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August 2009
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October 2009

Pete Wells' Red Shrimp Chowder with Corn


I totally respect rules about food. Italians, I think, might be the kings of this habit: No grated cheese on fish pasta! No cappuccinos after breakfast! No cream in pasta carbonara! And sit down when the pasta is ready and eat it right away, for crying out loud, not 10 minutes later after you've finished washing your hands or finishing your milk or both, what's the matter with you anyway? (Oh, Italian children. How you suffer, I know. Console yourself with this: one day, you too can become a tyrant in the kitchen. Being a grown-up is so sweet.)

So I get it when other people say things like a real bouillabaisse must be made with rascasse. If you don't have rascasse, you don't have bouillabaisse. Or, hmm, that a real Bavarian pretzel cannot be eaten alone, unless you're some kind of sissy. It must always be accompanied by WeiƟwurst and sweet mustard (and beer, if we're being really exacting). Or, as Pete Wells pointed out the other day, that real chowder can be made only with seafood known to the Pilgrims, quite a lot of it indeed, and potatoes. No discussions, no protestations, no nothing.

Very, very luckily for all of us, though, Pete seems to be an accomodating kind of food editor and instead of indoctrinating his children with rules about food (like, er, the people in my family), he quite willingly gave in to their tastes and fashioned this soup (he calls it chowder) that is totally, seriously, deeply (all rules aside) delicious. Hey, old-time readers! I'd go so far as to say that this one's lamination-worthy. Boom! How exciting is that?


And it turns out that it's pretty fun cooking, too. At least for those of us who like to futz around in the kitchen (this one is worth the futz!). You make this neat little shrimp stock, first, using shrimp shells and corncobs and basil stems. Doesn't that sound rather old-fashioned and glamorous? While I made it, I kept wishing I was in peeptoe heels and pearls, smoking a cigarette and shouting into the other room at my dinner companion getting drunk on a gimlet, instead of listening to the radio and padding around the kitchen in a pair of cuffed khakis and Chucks. In fact, that shrimp stock might be the best part about this soup.

After that, you cook together garlic, onions, carrots and fennel, which just seems like such an ingenious addition since it infuses the soup with the faintest (barely, barely perceptible!) hint of aniseed (sort of like Pernod in the afore-mentioned bouillabaisse, which is all just very culturally referential and cute).  Then in goes the fancy stock and a bunch of cubed potatoes, half of which you subsequently mash to thicken the soup, a shower of fresh corn (bing! Forget what I said about the shrimp stock! Is this corn the best part of the soup or what?), a handful of canned tomatoes (squeeze them into bits with your hands!), and a bay leaf. Away that concoction simmers while you munch on pickles or crackers or whatever you munch on when you're hungry and dinner still isn't ready.

Don't forget the hot pepper! Sheesh. I take that back about the corn. The hot pepper might be the best part about this soup.


Then, when the whole thing is cooked and thickened and fragrant and driving you seriously batty with its smell, you turn off the heat and drop in an entire plate of chopped shrimp. The shrimp cook in the residual heat of the soup, leaving them tender and sweet and fantastic. That might be the best about this soup. No, seriously. Except for the crowning glory of sliced basil on top. Right? Sliced basil is the best.

I loved this chowder, thick and savory and sweet and fragrant with summer. As far as I'm concerned, traditional chowder can take a hike. I'd rather eat this stuff any day of the week. Don't people say that rules were made to be broken?  I'm going to leave the hand-wringing to the New Englanders.

Thank goodness, too, because I left out the bacon. *Ducks* Oh, and next time? I'd only use half the shrimp. *Ducks again*


Red Shrimp Chowder with Corn
Serves 4 to 6

4 cups fish stock, clam broth or water
2 pounds shrimp, shelled, chopped into pieces roughly 1/2-inch thick, shells reserved (1 pound would be plenty, too)
4 ears corn, shucked, kernels cut off, cobs and kernels reserved
2 basil sprigs, leaves cut into fine ribbons, stems reserved
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 pound bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (I left this out)
1 large onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
2 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 celery stalk, cut into 1/4-inch dice (I left this out, too)
Half a fennel bulb, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 bay leaf
Red pepper flakes, to taste
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, chopped, juice reserved
Freshly ground black pepper

1. In a medium pot, bring the fish stock, clam broth or water to a boil with the shrimp shells, corncobs and basil stems and simmer for about 20 minutes.

2. In a large pot set over medium heat, melt the butter and fry the bacon in it. When the bacon is crisp, fish it out with a slotted spoon and set it aside. Fry the onion, garlic, celery, fennel and carrots in the hot fat until softened, about 10 minutes. Season with salt.

