Tuesday, September 30, 2014

On Food and Language: Evolution of 'Bruschetta'

Tomato Bruschetta

Let's try a quick exercise. I'm going to toss out a word and I want you to close your eyes and envision what it represents. Here's the word: "bruschetta."

What did you see? A piece of grilled toast rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil? Said toast topped with chopped tomatoes and basil? Or perhaps just the tomato topping and no bread at all?

That all of these answers are possible aren't just examples of variation. It's a specific linguistic phenomenon called semantic change, the change over time in the meaning of a word. In the case of bruschetta, what was once a word to describe a piece of garlic-rubbed and olive-oil-drizzled toast has since come to mean several different things, including seasoned chopped tomatoes and basil--referring to a popular bruschetta topping (sans the toast)--as well as some other meanings. An unscientific poll of my Twitter and Facebook followers revealed this variation: when I asked them what came to mind when they saw the word "bruschetta," I received replies that included garlic toast with something fresh (like tomatoes), a snack of seasoned grilled bread with tomatoes and olive oil and, lastly, just tomatoes.

Traditionally, "bruschetta" referred to a piece of toasted bread rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil.
More recently, the term "bruschetta" has come to sometimes refer to a mixture of tomatoes and herbs,  a popular topping for the garlic toast.

According to the Food Lover's Companion, "bruschetta" comes from the Italian word bruscare, which means to "roast over coals." The book goes on to define bruschetta as a traditional garlic bread made by rubbing slices of toasted bread with garlic cloves, drizzling the bread with extra-virgin olive oil and seasoning it with salt and pepper. Tomatoes and basil are not mentioned.

The book's definition appears to align with the traditional Italian definition. In Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cookbook from 1973, she includes a recipe for bruschetta exactly as described in the Food Lover's Companion: toasted bread rubbed with crushed garlic, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. Again, no tomatoes. However, her more recent 1992 cookbook, Essentials of Classic Italian Cookbook, includes a separate recipe for a "tomato version," identical but with the addition of a topping of diced tomatoes with a sprinkle of basil or oregano.

Published around that same time in 1989, Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins' The New Basics Cookbook describes bruschetta as garlic-rubbed and olive oil-drizzed toast but then goes on to say it can be embellished with various toppings, including tomatoes, which are found in all three of their bruschetta recipes, even their "basic" one. It's still clear though that they consider the toasted bread to be the bruschetta. Introducing "our basic bruschetta" recipe they write, "when we make bruschetta, we top it with a heady tomato mixture..." "It" is the toast; the tomato is the topping.

More recently, however, there has been a shift towards using "bruschetta" to mean not the toast, but the toast plus its topping. This is a subtle, but I think very important distinction. When a dish consists of a primary ingredient plus secondary elements, you would not remove that primary ingredient and then use the term to describe only the secondary elements. Tomato sauce, mozzarella and pepperoni could not be called "pizza" unless it is sitting upon a baked bread crust. However, when a dish consists of multiple primary elements, it is possible to remove one (or more) and still refer to the dish with that name. It is not uncommon to see Caesar Salads missing their croutons or anchovies, for examine. And lots of people run around drinking "martinis" that contain neither gin nor vermouth.

In the case of bruschetta, I became aware of its drifting definition earlier this year while tweeting with another food blogger.

She had posted a tweet about a recipe she described as a "fun twist on bruschetta," the Bruschetta Quinoa Casserole from the blog The Iron You. In this recipe, the writer made a quinoa casserole with tomatoes, onion, garlic, cheese, herbs and seasonings. In describing the dish, the writer says, "this casserole tastes like bruschetta, exit the bread, enters the quinoa." Implicit in his statement is that bruschetta is toast and tomato-herb topping, not toast which may have a tomato-herb topping. In such an equation, you could conceivably remove the bread as an element in the dish and still have the dish. Thus, we come to the next evolution: calling a tomato-topping "bruschetta."

Another blogger friend of mine did just that when he posted about bruschetta he had made. The photo accompanying his post had no bread; it was a (rather delicious looking) bowl of seasoned chopped tomatoes with basil. He told me he was serving it with bread, but clearly he considered "bruschetta" to be the topping, with the bread as an important but secondary component. And he's not alone in this thinking. This Kraft salad recipe refers to "bruschetta on French bread," clearly implying that bruschetta is a topping. This Tyson recipe for Better Bruschetta Chicken Salad contains tomatoes, olives and other bruschetta toppings, but doesn't make any reference to bread. The popular restaurant chain Applebees used to have a dish called Bruschetta Chicken, described as "Grilled chicken seasoned with bruschetta, parsley and a blend of Italian cheeses." Although I'm still having trouble understanding how chicken can be "seasoned" with tomatoes and garlic, I'll acknowledge the even greater difficulty of performing that maneuver with toast.

With these and other similar recipes, bread has clearly, if not fully divorced, certainly separated from bruschetta--even though originally that's all bruschetta was. Not surprisingly, at the grocery store I found jars of various toppings that market themselves as "bruschetta," not bruschetta toppings.

Jars of "bruschetta" at the grocery store.

That corporations have had a hand in the changing definition of "bruschetta" should not come as a surprise. Marketing has long played a role in how we think and talk about food. In The Language of Food, linguistics professor Dan Jurafsky details the evolution of ketchup. Today, we think of ketchup as a sweet and sour pureed tomato sauce, but initially, the term referred to a type of Chinese fish sauce. Jurafsky details how the sauce transformed from its fishy roots to its modern day incarnation as an essential American hamburgers and fries condiment. When it comes to ketchup, Heinz is king. Although it's inconceivable today to use the word "ketchup" to refer to a sauce made from anything but tomatoes, Heinz own use of "tomato ketchup" on its label is a nod to the possibility of there being ketchups that aren't tomato-based. The term "ketchup" feels pretty stable at the moment, but Heinz was responsible for settling one of the word's last divisions, whether it should be spelled "catsup" or "ketchup." They chose the latter, and now hardly anyone uses the other spelling (the Merriam-Webster dictionary refers to "catsup" as a variant of "ketchup").

