped.  Throw away any shells that did not open.  Ladle that good stuff into a flat, wide bowl and hand it + plenty of bread to someone you think is swell.  They’ll know you think so, because you just handed them a bowl of mussels (duh).  Simple as that.

STEAMED MUSSELS IN TOMATO BROTH

If you wanted to make this mussels recipe a bit less decadent (though that would be kind of weird, wouldn’t it?), you could use only olive oil, both for making the broth and for toasting the bread.

ingredients:

2 pounds black mussels
butter & olive oil
lots of very thinly sliced garlic (for me, 10 cloves—for you, maybe only 3-4)
1-2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 large can (15 oz) good-quality tomato puree
1 cup dry white wine
2 T tomato paste
handful of scallions, chopped
salt

optional: fresh basil and/or oregano
serve with: crusty bread, toasted, rubbed with garlic & buttered

Heat 2 T olive oil and 2 T butter in a large saucepot over medium heat.  Add the garlic, half the scallions, and a pinch of salt, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes, until the garlic begins to color.  Add the tomato puree, wine, and red pepper flakes and turn the heat up to bring the mixture to a boil.

Reduce to medium, add the mussels, and cover with a lid.  Cook for 3-5 minutes, or until the mussels open.  (Discard any mussels that don’t.)  Remove the lid and add the remaining scallions, plus any fresh herbs if using.  I also like to toss in a few extra tablespoons of butter, to thicken the sauce.

Ladle the mussels, plus plenty of broth, into bowls, and serve with toast.  Yields 4 large portions or 6 smaller ones.

SHRIMP, POTATO, & TOMATO SALAD

My mom is a gardener.  More precisely put, she is a crazy gardening lady.  You know the type—goes to get the mail and ends up pulling weeds for hours, wakes up while it’s still dark outside in order to water her plants, stops the car at the sight of a coveted flower growing in the median: she’s been known to dig things up right then and there.

The front and back of the house I grew up are lushly blanketed with greenery and flowers; all landscaped by my mom, with minimal help from outside sources.  As a kid, I learned to identify plants by name: lantana, coleus, begonia, clematis.  She taught me to pull a weed by the roots and put me to work raking leaves in the side yard.  On Saturdays when she had been working outside since morning, my father would conscript me to push the screen door into the gathering dark and cajole her to “Come inside!” at last.  Those nights, she’d drink a beer, paper napkin layered between her hand and the cold bottle, sending her off to an early bedtime.

Jill is also a gardener, the instinctive kind.  She grew up, as you can read here, tending huge vegetable beds under the supervision of her parents, and continues that tradition by planting in our backyard every season.  At the moment, okra, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, & a cousin of black-eyed peas are making their way to our kitchen table, thanks to her care.

There is a common language spoken by gardeners, an understanding and relatedness that trumps differences.  The joy that rain can bring.  The efficiency and power of compost.  Vitriol toward those blasted enemies, squirrels and rabbits and deer.  Though I have been around gardening all of my life, and can fudge enough to get by, I’m still not part of the club.  Gardening doesn’t make sense to me the way it does to my mom or Jill, or one of the many other crazy gardening ladies in my life (my mother-in-law, my Shaila Aunty, my friend Sharon).

I think the gardener gene accounts for not a small part of what allowed my mom and Jill to bond as tightly as they have.  They can tromp around the yard together, troubleshooting, admiring, inquiring, and understand each other perfectly.  They can spend a whole day constructing a backyard fountain using nothing but bricks, an old aquarium, and a decorative vase (as they did a few years ago).  Jill has even inspired my mom to dabble a bit in planted vegetables, something she rarely did when I was a kid; this summer, my mom’s garden yielded her first tomatoes, sweet and red and more satisfying than any store-bought specimen ever could be.

