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.

Ahi Nori Wraps

Food blog May 2015-0757Months and months ago, I showed you photos of a tiny shack in Kauai and promised you my own rendition of their signature ahi nori wraps: thick, squared-off cylinders of seared ahi and spears of cucumber, surrounded by brown rice, doused with a mysterious wasabi sauce and wrapped up in a spinach flour tortilla lined with a sheet of nori. A delightful cross between a burrito and sushi, they were one of our favorite meals while on the island. But then, you know, life, with all those pesky obligations, insisted on happening, and now we are a full school year later and I’m finally getting around to it. It’s a cringe-worthy cliche to declare that these are worth the wait, but since we are now on our second version of them in two weeks, I’m going to take the chance.

Food blog May 2015-0742Since it has been so long, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what make these funny little sushi / burrito mash-ups so good. Well-spiced, lightly seared tuna, still rare or even raw in the middle, is of course the main reason. But only slightly secondary are the issues of texture and temperature. As you’ll know if you like sushi, there’s something amazing about a perfect piece of ahi – it’s meltingly soft but, when seared around the edges, it becomes softness with a bouncy chew. It is hot on the outsides, but still cool in the interior. Flanked by cucumbers, you get a fresh, bright, cold crispness, and the chewy strangeness of the nori seaweed layer is somehow perfect.

Food blog May 2015-0743Food blog May 2015-0744Food blog May 2015-0749These also offer perfectly contrasting tastes. Of course there’s the glorious fresh fish flavor, but there’s also nostril-piercing heat from the wasabi, and saltiness from the seaweed, and the welcome nutty blandness of the rice. Because I can’t leave well enough alone, I thought the addition of rich, creamy avocado blitzed into a velvet puree with a touch of mayonnaise would be the right vehicle for the wasabi, and insisted on crusting the tuna itself with sesame seeds, lime zest, and some red pepper flakes as well as the customary salt and pepper sprinkle before searing it off.

Food blog May 2015-0751Food blog May 2015-0752We ate these in big gulps, then went back for more. One wrap is plenty for a dinner, especially if you wisely offer yourself a side of mango-spiked salad or lightly sautéed vegetables, but we are not always wise, and opted instead to make a third wrap and split it. Still, even the resulting food coma couldn’t deter our enthusiasm about the meal.

Food blog May 2015-0753If you aren’t comfortable with raw fish, you can of course cook yours all the way through, though if you’re going to do that I wouldn’t bother with the pricey ahi. Cut a nice filet of salmon into long strips and crust and sauté or broil until just cooked through. Or, if you want to go an even easier route, sprinkle some lime juice over a few layers of smoked salmon and wrap that up inside instead. Food blog May 2015-0756

Ahi Nori Wraps
Makes 4
For rice and sauce:
1 avocado, pitted and peeled
juice from ½ a lime
¼ cup mayonnaise
1-2 tablespoons wasabi paste or sauce
(alternatively, you could use about ¼ cup of wasabi mayonnaise)
2 cups cooked brown rice, warm or at room temperature
For the tuna:
½ tablespoon coarse salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
pinch of red pepper flakes
zest of 1 lime
2 tablespoons untoasted sesame seeds
½ pound ahi or other sushi grade tuna, cut into long rectangles that are about 1×1 inch at the ends
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
To assemble:
1 seedless cucumber, halved lengthwise and cut into long, thin planks (thinner is better – too thick and they won’t roll up well. Go for translucent, but be careful!)
4 spinach tortillas
4 sheets nori

 

  • In a small bowl or blender, combine the avocado, the lime juice, the mayonnaise, and the wasabi paste. If you have wasabi mayonnaise you like the flavor and heat level of, you could use that instead. I wanted my mixture a little spicier than my wasabi mayo, so I opted to make my own mix. Whiz together with a standard or immersion blender until a completely smooth, pale green puree forms; it will be too thick to pour.
  • Combine the puree with the cooked brown rice and taste for seasoning. Adjust as needed, then set aside.
  • For the tuna, combine the salt, black and red pepper, lime zest, and sesame seeds on a small plate. Carefully dredge each log of tuna in the mixture by rolling it through the seasoning. When all are well coated, heat the vegetable oil and sesame oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the crusted tuna carefully, watching out for oil spatters, and sear about 1 minute on each side (for raw in the center), or until done to your liking. I overcooked mine, as you can see from my photos; I would have preferred red, not pink, in the center.
  • When tuna is done to your liking, remove from pan immediately and set aside.
  • To assemble, lay out your tortillas and place a sheet of nori in the center of each one. Lay 4-5 planks of cucumber atop the nori, all facing in the same direction. Add about ½ cup of the rice and sauce mixture per wrap, and spread this out to the edges of the cucumber planks. Lay one log of ahi in the center of each one in the same direction as the cucumber planks, then wrap up like a burrito, carefully folding in the edges.
  • To serve, cut on a bias and, if you’re feeling fancy, stand one half up like I’ve done above to show off the interior.
  • Eat immediately, and lick your fingers with no shame.

Photo Friday

Back on the horse, and with some shots from our Christmas “dinner.”

Fall and Winter 2014-0053We do a meal solely of appetizers in the evening on Christmas day, an arrangement that allows us to try out a number of new dishes, and keep on eating all night, since it’s only small bites…

Fall and Winter 2014-0031Fall and Winter 2014-0027We’ve done this for so many years that we covered all the standard appetizer ideas: deviled eggs, stuffed mushrooms, spinach dip, all manner of bread and cheese… so we’ve had to start working with themes. Last year it was stacked snacks. Two years ago it was all stuffed, well, stuff. This year we rolled everything, and our table was jammed with spring rolls, eggplant rollatini, cannoli and roulade for dessert, and an experiment: two kinds of sushi rolls.

Fall and Winter 2014-0026One contained ahi, avocado, and radish. The other enclosed smoked salmon, avocado, and a wasabi-spiked cream cheese.

Fall and Winter 2014-0035My sister and I are completely virgin sushi rollers, so we didn’t really know how much filling to include. This, combined with our enthusiasm for the ingredients and the anticipated end product, led to two burrito sized rolls of sushi.

Fall and Winter 2014-0036Fall and Winter 2014-0040Still, they were quickly gone…

Fall and Winter 2014-0045My fish-face.

 

* all photos this post courtesy of N. My hands were covered with sticky rice through most of the process. Thanks, sweetie.