On top of everything! (how to poach an egg) Poached eggs with roasted asparagus and mushrooms

By the title, you probably thought I was about launch into a rant. Sorry to disappoint. Today, boys and girls, I just want to justify the name of this blog and to urge you to learn how to poach an egg if you do not already know how.

Why? Because a poached egg goes on top of everything and anything: toast (of course), asparagus, ratatouille, spicy tomato sauce, and even on top of spaghetti. At the end of the day when you are brain-dead and cranky with exhaustion, a couple of poached eggs on top of something warm like whole wheat pasta tossed with Parmesan and some fat breadcrumbs toasted in a little olive oil on top of the stove can be a real mood buster. Not to mention, easy.

photo by Luke Vargas

In this month’s March issue of Vegetarian Times, I wrote a short “technique” article on poaching. I will share the “egg” part of it here if you missed it. (Right now you can still find the issue on newsstands with more poaching recipes like warm barley salad with poached vegetables and Swiss chard gnocchi.) Cut to the chase.

The thing about eggs is this: when you cook eggs, walk on eggs. That is, eggs are delicate, and so should you be when you cook them.  In the same way I have perfected soft scrambled eggs by doing the burner dance—moving the pan between two burners to control the heat from medium to low—you can perfect and master poached eggs by cooking them in gently simmering water. They are a beauty to behold, and even better to eat. With a modicum of attention, you can master this technique FOREVER.

photo by Luke Vargas

Here are a few pointers

• Use the freshest eggs you can find, preferably organic and free range. (To see why, read Luke’s post here.)  The egg whites of fresh eggs hold their shape; older eggs will spread amorphously, which will not be the end of the world, but not as satisfying. Check the carton for a 3-digit number on the outside. It indicates the pack date—exactly when the eggs were placed in the carton. e.g., January 1st as 001, December 31st as 365.

• Fill a wide, deep pot with at least 2 inches of water  (2 quarts in a 9-inch saucepan). A wide pot with plenty of water gives the eggs room to absorb heat evenly without cranking up the heat too high. Add plenty of salt (1 teaspoon for 2 quarts of water) and some white vinegar or the milder choice, white wine vinegar (2 tablespoons for 2 quarts water.) The salt keeps the eggs buoyant and the vinegar keeps the whites from spreading.

Bring the water to a boil and adjust the heat to a simmer. The tiny bubbles that form around the edge of the pot, not from the bottom, indicate that the poaching liquid is hot enough to cook food without blasting it with harsh heat.

• Crack the egg into a teacup and hold the edge of the cup close to the surface of the water. Slide in the egg and let it cook for about 1 minute. Draw a spoon over the surface of the water to ripple it and release the egg from the bottom of the pot. Keep cooking, and after another minute or two, slide a slotted spoon under the egg, lift it, and probe it with your finger.

• When the eggs are done to your liking, remove each one with the slotted spoon. Set the spoon on top of a folded paper towel and tilt it to drain the excess water. Set the egg on top of….everything!

Poached egg with roasted asparagus and mushrooms

Serves 1 (recipe can be multiplied, but you knew that)

5 asparagus stalks

1 handful small mushrooms

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 egg

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Grated Parmesan

Toast

For the vegetables:

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

2. Mound the asparagus and mushrooms in 2 separate piles on the baking sheet. Drizzle 1/2 tablespoon of the olive oil over each pile of vegetables, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss each pile to coat with oil, and spread evenly on the baking sheet, still keeping the vegetables separate.

3. Roast for 15 minutes, or until the mushrooms are done. Transfer the mushrooms to a plate. Return the baking sheet to the oven, and continue to roast asparagus for 5 to 10 minutes longer, until tender. Remove and keep warm while you poach the egg.

To poach the egg:

1. Fold a paper towel, and set it on a plate next to the stove. Crack 1 egg into a teacup. Bring 2 inches of water to a boil in a wide, deep saucepan.  Add the salt and vinegar, and adjust the heat to a simmer.