That’s where I come in, see—I may not be the one to grow ‘em, but I sure know how to treat home-grown tomatoes right.

summer tomatoes, previously:

tomato bread pudding (incredibly decadent)
tomato-corn pie (in a biscuit crust!)
orzo pasta salad (perfect potluck food)

SHRIMP, POTATO, & TOMATO SALAD
adapted from Food & Wine

When I first made this recipe, I was disappointed; it looked beautiful but tasted boring.  After a little doctoring (some lemon juice, more olive oil, more salt) and a little resting, the flavors came together into an understated, satisfying dish.

We are lucky to live close to the Gulf and therefore have access to beautiful, wild-caught, never-frozen shrimp.  If you can use the same, I highly recommend them; their sweet flavor does wonderful things with the basil and red onion in this salad.  Last but not least, don’t be afraid to use what may seem like an obscene amount of olive oil—it, along with generous grinds of black pepper and coarse salt, makes the dish come together.

ingredients:

1 lb. large shrimp, peeled & deveined
1 ¾ lb. unpeeled potatoes*
1 lb. tomatoes of your choice, quartered if small, diced if large
1 small red onion, thinly sliced into rings
¼ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup dry white wine
juice of 1 lemon
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
large bunch fresh basil, leaves cut into a chiffonade
generous amounts of salt & freshly-ground pepper

Boil potatoes in a medium pot of salted water until fork-tender.  Drain and let cool slightly.

Rinse the sliced onion in cold water briefly before tossing with the vinegar in a large bowl.  Quarter or cube the potatoes, then drizzle with white wine.  Add them to the vinegared onions and season with salt and pepper, tossing gently to combine.  Add the shrimp, tomatoes, and olive oil to the potato mixture and let sit for at least 5, but up to 20 minutes while you prep and cook the shrimp.

Cook the shrimp in a skillet coated with olive oil, tossing frequently until they become pink, ~5-7 minutes, depending on their size.  Remove from heat as soon as they are cooked through, to prevent them from becoming rubbery.

Add the shrimp to the potato salad, toss the mixture carefully, and top with basil.  Taste to check seasonings before serving.

*the original recipe called for russets, but I feared they would disintegrate, so I used baby red potatoes and thought their creamy texture worked well.

Share/Save/Bookmark

BIRTHDAY THE SECOND: CEVICHE

It’s my blog’s birthday!  Happy birthday, blog!


In addition to being Blue Jean Gourmet’s birthday, today is also Cinco de Mayo: this is no accident.  Of course I started my blog on a day that serves as an excuse to eat and drink some of my favorite things.  That was good thinking on my part.  High five, self.  High five.

I’m amazed at how much can change in a year, or in two.  The length of my hair, the color of my dining room, the amount of time I spend on Twitter, my concerns and worries, my growth as a teacher, my skill as a cook, the intimacy and trust in my relationships, the new people I am blessed to know.  You know how folks will say “Oh, I would love to go back to…” and then insert “high school” or “college” or some other past period in their life?  Not me, thank you.  I have gained too much, am entirely too grateful to be the person I am now and not the person I was back then (shudder, cringe), and can’t imagine saying goodbye to even the smallest piece of that perspective, even if it meant getting to sleep really late on weekends.

To have had this blog (and you people out there!) as a constant over the last two years, meeting you here week after week, being able to look back on this archive of life’s ins and outs–it’s simply incredible.  Looking to the year ahead, I plan to keep telling stories, sharing food that I think is delicious, working with Sonya to deepen our craft, and breathing life into this toddler of a blog with some new ideas and a lot of guest posts.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.  Thank you for being part of this conversation and a very meaningful part of my life.  Your presence is humbling and cheering; I hope you will stick around!

BLOODY MICHELADA

If you’ve never had one of these Texan concoctions, you’re in for a treat.  Refreshing on the hottest of days, micheladas are a snap to throw together with things you probably already have in your pantry/fridge.  There’s no one “recipe” for this drink, though the consistent elements are similar to that of a Bloody Mary: salt, spice, & lime.

