Smoked Salmon and White Asparagus, Sour Cream and Vattlingon

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There is so much fantastic looking salmon in the market this time of year. Asparagus is also all over the place. Recipes combining these two lovely spring ingredients can be found in many books, sites and on restaurant menus. This recipe based on one from the book Neue Cuisine: the Elegant Tastes of Vienna by chef Kurt Gutenbrunner uses salmon that gets lightly smoked and serves it with the classy white asparagus and a sour cream sauce. It hits all the right buttons. The flavors are harmonious and robust and the plated dish looks refined even though it is very straightforward to prepare.

Salmon Curing

The fish is cured lightly and then smoked. You really do not need a major rig to hot smoke a few pieces of fish at home. I use an old wok following a method that I learned years ago from Barbara Tropp’s book China Moon Cookbook. To smoke the fish (or Chinese-style steamed duck or chicken) put a rack that fits in the wok but remains several inches above the bottom. Oil the rack a bit so the meat does not stick and then put the meat on the rack. Put in some wood chips in the bottom of the wok and any other aromatics you like and allow them to start smoking over high heat. Close the wok with a tight lid and smoke the food as long as needed over medium heat. That’s pretty much the exact process chef Gutenbrunner uses in this recipe. The salmon takes maybe 20 minutes or so.

Salmon-White Asparagus

 

Salmon Smoked

Before smoking the salmon I wanted to make sure it comes out well seasoned and juicy so I cured it lightly. All that means is that I sprinkled the fillets with a mixture of salt and sugar, about a third sugar and two-thirds salt. These then sat for about 30 minutes as I prepared the rest of the meal. I then rinsed the fish and patted it dry. It’s amazing that in only thirty minutes the difference can be both felt and seen. The fish is firmer and has a nice gloss on it.

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I cooked the asparagus simply in a pot of water with salt and butter and kept them warm until dinner. I really should’ve peeled the bottom of the stalks a bit since the bottoms were a bit woody on the outside.  The red orbs in the picture are the Vattlingon. I read about these in the book Faviken by chef Magnus Nilsson from Sweden. He puts up lingonberries in a jar with water and puts them away for a few months. Following Hank Shaw’s idea to use cranberries instead (he serves them with salmon as well) I put some up back in the fridge  around December so they are ready about now.

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The sauce is sour cream, dill, chives and some lemon juice. Some more of those cranberries would’ve been good on each plate, but other than that the flavors were spot on and the plates looked lovely.

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Poached Halibut, Sweet and Sour Beets and Citrus-Coriander Oil Emulsion

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For a 3 star restaurant, the food of Le Bernardin is not complicated. It relies on pristine fish and relatively simple preparation with few grand embellishments. Reading through Eric Ripert’s book On The Line about the NY city restaurant is a fantastic look into how a high caliber restaurant is run. The book deals with everything like history, menu creation, service standards, a typical day in the life of Le Bernardin and how fish is bought and butchered. I find this kinds of stuff fascinating. That was the first half of the book. The second deals with several recipes. Most of them do not have a crazy long list of ingredients but each one, as deceptively simple as it might look, might have taken months from inception through several stages of refinement to finally making it on the menu. The end results are models of elegance, clean plating, classic techniques and clear flavors.

Beets

This dish has two main ingredients, the fish and the beets. They come together with a drizzle of citrus sauce that is a bit Japanese in its flavor. Looks and sounds very simple but it does involve a few steps. First I made the Citrus-Coriander Oil that forms the base of the sauce down the line and also seasons the cooked beets. It’s made from a mixture of lemon and orange zests, chopped tomato, fennel and coriander seeds, basil, cilantro, olive oil and lemon oil. The mixture is allowed to steep for at least 24 hours before straining and using.

The beets, golden and red, are cooked seperately in sherry and red wine vinegars and water until tender. I actually bagged them and cooked them sous vide instead. They are then pealed sliced on a mandolin and, using a round cookie cutter, trimmed to neat rounds. Before serving, the beets are laid on a parchment lined baking sheet, seasoned with salt and pepper, drizzled with the citrus-coriander oil and warmed in a hot oven for a few minutes.

Halibut

To make the sauce for the dish, the emulsion, I heated up a mixture of orange juice, shallots , lemon juice and ponzu (a Japanese sauce of citrus and soy sauce) till simmering. Then I whisked in the citrus-coriander oil. I kept this sauce warm while finishing the fish.

