Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lobster Roll and Fried Clams at Kennebunk, ME

My husband and I recently took a road trip over a long weekend and I finally got a taste of real Maine lobster roll! I did a ton of research on where to eat, since that was our primary goal for the trip (eating our way through Maine), and came up with the Clam Shack in Kennebunk. The fried clams are definitely the thing to get there, and the lobster rolls aren't bad at all.

I've never tasted such flavorful and sizable whole bellied clams before. The batter was perfectly seasoned, and I didn't mind the Ken's tartar sauce. The only drawbacks are 1) the price...half a pint cost about $15 2) aggressive sea gulls that would steal your lunch. We literally lost 3 pieces of fried clams when a sea gull came over our heads and stole them while in flight. They weren't kidding with those sea gull warnings, so pay attention!

At first, I didn't think much of their lobster roll until I had one from another joint days later. At first bite, I was blown away by the lobster meat in the bun. It was so very tasty (because they cooked the lobster in sea water) and so very meaty. There was no celery or mayo in the filling, so it was pure lobster goodness. We ordered one roll with mayo and another with butter, and both were smeared onto the bun, not on the meat. I preferred the butter version better from the Clam Shack - it just went better with the lobster meat and the roll, which I will definitely talk about later.

Unlike lobster rolls I've had in the past, the lobster meat at the Clam Shack was not chopped up into smaller pieces. Instead, the tail meat was sliced in half. I felt like I was eating lobster in a bun. Pure. Lobster. Goodness.

Sadly, the bun dragged down my lobster roll experience. It's not the usual sweet potato bun that most lobster rolls use, which I think matches better with the saltiness of the lobster meat. On top of that, the texture of the roll didn't work for me. Add to it that although the inside of the bun was nicely toasted, it was not warm at all. However, it wasn't a bad lobster roll. In fact, I learned to appreciate Clam Shack's lobster roll package after having one from another joint. I just wished the lunch didn't put a hole in our wallet...Maine eats really add up!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Chinese Cooking Basics: No Work Meal

Summer is sadly over, but I'm looking forward to the cold weather so I can have shabu shabu (Japanese term), or hot pot (what we Chinese call 火鍋). This brings back such warm memories of my time in Hong Kong enjoying this with my family. Hot pot is as traditional and basic as it gets and it's super easy. It's a no fuss, intimate meal that can be fun for two or a large family. Your guests do their own cooking in a boiling pot of broth (or two pots for a large family). All you need to do is wash the veggies ahead of time!

What you'll need at least are:
  • equipment: an electric soup pot (I imagine a slow cooker set on high might work), chopsticks and small chinese spiders
  • soup base (chicken broth would suffice)
  • mushrooms
  • vegetables (Chinese leafy greens or nappa cabbage will do)
  • rice vermicelli
  • tofu
  • dipping sauce: soy sauce or any other concoction
After you've got your basics figured out, it's pretty much up to you. You can have some thinly sliced meat (so it cooks faster), seafood...the sky is the limit. Cook whatever you want in the pot, dip it in some soy sauce, and enjoy. We were lucky enough to have king crab and wagyu beef when we attended a soft opening of my friend's shabu shabu joint in Flushing, Queens a while ago. It was yummy!

I absolutely loved their broth, and you can make your own dipping sauce at their bar. The service was attentive - they came around a few times to add more liquid to our pots when it got cooked down. They have beer, all types of appetizers, sides, bubble tea, shaved name it. Try shabu shabu at home, or go out and try it at a shabu shabu joint
above are photos from our meal at Minni's Shabu Shabu). Either way, it will definitely warm you up.

Friday, September 10, 2010

New England Menu for Housewarming

I mentioned in a previous post that I had my family (in-laws included) over for our housewarming lunch. Preparing a menu for the occasion was a headache, given the dietary restrictions and preferences in the family. On one hand, my mom is a vegetarian. On the other hand, one father prefers fresh, simple, quality seafood, and doesn't eat chicken or beef. Meanwhile, the other father (my in-law) is a huge carnivore and prefers quantity. How do I please every one?

