Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Colicchio, ceviche, and agreeing to disagree

How many of you watch Top Chef? Yeah, me too, I love it. It’s clearly the best cooking reality show*, which may be akin to saying that I would be the tallest person in a room full of Smurfs, but whatever. I was reminded of an episode from last season as I prepped for the MidSpring Night's Dream Food night. The aspiring chefs were thrust into the Nevada desert, overnight, then asked to cook lunch for a bunch of cowboys/ranchers the next day in the blazing heat. It was sun, sun, more sun, sand, a hole in the ground with fire in it, and your imagination. Good luck!

* Iron Chef America isn’t a “reality” show in my opinion. I mean, clearly, it’s REAL, but it’s just straight up competition. There are no elimination challenges, no cooking with one hand tied behind your back, no wildly over matched contestants that are kept around because they are cute, etc. It’s serious business, your food against the Iron Chef’s Food… and the judges. And yes, I still cannot believe the "judges" on ICA thought Morimoto beat Sameh. Give. Me. A. Break. Anyone who watched that show knows Sameh won. I knew there was trouble when they introduced one of the judges as the “Senior Executive Chef of Red Lobster”, and no I’m not making that up. I'm sure he's a swell fellow and a great cook, but, um....... no. Just, no.

Well, a couple of fellas (I refuse to say "cheftestants") decided it was too hot in the desert kitchen for them, so they made ceviche. Ceviche, as I’m sure you already know, is a dish that typically uses fresh fish or shellfish, and is “cooked” by acid (citrus juice, vinegar, etc) rather than by heat. Well, Top Chef head honcho Tom Colicchio was rather unimpressed with this approach, at one point saying “This is a cooking competition, and they didn’t cook anything!”. He went on to say that the dishes themselves… well, it wasn’t so much what he said, its that he spit out the one made by Frenchie McFrench-guy (nice scarf). And the guest judge actually said the same dish made him sick. When that happens, yeah, you are probably not going to be the next Top Chef.

But what do you think? Is making ceviche “cooking”? Either way, ceviche and other raw dishes align very nicely with Food Night Food Law #1 – buy high quality ingredients, and treat them simply. So can Food Night put together a ceviche that A). guests don’t spit out, and B). doesn’t make anyone sick, and C). actually looks good and tastes good? The answer……… after we detail the first course and hand you the menu for Food Night.

Salmon Tartare
almond orange tuile, meyer lemon crème fraiche

Ceviche of Halibut
parsley, cilantro, lime, cucumber, avocado

cucumber broth, pickled tomato yogurt, lemon thyme, kumquat

asparagus pesto, braised pork belly, parmigiano-reggiano

David's Chocolate Chip Cookies
flour, butter, chocolate, butter, pecans, butter

Two of Food Night’s faves were the inspiration for the first dish; Thomas Keller and David Lebovitz. Keller’s French Laundry cookbook is a source of inspiration, wonderment, and longing. I decided to start the night off with a spin on his cornets (pictured), which are little tuiles in the shape of a tiny ice cream cone, topped with crème fraiche and salmon tartare. And for some reason, reasons known only to the inner recesses of my brain that I don’t fully have access to, I decided NOT to use Keller’s recipe for the tuiles. I think it had something to do with the fact that I’d recently bought Lebovitz’s new book, which contained a recipe for these almond orange tuiles… and I wanted to give ‘em a go. And so, they went.

Get the book* if you want to recipe, but essentially you combine some butter, almonds, black and white sesame, flour, orange zest, and orange juice. Then you spoon in some sugar. And after you spoon in some, you spoon in a little more, and then a little more, until you have TEN tablespoons of sugar in the batter. This is where panic, or at least "concern" set in. When I got to the sixth or seventh tablespoon, I considered stopping. I mean, GEEZ, this was a savory course after all! But they actually turned out really well… after I burnt the first batch to a crisp. The second, third and fourth batches that came out of the oven… sheer brilliance...

* This book also contains the single GREATEST recipe for chocolate chip cookies ever. I’m telling you, they are better than any other such cookie I've tasted. Yes, even yours. It doesn’t mean yours are “bad”, these are just better. Check out David's little video on them here, really well done.

The tuiles certainly had some sweetness, but not anything ridiculous or out of place in the dish. The uber fresh salmon from Coastal Seafoods, and the cool slightly tart crème fraiche that I kicked up with a little meyer lemon juice combined with the crunchy and sweet cookie to make for a pretty dang cool bite or three of food. The only problem was eating them gracefully.

I got the idea for the second course from the New York Times Dining section. If you don’t already, you really need to make it a regular stop on your internet visits. This particular dish caught my eye because of the name attached to the recipe….. RICK BAYLESS.

Rick's book Salsas that Cook was given to me by Cynthia, who happened to be in attendance at this Food Night. That book marked the first time I'd ever made anything from a cookbook that made me say... "WHOA... that is GOOD!" And it really is essentially an introductory level book - you don't need an immersion circulator or $4000 range to make these dishes. I highly, highly encourage you to pick up that book if you are at all interested in cooking. The techniques and flavors in that book are simply incredible.

Anyway, back to the dish. This ceviche was something he was making at a White House State Dinner. So I figured, if it’s good enough for that, it’s probably good enough for Food Night. Plus I have a ton of fond memories of living in a little one bedroom apartment in Bloomington and churning out Bayless recipes from Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen from a little alley kitchen with a coil electric stove while listening to the Joshua Tree. Aren’t really specific memories cool?!

The full recipe is here, but essentially… parsley, cilantro, roasted garlic,* serrano chile, salt, olive oil… meet Mr. Food Processor. After a spin, combine with lime juice, gorgeous fresh halibut from Coastal Seafoods, fish, cucumber and avocado… like so…

* Roasting cloves of garlic still in their papery skins in a cast iron pan is such an underrated little piece of culinary flair. First time I ever heard of it was..... in Salsas That Cook! Anyway, roasting the cloves like this mellows the harshness of the raw garlic, sweetens it even, gives it a nice little charred flavor, and really softens the clove so you can... incorporate it into a vinaigrette, a marinade, or slather it on pork shoulder before roasting. Or you can buzz it up into an herb paste as we did here.

Something about the dish screamed to me "TORTILLA CHIP"! So I made that happen since there were some nice little corn tortillas in the fridge. Cut into wedges, then fried and immediately Maldon'd... and no, I didn't bake them in fat free oil or some other crazy thing to try to minimize fat content. Each person got one chip... I think you can put down the defibrillator.

Served in a martini glass, with a fine dice of red chile, some rocket from the garden (i.e. arugula... but isn't "rocket" SO much better), a couple radish slices and that tortilla chip, this dish was so light, refreshing and flavorful. Texturally very compelling too, with the fish, crunchy cucumber and creamy avocado, not to mention the crisp tortilla chip. Another Bayless Beauty that A). nobody spit out, B). nobody got sick from, and C). definitely tasted fabulous. Does this mean I should try out for Top Chef? Ah, negative. But, regardless of what uber-chef Tom said, I think making ceviche is cooking.

I got the impression that Food Night attendees would tend to agree with me. And if they thought otherwise, they were nice enough not to tell me.

* Maybe my favorite photo of the night above....... just phenomenal. Thanks James!

Up Next: Halibut a la Sameh.

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