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Chef Ripert poaches the fish in a liquid of water, citrus juice and vermouth thickened with a bit of roux. This is supposed to give the fish a wonderful velvety texture. I was juggling a few things that evening and saw no reason not to cook the fish sous vide. So, I bagged the halibut with the same mixture (used less of it though) minus the roux and cooked it for about 20 minutes till perfectly done. I patted the fish dry and plated the fillets on top of the beet rounds. I sauced with the emulsion and garnished the fish with a julienne of basil.

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Monkfish Piccata


Monk Piccata

Recently I cooked a nice fish dinner for Diana and I. The first course/appetizer was supposed to be some sort of shellfish (oysters maybe) and the main is a lovely halibut recipe from Le Bernardin  taken from Eric Ripert’s book On the Line (post about that is coming up soon). However, as soon as I walked past the fish counter at Whole Foods and saw the brilliantly fresh monkfish that they had just gotten in, the oysters went out the window. I had no idea what I would do with the fillet I bought at the time and certainly was not planning on posting about it. When all was said and done and this first course was plated, it looked so nice and was so tasty that I knew it would get its own post.

The only other item I had bought with the monkfish is a bunch of watercress. When I got home, I flipped through On The Line since I was already cooking the halibut from it to see if there is anything that would be quick and work for monkfish. Unfortunately the recipe in there, while sounding fantastic, was pretty complicated. I would love to make it some other time with its red wine sauce and truffled potato foam but for an impromptu first course it was not going to happen. I did borrow the cooking technique he uses though. More on that in a minute.

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Mario Batali in his The Babbo Cookbook has a recipe for monkfish where he treats it like chicken or veal and makes a piccata. The fish is cut into scaloppine and pan-fried. The dish is finished like a traditional piccata with white wine, lemon and caper berries. That sounded like a perfect first course for our dinner especially served with a nice bunch of light watercress.

Monkfish

Even though the recipe is based on the Batali version, I really liked how the version in Ripert’s book treats the fish – almost like a pork or beef loin. Like no other fish, monkfish can take some longer cooking without drying out. The texture is firm and very pleasant which explains why it is sometimes called “poor man’s lobster”. That’s why Ripert served his with accompaniments normally reserved for red meat (red wine sauce, potatoes, mushrooms,…). So instead of cutting the fish fillet into medallions I left the “loin” whole and rolled it in lightly seasoned Wondra flour (both Ripert and Batali use that). I love using Wondra to get perfectly crispy thin crusts on all kinds of meat, especially fish.  Then I cooked the fish in a pan in some olive oil and butter basting it all the time. After that, just like a small roast, it went into a hot oven to finish cooking through.

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For the sauce, I deglazed the pan with white wine while the fish rested. Then I added turmeric, parsley, chopped preserved lemon, lemon juice, parsley and a good healthy dose of olive oil. This made for a delicious dressing of sorts. I would’ve liked some caper berries in there or small capers, but Diana hates those. So, no capers. The fish was then sliced into medallions. Any other fish would’ve flaked apart. This was juicy and perfectly firm, really very much like lobster tail. I dressed the cress with some of the pan sauce and put a handful on top of the fanned monkfish medallions. More of the sauce was drizzled on and around the fish to finish it up. I really loved the non-traditional addition of the preserved lemon in the sauce as opposed to just lemon juice. It gave the dish a unique and slightly exotic flavor and some more texture.

Salmon, Sauce Bois Boudran and Crushed Potatoes

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I have a lot of cookbooks. By some measures too many but compared to others really not that much. If a book adds one or two recipes to my rotation that everyone loves in my family then it has done it’s job. Better books add more to the mix like a new technique, ingredient or some tips and tricks. A select few books might not add anything to my general knowledge but are a lot of fun to read or flip through. Any book that does not have any of the above is quickly returned to the bookstore or sold at Half-Price Books. Honestly, I rarely encounter any of that last type because I do a bit of research into what I buy.

