Thursday, October 19, 2006

Branzino Tartar with Apples and Ginger

I wish I could take the credit for this brilliant combination of raw materials, but it goes to Ethan Stowell, the chef of Union Restaurant in Seattle. I had his fluke tartar with apples and ginger on a trip to Seattle this July, and it made such a lasting impression on me that I set out on a crazy saga to research the topic of serving raw fish at home. Of course, I could have just posted a picture and a recipe and some poetic description of how crisp the apple tasted against the silky flesh of the fish (as you can see I am not very good with those). But I didn't want this to be just food porn or food poetry. This dish tasted so good, that I wanted more people to experience it first hand. I haven’t made it with fluke yet, but with branzino, it was just fabulous (that's the one in the picture).

Suppose I told you to buy some "very fresh" fish, chop it up and serve it raw. Raise your hand if you'd be comfortable doing that? I have a feeling very few hands went up. So, let's go over some basics of serving fish raw

1) Mitigating the bacteria risk:
Buy your fish from a reputable market that has good turn over. Here is all you need to know about finding such fish market and buying fish. Great fish markets might be hard to find in some parts of US, but if you are in a large coastal city (Boston, New York, San-Francisco, Seattle, etc), you have that option even if you haven’t discovered it yet. If you are in Boston, go to New Deal. Tell your fishmonger you plan on serving fish raw and ask what they recommend. Fish you can use for this dish are branzino, hamachi, kampachi, hiramasa, arctic char, and salmon (I recommend farm-raised for serving raw -- here is why). There might be others, but I haven't tried them yet. My guess is that tuna would be too meaty. If the fish you bought is fresh (glistening, not mushy, and odor free), bacteria is not an issue. If fish is not something you cook on regular basis, you might want to practice buying fish and establish a relationship with a fishmonger before attempting this dish.

May 3 update: Farm-raised salmon turns out not to be as parasite free as I thought when I wrote this post. I suggest freezing it for 7 days before using, or using arctic char instead.

2) Mitigating the parasite risk:
If you bought fish that is farm-raised in closed-circle system (branzino, arctic char, hamachi, kampachi) or large wild tuna (yellowfin, bluefin, big-eye), you can use them as is. If you use any other wild fish or farm-raised salmon, you'll need to freeze the fish for 7 days to kill potential parasites (that is if you want to completely eliminate the risk of a parasite infection). To freeze your fish, remove the skin from the fillet, wrap it as tightly as possible in plastic wrap and freeze for 7 days. Move it to the fridge 24 hours before using. Keep in mind that only fatty fish freeze well. Lean fish (halibut, cod, fluke, etc.) turn to mush after freezing, so it's best to avoid them in raw preparations.

May 3 update: I updated section 2. Originally, I was suggesting that all farm-raised fish are safe to eat raw without freezing. That turns out to not be completely true. Fish farmed in the ocean (such as salmon) have a lower risk of parasites that their wild counterparts, but it's not insignificant.

3) Preparing the fish:
Since branzino is usually sold whole. Each fish is about 1 Lb, yielding 1/2 Lb of flesh you’ll need for this dish. Ask your fishmonger to fillet, skin, and debone it for you. He or she is much better at it than you are; it’s a free service at most fish market. Salmon, and kampachi are usually sold filleted with the skin. You can ask your fishmonger to remove the skin, or you can skin it yourself.

That's all there is to it. You are ready to make tartar.

The key ingredient in this dish (besides excellent fish) is knife skills. This is a great opportunity to perfect your brunoise. Brunoise is a vegetable cut of 1/8 inch dice, in other words very small. Cut your apples and onions any bigger, and the dish loses its fine texture and elegance. Use a food processor, and you got yourself a mush resembling baby food. Small amount of crunch is essential to this dish, so you've got to sharpen your chef's knife and be a little patient. But once you are done chopping, you are only 1 minute away from one of the coolest raw fish dishes.

Branzino Tartar with Apples and Ginger

Fish substitutes: kampachi, salmon

Note on apples: you need an apple with good acidity, so stay away from red delicious (they taste absolutely awful anyway). Granny Smith is the most widely available variety, but if you are making this dish in the fall, look around your farmer’s market for Northern Spies, Honey Crisp, or Cortland.

Serves 2-3 as an appetizer

1/2 Lb skinless, boneless branzino fillet, cut into 1/4 inch dice
1/4 cup diced tart apple (1/8 inch size dice)
2 Tbsp diced red onion (1/8 inch size dice)
1 tsp finely minced ginger
1 Tbsp finely minced cilantro, mint, or dill
2 tsp fresh squeezed lime juice
1/4 tsp Dijon mustard (optional)
2 tsp olive oil
1/4 tsp kosher salt or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients together and mix well. If you want the restaurant presentation, place ring molds onto serving plates. Pile in tartar, and then lift off the ring molds. Well rinsed tuna cans, with top and bottom removed, make excellent home-made ring molds.

Correction note on 10/22/06:
The original post listed fluke as one of the fish you can use in this dish. After defrosting a piece of fluke this evening, I must advice against using it unless you are willing to eat it without freezing (thus taking a small parasite risk). It turned into an absolute mush after I defrosted it. I suspect this was due to fluke having absolutely no fat and very high water content. Branzino on another hand froze and defrosted quite well without losing its texture.


Anonymous said...

Oh goodness, this looks divine!!!

Gia-Gina said...

Branzino is very common in Italy and commonly eaten raw too. I don't think it is called fluke but I could be wrong. I most often hear it called a Mediterrean sea bass of some sort. It is not a bottom fish and now recently very popular in upscale restaurants. It is also called spigola in many parts of Italy.

Helen said...

Hi Gia-Gina,

Yes, you should have no trouble finding branzino in Italy. Fluke is a totally different fish. It's a flat fish that is kind of like a large flounder or sole. But they both work equally well in this dish and make good substitutes for each other.


Anonymous said...

Hi Helen - That is one of the most delicious-looking things on your blog yet. Can't wait to try it!

Anonymous said...

Hi Helen,
I’ve just come upon your lovely blog... And your earlier post about the different types of tuna.
I've been trying to dig out a bit more information about tuna here in Australia ... I adore the fatty cuts too, but everything I read tells me that blue-fin and big-eye are overfished and, if we're concerned about sustainable fishing, we should avoid them. Breaks my heart! What I've been trying to find out then, without any luck so far, is whether yellowfin (which is not considered to be overfished as far as I know) has any fatty cuts at all. Hoping perhaps you might know!???!

Helen said...

Hi guys,

Rubee, so glad you enjoyed the post. Have fun making it if you decide to try it.

Stephanie, to answer your question about tuna -- to maximize the fat in yellowfin, try to get the belly cuts or the cuts from the center of the fish rather than the tail. You might not always have a choice, but it's worth asking your fishmonger. With tuna I find that you get what you pay for. The belly and center cuts might be a bit more pricey, but they are worth every penny :)

Good luck!


Anonymous said...

This tartar looks so delicious Helen! Apples and ginger are such a nice combo.

Helen said...

Thanks Bea :)

Gia-Gina said...

Yes branzino is very common here and I can find it no problem. I thought you were calling it fluke and I was trying to say I think it is called sea bass.

Pete said...

I'll bet this would be great with yellowtail (hamachi).