If there's such a thing as a seasonal protein, during summer, seafood is it. After all, it's during summer that we are most aware that we live in a coastal region. Hand in hand with that urge to play along the shore, comes that desire to taste what comes from the deep.
When it comes to seafood, sushi comes to mind and so does the fried stuff. But cooked seafood dishes rarely make into the top choices of summer foods, and it's not just because they're served warm. Mostly it's because they're notorious for containing overcooked seafood. Dry fish, rubbery mollusks, mushy crustaceans. This summer, we decided to take some chances with cooked seafood dishes and found ourselves happily rewarded.
It wouldn't be summer if there weren't a road trip planned. This year, we planned our trip around a tip we received about an amazing chupe de camarones, a red aji inflected, rice and potato studded, Peruvian shrimp chowder. Luckily, we didn't have to pack much, because the creamy bowl of chupe awaited us at the northwest edge of Los Angeles County at Lima Limon in Santa Clarita.
Lima Limon's version of chupe de camarones is not quite as hefty as those found in other Peruvian restaurants; in fact, it resembles more a velvety bisque. It's filled with meaty yet extraordinarily tender shrimp swimming in a soup with a strong fresh oregano inflection to compliment the sweet heat of the aji. This chupe contains all the additions one would expect: potatoes, corn, even an egg cooked in the soup. But all are in proportion to the amount of shrimp, so that nearly each spoonful is shrimp-centric. As it should be.
Recently while at the effusively named Tampa Garden Chinese Delight in Reseda we noticed another table eating a dish that appeared to be a fish soup. We asked that it be added to our order as well and when it arrived, it turned out to be their take on the Sichuan classic, water boiled fish.
Water boiled fish is a severe misnomer, in fact, Tampa Garden lists it on their “Chinese homestyle” menu as Sichuan spicy fish. The fish isn't boiled in water but poached in an oil-based liquid infused with dried chiles, Sichuan peppercorns and other spices. The flavors here are more delicate than the fire-breathing version at Chung King, which suits the almost melted texture of the fish. The heat strikes in quick pulses and doesn't coat the mouth. Meanwhile the cooling sensation from the Sichuan peppercorns builds to a slight hum, creating a relaxing undercurrent to the meal, like a summer tune.
Hand in hand with eating seasonally, is eating locally. Louisiana has its gumbo. And here in California we have cioppino, a tomato based stew containing just about anything that might be found swimming, crawling and sticking in the ocean. At Downtown's Colori Kitchen, their frequent special of cioppino isn't the most refined, but it does capture the true spirit of summer.
Like some of our other favorite summer foods, cioppino is meant to be a messy hands on affair. Crowing Colori's version is a huge prawn, shell-on and butterflied and smothered in a creamy garlic sauce that penetrates the flesh with flavor and protects it as it is being cooked. Within the bowl are mussels and clams with their freshly opened shells teasing, “dig me out and slurp.”
Even before getting to the thick chunks of black cod and pieces of squid — the bowl, shell plate, our fingers and table to covered in red sauce. And for that, Colori provides their buttery crisp country bread. It turned out to be a futile effort to stay neat by sopping up the sauce with the bread. But what is summer without a little challenge. And this proved to be a most delicious one.