Saturday, December 31, 2005

Caviar and Champagne

I still remember the first time I tried caviar -- it felt like a dozen little bubbles bursting against the roof of my mouth, each one squirting the creamy, gooey liquid. The rich saltiness rolled in like a big sea wave. Mmmm – caviar. I was 7 and lived in Moscow, and it was the first time I was allowed to stay up until midnight and celebrate the New Year with the grown-ups. The table was teeming with zakuski – sturgeon, ham, pickled mushrooms, liver pâté, and herring in fur coat of shredded beets and potatoes. But the most tempting and anticipated dish was the caviar. Its little jar sat on the table like a jewelry box with bright orange beads. It was passed around along with bread and butter for everyone to make a little open-faced sandwich before toasting the passing year and wishing it farewell.

“Eeew, fish eggs” was my American friend’s reaction to my favorite food. “It’s slimy and salty. That’s disgusting.” I didn’t understand how fish eggs were any more disgusting than chicken eggs. Until I came to America at 13, I haven’t met anyone who didn’t like caviar before. Just imagine how an American child would feel if they offered a kid from another country their favorite chocolate bar, and were told that chocolate is disgusting because it is the color of poop. Although my friend’s rejection of caviar was disappointing to me at the time, it made me realize that we taste food with our memories and heritage, not just our pallets. To me caviar tastes not only salty and creamy; it tastes of New Year, of school break, of trying very hard not to fall asleep until midnight, and of proving to the world that I am a grown-up.

Red (salmon) caviar is much more affordable than black. Most people are surprised to find out that $5-7 can buy them enough caviar to serve as an appetizer for 6 people. No need for mother of pearl spoons, or other such fanciness. Good bread and butter is all you need -- that's how most Russians eat it. I usually top red caviar with sweet pickled onions to balance the salty creaminess of the roe.

This recipe is all about ingredients, so here are some tips on choosing the right ones. The plastic tasting Romanoff caviar sold in supermarkets won't do. Go to a Russian store and buy some real salmon caviar. Don't buy the cheaper ones -- they tend to be over-salted and gooey due to broken eggs. Whole Foods carries salmon roe too, but it's twice as expensive as in the Russian stores.

Red Caviar Canapés with Pickled Onions

Serves 6

For Pickled Onions
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup cold water
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 red onion

In a non-reactive container, combine vinegar, water, sugar, and salt. Peel the onion and slice it very thin (1/16") using an adjustable blade slicer like Benriner or a knife. Mix the onion with vinegar mixture, cover, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, and up to 2 days.

For Caviar Canapés
Vienna bread, baguette, or brioche sliced 1/2 inch thick
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
4 oz red caviar

Spread bread slices with butter. Top with a layer of caviar, and a few slices of pickled onions. Serve with champagne or sparkling white wine.

Happy New Year everyone! I wish you many joyous feasts with the people you love.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Herring in Fur Coat

We are in Baltimore visiting my family and it's crazy New Years preparations here. My Mom and I have been cooking all day! While Hanukkah and Christmas are traditions we have acquired after coming to the US, New Year is a beloved holiday of any Russian family. It was festive, had nothing to do with Communism, and was all about food and merriment -- what's there not to like?

Russian food finally made it on the radar of the foodie magazine editors, and this year both Gourmet and Saveur did a special on Russian New Year. Saveur even offered a couple of recipes for zakuski (Russian appetizers), one of which was Herring in Fur Coat. This dish is so popular in Russia that I don't know a single family that doesn't have their own version. Here is ours.

Herring in "Fur Coat" (Herring dressed with beets)

Note: You have to get a Russian style herring for this dish. The pickled type sold in most American stores has a very different flavor. Go to a Russian store and buy "Vici" brand herring packed in vegetable oil (avoid ones with smoke flavor). If you are comfortable filleting and deboning your own fish, you can buy a whole herring in the deli section of a Russian store, but I am warning you, deboning a herring is a very messy project.

2 red skinned potatoes (2-3 inches in diameter)
2 large beets (3-4 inches in diameter)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup mayo (plus more as needed)
3/4 lb herring fillet (from 2 packages, 7 oz each or from 2 whole herrings)
1 Tbsp white vinegar
1/4 cup finely diced red onion (about 1/4 of an onion)
2 inch deep dish that is just big enough to hold half of the herring in one layer

  1. In a large stock pot, cover potatoes and beets with lightly salted cold water. Cover, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until vegetables are tender when pierced with a knife or a wooden skewer. Potatoes will take 35-45 minutes (remove them as soon as they are done). Beets will take 1.5-2.5 hours depending on their size. Remove vegetables from water. Cool and peel (the skin should just rub off without a need for a peeler).
  2. In a small saucepan, cover eggs in cold water. Bring to a boil. Turn down the heat immediately and simmer for 1 minute. Take off heat and let stand 18 minutes. Cover eggs with cold water to cool for about a minute. Peel under cold running water.
  3. Put mayo into a ziplock bag and cut a tiny whole in one corner to make a kind of pastry bag for drizzling mayo.
  4. If using packaged herring fillets, remove them from oil and dry on paper towels. Cut herring fillets into 1/2 inch pieces crosswise and sprinkle with vinegar.
  5. Arrange half of the herring in a single layer in the serving dish. Sprinkle with 2 Tbsp onion.
  6. Holding a box grater over the dish, cover the herring with an even layer of grated potato (about a half of 1 potato). Drizzle with 2 Tbsp mayo from the ziplock bag.
  7. Grate an even layer of egg (about half of 1 egg). Grate an even layer of beets (about half of 1 beet). Drizzle with 2 Tbsp mayo and spread it gently with a spoon. If you are having a hard time spreading it, add a bit more mayo.
  8. Repeat the layering of herring, onion, potato, mayo, eggs, beets, and the remaining mayo. Spread the mayo gently with a spoon on top of the beet layer.
  9. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least for 2 hours or up to 1 day. You should have extra vegetables and eggs left over for decoration.
  10. Right before serving, sprinkle herring with grated egg yolk from the remaining egg. If you are in an artistic mood, make beet ribbons using a vegetable peeler, roll them into roses and place on top of the dish. Garnish with parsley leaves and serve.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Bouillabaisse (or whatever you want to call it)

When looking for a Bouillabaisse recipe in US, you’ll quickly learn that there is a Bouillabaisse police. If they could give out violation tickets for using the name of this holy soup in vain, they would. You used mussels in your broth – $50! You didn’t fly in the appropriate varieties of fish from the Mediterranean -- $100! Hellmann’s mayo for rouille – what travesty – $200!

