Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Bellyful of Whole Belly Clams

Another greatly sought delicacy during our visit to the Northeastern U.S. was Fried Whole Belly Clams. Some of you, like us, may have sampled Fried Clam Strips, a dish that resembles short lengths of rubber bands and deriving most of its flavor from the breading and the accompanying Tartar Sauce. Think, "Howard Johnson's". I once worked in the kitchen at a Red Lobster (I'm still trying to compensate for those 9 months), and there, we cooked Clam Strips by dipping the end of a small plastic bag of preportioned, frozen clam strips into the hot fat of the deep fryer, releasing those wormlike morsels towards their final destiny.
Whole Belly Clams are a whole different dish.
(I'm suddenly curious why it's called Tartar Sauce or Sauce Tartare. I associated the Tartars as a tribe of horsemen who tenderized horsemeat by placing it under their saddles during vigorous, rollicking jaunts over the steppes. Thus, the possible origin of Tartar Steak.* They were also fond of koumiss, fermented mare's milk. (This is not an auspicious beginning culinarily.) The Mexican version of Tartar Steak is Carne Apache, a name which has some of the rough and wild associations of Steak Tartare. It's also a food I wil not eat, as served in its unrefrigerated and dubious form at street and mercado stalls. But, I digress.
Whole Belly Fried Clams are a New England Specialty. When I was growing up in and around New Haven, CT, we'd sometimes be treated to a fried seafood meal at the Clam Box at Branford(?), or even better, Jimmy's of Savin Rock, back when it was a parking lot and a stand, with long lines in the summer.

On this trip to Connecticut, we had two Whole Belly Clams ops. The first was at the excellent Maine Fish Market, in East Windsor, CT. Not to miss an opportunity, I started my meal with a shellfish platter of 6 icy clams and 6 oysters on the half shell. A Long Trail Ale was the perfect accompaniment.

After a small salad came a platter mounded with golden fried whole belly clams (WBC from here on.) There was a mountain of French fries and slaw as well.

(I'm sorry, but I don't have any photos of WBC at either restaurant! What must have I been doing? Eating. I'll Google a photo and put it in here.)

Thanks, I appreciate that.

The clams were excellent. In fact, I liked everything about the meal. well, maybe the Tartar Sauce wasn't great, but it was o.k.) I had to take about a third of the clams and half of the fries to our niece's home, where the next morning, I made a Connecticut version of Hangtown Fry. (Scrambled eggs, potatoes, fried WBCs.) More than you ever wanted to know about Hangtown Fry.

The second WBC op was at Skooter's Restaurant in Windsor Locks, CT. (Mentioned in a previous blog post under "Lord of the Rings".)

                            The Skooter's building

My wife had an order of clams only, a rather more modest portion, but very tasty and the right size for lunch, before boarding the Amtrak Vermonter train back to Newark, NJ.

This concludes our presentation for today.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Lord of the Rings

In my middle years, the 1970s, I was a Lord of the Rings. My job at King's Food Host, a fast food restaurant chain, first in an individual unit's kitchen, then in a large regional commissary stunk.

Or, rather, I stunk. After a day at work, my body and clothes reeked of onion juice.
One of my principal tasks was to prepare fresh onion rings. This was done by slicng off the ends of a 50 # or more bag(s) of onions, send them through a slicer, separating out the irregulars from the perfectas.
From the slicer the raw rings went to the breader. If the slicing stunk, breading was crummy.

The results were worth the tears and stink. The perfectly fried, golden rings were the crowning touch on many a Double Cheeseburger. These were, at least in my memory, the best OR's and the best hamburgers ever.
Since then, despite the smelly and often monotonous nature of the work, I've been big, if fussy fan of ORs.

Back in the U.S.A. for a 3 week visit, we had several opportunities to eat onion rings. The ranged from "good" to fantastic. All that was missing was "The World's Best Double Cheseburger", with its petite OR crown.

My first grab at the ring came at the Randolph Diner, in Randolph, NJ. My Mom ordered a magnificent plate of fried jumbo shrimp, that came with a generous portion of FFs and ORs, and a modest cup of slaw. She granted me on OR and I loved it.

Shrimp, FF and OR at Randolph Diner

My second chance was at the estimable Irving's Deli, Livingston, NJ.
It was a great meal with a half pastrami sandwich, a pretty good hot dog, some complimentary dill pickles, and a basket of really good ORs. They were nearly identical to those at the Randolph. I never would have thought of ORs to accompany a deli sandwich, but when the opportunity arises, you shold grab it.

ORs at Irving's. Who knew?

Let's have another look at the Randolph's ORs, alongside their fairly decent cheeseburger. (Not The World's Best Cheeseburger, but it would do.)

Cheeseburger & ORs, Randolph Diner

During a weekend visit to a niece and nephew in Connecticut, we got in one last OR op, this one at Skooter's Diner, near Bradley Field in Windsor Locks.

