Saturday, 18 July 2009

More about the pig ...

Since the last post, I've received tons of mail (well, to be honest, none at all) asking about the top photo in it. This is, as you can see, a wine bottle reflected in the puddle of fat from cotes de porc asvenoise, something so simple I'm not sure it even qualifies as a recipe.

Take one thick pork chop per person and cook them to your preference. (Hint: if using good fresh farm pork, just sear them on both sides until nicely brown and still rosy in the middle. If it's supermarket pork or if you're dubious about how tender it's going to be, do the same and then turn the heat right down, cover the pan and let them stew in their own steam and juices for about 45 minutes, turning once, until semi-melted. This will also give you a lot of suc, or burnt-on crunchy bits, which you'll want to dissolve with a bit of water at the end.) Whatever, you want tender pork.

Whichever way you do it, mix up some grated cheese, sour cream and 2 tbsp of wholegrain mustard and when the chops are cooked to your liking, smear a couple of tbsp of that onto each one and put them under the grill until the cheese/cream mixture is brown and bubbling. If you've gone for the "cover the pan and cook for 45 minutes" option, now is the time to dissolve the crunchy bits, reduce until syrupy, and pour the resulting mess over the top.

Eat immediately, with salad and whatever else takes your fancy. Steamed new potatoes would be good, with lashings of butter - sweetcorn too, since you're pigging out. Dessert is up to you: the last time I did this for Sophie we just had freshly-killed strawberries with a bit of Grand Marnier and sugar. It worked for me. Well, it actually worked for both of us. To be quite frank.

Definitely a light summer lunch ...

Well, Sophie's headed off for a well-earned holiday in Crete for ten days or so, and in any case it's cold and extremely wet around here (which actually makes a pleasant change, it's been bone-dry and up in the high 30s for the past three or four weeks and the garden was starting to look more like the Sahel than anything else), so I've been rummaging around in the dimmer recesses of what I like to call my memory for something I've made that you might like.

So, if you've no objection, we'll start off with pâté de campagne, followed by a tarte frangipane aux cerises. I'd go for a nicely chilled white with the pâté, or maybe a beaujolais (shame you'll need some red to make it, too bad, you do that the day before anyway), but I'm not sure about the tart. Maybe some vermouth or arancio on the rocks? (Vermouth is one of the classic apéritif drinks in France, but either white or red, never dry. And for some strange reason they like to stick a slice of lemon in it.) Whatever.

As I said, you'll need to make the pâté at least the day before you plan on eating it, and it'll keep in the fridge for at least three or four days, so you actually get quite a bit of time with your lunch date. And a good pâté is impressive.

Whatever, start by lining a terrine or loaf dish with some long strips of bacon (good thing I told you how to make that last week, isn't it?), leaving the ends flopping over the sides. Then squash a couple of cloves of garlic with the flat of your knife, and mix them in a bowl with two eggs, a glass (that's a standard 125ml glass, by the way, not a beermug) of red wine (your choice, but I do not think a beaujolais would really be the best idea) and about 200gm of breadcrumbs. Fresh or dried, I've tried both and quite frankly it doesn't make any difference that I can see, and in any case it's a damned sight easier to get hold of dried breadcrumbs around here. (In case you were wondering, they're called chapelure.)

Now, bring out the trusty old kitchen whizz and use it to reduce 500gm of fresh pork liver and 500gm of chicken livers into a purée. (A couple of points here: you may need to do this in several batches, especially if, like me, your mixer is a small, 22 year old Kenwood Chef that we bought on first arriving in France, when we were only staying for a couple of years. It would also be a good idea to slice the chicken livers in half and remove as best you can the disgusting white spidery bit of fat or tubing or whatever it is inside them - do the same for the pig liver too, by the way. And finally, depending on the texture you like, you could also derind another 250gm or so of bacon, chop that into small chunks and stick them in the whizz too.)

The whole mess then goes into the bowl with the eggs, wine and the rest, to which you add some thyme, maybe some sage, parsley, and definitely a good teaspoon of grated nutmeg. Should be quite sloppy. Mix the whole damn lot well with a rubber spatula, then ladle it into the loaf tin and turn the dangly bits of bacon over it. Don't forget to stick a couple of bay leaves on top before covering it (with tinfoil plus, if you're using a terrine, the lid), then put it in a roasting dish with an inch of cold water and cook in a very moderate oven (around 170°C) for 2 hours 30.

Remove when done and put weights on the tinfoil (I find that two 500gm tins of catfood do the trick nicely) while it cools down (you get a better texture that way, believe me) then stick it in the fridge, at least overnight. When it comes time to unmould it in front of your admirative partner, it would probably be a good idea to stick the tin into some bloody hot water for a minute first, if not you'll have to dig it out with a spoon or something and it'll come out a complete dog's breakfast.

