Lemony Lobster Risotto

Special occasions call for special foods. Whether you are preparing to celebrate an anniversary, a loved one’s birthday or some other kind of milestone, it makes sense that you would want to enjoy a meal that is a bit more extravagant than the usual. When I turned 10, my father and stepmother took me to a “fancy” restaurant for my first taste of lobster, and I still remember how lusciously sweet and rich it tasted, especially when dipped in the warm drawn butter. During pandemic times, of course, enjoying a special meal has more likely meant digging deeper into your own recipe vault and perhaps brushing the dust off some of your lesser-used cooking skills. You may have even been nudged into fresh culinary territory, taking the plunge on new equipment for your kitchen or learning new techniques or cuisines to make your favorite special foods. All of the above have been true for me over the past year, in addition to starting this blog, which has been a lifesaver for my mental health.

When Valentine’s Day came around this year, I had already decided that lobster tails would be the highlight of our romantic dinner-for-two. I made them last summer when my husband, Les, celebrated his birthday and we both commented how much we enjoyed the lobster and should make it more often. Lobster feels decadent, and though I’ve never been brave enough to prepare a whole, live lobster (mainly out of fear that I’d have to become vegan afterward), I find lobster tails to be one of the simplest seafood preparations out there. Splitting the tail and broiling with nothing more than clarified butter, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of fresh herbs is the way to go. For me, it’s the sides that require a little more thought—you want something elegant enough to pair nicely with such a luxurious main, but nothing too rich or fancy that would compete for attention or overwhelm the palate. Les requested easy roasted asparagus and a Caesar salad, which I glammed up with homemade green goddess dressing. And I wanted a starchy side, but not potatoes and definitely not pasta.

Enter risotto, stage left.

As I mentioned in my January post for the scallops with spinach on bacon risotto, there is no advanced skill required for making this Italian-born side, only patience and attention. I consider risotto a “blank canvas” food, in that you can easily switch directions with it to suit the rest of your menu. For our understated Valentine’s meal, I wanted light, lemony freshness, something that would match the simplicity of the lobster tails. I found a bottled lobster juice in one of our specialty markets, and it has all the luscious sweet aroma of lobster, with exactly the right amount of salt for flavor. Lemon zest gave echo to the fresh lemon we’d be squeezing over the lobster, and did I mention how much parsley we have these days thanks to our indoor hydro garden? I finished it off with a gentle splash of light cream, and the meal was perfectly lovely.

The other thing that is nice about risotto is that you don’t have to make a huge batch of it. For this meal, I wanted only enough to cradle our lobster tails, so I scaled down a basic recipe and used only 1/3 cup of Arborio rice. We had no leftovers, which was perfect.

Ingredients (two dinner side servings)

1 Tbsp. minced shallot

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1/3 cup Arborio rice

8 oz. bottle Maine lobster juice* (see notes)

2 oz. dry vermouth (or dry white wine)

Filtered water, amount needed to finish risotto

1 Tbsp. finely grated lemon zest

2 Tbsp. light cream (or half and half), warmed

A couple pinches of fresh chopped parsley

*Notes

I found this lobster juice in a specialty supermarket, same aisle as tinned fish. The label suggests a serving is a tablespoon, so I’m not sure what most people use it for. When I tasted it, I knew it would be perfect as a broth for my risotto, and I used the entire bottle. If you cannot find this product, consider a seafood stock from the soup aisle.

If you cannot find the lobster juice, substitute packaged seafood stock.

Instructions

  1. Combine lobster juice and dry vermouth in a saucepan over low heat. Bring this up to a very low simmer, and keep it warm for the duration of recipe. If you have a tea kettle, warm some water as well. You may need it to finish cooking the risotto and it will help to have it on standby.
  2. Place a small, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Melt the butter; add minced shallot and sauté until softened and slightly translucent.
  3. Add Arborio rice to the pan, and toss it around with a wooden spoon until all grains are coated and the rice begins to look lightly toasted in color. Reduce heat to medium low.
  4. Add a small ladle of the warm lobster broth and stir rice around to evenly distribute it. Cook, stirring or shaking pan frequently, until the broth seems mostly absorbed. Repeat with only a small ladle of broth each time. As the recipe proceeds, you will notice that the risotto takes on a cloudy appearance. This is good! The starches are breaking down into different form, and this is what creates the rich, creamy texture. Keep going, but take it slow.
  5. When you have nearly exhausted the broth, do a taste test. Perfect risotto should be tender, but not mushy. If it feels like it will stick to your teeth, it needs more time. Add warm water to the remaining broth and continue cooking. You should expect this process to take about 40 minutes from start to finish.
  6. When the risotto texture seems right, add the lemon zest and fresh parsley. Stir in the light cream or half and half, and serve immediately.

To make clarified butter:

Place a small saucepan over very low heat. Add a whole stick (1/4 cup) of unsalted butter and leave it alone. You want the butter to warm slowly so that it melts but does not brown or burn. Avoid temptation to stir or swirl the pan, as this will reincorporate the milk solids. When the butter is completely melted (which may take as long as 30 minutes), turn off the heat and let it rest for a minute or two. Carefully tip the saucepan, pouring off the clarified butterfat, but leaving the milk solids behind in the bottom of the pan. Do this a day or two ahead, if you wish. Keep the clarified butter covered and refrigerated until ready to use. Reheat over medium-low heat, or in the microwave, but only 15 seconds at a time.