This weekend, I took things one step further and made micheladas using leftover, homemade Bloody Mary mix from last weekend’s brunch.  Of course, you can make them minus the tomato part and they will still be delicious!  Note: the drink is traditionally served over ice, but I prefer to freeze my glasses instead.

ingredients:

1 beer of your choice
2 fresh and ripe tomatoes
2 T Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. Tabasco or other hot sauce (adjust according to your heat tolerance)
juice of 6 limes, plus extra lime wedges/wheels for garnish
celery salt

Rim the edges of the glasses you’re using with celery salt, set aside.  Core the tomatoes and place in a blender along with the Worcestershire, Tabasco, & lime juice.  (I left the skins on for texture).  Whir until you’ve achieved a thick but still pourable liquid.

Fill your glasses with ice, if using.  Pour about a ¼-cup of the tomato mixture into the bottom of each glass, then pour the beer over and garnish with lime.

CEVICHE

Jill taught me to love ceviche–it’s one of her absolute favorite things to eat.  And though I had never made it before last weekend, I have eaten so much of it that I had a sense in my mind of the tastes and textures I was after.

Luckily for me and other Houstonians, knowledgeable fishmongers and the freshest, most beautiful fish abound around these parts.  Last Saturday, I bought myself some gorgeous mango snapper and wahoo from the man they call Professor Fish Heads, and went home excited to prepare ceviche in a way that would do the fish justice.  I dare say I was successful!

I’ve done my best to recreate how I made my ceviche, but bear in mind that it’s not a dish that requires precision or exactness.  Feel free to swap in citrus for the mango, thinly sliced carrot for the radish, or jalapeno for the serrano.  My only specific exhortation is this: fry your own chips!  I much prefer the flavor of a flour chip to store-bought corn, not to mention the former is much sturdier and can, quite literally, hold up to the fish.  Simply cut flour tortillas into wedges, heat up a pot of vegetable oil, and fry until lightly browned and puffy.  Super delicious.

ingredients:

approximately 1 lb. very fresh fish (snapper is the classic choice), cubed (1/2 inch is my preference)
½ cup fresh citrus juice (I used a combination of sweet & regular lime)
thinly sliced red onion
thinly sliced radish
Serrano pepper, seeded & very thinly sliced
diced ripe mango
plenty of cilantro
avocado for garnish
salt & pepper

Combine the fish and citrus juice in a shallow plastic container fitted with the lid.  Add the onion, radish, Serrano, mango, salt, and pepper, and stir gently to combine.  Cover and let sit in the fridge for at least 4 hours, popping in periodically to stir the mix, evenly exposing all of the fish pieces to the citrus juice.  Over time, the juices will “cook” the fish and you will see it change from pink and translucent to white and opaque.

When ready to serve, check again for salt & pepper and garnish with plenty of fresh cilantro and avocado and serve with chips.

Share/Save/Bookmark

MUSTARD-SEED SHRIMP WITH CUCUMBER RAITA

A day or two after news of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill broke, I spotted beautiful, wild-caught Gulf shrimp on sale at my neighborhood grocery store—fat, never frozen, $5.99/lb.  I bought 5 pounds, suspecting that it would be a while before I saw such beautiful Gulf seafood at such an amazing price again.  Little did I know, right?

I really have no idea how to respond to something like this.  Clearly, I take for granted that, in our world of obscenely rapid technological advancement, we should be able to solve this problem.  How is it that we don’t know how to fix it?  And what is it that I should be doing, other than feeling really, really depressed and making donations to help the humans and wildlife affected by the spill?

There’s no neat little conclusion to this post, just that all of this damn oil is, among other things, another notch in my mental belt of wondering what the proper balance is between apathy and obsession.  How much time should I spend in my, let’s face it, really comfortable life, thinking about all of the shitty things happening all over the world at any given moment?  And is there some hierarchy of disaster, things I should care about more than others?  And where does all of my care and concern go, if I do choose to exert it?

