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Chesapeake oysters and rockfish

The way to anyone’s heart on Valentine’s Day is through their stomach. That means seafood in our neck of the woods.
    The recreational season for rockfish is closed, but the commercial season is in full swing. Caught in the cold winter waters of the Chesapeake, these stripers will be extra fresh and tasty. Purchase one generous fillet for each guest. The flesh should be firm, never slimy, and have a pleasing smell with a slight sweet edge.
    My favorite appetizers are oysters, well chilled and on the half-shell. A dozen oysters will do for two people.
    Rinse the oysters well and scrub them with a stiff brush; otherwise some of the grit may get transferred onto the meat. Opening an oyster is easier than it looks, and you don’t need specialized equipment. I often use just a flathead screwdriver and a stout glove for my left hand as I am a righty. With a gloved hand, hold the oyster firmly against a wooden or similar non-slip surface with the domed side down and insert the screwdriver or oyster-shucking knife. Dig it into the hinge and give it a good firm twist until the muscles that hold it closed are separated.
    Next insert a slim, sharp blade or the oyster knife between the two shells. First, angle the blade up against the flatter side of the oyster to cut through the muscle holding the meat to that part of the shell. Then remove the top shell and do the same to the lower half. Be careful not to spill any of the oyster liquor. Carefully place the half-shell on a plate covered in crushed ice.
    Inspect the oyster for bits of shell or debris and carefully pick out any you find. Never rinse an opened oyster, as this washes away the flavor. Put a half-dozen on a plate and cover with plastic wrap if you’re not serving them immediately. Lemon and Tabasco are my favorite condiments, though many like a simple horseradish or cocktail sauce.
    Rockfish can be quickly and reliably rendered with a type of pan broil. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Slather the fish in olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and ground pepper. Place the fillets in a hot, heavy skillet — cast iron is ideal — and quickly brown on one side. Then turn, adding more oil if necessary. After about a minute transfer the pan to the oven for about 15 minutes. The fillets are done when they flake firmly.
    Just before serving, anoint the fillets with melted lemon butter; then dust with paprika and chopped fresh dill. Large steamed carrots served in four to five inch sections are especially good this time of year. Cooking them in large pieces preserves just an extra bit of the sweet, earthy flavor.
    Yukon gold or red-skinned potatoes diced, steamed until they’ve just become tender (about 10 minutes) and sprinkled with parsley are also an excellent side dish, as is steamed, fresh spinach, drained well and anointed with a bit of mustard vinaigrette.
    For desert, try my quick Cherries Jubilee recipe that has pleased friends and family over the years. Place shallow bowls with generous ice cream servings in the freezer before dinner to make things quicker. After everyone has eaten and the plates have been cleared, open a can of cherry pie filling. You may want to conceal the can to maintain a bit of mystery.
    In a shallow saucepan, melt two tablespoons of butter; add most of the pie filling. Gently stir until combined, then add in the contents of a mini bottle of cognac or brandy (one and a half ounces) and mix again. Serve the bowls of ice cream, then pour more of the liquor over the cherries and carefully light on fire. Pause for effect before ladling out the still burning mixture over each ice cream. Bon appetite!

Sesame Peanut Butter Noodle Salad

Use kid-favorite peanut butter to upgrade packaged ramen to a cold noodle salad packed full of flavor and great grains, nuts and vegetables.

For the Sesame Peanut Butter Sauce

1 large clove garlic
2 tablespoons tasted sesame oil
3 tablespoons natural smooth peanut butter or almond butter
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger (optional)
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from about 3 limes)
2 tablespoons tamari
1½ teaspoons granulated sugar

 

For the Noodle Salad

4 ounces gluten-free soba noodles
½ teaspoon olive oil
1 red bell pepper
1 cucumber
1 carrot
4 green onions
¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves, optional
¼ cup shelled, unsalted peanuts
1 tablespoon sesame seeds

 

    In a food processor, combine garlic, sesame oil, peanut butter, ginger, lime juice, tamari, sugar and 2 tablespoons water. Process until well combined.
    Cook the soba noodles according to package instructions. Drain and rinse under cold water. In a large bowl, toss with olive oil to prevent sticking.
    Thinly slice or julienne bell pepper, carrot, cucumber, and green onion. Roughly chop the cilantro, if used, including its soft stems.
    Add bell pepper, cucumber, carrot, green onions, peanuts, cilantro, then peanut sauce to noodles and toss to combine.
    Divide into 4 servings. Individual portions can be frozen; defrost overnight.

