Friday, 28 August 2009

Impressing the in-laws ...

Despite years of alcohol abuse I can still remember when we arrived in France, back in '87. We arrived at some ungodly hour at Charles de Gaulle after a 24 hour flight and got decanted into the arrival lounge after only an hour or so waiting around for our baggage to turn up (which it did) and getting waved through customs (despite my baggage containing all my chef's knives they were more interested in the NZ multi-plug we'd brought so that we could plg in various electrical appliances).

From there we were rescued relatively quickly by my friend Jacques and a mad ex-pat Brit by the name of Brian Gotto and driven at great speed (about R17 where, as Douglas Adams explained, R = Reasonable speed and N = multiple so we were going at least 17 times faster than reasonable) to the centre of Paris, where I was expected to start working. And being a good, obedient lad, I did.

Whatever. We were, let it be said, beautifully situated - fifth and final floor of one of the Haussmannian apartments at about 200m from the Opéra Garnier, in the middle of the 2ème arrondissement: don't get much more central than that. I have to admit that our little lodging was, at the time, the shagging-pad of Alain Porcher, then Président-Directeur Générale of Allflex France, and was notable - at least for us - for having satin sheets on the fold-out bed, and an Exercycle and three cases of champagne in the bedroom. Not to mention the rather hideously expensive womens' toiletries in the bathroom, which I tried to remember not to use.

And while we were there, we certainly tried to take advantage of it. I think the first night we spent out at Rambouillet at Brian Gotto's place, which is where I first learnt about goat's toasts (yes, I'll go into that later), but after that we dined out midday and night whilst we were there. Breakfast was usually croissant or pain au chocolat with coffee on the balcony, peering down into the café across the street to see how many glasses of white wine the postman had downed by 9am ...

Unfortunately, I still can't think of a really memorable meal. Had squishy in some trendy Japanese place in rue Daunou, escorted by the blonde and sexy Anne Rousseau (secretary and doubtless intimate personal assistant of M. Porcher), a rather good fondant au chocolat in a place called L'Escalier in rue 4 Septembre (which probably isn't there any more, don't go looking), and any number of honorable omelettes and salads in various bistros - but quite honestly the only one that sticks in my mind is one we had one evening in a bourguignon restaurant just off Place Molière, which remains in my memory only because it was a stinking hot night, everything was over-salted, and the meat was smothered in sauce. Possibly at birth.

I tell a lie. There is another meal I remember, and it's the one we had at Gare du Nord just before taking the night train to Brussells to renew our passports. It was the dawn of the microwave era, and they must have taken something frozen out and stuck it into one of those primitive boxes that went "PING!" before serving, with the result that one side of the plate was Arctic and the other was boiling hot. It was midnight, we were leaving in 15 minutes, we ate what we could and I will never again eat at the Gare du Nord. (Do remind me to tell you, at some point, about our trip to Brussells. I have to get it off my chest every now and again.)

And there was the time, about ten years back, when we had a really good meal in some hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant in the 19th, where the clientèle was us and a number of French-persons who'd probably seen service in Indo-Chine, back before the French wisely pulled out and let the Americans try to handle Vietnam in their own manner ...

Quite frankly, I think French food has probably improved immeasurably over the last 20 years or so. Not that I can prove it, as I rarely go to restaurants (no-one pays me to do so, and I'm not going to pay my own money to eat a meal that I could do as well if not better at home), but it's the feeling I get. Less tradition (or more respect for tradition), more inventiveness, not so much of the nouvelle cuisine flashiness ... yeah, whatever.

Anyway, you've been very patient, so here goes.

Goat's toasts are really simple - you need a baguette and a log of goat cheese. The cheaper the better. Slice the baguette into inch-thick rounds and toast them, then stick them on a baking tray. Slice the goat cheese into quarter-inch rounds and stick one on top of each slice of toasted baguette. Then stick the whole lot under the grill for five minutes or so until the cheese is bubbling, pull them out and stick a wodge of redcurrant jelly on each one and serve. In my experience, no matter how many you make, there will be none left over.

But to really impress, you need something classy, so why not filet de boeuf Charlemagne? This too is simple, I promise. You'll need a decent bit of beef fillet - preferably from the centre - some mushrooms, ham, a tomato or two, grated cheese ...