Heston Blumenthal at Home is a book that combines many of the criteria above. It is modern, but rooted in many classics (Shrimp Cocktail, liver parfait, chilli con carne). The recipes for the most part are refined but not daunting and are hallmarks of Blumenthal’s perfect technique. More importantly, every chapter opens with a concise and simple to understand introduction of each topic (Sous vide cooking, Frozen desserts). If you ever wanted to know how to make exceptionally smooth ice cream and sorbet using dry ice (and a KitchenAid mixer) then this is the book for you. The reason I decided to post about the book though is that it added at least two awesome recipes to my family rotation and this salmon is one of them – chicken braised with sherry and cream is the other one.  I credit this recipe with opening my two boys’ eyes to how delicious well-prepared salmon can be. Now, when they say they want salmon for dinner they mean Mr. Blumenthal’s recipe, but also they actually order salmon when we are eating out now. I could not ask for more.

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The actual original recipe, as Blumenthal mentions in the intro to the sauce, belongs to Michel Roux a very well-respected Michelin starred chef. Roux’s son and nephew are also high caliber chefs by the way. Anyways, the recipe in the book has three components; salmon cooked sous vide and crisped, smashed potatoes and the lovely sauce. The fish is bagged with the skin on along with a bit of olive oil and cooked in a water bath at 50 C for about 20 minutes. Before serving, the skin side is patted dry and crisped in a pan. The fish is meltingly tender and the skin becomes nicely crisp and brittle. If you skip the crisping step the skin really has to be removed since it is kind of flabby and not pleasant right out of the plastic cooking pouch.

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The crushed potatoes are just boiled yukon gold potatoes that are sqaushed with a fork or large spoon. Then a mixture of sauteed shallots, whole grain mustard, olive oil and herbs (tarragon, parsley, chives) are mixed in. The potatoes are delicious and have an excellent texture. The Bois Boudran sauce is an interesting one. At first I was a bit skeptical with the ingredient list: Ketchup (yeap, plain old ketchup), olive oil, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, shallots, tarragon, parsley, Tabasco sauce,… Served with the fish and potatoes though the sauce is damn tasty. It has the sour, sweet, spicy flavors working in harmony along with a nice crunchy texture from a load of shallots that are briefly blanched in boiling water to take the edge from them.

Carrots-Carrot Top Sauce

Usually, I simply serve the plate as is with sauce, potatoes and fish but once in a while if I have some time I might add a salad or maybe a bit more elaborate side. This one is carrots cooked with butter and carrot juice based on a recipe from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home. As for the brilliant green sauce it’s made from green carrot tops courtesy of Michel Richard’s Happy in The Kitchen book. The leafy carrot tops that are normally discarded have a ton of flavor. I just blanch them in boiling water and shock them in ice water. Then they are pureed with some water or stock and butter is added along with some lemon juice and salt. After straining it was a bit loose, so I thickened it with a little Ultratex-3. The sauce has a brilliant flavor and of course it works great with those carrots. Really give it a shot next time you buy carrots with the greens still on.

Striped Bass and Oyster on an Edible Beach

Striped Bass-Beach

This dish came about because of the edible stones from Mugaritz that I posted about recently. I did not want to spend a good bit of time making the potatoes to look like stones just to serve them as is, a bite or two of food. So, why not spend much more time and incorporate them into an actual dish? the potatoes reminded me most of beach or river stones so fish was the first to come to mind. Then of course I remembered Heston Blumenthal’s very famous “Sound of the Sea” dish at the Fat Duck. that dish has a variety of seafood, served on a “beach”  complete with sand, sea foam, weeds, shells and to gild the lily an iPod! The iPod plays gentle beach and wave sounds as the diner enjoys the dish. The idea is that all of our senses are related and that we are much likely to enjoy the dish if every sense was immersed in the experience. Another of Blumenthal’s findings regarding sound and food: potato chips seem much crunchier and fresher if you eat them while listening to crunchy sounds? Anyways, back to the dish.

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I made my beach scene based on the recipe from the Fat Duck but simplified it a good bit and went with what I had. The “sand” mixture from the Fat Duck includes powdered kelp, blue shimmer powder (no idea what that is), carbonized vegetable powder (I’m pretty sure this is burned vegetables), dried baby eels, fried Panko bread crumbs, tapioca maltodextrin, spices, salt,….I stuck with the bread crumbs, the powdered kelp, ground up hazelnuts, black pepper and the maltodextrin. Really the maltodextrin is the one that gives it a perfect sandy texture and make it just melt in the mouth when eaten. So, it is essential here.

