Sunday, November 29, 2009

Shrimp and Cocktails For Two

Did I mention I was feeling better last night? Ms. Bic was too. Not just better from the flu, but also fully-recovered from a bland, boring, and heavy Thanksgiving dinner. We were both in the mood for something tasty, fun, and light. We started off with martinis and shrimp cocktail and finished up with a salad of mixed baby greens accompanied with baked herbed goat cheese rounds and a bottle of young red wine. It was a good evening.

Regarding the martinis: real martinis are made with gin and dry vermouth. That's it. OK--ice; and a garnish too. But no chocolate, no strawberries, no cutesy-fartsy fruity liqueurs. These may all be part of a tasty cocktail. Just not part of a martini. Gin and vermouth and usually an olive or two. Simple? Yes. Easy to fuck up? You betcha.

Let's talk about the ingredients one at a time. First, the gin. Of the commonly available brands, I prefer Beefeater, with Bombay Sapphire coming in a close second. Beefeater is a little less flowery than Bombay and that's my preference. Try them both. Lately I've heard good things about Plymouth gin too. Haven't tried it yet. In any case, use good gin. It's the heart of the drink. Nothing will ruin a martini faster than using cheap gin.
Dry vermouth: again, two contenders. Martini and Rossi (Italian), and Noilly Prat (French). I slightly prefer M & R. Again, I find it a little less floral, but that's just me. Do not buy cheap vermouth. It will ruin your martini. Period. And don't forget, vermouth is just flavored wine. It has a very limited shelf life. Buy small bottles and keep it refrigerated. Toss it after two or three months. Would you enjoy a glass of "regular" wine from a bottle that was opened a year ago and has been sitting in someone's warm kitchen cupboard ever since? I didn't think so. Vermouth's no different--it's wine too. Enough said.

The ice: Yes, the ice. With a drink as simple as a martini, the quality of the ice really matters. Or more precisely--the quality of the water the ice was made from really matters. If your tap water tastes shitty, so will your ice and so will your martinis. No point in buying good gin and vermouth and then ruining the whole thing with ice cubes that taste like frozen little chunks of chlorinated swimming-pool water. If your water is bad, filter it or use bottled water for your ice.

The garnish: usually a green olive or two. I like garlic-stuffed Greek green olives the best. Use whatever you like. Sometimes a thin strip of lemon zest removed with a vegetable peeler is used instead of an olive. Once in a while, a tiny bottled cocktail onion. Then the cocktail is technically called a Gibson rather than a martini. But let's not get picky.

Last night we enjoyed ours with a few Maine shrimp that I gently simmered with a little Old Bay seasoning, then chilled and served with some homemade cocktail sauce. It was a delicious combination.

Making your own shrimp cocktail sauce couldn't be easier. Just pour out a couple good glugs of ketchup into a little bowl, and add some prepared horseradish to taste. I start with about a ten to one ketchup to horseradish ratio and add horseradish or ketchup until it tastes just right to me. When it tastes just right to you, add a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice. That's it. Just add some shrimp and a couple of dry martinis and you've got yourself a lovely little cocktail party for two.

I'll tell you about the goat cheese salad a little later.

Anyway, to make two double martinis start with 6 oz. of gin in a measuring cup. Add 1 scant teaspoon dry vermouth. The comfortably-full cap of a 375 ml. bottle of Martini and Rossi vermouth is a perfect measuring device. Shake in a metal cocktail shaker with plenty of ice until the shaker is almost too cold to hold. This accomplishes two things: it chills the booze and also dilutes it. Properly diluted gin is key to a great martini. Remember, imported London dry gin is generally about 94 proof. It can stand up to some melted ice. In fact, it's made to stand up to some melted ice. Once it's well-shaken and good and cold, just strain through the top of the cocktail shaker into two martini glasses. Add an olive or two to each. Serve immediately. Drink while still cold.

Update: Here's a link to the subsequent goat cheese salad post and recipe.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Cavatappi with Shrimp and Sheep's Milk Feta

It was cold, windy, and raining cats and dogs in Portland yesterday. A day literally calling out for some good, hot comfort food. But not super-heavy, fat-laden comfort food. Something lighter but yet soul-satisfying.

Pasta spirals with little shrimp in a light tomato sauce accented with feta cheese filled the billet perfectly. This recipe is a cold weather favorite at our house. If you're only familiar with cow's milk--or even goat's milk feta--sheep's milk feta is a revelation. It's rich tasting, tangy, and flavorful without an over-reliance on salt for its flavor. It's readily available these days and well worth seeking out.

Cavatappi pasta spirals work great in this dish. They're toothsome and satisfying without being ponderous. I prefer DeCecco brand. DeCecco pasta is flavorful, and maintains good texture--rather than getting all mushy--even after baking. It's worth the extra few cents.