The Skooter's ORs are definitely home made, with a lighter, more fragile breading. I enjoyed them, but I'd give top honors in this group to Irving's, followed by Randolph.

Fragile, golden beauties at Skooter's

Skooter's is a sweet little place, which I'd probably patronize regularly if i lived nearby, but not, in my mnd, worth a special detour. By the way, the hamburgers were serviceable but not outstanding. The Fried Whole Belly Clams were good, according to my wife. (WBCs is perhaps another topic in this North East U.S. series. Later.)

A Case of Crabs

It was the season of crabs...
A side benefit of our visit to the Northeast U.S. was that soft shelled crabs were in season. I learned on Mouthfulsfood.com that Avenue Bistro Pub, in Verona, NJ, was offering them on pasta. But when we ate at Chengdu 1 in Cedar Grove the night before, there were soft shelled crabs on the menu, prepared Hot and Spicy with Chili (sic). Irresistible, even though we ordered Hot and Spicy Prawns with Chili as well. In the end, the prawns were better than the crabs.

Hot and Spicy SSC with Chili, Chengdu 1

Following that semi-successful meal (less the fault of the restaurant than the widely divergent tastes of the diners' choices.), we joined two old friends at Avenue Bistro Pub. I passed up the second chance for SSCs, and instead, had a great Hanger Steak with frites. My wife had the SSCs, subbing fresh spinach for the pasta. She said it was excellent.

                                          SSCs sauteed, over spinach, Avenue Bistro Pub

Another crab delicacy are Crab Cakes (CCs). These can be done well, but all too often are masses of breadcrumbs or potatoes, faintly flavored with crab and fried poorly. That, unfortunately, was the case at Reggiano Ristorante, where my single, large, and very expensve CC was guarded by a formidable nest of fried angel hair pasta. Once that barrier was removed, I found a poorly seaoned and fried CC, unredeemed by its underlying pool of "saffron aioli".

I got my good CCs, again at Avenue Bistro, this time nicely done, lightly fried, no barriers, and graced with a red sweet peper remoulade.

                                                    CCs at Avenue Bistro

(And now, the real crabbiness comes out, as I prepared CCs at the house.)

My Mom wanted me to make crab cakes before we returned to Mexico. Towards that end, we purchased two, one pound cans of crabs of crabmeat.
Only one day remained before our departure. My Mom planned a meal based on mixed green salad, crab cakes, corn on the cob, green beans and (SURPRISE!) potato salad. I will credit her with preparing all the salads, vegs and sides. I was left only with making the crab cakes. (There was more cooking and food preparation that day, but I won't go into the details here.)
I recalled that the year before, she and I wrangled over a newspaper clipping recipe. I don't recall the gist of the dispute, it it may have had to do with "not over seasoning to the point where you don't taste the crab." 
I totally agree with that opinion.
This year we wrangled only briefly, and she more-or-less let me have my way with a recipe I got on the Internet.
Who knows? The only requirement was that "Panko", the Japanese white bread crumbs, be used.
(I did take 3 slices of Pepperidge Farm Hearty White Bread, trim off the crusts, dice, place in the food processor and whirl with the steel blade until they were crumbs. Those were the "filler" inside the CC mixture.)
Here's the recipe I used, for "Best Crab Cakes", from teriskitchen.com
I consider it a very good starting point.
Keep in mind our quantity was doubled, yielding 12 large crab cakes. I'll put my modifications in a colored font.

(A little celery, sweet red and/or green pepper, red or white onion, Tabasco Sauce, a pinch of  thyme, a few dashes of cayenne pepper.)

My Mom's kitchen is compact, and she more or less knows where everything is stored, while I, her usually intelligent son, am generally clueless in that regard. Nevertheless, I manage to make the CC mixture before lunch (a vegetable frittata), between other more or less continuous kitchen tasks, and get it refrigerated.

Later, I patted out the CCs and began to fry them. I would have used two skillets, but the burners were occupied with corn on the cob and green beans. My temper finally exploded as my wife started removing the cleaned dinnerware from the dishwasher, underfoot where I was working. It was necessary, but stressful. Plus, "there are ways of doing things in every family".

But after my crabby outburst came calm. I continued, frying 4-5 CCs at a time, placing them on paper towels in an oven proof dish and keeping them in a 200º oven until serving time.

FIRST, the salad.
clear the plates
SECOND, the corn and green beans.
clear the plates (my wife says I was mistaken. We did NOT clear the second plates. But we did eat the vegs as separate courses.)
THIRD, the CCs. Pass the mayonnaise, ummm; Tartar Sauce. Mmm!
I had more salad, which was "noticed".
It was just almost worth the hassle. I ate two big CC's. They were great.
I skipped the baked bananas, as they held no apeel for me.

                          Home made CCs, hecho a mano por mi.
I suddenly realized that I'd blogged a topic of the same or nearly the same title, a couple of years ago: Eat Here And Get Crabs
So it is. No, I'm not obsessed with that affliction. Originally, this post was titled, Crabby In the Kitchen