Saturday, March 30, 2013

Rich Crab Pot Pies with Puff Pastry

Tired of chicken pot pie?  Here's a variation that you will enjoy.  I used crab but you could as easily use langostinos, crayfish tales or even small shrimp. A combination would even work.  Whatever you select, it will likely already be cooked and perhaps frozen.  If so, make sure it is thawed and well drained before using it.

Julian's "Double Puff" Crab Pot Pie
This dish is very rich and as such you'll want to serve it in smaller sizes.  I used an eight ounce oven-safe ramekin which was plenty for each adult.  As you can see I served them right along side a salad lightly dressed with a vinegar and oil dressing.  This was a great accompaniment and offsets the cream and shellfish that make up the main course.

Use a dish slightly larger than your ramekin as a cutting guide
and a double layer of puff pastry for a better rise.

Egg-washed pastry, topping the ramekins.
Here I show the recipe with a puff pastry, but you could as easily use a standard pie crust pastry.  I felt the puff pastry was lighter and fit better with the dish, but certainly either type would be fine.  If you've never used puff pastry, don't give it a second thought.  You can purchase it easily in your grocer's freezer case.  Let it sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours before you use it.  It's much like prepared pie crust pastry; simply lay it out on a floured surface, press together any cracks with a drop of wet water, and it's ready to use.  I like a double layer of puff pastry to give it more of a rise.  When cutting out the pastry, I prefer to find a bowl that's just a bit larger than my ramekins to use as a guide, as you want some overlap to seal the edge.  If you can't find anything close enough use the ramekin as you guide but cut it a little larger.

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
12 ounces (about 1.5 cups) fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 cup fresh carrots, diced or cut into bite-sized pieces
Salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 1/2 cups milk
1/4 cup clam juice or chicken broth
1/2 cup white wine
1 pound lump crab meat, well drained (or other shellfish)
2 cups frozen peas, fully thawed
4 sheets frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg, beaten with 1 teaspoon water (the egg wash)

In a large saute skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, 2-3 minutes.  Add the mushrooms and carrots and cook until softened somewhat, 5-7 minutes. The carrots will still be a bit crunchy.  (Note: if using previously frozen cooked carrots instead of fresh, add them along with the peas, and not at this stage.) Add the wine and simmer for another 2-3 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Sprinkle in the flour and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute.   Add the milk and clam juice (or chicken broth). Cook until bubbling, continuously stirring until thickened, about 2-4 minutes. Stir in the thawed peas.  Remove from heat and let sit until room temperature or speed up cooling by moving it into a bowl and into your refrigerator.  You may prepare up to this step a couple hours in advance of your meal.  About 45 minutes before the meal is served, proceed as noted below.

This crab is not 'lump' enough.  Larger crab pieces
are better if you can find them.
Gently turn in the crab meat to the prepared room-temperature mixture, doing your best to simply fold it into the ingredients without breaking up the crab.  Remember your shellfish has been precooked so you want to only heat it through during the baking phase, not before.

Preheat the oven to 350F with a rack in the middle position.

Unfold the pastry sheets on a lightly floured surface. Lay down the first sheet of puff pastry and brush with the egg wash.  Top with the second sheet and lightly press together.  Repeat for additional sheets.  Cut out pastry circles just larger than the ramekins, which should be 8-ounces each.  While each pastry circle can be cut from a single layer of puff pastry, a taller puff pastry requires a second sheet.  Cut out a small hole or cross-hatch to vent.  Brush the circles with the egg wash, as shown in photos above.

Serve fresh from the oven when you have the maximum 'puff'.
Fill the ramekins about 3/4 or a bit more of their capacity.  Do not overfill or you will have significant spillage as they cook.  Brush the rims of the bowls with the egg wash, lay a pastry circle over each ramekin, brushed side up, and seal the edges.

Place the bowls on a baking sheet lined with foil and bake on the middle rack until the pastry is puffed and golden, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.

