Low Country Boil

I can't believe I've never taken pictures of this spring ritual before. 

With the weather finally (sort of) turning into warm weather here in Maine, we got the itch to have a get together. We've done this spring party several times before, back when we lived in Massachusetts, and this seemed like a perfect way to get our new neighborhood together for a low key way to welcome the change of seasons finally reaching this far north. 

The Low Country Boil is the southern version of the New England clambake. Our version uses mudbugs instead of clams. And spices. Many spices. I'm not sure what Yankees have against flavor, but we keep working to introduce and educate them on the world beyond salt and butter. 

I order live, farm-raised crawfish from a place in Louisiana. They ship them overnight in a cooler, along with a couple of ice-packs. When these guys get cold, they go dormant, and when you first open the cooler, it looks like a mesh bag full of still shells.  But if you give them an hour or so to warm up, they start waking up and writhing around. The kids always love to touch them, and see them try and pinch with their little claws. And up here, it's easier to explain them as a 'tiny, freshwater lobster'. 

In fact, crawfish (or crawdads, as we called them growing up) (or 'crayfish' if you insist on making my ears hurt at the sound of your voice), are native to pretty much anywhere. I am sure we have them in the pond behind our house. I used to chase them as a kid in the creek near where I grew up. We just have more of them in the South. Or we're more willing to eat something that crawled out from underneath a rock in the brook at the back of our property. 

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The recipe is pretty straightforward.  I throw small, new red potatoes in a pot of simmering water, along with a bit of salt. They take the longest to cook, so I leave them be for a bit. After 30 minutes or so, I add chunks of andouille and smoked sausage, along with a pack of creole seasoning, which includes paprika, garlic powder, onion powder and some cayenne pepper. 

After ten more minutes or so, I throw in corn (frozen is fine). And in the last ten minutes, I add crawfish.  

I had ordered 20lbs (serving 40-50 people, along with other sides and goodies), and ended up having to do the crawfish in two parts. My lobster pot is big, but not that big. 

It's one of the easiest things to serve.

Step 1) Spread out paper, and scoop out the crawfish and everything else from the pot. 

Step 2) Stand around and eat. 

You're going for the tail meat in a crawfish. Unless you get the occasional monster, there's nothing worthwhile in the claw. Snap the little guy in half, and pop that tail out, and chow down. If you're brave enough, you can 'suck the head' - pulling out the juices from the front half. 

I toss a big pot on the table to collect all the shells - they'll go to the chickens, who enjoy the heck out of the treat. The rest of the goodies on the table (corn, potatoes, and sausage) make for nice treats in amongst the crawfish. 

We ended up with a perfect day for the event. It was a rare 80 degree day in May, for Maine. Perfect blue skies, and plenty of cold beer. And a lot of good conversation. We had most of our neighbors pop round, and several treasured old friends from Massachusetts, as well as a few new colleagues. 

The kids ran around until they were exhausted. The adventurous ones trying the crawfish. Our gardens are just really coming back to life, and we kept the iced tea and lemonade and ready to refresh the kids for another round of whatever game they were playing. 

Even though it was 80+ during the day, as soon as the sun touched the tops of the trees the temperature started to drop. The house came with a huge, fantastic cauldron that doubles as a fire pit as needed. 

Such a perfect day to have folks over, and an easy party to throw any time.

It's definitely starting to feel like an actual home now. 

 

Coppa & Collards

Way back at the beginning of the year, some of our friends approached us to ask if we'd donate a dinner to the school fundraiser.  The non-profit association that raised money threw a party every year, and one of the highlights was always the auction. People donated a week at a cabin they had, or tickets from their season pass that they weren't going to use. One local orthodontist always donates a complete braces workup. That's worth lots of $$, and always draws in a good set of bids. 

Some of us have fewer things to offer, but we're always up for a good meal. And so when asked, we suggested a couple of different menus that might be fun for a dinner party. We suggested a Filipino meal might be fun - a la the tasting menu we had done last fall for some friends. Or, since we do love the charcuterie, I sketched out a literal 'farm-to-table-and-the-farm-is-about-200-feet-from-this-table' menu, drawing on both the meaty-experiments we had going in the cellar, and my Southern roots.

We called it "Coppa & Collards" 

The committee selected the latter, and my Bride and I had fun fleshing out the menu. 

