Tuesday, September 27, 2011

O-hi-o, wasabi. Hello, mustard?

Yes, that was in fact a quote from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles circa 1993 - don't hate on it.  I was at work the other day when one of my peoples brought in a box of wasabi peas.  It's not like these ever fell off my radar, but whenever I came across them, they just were another fixture in a sea of bulk goods or random ready-to-eat packages. That being said - seeing them by their lonesome, I had a light bulb moment! Or my memory synapses started firing. Whichever one it happened to be also comes in tandem with me having no inner monologue, so of course I blurted out, "WASABI PEA ENCRUSTED SALMON!".  At this point in my life, it's really not an abnormal occurrence for me to start shouting out recipes or food statements - thankfully!  Needless to say, I didn't invent the wasabi pea encrusted salmon, nor do I recall where it came from, but it was a proper staple in my family house a bit over five years ago.  
Taste memory in full action, I knew I had to make this! I'm not quite sure what we had the salmon with at home before, but I decided I had to make a full on plate to showcase the salmon.  And that's when critical cooking thinking came into play! First, my mind went towards what would look nice color-wise on the plate next to the salmon - radicchio? Meh.  Beets? Don't think so. Carrots?  BOOM. Sushi restaurant imagery started swirling in my head, and all I could think of was that carrot ginger dressing you get on those "included" salads.  Ingredients in hand, I was back off to the apartment to start cooking!

Wasabi Pea Encrusted Salmon with Carrot-Ginger Puree
Serves 2

For the puree:
2 cups roughly chopped carrots
2 T roughly chopped ginger, peeled
1/2 c chicken or vegetable stock, or water
2 T rice wine vinegar
1/2 t sesame oil 
1/4 cup grapeseed or olive oil
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
This is pretty much a mellowed out, smoother version of the ginger dressing you may have had in some sushi joints.  Steam or boil the carrots until fork tender.  In a blender, combine the carrots, raw ginger, stock, vinegar, and sesame oil and puree until smooth.  With the blender running, slowly add the remaining oil until the puree is smooth - you may not need all of it!  Season to taste and set aside.  

For the salmon:
1 lb. salmon from the shoulder end, individually portioned
3/4 cup wasabi peas
Sea salt
Mint leaves, for garnish 
Lime, zested

About 20-30 minutes prior to cooking, take the salmon out of the refrigerator and coat the flesh side of each salmon portion with an ample about of salt.  In a food processor, pulse the wasabi peas until it's granular, but not completely pulverized, and set aside.  

When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350F.  Press a good amount of the wasabi peas into both fillets, and place them into a shallow baking dish.  Add enough water into the dish to come about halfway up the side of each fillet.  Please in the oven and cook until the salmon is medium-rare - 10-15 minutes depending on the thickness of your fillet.  For the final minute, place the salmon under the broiler to brown the wasabi crust just a tad. Be sure to keep an eye on it!

**Eric Ripert Trick Alert** - the fish is ready when a metal skewer inserted into the metal is just warm when you touch it to your lip.  Brilliant! 

When ready to plate, reheat the carrot puree.  Spoon enough puree onto each plate to just cover the bottom, and place a fillet in the center of each plate.  Sprinkle with small mint leaves (or minced mint leaves), zest of a bit of lime over top and serve.

Well, the salmon was just as good as I remembered it - pulverizing the wasabi peas creates a great crust for the salmon! It evenly distributes the wasabi that was on the peas so the flavor is subtle and not as spicy as one would expect.  This goes perfectly with the carrot ginger puree as well.  The puree itself is beautiful in color and has great flavor - the gentle cooking of the carrot with the kick of the raw ginger definitely amplified the flavors in the salmon.  The mint leaves add a nice brightness to the dish to complete it! This dish is a definite must-try - and it may become a mainstay in my cooking repertoire!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

white asparagus

A perky li'l bunch of white asparagus caught my eye the other day - I know, I know, they're not in season right now, but I couldn't resist myself! The buggers looked healthy and crisp, so at that point, there was no turning back.  White asparagus you say? Expensive!? Well - it wasn't any more expensive than regular green asparagus, so I definitely couldn't use that as an excuse.  And, to be honest, I've only had white asparagus a handful of times in my life, and I figured I might as well experiment with it! I cased a few other aisles, and picked up a jar of canned white asparagus as well.