A spoon full of Wonderful!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Creamy Shellfish and Garlic Toast Appetizers

Looking for an impressive, warm appetizer to serve to friends or family?  This is a great appetizer if served in moderation, as it is rich, delicious and packed with flavor. You can make it with any small shellfish like crayfish, langostino, or salad shrimp.  Anticipate 2-3 per person with cocktails or pre-dinner wine.  If hosting a larger party have two other types of less luxurious appetizer toasts along side these.

(makes about one cup)
1 tablespoon butter
6 green onions (scallions), white parts only, finely chopped
1/2 small red bell pepper, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon Old Bay Seafood seasoning or similar spice
Dash of cayenne pepper
6 ounces shellfish (crayfish, langostino or salad shrimp), precooked
1/8 teaspoon of Tabasco or other hot sauce (to taste)
Fresh ground pepper, to taste
(additional salt only if needed, taste carefully)
6 green onion (scallions), top green parts, finely sliced for garnish
Crunchy garlic bread appetizer toasts, fresh or store bought

Prepare the above ingredients.  Cut larger pieces of shellfish in half.  In a medium skillet, melt the butter over medium heat.  Add the onions and bell pepper and cook until softened about 5 minutes.  Add garlic and stir continuously for about a minute until the garlic is softened and has released its flavor.

Stir in the cream cheese, mayonnaise, seasonings and whisk until smooth.  Reduce heat to low and add the shellfish, stirring regularly until the shellfish is heated through (about 5 minutes).  Do not overcook or the shellfish will become tough as it has been previously cooked.  Taste and correct seasoning if necessary.

Serve immediately on garlic toasts garnished with the green parts of the scallions.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Easter Dinner ~ Think Lamb not Ham

As Easter arrives early this year, it's time to settle on your holiday dinner.  Here in the Midwest of the United States I hear lots of people say they will make their 'traditional' ham dinner.  I'm not sure where this tradition comes from, but ham doesn't really seem much like a traditional spring meal to me.  And as we've likely just enjoyed ham during the winter holidays, why not give lamb a try.

Julian's Lamb Chops with Scalloped Potatoes and Asparagus
So why lamb in spring? Originally the "spring" lamb was meat from the English Dorsett breed that would give birth in the fall, feed its offspring on milk throughout the winter and then on the first early grass of spring, so it was ready for market by Easter or Passover.  Lamb imported from New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, which have opposite growing seasons to here in North America, are often sold as "spring" lamb.  But today most lamb is produced commercially and not on small farms, so the calendar is no longer a major factor in when you can purchase it.

Of course many of you will say "I don't like lamb."  I agree with you that a poor preparation of a bad cut of lamb can taste bad, be chewy and have inedible sinews.  So the first choice before you is the cut of meat to choose.

Leg of Lamb
This is what most of our mothers tried to prepare and then serve with mint jelly to try and kill the taste.  It was not a success.  The real problem with leg of lamb is that bone-in leg of lamb will not cook evenly, with the thin sections of meat near the shank becoming well-done while the meat closer to the bone is still raw.  Carving is also an issue usually leaving you with uneven bits and pieces for your platter, as you attempt to cut around the fat, tendons and sinew.  The only real solution is not just to select a boneless, tied leg of lamb (as this doesn't solve the myriad problems of a lamb leg) but rather going to a well-qualified butcher and ordering a butterflied leg of lamb.  At this stage you at least have a starting point that can provide success, with a bit of additional work.  If you are up to the task and have a good butcher at your service, see the recipe by Cooks Illustrated  March/April 2013 or Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything".  If I've now convinced you not to try the leg, then stick with me as we instead prepare a succulent, tender rack of lamb in no time at all.  

Rack of Lamb
Once again you are faced with selecting the best product, so know what you are looking for as all lamb is not created equal.