Well, that's half your lunch organised ahead of time, pat yourself on the back and pay some attention to the remaining 625ml in the wine bottle. Or you could always get dessert ready now too, but it's nice to at least pretend you've made an effort and do it in front of an audience. Even if it is only an audience of one. Your call.

Tarte frangipane aux cerises is a rustic tart, but none the worse for that. Start off with the pastry: take 100gm of softened butter and work in 75gm of sugar with a wooden spatula until soft and creamy. Add an egg, and beat that in well too. Now add 200gm of flour and beat that in - after a bit of effort you should wind up with a soft ball which comes away from the sides of the bowl.

Now place the ball of dough onto a chopping board (hope you washed it after squashing the garlic on it) and smear it out with the palm of one hand, then fold it back over onto itself, smear it out, fold it back over ... do this four or five times (or until you get bored) and stick it in the fridge for an hour. Check that the white wine is at the right temperature, and as this will require drinking some of it you should probably stick another bottle in there too, just in case.

While you're at it, put 125gm of softened butter into yet another bowl with 125gm of sugar, 125gm of ground almonds and 1tsp flour. Work it well with a wooden spatula then, with a beater, incorporate two large eggs and 2 tbsp rum. Or whatever. Try to organise this so that when you're done, the pastry has finished its hour of chilling out.

At which point you need to roll out the pastry and line a pie dish with it. Word of warning: it's very buttery and has a tendency to break so you may find it easier to roll it out into a large thick disk, stick that into the pie dish and then spread it out more or less evenly with your hands. Just saying.

If you happen to have 400gm of fresh black cherries sitting about you might want to stone them now, if not go into the pantry and drag out the dusty jar of preserved morello cherries that's been sitting there forlornly for years, open it and drain the contents. Spread the cherries over the piecrust, cover with the almond/butter cream, and bake at 200°C for about an hour (stick a sheet of tinfoil over after about 30 minutes, if it looks like the top is going to burn - and it will).

When cooked you can, if you're feeling sophisticated, heat 2tbsp water, ditto rum and 3 or 4 tbsp of redcurrant jelly over a low heat until the jelly shows signs of melting, then whisk in 200gm of icing sugar and continue heating until that's dissolved. Spread the glaze over the tart whilst still hot and put it out of the reach of cats while you set the table.

This is actually rather simple. Just tear up some lettuce and mix well with 2 tbsp olive oil, ditto balsamic vinegar - get out the little plastic tub of cherry tomatoes and put them in a bowl so that they look a bit more aesthetic - get the jar of cornichons out of the fridge and onto the table and toast some pain de campagne or, failing that, rye bread.

Now just unmould the pâté (remember what I said about hot water) and start eating.

By the way, there should be enough pâté for 10 or 12 people. As there are just two of you this may be a bit much: luckily it freezes well.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Cherry tomato pasta

Another summer recipe. This one is inspired from several pasta sauces I grew up eating, but I admit is my own concoction. Given that my family enjoys it, I'm passing it on.
It's summer, so we often BBQ, which means grilled vegetables (if using fresh vegetables, then sauté them with the garlic).
Also, our move to the country means we've fallen into the trap of growing organic vegetables. The most successful crop so far is cherry tomatoes, hence, the recipe that follows.

TIP: Put the salted water on for the pasta before starting the sauce, as it should only cook about 10 minutes.

20+ cherry tomatoes
20+ black olives
4 cloves garlic
grilled vegetables (pepcapers, eggplant, onions...)
tbsp capers
3 large anchovies (optional if vegetarian)
olive oil

Slice garlic in half. Chop anchovies. Simmer both in oil in a large saucepan.
Slice tomatoes in half. Chop grilled veggies. Add to the saucepan.
Add olives, capers & parsley. Stir, turn heat off.
When pasta is cooked, drain & mix directly in the saucepan. Serve immediately.

GALLO PINTO, Costa Rican beans 'n' rice!

Years ago I went to Costa Rica as a grad student. The OTS—Organization for Tropical Studies—field courses were (and still are) built around the idea of having serious biology students learn about tropical ecosystems first-hand and from active researchers as they got shuttled from field station to field station in various and sometimes remote parts of the country for the better part of two months. This all happened on a shoestring budget, and the meals we got were not memorable for their grandeur but for their proletarian modesty. Let's just say no one got sick from the food, and we were pretty happy about that.

I was reminded of this by a long facebook chat I had with one of my former students who is now in the OTS class himself, carting around baby crocodiles while swatting down the mosquito clouds. The field stations are now ultra-posh, compared with the way I remember them—some have even air conditioning (and obviously wi-fi). But the food is still the same old OTS eats, i.e. black beans and white rice separately on day one, and the beans mixed with rice for the next five meals. Black beans and rice together even has a name: gallo pinto, literally "spotted cock," and I think of it as the Costa Rican national food.