Prepping and cooking the lobster tails:

If you have purchased the lobster tails frozen, it’s best to thaw them slowly in the refrigerator, as it makes separation of the flesh from the shell a bit easier. In a hurry? Place them in a heavy, ziptop freezer bag, squeezing out excess air (the shells have sharp edges, so sandwich-type bags won’t do). Put the bags in a large bowl or pot filled with cold water. Place something heavy over them to keep them submerged during the thaw process.

Use strong kitchen scissors to cut the top side of the shell lengthwise, clipping as far as you can to the tail fins. Next, carefully slide a sharp, slim paring knife between the meat and the shell, and shimmy it all the way around to loosen the flesh. Using one hand to gently pry open the cut shell top, carefully lift the tail flesh up through the shell opening to rest it on top. This affords the prettiest presentation. Blot away excess moisture with paper towels. Cover and refrigerate until you are ready to broil the tails.

Set your oven to high broil setting for about five minutes, with oven rack in the center position. Arrange the lobster tails, at least 4 inches apart from each other, on a baking sheet lined with foil or parchment, or use a broiler pan. If the tails don’t sit upright without tipping, you can make a nest of aluminum foil to hold them in position.

Drizzle a spoonful of clarified butter evenly over each tail. Broil on high for about 7 minutes, until flesh is plump and white, and shells are bright orange-red in color. Remove immediately, drizzle on more butter and sprinkle with fresh parsley. Serve on top of lemony risotto with wedges of fresh lemon.

Simply elegant, and totally delicious!

Want to make it?


Scallops with Spinach on Bacon Risotto

Seafood has snagged the spotlight here on Comfort du Jour, and today’s post continues that trend, with a scallop and risotto dish that is both elegant and simple (yes, really).

If you have ever watched “Chopped” on the Food Network, there’s a good chance you have seen the elite panel of judges gasp collectively in sheer horror when a contestant announces an attempt to make risotto. Honestly, I gasp as well—not because risotto is complicated or difficult (it isn’t)—but because risotto is a tricky proposition in the very limited time the chef contestants usually have to complete their culinary challenge. Those chef-judges know from decades of experience that risotto in 20 minutes will not likely be successful.

The soft, creamy texture of risotto is achieved by the breakdown of the starch inside the rice grains. There’s a lot of science to explain why, but the upshot is that you need to cook it gradually, stirring all the while, so that the starches release and become a thick, slurry-like coating. Eventually, the grains are softened and the rice seems to be floating in a creamy sauce that doesn’t depend on cream at all, though most cooks add a little at the end. This kind of perfection doesn’t happen in a hurry.

Find an hour to spare this weekend and you can be successful with risotto. I’ve jazzed up this version with smoky bacon and mushrooms, and I also added a touch of cream. Then I draped it with a layer of sautéed spinach and topped it with perfectly seared sea scallops (also easy). It looks and tastes like it came out of a restaurant kitchen, but I’m going to show you how to whip it up in the cozy comfort of your own home.

Time for dinner!

Gather up your tools—you’ll need two skillets and a medium saucepan, plus a ladle and a wooden spoon. See? Not complicated at all. 🙂

Serves: 2
Time to make: 90 minutes
Leftover potential: Oh, yes! (at the end of the post, I’ll show you how we enjoyed the leftover risotto)


Ingredients

3 slices smoky bacon

3 to 4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth (most of a standard carton)

1/4 cup dry white wine* (optional, see notes)

1 cup Arborio rice* (see notes)

1/2 smallish sweet onion, minced fine

Handful of cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

Fat handful of fresh baby spinach leaves, washed and chopped

1/4 cup half and half or cream* (optional)

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

2 portions sea scallops, patted dry

2 Tbsp. parm-romano blend, for serving


*Notes

A typical risotto recipe uses a few ounces of wine to flavor the broth, but that isn’t critical. Make up the difference with additional broth, if you wish. If using wine, go with something dry, such as Pinot Grigio. I frequently substitute dry vermouth, as I have a bottle in the fridge all the time. This particular day, I poured in the remnants of a champagne split. Whatever works.

Arborio rice is specifically used for risotto because of its starch makeup. You will likely find it specially packaged in the rice section of your supermarket. In a pinch, choose any white rice labeled “short-grain,” and follow the same instructions. It may not result in the same level of creaminess, but it will be close. It is unusual for me to choose anything other than brown rice, but I will share honestly that I haven’t yet found success with brown rice risotto, although some internet resources suggest that soaking it overnight may help. I’ll save that challenge for another day. 😉

The addition of cream at the end is not absolutely essential, but I love the softness it lends to the finish of the dish. If you are trying to eat lighter, you might try substituting an equal amount of low-fat evaporated milk. It has similar consistency with lower fat and calories.

Before you begin…

Risotto is best served immediately after reaching perfect consistency. This recipe also requires cooking of mushrooms, spinach and scallops. You may want to employ a helper for these additional tasks, unless you are confident you can manage to cook them simultaneously while tending the risotto. You might also choose to cook the mushrooms and spinach in advance, and re-warm them at plating time. Either way, it’s best to have every ingredient, tool and utensil ready to go before you begin.


Instructions

As usual, the images tell the story, but I’ve offered written instructions below, plus a PDF version you can download for your recipe files. Enjoy!

