Alligator Bites

I wasn’t very afraid of cooking alligator, because all I had ever heard was that it “tastes like chicken.”  For some reason, I’ve always thought that it was alligator or crocodile that was at the root of that joke, and that a blind taste tester would be definitely be fooled if he was presented with chicken and croc bits that had come out of the same bag of shake and bake.  It will come as no surprise to people familiar with eating alligator that in this case, I was wrong.   For all I know, crocodile is being swapped for chicken in TV dinners around the world as we speak, but trying to do the same with alligator would be a dead giveaway.

 I bought the frozen alligator in the same shopping trip to Black Angus Fine Meats and Game I’ve talked about in my last few entries, and I decided to break it out as an appetizer when my foodie friend came over for a visit the other day.   It was a pricey appy at $15.99/lb, which is how much I bought, but she’s an old and dear friend, so she’s worth it (and now that I’ve complimented her she might make the effort to leave comments at the end of this blog).  Here is a photo of the starting point:

I thawed it in the microwave and then decided to deep fry it using a thick beer batter, even though I’m not a regular fryer, as a rule.  It’s messy and unhealthy, so I usually avoid it, but I have been known to fry up a legendary fish and chips occasionally by following Jamie Oliver’s advice, and I thought that this might be the easiest way to serve up reptile in bite sized chunks.  Hey, I hadn’t thought of this before – we just basically ate dinosaur.  Cool.

 Anyway,  as I first began to cut the filets, I knew there would be a problem.  My kitchen scissors, which I use for efficient stir frying and such, met with tension once in every few snips.  It was like I was cutting a really grisly piece of meat, and I wondered if that would have an impact on the finished product.  It had exactly the impact I would have expected in finding gristle in the raw version of what I was trying to cook.  Gristle in the cooked version.  It looked pretty on the outside….

…and the batter was tasty, but each piece of alligator was hit or miss, and even the hits were foul balls instead of home runs.  It was all very chewy – I thought as I was eating it that calamari lovers might like it – but some pieces were fishier and gristlier than others, and that would be hard for anyone to take.  At one point I said to my friend, “Hey, I just had a good piece,” but even that one was pretty chewy.  My new experience would make me avoid alligator completely in future, at home or in restaurants, unfortunately.  But the dips and batter I had chosen were nice, if I do say so myself.

 Beer Battered Alligator Bites

  • 1lb alligator, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 1 12oz can of beer.  I used Mill Street Organic (excellent)
  • 1 1/2C flour
  • 1/2tsp salt
  • 1tsp paprika
  • 1C flour, for dredging

Further battering instructions here.

  Dip #1 – Parsley Onion Dip

(I modified the green goddess submissions here based on what I had on hand, listed below…)

  • Mayo
  • Handful of parsley
  • Green onions
  • Red onion
  • Splash of lemon juice
  • Salt/pepper

 Combine all in food processor, but make sure herb and veggie portions are generous.

 Dip #2 – Pre-prepared “President’s Choice Sweet with Heat Prepared Mustard”

(apologies to non-Canadians, just go with Dip #1 if you can’t find this, or pick up a fancy sweet mustard.  For Canadians:  this dip may have been the highlight of the appetizer)

Rating:  1 Gag. 

It was all the alligator’s fault that my recipe didn’t work, so the man-eater will pay for it in my rating.  We ate lots of it because we were hungry, but I wouldn’t make it again.  Sorry Louisiana swamp people – you may need to consider sources of revenue beyond gators.

Ostrich – the other other red meat

I’m not sure that ostrich should be listed in the “me got game,” section of my website, but since I don’t have an enormous catalog of blog entries, I’m going to have to go with what I’ve got.  But game?  I think that anyone who thinks it’s a game to chase and shoot these not-so-bright animals who “hide,” by covering their eyes with sand might be the same kinds of people who enjoy doing puzzles by letting someone else do it and then bringing the last piece at the very end.  But I guess when they’re not hiding they’re running.  Timing is everything.  All it took for me to get my hands on one was a quick drive to Mississauga.

I found a very small ostrich steak at Black Angus Fine Meats and Game, and decided to serve it up to my cousins as an appetizer, mostly for the entertainment value.   So far, my husband has been the main taste tester for my exotic creations, but I thought I would take a risk and branch out.  Plus, when someone feeds you an entire meal and all you bring is an appetizer, you get a whole lot more cred if it’s something strange and memorable.  It was a win win to serve to my cousins, really, as long as none of them threw up.

