Monday, July 27, 2009

Fresh tuna two ways - Seared Tuna Steaks with Asian Coleslaw and Wasabi Aioli Dipping Sauce and a Tuna Tartare appetizer

Fresh tuna is meaty and lean and one of our favorites. However, like any fish, it’s important that you have the freshest available. For tuna steaks, if you like yours rare, or even medium rare, be sure to choose steaks that are about an inch thick. A thin steak will overcook quickly and for us it’s a sin to overcook tuna. If you’re making tartare you can use a thinner piece because it’s going to be chopped. We like to serve our tuna steaks with a wasabi aioli dipping sauce.

I’ve prepared Asian Coleslaw as a side dish for the tuna steaks. This is a very versatile slaw and one of our favorites because it’s not sweet or dressed with mayonnaise. It could be called skinny slaw because it’s not full of the calories associated with mayonnaise. Sometimes I use an ordinary head of green cabbage and dress it simply with the vinegar, soy sauce and dark sesame oil and throw in some sliced scallions for color. Other times I’ll dress it up with the red peppers and snow peas as I have here. I also like to toast black sesame seeds in a hot skillet for a few minutes and add them to the slaw. It’s also good with finely minced fresh ginger and chopped fresh cilantro or a finely chopped jalapeno pepper for zing. I’ve even chopped peanuts and used them as a garnish. Let you imagination run wild here – almost anything goes.

Seared Tuna steaks with black and white sesame seed crust

2 (6 ounce) fresh tuna steaks, about one inch thick
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
One tablespoon each black and white sesame seeds

Salt and pepper tuna steaks. Dredge tuna on both sides with the black and white sesame seeds and briefly set aside. Heat a black, cast-iron skillet over high heat until skillet is almost smoking. Add tuna and cook one minute or so on each side for rare, 2 – 3 minutes for medium rare. Remove tuna from the skillet, let rest for a few minutes before serving. Serves 2. Serve with wasabi aioli dipping sauce if desired.

Wasabi aioli dipping sauce

We like our wasabi sauce with a kick to it so we use 1 ½ tablespoons of powder to 1 tablespoon of water. Most recipes call for equal parts wasabi powder to cold water.

1 ½ tablespoons wasabi powder
1 tablespoon cold water
1 teaspoon or more finely chopped garlic
½ cup best quality mayonnaise, such as Hellmann’s
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Dash of fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Mix the wasabi powder with cold water in a small bowl and set aside for about 30 minutes. Add wasabi powder to mayonnaise, then mix in remaining ingredients and blend well. Refrigerate sauce for thirty minutes for flavors to marry. Serve cold.

Asian flavored coleslaw

½ of a sweet, red bell pepper, thinly sliced
12 – 15 snow peas, cut in half lengthwise
Peanut or canola oil
½ head of Napa cabbage, thinly sliced
1 large scallion, white and green parts, sliced on the diagonal
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce, preferably low sodium
1 tablespoon (or more to taste) Asian dark sesame oil

Heat about a tablespoon of peanut or canola oil in a 10” non-stick skillet over medium-high heat and sauté red bell pepper strips and snow peas two to three minutes until beginning to brown but still crisp tender. Season with salt and pepper, remove from skillet and set aside.

Place thinly sliced cabbage in a large bowl, add scallion, vinegar, soy sauce and dark sesame oil and toss to blend. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add reserved pepper and snow peas and check for seasonings. Serves 2

When we lived in the Bahamas, tuna was on the menu frequently. This is a picture of my husband and his friends with their catch, still dripping with salt water. Tuna tartare is my husband’s specialty and he tastes and blends as he goes. If you haven’t caught the tuna yourself and know the freshness, tell your fish monger that you plan to eat it raw when you purchase it. He’ll either give you an extremely fresh piece or tell you he would advise against buying what he has. In that case, leave it at the store.

My husband has been making this tartare for years and it turns out that it’s very similar to the tuna tartare recipe in Simple to Spectacular by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman. After reading their recipe, we’ve started to give it a few extra shakes of hot sauce and have included chopped chives, as they suggested. Be sure to make this at the very last minute or the lime will cook the tuna and make it mushy.

