Monday, April 23, 2007

Is frozen fish as good as "fresh"?

There is nothing I hate more than being wrong. That's why I research things to death to make sure that I am not wrong too often. When it does happen though, it's a great learning experience, like the one I just got on freezing fin fish.

I kept procrastinating posting my frozen fish findings, but a question that Matthew Amster-Burton, a columnist on has just posted on my How to store fish story has inspired me to finally get off my lazy butt and write up my frozen fish experiments.

I used to be of the conviction that frozen fish was ALWAYS worse than fresh. I know, I know -- Whole Foods and many fish cookbooks like to tell you that previously frozen fish can be even fresher than not previously frozen fish because it was frozen at the peak of freshness. Just so that I don't have to use the "not previously frozen" terminology (that just takes too long to type), I'll use the word "fresh" to refer to fish that did not undergo the freezing process. The question I'll try to answer is whether previously frozen fish can taste as good as fresh, not whether it's as safe to eat.

Why would I care? I can get plenty of excellent fresh fish here in Boston. The problem is that when it comes to eating fish raw, freshness is not the only thing you have to worry about. Parasites are another hazard. Depending on the fish, they might pose an extremely small risk (to read all about them, see my posts on parasites, parts 1 and part 2). But if you want to eliminate that risk completely by killing the parasites, the only way to do it is to freeze the fish for at least 7 days. Cooking kills them too, of course, but that doesn't help you much with sushi.

My attitude to raw fish is pretty laid back. But when I teach sushi classes, I want to give my students an extra precaution option. Some people don't want to take a risk of food-born illness, no matter how minuscule. When I am serving fin fish raw, I only use tuna, farm-raised salmon, farm-raised branzino, and farm-raised yellowtail. The only way to get yellowtail in Boston is flash frozen and shipped from Japan so parasites are not an issue for that one at all. The other fish are fresh, but the odds of them having parasites are practically zero, so I just buy them from a reputable market (The New Deal in Cambridge) and eat them. As far as the freshness of the fish goes, freezing does nothing for you. It doesn't kill bacteria, just temporarily stops it's growth, so freezing inferior fish does not make it "safe".

I used to think that all fish would be damaged by freezing. Fish is mostly made of water, and water expands during freezing. This tears the flesh of the fish and makes it mushy. To prepare for my sushi class, I froze piece after piece of different fish, and here are my findings -- different fish react to freezing differently. Fatty fish freeze relatively well, and their texture is barely affected. Lean fish turn to mush in their defrosted raw state and rubber when cooked.

In these pictures, farm-raised salmon (very fatty) and fluke (very lean) were frozen the same way for the same amount of time. After defrosting, the fluke was so soft, I could turn it into a puree with a chop stick.

But, salmon stayed just as resilient as it was before freezing.

The reason I was so surprised was that I've had previously frozen salmon before that was terrible, so I concluded that salmon doesn't freeze well. What I didn't take into account was that it was wild Coho and Sockeye Salmon that tasted awful. They are extremely lean compared to farm-raised Atlantic or King salmon and do turn to mush when frozen. So when you choose your salmon for freezing, go with Atlantic (always farm-raised) or King (farm-raised or wild).

Even if you choose a freezer-friendly fish for your sushi, you have to freeze it and defrost it properly. Remove the skin from the fillet, wrap it as tightly as possible in plastic wrap without bending it, then put it in a zip lock bag to make sure it's completely sealed. Freeze for 7 days, then move it to the fridge 24 hours before using. Do not defrost on the counter or in water. Fast defrosting can damage your fish. Also, do not keep it in the freezer for months. Couple of weeks is the longest I've tried. Somewhere between 7 days and a few months, fish texture starts to change. It happens at different times for different fish. I try not to test my luck and don't keep fish frozen longer than obligatory 7 days. Also, don't freeze whole fish. The smaller the piece, the faster it will freeze, and the less trauma your fish will undergo.