I read about how to prepare the ostrich ahead of time, and most descriptions said that it could be used in recipes in the place of rare beef.  I was slightly concerned – unless Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom had steered me wrong, ostriches are birds, which made me think of chickens and salmonella.  My “birds need to be cooked,” experience had misdirected me this time though, because apparently ostrich has an ideal pH balance and so doesn’t attract harmful bacteria.  Ostrich is also healthy in other ways, being lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than skinless chicken, while also being high in protein and iron.

I was shy to take control of a barbeque that was not my own, so I asked for a frying pan and grilled the ostrich steak until it was medium rare (same as you would a regular beef steak).  I sliced it cross-ways, and because I couldn’t find a really great ostrich appetizer recipe, I laid each slice across thinly sliced toasted baguette, spread with herbed goat cheese and red pepper jelly.   I’ll spell it out for you below, in case you’re that kind of person.

Ann’s Improv’d Ostrich Recipe

  • Toasted whole wheat baguette slices (slice the baguette, roast in oven on baking sheet at 400, 8mins)
  • Herbed soft goat cheese
  • Red pepper jelly
  • Medium rare ostrich slices

Combine, in the order above.  Here is what it looked like (sorry for the finger shadow I only noticed later):

 

Overall Impression:  Not bad, although my stomach still raised warning flags for unjustifiable reasons.  Maybe it was far too healthy.  I had to assess whether or not my cousins were just being polite, but they said they liked it, and cleared the plate of every last piece I had prepared.  One cousin said the consistency reminded her of a cross between liver and beef (something I read said that it is so lean it can be off-putting).  The jelly may have overpowered the ostrich, which may or may not have been a good thing, depending on your perspective.  I would probably try ostrich again, but I wouldn’t put myself on the mailing list.

Rating:  2 yums

Boar not entirely boring

Okay carnivores, enough of exotic fruits and veggies for a while.  This one’s for you.

Last week I visited Black Angus Fine Meats and Game in Mississauga and picked up a thing or two, even though doing so made me feel kind of uneasy.

You see, Black Angus specializes in game meats, and although I have never been vegetarian, for some reason I feel a little meaner eating animals that aren’t used to being eaten, even though I doubt that cows, pigs and chickens are overjoyed to be the lucky ones that are usually forced to volunteer.  Maybe it’s because I know that the farmed animals weren’t enjoying the freedom they were plucked away from as much as an animal that romped in the woods was.  I stopped feeling quite so bad, though, when I remembered that one of the meats I chose had once looked like this:

(Shiver)

I had chosen a French rack of wild boar, which I was drawn to more because of the cut than the animal – it looked like rack of lamb, and I was hoping that it was the cut that made rack of lamb a juicy, easy grilling option and that I would find the same results with this more uncommon meat.  Spring has sprung early this year, and after a week of sun I was ready for a barbeque.   At the same time, I was worried that wild boar would taste exactly like pork would and that it would be a pricier letdown (it was just shy of $40 for the 2.3 pound roast that might serve three adults).  I vowed to make my husband eat hotdogs one night post-boar so that I would only be spending $20 on meat per dinner and threw it into the basket.

Here is what the roast looked like before I started…

And here is what it looked like after I had sliced the fat from it.

I was kind of surprised to see so much fat on a wild animal, but who was I to judge?  Maybe my boar had eaten more than his fair share of truffles.  Actually, when I read about them here, I learned that they primarily eat fruit, nuts, seeds and tubers, which I thought might have a nicer influence on the meat than whatever farmed pigs eat, helping to justify the extra cost.  I also read that their population is very plentiful and widespread across Europe and Asia, even to the point where they have become pests in some areas.  My guilty conscience that had once associated eating wild animals with endangering them felt relieved.

I searched for recipes on how to prepare wild boar, but didn’t find much, so I ended up cooking it very simply by brushing it with olive oil, seasoning it with coarse salt and pepper, and then brushing it again with honey.  I seared it over high heat for about 5 minutes (it flared a bit, maybe because of the fat or honey or both) before I flipped it bones side down, where I cooked it over indirect medium heat, barbeque at about 400, not heating from directly beneath the meat, for another 40 minutes.  It ended up being a perfectly juicy medium.