Tuna Tartare Appetizer

Cut 1 lb of best quality tuna into small cubes. Combine the tuna with 1/2 teaspoon or more (if you like it spicy) of hot sauce, such as Tabasco, a squeeze or two of fresh lime juice, 2 tablespoons good extra-virgin olive oil, Kosher salt to taste, and a tablespoon of minced fresh chives. Garnish with a chive blossom. Serve at once on neutral tasting cracker such as Carr’s or Stoned Wheat Thins or on thin slices of a toasted French baguette. Serves 4 as an appetizer.

Monday, July 20, 2009

In search of the perfect tomatoes for a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich

Saturday morning we woke up dreaming of a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich for lunch made with the finest, freshest tomatoes we could find. We decided to go to downtown to the Farmers Market and see if they had some heirloom tomatoes, preferable Cherokee Purples, for our sandwich.

Every Saturday morning farmers, potters, artists, weavers and gardeners gather in downtown Murphy in the mountains of western North Carolina to sell their wares. It’s always a festive affair with balloons, kids waving posters in the street advertising a car wash, and this week the Marines were having a fundraiser. This is a typical small town in America on Saturday morning.

Our mission was to find tomatoes for lunch so our first stop was the organic food booth of Frances and Stephen of Candy Mountain Farms. They have gorgeous fresh produce and know their stuff when it comes to gardening. In fact Frances teaches an organic gardening class at the John F. Campbell Folk School in nearby Brasstown.

I could taste the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich we would soon be enjoying for lunch as we purchased a couple of heirloom, dark ruby colored Cherokee purple tomatoes, a head of bright green Bibb lettuce with dew still clinging to its leaves and a bunch of just cut sweet basil from Frances. While at their booth my husband visited with a another gentleman who was selling juicy red tomatoes fresh from his garden, so we bought a few of his to supplement the small yellow Golden Jubilees we had picked earlier from our own garden. A trio of colorful red, purple and yellow tomatoes sounded perfect for our sandwich.

We can’t go to the Farmers Market without stopping by two of our other favorite booths to say hello. In small towns all across American such as this, everyone knows just about everyone. Our first stop after the tomatoes was The Secret Garden, a weaver who has gorgeous handmade scarves and shawls along with other goodies, such as a teddy bear looking very handsome wearing one of her beautiful sweaters. I mentioned how much I enjoy wearing the golden yellow shawl I purchased from her last year while my husband bought a bag of her fragrant lavender potpourri. We admired others handy work as we strolled over to say hi to Roy and see his pottery. I would love to have one of his dark red rectangular bakers, which would be perfect for lasagna.

There’s nothing that says summer more than a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich and a recipe isn’t required.

What is required is to use the very finest of ingredients and sit back and enjoy the results as the tomato juice runs down your chin as you take your first bite. We cooked thick applewood smoked bacon and made basil mayonnaise by mixing best quality mayonnaise such as Hellmann's with chopped fresh sweet basil, a dash of fresh lemon juice and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. This is not the time to use low-fat or inexpensive mayo. Remember, we said the very finest ingredients possible. Often we use sourdough toast for these sandwiches, but today we chose fat Kaiser rolls that we buttered and grilled.

Small town living doesn’t get any better than this on a beautiful Saturday morning in the mountains of North Carolina.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Duncan Hines, America’s first modern food critic and grits at the Old Southern Tea Room in Vicksburg, MS

Duncan Hines, now known for his cake mixes, was a traveling salesman for a Chicago printer in the 1930's, but he was also American’s first modern food critic. At the time there was no interstate highway system in the US and only a few chain restaurants existed. Hines and his wife began a list of several hundred good restaurants that they enjoyed on their travels.

In 1935 he began selling a paperback book, Adventures of Eating, which highlighted his favorite restaurants and dishes that he personally enjoyed in cities and towns across America. The book gained in popularity and favorably recommended restaurants hung signs in their window that read “Recommended by Duncan Hines.” The Duncan Hines endorsement was highly regarded and he could make or break a restaurant’s reputation. His favorable opinion was considered as good as gold.

One of the restaurants that displayed the “Recommended by Duncan Hines” sign was the Old Southern Tea Room in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vicksburg sits on the banks of the mighty Mississippi and its Civil War Battleground attracts many visitors each year.