First up, make the stuffing - in this case, a duxelles, as it's known to its friends. Personally, I use the trusty old Kitchen Whizz to transform the mushrooms into smallish chunks (definitely not a purée) but you may be a masochist so feel free to chop them by hand if you're so inclined. Then stick them into a frying pan with some butter and cook until they've rendered all their juice and have started to dry out.

While this is going on you use the mixer to transform a tomato or two and some sliced ham into something resembling a chunky soup, which you should now add to the mushrooms, mix well, and let that dry out too. If it's too sloppy, add some breadcrumbs. I have no shame.

Assuming you have a thick porridgy stuffing, take it off the heat and stir in some grated cheese. Whatever you have handy. Set that aside while you get the beef ready.

Which is remarkably simple: heat up yer cast-iron skillet, brown the fillet on all sides in butter, then stick it in the oven (HOT) for 20 minutes or so. Then take it out, cover with tinfoil and let it settle while you turn the grill on.

Now, all you have to do is slice the fillet into half-inch slabs and then re-form it on a serving dish: a slice of fillet, a good wodge of duxelles, a slice of fillet ... you get the idea. There will be burnt crusty bits in the skillet: stir in some wine or water and reduce til you get a syrupy sauce.

At this point, you have only to pour a good dose of Béarnaise sauce over the fillet (I did tell you how to make that earlier, go back and look), dribble the sauce from the skillet over that, and stick it under the grill until the Béarnaise goes bubbly. And when it does, serving it would be a good idea. With steamed beans, grilled tomatoes, roast potatoes ... your choice. Although artichoke hearts are good too.

For once, pass on the salad. Lots of bread, evidently, and a good burgundy.

Thursday, 20 August 2009


Is this going to be better than any canned tuna you've had?

Well, yah. Three reasons. First, I'm starting with pristinely fresh, sashimi-quality tuna. Any commercially-available tuna of this grade would be sold to restaurants and sushi bars, while the fish packers(canners) get the not-so-nice stuff. I'm canning my fish because there's no way that I could possibly consume it all fresh, and tuna preserved by canning is much better than frozen-and-thawed "fresh tuna wannabe." Second, I'm conserving the tuna in olive oil, not the water or soya oil used in most commercial product. The flavors of olive oil and tuna meld beautifully and improve with age. A jar from two years ago is better than one that's just been canned (which is already very good).

Third, I'm using the Italian method, which involves cooking the tuna before packing it into jars. This means that the fish is really cooked twice, as an additional hour and a half in the pressure cooker will be needed to sterilize. I don't know about commercial canners, but most home canners I know use the "raw pack" method, which is just not as good. The problem with raw-pack is that there is no consideration given to how the fish is cooked, it just gets cooked during the sterilization. Raw fish also has a lot more moisture and this doesn't help to develop a lot of flavor. Some people add garlic or jalapeños to compensate for the lack of taste, but I'm not keen on this.

When I can tuna, I do two "styles"—the loins are usually poached and packed into pint jars. The bellies are smoked and packed into half-pint jars. Tuna bellies, if you don't know, are the prime cut of the fish, highly prized in Japan as the famous toro, and also in Italy as ventresca di tonno. Just a small jar of Italian ventresca will set you back ten euro or more, and it's not half as good as what I make at home.

Poaching the loins requires a large volume of tuna broth, which I made from the bones of the fish I filleted previously. After skinning the loins I trimmed off the dark muscle and split each loin lengthwise into a long flat piece 2-2.5 cm thick and a sort of triangular (in profile) "log." Two loins (split into four pieces) then poached for forty minutes in a large roasting pan set over two burners on the stove. This is one of those poachings where you don't want more than a bubble every few seconds—better yet, the liquid should just be visibly moving in a nervous sort of way, like it wants to bubble but can't quite do it.

The loins should have shrunk noticeably during the cooking. I always allow the fish to cool in the poaching liquid before removing the loins so that I can poach the next batch. Yes, this is a lazy, all-day project. While this is happening you can be working on the smoked ventresca.

I rub the tuna bellies with a 50-50 mixture of kosher salt and brown sugar and let them sit in the fridge for a day before smoking. The general idea here will be to use a backyard barbecue-like thing to hot smoke the fish with indirect heat.

My set-up consists of a kettle-style grill with a tight pile of coals off to one side. A few pre-soaked hickory chips go directly on the coals.

