Thursday, May 31, 2007

Roasted Bluefish with Fennel and Peppers

What do you get when you combine a very special occasion (my brother's rehearsal dinner), 36 hungry guests, and an 8 month pregnant cook (me)?

You get flying fish!

I only do catering for family and friends. And when I do, I try to keep it simple and stick to things I am good at: meat braises in cold weather, fish dishes in hot. There was only one little problem. I am not familiar with fishmongers in Baltimore/DC area. When I cook for my family during our visits, I get fish at Whole Foods, but I couldn't trust them on this one. They let me down before when I placed an order. Last minute they couldn't get the right product and didn't let me know until I showed up to pick it up. I am sure there are plenty of wonderful Mom & Pop fish markets somewhere in Maryland, but I had no time to investigate and didn't trust the on-line food newsgroups with the decision this big.

"Why don't we just have it shipped from Boston?" I thought. Sure, I'll have to pay for shipping, but I'll be able to buy from a fishmonger I am comfortable with. After placing a few calls, I decided to go with Captain Marden's. I knew their products well because I used to be a regular in their retail location when I worked at the MathWorks. I also know that most of my favorite restaurants get their fish from their wholesale operation, and when Boston chefs do events in other cities, Marden's is happy to ship their order anywhere in the country.

Everyone in Baltimore thought I was nuts. "Won't the fish spoil?" they said. "Nope -- it's shipped in Styrofoam boxes with industrial strength ice-packs," I replied. "What if it doesn't get here on time?" they continued. "Marden's assured me that they ship with FedEx priority overnight and the box will be in my hands at 10:30am the day of the event," I promised. "Shouldn't we have a main course contingency plan in case the fish doesn't arrive?" they pleaded. "Well," I thought, "If, for whatever reason, the fish doesn't make it, we'll eat appetizers and side dishes and call it a tapas party." Everyone finally gave up. I think they just didn't want to upset me because I was pregnant. It's funny -- people are generally nicer to you when you are expecting. I'll miss this part in another month.

The second dilemma was which fish to cook and how. I thought I had this all figured out when I did a dry run of marking swordfish on the grill in advance and then finishing it in the oven right before serving. The problem was that my parents' friends who graciously volunteered to host this even did not have a grill and the broiler was an electric type that wouldn't brown fast enough. Oh bummer -- this put an end to my swordfish idea.

Since searing fish in a home kitchen for 36 people is simply insane, I started looking for baking ideas. Baking ain't my cup of tea. It's somewhat boring and doesn't do much for most fish. One exception is bluefish with crispy potatoes dish based on Marcella Hazan's recipe. Since bluefish is so fatty and flavorful, it tastes good even when simply baked. The crispy potatoes (my favorite part of the dish) unfortunately had to go -- I just didn't have enough cast iron pans or other heavy bake ware to pull this off for 36 people. Instead, I roasted fennel and peppers and spread them on top of bluefish before serving. The fennel and peppers were roasted the day before and just reheated. So the day of the event, my life couldn't be easier.

"Did the fish arrive?" I asked anxiously as my Mom and I unloaded boxes of fig and blue cheese tarts, cured meats, cheeses, ceviche marinade, and grilled asparagus salad at our friends' house. "10:30 on the dot," they replied. Phew! I breathed a sigh of relief. Although I didn't tell anyone, I was a tiny bit nervous about it too. After all, I've never had 20 pounds of seafood shipped before. I unpacked the box to find 5 Lb of scallops (I sliced them and threw into ceviche marinade) and 15 Lb of perfectly fresh bluefish fillets. They were skinned and deboned exactly as I asked, and I couldn't have hoped for a better product.

How much did this crazy operation cost? Since I was paying whole sale prices ($5/Lb for blue and $10/Lb for scallops), even with the shipping (which added $3/Lb), I ended up paying less than Baltimore Whole Foods prices. Besides, I saved myself another shopping trip and room in the fridge.