What about FAS (frozen at sea) or flash frozen fish? FAS is a nice marketing term and no more than that. At sea or not, frozen is frozen. "Flash frozen" is a very fast freezing methodology that is an optimal way to freeze fish -- supposedly, much better than your home freezer. I've never had flash frozen and home frozen fish side by side, so I can't comment on how big of a difference it makes taste wise. I have a feeling that flash frozen stuff can just stay in that state longer than home frozen stuff without affecting the taste, but I've never tested that theory. From my experience the type of fish makes a much bigger difference. I've had excellent fatty fish like Chilean Sea Bass and fatty salmon that have been flash frozen and home frozen and they tasted fine. But I've never had any luck with previously frozen lean fish even if it was flash frozen.

Does this mean that all Trader Joe's fish is sushi grade? It's all previously frozen, right? There is much more to sushi grade than lack of parasites. The quality of the fish, the fat content, freshness at the time it was frozen, and storage conditions all make a difference. The stuff that sat in Trader Joe's freezer for 6 months is not an option for eating raw (at least not a tasty option).

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Pain Brioché (enriched bread or lean brioche)

"You mean you didn't write down what KIND of salt you used?!" said Jason as we bit into my bland Christmas bread. "I thought I meant MY salt, but I guess I copied the measurements from Julia's book and she uses table salt," I said feeling silly. Yes, Jason and I discuss this kind of stuff and when it comes to bread baking, we'll obsess over every quarter teaspoon. It's just that he is really organized about it and keeps a detailed journal and I am my usual self. That's why bread baking is much more of his thing than mine. I try to make my recipes precise, but I usually spend my effort on precision of technique, not precision of ingredients. With bread you need both. Have you noticed that there are no bread recipes on my blog? I avoided writing about this topic for 2 years since it's an unfamiliar territory for me. It's as if I had to write in a foreign language. At first bread baking was so unnatural, I felt like I was in another country. "What do you mean I have to weigh the flour? Aren't cups good enough?" At this point, I feel like someone who speaks in Breadanese with a terrible accent and makes many grammar mistakes, but I can finally communicate (like I can ask for directions, order in a restaurant, and find out where the bathroom is).

The "Waiter, there is something in my... bread" event hosted by Andrew Barrow over at Spittoon Extra inspired me to finally write down my recipe for pain brioché with all the proper details instead of keeping little notes in my e-mail (that's how the salt mistake happened). First let me explain what I mean by "pain brioché" and by "my recipe." You can view pain brioché as either a very rich white bread or a very lean brioche (only 1 stick of butter per pound of flour vs. real brioche's 3 sticks of butter). As all dough recipes, my obsession with it started with the filling. I decided to learn to make real pirozhki (Russian stuffed rolls) without the good old trick of Pillsbury dough that all Russian-Americans use. After experimenting with all kinds of doughs, I found that the closest version to pirozhki I remember from the incredible cafés of Lvov (my Mom's home town in western Ukraine) was Julia Child's recipe for pain brioché. Learning to make it has opened all kinds of tasty doors far beyond pirozhki. I add dried fruit for making Panettone for Christmas, roll it into breakfast buns, and stuff it with sweet and savory fillings.

This recipe is my adaptation of the one from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 2. What's different in mine is:
  • the use of SAF-instant yeast (available at William and Sonoma and some Whole Foods, this yeast is much easier to work with than any other)
  • explanation of measurements for people with baking disability like myself
  • Using a KitchenAid mixer to do the kneading
  • How much Diamond Crystal Kosher salt to use (I simply don't have any table salt in the house)
  • A schedule that works well for me. You have to realize that you are embarking on a 10 hour adventure here and it helps to know what to do if you need to leave the house or go to bed.
Pain Brioché

Makes 1 large loaf, 8 buns, or 12-16 small pirozhki

Wet ingredients
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup milk (low-fat is fine)
1 Tbsp table salt (or 1 Tbsp + 2 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt)
2 Tbsp sugar

Dry ingredients
1 Lb unbleached all-purpose flour
1 and 1/2 tsp SAF-instant yeast

Enrichment ingredients
4 large eggs at room temperature (for at least 30 minutes)
1 stick chilled unsalted butter