So what's the difference between white asparagus and all the colored varieties? They're essentially quarantined underground until they're ready for picking.  So, instead of the varieties that are allowed to see white and that grow like grass - pretty much - these guys have a bit of a sand/soil combo mounded on top so they don't see the light at the end of the tunnel!  Yes, it may seem like vegetable cruelty, but it makes for a darn good final product!  As you can imagine, white asparagus also has a milder flavor than any of the colored varieties - there's no chlorophyll or anthocyanin to give it any flavor.  But it's quite tasty! It has a subtle "asparagus" flavor, but almost is reminiscent of jicama, without the mealy texture - with a great snap to it! I actually had to stop myself from eating so many random pieces of the asparagus raw while I was prepping it.   The end result to my white aspar-adventures was a delicious, fresh, light salad!

Duo of White Asparagus with Orange Vinaigrette
Serves 2
4 large, jarred white asparagus
8 white asparagus
1 orange
2 T minced basil, and basil flowers if you have them
A few shavings of a hard sheep's milk cheese - Pecorino, Roncal, Manchego, etc.
6 T good olive oil
2 T red wine, or sherry vinegar
Sea Salt
Fresh ground black pepper

This salad is super easy to prepare! Remove the asparagus from the jar and pat dry.  Cut each stalk into approximately 1.5 to 2 inch pieces.  Set aside.  For the fresh asparagus, snap off the woody ends of each stalk.  To do this, stand each stalk upright, hold onto the bottom with one hand, and gently snap the stalk from the top with the other hand.  Each stalk with snap off at the perfect point! Once this is done, slice each asparagus on the bias as thin as possible.  The white asparagus looks great when it's cut thinly lie this - the inside is pearlescent!  

Zest almost the entire orange, and then supreme the fruit.  Cut a thin portion off of each end, stem and bud, so it can stand upright.   Cut off the peel and the pith, leaving only the fruit.  Carefully cut out each section  - save the supremed fruit for assembling the salad. To make the vinaigrette, combine the oil and vinegar, and shake until emulsified.  This is really just the simple vinaigrette ratio - you can make more or less, just ensuring you use the 3-to-1 ratio.  Taste for seasoning. 

This salad is super easy to assemble - you basically just throw all the food around onto each plate! Place two stalks worth of jarred asparagus on each plate - upright if you can.  Scatter both the sliced fresh asparagus and orange sections all around each plate.  Lay a few shavings of cheese around the asparagus as well.  Finally, drizzle the vinaigrette over each plate, squeeze a tad bit of the supremed orange interior (carcass? no? ok.), and garnish with a bit of zest and basil.  I like to add a bit more fresh ground pepper and Maldon sea salt at the end as well.
White asparagus where have you been! This may become a staple salad when white asparagus rolls around - granted, the JARRED asparagus are the expensive ones, but this would be just as food without them.  In the salad, they do add a nice textural component.  This salad hits all the great points - crunchy, yet tender, salty, yet sweet, with a little bit of acidity and bitterness.  The cheese gives it a great depth of flavor - umami if you will - and the basil just brings it all together.  Next time, I'll be on the lookout for blood oranges - that would just take this salad to the next level. This really is a perfect end of summer salad!

Thursday, September 15, 2011


My mind works in strange ways.  The other day, I was planning out my daily excursions with the final destination of "kitchen" to cook dinner, but wasn't quite sure what I wanted to make.  Sure, I could go the old route and see what's good at the market - but instead, I stumbled across the name of a little Spanish market in Little Italy (?), and that's when the synapses started firing.  Jamon! Saffron! Paella! Paella sounded like a great idea, but I wasn't too keen on all that rice...so, what's a girl to do? Surely, move up along the coast, hit up Provence and utilize a bit of their know-how for a tasty one pot dish.  BOUILLABAISSE! This dish is definitely more simply to make than it's namesake is to pronounce - that's for sure.  Of course, most every coastal town on the Mediterranean has their own version of a fish stew - zuppa de pesce, suquet de peix, caldeirada - it just depends on the ingredients that go into it. No matter which you choose, it's bound to be delicious!

The story goes that bouillabaisse was cooked on the beach by fishermen, who used a large cauldron over a wood fire to cook fish that they couldn't sell to the market - seems like an activity I may need to partake in in the near future! Needless to say, they used some odd fish types, such as rascasse or scorpionfish, and a bouillabaisse is seen as inauthentic without the use of said fish! Well, I unfortunately do not have access to rascasse, so I just had to go ahead and make the bouillabaisse in simple Stainless Steel Thumb form.

