Sunday, July 26, 2009

Crabs and Macaroni

When I was a kid growing up in South Philly, there were certain foods that we would always look forward to and enjoy during the summer. There was Pop's Water Ice, with real chunks of fruit floating in a refreshing cup of icy goodness. There was the pretzel man who would push his wagon up and down the streets, ringing his bell and yelling "soft pretzels!!!" and he would slather the mustard on your pretzel with a paint brush. There was the Mr. Softee ice cream truck that knew to come around the neighborhood blaring it's famous jingle just as you were finishing up dinner. And then there was my favorite summertime meal – spaghetti and crabs. Just the smell of crab gravy (spaghetti sauce cooked with crabs instead of meatballs for you non South Philly readers) brings me back to when I was a kid – sitting in my parents' living room on a hot Sunday afternoon, listening to Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn call a Phillies game on the tv or radio, anxiously waiting to crack a claw or two. These days, I have to settle for the neighborhood Rita's Water Ice (good, but not Pop's), there is no more neighborhood pretzel man, and Mr. Softee....well, he now comes around just as we're starting to eat dinner (damn that jingle!!!). But I still make it a tradition to have at least one Sunday Crabs and Macaroni dinner each summer.

What's so unique and special about this dish is the amazing flavor that comes together when you cook the crabs in the sauce. Words can't describe how good it tastes and smells. The sauce also adds an incredible tenderness to the crab meat. Most people I know would call it Spaghetti and Crabs. When my mom would make crab gravy, she would serve it with thin spaghetti and we would dig into the crabs afterwards. They were the reward for eating your entire plate of pasta. She would also use blue crabs that my Grandfather would either catch or buy fresh and send over to our house. I decided on a slightly different approach when I started making my own crab gravy. First, I prefer using either ziti or rigatoni. That's why I went with the more generic "Crabs and Macaroni," but feel free to use whatever pasta you like. Second, I like to add a can of crab meat to the sauce for extra flavor*. I also like the fact that you get some meat into the mix with your pasta. Why wait until the end to enjoy the taste? Third, while it's more expensive, I prefer to use pre-cooked snow crabs that you can find at the seafood section of the supermarket. I always felt that the smaller blue crabs involved a lot of effort with little payoff. The snow crab legs, however, have plenty of meat with much easier access. Feel free to use whatever choice of crab you like best!

Now, if you decide to make this meal (and I encourage you to do so), there are a few things that you should be forewarned about.
1. This is a very messy meal. All shame goes out the window. Shells will be flying and sauce will be splashed. There's no way around it. With that in mind...
2. Keep plenty of napkins on hand. You can even go rib-shack style and just keep an entire roll of paper towels at the table.
3. Do not wear a white shirt. You will walk away from the table looking like you were involved in a crime scene.
4. No matter how much you wash them, your hands will smell like crabs for the rest of the day. It's a special meal...savor the funk.

* If you decide to use a can of crab meat, be sure to buy the large 16-oz cans of crab meat that are located in the seafood section of your supermarket. While they can be a bit pricey at times, they are packed with 100% crab meat. The smaller cans that are found near the cans of tuna are packed with about 1/3 water, so you are getting your money's worth with the larger cans.

Now get crackin'!

1 tblspn olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 29-oz can tomato sauce
1 28-oz can crushed or pureed tomatoes (depending on your preference), plus 1-1/2 cans of water
1 6-oz can tomato paste
2 tblspn sugar
1 tblspn Italian Seasoning
1/2 tspn Old Bay Seasoning
1 1-lb can of crab meat
2-lbs crabs

Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat until hot, but not smoking. Add garlic, heat for 30 seconds. Add tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste and water; stir. Add sugar, Italian Seasoning, and Old Bay; stir. Bring to boil, the lower heat to medium-low. Add can of crab meat and crabs; stir and partially cover. Stir occasionally. Cook on medium-low for 1-1/2 to 2 hours.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

White Sangria

It's it up!

White Sangria

1 Bottle of Dry White WIne
3/4 c. of Peach liqueur
3/4 c. Sugar
1 bottle Seltzer
1 lemon, 1 lime, and 1 orange, cut into half moon slices
(other fruit may be added, such as apples, peaches, cherries etc.)

Mix the wine, liqueur and sugar in a pitcher until sugar dissolves and chill. When chilled, add the seltzer and fruit slices. Serves well over ice out of punchbowl. Makes about 1/2 gallon.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Grilled Caprese-Style Stromboli

This is based on a suggestion from my previous Stromboli post from my paisano, Tiffany Longo (aka Una Mamma Italanio). For tips on rolling Stromboli, check out the previous post.

Delish. Nothing else to say.

1lb. pizza dough
1 12-oz jar roasted peppers, finely chopped and drained.
2 cups pesto (see recipe below)
fresh mozzarella cheese

Roll out dough, but not too thin. The wet ingredients will cause the thin dough to break. Spread the pesto, add the peppers, then sliced mozzarella cheese. Roll up and place on a piece of aluminum foil sprayed with cooking spray (to avoid the dough from sticking). Heat grill to medium high, cook 'boli on inidrect heat (not directly over the flames) for approx 35-40 minutes, until dough is ice and brown. Remove from heat and let sit for 5 minutes before slicing.

Fresh Basil Pesto Recipe
2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano or Romano cheese
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup pine nuts or walnuts
3 medium sized garlic cloves, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine the basil in with the pine nuts, pulse a few times in a food
processor. (If you are using walnuts instead of pine nuts and they are not
already chopped, pulse them a few times first, before adding the basil.) Add
the garlic, pulse a few times more.

Slowly add the olive oil in a constant stream while the food processor is on. Stop to scrape down the sides of the food processor with a rubber spatula. Add the grated cheese and pulse again until blended. Add a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Summer Sides: Grilled Squash and Polenta

Here are a couple of side dishes that I like to serve when cooking on the grill. Both are wickedly easy, go with just about any grilled dish, and both share the same core ingredients: salt, pepper and olive oil.I prefer using sea salt. It's much better than regular table salt, and doesn't pack quite the punch as kosher salt.

First up are yellow squash and zucchini. I usually use on of each for two servings. Just slice the zucchini and squash into thin slices, but not too thin - you want them to hold together while cooking. Place the slices in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil, add salt and pepper, and stir. Cook them over medium heat for about 5-7 minutes, until they start to get brown and slightly crispy. Flip the chips and cook for another 3-4 minutes. They go great as a side or even as a sandwich topper. I suggest using some sort of grilling tray or even some foil to keep the chips from falling through the grates. They're very inexpensive and easy to find, usually available in any grocery store or even a Dollar Store . You can cook directly on the grates, but expect at least one or two casualties to fall through.

The second side dish that I grill up regularly is polenta. Polenta is an old world dish made of cornmeal and served several ways. I've had it both as a soft dish similar to mashed potatoes and baked like a cornbread. While it is often considered a peasant food, often used back during the depression, it has recently become somewhat of a delicacy. It' not uncommon that you'll find it as a pricey appetizer at some of your fancier restaurants. A friend of mine once saw it on a menu for $14.95 and said to me "do you know how many tons of polenta my mother could make for $14.95?!?!" What I like to use is the pre-cooked tubes of polenta, which can be found in the produce section of the grocery store. I simply slice them into about 1/4" slices, brush both sides with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Again, just place them on the grill at medium hear for about 5-7 minutes until they start to get slightly brown and crispy, flip and cook for another 3-4 minutes. I like to top them with a slice of mozzarella or sharp provolone for the last few minutes, then serve them with either a side of sauce or salsa as a topping. They are absolutely delicious, and you can even pass them off as mini pizza crisps for the kids!