Tuesday, February 13

Cheese & Seafood: Scrumptious or Sacrilegious?

My daughter crushing broiled scallops
My wife was traveling for work recently, so I was solo-parenting our two children for a couple of days.  Arts and crafts, hide and seek, the mall, and Disney Junior can only go so far with toddlers, especially in the dead of winter.  Luckily, my parents were kind enough to have us over for a casual pizza night, providing me a little respite.  It takes a village, right?  As we often do, my mom and I found ourselves talking about restaurants, cooking, and my favorite, old family recipes.  We got so deep into conversation that my mom even pulled out her old recipe decks.

I certainly don't long for the internet-less days of past, where home-cooking knowledge was almost exclusively obtained through cookbooks, word-of-mouth, and scarce PBS programming.  It's quite convenient to stand in the kitchen and Google the dozens of ways to brine a turkey or braise short ribs.  However, there's always something incredibly charming about thumbing through old recipe catalogues.  Newspaper and magazine cut outs.  Gravy stained index cards.  Photocopies from neighbors' cookbooks.  People even had their own, personalized recipe cards they would fill out and share with friends.  "Easy Chicken Cacciatore - from the kitchen of Debbie Wanamaker."  I won't lie, I'd prefer a personalized recipe card over the random TikTok videos of El Burrito Monster my neighbor DMs me.  Don't get me wrong.  I like the viral cooking video hits just as much as the next person.  But there's something delightfully endearing about personalized recipe cards.

Recipes that call for Cheese & Seafood
Anyway, my mom and son stepped away to play trucks, leaving my daughter and I plenty of time to start rifling through decades' worth of recipes.  
Chicken a la king.  Beef stroganoff.  Countless mayonnaise based salads, green bean casseroles, and everything in between.  The Tupperware generation certainly had its own, unique taste, for better or worse.  The big thing that started jumping out at me was the number of cheese and seafood recipes.  Three cheese oyster gratin.  Shrimp and artichoke divan.  Cheesy crab puffs.  Lobster strata.  I'll definitely be making Pinky Jordan's impossible scallop pie at some point.  Admittedly, the majority were clam or crab dips.  But still, look at the sheer number of recipes calling for various seafoods and cheeses.  I found this particularly astounding given the age-old adage:
ever pair cheese and seafood.

But why shouldn't we pair cheese and seafood?  The credo is relatively common knowledge throughout North America, and frequently pops up on competitive cooking shows such as Top Chef, Chopped, etc.  We also know it's not 100% true.  There are several beloved dishes that fly in the face of this culinary injunction.  Lobster mac and cheese, tuna melts, smoked salmon and cream cheese, crab rangoon, clam pizza, shrimp and grits.  Lobster Thermidor is often finished with a crispy, cheesy crust.  Caesar salad mixes anchovies and parmesan cheese, not to mention anchovies as a pizza topping.  And the dishes are not limited to the States.  Moules al Roquefort, or mussels in a blue cheese sauce, are enjoyed all over coastal towns in Northern France.  You'd be hard pressed to find a fish tavern in the Greek Islands not serving Garides Saganaki, an appetizer of shrimp and feta cooked in a tomato sauce.  There's Jarlsberg torsk in Norway, Machas a la Parmesana in Chile, and Fish Pie in the British Isles.  Hell, even McDonald's puts a slice of American cheese on its fish sandwich.  I'm certainly not a fan of all these preparations.  Some even gross me out.  Sorry, but seafood alfredo is disgusting.  However, there is well established, global precedent for cheese and seafood acceptably working together.  So where and how exactly did the epicurean edict of never pairing the two originate?

Garides Saganaki - courtesy of
The Greek Food Alchemist
It seems widely agreed upon that the cheese and seafood doctrine has its roots in Italy.  This explains why it's so widely observed in North America, given the massive influence of Italian cooking across the continent.  It also explains why many people are so uncompromising and emphatic about not pairing cheese and seafood.  Few cultures are as fiercely defensive of their gastronomic traditions as Italians and Italian-Americans.  This British TikToker went viral 
by documenting his culinary trolling across Italy, getting him 2.9 million followers and global press in the process.  Ice in red wine.  Ketchup on pizza.  Just look at some of the viscerally horrified reactions to his antics.  Italy don't play that shit.  