Making of the dough:
  1. Measure all ingredients accurately. The liquids have to be measured in a liquid measuring cup (like Pyrex). Read the volume of a liquid at the bottom of the meniscus (the curve at the surface of the liquid). I give measurements for 2 types of salt here. If you are using a different type (even a different type of Kosher salt), the measurements will be different. Flour has to be weighed. Cups are not accurate enough. You can get a cheap little scale for $15 (no need for digital or anything fancy). And finally, SAF-instant yeast is not the same as active dry yeast. The measurements are different and the process of using it is different. SAF goes straight into the dry ingredients while active dry has to be dissolved in water. I strongly suggest that you don't make any substitutions unless you get Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice and learn to do them properly.
  2. Combine all wet ingredients in a Pyrex measuring cup and warm up in the microwave just until tepid (slightly warm when you touch them to your lip or 70-80F).
  3. Put dry ingredients into a bowl of a KitchenAid mixer. Attach a dough hook and mix just to combine. Add the wet ingredients and the eggs to the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until a dough forms, stopping, and scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. Stop the mixer and let the dough rest for 3 minutes.
  4. Turn the mixer on medium-low speed and knead the dough for 15 minutes. Don't think you can crank up your mixer to 3 times the speed and get it done in 5 minutes. The dough needs a long kneading to develop the texture and flavor. It should stick to the bottom of the bowl, but clear the sides and eventually start making a slapping sound. If after 5 minutes of kneading, the dough still sticks to the sides of the bowl, add a little flour 1 Tbsp at a time. Wait after each addition is completely incorporated before adding more flour. Stop and scrape the bowl once in a while.
  5. Wack the butter right in its wrapper with a rolling pin to soften it a little. Then knead it a little on a plate with a spoon or fork to get it close to consistency of dough, but not so much that it warms up and gets creamy. Add butter to dough 1 Tbsp at a time while continuing to mix. Wait until each addition is completely incorporated before adding more butter. When all the butter is incorporated, stop the mixer and let dough rest for 3 minutes. Restart the mixer and knead another 10 minutes.
First rise (3-4 hours):
Wipe a large (at least 3 quart) bowl with a little oil. You want to use a bowl that has sides pointing up rather than flaring out. Put the dough into the bowl (it will feel VERY sticky), cover with plastic and let it rise to 3 and 1/2 times. Dough's pre-rise volume will be 3 cups and post-rise volume should be around 10 and 1/2 cups. This will take 3-4 hours depending on the temperature of the room. Ideally, it should be not warmer than 75F to prevent the bread from rising too quickly.

Second rise (3-4 hours):
Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a lightly flowered surface. Flour your hands and press the dough into a 10 by 12 inch rectangle. Fold it like a letter. Then press it out again and fold again. Rinse out and dry the bowl. Wipe it with a little oil and put the dough back into it. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rise as much as the first time, another 3-4 hours.

This is the part where I usually like to stop and continue the next day. I start the dough rising at room temperature and after 2 hours, put it in the fridge. It will continue to rise for a while, but will eventually chill enough to stop. I let it sit in the fridge until the next day when I am ready to proof and bake. Of course, you can stop action during the first rise as well (just by putting it in the fridge), but that leaves too much work for the day I am actually using the dough. Remember that if you stopped the action by putting the dough in the fridge, the next stage would take longer because the dough would need time to warm up.

Shape the dough as desired. Sorry, I am not giving very good instructions here because they would require pictures that I don't have. Get yourself Julia's or Reinhart's book to learn how to shape loaves. Since I usually stuff it with something, I just roll it out with a pin and figure out where to go from there based on what I am baking. For pirozhki, I cut it into circles with a cookie cutter, stretch each circle to 1/6 inch thick using my fingers, stuff and pinch to seal. Then place on a buttered baking sheet seam side down. For rolled buns, I sprinkle rolled out dough with something (the ones in the picture have melted butter, valrhona unsweetened cocoa powder, sugar, and tiny pieces of candied orange peel), and roll them up. Then cut into buns and place on a buttered baking sheet. For tall stuffed buns, I make circles like for pirozhki, but larger and a little thicker, put them into buttered ring molds, sitting on a buttered baking sheet, and add the filling. The ones in the picture are with sweetened farmer's cheese, and black currant preserve. Then I seal the edges on top.