U.S. Grain Fed     vs         Jamison Grass Fed     
Much of what you find at your local shops is four-to-eleven month-old Colorado (U.S.) grain fed lamb.  Over this I much prefer the Australian grass fed lamb.  It must by marked by law, so you should find the label on the packaging.  If not, you are looking for smaller pieces of meat with finer bones, which typically means the lamb is younger and/or smaller when processed.  Grass fed lamb simply doesn't grow as large, no matter where you grow it.  This lamb will be more tender and delicately flavored.  Both are usually available fresh (not frozen) and often vacuum packed.  If you can't find grass fed lamb racks then consider ordering it from my favorite purveyor D'Artagnan or Jamison Farms, which is an Appalachian boutique farmer that supplies top chefs with grass-fed lamb.  I can usually find Australian grass fed fresh lamb at Costco.

Frenched and Denuded
Most of the lamb racks you see will have been "Frenched" in that the bones have been cleaned of meat as shown in the top comparative (grain vs grass) photo.  However, you can also purchase racks that have been both "Frenched and Denuded" which is a further cleaning of all extra bits of meat and fat from the racks, which of course you can also do yourself at home for the most stunning presentation.  As you can see in my completed preparation photos (top and bottom), I did not go to the trouble as I would only do this if I was serving them as individual 'lollipop' appetizers.

I usually prepare the lamb simply, although I've also enjoyed Emeril Lagasse's Mustard Crusted Rack of Lamb, which you may want to consider.

If you are going with the simple preparation I used in these photos, begin by preheating the oven to 450F.  Rub canola oil over the lamb and season generously with salt and pepper. Interlock two racks of lamb as shown in above photo so they stand up while roasting.  Place the lamb in a large oven-safe skillet or stove-top safe roasting pan.  Roast on the middle rack of the oven for 10 minutes.  Reduce the oven temperature to 350F and continue cooking for about 10 minutes longer, or until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 130F. Transfer the meat to a carving board and let rest for about 5-8 minutes tented with foil to keep warm.

Julian's Rack of Lamb Resting
Sauce:  Pour off any oil that remains in the skillet and add 4 tablespoons of water and about 12 tablespoons (or 3/4 cup) of veal demi-glace. Heat to a boil, making sure to scrape the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Set aside.  Cut the lamb racks between the bones to form chops. Arrange the chops on plates and drizzle the sauce over the meat.  Alternatively purchase or prepare a Marsala wine or mushrooms sauce to serve over the meat.  Avoid mom's mint jelly at all cost!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Updated March 4, 2018

About this time of the year I get a taste for cabbage rolls, also know in America as "pigs in a blanket" and by our Polish friends as "galumpkis".

Julian's Cabbage Rolls
Some for tonight, the rest for the freezer.
They are found in many countries and are said to come from the Balkans, but I have found versions of them in other parts of Europe as well. In Europe the filling is traditionally based around meat, often beef, lamb, or pork and is seasoned with garlic, onion, and tomato just as we make it here in the United States. Here in the US this dish is often thought of as Irish, although I've never seen it on a menu there.  These are also similar to foods you find in several Asian cultures, which also might include seafood and mushrooms, but not typically with the tomato sauce. So it seems everyone loves them, at least on special occasions.

Julian's 'Pigs in a Blanket'
I say on special occasions because they do take some time to prepare.  This week I made the entire recipe from scratch as noted below and it took two and half hours from start until they were placed in the oven.  Add another hour for baking and you can see why you don't make these when you're in a hurry or have many other things to prepare.  The good news is that they freeze wonderfully.  You can freeze part of the batch below for use later (as it makes about 16-18 rolls of various sizes based on the cabbage) or freeze the entire batch individually without the sauce.  Do this on a cookie sheet with parchment paper and when frozen through transfer to freezer bags for storage up to three months. When ready to use, just make or purchase sauce and cover them with it for baking, noting that frozen rolls take longer to bake and require an instead-read thermometer to determine when they are cooked through, usually about 2 hours if you start them covered and uncover halfway through baking.

The Pre-preparation Steps for Cabbage Rolls

  Make Sauce   Saute Aromatics    Mix Meats    Boil Cabbage    Extract Leaves

Technique tip:  Most I've talked with don't like making these because they have a difficult time removing the leaves from the cabbage without damaging them. If you watch the show on Food Network where they make these, that part of the work is done off-screen.  Rather than attempt to carefully peel the leaves away from the head before blanching, my sister provided me with the tip which works perfectly every time.  Simply cut the core out and submerse the entire head in the boiling water.  The leaves slowly peel off, with just a little help from your tongs.  No fuss no muss! Instructions included below.

