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Overheard at Fairway

So I’m shopping at the local grocery store here and I overhear this conversation of this seriously overweight young woman with her young son about three years old in her cart in the vegetable aisle. She’s explaining to him (and he’s overweight already – are you surprised?) that she’s buying some cabbage. I’m thinking, okay, good, a vegetable. Then she says to him that she’s going to “Cook it in some butter, then combine it with some noodles and sour cream and, you’ll really like it!”

Really? Excuse me? Can you ruin a good head of cabbage more for your already way overweight bodies?

I was aghast. A vegetable is great but loaded with all the fat and carbs she’s talking about – this kid already has a problem and she is feeding it even more. Help her!!

Cabbage.

Delicious crab cakes

A traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner is comprised of numerous courses of fish. It was a sin, way back, to eat meat on Christmas Eve and many folks fasted all day too.

However, my brother David was born on Christmas Eve so things got all catawampus at our house. David is the second oldest, was born with no name in mind. The story goes that after attending midnight mass, my father went back to the hospital and said he had to be named David, as that was the most mentioned name in the entire service.

Then I moved to New York and every Jewish person I met was totally surprised that our Catholic family had a son named David! Oy vey!

Well David and his brood (7 kids and 10 grandchildren with 2 more on the way) still live in St. Louis. So all of us on the East coast could go back to a more traditional meal, rather than his birthday request.

Here is what I served for this year.

Appetizers:
Taramusalata with red pepper and celery sticks
Greek cheese & aged Gouda with Breton crackers
Beautiful bunch of grapes

Dinner:
Crab cakes on a bed of Boston lettuce with chipotle mayonnaise and 1/2 slice of warm homemade Polish bread just out of the oven.
Steamed whole striped bass with ginger and lemon
Fennel salad
Coarse bulgar with olive oil and parsley
Oven roasted plum tomatoes with oregano

Dessert:
Christmas cookies, of course!

David’s wife, Pat, requested the crab cake recipe. This is from Preston Clark at Food and Wine magazine and it is the best crab cake recipe I have found so far. Now my husband is from Baltimore, so this is a big deal. Baltimoreans know their crab and they serve up the BEST jumbo lump crab cakes. A fine restaurant there will never use a lot or maybe any breading, but then I could never figure out how they got them to hold together because every time I would try to replicate their recipes, they would taste good, but look terrible as they always fell apart.

This recipe uses another fish as a binding – it’s genius! Fresh and full of flavor with the jalapeños and scallions, and crispy on the outside, you will love these. And they hold together nicely.

Crab cake on a Boston lettuce leaf with organic watercress and chipotle mayo

Crab cake on a Boston lettuce leaf with organic watercress and chipotle mayo

Here you go!

CRISP CRAB CAKES WITH CHIPOTLE MAYONNAISE – ADAPTED FROM PRESTON CLARK
-serves 8 as a first course or 4 as a main

Crab Cakes
1/4 – 1/2 lb. skinless flounder fillet, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
5 scallions, thinly sliced
3 jalapeños, seeded and minced
3 tbs. fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 tbs. chopped parsley
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 lb. lump or jumbo lump crabmeat, picked over for shells, lay out on a paper towel and pat dry on top
1 1/4 cups panko bread crumbs
Pure olive oil, for frying (I think I might try canola or peanut next time to get it at a higher temperature.)

Chipotle Mayonnaise
This makes a lot and all is not necessary for the crab cakes, but you can use leftovers for other meat sandwiches, especially turkey would be good
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 chipotle chile in adobo, seeded and minced (or leave the seeds in if you like it spicey – I did)
1 tbs. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. Old Bay Seasoning
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground pepper

To make the cakes:
In a mini food processor, puree the fish. A small fillet is about 8 oz and my fishmonger wouldn’t sell any less so I used the whole 1/2 lb. and pureed it in two batches. Transfer the pureed fish to a large bowl and add the scallions, jalapeños, lemon juice, parsley, cayenne, salt, pepper and mayonnaise and mix thoroughly. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the crabmeat. Form the mixture into 8 cakes. Place the panko in a pie plate and gently coat the cakes with the panko and refrigerate for 30 minutes. It is important to refrigerate them for at least 30 minutes, so you can handle them and they hold their shape when frying.

