Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Say What? Ceviche!

There is a fish market in San Pedro, California. It is amazing, but not for the faint of heart. It’s loud, and crowded and not sparkling clean, but it is amazing. I don’t remember how Joe and I came upon the fish market one Saturday morning to find the bustling complex of stalls and cooks. Maybe I wanted to go to just buy a fish for dinner. However we found it, we walked into something we were totally unprepared for.

You can buy whole, filleted, chunks, cooked, combo-ed, basically any imaginable preparation of (or lack thereof) fish at this market. But apparently, what most of the crowd was doing, was eating. So Joe and I quickly abandoned our plans to purchase a fish and take it home. We walked around looking at what people were eating, and smelling what others were cooking. We settled on a promising line, offering trays (yes, cafeteria style plastic trays) piled with all sorts of fish and vegetables.
Most of the fish markets’ clientele were families sitting together at tables on the dock pulling from overloaded trays of food. We needed to be part of that. So we got on line and patiently waited, perusing the menu with pictures above the cooks. Number 1 seemed to be a pile of shrimp with peppers, onions, and potatoes, garlic bread and tortillas. Number two was more of the same with the addition of grilled fish. And on this went up to I believe 8 options. Each larger and more appetizing than the last.

Number 2 is what we settled on, and so what if it was for a family of 4? Joe and I could handle it, with the aid of some gigantic Coronas, the Southern California sun and a Mariachi band roving between the tables. But, what really caught my eye, was the smaller stand in front of the grilled trays of fish offering raw treats. It was like the candy in the grocery store isle and upon checkout, I was pulling at Joe’s shirt and begging to just have one piece.
This is where it does not help to be squeamish. I’m sure everything was perfectly safe to eat, and I did not get sick at all. But the combination of fish smell, high heat and lots of people don’t typically give off a good impression when you are about to eat raw fish. I, however, was undeterred.

We got a cup of ceviche. It had tomatoes, and fish and scallops and shrimp and octopus, cilantro and plenty of lime. They also offered small bottles of San Pedro Fish Market hot sauce, which I happily bought for a dollar to douse on top of my ceviche. In fact that hot sauce was so good, I popped it in my purse and have since moved it across the country to Maine. I ration it out now for only truly special occasions. But if anyone wants to head to San Pedro and pick me up a bottle, I will happily send you the $1 for it.
But I digress. The ceviche was a fantastic combination of cool and spice, refreshing and stimulating. I fell in love. Joe and I went back a few more times to the San Pedro fish market to get whole grilled fishes, more trays of mixed dishes and of course the ceviche. And when we moved away, that was one piece of Southern California I was really going to miss.

So when the opportunity for my office Holiday Potluck arose, I thought I would make ceviche. And not just because I knew no one would have heard of it. I really wanted a little reminder of the sun and mariachis and relaxation this winter.

This turned out a little more like the pico de gallo salsa that I used to make frequently. But I like this version, and it is less scary then a mound of “raw” fish for the uninitiated. The reason I put raw in quotation marks, is because the citric acid in the lime and lemon juices change the protein structure of the raw shrimp to make it seem like it has been cooked (and for all you chemistry folks out there, it really gets denatured, but I didn’t want to get too technical).
Also, I used Maine shrimp for this, as they are running this time of year. But, if you can’t get Maine shrimp (you can order them online from all the places you might order live lobsters from Maine) you can use any small cold water shrimp. The flavor is a bit sweeter and goes well with the citrus and spice. And give yourself plenty of time to let the mixture marinate; at least 6 hours. (I like overnight)

1 pound small cold water shrimp
½ large white onion
3 cloves garlic
1 jalapeño pepper (I deseeded one half of the pepper, but left the other half intact, you can vary this for the amount of heat you prefer)
4 medium vine ripened tomatoes, quartered
½ seedless cucumber, peeled
1 large bunch cilantro
4 large, juicy limes
1 large lemon
1 tsp. Cumin
½ tsp. Paprika

Roughly chop the onion, garlic and jalapeño and place them into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to break them down. Next add the cilantro, tomatoes, cucumber, salt and pepper and pulse until the tomatoes are chopped into ¼ pieces. Do not over process or you will have a delicious salsa and not a ceviche.

Move this mixture to a bowl and add lime and lemon juice. Peel the shrimp and chop into thirds. Toss the shrimp into the bowl with the other ingredients, add cumin and paprika and stir to combine. Make sure to press all of the shrimp down into the mixture so that they are covered by the liquid.

