Monthly Archives: October 2004

Serendipity and Oysters

Late last night we came back from dinner at a friends’ house where we talked politics and made jokes and generally carried on in a manner that would not be approved of in our staid suburban town – at least not politically. The main dish was Chicken Marbella, from one of the Silver Palate cookbooks, which has been a mainstay main course in our circle of friends ever since my lovely partner in crime, Jan, managed to make enough of it for over 50 people for my 40th birthday and every one of those 50 was blown away by it.

But none of that has anything to do with this story. Eventually we packed up our tent and rolled home. Actually it wasn’t all that late – the next day was a school night. On our doorstep was a strange lumpy plastic ziploc bag that looked rather ominous in the moonlight. It was a package of ten HUGE raw oysters, still cold, still in shells. I shoved them in the fridge on the principle that I could find out if they were any good later.

But why were they there? A love offering from a neighborhood cat for our unlovely, ancient and weird cat? An unsubtle attempt at poisoning by one of the smaller minded people in town?

Fortunately I remembered that the previous night, at the progressive dinner (see previous IMBB post) one of our neighbors had mentioned a trip to Point Reyes and the purchase of oysters at Tomales Bay. I had mentioned how much we liked oysters – these were clearly our share.

Oysters of Serendipity

So tonight we had oysters of serendipity. After Grace’s soccer practice we only had 40 minutes before the family regathered from its scattered activities. I reheated lots of leftover garlic pasta (if you want the recipe use the handy dandy search bar on the top right and remember to leave it at searching Tomatilla, not the whole web). I heavily heated a chopped onion until it was crispy and brown. Then I shucked the oysters, reducing their number to eight when the smell of two of them put even my nose on notice. I retained the juice as much as possible and as few shell fragments as possible. Then the oysters went into the very hot pan without the juice and immediately started to brown on the down side. I flipped them and then added the juice and stirred a lot. Finally in went a whole bunch of cilantro finely chopped and a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice and some salt to taste. Serve sauce on top of a bed of garlic pasta.

It was totally fantastic. On the oyster scale of yumminess, ten is reserved completely for only two things. One is eating the oyster from Tomales Bay on the dock of the oyster farm literally seconds after they come out of the water. The other is the kaki sushi (raw oyster sushi) at Ebisu in San Francisco. Cooked oysters – including Rockefeller, barbecued, breaded and fried with lime juice – all come in at best around six or seven. Most oysters, particularly at ‘raw’ bars come in at about five.

Well this oyster dish came in at nine on the oyster richter scale.

IMBB#9 Terrine Time! The beginning and the end.

For the first time since I started taking part in IMBB I am forced to declare failure. I DID in fact make a terrine and I DID in fact serve it to sixty people as part of the appetizer course of our neighborhood progressive dinner. And several people even said they liked it. But I failed to take a picture and the terrine failed to hold together to make nice slices – since that is one of the nice things about a terrine – that the slices are pretty – I declare failure.

I’ll tell you about it anyway and I’ll send the write up in as an entry, but in my mind I failed.

I had decided that I would do a very rustic country terrine made up from what was surplus around the house and from what is currently fresh in the way of produce. I had made a very nice poached chicken dish a couple of days before and deliberately made extra so that there would be nice, soft, flavorful chicken for the terrine. I reserved all the broth and vegetables from poaching the chicken as well so I could reduce them down to a jelly to hold the terrine together. I decided that some mushrooms we had lying around and some beet greens would go well. The basic ingredients were coming together nicely.

Because of the beet greens I decided that red would be a nice overall color for the terrine jelly, so I took all the poaching liquid and vegetables and added a full bottle of cheap merlot and set it to simmer for more than two hours and then strained it and then returned it to simmering. Meanwhile I took a glass bread pan and started to put the terrine together. And this is where I made my fatal mistake. I had decided on red as a theme and I had a LOT of red peppers lying around from our CSA organic vegetable box. I thought they would make a very pretty top layer in the final terrine, so I cut them into thin slices and laid them lengthways thoroughly covering the bottom of the pan. Then I put in a layer of shredded chicken. I sauteed the mushrooms as dry as possible with garlic and made them the next layer. Then I caramelized some onions and made them the next layer. I wanted a contrast flavor so I diced up garlic marinated green olives for the next layer. Then beet greens (previously sauteed) and finally another layer of chicken.

Now for the medium to hold it all together. I will not inflict gelatin on my family because of mad cow disease. [Note of warning – food industry diatribe coming]. Gelatin is made from cow carcasses – lots of cow carcasses that are boiled down to extract the gelatin proteins from the bones and joints. There is one problem with this – these are indeterminate cow carcasses that come from anywhere. Lots of indeterminate cow carcasses. These all include the spine of the cow and the spinal cord and nerve tissue – they probably also include the brain. Mad cow disease is caused by a simple (relatively) protein molecule called a prion that is absolutely known to be in the nervous system tissue (like the spinal cord and brain) of cows. Since it is a protein, it isn’t necessarily destroyed by heating. In fact, despite lots of research, they don’t have any idea how much of the cow it gets into. The result is that commercial gelatin is essentially distillate of cow bone, with some of that cow bone containing nervous system tissue. The prion may or may not be destroyed by the boiling. I’m not going to take the chance. So no gelatin, no jello, no marshmallows, no gummy bears, etc.