Given that we have moved further into the heart of New England, I thought a New England menu was appropriate and could work for the crowd - fresh seafood, potatoes, dairy. After much thought, I came up with this menu:
  • lump crab cakes (Cook's Illustrated recipe)
  • lobster rolls
  • hearty salad (similar to a nicoise, with hard boiled egg, heirloom tomatoes, green beans and potatoes, but vegetarian of course)
  • carb dish for the vegetarian (roasted tomato pasta)
  • steamed sweet corn
  • chocolate cookies, and
  • home made vanilla bean ice cream (Alton Brown recipe)

I would've made New England Clam Chowder, bu
t my husband forbid me from making it in the high 70s temperature. With the exception to the crab cakes, cookies and ice cream, everything else I've made before (I know, it's a no no to try new recipes for a party). Sadly, the crab cakes didn't turn out as I had hoped (the recipe was a tad too salty and used more scallions than I would've liked) and the ice cream was a bit too sweet for my family's taste. Oh well, you can't please every one, especially when it comes to a family of food critics like my parents and my brother.

The lobster rolls turned out well, with the exception of the buns that my husband toasted, which needed more toasting according to my brother. I think we'll use top split buns next time because my sister wanted the outside of the bun toasted as well. And then I had my father complaining that the lobster meat may have been undercooked, but I thought it was perfectly silky and not chewy like overcooked lobster that you get almost everywhere. My sister second that. Here they are while the buns were getting filled.

This was the order of things for the day. Pretty much everything was made that morning (ice cream and pasta were made night before), starting at 7:30am:
  • form the crab cakes so they can chill in the fridge for at least an hour before cooking; very time consuming process (all this while my husband went out to get fresh lobsters)
  • bake cookies and set them up
  • make salad dressing and other ingredients
  • cook the lobsters an hour ahead of the event and make the lobster roll filling
  • cook the crab cakes and steam the corn 15 minutes ahead of the event
  • toast the buns and fill with the lobster filling
  • assemble the salad and drizzle with dressing when guests arrive
I find it really helpful to come up with a check list of things to do for a party ahead of time, so I make sure I always have one to keep me sane. The result: I got all the food out and was able to enjoy my family's company!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What's in Martha's Fridge?

I had my family over a couple of weeks ago for a small housewarming. We're not 100% furnished, but I think we've gone pretty far within 9 months considering that we renovated, moved in, and got the place functional, clean & furnished with the basic furniture we need (not mention that my head was buried in books for a few months). My sister, who is also my plant doctor, is a bit of a snoop, so I wasn't surprised that she looked around, especially inside my fridge, took photos and sent them to me in an email entitled "What's in Martha's Fridge?" Very funny.

What exactly is in my fridge? Well, to start off, I don't have an expensive gourmet fridge (our condo-sized apartment simply doesn't have enough space), so things may not be as organized as I'd like them to be, especially in the freezer. What you see isn't a true representation of our fridge since we were in party mode. For example, I don't store a huge container of homemade crab cakes at all times (as if my husband and I feast on them for breakfast every day). Nevertheless, you can get a sense of how we live.

We have at all times butter, orange juice, jarred sauces & condiments (oyster sauce, black bean sauce, chili sauce, mustard, ketchup, hot sauce), wine for cooking and beer (a must for my husband) on the door of the fridge, grouped by category. Inside, we keep the other juice and milk on the upper level (we used to store our milk on the fridge door but switched since the temperature could be higher on the fridge door). On the middle level are containers of various things (stored in containers to cut down on using plastic wrap), eggs, herbs (wrapped in paper towels to prolong freshness in the bin), vegetables and salad. On the lower level are heavy items like potatoes, corn and a whole chicken that's been sorta dry-brined for dinner another night. In the bottom bins, we have onions in one bin and fruits in the other. Yes, we put everything in the fridge, including potatoes, garlic and onion, to avoid a return of the roaches from the days of the previous dirty owners.

As for the freezer, you'll see that this is different and more packed than the one my husband (then fiance) had in was stocked for one person. On the freezer door, I have various things in containers - left over egg yolks, homemade vanilla ice cream, frozen peas, left over homemade duck stock, jalapeno in chipotle sauce, vegetable scraps to be used in stock later on and vodka. Inside, you can't miss the smiley face bag, which blocked the ice tray and housed 2 lobster heads that my sister brought to me that day; she had thoughtfully saved them for me to be used in lobster stock (thanks sis!). On the same level, you'll see ice cream (we wanted to check out if Blue Bunny, on sale that week, was what it was cracked up to be in the Cook's Illustrated magazine taste test), dumpling wrappers, chicken drumsticks in the back, lobster stock and a container of homemade dumplings.

