Gratitude, Day 4: Lettuce Soup, Or How I Realized I Was Rich

NOTE: I am a fan of 30-day challenges, and November is traditionally a time of two: National Novel Writing Month, and 30 Days of Thanks. As I am not a fiction writer, this year I have chosen to publish a daily blog for the entire month, expressing my gratitude. This may not be entirely food-focused, but expect recipes aplenty. Feel free to join me in the comments below. What are you thankful for today?

Luxurious abundance.
Luxurious abundance.

In 1996 when I moved to Seattle, I rolled into town with just $200 in cash (and no credit to speak of, plus one black cat and a car of dubious quality). Even back in 1996, before the construction boom that is currently overtaking the Pacific Northwest, this small change didn’t get me very far. I slept on the floor of a friend’s cousin’s house for a couple weeks, then moved quickly onto another floor of a stranger’s house in West Seattle after the cousin began to hit on me.

At that time, I had just a college degree, no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and about $75 left, so I applied at a local temp agency and quickly found work that paid every Friday.

Temp work was steady but didn’t pay well, and the end of the week often found me short of cash and hungry. Too proud at that point to apply for any kind of financial assistance from my new city, I solved the problem with what I had at hand: coffee.

Every morning I would drink a fortifying cup of coffee for the commute to work, then continue to drink copious amounts of coffee throughout the day, lightened with a considerable amount of milk and sugar. This got me through the day without lunch (except for the days when someone would bring in doughnuts or bagels), saved tons of money, and allowed me to pay my bills without applying for any kind of financial assistance (from the state or from my parents).

These days, I can still stretch a dollar until it screams, but as I look back on that time I realize how rich I actually was. I was educated and had a job and a safe place to sleep at night. These days in Baltimore, 20% of Baltimore’s children face food insecurity in that they have no idea where their next meal is coming from. They may not have a safe place to sleep, and their parents may not have the educational resources (or, let’s be real, the skin color) to easily secure even a temporary job.

A couple months ago, I learned about a local organization that helps remediate food insecurity and works to alleviate food deserts: Gather Baltimore. This organization uses volunteer labor in the fields and on the street to gather food that would otherwise rot or be thrown out. The food is sorted (with decomposing or inedible food going to compost) and packed into big blue Ikea bags to be sold for $7 to anyone who wants one.

These bags generally contain between 30 and 40 pounds of produce and are designed to feed a family of four for one week. Bags also often contain bread, crackers, and occasionally, chips.

While this amount of food can be a lifesaver, one considerable issue can arise: what do you do with ten pounds of lettuce? Or five pounds of jalapeños? Or that crazy, lumpy brown thing that you know is a vegetable but you have no idea how to actually cook it?

For people who lack basic cooking skills or too many extra ingredients, this can be a considerable challenge. I have used the Gather bag to make some delicious things I would not have otherwise made, including a spicy corn relish that I could eat my bodyweight in.

The lettuce thing actually happened once when I got a bag that  contained not only two heads of butter lettuce but also a two-pound bag of shredded iceberg lettuce. From this, lettuce soup was born. Overall, this entire recipe cost me about $2, as I made the vegetable stock from peelings and vegetables from the previous Gather bag, and the spices were purchased from the bulk section at MOM’s in Hampden for less than a quarter.

It may sound crazy, but lettuce soup has French roots and is often a light course in a sumptuous French meal. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.

Ingredients

1 large onion, chopped (at least one cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
½ teaspoon allspice
1 large russet potato, peeled and diced
5 cups vegetable stock
8 cups of lettuce, any kind, but tender-leafed lettuce (e.g. butter lettuce) works best
4 tablespoons of butter
Optional garnish: Greek yogurt or sour cream, chopped cashews, mild white cheese

Method

Heat two tablespoons of butter in a stockpot over medium heat. Add onions and cook for two minutes, then add garlic and cook for one minute more.

Season with salt and pepper, then add coriander and allspice and cook for one minute more.

Add potato, lettuce, and stock. Bring to a low boil, then turn heat down and simmer. Cook until potato is tender.

Puree the soup in one of two ways:

1. Working in batches, use a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.

2. Use a handheld immersion blender and puree in the pot.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve with optional garnish.

Image source.