Don’t even get me started on what makes authentic Bouillabaisse – I don’t care. If you want, call this soup “Bourride” – another term for Provencal fish soup that is not as common in US and thus less controversial. There are probably as many versions of these soups as there are cooks in Marseille. Three things all Provencal versions have in common are fin fish, star anise, and saffron. I also use leeks, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and a touch of cream. I love this soup in any season. Its amber broth has rejuvenating powers that make a sunny day even brighter and a rainy day more cheerful.

Mediterranean sea bass (a.k.a. branzino) and Sea Bream (a.k.a. orata, dorade, dorado) are my favorite fish to use for this soup. They are small, delicate, and flavorful, and their frames fit easily into a stock pot for the broth. Making fish stock is not nearly as hard as it sounds. If you ask your fishmonger for help, you don’t even have to know how to clean the fish. Tell him that you want the gills and fins removed, the fish scaled, gutted, filleted, and the fillets skinned.  But ask him to give you the fish frames with heads, so that you can make the stock.

For a lazy man’s bouillabaisse – a fantastic and easy dinner – use store bought fish stock and 1 Lb of any white fleshed fish: cod, haddock, halibut, turbot, sole, or flounder.

I serve this soup with toasted baguette slices rubbed with garlic, and topped with rouille – garlicky, red pepper mayo.

Serves 4 as main course

For Rouille (optional):1 red pepper (only half is used for rouille, the rest for soup)
2 garlic cloves, mashed
1/2 cup mayo – Hellmann’s is fine as long as it’s “real”, not low-fat
Salt to taste

For Toasts:
1 baguette
Olive oil for brushing
2-3 whole peeled garlic cloves
pinch of salt

For Fish Stock:2 whole white fleshed fish, 1 Lb each (see above for fish types and preparation instructions)
1/2 cup dry white wine
8 cups water
1 carrot, peeled, cut into 2 inch chunks
1 onion, peeled, cut into 2 inch chunks
1 celery stock, cut into 2 inch chunks
green parts from 1 leek, cut into 2 inch chunks
stocks from 1 fennel bulb without fronds, cut into 2 inch chunks
6 parsley stems without leaves
6 thyme sprigs or 3 rosemary sprigs
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 bay leaf

For the Soup:1 leek (white and pale green parts only)
1 fennel bulb
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 orange (or red or yellow) pepper plus the half left over from rouille, cut into ½ inch dice
14.5 oz can chopped tomatoes, drained
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 star anise
1/4 tsp saffron threads, crumbled
2 Tbsp cream (optional)
2 Tbsp finely chopped parsley

  1. Cut the sides of the pepper off.  Lay out half of them in a single layer on a metal dish lined with foil with their skin up and put under the broiler until black (4-8 minutes depending on the broiler and the distance).  Reserve the remaining pepper for the soup.
  2. Wrap the burnt peppers in foil and let them steam for 10 minutes (this makes them easier to peel).  Uncover and cool until comfortable to handle.  Rub the skin off with your fingers. Chop the pepper coarsely and puree in a food processor or blender with mayo and garlic. Season to taste with salt and cayenne.
  1. Preheat the oven to 350F.  
  2. Slice baguette into 1/3 inch thick diagonal slices.  Brush with oil and lay out on a baking sheet in a single layer.  Place in the middle of the oven until the bottom is slightly brown, 12-15 minutes.
  3. Dunk a garlic clove in salt and rub all over toasted baguette.
Fish stock:
  1. In a large stock pot, combine all ingredients. Cover and bring to a boil.
  2. Turn down the heat to medium-low, uncover, and simmer very gently for 45 minutes.  No need to skim the scum.  It will subside and eventually will be removed by straining. 
  3. Take off heat. Strain through a fine mesh strainer. You should end up with about 6 cups of stock.  Let it sit for 10 minutes to give impurities a chance to settle.  
  1. Cut the leeks in half lengthwise, then slice 1/4 inch thick crosswise.  Wash chopped leeks in a large bowl of cold water. Let the sand settle for a couple of minutes and then scoop leeks out with a slotted spoon being careful not to disturb the sand on the bottom. If leeks still feel sandy, repeat this process until they are clean.
  2. Cut the fennel bulb in half through the core.  Remove the core and discard.  Slice the bulb pole to pole 1/6 inch thick.
  3. Heat the oil in a large heavy stock pot over medium-low heat. Add leeks, fennel, and a pinch of salt and cook until tender stirring occasionally, 12-15 minutes. Remove to a bowl and set aside.
  4. Return the pot to medium-high. Add the peppers and a pinch of salt and cook until tender stirring occasionally, 5-7 minutes.
  5. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, 1 minute.
  6. Add tomatoes, and bring the mixture to a boil.
  7. Return leeks to the pot. Add the fish stock (pouring slowly not to disturb impurities on the bottom of the bowl so that they don't get into the soup), star anise, and saffron. Cover and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat so that the soup stays at a bare simmer. Add the cream and simmer for 1 minutes.  Season to taste with salt. The soup can be done up to this stage a day in advance, cooled and stored in the fridge.  Cool the soup off to 170F (or warm it up to 170F if you made it ahead).  If you don't have a thermometer, just bring it to a simmer, take off heat and let it sit uncovered for 5 minutes.  
  8. Season the reserved fish fillets with salt and pepper on both sides and add to the soup. Cover the pot.  As soon as the fish starts to flake (about 10 minutes per inch of thickness), serve the soup garnished with parsley accompanied with toasted baguette and rouille.