Who knew that fish could fly so well?

Roasted Bluefish with Fennel and Peppers

Fish substitutions: Any fish fillets can be cooked this way except for really dense ones like mahi, tuna, and swordfish. Fish that work particularly well for this dish besides bluefish are sable, spanish mackerel, and halibut.

Serves 4

For the topping:
1 red, yellow, or orange pepper, sliced
1/2 fennel bulb, cored, and thinly sliced
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 whole, unpeeled garlic cloves
Chopped fennel fronds or an herb of your choice for garnish
Salt and pepper

For the fish:
1.5 Lb skinless bluefish fillet
2 tsp freshly squeezed lime juice
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper

Make the topping (can be done in advance):
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F and set the rack in the bottom third.
  2. Spread the peppers in one half of a large cookie sheet and fennel in the other half. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle with oil and mix to coat vegetables with oil, but keep peppers on their half and fennel on its half. Place one garlic clove in the middle of peppers and another one in the middle of fennel.
  3. Roast in the bottom third of the oven until tender and browned on the bottom, 20-25 minutes. Stir and roast until other sides develop a little browning, 5-10 minutes. Peppers and fennel might cook at a different speed. If one of them is done, remove it from the pan and continue roasting the other. This roasted veggie topping can be made up to 2 days in advance and stored in the fridge in an airtight container. Reheat in the oven for 5-10 minutes while the fish is cooking.
Cook the fish:
  1. Preheat the oven to 475F (or as hot as it will go). Set the rack in the middle of the oven.
  2. Dry bluefish well on paper towels and lay it out in a baking dish in one layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper on both sides, then drizzle the top with lime juice and olive oil. Bake just until the flakes of the thickest part separate, but a tad of translucency still remains in the center, 10-12 minutes per inch of thickness.
  3. Top with roasted veggies, sprinkle with herbs, and serve.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Glass breaks for happiness

I watched, as if in slow motion, the soapy platter slip out of Jason's hands into the sink and crack in 2 places. It was an oval yellow dish painted with roosters and flowers. My Mom gave it to me a few years ago and it was perfect for holding small fish. "Oh Helen, I am so sorry!" he said evaluated the damage. My response was almost automatic -- "It's for happiness. "

In Russia, we believe that dishes break for happiness, but I only realized all the little coincidences surrounding the breaking of my fish plate as I sat down to write this post. This was the plate I used to dry run the main course for my brother, Leo's, rehearsal dinner the night before we left for Baltimore. This crazy kid, who'll always be my "little" brother, was graduating from college and getting married all in one week. I don't think we've ever had as much partying, laughing, and crying condensed into a 7 day period.

In my family, we take the glass breaking tradition quite seriously, fulfilling our quota way beyond the basic ceremony around wedding time. In fact, the first story I heard about my parents' wedding was the tale of a bohemian wine decanter, that was my Mom's most treasured piece from her dowry, slipping out of her hands the day before her wedding. You can't imagine how many tears she shed over this piece at the time, but my grandma was convinced it was "for happiness." She was right.

We had to throw our fish plate away, but Leo and Megan's wedding was absolutely amazing. It couldn't be more appropriate for Jason to be the one to break the plate. After all, he was Leo's best man.

Leo and Megan at the rehearsal dinner

P.S. The dish in the picture at the top of this post is roasted bluefish with peppers and fennel (recipe coming soon) and the plate is the one that broke for the newlyweds' happiness :)

Friday, May 18, 2007

Fishy Bacon

["Bacon" and eggs]

About a year ago, I've read on some website that the salmon skin from Gravlax can be crisped and eaten. Ever since, I've been playing around with this idea every time I made this cured salmon. What does cured salmon skin taste like? Imagine the salty smokiness and crispness of bacon, but with a fish flavor. You are probably either super excited about this or seriously repulsed. It all depends on how much you like fish I suppose.