Choosing our positions along these blurry lines is a matter of personal ethics and conscience, and I like to think that thinking rigorously through my positions is at least worth something.  Part of my job as a teacher is getting my students to care about something other than themselves, and convincing them that by engaging with the world, they alter it.  But sometimes I wonder if I’m not just setting them up for disappointment.

Last weekend, I thawed half of the shrimp I had purchased in April and cooked them simply, with traditional Indian spices and over high heat until they pinked and firmed.  My house was pleasantly swollen with friends and loved ones, who fought over the last shrimp and left the tails scattered in shallow bowls.  Maybe, at times, that’s the best we can do, and that’s not so bad.

MUSTARD-SEED SHRIMP WITH CUCUMBER RAITA

We ate these straight-up, with raita drizzled on top or alongside as a dipping sauce, counterbalancing the heat of the shrimp perfectly.  The dish didn’t seem to suffer for lack of a “vehicle,” but surely they would be delicious tucked into a pita, wrapped in some naan, or served atop some rice or couscous.

ingredients:

2 ½ lb. Gulf shrimp, peeled & deveined
2 tsp. black mustard seeds
1 tsp. coriander powder
1 tsp. cumin powder
½ tsp. turmeric powder
½ tsp. cayenne pepper (less if you’re heat-shy)
vegetable oil
salt

special equipment: a heavy-bottomed pot with high sides & a lid

Swirl some oil into the pot, letting it heat until the oil shimmers (medium-high on the stove).  Throw in the mustard seeds and turmeric, then immediately bring the lid down to cover the pot.  There will be spluttering!  Shake the pan and let it sit on the heat for a minute or two more, then remove from the heat.

Add the shrimp to the pot—all of them if they fit—then return to the burner.  Using a large spoon, gently turn the shrimp regularly to ensure even cooking.  Toss in the remaining spices, including a teaspoon of salt.  After 3-4 minutes, turn the stove down to medium, letting the residual heat finish the shrimp.

Continue to turn the shrimp until they have all pinked and are just cooked.  Remove immediately from the pot so they do not overcook.  Taste for salt and serve warm.

CUCUMBER RAITA

You can also add a finely chopped Serrano pepper if you’d like a little fire in your raita.

ingredients:

2 cups plain, thick yogurt
2-3 small cucumbers, peeled & grated
¼ cup buttermilk
¼ cup mint, roughly chopped
1 T cumin powder*
juice of 2 lemons
salt, to taste

Squeeze the grated cucumbers in a cheesecloth or paper towel to drain the excess liquid, then combine them in a bowl with the remaining ingredients.  Stir.  Thin with a bit more buttermilk if necessary.

Raita will keep in the fridge with an airtight container for a few days.

*If you like, toast your own cumin seeds until fragrant and then grind them.  They will add great depth of flavor.

Share/Save/Bookmark

CRAB SALAD

Grocery shopping is, at once, one of my favorite activities of all time and a total pain in my ass.

On a free and uncrowded early Saturday morning, with the promise of a full day of cooking ahead…I love the grocery store, I love everyone in it, each charming item on the shelf, each employee and fellow patron.  In fact, on mornings like those, I pretty much love everyone and everything everywhere.

But when I’m rushing home post-gym, sweaty and with a million things on my to-do list, only to realize that I’m missing an ingredient in the cookies I agreed to bake for a work party the next day, and then the self-checkout machine freaks out because it thinks I haven’t properly scanned an item, and there’s nary a blue-shirted employee in sight to assist me…well, let’s just say that my mood turns just as sour as it was kite-flying in the previous scenario.

There are times, though, when someone or something pushes me out of my “I am so busy and important” annoyance mode and forces me to relax, interact, connect, even grin.  On the day I was buying ingredients for this salad, the man behind the seafood counter took my order for picked claw meat, then winked at me and said, “I haven’t seen you around here for a while.  How you been?”