Sand Mixture

Sand Mixture2

For the seafood, I wanted at least one fish and a shellfish or two. I intended to use clams and mussels for the shellfish but the couple of stores I went to did not have any decent ones. So, I settled on good quality shelled packaged oysters from Louisiana. For the fish I stopped by a favorite of mine, a large Asian grocery store that always has excellent whole fresh fish in addition to a few live ones. The striped bass looked the best so I picked one and asked the guy behind the counter to gut and scale it but leave it whole. When I got home I rinsed the fish well and filleted it. This gave me 4 nice bass portions. It also gave me some bones and the head to make stock that I need for the sea foam sauce. I made the fish stock sous vide for the first time per the instructions in the Modernist Cuisine at Home book. I packaged the bones and head with a lot of aromatics and some white wine and vermouth and cooked it at 80 C degrees for 1.5 hours. It made for a marvelous stock with clear color and a perfect flavor. Fish stock should not simmer much or boil at all so cooking sous vide makes perfect sense. It also eliminates evaporation which concentrates the flavor by not allowing any aroma to dissipate into the air with the steam. Another stock by the way that is amazing prepared sous vide is vegetable stock.

Striped Bass-horz

I cooked the fish sous vide and crisped the skin right before serving. For the oysters I also cooked them sous vide but included a good dose of garlic and parsley butter in the bag. With the seafood cooked, the “stones” and alioli good to go, the “sand” is ready and my fish stock is prepped, I focused on finishing the sauce which forms the beach   foam as well as preparing some “shells”. The shells are shallots that I separated out and poached till tender. Then I tossed them in some Ponzu sauce right before serving. For the sauce, I warmed the fish stock and mixed in the juice from the oysters then seasoned it with soy sauce, salt and pepper. To finish it and foam it a bit I added soy lecithin and blitzed it with the hand blender.

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To plate the dishes,  we (since I was preparing several plates Diana helped a lot with plating) put the “sand” down  on one side of the plate and then added a few dollops of the alioli on top for the “stones” to sit on. Then on the side of the sand went the fish and oyster followed by the foamy sauce on the edges of the sand. Then the garnishes went on including the  “shell” shallots and a few green leaves as a stand in for sea weed that I had not time to shop for. It all worked great and my in-laws who stopped by for dinner that evening enjoyed their whimsical meal very much. It’s always a relief when experimental dishes like this one work out when guests drop by and we don’t have to order pizza or something. The plate had a lot of flavors that worked perfectly and of course a lot of textures ranging from crunchy to soft to somewhere in between.

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Fig Leaf Salmon, Grilled Leeks Vinaigrette and Red Wine Sauce

I’ve had a fig tree in my back yard for the past eight or nine years maybe. I also first heard or read about wrapping fish in the leaves even before that in a Food and Wine article about Alice Waters if I am not mistaken.  I cannot tell why it took me so long to finally try this but it is a delicious and classy way of  cooking and serving fish – beautiful wild King Salmon in this case. The recipe (or more like process) is very simple and it is from the classic Chez Panisse book by Paul Bertolli and Alice Waters. I picked a few nice fig leaves from the backyard tree and washed them thoroughly. I rubbed them with a bit of olive oil and then trimmed and seasoned the fish with salt and pepper.

Nothing is needed to tie the leaves around the fish. I just laid the fillets on the oiled leaves and wrapped the leaves around the fish the best I could. These are ready to go on the grill now. So, I had a hot charcoal fire ready and laid the fish on it with the leaf seams down. After grilling for a few minutes the leaves are basically sealed and the fish can be flipped on the other side to finish cooking. The fig leaves imbue the fillet with a delightful smoky musky aroma and taste that really complements the fattiness of the meat. The leaves are not meant to be eaten by the way. Instead I peeled them gently from the fish when I served it and then dressed the fish with the sauce.

The sauce is a straightforward beurre rouge, or red butter sauce. It’ made by cooking down a lot of wine and aromatics like carrots, celery, onions, shallots, thyme…until you’re only left with a few tablespoons. Then you stir in lot of cold butter and strain the tasty light red emulsion and keep it warm until ready to serve. Like any butter sauce, it’s not a good idea to make this too far in advance because as it sits it can, and probably will, break and separate. The best way to hold it for thirty minutes or so is to leave the small pot containing the sauce on top of a larger pot of hot steaming (not boiling) water as in a double boiler.