Instead I use agar agar. It makes a jelly with a slightly grainy texture but it works fine. I added agar agar powder, let it all cool a little and filled the pan with it. I let it settle and filled again. Then I put plastic wrap around it and another pan on top and weighted it with cans. Into the fridge. About two hours later I poured of the liquid that had oozed out.

When time came for the progressive dinner I turned the terrine out onto a plate. It looked beautiful Meat, vegetables, etc. suspended in a deep red wine-colored jelly. Red pepper strips afloat on top.

Then it came time to slice it. The red pepper was tough, the jelly soft, the whole terrine fell apart into a giant pile of meat and vegetables encased in jelly. It did taste good put it wasn’t a terrine anymore.

What shall we do with the drunken Scotsman?

No stereotyping intended – at least two of them did get drunk. I should explain. Forthe last couple of years, our local recreational soccer league for kids has hired a team of young scotsmen (and a woman but she had already gone back to Scotland) to help inexperienced coaches coach kids in our league. They are all great people and great coaches. But they are young, keen on sports and Scottish – so they like their drink.

We and our friends hold a dinner party for them every year as a way of saying thank you and I get asked to make roast lamb. Last year I did a traditional red wine, garlic and herb lamb but this year I pulled out all the stops. I had the lamb marinated with a mixture of honey, mustard, garlic, rosemary and red wine. My assistant took it upon herself to add soy sauce to the marinade. This is always a surprisingly runny marinade because for some reason when you mix honey and mustard together you get something far more runny than either of them is seperately.

Grilled honey-mustard leg of lamb

I used three legs of lamb – each about three to four pounds butterflied (leg bone removed). I usually get them already butterflied because the lamb usually costs the same with or without the bone where I live. Marinate for at least two hours. Set up your preferred grill (large kettle in my case with charcoal) and let it get nice and hot. Brush the grate with olive oil and set the lamb on it skin/fat side down. Cover and adjust to keep hot but not blasing flames. Typically you need to grill for about twenty minutes per side for a four pound butterflied leg of lamb. But test and keep testing when you get near the end. You want the middle still red but not jelly-raw-like. I got it really right this time. Nice rich deep red-brown on the outside, pink shading just to red in the middle.

In the meantime simmer the rest of the marinade sauce gently. If it is too strong on honey or mustard, add more red wine to thin down to a decent taste.

We served this with a rice pilau made in the rice cooker with lots of onion, garlic, black peppercorns, cloves and cardamom seeds. I also did my usual mix of greens – in this case mustard, collard, spinach and arugula with lots of garlic, red chilli flakes and ginger plus soy sauce and balsamic vinegar. We also had the infamous cilantro sauce.

The Scots lads also had several six packs of beer (Fat Tire, Negro Modello, Guinness, Harp Lager and Red Tail Ale) and we all had a couple of nice pinot noirs. Or maybe it was three. It was hard to keep track of the lads’ prodigious intake. They liked the food too.

Exhaustion and Terrines and Progressive Dinner Parties

How’s that for a multi-subject post!

Let’s do the terrines first. Derrick of An Obsession With Food is hosting the next IMBB event. The subject is terrines. I have never actually made a terrine before unless one thinks that a nutloaf qualifies. While it was a superlative nutloaf (shiitake and portobello mushroom with parsnips and hazlenuts) and technically it fits the description, I just don’t think the word nutloaf (aka bane of vegetarians everywhere) can really be acceptable in the same social strata as a terrine (heh – just realized that a strata can also be a terrine – I’m on a roll, I’ve lost my loaf and I’m an addle pate).

Our block is also having a progressive dinner party that same weekend. These are where we have one course at one person’s house, the next at another’s and so on. It’ll probably be over 40 people so it is mostly a potluck kind of affair. Unfortunately, while several of the participants also qualify as progressives in other areas, I’m afraid that many if not most do not. I will get to test a minor hypothesis of mine which is that on the whole more progressive people cook better than more conservative people. Maybe conservatives make better jam?

So why is this rambling aside pertinent? Because I will make my terrine as a contribution to this movable feast. Quite what it will be is up in the air since I said I would contribute an appetizer, main course or dessert dependent on where the need arose. So my terrine will be a surprise this time.

On the subject of IMBB, there is now a wonderful new site devoted to the theme of IMBB and covering news of it and the related Wine Wednesday event and a new sweet Friday event. I can’t give you all the links. I’m too tired. So just go to Is My Blog Burning?, recipes of the people, by the people and for the people to get all the latest news.

By now you have realised that I am rambling more than even I normally do. This is because I am tired – very tired. I am punishing myself by getting up at 5:30 AM three times a week and going to do a swimming workout devised by a master of ancient tortures, also known as a triathlon coach. No, I am NOT going to do a triathlon. I just go for the swimming workout. So far I haven’t lost a single pound. But I am a LOT more tired.