Monday, December 26, 2005

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...

Aren't they beautiful! This is one of the Christmas presents I got from my husband.

His obsession with making the best baguette started 4 years ago. Baguettes 0-10 were "interesting", 10-20 were quite good, 20-30 were great, and 30+ were amazing. For the past year, I've been trying to sing praises to his baguettes and encourage him to try other breads. "Only when I bake a perfect baguette..." is all he said. Realizing that the quest for the perfect baguette might never end, I accepted my fate of never seeing a ciabatta or focaccia come out of our oven. But hey, I wasn't complaining. Who can complain about getting freshly baked baguettes on most weekends?

Imagine my surprise when I got kicked out of the kitchen on Christmas eve during the shaping stage of yet another baguette. But what really gave it away, was the "Where is our balsamic vinegar?" question. What could it be? My mind was racing through Reinhart’s book trying to remember what breads used balsamic vinegar (probably in caramelized onions).

Once the breads were in the oven, I was allowed back in the kitchen, as long as I didn't peek. I occupied myself with making bouillabaisse in my other Christmas present -- a new Sitram pot (yes, that's the one on the stove -- I'll post about it soon). But not even that 7-quart knight in shining armor could distract me from the yeasty, sweet aroma. Finally, the oven door opened and two beautiful loaves dotted with caramelized onions and dusted with snowy flour emerged. Caramelized onion ciabatta -- just for me! Waiting to taste them was just torture. I mean who can resist digging right into the freshly baked bread! If you haven't noticed yet, I am married to a very patient man. He didn't mind waiting 4 years to make his first ciabatta, so do you think he wouldn't wait another hour to let it cool to the optimal temperature? More waiting...

Finally, the moment of truth has arrived and we got to cut the bread. It was crusty and bubbly with a swirl of sweet onions that were so jammy and tasty, I got weak in the knees. How many presents can a girl get that take 4 years and 50 tries to perfect!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Wild Mushroom Barley Soup

In Russia, where I grew up, soup is such an integral part of the culture that people eat it at least once a day. I am not kidding or exaggerating. I must have had soup at least 350 times a year during the first 13 years of my life. Assuming that I didn’t eat grown-up food until I was 2, that adds up to 3,850 soups in a row. Try eating anything 3,850 times and see how you like it. Until we moved to US and broke the must-eat-soup tradition, my attitude to anything that came in a bowl was lukewarm to put it mildly. But even in those days of overzealous soup eating, one soup stood out as special.

When my Mom opened a package of dried mushrooms, the whole house filled with pungent perfume and I knew that we are in for a treat – the mushroom barley soup. I looked forward to that woodsy aroma so much that I didn’t even think of this dish as soup. I ate the other soups the way American children eat broccoli – it makes your parents proud and it’s supposed to be good for you. But the mushroom soup was different and I ate it because I loved it.

Now that I don’t have to eat soups every day, I love them all -- borsch (beet soup), uha (fish soup), shi (sauerkraut soup) – but there is always going to be a special place in my heart for the mushroom barley soup.

Note: Make sure to use dried porcini (or cepe) mushrooms that are wild since they have a much stronger aroma. Do not buy fresh porcini for this soup. They won’t give you a strong mushroom stock and will cost a fortune. Although wild dried porcini are around $50-70 per pound, 4 oz that you need for a huge pot of soup will only cost you $12-17.

It’s best to start this soup the night before you are planning to serve it, since the mushrooms takes several hours to soak.

Serves 10 as first course, 6 as main course

For mushroom stock:
4 oz wild dried porcini mushrooms
1 carrot, peeled
1 parsnip, peeled
1 whole yellow onion, peeled
4 Tbsp kosher salt (or 2 Tbsp table salt)
1 bay leaf
¼ tsp whole black peppercorns

For the soup:
1 carrot, peeled
3 medium boiling potatoes, peeled and diced
½ cup barley

Carrot onion flavoring:
2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 onions, finely diced
2 carrots, peeled and shredded

For mushroom stock:
  1. Put mushrooms in a 2 quart bowl, cover with 6 cups boiling water and soak for at least 1 hour or overnight.
  2. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a large heavy soup pot. Season it with salt, like for pasta. Add barley and boil gently over medium heat until almost tender, 25-30 minutes. Drain in a colander and reserve for later.
  3. While barley is cooking prepare the mushrooms. Carefully remove them with a slotted spoon out of reconstituting liquid into another bowl. Strain the dark aromatic mushroom liquid through a sieve lined with a paper towel to get rid of sand. Reserve it for the stock.
  4. Cover the mushrooms with water and rub gently to remove dirt and sand. Let stand 5 minutes to let the sand to settle. Remove them with a slotted spoon and discard the water. Repeat until there is no more sand on the bottom of the bowl when you pore out the water. Don’t skip this step, or you’ll have a gritty soup.
  5. Chop the mushrooms into rough pieces about ¼ inches big.
  6. Place chopped mushrooms into the pot you used for barley. Add the reserved mushroom liquid, 3 quarts cold water, a whole carrot, a whole parsnip, a whole onion, and salt. Cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer partially covered for 30 minutes. Occasionally, skim the foam that rises to the top being careful not to remove any mushrooms.
  7. Add peppercorns and bay leaf and remove the whole carrot, parsnip and onion.
For the soup:
  1. Cut the carrot into quarters lengthwise, and then thinly slice crosswise. Add sliced carrot and potatoes to the soup pot with mushroom stock and simmer partially covered until tender, about 30 minutes.  
  2. Add barley and simmer partially covered until soup thickens slightly, 30 minutes.
For carrot onion flavoring:
While the soup is simmering prepare the carrot onion flavoring.
  1. Set a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add 1 Tbsp oil and 2 Tbsp butter and wait for them to melt. Add the onions and 1/2 tsp kosher salt (1/4 tsp table salt) and cook stirring occasionally until onions are tender and starting to brown, 10 minutes.
  2. Add the carrots and another 1/2 tsp kosher salt (1/4 tsp table), and cook on medium heat stirring occasionally until tender, 10 minutes. Add the remaining 1 Tbsp oil and cook until the mixture is nicely browned, 10 minutes.
  3. Stir the carrot-onion mixture into the soup. Taste and correct seasoning. Take off heat and let stand 15 minutes for flavors to blend. Serve with sour cream.
Cool leftovers completely and store in the fridge for up to 4 days. This soup tastes even better reheated. If it looks too thick, add a little water and a pinch of salt when reheating.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Passion for Cookbooks

