Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Epic Food Night, part 2

If you missed the eagerly anticipated and highly acclaimed part 1 of the recent Food Night, fear not. Through the magic of linking, I can send you there if you click here, or even here.

I mentioned previously that sometimes Food Night happens on a weeknight. That means, I don’t exactly have all day to grocery shop, cook, prep and whatnot. OK, yes, I have used vacation time at my day job to cook, prep, and grocery shop for Food Night, but that is beside the point. The point is that I didn’t really HAVE to do that, I just wanted to because cooking makes me happy. So in an effort to achieve that euphoria via cooking, and still hold a day job, there are two main concepts that I try to adhere to (for the most part) when it comes to the food at Food Night;

1). Prep in advance. Cook something that lends itself to doing at least some of the job ahead of time, without sacrificing the quality of the finished dish.

2). Simplicity. Use great ingredients, treat them simply, and get out of the way.

Of the four dishes served at the most recent Food Night*, all four fit into (1) and three fit into (2). The outlier was the venison. It’s not like the dish was rocket science or anything, but there were definitely more than a few moving parts it, so I think as a whole it falls outside the simplicity zone. Braising itself? Simple indeed. But that's another post. And today I’m going to focus on two of the simple dishes. Shall we begin?

* I think we are going to have to assign names to the various Food Nights, because I'm sick of saying "the most recent Food Night". And we'll likely need to refer back to Food Nights past at some point, so they should probably all have names. I was thinking we could go with something simple, kind of like how Larry David named episodes of Seinfeld. "The Contest", for example. So, from this point forward, we shall refer to the 12/12/2009 Food Night as....... "The Truffle Food Night". So let it be written.

avocado, pickled tomato, arbequina olive oil, Maldon sea salt

The fabulous Bar La Grassa was the inspiration for the pickled tomatoes, which were really the star of the dish. I had them as an appetizer on a recent outing there, and of course they were fantastic. I’m beginning to think Isaac Becker could cook a shingle or an old shoe and make it taste good. Maybe he'd even serve the shoe on top of the shingle and call the dish "Fiddler on the Roof"? No? Yeah, probably not. Anyway, I decided if I could still find little Minnesota grown cherry tomatoes at the store I’d attempt to pickle the dickens out of them. Thankfully, I did, because these little flavor grenades are immediately going into the “killer accompaniments” folder on my PC.* I’d never even thought of pickling tomatoes before!

* I know, I know, I’m sooooo not cool because I have a PC and not a Mac. But in my defense, I think I bought it around the time of iPod v1.0, so, the jury was still out for me at that time as to what direction to go. In hindsight, yeah, I probably zigged when I should have zagged. Whatever.

Pickled Tomatoes a la Grassa
1). Cut cherry or other small tomato in half through the equator

2). In a container that will fit the tomato halves relatively snugly, fill with white wine vinegar (but leave enough room for the tomatoes, I'd say I used roughly 7oz of vinegar), and add a tablespoon of sugar, and a couple pinches of kosher salt,

3). Stir to dissolve sugar and salt, then add a few strips of the peel from a lemon (meyer, if you have it), small pinch of saffron threads (again, if you have it), a dried chile or two, and some thinly sliced garlic. I had some fresh tarragon, so I tossed a good sized stem in there too.
4). Add the tomatoes to the brine, cover, refrigerate overnight.

And that’s it! Top creamy soups with them, toss them in salads, or with feta, or with goat cheese, or stick them on some lightly toasted baguette with some avocado, good olive oil and salt like I did. Drizzle the plate with more olive oil and some of the pickling liquid, and there’s your appetizer. I cannot recommend these little gems highly enough. Unfortunately, we are every so slightly past prime tomato growing weather here in the midwest. But how about trying this with fresh picked little sungold tomatoes right from the garden, hm? I’ll try to remember to post this recipe again next summer. That is of course is assuming we actually HAVE a summer next summer, unlike this summer which was decidedly unsummerlike. Let's move on to the next dish before I pack a bag and move to Fiji.

Crudo Duo
Zucchini, Hawaiian striped marlin

I think this was the most successful dish of the evening, and it was the simple melding of two great tastes that taste great together.* The first was the Zucchini Crudo that Michael Ruhlman posted about recently. He authored the new Michael Symon cookbook, and featured this zucchini crudo recipe in a recent blog post. I had occasion to make it recently, and was absolutely amazed that something that simple could taste that good. And if it is simple, and good, it is definite Food Night material.

* Are you kidding me with that commercial??! You of course noticed that one of the participants in this culinary Big Bang event is walking down the street eating peanut butter. Out of a jar. With her FINGER. And did you see the size of their iPods?! They were huge! I bet they only held like 512MB of music back then. Prehistoric.

The second component to the dish was... raw fish! Who doesn’t like raw fish?! Of course the genius part about a raw fish course at a dinner party is the cooking time. As in, there is no cooking time! Obviously there is some effort that is required, but that effort can be made before your guests arrive. The fantastic fishmongers at Coastal Seafoods steered me towards this gorgeous Hawaiian Striped Marlin, which just so happened to cost HALF as much as the sushi grade tuna I tend to buy. $6 got me all I needed to use this in a dish for five people. About an hour before people came over, I cubed up the fish, tossed it in some stuff that sounded good like olive oil, soy sauce, cilantro, green onion, sesame, pickled chile, a little dash of this Rick Bayless smoked chile sauce I like, and plenty of lemon zest.

This dish was a snap, provided you have one of these (which, you do have, don’t you?). Slice and toss the zucchini with salt 10 minutes before serving. Then arrange the zucchini on the plate, dot with some of the marlin, a drizzle of good olive oil and a couple flakes of Maldon, and there you go! And if you had some pickled tomatoes in the fridge (check) toss those on the plate too. Some pickled red onion?* Sure! But definitely finish the plate off with a drizzle of good olive oil, and a couple flakes of Maldon.

* I make these pickled red onions frequently. Find the recipe, which takes all of 5 minutes to throw down, here from the brilliant David Lebovitz. The work great on a multitude of things, but I absolutely cannot imagine tacos and carnitas of all kinds without these little gems now.

This was such a great dish, and one that came together without one of mankinds most important discoveries. Previously when I looked at zucchini, I'd shrug my shoulders and think “I dunno, grill it?”. And I’m usually wasn't all that jazzed about the results, either. But through the wonders of a simple yet effective naturally occurring substance, the previously uber-blah zucchini just found a spot in the Food Night rotation.

Salt. It’s not just for your margarita glass anymore.

(Still to come; Posts starring "The Venison" and "The Truffle"...)

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