Local Ingredients: Your Own Personal Hominy

You totally want this. For real.
You totally want this. For real.

Let’s talk about hominy, y’all.

My past perception of this humble little nugget was simple: a little trashy, a little low-rent, a little flavorless.

In short, I was a total douche about this particular ingredient.

Why?

Who knows?

As a quote from a long-forgotten character in a novel whose name I also forget said, “Sometimes it bees that way.”

But I digress. Point is, I was a snob about this humble little kernel of corn for no good reason.

That perception changed with a recent birthday dinner for my particular friend at Woodberry Kitchen.

My particular friend is a vegetarian who has been flirting with the idea of fish for quite some time. Although both of us believe that vegetarians can get plenty of plant-based protein, thankyouverymuch, there comes a time when it is simply easier to get animal-based protein (like, say, eating out).

Plus, fish is DELICIOUS.

So he figured that he would give fish another go at Woodberry, which, if I am being honest (as I always try to be), is potentially the best place to try anything new for the first time because Spike Gjerde and his brigade is the bees’ knees and you know whatever you order is going to be delicious.

So my particular friend ordered seared Maryland rockfish on a bed of hominy (among other things) and OH MY GOD.

Seriously.

That shit was good. Like, plate-mopping-with-homemade-bread-good. Eat-real-slow-to-make-it-last good.

Since that dinner I have become mildly obsessed with hominy. The word itself has been bumping around in my brain and, no lie, I had dreams about it once last week. I gave in and did some research then headed to the kitchen.

Hominy is basically corn that has had a good, long soak in a bath of something lime-y. In some applications, that bath is lye, which is tremendously terrible for you to actually eat and which this blog can absolutely not get behind. Lutefisk be damned – lye is not what you should be putting in your body.

In other cases, that bath is some mixture of wood ash and lime. Still sounds pretty scary. I like local, and since dried hominy was not available IMMEDIATELY (which is when I like things to be available), I picked up a can of Manning’s Hominy from the local Giant. Since nobody really knows what hominy is (except for Spike Gjerde, bless his heart), I wandered up and down the aisles until I reached that thin sliver of overlap that is “soul food” and “Hispanic food” in Giant.

It’s a thin sliver, but it exists. I should have taken a picture.

Manning’s Hominy has a Baltimore history and remains local to this day. It also happens to be the name of the road we used to live on in Georgia. #Destiny

Plus, bonus: it is steam-peeled and no additives (like lye) are included.

So I accidentally picked up this can of local hominy because truthfully it was the first one I saw in that little sliver of an aisle, and I just wanted to get my mitts on some of it to see what was what.

The contents of the can are patently unappetizing. The hominy is ghost-white and covered with slimy mush; the contents are “congealed” as the can itself says, and no one wants to hear “congealed” in  conjunction for what they are about to eat.

Pressing on, I used a fork to separate the little kernels and proceeded to prepare it two ways: toasted and served with Maryland rockfish (thanks, Spike) and roasted fennel, tomatoes and oil-cured olives (pictured above); and in a roasted chicken and hominy stew.

The corn flavor is subtle in both dishes, but the texture of the hominy adds something that is difficult to describe. It’s chewy without being sticky, and when toasted (it actually pops in the oven, which is unfortunate as my oven ceiling is now somewhat covered in hominy) it gets a nutty flavor that deepens the longer it cooks.

Dried out, it’s like Corn-Nuts, which are far too crunchy for their own good (plus too loud, which for someone who has misophonia like me is a nightmare).

Slowly simmered in stew, hominy picks up all of the flavors of the stew while still retaining its innate corn-ness.

SOLD.

Pictured above is one of  two specials using hominy in  this week’s dinner line-up.

They are both delicious, and you should definitely order them if you live in Baltimore, but this blog is not about that even though it sounds like a straight-up advertisement.

I love you too much for that.

This blog is really about the stupid preconceived notions that we hold on to for no apparent reason. This one has to do with food, but if you think really hard I bet there are other things you believe that you can’t even identify why you believe them.

Food is a powerful belief system tied to its role in our lives growing up, but other things – politics, sex, relationships, for example – are no less powerful examples of how we cling stubbornly to something because “sometimes it bees that way.”

Something as simple as tasting hominy – this humble little kernel of corn – after dismissing it for so many years makes me think about what else I have dismissed for no reason. What else have I written off? Who else have I dismissed?