  1. In a skillet large enough for cooking the risotto, begin by cooking the bacon until crisp. Transfer to a paper towel to cool, reserving the bacon fat (or drain the fat and substitute butter or olive oil for the next step). When cool, crumble or chop the bacon into small pieces and set aside.
  2. In a medium saucepan, heat vegetable broth over medium-low heat, and keep it simmering. I usually begin with the full amount of broth, but if you prefer to heat it in batches and use only what you need, that’s OK. Begin with 3 cups, plus wine (if using). Season it with salt and pepper.
  3. In a second skillet, brown up the mushrooms in a bit of olive oil. Transfer them to a bowl, and then sauté up the spinach leaves and transfer them to a separate bowl. If you’re uncomfortable multi-tasking, you can do this work ahead, or ask a helper to work alongside as you cook the risotto.
  4. To the same skillet used to cook the bacon, add the dry Arborio rice to the fat (or butter or olive oil) in the skillet. Over medium heat, stir the rice around with a wooden utensil until it’s completely coated in the oil. Continue to cook until rice has a lightly toasted aroma, which should be only a couple of minutes.
  5. Add chopped onions to the rice and continue to cook and stir another minute, just long enough for the onions to appear translucent.
  6. Use a ladle or small cup to scoop about 1/2 cup warm broth into the skillet. Stir it around in the rice, scraping any browned bits of flavor off the bottom of the pan. When most of the liquid is absorbed, add another 1/2 cup of broth and repeat. Continue this effort until the broth is nearly gone. After about 30 minutes, give the rice a taste. It should feel creamy but slightly firm, similar to pasta that is cooked just beyond al dente. For me, risotto usually takes about 40 minutes total. You may end up using the full 4 cups of broth—I usually do.
  7. In the second skillet, melt the unsalted butter over medium heat. Arrange the sea scallops, allowing a bit of space between them for easy turning. Do not move them around, but allow them to cook several minutes until browned. Turn scallops (only once) to cook the other side. Season them with salt and pepper.
  8. To the finished risotto, add the bacon crumbles and cooked mushrooms. Add half and half (if using) and stir to blend.
  9. Plate a mound of risotto onto serving plates immediately; top each portion with sautéed spinach and parm-romano blend, then scallops.

You’ll probably have extra risotto after plating, and that is not necessarily a bad thing (see below).

Time for dinner!

Want to make this easy-at-home recipe?


Here’s what I cooked up with the leftover risotto

As risotto cools, the starches gelatinize and the mixture becomes somewhat clumpy—similar to the way cold oatmeal sets up, and it isn’t necessarily delicious. Rather than trying to “loosen” it up again (which doesn’t work, by the way), I took a chance on the waffle iron. And wouldn’t you know? It was fan-freaking-tastic.

We had about 1 1/2 cups of cold leftover risotto from our scallop dish. I added 1/4 cup panko crumbs and 1/4 cup parm-romano blend, and stirred until the mixture was uniform. It had a thick, clumpy consistency that was similar to cold cookie dough.

I preheated our waffle iron to 400° F, and scooped the risotto mixture into it and pressed the lid closed. A few minutes later, voila! We had crispy exterior and smooth, soft and creamy interior. It reminded me of arancini, but in waffle form.

I made a quick onion-herb gravy with chunks of leftover roast chicken, and another fab 2.0 dinner was served!

I couldn’t have planned it better than this! And now, I always have a fun way to use up leftover risotto. 😀

Salmon with Fennel & White Beans

There has been a fresh and flavorful shift in our kitchen over the past couple of weeks, and it feels so right! My husband, Les, and I have been eating healthier after the holidays, not for keeping resolutions (we don’t bother with those), but out of simple desire to care for our bodies better after a season of splurging. Seafood has been the star of this menu reboot, and I’ve brought back into rotation one of my favorite all-time recipes, a seared fillet of fish rested on a mélange of tender sautéed fennel with creamy cannellini beans and sweet tomatoes.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll confess right here that I actually did not use salmon this time, but steelhead trout. This is a sweet and creamy fish, similar in texture (and appearance) to a farm-raised salmon, and when I can get my hands on steelhead trout, I love to swap it into favorite salmon recipes, including the salmon in phyllo dish that I shared in December. But steelhead trout isn’t always easy to find, especially while adhering to the best practice standards set by the Marine Stewardship Council (sustainability means a lot to me). The dish is every bit as delicious when made with your favorite salmon, which is usually much easier to find.

This dish is satisfying, healthful and full of flavor!

It looks and tastes more extravagant than it is, and although I’ve named it “fish with fennel,” it would be better described as fennel with fish, given that the fennel shows up in three different forms—the seeds are ground to a powder for crusting on the fillets, the vegetable is caramelized in the mélange beneath the fish, and the fronds are chopped and sprinkled on top.


Would it surprise you to know that you can have this meal on the table in about 35 minutes, start to finish? It’s true. And Les, who is practically a living nutritional calculator, announced after cleaning his plate that our meal probably checked in at fewer than 400 calories per serving, which is not too shabby for such a flavorful, satisfying meal.

Ingredients

So few ingredients, yet so much flavor!

2 portions salmon*, skin removed (see notes)

1 tsp. fennel seed, ground to a rough powder

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 bulb fennel, sliced* (should measure about 1 cup)

1 cup chopped fresh tomatoes (or canned, drained well)

1/4 cup low-sodium vegetable broth + 2 Tbsp. dry white wine* (or all vegetable broth)

15 oz. can cannellini (white kidney) beans, drained and rinsed

1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

2 Tbsp. fennel fronds, chopped or minced


*Notes

Any type of salmon (wild sockeye, king, coho, etc.) works well in this recipe, but you might also consider swapping in another fish, such as arctic char or steelhead trout, which I used. If you are not comfortable removing the skin yourself, ask the seafood clerk to do it for you. Learn this task, and you’ll be unstoppable!

Fennel is a less common vegetable, one that you may have passed over in the supermarket for something more recognizable. It resembles something between celery and bok choy, but tastes nothing like either. It is crunchy with a slightly licorice flavor, and it pairs beautifully with all kinds of fish, especially when sautéed or stewed. The seed part of fennel might be more familiar to you. It’s the flavor that makes Italian sausage taste Italian.

