abalone

Dancing baby abalone

Warning: this video of a young abalone (1-2 years old) dancing in my hand may tempt you to acquire an abalone as a pet.

I cannot recommend this path.

Sure, they’re cute now, but after years of changing its seawater and shoveling in kelp for it to eat, it’s going to grow, and before you know it, it will weigh a few pounds and become amazingly delicious and, honestly, you’re going to want to eat it.

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The Well

This is where William Randolph Hearst stored many of his treasures while his castle on the hill was being built. It looks onto the Pacific Ocean, waves lapping on the beach just feet from its doors, all the better to unload shipped goods directly into its locked walls. It sits empty, save a few stacks of building materials and many piles of guano. It is not open to the public. I got to see it because I was on a press trip last week. Plenty of things I do as a food writer that sound super fun to other people don’t end up being nearly as great as one would think, but once in awhile I get to do something that excites even my jaded self.

I went on the trip for the abalone farm (see my visit here), but found delight around nearly every corner, from a singularly focused (some might say almost crazed) Frenchman bent on making the “perfect Cabernet,” to a farmer with a preternatural ability to find the silver lining (“we lost our peach crop to a late freeze last year, but all that energy that would have gone into the peaches went back into the trees and we got tremendous growth!”), to a family of grape growers turned wine makers with a fine tradition of layering Tellegio on their polenta before topping the lot with spicy beef stew. And, of course, I walked through the space pictured above which, despite a truly objectionable smell of guano and mold, was wondrous. You could sense the cool stuff that has spent time in its colonial mission-style walls, with recessed windows and a bell tower (all the better to announce that help was needed down at the dock) and custom-made locks. It is a singular place, which stands out in an increasingly cookie-cutter world.

For the last two months I had been feeling as overloaded as my cookbook shelves. I’ve had so much work on my plate at such a constant rate that I frequently felt like a deer in the headlights, unable to move or think, confused at what item on my to-do list could possibly be the most pressing. Spending a few days around people so fully engage in what they do, having a few hours away from the screen, being out of doors for more than half an hour at a stretch—it all worked together to start to fill the well. I hadn’t even acknowledged how dry my creative well felt (although my utter inability to come up with a single thing to write about here should have been a sign) until, all of the sudden, it wasn’t. It’s not overflowing, by any means, but at least I can remember that it’s there.

Between the few days in the green hills of the Central Coast and seeing how much more valuable and useful my cookbooks are after having been culled by over 30%, I’m going to take a leap and do something different here at The Dinner Files. The picture-story-recipe format isn’t exciting me anymore, and I think it shows. I’ll still be posting yummy and often painfully easy recipes over at Local Foods. (If you like my cooking style I encourage you to check over there frequently—I put up new stuff all the time: sign up for my weekly seasonal cooking newsletter, like the About Local Foods Facebook page, follow @aboutlocalfoods on Twitter). Other, usually food-centric projects will be coming this way.

Posts here won’t be as frequent, but I think they are going to be way more interesting.

It’s funny, just when things seem all tight and locked up, as secure as a well built warehouse:

They tend to open up:

If I ever own lots of treasure that needs to be stored, I can only hope I will have the decency to give it such views.

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Easter abalone

I’ve made these before, I made them again. Abalone po’ boys. Inspired, obviously, by shrimp and/or oyster po’ boys that are huge sandwiches filled with fried seafood, lettuce, tomato, and, for us last night anyway, a bit of red cabbage slaw and whatever else people thought to throw in them. They are an excellent way to stretch abalone to feed a crowd and we had a wee bit of a crowd last night.

Luckily, Very Tall Cousin Sam had caught his limit of 3 abalone. But we had 7 people to feed, including Sam and his brother, Awfully Tall Cousin Elliot, who was visiting for the weekend, Cousin Katie and her girlfriend Nilka, and the regular threesome that usually shows up for dinner at our house.

It may have been Easter and we may be family, but it was not an Easter dinner, a fact made clear by the lack of candy and the confusion expressed by several members of the party as to what, exactly, Easter celebrates.

