Monday, May 28, 2007

Top Secret Ceviche

ISLA MUJERES, MEXICO— The next time I gripe about the summer heat in Mississippi, I will try to remember Mexico at noon, in May.

Business took me to the Yucatan Peninsula, and the Easternmost point of Mexico, an island on the Caribbean Sea— Isla Mujeres. The island is surrounded by clear, turquoise water with— what one person described as— 200-foot vertical visibility. The North beach of the island is where the Corona commercials are filmed and it is easy to understand why the locale was such a good fit for the beach-oriented beer company.

Two nights at a small, eight-room, Zen-like hotel, wasn’t enough to slow my system down to island speed, but the restaurant inside Casa de los Suenos served a ceviche good enough to warrant— if not a move to the island— several visits per year.

The dish was well-known on the island. When we told the taxi driver where we were staying, he said, “try their ceviche.” The hotel’s clerk talked about the ceviche, the man who showed us to our room and gave us a tour of the property told us about the ceviche, and a British couple that we met in town told us about the hotel’s ceviche. All recommendations were unsolicited.

While dining in the restaurant that evening, I did what I always do and asked the server what he recommended. It was no surprise when his response was, “our ceviche is the best.” When that many people recommend a dish, there are two directions the meal can go: It can live up to its pre-billing, or it can be a total letdown.

I am glad to report that the Casa de los Suenos ceviche exceeded its advance billing.

The hotel’s restaurant—The Alhambra— belied its name. “Alhambra” in Spanish means fortress. The restaurant Alhambra at Casa de los Suenos was anything but. Located under a high-pitched thatched roof, open on three sides with salt-air breezes blowing off of the Bay of Mujeres and the sun setting over Cancun in the distance, the restaurant— like the hotel— was serene and peaceful.

Ceviche is a cold, marinated, seafood salad that is cooked without heat using citrus. The citric acid in the fruit denatures the proteins in the seafood which cooks, or pickles, the dish. The mixture only marinates for 30 minutes and is a perfect meal in hot weather, typically served with some type of chip or bread.

The ceviche at Casa de los Suenos was indeed the best I have ever eaten— by a long shot.

I asked the waiter what made it so good and he replied that it was “just a hint of freshly squeezed orange juice.” I tasted lime, cilantro, and onion, but no orange.

The next day while talking to one of the hotel employees he said that it was key limes that made the ceviche stand out from all of the others. Yet another employee talked of a touch of imported olive oil.

The recipe was said to be a “hotel secret” But for a “secret” there were a whole lot of people offering their opinions. My guess is that it’s a slight combination of all of the above.

When I asked the hotel manager for the actual recipe he returned a few hours later with a small piece of hotel stationery. On it— typed and centered— were the words: “Ceviche Wayak, fresh fish, shrimp, avocado, onion, tomatoe (sic, the Quayle spelling), cucumber, olive, lemon, pepper, and salt.” There were no measurements or procedures, just ingredients. Olive oil, Key limes, orange juice, and cilantro were nowhere to be found.

I don’t speak Spanish, so my request might have been lost in translation. If I had to guess I would probably say that there is no recipe. The chef, or chefs, there were two different chefs on two different nights, probably eyeballs the mixture. The ceviche of the first night was slightly better than the ceviche of the second night. Though the second night’s version was still better than any I have eaten.

Many chefs give out recipes freely; others guard them with great secrecy. I used to be of the latter variety, but it’s hard to be in the cookbook-writing business and not give away recipes.

When I return home, I will begin experimenting with a new ceviche recipe using the Alhambra’s version as inspiration. Once completed, I know it will be one that I will prepare all summer and for many summers to come. Now if I could just figure out a way to recreate those salt-air breezes.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Great Soft-Shell Crab Crisis of 2007

News travels fast, but incorrect news travels even faster.

Five weeks ago I wrote a column that opened with this sentence: “Soft-shell crab season is here. Halleluiah, amen, and pass the Remoulade sauce!” That was a true statement— at the time. By the time the column was published there were no soft shells to be found. Anywhere.

The season’s first two shipments of fresh soft shell crabs had arrived, and— as I usually do around this time of year— I wrote passionately of my love for the saltwater delicacy.

Typically once the season starts, we ride the soft-shell wave all the way through the fall. This year the season ended almost as soon as it began.

