When Life Gives You A CSA Box, Make Hash.

Plated Potato and Sweet Potato Hash with Fried Egg Over Easy

A CSA box dropped into my lap yesterday. I’ve never had one before, so I got busy thinking about how I’m going to hustle through my surprise bounty of green beans, cherry tomatoes, baby beets, new potatoes, watermelons (2!) and a handful of little banana peppers. I already had some beets and baby sweet potatoes from my visit to the produce stand en route to the shore last week (see “Of Shore Food, Which is Good Fun, And Hermit Crabs”), so a green bean/roasted beet/cherry tomato salad with sun-dried tomatoes, feta and pine nuts was a given, but what to do with some of the other goodness? Someone suggested Sweet Potato Hash. This sounded suspect to me, so I looked it up on the internet (wait, I get my legitimacy from the internet?) and, indeed, there it was: scads of recipes for sweet potato hash. When I saw the second ingredient was bacon, I jumped in.

I happen to love hash of all sorts and got busy with some Red Flannel Hash when I was in a beet phase last Spring (remember Beet Carpaccio? From Easter?). What I didn’t know until today is that it is common for Red Flannel Hash to include sweet potatoes. Ahhh. Full circle.  Let’s do them all!

First, the bacon, then the onions, then some yellow peppers that have been waiting to make themselves useful. It was lacking some green color, so I threw in a jalapeno. Next, the sweet potatoes and the new potatoes, and 1/4 red onion I found in the fridge.

Cooked bacon, and onions cooking in bacon fat

Add the white potatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, etc.

You could stop there and plate it up for a regular hash, but…

Potato and sweet potato hash with bacon, jalapeno, crushed thyme and chives.

Then I added some of the beets I roasted last night. Oh, and a few yellow squash currently lacking a purpose. You could stop there, but…

Add the beets for a Red Flannel Hash

Then the piece de resistance, the jewel, the kapow: yes, of course I mean a fried egg! And some chives since it’s still lacking some color but I suppose people who cook kitchen-sink style can’t be too picky.

Plated Red Flannel Hash, sans egg

Red Flannel Hash with Fried Egg Sunny Side Up

Needless to say, it was grub.

In looking all this up afterwards, I found a recipe for Red Flannel Hash on epicurious.com which happens to be from Rick and Ann’s, in Berkeley, CA, which is my home stomping grounds. It’s tucked up alongside the dowager of resorts, The Claremont Hotel, so if you are staying there, pop in for breakfast at this little joint. Actually, if you are staying at the Claremont, you probably have your breakfast delivered to you and your cat, Mr. Whiskers, in bed on silver platters, so congratulations on that.

Now I need to get creative with some watermelon.

Of Shore Food, Which Is Great Fun, And Hermit Crabs

I went to the shore again. Last time, in my post “Of The Shore, Which Is A Weird Place” I found some strange and tantalizing road-trip goodies, like the funny-but-possibly-ominous chicken farm sign (click here if you’d like to revisit that trip), but I never got to salt water taffy or hermit crabs, so let’s start there.  Or, rather, let’s start on the way there.

There are two main ways to get to Rehoboth Beach, DE from Maryland. Last time I went one way. This time, I went the other.  The way I went this time is actually the way I am used to going (the way I went last time was kind of an accident. Any who know me will not be surprised) and I was looking forward to stopping by my “favorite” farm stand. I’ve only been there twice so I guess the criteria for “favorite” isn’t very high but the two times I went there they had a most prodigious collection of local honeys so I wanted to see what was going on with all that.

So I’m driving along, minding my business, if you will, and I begin to see the  “chicken bbq” signs I was telling you about last time and I thought to myself, “Oh, here we go again” and then a sign that said “pit beef” which, if you read my post on Maryland Pit Beef where I started out cautious but ended up in fandom, you’ll know that kind of sign would catch my eye. Then I see the pit beef cart, all locked up (bummer!) and in the next breath I see a storefront (sweet!) so I pull over rather dangerously and careen into the parking lot which was, fortunately for all involved, rather empty. And there, in all it’s glory, is Hot Off The Coals. They don’t have a website (although, it looks like one is in the works), but they do have a Facebook page, which you can see here.

Hot Off The Coals, MD Rt. 404 & Rt. 309, Queen Anne, MD

You’ve got to love a place where the pit is in the front parking lot and it’s guarded by a kicking bull with flaming red eyes. Better still, this pit beef shack is annexed to a gas station — win win!

Guess you don’t want to mess with the bull!

