Sunday, August 29, 2010

Jessie Taylor Seafood -- Maine Avenue Fish Market

To Die For: giant freshwater prawns

The place The Maine Avenue Fish Market – down at the District’s southwest waterfront – has added a much needed seating area adjacent to its floating stalls. No longer do customers have to hurry home with their perishable purchases or find an alternate place to picnic – now you can eat freshly shucked oysters or crabs steamed just for you right there on the water. This is a good sign: the ongoing redevelopment of the waterfront (it’s just down the street from Nationals stadium) is slated to extend all the way to the end of Maine Avenue, and the fate of the open air fish market has been uncertain. Presumably the investment in the seating area is an indication that the market will stay – or is designed to build popular support for it. Either way, it seems that the vendors have a shot at prevailing once again.
The Maine Avenue market is the oldest continuously operating fish market in the United States, but its identity has changed over time. Originally housed in a 19th century building near the current location, the vendors resisted an earlier urban renewal project in the 1960s, and although the building was razed, an open air market was built within a few blocks to allow them to stay on. That’s when the floating barges were introduced. They are a tribute to the original system of shipping fish up the Virginia coast to the market on the same boats on which they were caught. But they are onIy a tribute: by the 1960s, refrigerated trucking had become a more efficient way of delivering seafood, and with it came the ability to offer a wider selection than the local catch. Not long after, refrigerated trucking was followed by refrigerated air freight and access to markets around the globe. So, although the Maine Avenue market is firmly anchored in local history, the seafood on offer is not necessarily freshly caught in nearby waters.

The pleasure At Jessie Taylor Seafood, one of the vendors at the market, I discovered the beauteous giant freshwater shrimp, and immediately thought of them as a vehicle for prawns peri-peri. For those of you who read my Nando’s post, you know how much I love chicken peri-peri, and I hold prawns peri-peri in similar, mind-blowing, esteem. In South Africa, the dish is ideally made with the regionally renowned Mozambique prawns, also known as L.M. prawns after the former colonial capital, Lourenço Marques. (Marques was a 16th century Portuguese explorer). What gave me the idea to substitute the giant freshwater shrimp for Mozambique prawns – despite the fact that the latter are marine rather than river creatures – was that in both cases their sheer size suggests lobster or langoustine more than anything else. Jessie had already removed the heads and deveined them, though the shell had been left on. This was good, because as I remembered it, peri peri prawns are cooked in the shell. At home with Jessie’s giant shrimp – 3 per person seemed more than enough -- I set about preparing them the way my father used to: pan-fried in peri-peri oil (turned red from having had chili peppers steeped in it) and served over rice. Okay, so I did add a few touches of my own. I seasoned with Nando’s peri-peri spice rub and added some white wine to deglaze the pan right at the end. I was thrilled with the result: the fiery flavor was just as I remembered it, and the fresh sweetness of the lobster-like mollusk was a heavenly vehicle. I even scarfed up the rice, which in most other dishes remains ignored on my plate. More complicated recipes for prawns peri-peri do exist, for example this one offered by the South African food festival in Richmond; it’s up to you how much time and effort you are in the mood for putting in.

The peril This is where it gets more complicated. Once I had gotten past the delight of reconnecting with a childhood favorite, I decided to dig a little into the provenance of the giant shrimp. I had never really thought much about where shrimp came from but something about the exotic size of these made me want to know more about them. It turns out that the vast majority of shrimp consumed in the U.S. are imported from South and Southeast Asia and Latin America, and the vendor at Jessie Taylor (in the picture above) identified their source as Indonesia and Bangladesh. Researching these shrimp on the net, red flags jumped out all over the place: the shrimp farms constructed in Asia to feed global (especially U.S.) demand are reported to destroy mangrove forests and other coastal wetlands. But there seems to be a differing of opinion: the FAO maintains that freshwater shrimp farms do not endanger mangroves, and in general have less ecological impact, including fewer problems with salination. The Environmental Defense Fund, by contrast, does not distinguish the freshwater variety from other imported shrimp and steers consumers instead towards the small domestic industry (mostly in Oregon and Canada) which has stricter environmental standards and qualifies as their “eco-best” choice. Still, improvements have been happening abroad as well, and in the end it all comes down to the specific supply chains. In this sense, Jessie Taylor Seafood and other vendors at the Maine Avenue Fish Market are no different from other area vendors in terms of the standards they apply when selecting suppliers. Greenpeace has prepared a scorecard that rates the standards used by D.C. supermarkets. None rates higher than 6 on a scale of 1-10. And you may be surprised by who the leader is!

