Sunday, October 19, 2014

Aunt Rita's fried shrimp

I'm man enough to admit that I've got nothing on this woman.

Just look at her. Eightysomething and still strong enough to carry a load like me.

I can only hope that the family genes are as reliably hearty when or if I get to that age.

You may know Aunt Rita from the occasional reports that I post here from the Christmas Eve dinner table. We celebrate the traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes in our family, and the extravagant, multi-course, multi-hour meal is always expertly prepared by Rita, Aunt Anna and Cousin Joanie.

Over the years I have prepared most all of the various holiday recipes in my own home, but never Rita's shrimp. And so when charged with preparing an hors d'oeuvre the other evening I figured why not give it a shot.

These are the original. The photo was taken at the Christmas Eve dinner table. Which year I'm not sure, but it hardly matters. Rita's shrimp always look and taste exactly the same, which is to say perfect! In fact, only two dishes on the holiday table NEVER have leftovers: Anna's Baked Clams and Rita's Shrimp.

Considering how extraordinary my aunt's shrimp are, I was more than a little surprised to finally discover her secret to preparing them. Shocked is more like it.

"I don't need to look it up," Rita said when I called to ask for her recipe the other day. "It's only three ingredients. And I couldn't tell you how much to use of each."

It's not the lack of directions — for a recipe that the woman has prepared every Christmas Eve for decades — that shocked me. The cooks in my family often prepare dishes by feel, even those passed down through generations. I'm the same way. I'll write down ingredients and proportions when I know I want to share the recipe on this blog, but even that isn't an exact science around here. Sorry.

What threw me about Rita's shrimp recipe were the ingredients themselves. They just seemed so ordinary.

"I use Bisquick, beer and breadcrumbs, that's it," my aunt told me. "As for the proportions, what can I say, honey? You're on your own."

So this is two cups of Bisquick and a cup of beer. I arrived at these proportions by following the package directions for making pancakes, just not with the egg. (In hindsight, and having consulted with Rita's daughter Cousin Joanie, I would suggest going a little heavier on the dry mix than I did here, and making the batter a bit thicker.)

A whisk does a much better job than a fork and so I always go with that.

Rita's shrimp are always on the large size and so go with the biggest shrimp you can get your hands on. Dip them in the batter...

... then dredge in breadcrumbs (on both sides of course).

Line the coated shrimp on a wax paper-lined tray and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours. (Both Rita and Joanie insist that this step is critical.)

Then fry very quickly in hot olive oil. The trick here is to not overcook the shrimp. I've never had one of my aunt's shrimp that were hard or tough, in other words overcooked. Remember, shrimp cook extremely quickly. I doubt these cooked for more than a minute or two.

Line a plate with paper towels and allow the cooked shrimp to shed some of the frying oil. At this stage I also sprinkled the hot, just-fried shrimp with Kosher salt.

This step is a big variation, and so let me explain. Every time I eat Rita's fried shrimp they're on a dinner plate that includes Aunt Anna's Fish Salad, a traditional Christmas Eve dish. The thing about having both the shrimp and the salad together on the same plate is that I get to dip Rita's plain fried shrimp into the seasoned oils and garlicky juices of Anna's fish salad. Since my shrimp were being served alone I thought a little extra flavor was needed, and so I caramelized some garlic (in olive oil and with a few anchovy filets).

After plating the shrimp I drizzled the garlic and anchovy over them, a little freshly chopped hot pepper, and some chopped parsley.

These shrimp were delicious, but they weren't my aunt's. For those you'll need to find your way to Queens the night of December 24th.

I wouldn't miss it for anything.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lobster lasagne

Earlier this summer my friend Giovani volunteered me to prepare "a really simple pasta dish" for pals of his who were visiting Maine from the midwest. He provided no guidance as to the type of pasta, but did insist that I not put myself out "too very much."

Translation: Hey Meatball, these are really special friends we're talking about here. So get on the stick and come up with something special. Capeesh?

And so I got myself about a pound of super fresh lobster meat.

