Tempura Salmon Tacos

As I mentioned not long ago, I’ve completely caught N’s obsession with tacos and now I want them all the time. In past years I thought the concept of “Taco Tuesday” was a bit silly and boring, but now it seems brilliant, because of course you wouldn’t do the same old ground beef and shredded cheddar every week; you would change it up and have charred vegetable tacos one week, slow cooked carnitas with pickled onions another week, and of course you would need fish tacos in there at least once a month.

Fish tacos tend to come in two camps: grilled and fried. When grilled, the fish is flaky and barely smoky and feels righteously healthy (at least as healthy as a taco can be), especially since it’s usually topped with confetti of cabbage, maybe a minute dice of tomatoes and, if you’re me, some paper thin slices of radish for a little peppery crunch. A spicy creamy drizzle and a generous dollop of guacamole are requirements.

But if I have to choose, I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that I’m almost always going to go with fried. Encased in batter, sometimes cornmeal, sometimes flour, sometimes with beer, the fish stays molten hot and so juicy, and the batter is (ideally) crisp and crunchy and thus adds perfect texture even to a soft tortilla. Of course, many people’s objection to this format will likely be that it is unnecessarily heavy or fatty, and they are right: the wrong batter can be gloppy and greasy and excessive. Luckily, I have a solution to that: tempura.

Light and crisp and golden and melt-in-your-mouth-barely-there, tempura is, of course, that perfectly crunchy deep-fried coating for seafood and vegetables so common in Japanese restaurants. Its lightness is frequently achieved through the use of seltzer water as the liquid component in the batter, and sometimes rice flour, which fries up lighter and crispier than wheat flour.

The big problem with tempura, though, and what makes it a pain to do at home, is the deep-frying part. For a simple fish taco dinner, heating up a vat of oil is not high on my priority list. So I wondered if you could achieve satisfying tempura results with a shallow fry, not unlike old-fashioned fried chicken in a cast iron skillet. A few experiments later, I can definitively report that, although you have to be a touch more careful with the batter sticking to the pan, shallow-fried tempura is a completely viable option. Less oil means less time, less waste, and less of that fried smell in your kitchen (although it’s worth noting that an open window and a few votive candles lit for an hour or two can clear out most of that). My tempura batter takes the best of both worlds of fried fish, combining rice flour and baking powder not with the traditional seltzer, but with beer for a little extra flavor along with the requisite fizz.

Fish tacos are usually made with white fleshed fish of some kind – cod or halibut or mahi – but I love salmon, and have had some stellar fish and chips platters using this dense, meaty, pink option, so here I’m using it in lieu of more traditional options. You can certainly change out the type of fish you use, but I can’t speak for the cooking time of other fish since I’ve only tested the salmon with this method.

Of course half the fun of a fish taco is adorning it with various toppings, so here I’ve got two on offer for you: a red cabbage slaw bright with lime and cilantro, and a smash of avocado and corn to make up just before serving. We thought they needed nothing more, but if you like that creamy spicy sauce, I suggest whisking a few drops of sriracha into some buttermilk for a tangy kick to drizzle on.

Tempura Salmon Tacos
Serves 4
About ½ hour, if you are quite organized
For red cabbage slaw:
¼ head of red cabbage, grated or shredded or very finely slices (you can use green cabbage here too; I just like the unexpected bright color of the red)
¼-½ cup chopped cilantro, leaves and tender upper stalks
zest of 1 lime
juice of ½ lime
½ teaspoon salt
optional: 1-2 tablespoons mayonnaise or wasabi mayonnaise, if you like your slaw creamy
For tempura salmon:
1 pound salmon, cut into 1×3-4 inch strips (approximately)
⅔ cups rice flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
6-8 ounces beer (go with a pale ale or lighter; this is not a place for a deep roasty stout. Save that for waffles)
2-3 cups vegetable oil
For corn avocado smash:
1 ripe avocado (I like haas)
½ cup fresh or defrosted corn kernels
2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion tops (dark green parts only)
¼ teaspoon salt or to taste
¼ teaspoon black pepper or to taste
lime juice to taste
To serve:
Tortillas (we like crunchy corn shells for this, but soft or blistered corn, or even flour, would also be tasty)
Optional garnishes: radish slices, crema, buttermilk and sriracha, sour cream, additional cilantro, green onion, or lime

 