If you use wine to deglaze the skillet, make it a dry one, such as pinot grigio. Alternatively, I frequently reach for dry vermouth, given that I always have a bottle open in the fridge. If you prefer to not use wine, just add another splash of vegetable broth, no problem.


Instructions


  1. Using a mortar and pestle or electric spice grinder, crush the fennel seeds to a rough powder. Don’t have either? Try putting the seeds into a bag and use a rolling pin to crush them. Season the fish fillets with kosher salt and pepper, then sprinkle the fennel powder onto both sides of the fillets and press to fully adhere it.
  2. Heat a large, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil. When oil is hot and shimmery (but not smoking), lay fish fillets into pan. Cook about two minutes, then carefully turn fillets to cook the other side another two minutes. Transfer fish to a small plate and keep warm. I usually slip it into the microwave while I make the mélange.
  3. Add fennel pieces to the skillet. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté, tossing occasionally, until fennel is caramelized and tender, about five minutes.
  4. Add tomatoes, then broth, plus wine. Stir until combined and liquid is simmering.
  5. Add beans and mustard. Toss to combine, reduce heat to low.
  6. Return fish to the pan, resting the fillets on top of the mixture. Cover and simmer on low for about 8 minutes, which is just about enough time to set the table and chop the fennel fronds.
  7. Plate the meal, with fish fillet resting on top of the fennel-bean mixture. Sprinkle the chopped fennel fronds on top and serve.

Want to make this recipe?


If you’re hungry for more seafood, check out these easy recipes from the Comfort du Jour archives.


Scampi with Asparagus

It happens every time. The start of a new year is filled with good intentions, as everyone makes their resolutions to get fit, lose weight, improve their health. This is the reason for all the TV ads for gym memberships, weight loss products and home exercise equipment. It isn’t a terrible idea, of course, but there are simpler (and more sustainable) things we can do to get back into better habits, and most of them begin in the kitchen.

Along with many other people at the end of holiday indulging, I’m tired of so much rich food and find myself aching for fresher, lighter fare. After the heavy flavors of Thanksgiving dishes, it was spicy that I craved. But after the double whammy of Christmas and New Year’s, and all the sweets and booze that came with them, I just want to eat something—anything—fresh. Oh, and easy would be nice, too!

That’s where this recipe comes in, and there’s plenty to love about it. The dish is light and lemony, with big, juicy shrimp and bright, barely-crunchy asparagus. Piled high on a bed of al dente pasta, it looks like it came from a restaurant kitchen, and it tastes like fresh air after all the decadence we’ve plated in this house over the past six weeks.

You don’t have to go to a restaurant for a beautiful, tasty seafood dish. This one is easy to make at home!

Scampi is a simple dish to make, and the main thing to embrace is patience. You will cook the garlic slowly in olive oil over low heat, which allows it to essentially poach rather than sauté. This low and slow approach leads to the soft, mellow garlic flavor that is distinctive in scampi. And yes, it is a fair amount of oil, but remember that extra virgin olive oil is monounsaturated—what nutritionists call “good fat.” The meal will satisfy, and there are health benefits to boot. Sounds good to me!

If you don’t care for asparagus, sub in another crisp green vegetable, maybe some sugar snap peas or fresh broccolini. Or skip the sauteed veggie and serve the scampi alongside a salad. After the holidays, you deserve whatever fresh flavors suit your craving. Make it your own.

Serves: 2
Time to make it: About 35 minutes

Ingredients

2/3 pound fresh or frozen (uncooked) shrimp, 16-20 count* (see notes)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

5 cloves fresh garlic, chopped

1/2 medium sweet onion, halved and sliced in crescent moon shapes

1/2 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces

A few shakes crushed red pepper flakes, if you like it spicy

Juice of 1/2 lemon, plus the zest

2 portions linguine or angel hair pasta

A few shakes of parm-romano blend cheese, for serving

Five cloves is a lot of garlic for two dinner portions, but the slow simmer mellows the flavor. Cut the onions and asparagus into similar sized pieces.

*Notes

The “count” on shrimp refers to its size, and represents the average number of shrimp per pound. The higher the number, the smaller the shrimp. I have no problem with using frozen shrimp, especially because supermarkets often receive the shrimp frozen anyway. For many reasons, including food safety, fair trade and human rights, I always purchase shrimp harvested in the U.S., and my preference is white gulf shrimp. It’s sweet and juicy, whereas some other types of shrimp can be sharp and briny. Check with your seafood department for flavor recommendations, and whatever you purchase, be sure to thoroughly clean and de-vein it (instructions for this at the end of the post).


