Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Grilled Striped Bass with Preserved Lemon Rub

Samantha, our 16 month old, loves eating with us; and we love eating with her. She clinks her sippy cup against our wine glasses, giggles, urgently points to the most unfamiliar food on the table making sure she doesn't miss something new and exciting, and happily munches on little pieces we cut up for her from our plates. She is a perfect dinner companion -- cheerful, social, willing to taste everything, and even wipe her mouth with a napkin (sometimes she wipes her hair too). But the path to this utopian family meal is strewn with thorns. When Sammy sees me going into the kitchen to cook, she knows that it must be meal time and her patience lasts about 3 minutes. After that, she is pointing at her high chair, and saying "Mommy, nyam-nyam" (that's yum-yum in Russian). If 2 minutes later, Mommy is still cooking, Sammy is not happy. When she wants to eat, she wants to eat NOW!

As you can imagine, our home meals have not been particularly innovative lately. The operative word here is "fast." If I can get a meal on the table before Samantha becomes histerical, that's an accomplishment. So this weekend, Jason and I decided to ditch one family meal in favor of a lunch date at home. We fed Sammy, put her for a nap, and I set out to make us lunch without having a 5 minute deadline. I had a beautiful fillet of striped bass from the New Deal Fish Market. I wanted to do something new with it. But what? It felt like I haven't had a new fish dish in over a year (either at home or in a restaurant). I didn't have time to read books, search the web, or go shopping. If we wanted to enjoy our lunch before Sammy woke up, I had to think fast. I opened the fridge and started looking through the shelves in desperation. That's when I noticed a jar of preserved lemons that I got at Formaggio's last week. That was a good start. I could make a paste out of these lemons with some garlic, tarragon, and parsley that would flavor the fish. Now, the cooking method... I tried to think of some method, I haven't used in a long time. Searing, roasting, and broiling were out -- those are my usual work horses. Steaming and poaching didn't do much for striped bass since they made the skin rubbery. Grilling? It was a bit chilly here in Boston, but the grill was calling me.

I cut a few diagonal slashes in the fish, rubbed it all over with the lemon paste, stuffing it into the slits, and grilled it. Then I topped the fish with the remaining lemon paste, and served it with lentils that I found sitting in the back of my fridge. Oh, what a lunch it was! It's amazing what one can do with a good nap.

What is a preserved lemon?
It's a lemon that is stuffed with salt and left to pickle for about a month. Once pickled, it can last in the fridge for 6-12 months. This ingredient is very common in Morocco, but it is so versatile that I put it into all sorts of Mediterranean-style dishes. Have you cooked with preserved lemons before? No? Try them -- it's a revelation. I used to make them myself, but now I just buy them at Formaggio's (some Whole Foods markets carry them too). None of these places display them, but if you ask in the cheese department, they'll be able to get you some. Ask them to cover the lemons with brine. They last longer this way. To use pickled lemons, I break off a quarter (they are partially quartered when you buy them), remove the lemon segments and discard (that's right, you discard the part of the citrus you would normally eat). I use the thick skin (the zest plus the white pith) that's left. Keep in mind that the preserved lemons are very salty, so you might want to skip the salt when using them.

Grilled Striped Bass with Preserved Lemon Rub

A note about herbs: I used parsley and tarragon because I had them on hand. This combination turned out particularly well, but you can also use cilantro, mint, or dill.

Fish substitutions: bluefish, salmon, red snapper, steelhead trout, white trout, mahi-mahi, swordfish, or any fish suitable for grilling. Dense fish (like mahi and sword) should be cooked without the skin, so skip the skin slashing step for those. The rest are best grilled with the skin. If you don't like the skin, you can take it off after cooking, but it's necessary to keep the fish together on the grill.