We had other stuff to eat as well—fish of various kinds and quality (all of which were identified as "corvina," no matter how much it smelled like blue shark), veggies, and I'm sure there were meat days as well, though I can't remember any. To me it just made the most sense to get most of my calories from the beans and rice—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and anything else that I found palatable was an unexpected plus.

I still enjoy going for periods subsisting primarily on beans and rice—particularly during the summers when the spouse and young'n's venture across the Atlantic to spend time with Adri's fam. I stay at home, tend to the dogs and garden, and eat beans. And rice, too, but I hadn't made gallo pinto for what seems like forever until I had the chat with Seth.

There's not much to it. Leftover beans (I'll get to this next), leftover rice (for which I gave instructions in my moqueca post), toss them together in a sauté pan, and if you want to be fancy about it, you can start with a bit of sofrito with onions and bell pepper. To me it won't taste right until I drench it with Tabasco sauce (in Costa Rica, it's Lizano), and a handful of cilantro doesn't hurt either.

"Leftover beans" is a tautology (or a redundancy, or whatever philosophers call this type of semi-meaningless verbiage). Cooking beans takes so much time that when anyone makes beans there is always going to be more than what is immediately needed. Therefore, the act of cooking beans is equivalent to the phenomenon of having beans left over, and hence "leftover beans" equates to "leftover products of an act that produces leftovers." [Apologies to almost everyone. This is U. of Chicago humor intended principally for Karen, whose blog is now host to my therapeutic—at least for me—ramblings. Now for my real comments about making beans.]

Somewhere in the Bible it must say something like, "thou shalt not cook beans without soaking them first," and "thou shalt not salt beans until after they are cooked, lest they become tough beans." I'm not totally sure about this, but it must be in the friggin' Bible because people believe this crap without asking for evidence.

Beans can be cooked without soaking—they turn out fine, though it requires a bit longer cooking time (the real cooking begins from the point where all of the beans have sunk below the surface of the liquid, whereas for soaked beans this is the case at the outset). And salting the water before cooking makes beans that are not only tender but also taste better than beans that soak up a bunch of un-salty water. If you can't believe that the Bible could be wrong about this, I suggest you perform the proper experiment to evaluate my position vs. that of the Bible. Go ahead.

The one misstep that I do make on occasion that does result in tough, undercooked beans (mixed in with the cooked ones) is not using enough water. The beans need to be completely underneath the cooking water for the duration of the cooking time in order to absorb liquid and reach tenderness. Undershoot with water (or overshoot with beans) and the surface dries out, and those beans at the top of the pot will be crunchy. If this happens, I just add more liquid and cook until all the beans are tender, realizing that the beans that were already cooked may by then have turned to mush.

Adding extra flavor to the beans as they cook is a great idea. A couple of bay leaves is almost de rigueur. Dried or fresh herbs are also good, and epazote, a Mexican mugwort sometimes used as an anti-flatus additive, actually adds a distinctive flavor to the beans. Peeled cloves of garlic is a personal favorite of mine. Another is a fat slice of good, smoky bacon, which stands as a big, porky asterisk between this post and complete vegan-itude. [The closest I've come to home-made bacon uses what amounts to Trevor's method on magrets (duck breasts) but with a shorter period of air exposure—in the fridge, which is suboptimal but the only option for those of us without cellars. And come to think of it, a slice or two of duck prosciutto would make nice non-vegan flavor supplement to one's beans!]

Saturday, 11 July 2009

More things to do with a sheep ...

Not that I'm suggesting you should become a sheep-botherer or anything like that, just pointing out that there is more to the lamb than just chops or the eternal roast leg with mint sauce. There is, for instance, an Auvergnat specialty which involves braising a whole leg for about six hours with chestnuts (amongst other things), or you could butterfly a leg, soak it in olive oil, vinegar, garlic and rosemary overnight before putting it on the barbecue - or again, you could bone a shoulder, cover it with a mix of garlic stewed in butter until just soft, breadcrumbs and thyme, roll it up to enclose the stuffing, then cover it with a crust of buttered breadcrumbs and parmesan before roasting it ...

If you could get hold of lamb fillet (the real fillet, about 2 cm in diameter, not a boned-out rack) I've got a really good one involving orange juice, shallots and redcurrant jelly - but today we'll celebrate the shank. If you can't get lamb shanks but have, like me, an understanding butcher, he'll oblige you by cutting off the forearm bits off the shoulder - use those.