On the grill, a pan of water goes directly over the coals, and the fish is well off to the side—no live coals under the cooking fish. And don't crowd the grill with too much food. Then, the lid went on but just enough to contain the smoke and not in a way that would choke out the coals which need access to lots of air, especially with the wet chips and pan of water inside.

Cooking time depends on a lot of variables. With my set up, the smoke subsides after 15-20 minutes and the second pan water (water added after 20) is almost dried up after 35 and by then the fish is done. There's a lot of fat in tuna bellies, and a pool of fish oil will have accumulated directly below where the fish were cooking. This oil will burn with thick, black, evil smoke if you put some live coals on it. Do this. It's fun! But make sure you have removed the bellies beforehand.

This next part is going to seem seriously geeky, but hell if I care. Packing solid blocks of cooked tuna into pint jars is kind of a challenge, mostly because the mouth of a typical Mason jar is smaller than the jar's belly. You definitely want to put in pieces that are as large as possible, leaving as little space as possible, while "mushing" the tuna into the jar is definitely not good because it breaks up the solid blocks and prevents the oil from penetrating down to the bottom of the jar. My solution:

A long time ago, I spent the better part of a day carving out four pieces of florist's foam that could be fit into a pint jar like a puzzle if you followed the right sequence. I then covered these puzzle pieces with masking tape and numbered them.

Before I did this, fitting blocks of tuna into jars involved a lot of eyeballing and guesswork, which was made more difficult by the funny contours (kinda square, kinda round) in the Mason jar. I usually ended up with a bunch of pieces that didn't really fit anywhere and ended up mushing them haphazardly into the last three or four jars, which I had to label "tuna bits"—too ugly for anything but mixing with mayo.

Now, I just cut the four pieces based on the foam-and-tape models and pack a jar. Repeat. The work goes much quicker, I end up with more good jars (twelve jars of solid to less than one jar of bits this time), and because I'm packing them more effectively with more tuna, I'm using less olive oil than I used to.

Packing the ventresca is easier, because the mouth is the widest part of the half-pint jar and the ventresca pieces are flat. It is important, however to remove all skin, the body cavity membrane, and any loose scales before packing the jars.

Don't try to overpack. It's best to leave a fairly large space between the top of the food and the top of the jar. Then it's just a matter of adding a dose of sea salt to each jar, oil to cover the fish, then sterilizing in a pressure cooker. Pint jars require 90 minutes at pressure for sterilization, according to the website that I consulted. This seems excessive to me, but I do it anyways.

After the 90 minutes plus the time required to cool so that the pressure is relieved and the pot can be opened safely, the vacuum seal should have been made and the contents of the jars should be happily boiling away and they will continue to boil for a while after you remove them from the pot and put them on a counter. If you see that a jar is not bubbling away, this means that the pressure inside the jar is fairly high, and the seal is not as good as it should be. I recommend re-sterilizing such jars, even if the top of the jar doesn't buckle, just to get a good seal.

After all the jars are fully sterilized and cooled, you should remove the rings and give the jars and rings a good washing to remove any oil or fish bits that might be clinging to the outside of the jar or the seal area. Label the jars and screw the rings back on tightly before putting them away in a cool, dry place for at least a couple of months. These jars might be sitting in your pantry for a couple of years or more, depending on how many of them you're putting away and how quickly you consume the tuna.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Taking down a large fish without water

Okay, so maybe you're thinking you're not too likely to need to take on a whole tuna and convert it into pieces that are recipe-ready. Even if you or people you know go tuna fishing it will almost always be the case that someone else (like the deckhands) will cut the catch into large chunks free of bones, skin, guts, etc., and pack them into plastic bags for the trip home. I mean, isn't it worth the minor expense to do this and avoid the substantial hassle of icing down the fish whole and encumbering the kitchen with blood and guts and flying scales?

Well, no. It's not. The problem is that even the loveliest skinless loins of tuna cut on the boat will have been exposed to a lot of water and air—enemies #2 and #3 after elevated temperature when it comes to keeping your fish in impeccable shape. By comparison, a tuna kept whole and under refrigeration from the time it was boated will have been continuously chilled and protected (by the fish's skin) from water and air. Meat that is cut off of a whole fish closer to the time of preparation will be in better shape than fillets that are cut early.