  • First, make the cabbage slaw. Toss together the cabbage, cilantro, lime zest and juice, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside for at least 10 minutes to let the salt and lime juice permeate. If you like a creamy slaw, toss in 1-2 tablespoons regular or wasabi mayonnaise just before serving.
  • With the slaw done, turn your attention to the fish. In a cast iron or other large, heavy skillet, heat enough vegetable oil to come about 1 inch up the sides. While the oil heats, prep a warming tray: place a wire cooling rack over a baking sheet and place in the oven. Heat the oven to 300F.
  • Next, slice the fish into 1×3-4 inch strips or “fingers.” You can alter the size if you prefer, but this size cooks quickly and fits well into a taco shell.
  • When the oil reaches a temperature between 350-375F, whisk together the rice flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. If you prefer a very light batter, add 8 ounces of beer, whisking constantly as you pour it in. If you prefer a more substantial batter, add only 6 ounces of beer.
  • Now you are ready to fry. Add 5-6 strips of the fish to the tempura batter, submerge to ensure they are fully coated, then gently add them to the oil one at a time (it will sizzle aggressively), being sure they are separate from one another in the skillet. Cook 1-2 minutes per side, until the batter is lightly golden and the fish is barely cooked through (this doesn’t take long; you’ll be surprised how fast it is). Remove the fish to the warming rack in the oven. Continue to fry the fish in batches until it is all cooked.
  • Either in between, or just after the last batch of fish goes into the oven to keep warm, make the corn avocado smash. Halve, pit, and cube up the avocado into a small bowl (I like this method) Use a fork or the back of a spoon against the side of the bowl to lightly smash the cubes of avocado to your desired texture. I like it fairly chunky. Add the corn, green onion tops, salt, pepper, and lime juice, and gently stir to combine.
  • To serve, add a few fish strips to a warmed, grilled, or toasted tortilla, then top with the slaw and the smash in your desired order and quantity. Eat immediately.

Fisherman’s Stew

All I wanted to do when I got up on Sunday was edit photos (final soup post! Some photos of pelicans N. took!), draft this post, and hide from the suddenly summery weather that has invaded this weekend (sorry, East Coast. I shouldn’t complain, but 80s in January? Come on). What I did NOT want to do was computer shop. And yet, when our stuttering, stumbling, dying desk top (named GLaDOS after the computer in Portal here’s her final song in the credits if you want some nostalgic joy) wouldn’t load even the admin user profile, we sighed and resigned ourselves to replacing it.

In the meantime, I had to figure out photos. So I’m trying something new here: since I won’t have a new machine for a week or so, I’m testing Google Photos’ editing capabilities. Decent, I think, though I do like my Lightroom better…

That out of the way, and since I realize it’s only grilling-and-salad-and-vodka-tonics weather in a few areas of the country, let’s talk about this last soup. In planning the year’s project, I knew from the beginning what I wanted the December soup to be: a take on the Fisherman’s Stew from a restaurant in Eugene we adored called The Humble Beagle.

The Beagle was honest, slightly more than simple pub fare with Middle Eastern influences. The pizza had dollops of labneh. The hummus was impossibly light, and you could stuff it into a pita with crumbled lamb or fried eggplant, sliced of boiled potatoes, lightly pickled cabbage, and a hard boiled egg. The pub, as the couple who owned it affectionately called it, was only open for dinner, only five nights a week, and we watched their business and family grow as we moved through our PhD program. At one point Anni stopped appearing in the dining room, and what seemed like only a few months later, there was a curly haired, giant-and-wise-eyed moppet on Ari’s back as he took orders and chatted with guests.

At a certain point, both us of exhausted by the demands of the program and not up for the weekly happy hour at a campus bar that had lost a bit of its charm, N. and I started having dinner at the Beagle on Friday nights. We probably could have been thriftier with our meager stipends, but we told ourselves, as we drove there through the sheeting rain that seemed to last all winter, that we deserved the occasional reward for our hard work, and besides, it was better to spend a little more on really good food than fill ourselves with beer and bar fare.

During these Friday dinners, I started ordering a new item from the Beagle’s menu: the Fisherman’s Stew. This was usually among the priciest of their offerings, but again, reward. And once I had eaten it once or twice, I didn’t care. It was a rich but not heavy tomato based stew, laden with seafood – mussels, clams, sometimes tiny bay scallops, chunks of meaty white fish – and topped with a dollop of tart, creamy aioli and a slice of toast that never lasted long enough. It was complex in flavor and comforting on the tongue and in the belly, and I got so stuck on it I dreamed about it after we moved away from Eugene.

Seafood around the Christmas holiday feels right. It’s a time of indulgence, and it’s culinarily supported – I’m thinking about the Italian-American tradition of the feast of the seven fishes (not to mention the line practically out the door at Whole Foods to buy king crab legs!). Thus, it felt right to pay homage to the Beagle with my final soup of the year. In constructing the recipe, I had exactly the opposite experience as last month: I’ve remained friends with Ari on Facebook, and, expecting nothing, I messaged him to request the recipe. Within two days, he responded with the quantities and procedure they used at the restaurant, and it remained only for me to break this down into reasonable household quantities.

This is a convenient soup in that, even though it takes about an hour to put together, each cooked component sweats, or sautés, or simmers long enough that you have the time to get the next component ready. You cook down some aromatic vegetables and herbs, during which time you can chop up potatoes and carrots. While the root veg simmer away in tomato puree and water infused with a pinch of saffron (Trader Joe’s has the best prices I’ve ever seen on the stuff), you have plenty of time to clean and prep the seafood. You could even, as Ari suggested to me, make the soup base (the vegetables and liquid components) ahead of time, and reheat and add the seafood just before serving. This is a soup that ages well over a night or two, the complex flavors melding and deepening as they linger together, so dividing the process makes sense (plus, you can choose to heat up just the amount you need that evening, and freeze the rest).