All this is to say that the words that we use to describe what we eat can and do change. As our tastes and culture evolve, so too does our language. "Tweeting" is something that only birds used to do, yet today it means something altogether different, a definition that has become (possibly the more common) only within the last 5-6 years. You can be a linguist and view this as a good thing, or a language "maven" and view it as sacrilege, but once a word develops a new common usage, there's no turning back. Given the current craze for all things gluten-free, perhaps it is conceivable that someday I'll walk into a restaurant, order a pizza and receive a dish that includes no bread.

Tomato Bruschetta

Book: The Language of Food

Tomato Bruschetta

This recipe accompanies my article about the evolution of the food language, focusing on how "bruschetta" has evolved over time. Perhaps because I was first introduced to it in the late 1990s, I think of bruschetta as being garlic-rubbed toast topped with tomatoes and basil. I wouldn't think of calling the toast alone without the topping bruschetta--nor would I refer to the topping that way either.

Tomato Bruschetta

6 slices of crusty bread, such as Italian or baguette
3 garlic cloves
Extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt (or smoked sea salt) and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 plum tomatoes, diced
1 tbsp. fresh chopped basil

1. Preheat an oven broiler or, if you have it, prepare a grill with hot coals for grilling. if broiling, place the bread on a baking sheet; if grilling, place the bread directly on the grill. Toast the bread on both sides until golden brown.

2. Crush the garlic cloves with the side of a heavy knife and discard the outer skin. Rub both sides of each piece of toasted bread with the garlic. Drizzle each piece of toast with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

3. Combine the diced tomatoes and chopped basil in a medium bowl. Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and stir to combine. Spoon the tomato topping onto the toast and serve.

On Food and Language: Evolution of "Bruschetta"

Monday, September 29, 2014

Book: The Language of Food

Have you ever wondered why "entree," a word that sounds like "enter," means a main course rather than a first?

Or why India Pale Ale is so-named, given that it is neither produced in India nor contains ingredients from India (as far as I know)?

These are but a few of the questions answered in The Language of Food, the new book by Stanford University linguistics professor Dan Jurafsky.

Books about language are often a great read. Lynn Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves is an engaging and witty treatise on the importance of punctuation. And Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue, about the history of the English language, is a must-read for those who marvel at the complex and often confounding ways that we speak and write. Fans of those books who also love to eat will enjoy Jurafsky's work, which seeks to explain the history and evolution of some of the common terms we use for food, providing insights into their relationship with Western and other cultures.

Each of the book's chapters focus on a different subject or set of related subjects, which include examining specific food terms like "toast," "macaroni" and "ketchup." Fans of Jurafsky's blog will recognize some of the chapters as expanded versions of articles he's previously posted online. Although each chapter is rooted in language, but this is sometimes to lens to examine other questions of history and the evolution of food culture. The chapter on "why the Chinese don't have dessert," for example, moves far afield from language to examine the origin of the notion that meals should end with something sweet in Western but not Eastern culture (and how the fortune cookie, an American invention, is a nice bridge between the two).

One of my favorite chapters comes early in the book where Jurafsky and colleagues examined a dataset of 6,500 restaurant menus to learn what the language of menus reveals about the food restaurants serve. Some of his observations may seem counterintuitive on their face, but reveal a lot about what we expect at restaurants of different price points.

For example, lower-price restaurants' menus tend to use more "filler" words, i.e. empty words that don't really mean anything like "flavorful" and "delicious." Certainly, no one is hoping to choose a dish that isn't those things. In contrast, higher-price restaurants tend to not use as many adjectives (there's no need to point out the bacon is "real," since, at such establishments, it is expected) or if they do, they use longer words ("decaffeinated" and not "decaf") or terms that point to the food's provenance. His conclusion on this subject makes a lot of sense: "we suspect that empty words are linked with lower prices because they are in fact fillers; stuff you put in the description of the dish when you don't have something really valuable like crab or porterhouse to talk about instead."

You can see this for yourself. Compare, for example the description of a burger from Red Robin, a national chain, to that of Bourbon Steak, a high-end D.C. steakhouse:
  • Red Robin: Red's Tavern Double - You’ll be tasting double with two classic-sized patties, melted American cheese, tomato, lettuce and Red’s Secret Tavern Sauce.™ $6.99
  • Bourbon Steak: Oak-Fired Prime Steak Burger - sour pickles, Cabot clothbound cheddar, secret sauce. 19.
Red Robin's adjectives tell us about the burger pattie's size ("classic-sized"), whereas Bourbon Steak tells us about how it is cooked ("oak-fired"). Bourbon steak tells us its cheese is "Cabot clothbound," an expensive type of cheddar, while Red Robin just tells us the cheese is "melted," since what other descriptive adjectives would you say about American cheese? Notice the difference in how the price is expressed: Red Robin uses a dollar sign and includes 99 cents, that old trick to make you think the burger is $6 when it's really $7. Bourbon steak does neither, a newer trick restaurants are employing to disassociate your menu selection from the impact on your wallet. Lastly, notice they both use the term "secret sauce," a tradition born in fast-food burger restaurants.

A key theme in the book is the idea of how words and word use change. Certainly, our food is an ever-changing thing, subject to the increasing availability of foods from other places, diet fads (gluten free, paleo), trends (kale, quinoa, bacon) and our understanding of nutrition (bye-bye margarine). Similarly, the language we use to discuss what we eat evolves as well, although not everyone likes that it does.

Writes Jurafsky: "We are carefully taught to clamp down on changes in language as if new ways of speaking are unnatural, adopted by ignorant speakers out of stupidity or even malice. Yet linguistic research demonstrates that the gradual changes in language over time often lead to significant improvements in the language's clarity or efficiency..." He's talking specifically about the aforementioned evolution of the term "entree" from meaning an early course to a main course, but this statement applies broadly to language about food and really language in general.

That brings me to this week's theme on my blog. This week I'll be sharing recipes that have a connection to language, specifically how food terms can evolve to mean different things. I've got three delicious examples that I hope will stir debate and whet your appetites.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Roasted Stuffed Caramel Apples

Roasted Stuffed Caramel Apples

Walking through a beach town last month, I passed the window of a confectionery with a fresh batch of caramel apples in the window. They were so beautiful, glistening brown caramel perfectly coating each apple. They are so tempting.

But then I remembered my experience with such a treat, and it's not pretty. They're hard to eat. Very messy (for similar reasons, I'm not a big fan of cupcakes). The apple inside is probably a red delicious, which isn't one of my favorite varieties. Plus, since the apple is coated in caramel, you can't really tell whether you're getting a good one or not.

