Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Making food from scratch: Mayonnaise and Maryland Blue Crab cakes

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I read an article by Kristin Wartman yesterday that made me want to renew my commitment to getting whole ingredients from local producers and making food from scratch. She cites several studies that warn of the dangers of food additives and their additive and cumulative effects. What it comes down to is this: Most food additives are not well studied, but are generally believed to be safe--in isolation. However, on a daily basis people eat dozens (if not more) additives in combination, and we don't really know how they work together. If I have learned one thing from my husband (a molecular biologist who studies obesity, liver disorders, and metabolic syndrome), it's that nothing works on its own in the body.

But making food from scratch is about more than avoiding ill health effects: It's about taking pride in your own ability to make something special. And it's about good taste. Obviously, the results aren't always perfect, and they aren't always consistent. But it can be a lot more fun to exercise your imagination when you have ingredients you've never tried before. It can be surprising when you try putting some things together and discover how great they taste. This purple carrot and fennel salad I concocted to go with some egg sandwiches is a case in point:

Pretty, easy, and delicious: Thinly slice carrots and fennel bulb, add a dash of salt, a splash of olive oil, a splash of red wine vinegar, and some chopped fennel fronds. Fennel and carrots really do play well together! Thanks to Shrimp13 for the inspiration.  
Making food from scratch may seem like a lot of complicated work, but it doesn't have to be. Obviously it takes more effort and care than throwing a frozen dinner in the microwave or picking up some kind of super-jumbo cheap meal from McFastFood King, but the results are usually worth it. Mayonnaise is an example of something that's surprisingly easy, superior in flavor when homemade, and really impressive. (Note: It's only easy if you have a blender or food processor; I have no idea how anyone would ever have the arm strength and coordination to do it without one of these tools.) Here's how to do it (I follow the recipe from Williams-Sonoma's Tools and Techniques):

  • Crack two eggs into a cup. Lift out the yolks with a spoon (be careful not to break the yolks, and you'll be able to use the whites for something like else, like meringues).
  • Put the yolks into the bowl of your food processor and place it into a bowl of hot water. Leave it for about five minutes just to take the chill off the eggs. Test it by sticking a clean finger into the eggs, when the eggs are no longer cold, you are good to go. 


  • Add 1 tablespoon lemon juice (you can substitute a well-flavored vinegar if you don't have local lemons and want to stick to local ingredients) and 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard (I am afraid I have not found a local substitute for this one). 


  • Next, combine olive oil and canola oil to get a total of 1 and 1/2 cups of oil. (The original recipe suggests 3/4 cup of each, but I find the olive oil can be a bit strong, so sometimes I use less olive oil and more canola. But there's no reason not to experiment with different kinds of oils to come up with the combination you like best.)
  • Assemble your food processor with the eggs, lemon juice, and mustard. (Do not add the oil yet.) Start it up at a slow speed. 
  • Start pouring in the oil in a slow and steady stream. This is really important: Do not dump it in quickly. It should look like this:


  • Keep adding the oil slowly and steadily until you have poured it all into the egg mixture. It will take several minutes.
  • When it's done, turn off the food processor. Mix in salt and white pepper to taste (I add about a teaspoon of salt and a generous sprinkling of pepper) and voila, you've got mayo!

Of course, you can use it on sandwiches and make flavored spreads by adding herbs, lemon juice, garlic, and so on. 

Or, you can use some of it to make crab cakes! Thankfully Maryland Blue Crabs are definitely local, and I haven't tasted a better crab. I started with Paula Deen's recipe for crab cakes and adapted it to what I had on hand and to my preferences. Instead of using green onions, I chopped some spring onions that I picked up from the farmer's market a few days ago:

They are about to go under the knife.
My knife has done its dirty work. Mwa ha ha ha!
I eliminated the green bell pepper, the Worcestershire sauce, and the cayenne pepper (unfortunately my four-year old son doesn't like hot food) and substituted fresh breadcrumbs for the cracker crumbs. 


Also, instead of dredging the cakes in flour, I coated them with more fresh bread crumbs: 


Then I fried them over medium-high heat for about four minutes per side and served them up with a nice veggie stirfry. My husband said they were the best crab cakes he had ever had! (Of course, I paid him to say that.)


More pretty, easy, and delicious food: Slice onions into strips, julienne carrots, and thinly slice radishes (these were the first harvest from my garden). Heat oil in a wok, add onions and stir quickly until they are translucent. Add carrots and radishes and stir until they are tender. Add a splash of soy sauce. You can pretty much substitute any veggies that you have on hand. If you have greens, add them last and stir until wilted. 

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