Loosely cover the shaped dough with plastic wrap (making sure to give it room to rise) and let it rise at room temperature until doubled. If you didn't chill the dough during the second rise, it would take about an hour. If you chilled it during the second rise, it would take around 2 hours for buns and around 3 hours for a large loaf.

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F.
  2. Remove the plastic wrap from the dough and brush the top with a little egg wash (1 yolk mixed with 1 Tbsp milk)
  3. Put the dough in the middle of the oven right in the baking sheet that you used for proofing. Bake until internal temperature of the dough reaches 180-190F. How long this will take depends on the shape, so make sure to check with an instant read thermometer. Little buns and pirozhki take about 15 minutes (if the dough is divided into 16 parts), bigger buns take 18-20 minutes (if the dough is divided into 8 parts), and a large loaf around 35 minutes. When checking the temperature of stuffed dough, make sure you stick the thermometer into the dough, not the filling.
  4. Cool until warm -- 10 minutes for little buns, 30 minutes for loaves. Make yourself a nice cup of tea or coffee, pat yourself on the back for making your very own bread, and enjoy.

p.s. I want to say a great big thank you to Jason for teaching me everything I know about bread baking.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Striped Bass with Orange Gremolata

I always found makeovers funny. The "before" pictures always look extra terrible (as if the person just rolled out of bed), and the "after" pictures look like a mask -- with all that make up and hair it's hard to tell if this is even the same person. But looks are everything whether I like it or not, even with food. Somehow I know way before I publish a post whether it will get many comments or not. If the picture is gorgeous, it really doesn't matter what I write -- I am guaranteed comments. And if the picture sucks, it doesn't matter that I have just discovered a better way to cook skate or learned how halibut's size effects its texture -- no comments for me.

Sometimes I don't care and post the recipe with a bad picture. But sometimes I love the dish so much that I just can't stand it being discriminated against because of my terrible food styling and photography skills. Striped Bass with Orange Gremolata is one of those dishes. It's so yummy and so simple that it often ends up being my students' favorite in the fish class. But it seems to be jinxed when it comes to pictures. Each time I tried to take them, something would go wrong. To start with, striped bass is a difficult fish to photograph. Most of the pieces have very dark skin. It gets even darker after searing. Add to that poor lighting if you are having dinner after sunset and you got yourself a picture of a burnt looking piece of fish even though it tastes perfectly fine. Couldn't I just serve it skin side down? Absolutely not! The yummiest part of striped bass is its crispy skin and serving it skin side down would make it soggy.

This was my third try taking pictures of this dish in the last few months and I was determined to get it right. To do that I had to think like a food stylist and a photographer, which requires nothing short of a brain surgery for me. When I bought my piece of bass, I asked the fishmonger for the part near the belly where the skin is lighter in color. I seared fish for a shorter period of time on the skin side to make sure the skin was still light enough for a good picture. I cooked dinner earlier than usual to catch the remainder of day light. I garnished bass with long strips of zest from a regular zester even through the zest from a Microplane grater tastes better. Finally, I took the pictures and even remembered to rotate the plate and get in from different angles. Phew!

Did it work? It sure did! Here are before and after pictures.



Now guess which one tasted better... The ugly one on top. The skin was crisper :)

You probably think that I have to be psychotic to go through all this for a blog post. I can't say I disagree. Let's face it, we food bloggers are all a little nuts. But normally, we don't like sharing what goes on behind the scenes. We like our pictures and stories to look effortless and natural. As if we snapped those gorgeous pictures while entertaining friends and jotted down our stories while waiting for the train during our morning commute.

I actually find it fun to read what's under the hood of other people's blogs, so I thought I'll share what's under the hood of mine.

By the way, you might be wondering what is gremolata. It's an Italian garnish made with lemon zest, parsley, and garlic that is normally served on top of osso buco. It is also wonderful with fish, and I like the orange-cilantro variation even better than the classic one.

Striped Bass with Orange Gremolata

Fish substitutions: salmon (with skin), red snapper (with skin), halibut (without skin), mahi (without skin), sable (without skin) or any other white, cream colored, or pink fleshed fish.

