Brady’s family lives in Mobile, so I find myself in the Azalea City at least once a year, and when we’re there, we tend to eat well. Dreamland for BBQ, Wintzell’s for fried crab claws, the Dew Drop Inn for chili burgers, one of the approximately 10,000 seafood places on stilts out along the Causeway for fish and hush puppies, and when we’re not stuffing our faces out, my mother-in-law always has gumbo, jambalaya, or red beans and rice in the fridge.

This is the kind of food that Mobile is known for, but it’s not all the city has to offer. Not by a long shot. The last time were in town, Brady’s parents treated us to a dinner at NoJa, and thinking back on that dining experience made me realize what Bay Tables is all about.  Mobilians love their local dishes because they love good food, whether it’s fried crab claws or poached oysters in a leek fondue with Gruyere “funnelcake” (a NoJa specialty, and so tasty). Elegant food can be fussy and off-putting, or it can be delicious, and Bay Tables is filled with examples of the latter.

So, this week I made dishes that use beloved Mobilian ingredients in slightly more refined presentations.  And I admit, I chose this first dish partly because Carla made shrimp and andouille beignets on part 1 of this season’s Top Chef finale.  Love you, Carla – you were robbed!

If you’re new to peeling crawfish, it’s pretty easy.  Start by twisting the tail off from the body.  Then, peel off the first couple of rings on the tail, squeeze it at the bottom, and gently pull the tailmeat out.

Crawfish Beignets with Horseradish Sauce

I named this one Horace, until the roe revealed it to be a Horacina.

I named this one Horace.

1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup water
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 (2-ounce) jar pimento, drained, chopped
3 green onions, chopped
4 drops Tabasco sauce
8 ounces crawfish tail meat, chopped
2 1/2 quarts peanut oil
Horseradish sauce (below)

Combine the flour, baking powder, water, garlic, pimento, green onions, Tabasco sauce, and crawfish in a bowl and mix well. Chill, covered, in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Heat the peanut oil to 365 degrees in a large heavy saucepan. Drop the chilled batter by spoonfuls into the hot oil. Deep-fry for 7 to 8 minutes or until golden brown. Remove to paper towels to drain. Serve with Horseradish Sauce.

Deep-frying:  dangerous, unhealthy, and so worth it.

Deep-frying: dangerous, unhealthy, and so worth it.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Horseradish Sauce

2 teaspoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons horseradish, or to taste
1 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon Creole mustard
2 green onions, finely chopped

Blend the garlic, horseradish, mayonnaise, and Creole mustard in a blender or food processor until smooth. Spoon into a small bowl. Stir in the green onions. Chill, covered, for 1 hour.

Yield: 1 1/2 to 2 cups

I had a good feeling about this recipe from the moment I found New Orleans Fish Market near Leimert Park.  They get fresh crawfish in every Friday, and though they were sold out of live ones by the time I arrived, the others had just been cooked that morning, and tasted fresh and sweet (they also sold crabs… would that I’d known two weeks ago).

The beignets were slap-your-granny good, to put it mildly.  Hot, puffy, and flavorful, and the horseradish sauce was the perfect accent – a nice kick, but not overwhelming.

For my main course, I wanted to do something with game.  Venison Medallions in Tomato Mustard Cream sounded tempting, but I suspected that I would probably have to sell a kidney to afford venison in Los Angeles.  Duck seemed like a reasonable alternative (in Alabama, duck season is from late November through January).  Still, it set me back a pretty penny, so the stakes were high.

Duck With Blackberry Sauce

Probably overcooked, but try as I might, I am just not a medium-rare kind of gal.

Probably overcooked, but try as I might, I am just not a medium-rare kind of gal.

3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons raspberry vinegar
1 1/4 cups blackberries
1 cup beef broth
3/4 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons Cognac
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
4 boneless duck breast halves with skin
salt and pepper to taste

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a skillet. Add the sugar. Cook for 5 minutes or until the sugar dissolves and turns a dark amber color. Add the wine, orange juice, and raspberry vinegar. Boil until the caramel dissolves, stirring constantly. Add the blackberries, beef broth, and chicken broth. Boil until reduced to 1 cup. Strain into a small heavy saucepan. Stir in the Cognac and maple syrup.