Instructions

  1. Place a large, non-stick skillet over low heat. Add olive oil and garlic (plus the red pepper, if using) and leave it alone. When the oil heats very slowly, the garlic gets softer and more mellow, which leads to the flavor we all know in scampi. Rush this step and the garlic will burn, which is definitely not delicious. Expect this low, slow cooking to take about 20 minutes.
  2. Thaw the shrimp (if frozen), and then peel and de-vein each one. If you have never done this before, it’s easy but extremely important, and I’ve provided some images at the end of the post to walk you through it. Removing the peel is pretty simple. Next, use a sharp paring knife to make a shallow cut down the outside curved part of the shrimp, revealing a dark stringy thing. I hate to tell you, but this isn’t actually a vein—it’s a digestive tract. Disgusting, but important to know. Slip the sharp tip of the knife underneath this nasty thing and pull it out. Lay the cleaned shrimp on layers of paper towel and set aside for now. If working ahead, cover and refrigerate.
  3. Bring a large pot of water to boil for cooking the pasta. Season it generously with kosher salt and (once boiling) add the pasta, stirring to prevent sticking. Cook until al dente, according to directions on the pasta box. While this is underway, continue with the recipe below.
  4. After the garlic has poached about 20 minutes, turn the skillet heat up to medium. When oil begins to bubble around the garlic, add the onions and asparagus and sauté 5 to 7 minutes, until the onions are translucent and the asparagus is slightly softened but still bright green.
  5. Move the veggies to the outer edges of the skillet and arrange the cleaned shrimp in the center. Cook only long enough for the bottom of the shrimp to become pink and opaque.
  6. Turn the shrimp, season the whole skillet with salt and pepper, and add in the lemon zest. Squeeze the lemon half over the mixture and continue to cook until the second side of the shrimp is cooked. Move all the skillet ingredients to the outer edges.
  7. Using tongs, move the cooked pasta directly to the center of the skillet and swirl it around to coat it with the flavors of the skillet.
  8. Arrange the pasta on serving plates or bowls, hit it with a little parm-romano blend, if you’d like, and top with veggies and shrimp.

Want to make this dish?


Here’s the down and dirty on de-veining

For goodness sake, do not skip this important step. As noted above, the “vein” in the outer curve of shrimp is actually a digestive tract, and the gunk inside is what’s left of the critter’s most recent meal (yuck). Food safety experts haven’t expressed serious concerns about eating it, but if it grosses you out (as it does me), grab a sharp paring knife and get that thing outta there!


Oysters Rockefeller Pizza

One of my favorite things to do with food is twist up a classic, and this effort is a big-time winner! When my husband, Les, and I began talking about making our annual White Clam Pizza for New Year’s Eve (these conversations begin in October because we are obsessed that way), the gears of my foodie brain started spinning. What would happen, I wondered to myself, if we put all the incredible, decadent, special occasion flavors of Oysters Rockefeller—on a pizza?

Oysters Rockefeller has always been a favorite of mine, an appetizer dish that feels so classic and ritzy and special. So what about a crispy New York-style pizza crust with a creamy base, briny oysters, smoky cooked bacon, earthy spinach, pungent garlic and sharp salty cheeses—oh my goodness, yes—why wouldn’t this be a thing?

Kinda makes you want to bite right into it, huh?

Unlike the white clam pie, which is cooked sans sauce, I felt that this one needed something creamy as a base. Tomato sauce won’t do, because that isn’t a flavor I associate with oysters. It had to be creamy, but not too cheesy. One thing I have learned about fish in general is that most “melty” cheeses do not pair well, but hard, salty cheeses such as Parmesan are perfect. We remembered how tasty the roasted garlic béchamel was on the creamy garlic and mushroom pizza I developed last year—so that’s where I started for the base. Next came some homework to discern the exact right flavors that make Oysters Rockefeller so exquisite. The bacon must be crisp, but not too crunchy. The cheese should be decadent and nutty, but not stringy or heavy the way mozzarella would be. Gruyere is common in the classic appetizer, so that’s a go, and Romano has that nice salty punch. Spinach—obviously a must, and I embellished the flavor of that with a splash of dry vermouth. Finally, a generous scattering of buttery, crunchy garlic panko crumbs when the pie emerged from the oven.

This pizza is a winner. We can hardly wait until next New Year’s Eve!

All the fancy flavors of Oysters Rockefeller, on a fun and casual pizza. Served with Caesar salad and champagne, of course.

This is how traditions are born, friends. Enjoy!


Ingredients

1 ball N.Y. pizza dough (or your favorite store-bought dough, about 11 oz.)


The béchamel base

1 Tbsp. salted butter

1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

3/4 cup whole milk

1 whole bulb roasted garlic

2 oz. gruyere cheese*


The cooked toppings

3 very thick slices uncured smoked bacon* (see notes)

1 small shallot, minced fine*

1 fat handful fresh baby spinach leaves

A pinch of ground cayenne pepper (optional)

2 Tbsp. dry white wine (or dry vermouth)


The cheese toppings

1/2 cup grated gruyere cheese

1/4 cup grated or shaved Pecorino-Romano cheese

A few tablespoons of our favorite parm-romano blend cheese


The garlic crumb topper

2 Tbsp. salted butter

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

1/3 cup panko bread crumbs

1 small handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped


The oysters

1 dozen large Blue Point (or similar) oysters, shucked*


*Notes

Gruyere is a nutty, semi-hard cheese that is similar to Swiss cheese. It is a typical ingredient in the topping for Oysters Rockefeller, and I used it twice for this pizza—in the béchamel and also grated on top of the pie. Substitute with Swiss or mild white cheddar if you cannot get it.

The bacon we used was possibly the best bacon I’ve ever tasted. I wish I could give you a brand, but this was a locally produced, heritage pork we found at Whole Foods. It was uncured (nitrite-free, which is a standard in this house) and smoked with peach wood—wow. So, so good. You may not be able to find this exact kind of bacon, but substitute a good quality, thick-cut bacon with smoky flavor and not too much sweetness. This bacon was also hand-cut by the butcher and therefore very thick slices. Once cubed, it measured a total of about 1 1/2 dry cups.

Please remember that shallots are not the same as scallions, but more similar to red or sweet onion.