I knew that I might be in trouble when I walked through the dining room of our Hattiesburg restaurant during lunch on the day that the first newspaper published the column. A man called me over to his table. He had read the morning newspaper and had driven the 90 miles from Jackson to Hattiesburg to eat crab. Unfortunately, there were no crabs to be found. Even more unfortunate— he works for the U.S. Attorney’s office. Lucky for me, he was sympathetic to my dilemma. I took his business card and told him that I would call as soon as we received more crabs.

By the time all of the out-of-town newspapers had run the column, other faraway customers had made the soft-shell crab pilgrimage to their local restaurants to find the cupboards bare there, too.

Linda Nance, Chef de Cuisine at the Purple Parrot CafĂ© began hearing from her seafood suppliers, “Robert wrote this article, and all of a sudden everyone wanted soft shells. Customers are coming in to restaurants all across the state, in Louisiana, and Mobile, too. But we don’t have any crabs.”

Another supplier commented, “Ever since Robert wrote that column, they (soft shell crabs) have fallen off of the face of the earth. It’s the worst we’ve seen in 30 years. He put a curse on them”

Still another supplier credited me with jinxing the entire soft-shell crab industry by writing the column. Today, when I called him to check progress of the crab season, he said, “I’m glad you’re writing another article. Maybe the jinx will work in reverse and the crabs will start coming in.”

In my 26 years in the restaurant business, I have never seen such a bad year for soft shell crabs. I have also never seen such irate customers. Soft shell crabs bring out passion in diners. My managers have been hearing from enraged customers for five weeks. They receive several phone calls and a few uncomfortable dining-room visits every day.

The season started like all others. The crabs trickled in a few at a time, and then we got two large shipments, I wrote the column, then nothing. A select few ate crab while I ate crow.

There are several reasons for the lack of soft-shell crab production this season. First and foremost, about one-third of the crabbers haven’t returned to business after Hurricane Katrina. There are other reasons— the cold snap that passed through a few weeks back, followed by bad weather, then high winds. When it’s cold and windy crabs go into hiding. Now shrimp season has begun and many crabbers pull their traps out of the water so the shrimp trolls don’t tear them up.

If you’re eating soft-shells right now, odds are they’re frozen. The East coast season starts in a few weeks. But it’s a sad day when we look to Maryland for soft-shell crabs. The East coast blue crabs are dredged ours are caught in traps. We release all crabs that are 5 1/2 inches and under. Our crabs are bigger, too. Maryland’s large is a Louisiana medium.

Our restaurant sells approximately 150 soft-shell crabs per week from April through October. Last week we received three dozen soft shells from our suppliers. They were the first we have seen in a month. We sold them all in a matter of hours.

We’ve had such a slow start, maybe the season will run later this year. Late or not, you’re going to have to find out about soft shells on your own. I’m not saying another word (except to my newfound friend in the U.S. Attorney’s office).

Fried Soft Shell Crab

6 Soft shell crabs, cleaned
2 cups Milk
2 Eggs
1 Tbl. Dried tarragon
4 Tbl. Cayenne and Garlic Hot Sauce
2 Tbl. Creole Seasoning
3 cups Seasoned flour

Combine milk, eggs, tarragon, Cayenne and Garlic Sauce, Creole Seasoning and mix well. Gently drop the crabs in the seasoned milk mixture and place all in the refrigerator and marinate for at least 6 hours.

When you are ready to cook the crabs, pour peanut oil to two inches deep in a skillet and bring to a temperature of 350 degrees. Take crabs out of the milk mixture one at a time and lightly dust them in the seasoned flour. Be careful to keep all of the legs attached and gently separate the legs that stick together.

Slowly glide the crab (shell side down) into the hot oil, being careful not to splash. Cook approximately 2 minutes and turn over for another minute. Remove the crabs and drain on paper towels.

Serve with Remoulade, tartar, or comeback sauce.

Yield: 6 servings

Monday, May 14, 2007

Donuts and Age

I am in my 46th year. Some days I feel every minute of those four and a half decades, others I feel as I did in my teens. My wife would say that, maturity-wise, I am still in my teens… early teens.

I ate breakfast this past Saturday and felt older than I have ever felt before. Sadly, I have reached an age where I can’t eat donuts and feel good afterwards. It was 7:30 a.m. and I was instantly tired, listless, bloated, and ready for a nap. Et tu donut?