Unless you're going to cook the fish right away, rinsing the fillets with water is just a really bad idea. Seawater bears a very high density of microbes, most of which are innocuous but will all the same contribute to the degradation of the fish. The rinsing water is never as cold as the chilled fish, so by rinsing, you're actually warming the fish and speeding up the spoilage process.

Even when cutting the fish at home, rinsing with tap water will have the same warming effect, and the fresh water will put the fish cells into osmotic stress, which does absolutely no good for the preservation of fish quality.

My solution to the problem is to leave the fish whole in the boat's refrigerated hold, and when I get back to land pack it directly into a chest full of ice. I do the "taking down" of the fish under dry conditions, i.e., no water, at home. The fish should be kept in the ice chest up until you're ready to work on it, and just before cutting its skin should be wiped off with a paper towel.

Albacore tuna, about 10 kg each. Yes, they have very long pectoral fins, which need to be hacked off. This is the "white flesh" tuna that is most highly prized for canning, though it is also excellent fresh. Note I've wrapped my table in plastic—this helps a lot at clean-up time.

Eviscerate the tuna by making a "careful" cut along the belly. "Careful" means you don't cut into the intestines, stomach or gall bladder, any of which can taint the fillets with their contents, requiring you to rinse with water. But work quickly. You're cleaning the fish, not dissecting it for a biology class. I cut close to but not actually starting at the vent (anus). This way I can cut the intestine close to the vent from the inside, then strip out all of the "taint risks" of the digestive organs at once. In a larger fish like the tuna, I need to cut the esophagus just behind the mouth cavity (back of the head). With this, the viscerae come out with almost no blood.

The heart may have already come out together with the digestive organs, but maybe not. Besides the heart itself, the area just above the heart (sinus venosus) and the gills are going to contain most of the fishy's blood. Once these are removed, packing a paper towel or two into the area where the gills had been will contain the small amount of blood that would be leaking back from the dorsal aortae.

Now quickly onwards. A cut just behind the head (on the side that you are filleting) all the way to the vertebral column will be important later when it comes time to free the fillet from the center bone.

Cutting both forwards and backwards from the vent just to the side of the center bone will basically free the bottom half of the fillet. With a little practice you can run the knife right along the hemal spines (the spines extending downwards from the vertebral centra).

Turning the fish around and making a similar cut from the dorsal side. Cut through the skin just to the side of the dorsal midline (parts of this skin are quite tough) and run the knife right along the neural spines (in non-biologist-speak, that means staying as close to the center bone as possible). This will free the top half of the fillet. At this point the slab of fish remains attached to the central bone only at the vertebrae. If you've been using a flexible-bladed fillet-type knife so far, it might be good to switch up to a chef's knife to hack through these little bones by running the heavier knife right along the vertebrae. You'll also need to hack through three or four rib bones only, close to the front of the fish.

At this point the whole side of the fish should detach from the central bone in one big thick piece, and there should be no meat left along the frame (this takes some practice). Only the skinny end near the tail needs to be freed and this is done with another cut. Now do the same thing but on the other side of the fish.

Each side consists of an upper loin, a lower loin, a belly, and a collar. The only parts that should be considered "waste" are the skin, the line of little side-bones, and the dark muscle. I don't remove the skin or trim the dark muscle until just before final preparation, so once the loins are separated from each other and the side bones and the belly and collar are cut, the loins get wrapped in plastic and go immediately into a large pan that is already chilled in the fridge. The bellies and collars go in their own wrappings and into the fridge as well.

Are you still reading? Would you actually do this in your kitchen? Note the color and "togetherness" of the loins. There's no separation of myotomes or oily sheen, like what you get in store-bought albacore or fish that is filleted on the boat. My fish is way, way better than what the other folks who fished with me are eating. I figure that if I allow anyone else to cut my catch, there is no way that person will be as careful or as picky about quality as I am. [There are a couple of exceptions, like Jeanine, who gave me some seabass earlier this summer, and Kirby, who blessed me with some lingcod as well as an outstanding abalone.]

It took almost an hour, but the two tuna gave way to a big pile of wrapped loins, bellies and collars. There was very little waste—just the head, gills and innards. The bones went into a stockpot (actually two stockpots) for tuna broth. Why would I make so much tuna broth? No, it wasn't for tuna soup. Details to follow.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Yet another idea for a nice light lunch ...

