Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Roasted Brussels Sprouts (without the oven)

I lost track of how many times the question of cooking without appropriate equipment comes up in my classes.  Can I make pie dough without a food processor?  Can I bake pizza without a pizza stone?  Can I braise without a dutch oven?  The answer is yes, of course.  No skill is more valuable in the kitchen than resourcefulness.  So I wasn't at all surprised when the students in my Vegetables class asked me how to roast vegetables without the oven.  "Who doesn't have an oven these days?" might you ask.  Yes, but would you like to turn it on in the middle of a hot and humid summer day if you don't have an air conditioner?

The vegetable I decided to tackle was Brussels Sprouts.  I tossed them with salt, pepper, and olive oil in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet (though you can use any other type of skillet) and turned them cut side down just like I would for oven roasting.  But instead of putting them in the oven, I put them over medium-low heat on the stove top and covered the pan.  My hope was to brown the bottom slowly enough to give them a chance to get tender.  The concepts of covering the skillet and browning seem incompatible at first.  Won't covering the skillet trap the steam?  Yes.  Isn't steam the enemy of browning? Yes.  But it all depends on whether you want to be browning something quickly or slowly.  

Say you want to brown a steak while keeping it medium-rare inside.  You'd better do it as quickly as possible because once the inside of your meat reaches 130F, it's all downhill from there in terms of texture and juiciness (it quickly turns tough and dry).  This is also the case with some green vegetables, like asparagus.  If cooked a minute too long it turns stringy and mushy, so covering the skillet in those cases can be detrimental.  But Brussels Sprouts and most other vegetables that oven roast well (potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, celery root, carrots, peppers, cauliflower, etc) don't have that problem.  If anything, their texture improves with prolonged cooking.  Since stove top browns a lot faster than the oven, covering the skillet can help slow down browning and speed up the cooking of the inside.

After 10 minutes, I flipped my little cabbages, scattered loose leaves around them and cooked until everything was nicely browned.  What a revelation these Brussels sprouts were!  Unlike the oven method, every little piece and leaf was perfectly brown and tender but not at all mushy.  By the time Brussels Sprouts browned in the oven, they often got a tad too soft inside.  It was also hard to make the pieces brown evenly because the outside of the baking sheet cooks a lot faster than the inside.  A large skillet had a similar but reverse problem where the inside of the skillet cooked faster than the outside, but it was a lot easier to baby-sit a skillet on the stove top and rearrange my pieces when necessary than to get a baking sheet out of the oven every time I wanted to move a few pieces.

To tell you the truth, I am not sure if I'll ever oven roast Brussels Sprouts again (even in winter when turning on the oven doesn't pose a problem).  These were just too good.

Pan roasted Brussels Sprouts

Serves 2-3

2 cups Brussels sprouts
3 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
  1. Trim the stems of the Brussels spouts.  Cut each one in half (or into quarters if they are particularly large) and place in a 12 inch skillet (only add as many pieces as a skillet can hold in one layer).  Leave the loose leaves on the cutting board.  You'll add them towards the end of cooking time.
  2. Drizzle sprouts with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Mix thoroughly with your hands to distribute oil and seasoning evenly.  Arrange pieces cut side down in a single layer.
  3. Cover the skillet and set over medium-low heat.  Do not shake the skillet or in any other way disturb the sprouts.  After a few minutes, you should hear gentle sizzling noises.  If you don't, raise the heat slightly.  Regulate the heat so that the first side takes about 10 minutes to brown.  If the skillet seems dry, add more oil.
  4. Flip the sprouts, toss the loose leaves with a little salt, pepper, and oil and spread around the sides of the skillet.  Cover the skillet and cook another 5 minutes.  Uncover the skillet and cook until all the pieces are nicely browned.  If some pieces aren't browning well, move them towards the center of the skillet.  
  5. Taste and adjust for salt.  Serve immediately.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Whole Farro, Spelt, and Wheat Berries

Whole farro on the left / farro perlato on the right
You remember my adventures and misadventures with farro, right?  The moral of that story was to only buy farro perlato and stay away from farro and spelt with the husk (or whole farro).  But morals are rarely written in stone unless you want to start a new religion.  So, is there anything worthwhile you can do with whole farro, spelt, and wheat berries?  Yes!  After a little experimentation, I found a good method for cooking them.

  1. Soak in cold water for 8-24 hours
  2. Drain.
  3. Cover with cold water by 3 inches (no need to measure, but for every cup reconstituted grain, you want about 3 cups water)
  4. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to very low.  Season to taste with salt, cover, and cook for about an hour +/- 10 minutes.  Grains will still be slightly chewy when done.  
  5. Drain and use in hot or cold dishes.  
Here are some good uses for these hearty, chewy grains:
  • tossed with cold vegetables and vinaigrette for a salad
  • tossed with softer grains or beans and some cooked onions and served hot
  • added to soups

Monday, May 9, 2011

Grilled Mahi with Pomegranate Molasses and Zaatar

When you'll read the recipe for this fish, you'll think that the usual writer of this blog was abducted by aliens and replaced by a completely different creature.  Marinades, rubs, and spices are not my thing.  The only 2 ingredients that touch my proteins before cooking are salt and pepper (at least in 95% of cases).  But as much as I hate to admit it, sometimes a rather complex marinade can actually improve things.

It all started in the olive oil isle of Whole Foods.  They were giving out a taste of some olive oil and had a dish of zaatar spice sitting next to it.  I was familiar with this blend of wild thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds from Ana Sortun's restaurants.  It's surprisingly tangy and I find it very pleasant and even addictive although I don't normally like working with dry herbs.  After tasting a piece of bread dunked in oil and zaatar, I bought a box on a whim.  I knew I was taking a risk of letting it languish in my spice drawer, but luckily such was not its fate.  I put it on roast chicken, lamb, grilled fish, flat breads, and it never felt out of place even to a minimalist like me.