But I love apples and I love caramel, so I thought about creating a dessert that honor these two flavors with a presentation more to my liking--something fully cooked that you eat with a knife and fork but still coated in yummy gooey caramel.

Having had success with roasting apples last year for a savory dish, I decided to do something similar but with sweeter dessert flavors. There are quite a few recipes for roasted stuffed apples that follow a pretty similar format: core the apple, fill the cavity with sugar, butter, nuts and sometimes grains, then roast with a little liquid in the bottom of the pan.

Roasted Stuffed Caramel Apples

4 honeycrisp apples
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup apple cider (may use apple juice)
Caramel sauce (see recipe below)

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.

2. Cut off the top 1/2 inch of each apple. Using a melon baller, core the apple about 2/3 of the way down, being sure to remove all of the seeds. This should leave a round cavity in the center of each apple about 1-inch across and about 2 inches deep.

3. In a small bowl, combine the butter, brown sugar, walnuts, cinnamon, cloves and salt, mashing the mixture with a fork to work the butter and sugar together. Divide the mixture between the apples and spoon it into the cored-out cavity of each apple.

4. Place the apples in a square 9 X 9 baking dish. Pour apple cider around the apples. Bake in the oven until the apples are soft when pierced with a fork, about 30 minutes. Allow the apples to cool about 5 minutes. Spoon caramel sauce over each apple and serve.

Caramel Sauce
Adapted from a recipe by Bon Appétit, January 2013

1 cup sugar
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
3 tbsp. water
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp. kosher salt

1. In a 4 qt. saucepan, whisk together sugar, cream of tartar and water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir it a bit to make sure the sugar dissolves evenly, but then let it cook unstirred until it starts to brown, about 5-6 minutes. Continue cooking, stirring a bit, until it reaches the color of honey. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is a deep amber color, about another 3-4 minutes (the times really don’t matter in this recipe and they may vary depending on your range—it’s the color stages that are important).

2. Remove saucepan from heat. Whisk in the butter (carefully, since it will sputter), then the cream (again, be careful) and then finally the salt. Allow the sauce to cool a bit and then transfer to an appropriate container: a glass jar, bowl or measuring cup (don’t use plastic if the mixture is still hot). Store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Cocktail: Honey Bourbon Apple Cider

Honey Bourbon Apple Cider

This is a last-minute bonus cocktail that I wasn't planning for this week, but I made it last night and thought it was a good complement to the How Do You Like Dem Apples cocktail, especially for those bourbon fans out there.

In yesterday's all-apple edition of The Feed, I wrote about a Bon Appétit recipe for an apple cocktail with bourbon and honey. Apples and honey are a traditional combination for Rosh Hashanah--which just happens to be today (well, last night through tomorrow night).

I found this recipe on the Urban Sacred Garden blog and tweaked it a bit, upping the apple cider and honey syrup and adding additional bitters. The Bon Appétit recipe used a spiced honey syrup, which sounded good, but for simplicity, it's really easier to use spiced cocktail bitters like Angostura and Fee Brothers Barrel-Aged Bitters, which give the drink a wonderful spiciness.

Honey Bourbon Apple Cider
Adapted from a recipe by Urban Sacred Garden

1 1/2 oz. bourbon
1/2 oz. Laird's Applejack (or other apple brandy)
3/4 oz. honey syrup (see note)
2 oz. non-alcoholic apple cider
1-2 dashes Angostura bitters
1-2 dashes Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged bitters
Orange peel (garnish)

Note: To make honey syrup, combine 2 parts honey with 1 part hot water and stir until mixed with an even consistency.

Combine the bourbon, Applejack, honey syrup, apple cider and bitters in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake until cold. Strain into a rocks glass with ice. Squeeze the orange peel over the drank and garnish the glass with it.

Cocktail: How Do You Like Dem Apples

How You Like Dem Apples Cocktail

This just might be the ultimate apple cocktail. It doesn't just have apple cider or apple brandy but also features an apple-based spirit, Half Moon Orchard Gin, which is made from wheat and apples by Tuthilltown Spirits in New York.

Bartender Frank Mills at Roofers Union in Adams-Morgan created this drink for a recent D.C. food bloggers happy hour, a really fun evening featuring a number of apple dishes created by chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley. Frank served the drink as a punch, but the recipe below, which he was kind enough to share with me, is scaled for a single serving. Feel free to scale up if you're having a party--this would make a great fall event cocktail, including a pre-Thanksgiving dinner drink.

How Do You Like Dem Apples
Created by Roofers Union bartender Frank Mills

2 oz. Red Jacket apple cider
1 oz. Half Moon Orchard Gin (gin made with apples and wheat)
1/2 oz. Laird's Apple Brandy
1/2 oz. Domino light brown sugar (a heaping tablespoon)
1/4 oz. lemon juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake until cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a thin slice of apple.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Feed, Apples Edition: September 24, 2014

Desserts, like Apple Custard Pie with Gingersnap Crust, are among the many wonderful ways to enjoy apples.
The Feed is my weekly round up of interesting food-related stories from newspapers, magazines, blogs and websites.

Washington Post: “‘Apples of Uncommon Character’: Lots to Sink Your Teeth Into,” by Bonnie S. Benwick. 
Benwick writes about Rowan Jacobsen’s new book, Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics, & Little-Known Wonders, a guide to common and not-so-common apple varieties complete with recipes, such as Apples and Sausage in Cider, Asturian Style.

Washington Post: “Apple-Honey Pairings for the Jewish New Year and Beyond," by Bonnie S. Benwick.
 Jacobsen also provided advice on pairing honey and apples—a Rosh Hashanah tradition—taking advantage of the many available varieties of both.

Wall Street Journal: “American-Made Ciders Redefine the Apple Cocktail,” by Kara Newman.
For a long time, apples + cocktails = appletini, a drink so unnaturally green it was best served at St. Patrick’s Day. Thankfully, more interesting ways to use apples in drinks are emerging, including drinks that use freshly juiced apples, cider and hard cider (I’ve got a really awesome apple cocktail coming up tomorrow). Newman shares a recipe for The Alien Comic from New York’s Pearl & Ash made with apple juice, white vermouth, sherry and hard cider.

