Friday, August 28, 2009

Day 162 - Pan-Fried Soft Shell Crabs, Green Papaya Slaw, Stir-Fried Cubed Pork with Black Bean Sauce, Perfect White Rice, and Peach Pie

You may remember I bemoaned that I had missed soft shell crab season. Well, a reader ("kirbles") kindly offered up a link to a webstore that ships frozen soft shell crabs year-round. It never occurred to me to look for something like that! So I ordered some crabs and planned a dinner party around their delivery. I scheduled them to arrive on Thursday, the 27th, just in time for dinner and was shocked when they arrived a day early. This turned out to be a good thing, because I was expecting them to arrive somewhat defrosted, but they were packed so effectively with dry ice that they were still completely frozen. Ergo, I was able to defrost them the "good" way, i.e. in the refrigerator overnight, unlike the "bad" way, i.e. in cold water, which I'd read sometimes results in chronic leg amputations.

Meanwhile, in the midst of my travels in Chinatown yesterday to shop for this feast, what did I see for sale for a fraction of the price I'd paid? Yup, fresh soft shell crabs. How they have fresh soft shell crabs in late August, I don't know. But I do know now to check Chinatown before I give up on finding something. Also, I must mention the amazing Hong Kong Supermarket, which has everything Asian you could ever need or want. What a great resource!

In attendance tonight: Jeff-and-Martha Dinner regulars Marcy, Tracy C., David P., and first-timers, the super-talented, multi-hyphenate actor/composer/filmmaker David T., she whom I've dubbed "The Most Talented Person in the World" Vicki, and The Most Talented Person in the World's FNBF, Tom. And a super-special surprise guest from out-of-town: Tracy KP! It was a full house of stellar people, and I had my work cut out for me!

Pan-Fried Soft Shell Crabs (p. 272)

Even though the crabs were defrosted properly, they suffered several losses of limb. Four of the six stayed intact, the other two ended up as legless bodies. Be forewarned if you go down the frozen crab path, and overorder, if it's important to you to have perfect crabs.

This preparation is very straightforward. The most unusual element is probably the coconut milk, into which you dip the crabs before you dredge in the flour, cornstarch, salt and pepper mixture. After that, it's your basic pan frying, with its attendant spattering, etc.

I was pretty happy with the way they turned out. Considering how few ingredients were involved, I thought they had a great flavor. I was especially surprised by the saltiness, which I loved. They were nice and crispy, without being too greasy. You know how much I don't like frying, but if I came across fresh soft shell crabs again, I'd consider an encore presentation of this.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Green Papaya Slaw (p. 274)

This was a recipe I'd been getting excited about since I first cracked the book. I've been eating Green Papaya salads for years at Vietnamese restaurants - my favorite is called Goi Du Du (I know, not the most appetizing name), which is basically this same salad with sliced beef on top. I was very anxious to see if the flavors here would rival those I'd experienced before.

The answer is a resounding yes! Even though it's not a perfect match, it's satisfyingly close. While the Goi Du Du dressing is extremely garlicky, this has no garlic, but I think I like this better! I had to do some serious searching in Chinatown for these ingredients. Thank God I found Hong Kong Supermarket.

The biggest concern was finding the papaya itself. You can buy a ripe papaya anywhere, but a green, unripe one? Tricky. For those of you who've never heard of using unripe papaya, it's julienned here, and seems almost like a cross between cabbage and cucumber. It has a very subtle flavor, but a lot of crunch and absorbability, i.e. it takes on a lot of the flavor of the sauce in which it's dressed. Check out the look of the inside - unlike a ripe papaya which is bright orange, with big black seeds, this is all white. The outside is bright green and should be super firm. If it's started to soften or yellow at all, you can't use it for this kind of salad.

The other exotic ingredients involved in this recipe: palm sugar, tiny dried shrimp, and fresh Thai chile.

There is one kitchen tool which you will want to have on hand when making this recipe: a julienne slicer. I have a little one like this, and it makes quick work out of julienning the papaya and carrot.

I tried to prepare as much as I could before people arrived, so I'd made the dressing, I'd julienned, and I'd washed and trimmed the cilantro and mint. Before I started cooking the crabs, I mixed the papaya and carrots in the dressing, and then I got so caught up in making the crabs that I completely forgot to finish the slaw with the cilantro, mint, and peanuts! Once I'd tasted it the dressed papaya for flavor balance, I was so pleased with it that I forgot to add those incredibly important ingredients. It didn't hit me until much later when I was looking in the refrigerator and found the herbs. Argh! Guess I'm just going to have to make this again! And again and again....

I loved the way this tasted with the crabs, I love it with beef, and I think I'd love pretty much any protein served on this. In fact, maybe now that I have all the ingredients on hand, I'll serve this to Marcy every week with a different piece of fish on top each time.

Jeff: C (for leaving out such crucial ingredients)
Martha: A

Here's David T. with the Crab and Slaw plate!

Stir-Fried Cubed Pork with Black Bean Sauce (p. 266)

I thought this would be a nice Asian-influenced dish to follow the Vietnamese one. The recipe in the book stars shrimp, and the pork is a suggested variation, but you know I do all the variations! In fact, there's both a cubed and sliced pork variation; tonight, I went with cubes.

Let me tell you something: it's tricky to cut pork tenderloin into perfect cubes. It's such a malleable meat, it will go in whatever direction you suggest and hold its shape. Until, that is, it relaxes. I thought I was cutting pretty even cubes, but then the pork relaxed, and I had mostly rectangles. No matter.

