Thursday, July 18, 2013

Cool As A Cucumber

"Do I look like a frolicker?!" ~ Mrs. Patmore to Mr. Carson when she is accused of frolicking with Ethel
It's 96°F and humid and I have decided that the stove is OFF tonight (even if the cook isn't) and as luck would have it, the English Cucumbers just happened to go on sale this week. There's nothing like cucumbers to really keep you cool when it's hot outside. What better time to put on my pseudo-British accent and pretend I'm Mrs. Patmore trying to feed people at un-air-conditioned Downton Abbey? Here we all are, in the sweltering heat, waiting for the Royal Baby to be born, celebrating that the Queen of England signed marriage equality into law earlier this week, and these particular English Cucumbers happened to come from a hothouse in Canada (hey, it's still part of the Commonwealth). Even the title of this post, the expression, "cool as a cucumber" comes from a very amusing piece written by the English poet, John Gay, in 1732.

English cucumbers rock. And in this particular recipe, they really should be used. The regular cucumbers you see in the grocery store each week have a tougher skin and are slightly more bitter and crunchy, while the English cucumbers are going to give a more silky texture in the final soup and it will taste better. Also, as a personal note, I've been to England and the authentic cucumber sandwiches served at Afternoon Tea? Oh yeah, totally different with English cucumbers. Accept no substitute. (Now if only we could get real clotted cream around here my life would be complete.)

So what could top a nice cold Cucumber Gazpacho? One that has the very, very last of my precious Italian olive oil drizzled as the final touch when we eat it. I can't get this in the States, I have to beg bottles of it off of relatives who go over for vacation. Sigh. This is the kind of olive oil that is so delicious, you never cook with it... you only have it on it's own, or maybe with a little bread, to fully appreciate the taste. My God, the way it tasted when I first cracked open that seal... instant "sore throat" from a single spoonful. It was AMAZING. Alas, superb olive oil doesn't age like fine wine... the best it will ever be is when it's running straight from the olive press. It has a year of "life" to it at most, and should be consumed by the expiration date - which is next month. You could say, I rationed out our consumption perfectly this past year, but it deserves a respectful final meal - bread, cucumber gazpacho, and a hot, hot summer day when these are the Main Meal, and proper  attention and homage can be fully paid.

So long, Old Pal.
When I win the lottery, I'm going to have whole cases of this stuff flown over every month. 

What? You have a problem with Italian Olive Oil being used with English Cucumbers in a Spanish soup? Not Anglophile enough for you? That gives me all the excuse I need for THIS clip, hehehe.

Not exactly a Merchant Ivory film, was it? Still one of my absolute favorite movies ever.

My English Cucumber Gazpacho also has plenty of very, very good quality olive oil in the soup - along with a LOT of white wine vinegar and fresh lemon. I go easy on the raw garlic in this: only one clove. It's a big clove, but just one. You can always add another in - but it gets stronger and better, if you let the soup sit for a full day before eating it, so start with one and then adjust to your own taste.

English Cucumber Gazpacho
Makes about 2 Quarts

9 English cucumbers, divided (8 peeled & chopped for soup, 1 diced or thin-sliced for garnish)
1 1/2 cup very good Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 cup water (I use the chilled water from our Brita pitcher in the fridge)
1-2 cloves Garlic, pasted with Kosher Salt
1 cup White Wine vinegar
Juice of 3 lemons
3 tsp Kosher Salt
½-1 tsp (a very generous grinding) Black Pepper

Optional: ¼ Cup superb quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil to drizzle for garnish

Peel 8 of the cucumbers and rough chop. In small batches puree in the blender with the oil, water, lemon juice, garlic paste, salt & pepper and pour into a large metal bowl set over another bowl of ice. The way I do it is put most of the liquid ingredients in the first and second batches, puree them well, and then use that soup base for the rest of the cucumbers… it takes about 4 batches to do all 8 cucumbers in my blender. And, as I’ve said before, I have a very powerful-motored blender for this purpose, I don’t think it would turn out as smooth in a food processor. Chill the soup thoroughly, for at least 2 hours in the fridge, and also chill the bowls you will serve it in - don't put 32-degree soup into 75-degree bowls straight from your kitchen cabinet. You can then garnish with the 9th cucumber, or drizzle olive oil, or even croutons would be nice. Bread and gazpacho and olive oil always work well. 

I am serving this with a "heavy" salad made from cooked beets, wild rice, sliced almonds, and chevre, and also with plenty of Italian bread.

Now, there's really not much to the method, so there wasn't much to photograph. But on a hot day, who wants to work any harder than they have to?