And cut it into small pieces.

This is a lot of chopped garlic, 10 cloves at least, that I sauteed in olive oil until softened but not browned. I've also got some hot pepper and anchovy in there, but you can do without those if you prefer.

Add the lobster meat to the pan and stir things around until everything is incorporated, then turn off the heat and set aside.

I figured that another moist element might be needed in this dish and settled on a bunch of rainbow chard. After steaming until tender allow the greens to cool, then chop finely.

In a bowl mix together the chard, a pound of fresh ricotta, a little grated cheese, some nutmeg, salt and pepper. Mix and adjust seasonings to taste.

This is a very nice Bechamel sauce that My Associate was kind enough to prepare. (Thank you, My Associate.)

Butter a lasagne pan, then lay down your first layer of pasta sheets. I went with black ink pasta but only because of the dramatic effect it might have on my guests (and Giovani); any type of pasta sheets will do.

A layer of bechamel.

Some of the ricotta and chard mixture.

A sprinkle of the lobster meat and garlic.

Another sheet of pasta and then repeat the layers until the pan is filled.

Like so.

Bake at 350-375 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes, then allow to rest for at least 15 minutes before cutting into the lasagne and serving.

"A really simple pasta dish" that won't put you out "too very much."

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Zucchini in olive oil

If your summers play out anything like mine do then odds are good you have some of this stuff in the fridge already.

After all, how many of these have you come across in the past couple months? I'm down to only two zucchini plants in the garden this year, but each has already thrown off a couple dozen specimens. And they're still producing. One of my favorite things to do with zucchini is roast or grill them and then preserve them in olive oil.

Just slice them up.

Lay on a baking sheet that's been coated in olive oil and season with salt and pepper (you can also do this outside on the grill), then place in an oven preheated to 375 degrees F. Using a spatula, turn occasionally so that the slices brown on both sides.

The time it takes to cook the zucchini varies, but this is about how things should look when it's done.

All that's left to do now is layer the zucchini, along with garlic slices and crushed hot pepper, in a container of some sort.

Then cover the whole thing in extra virgin olive oil and put it in the fridge. It's best to wait at least a couple days before tasting; that way the flavors can meld together. As long as the zucchini are covered in the oil they should last in the fridge for a couple weeks or so.

I use slices of the zucchini on sandwiches (mint leaves are a nice way to top them when serving), but my favorite way to eat it has always been as an antipasti.

With bread to sop up the oil, of course.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Fish poached in olive oil

My friend Fred will be all over this one. The man spends more time chasing fish than anyone I know, and is always searching for new ways to prepare the swimmers that take his lure.

Like me, Fred tries to keep things simple. I liked that about him when we first met each other, more than a couple decades back. He was editing a technology magazine and I was a newly hired gun brought in to do the things that hired guns do. My first assignment was to edit a cover story whose author and assigning editor (both trusted staffers) had determined required 11,000 words or so to tell. "Do what you think it needs," were my only instructions.

The next day, after I'd turned in a much-simplified 3,500-word piece for all parties to review, Fred was the only one not demanding that I be made acquainted with the exit, or perhaps a higher-floor open window. A two-month assignment grew into a yearlong gig, and a friendship that has lasted much longer.

Long enough to know that, when fishing season on Long Island commences this fall, Fred will be giving this olive oil-poached fish fillet preparation a serious going over. It's luxurious, for sure. But it couldn't possibly be simpler.

You can oil poach a lot of different types of fish, but this whole bluefish fillet had my name written all over it.

All you need to do is season the fillet with salt and freshly ground black pepper. (By the way, make sure to allow the fish to come up to room temperature before working with it. It should not be cold when you begin cooking it.)

Put the fillet in a baking dish, cover it with olive oil, and add a couple of crushed garlic cloves and whatever fresh herbs you like. Then place the dish in an oven preheated to 200 to 250 degrees F and leave it alone. After around 25 minutes start checking the fish for doneness. As usual, the exact amount of cooking time will depend on a lot of things, the thickness of the fillet among them. This fillet took around 35 minutes at roughly 250 degrees or so.

