Saturday, June 5, 2010

Some of my All-Time Favorites


Are you ready?  I hope so, because today’s post is filled with all kinds of delicious goodness.  Some of my all-time favorites…  An incredibly tasty cocktail.  A truly special spring delicacy, soft-shell crab (made even more special by dressing it up as a BLT).  Two of my favorite go-to salads (seriously, I make both of them, all the time).  And what is possibly my most absolute favorite dessert ever, anywhere – strawberry shortcake. 

Cucumber-Lime-Mint Cocktails
Soft-Shell Crab BLT’s
Golden Beets with Green Beans and Goat Cheese
Endive-Avocado Salad
Strawberry Shortcake

Knowing that dinner itself was going to be exceptionally awesome, I didn’t want us to spoil our appetites with hors d’oeuvres or appetizers.  And that’s how this lovely-sounding cucumber-lime-mint cocktail came into the picture.  (Oh yeah, along with me and Ben, the owners of these aforementioned appetites were none other than our favorite neighbors, and your favorite S.C. regulars, Downstairs Matt & Sarah.) 

And how truly lovely this cocktail turned out to be.  Smooth, cool cucumber juice, an even chillier zing of fresh mint, and a tart, citrusy surge of lime juice.  The flavors are so clean, so refreshing.  Invigorating even.  Like a nourishing elixir of cool serenity.  Ignoring the vodka (which is pretty easy to do – Its bitter bite all but vanishes in the cool green juice), it could be way too easy to convince yourself that it was healthy even, actually good for you.  Deliciously good for you.  Wow, these I think could be dangerous! 

Cucumbers, Limes & Mint 
Now, onto the star of the show!  (No wait, not the whole show, but just the first act.  And we’ll call the Strawberry Shortcake the star of the second.)  So, onto the soft shell crab. 

Soft Shell Crab

A quick tutorial:  ‘Soft-shell’ refers to a crab (in particular, a variety called Blue crab) that has just recently undergone the molting process.  As with all crustaceans, a crab’s shell doesn’t grow.  As the crab itself gets bigger and bigger, its hard outer shell stays the same size.  At a certain point, the fit becomes too snug, so the crab sheds its shell in a process called molting, and then begins to grows another one.  In the meantime though, the crab remains shell-less.  Which is great news for us.  Because, for a few short days after molting, before it has a chance to harden up its shell, we can eat the crab whole, soft shell and all.  Cool, right?!

Molting is a pretty seasonal thing, so you’re way more likely to find soft-shell crabs in the spring.  Actually, right about now is the perfect time.  And they won’t be around for much longer.  So get ‘em quick!  To me at least, this limited-time availability only adds to the coolness of soft-shell crabs.  I never eat more than probably one a year.  So any day I do, automatically seems like a holiday. 

Soft Shell Crab BLT

You don’t have to do much to soft-shell crabs.  They’re pretty glorious all on their own.  But I’ve always been pretty fond of having them as sandwiches.  It’s a sentimental thing.  Always reminds me of this one perfect Saturday afternoon, not too long after Ben and I met, in a quaint little New York town whose name I can’t remember.  After experiencing unusually good luck at a library book sale, and before taking a sunny drive home through hilly upstate, we happened upon a little fish market with a chalkboard out front reading “we have soft-shells”.  I pulled Ben inside (it was his first ever soft-shell crab, so he couldn’t yet understand the excitement) and we ordered two sandwiches.  What we got couldn’t have been simpler.  Fried soft-shells on sliced white burger buns with mayo and shredded lettuce, served in a paper baskets.  Nothing fancy about it, but oh my goodness, we were in heaven.  And every year since then, we’ve made sure to get our hands on soft-shell crab sandwiches. 

This year’s sandwich was slightly more involved than this first one.  But just slightly.  To the mayo and lettuce we added slices of ripe, red tomatoes and bacon.  And oh yes, the bun was buttered and toasted.  Altogether though, still pretty simple.  Still completely heaven.  But maybe even just a little bit better. 

Soft Shell Crab BLT's 
As I said above, the salads I served this night were two of my all-time favorite standby sides.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve made them.  Both are pretty quick and simple to whip up.  Plus, they’re delicious and pretty, and have just a touch of that special something that sets them aside from your average salad.  The first is nothing more than crunchy endive and creamy avocado, brought together by an all too easy lemon vinaigrette.  The second may take a little extra effort, but just a little.  And the combination of the earthy golden beets, sweet green beans, tangy goat cheese and herb-flecked dressing makes it all worth the extra minutes of kitchen work.  The end result would even be worth a few hours of hard work, if you ask me. 