For the auction, we sat back in awe and watched the bidding start. Fortunately for us, it was stacked in the back half of the auction, when people had gotten into the rhythm of the event. (and after the wine had been flowing). It got some good interest. And then suddenly, the bids took off. A group of our friends had taken up a collection, and started bidding in earnest. 

$1,100.

$1,200.

$1,700.

I think in the end it went for nearly $2,000. 

It wasn't the meal. It was the cause that our friends were giving money to. The school, and some badly needed technology and other things that would make the next generation smarter, more prepared, better dressed. I don't know. I was flabbergasted by the amount of money that was just raised. I was overwhelmed by the expectations that came with preparing a meal for ten at a price a top restaurant could command. From the things (and animals) we grew in our backyard. 

I leaned over to one of our friends and said, "You know, you could just come over to our house and we'll cook for you pretty much anytime you want. Right?"

"It's for a good cause," she said. 

Good cause, sure. But now I felt a new level of pressure. This meal had to be epic

We had specified in the description that the meal would be arranged at mutual convenience, sometime in the late summer. We'd host the meal at our home, and we wanted to take advantage of the harvest & the weather, and the abundant bounty coming out of the garden in August. 

We didn't know it at the time, of course, but a) we'd be in for a beautiful summer in Massachusetts, and b) I was going to decide to take a new job in a new state just about this time.  This was the last party we'd throw in our Massachusetts home. In fact, we ended up scheduling this party for the evening before I was to start my new job outside of Portland, Maine. 

Hey. What's a little pressure between friends? 

I brought the dining table and our chairs out to the backyard. What the hell. The packers were coming a couple of days later. We figured we'd pull out all the stops for this one. 

It was later in the summer, so I strung vintage-style lights through the yard to provide lighting for the evening, and we started working up the menu. 

We wanted to highlight the lovely flavors and combinations of some of our favorite treats. This was going to be a tasting menu. But we planned enough different tastes that we knew no one was going to walk away hungry. 

We welcomed our guests with a cup of peach gazpacho made from fruit that had ripened about 15 feet from the table. (I've shared the recipe previously here) 

I had been curing several different cuts for varying lengths of time, and I was excited to share this with our friends.

From left to right, that's lardo di colannata (rich, pure pork fat cured in a marble box), a classic prosciutto, two coppa and a lamb prosciutto.  The prosciutto had been curing for two years in my cellar. 

Maybe it was better that this was a meal for friends. You tend to feel pretty emotional about any piece of meat that's been hanging for that long in your basement. 

The coppa is made from a cut from the top of the shoulder - it's a fantastic part of the pig, with a beautiful marbling throughout. I had never made this before, but Mike & Maureen, my butchers, had gushed that I had to when they finished processing last year's peanut-raised pigs. The fat was rich and sweet, and slicing into these, I was super glad I followed their advice. 

Our first course was a sampling of charcuterie, served along side some fresh pickled vegetables from our garden - beets, okra & green beans -  and a boiled peanut & tahini edamame. 

It was a great start. We served these on slate tiles - everyone got their own, and they came back clean. 

Comparing the gamey lamb prosciutto to the sweetness of the pork, and balancing with the vinegar bite of pickled veg. I could have made a meal of just this. 

But we moved on.  We had balanced the menu to alternate our traditional Italian favorites with our more Southern dishes. 

Next up was an arugula salad with fresh radish & a pimento cheese dressing,  a cup of shrimp & grits & fried green tomatoes.  Both the salad and the grits were tossed with a scattering of home-cured pancetta, fried crispy. 

Frying green tomatoes up in cornmeal is such a perfect way to use up the surplus tomato crop towards the end of the season (or in my case, a great way to get some value out of the tomato plants that were struggling to recover from the attacks of the local deer population). And the eggs, of course, had come from our hens, and had that bright, golden yolk of chickens raised on good food and allowed to range freely. 

As an interlude, we had prepared another one of our favorite treats - roast beef bone marrow. served alongside a bright, citrusy gremolata and roast cauliflower - it's something that I order pretty much anytime I find it on a menu.

 

We hadn't been able to source bones sliced lengthways (that requires a pretty good bandsaw at a butcher, and Mike's had broken down), but even served this way, along with a little spoon to scoop the lovely marrow out as a spread for the toast, it was a hit.  

