354/365: National Fried Shrimp Day*

Today’s dish delivers big flavors in a small package. December 20 is National Fried Shrimp Day!

And though out of season, it is also National Sangria Day. This spiked punch, which originated in Spain, is made with red wine, brandy, simple syrup, and fresh fruit. Lots of it. You could shake Carmen Miranda’s hat over the punchbowl and still not have enough for a proper pitcher. Since there isn’t much fresh fruit in season the week before Christmas, we’re celebrating fried shrimp instead.

Shrimp have been an important food source for eons. By eons, I mean, a really long time! Archaeologists in 1991 discovered ancient raised paved areas near the coast of Chiapas, Mexico that they theorized were used for drying shrimp in the sun, and clay hearths nearby were substituted when there was no sun. Physical evidence of shrimping dating back to 600 AD was discovered off the southeastern coast of North America, evidence that Native Americans in that region incorporated the crustacean into their diets. And in the 3rd century AD, the Greek author Athenaeus wrote “… of all fish the daintiest is a young shrimp in fig leaves.” I don’t know about the fig leaves, but I’ll agree with the shrimp. There’s a reason it’s the most popular seafood in the U.S., after all! They can be cooked and eaten using a variety of techniques. Just ask Bubba from Forrest Gump! Today, of course, we’re asked to enjoy them fried. Well, okay…if you insist!

We drove up to Seattle for an early Christmas visit with Tara’s mom and family today. On the way, we stopped at Mrs. Beesley’s, a favorite roadside burger stand, for a fried shrimp basket.

National Fried Shrimp Day

Categories: Seafood | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

328/365: National Sardines Day

There’s something a little fishy about today’s food holiday. November 24 is National Sardines Day!

Hmm. Can’t say we’re particularly thrilled with this one, though sardines were extremely popular in the U.S. during the early part of the 20th century. These small, oily fish – related to herring – were named after Sardinia, an island in the Mediterranean where they were once abundant. In some parts of the world, they are known as pilchards. They are usually served in tin cans after being packed in oil, water, or a tomato-based sauce.

Nicholas Appert, a  Frenchman and professional cook in the early 19th century who liked to experiment with methods of preserving food, developed a technique that caught the attention of Joseph Colin, who was interested in preserving freshly-caught sardines, in order to ship them to soldiers in the field, giving them a nutritious, easy-to-carry meal. By packing them in tin cans, he was able to ship 30,000 cans a year by 1836; his tinned sardines became a big hit with the military. An alternate story has Napoleon Bonaparte helping to popularize sardines by initiating their canning in order to feed the citizens of the lands he ruled. No offense, but I’m not sure if I trust that guy.

During the early and mid-20th century, sardines were popular in America because of their low cost. They were a cheap meal for college students (kind of like ramen is today) and those who couldn’t afford lavish roasts. They gradually fell out of favor, with sales slipping in the 1960s and 70s. In 2010, the last sardine factory in the U.S. closed its doors for good. There are signs that the little fish are making a comeback, though I remain skeptical over this.

There are some food holidays we look forward to more than others. Today’s ranked waaaay down there. We dutifully bought a can of sardines, however – choosing ones that were packed in oil and lightly smoked – and wrinkled our noses as I peeled back the tin. Tara took a slice and put it on a cracker, while I just fished one out (pun intended) and ate it straight up. Surprisingly, neither of us found the fish nearly as disgusting as we thought we would. To me, it wasn’t all that different from canned tuna. I actually went back for more.

National Sardines Day

Categories: Seafood | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

305/365: National Deep Fried Clams Day*

We hope to entice you out of your shell today and help us celebrate the food holiday for November 1st. It’s National Deep Fried Clams Day!

And also National Vinegar Day. No offense to this tangy, acidic, fermented liquid, but we’d rather honor a food that takes a starring role, rather than an ingredient that lends flavor to a dish. Clams it is! I only wish we were in Seattle today; they’ve got a great local chain called Ivar’s that specializes in fried clams. We’re going to be up there in a week, but our food challenge won’t allow us to take a rain check. Boo.