Again, there are some more exotic ingredients here: fermented black beans, shao-hsing wine (mine is actually spelled shao-xing), and again, the hot (Thai) chile.

I made the sauce ahead of time - I'm always looking for things I can do before my guests arrive. I don't cook with chile peppers a lot, and I've never used a Thai chile. The ones I had bought were quite small and green. I knew I didn't want it to be too spicy, so I set out to remove the seeds, the spiciest part of the chile. This is tricky because you're supposed to slice the pepper crosswise to be in rings. So I developed a little technique: I took the slices, and I threaded them onto a chopstick, rubbed them back and forth a few times, and the seeds were ejected.

Still, even with the seeds removed, it seemed like this was going to be waaaaay too spicy for me. Would any of my guests even be able to eat it?? Wait and see....

The biggest problem here was that I was using a skillet, not a wok. Not only that, I had tripled the recipe, so I had a lot of pork in the pan at the same time. It eventually browned, but I'm sure if I had a wok or a larger skillet, that would have gone better. Or maybe I should have worked in batches.

In the end, I'd say the dish was quite successful. The flavors seemed very authentic, and even though I found the dish to be quite oily, again, it seemed much in keeping with traditional Chinese cuisine.

As for the spice factor, it was perfect. A little heat, but definitely not overkill. Maybe I could have left a few of those seeds in....

Jeff: A- (for overcrowding the pork)
Martha: A

Perfect White Rice (p. 407)

Another "perfect" recipe pans out! Perfect White Rice is simply long grain white rice, Martha-style, which generally means a little less water than usually instructed, slightly shorter cooking time, and ten minutes to steam after the heat is off. This rice is just right, fluffy and tender, no sogginess, just the right amount of "stick." Perfect with the pork, and anything else, for that matter.

Martha does it again!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Peach Pie (p. 444)

Could it be that I'm finally getting the hang of pies? This is now my fifth pie, and with each pie experience, they get better and better. As I've mentioned before, the temperature in the room makes all the difference. I ran the A/C full blast for this one.

This crust was strangely easy to work with. I brushed it lightly with flour a few times as I was working, and it really helped! And it rolled out to size so quickly and easily, I couldn't believe it.

I'm still not great with the whole edge-crimping thing - maybe next time I'll try the fork approach. I think another obstacle is my pie dish, a glass Pyrex dish with extended rims on either side that act as handles. The shape of the rims is throwing off the shape of my crust, and I can't seem to figure out how to make the necessary adjustments to get the shape just right. Maybe I need a new pie dish, but I like this one in every other way.

I'm completely smitten with my heart-shaped decoration. As you can see, I keep using it on every pie I make. I cut 8 slits into the top crust, and I place 8 cut-out hearts on each piece of the pie. It makes slicing equal portions so easy (although most of my friends only want half pieces - heart "breakers"!). This pie also got a ninth heart in the middle. (That was David P.'s suggestion - thanks, David!)

The other big pie lesson I've learned has to do with the juices that accumulate while mixing the filling. Here's the thing: you mix your peach slices with the cornstarch and sugar, and so much juice collects that you think, "if I don't put all that juice in, the filling won't be sweet or hold together because all the sugar and cornstarch is in that liquid." But resist the urge to add the juice. I left 95% of it behind, and this pie was plenty sweet and held together perfectly. Any more liquid, and I think the pie would have been too oozy.

Incidentally, this was my first truly flaky crust. This pie cooked for longer than usual, and the crust never got too brown. I'd been baking pies with the convection feature on, but this time, I baked it without the convection, and I think I prefer these results.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Since I knew that my diners tonight were way too healthy to be able to feast solely on Pan-Fried this and Stir Fried that, I made a second entree from Martha's Everyday Food: Perfect Food Fast: Herb-Crusted Snapper, which was a big hit. (I didn't love it, because I'm not a huge dill fan, but the majority vote was A+.) There was also steamed broccoli, just so you don't think I didn't offer my guests a green vegetable. (Did everyone else's mother make them eat a green vegetable with every dinner?)

Until we eat again....

Here's Tom and Vicki during the entree portion of the evening. That's pork on Tom's plate and snapper on Vicki's.

Here's the whole gang, from L to R: Marcy, Tracy C., David T., Tracy KP, David P., Tom, and Vicki.


  1. Jeff,

    I'm so glad my tip got you hooked up with the crabs, though I'm sorry they were maimed (!) by the freezing process and ended up costing more than you could find in Chinatown.

    I can't tell you how happy I was to read that Victoria Clark was part of the feast. She was amazing here at Ravinia earlier this month. I have "Piazza" and your podcast to credit for making me a huge fan of hers.

    All the best, aka Michael in Chicago

  2. I'm sorry, but the pie could not have been better than the cherry pie Charles and I had at your place. Also, thanks for the link to the Herb-Crusted Snapper recipe. It looks like something I could do -- and I will!

  3. Michael-
    Thank you again for the frozen soft-shell crab tip. Even though, as it turns out, I could have gotten them in Chinatown, I never would have planned this big dinner party if not in anticipation of their delivery.
    As for your fan-ship of V. Clark, I am so happy I can claim a part in it. As you know, I'm a huge fan myself, and I love it when people agree.

    That sour cherry pie was pretty great, huh? I think I prefer cherry to peach as a filling. But I think my crust this time was slightly better than the cherry one.
    And the snapper recipe is a breeze. Especially if you have a food processor to chop the herbs.