Simple Bouillabaisse
Serves 2
3 T olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
1/2 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 t crushed saffron
1/2 teaspoon aleppo pepper
1/2 cup white wine
1.5 cups chicken/fish/vegetable stock
1 14.5 oz can stewed tomatoes, preferably peeled - I used pomodori pelati
1 T tomato paste
Zest of 1 orange
1/2 pound small, new potatoes
1/2 lb firm whitefish fillet, skinned - I used haddock, cut into two pieces
1/2 lb mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1/2 lb manila or littleneck clams
2 large head-on prawns or langoustine (if all else fails, you can just use a few small shrimp)
1/4 cup minced parsley
Sea salt
Fresh ground pepper
Olive Oil
A few slices of a crusty, country style loaf

In a heavy bottomed saucepan, French oven, or doufeu, heat olive oil over medium-low heat.  Add in the onions, fennel, and garlic, and cook until soft.  Depending how much time you have, you can either simply sweat the vegetables, or let them cook longer until they caramelize - this will just intensify the flavor. When sufficiently cooked, add in the saffron and pepper, stirring until the vegetables have a nice yellow hue to them.  If you don't have aleppo pepper, you can substitute with a sweet paprika - or any pepper for that matter, depending if you want a kick or not.  

Pour in the white wine and bring to a boil, cooking off the alcohol and reducing until it's almost evaporated. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, stock, 1 t of orange zest, and the potatoes.  Stir together, cover and bring back to a boil.  Try to break up any larger pieces of tomato with a fork or a wooden spatula.  Cover and let cook for about 10 minutes to let all the flavors to meld together.  Give the broth a taste and season with salt and pepper. 

Finally, cook your seafood! AT this point, you have to pay close attention to your ingredients - obviously, the shellfish will take the least amount of time to cook, and the smaller the shrimp you use, the less time it will take as well.  For my bouillabaisse, I laid the fish fillets down first and let them cook for about two minutes.  Next I laid in the prawns, covering and allowing these two cook for another two minutes.  Finally, I added in the clams and mussels, cooking until they opened.  At this point, all of the seafood should be cooked perfectly and ready to go!

Now it's time to plate! Try your best to separate all the ingredients evenly. I found that its best to start layering your plate with the fennel/onion combination first, then placing the various seafood all around, finally topping it off with some broth.  Finish with a sprinkle of parsley, some sea salt and fresh ground pepper, and a small dash of olive oil. A little bit of orange zest on top doesn't hurt either!

Serve with a thick slice of grilled country bread - and if you want to be slightly more authentic, slather the bread with a tasty aioli or a rouille sauce. As you can see, I also had a bit of olive-oil poached octopus left over, and figured that would be a nice addition to the pot - which it was! This bouillabaisse was fantastic - simply, easy, and light (yes, light!).  It has a slight brininess from the shellfish, with a great depth of flavor from all the layers of ingredients.  The orange zest definitely added a nice brightness to the dish as well. So, if you were ever intimidated by bouillabaisse, give this easy recipe a try!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

SST is One Year Old!

What a horrible companion I am.  I get into a serious relationship, and forget ALL about my one year anniversary.  With this blog! September 2, 2010, and I totally forgot about it.  Here's a throwback to my very first post! Langoustine started it all...what a surprise!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

fileno al mirtillo - reminscings of firenze

By definition, the romantic is anything that evokes something distant in time and place - certainly, food can be included in the list of most evocative substances on earth.  The aroma of a perfect boeuf bourguignon brings to mind the streets and alleys of Paris - maybe the small cafe where you enjoyed your first dinner in the City of Light.  A fine goulash will evoke Budapest, the romance of the Gypsies, and music of the soul.  Even something as simple as a hearty eggplant caponata - for me - brings me back to my childhood years, waking up on a cold winter morning.  There is no question about it - I'm sure everyone has had a food experience that takes them back.  Heck, just think about the end of Ratatouille! (And if you've never seen that movie, I highly recommend it...seriously.) 

