Monday, June 30, 2014

Halibut with Carrot Puree, Early Summer Vegetables, and Pistou

Apologies for this single, hasty, unfocused photo. I just snapped a quick record for my own documentation, figuring I'd never blog something that required such an insane amount of preparation. And then I tasted it. And oh my. I thought about going back and getting the camera for proper pictures, but really, I couldn't leave my plate.

This deliciousness came about because I was tasked the other day with bringing dinner (and moral support) to a friend who was spending a first day on solo infant duty. I thought about cooking up a big load of freezer-friendly food — perhaps spanakopita and tomato biryani, or a few pints of carrot coriander vinaigrette. But then I saw a new restaurant cookbook waiting for me at the library. And I thought about just going fancy instead.

A freezer full of food is a wonderful thing. But you know what? So is a little luxury. And the latter is in woefully short supply when you're waging a sleep-deprived battle to meet basic life needs. So I set aside my casserole plans, and went to the farmer's market for bushels of early summer bounty — fat carrots, curly green garlic scapes and pea shoots, juicy spring onions and the first fragrant basil. And then, after just a few insane hours of cooking, and washing nigh everything in the kitchen (steamer basket and Dutch oven and mortar and pestle and pot and frying pan and food processor), the elements were ready. And all that was left was to sear the fish, bring the dish over, and whisk the baby away for a miraculously tearless diaper change while this perfection was savored.

In some ways, this meal reminds me of my beloved butterscotch budino — multiple elements (each with significant levels of fuss), requiring more time than a usual few days' kitchen efforts combined. But the end result is just transformative. It's like the best restaurant meal you've ever had. It's like a dream about food.

In this case, the dream rests on a bed of carrot puree (carrots first steamed with basil stems before browning in olive oil, natch). The resulting smoothness has a clean flavor, but also a roasty sweetness from the caramelization. And the glug of olive oil doesn't hurt either. This is topped with a buttery saute of spring vegetables — the recipe called for asparagus, but since we're just past the season, some garlic scapes made for a nice substitute. And then pea shoots, lending their adorable tendrils and green flavor (plus a fun little play on peas and carrots, which is always a good time). On top of this saute rests a marinated and seared halibut fillet, and then a dollop of creme fraiche (or, in my case, the last little bit of sour cream mixed with a bit of yogurt), then, finally a simple pesto of basil, garlic and oil. Each element alone is perfect. And together, as they mix on the fork and plate? It's just beyond. It's a celebration of this early summer moment. It's something to helps you forget about those sleepless nights, and drink in how delicious it all can be.

Halibut with Carrot Puree, Spring Vegetables, and Pistou

adapted from The AOC Cookbook by Suzanne Goin
serves 4

As stated, this is an insane amount of work. But you can break it down — I'd recommend making the carrot puree and pistou the day before (the latter will darken, but it'll still be delicious). This would make a show-stopping dinner party dish, and could likely even be made vegan by swapping the seared fish for some seared cauliflower and omitting the dairy. Goin's original recipe pairs this amount of accompaniment with 6 fillets instead of 4, but it's so delicious that 4 seems a bit more accurate.

For the carrot puree:
2 pounds carrots, peeled, cut into 1/4-inch rounds
handful of basil stems (from the basil you're using for the pistou)
~1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup diced white onion
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt

For the pistou:
1/2 clove garlic
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup tightly packed basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the fish:
4 Alaskan halibut fillets, 5 to 6 ounces each
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped parsley
salt and pepper
olive oil for cooking

For the spring vegetables:
1 1/2 cups sliced spring onions, plus 1/2 cup sliced spring onion tops
3/4 pound asparagus, sliced into pieces, or a handful of garlic scapes
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
3 tablespoons butter
4 ounces pea shoots (a few big handfuls — they wilt down)
lemon juice to taste

To finish:
1/4 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
flaky salt

To make the carrot puree: Steam the carrots with the basil stems for about 20 minutes, until nice and tender.

When the carrots are almost done, heat a heavy pot over high heat for 1 minute. Pour in 1/4 cup of the olive oil onions, and season with the salt. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until the onions are translucent. Add the carrots, and continue to cook, stirring and scraping up the bottom, until the carrots are lightly caramelized, ~8 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to a food processor, and puree until very smooth, drizzling in a few additional spoonfuls of olive oil. Taste to adjust seasonings. Set aside.