The pitmaster happened to be tending the pit at the very moment I approached and he very obligingly opened the pit for me to photograph. Sadly, the flames were kind of off the hook and he had to close it again rather quickly, but the smell was phenomenal.

What good timing! Thank you, Pitmaster.

I only had a second before the lid had to come down again…

I had a good feeling about this place. And I was right. The pit beef was delicious. Signage states they use apple and hickory wood, and it was a smoky delight. Done up with some sauce, horseradish and onions sliced so thin they were actually dainty, the sandwich had me humming. Or maybe that was partly the ringing in my ears from the horseradish, with which I was a little too enthusiastic (you can see it in the photo, below). For a few seconds I was actually crying a little, which seemed to faze my neighbor a bit. He was from Pennsylvania and wasn’t real sure what to expect.

Horseradish sure can surprise you…Stacked Pit Beef on a Kaiser roll

I liked this place so much that they got me coming, and then when it came time to drive home 9 hours later, they got me going, as well. That time I got the Stacked “Slaughterhouse” Beef Brisket on a Kaiser roll, and it was actually amazing. I highly recommend it.

Brisket on a Kaiser roll. Fantastic!

So, that was Hot Off the Coals. What a lucky find. Check ’em out. Now, on to the produce stand! While they seem to have scaled back their local honey collection (only 1 kind to be found), they had some very lovely produce and a basket I could buy to put it in to make me feel very Nantucket. And an elixir I wasn’t quite brave enough to try.


Tiniest little sweet potatoes! Aren’t they adorable?

Like Little Red Riding Hood!

Some of my finds. I bought some clearance basil plants — did you know there is a bush basil, too? — to try to plant them and get one more flush out of them before the weather cools.

You are probably wondering if I am ever going to get to Rehoboth and if you are, then you and I are on the same wavelength. But, as I like to remind myself, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” right? Right. So now that I am all kitted up, I can roll into town and catch a few rays. I came prepared this time with my backpack lounge chair and a fresh new roll of quarters.

And the beach was delightful and the water was cold. You should try it. And when it comes time to stock up on souvenirs, here’s what should be on your shortlist: salt water taffy, Fisher’s popcorn, and hermit crabs (although some may not appreciate the last one as much as the first two).

Dolle’s rules the roost on salt water taffy in the DelMarVa area.

Nostalgia decrees one eats certain foods while in certain places. At the carnival, it’s cotton candy. At the fair, it’s funnel cake. And at the beach, it’s salt water taffy. In Rehoboth, Dolle’s rules the roost in salt water taffy, but I grew up going to the Jersey shore, so for me it’s Fralingers. Fralingers and Atlantic City go hand in hand. Sometimes I’d ride along with my grandmother, Nona, on chartered bus trips to Atlantic City where you’d buy your bus ticket and they’d give you a voucher for  X amount of “casino quarters” back to cash in at the Taj Mahal, or Harrah’s, or whatever casino was booked for that day. Nona and I would play our $10 in quarters, then walk through the casino to get to the boardwalk and spend the day making our way up and then back down the boardwalk poking around in all the bizarre, cheesy knick-knack stores which constitute boardwalk shopping. We always came back with a box or two of taffy from Fralingers. You had to, really.

Fralingers Salt Water Taffy, Atlantic City, NJ

There were two salt water taffy shops on the Atlantic City boardwalk: James, and Fralingers.  When I was reading up on Fralingers, I learned that one family bought and now owns Fralingers, James, and a boardwalk chocolate shop called Bayards. There is actually an interesting video on the history of the three stores on jamescandy.com. You can also find it here, on YouTube. Fralingers also has a Wikipedia entry. If you’ve never had salt water taffy, try to imagine a candy with the chewy texture of caramels but with the fake fruity flavors of jelly beans. Kids love it, of course, and if you go on vacation a box of salt water taffy better show up in the office break room when you get back. It’s that kind of thing.

Rehoboth also boasts a rather tasty caramel corn from Fishers Popcorn. It’s made fresh on site and dumped hot into the front window case of the stores. Hot sugar is an interesting thing to me, so I always pay special attention when they are scooping it up to order. When it’s hot, it’s very malleable — think Rice Krispy Treats before they harden — but it firms up in no time flat so by the time they pack it and seal it the container, it’s on its way to a solid mass. Anyone who has made popcorn balls at Christmas knows what I am talking about. But, before that happens, there are those few glorious minutes where it’s soft and chewy at the same time. If you like buttery caramel, that 5-7 minute window is definitely worth trying for.

Two Delaware Beach favorites, side by side.