Endive-Avocado SaladGolden Beet Salad

Now for the grand finale, the strawberry shortcake.  I found some of the season’s first local strawberries at the farmers market that morning.  So juicy and small and sweet and red, they’re like a completely different species from the strawberries you find year-round in the grocery store.  I made a fresh and simple sauce by tossing sliced strawberries with a touch of sugar.  As the mixture sits a room temperature, the berries let off their juices and create their own sweet, sticky sauce.  The biscuit recipe is another one of my favorite standbys, from an old copy of Cook’s Illustrated.  Tried and true over and again, this gives me perfect biscuits every time, flaky and buttery, tops glistening with sugar.  Pulled in half, and topped with the strawberries, they soak up the juice, becoming deliciously soggy.  The final touch, whipped cream.  Need I say more?!  Really, strawberry shortcake is pure, utter perfection.  And on this particular night, it was so incredibly good, I made more of it the next night too.  And we at it – just it – for dinner.  Mmmm, now that I think of it, maybe I’ll do that again tonight!


Cucumber-Lime-Mint Cocktails
Serves 4
Cucumber-Lime-Mint Cocktails 
2 English cucumbers (the long skinny ones that come wrapped in plastic)
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves, plus 4 sprigs for garnish
1 Tbl sugar
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (from 2-3 limes)
ice cubes
1/2 cup vodka
Slice 4 thin wedge-shaped spears from one cucumber.  Each spear should be a couple inches higher than the glass you’ll be serving the cocktail in.  (You won’t need the entire cucumber.) 
Quarter the remaining cucumbers lengthwise, then scrape out the seeds.  Coarsely chop the cucumbers, then puree in a food processor until very smooth.  Strain through a fine mesh sieve, pressing down a bit on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible.  This cucumber juice can be prepared about four hours ahead and kept refrigerated. 
Fill a cocktail shaker with the mint leaves, sugar, lime juice and a handful of ice cubes.  Give it a good, thorough shake.  Add the vodka and 1 cup cucumber juice and shake again.  Strain into 4 glasses, filled with ice cubes.  Garnish each glass with a cucumber spear and a sprig of mint.

Soft-Shell Crab BLT’s
Makes 4 sandwiches
Soft Shell Crab  BLT   
For the fried crab(adapted from Gourmet, April 2001)
4 soft shell crabs
2 large eggs, whisked
2 cups buttermilk
1 Tbl kosher salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
about 1 1/2 quart vegetable oil (1 bottle)
Prep the crab: Using kitchen shears, cut off the crab’s face (sorry, there’s no nice way to say that), cutting about 1/4-inch behind the eyes.  Gently pull up one side of the soft upper shell, leaving it intact, and pull out the spongy gills lying underneath.  Repeat on the other side.  Turn the crab over, and cut off the triangle shaped belly flap.  Rinse the crab with cool water and pat dry.
Combine the eggs, buttermilk, 1 tablespoon salt and 1 tsp pepper in a medium-sized mixing bowl.  Whisk to combine.  Add the crabs, and submerge beneath the buttermilk mixture.  Cover with plastic wrap and chill 1 hour in the refrigerator.
Pour the oil into a four-quart pot.  The oil should be about two inches deep, and there should be at least four inches space between the top of the oil and the top of the pot.  Over medium-high heat, heat the oil to 350ᵒF.
Whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder and 1/2 tsp salt.  Transfer to a large zip-lock plastic bag.  Lift a single crab out of the buttermilk mixture, and allow the excess liquid to drip off.  Add the crab to the bag and shake to coat it with flour.  Knock off excess flour and transfer the crab to a wire rack placed over a sheet tray.  Repeat with the rest of the crabs.
Deep-fry the crabs, two at a time, turning over halfway through frying, until cooked through and golden brown, about 4-5 minutes.  Then lift the crabs out of the oil with a slotted spoon, and drain them on paper towels.  Continue to check the temperature of the oil throughout the cooking process, and adjust the heat to raise or lower the temperature to around 35oᵒF.  Return the oil to 35oᵒF before deep-frying the second batch of crab.
For the sandwiches:
4 great-quality hamburger buns
1/2 stick butter, melted
1 head butter lettuce (i.e. Boston Bibb lettuce)
8 slices bacon, cooked
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 ripe tomatoes, sliced
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven broiler and arrange a rack in the top half of the oven.  Slice the buns in half cross-wise.  Arrange the buns, cut side-up on a baking sheet, and brush them with the melted butter.  Broil until crisp and golden brown.
Spread about 1 tablespoon mayonnaise on each top bun.  Arrange 1 to 2 medium-sized lettuce leaves over each bottom bun.  Then arrange 2 slices of bacon on top of the lettuce.  Place a fried crab on top of the bacon, and then 1 to 2 tomato slices on top of the crab.  Sprinkle with a little bit of salt and pepper, and top with the mayonnaise-slathered top bun. Serve immediately.
Golden Beets with Green Beans and Goat Cheese
Adapted from Martha Stewart Living Magazine, July 2008
Serves 6
Golden Beet Salad with Green Beans & Goat Cheese
4 large or 6 medium golden beets
6 oz French green beans (they’re a bit skinnier than regular green beans)
2 Tbl white wine vinegar
2 Tbl minced shallots
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbl finely chopped basil
2 oz goat cheese, crumbled
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Prepare the beets: Add beets to a large saucepot and cover with water.  Bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the beets are tender, about 30-45 minutes.  The beets are done when you can easily slide a paring knife through the center, without hardly having to push at all.  Drain the beets from the water, and allow to cool at room temperature for about 5-10 minutes.  Peel the beets and trim off the tops and bottoms. You should be able to easily peel the skins off the beets with your fingers.  If not, use a paring knife.  Slice the beets into half-inch cubes.  Reserve.
Prepare the green beans: Bring a large pot of salted water to a vigorous boil.  (Add enough salt so that the water tastes like the ocean.)  Add the trimmed green beans and boil until tender, about 2-3 minutes. Drain in a colander, then immediately plunge the beans into ice water.  Allow the beans to cool in the ice water, about 1 minute, then thoroughly drain. Slice cross-wise in halves or thirds.  Reserve. 
Make the vinaigrette:  In a small mixing bowl, combine the vinegar, shallots and mustard.  Season with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Whisk together, then slowly add the olive oil, pouring in a thin stream and whisking as you pour.  Reserve.
Assemble the salad:  In a large mixing bowl, combine the diced beets and the sliced green beans.  Sprinkle the chopped basil over the vegetables, then season with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Drizzle with the vinaigrette, then toss to coat.  Transfer the salad to the serving dish, then crumble the goat cheese over the top.  Serve at room temperature. 