Keep it simple to start

The thrill of catching a trophy rockfish leads to a second act in the kitchen and a third at the table, for rockfish are very good to eat.
    It’s high season here in the heart of rockfish country, where Maryland recreational and commercial anglers catch more than four million pounds each season.
    Having made my own share of that catch, I have experimented with any number of approaches and made a couple of basic discoveries on how to prepare this delicious fish.
    First and foremost: Don’t overdo it. Complex recipes with multiple ingredients, flavors and cooking sequences will generally overwhelm the succulent flavor of the fish.
    My standard strategy is to keep it simple.
    Starting with a fillet or two, blot the fish dry, coat lightly with a good olive oil and add a generous amount of salt and pepper, fresh-chopped dill and a dusting of paprika.
    Put fillets under the broiler in a shallow pan as close to the heating element as you can for 10 to 15 minutes or until the fish is browned on top and flakes firmly.
    Vary this dish by adding a simple sauce. The basic is tartar sauce, served on the side. Never use a ready-made variety. It is too easy to make your own, and it is invariably better.
    Chop small a half-dozen cornichon pickles and a heaping teaspoon of capers, if you like. Mix with two or three heaping tablespoons of an olive oil-based mayonnaise (Hellman’s is my favorite) and add a good squeeze of lemon to taste. You’ll never do it any other way.
    For a special occasion or guests, make a quick Hollandaise sauce. Put two egg yolks, two tablespoons of fresh lemon juice and a good pinch of cayenne pepper into a glass bowl and whisk them well. Just before serving, melt a stick of butter in a saucepan until it just starts to brown. Slowly add it to the egg yolks while constantly stirring until the sauce is well mixed, smooth and frothy.
    Pour the Hollandaise over your fillets with a few capers sprinkled about for a great presentation. Or serve the sauce on the side in a warm gravy boat, so that your guests can decide how much to use.
    If your true love is fried fish and you’ll never be satisfied with it prepared any other way, I recommend the following method.
    Mix well an egg, a tablespoon flour and just enough beer or cold soda water to make a medium-thick slurry. Spread over a large dinner plate a generous amount of Panko (Japanese bread crumbs). Rinse and dry the fillets well, then dip them in the slurry, coating them thoroughly. Next, place them in the Panko, pressing down firmly to completely cover with crumbs. Refrigerate for an hour or more in advance of preparing the meal.
    In a large, heavy skillet pour in about half an inch of peanut oil (corn oil will do almost as well) and heat to about 400 degrees or just before it begins to smoke. Ease in each fillet and turn when the first side is golden brown. Remove when both sides are crispy, and serve immediately with a side of the tartar sauce described earlier or a spicy hot sauce such as Texas Pete’s or Cholula.
    Side dishes can be almost anything. I recommend fresh asparagus, now in season, fresh sliced tomatoes in their time or diced and steamed new potatoes with butter and parsley. A chilled Pinot Grigio goes great with the broiled fish; Rockfish Pale Ale goes especially well with the fried variety.

Fish, fowl, venison — and winter greens

Eating wild is a priority at my family’s table. During the Christmas and New Year holidays, we feature treats we’ve harvested from the wild. Following are a few favorites.

Appetizers

Rockfish Ceviche

Two rockfish fillets or other firm, white fish (about 1.5 lbs.), sliced into pieces approximately
½ x 2 inches
1 Tbsp. salt
2 Tbsp. olive oil.
1½ large sweet onions, cut in half lengthwise, then very thinly sliced
2 to 3 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
1 to 3 jalapeno peppers, chopped
4 lemons
4 limes

    Put fish in glass. Add all ingredients, then gently mix. Add freshly squeezed juice of lemon and lime to cover the ingredients in the bowl. Gently mix again so that all pieces are exposed to the juices. Cover and refrigerate at least five hours, better yet, overnight.
    Taste and adjust spices. Serve drained on a bed of lettuce with a garnish of thinly chopped spring onions plus a side of French or artisan bread or your favorite crackers.

Broiled Breast of Dove

    Wrap each dove breast in a piece of thick-cut, smoke-cured bacon. Broil in oven, turning once.
    Remove when bacon begins to crisp. Serve with a dusting of paprika.

Entrées

Waterfowl Medallions

    Fillet breast meat from a goose or duck and, slicing against the grain, cut into medallion-sized pieces abou three-quarters-inch thick. Marinate overnight in olive oil, rosemary, minced garlic, salt and pepper.
    Drop pieces individually onto a hot cast-iron skillet and quickly brown both sides. Remove and store in a shallow bowl in warm oven.
    Deglaze the skillet with one-half stick butter and one-quarter cup brandy. Drizzle over the browned medallions. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.

Venison Tenderloin

    Cut a 12- to 18-inch section of venison tenderloin, rub with coarse-grained salt and puncture thoroughly with a fork. Marinate overnight in olive oil, chopped basil and generous amounts of minced garlic and fresh-ground black pepper.
    Prepare grill and scatter wet mesquite chips over charcoal (if using a gas grill, wrap wet wood chips in foil and puntcure several times with a fork). Cook covered but with vents open. Turn once. Remove when internal temperature of the roast reaches 120 degrees. Cover with foil and let stand 15 minutes.
    Melt one stick butter, add a good squeeze of fresh lemon, stir and drizzle over sliced tenderloin. Serve garnished with pickled green peppercorns and a dusting of paprika.

Collard Greens

    Rinse, stem and chop two pounds of greens. Combine in saucepan two bottles of beer, two tablespoons olive oil, one-half cup chopped country ham and salt and pepper. Add greens and simmer until tender.
    Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Bon Appetit!