Plate the fillet, along with some of the olive oil, and allow to rest before serving. I like it at room temperature, but some people prefer eating the fish when it's still warm.

I'm not so sure where Fred stands on this issue. Guess we're not quite as close as I thought.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Pasta with onions & prosciutto

Next to a nice big bowl of pasta & peas, there's nothing quite as comforting to me as this stuff. My mother used to make it for me when I was a boy, usually when we were alone together, which wasn't all that often. With two brothers and around a dozen cousins all living under the same roof, alone time with anybody, let alone mom, was a rare event indeed.

Even today pasta with onions & prosciutto is a private dish for me. I never prepare it for anybody else. The only times I even think about making it is when I've got the house to myself. Hell, it's taken four years to share the recipe, if you can call it that, with you here.

Just saute an onion (a red one here but it doesn't matter what kind) and a little garlic in olive oil.

Once the onion is completely softened (but not browned) add some cut-up slices of prosciutto.

Immediately start to add your cooked pasta to the pan, along with some of the (well-salted) pasta water, turn up the heat and incorporate.

Then turn off the heat, stir in some grated Romano cheese, and serve.

To your well-comforted self, or whomever else you might choose.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Almost Willie's Lemon Ice

I got an email from my brother Mike in Ohio the other day:

"You probably hate people telling you what to do on your blog," it correctly stated. "But since I AM your brother ..." 

Older brother, actually. Which might hold sway in some sibling relationships, but, and perhaps to Mike's chagrin, never has in ours. 

Until now.

"Since it is summer," Mike went on, "how about a recipe for Willie's Lemon Ice? I'm sure you remember those hot summer days in the school yard when we were kids, and all those trips around the corner to spend a nickel or a dime for a cup at Willie's. Right?"

Right. This, in fact, is the type of cup that my brother recalls. It is still used by Italian ice stands, only the stuff that fills it hasn't cost a nickel in a while. Lemon, which was occasionally joined by cherry or chocolate as a flavor choice back in Willie's day, is but one of possibly thousands today. I was standing on line at an ice stand in Queens recently and watched people order flavors such as Cookie Dough and Holi Cannoli, even Vanilla Peanut Butter with Chocolate Covered Pretzels. Not one of the people ahead of me ordered a lemon ice, which, by the way, was dubbed Lick Me Lemon.

Willie's Lemon Ice, now long gone, was located on the eastbound side of Atlantic Avenue, between Essex and Linwood Streets, in the East New York section of Brooklyn. The stand was open only in the summer months. Barely more than a formica counter measuring around four feet wide and as many feet high, Willie's was tightly wedged between two other commercial ventures, Sal's Tire Shop (run by the Albanese family) and Barney's candy store (the Samartanos).

Nobody, and I mean nobody, didn't crave Willie's lemon ice. It was sweet and tart and slushy and, well, about as thirst-quenching and satisfying as a thing could possibly be on a hot summer's day in the city. To anybody who grew up at the same time and place as Mike and I did, Willie's is the standard by which all Italian ices are judged. It's no wonder my brother and his wife Marie, who grew up two blocks away from Willie's, or twice as far as Mike and I did, attempt to recreate the ice every summer.

"We've been making it in our manual ice cream maker for years," Mike wrote in his email. "It's simple and really tastes like the original Willie's. I can send you the recipe.

"It's as close to Willie's as you can get," Mike assured me. "I only wish that I had the paper cups to serve it in." 

Almost Willie's Lemon Ice
Serves 4 to 6

3 cups very cold water
3/4 cup sugar
2/3 cup lemon juice
2 teaspoons lemon zest

Mix all the ingredients together to dissolve the sugar and refrigerate (the colder the mixture is to start, the better it will freeze).

Place the mix into any 1- to 1 1/2-quart ice cream maker until frozen to a soft fluffy consistency. Half the recipe can also be made for 2-3 people and it does freeze better in small quantities.