Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Operation Kona Blue, Part 1

If I had to give an award for the best blog comment, it would have to go to Cathy McCallister.

Here is what Cathy wrote to me over the weekend:
My fish monger has recently began carrying Kampachi and I was excited to try it. You described a delicate fish with skin similar to salmon. What I purchased had thick rubbery skin that felt like sandpaper, much like shark. It tasted very much like shark as well. I was not really impressed especially with the $22/lb price tag. I am thinking that my fish was actually shark or swordfish and not Kampachi. What do you think?
I love the comments that inspire me to do some culinary detective work. But Cathy's comment wins the distinction of making me spend the most money and go the furthest distance to find the answer to life's persistent question: is kampachi really that good?

But first, a little history.

On July 10, 2006, I wrote about kampachi. It was a tragic story of girl meets fish, falls madly in love, and then never sees him again. When I googled for this fish to get more information, I found Kona Blue's website. It's a company that farms kampachi in Hawaii. Kona's site told me what I suspected all along -- this fish would be great raw. If only I knew it before I cooked it. Unfortunately, my dear kampachi ended up grilled. It knocked my socks of with its crispy skin and luscious flesh. But if this fish was that good cooked, can you imagine how good it would be raw! I was determined to try it again, but to my chagrin couldn't find it anywhere. Captain Marden's in Wellesley, MA, where I bought kampachi the first time, stopped carrying it because it was too expensive. Even venerable Carl from New Deal couldn't get it. I considered ordering directly from Kona Blue's site, but $36 shipping charge for 2 Lb of fish seemed excessive.

Last year, just when I parted with the idea of ever seeing kampachi again, Carl, at the New Deal, got it for me. Closing my eyes to the $28/Lb price tag, I bought as much as we could possibly eat in one day. Finally, nothing was going to stand between me and the raw kampachi. I popped the first slice into my mouth, and... Hmm. It wasn't how I imagined it. It was dense. Too dense and chewy. Where was that supple, fatty creaminess? Could it be that my instincts were so wrong? Is this fish really best cooked? I seared the remainder like tuna, keeping it rare inside. It was better, but not transcendent. Maybe some things are just not meant to be. Imagine that Romeo and Juliette got reunited successfully. They'd probably quarrel and find out that they were completely incompatible. But since they only spent one night together before their unfortunate demise, their union went down in history as the greatest love story of all time.

I haven't seen kampachi since. None of the fishmongers I knew in the Boston area carried it again, and my unhappy love affair was finally forgotten. The only reminder I got about that miracle fish was from Terry's raving post over at Blue Kitchen. Terry's description seemed to chime in with my first kampachi experience, but Cathy's with my second. Was that really the same fish? As much as I tried to put this annoying and terribly expensive sea creature out of my head, I couldn't. I had to know. Thus began Operation Kona Blue.

Sunday, July 27, 2008
Little did I know that the same day I was reading Cathy's e-mail a fish was harvested in Hawaii that was going to be the answer to our question. I decided that price was not going to be an issue, and if it took $100 to try kampachi again, so be it.

Monday, July 28, 2008
I went to Kona Blue's site and learned that for $80, I could become a proud owner of 2 Lb of Kampachi fillets (that's roughly $45 for fish and $35 for shipping). When you think about it, that's cheaper than an average Sushi meal in a restaurant. I called Kona to get a bit more information about the fish and to place my order. Sylvia, the east coast sales rep, became my kampachi guide.

Q: How long is kampachi edible raw after arrival assuming proper storage (on ice)?
A: 3-4 days

Q: Is the skin edible when seared?
A: Yes, it should be crispy and thin.

Q: Do the fillets come skin-on or off?
A: Fillets come without skin, but if you place an order through her, she'll try to get it for you with the skin.

Q: Was the Kamapchi I had before indeed from Kona Blue?
A: Marden's was, but the one I had from New Deal was not. It might have been from Japan and does taste different.

Q: Is there any distributor in the Boston area that carries kampachi?
A: Yes, there is one! It's a wholesaler called Specialty Foods. Ordering through them should be much cheaper that directly from Kona Blue.

"Call Thomas," said Sylvia. "Tell him I sent you. He'll take good care of you."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008
I called Thomas. He was nice enough to let me buy only one fish and said that a shipment is coming in on Thursday. "That's the fish that were harvested on Sunday," I thought. As always, I had more questions.

Q: Is the fish already filled? Skin on or off?
A: It's whole.