Photo credits: Chris Svoboda

Jessie Taylor Seafood on Urbanspoon

Friday Night Tomato Sauce

(The Virgin and the Whore)

There is something so voluptuous about August-ripe tomatoes, pan-simmered in olive oil and lots of garlic. Lacking basil, I cast around for other ingredients, and found the makings of a puttanesca sauce: olives, capers, and green chili pepper, everything except for the anchovies. I have always been ambivalent about puttanesca. The reality is, the combination of all these strong flavors can be sort of acrid, not a good counterpoint to the fresh sweetness that could otherwise be mine. This time, I decided to respect my ambivalence, and add only small amounts of each. The result: tomato, garlic and olive oil predominated in their summer freshness. The other ingredients: only to titillate.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Inspired by Mark Bittman

The Minimalist Meets His Her Match

Mark Bittman is a hero of mine. Many of my most successful meals can be traced back to his Minimalist column, and my recipe collection is stacked with cuttings from it. People say that I am a great cook, but really what I am good at is spotting great ideas, and The Minimalist is a font of those. My attraction for this style is not so much the ease of preparation, as much as his innovative attention to the pairing of complementary flavors, so that, using a minimum of ingredients, he can create a dish of understated elegance.

Chris has a different approach to cooking. In her eyes, I like to tease her, Mark Bittman is the Antichrist. This is because I have never met more of a “more is more” foodie than Chris. It’s as if she views ingredients as having a multiplier effect on taste, while I am trying to balance an equation. For example, presented with home canned pears, Chris will marinate them in apple juice with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, throw in some apple jack brandy for good measure, then grill them and drizzle with the canning fluid that has been reduced with extra orange zest and a bit of milk to make it creamy. All of this will be served over a cinnamon crumpet. (For more about this creation, and about Chris’ approach to food, see Brian Blaho’s brilliant rendition in his story Pills). But for minimalists like me, this plethora, even redundancy, of ingredients is a bit overwhelming. How can you ever find those delicious pears that are submerged in there somewhere? It’s like with bagels and lox. If I am getting a bagel and lox with the works, no way am I going to get it on an everything bagel. “The works” and the “everything” compete too much against each other. Chris, on the other hand, would not dream of getting anything else.

This basic difference between us is reflected in the way we have furnished our respective homes, too. Mine has clean lines, each piece chosen with care and arranged in a way that each gives the other lots of space to be itself. I have only the number of glasses, plates, and silverware I need, and they are respectively: clear, black and white, or grey. Chris is a collector. An eclectic collector. Her house is filled with furniture, ornaments, and kitchen gadgets that she has amassed, all rubbing up against each other. She has a collection of glasses that range from antique ruby red goblets she inherited from her Italian grandmother to brightly colored perspex tumblers found on sale at Target. Somehow it all makes sense in her space, and I feel at peace being there, as she finds relief in mine. At the same time we sort of marvel at each other’s insanity.

Where we have common ground is in grilling. Chris loves to grill, and this preparation lends itself to the simple seasonings and spices that I favor. Here is a recent menu I put together, with me seasoning and Chris executing:

 Corn grilled directly on the flame, topped with olive oil, salt, and torn basil leaves. This was inspired by The Minimalist’s July 28 column. In his version, Bittman calls for parmesan cheese as well as the olive oil and basil, but I left this out and added salt instead. It turns out corn and basil work fantastically together, and I will be forever grateful to The Minimalist for this one.

Porterhouse steaks, seasoned with “Something South African” Sweet and Smoky spice rub. Chris discovered this rub at Marshall’s, and while I am generally suspicious of store- bought spice blends, in this case I can vouch for its authenticity: it is the closest that I have found to replicating the flavor of the South African braais of my childhood. If you can’t find it, you can always make up a batch yourself, using sea salt, garlic, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, cumin, ginger, garlic oil, chili, and sugar, and use wood chips in your fire. We would always make some version of this from scratch when I was growing up, braaing over wood fires.