As for the seafood, it’s much easier than you might think (well, it’s easier than I thought, anyway). I had never cooked my own clams or mussels before, and I had raised an eyebrow at Ari’s direction that the fish you add will be done in the time it takes the shellfish to open. He was, of course, exactly right; in fact, my fish ended up a tiny bit overcooked because I was nervous about doneness. Yours will not, since, of course, you’ll learn from my mistake.

The hardest part about the seafood prep here is ensuring cleanness and safety, but even that isn’t too daunting. The important thing is ensuring your shellfish are alive, and scrubbing off sand and grit – I submerged my clams and mussels in cold water for only about ten minutes (much more than that can kill them, since they are salt water critters) before scooping them out, scrubbing as I rinsed, and pulling off the mussels’ “beards” (toward the hinge only, please). From there, they go straight into the stew to cook briefly until they pop open, and if they don’t pop open, you discard them. That’s it. the kitchn offers the following expansion on this: “Freshly purchased mussels that are prepared properly pose very little food safety risk. Before cooking, look over the mussels carefully. The mussels should be tightly closed. Discard any mussels with cracked shells. If you see a mussel that is open, tap it gently against the counter; in a live mussel, this will trigger a reaction to close its shell. If the mussel doesn’t close, it has died and should be discarded. Also discard any mussels that don’t open after cooking. This might sound a little scary, but trust your instincts. Follow this simple advice: before cooking, shells closed; after cooking, shells open.”

When the shellfish have popped open, the fish is done, and your stew is ready to eat. Ari’s final word on the matter: “That’s it! Maybe add a dollop of aioli and a piece or two of crusty bread.” He’s right. And if you don’t have aioli, you can either doctor up some mayo with grated garlic and maybe a touch of lemon juice, or you can just put a teaspoon or so of straight mayonnaise right in the center of your bowl. I know that sounds indulgent, but trust me – it swirls into the soup to add just the right richness and balance against the acidity of the tomato base.

That’s 2017’s project in the books at last, then. Next week, we embark on a new project: the Chopped Challenge! The recipe post will go up on Monday as usual, but if you want, check in on Sunday when I’ll reveal the ingredients N. has chosen, and tell me in the comments what you would make with this mystery basket.

 

Fisherman’s Stew
Serves 6-8
Approximately 1 hour
¼ cup olive oil
3 leeks, white and pale green parts only, split vertically, cleaned under running water, and sliced thinly into half moons
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, stalks and fronds removed (reserve a few fronds for serving), bulb halved and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon herbs de provence
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
3 cloves garlic, papery skins removed, finely minced or smashed
4-5 anchovy fillets (I used a 2 ounce tin, drained of oil)
2 carrots, peeled and cut in small dice
2 large or 3 small Yukon gold potatoes, cut in small dice
32 ounce can crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
4 cups warm water
½ teaspoon saffron threads
2-3 wide strips orange peel (use a potato peeler)
juice of half a lemon or to taste
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound firm white fish like cod or halibut, cut into bite-sized chunks
2 pounds mixed shellfish, like mussels, clams, and small bay scallops (get these already shelled and cleaned, for ease)
To serve: fennel fronds, a few dollops aioli or mayonnaise (see above for mayo doctoring suggestions)

 

  • In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium low. Add the prepared leeks, celery and fennel, along with the herbs de provence, thyme, bay leaves, and a sprinkle of salt. Sweat until the leeks have softened but not browned, about 8-10 minutes. Add the garlic and anchovies and cook, stirring, for 1-2 minutes until the garlic is fragrant and the anchovy fillets have broken up.
  • Raise the heat to medium and add the carrots and potatoes. Season with about ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring.
  • While the carrots and potatoes are cooking, bloom the saffron by sprinkling the ½ teaspoon of red threads to the 4 cups of warm water. Add the tomato puree or crushed tomatoes, the saffron and its water, and the strips of orange zest to the pot. Squeeze in the lemon juice, then let the soup simmer until the vegetable chunks have softened, 20-30 minutes.
  • While the soup is simmering, it’s time to address the fish component. If you’re using clams and mussels, fill a large bowl with cold water and immerse them for just 10 minutes. They should settle on the bottom and expel a bit of sand. If any float, consider discarding them, as this likely means they are dead inside their shells. After 10 minutes, scoop them out (don’t pour, or the sand and grit that has settled at the bottom will be stirred up again) and scrub them off with a brush or your fingers under running water.
  • If your mussels have “beards,” as in the above picture, remove them by tugging the exposed seaweed-y bit sharply toward the hinge of the shell. It should pull off, and you can throw it away.
  • Now you are ready to put everything together. Remove the bay leaves, thyme sprigs, orange peels, and large garlic pieces, if you smashed rather than mincing. Plop in the clams, mussels, fish chunks, and bay scallops and cook just until the shellfish pop open; this will only take a minute or two. If any of them don’t pop open after a few minutes, discard them.
  • To serve, scoop generous servings into bowls, dollop with aioli or mayonnaise, and, if you like to be fancy, top with a fennel frond or two. Add some crusty or well-toasted bread and eat immediately.