What have you cast aside for reasons you can’t name? What is your own personal hominy?

 

 

On Words, Love, And The (Im)Perfect Crabcake

(Im)perfectly delicious, hon.
(Im)perfectly delicious, hon.

So I have been avoiding words. Words like these ones right here.

And yes, I am aware that I just used the phrase “these ones.” #IBlameTheSouth

I don’t know what it is about words. I find them alternately an abiding comfort and a deep frustration. I have hurled them as invective, used them like a lover’s caress, and felt them/rolled them around in my mouth, through my heart, and on the page.

But sometimes of late words have [quite literally] failed me. I have said the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong way.

I have received hurtful words from someone I love, most recently unintentionally (but intentionally in the past).

Sidebar: They both feel bad.

It’s enough to make me clam up altogether, which I am getting especially good at. Seems easier to say nothing than to say something I don’t mean or that will leave a lasting wound.

And then a few weeks ago I ran across this from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Fourth Mindfulness Training Guide:

“I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations.”

The idea is to monitor yourself and your words so that they are not harmful or rooted in anger or misunderstanding that will make things worse.

In short, “Seek first to understand, then be understood.”

Excellent idea.

Except we are all of us only human beings, yes? And as I like to [gratefully] acknowledge, this is a practice, not a perfect. I am still at the grasshopper stage, keeping my mouth shut and walking away.

But this is patently unhelpful in some situations where silence would only serve to deepen the rift or misunderstanding or hurt others, especially those who have had silence wielded like a sword in their past.

Which brings me to my recent connection of wabi-sabi as it pertains to humans. My particular friend lent me a book recently called Wabi-Sabi For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. Wabi-sabi is the Japanese philosophy/practice/way of life focused on accepting and celebrating the beauty of impermanence and imperfection in everything. That’s a thumbnail, but it gets to the root in a nutshell.

Richard Powell sums it up as this:

“Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

Certainly true for the wabi-sabi qualities in humans, human communication, and human relationships.

The trick here is to determine if you are willing to do the work anyway, to acknowledge the impermanence and imperfection and love (accept) all of that anyway.

According to Wabi-Sabi for Artists,

“The simplicity of wabi-sabi is probably described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence.”

This is a far cry from the passionate, loud, and impulsive words being hurled around of late, in my house and in the rest of the world. Wabi-sabi requires more contemplation and reflection and acceptance, but the last is hard to come by. It seems that acceptance is the thing that allows the words or the art or the love to flow.

I have lost many words of late. I don’t know if that’s a reflection of my lack of acceptance, but it is certainly highlighting my imperfection. Wabi-sabi is the fine line between something starting and ending, that moment when there is a shift. Maybe that’s what is happening.

So what’s with the crabcakes? How is this wabi-sabi?

Well, to start, crabs don’t give a fuck about decay and imperfection; they are one of the few bottom feeders that I will actually eat, mopping up whatever’s rotten on the bottom of the Bay.

They accept whatever is lowered into the depths at the end of a piece of cotton twine. Throw a ripe chicken neck off a dock and you will invariably hoist a few crabs from the murky depths.

In this pairing, they are also a continuation of experimentation in my kitchen, which is a good thing, and they represent a foundational element in my life. I grew up in Maryland, crabbing off the docks at Assateague as a child and picking crabs in someone’s backyard at least once a summer every year. When I am feeling at loose ends, it is a great comfort to me to come back to these touchstones in my life when I can reliably remember feeling at peace and without struggle.

So along with these words, here is some food for you.

Maryland Crabcakes With Green Papaya, Carrot, and Jicama Slaw

With Pineapple Vinaigrette

Ingredients

Crabcake

2 tsp. Old Bay

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 T Dijon mustard

2 slices bread without crusts, torn into bits

1 T mayonnaise

1 egg

Optional: 1/2 tsp Worchestershire (I am not convinced, but many would say this is essential.)