My default was to resist his attempt to engage—I’m in a hurry, I’ve got to get to the check-out, I’ve got to get home, I’ve got to—but his openness and unhurriedness disarmed me, and so we started to chat.  Nothing monumental, just polite conversation with good feeling behind it.  He asked me what I was making—I described the salad for him.  “Oh, a real cook!  Well, then—“ and he ducked into the back to grab the freshest meat for me.

I still think of this and other “close encounters of the grocery store kind,” not as profound moments that evidence my own awesomeness, but as reminders that if I pull my head out of my ass every once in a while, it feels pretty good.

CRAB SALAD
slightly adapted from this recipe

As my friend the seafood man says, “Most people think they should buy that jumbo lump stuff because it’s so expensive.  But the flavor’s in the claw.”  He’s right, and this salad is a light, delicious summery thing—perfect as a lunch or a first course.

for the salad:

½ to ¾ of a head of Napa cabbage, sliced
14 oz. crab claw meat
1 avocado, sliced
½ cup of matchstick-cut carrots
½ cup sliced cucumbers
½ cup each of fresh mint, basil, cilantro, roughly chopped

optional: toasted sesame seeds (for garnish)

In a large bowl, toss together all ingredients except crab.  Portion the salad out into individual bowls, then top each bowl with a generous serving of crab meat.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired. Drizzle with dressing and serve immediately.

for the dressing:

½ cup rice wine vinegar
2 T sugar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Serrano pepper, minced

Bring the vinegar & sugar to a boil in a small saucepan until the sugar dissolves.  Remove from heat, then stir in garlic & pepper.

Share/Save/Bookmark

SCALLOPS WITH CREAM & BASIL

I wanted something a little bit decadent, for celebration purposes.

You might, like me, be constantly setting aside recipes to try “at some point,” bookmarking blogs and clipping features from the paper, folding down the corners of magazines and dotting the edges of your cookbooks with those handy little sticky flags.  Even cooking as much as I do, all of those recipe ideas start to pile up and threaten to overwhelm.  Because, let’s face it, most of the time, we come home to cook and are tired, hungry, and working with whatever ingredients we have on hand.  We cook from the hip, or rely on tried-and-true standby recipes we practically know by heart.

I think that’s why it feels like such decadence, such a giddy experiment, to go to the store and buy ingredients specifically to cook a particular dish.  Especially if you are cooking with something for the first time, as was the case for me with scallops.

Scallops are a favorite of photographer Sonya, but I had always assumed they were a “fussy” ingredient best left to the professionals.  Turns out that isn’t at all the case; this dish came together in about twenty minutes but tasted incredibly decadent and restaurant-worthy.

And what are we celebrating?  Why the new, improved, shmancy-pants Blue Jean Gourmet, of course!  Website changes have been in the works for a couple of months now, but I tried to keep them a secret because there’s nothing that drives me crazy more than someone announcing “Big changes coming soon!  Stay tuned!”  Much more satisfying to just be able to SHOW you the big changes, no?

We’re still working out some kinks, which is kinda how these things go, so your patience, comments, and suggestions are all very much appreciated.  Please update any bookmarks or links—we are now, officially, www.bluejeangourmet.com

Heartiest thanks to all those who helped with this process: my friend Jason Prater, who created my beautiful logo, Gus Tello & Melanie Campbell-Tello, who dreamed up this beautiful design, & their CSS ninja Zane, who brought it all to life.

I think the new look will take some getting used to, like looking at pictures of yourself from a wedding or fancy event.  “Who is that person?”  It feels a little bit like that…my little blog, all dressed up.

SCALLOPS WITH CREAM AND BASIL

If your mom is a seafood lover, you might want to bookmark this one for Mother’s Day.  We served the scallops with crusty bread, but they could easily go over pasta, rice, or Israeli couscous.  A lovely Farmers Market salad on the side would complete things nicely.

ingredients :

8-12 sea scallops, dried well with a paper towel
¾ cup heavy cream
½ cup dry white wine
¼ cup chopped shallots (substitute red onion)
1 large garlic clove, sliced thinly
big handful of fresh basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade
a pinch of dried red chili flakes
salt & pepper

Melt 4 T of the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat.  (Don’t use nonstick, or the scallops won’t brown.)  Sprinkle the scallops with salt & pepper.  After the butter foams, add the scallops.  Brown the scallops on both sides, adjusting the heat as necessary.  The goal here is a nice crust on both sides of the scallops—don’t worry about cooking them all the way through.

