Friday, May 20, 2011

Is it snooty to define a dish as "deconstructed"?

I was feeling very creative earlier this week and I wanted to make something unique in concept but familiar in flavor. I am a huge fan of a good gazpacho, so I decided to make seared scallops with deconstructed gazpacho. A deconstructed dish is when you take all of the ingredients of a dish, separate or change them in cooking, and compose a plate. Usually a full bite of a deconstructed dish will taste like the original dish concept, despite the broken up nature of the ingredients.
I wanted to try this with gazpacho. A standard gazpacho is made of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, bread, garlic, cilantro and often avocado either in the soup or on top. I took all of the ingredients and mixed them up, creating an inventive dish that tasted like a simple yet delicious gazpacho soup.

To start, I finely chopped the tomato, cucumber, onion, and cilantro, and mixed them with a splash of red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, lime juice, and some sugar. This was the base flavor of my gazpacho and was more of a tomato cucumber salad.

I then took a roll, cut off the crust, and put it in a food processor to make bread crumbs. I also thinly sliced a few garlic cloves. While I was making my bread crumbs, I heated canola oil on medium in a shallow pot. Once the oil was hot, I put in one slice of garlic to make sure it was hot enough, and then put in the rest, stirring a bit so the garlic didn't stick together. After about a minute or two, the garlic was brown and I removed it to a bowl lined with paper towel.

I then put the bread crumbs in the oil, frying until golden. To remove them, I held a fine sieve over an empty tomato can, and poured the crumbs and oil through. This gave me a receptacle for the oil and made sure I got all of the bread crumbs. I added these to the paper towel lined bowl and tossed with some salt.

I then pureed an avocado with some lime and salt, adding a little water to make it smooth. The result was a bright green paste.

Finally, I had patted the scallops dry with paper towel and sprinkled them with salt and pepper. I heated my cast iron pan until it was nearly smoking, added some olive and butter, moving the butter around so it didn't burn, and added the scallops. The key to perfect scallops is to put them in the pan and leave them in place for about 3-4 minutes. They should be golden brown when you flip them to finish them off for another 3 minutes.

To plate the dish, I spooned some avocado in the center of the plate, spread it down the middle of the plate with the back of a spoon and spooned some of the tomato cucumber salad in the "bowl" made of avocado paste.

I then placed the carmelized scallops around the avocado bowl, and sprinkled the garlic and breadcrumbs over the whole thing along with some cilantro.

The final dish was really delicious, possibly one of the most inventive and flavorful I've ever made. The presentation was beautiful, and each bite had a personality of its own between the balance of crunch from the breadcrumbs, sweetness from the scallops, and tang from the tomatoes and cuke salad. On top of it, the dish really was not that difficult to make!

Ingredients: .5 medium red onion, 1 vine ripe tomato, .5 cuke, 3 garlic cloves, 1 Portuguese roll, 4 scallops per person, 1 bunch cilantro, 1 avocado, 1 lime, 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon sugar, 2 cups canola oil, 1 tablespoon olive oil, .5 tablespoon butter, salt and pepper to taste

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Breaking in the New Camera

After weeks of research, review reading, and polling, I finally purchased a new camera. I bought a Canon Rebel T3 DSLR, with the intention of increasing the quality and volume of pictures I take and most importantly, improving the documentation of dishes for my blog. After spending about an hour at B&H talking to one of the photo representatives, I made my purchase and rushed home to shop for food and get cooking. I wanted to make something that was as visually pleasing as it was delicious. For the protein, I picked salmon. I love the orange hue of salmon, and when contrasted with a crispy brown skin, the salmon is a truly beautiful fish to serve. To accompany the fish, I spent a long time spinning around in the produce section, looking for the most colorful veggies I could find. I picked a red pepper, jalapeno (I was tempted to get a habanero for the color, but my taste buds told me that was not a good idea...), radishes, and mint. The green, red, and white would be a great visual foil to the more earth toned fish. I also wanted something to serve the fish over, so I picked sweet yellow corn. The color is very bright and sunny, but wouldn't take away from the fish and the pepper salsa.

I got home, set the camera up to be ready to capture the meal, and started cooking. I made the salsa first so it could sit and the flavors would have time to expand as the fish and corn wouldn't take long to cook. I cut both peppers and the radishes in a fine julienne (thin slices), chopped some garlic (saving some for my corn), and cut the mint in a chiffonade (literally means ribbon in French). Once the peppers, radishes, garlic and mint were cut, I squeezed a lime over them, added a touch of salt and pepper and a spoonful of sugar for some sweetness and let it sit. Once the salsa was done, I cut up the shallot in a rough chop and heated some butter and olive oil in a small pan over medium heat. Once the oil and butter were hot, I added the garlic and shallot for about 2 minutes, and then added about a cup of frozen sweet yellow corn. I tossed the pan to coat the corn, and let the dish sit to brown a bit, tossing every few minutes. Once some of the corn was nice and browned, I put all of it in a food processor with some salt and pepper and pureed it, adding a little water to thin it out. (Afterwards, I realized I should have added some crushed red pepper to give the corn puree a little bite)

When I started cooking the corn, I put a large pan on medium high to heat for the fish. When I cook salmon, I like to sear the skin first and then flip the fish over to finish it. You can serve the fish skin-side up, and not only is the skin crispy and delicious, it makes for a visually pleasing presentation and adds more texture to the fish when you eat it. In order to do this, you need to get the pan very hot before you cook the fish, otherwise the skin will break off from the flesh and you'll have skin (usually burnt skin) stuck to the bottom of the pan. I also use olive oil and butter to cook it. The butter adds some nice flavor and gets the skin a little crispier than if you only use olive oil. While the pan was heating, I rubbed the fish with salt and pepper, and rubbed some olive oil over the flesh. Once the pan was hot, I cooked the skin for about 4-5 minutes until it was browned around the edges, being careful not to move the fish at all while it cooked so the skin made a clean sear. I flipped the fish to finish it for about 3-4 more minutes, put some corn puree on the plate, laid the fish (skin side up!) over the puree, and spooned some of the pepper salsa on top.