Step 1 - Blenderize it

Step 2 - Nest the bowl in a bigger bowl full of ice, then put them in the fridge for at minimum 2 hours, better yet overnight.

Now if you have it, and like it, I'd say instead of wine or beer with this, stick with the English theme and drink hard cider with this... Strongbow is my personal favorite, and is widely available in the states. If you haven't tried it yet... You're welcome! Otherwise, meh... Iced Earl Grey is pretty fine on a hot day and wouldn't be amiss.

Stay Cool, everyone!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

World's Most Expensive Casserole

It's called 'Shroomy Crab Mornay Casserole, and it has two and a half POUNDS of Phillips Jumbo Lump Crab under those Old Bay Seasoning-flavored potato chips. OH YEAH BABY!
I got a call from one of my clients a few weeks ago, who wanted me to fill their freezer with various casseroles. The client asked for the Chicken & Ham casserole that I've posted up on Facebook before  - my own family begs for this so often I could make it in my sleep. But then, the client had other ideas, and I was absolutely delighted. They wanted to go off-menu in terms of variety and flavors from my Shore House Shoobie Menu, and among the ideas of what they wanted was a crab meat casserole. Holy smokes!

I'll confess, even though I've worked with caviar, 18K gold leaf, foie gras, truffles, duck, escargots, lobster, and other ingredients that are just off-the-hook expensive, when I got the order for this casserole my first gut feeling was not joy but intimidation - and my response to the client - was, "Are you absolutely sure you want a Crab Casserole?" Not becasue I ahven't worked with crab before - I have, many times, but because of the sheer quantity of crab it would need, I knew this was going to be one badass mother of a grocery bill, even before I hit the store. When I'm working with any ingredient that costs $44 per pound, let's just say the food commands my undivided attention and deepest respect, coupled with a sincere and fervent desire to not screw it up. Just the ingredients alone for this, and yes, I added them up, came out to $146.02. If I charged my client at the normal restaurant markup of a 30% food cost, that's $486.73. For one 9x13 casserole. In a restaurant, if they did them in individual servings, they would sell this at $61 each.

No pressure there!

On the other hand, what an awesome opportunity. Ingredients at this level deserve to be handled beautifully, and allowed to shine on their own merit. Only the highest, most expensive restaurants could dare consider keeping this on the menu, and most likely, they would skimp on the amount of crab meat, or use a lower quality to cut the cost. Or both. This is why being a catering chef is so much fun as opposed to being a restaurant chef -we get so many more opportunities to be creative, and we can have chances like this to just run with the food, and make something amazing and special.

So of course I started with my Culinary Artistry book. It's my go-to tool for when I want to build my own recipe. If you haven't heard of it, it's a cookbook (THE cookbook) for skilled cooks who have already mastered the techniques of cooking, and are ready to just let their muse run wild. It has no recipes, just various lists of classic flavor combinations that go well together, plus some fun reading thrown in in the form of stories and menus and answers to the question "What 10 Ingredients Would You Want If You Were Stranded On A Desert Island" by various well-known chefs. The authors are Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. I've had 3 copies of this book over the past 15 years - not because I've lost it or let anyone borrow them, but because I've worn them down to pulp using them.

I spent about 4 hours mentally building the recipe - trying things out, cutting them, getting way over the top (wild mushrooms, anyone?) and then simplfying it all down again. The thing was to not take away from that exquisite crab. What it came down to was a classic American casserole - the mandatory Campbell's Cream of Mushroom included - with tiny baby button mushrooms that had been sauteed in butter and sherry, sour cream, Mornay sauce, twisty egg noodles and a kiss of fresh tarragon. And then, in a nod to our region, I topped it with Utz potato chips that has the Old Bay Seasoning flavor.

The only thing I would do differently if I was doing it for my own consumption is I would add some tomatoes, but the client is located at the Jersey shore, so really, this is going to be sublime paired with a simple fresh Jersey Tomato & Grilled Sweet Corn salad, or even just sliced tomatoes. This is going to make an exquisite summer meal.

