Major Dags: Volume 1 (feat. Cod Cheeks, Pasta Pizza, & Cuttlefish)

I was first introduced to the slang term “dag” when I was at the movies with a few friends (including regular blog character Mooman, known him a long time) at the age of 14.  We bumped into a former classmate that left for a new school a few years earlier and upon seeing us he exclaimed, “DAAAAAG! You guys got BIG!”  The comment was so absurd that it endured as a story we discussed and giggled about occasionally over the years.  15 years later, at a quiet bar in a nice restaurant where a few diners were enjoying their lunch, Marshall looked at the beer list and exclaimed “DAAAAG!!!” upon seeing the price of the beers.  Since there were 3 or 4 friends present to witness this, a catch phrase was born.

According to Urban Dictionary, dag means damn or is a general exclamation of amazement.  That’s about how we/I use it and use it often.  Anyway, this new segment on the blog is to capture the growing pile of meals that I only partially documented in photos, missed the key final shots that make a post work, or were just a complete failure.  You know, major dags.  Enjoy!

Cod Cheeks

One thing this blog has taught me is that all cheeks are delicious.  Beef, grouper, and pork have been documented here, along with collars from salmon and tuna.  So, when I noticed a fish shop on route 1 that advertised cod cheeks, I knew I would have to cook them at some point.  Only problem was that the only times I was 30 minutes north of Boston on Route 1 was when I was on my way out of town.  After a year of seeing the sign, I finally bought some and brought them to New Jersey with me.

After a rinse and pat dry.  This was around the time I realized it would be tough to keep up a conversation with Mommy Ryan while documenting a blog post

After a rinse and pat dry.  This was around the time I realized it would be tough to keep up a conversation with Mommy Ryan while documenting a blog post

The cod cheeks were medallions of meat about the size of a medium scallop and looked about how you would expect them to.  The color was a bit darker than regular cod fillets and had noticeably more fat than the usually lean cod meat.  Each piece seemed like a completely unique combination of shape and size.

I bought about a pound of the cheeks ($5.99!) and I would guess there were the cheeks of about 20 cod in there.  Excellent deal

I bought about a pound of the cheeks ($5.99!) and I would guess there were the cheeks of 20 cod in there.  Excellent deal

I’d never tasted cod cheeks before, but based on my experience with grouper it seemed like I should just treat them the way I would a scallop.

I heated up a couple tablespoons of butter in a pan then sauteed some garlic and a few capers over medium heat for a few minutes.  While that cooked, I dusted the cod cheeks with a little of flour, salt, and pepper and then added them to the pan.

Like scallops, but of all different sizes.  These might be the most innocuous looking cheeks I've cooked

Sorta looks like scallops, right?  Also could be sliced bulls balls based on the recent history of this blog.  Regardless,  these might be the most innocuous looking cheeks I’ve cooked

After a flip, I added a solid pour of white wine and lowered the heat to a simmer.  Since cod has a chewy, mushy, unpleasant texture when rare, I let the cheeks simmer for 8-10 minutes while the cooking liquid reduced and thickened around them.

A future signature of the Major Dag posts: abrupt final pictures that leave you hanging without any idea how this all came together in the end.  I blame Mommy for this one, I'm assuming she asked me a question about her Mac which derailed and beffudled me, making me forget I was documenting a post

A future signature of the Major Dag posts: abrupt final pictures that leave you hanging without any idea how this all came together in the end.  I blame Mommy for this one, I’m assuming she asked me a question about her iPhone which derailed and befuddled me, making me forget I was documenting a post

And that’s all you get.  I served the cod over some pasta with the cooking liquid as a sauce and paired it with asparagus.  The combination of butter, garlic, capers, and white wine rarely goes wrong and works with pretty much any seafood.  The cheeks were delicious, with a totally different texture than cod fillets.  Where cod is usually flaky and light, there was more density to the cheek and a more uniform, scallop-like texture.  Clever, 6 effing references to how they were like scallops, but I really got nothing else for you.  It’s accurate and annoying.

Linguine Pizza

I go through an obsessive pizza phase about once every 10 months.  No real reason for it, I just make pizza one day, it tastes really good, and then I proceed to make different varieties of it twice a week for the following 6 weeks.  The most recent incarnation of this obsession was pizza cooked on the grill, but prior to that wave it was all oven-baked and most of the creativity was in the toppings.  The pizza I made with shredded short rib and the reduced braising liquid acting as the pizza sauce was a personal favorite, but the oddest ones were based on leftovers.  Basically, roll out the dough and dump some leftovers on.

