For a lot of people summer eating means big, thick steaks sizzling on the charcoal grill. That goes on in our backyard too but not as often as some of my friends and neighbors.
The essence of summer cooking for me is a great seafood dish paired with a simple, lite white wine or sparkling pilsner beer.
The classic summer dish is a combination of shell fish and fin fish, cooked in a covered pot. It is usual flavored with some combination of sautes vegetables, fresh herbs and a splash of white or red wine. If tomatoes are used, and a heavy flavor is the order of the day, then red wine is used. If tomatoes were not included, and the flavors are to be lite, then always white wine. I serve it over thin vermicelli pasta or some type of rice; red, black, or medium grain white.
This culinary idea of summer is welded into my mind from childhood. In the hieght of the city heat my dad would drive us to City Island for clams on the half shell, fried calamari and other seafood treats. City Island is a small piece of suburbia out in East Chester Bay. It is tucked away in that strange little convolution of ocean inlets where Eastern Long Island meets the coast line of New York State.
There were a few times too when my dad had gone on a business trip and my Uncle Jim DiScillio took us to Vincent’s Clam Bar in Little Italy for dinner. We drove into the city in his red 1965 Impala convertible. That was a big thrill for me when I was ten years old.
That culinary image of summer was further ingrained into my memory when I took my first real cooking job at the now defunct Aldo’s Restaurant in Middletown NY. Aldo made awesome pizza and his wife Phillis had the magic touch when it came to shell fish combinations cooked in a pot. Whether it was seafood fra’diavolo pile up on a hill of linguine, or a buttery broth flavored with white wine, garlic, parsley, butter, they were to die for!
Every time I made one of those I thought of summer, even if it was the middle of winter with sixteen inches of snow on the ground.
I don’t have complete recipes for any one of these dishes. They are a variation of one recipe, similar to what Phillis showed me how to make forty one years ago. What makes them different is that I start each one with the same question; What flavors am I thinking about today? Once I answer that question, the steps from one stage of the creative process to the next find their own way as I shop and cook.
After chefing professionally for most of my life, cooking is like a seasoned musician playing a solo over a well loved cord progression. Like the musician, all the required cooking skills, knife skills, and the knowledge of a favorite list of ingredient have been completely integrated into my thinking. I only spend time imagining possibilities and how to get there.
Interestingly, when I started out I thought that only major changes in ingredients and cooking methods resulted in major changes in the final product. Now I understand that making several small changes in ingredients and cooking methods can dramatically transform what is located on the end of your fork. This is now my preferred method of keeping meals interesting.
A good example of this is the two dishes in the photos above. There is only a difference of three ingredients between them, including the different starch used to serve them on. They have the same two cooking techniques, sauteing and simmering, but greater emphasis was placed on sauteing over simmering in dish number two.
Photo one’s ingredients: baby clams, diver scallops, cold water shrimp, garlic, onions, mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, olive oil, white wine and fresh basil. It was served on red rice.
This dish is lite on saute and heavy on simmering. The garlic, mushrooms and onions were saute in the olive oil. The spinach was added next until it was wilted. Then the tomatoes were added for a minute. To finish, I added the rest of the ingredients, covered the pot and simmered until the clams were open and shrimp cooked.
For the second dish the scallops were substituted with sockeye salmon. The shrimp and salmon were dredged in flour (flour being the second change of ingredients) before they were simmered with the other ingredients. The third change was serving it on vermicelli pasta.
Flour, even a small amount, can greatly transform the character of a dish. Here it thickened the liquid and also put a thin batter-like coating on the salmon and shrimp. Both big changes in mouth feel and flavor.
On the technique side I did a lot more sauteing then simmering. The shrimp and salmon were sauteed in olive oil. I set them aside along with the drippings I scraped off the bottom of the saute pan with a rubber spat. That is the flavor treasurer the french call fond de glaze. Never tossed it aside, hoard it at all costs!
In a separate pan I sauteed the garlic and mushrooms in olive oil. I added the spinach long enough to wilt it.
Then I took the oil from both pans and sautes the diced tomatoes in it ; several minutes for that.
Finally, all the ingredients were combined. The Fond de glaze was gently mixed into the liquid and this summer seafood combo was simmered in the pot under a lid. When it was done it went over a pile of vermicelli pasts.
Both look similar with their reddish color and big pieces of fish . But those simple changes made enough variation in the two dishes that they could no longer be called by one name.
The fist one was like a flavorful fish soup that makes you want to eat more because it is lite in texture. The second is almost a fish stew with more body due to the flour. Sauteing more of the ingredients added deeper flavor notes to the broth as well as an under lying toasted note. This in combination with the flour satisfied our appetites much faster then the previous version.
These are just two versions of the summer fish dinner. But these are the two that the family likes the most. Cooking for my family is about sharing my love with them as well as eating, so these get made a lot.
Happy cooking and don’t forget to say grace.
I have a few other seafood variations that will appear in a second post.