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Cooking With Myra: Simple ingredients, complex taste

By By Myra Starkey
Feb. 25, 2014 at midnight
Updated Feb. 24, 2014 at 8:25 p.m.

Steamed mussels with tomato harissa broth and black sticky rice.

Steamed Mussels with Tomato Harissa Broth and black sticky rice

From Michael's Genuine Food by Michael Schwartz and Joann Cianciulli• 1 cup black sticky rice

• 1/2 tsp. kosher salt

• 2 pounds mussels

• 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

• 3 garlic cloves, minced

• 11/2 cups dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc

• Tomato harissa

• 4 Tbsp. butter, unsalted

• 4 scallions, white and green parts, sliced diagonally

• Cilantro leaves

Put rice in a small pot and add 11/2 cups cold water and the salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until tender but still toothsome, 30-45 minutes. The cooking time for the rice varies.

Rinse mussels under cold water while scrubbing with a vegetable brush. Remove stringy mussel beards with thumb and index fingers as you wash them. Discard any mussels that are open or have broken shells.

Put a Dutch oven over medium heat and coat with oil. Add garlic and stir for 10 seconds. As soon as the garlic begins to brown, add the wine, mussels, and tomato harissa. Give everything a good toss. Cover pot and crank up the heat to high. Steam mussels for 5 minutes. Remove the cover and give mussels a stir so all are in contact with the heat, and quickly put lid back on. Steam for 2 more minutes. Stir in the butter to melt.

To serve, put about one half of a cup of rice in the center of four shallow bowls. Using tongs, fan the mussels around the rice and pour one-half of a cup of the broth over each portion. Garnish with scallions and cilantro.

Tomato harissa

• 3 beefsteak tomatoes

• 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

• 5 garlic cloves

• 6 large basil leaves

• 2 Tbsp. harissa paste*

• 1 tsp. kosher salt

• 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Bring pot of water to boil and prepare an ice bath. Cut a little cross mark on the bottom of the tomatoes. Immerse the tomatoes in the boiling water until the skin starts to peel away, 15-30 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, remove the tomatoes from the pot and transfer to the ice bath to cool quickly and stop the cooking process. Peel the tomatoes either with your hands or with a paring knife. Halve the tomatoes crosswise and squeeze out the seeds.

Place a nonreactive pot over medium heat and coat with oil. When the oil is shimmering, add the garlic. Cook and stir until the garlic is fragrant and begins to get a little color, 1-2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, basil, harissa, salt and pepper. Turn up the heat to high until the tomatoes start to release their liquid, a minute or two; then reduce the heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally to prevent burning, until the tomatoes start to break down and thicken, about 20 minutes.

Mash any remaining big pieces of tomato and garlic with a dough scraper or potato masher. The sauce should remain somewhat chunky. Store covered in the fridge for a couple of days.

*Harissa paste is a Tunisian hot chili pepper paste

The weather in the Miami area was in the low 80s. We had spent two days in Nassau in the Bahamas, and it was just as warm.

This was late January. There was freezing rain in South Texas.

When we arrived at the airport in Miami, most all the flights to the Atlanta area had been canceled because of a blizzard.

No wonder people like the southern tip of Florida.

On Tuesday afternoon, we went to an art museum. Taylor loves to see art, so almost anywhere we go on a vacation, he has the local museums on his itinerary.

I welcome the cultural stimulation, but if I had to choose between an art museum or a beautiful white sand/blue water beach, I would pick the latter.

If his idea of a good time is fine art, my thing on a vacation is fine dining.

When I was researching places to go in Miami, I was looking up restaurants.

Our first night there, we hit a homerun with Michael's Genuine Food and Drink. Our daughter, Hannah, had been to Miami a while back and gave us the recommendation.

His menu is down-to-earth cooking for true foodies. He uses the farm-to-table concept and buys local for his ingredients. The preparation makes the recipes' true flavor come out.

There are no fussy sauces or delicate dishes. They are bold and hearty.

My basil panna cotta recipe in last week's article was from this restaurant.

The following day, we drove to the airport to pick up our friends, Doug and Laura, who were arriving from wintry Texas. Our destination for the evening was Key West, which is three hours south down a long highway across multiple islands and numerous bridges. It is a scenic journey to this southernmost tip of the continental United States.

Key West was inhabited in the 1700s but did not really begin to prosper until the 1820s. Fishing and shipwreck salvage were the big industries. It was an important military city during the Civil War, and the Union built a large fort there. It became an important port for shipping and was the largest city in Florida in the late 1800s.

Many of its fine homes and buildings were constructed during that time.

Ernest Hemingway lived there in the 1930s, and his home is a very interesting place to tour. He wrote at least four of his novels while in that house. He loved to deep-sea fish, so Key West was a natural place for him to be.

When he vacated the premises, he basically left all the furniture, so it appears just as it was when he was there.

It never freezes on the island, so the landscaping was really beautiful.

There were house cats wandering all over the gardens, through the house and even on the furniture. Many of them had six or seven toes on their front feet. These are all decedents of Hemingway's cats because when he departed, he left his cats.

In Key West, it is a tradition to gather on the northwest side of the island on a large wharf to watch the sunset. Hundreds of people were there along with many street performers for added entertainment.

On one side of us was a guy who was swallowing fire, juggling and escaping from handcuffs and a straight jacket. On the other side was a street preacher who was giving what I thought was a clear and theologically correct rendition of the path to salvation.

Because the average person would rather be entertained than hear theology, the magician had a significantly larger audience.

At the end of the wharf was something that was the most unbelievable of all. There was this old guy who had taught a bunch of house cats to do all sorts of tricks such as jumping from one pedestal to the next or through fiery hoops, sort of like circus tigers.

A dog of average intelligence can learn to do all sorts of tricks but for a cat to do anything other than what it wants to, was simply astounding to me. I am not saying that I don't like cats or that I think they lack brainpower, only that they generally won't do tricks. And maybe that is why they have not up to this point ever earned the title of "man's best friend."

After two days, it was time to leave the beautiful architecture and relaxed climate of Key West behind. We headed north - back up to Miami - for the last part of our vacation, and I'll report on that next week.

Michael Schwartz has opened several restaurants in Miami, and I was able to dine in two of them. I purchased his cookbook, "Michael's Genuine Food," and I have had the pleasure of cooking out of the book for several weeks.

I prepared steamed mussels with tomato harissa broth and black sticky rice from his cookbook and was once again amazed at the flavors I was able to create.

This is a wonderful cookbook with easy recipes for you to cook at home.

Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or email myra@vicad.com.

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