Serves 4

4 pieces stripped bass fillet with skin, 6 oz each
1 quarter of preserved lemon (zest and white pith only)
1 garlic clove, minced
1 Tbsp minced flat leaf parsley
1 Tbsp minced tarragon
1 Tbsp canola oil (plus more for oiling the grill)
1 Tbsp butter, cut into 4 slices
  1. Scrape the grill clean. Place a disposable aluminum pan upside down on the area where you'll be grilling the fish. Cover the grill and preheat on high heat for 10 minutes. Do not remove the upside down pan until you are ready to place the fish on the grill. This super heats the grill to ensure perfect grill marks and avoid sticking.
  2. Dry the brine off the lemon wedge with a paper towel. Slice the lemon wedge as thin as possible. Combine lemon slices with minced garlic and herbs and mince until the mixture turns into a paste. Alternatively, you can make the paste in a food processor, but it's such a small amount that most food processors won't work with it.
  3. Dry the fish very thoroughly with paper towels. Score the skin on a diagonal at 1/2 inch intervals. These cuts should be very shallow and barely penetrate the flesh of the fish.
  4. When the grill is ready, tub the fish all over (skin and flesh side) with 1 Tbsp canola oil and half of the lemon rub mixture, pushing a bit of the lemon rub into the slits in the skin.
  5. Remove the upside down pan from the grill. Dunk a wad of paper towel in canola oil. Hold it with tongs and wipe the grill with oil where the pan used to be.
  6. Place the fish on the grill skin-side up diagonal to the grill grates. Cover the grill and cook for 3-4 minutes per inch of thickness or until the fish gets grill marks.
  7. Slip the tins of a fork between the grill grates and gently push up on the fish. Do it in a couple of places until the grill lets go of the fish. Flip the fish and grill on the skin-side until cooked through, 3-4 minutes per inch of thickness. To check for doneness, separate the flakes in the thickest part of fillet with a fork and peek inside. The fish is done when a trace of translucency still remains in the center. It will continue to cook once it's off the grill.
  8. To remove the fish from the grill, dislodge it with a fork like you did when turning it. Then lift it off the grill with a spatula and place on a serving plate skin-side up (this prevents the skin from getting soggy). Slip a slice of butter under each piece of fish, and divide the remaining lemon rub among the fish pieces.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Butternut squash soup

Jason and I had dinner at our favorite restaurant, Ten Tables, a few weeks ago. Their butternut squash soup was so fabulous that I couldn't help asking for the recipe. I was willing to send them an e-mail and patiently wait for the answer, but Joshua Caswell, the sous-chef, said he'll write it up for me while we were having tea. For a Saturday dinner rush, that was quite amazing. That's why I don't work in a restaurant. I can't multi-task like that.

I've made this fabulous soup twice now and each time it disappeared too quickly. I can't recall how many versions of butternut squash soup I must have made in the past 10 years. At least 10. This one is by far the best. The vinegar adds balance to all the sugar of squash and syrup. Soups made with roasted squash seem to have better flavor, but the ones made with fresh one have better texture. This one is the best of both worlds since it calls for half roasted and half fresh. Hefty quantities of cream and butter don't hurt either. What can I say... it's autumnal perfection.

Thank you so much to Joshua, David, and all the cooks of Ten Tables for being such a bottomless source of inspiration.

Here is my adaptation of Ten Tables' soup.

Serves 6-8

2.5 Lb butternut squash (1 medium)
4 Tbsp butter
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 leek, white and pale green parts only, diced (see leek cleaning instructions)
3 garlic cloves, minced
2-3 sprigs thyme, tied with kitchen string
1 inch ginger, peeled
1/3 cup heavy cream
8 cups water, chicken stock (low-sodium boxed is fine), or vegetable stock (only if homemade)
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 Tbsp cider vinegar
Salt to taste
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F.
  2. Cut the butternut squash in half lengthwise and again in half crosswise to form 4 quarters (2 will be round with the seeds, and 2 will be solid flesh). Remove the seeds from the round pieces, rub them with 1 Tbsp olive oil, place on a foil lined rimmed baking sheet and roast in the bottom third of the oven until tender and nicely browned, 30-40 minutes. Peel the other two pieces of squash (the ones you aren't roasting), and cut them into 3/4 inch dice.
  3. Set a 4 quart soup pot over medium-low heat. Add the butter, onion, leek, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until tender and translucent. Regulate heat so that no color develops. Add the garlic, ginger, and thyme and continue to cook until aromatic, 2-3 minutes.
  4. Add the diced squash and scooped out flesh of roasted squash and stir to coat. Cook over medium heat stirring often until the diced squash just started to get soft around the edges, about 15 minutes.
  5. Add 2 Tbsp heavy cream and enough water, vegetable stock, or chicken stock to cover the squash by about an inch. Taste and season to taste with salt. Bring to a simmer and cook until the squash is totally soft, 30-40 minutes.
  6. Remove the chunk of ginger and thyme bundle. Puree in a blender, stir in the remainder of cream (about 1/4 cup or less if you are on a diet), maple syrup, and cider vinegar. If you like a really silky soup, strain it. If the soup is too thick to your liking, add more water or stock. Taste and correct seasoning, adding more salt, maple syrup, and cream as needed.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Use the oven, Luke (or how to make rice kasha)

Did I ever tell you how much I love my oven? Rarely a day goes by when I don't use it. Not just roasts and stews, but most of my steaks, fish, and rice dishes are cooked in the oven. This doesn't mean that there isn't a quick sear in the beginning or the end, but bringing ingredients up to temperature works so much better with indirect heat. I never think twice about it. Just set the oven dial to the desired temperature and start your prep.