1 pound jumbo lump crab

 

Green Papaya, Jicama, and Carrot Slaw

1/2 cup green papaya, shredded

1/2 cup  jicama, shredded

1/4 cup carrots, shredded

1 large jalapeno,  finely sliced (keep some seeds for heat)

a handful of fresh pineapple, julienned

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

juice of one lime

1 oz.  pineapple vinegar (recipe below)

2 oz.  vegetable oil (or other light oil)

1/4 tsp. ground cumin

small garlic clove, finely minced

1/2 tsp. celery seed

salt and pepper to taste

Method:

Crabcakes

Combine Old Bay, parsley, mustard, mayonnaise, egg, and Worchestershire (if using) in a large bowl. Stir well to combine.

Add crabmeat and mix with your hands very, very gently. You want the crab to stay in big, fat, delicious chunks, barely held together.

Form into something resembling a cross between a meatball and a patty. For ease, I greased ramekins and packed the meat in there. Place in ‘fridge for 30 minutes while you make the slaw.

Heat a generous amount of butter (couple tablespoons) in a heavy frying pan. Place crabcakes gently in pan and fry until they have a nice crust and are warmed all the way through (about four minutes to a side.

Move to paper towels until serving.

Slaw

Combine the first six ingredients (green papaya, jicama, carrot, jalapeno, pineapple, parsley) in a medium bowl and squeeze the juice of one lime to coat the veg. In a small bowl, whisk together the last five ingredients (vinegar, oil, cumin, garlic, celery). Pour over vegetables and herbs, then season with salt and pepper.

Pineapple vinegar

In a saucepan, combine 8 oz. white vinegar, 8 oz. of fresh pineapple, and 1 tsp. of sugar. Bring to a rolling boil, mashing the pineapple a bit as it boils. Remove from heat and let cool, then strain to remove solids and place in ‘fridge.

Recipe notes

  • I used GF bread, but white bread is traditional, or Saltine crackers. If using Saltines, use about eight crackers.
  • JM Clayton crabmeat is the way to go if you are buying it. If you aren’t going to pick it yourself, don’t fuck around with crappy crabmeat in a can. This is an expensive recipe, to be sure, so save your money if you need to, but do it right. Or, do what I did and eat rice for a week for dinner so you can afford to test the recipe. #LifesFullOfTradeOffs
  • Fresh peaches make delicious vinegar as well. Swap the white vinegar for white balsamic and sub peeled, chopped peaches for the pineapple and proceed as above. Much more delicate flavor.
  • Turns out, I hate cabbage and cabbage hates me, so that’s why none is present. If cabbage loves you and vice versa feel free to add it in.
  • If you cannot find green papaya at your local Asian grocery store, feel free to use cabbage instead. It will change the flavors a bit, but using a lighter-flavored cabbage like Napa cabbage should keep things balanced.

 

 

 

 

Local Ingredients: Maryland Blue Crab

Image source


It seems fitting that the first local ingredient featured on this blog is the “beautiful savory swimmer,” callinectes sapidus. Common name: the Maryland blue crab.

Some of my fondest memories are of summer backyards filled with brown-paper covered tables, mallets and claw crackers or heavy knives at the ready, bright red crabs covered in Old Bay piled in the center of the table. A grill warming up for burgers and hot dogs. Cold beer, sometimes a pool, and family and friends sitting down to hours of intensive labor for a few piles of sweet, delicious crabmeat. 

My uncle Ben (for real) used to pick crabs for hours without eating them, amassing an enviable pile of sweetly spicy crabmeat that he would eat with a fork at the end of the day as we all looked on. My dad once stole a forkful of that pile, and fisticuffs were definitely imminent. Only the presence of children prevented that, I believe.

I, myself, was a crabber in my youth. A length of string and a chicken neck, the older the better, tied to a dock and soaked for just a little bit, could make anyone a crabber. I spent many happy hours, sitting on a dock of the Bay (for real), patiently pulling up the string, hand over hand, looking for the moving shadow that meant a blue crab had hitched a ride.

Blue crabs range from Nova Scotia to Argentina in the western Atlantic Ocean, hibernating in the colder months in the muddy bed of the Atlantic. Jimmies, male crabs, are easily identified by their Washington Monument-shaped apron, the flap on their bellies, while sooks, the females, have a wider apron.

It’s a boy!

Identifying males and females is important for the protection of the species. While sooks are sold for eating, jimmies tend to be larger, meatier, and more delicious.