Unfortunately, the website didn't give details on how exactly one should crisp the skin, so I was left to my own devices. My first attempt tasted good, but was a bit explosive. I tried to fry the skin in a little oil in a non-stick skillet. Kids, don't try this at home. It splatters like mad!

My next attempt was to roast the skin in the oven. I put it on aluminum foil and popped in the oven. No mess, but what a stink! By the time the skin was crispy, the whole house smelled like fish. I don't normally object to a little fish odor, but if even I was bothered by it, it's probably completely unacceptable to most people.

I decided to take the whole project outside to keep the mess and the smell out of the house and tried using a grill. I turned it on high, brushed with a paper towel dunked in oil, and on went the strips of fish skin. The first side crisped in about a minute. I flipped it, crisped the other side, and voila! No mess, and no stink.

It's kind of fun to make bacon that even a cardiologist would approve of :)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Cold Borsh

You'd think that the difference between a hot borsh and a cold borsh would just be the temperature. But guess what? The only thing these two soups have in common are beets, potatoes, and carrots. While the hot borsh is the quintessentially Russian dish (hearty and meaty), the cold borsh breaks every stereotype. It's vegetarian, it's colorful, it's cold, it's fat-free (naturally so, not because I am trying to be healthy), and it has the look of the infamous "vertical" food. I can totally see a waiter in an upscale restaurant bringing you a bowl with a sculpted mountain of chopped raw vegetables, then pouring in the bright magenta liquid from a little porcelain teapot until the vegetables stick out like a little island. "Consommé de Betterave et Crudités," says the waiter. It's an outstanding combination perfect for a warm spring day.

Note: since this soup has to chill, make it at least one day before serving

Serves 8

For the borsh:
2 medium beets (about 3 inches in diameter), trimmed, washed, but unpeeled
2 red skinned potatoes, peeled and diced
2 medium carrots, peeled, and thinly sliced
1 whole onion, peeled
1 tsp whole black pepper corns
1 bay leaf
2 tsp lemon or lime juice (or to taste)
1 tsp sugar (or to taste)
Salt to taste

For the toppings:
  • chopped cucumber
  • chopped radishes
  • thinly sliced scallions
  • chopped dill and/or parsley
  • chopped hard boiled eggs
  • sour cream or yogurt
  1. Put beets in a large pot. Add 3-4 quarts cold water (or enough to cover the beets completely), cover, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer covered until tender when pierced with a knife, 60-90 minutes. Remove beets from the water, cool, and rub the peel off with your hands (you'll be a little colorful for a day or so, but the beet juice does wash off).
  2. Add potatoes, carrots, onion, pepper corns, and bay leaf to the beet stock. Season to taste with salt. Simmer uncovered until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. As the vegetables cook, you'll see scum rising to the top. Skim it periodically.
  3. Remove the onion and bay leaf from the pot.
  4. Grate beets and add to the pot. Take off heat immediately.
  5. Add lemon juice and sugar. Taste and adjust seasoning. The soup should be intensely flavorful (that's salt's job), with bright, fresh taste (that's lemon juice's job), and some sweetness for balance.
  6. Chill in the fridge overnight.
  7. To serve, pour into bowls and pass the toppings around at the table. Borsh will stay in the fridge for up to 5 days.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

My Mom's Rhubarb Cake

The first birthday cake I vividly remember is the one I helped bake. It was my 7th birthday and even then my Mom knew that I was not the kind of kid you give a birthday cake to; I was the kind that would only be happy if she was allowed to participate in the making of it. I remember whisking the eggs with the sugar -- that was fun. And then mixing it the flour -- that was hard because the batter got stiff. But my Mom said it couldn't have any lumps so I kept on mixing, and mixing, and mixing... Then my Mom showed me how to cut the apples and make a huge pile of them in a pan. When we poured the batter over them, I was really skeptical that this strange looking thing could turn into a cake. The pile of apples seemed huge and it didn't look like we had enough batter to even cover the top layer of them. "You'll see," said my Mom. "I promise, it will turn into a cake." And sure enough, she was right. When we pulled the pan out of the oven about an hour later, we had a cake! This wasn't the kind of cake you put icing on, so my Mom made a stencil with the number "7" out of parchment paper and sprinkled it with powdered sugar. It was the best cake ever and to this day it's my favorite.