The dish was delicious, though the salsa could have used more heat and a little vinegar to contrast the sweetness of the fish and corn. All in all, the meal was a visual and gustatory success, and I was happy to begin the era of my new camera with an artistic take on a relatively simple menu.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ramps Are In Season!

Ramps! Oh, you wonderful gift of nature. You pop your heads out once a year for a short time, and you're the talk of the town. If only popularity was so easy for everyone else... Ramps are a really wonderful and short lived variety of onion. I was at the farmer's market this weekend in Union Square and picked of a bunch of ramps along with some chives and some quark, which is a cow's milk cheese that tastes a lot like creme fraiche.

They've got a really fresh and bright flavor that's part onion, part garlic, part shallot, and all delicious. Being that ramps are in season, I wanted to make a dish that featured them and made the most of their flavor. I had seen a recipe for gnocchi with ramps and speck, and I wanted to do a variation of this. My first thought was to make my own gnocchi, but it was a little late on a Sunday to start with such a labor intensive dish, so I decided to go with fresh sweet potato gnocchi from Whole Foods. WF generally has excellent homemade pastas, so I trusted them with my ode to ramps. I also picked up some prosciutto to give the dish a salty warmth.

To make the dish, I cleaned the ramps and cut the white bulbs from the green leaves. I chopped half of a vidalia onion and some garlic. I cooked the onion and ramp bulbs in butter and olive oil, and once they became translucent, I added the garlic and chopped ramp greens. Once the greens began to wilt, I added the prosciutto, cooked it for a few minutes, and added about a cup of white wine and some butter. While the sauce was cooking, I boiled a big pot of water. Once it was boiling, I added the gnocchi, stirring them to make sure they didn't stick together. In about 3-4 minutes, they began floating to the top, and I drained them in a strainer, reserving a bit of the water to mix with the sauce. I mixed the gnocchi in with the sauce, added parmesan and 2 spoonfuls of the quark, tossed so everything was mixed together. I served the dish with a little chopped chive, and it was a total success. The ramp flavor worked perfectly with the prosciutto and the nutty parm and sour quark, and the gnocchi were light and fluffy. Gnocchi dishes are normally heavy, but with this dish, they were very light and tasted great with the sauce. If you can get your hands on some ramps before the season is up, take advantage of it, they are really a rare treat.

Swimming Between Kale and Asparagus

I was in the mood for a very healthy and flavorful dinner. I had read a blog post about pasta with walnut and kale pesto, and I wanted to make my own version of the pesto but with a light fish instead of heavy pasta. I decided on tilapia, because it's a little heartier than cod, but still has a much lighter taste than salmon or trout. Along with the fish and pesto, I wanted some roasted spring vegetables, so I grabbed a bunch of asparagus and a bulb of fennel.

I made the pesto first so I could let it sit while I prepped the rest of the meal. I always try to make sauces first so they have plenty of time for the flavor to expand. For this pesto, I used a head of kale, basil, garlic, walnuts, lemon, parmesan, and olive oil. I chopped the garlic and cut the kale from the stems. I toasted the walnuts in a pan (about 5 minutes) and then a added some olive oil, the garlic and kale, and a squeeze of lemon and sauteed until the kale began to wilt. I added all of this to a blender along with the basil, some more lemon, salt, pepper, and olive oil. I blended until smooth and added some grated parmesan and made sure the nutiness and citrus were balanced and the pesto tasted right.

Once the pesto was done, I preheated the oven to 375 and prepared the fish. I wanted to bake the fish, so I cut up an onion in slices, put them in a baking dish with some balsamic vinegar and the fronds from fennel bulb. I coated the fish with salt, pepper, and olive oil and laid it on top of the fennel fronds, onion and balsamic. Once the fish was ready, I prepped the asparagus and fennel, cutting off the rough ends of the asparagus and cutting the fennel into thin strips. I tossed the veggies in olive oil, salt and pepper and put them on a baking dish. I put both the fish and the veggies in the oven and baked for 25 minutes.

Once the fish was cooked through (I checked the fish by seeing if it flaked with a fork) and the veggies were starting to brown, I took them out of the oven. For the presentation, I lined the asparagus and fennel in alternating lines on the plate. I then laid the fish on top and spooned the pesto on top.

The dish was really tasty. The pesto had the familiar garlic and basil taste, but the walnuts and kale gave it a very earthy and unique flavor, complimenting the light taste of the fish perfectly. The asparagus worked really well with the fennel, their flavors balancing well, and a bite with both veggies and the fish was a well balanced burst of flavor. Best of all, the dish was extremely healthy!