Q: Can you fillet it for me, but keep the skin on?
A: We don't have a facility to do that. We just sell it the way it comes in.

Q: How much is it?
A: $10/Lb for whole fish. They are 4-5 Lb each.

I quickly did the math in my head. That's around $50 for 2 Lb of fillet. Not bad.

"See you on thursday," I said.

To be continued...

Operation Kona Blue, Part 2

Monday, July 21, 2008

Bluefish with Gin and Lime Butter

Bluefish -- the ultimate test of one's love for fish. Why is its cult-like following so small? Here is my guess. Its flesh is not the sexy orange of salmon or neutral white of halibut. It's brown. Ugly, unappetizing brown. Upscale restaurants don't serve it. Food TV doesn't feature it. If my memory serves me right, I saw it mentioned in a mainstream food magazine only once. But let's get one thing straight -- it has nothing to do with the quality people refer to as "fishiness." Fresh bluefish is neither smelly nor fishy (unless you overcook it, of course).

Ask any chef about bluefish and her eyes glaze over with the dreaminess no other fish can evoke. When kissed by a blast of heat, this ferocious ocean beast transforms into an elegant prince. The off-putting brown flesh turns silver and supple. Bluefish has casual elegance. It has a voice. The voice of the waves that can't be subdued with a marinade or hidden with a sauce.

I am not sure if I should be telling you all this. Buying bluefish at $5-8 per pound always makes my heart sing (especially, when compared to $20 for halibut or striped bass). So this is strictly between us, ok? We don't want to turn my dear bluefish into the next high-profile fish.

Bluefish with Gin and Lime Butter

Fish substitutions: If you don't live on a the Atlantic coast, you probably don't see bluefish in your local fish market. Luckily, this recipe works well with any fish that is not too dense (in other words, don't use swordfish, tuna, marlin, etc). Mackerel will yield the results closest to bluefish.

Serves 4

1 1/2 Lb bluefish fillet with skin
1/4 cup very finely diced red onion (or shallot)
2 tsp freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tsp gin (or more lime juice if you don't have gin on hand)
2 1/2 Tbsp butter
Salt and Pepper
Chopped mint, basil, or cilantro for garnish
  1. Line the broiler pan with foil and preheat the broiler.
  2. Dry both sides of bluefish extremely well on paper towels and place on the prepared broiler pan skin-side down.
  3. Sprinkle the flesh side very generously with salt and pepper.
  4. In a small bowl, combine the onions with lime juice and gin and spread evenly over bluefish.
  5. Cut the butter into 8 pieces and place on top of bluefish at equal intervals.
  6. Broil bluefish 4 inches away from the flame until browned, 3-5 minutes, being careful not to burn the onions (check every couple of minutes). If the bluefish is not cooked through by the time the onions brown, move it to the 425F oven to finish. 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. Bluefish is done when just a trace of translucency remains in the center.
  7. Garnish with chopped herbs and serve spooning the juices over the fish. For the full New-England-in-the-summer effect, serve on the porch with a view of a light house, the rumble of the waves, and a beat up Volvo in the drive way.
P.S. Thank you Anonymous reader for reminding me to post a fish recipe :)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

If you can do dishes, you can make a soufflé

What's the connection between soufflés, washing dishes, and capitalism? You'll find out by the end of this post. But lets start with soufflés. They have an undeserved reputation for being finicky and refusing to rise. That's not fair. Soufflés are some of the most obedient and predictable dishes I've ever met. They'll do their part and rise to a beautiful golden crown if you do your part and do the dishes. What I mean is: wash that mixer bowl properly!

Whenever cooks tell me that they followed instructions to a tee and their soufflé didn't rise, my guess is that the bowl in which they whipped the egg whites wasn't clean enough. I have a rare opportunity to watch 60+ people wash dishes on monthly basis. No, I don't search for "washing dishes" on YouTube. I teach cooking classes, and dirty dishes are an inevitable side effect. Here is what I've noticed -- most people rinse dishes, they don't wash them. Two factors contribute to this lack of thoroughness -- over-reliance on dishwashers and not owning the dishes being washed.

Dishwashers only go so far. You still need to scrub any pieces of food or dough off the dishes before loading them into that magic box. If you've ever pulled a supposedly clean bowl with dried up oatmeal out of a dishwasher, you know what I mean.