Fried clams are a quintessential seaside meal typically found in restaurants along the coast. They are especially popular in New England, but even out here in Washington and Oregon they’re easy to find if you’re spending a day at the beach. They date back to at least 1865, where they appeared on a menu at the Parker House restaurant in Boston. This place was mentioned not too long ago; it’s where Boston Cream Pie originated. It’s unclear whether they were deep fried or batter dipped, but either way, I’m sure they were delicious. Modern deep fried clams are said to have been the brainchild of Lawrence Henry “Chubby” Woodman, who owned a small roadside restaurant in Essex, Massachusetts. Woodman specialized in homemade potato chips. One day he dug up a bunch of clams from the mud flats near his home and fried them up using the large vats of oil normally reserved for his chips. Customers ate these up – literally. Another Massachusettan (Massachutan? Massa…whatever you’d call somebody from Massachusetts!) named Thomas Soffron created clam strips from the “foot” of sea clams and sold them exclusively to Howard Johnson’s restaurants. As that chain grew, clam strips became popular throughout the country.

To celebrate, we tried a bar and grill in Portland called Holman’s. A yelp search revealed they are known for their fried clams, and sure enough, the basket we split as an appetizer was scrumptious. Crispy, slightly chewy, and fresh-tasting. We enjoyed them!

National Deep Fried Clams Day

Categories: Seafood | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

292/365: National Seafood Bisque Day*

It would be shellfish of me not to remind you about today’s food holiday. October 19 is National Seafood Bisque Day!

Alternatively, you could celebrate National Oatmeal Muffin Day. No offense to oatmeal or muffins, but why would you? A rich, hearty, and delicious seafood bisque sounds about a million times more appealing, especially as the weather is turning colder. Besides, this will enable us to use up the last of our crab from the wedding.

A bisque is a smooth, creamy soup based on a strained broth made with crustacean shells – typically shrimp, crab, or lobster. The name of this French classic is believed to have come from the Bay of Biscay, though bis cuites (“twice cooked”) also applies to the preparation of a typical bisque, in which the crustaceans are generally sauteed in their shells first, before being simmered in a broth of wine and other ingredients and then strained. Cream is then added, and the soup is thickened with a roux, though in the past rice was commonly used, or even the pulverized crustacean shells themselves. When cooking a bisque, Julia Childs instructs, “Do not wash anything off until the soup is done because you will be using the same utensils repeatedly and you don’t want any marvelous tidbits of flavor losing themselves down the drain.” Marvelous tidbits of flavor, come baaaack!!!

We’ve been very fortunate with the timing of many of these food holidays. I guess we picked a good year to take on this project, because it seems the toughest challenges have fallen on either Friday nights when we could go out, or weekends, when we are able to invest the time in cooking a tricky meal from scratch. I know this has been the case with Peking duck, escargot, and rum punch, among others, and today is no exception. Besides the Dungeness crab from our wedding, Tara added shrimp and  made a wonderful seafood bisque that was hot, creamy, and loaded with delicious flavor.

National Seafood Bisque Day

Categories: Seafood, Soup | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

285/365: National Gumbo Day

You might come to roux this day if you miss out on the food du jour. October 12 is National Gumbo Day!

Gumbo is a thick stew that contains a rich stock, meat and/or shellfish, a thickener, rice, and vegetables. It is as synonymous with Louisiana as jazz, the bayou, and Mardi Gras, and is the official cuisine of that state. No wonder: it originated in southern Louisiana in the 18th century, when slaves arrived from West Africa. They brought with them recipes featuring ki ngombo, or okra, many of them stews served with meat and shrimp. By 1764 they were mixing these stews with rice to make a hearty meal. Most gumbos are thickened with a roux, a mixture of flour and oil that is a staple of French cooking. The local Choctaw indians utilized filé powder, made with ground sassafras leaves, as a thickening agent in place of (or in addition to) a roux. Interestingly, the Choctaw word for sassafras is kombo, leading many to speculate that the dish actually originated with Native American tribes in the region. Whether it is Creole, Cajun, Indian, or African in origin is open for debate. Over the years, German immigrants introduced sausage to the recipe; fishermen supplied oysters, shrimp, and crab; and Canary Islanders brought a fondness for strongly seasoned foods to the table, introducing cayenne pepper. Virtually anything could be added to a pot of simmering gumbo: there are even references to owl, squirrel, and muskrat. The first written record of gumbo dates to 1803, where it was served at a gubernatorial reception in New Orleans. The dish’s popularity was limited to the Gulf Coast region until the 1970s, when Louisiana Senator Alan Ellender began cooking gumbo for his colleagues, including 5 separate U.S. presidents. When he passed away in 1972, the Senate added Louisiana Creole Gumbo to its cafeteria menu in honor of Ellender. Popular Louisiana chefs such as Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse further popularized gumbo, turning it into a mainstream meal.