Serve with tostadas or tortilla chips, or just a spoon.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I Am Not An Italian Nona

I don’t know if you knew that about me, but I’m not. In fact my WASP-y heritage prohibits me from becoming one, even though this is my lifelong dream. Basically, this means that I want to be really good at cooking Italian food. I’m not bad at it, but it does not come to me with ease or grace.

While in college some of my closest friends came from Italian backgrounds, and I was able to learn some basic principles from them through their family recipes. But as you can imagine, it is hard to cook gigantic dinners in college apartment s and dorms. Not impossible, but hard.
My group of friends and I would try to have “Family Dinner” on Sundays or at least once a week. This would be at various people’s apartments and usually consisted of giant quantities of food (we are talking college aged men here - they eat a lot). My sophomore year college dorm room had a tiny kitchenette that consisted of a sink, a small stove and oven and a refrigerator. There was approximately 2 square feet of counter space, which lead to creative storage and dish drying spaces. When I moved in, my mom unloaded all of her old pots, pans and utensils on me –most of which I actually still have.

In particular she gave me a gigantic stock pot. When I first got it, I said “Mom, I am never going to use this thing – it’s HUGE!” And she replied with a “Well, just keep it, you never know.” And once again the wisdom of mother panned out. I managed to cook up to 3 pounds of pasta at one time in it, which was just about how much was needed for a group of 6-8 college students.
I learned how to make marinara sauce, meatballs, eggplant parmesan and other dishes though the tutelage of college friends. And now, with Joe’s family, I have been able to learn even more about the art of Italian-American cooking. But the very intense crazy 'grandma-only' dishes have yet to be conquered by me.

For example, I tried to make Joe a 'welcome home' dinner this past Sunday of braciole. For those of you who don’t know what braciole is, it is magical. I had a bit of it from a friend’s grandmother once, and I would have had some from Joe’s Nana, except that he ate all of it before I could get my fork in there. Braciole is a piece of meat, either veal or beef, pounded thin and then wrapped around breadcrumbs, seasoning and hardboiled egg. It’s then braised and served with a tomato sauce and pasta. Like I said, magical. So I found a recipe online, and thought I could spend all day Sunday making it.
To make a long story a bit shorter, it didn’t turn out the way I wanted. Joe mentioned that he was glad he was not around to witness the debacle. There was profanity and the throwing of things. Wrapping meat around a filling successfully is my kryptonite in the kitchen. The braciole didn’t look good, but it tasted fine, and the sauce that went with it was great. So that is what I would like to share with you here today. If you know how to make braciole, or if you keep a small Italian grandmother hidden away for such occasions, please feel free to add it to the recipe.

Meat Braised Marinara Sauce As adapted from Tyler Florence’s “Ultimate Braciole”
I typically find Tyler Florence’s recipes good if not a little too involved. But this one looked promising. If you care to find his recipe for braciole, go ahead and give it a shot, but I am just going to share the sauce portion, which is still very good over pasta.

3Tb Olive oil
2 cloves
6 sprigs of thyme (washed but not chopped)
1 small (1-2 pounds) beef roast, or flank steak
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 ½ c beef broth
2 bay leaves
1 28oz. can crushed tomatoes (with no additional seasonings)
4 whole vine ripened tomatoes
½ pint grape tomatoes, whole
Salt and pepper
2 Tb balsamic vinegar
3 Tb parsley, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350°, and season the meat with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven and add the garlic cloves and thyme. Once the garlic is fragrant, add the meat and brown on all sides. If the thyme and garlic start to brown too much, remove them from them from the oil, and set aside. Once the meat is browned, remove it to a platter and set aside.

Next add the onions and sauté until soft, about 3-4 minutes. Then add in beef broth and bay leaves, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Once the beef broth is boiling, add in the can of tomatoes, the reserved garlic and thyme and stir to combine. Once the mixture is fully combined, add back in the meat.

Nestle in the whole tomatoes around the meat, and toss in the grape tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Bring the entire mixture to a simmer, then cover and place in the oven. Cook for about 2 hours, or until the meat is form tender (it will shrink in size a bit). Then remove the pot from the oven, and set the meat on a platter, and shred with a fork. Remove the whole tomatoes from the sauce, as well as the bay leaves and thyme springs. Blend the remaining mixture in a blender or with an immersion blender until combined. Then place the pot over medium heat.