A Pilgrimage is held each year and the gorgeous old antebellum homes on the tour polish their best silver and roll out the red carpet for thousands of visitors. In 1941 the Vicksburg Pilgrimage Committee persuaded Mary McKay, a local southern lady well known for her cooking skills, to manage a tea room as a civic venture for six weeks only with the building and all of its equipment to be lent by the civic-minded. The tea room was a success and Mary McKay kept it going with one hundred dollars credit and a “minus-a-door" stove that cost $7.50. After five years it was debt-free and one of the nation’s most famous restaurants. The Old Southern Tea Room proudly displayed the Duncan Hines sign as well as one from AAA. When Duncan Hines was interviewed on his return from Europe, a reporter asked him what was the first thing he wanted to do. He said, “I would like to go to the Old Southern Tea Room in Vicksburg, Mississippi and enjoy the Stuffed Garden Eggplant and Corn Pudding.”

We lived in Vicksburg in the eighties and loved it. It's a true southern city. There’s a cute story that our friend Rigby Maupin told about grits and the Old Southern Tea Room in Vicksburg’s Junior League Cookbook, Ambrosia. Rigby is a great storyteller and we enjoyed his sense of humor. Seems one morning, according to Rigby, a gentlemen and his family that were touring the city went to the Old Southern Tea Room for breakfast. Apparently the man wasn’t in the best of moods, because when his breakfast arrived he asked the waitress, “What’s this white stuff on my plate?”

“Grits, sir.”

“I didn’t order any grits and I’m not about to pay for them,” he said, getting more irritated by the minute.

“Fine, sir.”

“You apparently don’t understand. I didn’t order grits and I don’t want them on my plate.”

“Sir, no one orders grits at the Old Southern Tea Room. They just comes.”

And with that she flatly refused to take them off of his plate.

By the way, I've been on a short holiday with my husband and we didn't have internet access while we were gone. I missed every one of you and it's so much fun to be back home. While I was gone I read Molly Wizenberg's great book A Homemade Life. She has a friend who says the only reason he travels is for an excuse to eat more than usual. I agree.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Low Country Shrimp and Grits

We were houseguests at a friend’s home on the outer banks of North Carolina several months ago and they served shrimp and grits for breakfast, elevating the morning meal to a higher level. So when we had houseguests recently, we prepared the same. The cheese grits topped with pink shrimp, browned bacon and mushrooms, garnished with shreds of green scallions make an elegant presentation. If serving for dinner, accompany with lima beans or sautéed cherry tomatoes.

If at all possible use fresh wild shrimp. They are vastly superior to the farm raised ones. In fact farm raised tiger shrimp have almost ruined my love of shrimp because of their inferior, bleach-like taste and mealy texture.

Low Country Shrimp and Grits with Mushrooms and Bacon
Adapted from Southern Cooking by Craig Claibourne

1 pound unpeeled, medium-size fresh wild shrimp
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper
4 strips of bacon
2 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
6 ounces sliced mushrooms, about 3 cups
1 garlic clove, finely minced
¼ cup chopped onion
¼ cup finely chopped sweet red bell pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
¾ cup shrimp stock or chicken broth
Green tops of scallions thinly cut on diagonal for garnish

Peel & de-vein shrimp, saving peels. Combine shrimp, lemon juice, salt, and ground red pepper in a small bowl; set aside for 10 minutes and no longer than 20 minutes or the citrus will begin to cook the shrimp. To make the shrimp stock (which is really better than chicken broth), boil the shrimp shells in lightly salted water for a few minutes and strain; discard shells and retain the broth.

Place the bacon in a 10” non-stick skillet and cook over medium heat until it browns. Remove bacon from skillet, leaving 3 tablespoons drippings in the skillet. Reserve skillet for later. Crumble bacon when cool and set aside.

In a separate 10” non-stick skillet, pour in canola oil and heat over medium heat. Add the mushrooms to the hot oil and cook, tossing and stirring, until the mushrooms give up their liquid. Salt and pepper to taste, add the garlic and cook briefly, stirring. Turn the off heat and set aside.

Cook the onion and sweet red bell pepper in bacon drippings in the reserved skillet over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle flour over vegetables; cook, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes or until flour begins to brown. Add shrimp & shrimp stock; cook, stirring constantly, 2 to 3 minutes or until shrimp turns pink and the gravy is smooth. Do not overcook the shrimp. If gravy is too thick, add water or broth as necessary. Add the mushrooms, crumbled bacon and stir to blend.

