Friday, February 28, 2014

The Fishmonger Is Your Friend: Home-Cured Sardines with Kale Pesto

One of Michel’s favorite Chicago restaurants is Café Spiaggia, the “more casual sibling of renowned Spiaggia.”  Translation: You get delicious, indulgent food without the fuss and expense of dining in Spiaggia itself.  On two of our visits, Michel has ordered an appetizer of house cured sardines served with caper almond pesto on raisin fennel crostini.  The name alone is quite a mouthful.  He liked the dish so much that he’s been on the hunt for fresh sardines ever since so that he could replicate the curing technique at home—which brings us back to the friendly fishmongers at Whole Foods.  If you’ve glanced at the monkfish post from a few weeks ago, you know that Michel can’t walk past the fish counter without asking questions about the offerings on display. 

Every time we go to Whole Foods he looks for fresh sardines.  This has been going on for months, mind you.  Yesterday, he spotted the shiny little guys on ice and immediately asked the fishmonger for one pound.  Easy, right?  Not quite, because Michel also asked the fishmonger to fillet them.  It took about twenty minutes and the poor guy was very proud of his accomplishment.  As he handed the package over the counter to Michel, he said, “I hope whoever eats these really enjoys them because a LOT of labor went into this.”   Now you know why it’s important to be nice to fishmongers.  They will literally do the dirty work for you. 

If you are really into cleaning fish or if you have unfulfilled do-it-yourself aspirations à la Martha Stewart, you can prepare the fillets yourself.  Here are Michel’s instructions: “With a sharp paring knife, cut the heads off, slit the bellies open, and remove the guts. Starting at the tail, cut along the center bone and fillet the sardine.  You’ll be left with the center bone and the tail which can be discarded.  After the first one, you get the hang of it.” 

Michel adapted the Café Spiaggia dish to eliminate the bread.  He proudly served his very own home-cured sardines over kale pesto. (You will need to pat them dry with a paper towel before serving.) The curing process is rather simple and, once again via the magic of chemistry, the acid in the brine dilutes any remaining bones.  Michel is quite delighted with his recipe. It’s a protein party, delivering all kinds of nutritional benefits including the very important Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). 

Home-Cured Sardines
  • One pound filleted fresh sardines (makes four appetizer portions)
  • Two lemons
  • One heaping teaspoon kosher salt
  • One teaspoon agave nectar
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • One plastic food storage container—at least 32 ounce size (maybe the one you need to throw away soon because it’s stained and the lid never fits right anyway)

Curing procedure:
  • In the plastic container, combine juice of two lemons, salt, agave, and olive oil.  Mix well. 
  • Layer the sardine fillets skin side up in the brine mixture. 
  • Cover and make sure the lid is tightly closed, “otherwise your whole refrigerator is going to smell.”
  • Let sardines cure overnight. 

Your home-cured sardines can be served on crostini if you like, or over kale pesto.  You can find Michel's kale pesto recipe in a previous post about kale.  Use your imagination.   Enjoy!  

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Pasta Addiction in Portlandia and Deliciously Satisfying Spaghetti Squash

I'm not a regular viewer of Portlandia, a satirical comedy series set and filmed in Portland, Oregon.  My scant knowledge of the show is gleaned from hearing other people make references to it.  It's a little bit Mary Hartman, a little bit Seinfeld/Larry David, and a little bit Christopher Guest.  Reviews have been, well, mixed, but it did win a Peabody Award.  So there.  The YouTube video below comes from an episode in which SNL alumnus Fred Armisen's character faces his addiction to pasta.  My favorite line: "Does my voice sound fat?" 

Nutrition and fitness authors have published way more studies and books about the pros and cons of pasta consumption than I care to read.  I have neither the patience nor the interest.  Michel is more strong-willed than I am when it comes to carbs of all kinds.  In other words, he can look at baked macaroni and cheese without salivating.  Not me. Fortunately, he has found ingenious ways to create very satisfying pasta alternatives that taste delicious and have a nice al dente texture to boot.  Here is his most recent invention. It's gluten-free and vegan, too, unless you decide to top with grated Parmesan cheese.  

Cannellini Beans with Rosemary and Garlic served over Spaghetti Squash

You will need:
  • one spaghetti squash (serves two people)
  • 1 1/2 cups cannellini beans, soaked overnight
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • one onion, chopped
  • 5 cloves garlic, chopped,
  • 5 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves removed from stems and chopped
  • 3 bell peppers, chopped--one each red, yellow, green
  • 1 carton vegetable broth
  • 1 can diced tomatoes with Italian seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • salt and pepper to taste

To prepare:
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.
  • Cut spaghetti squash in half lengthwise. Place halves on baking sheet and bake for 45 minutes or until strands separate easily from rind. 