I was not sure what to serve with the fish so I flipped through the same book for ideas and found Paul Bertolli’s version of another French Bistro classic. Leeks vinaigrette is made by boiling leeks until tender and then dressing them up with a vinaigrette that typically includes shallots and red wine vinegar. This recipe incorporates anchovies and a garnish of hard cooked eggs as well. Since I was grilling the fish I decided to get some grill flavor and marks on the leeks to. Why waste a perfectly good roaring hot pile of charcoal? So after boiling the leeks I rubbed them with a bit of oil and grilled them for a minute or so per side. Then I tossed them in the dressing and plated them topped with the minced hard cooked eggs and more dressing. The grilled leeks got amazingly sweet and smoky on the grill and were so delicious in this preparation that I could eat a whole pile of them. The worked great with the fish too and did not distract from the lovely flavor of the fish. Now, I hope it is not going to take me another 8 years before I use the fig leaves to cook again!

Thai Curry Pork, Forbidden Rice and Watermelon

Thai curries are one of my favorite south Asian foods that I don’t cook as much as I should. Every time I make it at home from scratch by pounding (actually, usually I use the food processor and then finish the paste in the mortar) together chilies, lemongrass, shallots, galangal and a host of other ingredients I tell myself that I really should do this at home more often. This time with this dish it is no different. It’s a piece of crispy fatty pork, black sticky rice (I like its other name though: forbidden rice), a nice salad of marinated and seasoned watermelon and a rich red Thai curry paste in coconut milk.

The watermelon salad here was inspired by a post on the Ideas in Food blog. It’s a take on the Thai green papaya salad. That’s usually made by finally shredding unripe papaya when the fruit is still green, crunchy and a little tart. It’s then mixed with mashed garlic, some dried shrimp and fish sauce. To make it more substantial, David Thompson in his book Thai Food, tops it with caramelized pork belly! For the watermelon version here, I used the part of the fruit that has a lot of that white pith closer to the green peel. I cured it by sprinkling the slabs of the watermelon with salt and Thai palm sugar and vaccum packing it in FoodSaver bag. After sitting in the fridge for a good 12 hours, I sliced it thinly and dressed the fruit with fish sauce, lime juice, garlic and chopped peanuts.

To make the pork, a tasty shoulder from a free range pig, I seasoned it with salt and sugar and cooked it sous vide for a long time (about 48 hours). Right before plating it, I cut the meat in long thick strips and crisped it in hot lard. Good quality pork cooked like that is tender, juicy and delicious. I enjoyed a couple of pieces on their own before picking the few I was going to actually plate.

The rice got a good soaking and then it was steamed to cook it. The rice ends up perfectly cooked with a nice toothsome texture. The taste is very nutty and can stand up to the strong flavors of the curry and the watermelon salad. This rice also makes a wonderful traditional south east Asian dessert when cooked with palm sugar and coconut milk.

The curry paste is also adapted from Thompson’s Thai Food. His recipe for a traditional red paste includes a lot of dried chilies that give it its red brick color. Since my wife does not like spicy food I cut down the quantity of the chilies significantly and used a large red bell pepper instead. That kind of messes with the balance of the paste and to make up for it I upped the amount of lime juice in there as well as adding a tablespoon or two of paprika. Not very traditional additions, but the paste was very nicely balanced in the end. To prepare the curry  sauce I needed to separate the coconut cream from the milk and use that fat to cook the paste before adding the rest of the milk into the pot. To do that I chill the can of coconut milk so the cream can solidify on the surface slightly. Then it’s a matter of spooning the cream off and heating it in a pan until the oil separates. I added half the paste (the rest went in the freezer for later) and fried it for a few minutes. Then I added the rest of the coconut milk along with a little stock to thin it. That transforms the red paste into a nice deep yellow sauce.

The pork, curry, nutty rice and watermelon with a garnish of chilies and cilantro made for a delicious dish but I still had a good bit of curry sauce and rice leftover. I wanted to use it that same weekend with a fish or shrimp dish. Fresh water fish like catfish or Tilapia work really well here and I used the latter. I cooked the fillet sous vide to the perfect tenderness. I plated the fish on top the black rice in a pool of the curry sauce and several dollops of a green cilantro sauce. The sauce made with blanched cilantro and a little basil, pureed with very little water and Ultratex-3 to thicken it. I did make a little pungent garnish for this one with thinly sliced shallots, lime juice, chilies, and fish sauce. It was every bit as good as the pork dish (well, almost…Tilapia cannot compete with great porcine!). Too bad I did not have my camera when I made this one, so all I got is this phone photo.