Ready to Roll
If you're looking for that special ethnic meal that grandma used to make, give this recipe a try.  If you've never had them, consider making them with family or friends, as everyone can pitch in and roll them up.  Don't worry if you have people that 'don't like cabbage' as the blanching removes all of the strong tastes and smells typically associated with the vegetable.  I've never served these to anyone that hasn't enjoyed them.


Sweet and Sour Tomato Sauce:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
4 cans (14 ounces each or similar) tomatoes crushed/diced/sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cabbage Rolls:
11/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 stalk fresh celery, finely chopped
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped or minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/3 cup dry red wine
2 tablespoons chopped dried parsley
2 pound ground meat (beef, pork, Italian sausage combination)
1 large egg
2 - 3 cups white rice
2 tablespoons dried oregano
3 tablespoons dried basil
1 teaspoon salt
8-10 grinds of black pepper
1 large head green cabbage

Ingredient Notes:
With regard to the sauce, you can use this recipe or substitute with canned Italian pasta sauce.  This recipe provides a bit more authentic taste, having the sweet/sour component and excluding the traditional Italian spices, but using a pre-made quality product will speed up your preparation.  If you make the sauce as shown here, note I indicate you can use tomato sauce, crushed or diced tomatoes.  The choice is really yours and how smooth or chunky you would like the final product to be.  I started with diced tomatoes as I had a large supply on hand, then used a stick blender to make the sauce more smooth.  

With regard to the meat, most traditional recipes call for 1 pound each of beef and pork.  I usually purchase a ground beef/pork combo pack which usually is about 1.5 to 1.7 pounds.  To this I supplement with mild Italian sausage for extra flavor.  You really can use any combination you prefer.  I think the ideal combination of meat is 1/3 of each.  


Sauce: Coat a large saucepan with the oil and place over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and paste, and cook stirring occasionally for about 5-10 minutes. Add the vinegar and sugar and simmer about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat.

Meat Filling: Cook the rice according the package directions. Remove 1 cup cooked rice and set aside to cool. The remainder may be kept warm in a rice cooker or reheated later when serving the cabbage rolls over steamed rice.

Place a skillet over medium heat and coat with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Sauté the onion and celery for about 3 minutes and then add the garlic and continue cooking and stirring until soft about 1 minutes more. Stir in the tomato paste, wine, parsley, and 1/2 cup of the prepared sweet and sour tomato sauce, mix to incorporate and cook until reduced to a paste, about 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

Place the ground meat, cooled white rice and vegetable mix in a large mixing bowl. Add the egg, oregano, basil, salt and pepper. Combine the mixture using a large spoon or your hands.

Cabbage: Cut out the core of the cabbage with a sharp knife and remove any large spotted or damaged leaves.  Place the entire head into a large pot and fill with cold water until it floats about an inch or two from the bottom.  Remove the head of cabbage and place the pot on the cocktop over high heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of salt and bring the water to a low boil. While the water comes to a boil, prepare a work surface (or cookie sheet) with paper towels and a large bowl of cold water with ice cubes.

Adding the sauce before baking
Carefully place the entire head of cabbage into the boiling water.  In several minutes the outer leaves will begin to come away from the head. Using kitchen tongs remove them from the pot to the cold water to stop cooking. Then move to the paper towels to drain. Continue to pull the leaves gently from the head with tongs until all of the leaves are removed from the head. Save all cooked leaves that you believe may be usable for stuffing. Take the remaining small inner leaves and chop them and stir into the meat mixture.

Assembly:  Prepare a baking dish coated with food release or lightly with oil.  Coat the bottom with the prepared tomato sauce.  Preheat the oven to 350F degrees.