Bon Appétit: “Happy New Year, Honey.
Speaking of apples and honey and cocktails, Bon Appétit offers this bourbon cocktail with spiced honey syrup, applejack and hard cider.

Smitten Kitchen: “Sunken Apple and Honey Cake,” by Deb Perelman.
Perelman, creator of the very popular cooking blog, shares this delicious-looking recipe for a cake with apples that sink into the cake as bakes. Looks really cool.

The Windsor Star: “Fresh This Week: Apples,” by Beatrice Fantoni.
Fantoni provides an overview of apple season in Canada (not that different from apple season in the United States) and includes a mouth-watering recipe for 20-minute hot apple sundae. Yum!

WUSA9: “Recipe: Apple Pizza Tart
I love apples. I love pizza. Bringing the two together into a tart? Genius. The recipe is from Paula Shoyer, author of The Kosher Baker cookbook.

The Oregonian: “Applesauce, Apple Butter and Chutney Recipes Prove That Homemade Beats Store-Bought Every Time,” by Grant Butler.
Sure you can buy things, but it’s so much more satisfying (and pretty easy, particularly applesauce) to make your own. Recipes included.

The Atlantic, “The Awful Reign of the Red Delicious,” by Sarah Yager.
During our apple tasting, we found that the Red Delicious apple wasn’t that bad, especially in the texture department (and it didn’t have a thick waxy coating—none of the apples did). Despite it's detractors, it's still the most widely grown apple in the U.S. Yager examines why this, among all others, became America’s proto-typical apple.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Apple-Potato Soup with Chicken-Apple Sausage and Parmesan Crumble

Apple-Potato Soup with Chicken-Apple Sausage and Parmesan Crumble

Apples and cheese make a great pair. If I'm in the mood for a light dinner, a sliced apple, a sharp cheese and a glass of wine--a bold white, like a chardonnay--makes a great meal. My dad always liked to eat apple pie with a slice of sharp cheddar cheese, and apple pie with cheese baked into the crust is good too.

That combination is the inspiration behind this apple soup, which gets a topping of what I'm calling "parmesan crumble," which is just crumbled frico, a homemade parmesan cracker.

Apples are commonly found in desserts and salads, but I love to find ways to work them into a main course. Soup is a perfect vehicle for apples, their tart sweetness makes a good counterpoint to something more savory, in this case potatoes and cheese.

Although already fully cooked, a I recommend browning the apple-chicken sausage in a frying pan to reheat it and add additional flavor.

Apples wend their way into this dish in two ways. The body of the soup contains Granny Smith apples, that common, very tart apple that works well in savory dishes like this. The chicken sausage also contains apple.

Frico, homemade parmesan crackers, give the soup a crunchy cheese topping.

Apple-Potato Soup with Chicken-Apple Sausage and Parmesan Crumble

2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 sweet onion, diced
2 celery ribs, diced
2 garlic cloves, smashed
2 Yukon gold or russet potatoes, peeled and diced
2 large or 3 medium-size Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and diced
2 tbsp. chopped fresh sage
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste (at least 2 pinches)
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
12 oz. chicken-apples sausage, cut into 1/4-inch thick rounds

Parmesan crumble:
1 oz. shredded parmigiano-reggiano cheese
1 tsp. flour
Fresh-ground black pepper to taste

1. Heat a Dutch oven or other large pot for soup over medium heat. Melt the butter, then add the onion, celery and garlic. Sauté until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the potato, stir to combine and cook another 5 minutes. Stir in the apple and sage and season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cook another 5 minutes, then add the chicken broth and water. Increase heat and bring soup to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low to simmer for about 40-45 minutes until the potato and apple have softened.

2. While the soup simmers, make the parmesan crumble. Preheat oven to 375 F. Place a nonstick liner (like a Silpat) on a baking sheet. Combine cheese, flour and pepper and spoon onto the baking sheet into three evenly spaced mounds. Use a spatula or the back of the spoon to flatten the mounds into rounds of even thickness about 4 inches in diameter. Bake until golden, about 8-11 minutes. Allow to cool for a couple minutes and then very carefully transfer to a wire rack to cool completely (be careful, they break really easily). Once cooled, crumble by hand into smaller pieces.

3. Using an immersion blender, puree the soup until smooth (alternatively, transfer in batches to a blender to puree).

4. Heat sausage in a medium frying pan over medium heat until lightly browned. Add to the soup and stir to combine. Taste the soup and adjust salt, pepper and nutmeg as desired. Serve soup in shallow bowls topped with a sprinkle of parmesan crumble.

Monday, September 22, 2014

An Apple a Day

Is there a fruit more iconic than an apple? I'm hard-pressed to think of one. From the Book of Genesis to the iPhone, the apple has long held a special place in our culture.

Maybe you gave one to your teacher in elementary school or recall the legend of Johnny Appleseed, a real person who did help introduce apple trees to parts of the East Coast and Midwest. Perhaps you, like me, cannot wait until Thanksgiving to dive into a delicious apple pie. Perhaps you even remember Snow White being poisoned by one, but hopefully that didn't put you off eating them.

The most popular fruit consumed in the United States, the banana, is an import, but apples are #2, making them this country's most popular domestic fruit. According to the U.S. Apple Association, apples are grown in every state in the continental United States. I have a special affinity for the top-producing state, Washington, since I went to college there. Other top producers include New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California and Virginia.

One of the great things about apples are their versatility. They can be eaten raw without any preparation, making them an ideal snack, given their few calories and high fiber content. But cooked, you can do many delightful things with them: bake them into a pie, chop them up for salads, puree them into a sauce, incorporated them into pastry or bread, distill them, juice them, sauté them...the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

All this week I'll be featuring stories and recipes about apples. Today, I have a tasting of seven common apple varieties and a wonderful apple appetizer: Triple Smoky Apple-Blue Cheese Crostini. Tomorrow, I'll share a recipe for Apple-Potato Soup with Chicken-Apple Sausage and Parmesan Crumble, Wednesday is an all-apples edition of The Feed (my weekly round-up of food stories), Thursday I've got a great apple cocktail courtesy of a bartender from DC's Roofers Union (plus a bonus bourbon, honey and apple cocktail) and Friday I'll share a recipe for a delectable roasted stuffed caramel apple dessert. In the meantime, check out my recent round-up of great apples recipes.