Yes, I'm afraid so. Nice and simple, delicious - the only real drawback to this one is that there's not really anything you can do ahead, so you'll have to spend a bit of time in the kitchen. But that's alright, just make sure there's plenty of white in the fridge, and sample it from time to time to make sure that it's properly chilled.

Anyway, here goes with feuilletés au Munster followed - or accompanied - by a roulé au saumon. Munster is one of those cheeses that for some reason or another have acquired, rather like Suzi Quatro, a bad reputation - in their case, for being overpoweringly smelly. It's totally unjustified. Alright, I admit that an older specimen can be a bit whiffy, but certainly no worse that that bit of 6-months old camembert that you've forgotten about, and it tastes lovely.

In any case, I came across these things once many years ago when I was up in Alsace - in Colmar, to be precise - doing a troubleshooting job for a client who was paying for food and accomodation and who wasn't too concerned about the budget for these things. So I didn't stint myself on either, staying in a three-star 16th century hotel in the centre of the old town and trying a different restaurant every night. Where I found out about many things, such as the fact that the best whole-grain bread I've ever tasted in my life was to be found there, that duck legs cooked in red wine with raisins until it becomes soft and the wine reduces to syrup is bloody delicious, and that the "Road to Paradise" involves drinking - in rapid succession - seven (or twelve, I've forgotten) glasses of different local wines, in a very specific order. If you don't respect the order the locals get pissed off, as this apparently ruins the beautiful symbolism. Or whatever.

Colmar is also a student town, and just down the road from the hotel were any number of student pubs (and tabacs, so I could get my fix of cigars) which you could spot by the grunge or punk that was being played at really, really high volume. This being (I think) 1995, the evening special was the plateau de bières at 45F (OK, about 7€ in real money), which was a tray with six half-litre mugs of different beers, ranging from something Mexican with chili in it to one of those dark Belgian things prepared by misogynist monks that squelches rather than gurgles when poured. Had lumps in it too, which would've made me wonder but fortunately the lighting was dim enough that I couldn't actually see what they were. Being a student bar, the loos were pretty gross too, but I'll not go into details.

I also discovered rösti and flammenkuche, this latter being bread dough rolled out really thinly and slathered with sour cream, sliced onion rings and chunks of bacon, then cooked quickly in an extremely hot oven so that the dough doesn't get a chance to rise as such but goes crisp and bubbly. But I digress. One night, I was served these crispy little suckers as an amuse-gueule and ever since I've made them at the slightest provocation.

First off, go out and find yourself a nice ripe Munster. Runny in the middle would be good. Be aware that Munster comes with a skin which you do not want and will have to remove - thinly - with a nice sharp knife. The actual cheese part you'll need to cut into small dice and put them in a bowl, unless of course it is extremely runny. Add a good couple of tbsp of sour cream and some caraway seeds to taste and mash the whole mess up with a fork.

Now spread out two sheets of flaky pastry (buy the stuff, don't feel guilty, but do get the stuff that's made from butter rather than coyly unspecified "vegetable oils") and on one of them spread out the cheese mixture in little rectangles, with about 1cm between each. Brush the grid of naked pastry with egg wash, then lay the other sheet over the top and press down along the gridlines to seal. Brush the whole thing with more egg wash, sprinkle with paprika, sea-salt, more caraway seeds - whatever takes your fancy, really - cut along the gridlines to make nice little rectangular packets of cheesy goodness, and stick it in the fridge for later.

Now we come to the main attraction, the roulé. Which is, as its name suggests, nowt more than a stuffed roll, so you should not be afraid of it.

Right, go off into the pantry, find a 200gm tin of pink salmon and open it, taking care not to slash your wrists in the process. Save the juice, but remove the skin and as many of the bones as you've the patience for, and put the flesh in a bowl. Add the juice, three egg yolks and 1 tbsp of tomato concentrate (tomato sauce will not do here, I'm afraid). Mash'n'mix well with a fork and set aside whilst you beat the three egg whites into really stiff peaks, then delicately incorporate the one into the other with a rubber spatula, as for a soufflé. (When I was learning how to do this sort of thing, I was taught that the best way was to beat about a third of the beaten whites into whatever the actual flavour part of your soufflé was so as to lighten it, then pour the resulting slosh over the rest of the whites and do the folding-in thing. It's worked for me so far, but I make no promises.)