First, the dough.  For years I bought dough from local pizza shops because I assumed they use the same dough starter for years and the dough would have a nice funky bread flavor.  Plus, I never remembered to make it a day in advance.  Then I bought dough from a local place, discovered it was partially frozen and likely from a massive food service operation, and threw a temper tantrum.  The type of temper tantrum a normal babysitter would quit over, thankfully Kristi is my babysitter.

Nowadays I mostly make my dough 24 hours in advance, let it rise a couple times, then punch it down and throw it in the fridge.  Which leads to lots of situations likes this.

I consistently was terrified to remove these bags from the fridge since they both looked like they could explode in take out an eye at any second

I am consistently terrified to remove these over-inflated bags from the fridge since they look like they could explode and take out an eye at any second.  I am convinced that some morning we will wake up with the fridge doors wide open and the contents sprayed everywhere after one of these bags explodes

This has happened maybe five times, every time I’ve made pizza dough in the past year I would guess.  In each case, I punched the dough down and pressed out all air then wrapped them tight in a plastic bag.  Apparently that’s not gonna do it.  One night before hosting a party the following day, I put four doughs into a drawer in the fridge.  When we returned home, the drawer was off its track and looked like a hot air balloon inflated inside a VW Beetle.  The picture above captures the awesome inflating power of the dough.  The remarkable thing is that the dough found tiny holes and made tiny dough bubbles on the outside.

Anyway, during one of these pizza streaks I came back from a weekend in Maine with a lot of lobsters and a little bit of leftovers from a linguine with clam sauce.  The following day I was left to fend for myself for dinner and didn’t have enough pasta to make a whole dinner, sooooooooo….

The most offensive part of the oven-pizza-era was that every pizza ended up a rectangle.  I'd rather have an awful misshapen half moon (like my grilled pizzas) than something so geometric

The most offensive part of the oven-pizza-era was that every pizza ended up a rectangle.  I’d rather have an awful misshapen half moon (like my grilled pizzas) than something so geometric.  Just feels wrong

Stretch the dough out, coat well with olive oil, dump the leftovers into the center, evenly spread, then season the edges of the dough with lots of salt and pepper.  Oh, and “dust” (read: blizzard) pecorino romano plus a drizzle of additional olive oil over the top.

After 12 minutes in a 500 degree oven, I had this:

Yeah, not that different looking, but that's what you should expect from Major Dags: lots of repetitive and incomplete photography

Yeah, not that different looking, but that’s what you should expect from Major Dags: lots of repetitive and incomplete photography

I’ve made pasta pizza a few times since making this one.  Carb-wise, it’s the type of meal that makes construction workers whistle at me while I walk and ask if they can get some fries with that shake.  Flavor and texture-wise, it’s totally my fave thing.  All the flavor of the pasta dish you use, plus the crispy seasoned dough, tons of cheese, and the texture of the crunchy pieces of pasta on top.  The biggest plus is eating a bunch of pasta with only your hands and no need for a fork.  Pasta pizza is an open faced Italian taco, and the spaghetti calzone from Luigi’s in Lewiston, ME is the Italian gordita.  Need to document that one at some point.

Cuttlefish Pasta

This meal continues with the pattern of stuff I cooked when Kristi wasn’t home to make sure I ate right.

As discussed previously on this blog, the diverse inhabitants of JP leads to a lot of odd foods at the grocery store.  And pharmacy.  I found this can of shellfish at my local CVS.

I think i bought a can of octopus on the same visit to CVS.  These cans were in between the crackers and the hair gel.  100% serious

I think I bought a can of octopus on the same visit to CVS.  I used to take Playboys out of the dumpster behind CVS when I was 12, and now I am buying my shellfish there.  You and I have come a long way CVS!  Also, these cans were in between the crackers and the hair gel.  100% serious

I’ve only had a few small bites of fresh cooked cuttlefish during my travels and hope to someday purchase it fresh and cook it for myself.  I love squid and octopus, and cuttlefish seems like a close cousin of those two.  If I can’t get the fresh kind locally, though, I’ll happily give this questionable can of meat a shot.  Especially since they were packed in their own ink (supposedly), which is my fave thing.

Once I opened the can I was a little less excited.