 
I may have lied just then. I eat the boys only because the girls make more crabs. Boys are necessary in the process, which includes a jimmy gently cradling a molting female until she completes her molt, impregnating her, then cradling her again as her shell hardens before he swims off in search of another girlfriend, but let’s face it: one boy can make a lot of baby crabs. 
A mama, also called a “sponge crab.” That orange “sponge” is unhatched babies.

In 2014, the commercial blue crab harvest was 35 million pounds, an amount considered “sustainable” by the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee. Even though this is considered a safe amount of crab to harvest (with smaller crab fishermen and weekend warriors only bringing in a negligible amount), the blue crab is highly susceptible to pollutants and chemicals in their habitat. 


They are bottom-dwellers, bottom-feeders, corpse pickers: they like dead, rotting stuff for dinner, and they don’t really care what killed it. They remind me of a former bad boss, plus a few people I used to know. 
 
In short, they are nothing like what I normally eat, but SO DELICIOUS. 
 
It is important to note that while 50% of the country’s blue crabs come from the Chesapeake Bay, not all blue crab on offer is from Maryland. Cheaper crab can be had from Asian waters, and many restaurants will substitute that for more expensive crab from Maryland. And others who don’t know any better may prefer the lazy man’s crabs (Dungeness and Alaskan King) over the hard-won rewards of a Maryland blue crab’s labrynthian interior. 
 
But why mess with perfection?
 
The hibernation period of the blue crab (roughly from November to March) allows it to build up its fat stores, which results in a delicate, buttery flavor, unmatched by its larger crustacean cousins. Save those for things like quiche and crabcakes. 
 
The most authentic way to enjoy a Maryland blue crab is straight from the pot with a Natty Boh.
 
Purchasing notes: fresh crabs are best purchased right off the dock. Look for jimmies that are 6″ or larger from point to point. Don’t waste your time with smaller crab or sooks.
 
Cooking them is easy, and although some people fuss with fancy gadgets and the like, all you really need is a big pot with a lid, a Natty Boh, vinegar, Old Bay, and some aluminum foil. Thusly:
 
1. Use the aluminum foil to create a rope-like structure that you will curl and place at the bottom of the pot. You can buy a pot with a rack for this purpose, but unless you will also use the pot for canning, aluminum foil works just fine. You are steaming the crabs, not boiling them, and the aluminum foil curl lets them rest just above the liquid.
 
2. Crack open a Natty Boh (or a Pabst Blue Ribbon. No hipster, quadruple-hopped bullshit here) and pour it and an equivalent amount of water (or just below the aluminum coil). Add a splash of vinegar (white or cider), and bring to a boil. 
 
3. Add crabs. Add a layer of crab, sprinkle liberally with Old Bay, layer of crab, Old Bay, layer of crab, etc. 
 
Side note: You could use something other than Old Bay, but A) then you would be a moron, and B) that would be a ridiculous thing to do. So stick with Old Bay.
 
4. Place lid on the pot, then crack a beer for yourself and wait. Crabs are done when they are bright red, about ten or 15 minutes, or the time it takes for you to drink your beer. Which since Natty Boh is like barley flavored water, is about ten or 15 minutes.
 
Once they are done, what the hell do you do with them?
 
Maryland State Senator John Astle, a West Virginia native, knows how it’s done. 
Side note: the “inside stuff” is also known as “mustard.” Some locals eat the mustard, but I am not even remotely interested in this. Some people believe it is fat, but it is actually the crab’s hepatopancreas which filters impurities from the crab’s blood. So you would then be eating the impurities. #HardPass
 
Some people dip the crab in apple cider vinegar.

Some ignorant people ask for butter. #Unnecessary #WeAreOutOfButter

This year I cracked crabs on the front porch of Redwing Farm in Sinks Grove, WV. My uncle Steve and I drove down to the water that morning to pick up a half bushel, covered them with ice in a cooler (drain open; crabs will drown in fresh water), and eight hours later pulled them out of the pot to eat as the sun set over the ridge. 
 
It’s not too late to enjoy these beautiful swimmers, even if you don’t want to cook them yourself. As summer winds down and we look forward to the autumnal equinox, small boats are still out on the Bay, fishing for crab. The end of summer is the best time for crab; prices are down, sizes are up, and traffic on crab decks is light. 
 
Maryland blue crab is a true local ingredient and my penultimate summer food; what’s yours?