So we stood around and drank beer and laughed and the guys took a 2-by-4 to the abalone wrapped in a towels in order to tenderize it whole (result: a bit mangled, not as thoroughly tender as when pounded by the slice, but much quicker) before I floured and fried the abalone for the sandwiches. We then put large sandwich rolls, every condiment in the fridge, a platter of thinly sliced tomato and red onion, some lettuce, and a mixing bowl of red cabbage slaw (very thinly sliced red cabbage splashed with sherry vinegar and sprinkled with salt and pepper and allowed to sit until just a bit wilted) on the table along with the paper-towel-lined cutting board covered with overlapping pieces of golden, pretty-much tender, rich and meaty abalone.

And then, activity-based-bonding family that we are, we hit the streets, kicked the soccer ball around, walked Katie and Nilka’s dog, and played Pickle-in-the-Middle with Ernest as the perpetual laugh-filled pickle.

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Luxury leftovers

I had to eat early in order to get to UC Berkeley by 7. Well, in a seat and ready to listen at 7. That time between “arriving” in Berkeley and actually being at a specific place is what always gets me. Parking, walking to the building, potentially having trouble finding the room… is why I need to leave an hour to get to Berkeley events. An hour for a 15-20 minute drive. Why so much wiggle room? Because I find being late physically unpleasant. It makes me so nervous I have a visceral reaction.

So I ate early and by myself. I had squirreled away a few slices of the abalone from last night (as well as some of the sweet potato fries), thought ahead and bought a soft roll from Acme Bakery at the farmers market in the morning, slathered on some mayo, layered in some tomato slices and baby arugula, sprinkled on some salt, and counted myself lucky indeed.

Speaking of the Ferry Plaza farmers market (oh wait, weren’t we?)… I was there yesterday for the smaller, more manageable version of the fresh fine food cluster f*** that happens on Tuesdays. The crowds and insanity on Saturdays tend to keep me away unless circumstances demand something from Fatted Calf. Quite frankly, the whole CSA membership in Terra Firma Farm has dramatically cut down on my farmers market visits–the house is already full of organic local produce. But I do find myself occasionally in need of items Terra Firma doesn’t grow or, as was the case yesterday, in need of pictures of various seasonal fruits and vegetables.

I went for pictures, and, $43.40 later, I left with a bag containing the following:

The breakdown goes something like this:

Italian Loaf 3.70

Sandwich bun .70

Shelling beans 9.00

Brussels sprouts 6.00

Pomegranates 4.00

Pimentos de padron 20.00 (with a bag of hot peppers thrown in for “free”)

Granted, I could have brought the total down significantly if I could have resisted the pimentos de padron. But I’m human. I can never resist the pimentons de padron. They are $6 a bag or 4 for $20. I know math and it is a better deal to drop the $20. We all love them at my house and every time I eat them I think of a gray day in Madrid when I stopped into a bar with two friends. We ordered some mushrooms a la plancha that made me re-think the very nature of mushrooms and those small glasses of beer you can get in Spain that are so perfect for a little afternoon snack break. The owner brought over a plate of pimentos de padron, explaining they had just come into season and were from his native Galicia. Oh. My. God. I just couldn’t believe how green and grassy they tasted, with just the teeniest tiniest bit of heat, and how the crunch of the coarse grains of salt made them taste all the grassier.

So I spend the money, eat the peppers, and am grateful for good friends and sweet memories of a time when we were young, unfettered by children, and dropped into a bar in Madrid on a Wednesday afternoon.

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I’m not worthy

Of abalone or your attention. All I did was fry it up again. I know, I know. I was going to get all crazy and stir-fry it with lemongrass or something. But it’s so good floured and fried in butter. I just couldn’t resist. I did, however, put it on a bed of arugula dressed with a very lemony, garlicky dressing (2 Tbsp. meyer lemon juice, 1 Tbsp. olive oil, a clove minced garlic, 1/4 tsp. salt, 1/8 tsp ground mustard, 1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper).

What’s that other thing on the plate you ask? Oven-baked sweet potato fries, that’s what. They are pretty darn tasty. Just please, cut them evenly or you’ll have burnt fries and mushy un-browned fries and you’ll just be sad.

I made dinner while listening to Terry Gross interview Michael Pollan on Fresh Air. Except for the dusting of flour on the abalone and the various seasonings (salt, black pepper, cayenne), this meal was pretty god damn local. Well, regional. And somewhat removed, or at least side-stepping, the industrial food system. Arugula and sweet potatoes from our CSA, olive oil from outside Sacramento (sent directly from the grower/press), butter from Marin county (bought at local co-op), lemons from our yard, and abalone snatched from a wild and one imagines content life along the underwater sea cliffs of Mendocino. Oh, ethical consumerism really is a honeypot. So sweet. So satisfying.