I was tired. I was hungry. I was cranky. The traffic seemed to have gotten a doze of steroids thanks to the holiday shopping. NPR was on, but I couldn't get myself to pay attention. I just wanted to be home warming up my mushroom soup, when suddenly I heard something about cookbooks. I was wondering for a moment whether I was hallucinating. Boston traffic can be as tough on one's nerves as a desert. I shook myself out of my mushroom reverie and tried to wake up. No, no, I wasn't dreaming; Christopher Lydon from the Open Source was announcing the topic for today's show: "A Passion for Cookbooks."

I always thought of food bloggers' obsession with food as our secret little fetish. Hearing about it on the radio was strange, cool, and exciting at the same time. The show started just as I walked in the door. I warmed up my mushroom soup, swirled in a healthy dollop of sour cream, curled up on the couch next to the radio and listened. Julie Powell was one of the guests. It was strange to hear her talk -- kind of like watching Harry Potter movie after reading the books. You have that character in your mind that you want to preserve, the character that can only be communicated through the written word. I also got to hear Barbara Wheaton on the radio. I met Barbara in person at the Culinary Historians of Boston, so hearing her boisterous, Julia-like voice on the radio felt warm and familiar.

The most insightful observation from the show for me was that cookbooks can let us experience a life we couldn’t otherwise have. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by dear Julia was my first cookbook. I learned to cook by osmosis from my Mom. Without having ever followed a recipe, I had a dozen wonderful dishes in my repertoire with infinite variations. Without ever opening a cookbook, I fed half of my dorm at Carnegie Mellon and threw excellent parties. But when I was finishing my semester abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France, I was suddenly nostalgic for French food before I even left. I spent the last two weeks frantically writing down the recipes from my French family’s cookbooks. I was panicking that I won’t find the right ingredients and won’t be able to convert measurements. I thought I’ll never have a buttery tart, creamy pate, or comforting Boeuf Bourguignon. There was so much to learn and so little time. I knew that my affair with art history and France was over. It was time to get back to the real world – the world of software engineering and office jobs.

Leaving this fantasy world was actually easier than you’d think. To tell you the truth I was counting the days. I had a fiancé waiting for me back home, and I was (and still am) so in love with him. When I got back to US, he gave me “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” as a welcome back present. I still remember the first dish I made in our little college apartment – it was a roast chicken. I made it because of Julia’s comment that you can always judge a cook by her roast chicken. Unlike most US cooks, I didn’t grow up watching Julia Child on TV. To tell you the truth, I had no idea who she was. But her recipes were so helpful and detailed that I felt as if she was right there in my kitchen, and I really wanted to please her. I don’t think Jason realized it then, but in that book he gave me the delicious world of France that I thought I lost forever.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Striped Bass with Celery Root and Asparagus

Oh bother -- I just tried to upload the pictures from my camera only to find out that they are toast! The file names are there, but I get an error when I try to open them. It means one of 2 things: either this dish was so good-looking that my camera ate it, or I need a new camera. Picture or not, this dish was too good not to write about it.

This is one of those cool restaurant dishes that has "New American" written all over it. I am glad "vertical" food bashing is not as in-vogue these days. The thing is, I love this sort of food. It captures my imagination and palate with the layers of flavor that I can peel off one by one as if undressing a lover.

I had this striped bass dish at Perdix -- a Boston restaurant in the South End. While most Bostonians consider South End to be a culinary Mecca of Boston, I think most of its restaurants are too chic for their own good with noise level and prices higher than I am willing to tolerate. But who can resist an occasional venture into the yuppieland.

Tim Partridge, the chef at Perdix, knows his fish. His seared striped bass captured the very essence of the sea in the juicy snow-white flesh under the crispy skin. The fillet sat on top of creamy celery root -- smooth and slightly astringent, not as ladenly heavy as potatoes, and a perfect match to the weight of the fish. The whole thing was surrounded in a pool of puréed asparagus touched with cream -- thicker than a sauce, but less substantial than a side dish. A few asparagus tips and sliced almonds balanced all the creamy layers with a little crunch. Ah -- what a dish!

There was no need for a recipe -- all the flavors were so well pronounced that I reproduced it without any trouble the very next weekend. It has since become one of my favorite fish dishes, and cooking it at home has the added benefit of not having to deal with parking, stressed out waiters, and a headache from a loud party at a nearby table.