Donuts are the universal breakfast treat. Sure eggs and bacon might rule the roost, but donuts were the first hand-held, drive-through breakfast item out there. Long before egg-filled burritos, French toast sticks, and pancake sandwiches with the syrup built into the bread, there were donuts. They were simple and they were good.

I have a long and storied history with donuts. As a kid, I stopped by the donut shop on my way to school. My church always had donuts on Sunday morning, and at Sunday-night church, we ate the leftover donuts cold. While working at a radio station during high school, I finished my air shift at midnight and stopped by the donut shop for a couple of custard-filled donuts and a pint of milk. As a bachelor living in Destin, Fla., I often visited The Donut Hole in the wee hours of the morning— all this and a 32-inch waist, too.

When my daughter was born, I used to take her to the donut shop every Saturday morning to watch the men make the donuts. She loved it.

Recently, I have used the donut shop as a rare, surprise treat for the kids, as I occasionally stopped by on the way home from church or another activity. The first time I did it the kids went wild. “Donuts at 8:30 at night? Dad, you’re the best! Mom is gonna kill you!” Those surprises have become less common as the no-more-donuts-for-Robert realization has begun to sink in.

Granted, donuts might be one of the most unhealthy foods out there—bread, deep-fried in grease, and then topped with sugar and chocolate— but I used to have an iron constitution. I could eat anything and it didn’t affect me.

I used to be able to drink highly caffeinated beverages at bedtime and sleep all night, not anymore. Last year I learned that I can no longer enjoy a roller coaster ride. Somewhere in my late 30s, my thrill-ride equilibrium flew out the window. Today I have more hair on my back than I do on my head. And where did this hair in my ears come from?

I see old men hanging out in donut shops all of the time. Their mornings are filled with newspapers, gossip, cigarettes, gallons of coffee, and donuts. They have hair in their ears, too. How do they walk away from the donut shop not feeling poorly?

As a kid I could eat anything. I ate a lot and I ate often. When I reached my mid 30s, my metabolism took a nap— a long nap— and has yet to wake up.

I am past middle-aged. Some say that 60-years old is middle aged. Sure, it’s middle-aged if you are going to live to be 120. I figure I hit middle age around my 43rd birthday. I’ll take 86 years on the planet— men die young in my family.

I wonder if there are any other foods that I will have to stop eating. If so, I will gladly give up Brussels sprouts right now if I can have my once-a-month donut fix returned. I would give up cauliflower and kiwi for a few more years of roller coaster riding. Apricots for chocolate cake, that’s an easy trade. What if rib-eye steak starts making me feel poorly, or bacon? I don’t know if a life without bacon is worth the effort.

Before long I’ll be wearing goofy pajamas, reading the obituary column, and reeking of Bengay, while surviving on a steady diet of Cream of Wheat, and Ensure. But I’m not going down without a fight, so pass the donuts (and the Mylanta, and the aspirin).

Amaretto-Brulee Breakfast Bread

1 /3 cup Butter, melted
3 /4 cup Brown sugar
2 Tbl Honey
2 Tbl Pecans, chopped (optional)
2 Tbl Almonds, slivered and blanched (optional)
8 French bread croutons, cut into 1-inch thick rounds
4 Eggs
2 /3 cup Milk
1 /4 cup Heavy cream
1 /8 tsp Cinnamon
1 /8 tsp Nutmeg
1 Tbl Vanilla
1 Tbl Amaretto

French bread croutons should be cut out of a baguette-style French bread loaf. Slices should be one inch thick.

In a cast iron skillet, combine butter, brown sugar and honey over medium-high heat. Cook mixture, stirring constantly until bubbly and sugar has dissolved. Add nuts. Pour Brulee into the bottom of a round, two-quart Pyrex baking dish. Allow Brulee to cool slightly then top with the French bread croutons.

In a large mixing bowl whisk eggs, milk, heavy cream, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and Amaretto. Pour mixture evenly over the croutons. Using the tips of your fingers, press bread down gently to force custard into croutons without breaking. Cover dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Allow custard to come to room temperature one hour before baking. Bake uncovered until French bread is puffed and edges of croutons are golden brown, (approximately 40 minutes). Place a plate on top of the baking dish. Using dish towels or pot holders, invert dish onto a plate. Top with powdered sugar. Yield: four to six servings

Monday, May 07, 2007

New Carpet

I purchased new carpeting for my son’s room last week.