You now need a flat cake tin, about 23 x 33 cm - spread a sheet of sulfurised paper over it and run your fingernail along the inside edges of the cake tin to crease the paper and form a nice little liner. With any luck, you won't have to wash the tin, which is always good. Now pour the soufflé mix in, spread it around evenly, and stick it into an oven at 200° for about 15 minutes until well-risen and firm.

While that's going on, make the filling. This is nothing more complicated than a thick bechamel to which you stir in 2tsp of lemon juice, chopped fennel, parsley and chives, pepper, and two or three chopped hard-boiled eggs.

The rest is simplicity itself. Pull your flat soufflé out of the oven and stick the cheesy things in instead - they'll need five to ten minutes. Spread another sheet of sulfurised paper out on the bench and sprinkle it with grated Parmesan and then, one way or another, unmould your salmon cake onto it, with the nicely browned top side now on the bottom, on the cheese. Now just carefully peel off the paper and spread the filling evenly out, to within 1cm of the edges. Using the bottom sheet of paper to help, roll up along the long edge and put it on a long serving dish - seam side down looks prettier (also means it won't start to sneakily unroll while your back's turned).

At this point you've a choice - either put it back into the oven to keep hot whilst the feuillétés finish cooking, or let it cool down a bit, in which case you could usefully decorate the plate with sliced cucumber and lemon, and maybe some rolled-up slices of smoked salmon. Whichever way you go, some toasted whole-grain bread and salad are all you really need to go with this, apart from the wine, of course. I'm not sure I'd even bother with a dessert, to be quite honest - we are talking "light lunch" here. Although fruit is always good - especially as they're practically giving away peaches and such-like right now.

Whatever, enjoy.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009


Back in the day, or so I'm told, abalone were plentiful as all get out. At various times during their respective childhoods, both Mom and Dad made their way down the cliffs behind White's Point to the rocky shoreline where they collected abs and octopus. Over the years abalone became scarcer, and by the time I appeared on the scene the only evidence that these oversize sea snails had been on our home table was the shells that Dad had under the kumquat tree. My sisters remember eating them, though.

It's possible to get abs again now. They grow them to market size (10-12 cm) in big aquaculture tanks. Even in captivity, abalone mature slowly and so they're still very expensive. I hear from those who know that these little buttons of mollusk actually do taste like abalone, and hopefully they make a better facsimile of the real (wild) article than do most fish-farm products.

Acquiring a wild abalone is a truly rare event, and when a friend brought me an exceptional specimen, 27 cm and frozen in a block of seawater, I knew that I wouldn't be at my usual level of seafood-confidence… but there was someone who would know exactly what to do with the thing—Mom!

I've never really asked Mom for kitchen guidance, despite her reputation as an excellent cook. I guess I like working things out for myself. But an abalone of this size and quality demands to be shared with good company who understand the uniqueness of the acquisition, and for this I couldn't do better than Mom and Dad. And as a huge plus, I could lean on Mom for help in prepping the beast.

I had already thawed the ab, freeing it from the remnants of its block of ice after it sat out overnight and part of the next morning. The shell, gill, head and most of the remaining organs had been removed from the mantle cavity before it was frozen.

The first step was sprinkling the black parts with kosher salt and rubbing (with my fingers) to remove the pigmented skin, which came off rather easily. The dorsal side of the animal—the part that anchors body to shell—consists of a thick, muscular "post" which extends upwards from the "foot" of the gastropod which is also pure muscle. Top side:

Bottom side (this is the part that creeps over and holds tightly to the rocks):

While every part of the animal is basically edible, the mantle and the outermost layer of skin and muscle (particularly on the bottom of the foot) are too tough for any kind of "delicate" presentation. They need to be removed with a very sharp knife. After "shaving" a thin layer off of the top of the post, the next cut removed a strip from around the perimeter that included the fringe of mantle as well as the widest portion of the tough foot bottom.

Notice I'm saving all of the extra bits. We turned them into a tasty snack that I'll get to later. Next I sliced off the toughest layers of skin and muscle from the bottom of the foot:

The mass remaining is pure, tender, mollusk-y wonderfulness. I cut the gastropod right down the center, and it's clear that this foot muscle is nearly completely devoid of viscera (most of the "internal organs" in mollusks have been evolutionarily relocated into the mantle cavity). There is just a smidgen of "uglier parts," like the brownish stuff in the indentation seen in the pic below, which should be cut away (and saved!).