My affection for soft-serve was probably pretty evident in my first shore post, but here’s one shot just to show you how pretty it is:

It was plenty hot that day, so this didn’t stay upright for long.

Some say a trip to the shore wouldn’t be complete without boardwalk fries. Again, boardwalk fries, like caramel corn, wasn’t something I was particularly dialed into until I met Delaware beaches. But, people love them! And I can see why. Malt vinegar shaken down into the cup cuts the salty goodness.

Boardwalk Fries

Thrasher’s take the cake for boardwalk fries at the DE and MD beaches. There’s usually a line. For french fries.

If, at long last, you’ve sunned yourself and eaten your fill, consider a final parting gift: the hermit crab. Hermit crabs are a beach staple, and whether you think they are a good idea or not, hermit crabs happen. They practically fly off the shelves. Half these hermit crabs probably don’t even survive the car ride home, which is a shame because they are very interesting little creatures.

Hermit crabs are crustaceans with soft bodies that need to be protected by shells which they do by inhabiting the discarded shells of other creatures! Sea snails, for example. That’s right, they don’t come into this world with shells of their own and yet they need shells to protect themselves. Isn’t that odd? And, when hermit crabs outgrow their current shell, they step into the next size up so they’re always on what I like to call the shell hustle.  Also, since they effectively scavenge their shells from other creatures, if there are not many creatures available to “donate” their shells…well, you can imagine what happens if push comes to shove.

Hermit crab. Hello, buddy!

Hermit crab accessories, Rehoboth Beach, DE

Wikipedia describes what happens when a bunch of crabs living together decide it’s time to change shells: “Several hermit crab species, both terrestrial and marine, use “vacancy chains” to find new shells: when a new, bigger shell becomes available, hermit crabs gather around it and form a kind of queue from largest to smallest. When the largest crab moves into the new shell, the second biggest crab moves into the newly vacated shell, thereby making its previous shell available to the third crab, and so on.”

A “vacancy chain”?? How cool is that? Just picture all the crabs lined up in descending order by size waiting to step into their new shells while their current shell gets handed down to the little guy.  Like the Jeffersons, they’re moving on up. This image makes me laugh.

The social hermit crab. At the height of the season, these cage walls would literally be covered with hermit crabs waiting to go home with you.

Hermit crabs are social and it’s really cool to see them all bunched up together happy as…well, clams, I guess. While these “beach vacation” hermit crabs probably don’t live too long — they do require more effort to keep alive than the average 8 year old would probably be interested in providing — some species of hermit crabs can live in the ballpark of 23 years! Plus, hermit crabs are just cool. It’s fun to watch them scrabble around in their cages, and in your hand if you can handle it. You have to watch them a bit since they will latch on to you with their big claw, which can surprise you, and nip you enough that you could drop them if you’re not expecting it.

Most of these shells have hermit crabs living in them.

Hermit crab getting ready to change his shell.

Seeing a hermit crab change his shell is like waiting for paint to dry — good luck. This little fella kept doing the shell-change fake-out — he’d lift himself out, then slide back in.  You can see the new shell is much bigger than he needs — a real hermit crab McMansion — so maybe that is the reason he never quite made the jump. Or, maybe he is just a ham — he had several of us dancing on a string waiting for him to change. He was really working us. I had to give up after a while.

Yes, the shore is indeed a weird place. Then again, what place isn’t weird? But, any day where you can find pit beef, baby sweet potatoes, sand, sun, and salt water taffy is a good day in my book.

The Ice Cream Man Might Drive Me Crazy

There is an ice cream man who drives his truck around my area every afternoon around the same time. He plays all the standards — “Happy Birthday”, “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” —  but he adds in some some new stuff, like “Guantanamera” for ethnic flair. I thought this was charming the first few times, like the folks who play the Peruvian pan flutes to Simon and Garfunkel songs in the subway station. Now I just want those kids to get their ice cream and move along.

Because of this, apart from distracting me from Very Important Things, like checking Facebook, I find I think about ice cream much more often than before. I like ice cream, so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And, I have dabbled in making ice cream in the past, but I’ve never thought it prudent to consume a high enough volume of ice cream that I could justify making it more than once every other month or so and by the time that time rolls around I’ve usually impulse bought some Ben and Jerry’s or Haagen Daz on sale and the space in my freezer reserved for ice cream is full up.

But ice cream has been on my mind again since Maryland rolled out an official Ice Cream Trail map a month or two ago. As reported in an article by NPR’s food blog, The Salt, it seems there are a handful of local creameries who have turned to small batch ice cream making. Yum. This is the kind of trail I can get behind.