Pierce the skin of the duck and season with salt and pepper. Heat an ovenproof skillet until hot. Add the duck skin side down. Sear for 5 minutes or until brown. Turn over the duck. Cook for 3 minutes. Place the skillet in the oven. Bake at 400 degrees for 3 minutes or until cooked through.

Bring the sauce to a simmer over low heat. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Whisk until the butter is melted. Spoon the sauce onto individual serving plates. Cut the duck into slices. Arrange the sliced duck in the sauce.

Yield:  4 servings

It actually took 13 minutes in the oven to get the duck to the point where it didn’t sit there and bleed at me while I tried to slice it.  In the end, it was probably a little overdone, but it was still tender and didn’t taste gamey at all.  The sauce was also more like a juice – good flavor, but next time, I’ll probably leave some of the blackberry pulp in for texture.

Remember to chew, boys and girls, or those pecan pieces will get you but good.

Remember to chew, boys and girls, or those pecan pieces will get you but good.

Strawberry Pecan Shortcakes

1 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, chopped
1 cup pecan halves
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons buttermilk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
sugar to taste
3 pints strawberries, sliced
6 tablespoons sugar
sweetened whipped cream

Mix the flour, 1/3 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a food processor.  Add the butter and process until coarse crumbs form.  Add the pecans and process until chopped.  Place in a large bowl.

Mix 3/4 cup buttermilk and vanilla in a glass measure.  Add to the flour mixture, mixing with a fork, until a moist dough forms, adding the remaining 3 tablespoons buttermilk only if needed.  Drop the dough by rounded 1/3 cupfuls 3 inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Sprinkle the top of each biscuit with sugar.  Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove to a wire rack to cool.

Combine the strawberries and 6 tablespoons sugar in a large bowl and mix gently.  Let stand for 15 minutes or longer.  Split the warm biscuits into halves.  Place the biscuit bottoms in individual shallow bowls.  Spoon 1/2 of the strawberry mixture over the biscuit bottoms.  Spoon a dollop of sweetened whipped cream over each and top with the biscuit tops.  Spoon the remaining strawberry mixture over the tops.  Serve immediately.

Yield:  6 servings

This recipe brings up a few limitations of my current kitchen situation.  Though I do have a number of useful culinary tools (good chef’s knives, a cast iron skillet, a Dutch oven), my food processor can barely handle a cup of pecans, and lately, it’s been producing an unfortunate electrical burning smell when I set it to high for longer than five seconds.  I have a hand mixer that my mother bought during the Ford administration, and I work out of a galley kitchen with a 3/4 size fridge, a tempermental oven, and no counter space.

I say this not so you will think my cooking arrangements are all tragic and Dickensian, nor so you will judge me less cruelly when I botch something, but rather, to demonstrate that having a crappy kitchen should not prevent you from cooking.  Sometimes you have to go a little MacGyver on your recipes.

If it says to blend my dough in the food processor until coarse crumbs form, I get out the potato masher (no, I don’t have a pastry cutter, either…).  Waxed paper can pinch hit for parchment paper.  And I would rather spend 10 minutes whipping cream with my Ford administration mixer than eat Redi-Whip, so I do it.

And in the end, that strawberry pecan shortcake turned out just as well as if I had done it in Thomas Keller’s kitchen (which is not to say that my strawberry pecan shortcake is better than Thomas Keller’s, just that a) I don’t need his kitchen, and b) I doubt that he ever makes strawberry shortcake).

In short, it was so good that I horked down my first bite, got a pecan piece lodged in my throat, and spent the next two minutes trying not to cough up a lung.  Tragedy averted, I ate the rest of my shortcake soberly, but with great relish.

It might just be a Mary thing, but I love eating strawberry shortcake with milk poured over it for breakfast, which I did all weekend.  Of course, I left off the whipped cream.  After all, I am a grown-up.

Next week:  I’m going home to western PA, where I’ll cook a meal with my awesome sister, Amy.  We haven’t picked the book yet, but her guidelines are:  1.  “Mary, remember this is Grove City in March.  We don’t have she-crabs here, either,” and 2.  Her kids are really little, and haven’t yet mastered the art of eating pork or beef:  “They chew and chew and chew and just can’t swallow it.”  Then again, she adds, “we can always do a box of mac and cheese for them and make whatever we want.”  Whatever we make, I’m really excited about getting to cook with my little sis.