So apart from the tough and/or unsightly bits, Mom and I decided that we should prepare as much of the animal for sashimi as possible—a very good plan because with leftover sashimi, you can do anything, but the reverse is not true—you can't do anything else to abalone and then turn it into sashimi later.

Turning each half of the beast cut-side-down I started making thin slices which I arranged neatly in a dish.

The pile of raw abalone slices grew. These slices are about 2.0 mm thick, and given the size of this abalone, I should have made another longitudinal cut before starting with the salami slicing. The width of the slices made for more-than-bite-sized morsels for most eaters. They were just right for me, though.

In my family the proper awabi-sashimi condiment is grated ginger, lemon, and soy sauce. Mom didn't even bring out the wasabi. The texture was silken and tender yet definitely toothsome. The flavor is uniquely abalone, though I did think for a moment that it was reminiscent of sashimi made from very large calico bass.

So did the three of us eat that entire plate of raw abalone? No but we managed to put a significant dent in it. The remains were split (I took half home to share with Adri).

What about the ugly bits and tougher trimmings? Well what do you say about breaded and fried? Flour, egg, panko crumbs (in that order), then into some hot oil.

All of these nuggets were darned tasty, but some (particularly the perimeter strip) were very tough—like chewing on abalone-flavored inner tubes.

Many thanks to Kirby for providing me with the raw materials and opportunity for this experience, and of course to Mom for showing me the "way of the abalone."

Saturday, 8 August 2009

One from the vault ...

Well, over here in ole Yurrup it's the height of summer, everyone is off on holiday so we're basically dispersed to the four corners of France (or beyond), but I'm going to take the time anyway to give you one from the archives. I'll be quite honest about it, I have in fact made it for Sophie but not for lunch, only for dinner - I'm not really into starting cooking lunch at 11:00 to eat at 13:00, unless I'm on holiday and have vast amounts or rosé to sustain me. Maybe I'm the only person that really likes it, but I like it a lot and can eat vast quantities, so let's hear it for - drumroll, please - croquettes de porc.

These are really remarkably simple, reheat well and apart from a few vegetables or a salad on the side, require no other work - in my book, this makes them almost perfect.

Whatever, start out with 150gm of that bacon you've made, chop it finely and start it sizzling in a frying pan. Whip it out when nicely crispy, and replace it with a finely chopped onion or - better - three chopped shallots. Turn the heat down low and watch them soften while you have a glass of rosé. (Incidentally, you can get a really marvellous Costières de Nîmes rosé - try it if you find it.) And while you're at it, open a bottle of white because you'll need it later on. Like, in about five minutes.

Now go off and find a bowl from wherever you hide them and stick about 100gm of breadcrumbs (what I call chapelure) in it and add a good slosh of milk. Let that sit for five minutes or so, then add - in that order - two egg yolks (save the whites, you will need them too), salt, pepper, nutmeg, the crispy bacon and the onions, about 400gm of pork mince (surprised you with that one, didn't I? Sorry) and a glass of the white wine. Mix the whole damn lot together - this may require using your fingers - and it really does need to be well incorporated, and a bit on the sloppy side: then, as you've been multi-tasking you've also beaten the egg whites very stiffly, so you can now fold them carefully into the piggy-meat mixture.

The whole mess will stay together for an hour or so without any attention, but don't finish off the white, we're not done with it yet.

Once you're ready, it's time to heat up the frying pan again (hope you didn't chuck out the fat from the bacon - can always add some butter and olive oil if necessary). Now take big spoonfuls of the pork soufflé mix ('cos that's basically what it is), roll them in flour and put them in the frying pan to brown on all sides.

Now that they're all sizzly and browned, all that's left to do is add a couple of cloves of garlic, some thyme and rosemary, a couple of glasses of white wine and maybe some beef stock, if you think it needs it. When all that comes to the boil turn the heat down low and add some potatoes chopped into cubes, then cover and let simmer for 35 minutes or so.

Do check it from time to time - add more wine if it's looking a bit dry, turn the croquettes so that they bathe in the juice - when the potatoes are tender sprinkle the whole damn lot with chopped parsley and eat immediately.

You could follow this up with a flan aux raisins if you like, another of those things that are so bloody simple that they don't qualify as recipes. Whatever, line a pie-dish with puff pastry or sweet short pastry (your choice, I go for the short pastry myself but that's just me) and then spread vast quantities of grapes in it. Until you can't fit any more in.