Serves 4

3 oranges
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro or parsley
1/2 medium garlic clove, mashed to a paste
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
4 striped bass fillets with skin (6 oz each)
2 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F.
  2. Zest and section the oranges.
  3. To make gremolata, combine orange zest with cilantro and garlic in a small bowl. Season with salt to taste and set aside.
  4. In another bowl, combine orange sections with balsamic vinegar and set aside.
  5. Dry fish fillets well with paper towels. If using striped bass or snapper, score the skin with a sharp knife on a diagonal at 3/4 inch intervals being careful not to cut much into the flesh. This helps fillets stay flat during searing. Season with salt and pepper on both sides.
  6. Set a large non-stick or well seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add 2 Tbsp oil and wait until oil is hot. Add fish fillets skin side down and sear without disturbing until browned, 3-4 minutes.
  7. 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 still be a little translucent in the center when you take it off the heat.
  8. Rub the fish all over with gremolata and garnish with oranges.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Zucchini pancakes

What do you do with a zucchini that doesn't require any other ingredients, yet isn't totally boring? That was the dilemma facing me a few days ago. I didn't want to grill since it was raining, and I didn't feel like sautéing since I find sautéed zucchini kind of boring. Roasting could be a good idea, but it's much more interesting when zucchini are mixed with some other veggies, which I didn't have. That's when it dawned on me -- how about zucchini pancakes! I've never made them and was dying to try this dish I remember my Mom making. It's common in Russia to make oladyi (pancakes) with all kinds of vegetables and zucchini were one of our favorites.

I didn't have a recipe, but the one I improvised seemed to work incredibly well. The only extra ingredients necessary to make this dish are flour, eggs, salt, and oil (all of which are staples). I threw in some scallions since I found them lying forgotten in a drawer of my fridge, and then fried my pancakes in sunflower seed oil (the olive oil of Russian cooking). It's perfect for frying since it doesn't burn and imparts a great aroma to your dish (at least if you buy the real stuff from a Russian store). But if you don't have sunflower seed oil handy, canola oil will work just fine.

Serves 4 as a side dish

3/4 Lb zucchini (about 1 medium)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 large egg
1/4 cup finely chopped scallions (optional)
Salt and pepper
Sunflower seed or canola oil for frying
  1. Grate zucchini on the large holes of a box grater (or using a food processor). Squeeze it in handfuls over a sink and move to a bowl.
  2. Add flour, egg, scallions, and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Mix well and taste for salt. Since the batter contains raw egg, it's best to cook a little piece before tasting to be on the safe side, but if you've ever eaten unbaked brownie or chocolate chip cookie batter, this is no more dangerous.
  3. Set a large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add enough oil to make a coating 1/8 inch thick. When oil is hot (moves as easily as water when you tilt a pan), add the batter a spoonful at a time (each spoonful makes one pancake). Cook until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Flip the pancakes and cook until golden brown on the other side, about 2 minutes. Remove to a plate lined with paper towel and repeat with the rest of the batter adding more oil as necessary. Serve immediately with sour cream, yogurt, or plain.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

John Dory with Tomato Cream Sauce

Looking at the hail beating down our study window makes it hard to believe that only yesterday the sun was shining and little green buds were starting to open on trees. I didn't know what I was going to cook when I got to the Fishmonger and Formaggio's, but I knew it was going to be springlike. After taking a look at the fish counter and noticing a great selection of my favorites -- bluefish, striper, halibut, tuna, and sword -- I spotted a fish I haven't met before. "And who might you be?" I asked the mystery fish. "That's John Dory," said the fishmonger lady pointing at the thin white fillets with pearly silver skin. "What's he like?" I asked. "He is kind of his own family. White, flaky, very nice flavor..." "Would you like to be today's dinner?" I asked John. He gladly agreed.

"Where is he from and how come I've never seen him before?" I asked her. "John Dory can come from all over, but this one is from North Atlantic," she said. "You might have seen it as St. Peter's fish," she added. I have heard the name, but haven't seen it in markets or restaurants before, so I was eager to try it.