On that note, I had a similar back-in-time moment the other day while shopping for dinner!  While trying to figure out exactly what we wanted - literally, whittling down from fish, meat, pasta (ok, we ended up having all three but with one as the main event!) we came across a beautiful tagliata.  Now, one may not think that Italy is known for the beef, but if you've ever been to Florence, you'll know that that is simply not true! Traveling through the countryside you see pastures upon pastures of the local Chianina cows grazing around.  Bistecca alla fiorentina (grilled steak) and tagliata alla fiorentina (sliced grilled steak) are both signature dishes of Florence - with not much difference besides the cut of meat and the fact that the latter is sliced.  Upon finding my lovely tagliata, I knew I had to make this! Proper preparation involves a little oil and garlic, finishing the steak with a bit of arugula, big curls of Parmesan, and a drizzle of balsamic.   Literally, you can't go wrong.  But THEN I came across a package of Wild Maine blueberries - the super teensy, super sweet and delicious kind! This is when the time traveling began...

There's a restaurant - Acqua Al 2 in Via della Vigna Vecchia - in Firenze, where everyone raved about the Fileno al Mirtillo - carved steak with blueberry sauce.   We went to the restaurant on a slightly damp, chilly night in March and were definitely in the mood for a cozy place and a delicious meal.  After wandering down the narrow cobblestone streets for a bit, we finally found our spot - and were welcomed into a warm, if not close-quartered atmosphere.  We of course had to order the fileno - and let me tell you, it was delicious! So, just having the tagliata in hand and seeing these amazing little blueberries took me back to this dinner, and reminded me of the few days I spent in Florence...fresh-roasted chestnuts on the street, the famous Leo Valdorini from Harry's bar, all the delicious food, Karl Lagerfeld sightings (true) and of course, Ferragamo.  That being said, I absolutely had to recreate the dish! Of course, my friends had on "crazy eyes" when I told them I was making a steak with blueberry sauce - but I have yet to fail them so they had faith.

Tagliata al Mirtillo
Serves 4
 ~2 pounds good tagliata, or filet mignon...or frankly any kind of meat
A hefty few pinches of sea salt
Fresh ground black pepper
Olive oil

Blueberry Sauce
2 T olive oil
1/3 cup diced shallot
1 pint fresh blueberries, cleaned - wild if possible
2 T saba, or a good, thick balsamic (make sure it's not too sweet!)
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

*A note on cooking the steaks - depending on what cut of meat you use, you may not need to finish the steak in the oven.  My tagliata was extremely thick, and simply pan-searing would've created a burnt crust.  Any cut that is around 1-in thick most likely won't need oven finishing.*

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Season all sides of the steak with generous amounts of salt and pepper and allow to come almost to room temperature.  Heat a cast-iron pan over high heat until extremely hot.  Place the steak(s) in a single layer into the pan and sear on one side until browned, about 3-5 minutes.  Flip and repeat on the other side.  If you have a thinner steak, you can remove it from heat and allow it to rest, 10-15 minutes.  Otherwise, finish the steak in the oven until it's reached your desired temperature.  I like rare/medium-rare - leaving the steak at a final temperature of about 125.  Anytime you're cooking by temperature, remember that the steak will gain between 5-10 degrees while resting, so undershoot your final product!

While the steak is resting, you can start on the blueberry sauce.  In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, heat the olive oil until it shimmers.  Add in the shallot, allowing it to sweat, approximately 2-3 minutes.  Next, add in the blueberries, turning the heat to low.  Cook the blueberries, stirring often, until they release their liquid and become soft, but are still intact - about 7 minutes. Turn the heat to medium-high and stir in the saba and allow to come to a boil.  Reduce to a slightly syrupy consistency (this won't take long), and season to taste.  Keep warm until ready to use.  This sauce can be made ahead and reheated!

After the steak has rested, slice it on the bias in about 1/2 inch slices.  Again, if you are using individual portions of filet

This final product was delicious.  And if you think I time-traveled just looking at the steak and blueberries, imagine what happened when I tasted it! The steak was cooked perfectly, with a beautiful crust, and fork tender juiciness.  The sauce was a perfect complement to the steak - I think this would go wonderfully with duck breast (next time!).  I must say, I'm usually not apt to eat steak with any kind of sauce, as it generally hides the meat, but these two are a match made in heaven.   The sauce was just sweet enough from the blueberries, but was also rich and earthy from the saba used in the sauce.  Dare I say it was better than I remembered?  Surely, my friends will learn not to doubt my odd choices - some day! 

P.S. Acqua al 2 is also in San Diego and D.C.  I'd wait for Firenze though!