The most common, contemporary rationale for the prohibition is that seafood is subtle and delicate, and must be prepared simply.  Cheese is strong and robustly flavored, and will overpower any seafood dish.  Sure, in some instances.  You wouldn't catch me broiling a piece of halibut with a slice of sharp, aged cheddar on top.  But we all know there are very strongly flavored seafoods like anchovies, sea urchin, blood clams, and mackerel, and equally mild cheeses like burrata, mozzarella, havarti, and queso fresco.  I'm not saying salmon fondue is a good idea, but there are enough examples proving the logic at least partly unsound.  "I before E, except after C.  Weird, right?"    

Some speculate the tenet stems from the hyper-regional foodscapes of Italy.  The best cheese producing areas of Italy have primarily been the mountainous, landlocked regions.  The best seafood, naturally, has always been sourced from the coast.  Thus, the two rarely had the pleasure to meet.  This kind of makes sense, from an "if it grows together, it goes together" culinary perspective.  But trade around Italy goes back millennia, so the two most certainly crossed paths with some frequency.  Cheese and garum, an ancient fermented fish sauce, were even part of standard rations for Roman soldiers.  A few of Italy's oldest and most famous cheeses are also made exclusively in coastal areas.  Pecorino romano, for example.  I fully understand Italian food is very regional, and treating it as one, homogenous cuisine is incredibly ignorant, insulting 
even.  But it does seem there are at least a few dishes from around the country that pair cheese and seafood.  Just sayin'.  

Machas a la Parmesana
Courtesy of Chocolate.co.ao
Lastly, there are some old world dietary and medical considerations behind the cheese and seafood ban.  Ancient physicians Hippocrates, Galen and Aristotle reportedly warned against the combination as it would imbalance your humors, or your four essential bodily fluids.  Dairy and fish were both "cooling" foods that slowed down the body's metabolism.  Eating them together would increase your chances of humoral imbalance.  Seafood also required full digestive capacity, as it could "corrupt" the body easily.  Thus, the two should never be paired.  While not entirely medically accurate, there is sound reasoning here.  Dairy and seafood are both highly susceptible to spoilage and pathogens.  The separation of meat and dairy in the Kosher diet has a similar foundational logic.  Combining the two, particularly before the advent of refrigeration, would be doubling down on your digestive roll of the dice.  And while modern day food safety measures mostly protect us from these concerns, the restrictive practices around cheese and seafood have simply never left us.  We can't completely knock humoral theory, though, as it was the original proponent of some wonderful pairings like lemon and fish.  

These ideas are all likely contributors to the present day cheese and seafood ideology.  But even when combined and considered together, they're not enough to warrant the vehement backlash you get when sprinkling parmigiano-reggiano on your spaghetti alle vongole.  Then I came across this Atlas Obscura article by Dan Nosowitz.  The article cited everything above: seafood's delicate nature, Italy's geography, and the humors.  However, it added one more that deeply resonated.  As noted earlier, few cultures are as fiercely defensive of their traditional cuisine as Italians.  How we determine "traditional" or "authentic" cuisine is another conversation.  But in Italy, there are clear culinary commandments and it's sacrilegious to break them.  Why?

In short, World War II.  After the war, Italy was devastated.  Political upheaval, economic collapse, unrestrained globalization, and aggressive outsider influence from the looming Cold War.  When all cultural and societal stability is eroding around you, food identity is one of the few things you can define, control, and defend.  Speaking very generally, that's exactly what post-WWII Italy did.  They took their notions of traditional and authentic Italian cuisine, essentially their Nonnas' cooking from the early 20th century, and made that canon.  Never pairing cheese and seafood happened to be part of that orthodoxy. 

