Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cross Country for Crabcakes


Yup, Baltimore. To eat and post about all the great food there.  YES, Baltimore.  YES, for food. YES.  Is this thing on? 

This trip has been almost 10 years in the making.  Lexi's Favorite Restaurant Anywhere is located in Pasadena, Maryland so it's gonna be a Girls' Trip to take Gwen to dinner. 

Baltimore is really underappreciated as a food destination, mostly because folks have a hard time differentiating between blue collar food and blue collar culture.  I know, I know, Tony Bourdain calls BTown a "Rust Belt" city.  Sure, it's industrial.  But it's also been situated right on the shores of Chesapeake Bay for hundreds of years and that means a rich and storied seafood tradition by folks who have learned to make the best with what they've got.  And lemme tell ya, it's good.

Some people may think this is what Baltimore food is about:
Those people are wrong.

Both of us were raised on the pebbly shores of Puget Sound, and admittedly we're totally spoiled when it comes to seafood.  We grew up with clams, mussels, oysters, crab, salmon, cod and all manner of seafood practically at our doorstep.  As much as we love local seafood, we're totally down for trying new experiences and new traditions when it comes to fishy goodness.  Hence: Baltimore - first stop: Crabtown!

The native Puget Sound Dungeness Crab.  Note the size.

In the Northwest, you get more or less 1 crab per person.  The local dungeness are big, and the meat is sweet and easy to pick.  It also shreds easily and getting true lump meat from a dungeness is nearly impossible.  If you get just one bigger Alaskan crab off of a boat,  it's a crab party for 4!

In the Pacific, crabs get big.

The Atlantic has smaller blue crabs.  They eat 'em by the bushel in Maryland: steamed and pasted thickly with old bay, lumped into crabcakes, cooked into soups and stews.  Ordering crabs by the dozen?  That's crazy talk!  We've gotta do it.

Atlantic Blue Crab.  How tiny and cute!  I'll take a dozen.

Baw'lmer is going to be a seafood tour extraordinaire.  The restaurants are working class simple, with little decor and low ceilings.  The drinks are stiff and the beer tends to be either Budweiser or Yuengling.  And every place worth a damn has crab, crabcakes, stuffed quahogs, stuffed flounder, fried softshell crab, steamed shrimp, the list goes on and on... And Old Bay is an option everywhere.  It's really the first American Curry.  But more on that later...

The blue collar difference in the attitude about seafood is most evident in restaurants.   In Seattle, you order by the plate. In Baltimore, you order by the pound.  The west coast serves very spartan, usually Asian-influenced seafood dishes:

How it's done out West:  Note the elegant photography, the restrained presentation, the clean white plate. There's a chilled glass of white wine and a clean linen napkin somewhere in there too... the wine is probably some oaky overpriced chardonnay with a pretentious name.

How it's done back East:  Awwww Yeah!  A big ass pile of steamy, spicy crabs dumped onto a table covered with newspaper to be picked clean by hand and served with pitchers of cold lager.

While we're gone, eating our way through the Eastern Seaboard, posting will be suspended for a week.  HOWEVER, if you have suggestions for where we should go, ideas on what to eat, or just generally want to follow what we're up to, we'll be constantly on twitter @feastygeeks.  If you're in the area and want to meet up, let us know!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Skyrim Treats: Moon Sugar

Moon Sugar; sweet and mysterious
Wander the roads and byways of Skyrim, and eventually you're bound to run into a rough encampment by the side of the road on the way into town. These clusters of tents are temporary trading posts set up by the nomadic Khajiiti, a feline race from the exotic desert land of Elsweyr. Here you can buy and sell goods many merchants in town will avoid, including the less-than-licit moon sugar.

Pure, uncut, from the wilds of Elsweyr. The first sample is always free.
Image source Bethesda Game Studios.
Moon sugar is described as a crystal made from the canes of certain grasses in Elsweyr. It has magical properties, can be used as an alchemy ingredient, and is a strong narcotic. It's illegal in much of Tamriel: in Morrowind many shopkeepers won't even do business with you if you're carrying the stuff (not so in the more lawless land of Skyrim). Refine it, and you have skooma.