I expected it to look more like the black squid ink I see in restaurants, not like awful sardine oil.  Shows how tough I am to please that seeing this mess just made me shrug and continue with food prep

I expected it to look more like the black squid ink I see in restaurants, not like cheap sardine oil. God that looks awful.  Shows how tough I am to please that seeing this mess just made me shrug and continue with food prep

I didn’t have the courage to eat this on its own, nor did I really want to, so I decided to make a pasta with the cuttlefish.  Started out by heating a little olive oil in a pan and adding onions, garlic, and, because Kristi was out of town and I like funky salty fish, a can of chopped anchovies.

Shoulda thrown the capers in there, another food I love dearly that I have pushed Kristi to the absolute limit on

Shoulda thrown capers in there too.  Another food I love dearly that I have pushed Kristi to the absolute limit on

While that cooked, I brought a pot of water to a boil and dumped in some dried shell pasta to cook about 3/4 of the way through.

Once the pasta was strained and the onions were translucent, I added in the cuttlefish, some salt & pepper, and a little bit of the “sauce” from the can.  After a couple minutes of cooking together I poured in about a half cup of white wine and let it simmer/reduce for 10-15 minutes.

A lot more promising than it looked in the can, but it still smelled a little bit like canned food despite all of the strong aromas.  Canned food is kind of the worst

A lot more promising than it looked in the can, but it still smelled a little bit like cat food despite all of the other strong aromas involved.  Canned food is kind of the worst

Once the sauce had reduced a bit, I stirred in the partially cooked pasta to cook the rest of the way in the sauce, which left me with this.

Shells were a terrible decision.  I think that this meal and the minimal documentation of it is as good of an example of a Major Dag that I have

Shells were a terrible decision.  I think that this meal and the minimal documentation of it is as good of an example of a Major Dag that I have

Overall, this meal was edible and I ate it, but it wasn’t exactly something that I looked forward to replicating for my friends at some point.  The flavor was fishy and muddy and had a faint taste that reminded me of the smell of a handful of change, likely from the canned fish.  The sauce looked creamy but it had a bit of graininess to it.  The cuttlefish was like squid that had boiled for a long time; some texture but disintegrated once you started chewing and not in a good way.  Because I was hungry and it had some enjoyable flavors for me, I ate most of it.  But it really wasn’t good.

I have lots of posts ready to go, just been swamped at work and haven’t had enough time to write.  I’ll try to do better.

Fish Cakes and Spaghetti

One year ago today, my father passed away peacefully at the age of 67.  I figured a good way to remember him would be to make his favorite dinner and recap the process along with a few anecdotes about him.

First, if you asked Dad what his favorite food was, he’d probably take some time to think about it, scribble some stuff down on the back of an envelope, and then come back with something completely random.  The last two times I asked, he responded with Cassoulet once and Coq au Vin once, two foods I never saw him consume in my life.  However, any time we were meal planning for a week and asking for suggestions, he would request fish cakes and spaghetti be added to the list.

Now, if Dad was reading this he would be grunting, groaning and protesting that fish cakes are not his favorite food.  He would also likely be wearing this hat and pointing to it a lot.

I was OK with the senior crew team members making these my sophomore year.   Until they gave one to my dad.  I swear that is one of the most genuine smiles we have a photo of

Despite those expected protests, you can’t argue with how much he enjoyed fish cakes and how often he requested them.  For those unfamiliar with fish cakes, they are a pasty combination of anonymous fish and rehydrated potato that Mrs. Paul cooks herself and places in the freezer section at your local grocer.

I was hoping to show a picture of the box but they didn’t even have them at Kings. Who knows where my mom consistently found a stockpile of them for our freezer. No biggie, we weren’t planning to use the premade version

Anyway, fish cakes served with a couple boxes of spaghetti and a jar of Ragu was a regular meal in the Ryan family’s informal biweekly meal rotation.  My goal, with my brother Tim’s help (of course), was to recreate the meal from scratch and hopefully improve upon it while keeping it authentic.

When I arrived at Tim’s house, his homemade marinara had been simmering for a few hours over low heat.

Tim used a Cooks Illustrated recipe for this sauce. Generally, he uses recipes a lot more than I do. Which is why his food usually tastes better than mine

I started a pot of water boiling and put a one pound fillet of cod, seasoned with a little salt and pepper, in the oven for ten minutes.