Also on my radar is something new Mount Vernon is trying out. Mount Vernon, for those who don’t fancy the historic homes of the Founding Fathers like I do, is George Washington’s estate. It’s located outside of Alexandria, VA, and is just a hop, skip and a jump (and about an hour via the D.C. beltway) from where I live in Maryland. I like to go there, and I insist that every out-of-towner who falls into my grip go there, too.  I’ve been a few times. But, I hadn’t been to Mount Vernon since I returned East-side last summer, so when I saw they were doing a Colonial Ice Cream Making demonstration, I knew it was time. So, I bought my annual pass (oh, yes I did!) and off I went.

One of the cool things about Mount Vernon is that it receives no state or federal funds. According to Wikipedia, Mount Vernon  “is owned and maintained in trust by The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.”  The name alone kills me — The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association — what spunk! I could go on and on about Mount Vernon, but for now I’ll just stick to ice cream…

So, from August 4th-September 1, 2012 from 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon visitors can watch as costumed staff members recreate the 18th century ice cream making process on reproduction pieces. I arrived at 11:30 (naturally!) and they were on their last go-’round. They seemed vaguely surprised at the turnout. They had a table set up with a brazier for roasting cocoa beans, a metate for grinding the shelled nibs into a paste, various spices, etc., for flavoring, and the ice cream making device — a bucket tucked into another bucket — itself. You can click on the photos below to see them larger, and in slideshow format.

It was a pleasant, short (about 20 minutes) demonstration that made me marvel at the amount of muscle power cooking and baking — and everything, really — took back then. It made the sheer volume of entertaining the Washingtons did that much more impressive, especially after seeing the kitchen, which is relatively small. It definitely made me want to go back and take the Dinner for the Washingtons Walking Tour, a special tour of the estate from a culinary angle which includes a trip to the basement (NOT part of the regular mansion tour!) and concludes with a tasting in the greenhouse. I was so busy with the regular mansion tour, and the gift shops, and having lunch at the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant, that by the end of the afternoon I hadn’t finished touring to my satisfaction and will need to return. Thank goodness I got that Annual Pass!

They also have an exhibit running through August 2013 called “Hoecakes and Hospitality: Cooking with Martha Washington” which walks you through some of the recipes, instruments, tableware, etc. that the Washingtons used for entertaining. Also available are a handful of recipe cards of favorite dishes and drinks of which I have a mind to recreate at some point in the near future (I’m still pondering whether or not to tackle sturgeon). For now, I’ll keep my eye on the ice cream prize: touring it via creamery, making it, eating it and, if it’s any good, sharing it, so stay tuned.

Cuckoo For Coconut! And Quick Pickled Cucumbers. And Thai Melon Salad.

Here’s what happened: global warming. It has been hot hot hot all over the nation and Maryland is right smack dab in the middle of it. (The heat, not the nation. Unclear pronoun reference. Deduct 5 points.) It has been so hot here (“HOW HOT IS IT??”  — I don’t have a punchline for this) but more oppressive than the heat is the humidity. I walked to the car at 10 AM last week and as long as it took me to get my keys ready my hands were moist like I was about to go on stage. Humid. Your-lungs-feel-wet humid. Mercy.

Anyway, it’s not really cooking weather except for some quick grilling, so I pulled out a recipe I found awhile back for Sichuan (Szechuan) Cucumber Pickles and now I can’t stop nomming on them. Pair this dish with a Thai Melon Salad from my cooking school textbook and a recipe for rice cooker coconut rice I am seriously bananas for right now, and you’ve got some goodness happening. Throw some lightly marinated chicken breast tenders on the grill the last 5 minutes of prep and you are set. Nutritious, cooling, and a crazy amount of texture. Pan-Asian delight.

Both of these salads should be made a few hours before serving leaving you plenty of time to put your feet up and drink some sweet tea before dinner.

First up, Sichuan (or Szechuan) Pickled Cucumbers.

Sichuan Pickled Cucumbers
The Gourmet Cookbook

Sichuan (Szechuan) Pickled Cucumbers

2 lbs.  small Kirby (pickling) cucumbers or 1-2 seedless English cucumbers
4 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. rice vinegar (not seasoned)
1/3 c. Asian sesame oil
1 (1-inch) piece peeled fresh ginger, finely grated
8 (1-inch-long) dried hot chiles, seeded if desired
1 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns (optional)

First of all, I love sesame oil and its distinctive flavor makes this dish, so I can’t imagine subbing it out for any other oil, so don’t you try it, either. Well, I mean, you can if you want to, but… Next, a neat trick for “peeling” fresh ginger is to actually scrape the peel off with a spoon. Works like a charm and is not nearly so wasteful as peeling it with a knife or traditional peeler. While we’re on the subject, a spoon is just the ticket for scraping the seeds out of the cucumber wedges, too. And while the Szechuan peppercorns are optional, I’ve tried it with and without and although I love the tongue-numbing taste of Szechuan peppercorns, I would grind them first since they are a bit distracting if left whole.

