Sometimes I think I know something about food and then I have a day like I did yesterday where everything is a fun new surprise and I realize how hopelessly out of touch I really am. But that's what learning is for! It started out with a Soft Shell Crab Sandie from the Chef Shack at the Mill City Farmer's Market. The whole crab, fried in a tempura batter, was served on a bun with lettuce, tomato, and an awesome pickled ramp tarter sauce. Ramps are like really big scallions and make everything taste better. I dispensed with the bun because I wanted to really taste the crab, which was not larger than the size of my hand, and feel its texture. The legs were definitely the best part, crunchy and salty, and would be a very popular appetizer if they weren't so small and expensive. The Crab Sandie season is now over, so I made it just in time. Whew!
A party invitation from my old friend Doug, who works at the wildly popular local seafood wholesaler Coastal Seafoods, meant it was time to make something to share. I wanted to try something new so I went to one of my favorite food bloggers, www.smittenkitchen.com, for the answer. I settled on cheese straws, a Southern and British staple that tastes like a cross between a Cheez-It and a breadstick. They are buttery and hot and delicious. Not hard to make, I just grated a bunch of extra sharp cheddar and Parmesan cheeses and blended them with flour, butter, and a variety of hot spices (chili flakes, peri-peri, and crushed chiquilins from Spain, in this case) and rolled them out. Then I used a pastry cutter to cut them into straws. I would have preferred thinner straws, but time was running out and I just wanted to get done! Either way, when you mix cheese and butter together good things are going to happen. They baked up to a pale golden hue and cooled off in no time. The perfect accompaniment to baby octopi and whole pigs, right?
I gathered the cheese straws in a serving dish and headed off to the party where two Berkshire pigs were already grilling away and had been for the better part of seven hours. I'm not going to lie to you, that surprised look the pig gives out is a bit disconcerting, like it was caught forever at that moment in time when his world crashed around him and he became nothing more than a delicious party favor. But let's be honest, you can get over that bummer pretty quickly once you taste pork, especially bacon. The first pig was torn apart without much effort as it had cooked long enough to fall apart itself. The meat was tender and flavorful and the only seasoning that was used was salt. Amazing. They also grilled up a whole pork belly with Mexican spices. I learned that the pork belly is basically uncured bacon. It looks like a slab of ribs, but fattier and without bones. When done they cut up the belly into chunks and we ate it pretty much right off the grill. It was fatty, but in a good way.
In the meantime, as we enjoyed Rush River Unforgiven Amber from the keg, Doug started to grill up some treats he brought from work. First up was a bunch of cute little baby octopi, marinading in a Jamaican spice blend that is no longer available here. That's probably for the best, however, because it almost blew my head off. I plucked an octopus smaller than the size of my palm that had the cutest tiny little suction cups on its tentacles, and used my teeth to tear it apart. It was chewy and weird, but in a good way, until the heat crept up on my palate. By the time I swallowed its head, my own head was ablaze. I love Unforgiven Amber, but it was not helping to cool off my tongue so I just drank it to try to forget the pain. A second baby octopus was not in the cards. Doug also brought a big bag of salmon collars. Did you even know salmon had collars? I didn't. I learned that the collars are the part left behind when the fillet is cut off the whole fish. They are not widely eaten but are good at a party because they're pretty much free. Doug marinaded them in soy sauce and ginger. I've never been a big salmon fan because of its strong flavor but I was excited for the salmon collars, hoping they'd change my mind. They didn't. That's okay, it's not their fault. I wish I did like salmon with all of its nutritional benefits, but I don't.
I'll never know if I like monkfish livers because I left before Doug prepared those. Once again, I didn't even think about a monkfish having a liver much less eating it. They looked pretty much like regular livers, maybe a little lighter in color, but with that well-known liver-y texture. I'm not sure how Doug ended up preparing those, he said he likes to make them into foie gras sometimes. But my Saturday culinary journey ended before then so I may never know. However, yesterday was a wonderful reminder that the world of food is an infinity pool of flavor and experimentation in which to swim and that there will always be something new to learn.