For some reason, I get occasional requests from my students to adopt my recipes to the stove top, eliminating the oven use. I think oven is one of the most under-used pieces of kitchen equipment. Everyone has it, so why not use it. Sorry guys, there is no way to make it taste the same way without the oven.

In some cultures, the oven is reserved for special occasions. My Chinese and Japanese students often tell me that turning it on seems like a big deal because their Moms only used it for the holidays. Most of Chinese and Japanese dishes don't rely on the oven, so that's understandable. But why do I hear the same argument from the Russian cooks, beats me. The oven is such an integral part of Russian culture that it even appears in fairy tales as a walking, talking character. Why do the soups, stews, and kashas that require even, indirect heat all end up on the stove top in modern Russian households is a mystery to me?

This weekend, I decided to try a new approach to kasha. I made it in the oven. I bet that's how it was done hundreds of years ago, yet it felt completely untraditional. That's not how my Mom or Grandmothers used to make it. But let me tell you... Now that I tried it, I don't think I'll ever go back to the stove top version.

First things first. Kasha is not buckwheat. Kasha is a grain dish that can be made of rice, millet, oats, barley, wheat, buckwheat, and any other grain. It's a very broad category of dishes, like Italian pasta. Not all pasta is spaghetti, and not all kasha is buckwheat. The kasha I made in the oven was one of my favorites: rice and pumpkin.

This dish always came out great when my Mom made it, but never worked well for me. My Mom's secret was a double boiler. Without it, the rice sticks and the milk burns on the bottom unless you are willing to stir non-stop for almost an hour. I am not that diligent of a stirrer, and I couldn't bring myself to buy a double boiler for this one dish. It finally dawned on me to try it in the oven and voila! Perfect texture with absolutely no stirring. I used Carnarolli rice, usually used for risotto, but cooked it long and slow to achieve a soft texture (al dente is not the goal here). The final result is similar to a rice pudding, just not sweet.

I got this idea from Cook's Illustrated. Their oven method works so well for brown, basmati, and sushi rice, that I thought it might work for kasha as well. I know what the purists will say: "Cooking sushi rice and kasha in the oven is a ridiculous idea. You should use a rice cooker for the former and a double boiler for the later." If you already have that equipment, by all means, use it. But if you didn't spend your money and kitchen space on them yet, I suggest you don't bother. The oven does as good of a job, and you probably already have it.

Rice and Pumpkin Kasha

A note about pumpkin: pumpkin in Russia tastes more similar to Butternut squash or Sunshine squash than it does to American pumpkin. I suggest using those or some other winter squash whose flesh is not stringy. Winter squash are hard to grate by hand, so I suggest you use a food processor with a grating disk attachment. Alternatively, you can cut the squash in half, remove the seeds, and roast it cut-side down in 400F oven until tender, 30-40 minutes. Then scoop out the flesh and break it up with a fork. If you pre-roast the squash, cook kasha without it, and add it to the rice in the end of cooking time.

About the equipment: You'll need an oven-proof 4-quart pot. Do not overfill the pot! The contents should fill it at most 2/3 of the way. The rice will expand in the oven. The last thing you want is for the milk to boil out of the pot. It makes a huge stink when it burns.

Serves 4

4 cups milk (ideally whole or at least 2%)
1 cup risotto rice (Carnarolli, Arborio, or Vialone Nanno)
2 cups shredded butternut squash from a peeled and seeded squash (see note above)
1 tsp table salt (2 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt) (this is a lower amount after comments from readers)
1/2 cup raisins or dried cranberries or dried cherries or a mix (optional)
2 Tbsp butter
  1. Set the oven to 350F with a rack in the middle.
  2. In a 4-quart oven-proof pot that can later be covered, bring the milk to a simmer on the stove top. Watch it carefully so that the milk doesn't boil over.
  3. Add the rice, butternut squash (if using shredded), and salt. Make sure the contents fill the pot at most 2/3 full. The rice will expand in the oven. The last thing you want is for the milk to boil out of the pot. It makes a huge stink when it burns.
  4. Stir the rice, cover, and place on a rimmed baking sheet (in case of drips). Place in the middle of the oven. Cook until almost all the milk is absorbed and the rice is tender, about 1 hour.
  5. Remove from the oven. If you are using pre-roasted rather than shredded squash, stir it in now. Taste and add more salt if needed. If using dried fruit, stir it in, cover the pot, and let kasha rest for 10 minutes.
  6. Divide between plates, topping each portion with 1/2 Tbsp butter. If you prefer your kasha on the sweet side, sprinkle with granulated sugar or maple syrup.
Leftovers can be cooled and refrigerated for up to 2 days. The easiest way to warm them up is in the microwave with a little bit of added milk, stirring occasionally.