To see what this little fish is all about, I simply seasoned it with salt and pepper and seared in a hot skillet with a little olive oil. The thin fillets were done in 3-4 minutes and I served them on a bed of Tomato Cream Sauce with Sugar Snap Peas. It was a lovely dish -- almost more summer than spring tasting, but I just couldn't pass those beautiful tomatoes from Formaggio Kitchen. I wonder where they get such yummy ones this time of year.

John Dory turned out perfectly -- sweet, delicate, and much more expressive than cod, haddock, or any of those sauce-vehicle type fish. I'd say it was somewhere in between the overly shy sole and an oily trout. The only thing I'd change next time would be to remove its skin. I cook most small and medium size fish with the skin when using direct high heat methods like searing and grilling. It turns crispy and very yummy like the skin on a roast chicken. But John Dory is another type of animal. Its skin didn't crisp up and just turned kind of gummy. Not a biggy, since it's easy to remove after the fish is done, but removing it before cooking would let me crisp up both sides of the fish. You can ask your fishmonger to skin the fillets for you, or you can do it yourself.

John Dory with Tomato Cream Sauce

Fish substitutions: any white or cream colored thin fish fillets like white trout, flounder, sole, and branzino. You can use thicker fish too, like striped bass, sable, cod, haddock, and hake, but you'll have to finish them in the 400F oven as they won't be cooked through enough by the time they brown on the outside.

Serves 4

For the fish:
4 John Dory fillets without skin (6 oz each)
2 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and Pepper
Chopped dill, parsley, or herb of your choice for garnish

For the sauce:
1 Tbsp butter
1 shallot, minced
1-1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved (you can use any type of tomatoes as long as they are ripe or good quality canned tomatoes)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup water
3 Tbsp heavy cream
Salt and Pepper to taste

To make the sauce
  1. Set a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add the butter and wait for it to melt. Add shallot and a pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until translucent, 3-5 minutes.
  2. Add tomatoes, turn up the heat to high and cook until they sizzle, start to release their juices and get tender, but not mushy, 2-3 minutes.
  3. Stir tomatoes and pour the wine and water over them. Turn down the heat to low, cover, and simmer 5 minutes. During the last minute, you can add some sugar snap peas before uncovering tomatoes, adding cream, and finishing the sauce.
  4. Stir in cream and bring to a simmer uncovered. Take off heat and season to taste with salt and pepper.
To cook fish
  1. Dry the fish off very well with paper towels and season with salt and pepper on both sides.
  2. Set a large non-stick skillet over high heat. When hot, add the oil and wait a few seconds for it to heat up. Place the fish into the skillet with its better looking side down (if substituting fish with the skin, place it in the skillet skin side down). Cook until golden, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook until the fish almost flakes, but is still a little translucent at the center, another 1-2 minutes. The total cooking time should be about 8 minutes per inch of thickness.
  3. Divide the sauce between plates, top with the fish fillets, and garnish with herbs.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Please, I am pregnant and I need to pee

In Huron Village neighborhood of Cambridge, MA, money can buy almost anything. Dover sole flown in from Europe? No problem -- $30/Lb. Foie gras? We've got that too -- $40 for a few ounces. Pierre Poilâne's bread, Ligurian olive oil, 50 year old balsamic vinegar? We've got all those, and no, you probably don't want to hear the price. But this isn't a rant about how much we pay for gastronomic luxuries. These ingredients take great effort and expense to bring here, and an even greater expense to display (considering the cost of real estate in Cambridge). So why can't we put a price tag on other luxuries, like public bathrooms?

I've never noticed how difficult it is to find a place to relieve your bladder, until I became 6 months pregnant. My daily exercise these days is walking. I try to walk 2-3 miles every day and if I can walk with a purpose, like having lunch and buying groceries, I am even happier. The best place to kill those two birds with one stone is to walk to Huron Village. Not only can you get a wonderful sandwich at Formaggio Kitchen, but you can get some great cheeses, cured meats, and breads to take home. Then you can stop at fishmonger called "Fishmonger" next door, and the Fresh Pond Market a few blocks up to get your meats and veggies. It's a perfect way to spend my lunch break, and I try to get out on this walk as much as possible.