Buying local? Try vinegar lulled for five months in a skipjack’s hull

     The taste of place is about the best translation English can give to the French word terroir. The idea comes from the vineyards of France, so it doesn’t have to jump far into the vinegar barrel.
    Still, it’s a bit of a leap into the hold of the skipjack Rosie Parks, a ­vintage Eastern Shore oyster boat.
    Rosie Parks was built in 1955 by legendary boat builder Bronza Parks of Dorchester County for his brother, Captain Orville Parks, and named for their mother. Her hold was framed to contain oysters, not vinegar. But in 1975 she changed careers to sailing ambassador for Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and the Bay’s dwindling skipjack fleet. In 39 years, she’s taught many a lesson of maritime terroir. But imparting the terroir of boat and Bay to a barrel of Italian vinegar is a brand new assignment.
    “The Rosie Parks has such rich history on the Chesapeake,” says Bill Acosta, owner of Olivins Aged and Infused Fine Olive Oils and Vinegars Tasting Shop in St. Michael’s, home of the museum and its historic skipjack. “We wanted to create a special balsamic vinegar that gives people a real sense of place, with an exceptional taste and to support the museum in a meaningful way.”
    To create a special vinegar with a real sense of place, on July 10 a five-gallon barrel of Balsamic Modena was loaded into the skipjack’s hull. There it will remain for the next five months, its aging accelerated by the gentle motion of the boat at its dock along the Miles River. And, this year, the not-so-gentle motion as Rosie Parks joins her kind for races in Deal Island on Memorial Day and Cambridge in September.

    “Aging barrels aboard boats started out in history as a necessity, as most trade occurred over waterways,” explains museum chief curator Pete Lesher. “A boat’s movement can speed up the process of aging, whether it’s spirits, vinegar, or another liquid. We’re very excited to taste the results of these efforts.”
    The wooden barrel is made of toasted oak, which will flavor the vinegar. “Even the temperature changes aboard Rosie Parks will influence the taste of this special blend,” said Acosta. “The barrel expands and contracts as the temperatures rise and fall, infusing the vinegar with undertones of toasted oak.”
    Rosie Parks Balsamic Vinegar should be ready for sale the day after Thanksgiving. The 60 six-ounce bottles will, Acosta says, “be antique and nautical looking, labeled with local artist Amy Ostrow’s painting of the Rosie Parks sails up at sunset.” Acosta expects each to be priced at $20 to $25 and sold at his St. Michael’s shop. A portion of each sale goes to the museum.

Wild Orchid chef takes over Sam’s kitchen

It’s a new year. With the flip of a calendar comes a chance to renew, refresh and remodel.
    In Annapolis, the new year offers opportunity for two local restaurateurs to help each other.
    Andrew Parks, owner of Sam’s on the Waterfront, has announced his new executive chef, Jim Wilder. Chef Wilder recently closed his Westgate Circle restaurant Wild Orchid after a difficult three-year tenure.
    Timing is everything, so hopes Parks, who has struggled to consistently employ an executive chef in the eight years he has owned the waterfront restaurant built in 1986 by his grandfather, the original Sam.
    Each man endeavors to bring the best of his farm-to-table vision in this new marriage of culinary talents. Each restaurant has — or has had — the green restaurant certification.
    At Sam’s, Parks takes the front-of-house role with Wilder running the kitchen.
    In the past, Wilder has worked both ends of the operation, with 13 years at the helm of his highly regarded Eastport Wild Orchid his pinnacle, to the head-scratching move to the behemoth at the Severn Bank Building — a move that would be his undoing.
    Few understood Wilder’s decision to sell the warm and comfortable 40-seat Eastport café in 2010 and move to the 250-seat former Greystone Grill on the other side of town.
    That decision “was not based on sound business models. I had to keep my mind occupied,” Wilder said, after the untimely death of his and wife Karen’s son, Andrew Wall, from brain cancer in 2009. “It was the bottom. And I deal with depression by keeping busy. Depression drove me.”
    Building a dream kitchen provided a needed distraction from grief. It also afforded access and opportunity to expand Wilder’s Company’s Coming catering business, along with a large floor plan that offered him ideal accessibility for his wheelchair.
    The dream was not meant to be. The restaurant closed in July 2013.
    Parks has his own challenges keeping Sam’s profitable and relevant. Hidden within the gated Chesapeake Harbour Marina community, the restaurant is difficult to find. Warm weather brings boaters out and swells the population of Chesapeake Harbour, where many residents are summer only. Still, Parks estimates that 80 percent of his business comes from outside the community. Getting diners in the door is an ongoing pursuit. Parks hopes hiring a well-known chef will do the trick.
    Chef Wilder brings his most popular dishes to the menu. Butternut squash soup with crab, scallops Napoleon and pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon join Sam’s favorites: lobster mac ’n’ cheese, rockfish and Kobe burgers (half-price on Tuesday).
    The transition has been subtle thus far, though Parks is enthusiastic about a new winter menu and many collaborative surprises to come.

Got a tasty tip for a future’s Dish? Email Lisa Knoll at thedish@bayweekly.com.

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