The in-game picture shown above depicts pale but not colorless lumps or chunks of various sizes. It reminded us immediately of rock candy.  Figuring that nobody really wants to wait a whole week for traditional rock candy to crystallize, eventually we found this easy microwave hard candy recipe, upon which we based the recipe below.

The land of Elsweyr is an exotic, somewhat mysterious desert land with a rich religious tradition, including some pretty hefty mythology about the moons of Tamriel: Masser and Secunda. There's plenty of in-game talk about Moon Sugar, but nothing specifically about which one, so it made the most sense to do a version for each moon.  

Masser and Secunda
Image Source Bethesda Game Studios
Masser is floral and sweet, while Secunda is dark and mysterious.  The resulting Moon Sugar(s) should be laden with subtle flavors which seem familiar but foreign to the average Nord, as if one can't quite put their tongue on just what they're tasting...

Early recipes started with vanilla sugar and vanilla-cardamom sugar (vanilla bean pods and/or cracked cardamom pods scraped into a cup or two of sugar and left for a week to absorb the spices). That makes a good base, but I learned after a few trials that plain hard candy made this way will have a honeylike taste which tends to overwhelm the mildness of the vanilla. So it was back to the drawing board.

Eventually I came up with two good variations. The first was made with lavender sugar (made by putting two Tbsp of culinary lavender in with the vanilla sugar and letting it sit for a week, then sifting out the lavender). The end result is subtle and floral, with a lovely translucent golden color to it.

Top: Sumac Moon Sugar (Secunda)
Bottom: Lavender Moon Sugar (Masser)
I realized after I made it, however, that at least one of the recipes we came up with should fit the in-game Khajiit culture where it's made: dry, desert lands, exotic, distant, hot. Lavender is lovely, but it's a much more European herb: I always think of France when I think of lavender, and Lexi always thinks of the tundra around Whiterun. A better analog for Elsweyr would be some place like Arabia or North Africa, and the spice would be something grown and used heavily in the region. 

It also occurred to me that any flavor we chose would have to fit in with a future Elsweyr Fondue recipe, which uses Moon Sugar as an ingredient.  So instead of another sweet, floral herb found on the roads of Skyrim, we used Sumac.

I can hear you now: "What the hell is sumac?? Isn't that the poisonous stuff that gets you all itchy if you run into it in the woods??"

Well, that's poison sumac, yes... but culinary sumac is an entirely different animal. (Well, plant, really.) It's a small shrub which grows in tropical and subtropical zones across Africa, in dry desert lands much like the Khajiit homeland. The fruit is dried and ground into a rich purplish-reddish powder and used in Middle Eastern cooking. It's a little bit lemony, a little like cumin, and a little bit delicious and unfamiliar.

Here's the final recipe. For the Masser version, leave out the sumac.

1 cup vanilla, vanilla-cardamom, or lavender sugar (use standard white sugar only)
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1 Tbsp sumac (for the Secunda version only)
Vegetable oil (a flavorless oil like canola) or vegetable shortening
1-2 Tbsp powdered sugar

Oil or grease a jelly roll pan. Mix the flavored sugar and corn syrup in a microwave-safe bowl.

Cover tightly with plastic wrap and microwave for 3 minutes. Remove from microwave and stir. Cover again and microwave for another 2 minutes. Add the sumac at this point, if you're making the Secunda version.

Remove from microwave, remove plastic wrap, and pour mixture onto oiled/greased jelly roll pan.
You can dust with powdered sugar at this point, but there's an easier way. See below.
Let cool until hard. Break into large chunks. Put the large chunks into a heavy-duty freezer bag, seal, and break them by tapping firmly with the side of a wooden spoon. Add powdered sugar to the bag and shake to coat pieces.

Store in an airtight container.

We can neither confirm nor deny that this recipe will have you yowling to the full moon like a wild feline on a hot summer's night. You'll just have to try it yourself.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Crunchy Frog

Crunchy Raw Unboned Real Dead Frog (to avoid prosecution)

The Crunchy Frog is a standard reference for all Monty Python afficionados.  The original 1969 sketch featuring Inspector Parrot and the Whizzo Quality Assortment is classic.  Tragically, there's a whole generation who aren't familiar with Monty Python and have never heard of a Crunchy Frog.  At my recent visit to PAX, only a very, very few recipients understood the reference.  It was a sad day in my geeky little world.

