Hot Ham Dip

August 20, 2017 – Country ham has been popular in the south for generations.  As a boy, I remember it from the annual reunions in my family’s rural parish in northwest Louisiana.  They were often held on the grounds of a country church, many of which had covered pavilions with long lines of picnic tables for just that  purpose.  Hence, they came to be called “dinner on the grounds.”  I remember them as  real, down-home community events with some of the best food, not to mention music, you could ever experience.

Country ham is most often identified with Tennessee and Kentucky, the two states sometimes referred to as the “Spain and Italy” of the U.S. ham belt.  It’s that stretch of the mid south in which weather conditions are most conducive to raising pigs.

“What is a country ham?” you might ask.  “How is it different from the hams usually found in grocery  stores?”  Fair questions.

Country hams are dry cured.  They are usually rubbed down with salt, smoked with hardwood, and cured for a minimum of four months and sometimes up to three years.  The meat is dry and the taste is very salty.

The hams we generally buy from our local grocer are most often cured by injecting them with salt, sugar, and a variety of spices before they’re smoked.  They are moist and far less salty than their country cousins.

I’m not a great fan of country hams.  They’re too salty for my taste.  They also demand a lot of time and attention.  To me a good, bone-in picnic ham is tastier, more flexible, and a lot easier to work with.

A few nights ago we decided we didn’t want a big dinner.  I had been reading about appetizers and dips and such.  One that intrigued me was a hot country ham dip.  Interesting.  I did a little research.  What I found was a long list of recipes from various sources, all of them exactly the same.

I decided to see what I could come up with.  In keeping with my preference, I dropped the country ham in favor of a slice from a bone-in picnic ham, eliminated a couple of items from the recipe, added a few others, and changed the process a bit.

My additions included Herbes de Provence, a blend of seasonings associated with the Provence region of France.  The seasonings might include savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano and lavender.

Serve it with hearty crackers, raw vegetables, or even a crusty bread.  Hot is best but cold works, too.  It’s a winner!

Hot Ham Dip

16 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 cup sour cream

1 cup chopped ham

1/2 cup onion, minced

1/4 cup roasted red pepper, minced

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon ginger powder

1 tablespoon Herbes de Provence

1 teaspoon Worcestershire

1 tablespoon butter broken into small pieces

Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350.

Combine the cream cheese, sour cream, ham, onion, roasted red pepper, garlic, ginger, Herbes de Provence, and Worcestershire.

When thoroughly mixed, place the dip in an oven-proof dish.  Dot the top with the bits of butter.  Top with a generous grinding of black pepper.

Bake for 20 minutes.

Bon temps!

 

 

Gambas al Ajillo

August 24, 2017 – Small plates represent one of the food trends appearing in American restaurants in recent years.  In other countries they’ve been popular forever.  Italy has its spuntini.  Spain is famous for having given us tapas.  The Chinese and other Asian cultures have for centuries served up elaborate banquets consisting of a seemingly endless procession of small dishes.

Having read recently about Spain’s tapas, I decided to try one.  Gambas al ajillo.  Shrimp with garlic.

Gambas al ajillo is universally loved in Spain, especially in the southern part of the country as well as in Madrid.  It’s much like gumbo in my native Louisiana or halibut in my adopted home state Alaska.  There’s no one way to prepare it.  Every restaurant and every family  has a version.   All the recipes I read, however, included shrimp, lots of garlic, and lots of olive oil.  The olive oil, of course, must be of excellent quality.

So garlic and olive oil?  Two of the basic food groups as far as I’m concerned.  A hot pepper?  Another of the basic food groups.  And shrimp?  Never far from a Louisiana-born boy’s heart.  I had to have a go at this.

As always, we did it our way.  The result, as my Louisiana grandmother would have said, would “…make you want to slap your Papa.”  I never knew exactly what that meant but I figured it was a good thing since I never saw her actually slap anyone.

This is not the traditional gambas al ajillo that you would be served in a tapas bar or a home in Spain.  It was the inspiration of the traditional Spanish tapas that guided us in creating something of our own.  With apologies to the people of Spain, here is our take on gambas al ajillo.

Gambas al Ajillo

(Shrimp with Garlic)

1 pound large shrimp, peeled & deveined

1/4 cup thinly sliced garlic

3/4 cup excellent quality, extra virgin olive oil

1 jalapeno, sliced crosswise into rounds

1/2 cup parsley, finely minced

2 tablespoons white wine

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons capers

1/2 teaspoon basil

pinch each of cinnamon, allspice, cayenne, & sugar

Salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste

Crusty bread, sliced into rounds & toasted

In a heavy skillet cook the garlic in the olive oil over moderately low heat for four to five minutes, being careful not to let the garlic burn.

Add the jalapeno and let it begin to soften, about a minute.

Add the shrimp.  Maintaining the heat at moderately low, let the shrimp cook until they start to turn pink, three to four minutes.

All the remaining ingredients.  Stirring to combine with the shrimp, garlic, and pepper, cook for another two minutes.

Remove from the heat.  The contents of the skillet will continue to cook gently for a while longer.

Salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with the toasted rounds of crusty bread.

Bon temps!

Rockfish with Caper Sauce

August 13, 2017 – If you’ve read many of my pieces here, you know that I hold dual citizenship in what I consider two of the world’s great food cultures:  born in Louisiana; grew up in Alaska.  It doesn’t get better than gumbo made with king crab!  It really doesn’t.

I do love seafood.  The shrimp, oysters, and crawfish of my native land; the wild salmon, halibut, and king crab of my adopted home.  I’ll repeat here that I don’t do farmed salmon and absolutely no GMOs.  NO TO FRANKENFISH!  Wild fish are the best and the best for you.

Alaska also is home to the rockfish, a game fish often overlooked by fishermen hoping to land that huge king salmon or halibut.

I like to hook into a king or silver or red salmon as much as anyone.  Halibut not so much.  I’ve caught many halibut over the years but finally concluded that hooking into the often over-sized bottom fish is like getting your hook caught in a refrigerator someone dumped overboard.  The fish just hangs like dead weight while you laboriously drag him into sight.  At that point he shows what a monster he can be and, if he’s big enough and you’re not careful, he can take out a chunk of your boat’s gunwale with his tail.  It’s why experienced boat captains keep a pistol on board.

By comparison, the rockfish is a peaceful creature.  There are 30 varieties of rockfish in Alaska.  Some swim in open water; many hang out in the rocks and reefs on the bottom.  They’re the ones often mistakenly brought to the surface by those on the hunt for halibut.

Most of the rockfish look like, well, fish.  Some varieties even sport bright rainbows of color.  Unfortunately, the ones that like to hang out in the rocks aren’t among the lovelies.  The first time I reeled one in I thought I’d discovered some sort of prehistoric monster of the deep.  While they’re harmless, some of them look like they could  do a little damage with their teeth and the line of sharp quills running down their backs.  The China, quillback, copper, and  tiger  rockfish are scariest in appearance, though they can be adorned with brilliant and beautiful colors.  And they taste just as good as their prettier cousins.

Rockfish filets are buttery, delicate, and delicious.  They cook very quickly.  The best way to prepare them is to saute’ them.  And they must be handled gently as they break apart easily.  If you’re preparing a sauce, as I did, make the sauce first.

My fishmonger had some beautiful rockfish filets when I visited recently.  I thought about how good they would taste in a spicy sauce.  A caper sauce with extra energy!

Here’s what I came up with.

Rockfish with Caper Sauce

(Serves two)

For the sauce:

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 roasted red pepper, chopped

1 small shallot, minced

1 cup mushrooms. sliced

1 tablespoon garlic

1 jalapeno, minced

1 teaspoon sage

Salt & pepper to taste

3 tablespoons all purpose flour

1 1/4 cups chicken stock

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup capers

For the fish:

3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 rockfish filets (a little over a pound)

1/2 cup white wine

To make the sauce:

Melt two tablespoons of butter and warm two tablespoons of olive oil over moderate heat in a skillet.

Add the roasted red pepper, shallot, mushrooms, and jalapeno to the hot oil.  Saute’ until the vegetables  begin to soften.  Add the garlic last as it has a tendency to burn quickly.

Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Add the flour and stir until it combines with the oil.

Pour in the chicken broth and cream.  Increase the heat to moderately high.  Continue stirring until the sauce begins to thicken.

Add the capers, including a little of their tangy juice, and stir them into the sauce.

Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.

Take the sauce off the heat while you cook the fish.

To cook the rockfish:

Season the filets with salt and pepper to taste.

Melt two tablespoons of butter and warm two tablespoons of olive oil over moderate heat in another skillet.

Add the filets.  They will cook quickly, about three minutes per side, depending on their size.  Be careful not to over cook.  Turn them gently as they will break apart easily.  When they are beginning to brown, carefully lay them on a plate covered with a paper towel to let them drain for a few minutes while you take the final step.

Deglaze the pan in which you cooked the filets with the white wine and the last tablespoon of butter.  When you have captured all the fond (the little brown bits left on the bottom of the skillet), return the sauce to moderate heat and stir the glazing liquid into it.

Plate two filets per dish and drizzle with the caper sauce.

Bon temps!

Corn Fritters

August 10, 2017 – It was said that Dolly Madison served corn fritters when she lived in the White House with her husband, James, from 1809 until 1817.  The wife of the fourth president was known to be an excellent hostess both during their years in Washington, D.C., and at their home in Virginia.

In 1814, the young United States was struggling in a lopsided war with the British.  On August 24th of that year, the British captured Washington, D.C.  When the generals leading the attack on the nation’s capital entered the White House, they found the Madisons gone but their dinner laid out on the table.  The British generals, never accused of being inane, helped themselves.  200 years later I find myself wondering if Dolly’s corn fritters were among the dishes the generals enjoyed that evening.

I researched Dolly’s recipe and looked at several others for comparison.  As you might imagine, there are scores of recipes for corn fritters.  They’re all about the same.  Most of the modern versions call for frozen or canned corn.  I cut the kernels from three fresh ears of corn.  It’s the only way to go.