Seafood Alfredo from Olive Garden
Globalization offshored and appropriated classic Italian dishes, turning them into things like seafood alfredo.  I too would feel the need to protect the 
cuisine so near to my heart and heritage from such bastardizations.  Several foundations for modern day 
geographic protections of food and drink immediately followed WWII.  It's no coincidence the 1951 Convention for the Use of Appellations of Origin of Cheeses was held in Stresa, Italy.  Parmigiano-reggiano and parmesan cheese are very different, not just in taste but by law.  I'm not saying deep Italian culinary traditions don't go back centuries, or at least a few centuries.  Pasta and tomatoes, after all, aren't native to Italy.  But the modern day safeguarding does seem to stem from the acute, cultural shock of WWII reconstruction and a reactionary preservation. 

Half way around the world, there's another country with similar post-WII devastation and equally ardent culinary traditions: Japan.  Soy sauce is for dipping, never pouring.  Nigiri is eaten with your hands, not chopsticks.  Never rest chopsticks in your food.  Seem familiar?  Twirl your spaghetti, don't cut it.  Cappuccino is a morning drink only.  Never pair cheese and seafood.  Japan and Italy aren't the only cultures with widely employed food rules, practices, and etiquette.  Far from it.  But they are well known as some of the most disciplined and passionate about them.  And in the context of preserving your culture and identity, particularly in times of turmoil, I can't think of many things more important to defend than your food.  Respect.  That being said, I've always enjoyed breaking the rules a bit.  Time for some flippant disregard of cheese and seafood dogma.  

Coquilles Saint-Jacques 

Coquilles Saint-Jacques Ingredients
Coquilles Saint-Jacques literally translates to the Shell of St. James, but is actually the French word for deep sea scallops.  How scallops became synonymous with the apostle is a much longer and often varying story involving pilgrimages, shipwrecks, miracles, and even food rationing.  More recently, the classic French preparation of Coquilles Saint-Jacques Gratinées, or scallop gratin, was so popular in mid-20th century America, the dish became simply known by its eponymous ingredient.  And the dish, very basically speaking, is sea scallops, covered in a rich sauce, and broiled.  

The one thing I learned about Coquilles Saint-Jacques is that nobody makes it the same.  All the recipes I read had everything from slight to considerable variations.  Some with mushrooms, some without.  
Some with breadcrumbs, some without.  Several had a béchamel base for the sauce, others just cream and egg yolk.  Most poached the scallops, a few seared them.  Maybe vermouth, maybe white wine.  Some didn't even have cheese, the whole reason I started researching the dish.  So, with a few dozen recipes reviewed and a few cooking videos viewed (Julia Child's of course), I dove right in to making my own.  Much like Italy and Japan, France is also vociferously protective of its cuisine.  I figured I'd already offended the former two, so why not the French as well with my take on a classic.

I grabbed some dayboat scallops from Hill's Quality Seafoods, a few other ingredients from a local market, and borrowed a couple of OG baking scallop shells from my mom.  With the kids watching Bluey, I quickly prepped and began.  After sauteing shallots, garlic, and mushrooms in some butter, I hit the pan with a cup of sauvignon blanc.  I threw in an ad hoc bouquet garni of thyme, tarragon, and bay leaf, then the scallops to poach.  While a pan-seared scallop is hard to beat, poaching made the most sense in order to capture all the flavorful essence scallops release when cooked.  A big focus of the dish is the creamy, scallop-rich sauce, and I didn't want to burn off any scallopy liquid gold.  O
nce partially cooked, I removed the scallops and strained the mushroom mixture.  The reserved liquid went back into the pan with some butter and cream to reduce further.  Even with some time, the sauce wasn't coming to the thickness I was hoping for, so I added in a tempered egg yolk.  Glad I had the arsenal of recipes fresh in mind.  A few minutes later, desired thickness achieved and the taste was spot on.  Next, assembly and broiling time.  I layered in the mushroom and shallot mixture into the scallop shells, added three scallops to each, and generously covered it all with the cream sauce.  Topped with some panko and a healthy portion of gruyere cheese, into the oven they went.