If you close your eyes, you'll probably remember your first adventure in the kitchen. Whether it was chocolate chip cookies or a grilled cheese sandwich, it will always have a special place in your heart. And if you keep your eyes closed and try to reconstruct the details of that first kitchen experience, I am sure that most of you will see your Mom standing next to you, guiding your little hand. I'd like to dedicate this post to my Mommy who helped me discover who I was and always told me to trust myself. Over the years, we had to learn to share a kitchen, which is one of the hardest things two women can do. It took a lot of talking, yelling, and crying, but oh -- the food and the memories that came out of that kitchen...

Happy Mother's day to all the Moms reading this blog!

My Mom's Rhubarb Cake

To be honest it's not really a rhubarb cake. This is my family's all-purpose cake. None of us are traditional cake eaters (layers, icing, and all), but we absolutely love this cake with whatever fruit is currently in season. Apples in the fall and winter; plums, apricots, and peaches in the summer; and rhubarb in the spring.

Serves 8
(but Jason and I can finish the whole thing between the two of us in one sitting :)

3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt
1 cup all-purpose flour (4.5 oz)
1/2 tsp baking powder
Zest of 1 orange
1 Lb rhubarb, diced
Butter for greasing the pan
  1. Preheat the oven to 375F.
  2. In a large bowl, beat eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt with a wire whisk until frothy. Add the flour, baking powder, and orange zest and continue to mix just until combined. Stop mixing as soon as the flour streaks disappear.
  3. Butter an 8x8x2 pyrex dish or a baking dish of about that size. Spread the rhubarb in the bottom of the dish and pour the batter evenly on top. It will look like you have way more fruit than batter. Don't worry -- it will puff up in the oven.
  4. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until the skewer comes out clean (just make sure you are piercing the batter and not a piece of rhubarb).
  5. Cool at least 20 minutes before serving. Can be served warm or cold.


After yesterday's post, I thought I should post something appetizing for a change. Here is the recipe for gravlax that I made for our little Boston food bloggers' potluck last weekend. The theme for this dinner was "spring," and for some reason that meant gravlax to me. Could it be because the cured salmon goes beautifully with radish spread?

Serves 8-12 as an appetizer

2 identical center cut salmon fillets with the skin (2 Lb total)
1 Tbsp black pepper corns
1/4 cup kosher salt or finely ground sea salt
2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp cognac, whiskey, or some other booze (optional)
1/4 cup coarsely chopped dill
  1. Remove any pin bones from salmon with needle nose pliers or tweezers.
  2. Put pepper corns into a small ziploc bag and crush by rolling them with a wine bottle or pressing on them with a heavy skillet.
  3. In a small bowl, combine salt, sugar, and crushed pepper corns.
  4. Rub both sides of salmon fillets heavily with about half of the salt and sugar mixture. Sprinkle the remaining salt and sugar onto the flesh side of fillets. Sprinkle with cognac. Spread dill evenly over one fillet. Place the second fillet on top of the first one so that the flesh side of fillets is together, and the skin is outside. You should end up with a salmon dill sandwich. Place it in a large freezer ziploc bag. Get as much air out as possible, and lock the bag.
  5. Put the bag with salmon in a pyrex or other shallow baking dish, place a cutting board, and then a heavy weight (5-8 Lb) on top of salmon. I use an old brick wrapped in foil or a cast iron pan.
  6. Refrigerate for 2 days turning the bag with salmon over onto the other side every 12 hours.
  7. After 2 days, get the salmon out of the bag, scrape off some of the dill and pepper corns, and dry fillets with paper towels. Once cured, the salmon will stay in the fridge for a week tightly wrapped in plastic. Can also be frozen for a few months. Defrost in the fridge for 24 hours before serving. To serve, slice very thinly at a 45 degree angle scraping each slice off the skin.
Serving suggestions:
  • Breads: baguette, pumpernickel, or bagels
  • Spreads: unsalted butter or radish spread
  • Toppings: Cucumbers and/or avocado
  • Herbs: dill, tarragon, and/or chives
  • Fun thing to do with leftovers: Gravlax mango spring rolls
  • Fun things to do with the skin: Fishy bacon