Remove the scallops from the pan & set aside.  Turn down the heat & add the last 2 tablespoons of butter to the pan.  Add the shallots, garlic, & red pepper flakes.  Cook over medium-low heat for a few minutes, until the shallots soften.

Add the wine and raise the heat so that the mixture will bubble and reduce down by half.  Add heavy cream and again, reduce the sauce.  When the liquid is nice and thick, return the scallops, with any accumulated juices, to the pan.

Cook for a minute or two more, stirring in half of the basil, until the scallops are firm.  Taste and add salt & pepper if necessary.   Serve the scallops with sauce, garnishing with the remaining basil.

MY MOM’S SHRIMP CREOLE

I don’t really know how my mom got to be such a badass cook.

{Facts about woman who brought me into the world—
She does not care for: goat cheese, the word “widow,” or folks who do not vote.
She is rather fond of: peanuts in all forms, the Allman Brothers song “Rambling Man,” & character-driven fiction.}

Like most Southern-women-who-can-make-anything-taste-good, she never had any formal training.  She can make thrifty one-pot or decadent dinners, improvise or plan something elaborate.  She has dishes for which she’s famous, the kind folks often request, she keeps a well-stocked pantry, bar, & wine rack, and of course, will insist that whatever item of hers you just ate which made you seriously think about licking your plate was “really no big deal.”

However, unlike many other Southern-women-who-cook-real-good, my mom isn’t actually from the South.  She was born in the mountainous and politically troubled region of Kashmir, India, and grew up in a household without a mother to learn from in the kitchen—though she did pay attention to the cooks her father employed.  When she and my father were newly married, my mom was suddenly responsible for all of the household cooking (and for an extremely fussy husband, I might add).

What I admire especially about my mom is that she never does anything halfway.  A new position at work means she’ll throw herself into graduate-level classes (even though she already has TWO masters degrees) to ensure she does the best possible job.  A trip to the wine store is always accompanied by a well-researched list and notes.

So in moving to a new continent and into myriad new food cultures, my indomitable mother took it all on.  She experimented until she could reproduce her and my father’s favorite dishes from home, inventing plenty of her own along the way.  But she also dove into learning America’s food culture—woman makes mean spaghetti & meatballs, squash casserole, and this shrimp creole.

Growing up, we ate this every New Year’s Day, so I’m actually running about a week late in posting it.  The bright side, though, is that while this dish is warm, homey, and comforting, it’s actually not so bad for you, so if you’re experiencing post-holiday-food-and-drink-consumption-guilt (I know I am), you can still fit this on your January meal plan.

Up until a few months ago, I had only ever eaten this dish over wild rice, and for good reason—it’s yummy that way.  But when I had some leftovers hanging out in my fridge and no wild rice in my pantry, inspiration struck.  I did have polenta, and topping it with this creole made for one of the best plays on shrimp & grits I’ve ever experienced.

My mom taught me pretty much everything I know about food, passing on her passion for collecting cookbooks, stocking the fridge with a million condiments, and clipping recipes for an ever-expanding file.  Though she makes fun of me now for going through “so much trouble” to try strange or elaborate dishes, she’s the one who once made her own pomegranate liquor, so I don’t think she has much room to talk.

Love you, Amma.  Lots & pots.

SHRIMP CREOLE

Like most dishes that originate from my mother’s kitchen, this one’s not fond of exact measurements.  I’ve done my best to accurately capture the method & flavor here, but this recipe is designed for tinkering.  Fiddle away—it’s still bound to taste good!