Now about ownership. Obviously, the people washing dishes in a cooking class don't feel particularly invested in their cleanliness. When they are everyone's dishes, they are no one's dishes. Communal ownership leads to failure of way bigger things than souffles. So, own that bowl! Don't rely on your spouse, boy-friend, girl-friend, kid, friend, or room-mate even if they are the primary dish washer in your household. If you want your souffle to rise, roll up your sleeves, get the sponge nice and soapy and scrub the heck out of that bowl. Be just as thorough when you rinse it, and make sure the towel used for drying is perfectly clean (I suggest using paper towels). If there is as much as a spec of grease on that bowl, the whites won't whip properly. Some recipes suggest rubbing the inside of the perfectly clean and dry bowl with lemon juice or vinegar and wiping it dry, but I never find this necessary if the bowl is washed well in the first place.

Good. You have a clean bowl and hopefully you got yourself into a meticulous enough frame of mind necessary for making soufflés. Now let's talk about separating eggs. Separate them one at a time dropping the white into a small bowl, and collecting all the yolks in another bowl. Only dump the white into the mixer bowl if the yolk was removed intact. Since the yolk is mostly fat any trace of it will not let the whites whip properly. The best way to break eggs is to tap them on the counter, and then open them gently with your thumbs. Breaking eggs on the side of a bowl usually increases the likelihood that you'll get little pieces of shell into the egg or damage the yolk.

If you are thinking that there has to be more to soufflés than a clean bowl and correctly separated eggs, you are right. Here are a few more tips:
  • Bring the white to room temperature before whipping
  • Whip the whites right before folding them in, not in advance
  • Stop whipping the whites as soon as you get stiff peaks of they'll curdle
  • Don't smudge the soufflé molds after buttering them and sprinkling with bread crumbs or cheese (or sugar for sweet soufflés). If you take good care of your molds, the soufflé will rise straight up and won't look like a leaning tower of Pisa.
  • Don't open the oven door for the first 20 minutes no matter how much you want to take a peak.
  • Invite your guests to the table 10 minutes before the souffle could possibly be ready. You don't want people to decide they need to use the bathroom or make a phone call or start arguing about who'll win this election when there is a soufflé to be eaten. You only have a couple of minutes before your work of art starts to fall.
Sure, it's all important, but that's the stuff you'll read about in any good cookbook. The reason I make such a stink about washing the bowl and separating the eggs is because people often take such basics for granted.

Cheese Soufflé (and the master recipe for any savory soufflé)

Serves 6-8

Step 1: Mis en place (that's the cooking term for "getting organized")
  1. Wash a large mixer bowl (see the washing instructions above).
  2. Go through all the steps to figure out what ingredients you'll need and measure them.
  3. This is a good time to get the eggs out of the fridge and to separate them (see the separating instructions above). Collect all the yolks in one small bowl and all the whites in the large mixer bowl. Keep them at room temperature.
  4. Preheat the oven to 375F.

Step 2: Preparing the baking dish(es)
  • one 8-cup soufflé dish (4 inches deep)
    • or six 8 oz ramekins with straight sides
    • or eight 6 oz ramekins
  • Butter
  • 1/4 - 3/4 cup unflavored dry breadcrumbs or finely grated Parmesan (the fewer dishes you are using, the less you'll need)
Generously butter the soufflé dish or ramekins and sprinkle with breadcrumbs or cheese over the sink. Turn the cups to make sure the crumbs/cheese cover the inside evenly. Then turn the cups upside down and tap them on the side of the sink to shake out excess. Do not smudge or the soufflés won't rise evenly.