If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, stick with my site this week and you'll be in good health.

Apples to Apples: A Tasting

Apple tasting
From left to right: Honeycrisp, Fuji, Jonagold, Gala, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious
Growing up, I remember three varieties of apples at the grocery store: Red Delicious and Golden Delicious for snacking and Granny Smith for cooking. And that was it. The only other apple I ever got back then was a Spitzenberg, which grew on a tree in our backyard.

Today, there are a lot more varieties of apples easily accessible at the traditional grocery store, upscale food shops and farmers markets. Back in 1989, 25 years ago, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious and Granny Smith together accounted for 66 percent of U.S. apple production, but by 2011, their share had fallen to 43 percent (according to U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Economic Research Service). Red Delicious in particular has taken a tumble: production of the shiny red apple peaked in 1994, when it accounted for half of all U.S. apples. Seventeen years later, it's still the most popular apple, but accounts for less than a fourth of U.S. production as the availability of varieties such as Gala, Fuji and Honeycrisp have steadily risen.

This is good for the consumer. More varieties of apples at the store means there's more to choose from and enjoy. But how do you choose?

I set up a tasting of seven common apple varieties, including the three familiar ones from my youth, plus four that have become popular in recent years: Fuji, Gala, Honeycrisp and Jonagold. All of these varieties are readily available at grocery stores such as Safeway and Whole Foods (the two stores where I purchased them). I chose only apples grown in the United States, and five of the varieties (the ones from Whole Foods) came from Washington State, America's #1 apple-growing state.

Chris and I tasted all of them over dinner one night in the order presented below. Here are our thoughts on their flavor and texture, augmented with facts from the U.S. Apple Association (you can read about many other apple varieties on their site as well).

Red Delicious apple
Red Delicious: beautiful and very sweet, but lacking in flavor.
Red Delicious. Long the most popular apple in the U.S., Red Delicious' reputation has tarnished a bit of late, as consumers have begun to favor more flavorful and firmer-textured apples. Expecting to not really care for it, I was pleasantly surprised that the apple really wasn't that bad. Sure, it wasn't one of our favorites, but it had a great texture that wasn't at all mealy. Where the apple fell down was on taste. The Red Delicious apple was very sweet--the sweetest of the bunch--and really nothing else. There just wasn't that much flavor there. It was beautiful too look at though, a deep garnet red, with a curvy shape unique to western Red Delicious apples, which are described as having "feet" in comparison to most apples that are more rounded.

Golden Delicious Apple
Golden Delicious: crisp with a nice balance of sweet and tart.
Golden Delicious. This apple was discovered in 1890 on the East Coast and originally named Mullin's Yellow Seedling before acquiring its current name in 1916. I really liked this apple's texture, which was noticeably crisper than the Red Delicious. Flavor-wise, it wasn't as sweet as Red Delicious and was even a little sour, although not nearly as tart as its friend Granny Smith below. It really is a nice happy medium between two, making it a great apple for snacking on raw. Golden Delicious, along with Granny Smith, is one of the few most common varieties of apples that aren't red.

Granny Smith apple
Granny Smith: very tart and firm.
Granny Smith. Believe it or not, the Granny Smith really is named for "Granny Smith," specifically Maria Ann "Granny" Smith, an orchardist who cultivated the apple in Australia. This apple is well known among bakers, as it is a favorite for apple pies. It's tartness is ideal for cooking, allowing the cook to control the level of the dish's sweetness by adding more or less sugar. For many years, Granny Smith was our go-to snack apple too. I love its tartness. And man is it tart! The most sour apple of this group by far. I love it with a little peanut butter, as it really brings out the peanut butter's sweetness. The apply has a very firm texture, which is almost chalky (not in a bad way).

Jonagold apple
Jonagold: wonderful, juicy flavor and somewhat firm.
Jonagold. This variety was one I found at Whole Foods and not one that we eat often. That might change after this tasting, for I was really taken with this apple. It has a full flavor nicely balanced between sweet and tart and very juicy. It's pretty firm, although not quite as firm as Golden Delicious. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the texture is similar, since Jonagold is a hybrid between a Jonathan apple and a Golden Delicious, created in 1968. Although most of these apples had white flesh, the Jonagold's was markedly more yellow. So far, this one

Gala apple
Gala: lacking in flavor and crispiness.
Gala. Production-wise in the United States, Gala apples are now second to Red Delicious, a remarkable rise, considering that Galas were pretty much unknown until the mid '90s. Frankly, their popularly is a bit lost on us, as this was our least favorite apple we sampled. Except for the Red Delicious, this apple had the least interesting flavor, but we actually liked Red Delicious's texture more, as the Gala's mouthfeel was a bit mealy. I do, however, like this apple for cooking: it's wonderful in the Triple Smoky Apple-Blue Cheese Crostini that I posted to my site today.

Fuji apple
Fuji: firm texture and balanced flavor.
Fuji. It's no coincidence the Fuji apple shares its name with Japan's best-known mountain; the apple was created there, a hybrid between Red Delicious and Ralls Janet, a cultivar from Virginia. Like the Gala, this apple enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity. It first appeared in the United States in the 1980s, and by 1998 it was the third most-produced variety. The Fuji has a nice firm texture, similar to that of the Granny Smith, but not at all sour like that apple. The Fuji's flavor was nicely balanced. It's not a very bold apple, but it's certainly not a bad apple either.

Honeycrisp apple
Honeycrisp: Juicy and crisp; less sweet than expected.
Honeycrisp. Is there an apple with a better name than "honeycrisp?" It's rather genius, positively conveying its sweetness and texture. Interestingly, the Honeycrisp wasn't the sweetest apple in this bunch, trailing both Red Delicious and Jonagold. It's texture though is fabulous, a wonderful combination of juiciness and crispness. This texture is a reason Honeycrisp is becoming a rather popular apple for baking (I like to use a combination of Granny Smith and Honeycrisp in my pies). Later this week, I'll be featuring a baked apple dessert that uses Honeycrisp apples.

Verdict: The Jonagold apple was my overall favorite, a juicy apple with wonderful apple flavor that's nicely balanced between sweet and tart. Texture-wise, Honeycrisp was king, although Golden Delicious was second. All of the apples were good though--even our least favorites had their strong points. Now it's your turn. Tell me what your favorite apples are and whether you agree with my assessment of these varieties.