Fish substitutions: Red Snapper, Salmon, Halibut, Sable, Black bass

Serves 4

Celery Root Purée
1 Lb asparagus
1 tsp fresh squeezed lemon or lime juice
2 Tbsp cream
4 striped bass fillets with skin, 6-8 oz each
1 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp sliced almonds
Salt and pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F.
  2. Prepare the celery root.
  3. Trim the tough ends of asparagus. Cut 2 inches off the tip ends, and reserve. Slice the leftover stems crosswise into 1/4 inch thick pieces. You should have about 1.5 cups.
  4. Bring 1.5 cups water (or the same amount as the volume of your sliced asparagus) to a boil in a small saucepan. Add 1/2 tsp kosher salt (1/4 tsp table salt), or to taste. Add the sliced asparagus (but not the tips), cover, and cook until tender, 2-3 minutes. Add lemon juice and cool 5 minutes. Purée in a blender until smooth. Pour back into the saucepan. Stir in the cream, taste and correct seasoning.
  5. Dry fish fillets well with paper towels and season with salt and pepper on both sides.
  6. Set a large non-stick or well seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 Tbsp butter. When foam subsides, add fish fillets skin side down and sear without disturbing until browned, 3-4 minutes.
  7. Cover celery root and place it in the oven to warm up. Flip the fish, and place the skillet in the oven. If your skillet is not oven safe, move the fish skin side up to a shallow baking dish before moving to the oven. The total cooking time (searing + baking) should equal 8 minutes per inch of thickness. To test for doneness, bend the fillet with a fork as if to fold it in half. If the fillet breaks, it's done (don't worry -- the skin will keep it together so it will still look good). Since the fish will continue to cook once it's off the heat, it should be almost opaque in the center, but not quite.
  8. Turn off the oven, but don't remove the celery root so that it stays warm. Remove the fish to a plate skin side up and let it rest while finishing side dishes.
  9. Set the skillet where you cooked the fish over high heat. Add asparagus tips and cook stirring occasionally until browned, 3-5 minutes. Take off heat and stir in the almonds.
  10. While asparagus tips are cooking, bring asparagus sauce to a simmer while stirring over medium heat. As soon as the sauce is hot, take if off the heat.
  11. Divide celery root among 4 plates. Spoon asparagus sauce around it. Top with fish, keeping it skin side up, then with asparagus tips and almonds.

Note: Celery root and asparagus sauce can be prepared up to a day in advanced and stored covered in the fridge. Warm up celery root in the oven and asparagus sauce on the stove top.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Latke -- the muscle relaxer

There is nothing like a good injury to talk some sense into a stressed out workaholic like me. The reason I wasn't blogging for the past couple of days is because I hurt my back and spent the last couple of days either standing or lying down. Neither one of these positions is particularly conducive to typing, though I did try using a laptop while lying down with my legs propped up. It worked long enough for me to send an e-mail to The Seasonal Cook asking for a cranberry vodka recipe and to post a restaurant review on chowhound. Then I finally had to give up. My husband complains that I am terrible at being sick -- I never give up and only make myself worse.

I have been trying to do way too much lately. It's a long story that I'll save for another time when I am more comfortable sitting. But while I was lying in bed, frustrated at my immobility, I had a chance to do some thinking and put the crazy project that was stressing me out on the back burner. Since most of my back troubles were due to stress and endless hours spent in front of the computer, I am feeling better already.

Luckily, cooking does not require sitting -- or at least that was my excuse for making some latkes last night. I love the holidays. That's when our food reflects our origin. The rest of the year, I much prefer Mediterranean to Russian -- it's more vibrant, colorful, and healthy. But couple of times a year, I am drawn to the starchy, mushroomy, and earthy tones of eastern european food.

I love the pungent smell of onion in the latkes batter, the sizzle of oil in the pan, the edges of each latke turning crisp and golden as the air becomes infused with starchy goodness. There is no such thing as latkes leftover. They always get eaten, "inhaled" more like it, so I had to make sure not to make too many. Just enough to make it feel like Hanukkah.

No more sitting. My back says I should go and cook something. I have some dry mushrooms soaking for a mushroom soup that I'll have to tell you about next week. To save myself more typing, I'll just link to the Latkes recipe on my other site.

Happy Hanukkah!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Salmon Orange Pâté

I've been on a salmon binge lately. Yes, yes, I know. I am supposed to be "Beyond Salmon." But the truth is that salmon is a perfect fish to serve cold (so are tuna and sturgeon, but those are a bit of a splurge), and since I wanted to bring some fish appetizer to the Christmas fair at work, I decided on a salmon-orange pâté. This pâté is to salmon like rillette is to pork -- absolutely decadent.

Serves 8 as a first course, or 16 as an hors d'oeuvre

1 cup dry white wine
2 oranges zested and juiced
3 Tbsp maple syrup or honey
1 Lb salmon fillet with or without skin
4 oz smoked salmon, finely chopped
1 shallot, minced
1 Tbsp capers, drained and chopped
2 Tbsp chopped dill and/or parsley
4 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
2 Tbsp mayo
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp lemon juice
Salt and pepper
  1. Remove butter from the fridge to make sure it softens by the time salmon is ready.
  2. Bring wine, orange juice (reserve orange zest for later), and maple syrup, to a boil in a medium skillet that is just large enough to hold your salmon fillet.
  3. Season salmon with salt and pepper on both sides and add to the skillet skin side down.
    As soon as the liquid returns to a simmer, reduce heat to low, cover the skillet and poach salmon at a bare simmer for 8 minutes per inch of thickness. To test for doneness, separate the flakes in the thickest part with a fork and peek inside. Salmon is done when the flakes separate, but are still translucent in the center.
  4. Remove salmon to a plate and cool completely. Peel off the skin (it should come off very easily after salmon is cooked).
  5. Flake poached salmon and mix it with reserved orange zest and all the other ingredients. Season with black pepper to taste and refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to 1 day. Let soften 10 minutes before serving. Serve on slices of baguette or crackers.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Duck eggs update

I guess I finally found something that chickens do better than ducks -- eggs. As I wrote in an earlier post, I recently became a lucky recipient of a dozen duck eggs. So this weekend, I tried duck eggs for the first time. Following the advice of Walter Jeffries (from Sugar Mountain Farm), I dropped my first idea of deviled eggs in favor of an omelet. It wasn't as fluffy and light as a chicken egg omelet and had a more pronounced sulfur smell. Not bad, but not something I would make again.

