Thursday, May 31, 2012

tasty taco treats

Well, I apologize in advance because this is quite the labor and time intensive dish, but the results are heavenly.  I also failed to take as many pictures as I wanted to, but hey - it was family time, I was distracted! In honor of Memorial Day weekend, we decided to make tacos! Yeah, I know, that doesn't make sense, but these are just too delicious to pass up...and if you have some extra time to cook while hanging around, why not go for it? In all honesty, we did have some All-American treats over the holiday weekend...mainly the best fish sandwich in the universe (true) from Keyhole Bar in Mackinaw City.  Lightly-battered, just-caught, Lake Michigan whitefish or perch.  Then a little (read: a lot) local smoked whitefish spread. Holy fresh water fish, Batman! Maybe it's a bit more Michigan centric, but it's all patriotic to me!

Anyway, back to the tacos.  They are adapted from Cindy Pawlcyn's book Big Small Plates - and they are one of her restaurant's most popular dishes, for good reason.  These guys are made with rabbit - although you can use chicken if you have no access to the former - and they're slowly cooked in an amazing, chile paste-based broth.  The accoutrements make the tacos endlessly enjoyable! And, as you can see from the photo above, there was not one taco filling, but two! The second is a great recipe from Food & Wine magazine for Beer-Braised Turkey tacos.

of course, avocados had to make an appearance.  As garnish, and in delectable guac form.  That recipe is soon to come!
As I mentioned, this recipe has a lot of steps to it! A lot can be made ahead of time, and most of the toppings can be made while the rabbit it braising, so be sure to keep that in mind! If you're like me, you'll have a billion pots and pans going at once.  I know that in my little NY kitchen, and can't multitask to the same level as usual, so it's best to have things ready ahead of time.

Chile-Braised Rabbit Tacos with Crunchy Slaw, Cumin Black Beans, and Lime
Serves 6
Chile-braised rabbit, recipe follows
Crunchy slaw with vinaigrette, recipe follows
Cumin black beans, recipe follows
Lime Greek yogurt, recipe follows
~A dozen small corn tortillas (homemade if you REALLY have time!), warmed in the oven
2 limes, cut into wedges
Cilantro leaves

As per most taco SOPs, set this up like an assembly line.  Pile it on however you want, although it seems easiest to spread the beans on the tortilla first (all the way to the edges), then top with the remaining items and a squeeze of fresh lime.  The beans kind of help glue the whole situation together.  Feel free to add a queso fresco or feta to this if you wish - a nice, crumbly cheese would be best.  Get crazy - taco toppings are endless! 

Altogether, the flavors in this dish are stunning.  The rabbit itself is super tender from the braise, but insanely flavorful as well.  It has a deep, intense heat that creeps up on you from the chiles, but it's not over the top spicy.  Any spice there is definitely gets cooled down by the slaw and the lime greek yogurt.  The beans add a great earthy flavor, and a nice smooth base to the taco in it's entirety.  Yes, this recipe has a lot of steps, but it is definitely worth it in the long run! Also, the chile paste used with the rabbit is so good that you could make a huge batch of it and use it with roasted vegetables, pork, chicken, you name it. Totally worth it!

Chile Paste
4 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
2 cloves garlic
1 T fresh oregano leaves
1/2 T ground cumin seeds, toasted
1/2 t salt
1/4 t freshly ground black pepper

For the chile paste, toast the chiles directly over fire or in a pan until aromatic.  When they've toasted and even blistered a bit, put them in a small pot with just enough hot water to cover. Soak the chiles for 1 hour until soft.  Drain the chiles, ensuring to reserve their liquid. Puree the chiles in a blender along with the garlic, oregano, cumin, salt, and pepper until smooth.  Slowly add some of the soaking liquid as needed, until the paste has reached a relatively thick, viscous consistency. Strain and reserve.
Chile-Braised Rabbit
2 to 4 T olive oil
6 whole rabbits, cut into 8 pieces.  You can break down 2 chickens in the same manner
1/2 t salt
1/4 t freshly ground black pepper
1/2 C celery, chopped
1/2 C carrot, chopped
1/2 C onion, chopped
3-4 C chicken stock

To cook the rabbit, heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed stock pot over medium-high heat. Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper, and cook until nicely browned on all sides. You most likely will have to do this in batches. Transfer the chicken to a platter. Next, add the celery, carrot, and onion to the same pan and cook until browned. Stir in the chile paste, and cook for about a minute, stirring constantly, allowing the flavors to meld together. Add the rabbit back to the pan and stir to combine. Pour in just enough stock to cover and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the meat is very tender, about 40 minutes.