To serve, place cheese grits in individual bowls, top with shrimp mixture in the center and sprinkle thinly sliced green scallion tops around the edges of the bowl. Serves 4.

Cheese Grits
My Carolina Kitchen, Sam Hoffer

1 cup grits, not instant
1 & ½ cups water
1 & ½ cups milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 ounces sharp Cheddar cheese, finely grated
Freshly ground nutmeg
4 drops hot sauce, such as Tabasco

Bring the water and the milk to a boil, add salt and gradually stir in the grits. Cook according to package directions. When thickened, remove from heat, stir in cheese, a dash of nutmeg, and 4 drops of hot sauce.

Quick grits will take about 5 to 7 minutes on the stove top and old-fashioned grits will take about 30 minutes, so plan accordingly. I learned a little trick about grains such as grits when we lived in the tropics. If you have those pesky little mealy bugs, store the grits in an air-tight container with a bay leaf.

If you love grits as much as I do, you’ll enjoy The Lee Brothers Southern Cookbook. I think I counted seventeen grits recipes in it not including chocolate ice cream grits, making it worth the read alone just for the grits. Matt and his brother Ted combine grits with everything imaginable – goat cheese, Clemson blue cheese, summer herbs, slab bacon and cheddar, fry them into cakes, but my favorite recipe of theirs is lemon grits which I like to serve with broiled or sauteed fish.

The Lees prefer old-fashioned stone ground grits to quick or instant grits. They take about thirty minutes to prepare, but they are much creamier than quick or instant ones. If you can find them, I recommend them highly. I learned from the Lees to use half milk and half water for the cooking liquid, which makes richer grits.

Join me next time as I continue my series on Grits and the South.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A trip through the Nantahala Gorge on our way to visit friends and have lunch at Zink American Kitchen, a popular uptown eatery in Charlotte, NC

Last week old friends that we’d met when they were cruising on their sailboat in the islands near our home in Abaco invited us to visit them in Charlotte, NC. As we left our home in western North Carolina, the fog was just lifting in the mountains of Cherokee County.

Traveling about thirty minutes east on Highway 19/74, we entered into the Nantahala National Forest. The highway is a serpentine, narrow two-lane road that was once part of the Native American Indian Trail of Tears and winds it way beside the Nantahala River. The river begins high in the mountains and then flows through the Nantahala Gorge, which is narrow and steep. The word Nantahala comes from the Cherokee Indians and means land of the noonday sun. In some areas along the gorge, the sun reaches the ground only when it’s directly overhead. The Nantahala is one of the most popular rivers in the world for whitewater rafting and kayaking.

We arrived in Charlotte around lunch time. Charlotte is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city and a banking capital with the home offices of Bank of American and Wachovia as well as the hub for Continental Airlines. Our friends live in the city so they suggested we walk to Zink American Kitchen, a popular uptown restaurant. As we entered the restaurant we couldn’t help but be impressed with the thirty foot long zinc bar and the deep crimson décor. They told us on the walk over that the chef likes to take traditional American comfort food and reinvent it.

I knew I was at home when I picked up their extensive menu and noticed that they had a Grits Bar. They offer two grits selections as side dishes, or grits du jour as the French would say. I’m from the deep south, so how was I to pass up today’s grits with pimento cheese and ham? It was pure heaven for this little southern girl.

Inspired by Greg at Sippity Sup who does fabulous job with his different food series, such as tomato mania and burgers, I decided right then and there that I would do a series on grits.

My (current) favorite grits recipe comes from Southern Living magazine. It’s a Cheddar Cheese Grits Casserole that always gathers rave reviews. We recently served it for breakfast along with herbed scrambled eggs on wheat toast when we were visiting our family in Florida. Our nephew’s five year old daughter said when she returned to the kitchen with her empty plate, “that’s the best breakfast I’ve ever had.”

I cooked my grits in a soufflé dish, but Southern Living used an 11 x 7 casserole which would allow you to cut squares for serving. Sometimes I add fresh herbs, such as parsley and basil, to the grits mixture for flavor and color. I highly recommend letting the grits sit for a  few minutes after you take them out of the oven before serving. Their texture seems to improve.

Join me next time as I prepare one of my very favorite dishes – Shrimp and Grits.