Triple Smoky Apple-Blue Cheese Crostini

Smoky Apple-Blue Cheese Crostini

When it comes to a simple appetizer, it's hard to top crostini. Or rather, it's easy to top crostini and that's the point. It's just bread, usually toasted, with something delicious piled on top.

Blue cheese and apples go great together because you get a wonderful combination of pungent and sweet and a mix of textures. Pushing the flavor of these crostini a little further, I made them just a touch spicy and three times smoky by using a smoked blue cheese, cooking the apples with some smoky chipotle chili powder and sprinkling a little hickory-smoked sea salt on top.

Triple Smoky Apple-Blue Cheese Crostini

1 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 gala apples, peeled, cored and cut into thin (about 1/8-inch) slices
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. chipotle chili powder
1 to 2 tbsp. honey
12-14 baguette slices
2 oz. smoked blue cheese (such as Moody Blue or Rogue Creamery)
Hickory-smoked sea salt

1. Heat a medium frying pan over medium heat. Melt butter, then add the apple slices. Season with cinnamon and chipotle chili powder. Cook the apples about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until the slices are tender but still keep their shape. Add the honey, stir to combine and cook another minute or two. Remove from heat.

2. (Optional) lightly toast the baguette slices on a baking sheet under an oven broiler until light brown.

3. Gently heat the blue cheese in the microwave to soften it (I did two low-power blasts of 15 seconds eat, stirring the cheese between blasts). Spread an even layer of cheese on each slice of bread. Then pile a few slices (3-5) of apple on top of the cheese. Sprinkle with a little hickory-smoked sea salt. Serve immediately--they are good warm or cooled off.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Dallas Drinks: The Pam

Dallas Drinks is a co-creation with Dallas Decoder, honoring the characters of the TNT drama Dallas, which continues the Ewing family saga. See all of the Dallas Drinks here.

The third season of TNT's reboot of Dallas will conclude on Monday with two episodes. Hence I'm sharing not one but two new Dallas Drinks today.

Pam's cocktail charts her time on Dallas from beginning to end.

Pam utters the first line of dialogue on Dallas: "Bobby James Ewing, I don't believe you." She had just tied the knot with Bobby, the youngest of Jock and Ellie's three boys. The occasion is marked here with sparkling wine, specifically Italian prosecco. It was a happy time, but tough times were head.

During the course of the show, Pam frequently did battle with J.R., represented here by bourbon. Having to put up with the Ewings, it's no surprise that Pam went a little crazy in the fifth season, which this drink's absinthe nods too. Years later, Pam made her exit after a fiery car crash left her disfigured, hence the smoky Islay Scotch. Of course, many will choose to remember her resolve, smarts and good looks--the last of which is represented by the grenadine, which gives the drink a reddish tint not unlike her auburn hair.

Dallas Drinks: The Pam

Scant amount absinthe
1 oz. bourbon
3/4 oz. grenadine
1/2 oz. lemon juice
2-3 oz. prosecco (sparkling wine)
1/2 oz. Islay Scotch
Lemon twist (garnish)

Rinse a champagne flute with absinthe. In a cocktail shaker, combine the bourbon, grenadine and lemon juice. Add ice and shake until cold. Strain into the flute, then top the mixture with prosecco. Float the Islay Scotch on top and garnish with a lemon twist.

Dallas Drinks: The Julie

Dallas Drinks is a co-creation with Dallas Decoder, honoring the characters of the television show Dallas--both the classic series and the newer TNT Dallas, which continues the Ewing family saga. See all of the Dallas Drinks here.

Julie Grey was J.R.'s first secretary and although she lasted only 5 episodes, she was one of classic Dallas's most memorable women. Julie was a tragic character: initially loyal to J.R. with whom she was having an affair, Julie later betrayed J.R. to Cliff, an action that ultimately let to her demise when information she had safeguarded became known to members of the oil cartel.

Julie's drink recognizes her ties to several of the show's main men: bourbon for J.R., ginger liqueur for Cliff (which also nods to actress Tina Louise's best-known role as ginger on Gilligan's Island), and sweet vermouth ties her to Jock, with whom she had a friendship. The Bitter Tears are a reminder of Julie's tragic end.

Dallas Drinks: The Julie

1 1/2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. ginger liqueur
1/2 oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes Bitter Tears bacon-peppercorn bitters
Orange peel

Combine bourbon, ginger liqueur, sweet vermouth and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass. Add ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Squeeze the orange peel over the drink, then drop it into the glass.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Smoky Honey Chicken, Zucchini and Cashew Stir-Fry

Regular readers know that I love smoky flavors, and I'm always looking for new and interesting ways to work smoke into dishes (without using actual smoke, since I live in an apartment).

While we were in Rehoboth Beach last month, I discovered a wonderful new spice store there, The Spice & Tea Exchange. It has a wonderful collection of spices (and probably teas too--I'm not much of a tea drinker), including interesting chiles and even salts. Awhile ago I bought some smoked sea salt, but I've been dissatisfied with it. It doesn't really smell smoky, let alone taste like it. But the hickory-smoked sea salt I bought at Spice & Tea Exchange is incredibly smoky. I've started experimenting with it in different dishes, including sprinkling it on broiled salmon, where it lends the bit of smoke that's missing from not having grilled the salmon over coals.

Sweet-and-smoky is a combination that I find particularly fun to play with and which flavors the sauce in this easy stir-fry. Zucchini is good this time of year too, so I wanted to take advantage of that as well.

Smoky Honey Chicken, Zucchini and Cashew Stir-Fry

Makes 2-3 portions

1 lb. chicken breast cutlets pat dry with paper towels and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1-2 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. arrowroot powder (may use cornstarch)
2 tbsp. vegetable oil (may use canola oil)
2-3 cups zucchini (green and yellow summer squash), cut into 1/4-inch coins
1/2 cup unsalted roasted cashews
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp. minced ginger
6-8 scallions, divided into white and green parts, white part thinly sliced, green part sliced on an angle
Pinch (or two, as desired) of red chili pepper flakes
2 tbsp. low-sodium tamari (or low-sodium soy sauce)
1 tbsp. rice vinegar (may use white wine vinegar)
2 tbsp. honey
2 tsp. dark sesame oil
1/4 cup warm water
Cooked white or brown rice (for serving)
Black sesame seeds

1. Add the chicken to a bowl and sprinkle with arrowroot powder. Toss to lightly coat and set aside.

2. Heat 1 tbsp. vegetable oil over medium-high heat in a large sauté pan or frying pan until very hot, the oil should almost be smoking. Add the zucchini and sauté until lightly browned, stirring occasionally (but not constantly), about 5 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.