 

Melinda’s Perfect Oven Poached Cold Salmon

A few weeks ago I attended a retirement luncheon for a now-former colleague (there are a lot of now-formers here lately, aren’t there?) at the home of one of her friends (and one of her now-former colleagues!). Our hostess made, among other perfect, not-too-heavy dishes for quite a warm day, a cold side of salmon so buttery and moist and perfectly cooked that a day or two later I had to email her to find out how she had done it.

Imagine my delight when, rather than a quick overview or an inexact “oh I just…” response, she sent me a page long, detailed explanation of both how she’d prepared the massive six pound piece of fish for that day, but how she does so when she’s only making a portion or two. Every step was well explained and justified, and she also told me where she gets her fish (a bit pricey for me at the moment, but maybe someday).

Because salmon is delicious cold, and because the actual cooking phase for this dish only takes about half an hour including the time spent preheating the oven, it’s a perfect dish for summer, when you don’t want to be cooking anyway (well, unless you’re me), and you can take care of the house-heating portion in the morning and stow the flaky, fatty main course in the fridge for the rest of the day.

My hostess explained that she disguised a few cracks that formed during cooking with cucumber “scales,” and this struck me for two reasons: one, wouldn’t it be gorgeous to plate more of the filet with vegetable scales of different colors – green from cucumbers, florescent pink and white from radishes, maybe even yellow from baby golden beets – and serve a fish still enrobed in imitation of its original form? (Answer: yes, and a Google image search puts my meager shingling skills to shame.) Second, the idea of vegetables atop the fish made it seem only a step or two away from a salad. To complement the “scales” and disguise any possibility of dryness caused by potential overcooking, could you add a brisk, herby lemon vinaigrette right at the last minute, drizzling over fish and vegetables alike, and thus layer on one more fatty component to ensure moistness?

I decided to find out. Following my foolhardy practice of testing out new recipe ideas on guests, I determined to showcase M.’s fish – with a few of my adjustments – for some friends joining us for a weekend dinner.

If you like salmon at all, you have to try this one. The pan, lined with aluminum foil for ease of fish manipulation and clean-up, preheats with the oven. Wine, garlic, lemon slices, thyme, and a few cubes of butter make the fragrant bath this cooks in, and though they lend subtle flavors, the star remains the salmon. The high heat of the oven does the job quickly, but the liquid bath means the method of cooking here is somewhere between steaming and poaching, which keeps the flesh of the fish tender and – not to overuse that word my former college roommate castigated as “too descriptive” – moist throughout. Slapping the fish straight onto the hot pan before adding the liquid and aromatics means the skin sticks to the hot surface, and when you remove the fish later you can peel the flabby skin right off along with its foil lining with little trouble.

What you are left with under all that, once it has cooled and you’ve meticulously shingled on some bright, thin vegetable slices (or not – up to you!) and then drizzled the whole thing with a bright, herby lemon vinaigrette, is a filet that is just cooked through, so the fish doesn’t so much flake as it does sigh into tender, buttery layers. Cold, you can taste the richness of the fish but the whole thing still feels light, and if you’ve been wise enough to plan out the rest of your dinner with make-ahead options, you only have to leave your guests for five minutes while you sweep into the kitchen and emerge with a gleaming, laden platter they will exclaim over (and, if you’re anything like me, immediately try to recreate!)

And if all that’s not enough for you, should there be any leftovers, stacked onto some soft, fresh slices of French bread that you’ve liberally spread with mayonnaise, or salted butter, or some whipped cream cheese, they produce a perfect lunch the next day that gives you enough strength to face the sink full of dishes that is the worthwhile consequence of every dinner party.

Melinda’s Perfect Oven Poached Cold Salmon
Serves 4-6
Prep and cooking time: about 30 minutes before, then another 15 after chilling, to decorate
Chilling time: 2-6 hours
For the salmon:
1½ pound filet of salmon, skin on
1 cup dry white wine
6 cloves garlic, lightly smashed
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 small lemon, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small chunks
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
For the “scales” and vinaigrette:
About ½ a cucumber, skin on, cut into very thin slices
2-3 radishes, cut into very thin slices
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon minced chives
1 tablespoon minced dill
1 tablespoon minced parsley
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ cup olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
additional dill, to serve (optional)
lemon wedges, to serve (optional)

 

