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!

Boeuf Bourguignon, Bouchon Style

Boeuf Bourguignon is a rustic beef stew. At least it is supposed to be. The typical method involves marinating the beef in red wine, mirepoix and herbs. Then braising the beef in the marinade with the addition of chunks of carrot, pearl onions and possibly potatoes. Done like that it is delicious and I often make one variation on it or another, but sometimes everything just tastes like everything else. Cooking everything in one pot also risks overcooking the vegetables before the meat is done. Sometimes a comforting stew with soft vegetables is what I want and it has its own charm including the convenience of letting it simmer gently while I sip some red wine.

This time I decided to try Thomas Keller’s method from “Bouchon” for a much more refined take on this stew. In typical Keller fashion, there are a multitude of steps and several strainings, but the end result is like no other Boeuf Bourguignon. While the end result is truly spectacular, I am not saying it is necessarily better than a more homey version. The main difference between Keller’s recipe and others is that he uses a very reduced (in hindsight I should’ve reduced mine more) red wine base to flavor the stew and he cooks each vegetable separately to get the most perfect texture for each one before combining the whole dish in the end.

 First order of business is the red wine reduction. I was doubling the recipe so I cooked wine from two bottles with carrots, onions, shallots, parsley, thyme, garlic, bay leaves and leeks. I was supposed to reduce the wine to a glaze, but the recipe was not specific as to how much red wine reduction I should end up with. I think from the two bottles I ended up with maybe a a cup and half of reduction. I think that was too much and I should’ve reduced to about 3/4 of cup.

The beef (I used chuck, Keller used boneless short ribs) is seared on all sides. In a clay pot I put a layer of chopped vegetables (again carrots, leeks, onions, thyme, bay…) and mixed that with the reduced wine sauce. On top I put a dampened cheesecloth and used it to make a “nest” for the seared beef. This is done to separate the beef from the vegetable bits and to keep it “clean”. Basically the chopped vegetables are now a part of a huge herb sachet and their only purpose is to flavor the braising liquid and the meat. Does that cheesecloth really make much of a difference? Who knows. The devil is in the details. Would I do that again? Probably not. On top goes a few cups of stock. Keller recommends veal or beef. I used a combination of venison stock, chicken stock and the Fat Duck red wine sauce base (I still had a few non-reduced vacuum packed packages from this dish..and this). I figured the Fat Duck sauce will work great because it is basically beef stock with red wine. This cooks in the oven for a good three hours. After that the meat is removed and the cooking liquid is strained over it. The cooking vegetables are discarded. At this point I really should’ve reduced the cooking liquid by about a third maybe since in the end, there was a bit more liquid than I like in the dish.

Keller cooks all the vegetables separately. The carrots and pearl onions are glazed, the fingerling potatoes boiled and sautéed and the mushrooms are cooked down with bacon lardons. I cooked the mushrooms traditionally in a pan, but the rest of the vegetables were bagged in FoodSaver bags and cooked sous vide at 85C for various periods of time with the carrots taking the longest.

When ready to serve more or less everything is combined and heated through gently. It’s a wonderful comforting dish with deep savory flavors. The vegetables were bright and perfectly cooked. Too bad the sauce was not as reduced as it should’ve been or it would’ve made this perfect.