2. Holding the edge of the cup as close to the surface as possible, slide the egg it into the water.  Adjust the heat to maintain a steady, gentle simmer. Draw a spoon across the surface of the water to allow the egg to float in the pan. After 2 to 3 more minutes, lift the egg from water with a slotted spoon and test for doneness by pressing on the egg. The white should feel firm and the yolk should still be soft. Return to water if necessary.

3. While the egg is cooking, set the asparagus and mushrooms on a plate. When the egg is done to your liking, remove it from the pan with the slotted spoon. Rest the spoon on the paper towel for moment to drain excess water. If you like, trim stray bits of egg white with sharp paring knife or scissors. Set the egg on top of the asparagus. Drizzle with a little olive oil, and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and if you like, Parmesan. Serve with toast

 To recap:

Bring at least 2 inches of water to a boil in a wide pot. Don't forget the salt and vinegar. Adjust the heat to a simmer (bubbles around the edges, not on the bottom.)

Crack the egg into a teacup (to avoid mishaps, and make it easier.) Hold the edge of the cup close to the surface of the water and slide in the egg. Turn up the heat briefly and then turn it down, to keep the temperature just under steady simmer.

After about a minute, the egg begins to set. Draw a wooden spoon (no sharp edges) across the surface of the water to swirl it slightly, which will allow the egg to float.

After 2 to 4 minutes, check the egg for doneness by lifting it up out of the water with a slotted spoon. Press on the yolk with your finger lightly to see if it is cooked to your liking. 

Once the egg is done, remove it from the water with the slotted spoon and rest it on top of a paper towel for a few moments, tilting the spoon to drain the excess water. 

Place it on top of the asparagus, toast, spaghetti, you name it.

Addendum:  A reader asked a question about how to poach several eggs, say 8, keep them warm,  and cook them properly. 

I will repeat here the answer to a comment below. 

One thing I forgot to mention is that eggs can be poached ahead of time and refrigerated (or left at room temperature for a while if you are going to reheat them within an hour). If you want to keep them in the refrigerator (up to 2 days!) submerge them in cold water and store. This is a common practice among chefs. The point is, you could cook 4 eggs at a time or the number of eggs that will fit reasonably in your pan without crowding. Remove each egg as soon as it is done--no need to overcook some while you wait for the others to finish cooking. Rest each egg on a paper towel to drain excess water, and set it on a plate. If you want to cook 4 more, just repeat. When all the eggs are cooked and you are ready to serve them, get your plates warmed and toast ready. Then, simply dunk each egg in the hot poaching water (leave it right on the slotted spoon) for 20 to 30 seconds to re-warm it. Or, you could warm 2 or 3 at a time if you are super-coordinated. Remove and rest on the paper towel again and set on the awaiting plate. 

Posted on February 27, 2012 and filed under Breakfast, Eggs, How To.

Fennel and citrus salad and a new book by Beatrice Peltre

Putting chocolate behind us, (hey! Valentine’s day was just last week, did you forget already?) I’m looking forward to some serious palate cleansing. I’ve had this salad on my mind for weeks, and now that citrus season is in full swing, I finally got around to making it.

My craving for this salad was brought to a head during a recent book signing I attended for La Tartine Gourmande, the new book by beloved blogger .

I have been fortunate to get to know Béa a little—we both write for the Boston Globe and also share a favorite local woodsy walking place. Let me tell you, she is as lovely as her gorgeous, colorful photographs. In fact, if you are a blogger and an aspiring food photographer, you must add this book to your library. I literally lay awake most of the night after I brought the book home. Looking at the light-filled, drool-worthy pictures of her food, I was in turn acutely excited and inspired and then suicidally discouraged as a would-be photographer. No, I am not bi-polar, but that’s what happens when something really exhilarating comes along.

Béatrice Peltre has a Matisse-like sense of color and pattern that make you happy just looking at her photos. Her recipes are original, healthy, and reliable. In short: they work! They are imaginative! She brings her French sensibility to her recipes and a distinctive individuality to her style. You will certainly find many things you will want to cook to lift your spirits inside the cover. And even if you never cook anything from her book (which would be a terrible waste) you will certainly be cheered by the summery brightness on every page. One of the best ways to learn photography is to really study (and perhaps even copy as an exercise) photos you like. You can find her book .