  • Preheat the oven to 425F with a foil-lined cookie sheet inside. As soon as you turn on the oven, take the salmon and wine out of the refrigerator to warm up a bit for more even cooking.
  • When the oven is preheated, remove the pan and carefully place the fish skin-side down on the hot foil. Pour the wine over the fish, then scatter the garlic, lemon slices, thyme sprigs, and butter on and around the fish. Sprinkle salt and pepper onto the fish, then carefully slide the whole pan back into the oven.
  • Cook in the 425F oven for 12 minutes, or until the fish reaches and internal temperature of 120-125F. It will be pale pink with some white splotches, and look slightly fatty on top. Remove the whole pan carefully from the oven and set on a wire cooling rack. Immediately, using a large spoon, baste the salmon with the cooking liquid, then let the whole thing sit for 10 minutes.
  • After 10 minutes, baste again, then drain off the liquid. Lay a cooling rack top-side-down over the top of the salmon, then, holding both cooling rack and cookie sheet, carefully flip the whole cookie sheet over (it’s a good idea to do this over the sink). The salmon will now be top-side-down on the cooling rack. Remove the cookie sheet and peel back the foil a little at a time – the salmon skin should stick to the foil and come off cleanly (mine stuck in one place and necessitated a little cajoling).
  • When the skin and foil are removed, place your serving platter serving side down over the top of the salmon (so the bottom of the salmon is on the part of the plate that will be facing up). Carefully, holding both serving vessel and cooling rack, invert so the salmon and the serving plate are now right-side up. Remove cooling rack.
  • Cover the platter, salmon and all, with aluminum foil and refrigerate until cold.
  • 30-45 minutes before you intend to serve, remove the salmon from the refrigerator. We want it cold, but not chilly. While you wait for it to climb a few degrees in temperature, prep the cucumber and radish slices and make the vinaigrette: in a small measuring cup, combine the lemon zest, minced chives, dill, and parsley. Squeeze in the 2 tablespoons lemon juice, then whisk in the ¼ cup olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside until needed.
  • To decorate, shingle the sliced cucumbers and radishes over some or all of the fish in a pattern you like – you can see what I did above, and the internet has, as always, many gorgeous alternatives. If you wish, arrange some bushy dill sprigs in the corner of your platter and pile some lemon slices on them for diners to choose at their whim.
  • Just before serving, drizzle the fish and its vegetable “scales” with the lemon vinaigrette, using a whisk or a fork, if needed, to distribute the herbs evenly (they may come out in little clumps). Serve with a large fork or a wooden spatula.

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Tempura Fish Tacos with Wasabi Seaweed Slaw

2016-food-blog-october-0287Wedding week has come and gone, and yes, it was as magical and as maniacal and just as much hard work and hard play and hard dancing as you might expect. I fully intended to keep an instagram record of food we made and food we ate, but as often happens when I return to the family fold, I clean forgot about the internet for – gasp – full days at a time, and thus no record was made. You’ll have to trust me when I say it was delicious.

2016-food-blog-october-0264But I’m back now, and treading water to catch up at work, while I allow myself to sink deeply back into my kitchen. For a few weeks before we left, I was drowning in recipe-writer’s-block, but on the plane on the way home I made my “meals for the week” list in about three minutes flat, and had already constructed the one for next week by the time we got home from the grocery store. It helps that Los Angeles has declared at least one week of autumnal weather, so all that roasting and winter veg I’ve been itching for is making its way into my fridge.

2016-food-blog-october-0261Although these tacos aren’t really all that autumnal, they were a product of my plunge back into post-wedding cooking. I had originally planned to sauté the fish very simply, but a bag of rice flour in my pantry whispered at me, and suddenly I was whisking flour with seltzer water and a touch of baking powder, and watching my simple tempura batter puff, crisp and light, around the frying filets.

2016-food-blog-october-0256I always make a cabbage slaw when we have fish tacos; usually it’s just a toss of green cabbage, cilantro, lime juice, and a bit of salt. But given the Asian direction of my frying method, I decided to play a bit with the flavorings. Instead of lime juice, I’m using rice vinegar here, and for a creamy, brightly spicy slaw, whisking in mayonnaise and wasabi sauce. For extra intrigue and a texture that shifts in a moment from crisp to chewy, strips of nori get tossed in at the last minute.

2016-food-blog-october-0260Other additions: I thought about nestling thin slices of radish in alongside the fish for a fresh crunch, and though at the last minute I forgot, I still think they would be a nice addition. If you really wanted to fancy things up from a texture perspective, topping each taco with a tangle of sliced, fried won ton wrappers would be fantastic. I like a slightly puffy flour tortilla for these, toasted (or slightly charred) over a gas flame, but corn tortillas, hard or soft, would be lovely as well.

2016-food-blog-october-0266Note: the downside of tempura is that time is an enemy. It doesn’t stay crisp for all that long, especially if what is lovingly encased inside is moist, and it doesn’t keep at all well. Plan to make only as much as you intend to eat at one sitting.