To make the pistou: If using a food processor, press the garlic clove, then add that and 1/3 of the basil leaves. Pulse until well combined, then add the rest of the basil and parsley. Slowly add the olive oil as needed to make a pourable mixture, and season to taste with pepper and more salt if desired.

If using a mortar and pestle, start by pounding the whole garlic clove and salt until broken down. Add 1/3 of the basil, pound until well broken down, then add the remaining basil and parsley. Pound pound pound pound, then add the olive oil as needed to make a pourable mixture, and season to taste with pepper and more salt if desired. Set aside, making sure the mixture has enough oil on top to cover. Set aside.

To start the fish: In a small covered container, season the fish with the grated lemon zest, thyme, and parsley. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.

To make the vegetables: Heat a large Dutch oven or enormous saute pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the 2 tablespoons olive oil, let heat for a minute, and then add the sliced spring onions, asparagus (or garlic scapes), salt, and a pinch of pepper. Cook over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring, until onions are translucent.

When the onions have cooked, add the butter and 1 tablespoon water. Swirl the pan, and when the liquid comes to a simmer, toss in the pea shoots and onion tops. Immediately remove from the heat, stir, and squeeze a little lemon juice over everything. Taste and adjust seasoning.

To finish the fish and assemble the dish: Remove the fish from the refrigerator, and let it sit out for about 15 minutes to come to room temperature (one of the keys to even cooking).

Heat a large saute pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Swirl 2 tablespoons olive oil into the pan and wait 1 minute. It'll be hot!

Season the fish on both sides with salt and pepper. Carefully lay fish in the pan and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until it’s got a nice lightly browned crust. Turn the fish over, lower the heat to medium low and cook for a few more minutes. When it’s done, the fish will *just* begin to flake and separate a little, and the center will still be slightly translucent (it will continue to cook as it rests, so err on the side of under-cooking). Remove from pan and let rest.

To assemble the whole thing, warm up the puree (if made in advance and refrigerated). Spoon plops of the warm puree onto 4 plates, forming a nice little bed. Tumble the vegetables over the puree, then place a fish fillet over the top. Top each fillet with a dollop of creme fraiche, then spoon the pistou over the creme fraiche and the fish and around the plate. Eat in rapturous pleasure.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Strawberry Rhubarb Galette

A few weeks back I was lamenting the lack of fresh fruit this time of year, and grumbling that I didn't want my rhubarb in pie form. Well, now the fruit has come in! Namely strawberries. I have been eating pints upon pints of them. And, it turns out, now I do want my fruit in the form of pie. Namely a strawberry-rhubarb galette.

This galette — the fancier name for a rustic open-faced tart — is pure early summer. My new friend rhubarb is sliced into slim little batons, which I somehow like so much more than the usual rounds. And it's paired with perfectly ripe, punchy strawberries, so red throughout that you barely need to do anything but flick off the hulls and slice them in half. And then I topped it with whipped cream, because: pie. The whole thing is a whisper of berries and rhubarb and cream, all fruit and air and butter.

Because I am a sucker for delicacy-over-structure, I went with my beloved rough puff pastry dough, which is shatteringly delicious, but lacking a bit of the structural integrity required. No matter. I scooped up the still-warm juices that escaped through the breech in the crust wall, and drizzled them over the top to glaze the top fruit. And next June, I'm sure I'll do it again. Having to soak a sheet pan is a small price to pay for this.

Strawberry Rhubarb Galette

This amount of starch and jam yields a fairly tight set, which helps keep everything together on an open-faced galette. But if you prefer a softer gel, feel free to reduce the amount of thickener.

1 pie's worth of your favorite pastry (structural issues be damned, I can't quit this one)
1 pound rhubarb, washed and cut into thin batons (1/4-inch by 3 inches)
1 pint strawberries, washed and hulled
2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons tapioca starch
2 tablespoons jam/jelly (I used apricot jam, but any other softly set preserves with complementary flavors work fine)
1 egg, beaten with a splash of water or cream
coarse sugar for sanding
lightly sweetened whipped cream, for serving (optional)

Line a rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper. Roll out your dough to a roughly 14-inch circle, and transfer to the sheet. Set aside.

In a large bowl, toss together the rhubarb, strawberries, sugar, starch, and jam, stirring gently until the fruit is coated with the mixture. Spread on the dough, up to a few inches of the edges. Fold the edges back over to form a 2-inch crust, crimping and pinching as needed to secure.

