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From the Dept. of Sick Days: Shrimp & Fennel Stew

Merf. Today I am feeling unaccountably barfy and, since the snow day that was foretold did not, helas, materialize, I stayed home and slept most of the day. I did, however, manage to sklathe myself out of bed just long enough to accomplish one thing; I took a few snaps of this shrimp stew while the sun tried to shine. Why? Because this simple dish is so ridiculously good I couldn’t wait any longer to share it.

Seriously, this is shockingly tasty, particularly for something that involves little more than a quick chop and simmer. I was quite blown away by its robust and warming deliciousity. Mr. T, too, was unusually effusive in his praise.

The depth of flavor is remarkable; everything–from the pungent onion and anise-y fennel to the acid tomato and briny shrimp–seems to stack together into a greater whole rather than cancelling each other out. In thinking about it now, it may be the backbone of subtle sweetness that those primary ingredients all share that brings it all together.

Oh, and if you’re worried about the fennel and it’s licorice-y taste, two things: one, you’re wrong, it is delicious; and two, it’s very mild and background-y by the time the dish is complete. Try it anyway. It’s a perfect gateway for the delights of fennel.

I would be happy to serve this for company with some good bread and a salad of soft lettuces. It’s perfectly cockle-warming, a good thing now that it seems winter has finally decided to arrive.

And now, back to bed with me.

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Samak Yemeni: Spicy Yemenite Fish Stew

So, I’ve been making this lush and rawther exotic fish stew for years, but it took a recipe request from one of Mr. T’s colleagues for me to get my act together and write it down. The dish is really quite special–simply TEEMING with flavor, but it manages somehow to maintain its coherence under an onslaught of warm spice, bright herbs, and tangy lemon.

My first intro to samak Yemeni was in a Jewish diaspora cookbook, given to me by a friend with the injunction that I was not to make fun of her bubbie’s wallpaper until I could make knishes better than hers. (In my defense, the wallpaper in question was a glossy optic white with velvet burnt orange foliate patterns.) I’ve not yet managed to make any knish, but this stew is something I keep coming back to. Also, obviously, I am a bad person, but who else gets a cookbook for cracking wise about wallpaper?

In doing further research for this post, I turned up another version from The Splendid Table, hosted by the always delightful Lynn Rossetto Kasper, but suffice to say, the much fiddled-with version below is the one that I like best as it is delicious and does not require fish stock, making oddball spice blends, or other such tomfoolery.

Even with such rich cultural antecedents, I’m still not quite sure why it all works–but it does. Even the fishiest fish is tamed–but not drowned out– by the richly spiced sauce, which in turn is enriched by the fish’s umami-y juices. The dish is spicy, but not threateningly so, with a flavor that’s at once deep and envigoratingly bright. Its captivating scent is the very definition of appetizing.

Being quite easy and very quick, it’s also perfect–served with a quick cous-cous and some salad greens–for a weeknight dinner requiring a little pizzazz. There’s no pre-sautéing of the aromatics; everything just gets dumped and simmered together. It took me some time to get over this, but having been OCD enough to have done it both ways, I can say that sautéing the onions and spices in advance makes no real difference to the recipe. There are so many strong flavors at play already that a brief simmer is all that’s required for everything to come together and get happy. Hooray for uncompromising shortcuts!

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Chilled Gingery Beet Soup with Cucumber

Ok, yes, I know. You have to turn the oven on to make this soup… Wait, wait, wait, though.  Even if you don’t normally like borsht (I don’t) or even beets, this is cool and invigorating. Culled from Amanda Hesser’s authoritative and engaging 2010 NYTimes cookbook, this soup is simple and simply delicious.

The beets proffer their sweet earthiness and body, lemon juice contributes its bright acid, and the cucumber garnish punctuates it all with crunchy freshness. I elected to serve it on the cool side of room temperature, and added diced shrimp. Like the cucumber, they provide a textural counterpoint to the smooth soup and make it a bit more substantial without weighing it down. A good thing, as I really don’t feel like cooking any more than I have to right now.

Either red or yellow beets work well–I’ve used both in different batches this week. The former produces a glorious magenta soup, the latter a brilliant Big Bird yellow. They are equally delicious. Obviously, for vegetarians, omit the shrimp, but do not be tempted to leave out the cucumber. Its sprightly crunch adds a great deal.

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Cooking with Friends: Maria’s Asopao de Mariscos

When my friend Maria suggested we get together to make this seafood asopao, a soupy, savory rice-thickened stew from Puerto Rico, I jumped at the chance. I am forever trying to pry family and/or cultural heritage recipes from my friends, and since Maria’s one of the few people I am willing to share kitchen space with anyway, making this favorite from her familial recipe box seemed like a win-win.

Maria says “This recipe is from Cocina Criolla, Puerto Rico’s answer to The Joy of Cooking. Authored by the doyenne of Puerto Rican cookery, Carmen Aboy Valdejulli, the first edition was published in 1954 and it has been reprinted, translated into English, and updated repeatedly. It’s given to every new bride and dispatched with every adult child braving the culinary desert that is the mainland. My family has at least four dog eared, food-splattered copies ranging from the first edition to the 59th.”

Of course, the very traditional will note that we’re subbing in prepared sofrito for homemade, and an off-the-shelf seasoning blend for homemade annatto. Handing the mic back to Maria: “Mrs. Valdejulli makes everything from scratch, but honestly that’s just not feasible, as making a Puerto Rican-style sofrito would require a trip to a specialty Asian market just to find the greens required. This dish is something that should be simple and easy enough for a weeknight, so shortcuts are acceptable.”

We actually made this months ago, but I was holding out to make a homemade sofrito myself, then do a side-by-side comparison. Mmyeah… that’s not happened as yet and I’ve stopped holding my breath. Someday. Given that Maria’s almost as persnickety as I am, we’re just going to go ahead and assume that her approved shortcuts should in fact be approved. Game on.

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Ingredient Investigation: Quinoa Exposed, Plus A Tangy Asian Salad

quinoashrimp1So, having spent all of yesterday evening laboring over little pots of quinoa, I’m kind of done with the miracle seed. Big take-away? Rinse it and look to other ingredients for flavor. The quinoa is a fine grain substitute that adds fun, crackly-popping texture and supremely ethical protein, but not big taste. At least, as far as this round goes. I’ve only used one brand of the regular quinoa. The red, as suggested, might be an improvement.

Rinsing get the thumbs up, irritatingly. Not only does the manufacturer recommend it, so too does the Wikipedia. FINE. My tests also confirmed that the unrinsed quinoa–both toasted and not–definitely possessed an unpleasantly bitter edge. (A noteworthy comment from someone who’s been dubbed “Bittermelon” due to his taste for the astringent veggie.) My question, then, is why the hell don’t the producers do this? They’re already harvesting the friggin stuff, picking out the rocks, and putting it in little plastic baggies. Hmph.

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