It is - or was, anyway - an under-rated cut of meat, which is odd because it really is good. Full of flavour, extremely tender (when braised), and rather gelatinous (like crocodile) which gives a luscious sauce.

Crocodile, although gelatinous and tender enough, misses out on the flavour department. When I ate it in Yaoundé years ago, in a definitely non-trendy, no-whites (only got in on account of being with locals), cheap'n'cheerful dive, it was smothered in harissa (which is used rather like ketchup, but it's the equivalent of sambal oelek so I wouldn't recommend overdoing it) which did make me forget for a while that I was basically ingesting an overgrown lizard. I was too busy drinking beer to cool my throat down.

This generous use of harissa (which does, I admit, tend to mask most signs of advanced putrescence in the meat) may explain why it is that in Africa the smallest beer you can get in a bar is about 1 litre. Anything less would be totally inadequate.

Anyway, back to our adolescent ovine friend. The last time I did this for Sophie and her two bratlings I had two largeish bits from the shoulder (the forelegs, really, I suppose) - about 1.2 kg. There was none left. Be warned. You will also need a decent sized, heavy Dutch oven or other solid lidded casserole big enough to hold the meat and its accessories.

To start with, fry some bacon up until crispy, then fish it out of the casserole and set it aside, leaving - as always - the fat in there. Which reminds me that now would be a good time to tell you how to make the stuff, so that next time you don't have to use waterlogged meat-substitute crap from the supermarket.

So, start off with about a kilo of good meaty pork belly with the skin still on. You might want to cut this into two chunks so that each will fit into a ziploc bag, because this make things easier later on. Like now, because you should put the meat into ziploc bags whilst you mix up 2 tbsp gros sel (kosher salt, to you), ditto brown sugar (or Chinese red sugar if you happen to have it), and a 1/4 tsp of either pink salt (aka curing salt) or if, like me, you can't get that, the same amount of saltpetre. (Do not overdo the saltpetre. It's toxic in large quantities: 3 - 4% is OK) To this you add a couple of cloves of garlic, finely chopped, a good tbsp of crushed dried juniper berries (mind you, if you have access to fresh juniper berries I'd use those), 1 tsp dried thyme, a couple of crushed bay leaves, coarsely ground black pepper, a bit of nutmeg ...

Now just divide the salt/sugar/spice mix between each bag, spooning it over the meat and then rubbing it in well. Close the bag(s), squeezing as much air out as you can, then stick them on a tray (in case of leaks) and put that out of harm's way in the fridge. For about two weeks. Don't forget about it, go down and talk to it every couple of days, give it a bit of a massage (don't take it out of the bag when you do this), maybe turn it over if you like ... at the end of this time it should be feeling quite firm. Runny would not be a good sign, and would normally mean that your fridge is not, in fact, working.

Assuming that it is in fact firm, remove it from the bag (which you should probably chuck), rinse it so that it's not too salty (but don't be obsessive, little bits of thyme or bayleaf or whatever left on it are fine), pat dry and then, using a thick skewer, poke a hole through flesh and skin at one end and push a bit of twine through. Knot the twine, so that you can hang it up on a hook or something, then go and do exactly that - in a dark, cool, airy place. Like one of the three cellars we happen to have under our house, for instance. Whatever, leave it there in the dark for another two weeks - during this time I rather like to brush it with a bit of maple syrup every few days. Do try to make sure that the cat can't get at it.

At the end of all that it's more or less fit for purpose. It'll keep for a few weeks in the fridge, well-wrapped, and it freezes well. I tend to make up a batch every month or so, like that we never run out. If your first batch is a bit salty - mine was - just rinse better the next time. You'll get the hang of it.

That was, I admit, rather a long digression, but it was all in a good cause. Having made your bacon, and now fried it, brown the lamb in the fat on medium heat and set that aside too. Now chop a couple of carrots into smallish chunks, an onion or two into wedges and - if you like that sort or thing - a stick of celery into slices. Shove the pile into the fat and stir occasionally until the vegetables start to brown.

At this point I usually sprinkle a tbsp of flour over and stir that in. I'm not sure that it makes any difference to the end-result, but I do it anyway. More habit than anything else. Then add some chopped garlic, a tbsp or two of tomato paste (according to your taste), a tbsp of smashed juniper berries and some thyme, rosemary, oregano, whatever. Let all that lot cook for another couple of minutes, until we get to the good part.

I assume that up till now you've been drinking regularly but in moderation, so with luck there'll be at least 2 cups of decent red wine left in the bottle. Go open another bottle, and pour the leftovers into the casserole - turn the heat up, scrape all the burnt bits off the bottom so that they dissolve, and boil hell out of it at least until all the alcohol has evaporated off, and preferably until it's reduced by about 1/3.