Overall Impression:  Very nice, although pork-like.  The meat was flavourful and juicy and was not “game-y,” as is always a worry with wild meats.  I am convinced that wild boar is the best option if you know that a snobby person is coming to your house for dinner.  You could casually say, “Oh, I just picked up some wild boar, I hope you haven’t had any yet this week,” and then even if they were picky with food, they would be okay with it because it would taste familiar.  They would brag to their snobby buddies about what you had cooked and how delicious it was for months.   Serve it with a cranberry coulis – slam dunk.

Rating:  3 Yums.  Straightforward, tasty, and different.

Tantalizing Tamarind

As a rule, I have to say that I avoid Walmart’s food section, even though my husband has encouraged me to visit the market where the lowest price is the law.  They do have fresh vegetables, and even meat now, but somehow I feel like the food products that are there must have some kind of seedy underbelly.  Maybe the beef is actually horse.  Maybe the chickens are actually sparrows on steroids.  I wouldn’t put it past them.

But as I was walking through the “veggie” section (probably all genetically modified crabgrass) looking for the photoshop one day, I happened to pass a box of giant brown bean pods labelled “tamarind.”  At first I didn’t even make the connection that they were the source of the “tamarind beef,” dish we order at least once a month from the Thai take-out restaurant around the corner, having picked them up purely for the challenge of learning how to prepare them.  I soon learned that my culture might be one of the few in the world that doesn’t understand what to do with them, and that we’ve always been missing out on the fun of preparing them.  Here is what they looked like in the box:

As I mentioned, I bought tamarind in the form of pods, but apparently many buy them in a pulpy block where the external pods have already been removed.  This is a bit of a shame, because the pods feel kind of neat, but I guess if you’re used to them you’d rather have someone else get rid of them.  They’re kind of  like a cross between an egg and a peanut shell, so they’re easy to crack quickly, exposing the rich dark brown pulpy seeds inside.  Here is a shot of the pods:

The seeds are contained by a fibrous set of strands that also must be removed.  Here are what those look like:

The remaining innards need to be soaked in warm water for 15 or 20 minutes, whether you buy them in a block or in the pods, and then the fun begins.  I drained about half of the water off (concerned that I might water down the goodness of it all) and then squashed the pulp away from the seeds with my fingers, throwing the seeds out.  Welcome back to kindergarten and fingerpaints, grade two and mud pies.  This process was somehow very therapeutic.  I learned how to massage and manipulate my tamarind here.

By the time I was finished I had a lumpy, goopy mess of tamarind pulp which was to form the basis of all future tamarind recipes.  I chose to try two – the first was for a “Gitatini,” which was a ginger tamarind martini, recipe here:

Gitatini (makes 6 drinks, I only made ¼ of it)

  • 4 cups tamarind extract
  • 12 cardamom pods (I didn’t have cardamom, but don’t think it would have brought this into the winner’s circle for us)
  • 1/4 tsp dried ginger powder
  • 4 tbsp brown sugar
  • 2 cups vodka
  • Ice cubes

I thought it would be fun to see the look on my husband’s face when I greeted him with an experimental martini, but my efforts were completely wasted, although my husband wasn’t.  He complained about having to drink hard alcohol on a weeknight (I’m sure one of my readers would be willing to volunteer?), and when I made him taste a sip, he said it was too strong and that the whole thing tasted disgusting anyway.  I couldn’t disagree – I should have pureed the pulp first, even though I did try to strain it, and also I’m not a fan of vodka, only because I was a huge fan of it when I was younger, if you know what I mean.  The Gitatini was quickly introduced to the sink and we each happily cracked open a beer.

Tamarind Martini Rating:  Three gags

The second recipe I chose was a much bigger success.  I made “Grilled Mahi Mahi with Tamarind Glaze,” although I used cod because it was available.  This time I pureed everything together in my food processor.  Here are the ingredients:

Grilled Mahi Mahi with Tamarind Glaze

  • 1/2 cup tamarind pulp (from a pliable block)
  • 1 cup boiling-hot water
  • 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon packed palm or dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 10 (1- to 1 1/2-inch-thick) pieces mahimahi fillet with skin (6 oz each) (I used cod)
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

It tasted delicious – it was extremely flavourful, blending sweet and tart flavours in a beautiful balance.  It made plain whitefish much more interesting as well as adding significant health benefits (see nutritional info below).  My husband didn’t openly compliment it at the time, since usually his highest praise goes something like, “yeah, it’s good,” but there were no complaints, and he also smeared the sauce all over the green beans I served with it.  He bragged to his friend today (the following day) that we eat pretty healthy but that it’s tolerable because I use good recipes to dress up fish, and he mentioned the tamarind fish as an example.   All very good signs.