But wait! I didn't give up that easy. My second experiment was to make a soft boiled egg -- my favorite kind -- with the yolk still liquidy. I have to admit that I undercooked the egg slightly. Soft boiled eggs are always tricky since a lot depends on the size of the egg and there is no way to check them. The yolk came out really viscous and too thick for my taste.

My husband, who doesn't eat eggs, was documenting my little experiment and laughing as I tried to come up with more ways to cook duck eggs. Determined to give this one more try, I set my trusted cast-iron skillet on the stove, and cracked another egg into it for sunny-side-up. The white cooked really quickly, but I had a hard time getting the yolk to warm up. I tell ya -- that was one huge yolk. Just like with soft boiled egg, it came out too viscous.

Of course, what I probably should have done is baked, not cooked with them. But since I don't bake much, I haven't tried it yet.

The moral of the story is: All that glistens is not gold, and all that is duck is not necessarily better than chicken.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Poached Salmon with Orange Cream Sauce

Poached salmon is such a classic that for a long time I have tried hard to like it. I admit that it's not bad cold, and is really awesome in salmon pate, but as an entree I always found it a bit boring. This could be just me, of course, but I find pot-au-feu (chicken and beef cooked in water) really boring too. What good is all that fat and flavor if you are letting it all drain into the liquid? Besides those two dishes, I like all the other classic French stuff. Really, I do! So I guess I'll stop complaining and get back to salmon.

A few years ago, a student in one of my fish classes told me about salmon with orange cream sauce. I wish I had his name and contact information so that I could thank him. What a great idea! Orange juice provides a nice tangy kick that the poaching liquid desperately needs. I mix it with a little maple syrup to balance the acidity and match the richness of the salmon. Finish it with a touch of cream, and it's fabulous. The sauce is brothy, but with a nice intensity of flavor without being thick and heavy. Couscous mixed with currants, raisins, cranberries, or some other dried fruit makes a perfect side dish to soak up all that orange sauce. Finally, a poached salmon that even I like.

Fish substitutions: arctic char, steelhead or rainbow trout. Sable and halibut are also delicious cooked this way, but they taste very different from salmon.

Serves 4

1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup water
2 oranges zested and juiced
3 Tbsp maple syrup or honey
4 saffron theads (optional)
4 salmon fillets with or without skin, 6-8 oz each
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup cream
  1. Bring wine, water, orange juice, orange zest, maple syrup, and optional saffron to a boil in a large skillet that can hold salmon fillets in one layer.
  2. Season salmon with salt and pepper on both sides and add to the skillet skin side down.
  3. As soon as the liquid returns to a simmer, reduce heat to low, cover the skillet and poach salmon at a bare simmer for 8 minutes per inch of thickness. To test for doneness, separate the flakes in the thickest part with a fork and peek inside. Salmon is done when the flakes separate, but are still translucent in the center.
  4. Remove salmon to a plate and peel off its skin (it should come off very easily after salmon is cooked).
  5. Leave 1 cup of poaching liquid in the skillet and pour the rest off. Reduce it by half over high heat, 3-5 minutes.
  6. Turn down the heat to medium-low. Stir in the cream. Season to taste with salt and pepper and pour over salmon.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

An Ode to Domenic’s Panino Tonno

Oh holey crumb! Oh brittle crust!
With pungent tapenade inside.
It was true love at that first bite.
For Domenic’s!

All those calories be damned --
I'll have that sandwich for my lunch
With luscious tuna flaky bunch.
Oh Domenic’s!

But cruel fate – the corporate gods
For work to Natick made me flee
So very far away from thee,
Dear Domenic’s.

I tried to come on my days off
Only to find your closed doors.
My broken heart filled with remorse
For leaving dear Domenic’s.

How could you think that I forgot
Your simple charm, your rustic bread,
That all those years kept me fed.
Oh Domenic’s.

As I reheat my frozen lunch,
I pray that you forgive my sin
Of choosing work over cuisine.
Please, Domenic’s.

But faith has never left my soul
And years after saying “Nay!”
You let me come on Saturday.
Oh Domenic’s.

Panino Tonno touched my lips --
Its taste has all my dreams surpassed.
My heart with joy was filled at last.
Oh Domenic’s!

Domenic’s Italian Bakery and Deli
987 Main Street
Waltham, MA 02451
Now opened for lunch on Saturday! Oh, and Monday-Friday as always.

Friday, December 9, 2005

Snow and Granola

We got snowed in and like the rest of my office I decided to work from home. As you can imagine I was really excited about spending my commuting hour on making something yummy to eat. The question was what? I was thinking about oatmeal, but as I rummaged through my pantry, I couldn't find any steal-cut oats. But I did find a jar of rolled oats and some sliced almonds. The toasty smell of grannola suddenly filled my imagination. If William & Sonoma made a candle with a "B&B" fragrance, this is what it would smell like.