  • Heat olive oil in a large saucepan.  
  • Add onion, peppers, garlic, rosemary, and oregano.
  • Cook over medium heat until the garlic "starts to give up its perfume," says Michel.
  •  Add beans, tomatoes, broth, salt and pepper to taste.
  • Bring to a boil, the simmer over low heat for two hours.  Check once in a while to see if you need to add more broth.

  • Use a fork to scrape the strands of spaghetti squash out of the rind.  

  • Place squash in a large bowl or directly on plates. Top with cannellini bean mixture. Add grated cheese if you like.  


Monday, February 10, 2014

A Taste of Summer: Salmon with Lavender and Brown Butter

Let’s face it.  We’ve had enough ice and snow.  Granted, it’s a luxury to nestle with four cuddly Cavalier King Charles Spaniels on a JCPS snow day, but I hadn’t planned on year-round school just yet.  By now, I’ve formed my own utterly non-meteorological prediction about this winter: No matter what precipitation may come our way, there will be 100% chance of salt on my car and the boots I’m growing tired of wearing every day.  So if you’re suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder or you are just plain fed up with the cold, here’s a little reminder that the Vernal Equinox is only 36 days away and Summer will surely follow.   

Today, Michel spied some nice-looking salmon at Whole Foods and he decided to prepare it with dried lavender harvested from our flower garden.  “Straight from the south of France,” he said.  He likes to buy the tail end of the salmon fillets, but if you like the "steak" cuts, it makes no difference. And if the garden catalogs arriving in the mail aren’t doing it for you, maybe it’s time for a trip to Provence or at least a quick look at the gorgeous lavender fields via Google Images. Provence Lavender

You will need: 
  • 2 salmon steaks (add one per person if you need more)
  • 2 teaspoons lavender—not too much or your fish will taste like fancy French soap
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 10-12 olives with Provençal seasoning (Herbes de Provence)
  • Romesco sauce

  • Preheat broiler and place oven rack at highest level.  Michel recommends you use an oven-safe skillet with a rubber grip on the handle so you won't burn your hand.
  • Heat butter and olive oil in skillet until butter begins to brown.  (The French term for brown butter is “beurre noisette,” if you’re interested.  Mais oui, I looked it up.)
  • While the butter and olive oil are heating, salt and pepper the salmon.

  • Place fish in the skillet skin side down.  Move the pieces around, making sure they get fully acquainted with the butter.

  • Leave the fish alone for 2-3 minutes then place the skillet under the broiler for another 2-3 minutes.

  • Return the skillet to the stove top burner and sprinkle the fish with lavender.  Spoon the butter and olive oil over the fish to help the lavender adhere.

  • Place the skillet under the broiler again for about thirty seconds to seal the flavors. DON’T OVERCOOK THE FISH.  Salmon is safe to eat even if it’s slightly on the rare side. 
  • Plate the fish, then spoon the butter over the top.  Garnish with olives and romesco sauce (from recipe in previous post). 

Bon appétit!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Monkfish Caper

Once in a while, we break from our vegetarian menus and have fish for dinner if Michel finds something to his liking.  He can never walk past the fish counter at Whole Foods without taking a good look and asking a few questions about the offerings on display.  One of the fishmongers is a gregarious Chris Elliot (SNL) type who seems to enjoy answering questions as much as Michel enjoys asking them.  Most of the questions have to do with farmed vs. wild caught fish.  It’s important to know what your dinner had for dinner, if you know what I mean.   That’s a favorite topic of Mark Bittman; he’s far better informed and way more articulate than I am. 

Last Halloween, we spied an enormous, scary-looking fish head playfully lurching out of the ice alongside the other fresh fish for sale.  Michel immediately identified it as a monkfish and, of course, a lively exchange with the fishmonger ensued.  The monkfish head was there for a limited holiday engagement to lend a creepy touch to the Whole Foods Halloween Experience.   It worked.  We came home with a pound or so of monkfish tail for dinner.  It was delicious.  There’s a reason it’s called “poor man’s lobster.”

There is no question that the lowly monkfish is an ugly creature.  (There’s a Julia Child punch line in here somewhere but I’ll let you get there on your own. This photo is from the NOAA website below.)  The head and mouth of the monkfish dwarf the rest of its body.  Its tail meat is widely available in the U.S. but what Michel wants is monkfish liver—popular in Japanese cuisine.  He says it’s one of the best parts of the fish but the American market isn’t ready for it.  Of course, that doesn’t deter him from his quest.  I’m sure eventually he will find and prepare monkfish liver and you’ll find a post about it on this very blog. 