3. Strain the shrimp-flavored broth into the pot. Add the corn kernels, potatoes, bay leaf and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil, cover the pot, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.

4. Using the back of a wooden spoon, crush a third to a half of the potato chunks against the side of the pot. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and juice, return to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes more.

5. Add the shrimp, stir well, taste and adjust the seasoning, adding salt, black pepper and more red pepper flakes to taste. (The shrimp will cook from the heat of the soup.) Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with the basil ribbons and some bacon.

How to Fry Zucchini Blossoms


You know what's disappointing? Clipping a recipe Nine Whole Years Ago (9!), saving it meticulously for Just The Right Occasion, finally getting to That Blessed Moment, and realizing that the recipe is A Total Dud. D. U. D.

Oh! There was so much potential. First of all, the recipe came from Molly O'Neill, back when she had a column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Illustrious provenance, for sure. Second of all, it involved whole fish, Greek yogurt, red lentils, and marjoram, roasted in the oven. I know! Does that sound good, or what? Third of all, I'd been saving it for nine years. That's practically a third of my life! That number alone should have guaranteed deliciousness, I think.

But instead, after smearing yogurt all over a bunch of fish (red snapper because there was no striped bass to be found), stuffing them with marjoram and garlic, salting and peppering them well, arranging them on a (perplexing) bed of cooked red lentils, and roasting those suckers until they were crispy and browned, all they ended up tasting like was...nothing.

Now if you know anything about red lentils, you'll know that once they're cooked, they look nothing like their cute, coral selves from the package. They turn into a pallid yellow mush that one of my friends kind enough to share the meal last night actually likened to baby poop. (Oops! I swore to myself last night I wouldn't reference that on this website. I think I might have had too much to drink last night, too.) Now, of course, they can taste rather nice, provided they've been cooked with something, like minced onions and tomatoes and curry powder, or, I dunno, a few sweet potatoes and ginger. But just boiled? Boiled red lentils? Taste like nothing. Roasted in the oven at 500 degrees Fahrenheit? Nothing, crisped.

Then there's the matter of the Greek yogurt. What on earth did smearing it on and in the fish do? I still don't know. The fish sure didn't taste like the yogurt. In fact, once the fish were done, you could barely even see the yogurt anymore. It's like it evaporated into thin air! Or into very hot oven air. As for the eight whole garlic cloves and twelve sprigs of marjoram? I don't know if you'll believe me, but you must: I couldn't taste any of it. And I don't have a cold, either. The fish tasted snapper. Roasted in the oven. Plain. As in, PLAIN. So it was edible, I guess, but oh, so disappointing.

Very luckily for all of us at dinner last night, my friend Betsy had the eminently sensible idea of overruling me at the market a few days earlier (I said they'd be too much work. Readers, I am a fool!) and buying a big package of zucchini flowers, which she stuffed with mozzarella and a dab or two of olive paste and fried into crispy, crunchy, golden deliciousness. With a cool glass of Sancerre, they made for a far better dinner.


Okay, so a quick recipe for those of you who have yet to fry your own zucchini blossoms:

Buy a bunch of fresh zucchini blossoms from an organic farmer so you don't have to worry too much about washing off chemicals. They should not be wilted or browned, but rather look like they were just picked, all vibrant with color. Buy a nice, firm mozzarella. This is not the time for bufala, which is too wet and milky. If you want to be totally traditional, buy some salted anchovies. If not, get a bit of olive paste, also known as tapenade. Oh, and you'll need some nice flaky salt, a few eggs, a plate of flour, and a couple of inches of frying oil (you can use olive oil, but not extra-virgin, or just regular vegetable oil).

Pour the oil into a saute pan with sides, like this one, to the height of one or two inches. Check the blossoms to make sure they're clean and brush off any dirt you might see. Cut the mozzarella into little batons. Rinse the anchovies and cut them in half, if you're using them. Beat 2 eggs in a shallow dish, and pour flour into another dish. Working with one blossom at a time, gently open the blossom end and push in a baton of mozzarella. Then slide in half an anchovy, or a small spoonful of olive paste. Twist the top of the blossom shut. Repeat with the remaining blossoms. Turn the heat on under the pan and while the oil heats up, dip each blossom in the egg to coat, making sure the top of the blossom remains twisted shut, and then dip it in the flour to coat. Repeat with as many blossoms as you'd like to prepare (as an appetizer, consider two or three per person).