Peel off the skin from the large whole tomatoes, and crush, then return them to the pot. Also, add back in the shredded meat and any juices that may have accumulated. Bring the pot to a simmer. Add in the balsamic vinegar and parsley and simmer for about 5 minutes. Check for seasonings, and serve over cooked pasta.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Yes, Zwiebelkuchen. Don’t be scared. I’ll walk you through it. Svee-bell-coo-tschen. Well, that’s basically right, the tschen is really more of a throat noise, like if you were pretending to hiss with the back of your throat like a cat – that’s the noise we’re going for. Go ahead, give it a try. No one is judging you here. Zwee-bell-coo- (hiss like a cat)en. Good!

Ok now that we got that out of the way, Zweibelkuchen is an onion cake. Don’t say eww just yet! Onion cake is not literally a layer cake made from onions, it’s more like a quiche or savory tart. A crust, onions, bacon and a light custard make this little baby up, and it is delicious. This dish is found in many different countries with slight variations, but the alpine region in Europe does it the best (in my opinion). So whether you are in France, Switzerland or Italy, try it! But if you are in Germany, I implore you to get a slice.
This was another one of those experiences that was a perfect food memory for me. I had Zwiebelkuchen twice while in Germany, and now ever since I found this recipe I have been hooked. The first time I had it, was at a traditional wine harvest dinner. This was a bit more commercialized than me harvesting grapes from a sun drenched vineyard. But never the less, there was a farm, and the farmer sold tickets to his harvest dinner. In south-west Germany, it was common for farmers to need extra hands in the fall. Workers were fed a light dinner of Zwiebelkuchen and given the Neuesüsse wine to drink that evening.
Neuesüsse is the sweet, barely fermented wine that is bottled and shared directly after harvest. It is very sweet and everyone recommends not having too many glasses of it for the sake of your bowels. But it is good and it is cheap, which of course, is even better. If you can find a bottle at a farmer’s market, you can let it ferment more on a shelf, but be sure to uncork it, or the bottle is rumored to explode on you as the pressure builds.
The other time I had Zwiebelkuchen was when a roommate of mine (and I will save some of the fabulous stories about my roommates in Germany for another time)made it with some friends. This was an opportunity for onion googles, if I have ever seen one. They chopped so many pounds of onions, that the tiny apartment kitchen was lethal to be in. If someone walked into the kitchen they were hit with a wall of onion gas. It was beautiful.

So if you are stuck in a rut for holiday potluck options. Give this a try. You can follow the recipe I will share below, or you can cheap it up a bit, and use refrigerated crescent rolls, ham and a little bit of cheese for a quick brunch option.

As adapted from The New German Cookbook by Jean Anderson and Hedy Würz

2 sheets puff pastry, defrosted and at room temperature
7-8 slices of thick cut bacon, chopped into small squares
1 lb. yellow onions, thinly sliced
2 tsp. caraway seeds
½ tsp. nutmeg
½ c. whole milk
¼ c. heavy whipping cream
2 eggs, beaten
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400°. Pinch together the two sheets of puff pastry dough and roll out to fit into a 15”x12” cookie sheet (standard size), there should be about a ½” overlap up the sides of the baking sheet.

Sauté the chopped bacon in a large skillet over medium heat, then remove the bacon, but keep the grease in the pan. Add sliced onions into pan and sauté for about 7 minutes until translucent. Then add caraway seeds and nutmeg and continue to sauté until the onion is very soft, another 7-10 minutes. If the onions start to get brown, turn the heat a little lower and stir more frequently. A little brown on the edges is fine, but not burnt or completely caramelized.

Next, pour the onions onto the puff pastry and sprinkle with bacon bits. Pull the extra puff pastry over top of the onion and bacon, forming a bit of a lip around the entire tart. Bake the Zwiebelkuchen for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the milk, cream, eggs, salt and pepper. After 15 minutes remove the cookie sheet, and pour the milk mixture over top of the onions. The milk mixture should not cover the onions completely, so feel free to reserve any excess milk and egg mixture for another purpose (scrambled eggs or like Joe and I did for a ghetto carbonara). Return the cookie sheet to the oven and continue to bake for another 20-25 minutes. If the edges of the pastry get too brown, cover the sheet loosely with aluminum foil.

Once the custard has set (is no longer jiggly) remove the Zwiebelkuchen from the oven and let cool about 20 minutes. Then slice and serve! I like Zwiebelkuchen warm, but I love it cold or even reheated the next day.