But fear not, good readers!   The crunchy frog is alive and well in a new modern interpretive crossover meme: the Harry Potter Chocolate Frog.  I couldn't decide whether to be pleased or saddened when Tycho, upon recieving one of these chocolates (that were actually labled 'Crunchy Frog'), commented on Harry Potter.  For the briefest of moments, I considered a wand and a well placed Crucio!  But at the end of the day, the fact that these candies can be equally enjoyed by both Potter and Python fans is actually kinda cool.

The main distinction between Crunchy Frog and the Chocolate Frog is this: The Crunchy Frog is a Real Dead Frog covered in Chocolate, while the Chocolate Frog is a Magic Live Frog made from Chocolate.  See the difference?
Insp. Praline: Am I right in thinking there's a real frog in here?
Mr. Milton: Yes. A little one.
Insp. Praline: What sort of frog?
Mr. Milton: A dead frog.

Since we originally went for Monty Python in this recipe, the idea was to create the experience of biting into a dead frog.  Real frogs are both a) hard to come by and b) disgusting, so instead I came up with the idea of filling a chocolate frog mold with red jelly and something crunchy.

Insp. Praline: Well don't you even take the bones out?
Mr. Milton: If we took the bones out it wouldn't be crunchy would it?

Honestly, the hardest part was finding chocolate frog molds that weren't cartoonish.  I ended up finding a pretty good mold here.  We decided to fill them with raspberry jelly and pretzel sticks, for that 'real dead frog' experience.  To make the Harry Potter variation, just leave out the fillings, and make a solid chocolate frog in the mold.

The addition of the candy eyes was an afterthought, but it really make them look great.  Also, making your own raspberry jelly is pretty time consuming.  After giving it much thought, I made the executive decision to use premade jelly sticks.

16 oz Dark or Bittersweet Chocolate - Either chips, or chopped up block chocolate.
8 oz Melting Chocolate, Almond Bark, or Candy Melt
2 Tbsp Chocolate Thinner (available at specialty baking shops)
24 Raspberry Jelly Sticks or small jelly candies
Small Pretzel Sticks
Small candy eyes (optional)

1. Melt the chocolate with the melting chocolate.  Directions abound.
2. If the chocolate is not runny like syrup, add the chocolate thinner.
3. Using a pastry brush, brush the molds with melted chocolate. This ensures that chocolate gets into all the little details in the mold.
4. Let the molds cool and set for a few minutes.
5. Add a broken raspberry stick and as many pretzels as you can fit into each frog mold.

6. Fill the molds with chocolate.
7. Place in the freezer for 15 minutes to set, then pop out of the molds and place in the fridge to finish hardening.
8. After hardening, Dab the candy eyes with a little melted chocolate and glue to the finished frogs.

The Solid Chocolate Harry Potter Version

UPDATE May 29, 2013: Just found a professional chocolatier that makes Crunchy Frogs!  It's not the same recipe, but we'd like to give them a shoutout just for doing it!  Carter's Chocolates in Port Orchard, WA

Monday, April 9, 2012

Skyrim Honey-Nut Treats

Restore 5 Points of Health

Honey Nut Treats can be found all over Skryim.  It's a pretty simple idea, really: nuts+honey+stick = sweet, caloric goodness.   Putting these on a stick totally makes sense, as they're so sticky that the Dovahkiin's hands would stick to his/her sword.  Try explaining THAT to a Falmer.

To be really canon, these would probably just be honey, nuts and spices mixed with boiled honey - kind of like simsimieh, but it's a serious pain in the ass to make and unless you're a professional candy maker, there's no guarantee that it will actually set up.  Instead, I've modified an easier marshmallow treat recipe to get a taste that's authentically Skyrim without the need for a French culinary degree.

When you're making these, take the time to go to a restaurant or craft store and get Candy Apple Sticks.  They're sturdy, the perfect size and look just right.  In the game, these treats are the size of a baby's arm, which I put down to the game rendering.  Using a Candy Apple stick produces a treat that's really just the right size for a real meat human (or Dunmer.  or Argonian.  or...).