No frills grilled asparagus

Bellingham Cabernet Sauvignon The hearty porterhouse, particularly in this zesty version, calls for a big wine. I paired it with the Bellingham, a South African wine which is not widely imported, but which I stumbled on at Libbie Market (formerly Joe’s Market) in Richmond, VA. If anyone knows of a DC source for this, please let me know!

Ciao Bella Key Lime Graham gelato. Truly, Ciao Bella gelatos render me speechless, and this flavor was no exception.

For the occasion, Chris brought out her gold and white Plaza plates with a big P in the middle that she picked up at the hotel’s fire sale, and her silver pedestal ice cream dishes from eBay.

This post is dedicated to Dr. Joseph Svoboda, Chris’ dad, who passed away a few days before we had this meal. Brian talks about him in his story too.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Nando's Peri Peri

Dish to Die For: peri-peri chicken; Adega white wine

I love Nando’s. It almost seems superfluous to blog about it, because just about everyone I know already loves the place. And pretty much the only thing they serve is flame grilled chicken, so it’s not like I can pick out that one thing that they do so well. But eating at Nando’s is always a peak moment for me, and so it deserves a place in my small piece of cyber real estate.

Walking into the place is a happy experience. World music is swirling around, vaguely connecting diners to the Afro-European roots of the peri peri chili pepper. The mood in each of the locations is a bit different: busy and bustling downtown; a bit more off-beat in Dupont, with just a few wide rough wooden tables in front and some booths crammed in at the back between the counter and the wall. Still, although it is pleasing to walk in to, once I am settled down with my meal, all of that fades away, both the sound and the décor. It’s as if my focus on the chicken takes up all my sensory capacity. Losing track of everything else, I become one with the complex of flavors, all the way down to the bone. I like to get the ½ chicken with two sides ($11.85). Usually I get cole slaw, and then, depending on how uptight I am feeling about calories, either the baked squash or the fries. These accompaniments are themselves very good. But it is the chicken that is sublime. Spiced to the temperature you like (mild, medium or hot), it is fiery, sweet, and wood-smoky, all at the same time. The marinade has penetrated deep inside the chicken, and there is really no need to use the extra sauce that is available over by the silverware (which you have to pick up yourself, after you place your order at the counter). Sometimes I even feel that the extra sauce takes away from the dish, masking its perfectness. On the other hand, if you want to heighten the experience, try pairing it with the Adega, a Portuguese white wine whose fruity dryness contrasts beautifully with the fiery chicken (it’s second on the list of white wines). Bliss!

Central Asia Farewell

Surprisingly for a no-frills place, the Dupont location has a second floor loft which is quite suitable for hosting dinners. The room to the right of the staircase has a private feel to it, with low lighting, wine-racks lining the walls, and wooden ceiling beams. Once, looking to stretch a lean non-profit budget, I organized a farewell dinner there for a group visiting from Central Asia. Just a few days before, I had hosted the welcome dinner at my home. I had prepared my acclaimed 4 bean chili (kidney, cannellini, garbanzo and black bean), simmered in a pint of guinness, and rounded out by a square of chocolate. For toppings I had lime-marinated avocado, cilantro, pitted black olives, and freshly grated cheddar cheese. The dish had worked famously for my non-meat eating Indian colleagues, and I opted for it again given that I had to consider my vegetarian boss, who had also been invited. Big mistake. What for me had seemed an exciting spin on an American classic, for my visitors was merely rice and beans: meatless, and therefore, mundane. Nando’s, then, was my chance to make up for this. I ordered two jumbo platters of chicken and an assortment of sides, and they arrived piled high and sumptuous looking. I sensed a silent cheer go up. Or perhaps it was me, cheering myself for getting back on the right path. We ate; we drank; we made toasts. At the end of the evening, it was gratifying when Nikolai Lukyanov, the elder statesman of the group, asked for a doggy bag to take home the remaining pieces, even after eating his fill. High praise from a meat-loving Kyrgyz.

Nando's Peri-Peri on Urbanspoon

Nando's Peri-Peri on Urbanspoon