Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cucumber broth, Halibut, and Shakespeare

Approximately a month ago, I dined at Saffron to celebrate a birthday. Sameh's course of softshell crab in cucumber broth was so insanely good, I used that dish as inspiration for what I hoped would be the "main" dish at the Midspring Night’s Dream Food Night.

And by now, surely you are asking “E, what up with this 'Midspring Night’s Dream' moniker? What in tarnation is that supposed to mean?”. Very well, the time has probably come to enlighten you. While coming up with this Food Night's menu, I only knew I wanted to do a take on Sameh’s dish. The plan was for it to be light, subtle, very fresh and green and Spring-like in it’s flavors. All the other courses were up in the air, but I didn't want anything to outshine this halibut dish. Enter - The New York Times.* First, I found this, as you already know. THEN, I found this**... are you kidding me?! Asparagus + Pesto. Yes, please. And after making it, I now cannot imagine Spring without it.

* I’m telling you… the NY Times Dining section is a virtual cornucopia of inspiration and ideas.

** If you are not a link-clicker, and didn't go to the Times website to watch Bittman make asparagus pesto.......... just know you are going to be subjected to that link again in the next post. So, it's really up to you, click it now, or click it then. Either is fine. Just do everyone a favor and make asparagus pesto in the Spring with fresh, local asparagus. Not in the winter with asparagus flown in from Peru. Cooking seasonally is really important. Not only will your cooking taste better, you won't be supporting atrocities like this.

Once I flushed out the details of the dishes I had planned… raw salmon; ceviche with lots of fresh herbs; halibut with the greenest ecto-cooler-like broth; and pasta with the quintessential spring veggie – asparagus… I thought one thing; Spring. That menu screams "Springtime" to me.

During my brainstorming, I recalled the time in 1985 when my parents and grandparents took my sister and I to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the old Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Despite my folks admirable attempt to provide culture to a 12 year old growing up in Appalachia, I remember struggling mightily to say awake during the play. Much like I was on the deck with that Leroy after another killer Food Night. Anyway, eventually I combined Spring with Shakespeare, and voila… A Midspring Night’s Dream! While sitting on the deck after Food Night with that bottle of Leroy, surrounded by trees and the sounds of frogs chirping in the distance, Spring was never so apt a description for a particular point in time.

cucumber broth, pickled tomato yogurt, lemon thyme, kumquat

Before our Shakespearean interlude, we were starting to discuss Sameh’s brilliant soft shell crab in cucumber broth dish. Of course the flavors were absolutely spot on, but I found the color of the broth simply amazing. I don’t think I’d ever seen, and certainly had not eaten, anything quite like it before. I knew I wanted to try my hand at something like that. But could I make a liquid taste great, and be so freaking GREEN!? Where do I begin?!

Naturally, I thought of Barrio’s salsa verde. About a year ago, I was in there and couldn’t get over how insanely green this stuff was. Eventually I asked Mark if he could perhaps get me a clue from the kitchen as to how this greenness happens. A couple minutes later, chef Tyge Nelson is standing at our table, happily detailing how they use cilantro, ice, salt and a blender to produce a liquid so vibrantly green, it greens up even the drabby colored roasted tomatillo/onion/garlic/chile mixture. Genius. Here's what I did...

Cucumber Broth

Note that, this isn't baking, there are no "musts" here. Quantities and ingredients are ripe for your brilliant improvisations.

120g diced cucumber, most of the skin still on
Juice of half a lime
Couple Tablespoons of fresh cilantro*, to taste
optional - sprinkle of other fresh herbs like chives, tarragon
3 finger pinch kosher salt
Roughly 2'' piece of serrano chile, or to taste
4-6 ice cubes
1/4 cup water, perhaps more if needed to get the mixture moving in the blender

* If you don't like cilantro, use parsley instead. And adjust the chile content to your preferred level of spicyness. A 2'' inch piece in this recipe produces a modest but noticeable amount of heat.

Puree all ingredients thoroughly in a blender. Strain with the finest mesh strainer possible. The End.

How easy is that?! James actually had a fantastic idea to use this resulting liquid in a cocktail. A Hendricks Gin cocktail, to be specific. If you think I'm not going to be enjoying said libation on the deck soon, you're crazy. I could even see freezing the liquid into ice cubes for a fun cocktail on ice. The possibilities are endless.

To finish the dish... halibut was portioned into 2oz portions* and then pan seared. Like so...

* Here is the beauty of doing a dish like seared halibut AND ceviche of halibut at the same Food Night. When dissecting the fillet into 2oz portions, the bits of fish I trim off the portions for the seared halibut dish find their way into the ceviche. No waste. Maximum usage of a beautiful product. Cost effectiveness. All things Food Night loves.

The way I pan sear portions of fish like this is really, really easy. Get a non stick pan. Get it screamin' (and I do mean screamin') hot. Add some peanut or other high heat oil, enough to film the bottom of the pan. Season fish with salt, and add to the pan, presentation side down, and walk away for two minutes. Don't even CONSIDER touching the fish during these two minutes. After two minutes, add butter. Add a ton if you want, the more you add, the more color the final product will have. Reduce heat from med-high to medium. Baste fish with the butter/oil mixture in the pan for approx 1 minute. Bang. Done. You bought your fish at Coastal, so, overcooking it would be a food-crime, remember.

So now we've got seared fish. We've got cucumber broth. Next we take a little greek yogurt, we add a little pickled tomato dice to it, and start plating...

* At this point I have to say, again.... HOLY PHOTOGRAPHY!!! Are you kidding me?! Wow, James. Just... wow.

And now, finally, here is the finished product... complete with uber-fun microgreens supplied by Sameh...

I have to say, I think this may have been the most satisfying thing I have ever made. Setting out to do something, then actually doing it up to your own standards... very rewarding. Let's have one more shout out for Sameh, because without his inspiration this dish would have never been made. I've learned more things by just sitting at his bar, and talking with him about food than should be possible without paying tuition.

And for the enduring success of the dish, which enables us to recall the dish so well, like we just finished eating it... we have James to thank. Have another, closer look...

I can recall the different textures and temperatures of that dish, in addition to EXACTLY how it looked, smelled, and tasted just by looking at that picture. That picture is literally like a window into the kitchen at Food Night. Thanks again, James.

So there you go. Halibut, cucumbers, water... other stuff... BANG... deliciousness! And the great thing about a successful dish like this, or about a brilliant bottle of wine is... we at Food Night always want to top it. We'll continue to push the boundaries of what can be produced and consumed in a modest home kitchen by a bunch of regular people, if you agree to keep reading about it. Do we have a dealio?!

Up Next: Asparagus Pesto, and you clicking the link.

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