Dolly’s version deviates from the recipes popular today in two ways.  One good, I think, and another not so much.

On the not so much side, she added cornstarch.  I can’t figure out why.  Cornstarch is mostly used as a thickening agent.  The batter for the fritters is already plenty thick.  I can’t see why it would need to be thicker.

I found the other difference to be an excellent idea.  All the recipes I saw use an egg, sometimes two, as a binder.  Dolly did, too.  The difference is she separated her egg.  She mixed the yolk in with the other ingredients.  She beat the egg white until it was stiff and folded it into the batter.  That, I discovered, added an airy quality to the fritter batter.  It made the fritters special.

Corn fritters can be sweet or savory or spicy.  I wanted all three.  I added a little thyme for the savory part.  It worked beautifully, leaving just a hint of the mild spice on the tongue.  I also added finely chopped green onion and minced ham, two other elements that worked.

For heat, I decided to go with a dipping sauce.  Melted butter, maple syrup, and several generous shots of Tabasco.  It was perfect!

My wife pronounced corn fritters her new favorite meal.

Corn Fritters

(Makes about a dozen)

Fritters:

1/2 cup all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 egg, separated

1/3 cup milk

3 tablespoon olive oil

2 cups of corn (kernels cut from three fresh ears)

1 green onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup ham, minced

1 tablespoon thyme

2 tablespoons butter

Dipping sauce:

1 stick melted butter

1 1/2 cups maple syrup

Tabasco to taste

To make the fritters: Sift the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar together.  Add the egg yolk, lightly beaten, milk and one tablespoon of olive oil.  Stir until the mixture is smooth.  Add the corn, green onion, ham, and thyme.  Mix well.

Beat the egg white until it’s stiff.  Gently fold it into the fritter batter.

Heat two tablespoons each of olive oil and butter in a skillet over moderate heat.  Drop the batter into the warm oil and butter.  Cook until nicely browned on both sides.

To make the dipping sauce:  Combine the melted butter with the maple syrup.  Add several generous dashes of Tabasco to your taste.

Bon temps!

 

 

Albondigas

August 3, 2017 – Meatballs.  Albondigas are meatballs.  Spanish meatballs to be more precise.

Though I have yet to find any instance in which a notable personage stood to deliver a panegyric to the lowly meatball, I also have yet to find a culture that doesn’t have a meatball among its favorite comfort foods.  The earliest reference I have found is in China in the early third century.  (Don’t ask me how they managed to grind meat in those days.  But the Chinese are known to be a very resourceful people.)  Since that time meatballs have been adopted with regional variations by one culture after another.

Italians, of course, made meatballs into an art.  Who doesn’t love spaghetti and meatballs, the very definition of comfort food?

In Spain, albondigas are served as either an appetizer or a main course.  They’re often served unadorned, in a tomato sauce, or sometimes in a soup.  In Mexico, the delectable spheres are usually served in a soup.

I didn’t want to serve them unaccompanied and I didn’t have the energy to make a tomato sauce.  It seemed much easier to go with the soup.  These days I’m all in favor of easier.

Spanish albondigas usually call for a mixture of ground beef and spicy chorizo sausage.  I didn’t have any chorizo on hand but did have some andouille.  Andouille is my favorite sausage so I happily made the substitution.

You can make the meatballs any size you wish.  I found that keeping them relatively small worked best.

I also added some finely minced garlic and onion, plus some left over spicy Puerto Rican rice I made recently.  The resulting meatballs were bursting with flavor.

For the soup, I began by sautéing celery and roasted red pepper in olive oil.  When the vegetables are cooked down is the best time to add seasonings.  I decided on sage and  rosemary.  The aroma emanating from my kitchen was so enticing it could stop traffic.

Albondigas Soup

1 pound ground beef

1 link andouille sausage, casing removed

freshly grated nutmeg to taste

1 tablespoon finely minced parsley

1 tablespoon garlic, finely minced

1/4 cup onion, finely chopped

1 cup cooked rice

1 slice bread, soaked in water

1 egg

5 tablespoons olive oil

1 rib celery, sliced

1 roasted red pepper, chopped

1 tablespoon sage

1 tablespoon rosemary

2 quarts chicken broth

1 potato, peeled & sliced into bite size chunks

Salt & pepper to taste

Combine the ground beef and sausage in a bowl.  Mix in the nutmeg and parsley.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Squeeze the water from the bread.  Add it and the egg to the meat.  Mix all the ingredients well with your hands.  Form into meatballs.

Heat three tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet.  Saute’ the meatballs until they are thoroughly browned.  Remove them to a plate covered with a paper towel.

In a stockpot, heat the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat.  Saute’ the celery and roasted red pepper until the celery is soft.  Season with the sage and rosemary.  This is also the time to season to taste with salt and pepper.

Pour in the chicken stock and increase the heat to high.  When it is boiling, add the potato chunks and browned meatballs.  Bring the stock back to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 45 minutes.

Adjust seasonings if necessary.

Bon temps!