We agonized for weeks about the oysters, wondering whether we could purchase them fresh in the shell from a local restaurant that specializes in them, but we kept bumping into the same issue—for food safety reasons, no purveyor would sell them shucked but still in the shell. We had two options—either shuck them ourselves at cooking time (this is not for novices, which we are) or buying them already shucked, by the pint. We opted for the latter and they were fantastic. The container had more oysters than we needed for our creation, but don’t you worry—the extras will pop up on a salad or something very soon.


Instructions

I have learned (the hard way), when it comes to special recipes that I’ve never made before, that it is best to work ahead so that stress is minimized at cooking time. For this reason, I have broken the instructions down into segments, beginning with the béchamel base and the cooked toppings. It’s nice to have them done, out of the way and the kitchen cleaned up before the real cooking begins. The pictures tell most of the story, but keep scrolling for a downloadable PDF version of the instructions for your recipe files. I hope you’ll make it!

Béchamel and cooked toppings

This is the same base I made for the creamy garlic and mushroom pizza I introduced back in the summer. A béchamel is one of the simplest and most adaptable things you can make in the kitchen—master this, and you’ll find yourself whipping up all kinds of creations. I only needed a small amount for this Oysters Rockefeller pizza, and I ended up not using all of it. When cooled, the béchamel is somewhat thick and difficult to spread, so check the photos to see how I managed to get it evenly onto the dough.

If you’d like, you can make the béchamel and cooked toppings a couple of days ahead. Be sure to bring all ingredients to room temperature when you’re ready to build the pizza.


This pizza has all the character of Oysters Rockefeller. Truly, a special occasion pie.

Ready to assemble this masterpiece?

There’s a downloadable PDF at the bottom of this post, but I always think the pictures are more interesting. 🙂


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White Clam Pizza

Of all the New Year’s Eve traditions my husband, Les, and I have established together, this pizza is the most eagerly anticipated. We start talking about it weeks in advance of the holidays, and build our entire holiday meal plan around it. Our recipe is drawn from Les’s memories of living nearly two decades in the New Haven, Connecticut area, where Modern Apizza and Frank Pepe’s reign supreme. The region is home to great pizza as well as fresh seafood, and the white clam pie is a terrific mashup of the two.

Topped with salty, slightly chewy littleneck clams and accented with fresh oregano, garlic and a copious amount of fluffy shredded Pecorino-Romano cheese, the white clam pizza meets every expectation for a casual meal, but with special ingredients and festive occasion flavor.


Les and I began this ritual of serving white clam pizza on New Year’s Eve 2018, only three years after we officially became “a couple.” Although we had been dating seven months by the end of 2015, I had been in stubborn denial about my feelings and held onto deep fears about being in this (or any) relationship. I’ll spare you the personal drama (which feels a little silly to me in hindsight) but share that it was a “When Harry Met Sally” movie finale kind of moment that turned it all around for me on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. I had broken up with Les, for at least the fifth time, and when I came to my senses—only about 15 hours later—he had already committed to plans with a friend for New Year’s Eve. It was too late for us to spend the holiday together, but there was great comfort in knowing that the first day of 2016 would be a real and new beginning. He proposed the next summer, and the rest is our history in the making.

Today, New Year’s Eve still feels more like an anniversary to us than our actual wedding anniversary, and because we both enjoy being creative with food, it makes perfect sense that we would build that into our annual celebration. We love pizza in all shapes and forms, so much so that I gave Les a pizza ornament this year for our “Christmukkah” tree, which is also decorated with ornaments representing wine, Star of David, bourbon, bacon and a chocolate-covered strawberry. Oh, and billiard balls. What else can I say? This is us. 😊

Why wouldn’t we have pizza on our tree? ❤

This pizza does not have a red sauce, nor mozzarella or sausage. It is an amazingly short and simple list of ingredients that amounts to spectacular flavor. Use deli-quality cheese and shred it yourself. Get the freshest littleneck clams you can find, or choose another quahog type of clam, as close to littleneck size as possible. Follow the fishmonger’s recommendations for keeping them fresh, and the rest is easy.

As with any good pizza, the crust is crucial. If you don’t already make your own dough, I hope you’ll give my recipe a try, not just for this pizza but for all your pizzas. There is something very satisfying about making the dough by hand, and mine is achieved with the help of my beloved sourdough starter though I offer a yeasted option, too. Either way, the dough is easy enough to make but does require a few days advance, as the ferment takes place in the refrigerator. Let the dough come to room temperature before proceeding and have fun with it!


Ingredients

1 ball of N.Y. pizza dough (or use your favorite store-bought dough)

About 20 littleneck clams (fresh, in-shell)

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 Tbsp. fresh oregano leaves, chopped (or 1/2 tsp. dried oregano leaves)

2 cups very finely shredded Pecorino-Romano cheese (preferably grated at home)

Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling before baking


Instructions

The photos tell the story, or keep scrolling for written steps as well as a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.


  1. Preheat oven and pizza stone or steel to 550° F for at least one hour. Place rack about 8 inches from the top heat element.
  2. Bring a medium-sized pot of water to boil over medium-high heat. You don’t need a lot of water in the pot; enough to just cover the clams.
  3. When water boils, carefully add clams to the pot. Boil 2 to 3 minutes, until clams pop open. Immediately drain clams into a colander, rinse with cold water and cool until shells are easy to handle.
  4. Use the tip of a sturdy knife to pry the clams all the way open and remove them from the shells. Drain clam meats on a paper towel until ready to make the pizza. If you’re working ahead, I’d recommend covering the clams on a plate in the fridge.
  5. Shape pizza dough to a 14-inch round and place it on a floured pizza peel.
  6. Spray or brush pizza dough with olive oil, then season it with salt and freshly ground pepper. Scatter a small handful of Pecorino-Romano on the dough, and then sprinkle the garlic and oregano over the entire dough.
  7. Arrange the drained clam meats over the dough. Toss the remaining Pecorino-Romano over the entire pie, covering the clams and allowing the cheese to get right up on the edges of the dough.
  8. Drizzle the pizza with extra virgin olive oil.
  9. Slide the pizza onto the preheated stone or steel and bake about 6 minutes, until crust is golden brown on the edges and cheese is bubbling.
The crust was very thin in the center of this pizza, so the cheese was more golden in those spots. But oh, those perfectly chewy edges!