As far as the shrimp go, get the smallest raw shrimp you can. Wild caught if possible. If you can get them, tiny Maine shrimp are ideal.

Anyway, this dish, along with a green salad and maybe a loaf of good bread makes for a great meal without a lot of work. Here's a link to the recipe.

Oh yeah, don't forget the wine. Something cold and white. An Italian Pinot Grigio or an American, New Zealand, or Chilean Sauvignon Blanc all work perfectly.

Update: Link to shrimp cocktail recipe added 11/30/09.

Click on image for a larger view.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Ms. Bic's Mejillones a la Vinagreta (Spanish Mussels)

Although we call them "Spanish Mussels" at our house. Whatever you call them, they are one of the very best mussel dishes in the world. People who think they don't like mussels often love these.

Last night we had some good friends join us for dinner. The main course featured "Leaping Frog Chicken." It's a great grilled chicken dish with Latin American roots. I did a post on it a few months ago. Click here to check it out.

Ms. Bic figured her Spanish Mussels would be perfect for an appetizer. She was absolutely right. Accompanied by a cold bottle of Spanish Albarino white wine, they were a great start to the meal and a big hit. Here's her recipe.

For dessert we had Ms. Bic's heavenly Phyllo Pear Flowers with Berry Centers. But that will have to be a post of its own.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Fettuccine with Hot Italian Sausage and Tuscan Kale

We're well into fall here in Maine. The certainty of winter approaching is a tangible presence in the air. The homeless people I work with at my paying job are increasingly dependent upon the warmth and food that the shelters and soup kitchens offer. This is the beginning of the busy season for those of us who staff those facilities. Hence, I've had less time to blog and cook than I've grown accustomed to over the last several months.

Thursday morning, before I left for work, I decided to make one of my favorite one-pot meals for dinner that night. This recipe is relatively quick to make, delicious, soul- satisfying, and nutritious. Along with a loaf of good bread and a bottle of young red wine, it's a complete meal. Try it sometime!

Make sure you use egg fettuccine rather than "regular" dried fettuccine for this recipe. Egg fettuccine comes in four bird-nesty looking portions per 500 g. (8.8 oz.) package. I like DeCecco brand best.

If you happen to live in southern Maine, Micucci's on India Street in Portland is a wonderful little market and a dependable source for most food things Mediterranean. That's where I got the sausage, pasta, and wine for this dinner.

And if you don't do pig--although I've never tried them with this--I imagine substituting the turkey or chicken-based hot Italian sausages I've seen around would be fine.

Note: Click on photo to enlarge. This works with most photos posted on the blog.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Lobster Rolls for Dinner

For Maine, for this time of year, yesterday was a relatively warm (61 F/16 C) day and sunny, with light winds. In its own Northern way, very lovely.

Ms. Bic and I were both off from work and didn't have anything planned. We decided to drive down the coast to Ogunquit and go for a walk on the town's world famous beach--mostly deserted after the summer's influx of tourists were gone. After a long walk and a lot of sea air, we were both hungry for some good seafood. Nothing ponderous or heavy though. Nothing fried or swimming in a rich butter sauce. Something light. Something fun. We decided to pick up some lobsters on the way home and make lobster rolls for dinner.

Once back home in Portland, we stopped at Harbor Fish Market (probably the best all-around fish market in Maine) and bought a couple of relatively small soft-shell lobsters for just under $10. We then stopped at Whole Foods and bought some hot dog rolls. Yes, hot dog rolls. A good, soft hot dog roll, preferably top-split--is the best thing in the world for making lobster rolls. Just make sure you get top-quality ones. To me, Whole Foods' store-brand plain organic white wheat rolls are the best--with Pepperidge Farm coming in a close second. Only plain, soft white flour rolls and NOT the whole grain alternatives will make a heavenly lobster roll. Your karma will survive the ideological insult--trust me on this.

As soon as we got home, I cooked the lobsters. I wanted them to have time to cool off before I made the lobster salad. Here's how I did it. I stuck the cooked lobsters in the fridge for about half an hour and then I removed all the meat from them and cut it into bite-size (about 1/2") chunks.

Next, I made the lobster salad. Here's my recipe. As you'll see, it incorporates some minced shallot and tarragon. I think these flavors--used in moderation--although not strictly traditional, take the salad to a higher level.

To go with the lobster rolls, I made a salad of simply-dressed mesclun greens with a couple of still warm-from-the-oven, rounds of baked goat cheese nestled alongside. But I guess that should be the topic for another post someday soon.

One last thing: a fun, light-hearted dinner like this calls for a fun, light-hearted wine. Definitely something dry, white, and cold. Actually anything dry, white, and cold! If you want to splurge a little bit, a tart New Zealand or Washington state Sauvignon Blanc, or a Spanish Albarino would work perfectly. Your call!