Put the shanks back in, add beef stock to come half-way up if necessary, then cover and cook - slowly - either in the oven or on a very low burner for about three hours. During which time you can make some serious inroads on that second bottle. If, when cooked, there's too much stock for your taste, just fish the shanks out and set aside for a couple of minutes whilst you reduce it.

Salad is not really a viable accompaniment to this. Garlicky mashed potatoes, on the other hand, are. And you can make butter lakes in them, too, which is a definite bonus. Beans, too, would be good.

And one last thing - like many such dishes, this reheats well and in my extremely humble opinion benefits from being cooked the day before you plan on eating it. But it smells so bloody delicious that this may not be an option.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

MOQUECA DE PEIXE (Brazilian fish stew)

In the opening scene of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, which is a decent movie based on not-my-favorite book by a favorite author (Jorge Amado), Flor (played by Sonia Braga) is in her own kitchen, teaching a cooking class on how to make a proper moqueca. This was the only part of the movie I remember, having seen it only once and long before I had developed any fascination with Brazil, its music, and its food.

Well, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I was able to find exactly that clip on YouTube. Took me about seven seconds. At 1:16 of this video, there's the scene!

Decades later, as I attempt to reproduce Brazilian flavors, I recall the insane volume of dendê oil poured over what seemed like a rather small volume of food in a shallow pan. Surely this is something of a cinematic exaggeration, a metaphor for Flor's passion for her just-expired husband #1. Dendê has an extraordinarily rich flavor, aroma, and mouth feel, and too much would take food beyond heavy—a supermassive brick in the stomach.

In southern Brazil I ate moqueca de peixe several times, and it was always delicious and intriguing. While the principal ingredient varied—from thresher shark to shrimp to gigantic pintado catfish to caiman—the stew base was basically the same, having predominant flavors of sofrito, dendê and coconut milk, usually with tomato and slivers of brightly colored bell peppers, mostly for appearance's sake. And while it was still very heavy for a fish dish, the dendê content was surprisingly modest—and this apparently is a concession to accommodate the wimpy palates of southern Brazilians.

Bahians (folks from the northeastern state of Bahia, home of both moqueca and samba) it seems, are acclimated to extreme levels of both dendê and coconut in their food. I've never been to the northeast to confirm this, but I did challenge my friend Rogerio (from the tiny town of Uruçuca in Bahia) once to a moqueca cook-off. Mine was the image of what I remembered from São Paulo, and his was what he claimed to be a very authentic Bahian moqueca de peixe, containing the better part of three bottles of dendê oil, along with four containers of cocounut milk. My dish had all of two tablespoons of dendê and half a can of coconut—which I saw as enough to provide the right flavor without weighing the stew down to the point of causing gravity-induced implosion/spontaneous human combustion. I realized then that it was no cinematic metaphor that Braga was creating with her supple hands. It was just lunch. Bahians consume palm oil like the French soak up butter.

I apologize those who insist on authenticity at all costs, but the moqueca I'm making here will seem to the purist as an abomination—a litany of broken rules--which I do quite happily only because I find that the "proper" amount of palm and coconut products makes a dish that's kind of, well, gross. It's not like I'm on a mission to teach all of Bahia a much-needed lesson in restraint—I wouldn't want to do that. We already have a surfeit of restraint, what with all the uptight folks in big cities like Milan and Chicago it's a damned righteous thing to have at least some people compensating with habitual excess. I just prefer my moqueca much lighter on the coconut and dendê and (while I'm at it) with quite a bit more fiery punch.

Apart from quantities of key ingredients, my process for moqueca is also different from what you would probably find in a book of traditional recipes—but to me it's more rational. For example, stewing the fish for the same duration that the vegetables stew would result in either overcooked fish or undercooked vegetables. Makes more sense to stew the vegetables on their own and add the fish at the end a few minutes before serving.

I start with rinsing and soaking the rice. I prefer brown rice, and if that makes me a hippie, so be it. Rinsing brown rice only takes away tiny flecks of chaff, and this step is not as important as it is when preparing white rice, in which there's enough starch to make the rice gooey if not thoroughly rinsed before soaking. After soaking I "calculate" the right amount of water by tilting the pot and allowing the water to pour slowly out of the pot until just a little more than half of the rice is still under the water's surface. I then put the pot up to boil until the water is below the level of the top of the rice, cover and turn the heat down to a low simmer. After twenty minutes I turn the fire off completely. After another twenty minutes, I use a paddle to turn and fluff the rice in the pot, before covering it back up. Of course this is all happening while I'm doing other stuff, but the timing must be such that the rice is done (to the point of fluffing) before the moqueca is ready to serve.