To celebrate, I decided to make a gumbo from scratch. This is no small feat, but on a cool and damp Saturday afternoon and with Tara recovering from a cold, it was the perfect opportunity to make a nice slow-cooked meal. I’ve made gumbo a couple of times in my life, but previously, I used a jar of roux a friend in Louisiana had sent my way. Unfortunately that jar was long gone, so I had no choice but to make my own roux. That alone is a 45+ minute process, but I was pleased with the results. I used a recipe from Donald Link’s Real Cajun cookbook, one of many I own from my days as a book reviewer. I deviated from the recipe in places, namely the roux, and the fact that it called for fried chicken but I just wanted to brown mine. Everything else was the same – the vegetables, seasonings, andouille sausage, etc. And I have to say, it turned out delicious! I was very pleased with the results, especially considering the fact that I’ve rarely ventured south of the Mason-Dixon line. 

National Gumbo Day

Categories: Poultry, Seafood | 6 Comments

275/365: National Fried Scallops Day

You may have to shell out a few bucks to enjoy today’s food of honor, because it’s a delicacy from the sea. October 2 is Fried Scallops Day.

Scallops are one of my favorite seafoods, and everything tastes better fried. This should be a match made in heaven! But, because I enjoy scallops so much on their own – seared and/or sauteed are delicious – I almost think frying them is a waste. In my opinion, they’d be better straight up. Fortunately, we already enjoyed baked scallops earlier this year. If you want the history of this prized seafood, click on the link. We also divulged in Coquille St. Jacques, a French dish made with scallops, back in May, so we’ve definitely paid homage to the succulent bivalve.

To celebrate, my mom offered to take over the cooking reins for this challenge. She pan fried some wild caught Patagonian scallops with white wine and fresh herbs, and served them as an appetizer. They were divine! Thanks, mom!! (Looking forward to your comment below).

National Fried Scallops Day

Categories: Seafood | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

268/365: National Crab Meat Newburg Day

You’ll have to claw your way to the seafood aisle in order to enjoy today’s food holiday. September 25 is National Crab Meat Newburg Day!

Crab Newburg evolved from Lobster Newburg, a dish invented by sea captain Ben Wenberg, who had become quite wealthy thanks to the “fruits” of his labor. Literally: he was involved in the fruit trade between Cuba and New York. When Ben wasn’t sailing the high seas, he enjoyed dining at Delmonico’s in NYC. One day he walked in and announced he’d discovered a new way to cook lobster. Charles Delmonico brought him a chafing dish, and he cooked the lobster at the table. Mr. Delmonico was so impressed with the end result he added the dish to his menu and named it in Ben’s honor, Lobster a la Wenberg. It became a big hit with diners, but was removed from the menu after Delmonico and Wenberg got into a skirmish over something, and Ben was banned from the restaurant. Patrons still demanded the dish, so Charles simply rearranged the letters – “Wenberg” became “Newberg” – and added it back to the menu. Creative chefs began substituting shrimp, frog’s legs, and crab in the dish, and for some reason these alternate versions dropped the second “e” in favor of a “u” to make it Newburg. We’ll always remember you though, Ben!