On the lower level are various cuts of red meat, which I don't usually touch since they're for the carnivore who lives with me. There are also pork chops and various cuts of pork for making Chinese soup. I find that chops and steaks are best stored in such a height-challenged area of the freezer.

That's my cold closet, in all its glory and most importantly, unstyled! It took me a while to get to what works for us in terms of organizing the fridge, so I'm kinda proud of how far we've come from those frozen entree days when we first bought the place and had nothing to cook with because we were renovating. Well, what do you think of my fridge?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Chinese Cooking Basics: Eggs over Easy

It's Labor Day weekend, and I have a perfect simple dish on your day off. It's my favorite and as basic as it gets - eggs over easy with soy sauce on rice. My mom would make this for me for dinner when she was feeling lazy. I love breaking the creamy egg yolk that mixes with the saltiness of the soy sauce, and combining all of that with rice in one bite. In another bite, I'd get the crispy edge of the egg white...what a perfect contrast in textures. Anyways, other than the obvious soy sauce, the Chinese part of this dish is cooking the egg in a wok. I know you must be thinking "it should be easy." Not so much if you don't have the right equipment or technique.

The wok is actually a perfect vehicle to cook your egg over easy or sunny side up because the sloped bottom of the wok means that you'll have the same shaped cooked egg every time, as opposed to cooking it in a flat pan where the egg white can spread out before getting cooked.

The secret to a perfectly cooked egg (over easy or sunny side up) is a very hot wok. Your egg shouldn't stick as long as your pan and oil are hot, so it doesn't matter if you don't have a non-stick wok (I have an old stainless steel one). When you see wisps of smoke coming out of your wok, that means it's time to add the oil. Add the egg when your oil gets hot, stand back quickly as the hot oil will splatter when it comes in contact with the egg, and flip when the edges brown if you're making an over easy egg.

Put the cooked egg over warm rice, drizzle as much soy sauce as you like on top of the egg, and enjoy! It makes a nice quick lunch with left over rice or dinner.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Adding a Little Bit of Spice to My Life

Contrary to what my husband thinks, I don't have everything in the kitchen. I don't have a lot of space in my kitchen, so I only have what I need. Spices is one of them. I loved buying the spices I use most often in bulk at Whole Foods - it was very economical. Sadly, they don't have them anymore...I've searched the location I originally got it from and others in the tri-state area. Where do I turn to now for trusted spices? Penzeys.

I discovered Penzeys when I was watching America's Test Kitchen. They did a taste test of cinnamon and had recommended that brand due to its quality and most of all its lovely fragrance that's different (but still familiar) than your regular supermarket brands. Penzeys has a small outpost in Grand Central in NYC. Thankfully, there's a store not far from me in Norwalk, CT! I prefer the store much better as you can treat your nose to a nice whiff or two to their endless jars of spice samples. I can spend hours doing that if my husband weren't there.

I did not get their ground cinnamon yet, but I did get a chance to experience the wonderful aroma of it. I was shocked at how fragrant it was! Their price is higher than the supermarket brands, but this is how I rationalize purchasing a higher quality product:
  • it's not a huge purchase that you have to make often, so cost is rather negligible
  • you may need to use less of their spices in recipes because they're rather potent (for example, they recommend doing so with their cumin because it's very strong...and it is)
  • buy the larger size, which costs less per ounce
  • it makes your ending product taste better, so isn't it worth it?
Instead of cinnamon, which I don't need at the moment but hopefully will in the future, I brought home some cumin, coriander, sweet paprika, ginger and thyme. They all smelled soooo good, and that made me very happy. :-)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Chinese Cooking Basics: Stuffed Fried Tofu

My mom's Stuffed Green Peppers is one of my favorite dishes. You can find versions of it (shrimped stuffed pepper or eggplant, or fish stuffed pepper or eggplant) when you have dim sum. Sometimes my mom would stuff soft fried tofu with the same mixture she uses for green peppers, and that's exactly what I did after cracking her recipe. Below is what it looks like prior to mixing it in sauce.

I bought some soft jumbo fried tofu from the Chinese supermarket, sliced them in half and applied the shrimp stuffing with a dinner knife on the cut side of the soft fried tofu. The cooking method is the same as the green pepper version, except for a shorter cooking time as the fried tofu is cooked already. The soft fried tofu adds a different texture to the stuffed green peppers. They can work as an appetizer or a dish for dinner. Yum!