Select the largest blanched cabbage leaves first.  On leaves with large veins, carefully cut out the center vein so they will be easier to roll up.  Put about 1/2 cup of the meat filling in the center bottom of a blanched cabbage leaf and starting at what was the stem-end, fold forward once, then tuck in the sides and roll up the cabbage to enclose the filling. Place the cabbage rolls side by side in rows, seam-side down, in the prepared baking dish. Pour the remaining sweet and sour tomato sauce over the cabbage rolls.

Bake: Place in the preheated oven and bake uncovered for 1 hour until the meat is cooked and the sauce is bubbling. Check after 40 minutes and if the pan is becoming too dry, cover for the remainder of baking.

Serve:  Serve two rolls per person for dinner.  Sprinkle with chopped parsley.  Serve over warm white rice.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Pack Your Meat For Island Vacations

Here is a great tip for traveling to islands and other out-of-the-way places when you have to go by plane.  If you are flying to your destination, you can in fact pack a cooler with frozen foods.  It can either be checked as baggage or put in the overhead bin if it fits the size requirements.  The only caveat is you need to pack the cooler completely full and you may not use ice packs, blue ice packs or dry ice.  But the contents will still remain frozen.

Our first attempt at this was when we were having guests with us at CalypsoBlu and needed food for six persons for two weeks.  Now in most of the Virgin  Islands, you can find sources for meat and seafood.  But the quality of that meat and seafood isn't the same as we get here in Chicago and the price is much, much higher.  If you're headed to St. John, it has very limited food sources, but again you can stock up in St.  Thomas before you take the ferry across. But why do that when you can get better products at lower prices at home.

We selected an inexpensive cooler (shown above) and took it with us to our local Costco to buy food.  Some of the food we selected was fresh (steaks, etc.) and some was frozen and individually vacuum packed (mostly the fish.)  Now you would think in the islands you might find better fish than the freezer at your local grocers.  But in fact, the warm waters of the Caribbean don't produce much in the way of good eating fish.  It's famous for its tropical fish, which make diving and snorkeling great fun as they are beautiful, but not for producing an abundance of large tasty fish.

Julian Grilling Burgers at CalypsoBlu
As we planned to have most of our meals at home we also packed frozen burgers, lunch meat, sausages and cheese.  Before freezing it at home, we divided larger packages of fresh foods into six person servings, so it would be easy to retrieve and thaw when we needed it.

Remember however that the airlines have weight restrictions so don't pick a cooler that's over-sized and will weigh more when full than the airlines limit (in our case free for 50 pounds.)  Bring all of your meat home from the store and freeze it solid.  This can be done several weeks in advance.  The night before your departure, test load the cooler and weigh it.  You can fill in any empty spaces with light dry goods like pasta or other food you would normally buy on site, or simply use newspaper so nothing shifts.  But you want the cooler to be as full as possible with frozen food, which is what keeps it frozen.

We taped the cooler all the way around the lid to ensure it was sealed and then added extra straps across the top and onto the body of the cooler.  We had heard that the airlines are sensitive to leakage and wanted to ensure that if it did thaw, it didn't make a mess.

Mahi Mahi with Coconut Mango Sauce and Couscous 
On our first flight with the cooling, the airline did not seem to find it curious and asked no questions. She attached a baggage tag on the handle and off it went on the conveyor belt. For our second trip, we labeled the cooler with our name and address. We expected the cooler would take quite a beating, but were surprised when it arrived in St. Thomas, after a one hour layover in Philadelphia, in excellent condition. When we got it home and opened it, everything inside was still frozen solid.  The meat had been in the cooler nearly 12 hours and nothing had thawed.  Granted during the layover in Philadelphia, the temps were near freezing. And under the airplane temperatures are also freezing while in flight at altitude.  That evening I had to microwave defrost Italian sausages that for dinner. A subsequent trip in summer found similar results. The food remained frozen to our destination although this time we had a direct flight to the Caribbean.

Our friends report taking baby food and similar products to island vacations as well.  Next time just the two of us go we might try a soft-sided carry-on cooler to see how well that does.  Most of my research seemed to find this worked perfectly well too when taking smaller amounts and flying non-stop. So next time you are off to an island vacation, consider packing a cooler with some of the better foods you have access to at home. It will make your island vacation even better!