The salad in Béatrice’s book inspired the one I made (you will have to go to her book for her version). I purposely did not read her recipe closely, to avoid leaning too heavily on her idea. I know that it did not have fennel. But there is not much latitude here—fennel and oranges are a classic combination.

Fennel, like cilantro, is one of those flavors that arouse strong love-hate feelings. When it comes to the delicious crispy licorice-ness of this winter vegetable, I say: Bring it! I love it raw doused with a bit of olive oil and lemon, or baked in a tian with white wine, Parmesan and bread crumbs. Perhaps because it is underappreciated in this country, it seems exotic and therefore elegant; but it is quite common in Mediterranean cooking. Don’t be a hater.

Choose bulbs that are pale green and firm, with stalks and fronds still attached. Pass on split, yellowed, or spotty bulbs. The sometimes-tough outer layer, as well as minor brown spots, can be peeled easily with a vegetable peeler. Save a few of the feathery fronds to decorate your salad.

Fennel and citrus salad with citrus vinaigrette

Serves 2 to 3

This salad has perky winter flavors: fruit that is all at once sweet, juicy and tart, paired with crisp anise-scented fennel and crunchy radishes. First, prepare the fruit and set it aside. Save the juices to make the vinaigrette; then make the vinaigrette. Finally assemble the salad. It makes an ideal accompaniment to any plain fish dish, like Ken Rivard’s and Jody Adams’ broiled whole fish, for example.

For the vinaigrette:

Makes 2/3 cups dressing (save extra for another green salad)

1/4 cup citrus juice

Juice of 1 lime

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon honey

Salt and pepper to taste

1/3 cup olive oil

Whisk the citrus juice, lime juice, vinegar, honey, salt, and pepper together. Gradually whisk in the olive oil. Taste, and add more salt and pepper if you like.

For the salad:

1 large fennel bulb, trimmed (save a few fronds, freeze the stalks for making fish stock)

2 oranges, rind removed with a knife (see below), and cut crosswise into circles

2 blood oranges, rind removed with a knife (see below), and cut crosswise into circles

2 grapefruits, rind removed with a knife (see below), and cut into “supremes”

5 to 6 radishes, thinly sliced

1 handful of Italian parsley, leaves picked from the stems

Fennel fronds

Citrus vinaigrette

Salt and pepper, to taste

1  1/2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds

1. Use a mandoline or a very sharp knife and a lot of patience to slice the fennel very thinly. Cut out the core as you slice. Toss the fennel with 2 to 3 tablespoons of vinaigrette and salt and pepper to taste. Arrange on 2 or 3 plates, or on one large plate.

2. Arrange the oranges and grapefruit over and around the fennel and top with the radishes. Sprinkle the parsley, fennel fronds, and pumpkin seeds over the salad. Drizzle with more vinaigrette and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

How to peel citrus with a knife to make "supremes"

The first time I realized there was another way to peel citrus I was so excited! No more pesky pith to ruin the look (and taste) of the fruit sections, or 'supremes'.

First, cut off the top and bottom of the fruit to expose the flesh.

Use a sawing motion with a sharp knife to cut away the rind and pith. Curve your knife as you go from top to bottom. Trim off any places you missed once you have gone all the way around the fruit. Cut it crosswise to make circles, or proceed to make 'supremes'.

Cut alongside each membrane to extract the section.

Another way to cut: after you cut along one side of a section, flip your knife angle and cut along the other side from the bottom up (this will go faster once you get the hang of it.)

Don't forget to squeeze all the juice from the 'carcass'. Use some of it for the citrus vinaigrette.

Chocolate pudding cake recipe: an easy Valentine’s Day dessert and a chocolate roundup

I tried to find out about the history of this old-fashioned dessert the old-fashioned way: online. (I bet you thought I went to the library, the one with the extensive section on the history of chocolate desserts.) According to unreliable internet sources, this chocolate cake that makes its own fudge sauce was invented in the early 1920s by Emelyn Battersby Hartridge when she was a student at Vassar College.