It would now be time to get out the old beater and beat two eggs with 100gm of sugar until thick and foamy, then add 3 or 4 tbsp of ground almonds (hell, add more than that, I love almonds) and 100 ml of heavy cream. Beat hell out of it, pour it over the grapes, stick it into the oven for 40 minutes or so.

Do let it cool a bit before you eat it: the grapes will be boiling hot when it comes out of the oven. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

BARRACUDA EGGS (no kidding!)

"'HA!' Ma blurted. 'Ol' bass-brained bean-farmin' Gnat! Hope ya give him a Howdy-do fer me, Gus. Gock-eyed Gnat. Knows more 'bout the seven B's than any man alive.'

"Right on cue, H2O asked, 'And what are the seven B's?... tip-toeing over the last three syllables like he was barefoot and they were a lawn full of honeybees.

"In an obviously rehearsed recital, Ma rattled out, 'Beans, Bait, Bass, Beer, Blue Lake, Jim Beam, and Bullshit!' And right on cue H2O made his face all crooked and revolted-looking—as if Ma's funkicity were something new."

I've just realized that during the summer when the spouse and kids are over in the Old World, I'm basically living the life of Gnat Buckley, a minor character in David James Duncan's The River Why (a book that has good fishing parts, but it takes "spirituality" way too seriously… man, I've become crotchety).

I remembered this passage when I looked at my dinner yesterday: bass, barracuda eggs, beans, brown rice, beer. If you count the bacon that used to cook the beans, that makes for six Bs, all in one sitting. And if you count the marinated anchovies that I had as the antipasto, seven* Bs –the perfect number for Bs or horcruxes or whatever you decide needs to be present in an exact mystical** number. [*Anchovies were bait when I went fishing for the bass and barracuda—the marinated version of the little stinkers is addressed in an older post. **This is another arcane holla to my friend Karen, who among other things is rather knowledgeable about cabalistic numerology.]

Stop. Rewind. I did say "barracuda eggs," and for most readers that makes a doubly out-of-the-ordinary menu item. Start with my use of barracuda as a species, which some erroneously equate with the vicious man-eaters responsible for countless attacks on innocent swimmers in tropical seas. It's generally off-putting to think that the fish on your plate at supper may have lunched on a fellow human –isn't this really just "cannibalism once removed"?

Well, for one it's only the "great barracudas" that pose a threat to human swimmers in tropical seas. The ones we have in temperate waters must be just "so-so barracudas," and they don't pose much of a threat, despite their wicked-looking teeth.

Another good reason for not eating a tropical great barracuda is that they, like a lot of large coral reef predators, have a rap sheet for accumulating ciguatoxin, which is definitely something you don't want to eat. Fishies like the one shown above, however, are quite edible and appreciated in many countries. In Japan, they call it kamasu. In Italy, it's luccio di mare. I'd be willing to bet that the French use this fish, too, though I have no idea what it's called there (when I first saw loup de mer on a French menu I figured that was it—the same as luccio di mare—but it turned out to be the boring ol' Mediterranean sea bass, 95% of which these days is aquaculture crap like most of the salmon that makes it to people tables).

For table fare, it's a good fish but not a great fish. I can enjoy barracuda meunière for a meal, but try a repeat the next day (a common occurrence, since these guys are fairly large and a fishing trip could provide meat for several days in succession) and it's not so swell. This is a fish that must be cooked with skin attached, which as with chicken becomes the tastiest part of the fillet. The flesh has a relatively assertive and characteristic flavor, and changing the cooking method, marinade, or saucing doesn't really make barracuda more "repeatable."

The eggs, on the other hand, are really quite nice. The Japanese method is to cut the roe into inch-long segments and simmer them in a soy-sauce-and-sugar based concoction. The skin shrinks with the heat, and the eggs get pushed out of the ends, making for a flower-shaped bite. It's a very pretty way to eat fish innards, but definitely not my favorite.

I prefer to open the roe and sauté, starting with the skin-side up, so that it gets fairly thoroughly cooked before the skin starts to shrink. After that, if it curls up and starts to bounce around the pan, you'll still have cooked eggs after a couple more minutes. Then saucing with a garlic and white wine reduction. And yes, a beurre blanc would be better. However, that would push my quota of "B" foods beyond the critical number of seven, and ol' Gnat Buckley wouldn't likely approve.