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Seared Tuna with Forbidden Rice and Tropical Salsa

This colorful dish proves two points—that eating healthy does not have to be boring or bland, and that you don’t need to be in a restaurant to enjoy a restaurant-quality meal.

When it comes to fresh seafood, I believe in keeping the fish (or shrimp, scallops, crab, whatever) as close to its true state as possible. Trust citrus juice, salt and pepper to bring out the best in seafood and bring in other complementary flavors on the side. That’s what I’ve done with this pretty plate, featuring a fresh-caught ahi tuna steak and a tropical fruit salsa that comes together in about 7 minutes. The most time-consuming part of the dish is waiting for the rice to cook.

If you’ve never seen or cooked with forbidden rice before, here’s a quick list of facts to help you get to know this delicious, somewhat exotic ingredient.

Black rice is sometimes called “forbidden” rice.

Where does black rice come from, and why is it “forbidden?”

Black rice originated across the continent of Asia, and has long been a significant crop in China, Bangladesh, parts of the Philippines, Thailand and Northeast India. The grain is no longer considered “forbidden,” but it was given that distinction in ancient China because of its former scarcity. The cost of this rare food put it out of reach for all but the wealthiest people, and so it was forbidden to everyone else. That has changed, however, as it is now cultivated more widely and available in larger supermarkets or online.

What gives black rice its color?

The rice has a very deep color that looks nearly black in its raw state, but in bright light and after cooking, it’s easier to see that it is actually more of a deep purple. This is because of anthocyanin, a type of plant pigment that also occurs in blueberries, raspberries, purple cauliflower and “blue” corn. Although some websites suggest the anthocyanins have antioxidant properties, scientific studies have so far only shown this to be true in a lab environment—not in the human body by food consumption.

What does black rice taste like?

If you were to close your eyes while tasting black rice, you might think you were enjoying smaller grains of brown rice because of the similar mild, slightly nutty flavor.

What do you make with black rice?

You can use black rice the same way you’d use any rice—in side dishes, pilafs, soups and salads. Also, because of its unusual color, it is commonly used in Asian countries in special dessert dishes, especially rice pudding made with coconut milk.

Ingredients

1 cup cooked black rice

2 portions fresh tuna steak

1 cup fresh pineapple, cut into bite-sized pieces* (see notes)

1 fresh honey mango, cut into chunks*

1/4 red bell pepper, diced (or 1 Tbsp. jarred pimentos, drained)

1/4 cup red onion, diced

1/2 fresh jalapeno, seeded and finely diced (optional to taste)

4 fresh mint leaves, cut into thin strips* (see slides for tips)

1 Tbsp. peach white balsamic vinegar*

1 Tbsp. neutral extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and fresh black pepper

Juice of 1/2 lime

*Notes

Save some time on the pineapple and pick it up pre-cut from your produce department. I don’t recommend canned pineapple for this, but you could probably use frozen (thawed) in a pinch.

There are hundreds of varieties of mango, but usually two at my market—“regular” mango, which is kind of round-oval and darkish green with blushing orange areas, and the one they call “honey” mango, which is usually smaller, deep yellow all over, and (my reason for choosing it) easier to cut up. Use whatever variety is your favorite, or whatever is available. If you’ve never cut a mango, check out the slideshow below for some easy tips.

The peach white balsamic is a specialty product I purchased at a gourmet olive oil and vinegar store. I chose it because it’s soft and fruity, but feel free to substitute any light vinegar you like, especially one that plays well with the fresh tropical flavors in this salsa—think fruity, citrus or mint.

Here’s a visual walk-through of how I put this together, and written instructions appear below.

Instructions

  1. Season tuna steaks with only sea salt and black pepper, and set aside, covered, at room temperature.
  2. Cook black rice according to package instructions. Try not to stir it too much to avoid additional “stickiness.”
  3. While rice is cooking, prepare salsa—combine pineapple and mango pieces, add jalapeno, red onion and red bell pepper. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Use a mini whisk to combine peach balsamic and extra virgin olive oil, stirring briskly until a thick emulsion results. (If your vinegar is not a balsamic, it may be thinner consistency)
  5. Stack mint leaves, then roll them lengthwise into a tube shape and cut across into slices. When unfurled, these will be thin strips.
  6. Pour dressing over fruit salsa blend and toss to coat evenly. Give it a taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Sprinkle mint leaves into blend, gently toss again and set aside.
  7. When rice is ready, sear tuna steak on a medium-hot griddle, grill or skillet, turning to sear other side to desired doneness. Ideally, good quality fresh tuna should be cooked rare, but if you’re squeamish about that, push it to medium-rare.

Plate by spooning about 1/2 cup black rice, then lay tuna steak halfway over the pile. Spoon salsa over the top, squeeze lime over both plates and serve!

It’s light, fresh and pretty!

