Sunday, November 23, 2014

Maryland Crab And Spinach Mac N' Cheese Lasagna

The past and the now. Old and new. A new recipe with familiar roots. With all of the preceding, there was first a history that led to the present and so it is with today's recipe.

Back in the early days of Phillips Restaurant in Ocean City, Maryland...back when Phillips offered some of the best seafood in town...there was a particular crab dish my sister, Jeanie, and I couldn't get enough of - Crab au Gratin.

Crab au Gratin was a  decadent dish of huge crab lumps and nothing else but a blanket of rich,  cheddary sauce cuddling the crab. No fillers, no extraneous ingredients hidden anywhere, just simple cheesy crabmeat. Perfection. And then Phillips changed. Their crab was brought in from all over the world instead of remaining locally sourced. The bigger Phillips got, the less we enjoyed the food. We sought better and went elsewhere.

In the intervening years since our crab and cheese indulgences, lobster mac n' cheese became a thing. Aha, another variety of crustacean and cheese sauce! Would it be as wonderful as long lamented Crab au Gratin? It wasn' least the version I had wasn't. Instead of a beautifully browned and crusty top layer of cheese sauce, what came on my plate was more like stovetop mac and cheese with bits of lobster hiding amongst the pasta elbows. Finding lobster was a search and rescue mission.

Besides, as succulent as lobster is, it's no match for sweet Maryland crab. Why not do my own version? Why not crab mac and cheese? How about a base of pasta and cheese with a light blanket of sauteed spinach, crowned by a thick layer of giant Maryland crab lumps and caressed by a rich, cheese sauce? My new crab dish became a sort of fusion of macaroni and cheese meets Greek pastitsio meets lasagna. Once again old inspired new.

Speaking of new, Maryland Crab And Spinach Mac N' Cheese Lasagna was the covered dish I took to Friendsgiving last night. A casual gathering of friends - both old and new - celebrated an early Thanksgiving with good food (Duxelles Roast Turkey, Bourbon Vanilla Bean Cranberry Sauce, Bourekas, Cheesecake-Stuffed Baked Apples w/Homemade Caramel Sauce...just the highlights) and drinks (fine wines - both homemade and store-bought - and a delicious Peanut Butter Cup cocktail), great stories, lots of laughs and even a few misty-eyed moments. It was an evening of made-over tradition...old to new...that I'm looking forward to again next year! 

Maryland Crab And Spinach Mac N' Cheese Lasagna

  • 12 oz. elbow macaroni, cooked al dente - I use Barilla gluten-free pasta to make this GF - use your own favorite macaroni, of course.
  • 1 lb Maryland jumbo lump crabmeat, picked through carefully for any shell or cartiledge - don't break up the lumps, please.
  • 4 T butter
  • 4 T cornstarch
  • 2 C milk
  • 1 C half & half
  • 1 1/2 t Old Bay seafood seasoning - accept no substitute!
  • 1/2 C sharp cheddar, shredded - plus extra for top
  • 1/2 C Swiss, shredded - plus extra for top
  • 1/2 C Italian Parmesan blend shredded cheese, plus extra for top
  • 2 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 1 t olive oil
  • 3 C sliced fresh spinach, stems removed
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed or minced finely

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and butter a shallow baking dish (2-3 quart size). Set the baking dish aside.

Melt butter in a medium sized pot over medium heat. Whisk in the cornstarch until the mixture is smooth. Gradually whisk in the milk, stirring until smooth, then add the half & half and whisk until smooth and the mixture thickens. Add 1/2 C each of cheddar, Swiss and Italian blend cheeses. Reduce the heat and stir until the cheeses are completely melted. Add cream cheese and Old Bay - stir until the cream cheese is completely melted. Set aside and keep warm. 

In a non-stick skillet, add the olive oil and warm over medium heat. Add spinach and garlic and cook until the spinach wilts. Set aside.

In a large bowl, add the cooked macaroni and pour 2/3 of the cheese sauce over top. Stir gently to thoroughly combine. Pour the mac n' cheese into the bottom of the buttered shallow casserole dish.

Pat any liquid in the pan of spinach off with a paper towel. Distribute the spinach evenly over the top of the macaroni and cheese layer. Gently scatter the gorgeous Maryland crab lumps over the spinach layer, spoon the remaining cheese sauce evenly over the crab and sprinkle the extra shredded cheeses over all.

Bake for 25-30 minutes until the top is beautifully browned. 

NOTE: I use cornstarch to make this gluten-free. If gluten isn't an issue, feel free to use all purpose flour.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Uber Umami Porcini Pork Chops

Even though the taste of umami was identified relatively recently, great chefs have been instinctively working with it almost forever. More potent than your common, ordinary food tastes, 'umami' definitely pushes the boundaries of everyday taste sensations. 