3. Add another 1 tbsp. oil to the pan. When hot, add the chicken, and sauté until browned, stirring occasionally for about 5-6 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside with the zucchini.

4. Add cashews to the pan and sauté a couple minutes until they start to brown a little bit, then add the garlic, ginger, white scallions and red chili pepper flakes and sauté about 30 seconds to a minute, stirring constantly, until fragrant.

5. Stir together the remaining 2 tsp. of arrowroot powder in a small bowl with the soy sauce, vinegar, honey, sesame oil and warm water. Add to the pan. When the mixture starts to bubble and thicken, reduce the heat to medium. Add back the sautéed zucchini and chicken and stir to combine with the sauce and heat through. Turn the heat off and add the chopped scallion greens. Serve over white or brown rice topped with a sprinkle of black sesame seeds.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Feed: September 17, 2014

This is my recipe for Farro Risotto with Pancetta and Kale. For another take on farro, check out Ellie Krieger's article below.
The Feed is my weekly round up of interesting food-related stories from newspapers, magazines, blogs and websites.

Washington Post: “The New Wave Is All About Building Your Meal from the Bottom Up,” by Lavanya Ramanathan.
I have a few weekly habits, two of which are Chipotle and Sweetgreen, the king of fast casual and the more recent (and locally owned) purveyor of quality fast-casual salads. I also enjoy Merzi, Cava, District Taco and Shophouse, just a few more of the burgeoning fast-casual restaurant concept that has taken particularly well to D.C. Ramanathan writes that there are 85 Chipotle restaurants within 25 miles of D.C.—wow! In this article, she examines not just how fast-casual has taken root in D.C. but transformed what “fast food” means nationwide.

Washington Post: “Nourish: A Farro Salad That’s Easy to Warm Up to,” by Ellie Krieger.
For her second Nourish column, Krieger puts the ancient wheat grain farro in the spotlight, recommending it for its easy preparation and chewy texture, along with a recipe for Herbed Farro Salad With Walnuts, Feta and Spinach.

Washington Post: “Sommelier Certification Has Become a Point of Contention,” by Dave McIntyre.
So, a sommelier is not just someone in a restaurant who pours wine (that would more appropriately be called a “wine steward”), nor is it just a “wine expert,” a point made during a recent great discussion by the guys at My Poor Liver Podcast. Along similar lines, McIntyre, the Post’s wine columnist, takes a look at what the profession and the term “sommelier” means today. In my mind, it should be a combination of the two things mentioned above: someone trained in both wine knowledge and providing good service executing the two with the goal of facilitating a pleasurable dining experience.

Fast Co. Design, “How Fake Is Food Styling?” by Shaunacy Ferro.
In the age of Instagram, food styling has come a long way from painting unripe strawberries with lipstick to adopting a more “natural” look. Still, Ferro explains, photoshop makes it easier to make food look better in post-production, reducing the need for cosmetic augmentation during shooting. How styled are the photos on my site you might wonder? Everything you see is real food; I would never add anything weird or inedible just to make it look better. I do adjust the lighting of some photos, but mostly because the artificial light in my kitchen tends to make some things look yellower and paler than they really are.

Huffington Post: “The Psychological Impact Of Diet Soda,” by Tom Jacobs.
In case you haven’t noticed, diet soda, once favored by low-cal drinkers everywhere, has fallen significantly out of favor due to concerns about the health effects of artificial sweeteners. It’s also been reported recently that drinking diet soda doesn’t help you lose weight. Jacobs’ article explains why and it’s fascinating, with research suggesting that diet soda activates a craving, but then doesn’t satisfy it, causing us to then react differently to other sugary foods.

CNN: “Don't Let Classic Restaurants Vanish,” by Kate Krader.
Those who follow the New York restaurant scene know the city is unfortunately losing some great restaurants soon, including WD-50 and Union Square Café. Not because they aren’t good or even successful, but rather are being forced out due to massive rent increases, always a concern in economically tricky Manhattan.

New York Times: “Deciphering the Menu,” by Jennifer Schuessler
Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food, which I’m reading right now (and greatly enjoying), gets a fine write up in the Times. Schuessler’s story also includes a visit with Jurafsky to Southern restaurant Root & Bone, where he enjoys some pretty amazing sounding corn (note my use of “amazing” a fairly generic term for describing something positive—try to think of something more descriptive for saying something good about food—it’s tough! A point Jurafsky makes in his book)

New York Times: “Cereals Begin to Lose Their Snap, Crackle and Pop,” by Stephanie Strom.
Apparently I’m in the minority (or maybe a shrinking majority) because I still eat cereal for breakfast most days. Strom writes about how people, wary of cereal’s sugar content, are seeking other options like yogurt.

Eater: “Eater Will Look Very Different in Seven Days,” by Amanda Kludt.
Eater, especially its DC version, has become one of my favorite food websites (I get some of the stories I share in The Feed from their daily roundups of food stories; since the New York Times dropped this feature, I really appreciate that another publication makes a great daily list).  So I’m curious how the site is going to revamp itself next week. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Greek Salad with Chicken

Our friends and family know that Chris and I are creatures of habit. We like routine. For us, it's not a "rut," as these routines often are things we look forward to each week, like getting Tex-Mex, eating at Chipotle before getting groceries on Saturday afternoon and having a midweek glass of wine (or cocktail) on Wednesdays.

For years, we've made Tuesday "salad night," a move to make one of our weekly meals loaded with fresh vegetables and low in carbohydrates. Since I started my blog a couple years ago, having new content to write about has meant that we don't repeat meals nearly as often as we used to. I'm almost always trying to come up with new salads for Tuesday nights, which has made salad a regular recipe item on my site.

But Before Cook In / Dine Out, on Tuesdays we usually ate Greek Salad, or some sort of derivative thereof. 