Coquilles Saint-Jacques a la Bari
Once beautifully golden brown, I removed them from the oven and plated with some sliced lemon and chopped tarragon.  I wish I could say I waited before digging in, or at least my burnt tongue wishes I could.  Fortunately, that was my only regret.  The Coquilles Saint-Jacques were delightful.  The scallops were perfectly firm yet tender, surrounded by a buttery, briny cream sauce with a flavor that only deepened with broiling.  The mushroom and shallot mixture brought a nice earthiness and textural contrast.  But the cheese.  I mean, come on, crispy browned cheese is the best.  You know, those little bits that spill onto the pan while you're making your quesadilla or grilled cheese.  They're everyone's favorite part.  This dish is simply enveloped in all of that, paired with rich, indulgent scallops and cream sauce.  The French know what's up when it comes to culinary decadence.  And forgive me, but I did have one more regret.  I only got a couple of bites before my son and daughter devoured everything, so I wish I had made more.  But few things make me happier than seeing my children eating adventurously.

Tacos Gobernador

For working parents with kids, Taco Tuesday is an absolute godsend.  All you really need is a pound of ground meat, tortillas, and a few fixins'.  Fifteen minutes in front of the stove and you've got an economical and 
tasty dinner for four that everyone will enjoy.  And if you're like me with picky eater toddlers, you can sneak in healthy bits like riced cauliflower with the kids being none the wiser.  I'm not ashamed to admit we've had Taco Tuesday and Taco Friday during some particularly challenging weeks.

Tacos Gobernador Ingredients
On one such Taco Tuesday, I found myself with a little extra time in the kitchen.  I poked around our fridge and freezer, and realized I had the ingredients to try my hand at a modern Mexican classic pairing of cheese and seafood: Tacos Gobernador.  Legend has that the governor-to-be of Sinaloa , Francisco Labastida, was visiting Los Arcos Restaurant in Mazatlán during his campaign in the late 80's.  The owner of the establishment had heard the future governor was a huge fan of shrimp tacos.  Hoping to impress, the chef trialed a few novel ideas and ended up serving griddled tortillas filled with shrimp, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and tons of melty cheese.  Labastida enjoyed them so much, he asked for a second serving and the name of the dish.  The owner simply replied "the governor's tacos, of course."  Since then, Tacos Gobernador have skyrocketed in popularity and can be found all across Mexico and beyond.

For my makeshift version, I started by slicing a cooking onion and Anaheim chile and chopping up garlic. I also opened a can of chipotles in adobo, thawed a bag Trader Joe's Chilean langostine tails, and shredded some Queso Oaxaca (essentially Mexican mozzarella).  Like I said, taco night is a staple in our household, so you know I'm hittin' the Latino markets often to liven it up.  I briefly pan-fried the langostine tails, being sure to remove and reserve excess liquid so they could properly sear.  Once browned, I removed the tails and added in the chile, onion, and garlic.  After those softened slightly, I returned the reserved langostine liquid, along with the blended chipotles in adobo.  Only a bit, because the chipotles pack a serious spicy punch.  I let this simmer and concentrate for a few minutes.  Lastly, to go that next level, I wanted to make crispy cheese exteriors for the tacos, kind of like a variation on quesabirria tacos.  Again, those fried cheese bites are the best, so why not cover an entire taco in that?  I placed some shredded queso in a separate pan with a flour tortilla on top, then added more cheese along with the chipotle, onion, chile sauce and some of the langostines.  In less than a minute, the exterior cheese had crisped with the interior cheese slightly melting and melding with the langostines and sauce.  I folded the Quesolangostino Gobernador franken-tacos over and plated with lime and cilantro.        

Tacos Gobernamija
Please excuse the hastily and shoddily chopped cilantro.  I had a little extra time in the kitchen, but it was still a school night and the kids were getting hungry.  The tacos were pretty legit.  Salty, crispy cheese exterior with a gooey, melty interior that popped with briny bites of seared langostines and peppers.  I'd gone a little too light on the chipotles, as the spice and flavor level hadn't come through as much as I'd hoped.  A squeeze of lime brightened them up, but they still wanted for something.  On the next go, I'll definitely add more chipotles in adobo or top them with a spicy jalapeno and cabbage slaw.  Even better, I could riff quesabirria tacos even further and serve them with a shellfish consommé for dipping.  The possibilities are endless, just like our family's Taco Tuesdays, so I'll keep y'all updated on my Tacos Gobernador 2.0.