Yesterday, I was grilling mahi and since it tends to be a relatively dense lean fish, I prefer to soak it in a simple marinade of a little lemon juice, a lot of olive oil, salt and pepper (just like I do with swordfish).  Since I was already marinading, I thought I'll throw in some garlic and dijon mustard too.  It was looking like a basic mustard garlic vinaigrette until I threw in a spoonful of zaatar spice.  All of a sudden I got transported to the Middle East and heard a bottle of pomegranate molasses calling my name.  I realized that I could most likely skip lemon juice next time -- there should be plenty of acidity from pomegranate molasses and zaatar.  I seasoned the mix generously with salt and pepper and let mahi soak for a couple of hours.

Then I grilled it using my usual fish grilling procedure with the only exception of not drying off the marinade.  Often marinades can cause more harm than good, so I used to stay completely away from them.  Of course it depends on what the fish is covered with.  Water (or any other moisture, like lemon juice) and large amount of sugar are your enemies -- they glue the fish to the grill.  I suggest not washing your fish (or any other proteins) and drying them thoroughly on paper towels before cooking.  You also have to go be careful with sweet ingredients like pomegranate molasses.  A little bit is great and helps the fish brown, but a lot of it results in sticking and burning.

Although wet and sweet ingredients can be dangerous on the grill, they are used in very small amounts here.  Most of this marinade is oil.  Isn't that a good thing?  I find that oiling the fish doesn't help nearly as much with sticking as oiling the grill several times before grilling (just like seasoning a cast iron skillet).  Of course, oil on the fish won't cause more sticking, but it can cause flare ups and give the fish a sooty taste.  To avoid this problem, it's best to shake most of the marinade off the fish before grilling it.  If the fish is fatty (like salmon), I would dry the marinade off even more thoroughly, but mahi is lean so I decided to leave it lightly coated.

The fish was now happily grilled and smelling mighty good, and I was salivating looking at all this yummy marinade left over in the bowl.  Using leftover marinade is a temptation I am usually good at avoiding, but this time I couldn't resist and basted the fish with just a little more of this mixture after flipping.  I figured it will stay on top of the fish and won't touch the grill. Since the fish still needed at least 3 minutes of cooking, the marinade would easily heat up to 160F making it safe to eat.

Oh, what a yummy fish it was!

I served it on top of arugula salad with oranges, red onions, black beans, wheat berries, and dill.  It was a perfect dinner after a morning trip to Clear Flour where we got a little carried away with croissants.

Grilled Mahi with Pomegranate Molasses and Zaatar 

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

Pomegranate molasses and zaatar are available at Middle Eastern grocery stores and at Whole Foods.  You can also google for them and buy them on-line.

Serves 4

4 skinless mahi fillets (6-8oz each)
1 garlic clove
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp zaatar
2 tsp pomegranate molasses
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp Japanese style soy sauce (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

Marinate the fish -- at least 1 hour before cooking or up to 24
  1. Mash the garlic to a smooth paste by either grating it on a microplane zester or mincing, lightly salting, and then rubbing with the flat side of the chef's knife.  Alternate mincing and rubbing until it is a paste.  
  2. In a medium bowl, Combine mashed garlic with olive oil, pomegranate molasses, zaatar, mustard, and soy sauce.  Season generously with salt and pepper, mix, taste, and adjust salt.
  3. Dry the fish fillet on paper towel, add to the bowl with marinade, and turn to coat.  Refrigerate until ready to use (at least 1 hour and up to 24).
Grill the fish
  1. Scrape the grill clean. Place a disposable aluminum pan upside down on the area where you'll be placing the fish (or use a piece of foil). Cover the grill and preheat on high heat for 10 minutes. Do not remove the upside down pan or foil until you are ready to place the fish on the grill.
  2. 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 4 times where the pan used to be.
  3. Remove the fish from the marinade with tongs shaking off excess marinade and place the fish on the grill (skin-side up if substituting a fillet with skin), diagonal to the grill grates. Cover the grill and cook for 3 minutes per inch of thickness or until the fish gets grill marks.
  4. 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 with a spatula, top each piece with 1 tsp marinade, and grill on the other side until cooked through, about 3 minutes per inch of thickness.
  5. Check for doneness by separating the flakes with a fork in the thickest part of the fish.  Take the fish off the grill when the center (about 25% of the fillet) is still translucent and resists flaking (if testing a very dense fish like swordfish, cut into it with a knife).  To remove the fish from the grill, dislodge it with a fork like you did when turning it. Then lift one side of fillet, slip a spatula underneath, and lift the fish off the grill.  Let rest 5 minutes and serve.

Monday, May 2, 2011

How to slice fish for sushi

You watch a chef at the sushi bar slicing fish and you are thinking, "I could do that at home."  But when you give it a shot, you realize it's not as easy as it looks at the sushi bar.  Your fillet looks nothing like perfectly even strips the chefs pull out of the display case and your knives look nothing like their knives either.  Don't despair.   Here is a video of how how to slice the fish so that you can make lovely sashimi, nigiri, and maki rolls at home.

Other helpful resources

Here are my favorite chef's knife and boning knife. Both are very affordable. Here is how to keep them sharp. You might also want to check cutleryandmore.com (sometimes they are cheaper than Amazon).

How to buy fish for serving raw -- safety, bacteria and parasite risks, fish species appropriate for raw consumption

In the Boston area, I prefer to buy fish for serving raw at the New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge and at Captain Marden's in Wellesley.