Endive-Avocado Salad
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties! by Ina Garten
Serves 4
Here’s the best part about this salad:  As you mix it all together, the avocado starts to soften up a little bit and almost dissolve at its edges, like it’s melting into the vinaigrette.  It makes everything all smooth and creamy.  Dreamy, really.
Endive-Avocado Salad
1 Tbl Dijon mustard
1/4 cup lemon juice (from about 2 lemons)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 heads of endive
2 ripe avocados, peeled and seeded
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Make the vinaigrette: In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the mustard, lemon juice, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Slowly add the olive oil, pouring in a thin stream and whisking as you pour.  Reserve.
Slice off about a half inch from the stem-end of the endive.  Pull loose any leaves that are not attached to the inner core.  Slice off another half inch from the bottom end of the core, and again pull loose any non-attached leaves.  Repeat until only a small, solid core remains.  Discard the core.  Slice the leaves into 1-inch pieces.  Slice the avocados into about 1/2-inch cubes. 
Place the sliced endive and avocado in a medium-sized mixing bowl.  Drizzle with the vinaigrette and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Toss to combine.  Serve immediately.

Strawberry Shortcake
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, May 1997
Serves 6
Strawberry Shortcake 
For the biscuits:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbl baking powder
3 Tbl plus 2 Tbl sugar, divided
1 stick unsalted butter, frozen
1 large egg, beaten
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 egg white, beaten
Preheat the oven to 425ᵒF and position the rack in the lower middle position.
Whisk to combine the flour, salt, baking powder and 3 Tbl sugar in a medium mixing bowl.  Using the large holes of a box grater, grate the frozen butter and add to the flour mixture.  Use a pastry cutter to thoroughly press the butter into the flour mixture, working until the butter pieces are all the size of split peas.  (If you don’t have a pastry cutter, quickly rub the butter into the flour mixture with your fingertips.)
Mix the beaten egg with the half-and-half.  Pour into the flour mixture, and toss with a fork until large clumps of dough form.  Turn the dough mixture onto a clean, dry work surface and knead lightly until it comes together. 
Pat or roll the dough into a rectangle of about 9 by 6-inches and about 3/4-inch thick, sprinkling with a touch of flour, if needed.  Using a circular cutter of about 2 1/4-inch diameter, cut the dough into 6 t0 8 circles.  (Then you can re-knead the scraps and cut one or two more rounds, but these will turn out a little tougher and not as pretty as the first ones.)  Place the cut rounds on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, spacing them about 1-inch apart.   
Brush the tops of the dough rounds with the egg white, then sprinkle with the remaining sugar.  Bake until golden brown, 12-15 minutes.  Cool on a wire rack.
Fresh-Baked Biscuits
For the strawberry topping:
3 pints strawberries
6 Tbl sugar
Rinse the strawberries in cool running water, then drain and pat dry.  Remove the leaves and cut out the core.  Cut the strawberries in 1/4-inch slices, slicing from top to bottom. 
Transfer the sliced strawberries to a medium-sized mixing bowl and toss to coat with the sugar.  Allow the mixture to stand at room temperature for about 1 hour, to encourage the strawberries to release their juices.  Cover and refrigerate until needed – Can be made about four hours ahead.
For the whipped cream:
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 Tbl sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Whip the cream to soft peaks (When you stick a spoon into the cream and lift it out, a point will form then droop down after a second or two).  Add sugar and vanilla and whip to firm peaks (The point formed in the cream will stand straight up and not fall over).
To assemble the dessert:
Split each cake apart cross-wise.  Spoon a generous scoop of strawberries over the bottom half, and then a dollop of whipped cream.  Cap with the top half of the biscuit.  Serve immediately.

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