March 6,2019

Dear friends,
Go tropical. That has long been my culinary answer to suffering through the tail end of winter.

One year I made a big platter of black beans and rice topped with Cuban roast pork and mango salsa. Another year I cranked up Beach Boys music and served white sangrias and coconut shrimp.

Last weekend I craved the sweet-savory flavor of coconut shrimp but didn’t want the mess of frying just before packing up the camper to head North into winter, so I invented coconut shrimp tacos. I think. I’m tired of Googling my recipe ideas to find someone in Timbuktu has already thought of it, so I’m just going with the notion that this is original. Certainly, the recipe is.

My tacos taste like coconut shrimp but without the batter and mess of deep frying. To mimic the flavor I sprinkled lightly toasted coconut over mojo-flavored shrimp in freshly warmed taco shells. I topped the tacos with a simple mango salsa for an extra tropical punch. They really do taste like coconut shrimp.

The tacos are substantial. Tony could eat just four. I layered my share of the filling on romaine leaves instead of taco shells but still could eat just three. They made me feel sunny and happy. Now comes the trek North.

COCONUT SHRIMP TACOS

1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1 cup mango in 1/4-inch cubes
1 cup jicama in 1/4-inch cubes
1/4 cup minced sweet onion
1 tsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. fresh lime juice
1/4 tsp. salt or to taste
Pinch of ancho chili powder or cayenne
10 medium (5-inch) flour tortillas (or substitute romaine lettuce leaves)
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. large raw shrimp, shells and tails removed
1/4 cup mojo criollo marinade
Minced green onion tops for garnish

Heat a large nonstick or cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Scatter coconut in the dry skillet and toast, stirring, until patches just begin to lightly brown. The coconut should be half toasted but still moist, not crunchy. Remove from heat and scrape into a small bowl. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine mango, jicama, sweet onion, the 1 teaspoon olive oil, lime juice and salt and mix well. Set aside.

Wipe out the skillet and return to medium-high heat. Toast the tortillas one at a time in the dry skillet, turning when brown spots begin to appear on one side. Toast the other side and fold in half with tongs. Don’t toast too long or the tortilla will become too crisp to fold. Transfer to a platter.

Heat the one tablespoon oil in the same skillet over high heat. Pat the shrimp dry with paper towels and place in skillet. Cook briefly, stirring (30 seconds to 1 minute). When shrimp are almost cooked through, add mojo marinade and stir for 30 seconds. Remove from heat.

To assemble, place 3 or 4 shrimp in each taco shell or romaine lettuce leaf. Sprinkle each with about 2 teaspoons toasted coconut. Top with the salsa and garnish with the minced green onion, if desired. Makes 10 substantial tacos.

TIDBITS
If you get caught up in the Konmari cleaning method that’s sweeping the country, please don’t tear through your kitchen cabinets and refrigerator, tossing out everything beyond its expiration date. Your 1980s suits with the big shoulder pads have an expiration date. Your saffron does not.

I, too, have caught the Konmari bug (named after Marie Kondo, author of “The Life- Changing Magic of Tidying Up”) and plan to pillage my closets, pantry and spice cabinet the minute I return home from Florida. But I will not discard food just because of an arbitrary expiration date, and neither should you.

The “best if used by” dates on food packages do not indicate you will die or become ill if you consume the food after that time. In most cases the expiration date has nothing to do with food safety. It is merely a suggestion that the quality may begin to decline after that date.

Vitamins may begin to fade or the texture may be a bit wonky or the color may not be as true. But you will not die if you eat it.

Your nose, eyes and common sense are the best indicators of when it is time to discard a food. That’s because how carefully you store a food plays a big role in how long it will “last.” For example, foods that are frozen in their store packaging will get freezer burn and develop an off taste far sooner than foods that are double- or triple-wrapped at home before freezing.

Many frozen foods have an official shelf life of 6 to 12 months. But not if you wrap it twice in plastic wrap and then in foil before you stash it in the freezer. If you buy a frozen turkey on sale after Thanksgiving and wrap it well, it should still be in good shape two years later. I know because I’ve eaten perfectly delicious 2-year-old turkeys. And please note that as long as the power doesn’t go out, the food in a freezer will
never, ever spoil. It may not taste great five years later, but it will be safe to eat.

Another example: Milk may turn sour in a matter of days or remain fresh for a couple of weeks or more depending on how it is handled. If you stop on the way home from the store on a warm day, the heat will shorten the shelf life of the milk in the back seat. If you leave the milk on the kitchen table for 30 minutes while enjoying your morning coffee, the lifespan of the milk is shortened. Even if the milk is rushed home and returned to the refrigerator after each use, but is stored at the front of a shelf near the door, the frequent exposure to room-temperature air will shorten its life (although not as much).

I once bought more milk than I could use in a week and kept the extra half-gallon at the back of the refrigerator, out of the way. When I opened it two weeks later, it smelled and tasted as fresh as just-bought milk.