The problem is that it takes me about an hour to get to Formaggio and back, and then I usually spend another hour getting lunch and groceries. That's 2 hours total, which is too long for me to go without a bathroom these days. I tried everything -- going to the bathroom 2 seconds before leaving the house, not drinking too much for an hour or so, and speeding up my shopping. It's still incredibly difficult for me to make it there and back unless I stop drinking for hours before leaving the house, which is not a good idea. But I was sure with all those gourmet shops, and lunch places, there would be some place for me to use a bathroom while I am having lunch and shopping.

I smiled sweetly at the lady at Formaggio's counter and asked if it would be possible to use their facilities. She smiled sweetly back, and said that their bathroom is not for customers. Last time, I lucked out with whoever was at the cash register when I explained that I was pregnant, had "no bladder", and walked 30 minutes to get there. I tried this trick again, but this time I wasn't as lucky. "Would you happen to know of a place around here that would let me use a bathroom?" I asked. "Oh, I really don't know," she replied sweetly. "Maybe, Sarah's cafe a few blocks from here..."

I walked to Sarah's cafe hoping for the best. It looked promising. They had 10 or so tables and were serving sit-down lunch. "Surely they have a bathroom," I thought. I asked the guy at the lunch counter if I could use it. "It's not for customers," he replied. "Is there any public bathroom around here?" I asked desperately. He said he didn't know. I was getting so tired of this wild goose chase that I was willing to offer him $5 to use his bathroom, but somehow I didn't think this was going to work. I tried the pregnancy clause again. "Please sir," I pleaded, "I am pregnant, and I walked 30 minutes to get here." "You are pregnant?" he said with a startled look on his face as if I was about to go into labor right in his dining room. "That's a different story then. Right this way." I guess the pregnancy thing works better on men than women. You'd think a woman would be more sympathetic to my predicament. But fear is easier to get in Huron Village than sympathy I guess. And men are scared of pregnant women -- who knows what they might do! I thanked the nice man from the bottom of my heart, bought a cup of tea, left a very generous tip, and continued on my lunch and shopping trip.

I certainly appreciate the European feel of Huron Village -- the cute stores, pretty sidewalks, and opportunity to walk everywhere. But they didn't have to make it so authentic that the bathroom situation is as terrible as it is in France. I understand that there is no such thing as a free lunch (or bathroom), particularly at our real estate prices. I just think we can combine our free market economy with French joie de vivre. If there is money to be made in Dover sole and foie gras, there's got to be money in bathrooms.

p.s. if you happen to live in this area and know of a public bathroom on Huron Ave., please let me know.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Chilean Sea Bass with Cherry Tomatoes and Basil Mousse

This dinner is a celebration of a Subaru Forester, named Lucas, our new car. We picked him up at the dealership yesterday and even took him on his first trip. As you might have guessed, the trip was food related -- we went to the Fresh Pond Market for meat and veggies, and our local fishmonger called "Fishmonger." Kind of like the horse in Princess Bride whose name was "Horse" (you have to read the book to learn about Horse since it wasn't in the movie).

The Fishmonger had all kinds of goodies yesterday including Chilean sea bass. I try not to gorge on this incredible fish (in fact, there isn't a single recipe for it on Beyond Salmon yet), but this was a special occasion and I couldn't resist. I decided to simply sear it in a hot pan and finish by roasting in the oven with cherry tomatoes. I don't think I've ever made a better 2 ingredient dish.

The rest of the dinner was assembled out of leftovers and kitchen mishaps. The batch of black-eyed peas that I cooked the day before got terribly mushy. I set the timer for 50 minutes and went to call the car insurance people, thinking that surely it won't take that long. How optimistic of me! They asked so many questions that it must have taken over an hour and my poor black-eyed peas got overcooked. What do you do if you overcook a pot of beans? You mash them! I drained and threw the whole batch in a food processor, added a little chopped garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Then buzzed it until smooth and voila -- you got yourself a lovely bean spread or a side dish if you heat it up in the oven and stir in a little butter.