Cherry Almond Granola

Serves 6

2 cups rolled oats (not instant)
3 Tbsp brown sugar
2 Tbsp maple syrup (or additional 1 Tbsp brown sugar)
4 Tbsp butter, melted
1/4 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
pinch of salt
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup dried sour cherries
  1. Preheat the oven to 375F.
  2. Line a large rimmed cookie sheet with foil.
  3. Combine all ingredients in a bowl, except for cherries, and mix well.
  4. Spread granola on a cookie sheet in a thin layer and bake for 10 minutes in the middle of the oven. Mix and redistribute granola and bake another 4-7 minutes or until almonds are golden brown.
  5. Remove from the oven and mix in cherries. Cool completely and store in an air-tight container.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

Duck Eggs and Chocolate Sauce

When I entered my office this morning, I couldn't help smiling when I looked at my desk. Next to my computer, a pile of documents, and post-it notes was a dozen of duck eggs! You might be surprised that duck eggs would make an appearance in a software company, so let me tell you the whole story. I met Andrea, one of our developers, at the gym yesterday and found out that she has a chicken and duck farm. Of course, I couldn't I pass up the opportunity to try some duck eggs and I ordered a dozen. Andrea must have dropped them off at my office early in the morning. She is an early riser (being a farmer and all), so she is sometimes here as early as 6am! Not too many software engineers do that :)

I'll cook some duck eggs over the weekend and report back to you. All I know about them now is that they are huge -- those puppies barely fit into a jumbo size pack!

I was about to head out to pay Andrea for the eggs when I got an e-mail from Cory, the saucy CEO of Shootflying Hill Dessert Sauce Company. She also happens to be a technical writer in our office. She brought in two cute little jars of dark chocolate sauce that I asked her for. Nutella, watch out! Cory's stuff is really amazing. I've tried it on crepes, in tarts, and straight out of the jar with a large spoon. The only problem is that it's addictive and I try to keep the chocolate sauce jar hidden behind containers of OJ and mayo so that I am not tempted to indulge in it too often. I thought the little jars would make good Christmas presents, so that was my excuse for buying more.

After stopping by Cory's office to get my sauce, and then by Andrea's office to pay her for the eggs, I had a warm and satisfying feeling of going food shopping. We just need to add a produce guy and a fishmonger to our staff of engineers, and I'll be all set with my food shopping.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Roasted Pollock with Green Beans and Tomatoes

After spending a bit too much time in the kitchen over the weekend and eating duck and more duck, I was determined to make a healthy 30-minute meal last night. Whole Foods was having a special on pollock this Sunday, so that became yesterday's dinner. Pollock is a mild white fish similar to haddock or cod, so it needed a little help in the flavor department. Some olive oil, rosemary, garlic, and tomatoes came in handy. A quick sear in the pan before finishing it in the oven crisped the outside and gave it more oomph, but if you wanted to make it a one pot dish, you could skip the sear and simply bake it.

Fish substitutions: cod, haddock, hake, halibut, tilapia, red snapper (with skin), stripped bass (with skin)

Serves 4

4 medium red skinned potatoes with skin, cut into eighths
1 Lb green beans, snapped and cut into 1" pieces
2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
4 garlic cloves (2 whole and 2 thinly sliced)
1 Tbsp whole rosemary or thyme leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 Tbsp butter
4 pollock fillets without skin, 6-8 oz each
Salt and pepper

  1. Set a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 450F (high temperature will crisp the potatoes and cook green beans fast enough to keep them green).
  2. Season potatoes generously with salt and pepper and mix with 2 Tbsp olive oil, rosemary, and 2 whole garlic cloves in a 9x13x2 baking dish. Roast for 15 minutes in the lower third of the oven.
  3. Season green beans with salt and add to potatoes. Drizzle with another 2 Tbsp olive oil and continue roasting 10 more minutes.
  4. Add tomatoes, sliced garlic, wine, and a pinch of salt to potatoes and green beans. Mix it all up, and continue roasting while preparing the fish. If you prefer not to bother with browning the fish, season it with salt and pepper on both sides and proceed to step 6.
  5. Set a non-stick or cast iron skillet over high heat. Add 1 tsp of butter. Season fish fillets with salt and pepper on both sides. When the pan is hot, place fish in the skillet (if substituting fillets with skin, place them in the skillet skin side down). Sear 3 minutes or until nicely browned.
  6. Remove the fish to the dish with roasting vegetables placing it browned side up. Top with remaining 2 tsp butter, some vegetables and juices from the pan. Finish cooking in the oven for the total cooking time (searing + baking) of 8 minutes per inch of thickness.
  7. To test for doneness, separate the flakes of the thickest part with a fork. Fish is done when only a trace of translucency remains in the center.

Monday, December 5, 2005

Kitchen Addiction

Hi. My name is Helen, and I am a kitchen addict.

I got this nasty cold last week and really needed to take it easy, but I just couldn't get myself out of the kitchen. I finally found duck legs and couldn't help buying a bunch for confit. I've been trying to find them couple of weeks before Thanksgiving and everyone seemed to be out of duck. I guess it was turkey time, but still -- when you need duck, you need duck.

After salting the duck for 2 days and cooking it in duck fat for 3 hours, I was the proud owner of 8 golden duck legs that make duck lovers swoon with pleasure. The meat just melted in the mouth. The first night, I crisped the legs in the skillet and served them with buckwheat, caramelized onions and mushrooms. Maybe it's my Russian blood, but that's an ultimate winter comfort food for me. You can keep your chestnuts roasting over the open fire and your cookies. I just want my duck with buckwheat.

The next day, I made some duck tortellini with duck broth. Duck broth -- that's like chicken soup, only better. So I decided it must cure colds even faster. At least that was my excuse for spending 2 hours in the kitchen making pasta. The duck broth was already in my freezer, but I felt like making something special to go with that incredible amber liquid. I don't think there is any broth more magnificent that duck broth. If you ever consider throwing away the bones from roasted duck, just mail them to me, and I'll make more duck broth.

Good thing I was feeling better on Sunday because I was planning to make a tart for a party at work. Isn't finishing a project a perfect excuse for some merriment? Most of my tarts are usually best served warm shortly after they are made, so I tried a new recipe that seemed more durable and better served cold -- pear tart with almond custard. I used David Leite's recipe from Leite's Culinaria and my recipe for basic all-butter crust. Even on the second day, it tasted great -- delicate juicy pears, in puffed up custard, and flaky crust -- mmmm :)

If there is help for people like me, please let me know. I promise to spend less time cooking and more time writing this week.