My goal was to slightly undercook the cod since it would cook again in fish cake form. Tim’s goal should be to clean his oven more often

While that cooks, lets do a top five list of the weirdest foods that Jack Ryan was responsible for making a staple of our childhood (and in some cases, adulthood):

#1) Liverwurst (big assist from Grandma Ryan who stocked her fridge with it too)
#2) Head Cheese (not a continued favorite but happy I was introduced to the genre)
#3) Scrapple (“pork polenta” as our wedding caterer called it, I still love this stuff)
#4) Olive Loaf (bologna studded with stuffed green olives, haven’t had this in 15 years)
#5) Canned Sardines (in oil or water, served in a specific manner mentioned later)

This list does a good job of clarifying an earlier comment; Dad loved food, but he really didn’t have the patience for cooking it.  I thank my mom for my love of cooking but Dad gets credit for my adventurous tastes and willingness to try new foods.  When I asked him why he liked all of those crazy items, he told me that when he lived on diners and delis in NYC, whenever he saw something he hadn’t tried, he ordered it.  So that’s where I get that trait from.  Back to the cooking.

Tim planned on making the pasta using the hand-cranked pasta maker that we got my mom for Christmas 20 years ago, likely from Woolworths in Bernardsville.  Needless to say, it is low quality and may have been used twice before Mommy Ryan realized the hell of cooking for five people when it takes 20 minutes to make one serving of pasta.  Tim started out by combining the flour and eggs in a food processor.

Tim was embarrassed to make the pasta dough in the processor but apparently had failed miserably with the volcano method. So, basically, this blog is as much about memorializing my father as it is about ruining Tim’s street cred

The processor churned out this very nice looking dough ball:

Not to be confused with the two dough balls cooking dinner. Too easy

While Tim made the pasta dough, I sauteed a large chopped yellow onion and boiled three peeled russet potatoes.

Cooked these until about this point. Wanted them to retain some texture for after they were mixed into the fish cakes

The pasta dough rested for about 40 minutes while the potatoes boiled simultaneously.  Sounds like a good window for more Jack Ryan stories.

When I was 22 and living at home after college, Dad and I had a night where we needed to fend for ourselves for dinner.  Dad went with his go-to, corned beef hash and eggs (or “dog food for people”, as he called it) while I made a sandwich or something.  I watched him walk into the kitchen, drop the can full of hash into a hot pan, crack an egg on top, and walk away.  For twenty minutes.  Being the know-it-all that I am, I told him there was no way it would cook like that and he’d end up with raw eggs and canned food.  Instead, he ended up with crispy hash and a fully cooked, steamed egg on top.  He was nice enough to not rub it in my face after it came out perfect.

Let’s check back in on the fish cakes progress.  We boiled the potatoes a little longer than normal because we were looking for a texture that was a little more glue-like.

Butter, salt, pepper. Write that down.

I mashed the potatoes using salt, pepper, butter, and the liquid from the dish the cod cooked in.  Once they were smooth and creamy, I added the sauteed onions and cod and mashed the mixture up some more.

At this point, the smell in the bowl was extremely unfortunate. It smelled about as far from food as you can imagine, just a tough combination of ingredients

Once it was fully mixed, I put the bowl outside to cool and helped Tim with the pasta rolling.  The dough ball was split into five portions and then run through the roller multiple times, folding the dough back on itself after each time through.  I have no understanding of why this was necessary, and neither did Tim, but it’s supposedly how it’s done.  Once the dough was rolled into a long, flat uniform piece, we ran it through the cutter.

Taking fotos while cranking the pasta maker. This DB has skills

At which point the pasta was transferred to Tim’s homemade pasta-drying rack.

I know, I was concerned that the pasta would end up all stuck together too, but Tim was right that it all separated during cooking

While the pasta dries and the potato/fish mixture cools, let’s talk about Pop Ryan a bit more.  I think the following two items give a good understanding of the range of his favorite foods.

When I was 7 or 8, I was allowed to attend the Far Hills Race Meeting (or the Hunt) after a couple year break.  The reasons for the break are irrelevant (when I was 5, I “washed” my hands with a urinal cake thinking it was soap in the porta potties) but upon our return we spent our time at the Caspersen’s tailgate.  I don’t have many food memories from this time in my life, but Dad giving me a spoonful of caviar is forever seared in my memory.  He explained to me what it was in advance and I think he expected me to be grossed out.  But once he saw that I was intrigued by it, he told me how special and expensive it was and then gave me a lump of it.  I loved it then and still love it now.  Every time I have a chance to eat great caviar I am immediately reminded of the first time I had it and remember it fondly.