Remove the meat, and set it aside to cool. Strain the broth into another pot, bring to a boil, and allow to reduce by half, until it is thick enough to coat a spoon. Next it's ready to get to some rabbit- (or chicken-) pickin'!  P.S. Paula Deen claims to be the best chicken-picker this side of the Mississippi.  I dare say that I may challenge her.  *Ahem*.  Anywho, make sure to leave the meat in relatively large pieces, because it will break down further once you reheat it.  Add the meat to the sauce, stirring everything to combine, and cook just long enough to heat it through.

Cumin Black Beans
2 cans black beans, drained and rinsed
1 T olive oil
1/3 onion, diced
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 t ground cumin seeds, toasted
1 t chili flakes
~1 C chicken stock or water
1 1/2 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1/3 bunch cilantro, minced

In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat.  Cook the onion and garlic until just translucent.  Add the cumin and chili flakes and stir to combine.  Next, add the drained black beans, adding in as much chicken stock or water to make them saucy but not watery.  Give a quick stir and cook for about 20 minutes to allow the flavors to all come together.  Keep an eye on the pot, stirring frequently, adding more liquid if necessary.  To finish, blend about 1/3 of the beans with enough liquid to make a thick paste.  Stir it back into the beans and season with salt and pepper. *Be careful here! Some canned beans are super salty, so be sure to taste as you're seasoning!* To make it easier, you can also simply mash some of the beans in the pot itself. Finish by removing the beans from heat and stirring in the cilantro.

Lime Greek Yogurt
1 C Greek yogurt, plain
Finely grated zest of 1 lime
2 T freshly squeezed lime juice
Tiny pinch of salt
A few grindings of black pepper

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl, stir to combine, and chill until ready to use.

Crunchy Slaw with Cumin Vinaigrette
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/4 t salt
1/4 c freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 T red wine vinegar
2 t brown sugar
2 t toasted, ground cumin seeds
Pinch of chile flakes
3/4 C olive oil

Slaw components:
1 c finely shredded cabbage (purple for color!)
6 radishes, thinly sliced and cut into matchsticks
1/3 bunch cilantro, leaves only
1 or 2 limes, cut into wedges
For the vinaigrette, I like to use the good ole' jar method.  Place everything in a small glass jar and shake like the dickens.  Continue until it is nice and emulsified! You can also use a mini food-processor, stick blender with a whisk attachment, or just straight up hand-whisk it.  Either way!

At the last moment, toss all of the shrubbery together with enough vinaigrette to coat.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sea-Kale Beet? More like Bright Lights Chard!

For some reason, I don't often cook with Swiss Chard. Why? I really have no idea.  You'd think I would love it, considering the ridiculous amount of stalk-colors available! (We all know my obsession with bright colors.) Not to mention, they produce some amazing micro greens.  What's that you say? Swiss Chard micro greens? But of course.  Beautiful little neon baby chards - something I only became aware of via the most recent catalog from Johnny's Selected Seeds. Amazing! And yes, I live in New York City, and receive a seed catalog. So what? A girl can dream, can't she?

Either way, after researching a bit more about Swiss Chard, I came to the realization that it is just the veg/leafy green I've been looking for! Let's take a step back: I love beets, but more importantly, I love beet greens...but sometimes I just don't want to deal with the beet itself!  Fortunately, some farmers at the market will let me take the greens that other customers 'disposed of' for free, but those guys aren't there all the time.  Well, swiss chard kind of looks like beet greens, no? WELL, let me tell you something.  While flipping through my 1968 copy of  A World of Vegetable Cookery - I found out the following:

"Chard is usually applied to a special form of a variety of the common BEET, and describes a vegetable with large tuffets of unusually vivid bright green foliage, the midriffs and stalks of which are conspicuously large. It is also known as Swiss Chard or SEA-KALE BEET. In other lands, just to confuse things further, Chard is sometimes synonymous with the beets that are grown particularly for their edible, abundant leaves, or even ornamental beets with showy varicolored foliage."

