Friday, March 29, 2013

Perfectly Seared Fish with Fennel Arugula Salad

There's always a thrill of pride when you figure out how to coax some restaurant-only type dish out of your own humble kitchen. And find out how it's been within reach all along. Blistered loaves of bread, say, or an airy souffle. Or perfectly seared fish.

I have come a bit of a ways from my always-overcooked-all-the-time method of fish preparation (the secret: pull it from the heat just before you think it's done, a method I long heard but only recently followed).  But even though my technique improved, I could never get that perfect treatment I found in restaurants, where the fish is butter-soft and just barely flaking, yet the skin is a beautifully crisped omega-filled chip. What sort of kitchen wizardry are they using?

Turns out it's surprisingly user-friendly. All you have to do is get a good piece of fish, glug of oil, and use a ridiculously high heat. I picked up a fillet of steelhead from a local shop, followed the instructions carefully laid out on this blog, paired it with a tangle of salad made from a fennel bulb and dollar bag of arugula, and turned out a meal worthy of any restaurant (and if the blog and my own home's case study are any indication, this restaurant-worthy assessment will be a universal reaction). Who knew that simply turning up the flame (and conquering my fear of fire/oil burns) would yield such an amazing result? It's the sort of kitchen magic that should be trotted out at dinner parties (except for the whole smell-of-hot-oil-and-fish part), but it's also the sort of kitchen magic that you should bust out any time you get a good piece of fish. It's the sort of magic that's going into the regular kitchen rotation.

Perfectly Seared Fish with Fennel Arugula Salad

serves 2
inspired by Kenji Lopez-Alt, as prepared by The Amateur Gourmet

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon meyer lemon juice, or mild vinegar
dollop honey
salt and pepper
2 handfuls arugula
1 small bulb fennel, or 1/2 large bulb fennel, shaved into thin slivers
1 orange, supremed into sections
1 handful olives, pulled into pieces

3/4 pound skin-on fish fillets, all pin bones removed, cut into two pieces
2-3 tablespoons high heat oil, such as grapeseed or canola
salt and pepper
olive oil

Take the fish out of the refrigerator, and let sit at room temperature for a few minutes to take the chill off. Mix together the dressing ingredients until combined. Toss the salad with the dressing, and divide onto two plates.

Blot the fish dry with paper towels or brown paper bags, and season each side with salt. Heat a large skillet or two small ones over a high heat. Add the oil, and let get really hot, almost to the point of smoking (handy tip: when the oil's hot, if you stick a wooden spoon in it should bubble vigorously around the edges). Add the fish, skin side down, and turn down the heat just slightly. Cook until the skin detaches from the skillet, and the fillet slides around a bit when you shake the pan (~2 minutes). If it's a thick fillet, wait another minute past this point, then flip the fillets with a spatula (in order to avoid dramatic fires that can result from hot oil splashes, I pull the pan away from the burner for the few seconds it takes to execute this maneuver). Cook on the other side until the fillets are cooked through, another two minutes or so, depending upon thickness (Lopez-Alt recommends cooking to 120 degree internal temperature, but I just went by sight and then tested them).

Use a spatula to remove from the pan, let the fry oil drain a bit, then plate with the salad. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle with additional olive oil.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Passover 2013: Russian Gefilte Fish, Gluten-Free Matzo

The downside of writing about food is that you have to start thinking months in advance. In order to make publication deadlines, you're pitching springtime stories in the midst of blizzards, talking about Thanksgiving food while you're still on summer break. Which is all to say I've been thinking about Passover foods for some months now. But I am not remotely sick of it. In fact, I'm all the more excited for the celebration.

This year I looked into restaurant Seders around the country, for those not interested in hosting their own (and for those who are, there are some good ideas on those menus). I taste-tested gluten-free matzo, and found a traditional way of making gefilte fish (along with a beautiful story of growing up in the Soviet Union).

For my own meal, I'm planning on making this delicate and lightly smoky gefilte fish, and the vegetarian dishes from this Sephardic-inspired Passover dinner. There will be appetizers, Manischewitz spritzers, and a little bit of metaphorical rebirth. Because even though it's something I've been thinking about for months, I could always use a bit more.

*photo from my gefilte fish post in Bon Appetit, taken by Kirk Jones

Friday, March 08, 2013

Beet Salad with Oranges and Olives

Beets can sometimes seem more like a job than a vegetable. They have to be peeled, they leave their inky stain all over everything, and they need to cook for a good long while. But in payoff, they're fairly delicious. Especially in a salad like this.

As mountains of recipes attest, beets pair beautifully with goat cheese. But I would argue that combing them with oranges and olives may even be better. The juicy citrus punch and oily brine are lovely complements for the dense sweetness of the roots, taking them out of the earth and into the well-balanced world of salad.