2016-food-blog-october-0280

Tempura Fish Tacos with Seaweed Wasabi Slaw
45-60 minutes
Serves 3
For the slaw:
¼ cup mayonnaise
2-3 tablespoons wasabi sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar or mirin (rice wine)
3 cups shredded or very finely sliced cabbage – I used a mixture of green and red
½ cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves
1 ounce sheet of nori (sushi seaweed), cut into thin strips, to add at the last minute
For the tacos:
1 pound firm, meaty white fish like mahi mahi or halibut, cut into long, slim fingers as in the photo above.
1½ cups vegetable oil, for frying
1 cup rice flour or all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
8 ounces seltzer water
6 tortillas

 

  • 45-60 minutes before dinner, start the slaw: whisk the mayo, the wasabi sauce, the rice vinegar, and the sugar in a small bowl. Combine the shredded cabbage with the cilantro in a large bowl, then drizzle over ⅔ – ¾ of the sauce and toss – you are looking for a light coating of sauce. Save the remainder to drizzle over the tacos last minute. Once the cabbage is dredged in sauce, set it aside until you are ready to serve – at least 30 minutes.
  • Heat the vegetable oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until it is around 350F.
  • While the oil warms, make the tempura batter: whisk the flour with the baking powder and salt in a medium bowl or right in a pie plate. Add the seltzer water a little at a time, whisking to combine, until you have a smooth batter. The seltzer will fizz considerably as you add it, making things hard to see, so be assiduous and make sure you have incorporated all of the dry pockets of flour.
  • When the oil is suitably hot, add the fish strips to the tempura batter and turn them over a few times to coat evenly. Lift each piece, let it drain briefly, then lay it into the skillet gently, letting it go away from you in case of a splash. The oil will bubble up rapidly with each addition.
  • Add as many of the fish pieces as you can in a single layer without touching each other, then let cook until puffed and brown, turning once, about 3-4 minutes per side.
  • If you absolutely must hold the fish for a bit while other components are finalized, place the cooked pieces on a wire rack positioned over a baking sheet and stow it in a 250F oven. Try to minimize how long it sits in the oven, though, as it will quickly overcook and lose its crispness.
  • During the last two minutes of cooking, toast the tortillas over a gas flame and add the nori strips to the slaw, tossing briefly. Alternatively, you could reserve the nori strips and just layer on a few atop the slaw to serve.
  • To make the tacos, stuff the tortillas with a piece of fish, a drizzle of the extra sauce if you wish, and a nice scoop of slaw. Serve immediately.

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Chopped challenge: halibut, bacon ends, vodka, kale

2016 Food Blog February-0360One of my favorite games to play with N. when we are out, about in the world, is a riff on my favorite television show: Chopped (another favorite is noting a couple and trying to determine the status of their relationship based on their clothing and body language, and sometimes, how we think their evening will conclude. We are, clearly, lovely people). Specifically, he will tell me whether I’m to build an appetizer, an entrée, or a dessert, and will then list four random ingredients. Unlike the show, where the contestants have a mere half hour to create a meal that incorporates all four, I simply have to describe the dish I would make.

2016 Food Blog February-0350I love this game. Like this year’s blog project, it gives me a chance to stretch my imagination; it’s like a trivia game, except instead of just knowing the answer, I get to invent it. Last fall we were waiting in line somewhere and N. gave me the following as an entrée round basket of mystery ingredients: halibut, bacon ends, vodka, and kale. “Easy,” I said, and rattled off my entry: diced bits of bacon, rendered until crisp. Halibut cooked in the bacon fat with just a little bit of brown sugar. Bright kale sautéed until just wilted, then tossed with the crisp diced bacon, all balanced over a puddle of rich, creamy polenta and crowned with a few spoonfuls of some kind of vodka cream sauce.

2016 Food Blog February-0354Typically, after the presentation of a meal idea, we discuss briefly and move on. This one, though, sounded so good that I decided I should actually make it. As this process usually goes, I then spent the next few months thinking about it, gradually adding layers and complications, and ultimately being influenced by the show itself for several of the components (notable the kale: in one episode a contestant slices kale across the grain into a fluffy pile of thin confetti before sautéing and salting so aggressively that judge Alex Guarnaschelli, on whom I have a relentless lady-crush, admiringly declares it somehow like a potato chip in addictive deliciousness).

2016 Food Blog February-0355The dish I ended up making doesn’t deviate much from the original plan. I did indeed render the bacon, though I reserved some of the fat for the halibut and used most of it to cook the kale. In addition to bacon and salt, the kale also got a drink of vinegar to enhance the potato chip comparison. The halibut remained as envisioned: salt, pepper, a light sprinkle of brown sugar (at the suggestion of a bed and breakfast owner during a family vacation in Alaska when I was in high school), and a light sear until the center is just cooked, pearly and opaque. The polenta, which is fast joining mashed potatoes as a favorite starch option, ended up with some corn kernels thrown in, which is an easy but stupendous addition I insist you try. The vodka got flamed in some brown butter, then whisked with a bit of lemon juice and mustard to create a rich, barely emulsified sauce that tasted perfect on everything. I knew I was in love when, after only a few bites, I was already texting my sister to tell her about it.

