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.

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Iron Chef: Clams

Every once in a while instead of a traditional potluck, we like to gather a group of friends and have a potluck dinner that highlights a particular ingredient.  We always plan on judging but are usually too polite to actually crown a winner (doesn’t matter, I always believe my dish is the winner).  Despite that fact, we refer to these parties as “Iron Chef” nights.

Past Iron Chef nights have included Iron Chef Corn (my shrimp, avocado and corn salad was dominant) and Iron Chef Mushrooms (my warm mixed mushroom bruschetta made everyone feel worse about themselves).  With over 100 clams traveling back to Boston with us from the Jersey Shore, last Monday night was perfectly primed for Iron Chef Clams.

(quick disclaimer: this didn’t work the same as a normal Iron Chef because Kristi and I had time to make three dishes and other couples only had time to make one or no time to make any.  So its an Iron Chef in title/categorization only)

Most of the clams gathered were medium or large which made them much chewier when cooked.  Due to the size, and that they were a couple days old, the best way to use them was to steam first then chop for use in multiple dishes.  The full batch of clams was rinsed, scrubbed, and steamed in three separate waves due to how many we had.  Two dozen of the smallest and best clams were reserved for Buschy’s grilled clams.

This pot was the best $20 that I have spent in the last two years. It's survived three camping trips and hundreds of mixed crustaceans

We steamed the full pot of clams for about 15 minutes in lightly salted water until all of the clams on top were fully opened.

Such a pretty sight; clams are my favorite shellfish behind lobster and I would guess I ingested 150 of them in the past week

The clams that don’t appear to be open are just being held closed by the number of clams in the pot.  Once they are moved, they spring open.

Kristi introduced me to the super-zoom on our camera recently and I am getting pretty into it

From there we took each pot of clams and harvested the meat.  We threw away all of the shells but over the previous weekend we reserved the largest ones for use in stuffed clams.  That dish evolved into a dish we made for Iron Chef night (more on that later).

Kristi got me a culinary school class to work on my knife skills last year. Hasn't stopped me from always being an eighth of an inch away from losing a finger tip

We filled up 4 of these 3-cup tupperware containers with clams

When the clams open they release a very salty and clammy liquid which filled the bottom of the steaming pot and was reserved for use in various dishes. Also pictured, the pitcher that was used to make an extremely dangerous white sangria that made Buschy act like Bubs from The Wire

For our first dish, we made clam cakes which evolved from the stuffed clams we had made over the previous weekend.  The cakes were one part chopped clams, one part mixture of minced garlic and parsley, diced yellow onion, red and green pepper, breadcrumbs, corn, lemon juice, salt and pepper.  We added two eggs to bind the mixture, formed them into miniature patties and put them in a hot pan with olive oil.

I don't make pretty food, but you definitely knew these would be delicious even before they were cooked

These didn't brown and hold together as cleanly as the test batch we made over the previous weekend, likely due to using a teflon coated pan this time around, but they tasted just as good. The best parts were the crispy bits of chewy sweet clam

The second dish for Iron Chef Clam was made by our friends Conor and Trisha.  It was a traditional Lithuanian clam dip as seen in various cooking magazines that immediately went out of business and an obscure episode of Sanford and Son. You know, clam dip?  Its served with Fritos and made with cream cheese? Nothing?

This best-selling New England Patriots Chips and Salsa dish was initially marketed as a Frito and Clam Dip dish before the marketing manager was fired

Con and Trish have been making this dip for years and that’s pretty much how the conversation goes every time they introduce someone new to it.  It’s not exactly sitting atop the food pyramid, but it also happens to be completely delicious.  They mix in hot sauce, black pepper, and the clam liquid to thin it out then let it set before serving.  The fresh clams made it even better than usual with the dip tasting almost sweet.

Best served with a delicious glass of Rippo or slathered on a fat free hot dog using a finger due to a lack of utensils

The next dish was equally unusual sounding.  For years I made fun of a friend of mine at my old job who used to bring in homemade clam pizza to work.  Now, she deserved it since the whole thing appeared undercooked, was heated in the microwave on a paper towel, and generally looked like partially cooked dough with paper stuck to it.  However, I thought the idea was promising.

With clam pizza in mind, we purchased dough from a local pizza parlor.  I know, its a cop-out.  I used to make my own pizza dough often but what I learned was that I never thought far enough in advance to let the dough fully mature.  This was best captured by the time I returned home from a midday corporate booze cruise and wanted pizza so I decided to wait 3+ hours for a homemade pesto pizza dough to rise, be punched down, and rise again.  So now I buy it for a couple of dollars from the people who do have the proper amount of forethought.

This large pizza dough costs $1.50. It represents years of pizza making by Rizzos in Jamaica Plain and a continuously refined dough supply from the same starter. Why would I make my own?

I cut the dough in half and stretched it into two pizzetta sized pieces by hand.  I brushed each with a little olive oil, a little clam liquid, crushed red pepper, fresh minced garlic and parsley.  I then sprinkled a little shredded parmesan and layered a healthy handful of the chopped clams on top before covering the entire area with mozzarella.  After brushing the outer crust with olive oil, salt and pepper it headed into a 450 degree oven on the back of a baking sheet.  I prefer that method over a pizza stone.

After 12 minutes we pulled the pizzetta, let it rest for a few and sliced it up.

The first batch went quick but I pressed my luck and put out the second batch during dessert. Didn't sell as well

Once again, the fresh clams made it work.

Four bites of deliciousness

After the pizza came out, Buschy dropped his two dozen grilled clams and drawn butter on the table.  Once again Buschy proved that simplicity is the best approach when cooking fresh ingredients.  The clams were gone in under a minute and I considered drinking the butter they had been dipped in to savor any final bits of deliciousness.  I wish I had a picture, but it all happened so fast that I completely blew it.

The final dish was a pretty traditional linguine with white clam sauce.  I sauteed garlic for a bit in a couple tablespoons of butter, then added the chopped clams and a lot of white wine, lemon juice and clam liquid.  After reducing for 10-15 minutes I tossed in the mostly-cooked linguine and a handful of fresh parsley.

The sauce to linguine ratio was a little lower than I usually like because I was getting cheered on as I added massive handfuls of linguine to the pan and got carried away

All in all, a really delicious assortment of food and a very enjoyable dinner.

Tragically, nothing on the table survived. Conor even ate that spoon

Not sure what my next post will be, but I am guessing it involves a trip to the meat section at my local Latin/Caribbean grocer and winging it from there.  I will try to start posting a couple times a week.