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Parasitologist came to dinner

Warning: This post is R rated due to explicit parasite content. Proceed at your own risk.

"Don't worry, Helen -- I won't tell anyone at this dinner what I do," said Dr. Harry Palm as we were packing up the food to take to the Boston food blogger potluck. “Oh no, they are a very open minded crowd,” I assured Harry. “I am sure they’ll find your research fascinating.” I tucked the plastic wrap around a dish of home-made gravlax and thought for a moment. “Well… let’s just wait to tell them the details till after dinner.”

Harry is a professor of marine parasitology at the University of Düsseldorf, Germany. The fact that we ended up sitting in the same kitchen this weekend dissecting fish is a miracle of the internet and Google. I found his website while researching the risks of consuming raw fish. Since no chefs or fishmongers could give me the necessary details on the issue of parasites, I decided to go straight to the people who study these lovely creatures. The phone interview with Harry last summer turned out to be invaluable to my posts on Cod Worm, Anisakis and Tapeworm.

Imagine my surprise when I got an e-mail from Harry telling me he is doing research at the University of Connecticut for a couple of months and is coming to Boston this weekend. Jason and I offered him to stay with us and promised to show him around Boston. As we were having tea and munching on croissants this Saturday morning, we asked Harry what he was most interested in seeing. He didn’t have to think long. “The sight of the Boston Tea Party and Stromateidae,” he said. It took him a little while to remember the English name of the species since he calls them all by their Latin names. “Butterfish!” he finally said. The butterfish we were looking for was a little fish (4-6 inches long) common to Atlantic waters, not the marketing name given to Sable in many stores and restaurants. I’ve never tasted butterfish before, but heard it’s popular in Chinese and Japanese cuisines, fried whole.

We packed a cooler and headed out to east Cambridge in search of butterfish. Luckily, we snatched the last 4 little fish from the New Deal Fish Market. The reason Harry was looking for them is that they are a host to a very unique parasite and this time of year, the chances of seeing parasites in this fish are extremely high. “Would you like them cleaned as usual?” asked Carl. “Not this time,” I said. To parasitologists, guts are as interesting as the flesh. We brought our catch home and set to work. While Harry was dissecting the butterfish and Jason was photographing the creatures that Harry pulled out of them, I sliced up some big-eye tuna for sashimi, and pan seared drum fish, sable, and scallops.

The first creature we found in butterfish was not particularly exciting.

It was a definite cod worm and those are common to tons of fish. It looks bigger in the picture because of the zoom. For reference, the fish fillet in the pictures is the size of a small sardine fillet.

The second one was much smaller and if it weren’t for Harry’s experienced eye, I would have never noticed it. It was a tiny, squiggly, and almost transparent worm (only 1/2 inch long and very skinny).

Harry told us it might be anisakis. The last one was a tiny little spec the size of a sand grain -- too small to capture with our camera. That’s the one Harry was most excited about since it might be Otobothrium cysticum. When we finished our parasite search, we cooked up butterfish and added it to our feast. It was excellent with a delicate flesh of a tiny fish (kind of like a smelt), but flavorful and sweet. If you don’t normally have a parasitologist inspect your fish, please don’t panic. Once the fish is cooked, the parasites are dead, and pose absolutely no health risk to you.

