Sunday, September 18, 2016

Jumbo Shrimp

Fresh, local ingredients are the backbone of great cooking. When you buy local, you can be assured your food will be the very freshest it can be, right from its source to your kitchen. For almost thirty years, I lived near the Texas gulf coast and for another six years, I lived in New England just an hour from the Atlantic ocean. The seafood I bought pretty much came right out of the ocean and into my cooler. Close proximity to fresh seafood also has a huge impact on prices. In New England, even the largest lobsters were about $8 a pound, compared to $15 a pound inland,. We may have eaten our own body weight in steamers, which we could find for about $4 a pound. In Texas, its all about the shrimp. The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico yield the largest, most succulent shrimp you can imagine. When I lived in Dallas, I'd visit my father who lives very close to the gulf coast. I'd fill a small cooler with the biggest shrimp I could find, 8-10 count for about $6 per pound. I always had fresh gulf shrimp in my freezer.

On a recent trip to the gulf coast, I had shrimp in the brain. Our vacation included a two-day visit with my sister and 93 year old dad followed by three days in a lovely beach house on the Bolivar Peninsula with my oldest and dearest friends. Before we set out on the hour-long drive from my dad's to the beach, we took a detour to a bait shop where I've been buying shrimp for 25 years. There is no name on the storefront, you just have to know where it is. The family that runs the shop also has a shrimp boat and for $7 a pound head-on, they sell the biggest, freshest and most mind-blowing gulf shrimp that have ever tap-danced across my taste buds. We bought 4 pounds of jumbos, a bag of ice and a pair of cheap sunglasses and hit the road. We stopped for a few grocery items, like lemons, cocktail sauce and margarita ingredients, before meeting up with my friends at our retreat on the beach. Once we got settled in and had a few adult beverages, I put a large pot on the stove to boil. 

There are many different ways to prepare jumbo shrimp. It is absolutely yummy sauteed in garlic butter with a squeeze of lemon and served with crusty bread or over pasta. It is fabulous in a tomato broth or a gumbo served over rice. But what I craved was plain boiled shrimp, the best way to enjoy its pure essential flavor. However you choose to serve your shrimp, the worst thing you can do is overcook it. Overcooked shrimp has a hard and mealy texture that is very off-putting. You know your shrimp is ready as soon as it floats and it needs to be plunged into ice water the minute its done to stop the cooking.  We cleaned the shrimp by removing the heads and rinsing them under cold water.
Normally, I would use those heads to make shrimp stock and put it in the freezer for a future soup or sauce, but that wasn't an option this time. I cut up two lemons and two limes and dropped them in the water, along with a bag of Louisiana seafood boil. When the water just began to simmer, I dropped the shrimp in and got my bowl of ice ready.  It took less than 10 minutes for those big boys to come to the surface of the water. I scooped them out with a slotted spoon and dropped them into the bowl of ice. Just a few hours after the shrimp entered my life, they were being dipped in spicy cocktail sauce and enjoyed by me and my grateful friends. 

We ate about half of them on the first night and put the rest in the fridge. For the next three days, we nibbled on shrimp for lunch and in the afternoon with our adult beverages. We also went to dinner one night at a local seafood restaurant where I ate more shrimp. By the time our vacation was over, I was staring to grow antennae, a tail and tiny flippers on my belly. Now I'm back at home and taking advantage of the local ingredients that are in season here in western Pennsylvania. My next trip to Texas is in just a few months and you can bet that wherever I am dining, there will be shrimp on the table. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Peach Mango Crumble

I have what you might call a cognitive disconnect between the concepts of grocery shopping and going on vacation. I have this annoying habit of buying perishable fruits and veggies right before we leave on a trip. I lose my mind in the grocery store or hit a local farmers market on my way home and we end up having to frantically cook and eat all this produce in a matter of days. My husband has made me aware of this issue a number of times, but when I see those Chambersburg peaches for $1 a pound, I can't control myself, which brings me to the subject at hand.

I had three big, lovely Pennsylvania peaches ripening on the counter. I also had a mango that was about twenty minutes away from going bad. We were leaving for vacation in less than a week so I needed to dispose of this fruit post haste. Since I've been doing so much baking lately, my pantry is stocked and luckily, we are both big fans of fruit desserts. There are so many wonderful recipes from pies to tarts to ice creams, but I opted for one of the easiest and most scrumptious - the crumble. Now, there always seems to be a bit of confusion about the difference between crumbles, crisps and cobblers. They are all baked fruit desserts, but each has a different topping. The cobbler has a biscuit topping which is usually dropped in small dollops on top of the fruit. When it bakes, the juice from the fruit permeates the bottom of the biscuit and the browned top resembles a cobbled road, thus the name. The crumble has a streussel topping made with flour, butter and sugar that gets very crunchy when it bakes. The topping for the crisp has the same ingredients as the crumble with the addition of oats, which I just happened to not have in my otherwise well stocked pantry. I did, however, have a big bag of walnuts in the freezer, so I decided to add a little extra crunch to my topping.


3-5 ripe peaches
1 ripe mango
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
6 tbsp very soft butter
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts

The amount of fruit you have will determine the size of your baking dish and that is actually an important part of the preparation. The layer of fruit needs to be deep so it doesn't cook away to nothing before the topping browns. The deeper the dish, the saucier the fruit will become while baking, which is exactly what you want. Choose a baking dish that has high sides, like a gratin dish or small casserole, and one that is small enough to keep your fruit from spreading out into a thin layer. Of course, if you have a lot of fruit, you will need to make more topping to compensate. For 6 to 8 large peaches, try doubling the topping recipe.

Preheat your oven to 350. Split, peel and slice the peaches and mango and toss them with the vanilla and a tablespoon each of four and sugar. Set them aside while you work on your topping. In a medium sized bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon and chopped walnuts. Mix them together briefly with a fork, then add the butter in small pieces. Start working the butter into the dry ingredients to form a loose dough. The texture of your dough is critical to the success of this dessert. If you can squeeze the dough together and it stays together, you've got it right. If your dough is too dry and crumbly, add a tablespoon of water and work it in until you can squeeze the dough and it keeps its shape. Your dough should be in clumps when you put it on top of the fruit, Those clumps will absorb the fruit juice underneath and get all golden brown and crunchy on top. Yum.

Dump your fruit into your baking dish and make sure you have a nice thick and even layer. Then start piling the clumps of dough on top, making sure all the fruit gets covered completely. I like a thick topping, but that is all a matter of personal taste. Some people like just a small bit of crumb topping, some people like as much topping as fruit. Its all up to you.  Once you have all the fruit covered, put the baking dish on a baking sheet covered with foil. This dessert tends to bubble up while baking and the juices will destroy the bottom of your oven if you don't take this step. Bake it for 30-40 minutes until you can see the juices bubbling at the sides of the dish and the top is beautifully browned.

The crumble will be as hot as the surface of the sun when it comes out of the oven and while it will be almost impossible to resist sticking a spoon (or your finger) into this magnificent dessert, it is best served warm, but not scalding hot. You will save yourself from a nasty burn if you let it cool off for half an hour before you eat it. For pure heaven in a bowl, serve this with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and make sure you spoon some of that warm fruit juice all over the top. I didn't have ice cream in my freezer, so I served it with a spoonful of plain Greek yogurt, which was also outrageously good.  This might be my favorite summer dessert. Its a great way to use fresh berries, stone fruits or even apples and pears. Try this once and I think you'll want to make again and again.