I'm using shrimp and salmon (the latter must be wild only, please, not the obese, artificially colored, foul-tasting mud marlin they raise in those ecologically disastrous aquaculture pens). Shrimp need to be peeled and deveined, after which I give them a little splash of white wine. The salmon I got (at Costco) was fresh sockeye, and I cut roughly 100 g pieces right off the skin. The seafood bits got a salt-and-pepper treatment and went back in the fridge to wait their turn.

The sofrito consisted of about two tablespoons each of dendê oil and olive oil, lots of onion, green (one pasilla and two jalapeño) and yellow (three of the common, waxy semi-hot type) peppers, lots of garlic and fresh ginger (julienned), and when this had cooked down and was just starting to brown, I added several fresh roma tomatoes peeled and diced, half a can of coconut milk, some jellied fish stock (from some fish I caught a few days ago) and salt (to taste). This mixture smells awesome and it should be allowed to cook on low heat for a while until all the veggies are very tender.

Everything I've gone through so far is pretty laid back—stuff that can happen at whatever pace you set. It could be just before dinner or it could be done a day ahead. The final step, however, is time-sensitive, and you'll want to do this shortly before dinner. I start by using a Benriner mandoline to sliver a nice pile of red, yellow and green bell peppers.

I break several rules with my practice of coating just one side of the fish with a dry spice rub and searing that side on a very hot iron pan before assembling the stew. If you don't do this, the moqueca will turn out just great, but I find that the sear adds another dimension of flavor and texture.

The fish and the vegetable mixture can be put together in the pan used for searing, which was already hot, and this could be "made pretty" with a casual scattering across the top with the bell pepper slivers (you're more than welcome to get artistic with this part). Cover goes on, it cooks for just long enough to make a couple of caipirinhas, and it's done! [The pan in the pic below is larger--a #12--than the one in the previous pic, a #8.]

Ladle a nice helping over rice, and toss in some finely chopped cilantro if you like (I totally forgot the cilantro today!), and regale in complete disregard for authenticity!

Monday, 6 July 2009

Rice salad-riso freddo

A summer staple in Italy, cold rice salads are much appreciated when temperatures soar. They are ideal for al fresco meals, as we all try to cool down by enjoying the evening air. In our house we spend most of the summer months outside (yes, even on the computer, thanks to wifi!). Personally, I don't enjoy spending more time than necessary over a hot stove (or even worse) near an oven when boiling outdoors!
The basic recipe that follows can easily be adapted to vegetarian cooking. In Italy, arborio rice is used, but other white rice can be substituted, such as basmati or Thai (NOT Uncle Ben's).
The mixed pickled vegetables are easily found in Italian foodstores. The mix usually includes carrots, pickles, onions, cauliflower, onion, peppers.
{NB: it's difficult to measure out ingredients, since it's a question of taste}

White rice
Sottoaceti (mixed pickled vegetables)
Hot dog or tuna
Hard boiled egg

Cook rice & hardboil egg. Set aside to cool.
Drain vegetables & tuna. Slice thinly or dice vegetables, hotdog & egg. Mix into cooled rice.
Add mayonnaise and/or oil.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

TOURNEDOS de poisson, the last of Jeanine's seabass (sniff)

Okay, sorry, folks, this isn't much, but it completes a tetralogy of fish posts developing from a sizeable donation of white seabass from my colleague. So far, I've been through three raw dishes, and by today, the fish is almost certainly still good for raw use…but heck, I might as well enjoy some cooked fish as well.

In my previous post, I made pokie, which being a tartare, is not a picky dish when it comes to the shape of the pieces of fish being used. Planning ahead, I cut seven perfect medallions (tournedos) and squirreled them away before dicing the remainder for the pokie. Those medallions are now the final act—but jeezus, this is just cooking fish…so…pedestrian after exploring the exciting possibilities of raw fish.

But wait—I did mention before that oversized white seabass turns to rubber if improperly cooked. It happened to my sister once when she decided to cook dinner (this was when I was a kid), and the experience was so traumatic that she would never cook fish again. The scars left from completely ruining a premium ingredient are deep and burning and may never heal, and my sister would thereverafter be consigned to a diet heavier on red meat than it otherwise would be and the unhealthy consequences of its saturated fats and cholesterol. So cooking seabass can be detrimental to your well-being and sanity after all, so maybe it's a good idea to at least cover how not to f*ck it up royally, à la Jacquie.

These particular fish medallions are meant to be cooked through—not just seared on the outside and raw in the middle. I would venture to say that for cooked seabass, the raw-in-the-middle thing just doesn't work. Knowing this, I had cut the tournedos relatively thin (about 1 cm), for quick cooking on a wickedly hot surface.

For me, that hot surface comes in the form of a cast-iron skillet. The penalty for using a non-reactive surface like nonstick or stainless steel is not huge, except for a slight deficit in browning. The important thing is that the surface is really hot when the fish is put in the pan.