You wouldn’t believe how badly a five-year old boy’s carpet can look and smell after a few short years. Stains and spots were scattered from the center of the room to its most remote corners. With some we knew the origin, others remained a mystery. Over the years we have steam cleaned the short-piled Berber several times but the spots and stains always returned in a matter of weeks.

My wife and I don’t allow eating outside of the kitchen, the dogs are housebroken, and there are no remaining roof leaks from Hurricane Katrina, but still there were spots and stains, and that smell.

One becomes accustomed to all manner of unpleasant odors when raising a boy, but this particular smell was above and beyond that of a normal kindergartener’s capabilities.

In the last few weeks the funk had grown so strong that we had to keep his door closed during the day. I have no idea how he slept in there with that rancid odor but it never seemed to bother him. He slept soundly and never once mentioned the stench. I chalked it up to being five-years old and unconcerned with matters that don’t involve robots, ninjas, SpongeBob, or eating.

Finally my wife reached her breaking point and called the flooring supplier to order new carpeting for both my son and daughter’s rooms (he spends time in there, too).

On the day the carpet was scheduled to be installed, my wife was frantically cleaning out closets, putting toys back in boxes, and throwing away useless junk and knickknacks. I was outside working on a project when she emerged from the back of the house holding a small, oval-shaped object at arms length. I watched through the windows as she inched her way through the den— slow and deliberate— as if she were carrying a small vile of nuclear waste. Her eyes were teary and squinted, her nose crinkled, as she gradually made her way outside.

I don’t know the exact shelf life of Easter eggs, but I am sure that five weeks is about four weeks, six and a half days too long.

Somewhere in the bowels of the boy’s room, among the toy trucks and baseballs, under the superhero costumes, and deep inside a basket in a back corner of the remote wasteland that is a five-year old’s domain was a lone, faded pastel Easter egg. It had a crack in it and I couldn’t tell if it was green from dye or exposure.

The smell was gone instantly; the stains were just stains after all. In the excitement that is a candy-laden Easter, the egg— a sole survivor of the day’s hunt— had made its way into an isolated hiding place where it lay in wait until it began to smell like, well… “The last one out is a rotten egg,” has never been a truer statement.

A few months ago I came across a photograph of my babysitter, Ned. She and I were hunting Easter eggs in my grandmother’s backyard. I looked to be about five-years old. After the recent egg incident I thought of Ned. She used to collect all of our eggs at the end of the day, peel, and eat them. She loved boiled eggs whether they were dyed or not.

I have never been a fan of boiled eggs. Maybe it was because I was always saving mine for Ned. It could be that, as a child, I might have smelled one after it sat at room temperature for several days.

My son loves his new carpet. He likes to wrestle on it. The other day he took me to his room, got down on his knees, rubbed his hand slowly over the carpet’s surface, and in an affected cartoon voice, looked up at me and said, “Feel the power of the plush.” Then he tackled me and put me into a headlock.

The wrestling is fun, but that lone, smelly egg cost me $3,000 in new carpeting. I miss Ned more and more everyday.

One day in the not too distant future the carpet won’t have to be steam cleaned every three months, and I guess that’s a good thing. But the house will be quiet, it will smell of inactivity, and no one will ask me to wrestle. In the end, the privilege of being a parent is worth every stain and smell, though you can be assured that next year I’ll be using plastic eggs at Easter.


The World’s Last Deviled Egg

I have to make a batch for the guests and a batch for my kids. They love them.

1 dozen Eggs, hard boiled, peeled and cut in half, lengthwise
2 tsp. White balsamic vinegar
1 /3 cup Mayonnaise
1 /4 cup Sour cream
1 TBL Pickle Relish
1 1 /2 tsp Salt
1 Tbl Creole Mustard
2 tsp Yellow mustard
1 /8 tsp White Pepper
1 /8 tsp Garlic, granulated
Paprika and fresh parsley to garnish (optional)

Remove the yolks from the hard cooked eggs and place in a mixing bowl. Add all ingredients and beat with an electric mixer until smooth. Use a pastry bag to fill the egg whites. Sprinkle with paprika fresh parsley.

Yield: 24