2016 Food Blog February-0364This is one of those dishes that is complicated only because it has multiple components, and you want them to be done at the same time. Therefore, though I’ve divided up the ingredient lists per element (polenta, kale, fish, sauce), in the procedure I’ve indicated when to switch back and forth between pans.

2016 Food Blog February-0360

Brown sugar halibut with creamy corn polenta, salt and vinegar bacon kale, and vodka brown butter sauce
Serves 2
30-40 minutes, but you must be quite organized
For polenta:
3 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 cup whole milk
½ cup fresh or frozen, defrosted corn kernels
¾ cup polenta
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
For kale:
3 slices bacon or bacon ends, diced (about ½ cup)
3 garlic cloves, peeled and cut into very thin slices/slivers
2 bunches kale, washed well and patted or spun dry
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
¾ teaspoon salt
For sauce:
4 tablespoons butter
¼ cup vodka
zest of one small lemon (1-2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt to taste
For halibut:
2 6-ounce boneless, skinless halibut filets
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon bacon fat (from kale preparation)

 

  • Start with the polenta, since it takes the longest: combine the chicken broth, milk, and corn kernels in a medium pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the polenta, the salt, and the pepper, then whisk constantly until the mixture starts to thicken. At first it will seem like there is not nearly enough polenta; keep whisking. Once the mixture has thickened to a loose pudding consistency and is threatening to bubble, clap on the lid and turn the heat down to medium-low or low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until it is creamy and thick, and the polenta granules are tender, 15-20 minutes. Just before serving, add the 2 tablespoons butter and gently stir in until well combined. If the polenta is ready before the rest of the meal, hold it over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the other components are ready.
  • As soon as you put the lid on the polenta, place the diced bacon in a large skillet and heat over medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp, then remove to a paper towel with a slotted spoon to drain. Reserve 3 tablespoons of the fat and discard the rest.
  • While the bacon is cooking, prepare the garlic and kale: cut the peeled garlic cloves into very thin slivers. Gather the washed and dried kale in a stack and, using a very sharp knife, slice the kale “against the grain” (perpendicular to the stem) into very thin slices. You are looking for the effect of shredded cabbage or kale confetti. Continue to slice down until the stems thicken – about halfway down the leaf. Reserve the remaining stem and leaf segments for pesto or kale chips.
  • Pour two tablespoons of the reserved bacon fat back into the large skillet and heat over medium until it is shimmering. Add the garlic slivers and toast them until they are just starting to brown, about 45 seconds. Immediately add the kale all at once and cook 2-3 minutes, tossing occasionally, until it is bright green and barely wilted. Add the vinegar, salt, and reserved bacon pieces; toss to combine. Remove from heat and set aside until just before serving.
  • To make the sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan. It will foam up, then the foam will clear, and the butter will start to take on a toasted color. At this point, remove the saucepan from the heat and add the vodka. Once the alcohol is added, put the pan back on the heat. If you’re feeling brave, light a stick lighter and ignite the surface of the mixture; it will flame up just for a few seconds. Swirl the pan and the flame will go out, then simmer for 1-2 minutes to burn off a little more of the alcohol flavor. Add the lemon zest, lemon juice, and mustard and whisk to combine. Lower the heat as low as it will go, just to keep the sauce warm, and whisk occasionally to keep it emulsified.
  • The last step is the halibut. In a medium skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons olive oil with the remaining 1 tablespoon reserved bacon fat over medium high heat. While the fat warms, season the halibut with salt, pepper, and brown sugar on both sides. When the fat in the pan is shimmering, carefully add the halibut filets. Cook, undisturbed, for two minutes, then carefully flip using tongs and/or a thin, flexible spatula, lower the heat to medium, and cook 3 minutes more until the fish is pearly-white in the center and flakes easily.
  • As soon as you flip the halibut filets, put all the other components of the meal back over medium-low heat, just to warm through until the fish is ready.
  • To plate, spoon a generous puddle of polenta in the center of a plate or a shallow bowl. Use tongs to add a generous pile of kale in the center. Balance the fish at an angle with one end on the pile of kale and the other in the polenta, then spoon the sauce over the fish; it will be thin, so it will spill into the kale and polenta. Serve immediately.

Seared Salmon with Pea Pesto and Celery Root Puree

If you are a certain type of food blogger, one who is interested in trends of the food and restaurant world, not just the backdrop and vintage props Pinterest tells us are all the rage this month, then you care about and try to integrate sustainability, and seasonality, and local foods into your cooking. You are all about ramps and rhubarb in the spring, you plan zucchini dishes for late summer and early autumn when that crop is glutted. You wouldn’t dream of presenting a heavy stew or cream-based soup unless the weather has been cold. You let the year and its turning rule your kitchen.