Well, that's enough to convert me.  Looks like there's more sea-kale beet in my future! I also found some interesting little goodies at the store as well - pineberries! Of course, I can't resist something I know absolutely nothing about. They seemed to me as if they were just albino strawberries, but I had to know more about this mysterious fruit. Well, it turns out that this is a South American fruit that looks like a negative of a strawberry, and tastes like a pineapple! Weird, yet somehow exciting.  And pretty.  Supposedly, these little fellas almost fell into extinction a bit less than a decade ago until some Belgian farmers decided to swoop 'em up and start growing them.  Who knew!

All in all, I wanted to do something with all my goodies.  I could've gone the obvious route with the pineberries and made a dessert.  And I could've just made some kind of soup, or something with the chard, but why not put them together!? I remembered a West African "stew" that was comprised of kale, pineapple, and peanut butter among other things.  Yes, it sounds like the most ODD combination of all time, but it works - I decided to play a bit with it, and the results were well worth it!

Curried Black Bass Fillets over African Chard-Pineberry Saute
Serves 2
2 small black sea bass fillets
~1 t medium to medium hot curry powder, depending how you like it
Sea Salt
Fresh Ground Black Pepper
Grapeseed Oil

For the Chard:
1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced, or about 2 T minced garlic scapes
1 T olive oil
1/2 crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 chopped pineberries (or pineapple, since pineberries are RANDOM!)
1 t (or more) Tabasco
1 bunch chard, stems chopped into 1 in pieces, leaves sliced into 1 in pieces (~3 cups)
1/4 c unsalted peanuts, chopped, plus more for garnish
1/4 c cilantro, chopped plus more for garnish
Sea Salt
Fresh Ground Pepper

To start, prepare the chard.  In a large saute pan (I used a cast iron skillet), heat up the olive oil over medium heat.  Allow the oil to start shimmering, and toss in the garlic and onion, stirring often.  Cook for about five minutes until the onion starts to brown.  Toss in the crushed red pepper and Tabasco, and stir to combine. Next, toss in the pineberries, stirring constantly for about 2 minutes.  Some liquid should release from the berries - allow this to reduce.  Finally, toss in the swiss chard.  It will look like a lot, but like most greens, it will cook down like crazy! Gently stir, and/or turn over the chard, so it all cooks evenly - about 5 minutes. Once the greens have cooked down, season with a bit of salt and pepper and stir to combine.  Finally, toss in the peanuts and cilantro, cooking for a few more minutes, stirring constantly.  After about 2 minutes, taste for seasoning, and add more salt or pepper if necessary.  Turn the heat to low and keep warm.

In the final cooking minutes of the chard, begin cooking the fish.  Make sure to take the fish out of the fridge at about the same time you start cooking your chard, seasoning it generously with salt and pepper.  In a nonstick saute pan, heat up about 3 T of grapeseed oil over medium-high heat, until it shimmers.  Right before you place the fish in the pan, sprinkle both fillets evenly with curry powder on the flesh side.  Gently place them into the pan, flesh side down, and cook for about three minutes, until a golden crust has formed.  Flip, and continue to cook on the skin side until just cooked through, only a couple more minutes, depending on the size of your fillets.  The fillets I picked up were relatively small, so they cooked rather quickly!

To plate, divide the chard evenly between two plates.  Set one fillet atop each mound, sprinkling each with peanuts (you can toast the peanut garnish if you wish!) and more chopped cilantro.  If you have some more pineberry or pineapple, by all means place that on top as well!