When I started working on my pork chop rub/paste, I didn't set out to produce an 'umami bomb." Just so happens, that's exactly what resulted! What's an umami bomb? A dish that's built of almost (or completely) umami ingredients. 

Let's back up here. I guess your first question is, "What IS umami anyway?" In addition to the tastes of sweet, salty, bitter and sour, it's a savory flavor. Think of the taste sensation you get from meats, especially pork and beef. To take it a step further, especially the flavor of cured or smoked meats. Not just meats, and seafood are rich in umami, the earthy taste of mushrooms, cheeses - particularly Parmesan, feta and blue veined varieties and even vegetables such as asparagus and garlic come into play, too. 

Fermentation produces vinegars, soy sauce and fish sauce that have double the wham with more than one umami trigger - fish sauce has both fish AND is fermented, Worcestershire sauce is also fermented and contains anchovies. Enough background. Just how did umami favors result in a totally delightful dish?

As I said above, I started with pork chops - umami already. There were dried porcini mushrooms in the cabinet so I put those in my spice grinder with black peppercorns and a few Szechuan peppercorns - whirrrr whirrrrr - porcini peppercorn dust. Next I added tamari, balsamic vinegar and garlic, mixed them into a paste, rubbed the chops and let them marinate overnight. 

Once grilled the next day, the flavors were deep, dark, rich, mysterious and intense. Total umami success! 

Uber Umami Porcini Pork Chops

  • 1/4 C dried porcini mushrooms
  • 12 black peppercorns
  • 5 Szechuan peppercorns

  • 1 T granulated garlic
  • 2 large garlic cloves, pressed or minced finely
  • 1 T wheat-free Tamari or soy sauce (I use wheat-free Tamari to make this gluten free)
  • 1 T balsamic vinegar
  • 2 T roasted peanut oil
  • 1 T agave
  • a sprinkling of Porcini & Salt  - a finishing salt that's mixture of sea salt, porcini mushrooms and herbs (I get mine at Gourmet Delights) to finish!

  • 4 nice, thick bone-in pork chops - I like center cut loin chops

Start martinating these the night before for maximum umami-ness or 4 hours in a pinch.

In a spice grinder, buzz the dried mushrooms and the black and Szechuan peppercorns together to a dust. Transfer to a medium bowl.

Add the rest of the ingredients (except for the pork chops) to the porcini peppercorn dust and mix to a well-combined paste, then evenly coat both sides of the pork chops with ALL of the paste.  Put the chops into a zip top plastic bag, squeeze out all the air, seal and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, grill the chops and serve with a sprinkle of Porcini & Salt for extra porcini - AND umami - emphasis!

NOTE: This was one of the last dishes I got to make for Mark, who gave it a highly enthusiastic thumbs up and a request for me to make them again SOON. We both thought they'd be pretty amazing smoked!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Apple Crisp

It has been QUITE a while since there's been a quickie on Dinner Plan-it. It's time!

What's even better than Apple Crisp? A crisp with oatmeal raisin cookie dough baked onto the top. Here's how to make what amounts to an oatmeal cookie apple pie ala mode dessert that's sure to be a family favorite.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Apple Crisp

  • 6 C apples, peeled, cored, sliced approx. 1/4" thick
  • 1/2 lemon 

  • 1/2 C flour (I use a good gluten-free all purpose flour to make this GF)
  • 1 t cinnamon 
  • 1/8 t nutmeg
  • 1/2 C sugar
  • 1/4 C brown sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 1/3 C butter, softened
  • 1/2 C oats (I use certified gluten-free oats to make this GF)
  • 1/3 C raisins
  • 1/4 C pecans, chopped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Butter a shallow casserole dish (I used the 2 1/2 quart size French White Corningware oval casserole dish (approx. 8 1/2" X 11") - it's the perfect size!) and scatter the apple slices evenly in the dish. Sprinkle the juice of the lemon over the apples to keep them from turning brown while you make the topping.

In a large bowl, mix together the butter and sugars with a fork. Add the rest of the ingredients and combine thoroughly with the fork - I've been known to just use my fingers (clean, of course!) and work the mixture until it's crumbly and combined.

Crumble the oatmeal cookie dough over the apples. Cover the dish with foil and bake for about 20 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking another 20 minutes or so until the apples are bubbly throughout and the cookie topping is beautifully browned. 

Cool about half an hour and serve warm with scoops of vanilla ice cream. 

NOTE: I like to use a nice tart apple that doesn't cook down to mush. You want an apple pie type apple, not an applesauce type apple. Try Granny Smiths, McIntosh or (my favorite) Stayman Winesaps.