There's a bit of debate as to what constitutes Greek Salad. Traditionally, it doesn't have lettuce, but it's common to find lettuce in the United States and other countries. Since I made Greek Salad as an entree salad, I include lettuce, and I also like to include sautéed chicken. Tomatoes, kalamata olives and cucumber are definitely essential, as is feta cheese. If you can find imported Greek feta, I recommend that over domestic American versions. I don't always include onion, but some thinly sliced red onion is good, especially if you soak them in ice water for about 10 minutes to reduce their bite. Bell peppers are optional, as is a garnish of a pickled peperoncini. 

What I don't think belongs in Greek salad is bread. This isn't fattoush, so no pitas; nor is it panzanella, so no toasted croutons. This is a salad where the vegetables should get the glory.

Greek Salad with Chicken

Serves 2 (dinner portions)

1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
2 tbsp. olive oil
3/4 lb. boneless-skinless chicken breast cutlets
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. dried oregano
Pinch of red chili pepper flakes
3-4 cups lettuce, such as red leaf, green leaf or romaine
1/2 cucumber, partly peeled (I peel the cucumber into stripes) cut in half, seeded, and sliced into 1/4-inch thick half rounds
1 cup cherry tomatoes, such as sungold tomatoes, halved
1/3 cup pitted kalamata olives
1/2 cup 1/2-inch cubes Greek feta cheese
1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Fill a medium bowl with ice water. Add the sliced onions and set aside for 10-12 minutes. Drain the onions and add to a large bowl.

2. Heat olive oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. When hot, add chicken, season with salt, pepper, garlic powder, oregano and chili pepper flakes. Cook until lightly browned and cooked through, about 10 minutes, turning halfway. Set aside to cool, then chop into 1-inch pieces.

3. To the large bowl with the onion, add the lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, olives, feta cheese and parsley. Whisk together the dressing ingredients and pour over the salad. Toss to combine. Serve on plates topped with the chicken.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Dallas Drinks: The Lucy

Dallas Drinks is a co-creation with Dallas Decoder, honoring the characters of the television show Dallas--both the classic series and the newer TNT Dallas, which continues the Ewing family saga. See all of the Dallas Drinks here.

Lucy Ewing, one of Southfork's youngest residents, could be a good girl, but she could also get herself into a lot of trouble. She excelled at getting kidnapped, for example. Although generally pleasant, she could be sharp-tongued, especially around J.R. This refreshing but tart cocktail nods to Lucy's duality.

Dallas Drinks: The Lucy

1 oz. fresh lemon juice
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
1 1/2 oz. American dry gin
3/4 oz. pear liqueur
2 dashes Bittermens Burlesque bitters
2 oz. Fever Tree tonic water

Add the lemon juice and one rosemary sprig to a cocktail shaker. Muddle the herbs into the juice, then add the gin, pear liqueur and bitters. Add ice and shake until cold. Double-train into a rocks glass with ice. Top with tonic water and garnish with the other rosemary sprig. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Shrimp with Fresh Corn Grits

Shrimp with Fresh Corn Grits

When it comes to food, Chris and I are generally on the same page. But one thing that I really like that he's not a big fan of is shrimp. So on a recent weeknight when I had the home to myself, I decided to make this wonderful recipe I found in Bon Appétit for shrimp and grits.

This Southern classic is traditionally served a breakfast, although it's not uncommon to see it on dinner menus (DC's Vidalia has a shrimp and grits dish with mustard greens and ham that sounds amazing).

A particularly adventurous aspect of this dinner was that I peeled and de-veined the shrimp myself--an experience worth doing if you're curious about what it entails and can't find the already peeled and de-veined kind.

Although Whole Foods often has already peeled and deveined shrimp, when I made this dish, they only had the kind that still has the shell and legs attached. The shell, which protects the shrimp's abdomen, is called the carapace. Using your fingers on the underneath side, it's pretty easy to separate the legs and shell from the body. You can pull the legs off first, but it's not necessary. The shell will come off in one piece, generally consisting of about three segments. Leave the final segment before the tail intact (the segment without any legs attached).

The deveining part is a bit more complicated, and also deceptive. See, there are two parts of the shrimp that could conceivably be the "vein," although in truth, neither is. On the bottom side (the side where the legs were attached), there is a visible "vein" that is the shrimp's central nerve. You can remove this if you want, but most people just leave it there, especially for small to medium-size shrimp. The "vein" people talk about removing is on the back of the shrimp (the side under the shell). This is actually the shrimp's intestinal tract, sometimes referred to as the "sand vein." To remove it, use a paring knife to make a slit about 1/8-inch deep on the back of the shrimp from the head end to the tail. The vein may be dark gray but sometimes (I suppose if the shrimp hasn't eaten recently), it's just white. Use the tip of the knife to pry the vein out and discard it. The shrimp is now ready to cook.

Since I'd never done this before, it took me awhile to get through the shrimp--about a half an hour--and my fingers smelled a bit "shrimpy" afterwards, even after multiple washings. For a few more dollars, if available, I'd probably buy the already prepped kind. But if you like this kind of prep work, it's really not that bad.

Shrimp with Fresh Corn Grits
Adapted from a recipe in Bon Appétit

3 ears of corn, husks removed
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup whole milk
1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup grits (not instant)
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika and a pinch of cayenne pepper
1 1/2 lb. large shrimp, peeled, deveined, with tails intact
1 tbsp. chopped fresh chives

1. Using the large holes of a box grater, grate the kernels off of 2 ears of corn into a medium bowl, catching as much corn juice as possible. Run a knife over the cobs to extract any remaining juice and let it drip into the bowl. Using a knife (or specialized tool), remove the whole kernels from the third ear of corn. Discard the cobs.

2. Combine broth, milk and water in a large (4 qt.) saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat so that liquid is at a simmer (a touch below medium) and whisk in the grits. Simmer, whisking frequently, until the grits are very tender, about 20-25 minutes. Stir in the butter and grated corn with corn juice. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside for about 15 minutes.

3. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan or frying pan over medium heat. Add the garlic, oregano and paprika and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the whole orb kernels and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add shrimp and cook, tossing occasionally, until cooked through, about 5-6 minutes.

4. Spoon the corn grits into a shallow bowl and serve topped with the cooked shrimp and corn mixture. Garnish with fresh chives.