Okay, I got pretty excited that someone from my alma mater invented a dessert. Vassar students are a pretty brainy bunch, so you would expect that they would be out there inventing some genius scientific breakthrough device instead of fudge. But let’s put it in perspective. Chocolate is important, too. How could those smart-aleck inventors get through their experiments without their afternoon dose? We all need chocolate. Even those of us who squeaked by with a degree in French, and then went on to study French pastry. Perhaps it was not what my parents envisioned as they were paying the tuition bills. (Heads up, college boy, don’t even THINK of doing something like that.) The point is, chocolate is essential, especially on Valentine’s Day.

Frankly, I don’t really buy it that Emelyn could have invented this one in her dorm room. I’ve seen the dorm rooms. They’re kind of cool in an old-fashioned, Victorian way. In fact, the dorm Emelyn lived in

was

Victorian.  The rooms definitely didn’t have ovens. Never mind. Just make it. It is incredibly easy to do, and if the dorm rooms

did

have ovens, it would make sense that this chocolate pudding cake could have been invented in one.

And another thing. Emelyn would be scratching her head from the great beyond if you told her that her recipe is also vegan.

Chocolate pudding cake

Serves 4

When you bake this pudding, the cake part rises to the top, leaving a fudgey sauce that sinks to the bottom. The pudding puffs and bubbles in the oven and then sinks as it cools. Not to worry. The little crater in the center begs to be filled with vanilla ice cream, a mandatory addition to tame the intensity of the chocolate.  You may bake the pudding a few hours ahead of time and warm it in the microwave for 15 to 20 seconds. If you are making this for your valentine, save the extra desserts to celebrate twice, or spread the love and have a Valentine’s Day family dinner.

TOPPING:

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa powder

In a small bowl, mix sugar and cocoa together until blended.

CAKE:

1 1/2 ounces (1 1/2 squares) unsweetened chocolate

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange rind

1 teaspoon vanilla

3/4 cup water

1 pint vanilla ice cream

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. Melt the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over hot but not boiling water. Alternatively, heat at 50 percent power in the microwave at 30 second intervals, stirring between each interval, until melted.

3. Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon together in another bowl.

4. Stir the sugar, milk, orange rind, and vanilla into the bowl of melted butter and chocolate, until blended. Stir in the flour mixture, until blended. Divide the batter evenly among four (7- or 8-ounce) ramekins, using about 1/4 cup batter for each.

5. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of the topping evenly over each ramekin. Pour 3 tablespoons water on top, and set the ramekins on a baking sheet. Bake for 25 minutes, or until top bubbles and puffs. Let rest for10 minutes. Serve while warm topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

More chocolate recipes from this blog you might want to explore:

  Broadway soda

Kitchen Songs (for Valentine's day)

Love Train

Posted on February 11, 2012 and filed under Sweets.

Grab the menfolk early on Sunday: pear focaccia for breakfast

I have made a lot of bread in my life. Thousands of loaves. I’m not kidding. Back in the days of yore, when I was relegated to the bakery, since ‘women can’t be line cooks’ (more on that saga some other time), I made forty to sixty loaves of bread a week. It adds up. Apparently, women could go down to the basement and tool around with less important tasks, such as tending to the staff of life and making French pastries (at least there was a beautiful view of a mountain stream from the window down there.) Hey, I also did all the bookkeeping, bill paying, scheduling, menu planning, and a whole lot of etcetera. Baking bread and pastry were kind of enjoyable sidelines.

Our “country kitchen” roadside restaurant produced loaves for sandwiches and toast and also offered them for sale to our customers at the front of the restaurant. These were old-fashioned American-style country loaves. There was no artisanal anything back then, and that included European style crusty loaves. Daniel Leader was at the forefront of the artisanal bread baking movement with his Bread Alone bakery down the road in Boiceville, New York, but that was later. You might have been able to find a sad, flabby baguette (not yet labeled as such, just “French bread”) in a market, but it was a gloomy day when you had to eat such a specimen with good wine and food made with care. Meanwhile, our customers were treated to “artisanal” vegetables grown in our large garden (in summer), local eggs, and homemade yogurt made from local milk, and our own version of artisanal bread.  In other words, we were hippies.