The lesson is to rely on your nose and tastebuds. Does it smell fresh? Does it taste fresh? Then use it.

This is especially true when it comes to herbs and spices. I can’t wait to tackle my overflowing spice cabinet when I return home, but I won’t so much as glance at “use by” dates or look up longevity info on the Internet. I will toss out the rosemary that is so old it has faded to gray, and the ground cardamom that no longer smells pungent. But I will keep the old bottle of “chili powder” (that mix of ground chilies, cumin and whatnot popular in Northern states) because you never know when a recipe will call for it, and I’ll be damned if I’ll buy another jar of a spice I disdain for a mere teaspoon in a misguided recipe I’m testing.

I will discard dried herbs when they no longer smell like the herb. If they have faded in pungency just a bit, I will keep them and merely add more than is called for. I will never throw out whole spices such as nutmeg, cloves and cumin seeds. They retain their pungency far longer than ground spices. For years, in fact.

Some foods defy the sniff and taste test, and live by different rules. Old baking powder and old flour do not perform as well as fresh, so you might want to toss them at their expiration dates. Then again, you may not want to buy a new bag of self-rising flour for the occasional Southern biscuit recipe, and like me, you’re prepared to take your chances. Just remember it’s your choice, not the food manufacturer’s.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Surrollos; coconut shrimp tacos with mango-jicama salsa.

What I ate in/from restaurants:
Cheeseburger from McDonald’s; tacos al pastor, chorizo and asada with onions, cilantro and lime, and rice and beans from the Taqueria La Unica food truck in Okeechobee; a yogurt parfait from McDonald’s; Thai beef salad at Noodle World in Stuart, Fla.; a Detox Green Island smoothie from Tropical Smoothie Cafe in Palm City; a Cobb salad with shrimp at Parrott Island Grill in Okeechobee; a chicken empanada and half of a Cubanado empanada (filled with Cuban sandwich ingredients) and a cafe con leche at Mervis’ Cafe in Fort Pierce; a Detox smoothie at Tropical Smoothie Cafe in Cocoa Beach; a seasoned hamburger patty, cottage cheese and lots of fruit at Pogie’s in Okeechobee; half of a meatball sub from Subway.

THE MAILBAG
From Janet M.:
Oh, Dobie’s Corner! My husband and I frequented the place (mentioned last week) so very often. In fact, when George (Dobrin) closed the place he returned the restaurant sign to the wood carver, a friend of ours, who made it for him. Our friend gave it to us because he knew how much we liked that restaurant. The sign found a good home. It’s now on the entry way to our dining room.

Maybe I’ll hit my husband up to make mititay (those delicious fingers of meat) this weekend, if I make polenta to accompany them. Thanks, Jane, for the memories.

Dear Janet:
I loved the tiny Bath restaurant, too, especially the soups. I still make several of them, including potato and greens and Roquefort and cabbage. Dobie’s was the first place I encountered polenta and it was love at first bite. At Dobie’s it was called by its Romanian name, “mamaliga,” as I’m sure you remember.

From Marilyn:
I made your Italian wedding soup for a wine pairing dinner party last week and it was a huge hit. Maybe you could share the recipe with your readers it is the best.

Dear Marilyn:
The recipe is the best one I’ve seen for wedding soup, too. Raphael Vaccaro of Vaccaro’s Trattoria in Bath shared his treasured family recipe for a story I wrote in 2001.

MEATBALLS
1 lb. ground veal or chuck
1/2 lb. ground pork
3 eggs
1/2 tsp pepper
Pinch of salt
2 cups Pecorino Romano cheese
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
Seasoned bread crumbs

Gently mix together veal or chuck and pork. Add eggs, pepper, salt, cheese and parsley and mix lightly but well. Gently work in enough seasoned bread crumbs to make a firm mixture. Roll into meat balls the size of grapes.

Place on baking sheets with sides and bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. Meatballs may be cooled, then frozen. Use directly from the freezer.

ITALIAN WEDDING SOUP
3 qts. chicken stock or broth
1/2 cup finely chopped carrots
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
1/2 cup finely chopped onions
2 cups finely chopped endive or escarole
2 cups finely chopped fresh spinach
2 cups tiny meatballs
4 eggs
2 cups grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 cup of Acini di Pepe pasta, cooked al dente
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Measure all ingredients and place them in bowls on the counter, in the order they will be used.

Bring broth to a simmer in a large soup pot. Add carrots, celery, onions, endive and spinach. Add the meatballs. Simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes, until carrots are tender.

In a medium bowl, combine cheese and egg and mix well. Scrape mixture in a lump into the center of the simmering soup. Let simmer for 2 to 3 minutes without stirring. Lift the mass occasionally with a slotted spoon to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pan. The soup is done when the egg-cheese mixture looks firm. Gently break apart with a spoon.

Remove soup from heat. Stir in the pasta. Season to taste with freshly ground pepper. Serve hot.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

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