The sauce was a mixture of pesto leftover from the Cinque Terre class this weekend and whipped cream. It turned into a fun basil sort of mousse -- kind of like an herb butter, but lighter and foamier in texture. After I plated the fish, I put a dollop of this stuff on top and it melted into a perfumy lava all over the fish.

So, here is to Lucas and many more good shopping trips!

Seared Chilean Sea Bass with Cherry Tomatoes and Basil Mousse

Fish substitutions: sable, halibut, striped bass (with skin), grouper, mahi

Serves 4

For the fish:
4 Chilean sea bass fillets without skin (6 oz each)
2 tsp olive oil
1-1/2 cups of cherry tomatoes, halved
Salt and pepper

For basil mousse:
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp basil pesto
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F.
  2. Dry the fillets well on paper towels and season generously with salt and pepper on all sides.
  3. Set a large oven-proof non-stick or cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add olive oil (you might need a little more oil if you are not using a fatty fish like chilean sea bass or sable). Place the fish in the pan the nicer looking side down (if using striped bass or some fish with the skin, place it skin side down). Sear until nicely browned, 2-3 minutes.
  4. Flip the fish, spread the cherry tomatoes in the pan around the fish. Sprinkle them with a little salt and if not using a fatty fish, a little olive oil. Turn tomatoes to coat with pan juices, and set the pan in the middle of the oven to finish cooking the fish. The total cooking time (searing plus baking) will be around 8 minutes per inch of thickness. To test for doneness, separate the flakes in the thickest part and peek inside. The fish is done when a trace of translucency still remains in the center.
  5. While the fish is cooking, make basil mousse: Whip the cream by hand or with electric beater until foamy. Add the pesto and beat until soft peaks form (don't overbeat as the cream might separate). Season to taste with salt.
  6. Place the fish on 4 plates. Spoon tomatoes over fish and top with basil mousse.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Sable with Balsamic Orange Ginger Glaze

The sable is back! Well, maybe it never even left the markets on the west cost, but here in the east, we've had to live without sable for many months now. When I saw it at New Deal, I was so excited, I cooked it 3 times in one week.

You might have seen sable on restaurant menus as "black cod." I always found this misnomer really funny, since this Alaskan fish is way more delicious than cod and does not even belong to the cod family. Let's face it -- cod is a vehicle for sauce. Sable, on the other hand, is fatty, sweet, and just luscious. I am guessing it got its "black cod" name the same way Patagonian toothfish got it's "Chilean sea bass" name. Who wants to eat a toothfish or sable? But a bass or a cod is a totally different story. Just comes to show that consumers will always choose familiarity over deliciousness.

Sable is so versatile, you can do pretty much anything to it: roast, poach, steam, broil, sear, smoke. The only technique I would stay away from is grilling. Sable is so delicate, it might fall through the rack. Yesterday, I needed a 20 minute dinner, so I decided to coat it with a little glaze assembled out of whatever I had on hand and broil. I served it with orange juice and ginger braised carrots.

Sable with Balsamic Orange Ginger Glaze

Fish substitutions: salmon, chilean sea bass, halibut, steelhead trout, or pretty much any relatively thick fillets that are not too dense.

Serves 4

4 sable fillets without skin (6oz each)
2 Tbsp honey
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp orange juice
1 Tbsp orange zest
1 inch of ginger, peeled and minced
2 tsp oil
Salt and pepper
  1. Preheat the broiler and wrap a broiler pan with foil.
  2. Season sable generously with salt and pepper on all sides.
  3. Combine honey, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, orange juice, orange zest, ginger, and oil. Mix well and coat sable with this mixture. Sable should be only lightly coated, as too much of the glaze can burn under the broiler.
  4. Broil sable 4 inches away from the flame just until browned, 3-5 minutes. Pour the rest of the glaze on top of sable and finish in the 425F oven until done. The total cooking time (broiling plus baking) should be about 8 minutes per inch of thickness. To test for doneness, separate the flakes in the thickest part and look inside. Sable is done when a trace of translucency remains in the center.

Note: I did not forget to tell you to flip the fish. Cooking it only on one side allows for glaze to really caramelize on top.