As the restaurant expanded year by year with more seating and better food, the background music was always our beautiful, wholesome bread—sesame whole wheat, “country” white, golden corn meal, sweet, eggy anise seed loaves, and onion dill bread. God help me, but if you ask me to make, smell, or eat any part of a loaf of onion dill bread ever, ever again, I’m not sure I can be responsible for my actions. But oh, how the customers loved their C.O.D. (cottage cheese onion dill). Enough about that.

We mixed the loaves in a bowl that would easily accommodate a family with small children. It had an enormous dough hook, which complained and whined insistently as it kneaded the dough. I developed strong biceps hauling that dough out of the bowl, flopping it onto the counter, and shaping it into loaves and rolls.

Fast forward to now: the era of no-knead bread. And let me tell you, I am all for it. I am baking a loaf of Polish rye as I write this. I even resurrected a sourdough starter for it. Let’s just say it is good, very, very good. The loaves I make at home all winter long are inspired by Jim Lahey’s book, My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method.. He explains, with the help of the lovable ‘curious cook’ Harold McGee, why this method works so well. Read the full article about this method by Mr. McGee in the New York Times .

The kind of bread we baked in our restaurant (and the bread baked in the seventies and eighties) was “modeled on English pan loaves, with a tight, even, fine-grained interior ideal for tidy sandwiches.” The no-knead dough is much wetter, virtually impossible to knead in the traditional way, and it produces a moist interior with uneven, sometimes large, pockets of air. The gluten network develops over a much longer time—eight hours or longer—than the traditional 2-hour rise of those pre-artisanal loaves we made in our restaurant.

In his book, Mr. Lahey explains more via Harold McGee:

“The long slow rise brings the gluten molecules into side-by-side alignment to maximize their opportunity to bind to each other and produce a strong, elastic network.  The wetness of the dough is an important piece of this because the gluten molecules are more mobile when there is a sufficient quantity of water, and so can move into alignment easier and faster than if the dough were stiff.”

If you are fiddling around with your own recipes, look at the New York Times article for some advice on proportions. You need to balance the wet/dry ratio to be successful, but it is not hard. Oh, and get yourself a scale, and use it when you bake bread (or focaccia.)  I meant to write about THAT in this post, but I have gone on way too long already. Lesson over.

Now, make this focaccia, inspired by Jim Lahey’s fruit focaccia. Note his trick with coating the almonds with a small amount of liquid (he used water, I used vanilla) to get the sugar coating to stick to the almonds. Brilliant.

Overnight pear focaccia
Makes one 9 X 13-inch focaccia

I love that this dough can be made the night before so you can wake up on a Sunday morning and have it ready a few hours later without much fuss. Winter is a great time to bring family members and other hangers-on together for breakfast, Super Bowl or no Super Bowl. In fact, grab the male members of the household this Sunday while you can, before your house becomes a chili-pizza-eating, beer-slugging, screaming mecca of doom, at least for those who want to retreat from all the madness. Mine like nothing better than a Sunday morning sleep-in, so while they are sawing logs, the early riser (moi) can have this focaccia ready for a pleasant mid-morning feast.

You could vary the dried fruits to include your favorites and you could substitute apples for the pears. You may notice that the recipe does not require much yeast—a testament to the fact that many recipes for bread call for more than is needed, lending an over-yeasty taste in the bargain. Instant dry yeast is a special strain that can be mixed straight into the flour, but if you are using ‘regular’ active dry yeast, add it to the liquid and let it hydrate and soften for 5 minutes before incorporating it into the dough.

For the dough:

1/2 cup (65g) raisins

1/2 cup (75g) dried fruit such as apricots, cherries, or prunes, cut in 1/4-inch dice

About 1/2 cup hot apple cider, water or tea

2 cups (250g) bread or all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon (3g) instant dry yeast

1/2  teaspoon (3g) salt

3 tablespoons (43g) soft, unsalted butter  plus a little for the baking pan

1 egg

3 tablespoons (65g) honey

1. Combine the raisins and diced fruit in a small bowl. Add the hot cider, tea or water to cover.  Let stand until tepid, about 20 minutes. Drain and reserve the liquid.