And the radio tells me it’s good! That’s what makes it so sticky!

Seriously, though, if you missed the interview, check it out online–Pollan is a master at explaining just how screwy our ag policy in the U.S. is and why and how we need to to at least start to fix it.

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Abalone Po’ Boy

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The deal went down like this: I got a call Friday afternoon, would I be around Sunday and if I were, would I like an abalone?

Sunday around 8 a Subaru Forester pulled up in front of the house. Knock at the door (in a polite effort to not disturb a going-to-bed kid), request for a plastic bag, reach in a cooler, perfect 8-inch specimen handed over on the street. Lots of deals go down on our street. We kept this one legal by not exchanging any cash.

Very Tall Cousin Sam came through yet again. The season ended yesterday, so no more giant sea snails until November, and by then he may be gainfully employed and less likely to rush up to Mendocino to procure elusive feast foods for me.

I was going to make a lemongrass abalone stir-fry, but I just wasn’t in the mood. So I pan-fried it, as usual, and made the mother of all po’ boys. More modest in scale than those I saw in New Orleans, yes, but fried seafood just works on a crusty white bun with mayo, lettuce, and tomato. It is a brilliant combination.

My dashing husband prefers abalone straight-up, with nothing to sully its delicate flavor. I find abalone so rich, I relished the other elements to cut it a bit. You see what a crazy, opposites-attract dynamic we have going on over here!

Speaking of relish… we busted open a jar of the sweet and just-a-bit spicy corn relish I made a few weeks ago. Yum…. Then we had corn cake for dessert. Yes, now that you mention it, that is a lot of corn.

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Abalone!

Abalone

This past Tuesday I got a call from my cousin Sam, who, I always like to note, is extremely tall. “Hey Mol,” he said, “I need to drop something off at your house, can I come by?”

He came to the door and presented me with an abalone. A fresh, live, red abalone he had picked earlier that day up in Mendocino, where such behavior is legal (although closely regulated). He learned to dive for abalone last summer and we had a standing deal: If he caught any, I’d cook them for him. We had several amazing meals thanks to that arrangement.

This time, though, he was headed back down to Monterey. No time to stop in SF for dinner. Just a pop-by to deliver the priceless gift of wild abalone (legally priceless anyway, since it’s illegal to sell).

I’ve learned a lot about abalone in the last year. I ate it for the first time last summer, thanks to Sam. It’s amazing. Like a happy cross between scallops and foie gras–neither of which is my most favorite thing to eat, but when they come together in abalone I’m a huge fan. Then this spring I visited an abalone farm and found out that the big crunch-time every year for abalone growers isn’t Christmas or Fourth of July, but Fathers’ Day. People around the country order up abalone for their dads, who grew up eating it–just picking it off rocks up and down the West Coast from what I can tell–and never get to have it anymore.

And so I saved the abalone to share with my dad. My parents arrived yesterday afternoon for a weekend visit and I surprised them with an abalone snack before we headed to dinner.*

The critter stayed alive in my fridge in a partially-sealed ziploc bag until I cleaned it at noon yesterday. I’d seen Sam clean them, and looked at various things online. I had generally braced myself for grossness and some light gagging. Then I remembered “The Good Cook” series from Time/Life. Sure enough, the Seafood book contained excellent, non-scary directions for cleaning abalone. I expanded them a bit and posted my own How to Clean Abalone step-by-step guide over at Local Foods in case you’re lucky enough to get your hands on one. I also posted a recipe for Pan-Fried Abalone, which is how I like them best and how we ate it last night.

*We headed across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito to eat at Fish. Fabulous, simple, sustainable seafood served on picnic tables in a marina. Ernie loves it, my dashing husband loves it, my dad LUVS it. It is one of my favorite places in the Bay Area–in fact, we often go there for my birthday in one way or another. Even my mom, who is not a big seafood fan and chills easily, happily donned one of the restaurants blankets and sat in the freezing fog while working her way through a giant salad topped with luscious artic char. That summer weather I mentioned the other day? Gone. The people at the table next to ours at Fish. took their food and ate it in their car. And they were from Boston.

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