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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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