‘Shroomy Crab Mornay Casserole
Serves 8-10 (Makes one 9x13 sized casserole)


2.5 lbs (5 cups) Phillips Jumbo Lump Crab Meat  (Canned or the plastic containers doesn’t matter, but I only use Phillips brand ever, and yes, it’s hard to find and expensive, but you get what you pay for)
1 can Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup (Family-sized can)
16 oz. Sour Cream
6 oz. baby button mushrooms, wiped, trimmed, and thin-sliced
 ½ stick butter
Mornay sauce
Madeira or sherry – 2 oz
1 large pkg Egg Noodles
Tarragon, fresh, fine chopped, 2 Tbsp
Bag of Old Bay Seasoned potato chips (I use Utz “The Crab Chip”)


First sauté the mushrooms in the butter until they are browned, then pour off the excess butter into the pot you will make the Mornay sauce in, and splash the sherry into the mushrooms. Bring to a boil then turn off heat and allow the mushrooms to absorb all the sherry. Set aside.
Second make the Mornay Sauce: (Mornay is BĂ©chamel with cheese added)
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups warmed milk (microwave 2 min is fine)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
pinch freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
2 ounces grated Gruyere (can substitute Parmesan if desired)

To the reserved mushroom butter, add another tablespoon and melt it, stirring, so that the butter is creamy and melted, then add in the flour – whisk quickly and keep stirring to make it smooth and cook the flour. Make blond roux, fully cook it but not brown, then slowly whisk in milk letting it thicken, and allow to come to a boil, season with Salt, Pepper & Nutmeg. Then gradually whisk in cheese until it’s fully incorporated and smooth – not sticky or stringy. Taste it - the flavor of the cheese should be subtle, not overpowering. Don’t worry about it being thick – that’s what you want. Set aside until you are ready to make casserole sauce. For casserole sauce: Mix together the Mornay Sauce, cream of mushrooms soup, sour cream, and mushrooms. Taste. Adjust seasoning if needed. Cook the pasta – firm, of course, for casseroles. Drain the pasta, cool it under running water, and immediately toss with about 2 cups of the sauce to coat the pasta. Gently, gently, gently fold in Crab Meat being careful to not break up the lumps, tarragon, and more sauce to your desired consistency, dispersing crab evenly through the mixture. Then pour into well-greased casserole dish. Top with crushed Old Bay Potato Chips. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until heated through, or freeze.

So, the funny thing is, as I was posting on Facebook about making this recipe, one of my friends told the story of how she had recently ordered a "crab mushroom casserole" from a restaurant. She joined in the conversation with the advice not to put "too many mushrooms" in it - because when she got her order, it was almost ALL mushrooms and hardly any crab.  She felt cheated, and now is forevermore suspicious of  "crab casserole" on any menu again - and who can blame her? What a bad experience! How many times have we all gone out to eat, seen something that sounds wonderful, notice it is reasonably priced, and then when you get it, find that it is not what you expected?

But that's what happens far too often. When a chef makes a menu up, it's incredibly fun to create and be inspired... but you have to do the "perspiration" behind the inspiration or in reality it's going to fail. Crab on the menu sounds wonderful. Crab that goes missing from the kitchen, or doesn't sell and gets thrown away, is death to a restaurant. You need to cost out your recipes, control your portions, and take seasonality and your customers into account. You can't put a $60 entree onto a menu where everything else is priced under $25. They cut quality or quantity or both, in order to hit a price point and make a profit. And then we all lose - the chef is making lower-quality food, the customer is feeling the kitchen over-promised and under-delivered, and nobody's really happy.

Except MY customers! Who get 5 cups of the best premium crab on the market, to 1/2 cup of mushrooms. Mwahahahahahaha! (The benefits of paying for groceries separately from my time.. my clients get a lot more bang for the buck than going to restaurants, and can have higher quality.)

Now, you may be wondering why, when I went to so much trouble to make up this recipe, would I share it this openly. I'll tell you why - weddings are on my mind this week. I am very happy there's about to be a lot more of them. And there are NOT a lot of really elegant, really easy recipes out there that would be doable for a home cook... and could potentially be made six weeks to a month in advance and frozen uncooked. How awesome is that? The night before the wedding, move the casserole(s) from the freezer to the fridge to thaw, and then they should only take about 45 minutes to bake - check the internal temperature with a thermometer, but you only need to bring this up to 140 degrees  in the center - the seafood is already fully cooked, and there are no raw eggs used.

This would make a fabulous entree for a Brunch or Lunch Wedding for some bootstrapping DIY couple who are on a tight budget. Especially for a small, intimate wedding of 25 or less, this would make an easy, elegant main course. I'd buy or rent single serving porcelain ramekins and bake them on a baking sheet, instead of cutting a big tray for portion control... but if you were having a buffet, then you could make this in a large pan. Top it with Panko break crumbs tossed with Old Bay Seasoning instead of potato chips. And yes, they could substitute cooked lobster or shrimp into this as well.  Pair it with an heirloom tomato salad or a melon salad (crab and melon really work together) or mixed baby greens, some artesian breads, and it's a perfect meal.

A lot of love and joy went into creating this, and I'm very proud of it.

Now THAT is a crab-to-mushroom ratio to rival the Ritz!