As strange of a combination as this may sound, it is absolutely delicious! You get a great earthy flavor, not to mention color, from the chard that is given a nice subtle kick by the Tabasco and crushed red pepper.  The berries definitely add a sweetness, but it's balanced out by all the other ingredients.  The peanuts and cilantro pull this whole dish together - mostly the cilantro, since it adds a nice brightness to the dish as a whole.  As for the fish, the curry seasoning brings it all together with the chard saute, and it's delicate, flaky flesh is definitely not dominated by all of the flavors. Overall, a beautiful and delicious dish that stimulates all the tastebuds!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Worth it's weight (and wait!) in salt

If you've never salt-baked a fish, you are missing out! This is such an amazing way to prepare fish, it's a wonder that more people don't take it upon themselves to cook this way.  Not only is it superbly easy, it's fun - cracking open the salt crust may be the best part! You know what it's like? Kinder Surprise.  But better...because you end up with an awesome whole meal and not a cheap plastic toy! (Side note: I am not hating on Kinder Surprise.)  This recipe combines a variety of delicate flavors that come together harmoniously at the end, and is perfect for springtime. Mint, tarragon, parsley, and lemon - a wondrous combination!  Salt baking any fish is fun, but I especially love preparing branzino this way - one of my favorite sea swimmers. So go buy a big box of salt, and get cooking!

Salt-Baked Branzino
Serves 2
3 cups kosher salt (1 3/4 lb)
2 to 4 large egg whites
1 whole branzino (1.5 to 2 lbs) or other small sea bass, cleaned, heads and tails left intact
A handful of fresh parsley sprigs
A handful of tarragon
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
2 lemons, one thinly sliced
Extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
Fresh ground black pepper

Minted Sugar Snap Peas
2 cups sugar snap peas, ends snapped off and strings removed
3 T olive oil
1/4 cup thinly sliced shallot (or spring onion!)
1/2 cup mint leaves, minced
Sea Salt
Fresh ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400°F. Place salt in a bowl and add egg whites 1 at a time, stirring, until the mixture is the consistency of wet sand - just enough that the salt holds together when packed.   On a large rimmed baking sheet big enough to hold the whole fish, line with foil and pat about a half cup of the salt mixture down.  Place a few rounds of lemon on the salt right were the fish will be laid down, and drizzle with a big of olive oil. Place the fish atop the lemon rounds, and season the cavity of the fish with sea salt and ground pepper.  Next, stuff the garlic, a few more slices of lemon, and as much parsley and tarragon as you can squeeze inside.  Don't skimp on the herbs here - you really want the flavor to come through after baking! Drizzle with a bit of olive oil.  Firmly pat the remaining salt evenly over the entire fish, enclosing it on both ends.  Bake the fish in middle of oven until the salt has turned golden at edges, about 35 minutes. 

Now for the fun part! After removing the fish from the oven, crack the salt away from fish and discard.  The salt will be very hot, so be careful!  Carefully fillet the fish, remove any bones, and get ready to plate.  Don't forget to eat the fish cheeks - they're the best part!

Just before the fish comes out of the oven, make the snap peas.  In a large saute pan, heat up the olive oil over medium-low heat.  When it's shimmering, add in the shallot and cook until lightly caramelized and golden brown.  Add the snap peas, and toss to coat with olive oil. Cook the peas until they are just heated through and crisp-tender. Remove from heat, and toss with the mint leaves.  Taste and season with sea salt and fresh black pepper. 

To plate, divide the snap peas evenly between the two plates.  If you're OCD like me, line em up! Place a fillet atop the snap peas.  Zest the remaining lemon over each plate, cut in half, and squeeze a bit of lemon juice over each as well.   Season with a drizzle of good olive oil, a pinch of sea salt, and a quick grind of black pepper.  If you have Maldon, by all means use it! It adds a great crunch and explosion of flavor.  Dig in and enjoy!

This is such a simple preparation of fish, and is essentially fool-proof.  The salt crust captures all of the flavors in the cavity of the fish, and allows the fish to not only bake, but quasi steam itself, lending to an amazingly tender and flavorful fillet.  The snow peas pair perfectly with this fish as well - they are delicate in flavor, and add a nice pop texture-wise.