Saturday, December 3, 2005

But isn't all sushi previously frozen?

mzn from Haverchuck posted a great comment about frozen fish.

I'm not sure about the restaurants' avoidance of frozen fish. There have been articles in the past couple of years about how much of the tuna and salmon served as sushi and sashimi is frozen to a very low temp, in part to kill parasites or bacteria.

That's right! In US all fish served raw (like for sushi) has to be previously frozen in order to ensure that all parasites are dead. The only exception is tuna. You can serve raw tuna that wasn't frozen because it's not prone to parasites. But that's sushi. When it comes to fish used for cooking, I've never seen previously frozen fin fish in upscale restaurants. Shellfish is another story. It's almost impossible to get fresh shrimp in US anymore, so most of the shrimp is previously frozen. Of course, this comes from my very limited experience on working in a restaurant in Boston, and I am not sure if this would be the case everywhere. But considering that half of the fish sold fresh in Boston is from the west coast, I don't see why they can't ship it to inland states as easily as from coast to coast.

After reading so much about how frozen fish can be just as good as fresh (even Mark Bittman says that), I headed off to Trader Joe's to get some. I bought a frozen halibut steak that was priced at half the price I pay for fresh. I must admit -- I really wanted it to be good! If it tasted as good as fresh I would have an answer for all my students who complain about fish being so expensive. Unfortunately, it lost a lot of water during defrosting even though I did it slowly in the fridge, and didn't taste nearly as juicy as fresh. Of course, I gave it a tough test -- steamed with ginger and scallions. Saucing it would be a nice cover up. Thinking I defronted the fish incorrectly, I tried buying some already defrosted wild salmon from Whole Foods. Same results.

Here is one thing to keep in mind. Most of the time, frozen fish is cheaper than fresh. If the frozen fish we buy in the stores was the same as sushi fish, I doubt it would be that cheap.

Frozen fish still puzzles me. I'll ask local fishmongers about it and will report back to you guys. Meanwhile if you have tips on how to buy and defrost frozen fish to make it taste as good as fresh, please drop me a line. I am very curious.

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Fish Buying FAQ

Have you ever wondered why some fish markets smell fishy and others don’t? Is prepackaged fish as good as cut to order? And what about farm-raised? Here are the answers to the most frequently asked questions I hear in my fish cooking classes.

The fish market smells fishy. Is that a bad sign?

While the fish should smell like the sea or nothing at all, the fishy smell in the market is not necessarily an indication or spoiled fish. If you are in an ethnic fish market that carries salt cod, you’ll know as soon as you walk in due to strong fishy smell. It is a Mediterranean specialty and very delicious in spite of the smell, so don’t be grossed-out. In spite of modest appearance, the fish markets where the owners are from fish eating countries (Italy, Portugal, Spain, China, Japan, etc) are often the best places to buy fish.

Other reasons you might encounter a fishy smell are the skin and bones left over from filleting fish. Since the fish stays best whole, the markets that fillet their own fish are usually offering you a better product even though the market might smell fishy. Since supermarket chains get their fish already filleted and rarely carry salt cod, you have to be very suspicious if a supermarket fish counter smells.

What about Fresh vs. Frozen fish?

Lately, everyone seems to have an opinion on what kind of fish you shouldn’t buy. Ideally, all fish would be fresh and wild, but we all know that’s not the reality. Here is my opinion on this subject and you should take it as just that – another opinion.

Fatty fin fish (salmon, bluefish, trout, Chilean sea bass) freeze well and lose very little moisture during defrosting. Lean fish (cod, flounder, halibut, red snapper) lose a lot of moisture during defrosting and their texture suffers tremendously. The amount of time fish spends in the freezer makes a huge difference. Most of the fish sold frozen have been in the freezer way too long, so those affordable Trader Joe's fish packages are usually quite awful. Remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch, particularly with fish. I do sometimes freeze fatty fish at home for a couple of weeks to simplify my shopping. But keep in mind that you can't freeze fish twice and you have to defrost it in the fridge for 24 hours (48 hours for fillets thicker than 1 inch).

Here is more info on fresh vs. frozen fish.

What about Farm-Raised vs. Wild fish?

This one is even more touchy than fresh vs. frozen. Due to bad environmental reputation of farm-raised fish, consumers suddenly decided that it tastes bad. That is absolutely not true; Atlantic salmon, Mediterranean bass, arctic char, white trout, and tilapia are all farm-raised and delicious.

The fish market is required to tell you whether the fish was previously frozen or farm-raised, so read the fine print on the labels carefully.

Since information about environmental concerns and endangered species changes faster than I type, consult the following sources for up to date information:

Monterey Bay Aquarium
Blue Ocean Institute

Is prepackaged fish any good?

Prepackaged fish can be perfectly fresh, but there are several drawbacks to buying it already prepackaged.
  • You can’t ask for exact amount of fish that you need.
  • You don’t know how long the fish was sitting in that package and how long you can keep it at home.
  • Some prepackaged fish have been treated with chemicals to slow down decomposition. This does not happen at organic supermarkets, but you never know about regular ones.
  • More often than not, there is no friendly fishmonger to ask questions about fish personalities, substitutions, or appropriate cooking methods. It’s just you and that styrofoam container.

How much fish should I buy?

How much fish to buy depends a lot on your appetite. A standard serving of fish is 6oz of boneless flesh. 8oz usually satisfies even the heartiest eaters. Here is a guideline on getting 6-8oz of flesh from different cuts of fish:
  • For boneless fillets and steaks, buy 6-8 oz of fish per person.
  • For on the bone steaks, buy 8-10 oz of fish per person.
  • For whole fish, buy 12-16 oz of fish per person.