Overall Impression of Tamarind:  A great new addition to my cooking repertoire.  It was fun to make, and could become very versatile.  I feel out of the loop for not having prepared it before.  An exceptional companion for grilled fish.

Nutritional Benefits:  High in fibre assisting with digestive health.  Helps bind to toxins in food protecting the colon mucus membrane from cancer causing chemicals.  Rich in tartaric acid, which is a powerful antioxidant.  Good source of minerals like copper, potassium, calcium, iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps control heart rate and blood pressure. Iron is essential for red blood cell production. (Thanks to this website for ref)

Other Interesting Facts:  Indigenous to Africa, but seems to grow everywhere warm.  South Asia and Mexico are its largest consumers, but it’s eaten by many cultures around the world.  If you don’t believe me, check out Wikipedia.  There are a great number of medicinal uses for tamarind – again, check out Wikipedia.

Rating – Whitefish with tamarind glaze:  3 Yums.  Will make it again as a quick way to dress up boring fish.

Once you go black…(black radish, that is)

I was pushing my kids in the stroller on a mission to nowhere in my neighborhood this week when a sign on a basket of  round, dark root veggies that looked like beets made me do a double-take, because the sign said, “Ontario Black Radishes.”  Now you have to admit that anything black that you can eat is kind of interesting.  I’ve had black pasta coloured with squid ink that didn’t taste incredibly different from regular pasta, but that looked fantastically dramatic.  When I was a kid, I also had black licorice ice cream, which was different enough to draw stares, although maybe those were because of the resultant smiling black teeth.  So when I saw a basket of giant black radishes, I knew a few needed to come home with me.

Here is my daughter holding two of them:

And here is one all by its lonesome:

I did some reading about them, and discovered that they are typically found in winter, and also that they are stronger than a regular radish, so many descriptions suggested that I tone them down a bit.  I took this advice, which said to wash them, grate them with a coarse grater, and toss them with a liberal dose of kosher salt, which would mellow them out.  I left them in their salt on the counter and went to the library.

When I came back an hour later, my husband, never one to mince words, confronted me at the door asking accusingly, “What smells like a bum???”  I wouldn’t agree with his description of the smell, thankfully, but the main floor of our house was definitely pungent with an overpowering stinky radish odour.  My daughter walked around plugging her nose.  I quickly rinsed my concoction to remove the salt and stuck the radish gratings in a ziplock in the fridge, which contained the smell…to the fridge.  Every time I opened the fridge door for the rest of the afternoon I was met with more gripes my husband, so I ended up telling him to stop whining, that the stink was about to become his dinner.  He prepared to order pizza.

But thanks to chocolateandzucchini.com, the black radish was absolutely delicious.  Here are the ingredients and recipe link for the best potato salad I’ve ever had:

- 450 grams (1 pound) small waxy potatoes
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed with the side of the knife blade
- 1 medium black radish, about 220 grams (1/2 pound) (when buying, make sure it is firm to the touch, not limp nor soft)
- 2 teaspoons honey vinegar or other mild vinegar (I had to use balsamic)
- 4 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- a small bunch of chives, finely snipped (I had to use green onions)
- a few sprigs of parsley, leaves roughly chopped
- the meat from 10 walnuts, crumbled
- sea salt, freshly ground pepper

Overall impression:  I tasted the radish before it was salted, and it was spicy and gave me heartburn after only one bite.  After the salt treatment it still tasted very radish-like, but in the salad with the walnuts it somehow acquired a very wintry, earthy character.  The grated shavings gave perfect textural balance to the creamy flesh of the potatoes in the salad.  I liked the black radishes overall, but I would guess that recipes would have to be chosen with care to make sure that such a domineering veggie is treated appropriately.  The centres of the radishes I had were very woody, so I stopped grating when it became difficult to do so and threw out the cores.

Nutritional Value:  Great nutrients.  Supposed to be good for constipation because they’re high in fibre and water, and are also high in vitamin C, B vitamins and sulfur.  Contain chemicals which increase the flow of bile, maintaining a healthy gallbladder.  Also have an antibacterial effect on digestive flora. 

Other Interesting Facts:  Main producing countries are China, Japan, Austria, Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands.  There are Egyptian tomb drawings from 2000BC showing black radishes.

Rating:  I’m going to give this recipe 5 yums, the very highest rating possible.  Loved it!  I would make this salad for company, potluck, and as an alternative to a boring potato side at home.