This concoction is best made ahead, and therefore is conducive to dinner guests.  Just be sure to reheat the sauce separate from the shrimp, adding them at the end so they don’t get rubbery.

1 ½ – 2 lb. shrimp, peeled & deveined
1/3 cup ketchup
2 T Worcestershire sauce
1 T garlic powder
1 tsp. (½ if you’re heat-shy) Tabasco sauce

Gently mix the above together.  Stash in a non-metal bowl in the refrigerator while you prep the vegetables or for up to two hours.

2 medium yellow onions
2 green bell peppers
4 ribs celery
— (fun fact: the above three items are considered “the trinity” of Cajun cooking, a riff on French cuisine’s mirepoix of onion, celery, & carrot)–
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 (14 oz.) cans fire-roasted tomatoes
1 small can diced tomatoes with green chiles
2-4 cups chicken or vegetable stock, for thinning*
1 tsp. oregano
olive oil
salt & pepper

Peel & dice the onions, seed & dice the peppers, trim the ends off of & dice the celery.  You want everything to be about the same size—I like ½ inch cubes.

In a heavy-bottomed soup pot or Dutch oven, pour in a generous swirl of olive oil and bring up to medium-high heat.  Cook the shrimp (in batches if necessary) until pink, just a few minutes on each side.  Remove shrimp to a bowl but don’t clean out the pot.

Toss in the onions and garlic first.  When they begin to sweat, add the bell peppers.  Celery comes last.  Once all of the vegetables have cooked, add the tomatoes & oregano.  Thin with your desired amount of stock and let simmer at least thirty minutes, but up to a few hours.

At this point, I like to taste the base and will probably toss in some extra Tabasco & Worcestershire sauce, plus salt if it’s needed and lots of pepper.  Once things are tasting dee-li-cious, add the shrimp and any accumulated juices back in.  Turn off the stove at this point–the creole should be hot enough to re-warm the shrimp without any added heat.

Serve over wild or white rice, polenta or grits, even pasta.

*I like my version of this dish to be quite chunky, while others prefer a thinner sauce.

Share/Save/Bookmark//

SPICY SHRIMP, TWO WAYS

First off, thanks so much to all of you for your love, sympathy, and good wishes.  It’s amazing how all of that feeling really does travel across space & time to make a difference.  I remember that sensation when my father died; it was as if I could literally reach out and touch the compassion being sent my way from people all over the world.  They were holding me up, buffering me.  Astonishing.

Ganesh

I know that there are much more dramatic, intense, & devastating events than the loss of an old dog; the world is full of so much sadness and hurt that if I think about it too much, it literally impairs my ability to function.  Behind every ambulance siren or news item is someone whose life is changing forever, someone whose idea of a live-able life looks, by necessity, drastically different from mine.

Life can be kind of terrifying, right?  Jill’s getting on a plane this afternoon to fly away to Egypt for a conference, and while I am terribly excited for her, in the moments I allow myself to imagine my life without her I am utterly broken open.  Someday, too, my mother will die and I just don’t know what to do about that.

I also know that it doesn’t do to dwell on these things.  A life of terror and worry is useful to no one and does nothing to thwart the inevitable.  But I do want to be mindful of the preciousness of my days, to balance being blithe and joyful with an ocean of earnest feeling.  I never want to forget that potent urgency I experienced after losing my father, the absolute necessity of living life in this moment instead of planning for “someday.”  For months, I walked around so mad I could spit to see all of these human beings wasting time as if they had time to waste.  The job they found unfulfilling, the relationship they refused to mend, the feelings they wouldn’t share, the project or plan or dream they kept putting off.

Last week, I went to see the Alley Theatre’s very fine production of Thornton Wilder’s American classic, Our Town.  Like many, I saw it first in high school.  Coming to it some ten years later allowed for a potency of reflection I wasn’t anticipating.  The quote my friend Marynelle wrote for me on her senior “goodbye” poster means much more to me now than it did then:

Emily: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?–every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. The saints and poets, maybe–they do some.