And also: so pretty! As someone who can barely coordinate a passable professional outfit, I'm entranced by this study in purple and orange and green (which a sprinkling of chopped pistachios and red onions only serve to highlight). For taste as well as aesthetics, a handful of chopped chives, parsley, mint, or other green herb would make things all the better (these were sadly lacking from my refrigerator, and I was too lazy to walk down the street and pluck a few of the neighbor's mint leaves). But even without, the resulting salad feels like a special occasion, all bright and festive, and manages to be spectacularly healthy to boot.

And if you have a smarter/easier/neater/quicker preferred way of cooking beets (as doubtless many of you do), feel free to substitute that method instead. Any way you slice em (or roast em, or boil em, or steam em), they'll be lovely when paired with friends like these. 

Beet Salad with Oranges and Olives

serves 2-3 (I recommend doubling it if you're going to make it, as it's really nice)

1 bunch beets (3-4 large)
dollop of honey
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon vinegar (a mild one, such as sherry, is nice)
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoon finely diced red onion 1 orange, supremed (handy tutorial here if you've never done this)
1 handful green olives, pitted and broken in half
1 handful chopped pistachios

Preheat your oven to 450° Fahrenheit.

While the oven is preheating, peel the beets, and cut into wedges (either quarters or sixths, depending upon their size). Place in a pot of water and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook until they're soft but not quite done, ~10 minutes. Drain, place in a small casserole dish, and toss with a drizzle of oil. Place in the oven and roast until they're fully cooked and just beginning to get some sweetness around the edges, ~10 more minutes.

While the beets are cooking,  In a small bowl, pour any accumulated orange juice, the honey, olive oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper. Whisk to combine, and taste to adjust seasoning. Place the onions in the dressing to allow them to mellow.

When the beets have cooked, let them cool slightly, then scatter them on a serving dish or individual salad plates. Add the oranges, then scatter the olives and pistachios on top. Give the dressing a stir, pour over the salad, and serve.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Spiced Chocolate Whiskey Cake

When I make chocolate cake, I almost always make the same one. My go-to recipe is moist, rich, and delicate, pretty much all that a chocolate cake should be. But recently I had a chocolate cake that made me realize that sure, tender delicacy is great — but there's something to be said for a cake of some heft. A cake with a crumb that is moist but a bit sturdier, all the better to support the chunks of chocolate within. And the booze. Did I mention the booze? It's a thing of beauty, though you may not be able to tell from these last-minute cellphone pics (again: the booze).

I first had this cake at a birthday party for my friend Leela (who, of course, made it herself). It's a rich, solid chocolate cake, with the unmistakable-but-not-overpowering whiff of whiskey, studded with chocolate chunks and generously filled and topped with a bittersweet mascarpone frosting. The original recipe was served with a simple dusting of powdered sugar, but it makes for a surprisingly good layer cake. And so when I had the opportunity to bake a cake for a joint birthday party for two lovely ladies, I knew the two-for-one bang of chocolate and booze would be the perfect choice for a double festivity.

I'll probably return to my beloved standard chocolate cake for the next party, with its more traditional sweet and glossy buttercream frosting. But sometimes it's nice to mix it up a bit. Especially on birthdays. Because if there's anything we learn as time marches on, it's that things do change. Often deliciously.

Spiced Chocolate Whiskey Cake

cake adapted from Bottega Restaurant, as told to The New York Times, frosting adapted from Leela Cyd
yields one birthday cake

1 1/2 sticks butter (12 tablespoons), cut into pats
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (85 grams), plus additional for dusting cake pans
1 1/2 cups brewed strong coffee
1/2 cup whiskey
1 cup granulated sugar (200 grams)
1 cup light brown sugar (156 grams)
2 cups flour (240 grams)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1/4 cup sour cream (optional)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chopped chocolate

8 ounces mascarpone
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
1/2 cup sifted cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
hefty pinch salt
squirt corn syrup (optional, to keep it glossy)
1/2 cup cream
1/4—1/2 cup milk, as needed

Preheat your oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Grease to 9-inch cake pans, and dust them with cocoa powder.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Turn off the heat, and add the cocoa powder, coffee, and whiskey, and stir until dissolved. Add the sugars, and cool completely (seriously make sure it's cool, lest you later cook your eggs/melt your chocolate).
In a large bowl, sift or whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, pepper and cloves. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sour cream (if using), and vanilla. Add the chocolate mixture, whisking to combine. Add the dry ingredients, whisk until just combined, then fold in the chocolate chunks. 

Quickly pour the batter into your prepared pans, then bake until a tester comes out clean, ~20-25 minutes. Let cool.

To make the frosting, simply mix all of the frosting ingredients together until smooth, adding more milk or cocoa powder as needed for consistency. Turn out the cooled cake and frost, then serve with candles and sprinkles and all sorts of festivities.