As our main, we had set aside a crown roast of pork from our backyard-raised pigs (it was Honeydew, to be specific). It was lovely and rich, and set off by collard greens harvest from our garden, and apple sauce we made from the last batch of apples we'd pick from our house in Massachusetts. 

There's something about pork & apples that work so well. And we served our collards along with a bottle of white vinegar we had marinated our crop of peppers in for a spicy kick, for the more adventurous. Our daughter, the Critter (who had helped us plate all of these dishes for our guests and was a perfect server through the night) won't eat collards without that fiery vinegar. 

That girl has good taste. 

We finished the evening with a simple desert of peach cobbler (again - the last we'd pick from our little Massachusetts orchard) and fresh, homemade buttermilk ice cream. 

My Bride and I (and the Critter) had acted as servers all night - for the money our friends had raised for the evening & the school, we wanted them to have the perfect experience, and enjoyed plating and serving each course, along with the explanation of what they were eating and where it had come from. 

All of our friends who know us well know how much we enjoy sharing our passions of good food & good conversation, and this let us combine them into an absolutely lovely evening. 

For desert, we pulled up chairs of our own and joined the group to share some final bites and laughs for the evening. 

As a last party in the home that we had loved and invited so many of our friends to enjoy over the years, it was a picture-perfect, blissful evening that will stand out in our memory as a favorite. 

And we'd do it all over again without charging a penny. 

Kain Na - A Filipino tasting menu

Last night, we hosted dinner for a few friends. We had been talking about doing this for a while - but we had always hesitated at the menu. We tend to go for more family style, buffet or pot-luck gatherings, where we all stand around and chat.  But winter is long, and we wanted to inject a little sociability into the snow-laden months. So we set a large table, and started coming up with ideas. 

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We had been inspired by watching a couple of older episodes of the Bravo competition cooking show Top Chef - a couple of seasons ago, a Hawaiian chef named Sheldon Simeon had shown off his Filipino heritage and cooking skills. 

I keep waiting for Filipino food to be 'discovered'. Outside of a couple of enclaves in California (or a friendly Filipino home), it can be really hard to find.  Filipino food isn't like Chinese food, or Thai, or Vietnamese. Except it has elements of commonality with all of them. As well as a heavy Spanish and even American influence from the colonial periods. 

It's heavy on thin, tart & vinegary sauces, on seafood and pork - proteins readily available across the islands, and on combinations that show off the fusion that have defined the Philippines for hundreds of years. 

We put together a few of our favorites into a menu, and sent it out to some of our adventurous friends. 

'Kain na' is the first Tagalog phrase I learned when I started dating my Bride. Her mom said it every time I visited. 

It means "Eat now".  

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In a moment of inspiration, I cut the pages out of old paper grocery bags to print the menu - we had to get a little balikbayan brown in there. Along with embroidered, woven placemats we brought back from Manila and an authentic Barrel Boy, we had our place setting. The only things missing were the ubiquitous giant wooden fork & spoon and a carved, 3-d wooden Last Supper. But we made do.  

Preparing some of the dishes took a bit of effort.  One of the desserts required fresh grated coconut. My Bride found a kudkuran online - it's a little oblong stool with a viciously serrated metal end for scraping out the inside of a fresh coconut. After a few example strokes, she assigned me the rest of the task. I managed to scrape a few fingertips into the bowl as well on my first coconut before I figured out how to operate the simple set up in safety. 

But hey, at least I wasn't wearing dark socks & crocks... 

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Our guests were a mix of local folks and foodies. We knew they all were up for just about anything, but we still started easy for the appetizer. Lumpia - a little fried spring roll, stuffed with ground pork, shrimp and water chestnuts and a pork BBQ skewer.

The pork is marinated in soy sauce, garlic, and that Ancient Filipino Secret: 7-Up.  I don't know what the hell they were marinating their pigs in before the GIs showed up with 7-up, but the sugar and carbonation do something wonderful to the pork, tenderizing and caramelizing the meat.

We served them with banana ketchup (made from real bananas) and sukaang maasim - a spicy, palm vinegar marinated with chilies. I could eat this stuff forever.

This vinegar alone is a reason to seek out your nearest Filipino and force them to hand over their stash. It is the superhero of vinegars. It kicks the ass of every other vinegar you have in your cabinet and then is called to City Hall by the Mayor, to be awarded the key to the city, putting all the other normal vinegars to shame.