While it may be somewhat impossible to get every, every minute, I’m working on more every day.  The lovely purple tulips on my desk, my students who make me laugh, my beloved who sings along to Chaka Khan in her big red truck, my dear friends who delight and care for me—all hang in the balance of what I love and what I’d miss (like Jill & her bff Bonnie):

Jill & Bonnie

Perhaps you are one of those people who revisit the same movie, book, or play every year or every couple of years.  I love the idea of coming back to words and scenes which stay constant while we change, measuring ourselves against them as a kind of yardstick.

Right now I’m planning a re-read of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, to see how/if it will move me, ten years later.  I return regularly to The Bhagavad Gita, of course, and The Tao Te Ching.  Other re-reads I’d like to take on include Little Women (Alcott), The Glass Bead Game (Hesse), & Crime and Punishment (Dostoevksy).

What about ya’ll?

Don’t worry, in all of this “deep” talk, I haven’t forgotten about the food!  Two spicy shrimp dishes here: the first is a favorite of my father’s, the latter certainly would have been, and both are excellent for football watching (Sonya & Jill tested them out a few weekends back).

CHIPOTLE BAKED SHRIMP
Adapted from Gourmet, August 2000

Look for smoky chipotles in adobo sauce on the International Foods aisle, with other Mexican condiments.  You won’t need a whole can, so buy a pork tenderloin while you’re at it for some really good sandwiches.

I’ve made this recipe both with the shells on and the shells off.  Tastes great either way, but shells on is more fun and also messy—you shell them as you eat, slurping up extra sauce.

ingredients:shrimps

1 ½ – 2 lb shrimp

½ stick unsalted butter

¼ cup dry white or red wine

1 ½ T Worcestershire sauce

half a can chipotles in adobo sauce, peppers minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp. salt

must serve with: a baguette or other crusty bread, for sopping up sauce

oven: 400°

Melt butter in saucepan or microwave.  Add in the wine, Worcestershire sauce, chipotles & sauce, garlic, and salt. Toss the shrimp with sauce.

Bake the shrimp in a shallow dish for 10-12 minutes.  Serve in wide bowls with plenty of sauce & bread on the side.*

*If you like, you can remove the shrimp from the baking pan & reduce the sauce on the stove before serving.

BUFFALO GRILLED SHRIMP
Slightly adapted from Gourmet, July 2009

I’m not sure what more to say about this except that it’s really, really good.  And that you’ll need a lot of napkins.

For the dip:
½ cup sour cream (use half thick yogurt & half sour cream for a slightly healthier option)

½ cup crumbled blue cheese (I used a wonderfully pungent Maytag)

¼ cup chopped green onions

2 T finely chopped dill

juice of half a lemon

a little buttermilk or milk, to thin the dip (skip if you used the yogurt)

salt to taste

Stir together everything except the buttermilk/milk.  Then mix in a tablespoon or two until you reach your desired consistency.  Personally, I like my blue cheese dip really chunky.

For the shrimp: shrimp, celery, & blue cheese

1 ½ – 2 lbs shrimp, peeled & deveined
½ stick melted butter
¼ cup hot sauce *
olive oil

must serve with: many celery sticks!

I made the shrimp in a grill pan over medium-high heat, but the original recipe calls for an outdoor grill.  Oil either the pan or rack and then toss the shrimp with a little olive oil, salt, & pepper.

Grill until just cooked through, about 7-8 minutes depending on the heat of your grill.

Stir together butter and hot sauce in a large bowl. Add shrimp and toss until they are coated.

As official BJG taste-testers, Jill and Sonya suggest eating the shrimp plain and “chasing” them with celery dipped in the blue cheese dip.  This, they found, was more effective than trying to dip the shrimp themselves.

*We used Louisiana Hot Sauce, Gourmet recommends Frank’s RedHot.

Share/Save/Bookmark

|