I put oil (olive—or anything with a high smoke point) into the pan just before cooking the fish. This keeps the smoke to a minimum and gives less time for the heat-driven funky reactions that chemically change the structure of the fats into things you're better off not eating.

Once the fish is in the pan, I don't touch it again until the first side is done and browned. The guaranteed way to make rubbery seabass is to cook at insufficient heat and flip the pieces over and over.

The second side doesn't require as much time, as there will be some of the cooking occurring with residual heat from the top as well as new heat from the pan below.

As with any sautéed meat, it's a good idea to move the tournedos to a plate and allow it to sit a bit for even heat distribution. This gives you a chance to deglaze the skillet and make a quick sauce. Now would be the time to add white wine, butter (salted, of course), herbs, cream, whatever you like.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

LOW-KEY POKIE (that's what it's all about)

Pokie (poke, poki, pokey—the Hawaiian kind not the Norway kind) is a near total sham. With a sauce based on any combination of red chili pepper, soy sauce, and sesame oil, you could cover up almost anything and it would taste pretty awesome. It's a fairly standard introduction—a "raw fish for beginners"—for those who haven't quite mastered the concept of raw fish but have already developed a liking for fiery spice (and this is becoming increasingly common in Europe, though there's still a high wuss-factor there when it comes to spicy or raw food). If you've been to a sushi restaurant and had "spicy tuna," you are familiar with the general flavor of pokie—that is, more about the seasoning than the fish. Not something I get too excited about, and in restaurants I rarely order it.

Why do I make it, then? Well, I did say it tastes pretty awesome, and it's a really easy—a laid-back (and low-key) way to use fish that is in good enough condition for eating raw (i.e., excellent condition). At some point in the procession of dishes from beginning with raw and unadorned sashimi and ending with pan-seared tournedos de poisson, even my seabass donation from Jeanine gets the Hawaiian treatment.

Pokie is basically a fish tartare, in which the size of the dice of fish may vary wildly. I have had everything from huge chunks to what looked like puree, though a medium dice (a bit smaller than 1 cm) works well for my purposes, which usually involves the use of romaine lettuce hearts or cucumber sticks for spooning up the pokie.

In creating a sauce for pokie the basic needs are soy sauce, sesame oil, and some kind of red chili pepper—traditionally the last part would come from a "Hawaiian red pepper"—whatever that is, keeping in mind that pokie is a relatively recent invention and red Capsicum is just as native to Hawaii as soy sauce and sesame, i.e., not at all. The traditional fish used in pokie is sashimi-grade ahi, or yellowfin tuna, which is native to Hawaii (so at least one ingredient is local).

Beyond the basic three, you can pretty much toss in whatever you want—garlic, ginger, mayonnaise, sugar, lemon, lime, green onions, chives, oyster sauce—this is a very forgiving recipe. Here's what I used for the seabass pokie in the picture: soy sauce, sesame oil, sambal oelek (Indonesian red chile sauce) and sriracha (a.k.a. "rooster sauce") for the spicy kick, lime juice for acid, a bit of mayonnaise for creaminess, and chopped chives for pungency and texture.

Mahalos, dude (or whatever it is they say there).

Friday, 3 July 2009


After procuring a large, premium fish of a species worthy of raw consumption (tuna, yellowtail, seabass are the obvious ones, but there are others, such as wild salmon, kelp bass, and striped bass that are also excellent), I usually follow a sequence of dishes that begins with raw, progresses to seared (tataki) and marinated dishes, and by the third day (if there is any fish left), I'll be cooking the fish.

Some fish are just better raw. For example, it should be a felony to apply any kind of heat to bluefin tuna, which is transcendent in flavor in its uncooked state but becomes just ordinary as cooked fish. White seabass (what I'm working with today) is already very firm when raw and has a tendency to become unappealingly tough or even rubbery if it's not cooked with extreme care. Yellowfin tuna, or "ahi," is excellent raw (though not even half as good as bluefin) but is improved with a bit of searing or marinating. Others, like yellowtail, salmon (wild—never the farm-raised, artificially-colored stuff), and striped bass, are wonderful at all levels of heat-treatment, with the caveat that overcooked fish (to the point of flaking) is never any good.

The key to success in home preparation of raw fish dishes is proper care of the ingredient. This means keeping the fish cold with minimal exposure to air, water, and bacteria, and to this end I bring my fish home from the ocean whole and packed in ice, rather than enjoying the convenience of having them cleaned and filleted on the boat (or if you don't fish, by the fishmonger, but be damned sure that the fish is less than a day post-capture and packed in ice). Rinsing with water is a sure initiator of bacterial degradation, and it also causes osmotic stress to those cells that are exposed to the water. Fish can be gutted without water, but care should be taken to remove the innards without rupturing the intestine or the gall bladder. Done correctly, there will be minimal blood, which can be wiped clean with a paper towel. Finally, the skin should be left on the fillets, as it protects the flesh from exposure and can be removed at the time of preparation for the table.