I realize that the creatures Harry works with are “icky” by most people’s standards. Hey, you are talking to the girl who screams at the sight of an itsy bitsy spider. Trust me, I was just as freaked out about parasites in fish as you guys when I saw my first one about 4 years ago. But even I find consumers’ reaction to parasites in fish ridiculous. I can’t even count the number of people who e-mailed me to say they’ll never eat fish again because they found a little worm. Apparently, my explanation that ALL parasites are harmless if the fish is cooked didn’t do much for them. Have you never seen worms in apples? Why not give up those along with fish?

I guess the part that frustrates me about this whole issue is consumer self-righteousness. We love to whine about being taken advantage of by anyone and everyone from FDA to our local fishmonger. On one hand, we want everything to be natural and wild; on another hand, we find the experience of unprocessed food too traumatic. I had one vegan woman tell me that she is giving up on her farm-share from an organic farm and going back to supermarket produce because the farm produce has too many bugs and worms. I asked if she was worried about killing bugs by accidentally swallowing them. “Oh no, I just find them so disgusting. Maybe pesticides are a good thing after all,” she said. Sorry guys, but fish doesn’t swim in Styrofoam containers, and lettuce doesn’t grow in plastic bags. Worms and bugs are part of life whether we like it or not.

Luckily, no one at the Boston food blogger dinner lost their appetite as Harry and I disclosed the details of what we were doing with the butterfish that afternoon. Not surprising, I guess, since Joan from Urban Agrarian blog raises and slaughters her own chickens and Tse Wei from Off the Bone blog volunteered to become a pig butcher’s apprentice just for the fun of it. We all had a great time laughing, sharing stories, and eating of course. This dinner was organized by Kathleen from the Seasonal Cook blog-- the very woman who inspired me to start Beyond Salmon. It was great to see her and Diana from Off the Bone again and to meet Tse Wei (Diana’s husband), Joan, and Tammy from Food on the Food (a new blog and most wonderful person I discovered thanks to Kathleen’s hospitality).

Over some of the best chocolate cakes I’ve ever had (courtesy of Kathleen and Tse Wei), Harry made an interesting observation: “You guys aren’t normal! Definitely not normal Americans.” We couldn’t agree more.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Raw Rhubarb Rocks!

A few weeks ago, I had a rhubarb epiphany while devouring a rhubarb compote at Steve Johnson’s restaurant Rendezvous in Cambridge, MA – raw rhubarb rocks! Don’t get me wrong. I love jammy rhubarb oozing out of pies and bringing a few rays of spring sunshine to muffins and coffee cakes. But when left raw, rhubarb brings a kind of unexpected and almost forbidden pleasure of sashimi – familiar flavor with surprising texture.

After a few failed attempts, I finally managed to reproduce this heavenly dessert at home and wrote a story about my rhubarb adventures for Culinate that includes a recipe in case you want to give it a try.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Purple poppies

I know I am not a great writer because my work sucks during the time of sadness and sickness. The truly great writers thrive on pain, and I am just the opposite. I need to be happy to write. Maybe it's the genre. Food is just not dark or disturbing enough. It doesn't make you question what's wrong with society or your life. Food politics might be the only food related topic that will get you down, but it's really not my thing. That's why there hasn't been anything new on Beyond Salmon for the last week. Jason was sick, then I was sick and had to reschedule 2 classes not to get my students sick. Things are finally starting to get better. Jason was back to work yesterday and he brought me these purple poppies to cheer me up. Aren't they beautiful! I've never seen purple poppies before. I put them on my desk next to the picture of us and our baby and they made me smile all day :)

And this time, I have a happier excuse for not having a blog post. I was working on a story for Culinate. I can't tell you what it's about since it isn't published yet. But here are my recent published stories that you might like to explore:

Fat Fads -- it’s not just about whether it’s good for you

No more tears -- mastering onion slicing and dicing

Old Wives’ Fish Tales
-- True or False? You should always cook fish the day you buy it.