You will thank me for this information later, when you have tried it. 

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I was disappointed that I couldn't offer some Filipino beer to go along with dinner. For something like lumpia, it's the perfect accompaniment. But there's only one beer made or served in the Philippines - San Miguel. And I mean, unless you're in a fancy hotel someplace where a lot of tourists hit, that's the only beer that's available. If you're lucky, the restaurant might have both the standard San Miguel pilsen and their slightly darker San Miguel 'Red Horse' label. But the nearest six pack of San Miguel to our town is more than 150 miles away, someplace near New York. So we settled with some pretty good Mexican lager or white wine as substitute offerings.

For the soup, we started pushing the boundaries a little. This is sinagang na isda - a tamarind based soup with salmon, mustard greens, daikon radish, onion and tomatoes.  The broth is light, clear and fragrant. 

Tamarind is a sweet/sour pod - you can pull out the stringy, sticky innards to make a paste found from Thailand to Mexico. But this dish elevates it somehow - it's at once homey (it's the kind of soup your mother-in-law makes for you when you're not feeling well) and elegant. There are only 5 or 6 ingredients in the soup, but it is complex and to be savored. 

I knew we were doing well when every bowl came back empty. 

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For our main, we plated three separate tastes. Two classics - pork adobo and pancit bihon (the noodles), and a third crab-and-squash dish stewed in coconut milk that is mind blowingly good. 

Adobo (in the middle) is probably the most famous of all the dishes that have made it out of the Philippines. If you've tried one thing, it's probably this. Often made with chicken (though I prefer pork), the meat is braised in a soy sauce & vinegar combination. Sometimes flavored with a little achiote, garlic or other seasoning, it's straight forward and delicious. 

The guinitaang kalabasa stew has a base of squash and coconut milk, with lump crab meat stirred in to heat through. Both of these are served with steamed rice. They're alive with hearty, smoothly tangy flavors. 

The noodle dish is your standard Filipino family party fare. I've never seen pancit bihon cooked and served in quantities that wouldn't serve a small army. It's rice stick noodles, stir fried vegetables, chicken, soy sauce and patis (fish sauce).  Topped with scallions, slices of boiled egg and a tiny fresh squeezed citrus called calamansi. It's kind of the pad thai of the Philippines - it's street food, with a hundred variations, but all the same basic core.  

 The Critter learned to make this dish from her Lola (grandmother) on the last visit, and the pancit was her contribution to the party. 

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That, and we had her help plate. It was an adults-only dinner. It sounds awful unless you're a parent. But if you are a parent, you may remember that there was a time before children when you sat with other adults and enjoyed a meal without constant interruptions for more juice/the bathroom/I dropped my napkin/the bathroom/why isn't our food here yet/can you cut my food for me/the bathroom. 

So we set the Boy up with a movie to watch, and paid the Critter a few extra bucks to be helping hands in the kitchen and help plate each course. She loved it, and was proud of the art of each setting she was able to have fun with. 

And we got a dinner with other adults and fewer bathroom breaks. Everybody wins. 

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Finally, dessert was a trio of my Bride's favorites:  Leche flan - a Filipino spin on a Spanish classic.  Pitsi-Pitsi - a flattened patty of steamed, grated cassava & sugar dredged in coconut. And her absolute favorite, Halo-Halo, which translates literally as 'Mix-Mix'. 

The pitsi-pitsi recipe she used was her aunt's, who replaces the cassava with glutinous rice. The coconut came from the grating efforts we had done earlier in the day on the kudkuran. I'm glad to say that none of the pitsi-pitsi was stained pink despite my poor, damaged hands. 

Halo-Halo is a mix of shaved ice (you can see the Critter scooping it up in the picture above), with slices of jackfruit, cubes of grass-jelly, sweet red beans, toasted rice, ube - a sweet purple yam - and some kind of syrup, condensed milk and maybe some avocado or coconut ice cream. Or that Barney-purple ube ice cream if you can get it.  (We settled for coconut.)

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Each course was a hit - by the time we cleared the last plate, every one was full and smiling, and slow to push their chairs back from the table. A good sign. We were pretty sure that everyone found some new things that they liked during dinner. 

I don't know when Filipino food will catch on mainstream here in the US. But until it does, I'm glad that I, at least, have a good source to keep satisfying my cravings!