This may be totally gross, but one should always keep an eye open for dark spots in the muscle. Sometimes they are just spots of blood, but they might also be coiled-up Anasakis roundworms, which are not good to eat. The only way to kill them is to either freeze the fish (which ruins the texture) or to cook it (and this would mean no raw fish at all). Fortunately they are large enough to be easily visible—especially in thin slices of the light, transparent-fleshed species like seabass—while the other species like tuna with darker, more opaque flesh are far less likely to have them.

The easiest and most typical approach to sashimi is to take a slab from the fillet of a large fish (I think the frogs call this a pavé) and cut a "log" from it—meaning that the cut should be parallel with the direction that the fish swims. If you're good, the skin and most of the dark muscle can be left behind when you make this cut. If desired, the remaining dark muscle can be removed with your very sharp knife. Cut the log into salami slices, plate, and repeat. Simple. The only required accompanying condiment is soy sauce, but standard additions are wasabi and grated fresh ginger (ginger is not common in restaurants, but for inshore fish this is traditionally preferable to wasabi). Less standard but also very good are lemon and sambal oelek (Indonesian chili sauce).

Breakfast of champions!


White sea bass, Atractoscion nobilis, are known around here for being generally quite large (10-30 kg), running around in large schools, getting famously stupid when they are hungry, and being wonderful to eat. This summer I've gone fishing for them twice already and have come home empty-handed both times, which has thrown a monkey wrench in my plans to post fish dishes to Frangykitchen.

My luck changed today when I got an email from my dear colleague Jeanine, who is an expert on fish physiology and is married to another fish researcher and captain of a fish-research vessel. "Jeff," she writes, "you're pitiful. I'll leave a chunk of seabass in the fridge at work for you."

I wasn't planning on driving in to work today, but I've gotten fish from Jeanine often enough to know that when she offers fish, you jump at the opportunity. The fish she brings me is always in pristine condition and never frozen—suitable for raw dishes like sashimi, tartare, and carpaccio. This chunk was the picture of seafood perfection—about a kilo of fillet (skin still on), cut from the front half of the right side of a fish that must have weighed over 40 lb (18.14 kg). Okay, right or left doesn't make a difference, but the rest does.

The first of three raw dishes I'm making is carpaccio. What's the difference between fish carpaccio and sashimi? Well besides the fact that one is Italian and the other Japanese, it's mostly about how the fish gets "dressed." With little variation, sashimi is uniformly-sized and overlapping slices of raw fish presented simply on a small dish, and it is dipped into a mixture of soy sauce and wasabi. Carpaccio, is more elaborate, and the fish itself is not always simply raw but may be cured or marinated—just not cooked. In carpaccio, the slices tend to be thin but broad and presented in a single layer on a large dish, with toppings that vary. Because the slices are usually larger, carpaccio requires the fork-and-knife approach, whereas sashimi is cut to bite-size and eaten with chopsticks.

White seabass is good for sashimi but ideal for carpaccio, because it's large and very firm (easy to slice off large, flat, thin slices), and because it has relatively little flavor on its own and takes nicely to a variety of condiments. Here's what I did.

I cut slices from the center of the fillet and parallel with the longitudinal axis of the fish (if this were sashimi, I would slice in a very different direction). In case you don't know this, you need a very sharp knife for this work. If all of your kitchen knives are dull, you shouldn't be reading here anyways, so go away. All of you squeamish raw-fish haters can leave as well. Bye.

I used a light marinade to make the fish less sashimi-like and more carpaccio-ish. Squeezed a lime over the slices, drizzled tequila, and then some walnut oil, mixed it up and put it in the fridge for a couple of hours while I went to the gym and to the grocery to get some fresh chives.

Back home, it's put a plate in the fridge to chill, slice tomatoes, prepare a "vinaigrette" (sans vinegar) with the juice of another lime, a teaspoon or so of white wine, about a teaspoon of ginger juice (I use my garlic press, which I never use for garlic so it should really be called a ginger press), salt, a bit of sugar, olive oil, and a half teaspoon of mayonnaise from a jar to help emulsify. The sauce needs to be kind of salty to flavor the raw fish, which is thus far unsalted. Besides the vinaigrette, the fish gets liberal sprinklings of chopped chives and shichimi togarashi, a Japanese red pepper spice mix that adds just the perfect "punch" to an otherwise very tame dish.

Great summertime snack by the pool!