The Amazing Chesapeake Bay Oyster (it's hopeful comeback and it's deliciousness in risotto)

While D.C. itself is short on notable regional cuisine, we are lucky to live not too far from the Chesapeake Bay, which has given us crab cakes and the like, and a particular favorite of mine--oysters. This past weekend we indulged in a rich and creamy risotto made with local bluepoint oysters. I'm a bit of a risotto fanatic, and if I could eat oysters every day I would, so this recipe is basically (to paraphrase Ron Swanson) my fifth favorite food cooked inside my second favorite food.

The recipe came from For Cod and Country, Barton Seaver's new seafood cookbook. Since meeting Seaver and acquiring his book a month or so ago, the missus and I have eaten a good deal of seafood, all of it sustainable, and much of it local. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a free Seafood Watch smartphone app that has made shopping for sustainable seafood far easier.

The oysters you see above were local bluepoints, from the Maryland based Choptank Oyster Company. The vast majority of oysters you can buy have been farmed, and Choptank has a focus on sustainable farming practice. Oysters such as these get a "Best Choice" rating from Seafood Watch, while their wild-caught cousins in the Gulf rank not quite as high. The farming methods are fairly low-impact, and because they filter the water as they feed, they play a crucial role in their ecosystem, particularly in the now-blighted Chesapeake Bay.

Until fairly recently, the Chesapeake Bay oyster population was at the bottom of a severe population decline. Efforts by Maryland and Virginia officials and the Army Corps of Engineers have seen the beginnings of a comeback, though their numbers are still a fraction of the billions of oysters that filled the bay in the 1800s. Apart from the efforts to establish wild oyster preserves, oyster aquaculture companies such as Choptank are aiding in that effort. Although these oysters will be harvested and sold, during their lifespan they are filtering the water. Increased demand for oysters would lead these companies to expand their efforts and convince new companies to get in the game. In other words, start eating more oysters. Right now! Do it!

Anyhow . . . Seaver's recipe is great. My shucking skills have gotten rusty, but were soon up to snuff. I've made many risottos, but never with creme fraiche. It was decadently rich, and I really enjoyed the blend of flavors that included the oysters, their liquor, orange juice and zest, butternut squash, onion, fresh parsley and fresh tarragon. I've given you most of the ingredients, but not the recipe, as I'm feeling a bit lazy. In any case, buy the book, download the app, think about the fish you eat, so we can all keep eating fish.


The Huevos Rancheros Post to Rule Them All

(click to see larger pic)

Some people have a lifelong obsession with one particular food or dish. A favorite example of mine is Allen Ginsberg's passion for making soup, at which he excelled. I feel similarly passionate about huevos rancheros, and have spent years improving my recipe and trying endless variations. In it's truest and original form huevos rancheros is extremely simple and plain, having the same basics: eggs, tortilla and beans.

Within those three ingredients there are many options. Another usual ingredient is a tomato/chili sauce. I tend to combine those elements with the beans (see below). You'll sometimes see the addition of rice (but never on my huevos rancheros plate) and more frequently, potatoes (which I always use). There are countless other possible additions to those basics. Rather than post one recipe, here is a rundown of how I vary the basics to create dozens of versions of my favorite breakfast/brunch (and sometimes dinner). If anyone out there has a favorite version or addition, I would definitely like to know about it.

One more thing: I've had some comments on KM in the recent past about how some of my dishes aren't "authentic" (I'm looking at you anonymous Spanish hater of my paella). I am definitely not striving for authentic here, or really ever. Going for tasty and interesting. It doesn't mean I don't have respect for the original. If you don't feel I should be calling this "huevos rancheros," you're welcome to let me know. But I aint gonna stop.

The Tortilla

It is more traditional in Mexico to use corn tortillas, which I typically pan-fry, briefly, in a very small amount of vegetable oil. I occasionally use flour tortillas, but the corn tortillas are healthier. I suppose you could use low-fat wheat tortillas, but why ruin such a great dish?

The Eggs

The traditional way is simply to fry them. You really should cook them sunny-side up, so the yolk can run and mix with the beans. Mmmmmm. Sometimes, if I'm feeling fancy or have company, I'll poach the eggs in stock. I have also done scrambled eggs, or hardboiled eggs chopped small, but fried or poached are best. Regardless of how you cook them, be sure to sprinkle with salt and fresh pepper when done.