To make the mayonnaise:
In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, chipotle, lemon juice, Old Bay and mustard and season with salt and black pepper. Cover and refrigerate.

To fry the cakes:
In a large nonstick skillet, heat 1/4 inch of oil until shimmering. Add the crab cakes and cook over moderate heat until browned and heated through, about 3 minutes per side. Use 2 skillets or do 2 batches as 4 at a time is enough.

To serve:
I served the crab cakes on a bed of one Boston lettuce leaf topped with watercress with a dab of the chipotle mayonnaise. Squeeze a tiny bit of fresh lemon juice on the outside rim of the lettuce, before placing on the crab cake, then put on your dab of mayonnaise.

So pretty. So fresh. So good!!

Covered bread.

Covered bread

Homemade Polish bread on a white napkin.

Homemade Polish bread – the slight sweetness of this bread offset the spiciness of the crab cake with chipotle mayo – yummy!

The best quick roasted chicken

Roast chicken in pan.

Finished chicken just out of the oven

They say that many a chef is judged by how good their roast bird is. I have tried many different ways over the years. Debating whether or not to truss the bird with string (Julia) or cut slits in the skin and shove the legs in there. (Anthony Bourdain) Starting with high heat to sear and then lowering it and basting it throughout (I still do like this method – more on that later) or Julia Child’s recipe that involves turning the bird every 15 minutes (more work) or Jen’s method (our long term nanny for the boys) of covering it and roasting it longer. My brother, Mark, thought hers was the best! When he would come to visit in NJ, he would request Jen’s chicken for the first night of dinners. Then there’s Zuni Café’s version of salting the chicken several days ahead of time (really a brining of sorts) and then roasting in a not too dissimilar way from the method I like below. Tell me your favorite! I think this is the best quick roasted chicken.

This is a version adapted from Mark Bittman and my oldest son on the way to cook it, with my added touches. They say great chefs never throw anything away. I believe in that so I always save my parmesan cheese rinds. Shove them into the cavity of a bird or throw into your risotto and you will be amazed at how much flavor they impart. Using them in a roast chicken provides a parmesan flavored sauce, mixed with the chicken juices that is just divine. (That’s the end of the cheese rind sticking out of the cavity – don’t you go thinking of other things!)

THE BEST QUICK ROASTED CHICKEN
Serves 4

1 3.5 lb. chicken (I like Bell and Evans, still)
fine grind sea salt
fine grind pepper (I use Tex-Joy brand)
4-5 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
10 sprigs of fresh thyme
½ lemon
parmesan cheese rinds
20 – 25 cremini mushrooms, washed, stems trimmed a little bit and left whole

Preheat oven to 450 degrees with a cast iron skillet or heavy ovenproof skillet in the center of the oven. Trim the ends off of your mushrooms, wash, pat dry with a towel and let air dry. Thoroughly wash and dry your bird, inside and out. Distribute and shove sliced garlic, along with the thyme sprigs, under the skin on both sides of the bird – both breasts and legs and both sides on the back. Be careful not to rip the skin. Take the half of lemon and squeeze it inside the cavity to refresh the bird. Salt and pepper the cavity. Place the squeezed lemon half in there, along with more sliced garlic and thyme and shove in the parmesan cheese rind.

Pat dry the outside of the bird again, salt and pepper the outside.

Take the pan out of the oven and leave a hot pad on the handle immediately so you don’t forget and grab it. Quickly put the bird in the pan, breast side up (it will not stick) and shove mushrooms all around. It will be snug and please remember this pan is blazing hot so be careful.