2. Stir the flour, yeast and salt together in a large bowl. Add the butter and rub it in with your fingers until the mixture looks like coarse breadcrumbs. Stir in the drained fruit to coat it evenly with flour.

3. Measure the reserved soaking liquid from the fruit to make 1/3 cup (add additional liquid if necessary.) Add it to the dough with the egg and honey. Stir with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough. Scrape the dough into a large, clean bowl and enclose the bowl in a plastic bag. Let rise at room temperature overnight (8 to 12 hours).

For the topping

1/2 cup (45g) sliced almonds

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

3 tablespoons (38g) sugar

1/2 teaspoon (1g) cinnamon

3 to 4 pears (I used bosc and did not peel them, for a rustic effect)

1.Toss the almonds with the vanilla.  Add the sugar and cinnamon and toss to coat the almonds with sugar.

2. Core and slice the pears into 1/4-inch thick slices.

To assemble and bake the foccacia

1. Half an hour before the end of the rising time, set a rack in the middle position of the oven and set the oven temperature at 400 degrees F. 

Butter a 9 by 13-inch baking pan.

2. Scrape the dough into the pan in one piece. Wet your hands (to keep them from sticking to the dough) and stretch and press the dough evenly into the pan. Place the pears in an overlapping pattern to cover the dough. Sprinkle the almond topping over the pears. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and let rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

3. Bake the focaccia for 35 to 45 minutes, until the edges are nicely browned and the pears are soft. Cut in slices and serve warm or at room temperature.

Soak the dried fruit in hot liquid to reconstitute it in some cider, water, wine, or fragrant tea like earl grey, or Kusmi bouquet de fleurs.

Get in the habit of weighing ingredients when you bake. You will have better results. 

Mix the drained fruit with the flour to distribute it evenly. Reserve the liquid to add to the dough.

Add the liquid ingredients to the flour/fruit. Stir well; no special mixer required!

It looks a lot like thick chocolate chip cookie dough. Transfer it to a clean bowl and enclose the whole bowl in a plastic bag. Leave it to rise overnight at room temperature.

The dough has risen; it is approximately double its original size.

To obtain pretty, even slices, cut pear in half. Place melon baller over the core and press straight all the way down into the pear. Then twist and remove the core. Place the pear with the flat side down and cut into 1/4-inch slices.

Wet your hands to keep them from sticking to the dough and push and stretch the dough into the bottom of the pan. Arrange the pear slices on top and sprinkle with the almond topping. Bake.

Yum, inc.

Posted on February 1, 2012 and filed under Breakfast, Bread.

Maine shrimp and homemade cocktail sauce: a Northern winter delicacy

So, what delights of the season can you eat in mid-winter? In New England: nothing. Now that we finally have winter—hey, no complaints here about its lazy entrance—with snow and solidly frozen ground settling in, it’s time to step down to the root cellar for more celeriac and turnips, oh joy. But wait. I don’t have a root cellar. Carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, bolstered by kale and barley? Their novelty wears off by early December. With no trips to warmer climes in sight, we Northerners need a little boost of something special to tide us over until spring.

Enter the Maine shrimp. These tiny, delicate crustaceans are in season roughly from late December to early March, and they are well worth seeking out right now. This year’s season will be shorter and leaner than other years, making their consumption even sweeter. I toyed with making a Thai-inspired soup with rice noodles and plenty of chilies and ginger and lemon grass, but soup by the bucketful is already on the menu five days a week. It takes a while to peel enough of these babies to make a substantial pile of them to add to soup…. maybe another day, soon.

For the first shrimp of the season (which has been delayed as it is) I want to cook them in the Yankee spirit: plain and simple. Make a flavorful broth, throw in the shrimp for a nano-second, plunk them in ice water and voila! A feast! The super bowl members of the family should be elated to have a heap of these alongside the traditional chips and guacamole.