The timing of this holiday was fortunate, considering the leftover Dungeness crab we’ve got from our wedding weekend. We simply had to defrost that, extract the meat, and follow this recipe. What gives the dish its distinct flavor is cream and sherry. Actually, we were out of sherry, but substituted vermouth instead (left over from our martini challenge). I loved this meal, and couldn’t get enough of it! Tara wasn’t quite as impressed, but still enjoyed it.

National Crab Meat Newburg Day

Categories: Seafood | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

217/365: National Oyster Day*

Flash those pearl-y whites as you shell out a few dollars if you’re planning on enjoying today’s food holiday. August 5 is National Oyster Day!

And enjoy you should. Oysters are tasty delicacies meant to be savored. And, they have alleged aphrodisiac properties. That’s what is called a win/win, people!

Oysters are a group of bivalve mollusks that live in saltwater. They have been an important food source for as long as man has roamed the earth; there is plentiful evidence of ancient mounds of oyster shells in many prehistoric sites throughout the world. Oyster farming and cultivation dates back to the Roman Empire. Casanova, infamous ladies’ man of the 18th century, allegedly made a habit of consuming 50 oysters every morning for breakfast, helping to fuel the myth that oysters are aphrodisiacs, a notion that began when Aphrodite – the Greek goddess of love – rose from the sea on an oyster shell. (The fact that she purportedly ordered “Somebody get me a freakin’ towel, I’m dripping wet here!” has been lost to history, no doubt in an attempt to maintain the illusion of sexiness in the story). It turns out there’s some truth to the theory, actually; oysters are rich in amino acids that trigger increased levels of sex hormones. Oysters, like caviar, were once so plentiful in New York Harbor they were a cheap food for the working class, but overfishing dramatically dropped their population levels to the point that they are now considered a delicacy. Stories like this make me wonder whether hot dogs will be viewed as a rare delicacy that commands outrageous prices in another hundred years or so.

A Portland landmark since 1907.

A Portland landmark since 1907.

There are many different ways to enjoy oysters: they can be eaten raw, smoked, baked, fried, boiled, steamed, stewed, pickled, etc. Probably the best way to eat them is the simplest: on the half shell, raw (they are actually alive when you eat them – not that this should gross you out or anything), with a squeeze of lemon juice, a spoonful of mignonette, a dash of hot sauce, and perhaps a bit of horseradish, to suit your tastes. Oysters take on the flavor of the water from where they are harvested, and can taste sweet, salty, buttery, or metallic. East Coast oysters tend to be thin and mild-tasting, while West Coast oysters are plumper and more flavorful, often described as creamy and sweet.

Up until a few months ago, Tara and I both thought we hated oysters. Then one day, on a whim, we ordered a couple as an appetizer while at a trendy bar in Portland, and were blown away. We have since had them several times, and now count them as a delicious delicacy, savoring their briny flavor whenever possible. So we were quite happy when this holiday rolled around! The fact that it’s also National Waffle Day barely registered. There was only one food item we were interested in celebrating, and that was the oyster, baby.

What better place to celebrate than Dan and Louis Oyster Bar, Portland’s oldest family-owned restaurant? This landmark spot dates back to 1907, and is located above the city’s famed Shanghai Tunnels. There’s even a glass pane in the floor where you can look down and see the tunnel below your feet. Not only does Dan and Louis ooze history, they know how to do oysters! As you’d expect. We shared a half-dozen Pacific oysters, including our favorite, Pickering oysters from Puget Sound. Sweet, mellow, and delicious. Today’s food holiday was pretty awesome!

Dan and Louis Oyster Bar

Categories: Seafood | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

199/365: National Caviar Day

I’ve always considered people who like caviar to be a little fishy, but I never say that out loud because I’d hate to egg them on. Nevertheless, today is their big day: July 18 is National Caviar Day!