No relation to the current caviar story, just one of the best pranks you can play on your one and a half year-old. Pretty sure they don’t make cribs strong enough to handle a fake-sleeping adult these days, though

On the flip side of things, here are three sandwiches that my dad ate regularly and taught his kids to love as well:
Pickle and cheese: dill pickles, sliced thin and served on white bread with a couple slices of American cheese and a healthy slathering of mayo.  Had one of these a couple weeks ago.
Cream cheese and olives: sliced martini olives and cream cheese on white bread. Catching the pattern of condiments combined with kraft cheese?
Sardines and mayo: referenced this one earlier.  Drain a can of sardines, mash it with mayo, and serve it on a sandwich like tuna salad.  Sounds gross but don’t knock this one until you’ve tried it.

He taught me to love one of the most expensive foods on the planet and also sandwiches made from whatever was leftover in the fridge.  I know those sandwiches wouldn’t be enjoyable for most people, but for me they are the epitome of comfort food.

Once the fish, onion and potato mixture had cooled completely, I mixed in two eggs, parmesan cheese, lemon juice, fresh parsley, salt and pepper.

Started smelling a little better at this point, also started looking pretty appetizing

The bowl was formed into individual patties and rolled in breadcrumbs while oil heated in a pan on the stovetop.

Starting to look like the frozen briquettes that would come out of the Mrs Paul’s box

These went into the pan for a few minutes on each side.

I was completely unable to flip/remove these in between the phases of “lightly cooked” and “overcooked”. There were no “golden brown” final products

Here’s how they came out:

A little burned or not, they looked and smelled great

Before we eat, one last Jack Ryan story.  One of my favorites.

A few years after my parents bought the Long Beach Island house, a nearby diner was on its third or fourth owner.  My dad loved this diner and desperately wanted it to succeed because A) he loved diners and B) the diner was an old fashioned train car on blocks in an otherwise empty lot.  One Sunday morning, we stopped by and found a diner in disarray: few customers but no servers, an owner sprinting around with no apparent direction, and an empty griddle with no cook.  After fifteen minutes of waiting, Dad flagged down the owner.  I was expecting an annoyed request for menus, but what I got was something like this:

Dad: You guys don’t seem to have your act together, can we get some menus and order?
Owner: I don’t know what I can do for you. My staff quit and I have nobody to cook.
Dad: If you need a cook, get me an apron.

Dad stood up from the table, grabbed an apron, walked to the empty cooking area and started calling out orders off the tickets above griddle.  I sh*t you not.  I am struggling to write this right now because all I wish is that I could remember and explain this as perfectly as possible.  But I was just a mortified 11-year old; I didn’t know how much I would treasure this memory at the time.

For the next hour he cooked the orders of everybody in the diner, and took orders from new customers as well.  The moment I remember best was Dad banging on the griddle with his spatula, yelling to the owner, “Where are my hash browns?!?! Where are my hash browns?!?!”

When he felt like he had things well in hand, he took off the apron, returned to the table, and we left the diner to go elsewhere for breakfast.  I remember thinking how happy he looked; it had always been a “life without responsibility” dream of his to be a short order cook.  I wish I remembered it better.

Here’s the final homemade fish cake and spaghetti plating:

I never particularly liked this meal growing up, but I would make those fish cakes again in a second.  Also, sweet southwestern-chic plates, Tim

The flavor and texture of the marinara sauce was fantastic, and I am usually not a big meat-free marinara fan.  The fish cakes were pretty potato-heavy, but so are the frozen ones.  These had a lot of good flavor from the fish liquid, onions, and seasoning.  Overall, a very good meal and a nice low-key way to keep Dad in our thoughts.  I’m guessing we will cook it again.

One of the toughest parts of losing a parent is that you become more conscious of the things you learned from them after they are gone.  You think of them all the time over the course of a normal day as you recognize the little things you learned from them.  You wish you’d recognized all of those things earlier so you could share and thank them for it.  This blog has often reminded me of my dad and the unique tastes he passed along to me. At times, it has also made me sad because I know how much he would have enjoyed reading it, emailing it to his friends and family, and eating some of the meals cooked.  We all miss him a lot.