Yellowfin Tuna Double Cheeseburgers

Tuna Cheeseburger Ingredients
From the start of this whole project, I knew I'd be referencing chef and author Josh Niland's work, yet again.  Over the past seven years, he's completely changed the landscape of seafood butchery and cookery, receiving global recognition in doing so.  He's championed nose to tail fish utilization, wasting nothing including the gills, guts, and bones.  Everything gets used in innovative ways, ranging from swim bladder chicharrones to fish eye ice cream.  He's also revolutionized how to approach fish, treating it with a versatility usually reserved for meats.  Dry-aged opah chops, swordfish prosciutto, glazed cobia hams, coral trout sausage rolls.   With his wide array of radical techniques, surely he's messed around with cheese and seafood.  As expected, one of the biggest sellers at his Fish Butchery and Charcoal Fish locations is the Yellowfin Tuna Double Cheeseburger.
I picked up some basic burger fixins' from my local marketand a yellowfin tuna steak from Hill's Quality Seafoods.  Niland's recipes called for tuna trim, sinew, even some bloodline.  His goal with the tuna cheeseburger is whole fish utilization, not wasting any off cuts.  Makes perfect sense for burger patties.  Unfortunately, a curse of being in the 'burbs is not having access to more obscure things like tuna trim.  A fishmonger I'd asked even questioned "Tuna trim?  Like, for bait?"  I'm sure some Asian markets or larger seafood retailers in Philadelphia have such offerings, but there isn't exactly a public clamoring for tuna trim in Chester County.  Lastly, I picked up some suet and thick cut bacon from Worrell's Butcher Shop.  Niland's recipes also called for rendered fish fat, something very difficult to procure, and I didn't have the bandwidth to make my own.  Beef fat would have to do.  As for the bacon, well, a cheeseburger isn't a cheeseburger unless it's a bacon cheeseburger, in my opinion.  Perhaps on the next go I'll make swordfish bacon like Fish Butchery.  And lastly, I picked up 
arguably the best bread in the Philadelphia area from Corropolese's Italian Bakery.  Great burgers may not result in great buns, but they definitely start with them.
I pulsed the tuna in a food processor until roughly ground, then combined with the beef suet and some Noble Made steak seasoning.  Say what you will about using jarred spice blends, but those coarse ground Montreal-style steak seasonings always make for a smackin' burger.  I formed the mixture into four equally sized patties and chilled them for 30 minutes to set.  Next, I got a cast iron pan ripping hot and quickly seared the patties, smashburger style.  Once one side was golden and crisp, I flipped the patties and topped them with a slice of Andrew & Everett American cheese.  The buns were lightly toasted, and I assembled the burgers next to a Claussen dill pickle spear and some Checkers oven ready seasoned fries.  Don't judge me.  The kids love the bags of frozen Checkers seasoned fries, and so do I.  

Bear Bear Double Burger
The end result was positively fantastic.  It was hands down one of the best burgers I've ever made, all proteins considered.  Salty, savory, cheesy, unctuous.  Sure, the beef fat and bacon added quite a bit, but it was notably a tuna burger first, especially with a squeeze of lemon.  And that Andrew & Everett's American cheese is much more flavorful than your traditional Kraft's single.  My wife had actually just returned from a kid's birthday party and "wasn't hungry," of course.  She's always a little wary of my seafood experiments to begin with, doubly so if already having eaten pizza and birthday cake.  However, she ended up eating an entire burger.  I'm taking that, and my daughter having a few bites, as confirmation of quality.  Tuna cheeseburgers have definitely been added to the family dinner rotation.

I really enjoyed my investigation into the precarious world of cheese and seafood pairings.  I never knew so much history, culture, and consideration was behind the prohibition.  There's sound logic behind it, as some cheese and seafood pairings are straight up gross.  Sorry Philadelphia sushi rolls.  But the logic should serve more as a loose guide rather than strict regulation, as several dishes marrying the two are phenomenal.  At the end of the day, I realized that a seafood dish is just like a dad joke.  Cheesy isn't always great, and sometimes it's even terrible.  But when thought out and well-executed, cheesy can be the absolute best.  Hopefully you'll brave some cheese and seafood pairings yourself soon. 

The SF Oyster Nerd

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