Step 3: Making the base

The base for most savory soufflés is a thick Béchamel Sauce mixed with a flavoring (like cheese, spinach, butternut squash, etc). Once you master the basic recipe, feel free to improvise with the flavoring. If using a vegetable purée make sure it's seasoned generously with salt.
  • 3 Tbsp butter
  • 3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 cups boiling milk
  • 1/2 tsp table salt (or 1 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher or 3/4 tsp Morton's Kosher)
  • 1/8 tsp white pepper (you can substitute black)
  • Pinch of nutmeg
  • 1 1/4 cup lightly packed grated Gruyere (or some other cheese or vegetable purée)
  • 6 large egg yolks
  1. Set a medium-size, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the butter and wait for it to melt. Add the flour and cook stirring constantly for 2 minutes. Regulate heat so that the flour doesn't brown. Remove from heat.
  2. When the mixture stops bubbling, add the boiling milk (it has to be boiling, not just warm) and whisk vigorously with a wire whip until blended. Stir in the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Return to medium heat and boil for 1 minute, whisking constantly. Sauce will be very thick. Take off heat and cool to room temperature.
  3. Stir in the cheese (or a vegetable purée) and the eggs adding them one at a time. Mix thoroughly.
Step 4: Whipping egg whites and folding them in
  • 8 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
  1. Add the cream of tartar and salt to the egg whites, and start beating them on low speed with a whisk mixer attachment. When frothy, increase the speed to medium and beat until soft peaks form. Increase the speed to high. Beat until the peaks are stiff, but not dry. Do not over beat or the whites will become clumpy.
  2. Use a rubber spatula to fold one-quarter of the egg whites into the Béchamel base. Then fold in the rest of the whites. Folding is not stirring! Here is a video on how to fold in the whites correctly. The reason you don't add the whites all at once is to lighten the base first and make the consistencies of the base and the whites more compatible.
Step 5: Baking the soufflé

Pour the mixture into the prepared soufflé dish or ramekins, tap them gently on the table and smooth the top with the flat of a knife.

Ahead-of-time note: If you are not ready to put the soufflé in the oven immediately, it can wait in a warm, draft-free place, covered with an inverted large bowl or pot for up to 1 hour.

Place the souffé in the middle of the oven and don't open the oven door for at least 20 minutes. Large soufflés take 40-45 minutes until they are puffy, browned, and cooked through. Individual ones take 20-25 minutes for 8 oz ramekins, and 17-20 for 6 oz ramekins. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.

If you want to learn more about soufflés, I highly recommend Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the 1997 edition of the Joy of Cooking.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The whole beet

We've got whole baby beets in our farm-share last week -- leaves, stems, and tiny little ruby red roots. The newsletter we got with the farm-share suggested cooking the whole thing and this got me thinking about the culinary concept of "whole." While I am in complete agreement with the idea that every part of the beet can be eaten, but I think this lovely vegetable deserves a bit more explanation. "Whole" is one of those dangerous words that has too positive of a connotation in the food world. Whole Foods marketing people knew what they were doing when they named the store. But I've noticed that "whole" often implies some degree of laziness or ignorance on cook's part resulting in a less than fabulous dish served with more fanfare than it deserves.

My approach to cooking something "whole" is to divide and conquer. I use the same approach with beets as I do with swiss chard. I separate the roots, the stems, and the leaves. They all have different textures and thus, different cooking times. I wash and dry all three parts very thoroughly (for the leaves, I use the salad spinner). While cleaning the roots, I trim the tops where the stem are coming out and the long skinny tails that come out of roots' bottoms.

Before you stop reading and run away thinking that this will be some fussy preparation requiring 3 pans, let me first assure you that it will only require 1 pan and 5 minutes active time (30 minutes total cooking time). The results are seriously yummy.

Roasted Whole Beets

1 bunch young beets (5-8 small roots with stems and leaves)
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 whole unpeeled garlic cloves
2 Tbsp heavy cream
Handful of finely grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
  1. Clean and prepare beets according to above instructions.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400F and set a rack in the bottom third.
  3. Cut the beet roots in half (or small wedges if they are larger than 1.5 inches in diameter). Cut the stems into 1/2 inch long pieces. Cut the leaves into 1 inch pieces.
  4. Place the roots in a 10 inch skillet (or oven-safe baking dish). If your roots are 1.5 inches in diameter or smaller they are tender enough to roast with the stems, so you can toss the stems right in. Otherwise, give the roots a head start in the oven (as long as 20 minutes before adding the stems for beets that are 2.5+ inches in diameter). Drizzle the roots and stems generously with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, add 2 whole unpeeled garlic cloves and toss to distribute oil and salt evenly, then turn beet roots cut-side down. Place in the bottom third of the oven and roast until tender and browned, about 20 minutes.
  5. Stir in the leaves and return to the oven until the leaves start to wilt, about 3 minutes. Stir and return to the oven until the leaves are completely wilted, about 5 minutes.
  6. Add heavy cream, season to taste with salt and stir well. Sprinkle with finely grated parmesan cheese and return to the oven. Cook until cream bubbles, and cheese melts, about 5 minutes.
Serve on toast as an appetizer, as a side dish to meats, fish, and chicken, or my favorite -- tossed with home-made potato gnocchi and a dollop of butter.