2015 Blog August-0298I try to be that kind of blogger. I try to keep my food in tune with the seasons and plan vegetable dishes according not just to what appears at my farmers’ market, but to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone is in Southern California, so not everyone has the same plethora of options I do. I even try to plan for holidays, and get appropriate dishes out there ahead of time (sometimes barely) in case you want to make them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

2015 Blog August-0286But here’s the thing: I’m also ruled by my stomach. Sometimes I don’t want zucchini. Sometimes I would rather roast than grill. Sometimes there’s a combination I dream up that sounds so good I don’t want to wait until the “right” time to cook it and present it to you. That’s the case this week. This is, if I were being a responsible food person, without question a spring dish. The peas could be fresh out of the pod, the dill is all about feathery fronds and new shoots. I cook the salmon so the skin is crispy, then balance the flesh side atop lemon slices in the pan to keep it moist and tender, all freshness and brightness. The celery roots, on the other hand, are the last dregs of winter, knobbly and earthy and strange, adding pale richness to complement the salmon and tame the sprightly sharpness of the pesto.

2015 Blog August-0292But when I thought of it – a nutty pesto of peas and walnuts, seasoned with dill instead of basil or mint and almost on the verge of being too salty, sitting atop a piece of moist, pink salmon with crisp skin, all surrounded by the creamy celery-scented puree, I couldn’t wait half a year. It had to happen now.

There’s not much to say about this dish, story-wise. No childhood memory or restaurant meal inspired it. I just thought the combination sounded good, and it was. The pesto, in particular, though admittedly not the most appealing shade of green, is a surprising and intriguing punch. Dill works very well with peas as well as lemon, and the tannic bitterness of toasted walnuts tames the sweetness of the peas enough to keep them in the savory realm.

2015 Blog August-0295Note: the puree does take the longest time to create, since the starchy roots can take up to half an hour to soften. If you’re very efficient, you’ll be able to prep the remainder of the components while the hunks of celery root are simmering. I am not all that efficient, so I made the pesto first just in case. You know you best, so plan accordingly.

2015 Blog August-0298

Seared Salmon with Pea Pesto and Celery Root Puree
45-50 minutes prep and cook time
Serves 4
For celery root puree:
2 medium celery roots, any attached stalks removed, peeled and chopped into small chunks
1-2 cups milk
1 clove garlic, skin removed
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper (use white pepper if you don’t want flecks)
6 ounces mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
For pea pesto:
1 cup (4 ounces) peas, fresh or frozen
⅓ cup walnut pieces
1 clove garlic, skin removed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
½ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
¼ teaspoon fresh black pepper (or to taste)
¼ cup olive oil
For salmon:
4 filets of salmon, 4-6 ounces each
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon fresh black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 lemon, cut into ¼ inch slices

 

  • To make the celery root puree, place the chunks of chopped celery root in a medium pot and pour in enough milk just to cover. Add salt and pepper and toss in the garlic clove. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then immediately turn down the heat, and cook at a bare simmer until celery root pieces are fork tender, 20-30 minutes.
  • Once roots are tender, remove the pot from the heat, add the mascarpone cheese, and let sit for 5-10 minutes just to cool. Use an immersion blender or a regular blender (be VERY careful with the hot liquid) to blend to a smooth puree.
  • While the celery root chunks are simmering, remove the salmon from the fridge and its packaging and sprinkle it with the ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Then set it aside. We want it to come up to room temperature so it cooks evenly.
  • To make the pea pesto, either blanch your fresh peas by dropping them into boiling water for 1-2 minutes before a quick drain, or defrost your peas if they are frozen.
  • Toast the walnut pieces in a dry pan just until they smell roasty and are slightly darker brown. Let them cool, then toss them into a food processor with the garlic and whir these together into damp crumbs. Add in the dill and whir again to break up the fronds.
  • Dump the cooled peas into the processor and pulse at 2-second intervals 3-4 times to create a chunky, clumpy mixture that is not quite a paste.
  • Finally, add the lemon juice, salt, pepper, and olive oil, and pulse again in 2-second intervals until you have a thick, barely emulsified paste. You want this to be spoonable, not pourable, so keep your eye on the texture.
  • When you are ready to cook the salmon, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until the oil is rippling and shimmering in the heat. Carefully add the salmon skin-side down (oil will likely spatter a bit in excitement when you do, so stand back!), and let it cook undisturbed for 5 minutes. Really! Don’t mess with it!
  • After 5 minutes, top each salmon piece with 2-3 lemon slices and carefully flip over so that the lemon slices, not the flesh of the salmon, are in contact with the pan. Again, this may cause some spattering of the oil, so be careful. Let the salmon cook atop the lemon slices for another 2-3 minutes, or until just done in the center.
  • To serve, pour ⅓–½ cup celery root puree into the base of a small plate or a shallow bowl. Place a piece of salmon skin-side up atop in the center of the pool of puree (leave the lemon slices in the skillet, or serve one off to the side if desired). Top the salmon with 1-2 tablespoons of the pea pesto, and serve immediately.