Halved, quartered, seeds removed, and diced.

Halve each cucumber lengthwise, then halve again to end up with long quarters.  Scrape the seeds out, then chop. The recipe calls for 2-inch pieces, but I dice to medium. Toss cucumbers with salt in a bowl and let stand 20 minutes.

Stir-frying the ginger and chiles in sesame oil.

While the cucumbers are salting, heat sesame oil in a wok or small deep skillet over moderately high heat until just smoking. Stir-fry the chiles and peppercorns for about 30 seconds or so, until the peppers turn dark. Add the ginger and stir-fry, being careful not to burn the ginger – it can happen quickly. Remove from heat and cool completely.

Cucumbers salted, rinsed, and patted dry.

Rinse cucumbers well, drain in a colander, and pat dry. Stir together the rice vinegar and sugar in a medium bowl until sugar dissolves. Add cucumbers, tossing to coat. Pour spiced oil over cucumbers and toss well. Marinate at room temperature for 3 hours before serving. The cucumbers can marinate, covered and refrigerated, for up to 4 days; stir occasionally. The longer the cucumbers marinate, the spicier they will be. Note: Leaving the seeds in the chile peppers will make a considerable difference in their heat level. Adjust accordingly.  Makes about 6 cups.

Next up, Thai Melon Salad (my textbook calls it a salsa, but I prefer to use it as a salad).

Thai Melon Salad
On Cooking, 5th ed.

Thai Melon Salad picture snaked from my textbook. Super low-tech photo, but you do get to see my advanced recipe ranking system.

 2 assorted melons (honeydew, cantaloupe. Crenshaw, etc.), peeled & diced
1 tsp. chopped garlic
2 tbsp. brown sugar
2 tbsp. fish sauce
1 tbsp. minced Serrano chile
2 fl ounce lime juice
4 tbsp. unsalted peanuts, roasted, chopped fine
4 tbsp. chopped mint

Cut the melons into small dice, or shape into small balls using a parisienne scoop. Combine the remaining ingredients and toss with melon pieces. Chill thoroughly. Garnish with more mint before serving, if desired. Serve with fish, shellfish, or chicken. Yields 1 quart.

And then there’s the rice.

Rice Cooker Coconut Rice
(this was scribbled on an index card, so not sure to whom to give credit but I modified it a bit so that makes it mine, right?)

Don’t let the exceedingly dark photo fool you — this stuff smells so amazing cooking that you’ll want to clap your hands.

Rice Cookers…I know, I know. I used to be against rice cookers — uni-taskers, and all, blah blah– but now I’m converted since it babysits its own self and leaves all my stove burners free — can’t argue with that!

I have unintentionally left out the salt on two occasions and the rice tastes just dandy to me, so you may want to try it, too.

2 c. jasmine rice
1 c. coconut milk (not light)
2 c. water
½ tsp. salt
3 tbsp. shredded coconut , plus more for garnish, see note

Combine all ingredients in the rice cooker. Stir to combine. Activate the rice cooker and let it do its thing. Allow to sit 10 minutes after it finishes cooking. Fluff with a fork before garnishing (see below) and serving. Serves 4.

Note: I highly recommend taking another 3-4 tbsp. shredded coconut and toasting it lightly in a pan over med.-high heat until the coconut begins to release its oils and browns. This can be done while the rice is bubbling away in its cozy coconut milk bath. Crumble toasted coconut over rice before serving.

And the chicken? Well, y’all know how to cook chicken, so I won’t bother with that. But, I will say that I came late to the party when it comes to chicken breast tenders. And now I’ve fallen hard. Sauteing or grilling them literally take about 3-4 minutes per side (if that).  There’s not even time to walk away so it’s easy to avoid overcooking them and drying them out. Just remember to cut out that tendon at the tip, because it’s super annoying to chew on that. Really harshes the chicken tender mellow. I chucked mine in a quick marinade of soy sauce, mirin, ginger and oil as I put the rice on, and 25 minutes in the bag was just about right to keep them juicy on the grill without overpowering their mild meat.

And that’s it. That’s the hot weather dinner du jour. So grab some sweet tea and enjoy!