When the oil is hot but not smoking (you can gently drop something into the oil to test if it's hot enough - if it is, it'll start fizzing and frying), gently slip the battered blossoms into the oil. Don't crowd the pan (the 10-incher we used last night fit five blossoms at a time). Fry for three to four minutes on each side, turning only once with tongs. While the blossoms fry, line a few plates with some layered paper towels. When the blossoms are golden brown on both sides, remove them to the paper towels. Sprinkle them with flaky salt and eat them immediately. Well, wait a minute so you don't burn the roof of your mouth, but not more than that. (Oh, and make sure you have a glass of nice, cold white wine nearby.) I think you'll find they're difficult to stop eating and not nearly as much work as you think they are.

There! I've already forgotten about that silly fish and those silly, silly lentils. My work here is done. Have a lovely evening, folks!

Oh, wait, one more thing. If you often find yourself wondering (which I'm sure you do, right?) what on earth I eat on those days when I'm not slaving away in the kitchen or munching on fried zucchini blossoms, head on over to (!), where I talk with the lovely Sari Lehrer about rancid butter, Canadian yogurt, the glory that is Mexican salsa verde, and the cheapest meal in New York City.

Gene Opton's Ethiopian Honey-Spice Bread


I've been brainstorming.

A home is not a home until bread is baked in it.

Or, maybe:

Bread baking makes a home?

Let's see, how about this:

A loaf in the oven, a home complete.

That last one isn't so bad, but still, I don't know. I'm not going to become famous for my phrases anytime soon. But I really do think that it's true, for me at least, that the first time you are motivated to bake bread in your new apartment, the first time the warm smell of yeast and rising dough perfumes your rooms, is the first time you can really settle in and sigh with contentment about being home.

Every once in a while, I find you simply need to force yourself to stay home for a few days, unplugged and quiet. Read in bed in your nightgown past lunchtime, organize your books alphabetically (or by spine color!), stare out the window at the cloud patterns for a bit, and if you're lucky enough to be somewhere rainy, listen to the droplets falling on windows and the sound car tires make when they slide past on wet, asphalted streets.

Those are the days for bread-baking, for easing yourself slowly into the start of the autumn chill.


So, I'll be honest: I've been a little bored by the newspaper recipes lately. More than lately, actually. All summer, I think. I've been clipping dutifully and hoarding as usual, but I haven't found anything in months that actually makes me impatient to go to the grocery store and get cooking. Instead, this weekend I started nosing around in my other recipe clippings and emerged feeling inspired. Imagine: a sweet butter-and-milk-enriched yeast bread from Ethiopia, of all places, spiced with cloves, cinnamon, and ginger and an entire tablespoon of ground coriander. Doesn't that sound like something you'd want to make right away, no question about it?

Let me tell you that you should. It's simply lovely.

Your house will smell like Christmas, first of all. Also, you'll get to feel all exotic and interesting: you're baking Ethiopian bread! Best of all, the bread keeps well, so you will have homemade bread for breakfast for a whole week at least (it toasts nicely, too). Gene Opton says that Ethiopians usually just eat this bread spread with butter and honey, but I found it most delicious eaten only with unsalted butter. The bread is sweet enough from all the honey in the dough, and the spices need a little bit of cooling balance, which is just what a nice thin layer of butter provides.


I always find September both comforting and sort of terrifying. On one hand, it's the loveliest month of the year. Still sunny and warm, but with just enough nip in the air to make for cool nights and perfect sleeping weather. Limbs still tanned from the summer, but you can pull out your thin sweaters and look forward to warm shoes again. On the other hand, it's just a few warp-speed weekends until Thanksgiving and then Christmas. When you get to September, the end of the year suddenly looms. Did you get everything done that you wanted to this year? Is it turning out the way you hoped? Do you have your ducks in a row for the months still ahead that will zip past so fast you might just get whiplash?

Don't worry. Take a deep breath and breathe. And remember this: when you bake bread, everything slows down. Life feels more manageable again. And coming up with phrases about bread-baking to accompany you into posterity seems the most important thing you can do.

Ethiopian Honey-Spice Bread
Makes 1 loaf

1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1 teaspoon sugar or honey
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1 large egg
1/2 cup mild honey
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup whole milk, warmed
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
4 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1. Combine the yeast, water, sugar or honey, and ginger in a small ceramic bowl and set in a warm, draft-free place until it bubbles vigorously.

2. Combine the egg, honey, spices and salt in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer. Add the milk and butter. Mix in 1 cup of the flour.

3. Add the yeast mixture and beat until all the ingredients are well blended. Add more flour, 1/2 cup at a time, using only enough to make a soft dough. Use your hands, if needed, to work in the last bit of flour.

4. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead the bread by folding it end to end, pressing down and pushing forward several times with the heel of your hand. (The dough will be sticky. Use a dough scraper to clear the board and turn the mass of dough. Avoid adding more flour.)