Caviar is considered a gourmet product frequently associated with the wealthy. After all, Robin Leach used to talk about “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.”  Caviar is the processed and salted roe, or mass of eggs, from a female fish – traditionally the sturgeon. These tiny eggs are usually black, but may be red, gold, or gray, as well. When people first discovered that caviar tasted good (and who exactly was the first person to stick a mass of slimy fish eggs on his tongue anyway?!), sturgeon were so abundant that the price was quite low. Russian czar Nicholas II enjoyed it so much he started taxing fishermen, and the product became associated with wealth and royalty. For hundreds of years sturgeon were believed to only inhabit the Black and Caspian seas, but then this little slab of land called “America” was discovered, and sturgeon were found swimming in the Hudson and Delaware Rivers on the East Coast and the Columbia River on the West Coast. Caviar was so plentiful and easy to come by that bars started serving it for free, like peanuts and pretzels, because it was salty and that encouraged people to drink more. By the turn of the century, America was the world’s biggest supplier of caviar, responsible for 600 tons a year, or 90% of the world’s supply. Eventually, overfishing wiped out the majority of sturgeon, and the price of caviar crept up. In 2012, true caviar sold for $2500 a pound. There are less expensive versions available, made from the roe of salmon, steelhead, trout, lumpfish, and whitefish.

There are certain etiquette rules for serving caviar. You should never use a metal spoon, as this can affect the flavor. It’s best served with chilled vodka. A traditional preparation involves placing diced onion and hard-boiled egg on a toast point and topping with a generous dollop of caviar, with lemon slices on the side. We followed those rules, minus the lemon. I had tried caviar once before, but it was Tara’s first time. She was a trooper…but she very nearly vomited. I’m not exaggerating. I actually stepped away from her as she was gagging and dry heaving. Luckily, nothing came up. Funny thing is, I asked her afterwards, “So? Did you like it?”

Yeah. Neither one of us did. I have no idea why something so disgusting is considered a delicacy. To each their own, I suppose.

National Caviar Day

Categories: Seafood, Too Weird to Categorize | Tags: , , , , , | 14 Comments

169/365: International Sushi Day*

There’s something fishy about today’s food holiday. Fishy in a good way! June 18 is INTERnational Sushi Day! We’re branching out and going global today.

International Sushi Day is a relatively new food holiday, having been created in 2009 after a successful Facebook campaign. I may just have to start a page to promote National Ketchup Day, which – as I’ve mentioned – does not exist. There’s something fishy about that, let me tell you.

Anyway. Today is also National Cherry Tart Day and International Picnic Day. We chose to celebrate sushi because A. we are sick of desserts, and B. we have to work, and the weather might be showery this evening, so a picnic isn’t in the cards. Besides, I love sushi! Tara does not…but when has that ever stopped us?

Sushi dates back to the 4th century B.C. in Southeast Asia. When fish were caught they were cleaned, gutted, and salted, and wrapped in rice; the natural fermentation of the rice acted as a preservative to keep the fish edible for months. When ready to eat, the rice was discarded. Sushi was introduced to Japan in the 8th century A.D. The Japanese liked to eat rice with their fish, which was still partially raw, so instead of a method of preparation, sushi became a meal itself. They began mixing vinegar in with the rice to recreate the tangy flavor without having to wait for fermentation to occur. Vegetables and other preserved foods were added to the mix, with each region of Japan relying on local ingredients to create specialized recipes. By the 19th century sushi had evolved to include fresh fish and seaweed, and finally resembled the dish we are familiar with today. Sushi didn’t appear in the West until much later. In 1953, Japan’s Prince Akihito introduced sushi to Britain and America (it was served at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C.). During the 1970s Japanese businesses began expanding to the U.S., and sushi restaurants were opened to cater to their tastes. Sushi was a tough sell in America – few people could stomach the idea of eating raw fish – so the California roll was developed, consisting of cucumber, (cooked) crabmeat, and avocado. This was the perfect introductory vehicle for the American palate, and allowed people to gradually experiment with other types of sushi, notably raw fish. Sushi gained popularity in the U.S. during the health-conscious 1980s, and nowadays is a very popular dish both here and abroad.

We’re fortunate, because Fred Meyer – our local grocery-slash-everything-else-store, has a very good sushi bar. I go there often for a quick, tasty, and healthy lunch.

International Sushi Day

Categories: Seafood | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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