Here’s some information from NOAA if you’re into fish facts:  Fishwatch: U.S Seafood Facts

Monkfish with Capers
15-20 minutes, makes two servings

  • One pound monkfish
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons of capers in brine
  • Salt and pepper

Cut monkfish into scallop-sized pieces, about 1½” thick
Salt and pepper monkfish pieces on both sides.

Heat olive oil in large skillet.
Place fish in hot oil and move pieces around to keep them from sticking. 

Cook on one side until a crust develops, then use tongs to turn.
Cook the other side the same way.

Lower heat to medium, then spoon in capers and a small amount of brine.

Tilt/turn the skillet to blend the brine with the olive oil.
Place fish on serving plate, then spoon capers on top. 
Pour liquid from skillet over fish and capers. 
Enjoy your poor man's lobster dinner!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Here's The (Lentil) Thing: Pink Lentils With Root Vegetables

Michel loves to go exploring in specialty grocery stores—you know, the ones that smell sort of funky and sell vegetables that look like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors among other things we can’t identify.  He loves asking questions and talking to other customers about how to prepare an exotic produce item.  You might find us at Patel Brothers or Choi’s or any of the markets near the Vietnam Kitchen restaurant on a quest for the perfect ingredient not to be found in the typical supermarket.  

Recently we made a pilgrimage to Patel’s to find a Lentil Thing.  Michel didn’t know the name of it but that was a non-issue.  He knew what he was looking for: THE tool for mixing lentils.  We went up and down the aisles searching for cooking utensils and found them alongside the incense paraphernalia.  It wasn’t until today that I found the name of the lentil mixing tool: kavvam.  It took some Google search term contortions to get to it, but I prevailed.  It’s also called a churn, which makes sense.  There’s another specialty tool for making dal; luckily they’re not easily confused.

Here’s a new vegan recipe that will allow you to use your kavvam and to incorporate some very festive-looking beets.  I found a brief intro to these heirloom beets from northern Italy: What the heck is a chioggia beet?  Have fun!  

Pink Lentils with Root Vegetables

Before you start the lentils:
  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  • Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.  (If you really enjoy washing dishes, then skip this step.)
  • Peel two parsnips* and cut into ¼ inch slices.
  • Place on baking sheet, add salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil and stir to coat.
  • Roast for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure all sides are nicely done.

  • ½ an onion, finely chopped
  • 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, finely chopped
  • 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1½ cups pink lentils
  • 1 tablespoon dried turmeric (and please don’t say “toomeric”)
  • 1 carton vegetable broth
  • Salt and pepper to taste

To prepare:
  • Heat coconut oil in deep skillet or your favorite soup pot.
  • Add chopped onion, garlic, ginger, and jalapeño.
  • Cook over medium heat until onions are translucent.
  • Add turmeric, lentils, and enough broth to cover the ingredients.  Don’t cover the pot. Keep an eye on the lentils because they will quickly absorb most of the broth. Be ready to add more to keep the mixture covered. Watch carefully to make sure the lentils stay moist.
  • After about 30 minutes, check to see if your lentils are done (soft). 
  • If you have a kavvam, now’s your chance to use it. Roll the long handle between your hands (like you used to do with play-doh) to gently “churn” the lentils.  Michel says they will actually start to glisten as you do this.  The humble lentil deserves to glisten, don’t you agree?
  • Turn heat to lowest setting and get to work on your root vegetables.  Stir lentils once in a while to make sure they are behaving themselves.

Root Vegetables
  • 2 beets, either the regular red guys or the festive ones if you can find them
  • 2 parsnips* (or turnips, etc. if you prefer) 
  • ½ an onion
  • ½ a lemon or 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil
  • 1 heaping teaspoon cumin seeds
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Enough olive oil for a quick drizzle

By now you’ve put the parsnips in the oven to roast and you’ve given your lentils a good kavvam-ing.  It’s time for some beets.

  • Peel the beets and cut into very thin slices, specifically, “as thin as you can get them without cutting your fingers.”  Yes, that’s a direct quote.
  • Chop the onion.
  • Heat peanut oil in a medium-size skillet.
  • Toss in cumin seeds and let them brown for about half a minute. 
  • Add chopped onion and sliced beets. Stir.
  • Squeeze lemon juice over beet mixture or stir in vinegar.
  • Reduce heat to low and cover.
  • After 10-15 minutes beets should be done.
  • Add roasted parsnips to beet mixture and grab your plate. It’s time to eat. 

Spoon lentils onto your plate and top with root vegetable mixture.  A chopped kale salad is a lovely complement to this dish—for both the eyes and the palate.