5. In about 5 minutes the dough will become smoother and more elastic. Shape into a rough ball and place in a large oiled bowl, cover with a tea towel, and let rise until doubled in bulk.

6. Heavily butter a 3-quart round baking dish that is 3 inches deep, such as a casserole or an enameled Dutch oven. Punch down the dough with a single blow of your fist. Knead the dough for a few minutes, shape into a rough ball, and place in the prepared pan. (Press the dough down so that the bottom of the pan is covered completely.) Cover and let rise again until the dough has doubled and reaches the top of the pan.

7. At least 20 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.

8. Bake for 60 minutes, or until the bread is nicely rounded on top and a light golden brown. Leave in the pan for 5 minutes, then remove and transfer to a rack to cool completely before slicing.

Florence Fabricant's Grilled Orata and Onions


The story of my summer vacation:

One girl, one grill, several pounds of costoluto tomatoes and a tableful of happy eaters, contentedly rubbing crusty grilled bread with cloves of garlic, papery shreds falling away hither and thither, then squashing the herbed, bubbling tomatoes into the crumb, with a drizzle of olive oil on top for good measure. One of my friends visiting from England had a notebook by the ready at each meal: "How do you make this (jam crostata)?" "And this (fresh tomato sauce)?" "And that (bandiera, the Italian version of ratatouille)?" But for this treat, there is no recipe. Just good ingredients and some hot coals. We could have eaten the blistered tomatoes every day.


In return for our recipes, they gave us their expertise with fire. Ian, my Scottish friend, manned the grill ably while he was there, taming the flames just so, dousing with beer when the coals required it, keeping us flush with wine and good humor. We bought plump orata at the market in Urbino on Saturday morning, from a fishmonger uncommonly happy to see us, I thought, until I realized hours later that I'd forgotten to ask her to clean the fish. That's why she was so happy, I thought. An easy sale.

Florence Fabricant, always uncannily on my recipe wavelength, provided the recipe: grilled onions and fresh thyme stuffed into a gutted, oiled fish, which was then grilled until flaky over hot coals. We grilled in the semi-dark, sun long gone, citronella candles providing light and scent and protection against marauding mosquitos, drunk on us. The fish was delicious, the herby onions even more so, the lemon dressing on top a must. We prepared more fish than we thought necessary and ate almost all of it, with just one little fillet remaining. It went to the cats.


I was going to post a whole lot of photos again, as I do each time I travel, but there was something about this trip that nagged at me, something about the unhappiness and hopelessness in the people I spoke to about the political situation in Italy that left me feeling a little sad and angry, too. Italy has so much physical beauty, and you could surely stare at images of its old stone houses and rolling hills until your hair went gray. But the truth is that there is a lot of ugliness hidden behind that picturesque scenery. A lot of ignorance and racism and shortsightedness and intolerance. That country is slipping rather tragically, in so many different ways, and it is a shame, or worse, that not more people in Italy and outside of it are aware of what is actually happening there, what is being lost.


I came back to Queens today, grateful for the throngs of people around me in the streets, in the stores, the languages around me building another veritable tower of Babel; faces smiling, frowning, simply being - black, white, Hispanic, Chinese, Korean, Bukharian, South Indian, Polish, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Orthodox Jewish, and little half-It-with-a-German-American-soul-me.

I know no place is perfect. But this American experiment, this incredible city, just fills me up with pride. Some days it practically brings tears to my eyes.

(Of course I took pictures, though. I practically slept with the camera under my pillow. Photos here.)

Grilled Orata and Onions
Serves 4

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, more for grill
2 whole orata or porgies, 2 pounds each, cleaned
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium-large onions, in slices 1/2-inch thick
6 sprigs fresh thyme
Juice of 1 lemon

1. Heat grill to very hot. Oil the grates. While grill heats, use 1 1/2 tablespoons oil to rub fish inside and out. Season generously with salt and pepper inside and out.

2. Using a grill pan, sear onion slices until lightly charred on grill, or cook them in a dry skillet on top of stove. Stuff fish cavities with onions and thyme. Grill both fish close to source of heat, turning once, until skin is nicely charred and fish are cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes a side, depending on heat of grill. While fish are grilling, mix lemon juice with remaining oil.

3. Transfer both fish to large platter or board. Remove onions and thyme and set aside. Fillet fish by first cutting along the top and bottom edges and just below the head. Lift off top fillet and place on serving dish. Remove skeleton, head and tail. Transfer bottom fillet to platter. Repeat with second fish and arrange on platter. Scatter onions and thyme over fillets and drizzle with lemon oil. Serve.