Gently brush the overhanging crust with the egg wash, and sprinkle with the coarse sugar. Set in the freezer for 45-60 minutes or so (or less, if you're like me and want to take exciting chances with pastry opening up in the oven).

When the galette has almost finished chilling, preheat the oven to 375° Fahrenheit. Transfer to the oven and bake until the pie is browning and the juices are thickened and bubbling, ~45 minutes. If your galette springs a leak and the juices escape, carefully pull the galette, spoon the juices back over the fruit, and return it to the oven. Let cool to room temperature before serving (with whipped cream, if desired).

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Sopa Seca (aka Mexican Spaghetti)

It doesn't need saying that technology can connect us in big, profound ways. But it can also connect us in lovely little ways too. The other night, a friend posted that he was dealing with an unseasonably cold Philadelphia evening by cooking up some beans and pasta. And I was able to sort of collapse time and space and virtually join him, because, 3,000 miles away, I was doing the same thing. In Andrew's case, it was a delicious-looking bowl of pasta fagioli, with heirloom white beans and mixed-up Italian pasta. And in my house, it was a long-simmered pot of clean-out-the-pantry black and red beans (salt-soaked, of course). And, starring in the role of noodles, this sopa seca. Or, as I've been calling it, Mexican spaghetti.

This version of sopa seca, a beloved humble casserole, is from the great Diana Kennedy. And it is ridiculously satisfying. It's got all the things you want from a plate of pasta: comfort and carbs and sweet-tangy tomato sauce. But even better, the sauce is cooked down and oven-baked until it's an almost jammy backdrop, and — most importantly — spiked with smoky-hot chipotle pepper. And then things just get better, with a sprinkling of salty cheese, sour crema, and some bright leaves of cilantro.

I know I'll be coming back to this recipe again and again — especially on colder nights, when I need a bit of oven-baked comfort (and a bit of spice). It's one of those great dishes that manages to be both familiar and exciting. And it's one of those great dishes I'd like to share with all of my friends — whether it's at my table, or across the internet.

Sopa Seca (aka Mexican Spaghetti)

adapted from Diana Kennedy via Saveur, with thanks to Bon Appetempt for flagging
serves 4 

Pureeing and cooking down the tomato sauce takes some time, but yields a crazy delicious result. Next time (and lo, there will be a next time) I'm aiming to double the sauce, then freeze half after cooking it down, to have on hand to make this an even easier weeknight supper.

3-4 canned chipotle chiles in adobo, depending on your taste for heat
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 (15-oz.) can whole peeled tomatoes in juice
1/2 small white onion, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons high-heat oil, such as canola or grapeseed
8 ounces fideos, or vermicelli noodles broken into 3-inch pieces (I tend to buy these short little noodles from the local Middle Eastern store, which work quite well)
2/3 cup chicken or vegetable stock (Kennedy calls for 1/2 cup, but I generally prefer fully cooked to al dente, so added a splash more and it worked quite well)
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

crumbled cotija or feta cheese
sour cream or crema (or your current favorite yogurt)
handful cilantro, washed and roughly chopped
a side of beans and avocado (optional)

Purée the chipotles, garlic, tomatoes, and onion in a blender until very smooth, at least 2 minutes. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a big oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Add half of the pasta and cook, stirring, until lightly browned and toasted, ~2-3 minutes. Scoop out of the pan, set aside, and toast the remaining noodles. Scoop those out of the pan as well, and place with the others.

Return the skillet to heat, and pour in the tomato mixture. Beware the spatter! Cook, stirring occasionally, until almost all of the liquid has evaporated (~15-20 minutes). Add the stock, stir and cook another minute, then turn off the heat and add the noodles. Stir to combine, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

While the tomato mixture is cooking down, preheat your oven to 350° Fahrenheit. When the pasta has been added and seasoned, cover the pan with foil, and place in the oven. Bake until the pasta is tender and the sauce is absorbed, ~10 minutes. NOTE: If you don't have an oven-proof skillet, you can transfer the contents of an ordinary skillet to an oiled 8-inch casserole dish at this point, and cover/bake that (which is actually what Kennedy recommends, but I'm a one-pot gal myself whenever possible).

To serve, divide onto plates, and let diners top with cheese, drizzle with crema, and sprinkle with cilantro as desired. Enjoy hot, with beans, avocado, and/or salad on the side.