Now, for the real reason to eat shrimp: cocktail sauce. I have strong feelings about it. I don’t want prepared cocktail sauce with extraneous stuff in it. Call me a Yankee, but I want the good, old-fashioned kind made from Heinz ketchup, nothing fancy. It has three ingredients: ketchup, horseradish and lemon juice. No, garlic, chili sauce (whatever that is), and herbs. Yes, horseradish and lemon. As anyone who has ever shared a plate of oysters with me knows, be prepared for me to embarrass you by asking for a side of horseradish. Mignonette sauce is all well and good, but cocktail sauce stirs my soul. I’m not sure why—the childhood treat of shrimp cocktail in a fancy restaurant?—the sight of cold seafood inspires longings for the red, spicy dip, heavy on the horseradish.

I don’t see the point of buying pre-made cocktail sauce. Unless you eat it by the heaping spoonful, it will clog your refrigerator door for a year or two before you finally become annoyed enough to throw it out to make room for more important condiments. To make your own sauce is dead easy. You can buy prepared horseradish or you can buy horseradish root. Horseradish in a jar loses its potency after a while, and grated horseradish becomes bitter and weak quickly unless mixed with some acid (vinegar or lemon juice) so it is best to use it as soon as you grate it. A hunk of root should last a couple of months in the refrigerator before it dries out. Grate it as needed.

Boiled Maine shrimp (or, how not to make little rubber balls)

Serves 2 (recipe may be doubled, tripled etc.)

This method of cooking shrimp applies to all shrimp. DO NOT BOIL! Delicate proteins in shrimp seize when subjected to high temperatures. To POACH shrimp, the water temperature should be between 160 and 180 degrees. It will not be boiling, but will be hot when you test it with your finger. If you want to cook more shrimp, do it in batches of about 1 pound each to insure even cooking.

1 pound Maine shrimp

1 onion, sliced

Juice of 1 lemon

Lots of salt

Several peppercorns

2 to 3 bay leaves

1. Fill a large bowl with ice water and set it next to the stove.

2. Bring 2 inches of water to a boil in a wide, deep sauté pan. Add onion, lemon juice, juiced lemon halves, salt, peppercorns and bay leaves. Adjust heat to a low boil and cook for 5 minutes. Taste the broth. It should taste like well-seasoned stock.

3. Turn off the heat. Add shrimp and stir to keep it moving around so it heats evenly. If cooking larger shrimp or cooking more shrimp, turn heat on briefly to compensate for the heat loss caused by adding cold shrimp to the broth. Test with your finger to make sure it is hot, but do not let it boil.

4. Cook small shrimp for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. To test for doneness, break one in half. It should be opaque in the center.  Scoop it quickly into the ice water bath. Swish it around for a few seconds, to be sure it stops cooking, and drain. Serve with cocktail sauce and peel at the table.

Cocktail sauce

I like mine puckery and strong, so this is more of a guideline than a recipe. Start with small amounts of horseradish and lemon until you achieve the taste you like.

1/2 cup ketchup

1 tablespoon (more or less, to taste) finely grated horseradish, fresh or from a jar

Juice of 1/2 lemon, or to taste

A few grindings of black pepper if you like

1. Mix together and enjoy!

How to poach shrimp without making little rubber balls

Make a flavorful broth--be sure to add plenty of salt--and simmer for a few minutes. It should taste like well seasoned stock.

Turn off the heat and add the shrimp. If the broth cools too much from adding cold shrimp, turn on the heat briefly to bring it up to hot temperature (bravely stick your finger in it--it should feel hot!) You are aiming for 160 to 180 degrees. Don't let it boil!

Keep stirring the shrimp so that it cooks evenly (most of the heat is on the bottom, you need to distribute it.) Cook for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, until done. Break open one shrimp to see if the center is opaque. 

Use a slotted spoon or

spider

 to transfer shrimp quickly to the ice water bath. Swish around for half a minute, until cool. Drain and serve with plenty of napkins and cocktail sauce.

Posted on January 22, 2012 and filed under Main dish, Seafood, How To.