Bonus info – how to pick a good potato:  I’m shocked at how many people are shocked by eating good potatoes at my house even though all I know how to do is pick the best ones.  If you have a line-up of white, yellow, and red potatoes at your grocery store like I do, squeeze a few of each type and select from the variety that appears to be the most firm that day.  If they have a slightly green tinge, all the better.

Horseradish that made my husband whinny

This entry is only my third, but it has, so far, taken the blue ribbon as far as my husband is concerned.  Little does he know I very nearly poisoned him.

When I entered my beloved discount grocery store to find an experimental food to cook this week, I picked up a giant, gnarly root, and thought, “Okay, giddy up.”  I really did think that, so I had to write it even though doing so makes three horse references in almost as many sentences, so you’ll have to forgive me.  Here is a picture of what it looked like:

But this is where I ran into a problem that may end up being a persistent one through my adventurous cooking exploits.  The root was labelled with the following sign:

When I brought the smelly thing to the cashier, she held it and looked at me with a look of boredom, saying, “horseradish?”  I had hoped she was wrong, because I thought that horseradish was far too normal for my experiment.  I pulled out my phone and showed her the sign it had been labelled with, but she said that no, she thought it was actually horseradish because taro was white.  I shrugged and told her sure, silently vowing to go home and look up photos because maybe she was wrong, although I’m sure that that cashiers at those places are so well informed that they should actually be allowed to go straight into a Master’s in Botany without an undergrad degree.  

Anyway, I’ve returned to the store once since I picked the thing up, and have noticed that many mysterious foods seem to be missing labels or are piled up alongside one another so that it can be difficult to tell what you’re actually buying if you don’t know what you’re doing.  Wish me luck in future.  The second time I went back the taro sign had moved (this was actually when I took the photo above, having deleted the first one when I found out it probably wasn’t taro) and the roots looked more round, which made me think that the cashier had been right, as if there was any doubt.

When I  got home I googled taro and saw that the roots did indeed look more round than mine.  It also said that if you didn’t soak taro roots overnight before eating them, and if you ate them raw, they were toxic.  Let’s hope the cashier really did know what she was doing, because if my mystery veggie was horseradish I wouldn’t be soaking it and would be eating it raw.  Oh well, my husband would be the only one eating it anyway.

Now although I was disappointed that I had inadvertently picked up horseradish for several reasons – it’s a boring, well-known food, and also as mentioned I’m not a fan, preferring to enjoy my expensive cuts of beef straight up – my husband was overjoyed, because although he’s mostly indifferent to what he’s eating, he really enjoys horseradish that burns your tastebuds off and melts the hair out of your nose.  He sometimes pays for an expensive dinner at his favourite cheesy steakhouse, “La Castille,” in Mississauga, specifically for this privilege.   So I made horseradish from scratch for the first time using the information on this page, which took less than five minutes, and I made him the happiest guy ever.  Plus, making horseradish was really cool.

The reason why making horseradish is cool is because you have complete control over the results by manipulating a three-minute window of time.  I’ll explain.  When you cut or crush it, damaging the cells of the plant, enzymes go to work in a chemical reaction releasing mustard oil.  The root immediately goes from an unassuming tuber to a stinky, eye watering concoction when you mince the peeled, cubed root in your food processor, as I did.  If you don’t add vinegar within a short period of time to stop the reaction, the root darkens, becomes bitter, and loses pungency.  If you add vinegar immediately after processing (2-3Tbsp per cup) the horseradish is fairly mild, but if you let it sit for 3 minutes or so, the horseradish gets progressively hotter, which is the way my husband likes it.  The whole thing takes very little work to get exactly the results you want, which is rare in food prep, if you ask me.

My husband loved the horseradish.  He slathered it all over his steak and coughed a few times until he nearly choked, but apparently that was a good thing.  He excitedly said things like, “we could bottle the rest, horseradish keeps forever!” which isn’t true, one website said a few weeks in the fridge, but I liked his enthusiasm.  He did jump up from his chair and put away the rest of what was in the food processor, overjoyed when he remembered he has a boys’ weekend in only a few days and my horseradish might be that certain something that would give their prime rib night legendary status.

I’ll make it again and again. 

Rating:  3.5 Yums (if you’re a fan of horseradish)

PS – I started out by looking for a more interesting recipe incorporating horseradish on epicurious.com, but was surprised to find that almost all recipes suggested using prepared horseradish as an ingredient rather than making it from scratch.  Pourquoi?