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Creamy Crab and Artichoke Dip

Of all the recipes I stashed away in my mind during the time I spent working in a catering kitchen, the hot artichoke dip takes the gold as my most durable. During my two years as a kitchen assistant, I probably made this dip more than 100 times. It was a favorite among clients, and for good reason. It’s easy to make ahead, easy to serve in large quantity and an undeniable crowd pleaser. It also happens to be extremely adaptable to other ingredients, as we learned with the Kentucky Hot Brown Dip a few weeks ago. By keeping the base recipe the same, I’m able to adjust the other ingredients to create whatever impression I wish, and I encourage you to do the same with ingredients that sound good to you.

What I haven’t confessed is that the cream cheese part of the recipe I share today is technically my own adjustment to the original, which (I’m sorry to say) was completely off the charts in fat content. If you spend even a little bit of time in a commercial kitchen, you will quickly come to realize the overwhelming dependence on mayonnaise. I’m not kidding—pro chefs use that stuff for everything—from dips and dressings (which makes sense) to spreading on fish before rolling in bread crumbs (why not eggs or Dijon?) and replacing butter for grilling sandwiches (I’m sorry—what’s wrong with butter?). As crazy as it seems, the solution presented in the catering kitchen to the oiliness that would appear when the artichoke dip was drowning in melted mayonnaise was, “add more bread crumbs.” Yowza. When I decided to make it at home, this recipe got an easy makeover.

For any creamy hot dip, light cream cheese fits the bill as a substitute for so much mayonnaise. It maintains the silky creamy texture, gives better structure and (in my humble opinion) improves the overall experience of the dip because it doesn’t separate or become greasy. I don’t need to create an infographic to describe to you the nutritional comparison. (Spoiler—the cream cheese wins.)

And although the original recipe is for artichoke dip, the base is a neutral canvas for whatever you want in the dip. This time, I kept the marinated artichoke hearts, added cooked crab, swapped out cheddar in favor of cheeses that paired better with the delicate crab, and topped the whole thing with garlic-buttered (not mayonnaise-laden) panko crumbs. We wanted something on the “heavy hors d’oeuvres” side for a backyard happy hour, and this was perfectly transportable and an absolute winner. As you can see, the ingredient list is short and sweet, just like our time spent laughing and relaxing with our friends on a beautiful spring evening. Charlotte was convinced this must be difficult to make—just wait until she sees the simplicity of this recipe! 🙂

Whether you’re gathering safely with friends as we did or hoarding the whole batch for yourself (I’m not judging), I hope you’ll feel free to swap ingredients to suit your palate for your next “happy hour.”

This dip is really, really easy to make with only a handful of ingredients. The crab is already cooked, so it comes together quickly. If you’re pressed for time, it’s OK to use pre-shredded cheese.

Ingredients

8 oz. brick light cream cheese (Neufchatel), softened

1/3 cup canola oil mayonnaise

2 tsp. dried chopped onion (or 1/4 cup sauteed onion)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

A few shakes of Old Bay seasoning (optional, but so good with crab)

1 cup shredded Swiss cheese (to save time, I used a pre-shredded blend from Trader Joe’s)*

4 oz. prepared crab meat*

3/4 cup marinated artichoke hearts, chopped into bite-sized pieces

2 Tbsp. salted butter

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 cup panko bread crumbs

1/4 cup parmesan-romano cheese

*Notes

I’m eating my words from other posts regarding the use of pre-shredded cheese. Normally, I cringe at their use because of the no-clump coating that generally prevents even mixing or melting. The truth is, I was pressed for time on the day I made this scrumptious dip, because my stylist was able to squeeze me in for my first hair appointment in more than 90 days! As always, my tips are only suggestions. If it comes down to taking a shortcut or missing the opportunity, please always take the shortcut!

Use any cooked crab meat you prefer. In some dishes, fresh is crucial—but in this hot dip, I’ve found that the prepared blue crab available in my supermarket’s seafood section is perfectly suitable.

Instructions

Using either a stand mixer or handheld mixer, beat the cream cheese and mayonnaise together until smooth and creamy. Add the dried onion, plus salt and pepper to taste, and mix to combine. This is the base recipe, and you can use it as a backdrop for any other ingredients you wish, provided you follow the general ratio of added ingredients, and none of them are excessively wet.

To continue with the crab artichoke dip recipe, add the Old Bay seasoning and shredded cheese and stir or mix on low until it’s evenly incorporated. Use a rubber spatula or spoon to gently fold in the crab meat and artichoke hearts. You want these ingredients to keep their shape, so easy does it here.

For serving at home, transfer the mixture to a 9-inch pie plate. Because we were planning to share the dip at a safely-distanced backyard happy hour, I divided it among three smaller oven-safe ramekins—one for us, one for our friends, and a third to leave behind for them to enjoy later in the weekend.

Melt butter in a small skillet and sauté the garlic over medium-low heat. Stir in the panko crumbs and toss them around until all are coated evenly. (Want to save a bit of time here? While the butter is melting, put the panko crumbs in a small Rubbermaid-style bowl. After sautéing the garlic, pour the butter mixture over the crumbs then seal the bowl and shake the heck out of it. It’s one more dish to wash, but you will make quick work of blending the butter with the crumbs more evenly.)

Sprinkle the buttered crumbs evenly over the crab-artichoke mixture, then sprinkle with parm-romano blend and cover with foil and tuck it into the fridge until you’re ready to bake.

Bake at 350° F for 35-40 minutes, or until dip is bubbly and parm-romano crumb mixture is lightly browned. Serve warm with crackers, pita or toasted baguettes. Wouldn’t you know?—we were in a rush to get over to our backyard happy hour, and I was so excited about seeing our friends in person, I forgot to snap a picture of the bubbly dip while it was hot from the oven. I guess I’ll have to make it again, and then I’ll update the post. 🙂

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