"Nothing hits the spot right after a fight like Nuts on a Stick."

Recipe (yields about 2 dozen treats)
3 Cups of Puffed Rice Cereal
(you know, the kind that's got a copyright on the name)
3 Cups of Mixed Nuts (salted or unsalted, per your preference)
1/2 Cup Honey
1/2 Cup Peanut Butter
2 Cups Marshmallows
3 Tbsp. Cinnamon

Mix the cereal, nuts and cinnamon in a VERY large mixing bowl, and set aside.

Melt the marshmallows, peanut butter and honey in a very large pot over low heat. Stir well until everything is melted and combined.

Pour the melted mixture into the cereal and nuts, and stir well to combine.

We used unsalted peanuts and almonds.  It was kind of like tasty hippie food.

Transfer the mix to a large mixing bowl and chill in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.  The mix is too loose to form into balls when it's warm, and needs to chill a bit to firm up.

Take the mix out of the fridge and with damp hands (not soaking wet, just damp), mold the mix into balls that will be skewered onto the apple sticks. Damp hands keep the treats from sticking to you. Buttering your hands works too, but isn't as effective.

At this point, depending on the heat and humidity at your house, the treats may still be too loose to stay stuck on the apple stick. If this is the case, put the rolled treats on a tray and stick them in the freezer for about 15 minutes, then try to skewer them again.

These will keep for a week or more without refrigeration.  Just make sure to wrap or pack them in an airtight container.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Zombie Easter


Easter is almost upon us.  In honor of a holiday shared by Christians and Pagans alike, we'd like to share an ancient tradition that was started over 4 years ago by Lexi and her SO as a way to bring together friends from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds who were 'orphaned' over the Easter Holidays: folks with either no family or celebration to attend.  How do you bring together a diverse group of people over a religious holiday?  Simple.  Just celebrate Zombie Easter.

Here's how we figure it:  Easter, at its most literal, is a resurrection holiday.  Since we don't want any fights or arguments between our friends about the nature or purpose of resurrection, or religion, or any other touchy subjects, this holiday is  all about that most fundamental expression of resurrection, Zombies.

After much consideration about the tradition of Easter in America, we've culled what we think are the most universal (in the colonial sense of the USA being the entire universe, of course) expressions of the holiday that everyone can relate to.

1. Have some Entertainment. A Zombie movie double feature!
Preferably humorous, or tongue-in-cheek.  The more implausible, the better.

Past Double Features...

  • Black Sheep* + Fido
  • Wild Zero + Zombieland
  • Dead Snow + Dead Alive

  • *Okay, okay, it's not strictly a zombie movie.  But it's perfect for getting in touch with the for the spirit of the event.

    2. Serve Food: Lots of snacks and traditional Easter food.
    For that true zombie experience,  serve whole, bone-in cuts of meat for the roasts.  The more primal, the better.  There's also a lot of sugar at this party, so having a variety of healthy, lighter fingerfoods on hand is important.

    Cheese and Meat tray
    Veggie and dip tray
    Fruit Tray
    Assortment of Chips and popcorn
    Easter Ham
    Leg of Lamb (Try Lexi's recipe here.)
    Potluck Side Dishes

    3. Offer Easter Treats, like TONS of candy
    Candy in bowls, candy on trays, candy displays, candy gift bags.  If nobody goes into a diabetic coma, you're doing it wrong. 

    A great place to find crazy easter candy is at dollar, discount and overstock stores.  You always find the wildest imported candies and most unexpected stuff there.

    4. A Fun Activity! How about Peep Mutilation?
    Really, any kind of marshmallow easter treats will do.  The sacrificial peep portion of the afternoon gets more and more involved each year.  Put out a tray with skewers, toothpicks, raspberry jam (for blood), tiny cocktail swords, and microwave safe plates. Encourage the guests to get creative.

    Peeps were boiled, fried, microwaved, sliced, diced, skewered, stigmata'ed, squished, bitten, and finally... eaten.

    We get more and more people at Zombie Easter every year.  Our friends and family love it (Christians and Pagans alike), and I love the fact that we can all get together to celebrate without any pesky religious arguments.   Really, isn't that what a holiday should be about?