Shove the hot pan with chicken and mushrooms back into the oven and roast for 35 – 40 minutes, undisturbed, until meat thermometer reaches 155 degrees. Remove chicken immediately from the hot pan by grabbing the cavity with long tongs and let rest on a platter, for at least 10 minutes before carving. Pour juices from pan on top and scatter mushrooms around. Please remember again to use a good hot pad on the handle. Too many times I have grabbed one of these, forgetting it had been in that crazy hot oven. (For burns, tea tree oil is the best but is not a good smell around food.)

Now, you tell me if this isn’t the easiest and fastest way to serve a delicious, moist, mouth watering roast chicken?

Roast chicken with mushrooms on a white platter.

Delicious and easy roast chicken with mushrooms

A fantastic first course!

This is just so good! Easy and healthy too. Now you could ask your fish monger to do the cleaning but the last time I did that at Stew Leonard’s, he just made a mangled mess out of the cute little fish. My regular fish monger, the wonderful guys at Sea Breeze on 9th Ave and 40th St., won’t clean or filet them because they are just too small. But it’s so easy to do it yourself! So toughen your stomach and get going!

GRILLED SARDINES
- serves 2 as a first courseGrilled sardines on a brown plate.

4 whole sardines
4 thin slices of lemon, each cut in half
4 – 8 fresh thyme sprigs
olive oil
salt
pepper

Light a grill or preheat your broiler on high.

Start with freshest whole sardines with clear eyes. Wash each fish and with a sharp knife (always have your knives sharp), carefully slit the underside of the fish to remove the guts. You will be cutting 2/3′s of the way down the fish from under the head and not all the way to the tail and you’ll be cutting a tiny bit more that halfway into the fish’s body. Do this under running water and grab the innards out with your fingers and get the inside thoroughly clean. Pat thoroughly dry with a paper towel, inside and out. Rub olive oil on the outside of each fish, sprinkle with salt and pepper on one side, then sprinkle salt and pepper on the plate you’re going to use and place the unseasoned side of the oiled fish on the plate and rub around to salt and pepper the bottom side. (Isn’t that a neat  trick? I learned this at a cooking class/birthday party for my friend Deb at a fancy restaurant.) Cut each lemon slice in half and place in the cavity of the fish along with a spring or two of fresh thyme.

Grill or broil for approximately 2 minutes on each side. They’re ready when the tip of a knife flakes the thickest part easily, and the outside is nicely browned and crispy.

Filet the fish as you eat and enjoy!! Fish are actually more flavorful when cooked with the bones in. These are yummy! You can serve with more fresh lemon but we think using the juices from the grilled lemon is enough.

Frozen pancetta

Some years ago, my butcher in the city, Bob, of Espisito’s Pork Store gave me the greatest tip. As he noticed, I like pancetta, so one time he mentioned that I could keep several slices in the freezer at all times, take them out one at a time and they will thaw very quickly to use. As you may have figured out by now, I adore pancetta. Just a little bit gives huge flavor to any dish. (although I am not a fan of the latest craze of bacon on desserts – yuk!) For instance, the Broccoli Rabe recipe outlined earlier is usually made with pork sausage, with the fat left in the dish. So making it with chicken sausage is so much healthier and just a touch of pancetta give the big rich pork flavor that the chicken sausage cannot impart on its own.

So always have some on hand in your freezer!

What to eat tonight

Around this time of day, I start thinking about what I’m going to cook tonight for dinner. My youngest, Zach, (23) is home again and finishing up his last semester of university. And he can eat. So I need to be thinking more robustly than when it’s just my husband and me. On the weekends, I usually buy enough meat/protein to get to today (Wednesday) and then I’m trying to figure it out like right now. Wednesday is a good day to play around – it’s my all time favorite day because the Dining section of the Times comes out today! But, it didn’t have anything interesting for tonight. I always buy all my vegetables on Saturday and I know I have a bunch of broccoli rabe. I could easily do an orecchiette with hot and sweet sausages but I’m really not feeling like a heavy meat/pork dish. So, I think I’ll do shrimp!! With maybe a thick slice of pancetta cut in 1/4″ cubes to give it a boost of flavor, with some hot red pepper. I’m excited! Pancetta is the most magical ingredient. You only need a little bit and it can really liven up a dish!