The Beans

For me, the beans are the most important part. Traditional huevos are often served with refried beans, or sometimes black beans cooked with a few spices. I don't care for refried beans, and mine are always made with black beans. The traditional dish is also usually served with a kind of tomato-chili sauce. I prefer to combine the chilies and tomatoes with the beans to give it all more substance and flavor. This is how I usually do it:

I start by sauteeing a medium sized chopped onion in olive oil (this is for a 32 oz. can of beans, if you're using more or less, adjust your onion size accordingly). After a few minutes, I add at least a tablespoon each of freshly ground cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and a tablespoon of smoked paprika. Those are the basic spices, but I will often add a 1/4 tsp. of mace and/or a teaspoon of dried mexican oregano. Once the spices have released their aroma through the simmering olive oil, I add three cloves of chopped garlic and sautee for a few more minutes.

I then add about a cup of stock (right now we have a freezer filled with ice cubes of home made beef/chicken stock, which provides me with a mild but frequent feeling of joy), along with two fresh chopped tomatoes. If all I have is canned plum tomatoes, I'll add several of those, chopped, along with about 1/4 cup of the tomato juice.

I drain and rinse the canned beans and add them, then let everything simmer for at least a half hour, until the liquid is reduced. If it reduces too much, just add a bit more stock or water. Sometimes I'll use dry beans slow-cooked overnight in our crockpot, but I too rarely think that far ahead.

Adjust the spices however you like. And of course, add salt and pepper. I will occasionally add peppers (poblano, jalapeno, or simply red or green pepper) to the beans. If fresh, I chop them and add them at the same time as the onions. Occasionally I'll buy the small cans of Hatch green chiles, which are from New Mexico and tend to fill me with fond memories of the years I lived in Albuquerque and ate Hatch green chiles all the time.

The Potatoes / Home Fries

I almost always use red potatoes, which I chop so that they're a bit bigger than dice. I boil them with a generous amount of salt in the water, and drain them just before they're fully cooked. I reserve some of the coriander and cumin I ground for the beans (again, about a tablespoon of each). In a large non-stick sautee pan, I heat some vegetable oil and let the spices cook for 1 minute before tossing the potatoes to coat them. Add salt and pepper and continue cooking until the potatoes get a bit crispy on the outside.

Once everything is cooked, simply lay the tortilla flat on the plate and arrange everything else on top however you wish. Feel free to add whatever you want. Here are some ideas I often turn to:

Bacon: I've eased up on the bacon in recent years, but I love the black forest strips you can buy at Whole Foods, and will sometimes buy just enough for one strip per plate. Delicious.

Dairy: I used to cover my huevos rancheros with cheese, but I'm trying to get in shape and have cut back on this a bit. Still, a small amount of really good sharp cheddar can be a beautiful thing on top of the beans. I also used to add a dab of sour cream, but lately have used the somewhat more healthy Greek yogurt, or sometimes labneh, which has a really pleasant tangy flavor that goes against the beans nicely. That said, this morning I used creme fraiche. Not healthy, not traditional, but very good.

Sauce or salsa: A dab of Joe Baker's Damn Good Salsa goes really well with all these ingredients, but if I don't have a batch, we'll often use a bit of hot sauce on the potatoes. Our fellow SASOU chefs Scott and Amy recently went to Belize and brought us back a bottle of Marie Sharp's Grapefruit Pulp Habanero Pepper Sauce. Really great stuff. Apart from that, our go-to sauce is Tapatio. Tabasco has it's place, but not on huevos rancheros.

Other additions:

Fresh chopped cilantro and/or parsley

Avacado slices or guacamole

Flame-roasted poblano peppers, with the charred skin peeled off and the peppers sliced into strips.

This morning I also simmered 1/4 cup of annato seeds in 1/2 cup of olive oil and 1/2 cup vegetable oil, for about 20 minutes. I then strained the seeds out and discarded them, reserving the oil. I used the oil to fry the eggs, and drizzled a small amount on top of the potatoes. The aroma and flavor are great.